Uncovered at last: Britain’s ‘small wars’ in Palestine, Cyprus and Malaya
100 unbroken years of war
When British forces pull down the Union Jack for the last time in Afghanistan later this year, it will be a hugely symbolic moment.
The departure marks the end of 13 years of British military involvement in the region, and could also signal the end of a century or more of unbroken warfare by British forces.
Since the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, there hasn’t been a year in which the British military hasn’t been engaged in active service somewhere in the world. These numerous small wars have seen thousands of casualties, yet go largely forgotten by the British public. Malaya, Cyprus and Palestine are prime examples.
These new records cover the tensions between Jewish militant underground organizations and the British mandatory authorities in Palestine, which intensified following the publication of the MacDonald White Paper of 1939.
The paper proposed restrictions on Jewish immigration and independence for Palestine with an Arab majority after ten years, and lasted until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Around 4,000 British Police and 20,000 troops served in Palestine to combat the Jewish insurgency. 784 British servicemen and civilians lost their lives.
Horrendous acts of violence were committed by both sides. Two of the most shocking were the bombing of the King David Hotel, which killed 91 people, and the hanging of British Sergeants Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice. Both were committed by Zionist paramilitary group the Irgun.
This collection, also added to findmypast as part of 100in100, covers yet another ‘small war’ that saw Britain battling a determined insurgency.
On 1 April 1955 Greek Cypriot nationalist group the EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) waged a guerrilla campaign to remove the British from the Island in order to allow reunification with Greece.
British forces, which comprised limited manpower, encountered great difficulty in obtaining effective intelligence on EOKA as they had the support of the majority of Greek Cypriots.
17,000 British servicemen took part in the conflict and around 380 soldiers and personnel were killed in in a well-coordinated series of attacks on police, military, and other government installations in Nicosia, Famagusta, Larnaca, and Limassol.
This collection records British deaths that occurred during the guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
It was labelled an ‘emergency’ by the British government, since calling it a war would have meant valuable rubber plantations and tin mines wouldn’t be covered by insurance.
40,000 regular commonwealth troops served in Malaya during the conflict, alongside around 37,000 special constables. 519 British military personnel were killed.
At first the British relied on clumsy sweeps of the jungle by large formations. These proved dangerous and unproductive, and instead platoons or sections carried out patrols and laid ambushes based on intelligence.
Herbicides were used in warfare for the first time, as the British military experimented with Agent Orange to clear swathes of dense jungle favoured by the guerrillas.
Following a 1955 amnesty and a series of prolonged peace talks, on 31 July 1960 the Malayan government declared the state of emergency was over.
If you had a relative who was killed in any of these conflicts, these records can offer invaluable details about their military service, civilian life and the circumstances surrounding their untimely deaths.
After 100 long years of constant warfare, let’s hope that 2015 could finally be the year of peace for Britain.