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 might just be technically correct when it comes to Scots Guards; or it might not. Most accounts agree there was a Malaya policeman with the patrol but some also mention a Chinese-speaking detective, maybe even two ethnic Chinese detectives. So that would bring the total patrol strength up to 17 or 18.
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. Most reports refer to 24 men dying. One report says there were 28 adult males at the settlement. Another says that an ethnic Chinese man arrived in a truck during the raid and was imprisoned with the workers. 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 of the workers 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.
The stories surrounding the sole 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. Chong must be prime suspect and his vagueness about the exact circumstances of his survival are therefore not surprising.
Nearly all the versions of the incident say the woman and children were loaded onto at least one truck and were out of sight when the shooting started. Where the truck or trucks came from depends on who is telling the story and when they are telling it. The last surviving civilian adult witness, Tham Yong, says in one version that the Scots Guards arrived in trucks. In other she said that they came into the camp on foot from the jungle. Or 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 that it showed up, laden with food and driven by, in the middle of the night after the British troops had occupied the settlement. It has been estimated that there were 80 ethnic Chinese living at Batang Kali. Take away the menfolk and you still have 50 or more women and children. Rather a lot of people to cram onto just one truck.
One of the mysteries about Batang Kali is why there was no officer among the patrol members. The patrol was commanded by 22-year-old Lance Sergeant Charles Douglas and But the patrol was accompanied by another lance sergeant, Thomas Hughes, who had fought in Greece during the Second World War. One patrol member said Batang Kali was the only operation he took part in that was not led by an officer. The men's platoon commander, Capt. George Ramsay, said he had asked for an officer to lead the patrol but was told none was available. Ramsay was leading the other half of the platoon in another anti-guerilla sortie, also based on an intelligence report, when Batang Kali was raided. 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.
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 even offered a safe haven for men who had killed British soldiers. They may even have been acting on specific intelligence that stated a truck carrying food for the guerillas was expected at the settlement. Shortly 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. Cootes and the three other soldiers said it was L/Sgt Hughes who ordered them to kill the menfolk.
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, workshop and store room. What they found is disputed. One account says Sten gun 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. Yet another account says the piece of paper was not a receipt but simply a permit to pick fruit.
The man who had the paper on him, Luo Hui Van (also sometimes identified as Loh Kit Lin), was apparently shot. One of the Guardsman 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 by one of lance sergeants. Another account is that he was encouraged to run down a track and when he refused, he was shot down by one of the Guardsmen and another soldier finished him with a single bullet to the head from a Sten gun.
Some accounts say that the Guardsmen herded the men into one of the dormitories and then took three out and pretended to shoot them. One of the men taken for fake execution, Choi Loi, collapsed and was evacuated with the women and children next day. The other workers were told that they would also be shot unless they started co-operating. The three men 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 account 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 down. 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 the settlement was 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 is a report of the sound of exploding ammunition being heard coming from some of the blazing huts. 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, had been decapitated and his head was 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 be 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. At least two of the soldiers, when questioned by civilian police in 1970, continued to maintain that the male villagers had been shot while trying escape.
The last of the adult civilian witnesses has died. It is a shame 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?