The 70th anniversary of the Malayan Emergency: a quick guide

28 May 2020

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David Watt
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section


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.


The origins 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.[1]

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.

Australia’s involvement

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.[2] 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 said:

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.[3] In addition to area and pinpoint-strike bombing raids, the Lincolns were employed on night-time harassment raids.[4] 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.[5]

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 Vietnam.[6]

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.[7] The airlift provided by the Dakotas was essential, with troops operating deep in the jungle entirely dependent on aerial resupply.[8]

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 early April.[9] 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 killed.

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.[10]

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 positions.

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.

Further reading

Malayan Emergency, Australian War Memorial.

K James, ‘Conflicts since 1945: Australia’s other Asian wars’, Wartime, 41, January 2008,
pp. 12–15.

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
, volume 5, Allen & Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996.

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.

[1].   Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), The Malayan Emergency (1948–1960): causes and general description, DVA, undated.

[2].   R Jackson, The Malayan Emergency, Routledge, London, 1991, p. 69.

[3].   A Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, p. 244.

[4].   Ibid., p. 247.

[5].   K James, ‘Conflicts since 1945: Australia’s other Asian wars’, Wartime, 41, January 2008, pp. 12–15.

[6].   The Malayan Emergency, op. cit., p. 78.

[7].   The Royal Australian Air Force, op. cit., p. 244.

[8].   Ibid.

[9].   ‘Menzies, Evatt split sharply on Australia’s Asian role’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1955.

[10].   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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