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Jungle Warfare: Experiences and Encounters

John Cross

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It took Gus Fletcher two hours to crawl the last 80 yards through the Malayan jungle to get his man. Just ahead of him lay Ah Ho, a communist terrorist leader, sleeping and guarded by a sentry. Fletcher, who was a police assistant superintendent and special branch officer, crawled on. So too did the two Chinese inspectors with him. All were disguised in terrorist uniform. Then they pounced. One of the inspectors seized Ah Ho’s Bren gun. Fletcher sprang forward, his revolver drawn. Bullets cracked and screamed. Ah Ho and two of his men were killed; seven others were captured.

This action, which took place in October 1956, was part of a mission code-named Operation Googly in which an elite group of British forces made contact with Malayans as part of a secret infiltration exercise. Fletcher, a brilliant Chinese linguist, had devised a series of operations that involved taking a hand-picked team of Chinese detectives and a squad of Gurkhas for security, and holding night-time conversations with the communist leaders in which he persuaded them to surrender and secretly take him to capture or kill their leaders.

In Jungle Warfare: Experiences and Encounters (2008), John Cross describes Operation Googly as “a spectacular escapade”. At first the details of the successful mission were shrouded in secrecy, to avoid compromising related operations. However, in 1957 the announcement came that Fletcher and his colleague Inspector Goh Chin Hee, one of the Chinese inspectors who had accompanied him into the jungle, were to be awarded the George Medal.

The citation, which was originally written in dialect to avoid it being leaked, described how the two men had displayed “outstanding coolness, reliability and gallantry in the face of grave personal danger”.

Augustus James Voisey Fletcher was born in Gurney Slade, Somerset, in 1928, the son of James Fletcher, a farm labourer, and his wife, Naomi (née Dudden), who before her marriage had been in domestic service. He had an older brother and younger sister, both of whom predeceased him. He was educated at Weston-Super-Mare Grammar School, where he was in the Air Training Corps and hoped to join the RAF. However, by his own account he missed the war “by a whisker” and instead in 1946 joined the Great Western Railway police as a junior cadet.

While he was on duty at Temple Meads station in Bristol he spotted a glamorous poster depicting smart officers on horses and motorcycles. It invited applications to join the Palestine police. He promptly applied and was deployed. However, the Middle East provided him with few opportunities for adventure and when the British mandate ended in 1948 the force was disbanded. Fletcher returned home in search of new opportunities.

He did not have to wait long, as he later recalled: “I saw in a Sunday newspaper that Malaya needed 500 ex-Palestine policemen to deal with a ‘Communist uprising’. I was not entirely sure where Malaya was, nor what constituted a Communist uprising, but wrote to the Crown Agents for the Colonies for further information. In short order I found myself in Hounslow Barracks. There were about 40 of us, all ex-Palestine police, our ages ranging from old men of 40 to young squirts like me, 19 years old.”

He described vividly their 50-hour journey to Malaya on a military aircraft, which involved several layovers. A few rows in front of him was one Colonel WN Gray, who was dressed in black jacket, pinstripe trousers, waistcoat and bowler hat. “As our aluminium tube lumbered eastwards to ever hotter regions, and as we climbed back after each landing into an increasingly oven-like atmosphere, our commissioner divested himself of his outer garments one by one,” Fletcher wrote in a chapter for Brian Stewart’s book Operation Sharp End: Smashing Terrorism in Malaya, 1948-58 (2003). “For reasons unknown, however (and it was the subject of much speculation), he kept his bowler on in the aircraft.”

Signed up to the Federation of Malaya Police, Fletcher became interested in all things Chinese, rapidly picking up Cantonese at a Malayan government language school and astonishing his examiners with his ability. “I was posted to the rubber estates in Mentakab and organised defences among other things,” he told the New Straits Times in 2015, adding that he had passed the time by learning Malay pantuns, or poems. He continued studying and memorising his pantuns behind sandbags in the quiet of the jungle evenings, while waiting for communist insurgents.

While home on leave in 1956 he married Enyd Harries, a Welsh school teacher, later declaring himself to be an honorary Welshman. Immediately after a short honeymoon in London the couple sailed for Malaya. Enyd survives him with a son, Michael, who is a solicitor, and a daughter, Jane, a copywriter.

Fletcher, a genial, gregarious and hospitable man, left Malaya in 1958 and for the next six years was employed as a specialist officer by MI5. He transferred to MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, in 1964 and two years later was posted with the diplomatic service to Hong Kong, where he was to serve for two separate tours: a total of some seven years. He took boisterous pleasure in astonishing his Chinese interlocutors with his mastery of Cantonese and Mandarin.

He liked showing to visitors aspects of Hong Kong life not normally seen by outsiders. On one occasion he met a couple of newlyweds on their first day in Hong Kong and invited them for lunch. They recalled: “He introduced us to the delights of chicken’s feet, duck’s feet, pig entrails and 100-day-old eggs. At the end of this astonishing meal he proclaimed that ‘you can now eat anything in Hong Kong — nothing will be worse than that’.”

There were also two tours of duty in London, dealing with Chinese matters. The first 15 years of his service in MI6 afforded him no break in this specialisation and, although he sometimes longed for a change, his energy was undiminished. The change finally came in 1979, when he was posted to Delhi for three years, a period that was rather spoilt for him by serious back trouble.

After retiring in 1983 from the main stream of the service, Fletcher spent ten years with the section of MI6 responsible for the “positive vetting” of new recruits. He enjoyed his work; he had always liked travel and individuals; and he was good at it. But his colleagues sometimes wondered whether the people whom he was interviewing were ever able to get a word in.

Although Fletcher’s career was largely concentrated in one area, his interests and activities were wide. He was a glider pilot, owned a narrowboat and was keen on the opera, with a particular leaning towards English National Opera and a weakness for Gilbert and Sullivan. In retirement he became interested in Turkey and, characteristically, learnt Turkish to add a further dimension to his visits to the country. He enjoyed serving on the committee of the Travellers’ Club.

As a child he had been brought up in the Church of England, and in later years he began attending once more. He served as a sidesman at his local parish church, although he probably enjoyed the church gardening group at least as much as the Sunday services. He enjoyed fine wine and was a voracious reader, working his way through countless biographies, novels and travel books. Anthony Trollope and the poetry of AE Housman were his favourites.

Fletcher loved languages and dialects, considering it to be good manners to address people in their own tongue. He also enjoyed puns and poems, crosswords “and not-so-cross words”. He was delighted to discover that an anagram of the word “funeral” is “real fun”, and asked that this fact be pointed out at his service — with instructions that those who were celebrating his life should do just that.

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