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Foreign Affairs, Defence and
This year is the 70th anniversary of Australian military
forces being committed to the Malay Peninsula (on 31 May 1950) for what became
known as the Malayan
Emergency. It was referred to as an ‘emergency’ rather than a ‘war’ to
ensure that insurance
companies would pay for damage to plantations.
The Malayan Emergency actually started in June 1948 and did
not officially end until 31 July 1960. During this period, about 7,000
Australians served alongside British, New Zealand, Ghurka and Malayan forces
against Communist insurgents.
of the Emergency go back to the British resumption of control of Malaya
after Japan’s defeat at the end of the Second World War. The British proposed
forming a new country out of the different Malayan states and this, and
other grievances held by the Chinese people in Malaya, was the root cause of
the violence that followed:
The Malayan Union Proposals were the immediate
cause of this violence. In 1946 the British announced the proposals, which
would have led to the granting of citizenship to the Malayan Chinese. The
proposals were, however, extremely unpopular with the wider Malay population,
so the British withdrew them. This about-face enraged the Malayan Chinese, some
of whom, abandoning protests and strikes, began a campaign of violence that
included intimidation, sabotage, and selective assassination. And in 1948 the
Malayan Communist Party (MCP), attempting to redirect this violence, decided to
convert the struggle against the British into a rural guerrilla war.
On 16 June 1948 three British estate managers in northern
Malaya were assassinated
by MCP guerrillas and by 18 June, the British had declared a ‘state of
emergency over the whole of Malaya’. British, Ghurka and Malayan military
personnel and police then began operations against Communist insurgents.
At the time, the
Australian press emphasised the economic and strategic importance of Malaya for
Australia, particularly after the loss of Singapore and Malaya in World War II
and the corresponding vulnerability of Australia to attack.
Asking Australia for assistance, the UK
Government told the Australian Government that the Malaya campaign was an
active front in the Cold War against Communism. On 31 May 1950
Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced to the Australian Parliament the decision to send a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadron to
Malaya, saying that the UK, Australia and New Zealand had to share the burden
of the defence of the Malayan region:
As I said yesterday, events
in the Malayan Peninsula are of vital concern to the security of this country.
Malaya is a key point in the strategic region of which Australia is a main
support area. The Government is in full accord with the statement made to the
House by the present Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Chifley) on the 19th June,
1946, following his return from the conference of Prime Ministers in London,
when he said -
As a principal power and
member of the British Commonwealth in the Pacific, we must also be prepared to
shoulder greater responsibilities for the defence of that area, including the
upkeep of our bases which are essential to the strategic plan.
The previous day Menzies
had placed the conflict in Malaya within the context of the Cold War when he
Last year, there
were encouraging signs that the efforts of the civil and military authorities
were achieving a steady reduction in terrorist activity and a corresponding
increase in the confidence of the Malayan and Chinese communities. Unfortunately,
the situation has deteriorated considerably during the past few months.
Heartened by Communist successes in China, and no doubt expecting increased
moral and material support from sources outside Malaya, these fanatical
terrorists have considerably increased the scope and intensity of their
activities. It also seems that their operations are being conducted with
greater skill and daring than before.
The RAAF deployed C47 Dakotas from 38 Squadron to Singapore
during June 1950 and on 16 July 1950, six Lincoln heavy bombers from No.
1 Squadron. The Lincolns were based at Tengah on the western side of Singapore
and conducted offensive operations against the Communist terrorists.
In addition to area and pinpoint-strike bombing raids, the Lincolns were
employed on night-time harassment raids.
From 1950 until it was relieved by No. 2 Squadron in 1958, No. 1 Squadron flew
almost 4,000 sorties and dropped 35,000 tonnes of bombs—85 per cent of the
tonnage dropped during the campaign.
In mid-1958, No.1 Squadron was relieved by the Canberra jet
bombers of No. 2 Squadron, which had been deployed to Butterworth as part of
the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve Force. As the insurgency was almost over by
this time, the Canberra bombers did not have a lot to do, although they did fly
some missions, including several large formation strikes. No. 2 Squadron RAAF
remained at Butterworth until early 1967, when it was redeployed to South
The Dakotas moved cargo, troops and VIPs, and carried out
supply drops and casualty evacuations. It also participated in psychological
operations, dropping leaflets urging the Communists to surrender.
The airlift provided by the Dakotas was essential, with troops operating deep
in the jungle entirely dependent on aerial resupply.
In October 1951 Sir Henry Gurney, the British
High Commissioner in Malaya, was killed in a roadside attack on his car,
which precipitated a firmer and more organised response. His
successor, General Sir Gerald Templer (appointed both Director of
Operations and High Commissioner), went about the task with vigour and by the
time his term ended in 1955, most of the heavy-lifting had been done.
During 1955 the Australian Government committed further
forces to Malaya as part of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic
Reserve. This was discussed by Cabinet and announced by the Prime Minister in
On 20 April 1955 Prime
Minister Menzies informed the House of Representatives:
I have already publicly announced our decision to contribute
to a strategic reserve to be stationed in Malaya, our
contribution being two destroyers or frigates, an aircraft carrier on an annual
visit, additional ships in an emergency; an infantry battalion, with supporting
arms and reinforcements in Australia; a fighter air wing of two squadrons, a
bomber wing of one squadron, and an air field construction squadron.
But we also considered what additional forces would be needed
in the event of a "hot" war. Since my return, I have discussed this
matter with the Cabinet and we have agreed that, side by side with the United
Kingdom and New Zealand, we must be ready in the event of war to contribute
substantially greater forces in South-East Asia. The contribution of additional
forces to an extent which has as yet to be finally worked out in consultation
with our friends, but which will probably be, at any rate, of the order of two
divisions, will of necessity involve a complete re-consideration of our defence
training and provision at home, as to which announcements to this House will be
made as soon as is practicable.
Menzies made it clear that this commitment was a part of the
broader contest with the forces of Communism, which he described as being ‘on
the march as it has been in Europe or in Asia, with the sword and subversion as
its weapons, for the last ten years’. The Australian Labor Party, led in
opposition by Herbert Vere Evatt, was not of the same mind, with Evatt
responding to Menzies’ speech by saying:
Australia's true role in South-East Asia will not be helped
but obstructed by the present proposal to send our armed forces to Malaya,
either for garrison duty or to take part in jungle fighting. This will lead
only to acute misunderstanding between the Asian peoples in Malaya and
Australia. It will be easily misrepresented as an act of aggression. In fact,
it will be an unnecessary demonstration and, indeed, an act of folly,
possessing no real value at the present time.
In accord with Menzies’ words Australia’s commitment was
increased in 1955 with the deployment of ground forces. By then, the Communist
insurgency had largely been checked with military, political, and so-called ‘hearts
and minds’ actions. In truth the MCP
did not succeed in spreading their notion of revolution to the ethnic Malay
population and their relatively small numbers meant they were never likely to
be successful in a guerrilla war.
The challenge then was to track down and combat the increasingly
small groups of insurgents operating in jungle areas. The 2nd Battalion, the
Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR), arrived in Penang during October 1955 and crossed
to the mainland on 1 January 1956. The battalion spent twenty months as part of
the 28th Commonwealth Brigade operating in the northern areas of Kedah and Perak
(Perak had a large Chinese Malay population and was regarded as suspect). In
fact, for long periods of time this work resulted in little contact with the
guerrillas. There were exceptions, most notably the Pipeline
Ambush that took place on 22 June 1956, in which three Australians were
Malaya became an independent federation in August 1957 and
this further undermined the anti-colonialism of the Communist cause.
2 RAR were replaced by 3 RAR in October 1957. Similarly
to its predecessors, 3 RAR began patrolling-operations in Perak and Kedah with
the intention of cutting the guerrillas off from their food supplies:
The battalion’s patrolling resulted in
two notable successes: in July 1958, acting on information received from a
surrendered communist, members of the battalion destroyed several local
guerrilla camps; and on 20 November 1958 another camp was attacked. One of the
guerrillas killed in the latter operation was found to have taken part in the
infamous assassination of the British High Commissioner in 1951. The clearest
indication of the battalion’s success came in April 1959 when the British
announced that the state of Perak was secure.
1 RAR replaced 3 RAR in October 1959,
conducting patrolling-operations in northern Malaya and sometimes crossing the border into Thailand in order to
pursue Communist guerillas. The battalion’s tour continued until October 1961
when it was replaced by 2 RAR, more than a year after the Emergency was
declared over on 31 July 1960. The Australian Army’s involvement in Malaya
ended when it returned to Australia in August 1963.
Australia also provided artillery and engineering support to
the ground operations, and No.
2 Airfield Construction Squadron built the main runway at RAAF Butterworth.
The Royal Australian Navy had less direct involvement in the Malayan Emergency
than the Army or the RAAF, but contributed
ships to the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve. HMA Ships Anzac, Tobruk,
Queensborough and Quickmatch all fired on suspected Communist
During the Emergency, 39 Australians were killed, although only 15
of these deaths occurred as a result of operations.
Each year on 31 August, Australia commemorates
Malaya and Borneo Veterans’ Day, honouring
veterans of the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation. It is not yet
clear what specific commemorations may take place in 2020.
Emergency, Australian War Memorial.
K James, ‘Conflicts
since 1945: Australia’s other Asian wars’, Wartime, 41, January
P Dennis and J Grey, ‘Emergency and Confrontation:
Australian military operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966’, in Official history
of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts
1948–1975, volume 5, Allen & Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, Sydney,
P Edwards and G Pemberton, Crises and commitments: the
politics and diplomacy of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts,
1948–1965, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992.
Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), The Malayan Emergency (1948–1960): causes and general description, DVA, undated.
R Jackson, The Malayan Emergency, Routledge, London, 1991, p. 69.
A Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford University Press,
Melbourne, 2001, p. 244.
Ibid., p. 247.
K James, ‘Conflicts
since 1945: Australia’s other Asian wars’, Wartime,
41, January 2008, pp. 12–15.
The Malayan Emergency, op. cit., p. 78.
The Royal Australian Air Force, op. cit., p. 244.
‘Menzies, Evatt split sharply on Australia’s Asian role’, The Sydney
Morning Herald, 2 April 1955.
P Dennis, J Grey, E Morris, R Prior, and J Bou, The Oxford companion to
Australian military history, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South
Melbourne, 2008, p. 348.
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