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Ambush on Kedah Peak

Feb 15, 2022 | Tales from Malaysia

‘I realise that the Police have been and are the spearhead of our attack as well as the main source of our defence against the bandits in Malaya.’

General Sir R.M.M. Lockhart, K.C.B., C.I.E., M.C.,

Director of Operations Federation of Malaya 1951-52

THE FEDERATION OF MALAYA POLICE

POLICEBADGE

Warrior Square next to Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens is a monument to Malaysian police officers killed in the line of duty. Casualty rates were highest during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s with Malay officers suffering the highest losses. The emergency officially began on June 16th 1948 after the shooting of three British rubber planters at Sungei Siput in Perak and was not declared over until July 31st 1960 by which time the country had achieved independence from Britain. To communist guerrillas it SPEARHEADINMALAYAwas the ‘Anti-British National Liberation War’ and before the massive military build-up it was the Federation of Malaya Police Force who had to fight this war. Police casualties were high and up to the end of 1956, 2,890 officers had been killed in action compared to 518 military personnel.

Before World War 2 each state in Malaya had its own independent police force but after the Japanese invasion in 1941 the High Commissioner in Singapore ordered them disbanded state by state as the army retreated down the peninsula. Most British officers were captured at the fall of Singapore and interned in Changi Gaol whilst many Asian officers were forced to serve in the Japanese occupation police. A small number including Assistant Commissioner of Police Nevill Godwin escaped and went on to have distinguished war records.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945 officers who had not been imprisoned returned to rebuild a unified Malayan police force. Their colleagues released from internment were exhausted, half-starved and mentally unprepared to assume duty with the British Military Administration. It was during this period that the Communist Party of Malaya became a legal party under the leadership of Chin Peng. He led around 5000 fighters into the jungle to form the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) demanding independence from the British Empire and establishment of a socialist state. Many of the MNLA had wartime experience fighting the Japanese and from their jungle camps they launched guerrilla attacks on tin mines, rubber plantations, police stations and military installations. These Communist Terrorists or CTs, as they were designated by the government, were supported and secretly supplied by communist sympathisers estimated at up to 250,000 in the towns and villages.

On the government side there was an immediate need for European owned rubber plantations, palm oil estates and tin mines to be guarded. The rank of Special Police Constable was created but filled by Malay volunteers with no military experience. Ex-British Army N.C.O.s and ex-Palestine Policemen were hurriedly recruited as European Police Sergeants to provide leadership. Their main role was to train Special Constables in small arms, supervise the fortifying of estates and to lead jungle squads. By late 1949 low pay, poor conditions and a high mortality rate caused a drop in recruitment and so the unique rank of Police Lieutenant was introduced with improved pay and conditions. These two ranks were created specifically for the emergency with officers engaged on a three year contract and awarded a small gratuity on completion. They were not members of the Colonial Police Service and so did not qualify for pensions or other benefits. The rushed recruitment process meant the Crown Agents in London did little to ensure they selected men with proper qualifications such as weapons proficiency or experience in the Far East. There was no familiarization period and unable to speak Malay they were sent directly to remote estates. Added to this was a shortage of armoured vehicles so they relied on soft skinned vehicles including Landrovers, Austin A40s and Chevrolet troop carriers to travel on a limited road network well known to the communists.

PALESTINEPOLICE

Malayan police officer still wearing Palestine Police uniform setting trip wire (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Together with the assistant plantation managers most were under 25 and often treated as social inferiors in the European communities they were sent to defend despite suffering the highest casualties.

ADVENTURE IN MY VEINS

‘The Commissioner of Police would consider the release of a limited number of experienced C.I.D. and Special Branch officers who wish to volunteer for service with the Federation of Malaya Police. Officers selected will be given gazetted rank…’.

Before the hiring of European Sergeants and Police Lieutenants, British recruits to the Malayan Police were appointed as Cadet Assistant Superintendents after selection from public schools and the best Universities. The sudden expansion of the force and a surplus of officers demobilized after the war provided career opportunities for men from more varied backgrounds. In December 1950 Detective Sergeant Allan Brodie typed out his application to the advert in Police Orders. Brodie, a Scot, had joined the Metropolitan Police before the war and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Bomber Command. He was working in the Flying Squad when he abruptly resigned to go to Malaya.

Brodie realised that amongst European officers the force was deeply divided according to their background and social status. The main body occupying all senior posts were the old Malayan Police officers who had served before the war. Next in line were those who had come from India after independence –

Both these categories belonged to the same school of thought, where the most outstanding qualification was primarily the sort of tie one wore.’

The third category were 300 former Palestine Police officers recruited by Commissioner Nicol Gray the former Inspector-General of Police in Palestine. The final group were those from Britain. Amongst the Malayan officers there was bitterness between those who had stayed at their posts and were captured and those who had escaped the fall of Singapore. Feelings were so bad that many officers refused to speak to each other and resented the loss of seniority caused by the influx of outsiders. In the junior ranks there was suspicion over the loyalty of officers who had willingly cooperated with the Japanese and those forced to comply.

When Colonel Nicol Gray arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport as Commissioner of Police he was snubbed by older members of the force who sent a solitary police constable to meet him and his luggage. Despite overseeing the recruiting, organising and obtaining of equipment Gray was a controversial figure remembered for his ‘no armour’ policy. There was a serious shortage of armour and armour plated vehicles in Malaya but he insisted the police were not to travel in armoured vehicles even in well known ambush areas. He seemed to take an all or nothing approach insisting on mobility, rapid response and that officers debus and return fire from cover of their vehicles. These tactics had worked in Palestine when engaging targets at distance over rocky ground but proved deadly in Malaya where the jungle fringes reached the edge of the road and the enemy could melt away after the first shots. Ambushes were often laid on one side of the road but when they jumped out on the other side officers encountered sharpened bamboo stakes hidden in the undergrowth. Casualties mounted and many planters, miners and policemen took to stripping armour from Japanese tanks abandoned since the war.

Brodie was posted to Special Branch in Alor Setar the state capital of Kedah in Northern Malaya where he was interviewed by the Chief Police Officer Nevill Godwin –

‘a tall, powerfully built man with years of experience in Malaya’.

His work involved studying captured communist documents to identify party members and the location of jungle camps. The scraps of documents in Chinese were passed through translators before Brodie could read them and he soon became bored of office work. The main source of recreation for the European community in Alor Setar was the Kedah Club with its golf course, billiards room, tennis courts, dance floor and lounge bar. At an impromptu session in the club bar Nevill Godwin asked how he was getting on and Brodie asked for a transfer to jungle duties. He replied that he must be joking but the Chief Police Officer finally agreed after wagering a bottle of whisky he would ask for his old job back within a month. The next day Brodie drew his jungle green uniform, a haversack and a Mk. V jungle carbine from the equipment stores. He won the wager but later was seriously injured in an ambush on a notorious section of the Kulim road when his lightly armoured Austin A 40 was shot up. After Malaya gained independence in 1957 Brodie retired to Arbroath in Scotland where he ran a fishing tackle shop and worked as a gamekeeper.

GURNEYCAR (2)On 6th October 1951 Malaya’s High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney was also ambushed and killed by a CT group on a bend on the Fraser’s Hill Road about 40 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. In 1948 Gurney had been appointed from Palestine where he had been Chief Secretary during the last two years of the British mandate. The group led by Siu Mah a local CT commander were desperate to capture arms and had been in hiding for two days. The road wound around a hill covered in dense jungle and bamboo with their ambush positions well camouflaged. An open land rover with six Malay policemen was followed by a black Rolls Royce flying a Union Jack pennant. Inside were Gurney his wife and secretary. The terrorists opened fire with bren guns and rifles shredding the tyres and causing the Rolls to slew to a halt. Gurney got out to draw fire away from his wife and was immediately shot down.

The death of Sir Henry Gurney in broad daylight shocked Malayan society and was a turning point in the emergency. The new prime minister Winston Churchill sent the Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttleton to report back on what needed to be done. He determined that a High Commissioner should be appointed in control of both civil and military affairs. He also secretly secured the resignation of Nicol Gray and the Head of Special Branch recognising how deeply divided the police were and how little intelligence was available. His replacement was Colonel Arthur Young, Commissioner of the City of London Police whilst Churchill himself chose General Sir Gerald Templer as High Commissioner. Templer’s basic role was to prepare the country for independence. He immediately supported Young’s request for 120 armoured cars, 250 scout cars and 600 armoured personnel carriers together with up to date weapons and army officers to provide training.

TOCK TOCK BIRDS

Tim Hatton was another post war recruit to the Malayan Police who joined in 1948 and retired in 1967 as Acting Director of the Malaysian Special Branch. His autobiography ‘Tock Tock Birds – A Spider in the Web of International Terrorism’ also highlights how divided the police were in the early years and the constant threat of ambush. Born in 1925 he was commissioned into the 9th Gurkha rifles serving in Malaya, Indonesia, Thailand and India. He turned down a place at Oxford University for a position in the Malayan Civil Service as ADC to the Governor Sir Edward Gent. Gent was killed in an air crash and so Hatton joined the Malayan Police Service. On arrival he requested an operational role and was sent to Kuala Lumpur North as assistant officer in charge of the police district. Hatton’s immediate superior was a traditional Malayan police officer who had been imprisoned by the Japanese and was a stickler for procedure. On one occasion he complained to the Deputy Commissioner about Hatton’s proposal to dress the jungle squad in jungle green instead of khaki and to train them in the use of modern automatic weapons. He was overruled and Hatton also obtained help from an American tin miner Norman Cleaveland to fix armour plating on the driver’s cabs and engines of police trucks.

In 1950 he was appointed ADC to the Commissioner Nicol Gray entertaining officials, supervising domestic staff and looking after the Commissioner’s dachshunds seeing for himself the difficulties faced by Gray. The Commissioner had many loyal friends amongst the armed forces, journalists and middle ranking civil servants but also powerful enemies including long serving members of the Malayan Civil Service and some senior planters and tin miners.

Hatton’s next posting was to Kulim in Kedah where his senior officer was an ex-Indian Police officer of the old school. On his first day he was accosted by a group of angry Tamil rubber tappers demanding compensation because his boss had peppered their homes with lead shot while out hunting snipe. The hunter soon appeared, shotgun under arm, declaring shot some coolies eh? Tell them to buzz off !’ leaving Hatton to compensate them from his own pocket. His erratic behaviour continued; addressing Malay constables in Urdu, writing long rambling essays in police visiting books rather than signing them and being pre-occupied with court martial papers for a European officer wrongly accused of cowardice. Hatton realised that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown brought on by his wife’s death from cancer. At a meeting of the District Planters’ Association in the Kulim Club he was bluntly told that the Officer in Charge was mad and how badly the emergency was being handled in South Kedah.

Hatton had no choice but to appeal directly to the Chief Police Officer Nevill Godwin at his office in Alor Setar. He agreed to examine the court martial file, and Hatton’s proposals such as reducing ambush casualties by instructing officers to walk around dangerous sections of roads. Returning to Kulim Hatton’s boss informed him that Nevill Godwin had just phoned to say he would be leaving on promotion to an administrative post in Alor Setar.

NEVILL GODWIN

Charles Nevill Godwin was born in 1909 and educated at Lancing College a West Sussex public school from 1923 to 1927. He went up to Jesus College Cambridge the following year  where he won a boxing Blue and graduated in 1931. The same year he went to Malaya as a Cadet Assistant Superintendent of Police and was promoted Assistant Commissioner of Police in 1940.

In March 1942 he escaped from Singapore before its capture by the Japanese. His wife Nancy was evacuated to Adelaide and Nevill was seconded to Mauritius as Superintendent of Police. He was then drafted into the army as a Captain and sent to India where he worked on the planning for Operation Zipper to re-take Malaya. After the surrender he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Police British Military Administration in Singapore where his son Mark Nevill was born in 1945. The family then returned to Malaya where he became Chief Police Officer of Kedah and Perlis States and was awarded the King’s Police Medal in the King’s New Year’s Honours List on 1st of January 1952.

Kedah Peak is an isolated, thickly wooded mountain rising from the plain on peninsular Malaysia’s west coast to a height of 3,854 feet. On a clear day its outline can be seen from Penang Island and from its summit there are views of Kedah’s rice paddies and the Thai border. Although not an official hill resort like Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands it is a popular location to enjoy the cooler climate. On a small plateau below the summit was a government resthouse that could be reached by a 12km long winding road from the village of Gurun at the base of the mountain.

CN GODWIN (3)

CPO Nevill Godwin on left (Source: Manchester Regiment Archives)

On May 28th 1954 Nevill Godwin set off after lunch from the government resthouse where he had been staying with Mr. G. Dack head of Kedah Special Branch. The next day was a Saturday and he was to be best man at a wedding on Penang Island. At the 4.5 milestone on the way to Gurun the car was stopped by a fallen tree blocking the road and when he got out CT’s hidden in the jungle opened fire riddling his body with bullets. The ambush took place at a bend where the road ran between a steep fifty foot embankment and a precipice on the other side. An hour later on the same road a police jeep was ambushed killing the driver, a Public Works Department labourer and the son of a Special Constable. Five other passengers including a 12 years old boy escaped. The boy ran five miles to the resthouse where he told the caretaker and Mr. Dack called Gurun to turn out a police party. Nevill Godwin’s body was found late at night about 80 yards from the car, his gun was missing and ambush positions for over 20 terrorists were discovered. The next day six HMSNEWFOUNDLAND 2 300x184Hornets from RAF Butterworth bombed and strafed the jungle covered hillside for almost an hour. Soldiers of the Malay Regiment and police with RAF tracker dogs combed the area but made no contact with the enemy. On June 10th 1954 the Straits Times reported that the cruiser HMS Newfoundland, visiting Penang for the Queen’s birthday celebrations, fired 267 six-inch shells over two days at a suspected terrorist camp on the peak.

Templer was appointed British High Commissioner for Malaya in January 1952 in a call to arms after the death of the highest ranking British official in the country. He became known as the ‘Tiger of Malaya’ for his aggressive campaign against the communists and by 1953 the military situation had improved sufficiently that he informed Churchill of his planned departure the following year. On May 30th 1954 Templer left Malaya and one of his last official acts was to fly to Alor Setar for discussions with the State War Executive Committee about the ambush of Nevill Godwin, the highest ranking police officer killed in the Malayan Emergency. His death was likely on Templer’s mind when he made his famous parting comment – In fact, I’ll shoot the bastard who says this Emergency is over.’

                                 

    GODWIN                             GODWINGRAVE (2)

Sources:

The War of the Running Dogs: Malaya 1948-1960 (1971) – Noel Barber

Adventure in My Veins (1968) – Allan Brodie

Tock Tock Birds, A Spider in the Web of International Terrorism (2004) – Tim Hatton OBE

Spearhead in Malaya (1959) – J.W.G Moran

The Federation of Malaya and its Police 1786-1952 (1952) Charles Greenier & Sons Ltd. Kuala Lumpur

The Straits Times, 30th May 1954 ‘Kedah Police Chief Shot Dead’

About The Blog

About Blog In March 2020, after 28 years in Hong Kong, I moved to Penang as a base to travel in the region. The Covid 19 pandemic ended that plan and I spent much of the time re-reading books I had collected over the years. The only new book I bought was ...

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