The first two post war British High Commissioners of the Federation of Malaya had fatal bad luck. Sir Edward Gent was flying back to London – to be sacked – when his aircraft collided with a Swedish passenger plane near RAF Northolt. His successor Sir Henry Gurney was assassinated approaching Fraser’s Hill in Malaya. This is a draft of my account of this incident – comments, additions etc very welcome.
In early October, 1951 High Commissioner Gurney reflected on the ‘Chinese problem’. He lamented that the new settlements and trade union organisations were under communist attack: the rural Chinese, the peasants, who are the real targets must first be protected… If [the communists] are allowed to [continue penetrating] unopposed by any Chinese initiate whatever, the whole of the Chinese rural population will soon come under communist domination. These people are looking for leaders to help them resist…’ Gurney then listed all the many ways that the Chinese obstructed government efforts. ‘They can spend $4 million on celebrations in Singapore but can spare nothing for the MCA anti-communist efforts.’ Many Chinese, he complained, lived in luxury, and expended a great deal of energy criticising the police and security forces. They did nothing to help. Gurney’s letter was saturated in bitterness. Two days after penning this exasperated invective Gurney bolted from Kuala Lumpur with his wife to spend the weekend at Fraser’s Hill, Malaya’s elite hill resort sixty five miles to the north. The High Commissioner’s black painted Rolls Royce car glided haughtily out of King’s House tailed by an escort commander in a police radio van and a private car driven by the Attorney General. A scout car brought up the rear. An hour or so after departure, the radio car suffered a series of mechanical mishaps – and the escort commander was forced to transfer to the scout car. He now had to drive at break neck speed to catch up with the Rolls. Between Kuala Lumpur and the Gap at the threshold of Fraser’s Hill, the journey was tense. The big wallowing Rolls made a wonderful target and it was not unknown for MNLA units to launch surprise attacks even on the main highways. The Gurneys were relieved as the Rolls turned onto the narrow, one way road that led up through thick jungle to the highland retreat. By then, the escort had been left far behind – and only a Land rover crammed with five unarmed Malay policemen protected the most powerful individual in the Federation of Malaya. It was about one o’clock.
Gap Road was the perfect ambush site. There was a steep descent on one side and dense jungle and bamboo thickets on the other. The High Commissioner’s Rolls slowed frequently as it negotiated the long series of hair pin bends. Security was astonishingly lax – no doubt because the British regarded Fraser’s Hill and its approach road as a kind of home from home. It was unimaginable that the MNLA could penetrate this green and pleasant retreat. And yet that that day they had done just that. For two days, MNLA platoon leader Siew Ma, which means ‘Little Horse’, had been perched above the Gap Road with a platoon thirty six guerrillas. They were not waiting for the Gurneys – but hoped to ambush an army convoy and seize weapons and ammunition. Siew Ma was a short, fit man who had been trained by the British at the 101 STS in Singapore. He had set up a so called ‘killing box’ on the Gap Road just before the 57th Milestone (the distance from Kuala Lumpur) where a tight bend forced traffic to slow to a crawl. The platoon had dug into three firing positions, well armed with Bren guns and rifles. Behind them waited ‘charging squads’ whose task would be to plunder the convoy. For nearly two days, there was frustratingly little traffic. Food was running out: there was no local Min Yuen contact. There was no point risking lives for the odd Land Rover or holiday party. By midday on the Saturday, Siew Ma was running out of patience. He decided to wait for another two hours.
An hour later, at 1.15 p.m. Siew Ma was suddenly alert. He could hear the grinding clunk and whine of strained gears as a big vehicle slowed to negotiate the tight bend at the 57th Mile. Soon a Land Rover came in sight – packed with armed police. As it slowly entered the killing box, a gleaming black limousine lumbered into view. For a few moments, Siew Mah struggled to make up his mind. Then he gave the order to fire. A hail of bullets tore into the open back of the Land Rover wounding all but one of the Malay policemen and hitting the driver of the Rolls behind. The policemen who could still move hurled themselves the bamboo thicket by the road and began returning fire with their carbines. The Rolls had lurched to left and come to a halt at the edge of the road. It was riddled with bullet holes. Inside, Lady Gurney and the High Commissioner’s private secretary H.D. Staples crouched on the floor of the car, terrified. The volley of firing was reaching a crescendo. Then something unexpected happened. As Siew Mah watched, a tall gentleman in a light tropical suit pushed open the right hand door of the Rolls and stepped into the road. He began walking into the hail of bullets. None of the MNLA shooters had any idea who this man was. Bullets shattered his face and chest. Then the tall man fell into the deep drainage ditch at the side of the road. The High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney was dead. The Chief Secretary reported that:
‘…Lady Gurney and the Private Secretary remained in the car until the firing eased when they crawled out and found Gurney’s body in the ditch on the right side of the road. Officer in charge of the Scout car returned about twenty minutes later on foot with reinforcements from the Gap Police station, bandits having felled a tree across the road above the site of the ambush. Armoured vehicles from Kuala Kubu arrived on the scene about 2.15pm and engage in follow up operations. The Attorney General Hogan and wife were following the High Commissioner’s party in their own car and were about half a mile behind at the time of the ambush. They stopped when they heard firing in front. After a few minutes the telecommunication van (which had been passed by the High Commissioner’s party ) appeared from the opposite direction and it was possible to tap the overhead telephone wires and communicate with Kuala Kubu. Ambush position was some half mile long and clearly carefully prepared…’
We know from Chin Peng’s ‘My Side of History’ that Siew Ma withdrew from the scene ‘very discouraged’. He had failed to identify the tall man who had walked away from the Rolls. From the British point of view, it was natural to conclude that the MNLA had deliberately targeted the High Commissioner. Special Branch suspected that a Chinese cook at the High Commissioner’s villa had revealed details of the visit when he went to buy supplies in Raub; or that there was a spy at the local telephone exchange. The evidence was flimsy. Siew Ma had been lucky; the British had been careless.