Chapter 5: The Malayan Scene
From the waterfront the Australians gazed eagerly at Singapore with its profusion of sights, sounds, and smells, and at the medley of uniforms on the wharf which “might well have come from the wardrobe of a theatrical company”.1 Before nightfall on 18th February 1941, the infantry were packed into railway carriages and on their way to barracks at Port Dickson, on the west coast of the Malayan Peninsula, and at Seremban, some 20 miles inland and 206 miles from Singapore. Headquarters of the AIF in Malaya was established at Sentul, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, capital of the Federated Malay States, 42 miles north-west of Seremban. The signals were at Kampong Bahru, a near-by suburb; the artillery and supply units and the general hospital at Malacca, on the west coast south of Port Dickson; and the motor ambulance convoy at Kajang, between Seremban and Kuala Lumpur.
There was a puzzling absence of women and children in the villages and towns through which the Australians passed in the early days of their travels in Malaya.
As we got to know the people (wrote the author of a chronicle of the 2/18th Battalion2) we learned that we had been given the reputation of being unholy terrors where women and children were concerned. ... However, the cheerful Digger soon proved the fallacy of this scare, and it was not long before all fear on the part of their yellow and black neighbours was dispelled. In fact, as soon as a convoy of troops was sighted approaching a town or village, the streets became lined with shouting youngsters holding up their thumbs and crying out “Hello, Jo”. That was their nickname for the Aussies, and it has stuck. Any Australian is always “Jo” wherever he is in Malaya.
There is reason to believe that this early fear of the Australians was the outcome partly of Japanese radio propaganda and partly of indirect official British propaganda, the latter misguidedly designed to heighten their reputation as warriors. But the warriors soon showed themselves to be in the main the sort of individuals to whom children take an instinctive liking, and whose relationships with others were on a man-to-man basis in which human values were of far more concern than rank, riches, race, creed or colour. The Asians were quick to show their liking for them. Soon the Australians “learnt a smattering of the Malay tongue, which is the easiest of all to pick up, and gradually became familiar enough with (Malayan) dollar currency to promote successful two-up schools. They grossly overpaid the Chinese rickshaw men, to the chagrin of the local inhabitants. The 2/19th lines were swarming with cocoa-brown Malaya youngsters delighted that we had commandeered their school. They were jolly children, with merry eyes and flashing teeth, and
they spoke English excellently and gravely. Real friendships were made between some of the men and these boys, and they cried when we left.3 They taught us Malay and collected Australian postage stamps avidly.”4
Soon men who had manoeuvred on windswept, sunburned plains in Australia were training amid lush tropical growth in steamy, unremitting heat, their clothes sodden with perspiration. There was apparently no time to be lost; a training instruction issued by Malaya Command warned that “the first three months of 1941 are likely to prove the critical period of the war, not only at home (Great Britain) and in the Middle East, but also in Malaya. ... We must ... use every effort to make ourselves fully efficient as early as possible.” Among the troops, rumours of imminent battle had been rife when the Queen Mary reached Singapore, and the expectation had gained ground that the men would see action within a fortnight. They soon found, however, that the possible imminence of war had not disturbed the social life of Singapore.
I still have very vivid memories of my first mental reactions on our arrival in Singapore (wrote an officer afterwards). We were being sent to a war station. We were equipped – even if only 50 per cent equipped – for war. Yet the first sight that met our eyes on the first evening was officers in mess dress and fashionable women in evening dress. It was not only incongruous, it was wrong. Either we were crazy or they were crazy. Either there was danger or there was no danger. If the latter why had we been sent there, and why were more troops on the way from India?
It was argued against this point of view that nothing was to be gained, least of all in morale, by foregoing social activities and leaving people to spend their leisure in boredom, or perhaps less innocuous and no more useful pursuits than those in which they now engaged. The real issue appears to have been how much leisure the community, and especially the forces stationed in Malaya, could afford at this stage. In retrospect it is obvious that the danger of Japanese aggression was taken far too lightly; and that an all-out effort, stripped down to the stark demands of war, was urgently necessary. As it was, the garrison maintained an easy-going, leisurely routine. Officers’ wives and children were allowed to remain, and their presence tended to be a distraction from an alert and active approach to a struggle for existence. This was to become still more serious when the struggle was in progress, and urgent problems of how to get wives and children to safety would face officers upon whom rested responsibility for the lives of their men and the defence of Malaya. On the other hand the Australians were new to the contemporary scene, and free of such domestic diversion. It was to be expected therefore that some at least of them would view the situation more critically than those upon whom it had crept by passage of time and the embrace of custom.
A jungle-clad range of mountains, generally some 4,000 feet high and rising to 7,186 feet, forms the backbone of the Malayan Peninsula, with mostly low-lying land on either side. The plain on the west side of the
range is relatively narrow, but was more highly developed and more closely populated. Here were Malaya’s main traffic arteries – a trunk road from Singapore to Singora, on the east coast of Thailand, with an extensive road system between it and the Malayan west coast; and the main line of a single-track metre-gauge railway to Bangkok, capital of Thailand, with laterals to the west coast and a branch to Singora. Another track started from this line at Gemas, 150 miles from Singapore, and ran on the east side of the range to the port of Tumpat, between Kota Bharu and the Thai frontier. From Pasir Mas, inland from Kota Bharu, a branch led back to the main track at Haad Yai junction, near Singora. A motor road which left the west coast road system in the Malayan State of Kedah crossed the frontier near Kroh and led to Patani, another east coast port. It linked with a route, shown on a current official map as in part cart track and in part footpath, southward from Kroh to Grik. A road then ran adjacent to the Sungei5 Perak back to Kuala Kangsar, on the trunk road. Thus there were on the west ready means of access to and from Thailand.
The large eastern portion of Malaya was poorly served by roads. They were principally one from Johore Bahru through Mersing to Endau, and two linking the east and west coasts. Of these two, one ran to Mersing from the trunk road at Ayer Hitam, crossing the railway line at Kluang; and the other from Kuala Kubu through a gap in the range at Fraser’s Hill to Kuantan. Most of the State of Kelantan, in the north-east, was roadless, and its only substantial transport link with the rest of Malaya was the eastern branch of the railway. Sandy beaches line Malaya’s east coast, and there are many, largely interspersed by mangrove swamps, on the west. Most of the rivers are not broad, but the Perak, in the northern half of the west coast, is half a mile wide well inland, at Kuala Kangsar. Apart from cultivated areas, devoted principally to rubber, rice and coconut growing, Malaya was mostly covered by jungle. There visibility throughout the day often extended for only a few yards, in a green dusk under the thick vegetation.
Malaya is some 400 miles long in a direct line. The main road and west-coast railway from Singapore to the border of Thailand were about the length of the railway between Sydney and Melbourne. The width of the peninsula varies from 60 to 200 miles, and its area is 52,500 square miles, or about a sixth of the area of New South Wales. The island of Penang, near the north-west coast, is 350 miles distant in a direct line from Singapore. Singapore Island, at the foot of the peninsula, is 217 square miles in extent – about 1-120th the area of Tasmania.
The population of the whole of Malaya in 1940 was nearly 5,500,000 people, of whom only about .5 per cent were Europeans.6 Chinese, far more astute and adapted to industry and commerce than the easy-going Malays, represented some 43 per cent of the population, the Malays 41
per cent. The rest were principally Indians, a large proportion of them coolies on plantations. Though few in number, the Japanese had extensive interests in the photographic industry, owned iron mines near Endau in Johore, at Kuala Dungun in Trengganu, and in Kelantan, and rubber estates of which many were at strategically important points. They also operated freighters from the east coast to Japan. Thus they were in a position to keep a close watch on defence activities, and to acquire an intimate knowledge of Malaya.
Lying only 73 miles north of the Equator, and bounded on both sides by the sea, Malaya has a heavily humid climate. This keeps the heat down to a mean of about 81 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, but its constancy, day and night, summer and winter, is exhausting, particularly to newcomers. In the jungle the atmosphere is especially oppressive, and made jungle exercises by troops uncomfortable and exhausting. Singapore itself, covered by jungle and mangrove swamp when it was acquired by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, had grown rapidly in importance and affluence as a junction of the vast streams of wealth flowing between East and West. It had in 1941 a population of about 720,000, and the port received some 31,000,000 tons of shipping a year (compared with about 12,000,000 then entering Sydney in a year).
Although the men did not know it, the directive given to General Bennett had contemplated that the force sent to Malaya would be used to strengthen its defence merely until it could join the Australian Corps in the Middle East in mid-1941. Meanwhile it was to come under the operational control of the General Officer Commanding, Malaya, with the reservations, as Bennett’s directive stated, that:–
(a) The Force will retain its identity as an Australian force;
(b) No part of the Force is to be employed apart from the whole without your consent;
(c) Should the GOC Malaya in certain circumstances of emergency insist on an extensive operational dispersal of your Force you will, after registering such protest as you deem essential, comply with the order of the GOC Malaya and immediately report the full circumstances to Army Headquarters, Melbourne.
Thus the directive embodied well-established principles for the employment of Australian forces overseas, giving Bennett a large degree of freedom of action subject to such overriding requirements as an emergency might impose.
Malaya presented to Bennett and those under his command many problems, of which the most important was training. In the expectation that the division would go to the Middle East, it had been organised and conditioned largely for rapid mechanised movement over good roads and in open country. Now it must be prepared to fight not only where such movement was possible, and approaching enemy forces could be easily seen and fired upon, but also in densely-vegetated country, where malaria was rife, roads were few or non-existent, and enemy troops might be
completely concealed only a few yards away. The country was inhabited mainly by people whose colour, features, clothes and language made Europeans among them especially conspicuous. On the other hand, Japanese were not easily distinguished from them by newcomers such as the Australians. To the Asian people of Malaya, subjects of a European race and lacking democratic self-government, war with Japan would mean something quite different from what it meant to the Australians, and their goodwill or trustworthiness could not be taken for granted. The heat, frequent sudden downpours of rain, swamps, rivers, and other obstacles would make troop movement exhausting and difficult. Tactics would have to be adapted to meet the new requirements.
Most of Malaya was conveniently but often misleadingly referred to as “the jungle”, in much the same way that Australians refer to “the bush” when they mean anything from areas covered by bushy vegetation to rural or remote parts of Australia, whether timbered or open country, inhabited or not. The Malayan “jungle” might include or be interspersed with rubber, coconut palm, pineapple and other plantations; villages, open grassy areas, and both primary and secondary jungle in the real sense of the term. At its outer edges, the primary jungle is dense and difficult to penetrate except by paths made by human beings or animals, and gives a misleading impression of impenetrability. Inside, it comprises a labyrinth of trees, standing in what, except to those fully conditioned to it, is apt to seem a stifling, eerie silence. It is possible to move here with a certain amount of freedom, but only those skilled in finding their way in these surroundings are likely to avoid becoming lost in the course of extensive movement. Secondary jungle – that which has been cleared and then allowed to grow again – is usually a mass of dense, tangled undergrowth.
The only antidote to jungle fear – in itself a terrifying enemy – is jungle lore sufficient to enable men to regard the jungle as a friend rather than an enemy, or at least as neutral. To this had to be added, for the purposes of warfare, skill and resolution in outwitting and overcoming enemy troops who also might seek to turn the jungle to their advantage.
Learning to live in moist tropical heat at almost sea level on the Equator was a very different and easy matter compared to learning to know the jungle (wrote an Australian officer). Strenuous efforts were made by small and large parties to obtain jungle training. A few individuals even went bush with the Sakai.7 Nevertheless, the true jungle is not the fearsome place most writers describe in great detail. As one of the Australian planters said to us on our arrival: “There are only two things in the jungle that will chase you. All the rest will run away from you much faster than you can run away from them, if you give them the chance.” The two jungle terrors were the seladang and the hornets. The former was a heavy and cumbersome water buffalo type of beast. The latter were fast black dive bombers with yellow bands around their middles. Twelve stings could kill a bullock. The red ants were annoying and irritable, but the hornets were really dangerous. Poisonous snakes abound in Malaya, the worst being the Hamadryad or King Cobra and the banded krait. I never heard of anyone being killed by snake bite among the troops in Malaya. Fifteen foot pythons were kept as pets to keep down the rats and mice. There were tigers and elephants in certain parts of Malaya. The latter
were not dangerous unless annoyed. The former caused plenty of scares but no real trouble. The sentry in the jungle at night was more scared by his own imagination than by any denizens of the jungle itself.
Use of long-range weapons would be difficult and sometimes impossible where masses of vegetation would tower before the mouths of guns, and hamper observation of the objective and effect of fire. Opportunity for ambush, by either attacker or defender, lay almost everywhere. Movement was of course almost completely concealed from air observation, but vehicles quickly became bogged in the damp, soft soil off the roads. Thus the supplies necessary to operations in the jungle would often have to be manhandled. Strict precautions would have to be taken against malaria. Movement in rubber was far less restricted, but here too it was difficult to keep direction and use supporting weapons to full advantage. Little imagination and initiative had been exercised in the training of the forces generally in Malaya at the time the Australians arrived. A notable exception was the 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 12th Indian Brigade which had arrived in Malaya late in 1939, whose leaders had made a relatively enterprising and vigorous approach to the problem.8
What steps were taken by the Australians to master these conditions? A booklet issued by Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in 1940 contained pithy advice on operations in Malaya in sharp contrast with some of the ideas prevailing there at the time. Evidently based on studies of the Japanese in action, it gave warning that the most likely enemy possessed a high standard of armament and technical training, great physical endurance and few bodily requirements compared with British troops; was ruthless, had a talent for misleading his opponent, a large potential “fifth column” in Malaya, and a very high standard and ample experience of landing operations. After landing he was capable of moving inland at great speed, self-contained for several days. As thick country did not favour static defence, offensive action should be taken against the enemy, whenever and wherever he was met. The booklet emphasised the need for training all ranks in moving through jungle, since “the difference between trained and untrained troops is immense”.9
The first training instruction issued by AIF Headquarters in Malaya echoed the necessity of making the troops “jungle-minded”. It asserted, however, that “our enemy will not be so trained ... is unaccustomed to any surprise and reacts badly to it. Generally speaking, he is weak in small unit training, and the initiative of his small units is of a low standard.” A Malaya Command training instruction previously mentioned said experience had shown that the Japanese soldier was “peculiarly helpless against unforeseen action by his enemy”.
Brigadier Taylor had flown ahead of his brigade to Malaya to arrange a tour of British and Indian units on the mainland in order to discover what methods of training had already been evolved. Although he found the units helpful and cooperative, he formed the opinion that none of them was very advanced in jungle training. He concluded that although the 22nd Brigade had made large strides in orthodox training in Australia, the principles on which they had trained there would now have to be adapted to the new conditions; in the jungle there were no fields of fire, tactical features lost their significance, roads and tracks were vital; static defence spelled defeat, and all round protection would be essential. As Taylor saw it, the section and platoon commanders would become all-important. “If they lost, you had lost,” he wrote afterwards. Major Anderson,10 one of Taylor’s officers, who had campaigned in East Africa in the previous world war against the German-led Askari, and thus possessed experience particularly valuable in Malayan conditions, wrote later also that “in jungle fighting, owing to the closeness of the country, the tempo of fighting is much faster than in ordinary warfare, and errors of tactics and judgment, and indecision on the part of junior commanders, have a far greater influence on the general scheme of operations than is generally realised”.
As often occurred when Australian and British troops were together in the tropics, the British considered that the Australians had too little respect for the heat of the midday sun, and the Australians considered that the British had too much respect for it.
The local planters thought the Australians were crazy to attempt so much hard physical training in the tropical heat, that is, during the daytime (an officer wrote). Plenty of sweat was lost, but the physical effects were good rather than bad. On the other hand, the complete contempt in which Australians held the siesta hour on arrival abated very rapidly and they ultimately adopted the custom. Neither mad dogs nor Englishmen – except a few “flanneled fools” – seemed to go out in the noon-day sun in Malaya.11
In the early stages of section training the Australians suffered much from fatigue and cramp, and skin diseases were common. Salt reduced cramp and fatigue, and medical officers with the keen cooperation of Colonel Maxwell of the 2/19th Battalion, himself a doctor by profession, were able to reduce the prevalence of skin diseases.12 As equipment was streamlined, speed of movement both by day and night improved, and gradually the men developed a sense of direction when moving in dense vegetation where the range of vision was severely limited. Training syllabuses
included village fighting, wide enveloping movements, moving as advance-guards with carriers through a defile (in effect any jungle-lined road in Malaya), and night attack. Much was learned by trial and error, and by frequent consultation between Taylor and his battalion commanders.
On 28th February the Deputy Chief of the Australian General Staff, Major-General Northcott,13 had arrived in Singapore to attend a staff conference, which will be mentioned later. He informed General Bennett that (in accordance with an agreement with the Dutch) the 23rd Brigade was being moved to the Northern Territory; that two of its battalions would be sent to Timor and one to Ambon; and that the 27th Brigade would probably go to Alice Springs.14 Thus it seemed that in the near future about one-third of Bennett’s division would be in central Australia, one-third either in Darwin or the Dutch Indies and one-third in Malaya – an extremely unsatisfactory arrangement from the point of view of the commander.15
After Northcott had described this plan he told Bennett that he must either arrange with Malaya Command to take over an area command in Malaya, or return to Australia to take command of the larger part of the division.
Chose former (wrote Bennett in his diary). I must expect to stay here unless Japanese situation cleared up. I asked that a complete Div HQ be formed here or alternatively my Div HQ be sent from Australia and that I be authorised to form a complete Base HQ. He said he would recommend it to Military Board.
At the same meeting Bennett asked among other things for a casualty clearing station, more equipment, interpreters of Japanese, and certain staff officers including Colonel Derham, his senior medical officer. On the 3rd March Bennett sent a telegram to Melbourne asking that a second infantry brigade, a machine-gun battalion and a pioneer battalion and other smaller units be sent to Malaya. Next day, in a further effort, he sent letters to General Sturdee urging that the division be kept intact; to his artillery commander, Brigadier Callaghan; and to a close friend who was on the staff of the Minister for the Army. On 11th March Bennett learnt from Sturdee that his force would not be increased. Bennett’s staff was strengthened, however, by sending to Malaya later in March Major Kent Hughes, his DAQMG, in whom he had great confidence.16 At
length, on 20th March, Bennett was informed by Army Headquarters that his whole divisional headquarters was to join him, and also a field park company, stores depot, reserve motor transport company and convalescent depot. These were welcome additions, but far short of what Bennett had asked for, which was, in effect, the division less the brigade group committed to the Netherland Indies. The senior officers of the divisional staff arrived at Bennett’s headquarters on 6th April. Colonel Rourke took over as senior general staff officer and Colonel Broadbent as senior administrative officer.
The 22nd Brigade took part in March in a “Far Eastern Defence Exercise”, staged by Malaya Command, and aimed at testing all stages of transition from peace to war by the civil authorities and Services. On the theoretical assumption that an enemy had landed at Mersing, where the 12th Indian Brigade was stationed, the Australian brigade was to move from the Seremban–Port Dickson area via Kluang to help repel the invaders. This necessitated movement by road and rail over a distance of about 150 miles.
In the course of the movement, a sharp disagreement occurred between General Bennett and Brigadier Taylor about its timing. Although with the aid of intermediaries the difference was patched up, its causes lay deeper than the incident, in the temperaments of the two, and in there being only one brigade, but both a divisional commander and a brigadier. The task of a divisional headquarters normally was to control three infantry brigades, a group of artillery regiments under a brigadier, divisional engineers, signallers and others, with, perhaps, units of armour, machine-gunners, pioneers and more. When a divisional commander and his staff controlled virtually only a single brigade group a difficult situation was created. Bennett’s division in Malaya was, at the time, Taylor’s brigade and little more. Friction resulted from the exercise of both divisional and brigade authority within these narrow confines
In April the infantry practised bayonet assault and snap shooting in the jungle, aimed at increasing their speed of movement and reaction. The more experienced infantry officers – especially Major Anderson as a veteran of jungle warfare – attached great importance to training junior commanders and their men in the use of weapons for personal defence. They did so on the ground that the likelihood of meeting the enemy suddenly at close quarters in the jungle called for a high degree of self-reliance, and speedy mental reaction such as would gain for them the advantages of surprise and the initiative. This training was to stand them in good stead, and to cost the enemy dearly, especially when he came within the reach of their bayonets in events which were to follow.17 As a result of an exercise during April General Bennett reached conclusions of particular interest in view of what was to happen in battle. Among these were that communications and information presented a major problem,
as information had taken too long to come through; and that “A” and “B” Echelon mechanical transport must not be used as troop-carrying vehicles except in very special circumstances.
In May groups from each battalion took part in an elephant hunt in mountainous and enclosed country. Under the supervision of Malays they lived and travelled in the jungle for four days, and made shelters, beds and rafts from bamboo. By July each battalion was sending out self-contained companies on a 30-mile circuit on four-day exercises, which took them through rubber and jungle, with the company commander solely responsible for maintenance and protection. At night, companies went into perimeter defence, where they were “attacked” by roving platoons and learnt their weaknesses in defence and counter-attack. After company training came battalion training, which took the form of rapid movement by transport, the organisation and training of flying columns to seize important localities ahead of the main body, movement through jungle roads, protection against ambush, cooperation with artillery and aircraft, and battalion attack and defence. In attack a focal point was used in lieu of a “start-line” when units moved on predetermined compass bearings, the objective being some easily recognised line such as a road, track or village, well behind the supposed location of the enemy. In defence the battalions were allotted areas of responsibility which they constantly patrolled.
The 8th Division from its commander downwards was now undergoing a test to which Australian troops had not hitherto been put. In the South African War (to go no farther back) and in 1914-1918, Australians had volunteered in formidable numbers to go to “the front” and had been sent there briskly. In both those wars they had manned fighting formations, and had done little base or garrison service. In 1940 and 1941 first one then another and another Australian division had been sent to the Middle East and, in 1914-1918 style, had gone into action there with little or no delay. By July 1941 they had fought in Africa, Europe and Asia and few formations on the Allied side equalled them in experience. The 8th Division, on the other hand, although enlisted like the others in the wave of anxiety and enthusiasm that followed the fall of France, had been dispersed far and wide on garrison duty of a kind not contemplated by the officers and men when their units were being formed. In tropical conditions, which themselves imposed nervous strain, this resulted in a sense of frustration and the sort of grumbling by which men relieve their feelings. Strained relations existed at divisional headquarters from time to time.
The feelings of the Australian troops in Malaya were aggravated by remarks in letters from wives, girls and friends showing that they had gained from newspaper articles published in Australia the impression that the men were leading exotic lives in the tropics. Sometimes a wife or girl would add that she too knew how to have a gay time. Such remarks, made in ignorance of the toil, sweat and tedium of the men’s lot, bit into
the feelings of many. They referred to themselves satirically as “Menzies’ Glamour Boys”, and they named a row of huts “Pansy Alley”. When a newsreel showing Mr Menzies inspecting Australians in the Middle East came on the screen at Seremban there was a chorus of hoots because it was he who, as Prime Minister, embodied the decision to send them to Malaya. This was merely a means of relieving their pent-up feelings, but other members of the audience were astonished, and might understandably have attached to it more significance than it possessed.
Week-end leave, organised sport, and the efforts of organisations and individuals in providing amenities did much to counter the men’s feeling of frustration. As soon as General Bennett established his headquarters at Kuala Lumpur in March 1941 the Surveyor-General of the Federated Malay States, Major W. F. N. Bridges, a son of General Bridges who had commanded the First AIF in 1914-15, called upon him and asked whether he could help. Bennett asked him whether he could establish a leave club in Kuala Lumpur, staffed preferably by European women. In three days the people of Kuala Lumpur had opened one, with British women cooking for and waiting on the troops. In July a building erected on a recreation ground in the heart of Singapore for use as an Anzac Club was opened. The building was a personal gift from a Singapore resident, Mr H. W. T. Fogden, “as a mark of an Englishman’s appreciation of the Dominion troops”. The club was organised and financed by the Australian Comforts Fund, and staffed largely by Australian and New Zealand women in Singapore as voluntary workers. The Chinese community at Seremban organised a “garden” where Australian troops could obtain Chinese or English food at cost price. British women in the district voluntarily helped to staff it.
Friendships between the Australians and others extended through the community, and included many English people;18 although those who considered that that rather vaguely conceived factor, “the prestige of the white man” was best maintained by being aloof from “the natives” were apt to look askance at the Australians because of their easy-going ways with Asians.
An issue regarding the employment of the 8th Division which caused General Bennett keen concern first arose in mid-April, when he received from Malaya Command a message forecasting that the principal role of his force would be in support of the 11th Indian Division in north-west Malaya. He saw in this the possibility that part of his division might come under command of General Murray-Lyon and noted in his diary: “I may
be left in the cold if operations come locally.” Apart from its personal aspect, such an arrangement would of course have been contrary to the directive which had been given him, except with Bennett’s consent or in an emergency. Although it did not eventuate, he remained on guard against any such move.
There were two incidents in May either of which might have caused serious trouble. General Bennett was asked by the Governor to supply troops to quell a strike of plantation workers for an increase in pay.19 Such an action would have cut right across Australian principles, and Bennett explained that Australian policy made it necessary for him to decline. He received next day a letter from Malaya Command stating that the AIF was legally bound to undertake the task, and this he reported to Australia. There followed a clash between other troops and strikers, in which some of the latter were killed. The upshot of Bennett’s report was that a cable was sent from Australia to Malaya Command confirming that the AIF was not to be used to break strikes. Bennett learned subsequently that India also objected.
On 26th May a report reached Bennett that two junior Australian officers had crossed the frontier into Thailand, and been arrested. Their action, of minor consequence in an individual sense, had grave possibilities in that it might be seized upon by the Japanese to make a case for entering Thailand on the ground that Thai neutrality had been violated. Although the incident blew over, news of it leaked out, and was used by enemy propagandists.
The arrival and activities of Australian troops in Malaya, with their unusual characteristics, naturally had made a newsy subject, useful for emphasising Imperial solidarity and the accumulating strength of British defences in the area. Thus the force was given extensive publicity, and Australian news was increasingly featured in Malayan newspapers with the aid of a service established by the Australian Department of Information. At one stage, however, steps were taken by the Services authorities to soft-pedal news about the AIF on the ground that the prominence given to the Australians tended to create ill-feeling on the part of other troops who had gained less recognition. While this might have been justifiable as a local measure, it affected overseas publicity also, and was resented not only by Bennett but by newspaper correspondents who gathered in increasing numbers in Malaya as the Far Eastern crisis approached a climax.
Skilful handling of publicity at this Far Eastern nerve-centre was obviously necessary not only for such effect as it might have upon the potential enemy. Favourable influence upon the American public, hesitant of commitment to war with Japan, was vitally important. It was necessary also to create an alert and responsive public opinion in Malaya and elsewhere in the Far Eastern area. The Services Press Bureau, set up in
May 1941, in charge of the Commander-in-Chief, China Station, with a naval commander at its head who had been brought from retirement and conspicuously lacked practical knowledge of the press, was frequently in conflict with newspapermen. It became all too apparent, then and later, that the Services “were undoubtedly hampered in the Far East through lack of officers experienced in dealing with the press”.20 The Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information (headed by an expert in Far Eastern Affairs, who was keenly cooperative towards Australia21) and the Malayan Department of Information were also engaged in publicity work, but the Services Press Bureau was of course a vital source of news on which they as well as the newspapermen were dependent. While shortcomings in Malaya were all too real, Brooke-Popham’s policy was to emphasise the growing strength of Malay’s defences. Muzzled though he was, by the policy of avoiding action which might be considered provocative to Japan, he could at least growl. To make the best of this required a thorough understanding of pressmen and the conditions of their work, with ability to assess the influence of their dispatches upon the mind of the public not only in Malaya but throughout the world. Individuals concerned possessed these qualifications in varying degree. On the whole, the administration of publicity policy through the Services Bureau was a source of dissatisfaction, and resulted in absurdities such as the following extract from a dispatch to a London newspaper in October 1941:–
I bring you good news – there is no need to worry about the strength of the Air Force that will oppose the Japanese should they send their army and navy southward. ... The Air Force is on the spot, and is waiting for the enemy – clouds of bombers and fighters are hidden in the jungle, and are ready to move out on to camouflaged tarmacs of our secret landing fields and roar into action at the first move of the Japanese towards this part of the world. ... The planes ... consist of the most modern planes Britain, Australia and America are producing.22
In view of the presence of many Japanese in Malaya and the discrepancy between such statements and the facts, it seemed highly improbable that the Japanese Intelligence services would be misled;23 but over-optimistic publicity did contribute to a false sense of security in Malaya, and to undue complacency as a result. An American radio reporter quoted an American girl who returned from a visit to the United States as saying:–
There is so much flag-waving and war spirit and talk about the war at home that it’s a relief to get back to the peace and quiet and indifference of Singapore.24
While the AIF in Malaya was preparing to fight, if need be, at this approach to Australia, the course of affairs in East Asia was largely an
intensification, with German encouragement, of already existing trends . towards war in the area. Possibly the advantage gained by Japan in dictating the settlement of the struggle between Indo-China and Thailand prompted the Japanese Foreign Minister to declare in February 1941 that Japan was fully prepared to act as mediator, or take whatever action was calculated to restore normal conditions, not only in “Greater East Asia”, but anywhere in the world. He was told, however, by the British Prime Minister that “in a cause of the kind for which we are fighting, a cause which is in no way concerned with territory, trade, or material gains, but affecting the whole future of humanity, there can be no question of compromise or parley”. Matsuoka subsequently declared that his words were not to be regarded as an offer of mediation in the European war. This retraction was stated in the House of Commons to have followed consultation with Germany; and in fact the German Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, was at the time seeking to persuade Japan, through General Oshima, Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, that a surprise intervention by Japan was bound to keep America out of the war. America, he argued, was not armed and would hesitate to expose her navy to any risks west of Hawaii, if Japan had first made a surprise attack. It was unlikely that America would declare war if she then would have to stand by helplessly while Japan took the Philippines without America being able to do anything about it. In view of the coming “New World Order”, it seemed to be in the interest of Japan to secure for herself, during the war, the position she wanted to hold in the Far East at the time of a peace treaty.25
In an order dated 5th March about collaboration with Japan, Herr Hitler decreed that it must be the aim of the collaboration based on the Tripartite Pact to induce Japan, as soon as possible, to take active measures in the Far East. The High Commands of the branches of the armed forces must comply in a comprehensive and generous manner with Japanese desires for information about German war and combat experience, and for assistance in military economics and in technical matters. Among the guiding principles he laid down were (1) the common aim was to be to force England to the ground quickly, thereby keeping the United States out of the war (Hitler added that beyond this Germany had no political, military or economic interests in the Far East which would give occasion for any reservations with regard to Japanese intentions); (2) the seizure of Singapore, as the key British position in the Far East, would mean a decisive success for the three Powers; (3) attacks on other bases of British naval power – extending to those of American naval power only if the entry of the United States into the war could not be prevented – would result in weakening the enemy’s power in that region, and also, like the attack on sea communications, in tying down substantial forces of all kinds.26
Growing concern with the situation in the Far East from another viewpoint was reflected in a series of talks, which were an outcome of the. Singapore conference of October 1940 and were designed to establish full cooperation between the participants. At a conference held in Singapore in February 1941 between United Kingdom, Dutch and Australian representatives,27 with United States observers in attendance, plans for mutual reinforcements, principally of air forces and submarines, were made. As already mentioned, the Australian Chiefs of Staff had advised earlier in February that Australia should arrange with the Dutch to station Australian forces in the Indies and particularly in Timor, if war broke out with Japan. As a result of the February conference at Singapore the Australian Government agreed to hold units in readiness to reinforce the garrisons both of Dutch Timor and of Ambon Island, also administered by the Dutch. Both of these, lying between New Guinea and Java, could be regarded as near stepping-stones to Australia from the north. Australia agreed also to provide an air striking force, based on Darwin, to operate from advanced bases to be established in collaboration with the Dutch at these two places. It was decided that immediate steps should be taken secretly to dispatch to them equipment and other requirements for Australian Army and Air Force units. The Australian Government was greatly concerned at the failure of the conference to draw up a coordinated naval plan for eastern waters and considered that early completion of such a plan was of paramount importance. Although the conference did not propose allocation of naval forces to operate from Darwin, the War Cabinet subsequently decided that the development of Darwin as a defended base for operations of the three Services must continue.
As to Mr Churchill’s pledge that if Japan set about invading Australia or New Zealand on a large scale, Britain would cut her losses in the Mediterranean and proceed to their aid, the War Cabinet noted a cable sent from London on 12th March by Mr Menzies, which made it evident that he had been talking to others than Mr Churchill on the subject. In the course of the cable he said:–
It was stressed to me that such a step would not be practicable until after the lapse of a considerable period, and might not be possible even then. It was urged that it was imperative to resolve a general declaration of this nature into a plan of specific measures that really would be possible in event of such a contingency arising. There are large forces in the Middle East, including three Australian divisions, and they could not be just left to their fate. To withdraw them, however, would take time, shipping would have to be provided, convoys organised, and naval protection afforded in the meantime. Much could happen in the Far East during that period, and it was unwise to delude ourselves regarding the immediate dispatch of a fleet of capital ships to Singapore if such reinforcement was impossible. It was far better to face the facts by preparing a definite plan of naval reinforcement east of Suez on a progressive basis according to the probable outcome of events in the Mediterranean.
Mr Menzies added that he had asked that this be done.
The Singapore conference in February had agreed upon a list of possible actions by Japan which from a strategic viewpoint would demand counteraction. The action which the conference thought most likely was the development of Japan’s hold on Indo-China and Thailand and an attack on Malaya with the object of capturing Singapore. The Australian War Cabinet decided to ask the United Kingdom Government whether a satisfactory procedure could be evolved to ensure that counter-measures against Japan when necessary could be taken without delay. In London, after considering the conclusions reached at the February conference, the Chiefs of Staff declared that any decision whether or not to help the Dutch would have to be made by the British Government at the time the issue arose.
In Washington at this time, as mentioned earlier, discussions were taking place between British and American staff officers. In consequence the British Chiefs of Staff appointed permanent representatives in the American national capital to maintain contact with the American Chiefs of Staff – a move that was to have important consequences in the development of cooperation between the forces of the two great powers.
The arrival of the 6,000 Australians at Singapore had greatly encouraged Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham, who urged that Hong Kong should be reinforced with two additional battalions, making a total of six, and that the policy be adopted of holding that port against the Japanese until it could be relieved and used as a base for offensive operations against them. The Chiefs of Staff in London disagreed; Mr Churchill declared that there was “not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it”; but Brooke-Popham did not then change his opinion.
In March and April a second Indian division arrived in Singapore. It was the 9th, under Major-General Barstow,28 but consisted of only two brigades (the third having been sent at the last moment to Iraq) and had no artillery. There were now five Indian brigades and one Australian brigade in Malaya, and three British regular battalions (not including three that formed parts of Indian brigades); but only enough field artillery to provide the normal quota of one division; and no tanks. However, the garrison had been more than trebled since the fall of France and Holland, and had acquired more than the additional 12 battalions of infantry recommended by the October conference; but, as has been mentioned, that conference considered that an additional 12 battalions would suffice only if the first-line air strength had been increased to 566 aircraft. Not one-fifth as many aircraft were yet in sight.
Air Vice-Marshal Pulford29 succeeded Air Vice-Marshal Babington as Air Officer Commanding Far East Command on 24th April 1941. In May
two more new senior commanders arrived in Malaya. Lieut-General Percival30 took over as GOC Malaya in place of General Bond on 16th May, and about the same time Lieut-General Sir Lewis Heath31 and the headquarters of III Indian Corps arrived. The fact that there were now three divisions in the field plus the equivalent of a fourth had made the addition of a corps headquarters essential.
General Percival had been commissioned at the age of 26 upon the outbreak of the 1914-1918 War, in which he rose to command a battalion, then to temporary command of the 54th Brigade, and won three decorations. His service between the wars included four years (1925-29) with the West African Frontier Force, and two (1936-38) as a senior staff officer in Malaya. He had then become a brigadier, on the General Staff of Aldershot Command. He had the unusual distinction of having graduated not only at the Army Staff College at Camberley but at the Naval Staff College, and of having attended a course at the Imperial Defence College. This had made him a member of a relatively small group from which senior commanders and chiefs of the general staff were customarily drawn. He had gone to France with the British Expeditionary Force soon after the outbreak of war in Europe; but in April 1940 had returned to London to become one of the three Assistant Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff. After the fall of France he asked to be transferred to a field formation and was given command of the 44th Division, recently evacuated from France and needing extensive reorganisation. Percival was unassuming, considerate and conciliatory, but whether he possessed the imagination, drive and ruthlessness required of a commander in circumstances such as were to arise in Malaya remained to be seen.
He had, however, challenged the then current strategical assumptions about Malaya when in 1937, as a staff officer there, he prepared an appreciation and plan of attack on Singapore from the point of view of the Japanese. The fundamental assumptions were that the British fleet would arrive at Singapore within a maximum of seventy days of outbreak of war with Japan; that its arrival would automatically avert danger of Singapore being captured; and that the role of the garrison was merely to hold out for that period. Percival held that as a result of the political situation in Europe it was unlikely that the British fleet would be able to reach Singapore in the time. He outlined a form of attack on Malaya which could be undertaken in such circumstances. This consisted of operations to seize airfields in southern Thailand and northern Malaya, and naval and air facilities in Borneo, preliminary to capture of Singapore itself. Percival consequently deduced that defence of northern Malaya and of Johore were of increased importance and that stronger forces were urgently needed. This prophetic viewpoint was subsequently adopted in principle
by the Chiefs of Staff in London, and it was not surprising therefore that Percival was chosen to help implement the resultant new defence plan.
General Heath was two years older than Percival and until recently had been senior to him. Before the 1914-1918 War he had served for three years with the King’s African Rifles; in that war he fought in Mesopotamia and suffered permanent injury to one arm. In 1940 he commanded the 5th Indian Division in the operations against the Italians in Abyssinia, and thus he had more recent experience of large-scale warfare than any other senior commander in Malaya. Heath’s corps, with headquarters at Kuala Lumpur, included the 9th Indian Division, now deployed on the east coast of Malaya, and the 11th Indian Division, in northern Malaya. On Singapore Island and in eastern Johore Major-General Simmons32 (who had served in Palestine during the disturbances of the late ‘thirties) commanded the equivalent of another division-1st Malaya, 2nd Malaya and 12th Indian Brigades – and the coastal and anti-aircraft artillery. General Percival’s reserve was the 8th Australian Division. The two Indian divisions each possessed only two brigades, and were short of artillery; the Australian division possessed only one brigade.
Burma also gained some reinforcements. At the October conference it had been held that five brigades and ancillary troops were required in Burma, which at that time had the equivalent of two brigades, mostly of Burman infantry units. The establishment of a Burma Army had begun only in 1937, when Burma was separated from India. When war broke out four battalions of the Burma Rifles were in existence, and these were now being increased to eight. The Burma Rifles, however, were considered to be of only limited value. Consequently when, in the course of 1941, two Indian brigade groups, the 13th and 16th, arrived in Burma, they represented a far stronger relative reinforcement than their mere numbers suggested. India had been the main source of military reinforcements for the Far East and her army was now being fairly rapidly expanded; but successive crises in the Middle East and Iraq and Persia (Iran) had drawn away one new Indian formation after another. By June these theatres had claimed all but three of the eight Indian divisions formed in 1939 and 1940.
It must have become increasingly clear to Japan that she could not count upon America standing aside in a Pacific war; but what of Russia? Matsuoka had visited Moscow, Berlin and Rome during March and April, and returned with a pact of neutrality between Japan and the Soviet Union (the Soviet having been warned by the Allies, in the meantime, that Germany was preparing to attack her). This eased the commitments of both countries on the Far Eastern borders where Japanese and Russian forces faced each other. It paved the way for westward movement if need
be of Russia’s eastern forces, and facilitated southward deployment of Japan’s.33
In Berlin Matsuoka told Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, that he was doing everything to reassure the English about Singapore. It might be possible that his attitude toward the English would appear to be friendly in words and in acts. However, Germany should not be deceived by that. He assumed this attitude not only to reassure the British, but also to fool the pro-British and pro-American elements until, one day, he would suddenly open the attack on Singapore. Having thus bared his character, Matsuoka continued that the Japanese Navy had a low estimate of the threat from the British Navy. It also held the view that it could smash the American Navy without trouble. However, it was afraid that the Americans would not take up the battle with their fleet, and that thus the conflict with the United States might be dragged out to five years. This possibility, he said, caused considerable worry in Japan.
Evidently Matsuoka was not “through with toadying” as he had stated on a previous occasion; but his cagey lack of precision about a Japanese attack on Singapore was not appreciated by those with whom he now dallied. A decision to attack Russia in the spring of 1941 had been made by Hitler on 31st July 1940, but on his orders Japan was not told of it.
In Singapore in April there were staff talks between American, Dutch and British officers, including representatives of Australia and New Zealand.34 The British and Dutch delegates learnt that the United States considered Singapore very important but not absolutely vital; that its loss, while undesirable, could be accepted. While maintaining at Hawaii a naval force superior to the Japanese, the United States would if necessary reinforce her Atlantic Fleet from her Pacific Fleet. She intended to use the Pacific Fleet offensively against Japanese mandated islands and sea communications, and to support British naval forces in the South Pacific, but did not intend to reinforce her Asiatic Fleet; she did not expect that the Philippines would hold out very long against determined Japanese attack, and anticipated being forced to withdraw from those islands.
In the main, the conference decided that a defensive policy would have to be maintained in the eastern theatre against superior Japanese forces until Allied naval and air strength was substantially increased. Surface craft would be used primarily for the protection of vital sea communications, and submarines and aircraft to attack Japanese southbound expeditions. The likelihood of attacks upon Australia and New Zealand as initial Japanese operations was ruled out, whether or not the United States remained neutral. The British Commander-in-Chief, China Station, would exercise unified strategical direction over all the naval forces of the
associated powers in the eastern theatre, except those employed in local defence or operating under the Commander-in-Chief, United States Asiatic Fleet. Part of this would come under orders of the Commander-in-Chief, China, immediately, and the rest under his strategic direction when Manila became untenable. Similar strategic direction of air forces would be exercised by Brooke-Popham.
The plan, known as ADB-1, adopted by the conference was rejected by the United States authorities, largely because Admiral Stark and General Marshall did not like its strategic features or what they considered to be its political implications; and particularly the possibility that its acceptance might lead to the American Asiatic Fleet being deployed in an area that was not strategically valuable to America. The British staffs, however, drew up a plan designated PLENAPS, based on ADB-1, for emergency use. As events were to show, it was as well they did.
Differences of opinion persisted between Mr Churchill and his military advisers on the relative importance of the Middle East and Malaya in Britain’s grand strategy. In April Mr Churchill repeated in a directive his view that the likelihood of Japan entering the war was remote, and if she did the United States would almost certainly enter it on Britain’s side. Meanwhile there was no need to make further dispositions for the defence of Malaya and Singapore beyond “the modest arrangements already in progress”. The Chief of the General Staff disagreed; and the Future Operational Planning Section presented to the Defence Committee in June a paper in which, referring to the Far East, they said:–
The threat in this area is only potential; consequently it tends to become obscured by other threats which are more grimly real. But, should it develop, this threat may bring even greater dangers than those we now face. Singapore is of course the key. ... It is vital to take, as soon as possible, the necessary measures to secure the defence of Singapore.
Early in May the Australian War Cabinet, to which the significance of the decision to concentrate against Hitler first if war broke out with Japan was becoming more specific, had held an emergency meeting to consider the proposed transfer of units of the United States Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic. In general terms it concurred in the plan; but in a cable to the British Government, it urged that America’s Pacific Fleet be not reduced below a certain limit; also that consideration be given to the immediate release of adequate British capital units to reinforce Singapore if war against Japan broke out. The War Cabinet approved, subject to certain conditions, plans for coordinated strategic command of forces in the Far East, including American forces. It noted the view of the Commander-in-Chief, Far East, that reinforcement of Malaya by land and air forces since October had so materially strengthened his position that he was most optimistic of the ability of Singapore to continue to operate as a fleet base.
The realities of the situation in the Far East, particularly as they affected Australia, were more sharply defined when Mr Menzies returned to Australia from his visit to England, bringing with him comprehensive
British reports on the military situation. Even though the review he had obtained of the defence position in the Pacific from the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff might not be very encouraging in certain respects (he said to the War Cabinet on 10th June) Australia now certainly knew where she stood, the degree to which she must rely on her own efforts, and the necessity for expanding them to the utmost extent. He continued that Mr Churchill had no conception of the British Dominions as separate entities, and the more distant the problem from the heart of the Empire the less he thought of it. (Menzies added, however, that if Churchill were driven from office it would be a calamity.) Certain remarks in the course of the United Kingdom review about the land and air forces in Malaya and their equipment indicated a degree of complacency about the defence of the Pacific region, he said, and “it is now evident that, for too long, we readily accepted the general assurances about the defence of this area”.
As to Britain’s ability to send a fleet to the Far East, the Chiefs of Staff in London had replied: “All we can say is that we should send a battle cruiser and a carrier to the Indian Ocean. Our ability to do more must be judged entirely on the situation at the time.” In view of this, said Menzies, Australia must re-insure herself against the most unfavourable likelihood by the maximum local defence effort. On the question of what would constitute an act of war by Japan, Mr Menzies quoted a cable from the British Government agreeing that any attack on the line from Malaya to New Zealand through the Netherlands East Indies equally concerned all affected parties, and must be dealt with as an attack on the whole line.
The passages in the London Chiefs of Staffs’ review to which Menzies referred as indicating “a degree of complacency” were to the effect that the land forces in Malaya should reach their full strength (the 26-battalion total) by the end of April 1941, “with the exception of certain artillery units”; it was not practicable to give firm dates regarding arrival of the various items of army equipment needed in Malaya, but the deficiencies were not serious “with the exception of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, small arms ammunition and artillery ammunition”; most of the 450 shore-based aircraft which the Japanese could marshal for an attack in the Far East were of obsolete types, and the Chiefs of Staff had no reason to believe that Japanese standards were even comparable with those of the Italians;35 though British air strength in the Far East was below that necessary
for reasonable security in the absence of a fleet, they did not consider that in the present situation Britain was running more serious risks there than elsewhere, but every effort was being made to restore the balance at the earliest possible moment. (The Chiefs of Staff also said that the Brewster Buffalo appeared to be eminently satisfactory and would probably prove “more than a match for any Japanese aircraft”.) Menzies’ cable from London about the practicability of fulfilling Churchill’s pledge that Britain would cut her losses in the Mediterranean if it were necessary for her to proceed to Australia’s aid, was supported in effect by a declaration of the Chiefs of Staff in London. They said that the security of Britain’s position in the Middle East remained essential to her strategy for the defeat of Germany, and “any withdrawal, however small, would involve the movement of forces by sea, and the necessity for retaining a strong fleet in the Mediterranean would be increased rather than lessened during the period of such withdrawal. Even if it were decided to abandon our Mediterranean interests, the fleet would have to remain until the end in order to cover the withdrawal of the armies.”
Thus, in a matter of fundamental importance to Australia, because of its bearing upon what forces she could send overseas consistent with her own safety, a choice had to be made between Mr Churchill’s rather rhetorical pledge and what his experts considered practicable.
The War Cabinet decided that a United Kingdom suggestion that two additional infantry brigades be sent to Malaya could not be considered apart from a complete review of the manpower situation; but next day (11th June) in response to a request from Brooke-Popham a compromise was reached. It was decided that of the two AIF infantry brigades in Australia, the 23rd, which had been sent to Darwin in April, in conformity with the agreement to reinforce Ambon and Timor in an emergency, should remain there; but the 27th, then at Bathurst in New South Wales, should go to Malaya.
After the departure of the 27th Brigade Group the AIF troops remaining in Australia would include in addition to the 23rd Brigade Group, the 2/4th Machine Gun and the 2/4th Pioneer Battalions, and four recently-formed Independent Companies. These companies were partly officered from the 8th Division, and two of them were to take part in the operations described in this volume.
In mid-1940 the British Army formed a number of commando units or independent companies, one of whose tasks would be to make raids on German-occupied territory. Later in the year the War Office offered to send a group of instructors to Australia to train Australian and New Zealand independent companies on lines developed in Britain by the enterprising regular officers, explorers, ski-runners and others who had built up the British companies.36 The mission to Australia, which had arrived in November 1940, comprised Lieut-Colonel J. C. Mawhood, Captains
Calvert37 and Spencer Chapman,38 and two sergeants. Both Calvert and Chapman had been members of a ski battalion formed early in 1940 for service in Finland. These chose as a suitable area for a guerrilla warfare school the rugged national park of Wilson’s Promontory in southern Victoria and there, in February 1941, “No. 7 Infantry Training Centre” was established at Foster.39 Volunteers were called for and inevitably some came from units of the 23rd and 27th Brigades and other parts of the 8th Division which seemed likely to remain on garrison duty in Australia for some time. There, every six weeks, enough officers and NCOs were trained to staff one Australian and one New Zealand independent company, and in the second half of 1941 four Australian companies were formed. The training, wrote Chapman later, was
as practical as we could make it. Calvert, with his infectious enthusiasm, taught them how to blow up everything from battleships to brigadiers. ... I taught them how to get a party from A to B and back by day or night in any sort of country and arrive in a fit state to carry out their task. This included all kinds of sidelines – a new conception of fitness, knowledge of the night sky, what to wear, what to take and how to carry it, what to eat and how to cook it, how to live off the country, tracking, memorizing routes, and how to escape if caught by the enemy.40
Each company had 17 officers and 256 men and possessed its own signals and its own medical officer and detachment. It was thus more in the nature of a streamlined battalion than a reinforced company. In August 1941 Calvert and Chapman were sent to Burma and Singapore respectively to instruct in bush warfare, and the Wilson’s Promontory School was carried on by Australians they had trained.
On 15th August the 27th Brigade, with some eight months’ training behind it, arrived in Singapore. It travelled in three Dutch liners – Johan Van Oldenbarneveldt, Marnix Van St Aldegonde and Sibajak – having embarked at Sydney and Melbourne in late July. The principal army units in the convoy were:–
Headquarters 27th Brigade
2/15th Field Regiment (armed with mortars only)
2/12th Field Company
2/6th Field Park Company
2/10th Field Ambulance
Despite Brooke-Popham’s policy of emphasising the growing strength of Malaya’s defences, the arrival was given bare mention in an official “handout”.
Meanwhile important changes had occurred in the staff of the 8th Division. In July Brigadier Marshall, who had been ill for some time, relinquished command of the 27th Brigade, Lieut-Colonel O’Donnell41 replaced Lieut-Colonel Scriven in command of the divisional engineers, and Colonel Rourke, Bennett’s chief staff officer, left Malaya to become the artillery commander of the 7th Division, then in Syria. His departure left the 8th Division with only two regular staff officers – Kappe and Dawkins – who, before 1939, had graduated from the Staff Colleges at Camberley or Quetta. In other AIF formations the quota had generally been much higher.42
Were the new appointments to be made from within the 8th Division or should the considerable talent now existing in the AIF as a whole be utilised? Among the most senior battalion commanders in the Middle East in July 1941 there were, after five campaigns, several with outstanding claims for higher rank: for example, Eather, who had commanded the 2/1st Battalion throughout the Libyan campaign, and was then administering command of the 16th Brigade in Palestine; King, who had been a Grade II staff officer on the 6th Division in Libya and had commanded the 2/5th Battalion in Greece and Syria; Moten, who had led the 2/27th Battalion throughout the Syrian campaign; Martin, who had commanded the 2/9th Battalion at Giarabub and was then leading it at Tobruk. (Soon each of these was to be promoted, and would lead a brigade with distinction throughout the war.) Regular soldiers with qualifications similar to Rourke’s and more recent experience of operations were also available for important general staff appointments. The more senior of these included Irving, who had trained in England after the first war, had spent two years at Quetta in the middle ‘thirties and was then Blamey’s liaison officer at Middle East Headquarters; Wells, who had been at Quetta in 1934-36, had been the senior liaison officer of the Anzac Corps in Greece and would soon become GSO1 of the 9th Division; Elliott, who had trained abroad at Singapore in the early ‘twenties, had been to Quetta and was then a Grade II staff officer on the I Australian Corps and would in November become the GSO1 of the 7th Division. Obviously each of these was well qualified to fill the vacant post, and would bring with him experience of recent operations in the Middle East.
On the other hand, Bennett, although commanding only two brigades, had long sought powers of promotion delegated to General Blamey as commander of the Australian Corps. When it was learned that he favoured the appointment as GSO1 of his Chief Signals Officer, Lieut-Colonel Thyer, who as brigade major of the 8th Brigade for three years before the war had gained a reputation as an exponent of infantry tactics, Army Headquarters hastened to propose him. Major Kappe was promoted to fill the now vacant post of Chief Signals Officer. To fill the appointment
of commander of the 27th Brigade Bennett sought the promotion of Maxwell, then commanding the 2/19th Battalion, who though junior to some of the battalion commanders in the 8th Division, was of equable temperament, had become familiar with Malaya, and was highly regarded by Bennett as a leader. Eventually this was agreed to, and Major Anderson was promoted to command the 2/19th.43
The 27th Brigade having arrived, the AIF in Malaya thus consisted of the headquarters of the 8th Division and two of its three “brigade groups” – the term used to describe an infantry brigade plus its share of artillery, engineers and other supporting troops. There were two field regiments (one armed with old 18-pounders and the other with 3-inch mortars) but the third remained in Australia; the anti-tank regiment (armed partly with the new 2-pounder but partly with 75-mm guns and captured Italians guns) lacked one battery, which had been sent to Rabaul. The division was without its “divisional cavalry”, a unit then armed with light tanks and tracked machine-gun carriers, useful for reconnaissance or pursuit. The 8th Divisional Cavalry had been sent to the Middle East, and its name changed to 9th Divisional Cavalry, the intention being to attach it to that division. Already, in June and July, it had fought as part of the 7th Australian Division and later the 6th British Division in Syria.
Furthermore, in battle a divisional commander would normally have under his command certain fighting units from the “corps troops” held at the disposal of the senior commander. These might include a machine-gun battalion (equipped with the heavier belt-fed Vickers gun as distinct from the light machine-gun which the infantry normally carried44), a pioneer battalion trained to fight as infantry or to carry out relatively simple engineering work, heavy tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and additional field artillery and signals. Possession of all three brigades and a pool of corps troops enabled a divisional commander to plan to send two brigades into battle and yet hold in reserve a third brigade and groups of corps and divisional units – cavalry, machine-gunners, pioneers – equal in fire power to a fourth. The Australian division lacked such a reserve. If both brigades were committed there would be little left.