The first SSNVR ship, HMS Laburnum was inducted on 18 February 1935 and was used as a naval training platform. She was an ex-royal New Zealand Navy 2000 ton Flower class corvette fitted with a three-pounder gun and a 4.7-inch gun. HMS Laburnum was later converted to the HQ and Administrative Centre for the SSNVR, and the smaller HMS Penyengat was brought in for seamanship and navigational training. By 1937, two motor launches HMS Panglima and HMS Pahlawan, equipped with Lewis guns, were commissioned for coastal patrols. The SSNVR was expanded in October 1938 when its Penang branch was established. Initially known as SSNVR Penang, it was later designated as the Malayan Naval Volunteer Reserve (MRNVR) and received HMS Panji, transferred from Singapore, for training purposes. However by 1940 MRNVR had acquired two additional patrol boats, HMS Trang and HMS Jerong and five minesweepers. These reservists were in essence local volunteers , comprising almost entirely of Malays whose recognition of their service has largely gone unrecognised.With the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, the SSNVR increased the recruitment of mainly indigenous personnel into the force, to beef up local defences as Royal Navy resources were required in Europe. Members of the SSNVR were called up to active duty, and the force was augmented by members of the Royal Navy Malay Section.
With the winds of war blowing stronger, the British government had formed the Malay Section of the Royal Navy (RN) in 1939. This was the colonial government's effort to beef up the RN's power to defend the coastal waters of the Peninsula and the British Empire's interests in the archipelago, including Sarawak, North Borneo and Labuan. This was a separate unit of the Royal Navy and these men were given rigorous training in seamanship, communications and gunnery whilst shaping them into a fighting unit.This section, affectionately known as the Malay Navy, comprised exclusively of Malay men amongst the ranks as the RN was impressed with the will, abilities and service spirit of the Malay youths in the Malayan Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (MRNVR). They comprised of fresh recruits and a number of MRNVR members mobilised into the new force. The section's training centre and barracks were established at HMS Pelandok, tucked inside the sprawling naval base in Singapore. Under the command of Lt.-Commander H. Vickers, the recruits were trained as telegraphists, seamen and signal visualisers before serving on board RN ships, mostly merchantmen hastily converted and armed for combat. These ships were part of 80 warships the RN had for the defence of Malaya against the Japanese, with the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse leading the fleet.
The RN was however shocked on 2 December 1941 when these ships were sunk by Japanese warplanes, exposing the RN's fleet weakness against air attacks since there was no effective air cover available. Eleven days after the sinking of the capital ships, the HMS Lipis was sunk in Sarawak waters. By January 1942, the RN suffered further casualties with HMS Kudat sunk in Klang harbour, HMS Surveyor in Pulau Besar and HMS Kampar in the South China Sea. Meanwhile on 13 January 1942, HMS Matahari and HMS Larut were sunk by Japanese aircraft near Pulau Sabang while withdrawing from Malaya. The survivors who swam to the island were later rescued by HMS Kedah, which was heading towards Java Island after evacuating Borneo waters. In Singapore, HMS Pelandok was initially bombed on 8 December 1941 but was later destroyed in January 1942 by Japanese air raids. All able-bodied survivors were then moved to HMS Laburnum to join members of the MRNVR there. However, HMS Laburnum herself was damaged by the Imperial Japanese Navy on 11 February 1942 and was scuttled four days later at the Fall of Singapore to avoid her capture by the Japanese. By this time, all surviving ships were ordered to make a break from the harbour and sail for Australia via Indonesia, and for Colombo. Of the Malay seamen left behind in Singapore, 25 were killed by the Japanese in Tanjong Pagar after the surrender while the rest were sent as force labourers to Siam, Burma and Indonesia although some managed to escape to their kampongs.
Meanwhile, most of the ships escaping to Australia were sunk by the Japanese who were waiting in ambush in the south of Singapore. HMS Vyner Brooke was sunk by 9 Japanese Bombers on 14 February off Pulau Bangka with 20 Malay seamen dead. HMS Hwang Ho with Lt.-Commander Vickers was sunk off Lingga and he and his crew were taken as prisoner of wars (POW's) to Pulau Bangka where he later died. Sister ships HMS Siang Wo and HMS Shu Kuang were sunk on the same day but the survivors from the latter ship managed to reach Padang Sumatra where they were evacuated by the light cruiser HMS Dauntless to Chelicap Java. There, the Malay survivors joined those on board HMS Kedah that now headed towards Colombo as the way to Australia was no longer safe. Unfortunately after two days sailing. HMS Kedah had mechanical problems and was taken under tow by HMS Dauntless and arrived in Colombo in March 1942.
It was estimated that 10,000 British and Malay seamen were killed in the sinkings while about 85 Malay seamen survived. H.M.S. Kelantan, HMS Pangkor, HMS Pahang, HMS Perak, HMS Kepong, HMS Matang, and escort H.M.S. Medusa also safely arrived in Colombo in addition to H.M.S. Kedah. Of the 143 Malay Navy and MRNVR personnel now in Colombo, some were sent to East Africa to serve as intelligence operatives and others to India to prepare troops for the liberation of Malaya. Those remaining in Colombo were mainly deployed as telegraphists or harbour securitymen, while a number of selected personnel served with the British Military Force 136 and the USA's clandestine military unit OSS 404. These men later returned to Malaya with the liberation forces on September 1945.
H.M.S. Kedah - a typical converted merchantman Malay Navy men served on in WWII