John Davis February 12, 1911 - October 27, 2006
SOE leader in Japanese-occupied Malaya who later found himself opposing Communist guerrillas who had been wartime allies
AT THE time of the Japanese invasion of the Malay States in December 1941, John Davis was serving there with the police Special Branch, responsible for intelligence on the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). In anticipation of a Japanese attack, a plan had been devised by the Oriental Mission, Far Eastern office of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, to harass the invaders with "stay-behind" parties left in the jungle.
The MCP had agreed to co-operate with these, but the speed of the Japanese advance precluded Davis’s participation at that stage. On the day after the surrender of Singapore on February 16, 1942, he and Richard Broome, of the Malayan Civil Service, crossed to Sumatra to seek news of the staybehind parties there. Japanese activity forced their almost immediate return. Davis, Broome and others were then dispatched by the head of the Oriental Mission in a small vessel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where they arrived after 35 days without fresh food and a tiny amount of water.
Only a handful of 40 or so Europeans left behind in the Malayan jungle — who included Lieutenant-Colonel Freddie Spencer Chapman — avoided capture or death. Responsibility for them and for guerrilla action against the Japanese was transferred from the Oriental Mission to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Far East office (later known as Force 136) headquarters in Ceylon.Plans were now put in hand to restore contact with the guerrilla forces in Malaya, to trace any survivors of the stay-behind parties and maintain contact by radio and submarine.
Davis, by now commissioned into the 6th Rajputana Rifles, landed from a submarine with a group of Chinese on the coast of the northern state of Kedah in May 1943. Having established these as agents with the local population, he withdrew to Ceylon by the next submarine.
Returning to Malaya by submarine in August 1943, Davis met Chin Peng, nom de guerre of the MCP guerrilla leader operating in Perak, south of Kedah. Chin Peng explained to Davis his opposition to the Japanese occupation and also the extent of the combined guerrilla and civilian organisation, the Anti-Japanese Union and Forces (AJUF) opposing it.
They had heard that a European (whom they guessed was Spencer Chapman) had been training guerrillas in the AJUF camps for two years. Chin Peng arranged for the three men to meet on Christmas Day 1943. At a conference with the AJUF and MCP leadership on December 31, Davis signed an agreement on behalf of the Allied C-in-C South East Asia, Admiral Lord Louis Mounbatten, to provide arms, supplies and money in return for the guerrillas stirring up labour disputes and sabotaging Japanese shipping.
With radio contact with Ceylon broken for a long period, because of the loss of their sets, Davis and his party lived with the guerrillas in deep jungle. When contact with Colombo was restored in February 1945, he was appointed head of the Force 136 groups of agents in Malaya and promoted to colonel. A plan to co-ordinate operations against the Japanese in anticipation of Operation Zipper, the Allied landings in Malaya, was overtaken by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the Japanese surrender. Davis was awarded the DSO for his leadership in Malaya in 1942-44 and appointed CBE for his liaison work with the resistance from February 1945.
After the war he joined the Malayan Civil Service, but his association with Chin Peng was not over. At their first meeting in 1943, Chin Peng had made clear that as an avowed communist he was also opposed to British rule in Malaya. Even so, he co-operated loyally with the British against the Japanese in pursuit of the agreement Davis had signed in December 1943, and was appointed OBE for his services in 1946.
He now resumed his MCP activities, declaring the use of force against the British as a justified means of establishing a communist state. After a series of communist-inspired strikes in the tin mines and the murders of a number of European managers of rubber plantations, the MCP was proscribed. Chin Peng led about 5,000 of his followers into the jungle, where they dug up their wartime arms and, on June 16, 1948, "declared war" on the British administration.
The 12-year Malayan Emergency began at that point, yet it might have been brought to a peaceful conclusion as early as 1956. By 1955 Chin Peng had recognised that his campaign of terror against the rural Chinese and Malays had failed. He sought talks with Tunku Abdul Rahman and David Marshall, the chief ministers of Malaya and Singapore respectively, but demanded a guarantee for his safety.
Davis, then a district officer, was asked, on the strength of his wartime friendship with Chin Peng, to be the guarantor. A delicately negotiated arrangement was made for Davis to meet the communist leader in a jungle clearing. There he greeted him with, "Long time, no see" in Cantonese, and conducted him to the meeting, close to the border with Thailand. But despite the friendly atmosphere of the talks, agreement could not be reached with Chin Peng. He went back to the jungle and led his dwindling band of terrorists for a further six years.
Davis remained with the Malayan Civil Service until the Emergency ended in 1960, at which time he was deputy chairman of the war executive committee of Kedah province. His service to the country was recognised by the award of the JMN (Commander of the Order of the Defender of the Realm) in 1959 and the SMJ (Faithful to the Crown of Johore) in 1960.
On his return to England he became general-secretary of Kent Council Social Services (1961-74). He was subsequently to meet Chin Peng again during the latter’s visit to England. During his call on Davis at his home in Sussex, Chin Peng conceded: "I have great experience of struggle but not of how to build socialism."
John Lewis Haycraft Davis was educated Aldro School, where he became a friend of Kim Philby, later to be notorious as a traitor, and at Tonbridge. He began his service with the Malayan Police in Pahang in 1931. He quickly mastered Malay and spent time in Canton and Macau learning Cantonese. This led him to intelligence work with Special Branch.
He was a man of outstanding personality and complete self-assurance, yet modest about his own achievements to a degree that few could comprehend.
In 1946 he married Helen Ouin whom he had known since childhood. She survives him, with three sons and a daughter. Another daughter predeceased him.
John Davis, CBE, DSO, Malayan civil servant and veteran of the wartime Special Operations Executive, was born on February 12, 1911. He died on October 27, 2006, aged 95.