It’s been several years since I first wrote about the 1948 Batang Kali Massacre in Malaya. Since then, there has been a resurgence in interest regarding the actions of the Scots Guards patrol which is reported to have shot around two dozen ethnic Chinese rubber plantation and tin mine workers in cold blood – while claiming the men died in a failed mass escape from questioning.
I thought when I wrote the incident up for my book Scottish Military Disasters that there was at least some agreement on the basic facts. But the various reports which have cropped up in the past couple of years show that there is little agreement on anything except the names of some of the patrol members and of some of the people living on the plantation.
I wrote that the patrol from G Company of the 2nd Scots Guards which raided the workers’ camp at Batang Kali looking for Communist guerrillas on 11th December consisted of 14 men. Now I find figures of 16 or 18 Guardsmen are being thrown around. But the figure of 14 is probably correct when it comes to Guardsmen. Most accounts agree there was a Malaya Special Constable and two ethnic-Chinese special branch detectives. One of the special branch men told Royal Malayan Police investigators in the early 1990s that he was not at Batang Kali but was not believed. Anyway, the three police officers bring the number of members of the security forces involved up to 17 and there may have been at least one Malayan guide involved.
The Malaya policeman, Inche Jaffer bin Taib, reported counting 25 bodies after the shooting stopped. The Scots Guards claimed at the time to have killed 26 men but one of those may have been killed in a different incident. The death toll is generally agreed to have been 24 men. One report says there were 28 adult males, including at least one man visiting relatives, at the settlement when the Guardsmen arrived. Several accounts say that an ethnic Chinese man arrived in a truck during the raid and was imprisoned with the others. One man claims to have survived the killing because he fainted when the Scots Guards opened fire and was left dead. It seems to be agreed that one man was shot within an hour of the Scots Guards arriving in the village, while the mass shooting took place next morning, on December 12. Where the accounts differ is in whether he was shot while trying to escape or was executed in cold blood. Six of the eight members of the patrol interviewed by Scotland Yard just over 20 years after the shootings as part of an inquiry later closed down by an incoming Conservative government said the killings an “execution”. They were all former National Servicemen. Two, one a former Regular soldier, stuck to the shot while attempting to escape line. But one of the two deviated from the official version that the Chinese men had been mown down as they ran towards Guardsmen stationed around the perimeter of the settlement. Instead, he claimed that they were already past the Guardsmen when fire was opened. This explained why so many had been shot in the back – and also gave credence to claims that the Chinese men had failed to halt despite warnings. The fact that none of the workers managed to escape into the jungle is all the more surprising in view of the teenage Guardsmen conscripts were notorious in Malaya for their lack of marksmanship. And no wounded?
The stories surrounding the male survivor, Chong Foong (also sometimes identified as Chong Hong/Cheung Hung), are interesting. In some versions he faints during the morning shootings, but in another he faints when a Chinese detective fires off his revolver next to his head during an interrogation session the previous evening. Or did he faint twice? At least one of the workers is believed to have told the soldiers what they expected to hear – that the villagers were indeed supplying the guerrillas with food and shelter. That man, according to at least one of special branch men, was Chong. So, perhaps it is no great surprise that his story about how he survived kept changing over the years.
Truck or Trucks?
Nearly all the versions of the incident say the woman and children were loaded onto a lorry and were out of sight when the shooting started. The last surviving civilian adult witness, Tham Yong, was quoted as saying that the Scots Guards arrived in trucks. However, in most accounts she gave she said that they came into the camp on foot from the jungle. Maybe a translator got what she said to one of the journalists wrong. Another version has a truck already at the rubber plantation dormitory complex when the Guardsmen arrived. And yet another, the version generally accepted, has that it showed up, laden with food, in the middle of the night after the British troops had occupied the settlement. The driver was seized and would be shot next day.
One of the odd things about Batang Kali is why there was no officer among the patrol members. Command lay with a 22-year-old Lance Sergeant called Charles Douglas. But the patrol was accompanied by another lance sergeant, Thomas Hughes, who had fought in Greece during the Second World War. Why wasn’t the more experienced sergeant in charge? One patrol member said Batang Kali was the only operation he took part in that was not led by an officer. Douglas was still serving with the Scots Guards in 1970 as a Regimental Sergeant Major; so his association with the killings did not adversely affect his career. He told reporters in 1970 that he had been ordered not to comment on the massacre allegations. There were two patrols operating in the area that day. The other was commanded by Captain George Ramsay, G Company’s second-in-command. He later said he was told there was no officer available to take charge of the patrol going into Batang Kali and the most senior non-commissioned officer was required to remain at the base. Ramsay retired as a colonel. It is hard to know whether the fact that his Tory MP father Archibald Ramsay spent long spell in jail during the Second World War as result of his outspoken Nazi sympathies made Capt. Ramsay more or less liable to toe the line than some of his fellow officers in the battalion.
The Scots Guards did not happen upon Batang Kali by chance. They had been given information that the settlement was a hotbed of guerrilla sympathisers, possibly it had even offered a safe haven for men who had killed British soldiers. Almost a year before the raid three members of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars had been captured in a guerrilla ambush, doused with petrol, and burned alive.
One Guardsman, Victor Remedios, later told a newspaper in 1970 that a captain from the battalion had said that “the villagers were feeding terrorists and that every one of them should be killed”. Another Guardsman, William Cootes, told the same newspaper that he understood the plan was to kill everyone at Batang Kali – including the women and children.
It seems possible that the patrol had high hopes of surprising the people at Batang Kali while the guerrillas were there. But one account says that the patrol encountered two guerrillas near the village and opened fire on them. The two made their escape. The patrol arrived at Batang Kali around 5 p.m. to find the occupants chopping wood and preparing the evening meal. The soldiers put them under guard and searched the three worker dormitories, a workshop and a store room. What they found is disputed. One account says ammunition was discovered. Another that one of the men was found to have a receipt which the soldiers believed was from the guerrillas for some fruit. Tham Yong said the paper was not a receipt but simply a permit to pick fruit. If this was true, surely the Special Branch detectives would have told the soldiers.
Bullet to the Head
The man who had the paper on him, Luo Hui Van (also sometimes identified as Loh Kit Lin), was apparently quickly shot and his body left lying on the ground. One of the Guardsmen later said the man was shot for simply grinning insolently at one of the sergeants. The circumstances of the shooting are disputed. One account says he was told to stand next to a woodstack and turn away. He was then shot in the back. Another account is that he was encouraged to run down a track and when he refused, he was shot down by Douglas and Hughes finished him with a single bullet to the head from a Sten gun. The official version of the death was shot while trying to escape.
Some accounts say that the Guardsmen herded the men into one of the dormitories and then took either two or three out and pretended to shoot them. One of the old men taken for fake execution, Choi Loi, collapsed and was evacuated with the women and children next day. Chong also later claimed to have been a victim of a fake execution. The other workers were told that they would also be shot unless they started co-operating. The men supposedly executed were confined to another building until morning.
The events of the morning of December 12 are far from clear. The official story is that the men, on a pre-arranged signal, tried to make a run for it as they were being taken out of the dormitory and were shot while trying to escape. Other accounts say that the men were split up until groups of five or six and taken under escort to various parts of the settlement. They were then shot in cold blood. The shots were heard by the women and children who were out of sight on the far side of the village. The firing petered out after about five minutes
Just when the women were allowed back is also the subject of dispute. There are claims that they returned within a couple of days to find the bodies had been mutilated and some had been beheaded. Another account says no-one went near the settlement for almost a week, by which time the bodies had been partially eaten by animals and were too decayed to say exactly how they died. Some bodies were also burned. At some point several of the settlement buildings set on fire. Some of the women claimed to have seen the soldiers dousing the buildings with flammable liquid and to have seen the buildings being set alight. But official photos apparently taken after the shooting show at least some buildings unscathed. There have been suggestions that the men’s heads were taken away for identification purposes but most accounts agree only Lin Tian Shui, the settlement foreman who was driving the lorry which turned up in the middle of the night, had been decapitated and his head was later found. It was then supposedly thrown into the river by a Malaya woman. Other accounts identify the man beheaded as Kam Kow.
The attitude of the National Servicemen to their orders is also the subject of some confusion. Some accounts say that the men were told they would shot if they refused to take part in the killings. Another account is that they were all given the chance not participate but none of them accepted it. Yet another claims that the men who did not want to participate were sent to guard the women and children.
Some soldiers claim they were told that they would face 14 years in jail if they deviated from the “shot while trying to escape” version of the killings when questioned by the colonial authorities about events at Batang Kali.
The souvenir booklet prepared by the 2nd Battalion for those who served in Malaya noted with satisfaction that there was no further trouble in the area in the year which followed.
“Whether it was right or wrong need not concern us at the moment,” declared the booklet.
“Suffice to say that those killed were known to be active bandit sympathisers.”
The last of the adult civilian witnesses has died. It is a shame that in the weeks after the incident that the surviving witnesses were not subjected to a rigorous cross examination about their claims. At time of the shootings they were still considered unreliable Communist sympathisers. Claims for compensation from the families of those killed have further muddied the waters. But a handful of patrol members are still alive. They are now old men but there may still be time to put the record straight about what happened. Or are we looking at a cover-up of a cover-up? Why is what happened in 1948 still a State Secret?