Malaya and the Emergency (1950-53)
Chapter   4 - Kedah — Sungei Patani
As our train moved across the mile long causeway, which connects Singapore to the mainland, the majority of the Battalion had their first sight of Malaya. At the Northern end of the causeway, lies Johore Bahru, the capital of the State of Johore, and towering above the untidy mass of Chinese shops is the Government building, strangely Tibetan in its appearance but typical of the cosmopolitan influences which have moulded Malaya. Once through Johore Bahru we came upon the characteristic Malayan scene. Mile after mile of rubber estates, the lines of trees stretching as far as the eye could see in perfect symmetry. Now and then the rubber would stop abruptly and give way to the jungle, whose great tall trees and dense undergrowth looked most forbidding, and whose interior seemed absolutely dark. There were many small towns and villages, and the wayside stations had their names written in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Only the occasional wired-in village with a police post showed that there was an Emergency. We passed through Kluang and Segamat where, later on, we were to be stationed, and in North Johore we saw the swamps which we were to know only too well, with their oily brown water and thick covering of “belukar.”

On the journey the Battalion was fully armed and sentries were placed at the end of each carriage. At this time it was very common for trains to be shot at or derailed, particularly at night. Although all passenger trains were preceded by a “pilot” train in case the line had been tampered with, the terrorists often fired at the train as it passed, or ambushed the place where they had damaged the line.

That evening we arrived at Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Federation of Malaya. From the train it seemed to be a large but quite pleasant town with a great variety of large public buildings in every style from conservative Colonial to garish Oriental. But perhaps the most remarkable building is the railway station itself, a cream-coloured confection of spires and minarets, which might have come from Mecca or Byzantium.

To the North of Kuala Lumpur, and more especially in the State of Perak, tin mines replaced rubber trees as the principal feature of the landscape. Instead of thousands of acres of rubber trees there were wide-open spaces dotted with tin mines, with their characteristic tressle-work structures for carrying the water away from the mine. Nearer Ipoh, which was to be the Battalion’s last station in Malaya, we saw some very striking limestone hills (or “gunongs”), which rise almost vertically out of the ground, sometimes a thousand feet or more. Bushes, shrubs and creepers cling precariously to their sides, and they are honeycombed with caves, often used by terrorists as hiding places, In many of them the Chinese have made cave temples.

Still farther North came the rice fields of Kedah, and eventually Prai where we changed trains and saw the island of Penang, rising sharply out of the water four miles away. Sungei Patani, which was reached in the afternoon, is a typical Malayan town. A wide main street with a line of trees down the centre, a police station, a school, a railway station and, in the larger towns, a European club and a bank. Our camp, which was tented, was on a small open plain about a mile from the town. All the trees had been cleared away in the camp area, and there was no shade from the intense heat, which seemed to be increased by reflection from the four thousand feet slopes of Kedah Peak which lay to the North of the camp on the far side of a thick swamp.

Mangrove Swamp

Our operational area, taken over from 45 Commando,, Royal Marines, covered the whole of Kedah, and the following day “B” Company moved out to its base at Kroh, while “C” Company moved to Kulim with a platoon detachment at Pelam Estate some twenty miles to the North-west. “D” Company remained with Battalion Headquarters to complete its jungle training. Soon after our arrival we received our first detachment of the Civil Liaison Corps, which consisted of trackers and Civil Liasion Officers, trackers were recruited in Borneo and came from the Iban and Dyak tribes. One was attached to each platoon to assist in tracking in the jungle; they were friendly and cheerful little men, and their skill often proved invaluable to jungle patrols. The Civil Liaison Officers were usually Chinese or Eurasian, and their job was to act as interpreters and to gain information from the population about the terrorists.

Kedah area map

Towards the middle of August there was friction between the Malays and Chinese in the Kangar area in Penis. Accordingly, 11 Platoon of “D” Company (Lt. C. E. Potts, 2/Lt. M. H. Carden) was sent to the area. Fortunately the situation did not get any worse, and after patrolling in the area of the Siamese border they stayed in the area for about fourteen days supervising the resettlement of squatters to the North-East of Kangar.

Kroh area map


Kroh, the first operational base of “B” Company, is a small town in the North-East corner of Kedah, about three miles from the Siamese border. It is over a thousand feet above sea level, lying in the steep mountain range, which forms the Malayan-Siamese borderland. The camp, which was unfinished when the Company arrived, was just South of the town but on higher ground, with only the perimeter wire between the tents and the jungle. Before the Emergency, Kroh had been a rest centre, so that although the town was small it had many amenities. The few shops were well stocked with luxuries, there were tennis courts, a “padang” (Literally, “an open space”— in fact, a village green) and a delightful rest house. The town was also the last point on a minor road leading into Siam, a road which meandered through the hills and came to an end at Betong, a town full of Oriental mystery, with dancing girls and legal opium dens.

The country around Kroh is uncut jungle; there is no “belukar” and little rubber. The virgin jungle clings precariously to the steep slopes that they can only be surmounted by heaving oneself up sapling by sapling. It was hard going, but the jungle was fairly clear of undergrowth, unlike that which we were to meet in Johore and Selangor.

Once outside the town the people were mainly Malay or Siamese. There were few roads in the area and most of the villages could only be reached by tracks, after two or three days’ march from the road. The only other town in the vicinity was Klian Intan, which was joined to Kroh by a twisty road about eight miles in length. The road runs through a narrow ravine with innumerable hairpin bends, and the jungle coming right down to the road. Almost anywhere on the road is an ideal ambush position. At Klian Intan was the Rahman Hydraulic Tin Mine, one of the most important in North Malaya. The town was very remote and its mining population almost entirely Chinese. It was therefore a potential trouble spot and it was decided after consultation with the police to send 6 Platoon (2/Lt. D. K. May) to Klian Intan as a precautionary measure.

It was believed that somewhere across the Siamese border there were large M.R.L.A. training camps. Terrorist recruits were presumed to be trained in these camps before being sent to active units in Malaya. The route, which they took, was unknown, but it was thought that somewhere in the mountains to the North-East was a track which crossed the border and connected with the terrorist network of communications leading southwards to the rest of Malaya. “5” Platoon (2/Lt. D. B. Campbell) was allotted the task of finding the track, whilst 4 Platoon (2/Lt. D. C. Tyson) were to watch the South.

Incidents in the area had been few, and apart from Klian Intan there were no known trouble spots. There had been serious ambushes along the Kroh-Klian Intan road and one near the Siamese border, but it was not thought that there were any concentrations of terrorists close at hand. A well-trained and well led police patrol regularly visited the outlying villages. Occasionally they heard that parties of terrorists had been seen passing through the district, but the villages were mostly loyal and gave the terrorists little assistance.

For the first fortnight the Company concentrated on completing its jungle training and practising quick firing on an improvised range near the camp. The men were very keen, showing great aptitude for the training, so that at the end of the fortnight the Company was quite ready to take part in active operations. Then followed six weeks of hard patrolling. There were no contacts with the terrorists, but they learnt valuable lessons and won the confidence of both police and civilians.

A little vague information filtered through from time to time but only once were terrorists encountered, and then by the police. A Malay headman who had been wood-cutting in the jungle saw about ten terrorists building a camp. He crept away to inform the police; fortunately he met a police patrol at the edge of the jungle and led them back to the camp. It was dark by the time they arrived, so they laid up for the night near at hand. Next morning the police attacked the camp and killed two terrorists. These were the first to be killed in the area since the beginning of the Emergency, and the action took place only half a mile from the Company base.

An incident which illustrates particularly well the density of the jungle took place when 4 Platoon and 5 Platoon were waiting for an air-drop, having been operating quite close together for several days. They both arrived in the area of the rendezvous on the night before the air-drop was due. They were temporarily out of wireless communication and therefore were uncertain of each other’s position. They camped for the night not three hundred yards apart, and the following morning both platoons searched the same small area of open jungle, each wondering where the other might be. They stood within fifty yards as the Dakota approached the dropping zone, and it was only when one platoon let off a phosphorus grenade as a signal to the aircraft that they were aware of each other’s presence.

The Company enjoyed its stay at Kroh, and for them the days passed only too quickly. But at last, on September 29th, they packed into three-ton lorries and were escorted down to the hot plains and through to Sungei Patani by a troop of the 4th Hussars, to rejoin the Battalion, which was about to move to Johore.

“C” Company found Kulim to be a very pleasant place. It is larger than most Malayan towns and has two main streets instead of the customary one. Before the Emergency it had been the social centre for Europeans for many miles around, and had a club, tennis courts and a golf course. The Company base was on the Southern edge of the town on slightly rising ground. To the West was a road leading South from the town, and their South and East was bounded by a rubber estate and the golf course.

After a few days settling in and putting the camp in order, training was started in earnest Jungle training had, of course, been commenced in Singapore, but the Company had yet to gain practical experience of patrolling and living in the jungle. After several day patrols in the area the Company soon graduated to more ambitious operations of several days living in the jungle. During their time at Kulim the Company covered the likely terrorist areas very thoroughly, but unfortunately without seeing the enemy. The rubber and jungle between Terap and Junjong was patrolled extensively, as was the Gunong Bongsu Forest Reserve. One patrol went past Mahang, up the River Krian and into the mountainous jungle of Perak, while another patrol, after a lightning march to Kampong Bagan Kerbau, missed catching a number of terrorists by a few minutes.

Kulim and Serdang

Whilst the Company was at Kulim the terrorists staged two major incidents; in the first they killed a planter and a Special Constable, and in the second they ambushed a number of police. News of the first incident came one morning whilst the Company was on muster parade. The police headquarters in Kulim reported that they had received a telephone call from the police station at Terap saying that they were under heavy fire from a large number of terrorists. Very quickly the Company boarded its transport and drove off down the road to Terap, a notorious centre of Communism. The Company debussed on the outskirts and advanced cautiously into the village. Everything was ominously quiet, the people were all inside their wooden shops and huts, They moved on through the village and on the South side they found an ugly sight. In the middle of the road was a partially armoured jeep, its bonnet and canvas hood full of shot holes, and in the ditch lay a European and two Malay constables in a pool of blood. Apparently the planter (an Englishman named Dickens) had been driving up from the South in his jeep, escorted by two special constables. Just outside Terap they had come under heavy fire from an ambush position on the right-hand side of the road; they managed to drive on but a burst of automatic fire shattered their carburettor and the jeep stopped opposite a second ambush position a little further up on the left-hand side of the road. Dickens and the constables returned the fire from their partly armoured jeep, but the roof was unprotected and the terrorists were able to fire down on them from a high bank. After about forty minutes his ammunition had run out and Dickens decided to surrender in order to try and save the lives of the constables; all three had already been wounded. The terrorists stood Dickens and the two constables in a line, sprayed them with a machine gun and left them for dead. Only a few minutes later” C “Company arrived. The police station was only a few hundred yards away, and when the firing started the police thought they were being attacked and ‘phoned through to Kulim. The wounded were evacuated to Penang, where Dickens and one of the Malays died after regaining consciousness for a short time. The other Malay recovered. The area was searched thoroughly, the ambush positions were found and in one of them there were blood marks where one of the Malays had thrown a hand grenade. There was no trace or clue of where the terrorists might have gone, and after a day spent searching the area the Company returned to Kulim.

The second incident took place on the Junjong road, where a police vehicle was ambushed one night and eight police were killed. The terrorist casualties were unknown. Reports of the ambush did not reach the Company until the following morning and heavy rain had obliterated any tracks the terrorists might have left. Once again the search proved fruitless.

On August 26th, “C” Company moved from Kulim to Serdang, some eighteen miles to the South. Their place at Kulim was taken by “D” Company (Major W. L. Newcombe), who had just completed their training at Sungei Patani. “C” Company found Serdang very different to Kulim. It was a small hostile village, and the camp was dirty and neglected.

As a result of the incidents in the area South of Kulim it was presumed that there was a concentration of terrorists there. It was therefore decided to mount a Battalion operation. It was called Operation Rose and employed “C” Company, “D” Company and a Troop of 45 Commando, Royal Marines. “D” Company was given the area just South of Kulim, “C” Company went into the Relau Forest Reserve, and the Commandos were given the South of the area, The operation lasted twelve days and the area was systematically searched for signs of terrorists; unfortunately no contacts were made and the only results were a few arrests of terrorist food suppliers. It is interesting to note that mules were used on this operation for the first time in Malaya. They were not a success, and were not easy to move through the thick jungle. Immediately after Operation Rose a further operation was carried out in the same area with the object of plotting the squatter areas in the district, after which all the Chinese males were brought into Kulim for screening, and a number of arrests were made. The only contact with terrorists, which the Battalion had whilst in Kedah, was made by a section of 10 Platoon, “D” Company, who chanced on about six terrorists in the Bongsu Forest Reserve. Fire was exchanged, the terrorists fled and there were no casualties on either side.

Some reinforcements had now arrived from England and “A” Company was re-formed and started training at Sungei Patani. In the meantime orders had been received that the Battalion would move to Segamat in Johore to relieve 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment. We were to become part of the newly-formed 18th Infantry Brigade (Consisting of 2 S.C., I Suffolk, 1 Worc. R., commanded by Brigadier R. T. K. Pipe, D.S.O., O.B.E.).

The Battalion concentrated at Sungei Patani on September 29th, the vehicles going ahead with the advance party. The Battalion moved by train on the following day, after handing over operational command to 1st Battalion The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.