The camphorwood chest is indubitably my mother’s archive. It is dominated by her objects, as our growing-up was overwhelmed by her family stories. My father didn’t get an ear-in, so to speak. His silence around his past wasn’t helped by the fact that he was away so much, with his career service in the British Army.
So I was completely surprised to discover in the chest an item that is exclusively his, one that fills in a missing part of his life before he met my mother. The discovery also sheds light on a now mostly forgotten British military engagement in Southeast Asia, in the very last days of the British Empire in Asia. No one knew of the existence of this object – even my father had forgotten it – until, from between the thick stacks of premarital love letters that my parents exchanged, into my lap fell a diary. The size of a cigarette carton, leather-bound, worn by time, and, as I’ll discover when I crack open its pages, Malayan tropical weather, the journal was kept by my father, in the only year he ever maintained a diary. It includes the months that led up to him winning the Military Cross, the medal awarded for ‘acts of exemplary gallantry’.
The year is 1957. The British have declared a ‘Malayan Emergency’, a colonial war against ‘Communist Terrorists’ that will run from 1948 to 1960. The goal is to empty Malaya, still just about a British colony (my father’s entries in August will record independence granted to Malaya) of the mostly Chinese communists, or perhaps freedom fighters, depending on how you judge this moment in colonial history. The Malayan Emergency is an eastern extension of the Cold War. My father has been sent directly from the western frontline city, Berlin, in the advance party of his regiment. A second lieutenant, his first task is to train his platoon of thirty-five soldiers to fight with him in the jungle.
After a few weeks of training at the Jungle Warfare School in Kota Tingi, the platoon is sent twenty miles north, to a notorious enemy-infiltrated territory, Pekan Jabi. From the company camp overlooking a coconut plantation, my father takes his platoon into the jungle to search for the enemy: the ‘CTs’. For stints of a few days, the things the soldiers carry include a change of clothes, all food and medicines, weather protection, and their not-insubstantial weaponry. For any period over a week, the platoon is resupplied with food and ammunition parachuted in by helicopter into a ‘DZ’ -- a dropping zone.
Mostly, my father’s diary entries are made on the spot. His handwriting can be hard to read. The ink is smudged and the paper mottled, as if the diary has been in contact with the rain. Sometimes the conditions are so bad, or my father is so occupied, that an account of events has to be made over a week after they happened: after my father has returned to base camp from his up-to-ten days in the jungle. Nevertheless, my father manages to maintain an entry for every day of that year.
Many of the entries mention the jungle. The density and confusion of the vegetation make the task of spotting the enemy ‘CTs’ difficult and dangerous, and simply moving a challenge. ‘A very hard and exhausting day spent bashing through jungle on a navigation exercise. It was very difficult to map read correctly and all we could go on were the streams. The going was absolutely bloody, no other word for it and it was absolutely hopeless to try to bash through it, the vine creepers were worse’. The tropical rains are an additional hindrance: ‘it rained today in a way I have never seen rain before; quite incredible’. Other than ponchos and hammocks, the men have no protection. ‘We were forced to spend the night sopping wet’, one early entry notes. Mosquitoes proliferate in the damp and the rubber trees: ‘The first part of the night I spent in scratching, & the second part it was too cold. 2 things are essential in the jungle – 1. get off the ground, Stringing a hammock is improvement on floor. 2. Something to cover one’.
At the same time, ironically, with so much rain above them, the troops can find themselves searching for a supply of drinking water. For this reason, they tend to camp near streams: ‘move into the jungle – one hell of a flog – very hilly country & full of huge ferns. Water supply is bad – fortunate that we are there only for 5 days’. My father soon thinks he has a ‘touch of dysentery’. Much of the time he, along with the rest of the platoon, is exhausted -- ‘apart from the Iban who seem tireless’.
‘The Iban’ were native residents of the jungle, on whose skills and loyalty the British Army in Malaya came to depend. These orang asli -- or aboriginal peoples who came from Sarawak – are able not only to follow tracks; they can tell which tracks were made by CTs, and when. My father expresses much admiration for the Ibans. ‘The work of the Ibans is invaluable – they are real experts with the parang [Malay machete used for cutting through the jungle]. Very likeable chaps as well’.
Training his platoon of soldiers, on the other hand, he struggles even to get them to use their weapons, the ‘FNs,’ one of the first semi-automatic rifles. ‘They are very bad at it and need to practise. Teaching the FN to shoot. Hard work as they are even scared of the weapon’. As opposed to my father, who was a professional soldier and a commissioned officer, these men had been forced by National Service to spend two years in the ‘other ranks’ in the Army, before they went on to do whatever it was they really wanted to do back in England: plumbing, building, ‘go up to’ university, etc. Most members of the platoon were just eighteen-years old, with virtually not one of them before having left even the county of Cheshire (the home base of the eponymous regiment), let alone England. In my father’s eyes, his soldiers ‘are very raw and all seem very young. It means a lot of hard training for them before they are fit for manual operations’. I have to remind myself that my father is only just twenty-one himself.
My father’s action took place the following year, in early 1958, and, as there are no other diaries in the camphorwood chest, my father’s written account stops just short of his action. But there are in the chest a series of newspaper articles, likely to have been clipped by my father’s mother: one is from the Bath Chronicle, the local paper of my father’s home city. I learn that his medal is awarded for his ‘skill, leadership and courage in command of a patrol which destroyed a party of terrorists deep in the jungle. He achieved the single-handed capture of a desperate armed man’. The articles reinforce a rather old-fashioned masculine heroism: ‘the success of the operation was due to his skilful planning and determined leadership, culminating in his most brave and dashing single-handed capture of a desperate armed man.’
My father’s version, told to me now, contains a good deal more humility and also humour, while also recognising the political complexity especially brought by hindsight. A few years ago, my father exchanged some affable letters in the Times with an elderly Ching Peng, before the latter died. Ching Peng was the former leader of the CTs, whom my father had been specifically directed to track and kill.
My father tells me that, after receiving intelligence from HQ about a hideout of CTs, the platoon set out on an ambush. They were now guided by two former Chinese CTs, who claimed to have renounced their affiliation and instead agreed to work for the British. But the platoon itself was ambushed, by, ‘of all things,’ my father says, a Malayan brown bear. One of the former CTs went to shoot the bear but ended up shooting the other ex-CT ‘in the backside’. One newspaper spins the story into silent-movie skit: ‘The Communist Terrorist managed to escape wearing only a pair of striped underpants’. My father then has to make a quick and difficult decision: how to evacuate the wounded man to medical treatment, without having the platoon’s coordinates revealed and jeopardizing their mission. So my father splits the platoon, commanding half of the men to evacuate the wounded CT, while my father continues with the other CT and the reduced force. Just before dusk, this semi-platoon finds the terrorist camp, surrounds it, and attacks.
My father says that his MC was recognition of his entire platoon, and perhaps his leadership
of them in straitened circumstances.
Still very much the professional soldier, I think my father may be being modest. Indeed, he says – albeit with my mother’s prompting – that, at one point in the confrontation, it was either the other man or himself. For him, it’s not a story about heroism, but rather of the chances that life deals you in a moment.
My mother is surprised that I manage to get my father to tell this story at all. She tells me he has never talked about it until now: until I discover the diary and start to ask questions. He received other medals subsequently, and his growing military regalia became the ubiquitous décor of our successive homes. These flags and drums and medals and swords were far less interesting to me, then, than the exotic camphorwood chest and what I thought were exclusively my mother’s contents and stories. The details of my father’s Malayan war remained a family secret, until I discovered the diary.