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Head Hunters in the Malayan Emergency

The Atrocity and Cover-up


Dan Poole

Barnsely, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword, 2023

Hardcover     176pp       RRP: $48.25


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, March 2024


On 28th April 1952 Britain’s Communist newspaper The Daily Worker published a photograph of a decapitated head in an article entitled ‘This is the War in Malaya’. The next day the Royal Navy claimed that the photograph was a fake, even though they privately confirmed that it was real. Two days later The Daily Worker responded with another photograph emphasising that the first one was not a fake.

All the other major media outlets chose to ignore the topic and not become involved for fear that their future relationship with the Government could be at risk. The ‘scandal’ was being pursued by the British Communist Party and trade unions.

In Parliament, Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies on 7th May admitted that the photographs were authentic. The Daily Worker contacted MPs, newspapers, religious leaders and other community leaders by telegram and forwarding additional photographs, before publishing the final four photographs the next day (10 May) demanding an end to the practice. Eventually, on 21st May, the British Government indicated that soldiers involved in the beheadings would not be punished.

The Malayan Emergency, also known as also known as the Anti–British National Liberation War was declared on 17th June 1948 by the killing of three British plantation managers by insurgents of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). The CPM had aimed to overthrow the colonial government and establish a Communist People's Democratic Republic of Malaya. The insurgency was described as an 'emergency' because insurers would not have compensated plantation and mine owners if it had been labelled a 'war'. 

There were spurious reasons advanced claiming advantages to be gained by the practice of beheading by the local Ibans imbedded in the British forces, when in reality none were ever forthcoming. The Malay population was intimidated and fearful they had all gone from allies (essential manpower in colonial-owned plantations and other enterprises) to being labelled as Communists insurgents. Those killed were sometimes publicly displayed (with or without head) outside local police stations in an endeavour to ‘have the public come forward and identify them’ as well as providing a stark warning to behave above possible suspicion.

The author has examined the effects the beheadings had on the Malays as well as soldiers in the units involved. His research was extensive, but he acknowledges that English being his only language has prevented him accessing people and writings of non-English people. The reactions of British people and the press have been comprehensively investigated.

Poole asks for others to do more research to bolster his own effort to see that this type of war crime is never seen again. There are a number of chapters following the main text that provide guidance for future researchers.

An enlightening coverage of a rather macabre topic that must be acknowledged as having taken place in ‘the civilised 20th century’.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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