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On Target: A War by another name: The RAAF in the Malayan Emergency – 1948 to 1960

Brian Weston 'On Target: A War by another name: The RAAF in the Malayan Emergency – 1948 to 1960' in Australian Aviation September 2018 p. 110

This year has seen the recognition of many anniversaries from World War I and World War II but there is one anniversary from another war in which Australia was involved, which has received little attention. It was the declaration, on 18 June 1948, of the commencement of the Malayan Emergency following the murder of three British estate managers by guerrillas of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), at Sungei Siput, Perak, Malaya.

The targeted assassination of three estate managers was the opening shot of a war by the MCP aimed at the overthrow of British colonial rule in the Federation of Malaya. Although labelled an ‘Emergency’ – to ensure insurance policies essential to the ongoing functioning of Malaya’s economy were not voided – the Malayan Emergency was a war. It was conducted by the MCP, under the leadership of Chin Peng, employing the military skills and expertise the MCP had gained from its predecessor organisation – the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army – during its 1942-1945 guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.

The ethnic core of the MCP was Malayan Chinese who, after an initial campaign of terror, expected to mobilise support for their revolutionary cause from the ethnic Malayan Chinese and the rural ethnic Malay population following which, the MCP expected to escalate to widespread insurgency warfare, sufficient to destabilise and overthrow the incumbent government. The revolutionary strategy was in keeping with similar campaigns under way in Indochina against the French, and in China against the Kuomintang government.

Initially, the Federation of Malaya – a federation of the nine Malay British protectorates and of the two Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang, both British colonies – was slow to respond to the MCP threat although that changed, especially after the assassination of the British High Commissioner ‒ the head of the Federation of Malaya ‒ on 6 October 1951. From then on, Britain oversighted a ‘whole of government’ response to the MCP threat; a response which is now widely regarded as an essential case study for any student of counter-insurgency warfare.

In 1950, Australia responded to a British request for assistance in combatting the Emergency and deployed six RAAF Lincoln heavy bombers and eight RAAF C-47 Dakota (DC-3) transports to the region: No 1 Squadron to RAF Base Tengah, Singapore, and No 38 Squadron to RAF Base Changi, Singapore.

Air support is a key capability in counter insurgency warfare and No 38 Squadron quickly filled an essential role in transporting troops; resupply of deployed troops, often by parachute into small drop zones; and psychological operations. The contribution of the RAAF Dakotas during the initial phases of the Emergency was critical and it is a contribution that has generally not been well-acknowledged. The Dakotas returned to Australia in 1953.

The Lincolns, an evolution of the Avro Lancaster, also made a strong contribution to the Emergency with their ability to carry up to 14 x 450 kg bombs. The Lincoln, with its endurance, payload and high capacity British-heritage 1,000 lb (450 kg) blast and fragmentation bombs, was well-suited to the tropical, jungle operational environment and while few communist terrorists, CTs as they were called, were killed directly by the air strikes, the strikes kept the CT groups on the move where they and their camps were more likely to be detected and engaged by deployed troops and police. The Lincolns returned to Australia in 1958 having dropped 85% of the 35,000 tonnes of bombs used in the Emergency.

By the time of No 1 Squadron’s return to Australia there was widespread recognition the counter-insurgency war was being won; although such wars take patience and endurance, until they grind to a close. Indeed, although the Malayan Emergency was declared ended on 31 July 1960, RAAF personnel at Butterworth continued to receive intelligence briefings on CT activities and threats into the 1970s, and some would recall watching flights of RMAF Canadair Tebuan jet trainers, each armed with two 500 lb (230 kg) Mk 82 bombs, departing Butterworth to strike CTs operating in the “border areas” not too far from Butterworth.

Apart from the RAAF involvement in the Malayan Emergency, Australia also rotated battalions from the Royal Australian Regiment through Malaya ensuring an Australian infantry battalion was continuously in theatre from 1957 to 1963. The Emergency was also noteworthy in that, on 31 August 1957, during the conduct of the Emergency, the Federation of Malaya became an independent nation, and remained on amicable terms with Britain, its former colonial power.

During the Emergency, Australian air and ground forces in Malaya transitioned into Australia's contribution to the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve which was established in 1955 to deter external communist aggression against countries in South-East Asia, especially Malaya and Singapore.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in the Australian Aviation magazine.

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