THE HONG KONG AND SINGAPORE BATTALION ROYAL ARTILLERY
This first appeared in issue #1 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.
One name which constantly crops up in any study of Hong Kong's Military History is that of the Hong Kong Singapore Battalion of the Royal Artillery.
However, information on the HKSRA is scarce. A very valuable account of the battalion's early history was carried in a special New Year Supplement of the South China Morning Post in 1905. The text is as follows:
"Unfortunately no actual records of the early history of the Battalion have been kept. The following facts are traditional, partly compiled from the statements of former native officers and those still serving with the Battalion. A company of Madrassees was formed at Fort St. George, India, and sent to Hong Kong in the year 1841 soon after the occupation of the island by the British. The designation of this company was 'China Gun Lascars.' The strength of the company appears to have been:
1 Havildar-Major, 2 Havildars, 1 Bugler, 96 privates.
There were no British or Native Officers on the strength of the company. Nothing is known of the interior economy of this corps.
They were dressed alike to the garrison gunners of the time. The Havildar-Major was given warrant officers' uniform. Their duties seem to have been purely orderly and fatigue.
Later, in the year 1865, men of all Asiatic nations were enlisted for the corps, which consisted in 1880 of the following nationalities and creeds:
1, Madrassee Christians; 2, Madrassee Mohammedans; 3, Sayyad Mohammedans; 4, Portugese half-castes; 5, Jews; 6, Punjabi Mohammedans; 7, Malayees (Mohammedans, one of whom still remains in the Battalion).
It appears that a Punjabi Mohammedan company besides the mixed creed one existed, as in the year 1889 the latter company was ordered to adopt the Punjabi Company dress. The strength of Madrassees had now fallen to 18. In this year a married establishment was authorised, five men of the corps being taken on the strength. The families were allowed half ration for a woman and quarter for a child.
As rations were not issued in kind, an allowance in lieu was sanctioned at a rate fixed yearly according to the contract price of the ration.
The corps was commanded by a British Subaltern or Captain, if available, from the British company in the garrison. He was detailed for temporary duty only. There were consequently many changes. A British N.C.O. - usually a corporal or bombardier - was detached from the British company for clerical duties.
The chief duties of the corps at this time were finding orderlies to the garrison and performing Ordnance and Barrack fatigues. A certain amount of gun drill and musketry seems to have been carried out, and the men showed signs of efficiency; as the then commanding officer - Captain Blackenbury, of 8/1 Southern Division Royal Artillery - brought to the notice of the authorities the excessive amount of fatigue work imposed on the corps, and, owing to his representations, the companies were struck off all fatigues except those connected with armament work.
The commanding officer was assisted by an interpreter who received pay at the rate of 10s per month. He attended all courts-martial and courts of enquiry connected with the corps.
The state of the corps continued as such until the year 1881. On the increase of the armament of Hong Kong, the War Office, sanctioned the formation of another company on a similar footing to the existing ones.
Colonel Hall, the then Officer Commanding Royal Artillery, Hong Kong, expressed a desire that the new company should be composed entirely of Sikhs enlisted in the Punjab, India. In the meantime local enlistment was allowed, which had a deteriorating effect. The corps consisted at this time of one company only, designated 'A' - company.
The recruiting of the new Sikh company was entrusted to Sirdar Surmut Singh of Philoki, Gujranwala District, India, the chief native officer of the Hong Kong Police Force. The new company arrived in Hong Kong in July, 1881, and was inspected by Colonel Hall, R.A.
This company was designated 'B'company 'China Gun Lascars.' About this time a certain feeling of discontent arose on account of the designation of 'Gun Lascars' especially amongst the new Sikh company which had been enlisted in India as Top Khana (Artillery). The men of the corps prayed that its name might be changed, but not until 1891 was a General Order issued authorizing the designation of 'Asiatic Artillery.'
The dress of 'B' company was similar to that of 'A' company with the exception of the Head-dress, the Sikhs wearing the red safa in place of the helmet. The summer dress of the two companies was of white cloth similar to that worn by the British gunners at the time.
A recruit on enlistment was given a free issue of three suits, but he had to keep these up at his own expense afterwards. In 1885 the tunic for the corps had been done away with, and a free issue annually of three suits of white clothing substituted.
The strength of the two companies was kept up both by local enlistment and from India, the passage money as well as the usual bounty to the recruiter being offered to the latter was authorized. In the same year the enlistment of Madrassees was discontinued and Punjabis filled the vacancies caused by them. 'B' company carried out drill occasionally, and practice at a standing target with 64pdr R.M.L. and the old 7pdr R.M.L. The ammunition allowance was increased and the Sikh company was given a chance at annual practice. The guns were laid and fired by European N.C.O.s and gunners, the gun number being taken by the Sikhs. The following year the best men were picked out and trained in their duties of 'No. l's' but the gun was still fired by a European gunner. After firing half the annual grant of that year the employment of a European gunner was discontinued and the practice was finished entirely by the corps.
In the year 1885 practice at a moving target was carried out, but the laying and firing of the guns was still entrusted to Europeans. These duties were however, as before, gradually given up to the Corps.
A detachment consisting of three havildars, one naick and 12 privates was sent to Singapore to form a nucleus of a new company to be raised there later. They remained on the strength of * B1 company for a few years and were finally struck off on the formation of another company raised about this time.
In the year 1886 payment which had been formerly made in Rupees, was fixed in Mexican dollars.. The pay sheets were rendered at the time direct to the War Office, which saved a great many alterations owing to the ever fluctuating exchange. In this year funeral expenses were ordered to be defrayed by the public.
The small arm (Snider Carbine) with which the corps was armed, was changed to the Martini-Henry carbine.
In 1887 a Madrassee Havildar-Major still remained, and, as the enlistment of Madrassees had been discontinued and their strength had now fallen considerably, a Punjabi Havildar-Major was considered necessary. The Madrassee Havildar-Major finally resigned.
In 1889 the system of detailing an officer from the British companies to temporarily command the corps was discontinued, and Captain Hawkins - specially detailed from Home - took the command, by whom great care was taken to promote the efficiency of the corps.
In 1890 the two companies were encamped at Kowloon Dock for the purpose of mounting the 9.2 B.L. gun at Kowloon East Fort. [Note - either the gun or the fort is wrong] In the same year two ten-inch B.L. guns were mounted at Stonecutters West Fort.
In July 1891 the designation of the corps was changed to 'Asiatic Artillery.' Two Native Officers were sanctioned, and the Havildar-Majors of the companies were promoted to Jemadars.
In this year the Asiatic Artillery was increased by the formation of two more companies 'C* and 1D•.
The establishment was up to its authorized strength on the arrival of one Subadar, One Jemadar, two Havildars, three Naicks and 88 gunners from India, in the following year. Recruiting entirely from India under the auspices of the Indian Government was started in the same year.
In the year 1893 there were a few changes in the dress of the Native Officers and men of the corps. Gold lungis and kullahs were exchanged for the gold lace pugri for the Mohammedan Native Officers, and yellow kullahs for the rank and file. The Sikhs were given small chukkers (quoits of silver) for wear in the headdress.
A company of the Corps proceeded to Taku as part of the China Expeditionary Force and served with distinction throughout the operations against the Boxers. The officers with this Company were Captain Duff and Lieutenant Badham-Thornhill."
It is known that traditionally in the United Kingdom local militia or infantry manned forts but with the increasing sophistication of guns and gunnery it became necessary to have a dedicated pool of manpower which was fully trained with the necessary skills. Where Hong Kong was concerned, and other stations abroad, there was also the undeniable cold fact that non-British troops were cheaper. Throughout the last century "Asiatic Gun Lascars" had been used in the colony, in Ceylon, Singapore and Mauritius. These were auxiliaries to regular British units and were of variable quality.
In 1891 it was decided to reorganise them and form them into distinct and separate units. Martial Sikhs and Muslims from the Punjab were considered ideal for the job. In 1892 there were "Asiatic Artillery Companies" at Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon and Mauritius. In 1893 these were renamed "Local Companies, Royal Artillery." Then, in 1898, two separate battalions were formed: "The Hong Kong and Singapore Battalion, Royal Artillery", headquartered in Hong Kong, and the "Ceylon Battalion, Royal Artillery", headquartered in Ceylon.
In 1899 the Royal Artillery was split into two and the Royal Garrison Artillery came into being. This had an effect on Indian units and in 1899 the two battalions were renamed "Hong Kong Singapore Battalion, Royal Garrison Artillery" and "Ceylon-Mauritius Battalion, Royal Garrison Artillery." In 1907 the Ceylon-Mauritius Battalion was abolished and companies in Ceylon disbanded with the Mauritius company being absorbed into the Hong Kong Singapore Battalion RGA. This battalion then provided the manpower for Hong Kong, Singapore and Mauritius with its headquarters in Hong Kong.
In early 1924 it was decided to re-unite the Garrison and Field artillery once more into a single corps. In the United Kingdom the manning of coast defences was made a responsibility of Territorial, or part-time, units but overseas they continued to be manned by regulars.
The Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery continued to play an important role in the defences of the two colonies. The Mauritius element had not been retained after the First World War and in the early 1930s the HKSRA was made up of one mountain battery and three heavy batteries at Hong Kong, and one heavy battery at Singapore.
In April 1933 the coast artillery commands in Ireland and abroad were termed "Heavy Brigades" and were numbered from two to eight.
There were then two units in Hong Kong - the Royal Artillery and the HKSRA. The former's coast defence element was represented by the Eighth Heavy brigade, consisting of its headquarters, the 12th Heavy Battery, the 20th Heavy Battery, and the 24th Heavy Battery. The HKSRA was made up of the 2nd Heavy Battery, the 4th Heavy Battery and the 5th Heavy Battery, with the 3rd Heavy Battery in Singapore.
Throughout the 1930s however, there was constant dispute over the manning of coast defences, with an ever-present desire on the part of the home government to limit costs, and an ever-present desire on the part of military commanders to see the defences properly manned. The Indian troops of the HKSRA were cheaper than British troops and so it was expanded. In 1936 it ceased to be designated as a coast artillery unit was was reorganised to provide two mountain batteries and two medium batteries for landward defence. In 1938, three new heavy batteries were raised from India - for Singapore, for Penang and a battery for Hong Kong.
The expansion of the HKSRA brought its problems, as recorded in the History of Coast Defence:
"In May, 1934 this excellent Indian corps of artillery consisted of one mountain and three heavy batteries at Hong Kong, and one heavy battery at Singapore. By September, 1939, it had grown into two mountain batteries, two medium batteries, and one heavy battery at Hong Kong, six anti-aircraft batteries at Singapore and one heavy battery at Penang. Moreover, the extra manpower required to bring the British heavy batteries, both at Hong Kong and Singapore, from peace to war establishments, had also to be produced from HKSRA personnel, the local Asiatics - as has already been stated in the case of Singapore - proving unsuitable.
"The HKSRA had always been recruited from the best class of Punjabi Mussalmans and Sikhs, and a very high standard of recruit was thus steadily maintained, but this rapid and large expansion forced the corps to lower its standards, to enlist Punjabi Mussalmans and Sikhs of inferior quality and to extend their recruit to Jats and other Hindu classes. The last group of 350 was to be enlisted for Singapore in a great hurry in March, 1940, because it had been found - after years of fruitless controversy - that Straits Settlements Chinese and Tamils were completely unsuitable to perform the duties of 'higher gun members' and were graded as Category III personnel, only fit for unskilled labour.
"This tremendous enlargement meant not only a steep drop in the standard of the rank and file but also in the quality of the Indian officers and NCOs which together had the most disastrous results on morale, efficiency, discipline and loyalty of the units. It was a shortsighted policy which ruined this fine corps of Indian artillery by such reckless and improvident expansion."
The views of surviving British gunners who served in Hong Kong generally support this opinion, but it is worth mentioning the words of Tim Carew in his book: "The Fall of Hong Kong":
"The HKSRA were something of a corps d'elite. The Indians who joined the regiment did so on the clear understanding that they were saying goodbye to their own land, for the regiment served only in Hong Kong and Singapore. The men were rather better paid than the rest of the Indian Army and service in the regiment was very popular; indeed, the recruiting authorities in India had drastically cut the numbers to be taken because they complained that all the best recruits were enlisting in the HKSRA."
General Maltby's casualty figures, given elsewhere in this issue, show heavy HKSRA casualties in the 1941 battle - 144 dead, 45 missing, and 103 wounded, out of a total strength of 830.