Training in the jungles of Malaya

Vickers machine gun in Malaya

A demonstration of British troops' preparedness for jungle warfare in Malaya. Men of the Manchester Regiment with a Vickers water cooled machine gun.The reliable Vickers gun dated from the First World War but was used until after 1945.

In military circles the probability of the Japanese extending their aggression in the Far East was well understood. In Thailand British officers were posing as tourists to reconnoiter the region – and were staying in the same hotels as Japanese officers doing exactly the same thing. At least some of the British army in Malaya were becoming familiar with the terrain – as Cecil Brown, a CBS journalist, discovered when he went out on patrol with them for a day:

‘We have the advantage,’ Colonel Moorehead said, ‘of knowing all this territory well. That’s a very great advantage. We are sure the Japs don’t know it because it was only mapped three months ago, and none of these maps has fallen into Japanese hands as yet.

Hunched over, I follow behind the corporal along the meager, cluttered, soggy path tunneled through the jungle bordering the frontier between Malaya and Thailand, territory only recently mapped.

It is twilight in here. An inextricable mass and jumble of palms, gum trees, bamboo, teak and intertwined vines and creepers shut out the midday sun and deny the sky itself.

Every now and then the corporal, grunting and muttering softly, swings his sharp-edged parang to slice a creeper vine yearning for a neck to choke. At every step our feet sink above the ankles into rotted branches and the muck of the jungle floor.

Colonel Moorehead is too far ahead. Now we can no longer even hear him thrashing his way over fallen trees or slapping away at the aerial vines blocking his path.

Dank and steaming – those are the cliches to describe the jungle. In this hodge-podge of nature gone slightly mad, where the British and Japanese will one day fight, it is dank and steaming, all right – nearly asphyxiating. Hardly a whisper of air, and there’s the musty smell of wet places and the piercing scents of decaying matter, animal and vegetable. The sweat pours off our faces and streams down the middle of our backs as though we’re in a downpour.

It is the frightening feeling of inability to find the next breath that’s most alarming in here. That, and the hidden things poised to leap and bite, or claw and gore.

Cecil Brown’s account was published in 1942, when he knew that the very jungle he had toured had been the site of the first contact between the British and Japanese armies later in 1941. See Cecil Brown: Suez to Singapore

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