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Tiger of Malaya:
The Straits Settlement Volunteer Corps

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2010

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,
January 1942.

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 officers.


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”
ethnic 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 armed forces.

This piece originally appeared in August 2005.

Order Tiger of Malaya and take Singapore's rickety lion to war!