Colonel John Davidson, 1st Battalion, the Queen's Royal Regiment, recalls the fear and excitement of jungle fighting in Malaya and the difficulty of getting supplies.
John Davidson
Colonel John Davidson

We operated as independent companies. So it was a strange situation because for three years, there would be officers in the Regiment who you actually never met. I met one now, recently, playing golf, who said, “Oh, we were in 1 Queen’s together in Malaya”. And I’d never met him because he was in a different company and we were 50, 60, 100 miles apart. And we’d appear at Battalion Headquarters maybe once or twice a month, when we were dispatched to go and collect the pay.
The operations were, it was 95 per cent on a guessing basis. We just patrolled as a platoon, split up into small parties of [?] groups of three or four, and just hoped to find something, and just fanning and covering the jungle, looking for signs of terrorists. And that was how it worked. We’d go into the jungle for nearly 2 weeks. If we were carrying our food, we could actually survive for 2 weeks without resupply, which was quite difficult on the army issue ration packs, most of which got discarded. We would just hope to find something. Very occasionally, we would find a camp, mostly unoccupied. There was one occasion when I was very fortunate, and I had a young officer with me under instruction, Michael Foster, and he and I were at the head of the platoon. And we came over a rock and came face to face with a group of Chinese Terrorists. Michael Foster actually shot the first chap, who turned out to be the equivalent of a brigadier. Immediately, from about three yards away [?], as I ran through the camp I grabbed his hat, which I have to this day in my study. I was fired at by a bodyguard, who missed with the first round and fortunately his Tommy gun jammed for the second. We hit him and captured him, wounded, but unfortunately, he died before we could get out of the jungle, which was very thick at the time. So that was a lucky operation. It wasn’t on information, we just came across it.
Personally, I loved it. I was young and unmarried, and you had an exciting job to do. You knew you could do it well, or you could do it badly. You were undoubtedly frightened at times. And I do remember one occasion when we were told there was an ambush set up for us. Well, the only way to find it was to walk into it, and that was scary. People say, “Oh, so-and-so’s a brave man”. Nobody’s a brave man. My biggest fear was being, was to be considered a coward by my soldiers. Therefore, you do brave things because you’re frightened of being thought to be a coward. I remember that particularly.
It was possible to go for 14 days with what you carried, now that was pretty rough. And you weren’t using any of the army rations, that was dried rice, some [?] some [?] in Malaya, which was dried fish. That was probably not very good for the health, but you could survive. But by and large, we used to go out carrying 6 days rations. Now 6 of those 24 hour packs simply don’t begin to fit into even the largest burgan, if you take the whole thing, and we didn’t have burgans. So the first thing was, we binned most of it, each ration pack had three packets of biscuits that went straight into the waste paper basket in the barrack room before we set off. We kept out the things we liked and were prepared to eat and not the rest of the stuff. And it was fairly rough. We would supplement if we could, with things we’d find, monkeys, snakes, tortoises. Even once we came across a wild pig in an aborigine trap, that was real luxury. But you could supplement it and sometimes near the river there was even fish. I remember coming out of the jungle once, and I was sent for by the CO because there was a conference in Kuala Lumpur at the Headquarters of Malaya Command, to decide on the contents of the ration pack in future. A new one was being designed with locally purchased products. So I went up to this conference and there were about 40 people at this conference and I think I was the only one there who had even been into the jungle. It was full of staff officers and ordnance experts and doctors. And I said the sort of things I’ve just said, I said “We’ve got to go into the jungle for 14 days or perhaps 7 days and we have to carry it. It’s no good producing all these frightfully smart things with all the calories you need if we can’t physically carry it”. And he said “This pack is designed to be no bigger than the 24 hour pack you’re issued with now”. And I said “Yes, but 90 per cent of that 24 hour pack goes into the wastepaper basket in the barrack room before we go out, it’s not eaten. There’s no point having it because it’s heavy and we can’t cope with it”. And I particularly remember a very senior doctor, probably a Colonel, getting extremely angry saying “That’s almost a court martialable offence! You need all the calories in this ration pack, this is specifically designed!” I said “Fine, make it lighter”. But that was the attitude.