The British Empire Library

Britain, Kenya and the Cold War: Imperial Defence, Colonial Security and Decolonisation

by David Percox

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Simon Hutchinson (Malaya and Borneo 1948 - 1967)
Police casualties in the Malayan 'Emergency', as the long struggle between 1948 and 1960 is still officially called, outnumbered military casualties by nearly two to one. Subsequent accounts of the campaign have more than redressed this balance. Books describing aspects of the military effort are numerous: books on the police effort are confined to a handful of personal accounts. Mr Brian Stewart, formerly a member of the Malayan Civil Service who was closely associated with the Malayan Police, has put this to rights by editing a book which does justice to a police force which won its royal title in a hard, sustained fight which cost it over 1300 killed in action.

Brian Stewart set out not to write a history of the police effort but to collect and edit the memories of those junior officers of all races who served at the sharp end in that 'subaltern's war'. He wanted readers to taste the flavour of the time and of the many varieties of action in which young policemen were involved. He has certainly succeeded. The reader will learn exactly what it felt like to be trapped in the wreck of an ambushed car waiting to be killed; or to lead an attack on a terrorist camp in thick jungle; or to suffer the frustrations of lack of proper training, weapons, equipment, or realistic guidance - and being expected to communicate in an unknown foreign language immediately you arrive in a strange country. He will also learn what it feels like to be spat on by a cobra, stung by hornets, and - while converting Hearts and Minds - to share a meal with jungle folk whose flaking and diseased skin often falls into the communal eating pot.

But there was more to life than a succession of ambushes and jungle horrors and the book keeps these episodes in proportion. Due attention is given to the patient, skilful, long-term Special Branch operations that culminated in the surrender or capture of senior terrorists. Recruitment and training are well covered and there are some good vignettes of the lighter side of life. There was the prisoner who withstood five days of questioning but eventually began to talk - 'moved by pity' for the strain that round-the-clock interrogation had put on the three teams assigned to his case. There was the wife who responded to her husband's urgent request as he prepared, Sten gun at the ready, to defend their bungalow, to 'Bring the magazines!', by producing The Times and Newsweek. The saga of the ludicrously incompetent 'locally recruited' tracker dogs makes amusing reading. There are ghosts, farewell parties, a police mutiny, the defence of rubber estates, an awkward encounter in court... One could fill a page with the bare listing of the stories selected and presented so attractively.

The editor has provided a wealth of background material including a useful glossary of contemporary expressions, some apposite Malay proverbs, bibliography, a chronological record; his own brief account of the rise and fall of the Malayan Communist Party and a good note on the statistical background of the campaign. Professor Anthony Short, foremost historian of Twentieth Century Malayan history, has contributed a commendable Foreword.

British Empire Book
David Percox
Tauris Academic Studies


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