After the survivors from M.N.B.D.O.(L) had returned to Alexandria from Crete, the unit was re-formed. The Land Defence Force remained in Egypt, waiting for deployment; other units were sent to the Maldive Islands and Ceylon. Meanwhile, the war farther east was going badly. Marines fought gallantly at Hong Kong before the capitulation. Then, on 10th December, 1941, came the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. The survivors from the Royal Marine detachments, about 300, returned to Singapore. Some went to hospital, the remainder were re-kitted at the Naval Barracks and were organized as a battalion for duties ashore, under Captain R. G. S. Lang, who had commanded the Repulse detachment. Captain C. D. L. Aylwin, of the Prince of Wales, took one party to guard the wireless station at Kranji. Another was given a course of training in jungle warfare and went to Northern Malaya for the purpose of attacking the Japanese behind their lines, led by Lieutenant R. J. L. Davis, of the Repulse. A third was sent up-country to catch the fifth columnists who were known to be signalling to the enemy by night. At the same time, the marines who had disembarked from other ships, and had a knowledge of the inland waterways, joined naval ratings in small craft fitted with Lewis guns to patrol the Straits of Johore. Lieutenant Davis's party went by train to Kuala Lumpur, then to Port Swettenham, where they camped in the Chinese School. While waiting to begin the raids they continued their jungle training. It must be remembered that these men had come straight from the battleships, and knew nothing of travelling in the jungle, let alone fighting in it. "I can assure you," wrote one of them afterwards, "it is no joke trying to cut your way through virgin jungle with a bayonet. But the worse bugbear was the red ant-could he bite ? The mangrove swamps were not too funny, either ; if you had the misfortune to get into one, you promptly sank in up to your waist, surrounded by small red crabs, a foul smell, the aforesaid red ants, and just millions of mosquitoes.'' Before the marines could embark, Japanese aircraft machine-gunned and sank the motor launches in which they were to have made their raids. Having no water transport left, they were attached to Army units, and after five days were forced to withdraw to Kuala Lumpur, where they eventually acted as a demolition party. "We were given a sledgehammer each,'' wrote the marine already quoted, ' 'and driven to five engineering sheds, with orders to destroy everything. We had the grandest forenoon. I don't think the Japanese got much value out of that machinery." They also blew up ammunition dumps, buildings and ships in the harbour, and were the last troops to leave. All this time they had been living on the country-on bananas, pineapples, mangoes, coconuts, fowls and ducks. They were soon on the move again and came under constant air bombardment, which cost them their first casualties. They patrolled the banks of rivers and held an important bridge to cover the withdrawal of two Army battalions. Finally they joined up with a convoy and returned to the Naval Base a few days before the Japanese reached Johore. "Come on, Marines!" The last British troops to cross the causeway which links Johore with the island of Singapore were the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Lieutenant-Colonel I. M. Stewart, D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C.). They came over with their pipes playing "Hieland Lassie" and blew up the causeway behind them. Their strength had been reduced to 250, and the marines from the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sent to join them at their hutted camp outside Singapore. The composite battalion thus formed was officially called the Marine Argyll Battalion, but it will go down to history as the Plymouth Argylls: the Prince of Wales and the Repulse had been " Plymouth ships." The marines formed two companies, each with an armoured car and a Bren carrier, and the fellowship they created with the gallant 93rd will be an abiding memory in both Corps. "We never want better companions," said Colonel Stewart. The Japanese attack on Singapore began in the early hours of 9th February, 1942. The Plymouth Argylls were despatched to Bukit Timah, four miles from the city. The Japanese were shelling the causeway, and the lorries were dive-bombed and machine-gunned continuously. It became necessary to abandon them when the Japanese artillery got the range of the road. The Royal Marines and the Highlanders marched through rubber plantations to their allotted positions, where they began to dig themselves in, suffering many casualties from the air raids. Blazing oil tanks lit up the sky and made it as bright as day. The tropical rain poured down and filled the trenches, so that the troops spent half the night up to their waists in water, while covering the withdrawal of the Australians. One of the armoured cars manned by the marines made periodical sorties to a point on the causeway where it could fire effectively on the Japanese working parties. At 6 a.m. next morning Marine R. W. Seddon was ' 'having a bit of a swill in a claypit," as he put it, when he heard the sound of rifle fire. Captain Lang had been surrounded. Seddon thus described the incident: ' 'Colonel Stewart cried, 'Come on, Marines,' and we charged forward with our Bren guns. The Japs wore all sorts of rigs. Some were in shorts, some with equipment, others without; some wore only sarongs. You couldn't tell whether they were Japs or Malays or Chinese. The undergrowth was very dense, and we had to open up at random. I was doing a bit of spraying with my tommy gun and got some of them. Captain Lang had defended himself with his revolver and joined up with us. That night we had no sleep. The Japs must have been within 50 yards of us. We could hear them shouting: 'Any British or Indian troops here ? If so, come out, the war is over !' We went on a bit of a patrol next day and saw half a dozen strutting along. At the time we weren't sure what they were, so I challenged them. They answered, 'Punjabis.' After going a few paces farther they suddenly opened on us, hitting an Argyll officer." With Seddon was one of the boy-buglers from the Prince of Wales. He was then "nearly fifteen." "On the night the Japs invaded the island everything went haywire," he said "During the fighting a Jap sniper who had been hiding up a tree jumped down on me and wounded me in the wrist with his bayonet. I couldn't stick him myself, so I called the sergeant, who finished him off."

Last days in Malaya

The Plymouth Argylls had to operate in thick undergrowth, with no field of fire, their only protection in the air two Army Co-operation Lysanders. The Japanese bombers flew low and flung hand-grenades among the trees. But the marines held up the advance as they withdrew and destroyed several tanks with their anti-tank guns, enabling the nursing sisters and patients to evacuate an Army hospital, which the Japanese bombed and burnt out an hour later. During the retirement the marines became split up, and made their way back to the city in small groups, their rifles at the ready, for there were snipers all the way. They continued to lose many of their comrades from air attack. "There was no one left to put up a show," said one of the survivors. ' 'They were all squandered up.'' On reaching their camp they found that it had been turned into a hospital. Some made their way to Keppel harbour, to be told that a general evacuation had been ordered. Some of them boarded ships and got away while Singapore was blazing. One party found a rowing boat and after pulling for four hours was picked up by the gunboat Grasshopper. She was dive-bombed and sunk off the Sumatran coast. The survivors swam ashore, found an abandoned motor bus, which one of the marines drove to the nearest town. There they went on board a destroyer and were taken to Batavia. The Dutch authorities mistook them for spies (for they were in rags by that time) and arrested them, but they were released later and eventually reached Colombo. Yet another party left Singapore in a motor-launch commanded by a lieutenant, R.N.V.R. They reached the Dutch island of Singkep, where they found 800 soldiers and seamen. Nearby was another island where there was a number of Australian nurses and white women refugees. The Japanese were systematically bombing it and sending boats to capture the women. Some of the marines at Singkep joined a party of volunteers in a motor-launch towing flat-bottomed boats, brought off the women who were alive, and buried the dead. They finally left Singkep in a motor-boat with 300 on board, towing another, which sank. The survivors. were taken aboard the first boat, and all reached Padang, in Sumatra, whence they, too, were sent to Colombo. Such is the story of the Royal Marines in Malaya. It is a tangled story, and there are few left to tell it. All the officers of the detachments in the Prince of Wales and the Repulse became prisoners of war. In that unhappy history there is nothing of which the Corps need be ashamed, and much of which it may be proud. "There are bitter lessons to be learnt from the campaign," wrote one marine survivor, after he had reached home, ' 'but do not put all the blame on the man on the spot, who at least did his best in difficult circumstances which had never been properly appreciated in this country.''

The Royal Marines, and those with them, had fought a losing battle : a battle which had been lost before ever they had gone into action from their ships, unused to jungle warfare, but with their courage high. Some day, it may be, a memorial will be raised to the Plymouth Argylls in Singapore Island. The inscription on it might well take the form of that which is placed above Nelson's quarters in Port Royal, Jamaica : "Here fought the Plymouth Argylls. Ye who tread their footsteps, remember their glory."


Extracted from HMSO Booklet "The Admiralty Account of their achievements 1939 - 43