Histories and Mysteries: Devon historian seeking to shed light on forgotten war

Joe Plant, author of Malaya 1948-60

2020 is the 60th anniversary of the end of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Malayan Emergency’ – a conflict fought between Commonwealth armed forces and pro-independence fighters of the Malayan National Liberation Army. This was the country’s attempt to escape from the clutches of the British Empire.

Now, a Devon-based historian, Joe Plant – who had served briefly in Malaya – is trying to shed on light on what he describes as one of Britain’s ‘forgotten wars’. I spoke to him about his work:

“I first became involved with the war in Malaya, whilst on board the troopship HMT LANCASHIRE, as it sailed down the Malacca Straits before docking in Singapore. It was then we got our postings. Not Singapore but Malaya. My posting was to 3 Company REME LAD in IPOH, North Malaya.

‘We disembarked in Singapore at 8 o’clock in the morning. The disembarking thousand or so troops on board were transported to Née Soon Garrison Camp, north Singapore Island. We were fed, and soon after we were selected to draw arms and ammunition, before being transported back to the Singapore railway station, to board a train departing at about 6 o’clock, bound for Malaya. By 6.30-ish, we had crossed the Causeway into Malaya. And we were officially On Active Service fighting against the Communist Terrorist. Something I had never heard nor read about before. It wasn’t until 24 hours later I arrived at the REME Basher (my home for the next 18 months) to discover that Malaya was a country at war with the Communist Terrorist.

‘We did not have any of the luxuries afforded to Service Personnel these days. It took six weeks to receive my first letter from home. There was no body armour, it was just OG’s – light olive-green uniforms. At all times you carried a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition if leaving camp for convoy duties or on recovery jobs. The roads were made for ambushes. Upon my arrival back in Blighty, glad to be back home, I found there was nothing in the newspapers about what was going on in Malaya. Furthermore, none of my mates knew where Malaya was. However, in February 1957, I was a civilian again. And glad to be out of it.”

Almost thirty years later, Joe took to writing a history of his time in the National Service and the Far East – a topic that spurred him on.

“I found a book, ‘Roll of Honour’ typescript only. It was a list of all the killed service personnel in Malaya. Another book I found included the list of Malay Police, civilian rubber planters and tin miners, both with dates throughout the whole of the 12 year period before it ended. I made tentative contacts with various regiments who were out there, for information of their ranks killed, but this was somewhat restricted. I began to collate various books written by different authors on their experience in Malaya. Subsequently, my thoughts were: this was a diary of the day-to-day events of who, where or how service personnel got killed or died. Recently it has come to my notice, the numerous named [personel] within the pages of my book, notated with ‘Died*** (Cause unknown)’, could as in the recent notification, have been [listed as] ‘Died from wounds received’.”

Many of the troops that were serving in the Far East, were doing so as part of the National Service. This was part of the peacetime conscription that was formulated by the National Service Act 1948. From 1st January, 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the armed forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. Joe was one of these men and it has lived with him ever since.

“As an example: The Devonshire Regiment was sent out to replace a returning regiment, and would do a tour of three years in the conflict, before they were replaced by another County Regiment. Their National Service replacements would effectively do approximately 18 months’ service with the Battalion in Malaya, before being sent home for demob. The Devonshire Regiment lost 24 servicemen.”

Joe has spent much of the last 25-30 years studying the conflict in Malaya, trying to do justice to the men that seemingly haven’t got the recognition they deserve from their service.

“For the front cover [of my book], I needed a photograph of the memorial to all those that fell during 1948 to 1960 located in Kuala Lumpur. I decided that I should make one last trip to take a photograph and also to see some of the graves of the fallen in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping, and Penang. However, what I found, was some of the headstones were weather beaten, some not upright and generally full of weeds. In comparison, those headstones of the 1948 to 1960 conflict, which were in with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur, were kept in pristine condition. The other three cemeteries I visited were totally unkept.

‘These young lads went out to fight a war against the communists and are forgotten by this and all previous Governments before, including the Ministry of Defence. All these cemeteries listed in my book need to be visited and reviewed, with the emphasis on bringing the headstones back to their former glory for the fallen. Get rid of the weeds, tidy it up and bring the surrounds back to the pristine condition afforded to the CWGC Cemeteries. If not this Government, then the Malaysian Government should.

‘These young 18-year-old National Service lads were sent out to fight a war in a foreign land to endure the hardships of jungle warfare for weeks on end, being fed from RAF Dakotas dropping supplies. Not only were they fighting when engaging the hidden enemy, they were fighting the jungle, wading through swamps up to their necks, enduring leeches, snakes, and other nasty creatures that lived in the jungle. There were 152 named Service Personnel killed in the jungles with no known graves.

‘In the past, any service personnel killed overseas, particularly in the Far East, were buried within 12 to 24 hours because of the heat. None were shipped back as they were in the latter conflicts of Iraq and Pakistan. For those in the Malayan conflict whose remains were repatriated, it was just their ashes. The total of Commonwealth Forces killed is 1,818. An estimated total of all including civilians and communist terrorist, is in excess of 22,000 killed during the 12-year war.

‘135 RAF Aircraft were lost. There were 36 ships plus one shore base of the Royal Navy plus the Australian and New Zealand navies, engaged in shelling from offshore including amphibious landing assaults. 3 Royal Marine corps, 70 battalions of different regiments, 5 Gurkha regiments, 23 different corps, 36 different RAF squadrons, 5 RAF regiments, 6 African regiments, 4 Australian regiments, 9 Australian corps, 5 New Zealand regiments, the Sarawak Regiment plus many more engaged in fighting the
Communist Terrorist. It is still called an ‘EMERGENCY’.”

As he has done for many years to date, Joe is working to expose the Malayan Conflict as being a bigger event than is often depicted, with a desire of getting the veterans the credit they deserve.

“It is also a thorn in the side of those ex-Malaya veterans who are now left. To have the knowledge that anyone engaged in the fighting prior to the 31st August 1957 is not entitled to be awarded or wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia (PJM). The only medal awarded was the GSM Malaya Clasp. We have sent letters to Prime Ministers and the Ministry of Defence without any conclusion. It’s not important as was only an EMERGENCY?

‘In 2007 I, along with Tony Hamilton, Chairman of the Hampshire Regiment Association, campaigned for a rosette to be added to our Medal Ribbon. It was read out in the House of Commons on 3rd February, 2010, by Sandra Gidley, Liberal MP.

‘After my trip last year, 2019, I found all the towns I visited were extremely prosperous and certainly nothing like the period of the times: the late 40s and 50s, all thanks to the British and Commonwealth forces and those who lie forgotten in foreign cemeteries. My book will reveal the folly of the statement ‘EMERGENCY’.”

Ben Fox

Author: Ben Fox

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment