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18 June 1998

A Dirty Little War/06-18-98

On Friday 19 June, the British television channel BBC2 will broadcast 'Malaya: The Undeclared War'. Dave Hallsworth, veteran of the campaign who had a preview of the programme, recalls the brutality of the campaign

One of my memories from 1948 is of a choppy sea off the China coast, joining the off duty crew members of HMS Jamaica (sister ship to HMS Belfast) at the guard-rails to cheer our predecessor on her way back to England and the breaker's yard.

As HMS London came into sight we were all struck by a single question: what in hell had she faced? Sailors in the Royal Navy see an odd beauty in ugly grey warships. To us on Jamaica, London was something special, tall in the water, with lovely funnels and eight-inch guns that made our six-inchers look puny. That day, as she passed us and received our cheers, we saw exactly what a clash with the soldiers of China meant. Gaping holes in her sides stuffed with hammocks, three of the four gun turrets holed and out of action, a fifth of her crew dead or injured.

The Royal Navy had been speeding up the Yangtse to evacuate British officials and their families from Shanghai. The Chinese Eighth Route Army, sweeping to the coast in their war of self-determination, met the warships with a withering hail of fire. The London beat a hasty retreat. HMS Amethyst, a light frigate, was grounded on a sandbank, her captain killed after ordering his crew to abandon ship. Over half the crew, however, failed to obey orders and spent many weary days cowering between decks whilst trying to float her off at each high tide. She became known in the press back home as the 'gallant little Amethyst'.

A few weeks after bidding farewell to our mates on the London, those of the Amethyst's crew who had obeyed the order to abandon ship came aboard the Jamaica, and we made a dash for the Yangtse, to provide back up for the Amethyst who had re-floated. We were supposed to escort her clear of danger and transfer the remainder of her crew back aboard. Lieutenant Kerans, the former 1st Lieutenant (latterly a Tory MP), had assumed the role of captain. He faced a dilemma: how could he bring together those who had abandoned ship and those who had not, but were part of the media-created 'gallant little Amethyst'? He refused to let them aboard and forced them to go home separately. Our cheers were muted.

The series of defeats Britain had suffered since the end of the war was concentrating the minds of those at the helm of the decaying British Empire. When India was successfully divided before being passed over to loyal caretakers Britain stopped panicking and started using the tremendous experience from campaigns in Africa, Ireland and other colonies. Malaya was a classic testing ground.

British policy was to divide the Malay and ex-Chinese sections of the population, convincing the Malays that the Chinese, under orders from 'Red China', sought to dominate them. The Chinese were to prove tough cookies. Britain, in the past, had encouraged Chinese and Indians to enter and put down roots in Malaya. In 1940, only half the population were native Malays, the rest comprised 37 per cent Chinese and 12 per cent Indian.

BBC2's 'Malaya: The Undeclared War' gives a taste of that war. The BBC's scoop is to introduce Chin Peng, leader of the Malayan Communist Party's 41-year struggle for independence. Malaya's rubber and tin earned Britain twice as many American dollars as the rest of the Empire combined in 1948, when the conflict burst out into open war.

In Malaya, the equivalent of the railway depot camp used in South Africa, widely regarded as the first use of concentration camps, was the 'New Village'. Hugh Humphrey, Labour's secretary of defence said: "None of these measures were pleasant but we were out to win a very important guerrilla war." The policy eventually cut off the guerrilla's food supply and Malaya was granted political independence, under a head of state elected by and >from one of the nine hereditary rulers. The communists fought for another thirty-two years, only signing a peace treaty with the Malayan and Thai governments in 1989.

In war, a lot of blood flows. When one brutality occurs it is rapidly followed by similar ones on the other side. Heads are chopped off, bellies slashed open, genitals and ears severed. Attempts are made on both sides to frighten their opponents through terror. Understandably, much is made of this, hoping to create a horror of this 'terrorism'. Often, when states use these terms and tactics, they are in reality referring to the results of their own terror. Chin Peng and his guerrilla army slogging it out in the face of untold difficulties, and in the face of all the odds, for the purpose of winning a national self determination free from all strings was one such example.

Chin Peng, despite my political differences with him, nevertheless has my admiration. He demonstrated humanity's capacity for enduring hardship and struggle to take things forward. Human beings are a lot tougher and far more durable than our cringing sociologists would make out. Once taken by an idea or a cause, obstacles are only there to be overcome, privation exists to be endured. Fifty years on, General Chin and his colleagues deserve our salute.

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