POLICE GRAVES FROM THE 1948-60 EMERGENCY
The Western Road Cemetery is not the oldest Christian cemetery in Penang but it does contain many interesting graves recalling important aspects of Malaysia’s and Penang’s 20th century history. Of particular note are the graves of the Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters who contributed so much to the development of modern education in the country. There are also the graves of the vanished Armenian community, graves removed from their original site beside the former Armenian Church on Bishop Street when the church land was sold in 1937.
Of topical interest these days are the graves of Malayan Police officers killed during the Emergency. Many of the graves share a common design and are to be found near the graves of Commonwealth servicemen also killed during the Emergency. The police graves tell interesting stories of those turbulent years when the country’s future hung in the balance. Among them is that of 21-year-old Kenneth William Davies, Federation of Malaya Police, whose memorial inscription records that he was killed on duty at Badenoch Estate, Sungei Patani on 21st March 1950. Nearby is the grave of Kenneth Francis Dawson, killed in action at Kulim on 5th May 1950. According to a report in The Times of 7th May 1950, 28-year-old Assistant Superintendent Dawson was an Australian who had served two years in the police and had already been awarded the Colonial Police Medal. He was killed leading a jungle squad in a surprise attack on a “bandit camp”. It is interesting to note that in these early years of the Emergency the authorities and media were not yet referring to the insurgents as communist terrorists. The Times report depicts Dawson creeping with a Gurkha kukri, “a relic of his Burma days”, before being killed by a “bandit” sentry.
Other police graves include those of Inspector Douglas Stork “killed by bandit action” at Karandan, Kedah on 11th April 1951, Frank John James Thonger “killed in action” at Kulim on 14th July 1951, and William Henry Franks “killed in action” also at Kulim on 11th March 1952. In reporting the death of Franks, The Times of 13th March 1952 identified him as officer commanding the police district of Kulim (mistakenly spelled as “Dulim”) and said he was leading an attack on a “bandit camp” eight miles from the town. Kulim was still a particularly dangerous area a year later when police officer Alec Bernard Wilmot was “killed in action” there on 20th April 1953. According to The Times of 22nd April 1953, he was aged 27. This press report described the assailants as “terrorists”.
The most senior police officer buried in the Western Road Cemetery was the Chief Police Officer of Kedah, Assistant Commissioner Charles Neville Godwin, who was killed on 28th May 1954 when his car was ambushed as he returned from a bungalow on Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) where he had been staying with the head of the Kedah Special Branch Mr. G. Dick. According to a report in The Times of 30th May 1954, the ambush took place at a point where a tree had been felled across the road. About thirty “terrorists” reportedly took part in the attack. Later, according to the same report, another police vehicle was ambushed and several people were killed including a police driver and the 12-year-old son of a special constable. The response of the security forces to these incidents was massive and included shelling of suspected terrorist positions on Kedah Peak by the cruiser HMS Newfoundland which had been in Penang for celebrations of the birthday of Queen Elizabeth. The Times reported on 10th June, that in two days Newfoundland fired 267 rounds with her 6 inch guns at a range of about eight miles.
The target was a terrorist hideout on a plateau 2,700 feet high on Kedah Peak. In those haze-free days when Gunung Jerai was regularly visible, Penang residents must have had a ringside seat for the fireworks display provided by the British warship.
(a) (a) A recent visit to the Western Road Cemetery revealed that the graves of Brother Symphorien and another brother have been vandalised (see photo). Brother Symphorien Augustus of St Xavier’s Institution was murdered by communist terrorists on Penang Hill in 1954. (See “Murder and Art Treasure on Penang Hill”, Newsletter No.89, January 2007).
(b) Information about the police graves and reports from The Times is taken from Justin Corfield’s survey Penang – Western Road Cemetery: Graves of Europeans in the Protestant Section published by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), 1999.
(c) The killing of Assistant Commissioner Godwin was front-page news in Malaya and Singapore, The Straits Times running an article under the banner headline “Kedah Police Chief Shot Dead” with sub-headlines “ Gun Missing” and “Four killed as Reds ambush two cars in hour on Peak road” in its Sunday edition on 30th May 1954. According to this article, news of Mr. Godwin’s death was broken to Mr. Dick (still at the Kedah Peak bungalow) by a 12-year-old boy survivor of the second ambush who ran five miles to the rest house.
Text and photographs by Leslie A.K. James