1950-1959 | 2000-2009 | Malaysia | Renditions



A British Army patrol (not involved in any decapitation incident) led by a Malayan guide -  © IWM CT 42  (cropped).
A British Army patrol (not involved in any decapitation incident) led by a Malayan guide – © IWM CT 42 (cropped).

[ 28 April 1952 ]

On 28 April 1952, the mainstream media remained silent when the Daily Worker published a photo of a smiling British soldier holding up the severed head of a Malayan insurgent. Historian Susan Carruthers observes that ‘no other British newspaper replicated the photograph or even commented adversely on the practice of severing heads.’1 Initially, a government spokesman insisted that the image was fake. It wasn’t until over a week later on 7 May that Stanley Awbery, a Labour MP, asked Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary, ‘if a statement could be made about the severing of heads of bandits in Malaya.’ Lyttelton admitted that the British Army had been decapitating rebels, but he reassured MPs that officers were now instructing soldiers to use other more civilized forms of identification, such as photographs and fingerprints.2

Despite this reassurance the decapitations continued, and British forces even employed tribal head-hunters to help them with the gruesome task of severing heads from the corpses. The government’s embarrassment deepened further on 10 May when the Daily Worker published yet more graphic photos, strongly suggesting that head chopping was an established and routine method of confirming rebel fatalities. Even then, and despite public disquiet, the practice continued until British troops withdrew in 1960.3

Unfortunately, the war crimes committed by British forces in Malaya have been overlooked in many contemporary accounts. Britain’s National Army Museum is a perfect example. It devotes a section of its website to the ‘Malayan emergency’, but it airbrushes out of history some of the worst British war crimes, including the use of highly toxic defoliants to destroy crops, the official arrangement of opium importation, the imposition of ration cuts on entire communities, the burning of villages, forced deportations of Chinese squatters, extra-judicial executions, the horrific conditions in detention camps and the routine practice of decapitations. Its coverage misleadingly suggests that the British played a near angelic role, rehousing squatters in ‘purpose built new villages’ and providing ‘clean water, proper housing, education and medical care.’ It concludes with evident self-satisfaction that ‘the campaign was one of the few successful counter-insurgency operations undertaken by the Western powers. Still studied today, it provides many important lessons on how such campaigns should be conducted.’4 Given such a selective memory of history, it is not surprising that the Britain’s armed forces can continue to play a key role in supporting authoritarian regimes around the world, while the government and media try to persuade us to believe the opposite.


[ 28 April 2004 ]

On 28 April 2004, reports surfaced that the CIA had been transporting suspect Islamist terrorists through Britain to Poland and other countries so they could be tortured.  Despite overwhelming evidence that such flights had landed in Britain, prime minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw denied all knowledge of the secret renditions.5


  1. Susan Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds: British Governments, the Media and Colonial Counterinsurgency, Leicester University Press, London, 1995, p. 100 cited in John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015, p. 50.
  2. “Identification of Malaya Bandits: New Instructions,” The Yorkshire Post, 8 May 1952, p1 and Hansard 7 May 1952 accessed online at https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1952/may/07/malaya-decapitation
  3. Matt Florence, ‘How the Morning Star exposed Britain’s decapitation war crimes,’ The Morning Star, 5 March 2019 accessed online at url https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/how-morning-star-exposed-britains-decapitation-war-crimes
  4. Empire: Malayan Emergency – The National Army Museum website accessed on 14 May 2020 at url https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/malayan-emergency
  5. Tom Bower, Broken Vows: Tony Blair, The Tragedy of Power, Faber and Faber, London, 2016, pp. 409-410.

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