Military Monday Episode 4 – Private O’Reilly and the Grenade
In June 1948, three European managers of rubber plantations were murdered in the state of Perak, in Malaya (Malaysia). A state of emergency was declared, known as The Malayan Emergency. British and Commonwealth forces fought against the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military part of the Malayan Communist Party. The MNLA called this conflict ‘The Anti-British National Liberation War’.
The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were involved in this emergency. They tried to contain the threat through jungle patrols, ambushes, cordons and searches. Many of the KOYLI soldiers were National Servicemen who had to learn on the job. The soldiers gave the guerrilla fighters the nickname ‘bandits’.
Although the men were fighting guerrilla warfare, they were also fighting against the landscape, the weather and the wildlife. The jungle and the leech were often the men’s greatest enemies. Private John Scurr, who served with the 1st Battalion KOYLI in the early 1950s described the Malayan jungle as ‘dense, humid, debilitating and emanating decay.. an aura of lurking death’ in his memoir.
In January 1949, a platoon of the 1st Battalion was on patrol in Kedah. A group of guerrilla fighters ran into a house near the top of a hill with the KOYLI in pursuit. Private Bernard O’Reilly got within a few yards of one of the fighters and tried to shoot, but his Sten gun jammed. Bernard saw the fighter emerge with a live grenade in his hand and immediately threw himself at the fighter. Both men rolled down the hill, with the live grenade that could explode at any time stuck in between them. The grenade exploded, severely wounding Private O’Reilly in the face and side. Bernard survived, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for saving his comrades.
Did you or someone you know serve with the KOYLI in Malaya? We are always interested in finding out more about soldiers’ experiences with the regiment. If you would like to share your story, or that of a family member or friend, please e-mail [email protected]