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The Far East – Malaya

During the Malayan Emergency the RAF developed tactics in helicopter warfare which were applied in later conflicts, particularly in Vietnam.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Let’s continue our discussions about the RAF’s global role in the post-‘45 period. And Ross, with regards to the RAF in the Far East and the Far East Air Force, the Malaysian emergency occupies most of its operations from 1948 to 1960. Can you give us an idea of how air power in that particular conflict had an influence in resolving it?
DR ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, there are a couple of points to pick up here. One, this is the longest campaign the British military fights since the Napoleonic Wars. But arguably, it would have lasted longer had it not been for the enabling action, for lack of a better description, of air power, and the Royal Air Force in particular, both in a kinetic and non-kinetic sense. So what we mean by that is the utilisation of air power in non-attack roles, for example, or the kinetic use of weapons. And so the RAF deploys air power in a full range of activities, ranging from resupply missions, the use of helicopters, with aircrafts such is the Sycamore behind us, through to attack operations.
And within that, you have sort of a circle of things such as reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations. In terms of, say, attack, the RAF is very careful about what it attacks. It will only attack a target with very definite intelligence. There’s a hearts and minds campaign going on here, both with the army, but also with the RAF. So the RAF will attack a target that, based on good intelligence, it knows it is an insurgency target. It never attacks villages or anything like that. It’s not about to turn the local population against itself. Resupply missions with transport aircraft and the use of helicopters is particularly important during the course of the campaign.
And the other thing is that we see a full range of aircraft deployed. There are at least 31 different types deployed in the Far East air force during the course of the Malayan Emergency, with about 36 different variants of those that were aircraft deployed. And the thing is that you see the Far East Air Force moving on from piston engined aircraft– in the attack role, for example, at the Bristol Brigand and the de Havilland Hornet. And eventually, those are replaced with Vampires and Venoms, and aircraft that are sent out to the Far East to upgrade the Far East Air Force. So you see a wide range of operations going on in support of ground operations, and essentially shortens the campaign.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now you mentioned the equipment that’s used. How much is this is a reflection that Malaysia is, although it’s an anti-communist campaign, it’s not at the heart of the Cold War? And that we see, if you like, a cascading of the technology across from the main potential theatre– Western Europe– through to the RAF’s global outposts?
DR ROSS MAHONEY: There’s certainly an element of that. But of course, the character of the Cold War is that there what we would refer to as proxy wars going on. So of course, the Malayan Communist Party is heavily supported by the Chinese. And so there is that tension going on, that this is still part of the Cold War. But it is not the main threat. The main threat is perceived to be, say, in central Europe, where you are going to fight an enemy that has similar levels of equipment. And of course, that’s not the case in an insurgency. And of course, as a comparison, Malaya is the blueprint for what goes on in Vietnam.
Now of course, the problem is that you can’t transpose what goes on in Malaya to what goes on in Vietnam. And interestingly, in terms of technology, the Americans do use high levels of technology, but don’t succeed. Now, that’s not to suggest that they would get it wrong in that respect. But there is a balance to be had. The forces the British were fighting in Malaya we’re not, in an air-to-air sense, a threat. And therefore, you could use, certainly in the early years, aircraft such as the Brigand and Hornet. They were perfectly fine. That changes, depending on the context and the culture of the enemy that you’re fighting.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, you mention Vietnam. And of course, Malaya overlaps at least the first Vietnam War. But you also talked about helicopters. And for some people, that’s very iconic within the context of the Vietnam War. Now, we’re surrounded here by the Wessex, the Whirlwind, and the Belvedere, as well as the Sycamore in the Historic Hanger at the RAF Museum in Hendon. How did the use of helicopters evolve and change in the Malayan, conflict between 1948 and 1960?
DR ROSS MAHONEY: Well, in many respects, helicopter such as the Sycamore– are used for the roles that we identify with the use of helicopters in combat, so casualty evacuation, resupply, troop transport. The major challenge in Malaya is one of terrain. It’s very difficult terrain. Helicopters offer that advantage, to be able to airlift troops, airlift troops out, and evacuate casualties. Just as an indicator of how big that is, Number 104 Squadron, which is equipped with the Sycamore, flies over 34,000 sorties during the course of the campaign. It’s a major contributor to how Britain is able to fight. The ability to drop in SAS teams into remote areas to conduct hearts and minds campaigns is what comes out.
And then, yes, of course, we think of Vietnam as the first helicopter war. But again, these things are going on beforehand. We see limited use– or we see some use of helicopters in the Korea war. And then the French are also using them in campaigns in Algeria and so forth. And the British are in Malaya. And then eventually, helicopters such as the Belvedere are used in the Borneo confrontation in the early 1960s. So they’re providing the model of how helicopters are being used. Of course, the other thing to remember is that helicopters are a young technology. They come into service towards the end of the Second World War. And we’re seeing their development.
And actually, if you look at the aircraft around us, you see the evolution of the designs as they go along. They’re a young technology.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross, thank you for that. We’re going to come back and look at other aspects of the RAF’s role around the world. But this is another instance where technology’s playing a role to change what the RAF can do and its function more generally. Thank you very much.

In this video we consider the following questions and comments:

  1. The Malayan Emergency occupied the RAF Far East Air Force from 1948 through to 1960. What was the influence of air power in fighting the counter-insurgency campaign?

  2. Although anti-communist, the Malayan Emergency was well away from the main Cold War deployment of the RAF. What equipment was used?

  3. One of the innovations in the conflict, however was the use of helicopters.

Ross and I looked to discuss these themes in the video; but please look to raise other points in the comments.

The Malayan Emergency

Ian Madelin’s discussion below emphasizes the long term roots of the ‘Malayan Emergency’, and essentially reflects on some of Ross’ comments in Week 1 as to how far back we need to go to find the origins of the Cold War. Predating the Korean War, this was Britain’s contribution to anti-communist conflict in South East Asia, and helps to explain why the RAF’s role in the Korean War was so limited – the ‘Malayan Emergency’ was occupying the RAF at the time.

Extract from Ian Madelin ‘The Origins of the Malayan Emergency’ in The Royal Air Force Historical Society Journal 21 (2000): 7-8.

Assessed against the background of wars and warfare in the twentieth century the Malayan Emergency would not be judged a major campaign. … [A]s a milestone in the flow of events, the Malayan Emergency is more important than it is remembered to be, and neither here nor in the region itself is the extent of its accomplishment and its historical significance fully appreciated. How did it start?
The real origins of what has come to be called the ‘Malayan Emergency’ go back to the foundation of the Malayan Communist Party in 1929 following the formation… of the Far East Bureau of the COMINTERN, the Soviet-backed organisation for the spread of communism world-wide. From the beginning, the Malayan Communist Party, the MCP, was a subversive organisation which aimed to overthrow the Malayan Administration and establish in its place a communist state. …
[I]n 1937, in China a truce was called between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang so as to present a united front against the Japanese. In the Chinese community in Malaya there was also a faction sympathetic to the Kuomintang. The MCP, expediently taking its cue from what had happened in China, and under the guise of patriotism, started to form anti-Japanese groups among people, both Malay and Chinese. In this way the Party increased its strength and broadened its base in the population so that by 1940 it had several thousand members and an experienced underground organisation.
When the Japanese invasion came in 1941 the Administration saw the advantages of creating an underground network of partisans which could act as a resistance movement against the Japanese, serving the Allied cause. … A hard-core cadre of about 200 [MCP members] withdrew into the jungle with British instructors and in the transition changed its name to the ‘Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army’ (MPAJA). … The established organs of public administration did not yet exist and when British forces re-occupied the peninsula the MPAJA was kept in-being for a while to help re-establish some control during this period of uncertainty. The future political scene was unclear and against a background of strikes and disturbances the communist hard-core of the MPAJA undoubtedly hoped that the country would just drift into its hands. They would have been encouraged in this by noticing that Britain’s commitment to its Empire was declining, as evidenced by the intended withdrawals from India and Burma.
The MPAJA was officially disbanded in December 1945. Already though they had realised that a peaceful takeover was unlikely. … At first they concentrated on subversion by provoking strikes and infiltrating public organisations. By the beginning of 1948 it was plain that this was not getting them anywhere so they stepped up the campaign with a programme of intimidation, terrorism and sabotage. The scale of this insurrection reached such a level that in June 1948 the Federal Government invoked Emergency Powers and the military were called in to assist the Administration in restoring law and order. This event is looked on as the nominal start of the Emergency, though perhaps ‘Emergency’ is an understatement to describe a campaign which lasted twelve years and at its height occupied a quarter of a million men.
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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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