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Project Title: Post War: A North East Perspective

Exhibition: Terrorism - Malaya

Between 1951 and 1954, 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders fought a gruelling but successful war against Communist terrorists in the jungles of Malaya, a region of what is now Malaysia. This exhibition provides background information about the Battalion’s tour of Malaya, exploring the operations through photographs and documents of the time, and with veteran Abby McDonald remembering what it was like to serve there.

Assets in this exhibition:

Background

Malaya was a British colony for much of the 20th century. Geographically, the country was an important strategic military base in South East Asia, with Singapore in particular being the hub for a huge British naval base. Malaya was also a valuable trading colony and rich in natural resources, with the production of rubber, palm oil, tin and timber being extremely profitable for Britain.

A large Chinese population has always lived in Malaya, and during the Second World War, Britain trained and used Chinese guerrillas to fight against occupying Japanese forces. In the years following 1945, China itself was wracked with Civil War as Nationalist and Communist armies fought to gain control of the country. The Communists became the overwhelmingly stronger force in China, and they encouraged Chinese communities in neighbouring countries to embark on Communist revolutions. In 1948, a Communist insurgency, led by the same Chinese groups trained by Britain during the war, broke out in Malaya against British colonial rule.

In the first years of the ‘Emergency’, as the Malayan conflict became known, the mainly Chinese terrorist groups had many successes and killed hundreds of members of the security forces and civilians. However, these terrorists’ actions generated extreme hostility from the Malay and Tamil groups within the Malayan population, who had aided British forces against the Communists. Britain encouraged this local support by promising an independent Malaya once the ‘Emergency’ was over


Map of Malaya

Exhibition Image One

Description

This hand drawn map of Malaya shows the major areas of British operations, with Singapore at the southern tip of the peninsula. The ridge of jungle clad mountains down the central spine of the country can be clearly seen; the red line at the northern end of Malaya is the border with Thailand.

Source

Contributor: Robson, Mike
Location: Malaya
Original Source: Private Collection


Rubber Tapping

Exhibition Image One

Description

Malaya was a valuable trading colony and rich in natural resources, with the production of rubber in particular being extremely profitable for Britain. Rubber plantations could be geographically very large and their owners were prime targets for Communist guerrillas, necessitating patrols by British soldiers to discourage enemy activity.

Source

Date: 1951
Contributor: Sergeant KP Green
Location: Malaya
Original Source: PB1148, The Gordon Highlanders Museum


What Happened (Part One)

1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders arrived in Malaya in May 1951 at a critical point in the struggle. The previous two years had been bad ones with both heavy loss of civilian life and China finally becoming a Communist State in 1949, giving the Communist terrorists in Malaya a great propaganda weapon.

A pivotal tactic in the campaign meant that 650,000 villagers had been resettled in 550 new villages in order to deny the terrorists any form of support or opportunity for influence. The next stage for British forces was to use infantry in the jungle to secure bases and hunt down the guerrillas. It was this task that the Gordons were to perform.

Initially, the Battalion was deployed in the district of Pahang on the east coast of Malaya, an area larger than the size of Wales. Operations in the jungle were gruelling; the terrain was difficult and unforgiving; the heat searing and the tropical rain torrential. Missions were carried out at platoon level (35 men) and occasionally at company level (130 men). The operational objective of the Gordons was to find terrorists and their camps, based on intelligence from informers or by following tracks in the jungle.

Several successful contacts with the enemy were made and a number of camps destroyed, but on the whole patrolling in the jungle was slow and frustrating with very little sign of the enemy.


Malay Contribution to Operations

British military operations in Malaya would not have been as successful as they were without the involvement of local indigenous forces working alongside the Army.

In particular, highly skilled and experienced Iban trackers were attached as scouts to British units, including the Gordons. Their ability to track Communist guerrillas and their fearsome reputation due to their ancestral custom of headhunting, made for invaluable allies.


On the Railway

Exhibition Image One

Description

The British-built railway system in Malaya was essential for the transportation of people and supplies across the country, and was therefore a prime target for Communist guerrillas. Here, a cheery group of Gordon Highlanders and their Malay trackers catch a welcome lift onboard a train.

Source

Contributor: Robson Mike
Location: Malaya
Original Source: Private Collection


Train derailment - damage

Exhibition Image One

Description

Communist guerrillas in Malaya frequently targeted the railway system. It was a relatively easy way for the guerrillas to inflict significant damage and disrupt everyday life. Here, a locomotive lies by the side of the tracks, with a derailed wagon further down the line.

Source

Date: 1952
Contributor: Sergeant KP Green
Location: Malaya
Original Source: PB1148, The Gordon Highlanders Museum


Railway Patrol

Exhibition Image One

Description

Gordons cross a newly built railway bridge, with the older bridge to the left in the picture. The second man on this patrol is carrying the Lee Enfield Jungle Carbine, a shortened and lighter version of the classic British Army rifle of both World Wars.

Source

Contributor: Robson, Mike
Location: Malaya
Original Source: Private Collection


Washing kit

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald describes how the soldiers collected rainwater to wash their kit in Malaysia.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript

Everybody washed their own clothes and there were showers. When I say showers, there were just long pipes stuck up between huts. Just the long pipes and that was your shower. You turned the tap and the water comes splashing out.

What we used to do was, in Malaya for a while, every night between four and four thirty, it used to rain. Buckets! And every man had a basin about this size… a tin basin. We used to put it out the door of the hut and catch all the rain coming down. It was supposed to be good for, you know, your complexion. I don’t know if it’s true or not… That’s what they say. And we used to catch the rain and wash and that, and then you washed your socks. Because in Malaya, all you wore was a pair of boots, a pair of socks, turned down, and a pair of shorts. That was all you wore in the camp. When you went out and the guys were going out on patrol and things like that, they had a bush shirt, trousers, jungle boots and a hat. But you … close. Course… and everybody did wash their own clothes.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Scotland
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Kit bag

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald compares his personal kit with that of today’s modern soldiers.

Transcript

When you go out in the troops, you have your two kit bags. You’ve a kit bag what they call your ‘secret bag’. That would be equipment and uniforms you would only wear when you get there. And then you have your own kit bag with your own… your uniforms and your personal gear and things like that, you know. Well, you weren’t allowed too much, you know.

Course, in them days… nowadays, in the army, they’ve all got their CD players and their DVDs and things like that. We had nothing like that, you know. Well, being in the band, we could provide our own music and things like that. But you didn’t have a lot of personal things. Photographs and frames and things like that.

Source

Date: Feburary 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Scotland
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Living in the jungle

Exhibition Image One

Description

Being constantly wet, thanks to the heat and humidity, was an uncomfortable fact of life in the jungles of Malaya. Note the towels hung up around the fire in order to try to dry them.


Rations

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald talks about the rations issued for jungle operations.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript

Yes, there were special rations used to go into the jungle. You tried not to light fires and things like that. You would maybe get a tablet that size and you put it in water and it would swell up like a wee dumpling. And biscuits, ready cook meals but they were obviously cold meals. And chocolate, yes.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Malaya
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Fighting in the Jungle

Exhibition Image One

Description

Dense jungle and often steep, slippery hillsides made movement slow in the Malayan jungle. It was tough for the bodies and minds of soldiers, who had to be ready to react in an instant to possible contact with the enemy. Fighting was often a short-range affair, so sub-machine guns (SMGs) were especially useful due to their high rate of fire. The Gordon at the front left of this image carries the unusual Australian-designed Owen SMG, with the magazine protruding from the top of the weapon. Note also that all the Gordons are wearing bush hats – it was too hot, clammy and uncomfortable for steel helmets.

Source

Location: Malaya
Original Source: PB152, The Gordon Highlanders Museum


Impenetrable Jungle

Exhibition Image One

Description

Can you see the Gordon Highlander in the middle of this photograph? Soldiers on patrol could often barely see the man in front of them because of the thick jungle. At night, it was even more difficult.


Sleeping conditions

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald recalls the sleeping arrangements in grass huts with mosquito nets and rifle in the bed.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript

I can remember one night in Malaya…and all we lived in grass huts called ‘bashas’. And we slept in a single bed with a mosquito net and you slept with your rifle beside you in bed. No exceptions. You always slept in bed with your rifle right beside you. It wasn’t very comfortable sometimes if you happened to… you know, lie over and you get on top of the rifle, things like that.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Scotland
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Map Reading

Exhibition Image One

Description

It was easy to get lost in Malaya. Surrounded by thick jungle foliage, with maps that often had very little information on them, the Gordons had to become expert in navigating this challenging environment. Expert compass reading, as well as the position of the sun and the stars in the sky, helped to guide soldiers to their destinations.


Communication with home

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald compares the methods for soldiers to communicate back home with his own experience.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript

Well, in them days, there was no telephones, no emails, nothing like that. You just had to sit down and write a letter. That’s in my time. You can imagine what the troops stationed in India in 1937, 38 and further back than that. The mail would probably go by boats so it would take about a month to get a letter. Nowadays, everything’s… you know, technology… guys phone home every night and things like that.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Malaya
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Clunie Lodge

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald also speaks about living conditions at Malaya’s highest point and his experience of extreme temperatures.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript


In that time in Malaya, you know, most of the soldiers were National Servicemen. Sometimes, a lot of men would leave at one time, you know, finished… away for getting demobbed. The next time, a huge draft would come out – more than went home. And there was no room in the … . We were put up to a place called Cluny Lodge. It’s in the highest point in Malaya. It belonged to a millionaire before the war as a shooting lodge. While we was there, we were like an independent unit. We did our own cooking, we did our own guards, because it was the highest point in Malaya, it was where most baddies were killed. Maybe they didn’t like our music, they never bothered us. But we had to chop down trees because during the day, between noon and two o’clock, you just could not go outside in the open. You certainly wouldn’t go out without your bush-shirt on. You’d be, you know, really burned. It was so hot. Yet, at night, being the highest point in Malaya, the clouds used to come right down and we sued to have a fire burning the whole night and every man had at least two blankets. So hot during the day, so cold during the night. And then, maybe in the morning, we would do a bit of band practise and that was it.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald
Location: Malaya
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Wildlife

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald recalls his encounters with a tiger and snakes in the camp.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript


Well, there was quite a lot of wildlife, you know, in Malaya. I can remember one night in Malaya, you know, we lived in grass huts called ‘bashas’. But this night, there was only two of us in this hut. I was on the right-hand side, my pal was on the left-hand side. We sorta’d just fallen asleep, darkness was coming in, we hears this thump, thump, thump, thump. And all of a sudden, two eyes are shining in the dark. And whatever it was, it was definitely higher than the beds that we were sleeping in. And I says to my mate, “Hey, there’s something down the bottom of the bed, whatever it is.” And he turned round. We were actually scared, the size of the thing. So, in the morning we said, “Shall we tell our mates?” You know, “Are we going to be the laughing stock of the band?” You know, we’re seeing things during the night. So we did. We says, “We think it was a young tiger or something like that because it was so high.” You know, and eveybody’s saying, “Oh aye.” Things like that.

The very next day, the band was on the shooting range which was just beside our basha, down this… a slope and there was a flat… just about this size here, there was a shooting range. And when we went down there, here was the remains of a few, young, you know… there, we called them wild boar. There was a few young had been attacked and eaten. It was just the skeletons left. So whatever it was, paid us a visit first. I don’t know if it was a young tiger or what it was. Maybe a wildcat or something like that but when you’re sitting there and you’re actually trapped, you see, below your mosquito net, and it was the bottom of my bed and just the two eyes that go… gazing like that. To this day, I don’t know what it was. And I don’t like telling the story because I’m sure, half the time, nobody believes me.

Snakes were another thing you seen, plenty of snakes. When you least expected it. You know, you go in and you have your kit bag in below your bed. You put your hand in your kit bag to get out a pair of socks or something like that and, “Ooh, what’s that in there?” Snakes always go where it’s nice and warm, you know.

Source

Date: February 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Malaya
Original Source: TPYFGOR_OH


Forgetting water

Exhibition Image One

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Description

Abbey MacDonald speaks about forgetting to organise the water for his unit on an exercise.

Biography

Abbey MacDonald

Transcript

Oh yes, always plenty food and plenty water. Except the day of my nineteenth birthday. The band again… we were… This duty was to go to an airfield, it was… well, not an airfield, it was just a field, where a two-seater plane could land. The Commanding Officer of the 45th Royal Marine Commandos, he had his own little plane. So when he used to want to have a talk with our Commanding Officer, he would fly down, pick him up at this little airstrip, which was actually called ‘The Bader’. After Bader, the famous pilot during the war.

So, on this day, on the 29th of October, we all got detailed the morning. I was told to hand in my rifle and draw an automatic, an Owen Gun, and to go to the cookhouse for the liquids, what they called ‘the liquids’ – you used to get a tin of powder, like lemonade powder, you know. And you just mixed it in the water. It was quite good, you know.

So, it wasn’t too far from the camp, maybe half an hour, three quarters of an hour, from the camp. So we went down there and we thought we were here for about an hour maybe, but what would happen… the Marine Commanding Officer, he came down in his plane, picked up our Commanding Officer, flew about doing a recce round the jungle, then they landed at the Marine base. And he had obviously invited our Commanding Officer for lunch and things like that.

So we were there for a while and somebody shouted out… we were all spread out, you know. We weren’t all one little wee heap beside the airport… the airfield. We was in twos and someone shouted, “Who’s in charge of the water?” And I just realised then, when I went to the cookhouse, I got the tin of the powder for mixing the water. I forgot to get the big Dixie with the water. And there we were, no water. And you can imagine how I felt on my nineteenth birthday, not even a drink of water. And nobody had water in their water bottles because Bandsman MacDonald was told that he was in charge of the water and I completely forgot all about it.

Source

Date: Febraury 2009
Contributor: MacDonald, Abbey
Location: Malaya
Original Source: TPYFGH _ OH


Supply Drop (1)

Exhibition Image One

Description

When on operations in the jungle and, due to the lack of roads, the only way for troops to receive fresh supplies was to drop them from aircraft. Here a Royal Air Force Transport Command Dakota starts its run – you can just see the supply packages starting their descent to the ground.


Supply Drop (2)

Exhibition Image One

Description

Dropping supplies was an art. The drop zone was usually a small patch of ground and crews in the aircraft had to work very quickly to unload all the supplies. Here, containers drift down on parachutes, hopefully on target.

Source

Location: Malaya
Original Source: PB152, The Gordon Highlanders Museum


Supply Drop (3)

Exhibition Image One

Description

Here the contents of resupply packages are being sorted out. Everything from ammunition, food and medical equipment was dropped in order to keep the troops going on extended operations in the jungle.


What Happened Afterwards

The ‘Emergency’ lasted for another six years after the Gordons left, until victory was finally achieved in 1960. War was never officially declared.

Singapore, Sarawak, British North Borneo (Sabah) and the Federation of Malaya joined to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963. Armed conflict with Indonesia followed, and once more the Gordons found themselves involved in this part of the world (see Vignette entitled “Terrorism - Borneo).


Communist Guerrillas (1)

Exhibition Image One

Description

This image shows a group of five Communist guerrillas who surrendered to the authorities in March 1953. Note that there are four women and one man. Women played key roles in the Communist guerrilla forces during the Malayan Emergency, acting as messengers, couriers, cooks and nurses as well as fighting alongside men.

Source

Date: March 1953
Contributor: Robson Mike
Location: Malaya
Original Source: Private Collection


Communist Guerrillas (2)

Exhibition Image One

Description

This image is a close up of the man from the previous group photograph. The major problem for Allied forces in Malaya was determining who the enemy was. Due to the very nature of guerrilla warfare, the enemy hid amongst ordinary people – the man who had just sold you some fruit could have planted a mine the day before, or was planning an ambush for the next day.

Source

Date: March 1953
Contributor: Robson Mike
Location: Malaya
Original Source: Private Collection


Malayan Communist Cap

Exhibition Image One

Description

This cap was brought back to Scotland as a souvenir from the Gordons time in Malaya. The simple red star on the front of the cap shows that it belonged to a Communist guerrilla.