Australians arrive in Malaya

In April 1950 the British Government asked whether some Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) units could be sent to assist in the Malayan Emergency. The Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies hesitated. Menzies was profoundly pro-British and anti-communist, and he replied that he was 'deeply conscious of the serious position in Malaya.' He nevertheless feared that the electorate would not approve of 'committing Australia to a militaristic policy.' He was also unsure whether the British would win.

Menzies therefore postponed any decision on the matter until after the visit of the British Commissioner-General for South-East Asia, Malcolm MacDonald. But the visit, which took place in early May 1950, made a decision more difficult. Despite urgings in the Australian press for intervention in Malaya, the visit sparked some anti-British demonstrations, while Cabinet was unconvinced by MacDonald himself.

Menzies nevertheless found a compromise that he announced on 19 May 1950: a RAAF unit would be sent to Malaya, but it was to be a transport squadron rather than a fighter or bomber unit. And so the advance party of No. 38 Squadron RAAF arrived in Singapore in the following month in a low-key beginning to what would become Australia's longest involvement in an overseas conflict.

The invasion of South Korea by the forces of communist North Korea on 25 June 1950 changed the outlook of the Australian Government and made stronger measures against the communist guerrillas in Malaya seem appropriate. Just two days after the Korean War began Cabinet decided that the Lincoln bombers of No.1 Squadron would also be sent to Malaya along with a small group of army advisors and intelligence officers known as the Bridgeford Mission.

Political and military developments in the mid 1950s led to increased Australian involvement in the Malayan Emergency. In late 1954 Australia signalled a greater commitment to the region by joining the newly formed South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), and by agreeing to the establishment of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve (BCFESR) in Malaya. At the time Australian army units were also returning home following the end of hostilities in Korea.

The BCFESR was made up of an infantry brigade, bomber and fighter squadrons, and naval vessels. The army component of the BCFESR was the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, which had served in Korea, and which re-formed at Penang in Malaya in 1955. Australian infantry battalions and artillery batteries served two-year tours of duty in Malaya from 1955 as part of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade. The RAAF bomber and fighter squadrons based at Butterworth from 1958, and the RAN ships involved in the Malayan Emergency, were also part of the BCFESR.

The BCFESR therefore provided the organisational structure for most of the Australian involvement in the Malayan Emergency, including that of 7,000 Australian soldiers. And although the BCFESR only existed in the later stages of the Malayan Emergency, the heaviest fighting involving Australians took place in that period. During the Malayan Emergency there were 15 Australian operational deaths, including 13 from the Australian Army.

Last updated: 12 January 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Australians arrive in Malaya, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 September 2021,
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