A painting by Australian aviation artist Ray Honisett depicting No. 1 Squadron Lincolns on a low-level bombing run over the Malayan jungle in 1957. By that stage in the conflict the Commonwealth air campaign consisted largely of attacking suspected guerrilla positions in the remote northern areas of Malaya. [AWM ART27684]
Arriving in Malaya in July 1950, just one month after the Dakotas of No. 38 Squadron, the six Lincoln aircraft of No. 1 Squadron RAAF were the only heavy bombers in the area until 1953 when they were joined by some RAF Lincolns. The Australian Lincolns were therefore the mainstay of the Commonwealth bombing campaign, especially in the early years of the conflict when the outcome was still in doubt.
From 1950 to 1958 No. 1 Squadron flew 4,000 missions in Malaya. The squadron flew both pinpoint-bombing and area-bombing missions as well as night harassment raids – flying among many targets but only dropping bombs occasionally – in the manner of the RAF “siren raids” of the Second World War.
Operation Termite in July 1954 was a high point of the squadron’s service in Malaya. Five Australian Lincolns and six Lincolns from No. 148 Squadron RAF took part in this operation against guerrilla camps in Northern Malaya. The Lincolns carried out a series of bombing runs and ground attacks in conjunction with paratroop drops.
The long range and heavy payload of the Lincoln made it an effective bomber, while its relatively slow speed proved advantageous in Malaya when trying to locate jungle targets.
Although the fighting was largely over when they arrived in 1958, the Canberra bombers of No. 2 Squadron flew some missions from Butterworth including formation-bombing runs. The Sabre jet fighters of No. 3 Squadron and No. 77 Squadron also flew strafing missions from Butterworth against Communist-guerrilla targets.
Elsewhere, however, the British made a major attempt to maintain their imperial position. The surrender of Japan was followed by the reimposition of control in occupied areas, including Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, and, from 1948, a serious effort was made to resist a Communist insurrection in the economically crucial colony of Malaya. In what was termed the Malayan Emergency, the British initially failed to devise an effective strategy, but this changed with the development of successful, and intertwined, military and political plans. ‘Hearts and minds’ policies restricted the appeal of the Malayan Communist Party, which was largely based in the minority Chinese population, although these policies also relied on the ability to coerce. Local economic growth, which benefited greatly from the Korean War, also helped. British effectiveness owed much to the use of helicopters and transport aircraft; to improvements in their intelligence system; and to the use of counter-insurgency forces skilled in jungle craft and understanding of the local situation. Rather than requiring protection, a problem with force-deployment in many counter-insurgency struggles, such forces could take the war to the guerrillas. This was complemented by steps to control the population that included the careful supervision of food supplies and the resettlement of much of the rural population, a crucial move. British assistance to the Greek army in the Greek civil war had played a role in the evolution of British experience with counterinsurgency operations.
Partly due to Malaya’s geographical isolation, and certainly to the absence of a neighbouring Communist state, the Communists lacked adequate Chinese or Soviet support; they also failed to create a parallel system of government, while the British did not allow the Emergency to deter them from their political course: moves towards self-government (1955) and independence (1957), which the British saw as the best way to defeat the Communists. On the local level, there was a parallel move toward normality, with pacified areas benefiting from an easing of the emergency regulations.
Having largely beaten the insurgents by 1954, the British maintained the pressure over the following years, in particular by the effective use of the now well-developed intelligence apparatus, further weakening the Communists, and were rewarded with mass surrenders in December 1957. In the 1960s, British success in Malaya was to be contrasted with American failure in Vietnam. The contrast frequently focused on greater British commitment to, and skill in, ‘hearts and minds’ policies, and on the deficiencies of the American stress on firepower. While this was correct, the situation facing the Americans in Vietnam, in terms both of the political situation there and of the international context, was more difficult.