Mark Forsdike, The Malayan Emergency (Pen & Sword, 2022)
In the collapsing colonial world after World War II, Imperial victories did not come along too often. The French, Dutch, and British all suffered serious setbacks with the notable exception of the British defeat of the insurgency in Malaya in the early 1950s. In the latest edition of Pen & Sword’s Images of War series, Mark Forsdike takes us through the ‘crucial years’ of that conflict.
Forsdike starts with the causes of the communist insurgency, which began, like so many revolutions in the Far East, in the turmoil of Japanese defeat in 1945. In a country of 80% jungle, Forsdike notes, defeating the insurgents was not an easy proposition, but the British and Commonwealth forces learned from their mistakes and found ways to win. The most successful battalion in rooting out the enemy, according to Forsdike, was the 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, and it is that unit the author follows from 1949 to 1953.
The Suffolks arrived at Singapore in July 1949. They trained and acclimatized before embarking on active operations. Their first combat took place only a few weeks later. The battalion soon learned to adapt to the demands of jungle warfare. This didn’t just apply to tactics and survival, but equipment and weapons too. Making tea, however, was a constant. Forsdike describes the jungle conditions under which the men fought, reminding us that many of them were national service squaddies from urban areas. Though he includes a section on camp life away from the fighting, it was their success in combat that marked out the Suffolks, and most of the text and photographs follow them in the field. They took part in patrols in all sorts of terrain, and they laid ambushes, often aided by locals or ‘Ibans’, jungle fighters from Borneo. Intelligence, speed, and decisiveness often made the difference between success and failure. Sometimes the battalion took part in large operations, but most of their work was in small operations with a few casualties caused each time. The Suffolks lost 21 men in their time in Malaya compared to nearly 200 of the enemy. Inter-platoon competition in the Battalion made them more effective, and they were so successful that they had their tour extended by 5 months. Forsdike concludes with the soldiers leaving Malaya in 1953 and their continued brotherhood afterwards through regimental organisations.
The Malayan Emergency is a solid addition to the Images of War series. These books succeed on their combination of text and photographs, and Forsdike has managed both of those very well. He allows the men who fought to speak for themselves as much as possible, and he weaves that into the context of the conflict. The photographs are mostly of the men whose memories we are reading, but they also give an atmospheric account of the conditions and climate they endured, and Forsdike does not shy away from including images of death on both sides. The book suffers a wee bit from its focus on just the one regiment rather than the broader picture of British and Commonwealth involvement, and from Forsdike’s over-attachment to his subject, which enables him to gloss over some of the less flattering aspects of the British effort in Malaya, including the shooting of wounded insurgents. Nevertheless, this book works well as an introduction to the Emergency and provides a good feel for how that conflict was conducted.