Thank goodness for a well-oiled infantry battalion..
The Suffolk Regiment in Malaya 1949-53
Mark Forsdike’s paean to the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment (the ‘Dagenham Light Infantry’ - many of its soldiers hailed from the north London suburbs) in Malaya dropped through my door today. The battalion served there for three and a half years between August 1949 and January 1953, covering the key years of the insurgency. Forsdike’s book tells the story of this battalion, and offers a range of photographs I’ve never seen before. Its a subject I have studied and taught for many years, so I was waiting to see what this study could offer. Having spent the day with the book I must say that I’m very pleased with it. Why? Because while ‘we all know’ what brought about imperial victory in Malaya (the Brigg’s Plan, intelligence, ‘hearts and minds’, Gerald Templer and the successful resettlement of illegal Chinese settlers, the Malayan Scouts, or SAS and so on) it was to the hardy British, Australian, Rhodesian and New Zealand infantry battalions (and gunners converted to foot-soldiers for the campaign) that battlefield success in Malaya should be credited. None of the successful strategy of counter insurgency deployed over the 12-years of the Emergency would have mattered one jot without the PBI whose dogged perseverance and professionalism made it all happen. As John Cross observes, after 1949 the communists ‘rarely took any form of offensive action against the army and so had to be sought out by relentless cunning, time-consuming and patience-testing efforts at all levels. However, success did not...depend upon high command once correct policy was formulated. It was the man on the spot... whose initiative, resourcefulness, self-reliance, sustained courage, stamina and instantaneously correct reaction to a situation could be, and often was, decisive. Thus it was ultimately the junior leaders and riflemen, seldom above company level, more often at platoon strength, who slogged it out and bore the brunt of it all.’ (Jungle Warfare, p. 114)
Few of the men Forsdike describes were regular soldiers. Most were conscripted National Servicemen ‘doing their bit’ for the country during those early years of the Cold War before they returned home to pick up their interrupted lives. Its important that we historians look closely at the performance of battalions in battle - something that James Holland has done brilliantly recently with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry - as well-led, well-trained and ‘steady’ units can have a disproportionate effect on the success of military operations across a campaign as a whole. Its a reality that some units succeed where others fail. As is well-known to those like me who’ve studied the subject over the years the Suffolks were a brilliant team and achieved much, setting the template for successful counter-insurgency operations in Malaya all the way through to 1960. They were not to know it but when they left the country in early 1953 the success of the campaign was assured. As Forsdike observes, the ‘battalion’s work in destroying the heartland of the communist infrastructure around the capital city of Kuala Lumpur did much to shatter the morale of the terrorists and pushed them further into deep jungle.’ In fact, the Suffolks killed 180 insurgents during their long tour, remarkable for a single battalion. It was during their time in Malaya that nearly half of all the insurgents who were killed during the campaign (2,882 or 43%) died. In exchange twenty-one young men of the Suffolks remain in Malaysian soil still (colonial Malaya became independent of Britain in 1957 and became Malaysia in 1963).
The British Army managed to defeat the insurgency in Malaya for lots of well known reasons, but it could not have been won without the quality of its troops. More than anything else, like the youngsters fighting in 21st Army Group in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945, and in Burma in 1945, all of whom were in short trousers when the war began in 1939, Malaya demonstrated what ‘ordinary’, conscripted troops could achieve in demanding circumstances. Imagine undergoing recruit training in Hemel Hempstead as a National Servicemen before being shipped off to Penang for two years in a fierce jungle war against an elusive opponent. That was what was asked of these men. In the case of the Suffolks, they achieved everything that was asked of them, and more.
My own account of the Emergency will be published in the next year or so. In due course I’ll be asking Mark to use some of his pictures, including this remarkable one demonstrating the range of weapons used by an infantry battalion in the pre-SLR days in Malaya. Note the preponderance of automatics, a singular lesson of Burma. Although the MkV Sten was also used by the battalion it didn’t tend to go on patrol, as it didn’t have the stopping power of the MkV Lee Enfield or Bren Gun. It was the insurgents who used the Sten, carefully husbanded by them after having been given them during the Second World War to fight the Japanese. A clear favourite of the troops also in these early days was the Australian Owen gun. They even had Lee Enfield cup dischargers: one of the extraordinary photographs in the book is of a soldier demonstrating how it could be fired, in extremis obviously, from the shoulder. Its good to see that the underlying ethos of the Suffolks was to use what worked. It seems reflective of a remarkable regiment. As Forsdike says, it was the ‘close-knit family community of the regiment and the spirit it fostered of fierce rivalry between platoons to be the best at their job’ that was the foundation of its success. Many who have served will recognise this as a standout feature of a successful battalion. It was these men, their commitment to the task at hand, no matter how difficult, many thousands of miles from home, together with their loyalty to their friends and their sheer professionalism which vouchsafed to Britain the entire counter-insurgency strategy in Malaya. Without the courage and commitment of these ‘little men’ as Sergeant Ken Cooper described his Border Regiment platoon in Burma, counter-insurgency in Malaya would have remained a theory, locked up in the text books. The Little Men of the Suffolks - and many other National Service regiments too - enabled it all to happen, brilliantly.