The Severed Head Of A Bandit [Graphic Image]

Discussion in 'Postwar' started by Charley Fortnum, May 28, 2017.

  1. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    You may well have seen this rather gory image before while hunting for old photographs. I've also seen it played like an ace in political disputes in an attempt to portray the British soldier as no better than any of his enemies. The account is hardly exculpatory, but it does give proper context and make clear that the Marine in question wasn't actually responsible for the decapitation. EDIT: Correction -- this is not the photograph in question but a second one that appeared in the media shortly afterward. The one in question showed a single head being held.

    Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 02.43.31.png

    The story behind the image it seems is somewhat more complex:

    CAB 129/51/42:

    Memorandum by the First Lord of the Admiralty

    The incident that gave rise to these photographs occurred in April, 1951, when a jungle patrol was ambushed at short range while returning from a four day operation. In the first burst of fire the Lieutenant in charge was fatally wounded and the Corporal second in command killed outright. The Patrol returned the fire and beat off the attack. In the engagement two members of the Patrol were wounded and one bandit was killed. After the bandits had withdrawn an Ibam tracker, who had run away during the engagement, returned and decapitated the dead bandit. The Patrol had no camera. Great importance is attached to identification of bandits. Normally this would have been done by photographing the bandit on the spot before burial or by bringing in the body. The members of the Patrol had difficulty in bringing back their own wounded and brought back the head of the corpse as the only method of identification open to them in accordance with Police requirements in the area,
    2. When those members of the Patrol concerned in the incident returned to their camp some of them posed for the photographs that have been published. This was a reprehensible act but the Patrol had lost an officer for whom the whole Troop had the greatest regard and respect and a Corporal who was probably the most popular man in the Unit. It was without a leader. The photographs were taken before an Officer arrived and sent the head off in a sack to Police Headquarters. An immediate follow-up Patrol was taken out which killed another bandit. This body and the remains of the first bandit were decently buried. This account is based on questions put to the Brigadier of the Commando Brigade, the Colonel of No. 40 Commando, the photographer and the Marine in the photograph (both of whom have been identified).

    3. CONCLUSION Considerable interest has been aroused. There are to be two Parliamentary Questions on Wednesday, one from Harold Davies (Socialist) asking about the restraints placed on head hunters employed in Malaya and one from Crosthwaite-Eyre (Conservative) asking for a statement on the recent engagement in which the Royal Marines have been concerned in Malaya: this is a friendly Question from an ex-Royal Marine officer in order that he may ask a Supplementary Question about this episode.

    4. I suggest that a statement should be made to the Press dating the photographs (1951), explaining the circumstances and condemning such photography as a reprehensible act.

    5. The Commandos are leaving Malaya and while there they have been under Army operational control. It is not, therefore, for me to decide whether decapitation of corpses for identification purposes is necessary. My opinion is that it should not be allowed even though identification may be lost as a result. Nor, in my opinion, should photographing of corpses of bandits be allowed except officially for identification purposes.

    6. Criticism in the Press or in the House may be reduced if we are prepared to deal with these points.


    (1) That a statement should be issued by the Admiralty (see Annex).

    (2) That decapitation of corpses in Malaya should be explicitly forbidden.

    (3) That photographing of corpses of bandits should be allowed only for official purposes.


    Admiralty, S.W.I. 2nd MAY, 1952.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2018
  2. jimbop

    jimbop Banned

    a pair of nuts in a sack?? cmon now.........
  3. Guy Hudson

    Guy Hudson Looker-upper

    Both men killed in the ambush at Kuala Kangsar on the 2nd April 1951 were serving with 40 RM Commando.

    Lieutenant James Barry Coop (from Hoylake) 40 RM Commando age 25

    Grave of James Barry Coop

    CH/X4147 Corporal Raymond T Ryder (Born Warrington 1930) 40 RM Commando Age 21

    Grave of Raymond T. Ryder
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  4. idler

    idler GeneralList

    I wonder what coverage the Daily Worker gave to the dead-but-not-red victims of these two and their comrades?
  5. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    This is interesting, thank you.

    I think that my grandfather's unit (54-battery, D-Troop) was firing in support of this operation (200 rounds), but I didn't have a location. 40 Cdo was part of 3 Cdo Brigade at the time-right?

    How did you deduce/know that it was at Kuala Kangsar? It doesn't quite seem to match the information I have, which could well make my information wrong!
    Last edited: May 28, 2017
  6. Guy Hudson

    Guy Hudson Looker-upper

  7. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Appreciated, Guy.
  8. Guy Hudson

    Guy Hudson Looker-upper

    A Reuters report also confirming the location.

    Kuala Kangsar.png
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  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

    The 'scandal' isn't mentioned in 40 RM Cdo's history The Light Blue Lanyard.
  10. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Perhaps not very surprising.

    Does it have anything about the patrol/operation in which they died (2/4/51) or (by chance) anything about 42 CDO's operation 2nd-6th April '51?
  11. KevinT

    KevinT Senior Member

    Hi Charley,
    I recall my late father saying that when on missions into the jungle local tribesmen were used for tracking / guides and that they were paid for any terrorists that were caught. These would be identified by heads and hands.


  12. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Grim humour on the topic.

    Extracted from: CO 717-198-2: The Security Forces Weekly intelligence Summary 1950 [Part 2]:

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  13. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    This audio lecture on Psychological Warfare is highly recommended. I'd skip the introductory preamble and get straight into the lecture at 14:20-ish. He starts off in very broad terms, but later gets down to a lot of detail about what techniques and deceptions were practised:

    In this seminar paper (originally given on Friday, 22 February, 2013), Thomas J. Maguire provides an insight into how psychological warfare played an increasingly important part in the largest British counter-insurgency operation of the decolonisation era.

    Psychological warfare was conceived as a potential “force multiplier” which would reinforce other counter-insurgency strategies and tactics employed against the communist Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). It targeted the insurgents’ morale and sought to induce surrenders and defections, while creating dissent, division and instability in their ranks. It was, therefore, intended to both remove insurgents from the battlefield and hasten a greater supply of intelligence.

    Maguire explains how, after a relatively ineffective start, the Federation Government psychological warfare strategy became more systematic and refined from about 1950 onwards, eventually playing an important part in the insurgents’ defeat. The talk shows how ‘psychological intelligence’ was collected, analysed and disseminated – in particular through the careful interrogation of surrendering enemy personnel. Using this intelligence, the Government information services constructed a number of influential propaganda themes and utilised a variety of techniques to disseminate finished productions, most notably by dropping over 400 million leaflets over the jungle during the course of the conflict.

    The paper also highlights the broader political and cultural context in which psychological operations took place, showing how they influenced British strategy and contributed to the Emergency’s outcome.

    Audio Here:
    Psywar during the Malayan Emergency
  14. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Hearing that many of the terrorists/insurgents were SOE / FORCE 136 trained reminds me of this great anecdote:

    General Sir John Harding, Commander-in-Chief Far East, decided he needed independent advice from an expert in jungle warfare to combat the communist insurgents. He called in Major ‘Mad’ Mike Calvert, (Footnote #171: See Calvert: Fighting Mad.) who had considerable experience of jungle warfare in Burma during the Second World War and, by the end of the war, was commanding the SAS brigade. Calvert had also been one of the prime movers in ensuring the SAS ethic had not died out at the end of the war. Calvert, having been demoted to the rank of major, as had most wartime officers of brigadier rank, had a staff appointment in Hong Kong as G1 Air, training troops bound for Korea in the use of air support.

    Once given this task, Calvert tackled it with his normal aggression and drive and he travelled throughout Malaya (Footnote #172: During one of his reconnaissance trips Calvert was ambushed: ‘my driver and I were moving at a fair pace along a jungle road when a burst of machine-gun fire came from the thick bush, slightly ahead of us. We jerked to a halt and flung ourselves into a ditch by the side of the road. For the first time in more than five years I was under enemy fire and when a grenade landed neatly beside me in the ditch I thought it was for the last time. I snatched up the grenade, hoping to be able to throw it out before it went off, and then I noticed that the pin was still in position. A piece of paper was attached to it and a scrawled message said; ‘How do you do, Mr Calvert?’ It could mean only one thing. Somebody I had known, and probably trained, in the old days in Hong Kong or in Burma, was now on the other side, fighting for the Communists’. Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 202.)
    Rebirth of the SAS: The Malayan "Emergency" - The History Reader
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  15. Old Git

    Old Git Harmless Curmudgeon

    When I was a young'un we had an album full of gory photos like this. All taken in China before WWII when one of the uncles was out in there on service. There were pics of guys hanging from Lamposts with their hands and feet cut off, or multilated, rows of heads on shelves, etc. etc. A Squaddies scrapbook of a horrible time in China's history! Don't know what happened to those photographs as they were not in my mother's house when we cleared it after her death. Still, I used to pore over those pics when I was a kid, there is something about the gory that will fascinate us as children but the same images make us wince as adults!
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  16. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    In the event that anybody's interested, there's an old documentary about Malaya on YouTube. It's popular stuff but interesting enough. Starts with British co-operation with the Chinese communists to evict the Japanese in late 1943.

  17. Daniel P.

    Daniel P. Of the Ulu

    This is an absolutely incredible find. I'm especially impressed that Guy Hudson managed to identify the marines killed before the firefight. I have been researching the events around the headhunting scandal sparked by the Daily Worker photographs for some time. Do you happen to know of any eyewitness accounts of the Ibans from biographies or regimental histories?

    Also, were the Daily Worker photographs the only photographs of the decapitations that exist or have others been discovered?
  18. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Nothing springs to mind, I'm afraid.

    This may interest you. From Massacre in Malaya by Christopher Hale

    Severed Heads

    In Britain, the Malayan Emergency troubled the prime minister and the Colonial Office but stirred little reaction from the wider public. On 28 April, the communist newspaper The Daily Worker (now The Morning Star) slapped across its front page the photograph of a Royal Marine commando posing with the severed heads of two guerrillas that were proudly held aloft in each hand. The unnamed soldier is standing in front of a hut with two Dyak recruits holding rifles and was presumably taken in Sarawak on Borneo. ‘This is War in Malaya’ was the accusatory headline. The photographs severely embarrassed the government. A spokesman tried to claim that they had been faked. The Daily Worker responded a week later by printing a second photograph of British soldiers also brandishing heads. In the meantime, the Royal Marine in the first photograph had been identified and tracked down on leave. He readily confirmed that the photograph was genuine. Neal Ascherson informed me that the practice was standard. The only problem the British soldiers had was that the Dyaks took so long to perform appropriate rituals to placate the spirit of the dead man. On 7 May, the scandal of the severed heads came up in the House of Commons:

    Mr Awbery: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that nearly all hon. Members on this side of the House desire to see Malaya achieve nationhood as quickly as possible, but we are also agreed that the methods suggested in the photograph are neither desirable for the promotion of that nationhood nor will help towards its accomplishment, and will he give definite instructions that such methods will not in the future be adopted for jungle warfare?

    Mr Lyttelton: In my answer I have already explained that definite instructions have been given that decapitation is not to take place. I am afraid I shall be in some difficulty in explaining what happened in April, 1951.

    Mr Emrys Hughes: Does the Colonial Secretary say that this was a genuine photograph, and is he definitely convinced that it is not a fake?

    Mr Lyttelton: Yes, Sir, it is a genuine photograph.

    Templer was a great deal less conciliatory.

    It is absolutely essential that communist dead should be identified […] War in the jungle is not a nice thing, but we cannot forego the necessity for exact identifications […] The viewpoint of [critics] who have no possible inkling of an understanding of conditions or terrain […] is not understandable to the Security Forces who have the task of tracking down armed communist murderers and producing evidence …

    “As suggested in an earlier chapter, the display of ‘kills’ nevertheless had ingredients of Grand Guignol theatricals. When MNLA leader Liew Kon Kim, known as the ‘Bearded Terror of Kajang’ was hunted down and killed, his bloody corpse was stretched out on a rack fixed to the back of a lorry and toured for three days through some of the ‘New Villages’ in Selangor. The main exhibit was trailed by vans with loudspeakers that sermonised about the dead man’s wicked past and how he had met his justified violent end.
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  19. Daniel P.

    Daniel P. Of the Ulu

    Thankyou very much for your reply. I'm already familiar with Christopher Hale's book and I found copies of this exact debate in parliament in Hansard. I have found countless soldiers referencing headhunting but many of them are highly contradictory.

  20. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    I'm expecting to receive a batch of documentation from FARELF HQ at some point in the spring.

    It mostly covers the period a year of two before these specific cases, but if it contains anything relating to your line of enquiry, I'll contact you.

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