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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