This is Part II of a series. You can read Part I here and Part III here.
The year 1952 was good for the British effort in Malaya.
It opened with Operation Helsby in February. A group of Communist Terrorists (CTs) was afflicting the Bellum Valley, near Thailand. British High Command decided on a combined airborne and ground assault to cleanse the threat.
The ground force of Royal Marines, Gurkhas, and Malay police walked to the target. A and C Squadrons of SAS paved their way and secured their flanks.
A stick of 60 SAS troopers from B Squadron parachuted in an opening near the enemy camp and pitched a blocking position. It wasn’t a smooth jump: Of the 60 men, only four landed on the ground intact, the rest were snared on top of the massive 100ft trees crowding the area. Helped by their comrades, they managed to descend in time for the attack.
Operation Helsby was a mixed success.
True, the valley was cleansed, but few CTs were killed or captured, the rest vanishing in the virgin jungle.
And yet lessons had been learned. The near-catastrophic parachute drop revealed a need for a new approach to airborne operations. The SAS set to work.
Hitherto, the Far East Command didn’t even offer formal airborne training.
What did the SAS do? Commandeer a couple Australian C-47 Dakotas and a bunch of Royal Engineers, and voila the Far East Parachute School in Singapore was established.
As for the tree-tangling issue, onwards paratroopers would carry 160ft ropes to abseil from the tree-tops if they were caught. But jungle parachuting remained a dangerous affair since LZs were often peppered with sharp bamboo sticks, another of nature’s gifts to the insurgents. Thus, whenever possible, walking to the target was favored. It wouldn’t be until the following year and the introduction of the helicopter that patrols inserted smoothly.
Complimenting their special reconnaissance and direct action missions, the SAS began performing their hearts-and-minds magic, a key cog to the British new strategy to defeat the insurgency.
HQ split the protected villages into several four-man teams. For three months at a time, the troopers lived, ate, and slept with the aborigines.
It wasn’t easy.
They had to ingratiate tribesmen (some of them cannibals!) who hadn’t even seen a white face before.
But they had penicillin and patience on their side.
Modern medicine cured ailments that had been plaguing the locals for centuries, winning their trust and fidelity in the process. Experts in medical skills such as midwifery and dental surgery began to festoon the Regiment’s ranks. If a case was beyond an SAS medic’s resources or intellect, choppers ferried the patient to the nearest hospital.
The tribes reciprocated by sharing with the men jungle wisdom laboriously harvested throughout the centuries.
“Some trackers were brilliant,” ‘Lofty’ Large, a legend within the regiment who finished his career as a Squadron Sgt. Major, recalled. “And they knew what they were talking about. My tracking was rubbish compared to theirs.”
Once a protected village was baptized as secure and free of Communist collaborators and influence, the SAS would pass its care to a conventional unit or the Malays and move to the next.
The year 1953 was game-changing.
To begin with, the Rhodesians of C Squadron were going home.
Their tour of duty in the harsh jungle hammered in a reputation of sturdy, independent operators who accomplished almost anything nature or the insurgents threw at them. To honor their service, C Squadron was deactivated forever (but it survives on the Regiment’s Order of Battle to this day).
The second event that made 1953 a game-changing year was the helicopter’s arrival.
As the U.S. military would discover a decade later in Vietnam, choppers would revolutionize warfare. Patrols could now penetrate deeper into the jungle, win over more tribes, thus suffocating the CTs’ power base, but remain stealthy.
Flown by the pilots of 848 Naval Air Squadron, a fleet of ten Sikorsky S-51s became the SAS’ workhorse and favorite method of insertion and resupply.
The thick vegetation and high grass, however, meant that pilots often had to hover whilst troopers jumped to their insertion point.
Meanwhile, D Squadron, formed on a core of veterans from the other Squadrons, plugged the void left by the Rhodesians. The legendary Johnny Cooper, an SAS original who’d go on to fight in Oman and Yemen, became their CO.
He certainly was a hands-on leader. He began by leading a striking 122-day patrol deep within the virgin jungle to find an area suitable for a new base, which eventually became Fort Brooke.
Soon, fresh bases with landing zones began to sprout all over the jungle.
The year 1954 was a routine.
The insurgency was waning, and the SAS focused on their routine of hearts-and-minds ops, whilst still combing the jungle for CTs camps and caches.
A year later, the NZSAS arrived from New Zealand (the Kiwi’s contribution is detailed in a separate article).
From 1955 onwards the CTs were spent. Monthly civilian deaths fell to less than ten. And the insurgency’s leadership either fled abroad or deserted to the government.
The Regiment had by now begun to mold into its modern shape. It would be 600 men in five SQs, each divided in four troops of 16 men, plus an HQ and support attachments.
An operational tempo had also emerged: two months in the jungle, two weeks on leave, and two weeks retraining.
To keep the Regiment pertinent after Malaya, SAS leadership shipped Squadrons to exotic destinations to broaden their capabilities (Aden, for example, was favored for desert training).
On August 31, 1957, Britain gave Malaya independence. The conditions agreed were hailed by both the Malays and Chinese factions.
Success at last.
The British had achieved the improbable: They’d won an insurgency.
First by enslaving the military strategy to the political aim. As if right out of Clausewitz’s masterpiece On War, military commanders planned their campaigns with policy in mind.
Second by protecting rather than destroying native communities. By flocking the population to the protected villages, they managed to discover and cleanse Communist influence and simultaneously reveal to the brain-washed locals the government’s effectiveness.
And finally, by offering to the population, especially the ethnic Chinese, a stake in the country’s future through economic integration — pit money against ideology, and that shiny coin will always win.
As for the SAS, they’d been a major part of this uncommon victory. Their niche as a scalpel rather than a brick won over the locals and strangled the CTs of supplies and shelter even in the deepest corners of the jungle. And tactics learned in Malaya are still taught to today’s troopers.
The Malayan Emergency formally ended in 1960.
But there would be no respite for the SAS. They had answered the call. And from now on it would be buzzing.
This article was originally published in April 2020.