The London Trial 1

For two days in May, the restless spirits of 24 men shot dead 64 years ago by members of a platoon of British soldiers in a Malayan village called Batang Kali haunted Court 3 of the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

The incident is often referred to as Britain’s My Lai – referring to the notorious incident during the Vietnam war when ‘Charlie Company’ led by Lt. William Calley murdered between 307 and 504 unarmed civilians on 16 March 1968.

This year, after a long campaign, lawyers acting for the relatives of the dead men finally persuaded the British government to reconsider what they assert  is ‘a grotesque, on-going injustice’. Since the killings at Batang Kali, more than six decades ago, British government have refused, time and again, to hold a public enquiry into what took place and why. The legal purpose of the trial was to examine whether the Secretaries of State for Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acted lawfully by refusing such an enquiry. Although the decision as to whether or not a proper enquiry will at last be given the go ahead will not be known for some time, the proceedings in Court 3 unloosed an avalanche of new information – not only about what happened in Batang Kali but how and why a ‘very British cover up’ was maintained for so long. On two days in May, history was made in Court 3.

There is no dispute that on 11 December,1948 a 14 man patrol from the 7th Platoon, G Company 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, led by two Lance Sergeants Charles Douglas and Thomas Hughes, entered Batang Kali where they encountered 50 or so unarmed villagers. This tiny village was part of the Sungei Remok rubber estate in the Malayan state of Selangor, which at the time was a British protectorate. Six months earlier, in June, a succession of attacks by Communist guerrillas had led the British authorities to declare an emergency – the beginning of an undeclared war that was to last 12 years. By the time the platoon left the village the following day, 24 men had been shot dead. The first report of the killings in The Straits Times sounded a shrill note of triumph: ‘Police, Bandits kill 28 [sic] bandits in day…Biggest Success for Forces since Emergency Started’. It would not take long for the official story to unravel. After this week’s trial, we now have a better idea of what happened next and how the ‘successful operation’ story rapidly began to crumble. A small party of surviving villagers had managed to tell their horrifying story to the Chinese Consul-General Li Chen, who held a press conference on 21 December. The following day, the British owner of the Sungei Remok Estate Thomas Menzies – who had serious clout in the British estate owners community and was no doubt dismayed by the loss of 24 workers – publicly stated that his labourers had a long record of good conduct. By 24 December, The Straits Times was calling for a public enquiry.

Faced with this escalating disquiet about events at Batang Kali, the British spun a different story – a narrative that has been maintained in official accounts to the present day. Now they claimed that the 24 villagers had been ‘shot while trying to escape’. But whatever the form of words, the British could not completely smother the increasingly bad odour that hung over the events at Batang Kali. At the end of January, Communist MP Philip Piratin demanded that the Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech-Jones explain the actions of the Scots Guards. Creech-Jones replied that an ‘enquiry by the civil authorities’ had concluded that ‘had the security forces not opened fire, the suspect Chinese would have made good an escape, which had obviously been pre-arranged…’ Creech-Jones’ ‘enquiry’ into a ‘necessary but nasty operation’ terminated the debate about the Batang Kali killings – until a bitterly cold day at the beginning of December 1969 when a former national serviceman called William Cootes made an astonishing confession to The People newspaper. Cootes appears to have been motivated by the furore unleashed by American journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelations about the My Lai massacre the previous year which had provoked a debate about whether British troops might have been capable of committing such an atrocity. Public opinion resisted such slurs – but Cootes knew better.   He had been one of the 14 Scots Guardsmen who had entered Batang Kali that day in December, 1948. His testimony remains chilling. He alleged that the platoon commander George Ramsay, who did not accompany the platoon, had briefed his men that they were going to a village and would ‘wipe out anybody they found there…’ In other words, none of the male villagers had been ‘shot trying to escape’; they had been murdered in cold blood. Other former members of the platoon also came forward and backed up Cootes’ allegations: Alan Tuppen testified that “He [Ramsay] said we were to go out on patrol and that our objective would be to wipe out a particular village and everyone in it because, he said, they were either terrorists themselves or were helping terrorists in that area.” Tuppen provided shocking new detail about the killings: “Instinctively, we started firing… at the villagers in front of us. The villagers began to fall. One man with bullets in him kept crawling…He was finally killed when a bullet went through his head.” Another former Guardsman Victor Remedios testified that after the platoon returned to base ‘we were told by a sergeant that if anyone said anything we could get 14 or 15 years in prison…’ Asked whether the soldiers had ‘fabricated a story’, Remedios agreed.

In court this week, the lawyers representing the claimants repeatedly and eloquently emphasized evidence that pointed to ‘intentional extra judicial execution’. Witnesses revealed that members of the Scots Guards platoon had been observed dividing the villagers into groups and escorting them away from the village: ‘they weren’t actually running, but just walking past and away from the village…’ Evidently, no attempt was ever made to escape. A further grotesque anomaly is that all the men were killed: if they had been ‘shot trying to escape’, it doesn’t make any sense that none survived.

In the aftermath of The People story, and the media storm that had followed, on 13 February 1970 the Secretary of State for Defence Dennis Healey referred the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. At the end of the month, DPP lawyers recommended further enquiries to be conducted by the Metropolitan Police – much to the dismay, as we learnt in court, of the Foreign Office. An investigative team was set up under  DCS Frank Williams, that included a former Scots Guards serviceman Ron Dowling. All the former members of the Scots Guards platoon who had testified to The People were interviewed again under caution – and Williams learnt of other survivors of the operation who remained alive in what was now independent Malaysia. Plans were made for the British police team to fly to Kuala Lumpur to continue with their enquiries. Then on 18 June, 1970 the Labour Government was ousted by the Conservatives – and just weeks later the Batang Kali enquiry was aborted with a view, as we now learn, ‘to upholding the good name of the Army.’

This pattern of fresh revelation followed by denial and cover up was repeated after the broadcast of a BBC Inside Story documentary ‘In Cold Blood’ in 1992. This time, a Malaysian police enquiry was launched and then aborted. Documents referred to in court reveal that the Batang Kali massacre remained a highly sensitive issue. To this day, the British government has not changed the story that appears to have been fabricated more than 60 years ago – ‘shot trying to escape’.