Updated: Oct 8, 2022
With a battle cry, "Ayo Gorkhali" - meaning "the Gurkhas are here" - and the motto: "It's better to die than to be a coward," the kukri (a long-curved knife) wielding warriors earned a fearsome reputation. Legend has it that once a Gurkha draws the kukri, he must draw blood.
The Gurkhas fought the Communists relentlessly – in thick jungle, in rain, in heat, in hunger, in bushes, in swamps, by day and by night – for 12 years. The guerrillas were virtually wiped out from the Federation of Malaya.
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the so-called Malayan Emergency. For several decades, events have been held each June to commemorate the sacrifices made during this guerrilla war, especially at Ipoh in Perak state.
The memory of Gurkha regiments’ involvement has been kept alive. After India’s independence in 1947, the Indian Army Gurkha Brigade was divided into two.
Four regiments, the 2nd, 6th, 7th & 10th Gurkha Rifles, followed the British side and moved to the Malaya Federation, which was Malaysia and Singapore. Six other regiments, the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th & 9th Gurkha Rifles, in addition to the newly formed 11th Gurkha Rifles, remained with the Indian Army.
The decision was said to have been made in such haste that there were no ready-made bases for the newly formed Gurkha Brigade within the Federation and troops, along with their families, had to be stationed in temporary tented camps.
Due to uncertainty over what lay ahead, many Gurkhas had chosen to remain with the Indian force and most of the Regiments in the Malayan Federation were still under strength.
The Korean War had escalated and the British had gathered a substantial number of forces in Hong Kong as a deterrent. Two Gurkha battalions – the second battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles and the second battalion of and 10th – were deployed alongside other British forces in Hong Kong.
The Malayan Emergency started almost at the same time. It was a guerrilla war fought between the Commonwealth Armed Forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). It would last through the Federation’s independence from Britain in 1957, until 1960.
The war was deliberately dubbed “The Malayan Emergency” for insurance purposes: Lloyd’s of London would not have covered the losses of rubber plantations and tin-mining industries if the conflict had been described as a “war.”
Security forces and the government were fighting to prevent Communist guerrillas – subsequently referred to as Communist Terrorists – from overrunning the whole country.
The Gurkha infantry battalions were called into action right away, even before they had settled in their new environment, and are said to have been so stretched that new recruits were often sent out to guard vital points without even having fired weaponry on a range before.
Chin Peng, the Communist leader, happened to have received training in jungle warfare from the British during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and in turn trained 5,000 fighters.
They were masters of jungle warfare and if the Gurkhas had not been on the ground during 1948-49, Chin Peng and his MNLA would in all likelihood have won the day for Communism in Malaysia.
Despite all the odds, the Gurkhas – loyal, brave and professional but also adaptable and tenacious – read the situation fast and molded themselves well to the situation. Invaluable lessons learned in the Burmese jungle during World War II came in handy; slowly but firmly, they gained the upper hand over their elusive enemy and operational successes followed.
The troops were always on the move, clearing new grounds and chasing the enemy out. Ironically, the initial shortcoming of not having a permanent base worked in their favor as mobilizing the troops from one place to another was relatively easy.
In addition to British, Gurkha and Malayan units and personnel, a range of Commonwealth forces – including ANZAC troops, Fijians and Northern and Southern Rhodesians – were involved. Total losses from all sides, including civilians, numbered well over 10,000, with many more wounded.
Not to be forgotten are the roles played by three nascent units: the Gurkha Engineers, the Gurkha Signals and the Gurkha Transport Regiment. These all played a significant role in supporting the infantry battalions during the whole operation.
A total of 204 Gurkhas were either killed, died later from wounds or went missing, presumed dead, during the Malayan Emergency. Graves honoring the fallen are located in Seremban, Tai Ping and Ipoh and memorials are held every year. The author of this article had the privilege of attending one event at Ipoh in June 2017 and was greatly moved.
After the Malayan Emergency ended in 1960, next came the Brunei Revolt of 1962 and the Borneo Confrontation of 1962-66. Again, the Gurkha regiments would play a crucial role in these conflicts before ultimately moving to Hong Kong in 1971.