Gurney Assassination and the Punishment of Tras

Location of Sir Henry Gurney's murder

On 6th October 1951, on a lonely stretch of winding road between Kuala Lumpur and Fraser’s Hill, Sir Henry Gurney, the High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya was murdered by communist terrorists (CTs).

Sir Henry GurneyHe was travelling to Fraser’s Hill for a recreational visit in his Rolls Royce accompanied by his wife Lady Gurney, his private secretary D.J. Staples and his Malay driver. Since this was the time of the Malayan Emergency, he had an escort of a police Land Rover, a radio van and a Ford armoured car with a small hand operated turret and a Bren gun. Unfortunately the radio van broke down on the way and this delayed the armoured car by a few minutes. By the time the armoured car caught up with the Land Rover and Rolls Royce two miles from The Gap they had already been ambushed and Gurney was dead.

Sign marking the point where Sir Henry Gurney was killed.

This sign has been erected in the approximate location of the ambush.

The CTs had chosen their spot well and a group of 36 well armed men were lying in wait in prepared positions overlooking the road.  The Land Rover was hit first and then the Rolls. Sir Henry dashed out of the car, seemingly to draw fire away from his wife, and into a shallow ditch where he died. When the armoured car arrived on the scene, the CTs fled the scene after a brief fire fight. Five out of the nine policemen in the escort were wounded, as was the driver. Lady Gurney and Staples escaped unhurt.

Tombstone of Sir Henry Gurney at Cheras Road Christian Cemetery, Kuala Lumpur

Sir Henry’s grave at Cheras Road Christian Cemetery in KL.

Sir Henry Gurney's Rolls Royce at Penang Museum

The Rolls, after the bullet holes were patched up, was later used by the Governor of Penang. It is now on display outside the Penang Museum.

The CTs had been waiting for suitable targets in their ambush positions for 24 hours before Sir Henry’s convoy approached. The head of the Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng (who died of old age in Bangkok last month), confirmed in his memoires that the attack on Gurney had not been planned. Their aim was to strike a convoy to acquire weapons. They just ‘got lucky’ that Gurney happened to be passing.  With hindsight it was a turning point in the struggle.  British authorities were so shocked by the murder of their top official that they were galvanised into taking more drastic counter measures against the terrorists.

Tras New Village, 2013

Tras New Village, 2013

These measures were not long in coming. The following month, November 1951, the entire population of Tras, a small village seven miles from the ambush site, were rounded up onto lorries and sent to a detention camp in Ipoh, 150 miles away. The villagers (all Chinese) were suspected of giving material support to the CTs. Each person was allowed to take one shoulder pole with two baskets of possessions and leave everything else behind. At the detention camp they were interrogated and 37 people were arrested for possible involvement with the CTs. The rest were released in batches over the following months and years but they were forbidden from returning to Tras. Some found temporary homes in nearby villages while others sought help from relatives elsewhere. They were only allowed to return to Tras in 1958, after Independence, by which time Tras was an overgrown ghost town.

Tras New Village, 2013

I visited Tras a few months ago. There were no obvious scars from its traumatic past.

Kelab Kampung Baru Tras

In fact it was quite a cheerful, colourful place.

Colourful shophouses at Tras, Pahang

The Gap Resthouse

The Gap is the name given to the highest point of the pass which cuts through the Titiwangsa Mountain Range on the road linking Kuala Kubu Bharu (in Selangor) with Raub (in Pahang).

The Gap is situated at about 800 metres above sea level and from here a narrow single track road winds its way up a further 400m or so to cool hill resort of Fraser’s Hill.

The Gap Resthouse

For more than 100 years, a fine stone-built Tudor style Resthouse has stood at this spot offering accommodation and refreshment to travellers. In fact the Resthouse is even older than Fraser’s Hill which was not really developed as a hill resort until the 1920s.

A travel guide book from 1913 wrote:

Here begins to blow a breeze which starts in the China Sea and is going to end in the Straits of Malacca. It is deliciously cool and the views of both sides of the ridge along which the road runs are magnificent. The Gap resthouse should be reached by 3pm and there will perhaps be time for tea and to admire the roses and dahlias which grow so well at this height.

The road to Fraser’s Hill is so narrow that they used to operate an alternating direction system so that on odd hours the road was reserved for traffic going up and on even hours for traffic coming down.  Travellers who mistimed their arrival at the Gap might find the road closed, leaving them with an hour to kill. No doubt the Resthouse picked up a lot of business that way, as a convenient place for travellers to wait and enjoy a cup of tea.

A few years ago however a second Fraser’s Hill road was opened and now the old road is permanently open for ‘up’ traffic and the new one for ‘down’ traffic. Since travellers no longer need to wait, this may have affected business.

Going UpComing Down

The Gap Resthouse remained a popular hotel right up until the 1980s and 1990s and was run by the Government. Bird watchers in particular liked to stay here. A few years back it was ‘temporarily’ closed for renovation but for some reason the work was never completed and to this day the building is abandoned and under threat from the elements. I note that the nearby Hing Kee Coffeehouse, which would have catered for those on lower budgets than the Resthouse’s target market, has also closed down. This building is for sale or rent if you are interested in relocating to this beautiful location. Some renovation needed!

The former Hing Kee Coffeehouse is for sale.

Here are a few photos of the Gap Resthouse interior taken in January 2013.

The Gap Resthouse

The building looks structurally sound and solidly built and the roof appears intact. 

It gets cool enough for a log fire here in the evenings.

Henri Fauconnier, in his book The Soul of Malaya, writes about this resthouse:

best and most unlooked for of welcomes – tall flames were dancing in a fireplace.

F. Spencer Chapman also refers to this place in The Jungle is Neutral, his famous account of guerilla warfare against the Japanese.

The rooms have generous proportions.

This heritage building can still be saved and restored to its former glory provided action is taken now. Hurry before the climate and vandals take it beyond repair.

The Gap Resthouse - in need of sympathetic restoration.

Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands?

If you are touring Malaysia and would like to visit a hill resort but do not have time for both, which one should you visit, Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands?

Fraser’s Hill is closer to Kuala Lumpur and therefore quicker to get to if time is an issue (2 hours compared to 4 hours for Cameron Highlands).

Both resorts are at a similar altitude (15oom) and enjoy a relatively cool climate (by simmering Malaysian standards).  Fraser’s Hill was the damper and colder of the two during  our visits but that may have been due to the time of year (August for Fraser’s compared to December for Cameron Highlands).

Both were named after Scots and were originally intended to be Raj-style hill stations with English style bungalows, rose gardens and so on. Fraser’s Hill retains more of that atmosphere due it being by far the sleepier of the two.

Both have golf courses (9 holes in Fraser’s) and both have hotels called Ye Olde Smokehouse. We stayed in that hotel in Fraser’s Hill. Nice if you are feeling nostalgic about England. They served traditional British fare, the rooms were spacious with 4 poster beds and there was a cozy bar (empty). A bit like an up-market Fawlty Towers in the tropics. No, that’s being a bit unfair. It is actually a smart hotel for a special occasion or a romantic getaway.

Manuel, get the Major his gin.

Both resorts have jungle trails. Leeches tried to attach themselves to our legs at Fraser’s whereas we didn’t encounter any at Cameron Highlands but that could have been due to the weather. Both resorts have waterfalls nearby.

Jeriau Waterfall, Fraser's Hill

Overall there was not a great deal to do at Fraser’s Hill. There was a definite off-season feel to the place with many establishments closed. Besides the hotel there were only one or two places to eat and just a couple of general stores were open. To be fair our visit was 16 months ago and I am aware there were plans to develop the place so perhaps things have changed since.

On the other hand there were plenty of attractions during our recent trip to Cameron Highlands and a much greater choice of restaurants, shops and accommodation. 

We had a nice time at Fraser’s Hill but I’m not in any great hurry to revisit. As they say, ‘Done that, been there and got the T-shirt’ (actually I didn’t get the T-shirt as there weren’t any on sale).

If I had to chose between the two I would suggest Cameron Highlands.

Ye Olde Smokehouse, Fraser's Hill