Britain initiates first ever herbicidal war in Malaya

An RAF Police patrol questions two children outside a village.
© IWM – (CF 838).

14 January 1951

On 14 January 1951, military commanders and Colonial Office staff held a meeting in London to discuss a request from General Sir Gerald Templer, the High Commissioner in Malaya, who wished to drench extensive areas of jungle with chemical defoliants as part of a strategy to crush a communist insurgency by depriving rebels of cover. The generals and officials had little hesitation in approving the plan and decided to immediately buy up ICI’s entire stock of sodium trichloroacetate, 1,500 tons, at a cost of £450,000.1 They also decided to keep such operations as covert as possible for fear of the likely adverse public reaction. This became even more crucial when Templer was authorised to extend the use of defoliants to target food production in areas deemed sympathetic to the insurgents in what amounted to a starvation campaign. Instead of deploying RAF aircraft, Templer was instructed to employ commercial pilots to use civilian aircraft equipped with spray rigs.2

When questions were asked by the press as to whether the ‘Royal Air Force’ was now seeking to poison the ‘terrorists’, the Colonial Office deliberately misled the public, declaring sanctimoniously that ‘no poisonous chemicals have been sprayed from RAF planes on terrorist food crops, nor has any such action even been contemplated’ although it admitted that ‘experiments’ were being ‘carried out in connection with non-toxic forms of weed-killer.’3 The experiments it was referring to soon concluded that the chemical was ‘caustic, and either in the solid form or as a strong solution, may cause burns if it comes into contact with the skin’.4

Tens of thousands of people suffered from exposure to the defoliant which also had catastrophic consequences for the environment. Although, the British public remained unaware of the substance’s toxicity, opposition nevertheless mounted to the targeting of crops and the use of hunger as a weapon of war. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Thomas Driberg asked whether ‘the method now used to get two-thirds of the people on our side is the method of starving villagers, women and children ?’5 The icy response from Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, was that such methods were necessary ‘to bring this calamitous war to a conclusion.’6 Ten years later US officials resorted to similar arguments when deciding to deploy Agent Orange in Vietnam. Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained to President John F Kennedy that Britain’s use of herbicidal warfare in Malaya provided an instructive precedent, which proved that chemical warfare could defeat an insurgency.7


  1. Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty War and the End of Empire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 198.
  2. Ibid., pp 198-199.
  3. Ibid., p. 199.
  4. Ibid., p. 204.
  5. Thomas Driberg cited in ‘Jungle Defoliation,’ Hansard, 23 April 1952, accessed online at url
  6. Lennox-Boyd cited in ‘Jungle Defoliation,’ Hansard, 23 April 1952, accessed online at url
  7. Andrew Glass, ‘US Launches Spraying of Agent Orange,’ Politico, 1 January 2018, accessed online at url

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