Tiger of Malaya:
The Straits Settlement Volunteer Corps
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When the Japanese struck Malaya in December 1941, the “British”
forces represented a wide variety of Commonwealth troops.
Two Indian, one Australian and one British division eventually
fought on the peninsula or on the island of Singapore, plus
two “Malayan” brigades (mostly British battalions
from the pre-war garrison). Indian State forces saw action,
as well as locally raised formations.
All of these units appear in our Tiger
of Malaya game. We looked at the Royal
Malay Regiment in an earlier installment, and the incredible
heroism of Lt. Adnan Saidi. In addition to the two regular
battalions of that regiment, a large number of local men volunteered
to defend the colony from the Japanese.
Singapore, founded in 1819 as a trading post for the British
East India Company, had never been assigned a very large garrison.
Through the early decades of the 19th century a regiment of
Madras infantry served on the island, giving way to a British
regular battalion in 1873 and returning in 1900. The permanent
Indian Army presence on Singapore ended in 1915, when troops
of the 5th Light Infantry mutinied.
Japanese troops pedal to victory,
Local contributions paid over 90 percent of Singapore’s
defense expenses. A Volunteer Rifle Corps of about 1,000 men,
including infantry, engineers and artillery, trained alongside
the Indian and British regulars.
After the First World War, this militia was expanded and given
a much greater role in the colony’s defense. The new
Straits Settlements Volunteer Force appeared in 1922, absorbing
the Singapore militia and similar mainland formations. By
1939, the SSVF numbered four infantry battalions plus artillery,
engineer, ambulance and signals contingents. An armored car
company with locally made vehicles joined the force by 1941.
The SSVF drew its members from Singapore (the 1st and 2nd
Battalions), Malacca (4th Battalion) and Penang (3rd Battalion).
Its sister force, the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces,
also mobilized four battalions. The two Singapore battalions
and the Malacca battalion were assigned to the Singapore Fortress
Command when the Japanese invaded Malaya, with the Penang
battalion assigned to the Penang Fortress Command.
Given the racial attitudes of the day, the two Singapore
battalions were strictly segregated. Firts Battalion’s
A Company contained Englishmen, B Company had other Europeans,
C Company was Scottish, and D Company Eurasian. In 2nd Battalion,
E Company was Chinese, F Company was Malay, and G Company
was a Eurasian machine-gun unit. Second Battalion also oversaw
the mixed-race signals unit.
Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival and his officers on their way
to surrender Singapore, 15 February 1942.
The Singapore Royal Artillery (Volunteer) was not a field
unit, but instead supplied gunners for the “fortress”
command’s coastal artillery. During the brief campaign,
the volunteers served at the Sentosa coastal battery and manned
air defense searchlights.
The volunteer infantry appears to have had adequate light
arms. Each battalion had trained an anti-tank section, but
the gunners were not issued weapons for the campaign and served
as infantrymen. Like Volunteer units in other parts of the
Empire, the SSVF wore uniforms similar to British regulars,
with the Scottish company wearing kilts. Unlike most of those
units, the SSVF battalions trained alongside the regular battalions
assigned to the Singapore garrison, and there was a surprisingly
high level of social interaction between Volunteer and regular
Light machine gunners of
Company A prepare for battle.
Unlike the Royal Malay Regiment, the SSVF accepted soldiers
from all communities, including Chinese and Indian recuits.
This made the battalions very popular in those quarters.
Thanks to the efficient but informal networks of the overseas
Chinese, Singapore’s Chinese community was well aware
of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Chinese cites
over the previous four years and particularly at the fall
of Hong Kong in late December. Chinese volunteers flocked
to the SSVF, but few could be accommodated. The surplus were
gathered by Lt. Col. John Dalley into an irregular band known
as “Dalforce.” Posted to the western end of the
island, not far from what became the Japanese landing beaches,
the Chinese volunteers fought with great spirit if not much
knowledge, knowing the fate that awaited them and their families
should the defense collapse.
Japanese 5th Division troops advance into hand-to-hand combat
at Bukit Timah Road, 10 February 1942.
When the Japanese landed made their first landings in force,
Dalforce and some of the SSVF companies were stationed alongside
22nd Australian Brigade to meet them. Despite heavy casualties,
the Japanese forced their way ashore and drove the diggers
back. Along Bukit Timah Road, the remnants of the SSVF battalions,
Dalforce and a battalion of Jind State Infantry attempted
to hold the Japanese 5th Division, which had already shredded
22nd Australian Brigade. The Japanese came in waves, and the
poorly trained “British,” their units quickly
becoming interspersed, held their positions against several
attacks. At some point during this fight Dalley appears to
have become utterly berserk, and charged the Japanese armed
only with his sword. His Chinese volunteers followed, armed
themselves only with swords, axes and shotguns. The SSVF 2nd
Battalion also became drawn into the vicious bayonet fight.
Very few of the defenders survived.
With the British capitulation on 15 February 1942, the SSVF
formally ceased to exist and the British authorities told
the men to go home. The Japanese felt differently, considering
the SSVF men prisoners of war. All of the Chinese taken in
arms, and many of the Malays, were massacred. Not satisfied
with killing those in uniform, Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita
ordered “collection centers” set up where Singapore’s
Chinese male residents between 18 and 50 had to report for
screening. Those identified as “anti-Japanese”
(by whatever definition the screening officers chose to apply
at the moment) were taken to remote corners of the island
and shot. A minimum of 8,600 Chinese residents were murdered
during these operations in the first days of the occupation,
but the actual total is believed to be many times that figure.
Honor of the Samurai. Imperial officers seek out “Anti-Japanese”
Chinese at Telok Kurau screening center.
In Tiger of Malaya, the SSVF battalions aren’t very
good, but just like Percival the Commonwealth player has to
play the hand he or she has been dealt. Their counters carry
the “Lion of Singapore,” a potent 13th century
Malay symbol adopted in more recent decades by Singapore’s
This piece originally appeared in August
of Malaya and take Singapore's
rickety lion to war!