Force 136 (Operation Gustavus in Malaya)

Singapore Infopedia


Force 136 in Malaya was part of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret service organisation active during World War II. Tasked with recruiting and training local guerillas to assist the planned British invasion of Japanese-occupied Malaya, Force 136 members also gathered intelligence and created an underground spy network.1

Origins of Force 136 in Malaya
In February 1942, Singapore fell to invading Japanese forces. Colonel Basil Goodfellow, a British officer, was evacuated just before the British surrender and in July that year, set up the Malayan Section of Force 136.2 Two other British officers who managed to escape the island served as Goodfellow’s advisors. They were Captain Richard Broome, a civil servant, and Captain John Davis, a police officer who had trained local guerillas prior to the Japanese invasion at the 101 Special Training School.3

Composition of the Force and its organisation

In order to carry out their objectives in Malaya, Force 136 sought Chinese recruits for their commando teams. This was necessary since Caucasian agents could not blend in with the local population, and moreover, anti-Japanese sentiments were prevalent within the Chinese community.4

However, as the unit was based in Calcutta, India, it was unable to obtain Chinese recruits until Major Lim Bo Seng joined the unit and sourced for suitable personnel through his contacts in Chongqing, China.5 The majority of the recruits obtained by Lim, including Tan Chong Tee, were Malayan Chinese residing in China at the time of the Japanese Occupation.6 Lim, as well as his recruits, were members of the Kuomintang political organisation, and were trained to operate wireless signal equipment and in intelligence gathering.7

Davis and Broome were appointed to lead the first two commando teams, codenamed Gustavus 1 and 2, to infiltrate Malaya given their proficiency in Cantonese, a Chinese dialect. Davis was also familiar with jungle conditions, being an avid trekker and experienced navigator.8 The teams were transported to Malaya from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Dutch submarine, as there were no Allied aircraft capable of making the round trip from the British-held territory to Malaya then.9 In all, there would be a total of six Gustavus teams landing in Malaya throughout the course of the war.10

Operation Gustavus in Malaya
On 24 May 1943, Davis and five Chinese agents landed north of Pangkor Island on the Perak coast.11 A base camp was established in the Segari Hills and agents proceeded to the plains to set up an intelligence network by securing cover jobs in Perak.12

Contact was made with the main resistance movement, the communist-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) on 30 September 1943. The liaison officer of Davis’ team was none other than Chin Peng – the future secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).13

The MPAJA provided support and manpower to Force 136, including a band of fighters to provide security at the unit’s Segari camp.14 The camp, however, was deemed as too vulnerable and in October 1943, it was relocated to Bukit Bidor (also known as Blantan) where the MPAJA had a strong presence.15

On 1 January 1944, Force 136 had its first formal meeting with the MPAJA.16 The meeting formalised their desire to cooperate against the Japanese, and obtained the agreement of the MPAJA to assist in re-establishing British control after the Japanese surrender. In return, the Allies would provide firearms, training, funds and medical supplies to the MPAJA.17 It was also agreed at the meeting to put aside questions regarding future British policy towards the communists.18

However, Force 136 was not immediately able to render the promised assistance to the MPAJA guerillas as the agents failed to contact their headquarters (HQ), which had moved from Calcutta to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), directly. Its wireless transmitter was hidden near its coastal landing zone, but the sheer weight of the transmitter at 450 Ibs (204 kg) meant that it could only be transported with a bullock cart. Fears of discovery by the Japanese while transporting this wireless set restrained them from moving it.19

To compound matters, from February 1944 onwards, Force 136 repeatedly failed to establish contact with the submarine bearing supplies that was dispatched by its HQ. There was no communication with HQ for over a year as a result of five unsuccessful submarine sorties.20 The last of these sorties came under attack from the Japanese and further attempts at making contact by submarine were halted for fear of discovery or further attacks.21

Collapse of the intelligence network

By March 1944, Force 136 agents had established a substantial underground network with legitimate businesses posing as fronts for their intelligence gathering activity. However, much of their work was undermined by a blunder committed by an agent who mistook a Japanese submarine for the rendezvous craft. The agent managed to escape but two assistants were detained, and they divulged information leading to the arrests of Force 136 agents working in the town areas.22

Lim Bo Seng, who had left the Bukit Bidor camp in order to raise funds and expand the intelligence network, was among those arrested.23 With the other agents, he was taken to the Batu Gajah Prison, where they were tortured for information by the Kempeitai (a military police force in Japanese-occupied areas). Unyielding in the face of the Kempeitai’s brutality, Lim died on 29 June 1944 and was buried in a mass grave next to the prison.24

A month after the crackdown on its intelligence network, Force 136 suffered a second major setback in May 1944. The Japanese launched a large-scale raid on the Bukit Bidor base, just as several Force 136 agents were retrieving the wireless transmitter. Although no casualties were suffered, supplies and important documents were lost when the camp was hastily evacuated.25

The wireless transmitter was subsequently set up in a new camp, but due to the lack of a suitable power generator, it was only in February 1945 that contact was re-established with HQ. That problem had been overcome when Force 136 agents devised a human-powered generator put together with parts from a bicycle.26 A second meeting with MPAJA representatives was called on 17 March 1945 and it was agreed that British liaison officers responsible for training and tactical decisions would be attached to each of the MPAJA’s regiments.27

Towards the end of Japanese Occupation
With a direct line of communication to HQ re-established, it became possible to coordinate supply airdrops and the addition of personnel. This was to prepare for the British counter-invasion of Malaya known as Operation Zipper. The increase in supplies and the training provided to MPAJA guerillas by British officers greatly enhanced their military effectiveness. By the time of the Japanese surrender on 14 August 1945, between 2,800 and 3,500 MPAJA fighters had been armed, while a total of 371 Force 136 personnel, including 134 Gurkha soldiers, had infiltrated Malaya.28

MPAJA fighters, along with airdropped British forces, prepared to disrupt Japanese supply lines during Operation Zipper but with the abrupt surrender of Japan after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, what was arguably to become the fruition of Force 136’s war efforts became unnecessary.29

While awaiting the return of the British, Force 136 and the MPAJA were directed to maintain order in the countryside and ensure that the latter did not carry out reprisals against the Japanese who were now holed up in the major cities. Force 136 was disbanded shortly after the war and its last duty was to disarm its former ally, the MPAJA.30


Alex Chow

1. J. Davis,  “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle,” in comp. and ed., Foong Choon Hon, trans., Clara Show, The Price of Peace: True Accounts of the Japanese Occupation, (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 1997), 13. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PRI-[HIS])
2. Frederick Spencer Chapman, The jungle is Neutral: A Soldier’s Three-Year Jungle Escape from the Japanese Army (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 193. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 CHA-[WAR])
3. Ian Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret: Force 136 (Singapore: Heinemann Educational, 1983), 77–78. (Call no. RSING 940.548641 TRE-[WAR])
4. “Force 136 – SOE in Asia,” Veteran Affairs Canada, 2011.
5. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 79.
6.  R. Broome, “The jungle: An Unusual Meeting Point,” in comp. and ed., Foong Choon Hon, trans., Clara Show, The Price of Peace: True Accounts of the Japanese Occupation, (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 1997), 29. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PRI-[HIS])
7. Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star Over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941–1946 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983), 73. (Call no. RSING 959.5105 CHE)
8. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 8.
9. Charles Greig Cruickshank, SOE in the Far East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 193–194. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 CRU-[WAR]); Chapman, The Jungle is Neutral, 193.
10. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 25–26.
11. Cruickshank, SOE in the Far East, 193.
12. Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, 73.
13. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 13.
14. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 13.
15. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 146.
16. Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, 73.
17. Cruickshank, SOE in the Far East, 195–196.
18. Chapman, The Jungle is Neutral, 202.
19. Broome, The Jungle, 3; Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 147.
20. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 149.
21. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 149.
22. S. Y. Tham, “Fighting Behind Enemy Lines,” in comp. and ed., Foong Choon Hon, trans., Clara Show, The Price of Peace: True Accounts of the Japanese Occupation, (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 1997), 92–97. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PRI-[HIS])
23. Broome, The Jungle, 39–40.
24. Tan Chong Tee, Force 136: Story of a WWII Resistance Fighter, trans. Lee Watt Sim and Clara Show (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 1995), 246–251. (Call no. RSEA 940.54865951 TAN-[WAR])
25. Broome, The Jungle, 33.
26. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 20.
27. Davis, “The Impenetrable Fortress in the Jungle”, 20.
28. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 209.
29. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 196–198.
30. Trenowden, Malayan Operations Most Secret, 204–208.

The information in this article is valid as at 1 August 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading material on the topic.

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