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Operation Canister: How the Colonial Service delivered news of the Brit High Comm’s death to Long Akah

Sir Henry Gurney was a British colonial administrator who served in different posts throughout the British Empire.

He joined the British Colonial Service in 1921 and was posted to Kenya as an assistant district commissioner.

After 14 years in Kenya, He was appointed Assistant Colonial Secretary to Jamaica.

From there, he served at various colonial offices including in London, Gold Coast and Palestine.

On Oct 1, 1948, Gurney was appointed High Commissioner to Malaya.

The assassination of Henry Gurney and Operation Canister

On Oct 6, 1951, Gurney was assassinated in an ambush by communist insurgents from the Malayan Communist Party.

He was on his way to a resort at Kuala Kubu Road near Fraser’s Hill, Pahang.

According to communist leader Chin Peng, the ambush was routine and the killing was by chance.

The communists only learned Gurney was among the dead from news reports.

When Gurney was killed, it was crucial to inform all the colonial officers in the region of his death.

Since it took place in the 1950s when phone coverage was still limited, especially here in Sarawak, how did the news get relayed?

One of the key people that needed to be informed of Gurney’s death at that time was Malcolm MacDonald, the British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia.

Coincidentally, MacDonald was on a visit at rural Ulu Baram, specifically in Long Akah at that time.

Thus, the British military planned a mission called Operation Canister. The plan was to fly over Ulu Baram using a military plane to drop a pistol cartridge canister containing the letter from His Excellency Anthony Abell.

The first message was dropped near Long Lama bazaar and the second letter was dropped near Fort Long Akah where MacDonald was located.

How the plane that flew over Long Akah looks like. Credits: Creative Commons

Here is the account of how the message conveying the news of the death of Sir Henry Gurney was delivered to Malcolm MacDonald in the Ulu Baram which was published on Oct 15, 1951 in The Sarawak Gazette:

The R.A.A.F Dakota plane under the command of Warrant Officer Brown left Kuching Airfield at 7am on Sunday, Oct 7, carrying senior Government Officers who were conversant with Mr Malcom MacDonald’s probable movements and the country in which he was travelling.

The early morning landas (runaway) weather looked far from promising as the plan took off and circled the field preparatory to settling a straight course in the direction of Miri, it having been decided to keep near the coast to begin with so as to avoid any bad weather further inland.

Flying at about 1,000 feet, the plane crossed the directly over Tanjung Jerijeh at Kuala Rajang at 7.33am crossed the lower Rajang Delta and met the sea again at Mukah flying directly over the twon at 8.05am. Being a Sunday morning there was little sign of life about the Government station.

By now the weather was clearing the prospects of a reasonably fine day seemed brighter; the plane was doing a steady 180 miles per hour, but sometime after leaving Mukah the hydraulic system sprang a leak. This is known as ‘losing your hydraulics’, an occurrence which apparently makes it necessary to lower the landing wheels. This slowed the aircraft down considerably so that off Niah and Suai it was done some 15 minutes behind schedule and the speed had dropped to around 100 knots.

Since by now the weather was improving rapidly it was obvious that there was a good chance of finding the Ulu Baram reasonably free of cloud.

The centre panel which comprises almost the whole of the entrance door was now removed and stowed forward. An approach anywhere near the great gaping hole in the side of the aircraft was only to be attempted by those who “had done it before!”

Flying over Miri to Baram

Near Miri at 9am a turn was made shore-wards, passing over the Lutong airstrip and then on to the east to pick up the Baram river.

The weather here was quite different from that experienced further south.

A normal ground mist was forming into rising patches of white cloud and Gunung Mulu stood out clearly in the morning sunlight.

It was therefore possible to map read on a straight course east of south to take the aircraft directly to the vicinity of Long Lama where the first message’ was to be dropped.

Just before ten o’clock the aircraft was circling over the Long Lama bazaar at an altitude of a few hundred feet from where all details could be clearly seen.

The government launch ‘Aline’ was tied alongside the riverbank indicating that the Commissioner-General’s Party was still upriver in longboats and that further search lay in the hills.

After a preliminary low run or two the aircraft came in straight and low, with the wireless operator stretched on the floor by the door holding the “bomb” consisting of an empty pistol cartridge canister containing His Excellency’s letter and attached by a long string to a simple roll of newspaper for a marker.

At a signal on the buzzer from the pilot this was dropped as the plane swept with a noisy rush over the open space near the bazaar.

It hit the edge of the river and was picked up by the launch crew.

Making sure that the Commissioner-General received the message

Having thus ensured that a message was left waiting at a point party the Commissioner-General’s Party would be certain to reach on their way down river the aircraft turned to follow the winding course of the river upstream towards Long Akah, and was before long flying between steep, forest covered hills forming the narrow valley down which the flooded waters of the Baram flowed swiftly.

The whole course of the river was closely followed and searched from an altitude 1,000-1,400 feet in case the longboats were on the way down.

After some twenty five minutes of twist flying and hill dodging the country opened out somewhat and the occasional appearance through billows of cloud of the distinctive broken top of Batu Kalulong indicated that the next objective, Long Akah, was nearby.

Flying over Long Akah to drop the letter

It was located and identified without delay and the plane dropped down to see people standing on the lawn in front of the Kubu, who by pointing apparently indicated that the party was upstream still.

In a few minutes the boats were identified heading for Long Akah and no doubt the occupants were a little surprised to find an R.A.A.F. Dakota in such a place, especially with the wheels down as if to land on the Kubu lawn!

The ensuing turning, banking and general aeronautics among the surrounding hills which was necessary to remain in the vicinity until the party was about to land from the boats, and get into the position to drop the message near the Kubu was a new experience for most of the passengers, although no doubt an everyday matter for the crew who had recently carried out many supply dropping efforts to the anti bandit forces in Malaya in similar country.

So it was with some relief that at 10.40 am Mr MacDonald was eventually seen to be standing up the lawn holding up the letter to show he had received it.

MacDonald returning to Kuching

It was reported that MacDonald arrived at Kuala Baram at 9.30 on Monday morning Oct 8.

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Then he arrived at Kuching by air at 3.30pm on the same day. It is uncertain if MacDonald flew straight to Kuala Lumpur to pay Gurney his final respects.

Meanwhile, Gurney’s funeral took place on Oct 8. He was buried in Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur in a ceremony that drew thousands of people.

The news of Henry Gurney’s death featured on The Canberra Times on Oct 8, 1951.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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