In a discussion about the role of the British in the loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, a group of hobbyist historians have turned up very interesting accounts of British soldiers staying behind to defend Singapore with local guerrillas even after British forces withdrew.

“I’m not a historian (though I’m in a related field), and this isn’t a lie exactly, just something everyone leaves out of the textbooks…

I work in Singapore, and grew up here. History lessons about WWII emphasise that the British completely failed in defending Malaya and Singapore when the Japanese invaded. The British weren’t adequately prepared, nobody anticipated an invasion over land from the north….they all assumed it’d be a sea attack from the south…and so on. When textbooks and museums talk about the resistance against the Japanese, they focus on native heroes like Lim Bo Seng and other Asian members of Force 136. Maybe there’s mention of how Chinese Communist guerrillas also fought the Japanese, and so on.

The idea is that the British dropped the ball. The British screwed up. The British rolled over and surrendered. This may be true at a collective level, but it’s drastically unfair to the individual heroes, the actual British soldiers themselves.

This is understandable, since the meta idea is to convey the narrative that national security is important, Singapore needs to rely on itself for its own defence, and so on. Malaysia teaches WWII history in much the same way. But I’ve always found it slightly disappointing that there isn’t more widespread knowledge about what some British soldiers actually did.

Even at the very start of the war, the British DID anticipate that they might lose Malaya and Singapore, and they might need special forces to stay behind and keep fighting the Japanese. Admittedly, it wasn’t a popular idea, and there weren’t many soldiers who ended up staying behind when Malaya and Singapore fell. But it was a thing. There were British soldiers who immediately went into the jungle and worked with guerrillas against the Japanese – and naturally most of them died. There were also British members of Force 136 that came in (or back to) Malaya later in the war. But generally people don’t know about this, or at least don’t know any details about it.

I recommend “The Jungle is Neutral” by Frederick Spencer Chapman if you’re interested in this – it’s a memoir or firsthand account from a British officer who was based in Singapore at the start of the war – a guerrilla warfare specialist who was one of the people insisting that the British needed to organise stay-behind parties and network with local fighters in the event of a successful Japanese invasion. He spent most of the war fighting with resistance groups in Malaya, and was the only guy from his initial team to survive. The wikipedia article on Chapman is a good summary, but it’s a great book if you like that sort of history.

I mean, think about it. This man tells his superiors, look, we’re going to lose. We need a plan to stay behind and keep fighting. He’s ignored. He and his team plan to stay behind anyway. And they do. They spend years in the jungle, training resistance groups, fighting alongside them – and almost all of them never make it out. Either they die fighting, or they die to disease. They run out of supplies, they’re forced to improvise arms and explosives… there’s an early account in the book about how they resorted to runny nitroglycerin in bamboo tubes. They’re out of contact with British forces. When Chapman finally makes contact with the British, it’s not to be extracted, but to get orders and keep fighting.

I’m not sure how factually accurate the book is, since there’s just so little information out there about British resistance fighters in Malaya during WWII. I assume it’s mostly true, since the author was a decorated officer, and I’ve never found anything to contradict his account – at most I’ve seen people saying Chapman was a conflicted and troubled man (he did commit suicide in 1971), but there’s an equal amount of stuff justifying what he did.

There is a war history community that knows about British guerrillas in Malaya – and it’s been referenced a little in fiction, I’ve read a YA novel series and a British comic drawing from this. But what really bothers me is that it’s all broadly speaking by British or white authors. You don’t see Asians writing or talking about this, for the most part – I’m Asian, if that matters.”

First posted on Reddit.

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