Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer
Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer arrived in Malaya on 7 February 1952 to take the reins of fighting the Malayan Emergency. The previous High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, had been assassinated in a Communist ambush on 7 October 1951 while on his way for a weekend rest at Fraser’s Hill. Gurney’s murder was a huge shock to the British authorities as well as to the Malayans and stern action was demanded from London. Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who had just been returned to power, appreciated the crucial position of Malaya in Southeast Asia to the fight against international communism and the world’s tin and rubber supply. He decided that a supremo would be appointed. General Templer would have the political authority as High Commissioner and effective control of the police and all services of the armed forces as Director of Operations (DirOps). No British soldier had been given such extensive powers since Cromwell, general and leader of the Parliamentary forces during the 17th Century English Civil War.
The Malayan Emergency was declared after the murder of three Britons (two rubber estate mangers and an assistant) and two Chinese on 16 June 1948. With hindsight, it was clear that the largely Chinese-based Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was reactivating the World War Two units of its Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army, renamed as the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-British Army (later changed again to the Malayan Races Liberation Army) with the aim of driving out the British and establishing a Communist republic in Malaya. Armed bands struck at the British and their supporters, dubbed “running dogs”, in hit-and-run attacks and then disappeared into the jungle. These forces were supported by the Min Yuen (Masses Organisation) who provided food, medicine, information and recruits. The latter sprang up as Chinese fled starvation and persecution in the wake of the Japanese Occupation and blended into the towns and squatter areas on the jungle fringe. After the war, no administration had been willing or able to move the 600,000 squatters.
The British initially called the MCP’s forces “bandits” but eventually realised the unhelpful connotations of this term as it had been applied against Communists by Chiang Kai Shek and the Japanese. Neither had been successful in their efforts to root out the Communists who, in the tradition of the Chinese classic, Water Margin, portrayed themselves as fighting corruption and unjust invaders. Thus the British switched to the term “Communist Terrorist” (CT). While guerillas and insurgents are not always terrorists, in the case of the CTs, it was definitely appropriate. Civilians, including women and children, were deliberately murdered. Squatter villages were terrorised into becoming Min Yuen appendages – families who dissented or did not cooperate were sometimes burnt alive in their homes. In some cases, a child would be hacked to death in front of his or her parents and if sufficient “subscriptions” were not forthcoming, the CTs would kill another one of their children next time. Likewise, tappers were ambushed and killed. Sometimes they were tied to the rubber trees and left to bleed to death from their wounds. In order to disrupt British economic interests, CTs also slashed rubber trees and smashed tin mining equipment – thus destroying the livelihood of many innocents. For all intents and purposes, this was a civil war but the polite misnomer of a temporary emergency kept insurance rates of the major rubber and tin companies from skyrocketing.
Against this backdrop, there were high expectations of Templer. He was not well known outside of the Army and was not even Churchill’s first choice. However he had experience fighting insurgents in the Middle East, commanded a fighting division through an arduous mountain campaign in Italy during World War Two and performed well as Director of Military Government in the British sector of occupied Germany. Furthermore he held the important staff appointment of Director Military Intelligence (DMI) as well as the intensely political jobs of Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff (VCIGS - equivalent to Deputy Chief of Army) and Eastern Command, UK.
Templer also inherited a sound framework which was initially conceived by Gurney and then implemented by Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs, his predecessor as DirOps. The Briggs Plan had put forward the ideas and instruments that, with Templer’s energetic direction, efforts and further innovations, would eventually defeat the MCP.
One such instrument was national registration and the issue of identity cards, a legacy that remains with every Singaporean and Malaysian today. The plan also called for a social revolution. Chinese squatters, an important source of Communist logistics support, would be resettled in New Villages with title to their homes and agricultural land, a Home Guard and perimeter fence to protect them from CT intimidation and amenities such as clean water, electricity, schools and clinics. It is to Templer’s credit that he managed to persuade the Malay Rulers to part with enough of their land to create the New Villages for Chinese resettlement. His personal authority and good relations with the Army ensured that there would be sufficient manpower to undertake the huge effort. British national servicemen showed great cheer and understanding in this unconventional task, moving thousands of families who were initially fearful and suspicious. Communist propaganda had spread the rumour that they were being herded into concentration camps to be killed.
Previous administrations had been reluctant to boost the Home Guard. They feared that doing so would, on the one hand, provide the CTs with a ready source of new arms. On the other, they were also worried that Home Guard-defended New Villages would be seen as soft targets by the CTs and subjected to constant attack. However Templer felt strongly that the resettled Chinese should be given a bigger role in their own security as, by actively standing up to CT intimidation, this would instill greater offensive spirit in them. Thus their sense of civic responsibility and pride could be cultivated by allowing them to play a more active role in the Emergency. To that effect, he issued the Home Guard with 20,000 weapons. Templer’s faith was justified as no more than a few dozen weapons were lost and the Home Guard freed the police and army from static duties.
Another important element of the Briggs Plan was Operation Starvation. Stringent controls were imposed on the movement of food, particularly rice, and medicine through curfews, checkpoints and raids. When the CTs resorted to growing their own crops, aircraft were sent to spray pesticide on them. Templer’s administration saw the realisation of the “White Area” – an area which was declared free of overt Communist activity and where most restrictions were lifted. The effect was amplified by subjecting the area to Draconian curfews and checks prior to the declaration, in order to flush out any remaining CTs and Min Yuen. Naturally the residents were overjoyed when the area was declared “white”. They also gave their wholehearted cooperation to the security services as similar restrictions would be reintroduced if the Communists infiltrated the area again.
Templer also pushed for effective learning and doctrinal development in jungle warfare. Massive shoulder-to-shoulder sweeps of the jungle were good for parading manpower and firepower but netted no CTs. These were abandoned for methodical searches and ambushes by sections. Air-supplied jungle forts were constructed to wrest the native Orang Asli from CT influence and serve as forward bases for quick deployment and strikes. He demanded, and got, the collation and refinement of the wealth of jungle fighting experience from different levels into The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya, an example of successful knowledge management. The young British national service officers and men, together with the redoubtable Gurkhas, police jungle squads and Iban headhunters, eventually became as good as, if not better, jungle fighters than the CTs.
As a former DMI, Templer appreciated the value of good intelligence. It was the key to breaking the vicious cycle of no security leading to poor intelligence leading to failed operations leading to no security and so on. He centralised all intelligence collection at the Special Branch of the police; created a Director of Intelligence, a full member of the DirOps Committee, who would coordinate the intelligence activities of all the security services; and established an out-standing Intelligence (Special Branch) Training School which trained British and local agents on the ground as well as educating senior military and police officers in the guise of having them “sit in” on lectures so that they could give feedback on how to improve the courses.
Templer coined the phrase of “winning the hearts and minds” of the people. With respect to the people of Malaya, this was to be achieved by governing effectively and justly, and to be seen to be doing so. The amenities of the New Villages and a more secure environment to live, work and bring up children were all powerful weapons against Communist terror and propaganda. Against the CTs, a whole panoply of devices were employed. Leaflets publicising amnesties for surrendering CTs and huge rewards for inducing the surrender of others were dropped constantly. Templer also borrowed a DC3 Dakota voice aircraft from Korea via an old friend, General Mark Clark, with whom he had served in Italy. Personal appearances by surrendered CTs were also effective in undermining Communist morale, giving lie to the MCP leadership’s claim that prisoners and surrendered CTs were tortured or killed. His wife, Peggie Templer’s tireless efforts in charity, volunteer work and setting up of Women’s Institutes were also helpful in boosting the image of the authorities.
The war for hearts and minds was also an intensely political one. While Templer had a soldier’s distaste for politics and a very sharp tongue, he also had experience in managing the sensitivities of many different parties and dealing with high level dignitaries as Director of Military Government in Germany and as VICGS. Templer had arrived with instructions from London to prepare Malaya for self-rule and eventual independence. This undercut the main Communist aim of driving out the British as the British were planning to leave anyway.
Templer’s leadership had an electrifying effect on those around him. He seemed perpetually frail but possessed reverberating energy. His experience as a sub-altern in the First World War, where he hardly saw a general at the frontlines, left him with the conviction that a general must not lose touch with his men on the ground. As with his previous appointments and commands, he toured Malaya constantly to see things for himself, including an overnight jungle patrol with Gurkhas. Using the reason of security, he would descend on a town or unit with hardly any notice to see how things actually were rather than a scene prepared for a VIP visit. Those who were found lacking were subjected to a severe tongue-lashing, complete with swear words, and he would not hesitate to dismiss those who had not learnt their lessons. Towns that he felt had consistently “behaved badly” by withholding information from the authorities, in spite of major incidents, were harangued with “unprintable” speeches and slapped with severe restrictions.
But he would also try to help make up for deficiencies he found and saw to it that his promises, for clean water or a new school or more arms, were kept. His ruthless (and often rude) efficiency was balanced by a willingness to admit to and apologise for his own mistakes. He was also willing to listen to his subordinates: in fact, he expected them to “bellyache” for all they were worth before a decision had been made but to follow orders once given. His team, which deserve much credit for his success, included people such as General Hugh Stockwell (General Officer Commanding, Malaya), Sir Arthur Young (Police Commissioner), Jack Morton (Director of Intelligence), Sir Bob Thompson (Permanent Secretary, Defence) and CC Too (Head, Psychological Warfare).
His leadership technique has been summarised by his posthumous biographer, Cloake, as:
Get the priorities right.
Get the instructions right.
Get the organisation right.
Get the right people into the organisation.
Get the right spirit into the people.
Leave them to get on with it.
Critics of Templer have pointed out that he had inherited the good plans of Gurney and Briggs and only had to follow them through. He was also lucky that, the head of the MCP, Chin Peng, worried about alienating the masses, decided to scale down terrorist activity against civilians in his October 1951 directive which was never completely implemented but led to a fall in incidents. Certainly, Templer had a good foundation to work on but the conclusion was by no means decided. The war was still his to lose. He was criticised for being anti-Chinese and of being a tyrannical dictator. In fact, he was also criticised by others for being too pro-Chinese - spending so much on the New Villages and Home Guard. While he had an autocratic soldier’s manner, he also lifted restrictions on nearly 160,000 people with the declaration of White Areas and the eventual abolition of the notorious Emergency Regulation 17D which allowed him to uproot and detain entire towns.
Templer left Malaya in May 1954 feeling much more secure than when he arrived. He even had to warn against complacency by threatening, “I’ll shoot the bastard who says that this Emergency is over”. He returned to Malaya again for the Merdeka celebrations in 1957, now a Field Marshall and Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The Malaysian authorities would declare the Emergency over in 1960. Templer was awarded further honours and after his retirement, worked to found the UK National Army Museum (NAC). Soon after the successful conclusion of the fund raising campaign for the NAC, he passed away, aged 81, on 25 October 1979.
Noel Barber, The War of the Running Dogs: Malaya 1948-1960 (London: Arrow, 1989)
John Cloake, Templer: Tiger of Malaya: The Life of Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer (London: Harrap, 1985)
John A. Nagl, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (Westpoint, CT: Praeger, 2002)
Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya: 1948-60 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd, 1975)