A Conversation with Neal Ascherson, former Royal Marine

It’s a year since I attended the Batang Kali trial in London and I am sitting in a kitchen in north London on a dull and rainy winter’s day talking to Neal Ascherson about Malaya. I had always admired Neal as an historian and journalist but until earlier this year had no idea that he did his national service with 42 Commando Royal Marines in Malaya. I discovered this fact when I read his obituary of the great historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Guardian. Neal had finished doing national service in 1953 and headed for Cambridge to study history. Here’s an extract from the obit:
Eric inspected me. A specimen, indeed. “What’s that medal affair you’re wearing?” “It’s my national service campaign medal. For active service in the Malayan emergency.” Eric pulled back and took another look at me. Then he said, very sharply but without violence: “Malaya? You should be ashamed to be wearing that.” I don’t think I said anything at all. I remember noticing the students around us, round-eyed with shock. Then I left the room, stumbling back down the dusky stairs, and out into the huge court where it was beginning to rain. After a time I felt for the miniature medal, unpinned it and slipped it into the pocket of my jacket. Something had been resolved. I never wore it again.’
When I telephoned Neal a few weeks later, he told me that he had been getting hate mail for eulogising Hobsbawm who was so often – and ignorantly – excoriated as an unrepentant Stalinist. Those who have actually read the books know this is nonsense. What intrigued me even more was Neal’s experience fighting in Malaya in the early 1950s. I was nearing the end of a long period of research and writing on the ‘Malayan Emergency’ and I had read a good number of bloodthirsty accounts of chasing CTs or ‘communists terrorists’ as the guerrillas were called through the jungles of the Peninsula. Neal told me that since I had first got in touch, he had gone back to look at the diaries he had kept after he was called up for national service. The tone of the entries he said was ‘pretty gung-ho’ to begin with. His experience over the following two years changed his mind. He began to see that the war was being fought on behalf of British business against a mainly Chinese working class. When we met a few weeks later in London, he filled in some of the details of his time with 42 Commando. By the time, his troop ship approached Singapore, the Emergency had been going on for nearly three years. It had begun when communist guerrillas executed a number of British planters in the Kinta Valley in the Malay state of Perak. The war was fought between British and Malay police and soldiers against communist insurgents who were mainly Chinese. As the big vessel docked, Neal and his fellow Royal Marines heard that the British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney had been assassinated. ‘It all looked pretty serious,’ he remarks. From Singapore 42 Commando boarded the night train for Ipoh, the urban centre of Malaya’s ‘Klondike’ – the Kinta Valley. This was a muggy realm of rubber plantations and tin mines that was making millions of dollars for the fragile, debt encumbered British economy.
The enemy was the MNLA the Malayan National Liberation Army, also known as the MRLA the Malayan Races Liberation Army. Many of the MNLA guerrillas had fought the Japanese during the war with British backing. A few years later they had taken on the might of an older empire that had been humiliated in February, 1942 when the Japanese Imperial Army had raced down the long green spine of the Malayan Peninsula and seized one of the jewels of empire the great fortress port of Singapore. For 42 Commando, fighting the MNLA was a frustrating kind of war. It meant long ‘sweeps’ through near impenetrable jungle and then lying in wait to ambush – or be ambushed by – an elusive enemy who might be standing a few feet away undetected among the dense and gloomy tendrils of the rain forest. Neal remembers larger scale onslaughts like ‘Operation Spring’. The prelude to a big push like that one was a raid by RAF bombers that roared over the thick carpet of jungle. Neal rarely encountered the enemy. This was a war of shadows and skirmishes. On one occasion, he recalls: ‘One day, a young marine had left his patrol to wash in a forest stream. He suddenly found himself facing a group of Chinese guerrillas led by a slim woman with a pistol. The woman looked at the naked boy for a moment, and then lowered her gun. She said: ‘My name is Lee Meng. Go and tell your comrades that we do not murder helpless men.’ Then she and her companions vanished back into the trees.’ The story he admits is probably apocryphal. Lee Meng became one of the most celebrated, or infamous Malayan communist when she was captured and sentenced to death. She was striking looking young woman and the desperate efforts of the British colonial government to get her executed caught the attention of the world. The story implied that the Malayan communists were not demons. One day, Neal and his commando section were waiting in ambush when a small MNLA unit suddenly walked out of the trees. Both sides hesitated for a few seconds, then opened fire. A number of guerrillas were killed. One young man who had not been hit in the first fusillade ran back to help a wounded comrade. As he struggled to drag a wounded comrade to shelter, he was shot dead. Ascherson recalls that he could not help thinking of the verse from St. John: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends…’
And yet these young communist guerrillas were supposed to be heartless killers and torturers.
42 Commando was stationed at Jalapang a small town that has now been absorbed by the northern suburbs of that city of millionaires Ipoh. Some six months after arriving in Malaya, Neal remembers, he was no longer the gung-ho young commando who had come to fight communist bandits for King and Country. He had what he recalls as an ‘urgent feeling’ that the Emergency was ‘mistaken’ and ‘unjust’. It was he sensed being fought for British businesses against a Chinese working class. The war was discriminatory. He had heard barrack room gossip too of a massacre of Chinese rubber tappers that had been perpetrated a few years before by a platoon of Scots Guards at a village called Batang Kali about fifty miles north of Kuala Lumpur in the state of Selangor to ramp up their ‘kill rate’.
When he was sent south to the same state after six months in the Kinta Valley, Neal could no longer keep silent. He wrote a letter to the renowned Malayan politician Nancy Yap decrying the war. She never replied. A letter like this from a British soldier could have been a trap. She risked banishment or worse. Neal wrote instead to a family friend, the Tory MP Cedric Drewe who may have shown the long passionate ‘J’accuse’ to Anthony Eden…
The war did not end. The British, of course, had too much invested in Malaya.
When Neal returned to the UK, his time as a Royal Marine ended, he continued to take an interest in what was happening in Malaya. He offered his services to the lawyers defending Lee Meng – whose story is told here.

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