Memories of a Kiwi jungle war veteran who bravely fought Communists in Malaya

Charles Chan
·13-min read
Lt. Peter Julius and his men setting out on patrol, from Fort Telanok, Perak in July, 1957 (left) and Julius in present times sporting the Royal Malaysia Police songkok (right). — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius/Charles Chan
Lt. Peter Julius and his men setting out on patrol, from Fort Telanok, Perak in July, 1957 (left) and Julius in present times sporting the Royal Malaysia Police songkok (right). — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius/Charles Chan

AUCKLAND, July 7 — I first met pensioner Peter Julius a year ago when my wife and I relocated to a new home in west Auckland.

Limping along with the help of a walking stick, he welcomed us in his capacity as a member of the Body Corp Management Committee.

We exchanged pleasantries and when he heard my accent, he said: “You are from Malaysia. Selamat Datang!”

Lt. Peter Julius poses with two Orang Asli females, whom he named as Wah Sakai (left) and Mrs. Kun.  — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius
Lt. Peter Julius poses with two Orang Asli females, whom he named as Wah Sakai (left) and Mrs. Kun. — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius

Intrigued by this affable, Bahasa speaking Pakeha (Kiwi equivalent to Mat Salleh), I inquired if he had picked up Bahasa while working as a rubber planter in Malaysia a long time ago.

Wrong. He disclosed he had served in pre-Merdeka Malaya as an officer in the Malayan Police Field Force at the height of the Emergency (1948-60).

This man, my neighbour two doors away, has a story to tell. Peter Julius, 85, may probably be the last man standing among the expat PFF officers of that era.

We had several conversations about his time in Malaya and with his blessing, I have written this article for the Malay Mail. So, here it is:

The flashbacks started six months ago for pensioner Julius.

They take him back to a turbulent time in the history of Malaya when he served from 1955 to 1959 as an expat lieutenant in the Malayan Police Field Force, then commonly known as the Jungle Squad.

In these flashbacks, old memories resurface—of comrades in arms long gone, of himself leading his men on jungle patrols and laying ambushes against Communist insurgents.

In one particular incident, Julius recalls an ambush in a jungle location in Tangkak, Johor.

He had received information that a Communist patrol would be coming down from Gunong Ladang (Mt. Ophir) to uplift food supply.

It was pitch dark.

From their concealed positions, they couldn’t see anyone four or five feet away.

His men were tense and jumpy, a feeling he shared but kept to himself.

“Sure I was afraid. That I might make a mistake in command and put my men at risk,” he said.

When he finally heard the enemy approaching and saw shadowy figures, he opened fire with his automatic shotgun, a weapon loaded with five cartridges, each one containing nine rounds.

His men joined in and in a matter of seconds, the action was over.

Two communists were killed and one escaped wounded.

Talking about his Malayan experiences more than 60 years ago, Julius said he had his first “kill” at age 21 but he didn’t give it much thought.

“In our jungle war, the Marquess of Queensberry Rules didn’t apply. It was kill or be killed, we didn’t take prisoners.”

“We set ambushes. The thing I hated most in an ambush was the waiting and waiting. Keeping still in the dark. The tension built up and it would not surprise me if some of the men in my squad and myself would crap in our pants.”

The Communists were also setting up their own ambushes and sometimes, units from other Commonwealth forces walked into ambushes, resulting in casualties.

“Sometimes skirmishes flared when we crossed paths with the Communist guerillas in the jungle.

“I was lucky but a number of expat officers died in ambushes,” he said.

“The Communist guerillas were tough adversaries. They gave the Japanese Army a hard time as members of he Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA)”.

How it all started

Where did it all begin for Peter Julius to end up fighting Communist guerillas in Malaya, at the tender age of 20, later leading men much older than him in hairy situations?

Born in Wellington in August 1935, the sixth of seven children, young Peter Julius graduated from a technical college in Wellington in 1950 and held a number of jobs including as a farm contractor and truck driver delivering freight.

After completing his mandatory NZ military training, he wanted to join the SAS but was rejected because he had dentures.

His disappointment didn’t last long as representatives of the British colonial police force in Malaya then arrived in New Zealand to recruit European officers to serve in Britain’s campaign to crush an insurgency by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

“The NZ Army recommended me. I sat and passed an examination in 1955 and was offered a position as a Lieutenant in the Malayan Police Field Force.

According to official statistics, about 4,000 New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen served in Malaya/Malaysia between 1948 and 1966, of whom 15 lost their lives, three as a result of enemy action.

Peter Julius wore a different uniform - that of a lieutenant on contract with the PFF - but there’s no denying he also played a part in the overall Commonwealth campaign to defeat the MCP paving the way for Malaya to become an independent nation free from the yoke of Communism.

Lt. Peter Julius and his men setting out on patrol, from Fort Telanok, Perak in July, 1957. — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius
Lt. Peter Julius and his men setting out on patrol, from Fort Telanok, Perak in July, 1957. — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius

Looking back, with the benefit of new information and wisdom that comes with age, Julius admitted that, apart from opposing Communism, he knew very little about the political aspect of the Emergency.

“Signing up for service in Malaya was an ego thing. I was a naive young man but I wanted to show I too could be like my uncles and cousins who fought in World War Two.”

it took five days for six-foot tall, 79 kilogramme Julius to arrive in Kuala Lumpur—starting with a DC3 flight from Wellington to Auckland, then across the Tasman to Sydney in a flying boat, onwards to Darwin on BOAC, stopping in Jakarta and Singapore before another DC3 flight took him to KL where he reported to the Police Depot.

Along with other expat personnel, he went into training for a month. The weapons they used in training included the antiquated Lee Enfield rifle, the Bren gun which he thought was a great weapon and the Sten gun which was “horrible”.

As he recalled, it was “quite poor training” led by British officers from WW2 who typically looked down on rough, tough “colonials” like Julius and had very little understanding of jungle warfare.

While he was better prepared than others to fit into the jungle environment in Malaya thanks to his NZ army training, the forests in NZ were nothing like the Malayan jungle with its nearly impenetrable bamboo thickets.

“I served from 1955 to 1959 as an Area Security Unit (ASU) commander in Johor and as a police platoon commander with the 2nd Field Force operating on Malayan-Thai border.”

In the last 16 months of his service, he was the youngest and only Kiwi selected to command deep jungle forts, firstly Fort Sinderud in Pahang and then Fort Chabai in Kelantan, the largest one in the country.

As ASU Commander in Bukit Gambir, Johor, he was tasked with maintaining order among the civilian population around five rubber estates and two big villages.

This required them to body search rubber tappers to ensure they were not carrying weapons, ammo or food supplies for the Communist insurgents.

Acting on information, they would enter homes in the villages and conduct searches.

Villagers who had rice caches that exceeded the permissible limit were questioned and if necessary, arrested as Communist sympathisers.

Choking off the supply of food and other basic necessities, a strategy forcefully implemented by Gen. Sir Gerald Templar, played a crucial role in defeating the Communists.

Leading his men on jungle patrols gave the young lieutenant many opportunities to come into contact with aboriginal communities in various parts of the country.

In those days, the term Orang Asli had not yet been adopted for the indigenous people of colonial Malaya.

The PFF occasionally relied on Dayak trackers from the Sarawak Rangers but on some patrols, Julius used the services of Orang Asli trackers.

Lt. Peter Julius with two of his men, Ahmad (left) and Wahab (centre) at the swamp in Kebun Bahru, Pagoh, Johor in May 1956. — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius
Lt. Peter Julius with two of his men, Ahmad (left) and Wahab (centre) at the swamp in Kebun Bahru, Pagoh, Johor in May 1956. — Picture courtesy of Peter Julius

Julius said he could not rely on the Orang Asli for information on the movements of Communist insurgents.

“They only want to tell you what they want you to hear.”

This was understandable, he said, as the Orang Asli did not want to incur the wrath of the Communists operating in or near their areas.

On their part, he said, the Communists left the Orang Asli alone and treated them with compassion.

There were times when it was necessary for Julius and his men to camp overnight in the jungle near or among the Orang Asli.

This gave him opportunities to learn much about them as they did about him.

“They were very curious, trusting and generous, sharing everything they had except their blowpipes and axes.

“They shared their food which included ubi kayu (tapioca), jungle fruits, roast tikus (jungle rats),  wild boar and monkey.”

The Orang Asli practised shifting cultivation, he said, and shared everything among themselves living under a system that could be described as “the purest form of Communism”.

He chuckled at the memory of being offered the cooked arm of a little monkey which he forced himself to eat as a courtesy.

“I remember looking at the tiny fingernails. I didn’t like it,” he said.

Cautious all the time

Looking out for danger wherever he went was part of his daily routine.

Julius said he received an alert from the Special Branch that he might be on the Communists’ hit list for his role as ASU commander.

Julius said it was a tactic of the Communists to send killer squads comprising two or three men after their targets and let them do their job in whatever way they chose.

To stay alive, he had to be very cautious, sleeping in different places in the camp, always with his shotgun nearby.

When he was off-duty and needed to go to a nearby town, he carried a Browning pistol tucked at the back of his pants.

He never ventured out alone.

“I was a good shot with a rifle but totally hopeless with the pistol. That was why I never carried it while on patrols.

“We were not taught to use the two-handed grip like the cops of today. Maybe because we thought it made us look like a sissies.”

There were other experiences in Malaya that he also remembered but which his grandchildren didn’t believe when he spoke about them.

Like the time he met the Duke of Gloucester who visited Malaya as a representative of the Queen or another occasion when he served as an escort to Sultan Ibrahim for three days when the Johor ruler was on a tour of his state to meet his subjects.

He described the late sultan as “a fine gentleman” who, during lulls in official functions, acknowledged the service rendered by his police escorts.

From this encounter, he received an invitation to a royal banquet hosted by him.

He still has the invitation card with the embossed seal of the Sultan as a memento.

When Malaya gained its independence on 31 August, 1957, Julius served out the remaining two years of his contract with the Malayan government as his paymaster.

“I was sad to leave. I wished I could stay on but my contract was up and Malayanisation of senior positions in the PFF was underway.”

Life after Malaya

Julius returned to NZ in 1959, a veteran at the age of 24 and immediately began a new campaign—wooing Janet Fitzgerald whom he married the same year.

A year later, the Emergency ended.

“I met her for the first time in 1955 at my farewell party before I set off for Malaya. The second time we met was when I returned to NZ in 1959.”

From this union sprang three daughters, 12 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.

As a veteran, Julius thought he could join the Returned Services Association (RSA) which has clubhouses with well-stocked bars, in cities and towns all over the country.

But to his shock, his application was initially turned down by the RSA committee on the ground that he did not serve in Malaya as a member of the NZ Army but as a “mercenary” under a contract with the colonial government.

As a lieutenant in the PFF, he earned a monthly salary of RM640 which, based on exchange rate at the time, amounted to 80 pounds a month.

In civilian life, Julius went into the freight transport business , was a milkman for 14 years and even opened a restaurant in Wellington called Toad Hall.

There was a short break in 1969 when the call of adventure beckoned, with Julius taking on the role of expedition leader to a team of scientists on a mission to sub-Antarctic Campbell Island, 500 kilometres south of New Zealand.

Julius maintained interest in developments in Malaysia, particularly concerned about the welfare of the Orang Asli and their struggle to resist encroachment on their customary lands by timber companies.

He visited the country in 2000 with his wife and daughter Lisa, taking them on a trip down memory lane and visited towns near where his jungle camps and forts were based.

His daughter Lisa, with whom he now lives in Auckland, was very excited to visit these places and seemed to have inherited from him a liking for durian.

On another visit to Malaysia in 2007, he proudly marched alongside other NZ veterans, wearing his service beret to represent the PFF, during a parade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Merdeka.

During this visit, the Malaysian police provided Julius with accommodation in the Police Mess and a staff car along with a driver as the traffic in KL was too much for him.

He returned to New Zealand with a much-prized souvenir - a ceremonial police songkok bearing the insignia of the Royal Malaysia Police.

“I had great memories from my time in Malaya. I was proud to serve with the brave men in my command.”

What lessons in life, I asked, did he learn from his service in Malaya?

“I learnt the importance of taking personal responsibility for the decisions you make. To own up to your own mistakes.

“To trust people. I value loyalty and integrity. These are the values I try to teach my children,” said Julius, former lieutenant (Service No. L1346) with the PFF, now known as the General Operations Force (GOF).

* Charles Kam Yau Chan began his life as a journalist in 1962, as a cadet reporter in the Malay Mail, at that time part of the stable of newspapers in the NST Group.

Over a period of more than 40 years, he worked in newspapers like The Star (where he held positions like Chief Reporter, News Editor and Associate Editor) and the Business Times Malaysia where he was Chief Reporter and then News Editor.

As a journalist for these publications, he undertook several overseas assignments in Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Canada and the USA (New York and Washington).

He had also worked as a senior sub-editor in New Zealand publications like the Auckland Sun and the National Business Review.

He emigrated to NZ with his wife and two daughters in 1987.

 

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