Pioneer navy volunteers share their exploits

SINGAPORE- From fighting off Japanese invaders to taking on a booby-trapped ship, a new book provides a rare insight into the exploits of the volunteer group that was the precursor of Singapore's navy.

Titled Naval Reservists In Action-World War II (Far East) and Confrontation (1963-66), the 209-page book tracks the history of the group since its formation in 1934 through stories from those who were in it.

They included then Lieutenant Lim Jit Cheow. In 1965, the patrol boat he was on fired and blew off an intruder vessel containing a large cache of explosives near St John's Lighthouse.

Had he gone onto the vessel to do a search as officer-in-charge of the boarding party, the "booby trap would have triggered an explosion and blown up in my face".

He wrote: "I had learnt an important lesson from the night's engagement, and that was to be swift and decisive when dealing with the enemy."

The volunteer group at its 1934 inception was first known as the Straits Settlements Naval Volunteer Reserve - part of the British Royal Navy. Over the years, the force evolved, seeing action with the regulars through World War II, before becoming the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force in 1966.

The volunteers last saw active war service between 1962 and 1966, during a period known as Confrontation, in which political and armed opposition in Indonesia were against the formation of Malaysia.

This force was the precursor of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) formally established in May 1967, according to the book launched this month.

And naval volunteers such as Lt Lim took up the call when invited to join the new Singapore Armed Forces. "I considered it my duty as a citizen of newly independent Singapore to step forward to do my part for the defence of our new-found sovereignty and independence," he wrote.

Together with others, "we pioneered and launched our fledgling navy. We never looked back from Day 1 when the RSN was born".

With other pioneers, he set up the School of Naval Training with the help of the New Zealand Navy. In 1974, he became the first commanding officer of the RSN's Midshipmen School and later retired as a navy major. He died in February aged 74, said the book's Singaporean editor Adrian Villanueva, who added that one of Lt Lim's last acts was to check what he wrote from his hospital bed.

"I promised him the book will be published. A promise is a promise," said training consultant Villanueva, 73, once a naval volunteer lieutenant who saw active service between 1964 and 1966.

The book contains so far undisclosed nuggets of information. For instance, when Japanese troops crossed the Straits on the second day of their invasion of Singapore in 1942, volunteer reservists like Lieutenant R.G. Banks went against them in a gunboat.

He recounted how the gunboat tried to get as close to the Causeway as possible and fire at sampans ferrying Japanese troops at night: "I never knew when a target would pop up under my Lewis machine gun."

Said Mr Villanueva: "The book is meant to record the history of the reservists and what contributions we did, especially in battle. Our contributions were a lot."

Britain's Vice-Admiral Michael Gretton, in the book's foreword, said: "Readers will surely finish the book with a better idea of the importance of reservists, both to complement the capability of regulars, and to keep the armed forces well rooted in the communities they serve."

Royalties from the book, priced at $20, will be donated to navy-linked charities, said Mr Villanueva.

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