Intelligence in prewar British Malaya was at best fragmentary and underfunded. Often undermined by personal rivalries and allegiances in the lead up to World War Two, what passed for British Intelligence in Southeast Asia relied heavily on the exclusivity of the ‘old boy network’.[1] It was a network that laid the foundations of the organisation later known as Force 136, that was itself an offshoot of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).[2] SOE’s European version was essentially using non-conventional methods including guerrilla warfare tactics, against enemy operations. In keeping with Churchill’s support for launching a new form of ‘Ungentlemanly Warfare’, the SOE was to inflict the maximum amount of damage as possible in the quickest amount of time, and then escape to fight another day.[3]

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, by 1936 Imperial Japan had signed an alliance with Nazi Germany, and a year later had invaded China’s northeastern region of Manchuria. In quick succession Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing fell. Along the way, English language newspapers were reported Japanese atrocities committed along the way.[4] In short order Imperial Japan then focused its attention southwards, going on to occupy all of the British, French and Dutch colonies scattered across Southeast Asia. By 1942, Japan’s theatre of war stretched from Hong Kong to Bali and everywhere in between, and it put Britain on notice: war was getting closer to the doorstep of Britain’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’. The real sticking point Britain now found itself in, was that it was militarily impotent. Not only were all of its military installations including naval bases, airfields and army establishments overrun and occupied, but thousands of British and Allied (meaning Commonwealth) military and civilian personnel were either dead or had been taken prisoner.

The other major dilemma Britain suffered was that it no longer had eyes nor ears in the region. This meant Britain was facing an enormous intelligence blackout of that really really significant part of fighting any war – knowing the enemy’s weaknesses or strengths. Strategically they’d underestimated Japan’s aims; tactically they’d failed to recognise Japan’s scientific and technical capacities; and operationally, they’d undermined the Japanese military’s fighting capabilities. With almost universal Allied underestimations of Japan’s warfighting strengths, it was left to the handful of those who did manage to escape, to shine a light on what had been a major blind spot in Britain’s military planning. It would be many of them who two years later would return to Japanese occupied territories as members of Force 136.

With the decimation of any Allied intelligence capabilities, Britain was desperately looking for ways to infiltrate the region. The role of Force 136 was to be concomitant with that of other SOE successes in occupied Europe. They were to organise and support local resistance fighters; help with espionage and sabotage of infrastructure including Japanese transport, communications and supply lines; and disrupt any Japanese intelligence networks across the Malay peninsula. Amongst two of the better known Force 136 members deployed nearly two years later were John Davis and Claude Fenner.[5]

Both Englishmen had been career police officers in British Malaya prior to World War Two. Each had progressed through the police ranks until ultimately ending up in Special Branch (SB). At that time SB recruitment alike most colonially organised authorities, relied less on merit and more heavily on being handpicked from the Police Force mostly through associated personal networks.[6] In SB’s capability plus intent threat matrix, the majority of SB actions and operations usually centred around political intelligence. When both these men were rising through the ranks from the 1930s onwards, their collective main focus was on domestic investigations aimed at protecting Britain’s interests in Malaya and Singapore, and almost exclusively from perceived internal threats of subversion prejudicial to Empire.[7] During Davis and Fenner’s heyday, that threat was the spread of Communism.

In their respective SB roles, most of their combined intelligence activities related to discovering and identifying Communist networks of sympathisers and agiprop, especially those with links back to any Communist heartlands. In British Malaya it was less about any Soviet Communist threat, and more about any burgeoning Chinese Communist penetration potentially threatening British colonial interests. In Davis and Fenner’s criminal and judicial civilian world, finding networks and identifying their members were essential parts of the job. Being able to speak some of the local languages and acquainted (at least from an observational point of view) with some of the vast sociocultural diversity across Malaya, placed both men in good stead. And so when they along with many other former European residents of British Malaya, made it back to the relative safety of Mountbatten’s newly developing Southeast Asian Command (SEAC) Headquarters in Colombo, it was a chance for Britain to exploit their combined knowledge bases.

With the European SOE successes freshly in mind, Britain being regrouping, planning, recruiting and training potential Force 136 operatives with a view of having them return and undertake the SOE mandate. In Davis and Fenner’s cases, informed assumptions were made that their intimate knowledge of the region, the geography, the politics and the people, would serve in SEAC’s favour. All of which was sound judgement excepting for the fact that it would be nearly two years before they returned, and in that time, a lot had changed in the former colony of British Malaya. While the actions of Force 136 personnel including Davis and Fenner are to be applauded, celebrated and respected, what was happening on the ground in the years and months prior should also be acknowledged.

From many English language history books you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese occupation stood still until the return of the Europeans, but that was not the case in many colonies including occupied British Malaya. Not only were non-European homegrown guerrilla movements mounting anti-Japanese actions, but they were also establishing interlinked and localised resistance networks. Many that were built using the same networks that Davis and Fenner had monitored in their SB days. After 8 December 1941, the largest and most organised were the Communist networks. The paradox being that some of what had already been put in place in terms of anti-Colonial movements in general, and anti-British and independence-seeking groups specifically, were now morphing into the more immediate threat of defeating the Japanese.

Across parts of the peninsula, underground Communist networks were already in place. In Negeri Sembilan for example, a series of safe houses serviced by jungle routes provided safe assembly, transit and deployment points. Locals with intimate knowledge of the jungle environs in their respective areas identified, monitored and defended various supply routes or weapons caches. Sophisticated intelligence networks included not only information collection, but also deft forms of propaganda – malicious gossip being one of the most effective in the non-urban areas. Recruiting and mobilisation of supporters such as medical and other domestic staff, as well as fighters too, was well underway. Competing ideologies aside, these were the practicalities of warfighting that were increasingly damaging Japanese efforts in various small-scale hit and run guerrilla operations, the very types of irregular warfighting Force 136 was ostensibly supposed to bring into Malaya. By the time Davis and Fenner returned however, it was not to a dishevelled and unorganised melee of disparate local fighting groups, but rather to a hierarchical, disciplined and organised military force.

That SEAC knew about some of the in-country operations was down to the handful of stay-behind operatives still in British Malaya. One of them was LTCOL Freddy Spencer Chapman, who had for some time been reporting that the anti-Japanese fighters had already set up regular deliveries of supplies including petrol; were avidly stockpiling weapons and ammunition caches; and in general undertaking everything and anything that could present favourable opportunities in mounting guerrilla warfare operations against the Japanese. Not only that, Chapman had advised that at the very basis of their success was that they already had their own system of internal communications. Although there was wireless and telegraph communications, it was often down to the verbal and written more localised self-reliant versions, that maintained their security. It was this in situ local security and organisation that would be paramount to the success of Force 136 when it eventually arrived.

While very little is yet known of the countless thousands of men and women who came together to fight against and defeat a common enemy, Chapman was amongst one of the European few reinforcing the important leadership of Chinese guerrilla leader Lim Bo Seng and others. This was because any intelligence was so dark that any type of information of any relevance that could be gleaned was considered viable, and Chapman probably realised any credibility attached to it could only be counted if it emanated from a European and in his case, a well-regarded senior British Army Officer such as himself. If Chapman and others hadn’t been there, it’s tempting to wonder if Force 136 would have even eventuated.

            As it was, all Force 136 resource and personnel operations including parachute drops and submarine landings relied heavily on their security being in the hands of locals.  Force 136 depended entirely upon trusting or having faith in the competencies of local intelligence, especially when in British Malaya most of it emanated from outside of their own British-affiliated and validated intelligence networks. For former Colonial Officers such as Davis and Fenner, it was not always as easy as it was for others such as Chapman. In some instances they had history with many locals, not the least of which included former policing relationships with certain members of the Communist guerrilla forces now aligned with the British. How this must have seemed to them, especially when all of their safety and security was totally reliant on the good graces of their hosts, was probably one of those personal memoirs we’ll never know.

[1] Margaret Shennan, Our Man in Malaya (Singapore: Monsoon, 2014) 5.

[2] SOE had been formed immediately after the fall of France by mid-1940, and at that time was exclusively focused on the European theatre of war. JG Beevor, SOE Recollections and Reflections 1940-45 (London: Bodley Head, 1981) 8.

[3] Giles Milton, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (New York: Picador, 2018) 18.

[4] Many of the Japanese military personnel who participated in and perpetuated some of the most heinous war crimes of the twentieth century, especially against Chinese women and girls, would later go on to not only lead, but be part of Japan’s initial assault forces in British Malaya. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997) 35-59.

[5] Shennan, Our Man, ibid.

[6] Ban Kah Choon, Absent History The Untold Story of Special Branch Operations in Singapore 1915-1942 (Singapore: SNP Media Asia Pty. Ltd., 2001) 97.

[7] Choon, Absent History, 24, 62, 119.


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