Chapter 9: Crumbling Resistance
Japan’s three-pronged thrust into Malaya was succeeding on all fronts by 13th December. British hopes of halting the enemy near the frontier were rapidly diminishing. Concern increased lest part or the whole of the British forces in northern Malaya be cut off, and thus divorced from their primary task of protecting the Naval Base.1
Close relationship became necessary between these forces, both east and west of the main range, to avoid isolation from each other and from the forces in the south. Thus they became increasingly committed to a continuous process of retreat, accompanied by delaying actions to gain time during which, it was hoped, sufficient reinforcements would arrive to turn the tide of battle. General Heath’s recommendation – reinforced by what was happening at Jitra – that the 8th Brigade be withdrawn from Kelantan, was accepted by General Percival at their conference on 12th December. It was approved by Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham with the proviso that the enemy must be prevented from using the railway. On the night of the 12th–13th Percival placed his reserve, the 12th Indian Brigade, at the disposal of the III Indian Corps and sent it forward by rail to Ipoh, where the leading battalion, 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, arrived on the afternoon of the 13th. Heavy fighting occurred on the 12th and 13th at Machang, 25 miles south of Kota Bharu, and the junction of a road to the east coast. The Japanese were sufficiently checked to enable the withdrawal to the railhead at Kuala Krai to be continued without serious interference.
AIF Headquarters in Malaya had followed the course of operations with growing concern. As senior staff officer, Colonel Thyer had come to the conclusion that the Japanese would move towards Endau from Kuantan, and that any landings from the sea in eastern Johore would be at Endau rather than Mersing. Assuming, as was extremely likely, that the Japanese were aware of the strong defence system established by the Australians in the Mersing area, it certainly was not improbable that the enemy would seek an alternative to head-on encounter where it was strongest. At any rate, Thyer recommended that the detachment at Endau be strengthened, and that a company be placed at Bukit Langkap to prevent a thrust down the Sungei Endau which might cut the road from Jemaluang westward to Kluang. In this Brigadier Callaghan, in charge of the Australian division during General Bennett’s absence in the Middle East, concurred, and he redisposed his troops accordingly.
General Bennett, who had returned to Malaya on 10th December, toured his units on the 12th. When he found that his dispositions had been altered he was emphatic in his disapproval, on the ground that the effect was to commit units to definite roles and areas before the enemy intentions were known. In particular he was adamant that the 2/ 30th Battalion should be retained intact for counter-attack in the event of the Japanese reaching Jemaluang, or (a hint perhaps of the direction in which his thoughts were turning) for action elsewhere with the 27th Brigade, instead of being committed in part to forward positions. Thus he ordered the former positions to be resumed.
On 13th December Bennett wrote to the Australian Minister for the Army: “The third brigade of my division would have been a godsend to us now. As you know, it has been repeatedly asked for, and my requests have been repeatedly refused. However, we will have to do the best with what we have. ...”2 In a letter to Australian Army Headquarters he wrote that “the morale of our men has never been higher”, but, referring to there being insufficient air cover for the defending troops, he said “I fear a repetition of Crete”. Anticipation of a Japanese landing in the south was sharpened when on the same day a message was received from Malaya Command that a large convoy was moving from the southern tip of Indo-China towards the south-east coast of Malaya. Percival called next day on Bennett, who recorded:–
He is anticipating a possible attack on Singapore Island direct from the sea, and asks what would be the position of the AIF if such an attack developed and help from the AIF were required. I replied that the AIF were here to defend Singapore and that if the troops on the island needed help, the AIF would certainly go to their assistance. He realises that there are insufficient troops on the island to defend it effectively and is very perturbed at the danger. I told him that I needed more troops to defend Johore effectively, implying that the Mersing front should not be weakened unless the emergency were grave.3
Although the anticipated landing did not occur, it further emphasised the insecurity of the forces on the mainland of Malaya, and reinforced the policy of withdrawal. At this time also, with the prospect of congestion of airfields on Singapore Island resulting from progressive evacuation of those in the north, Air Headquarters ordered that stocks of bombs with refuelling and rearming parties be withdrawn to Sumatra, so that facilities might be developed there for the transit of reinforcing aircraft and the operation of bombers.
On the 16th, referring to the situation in northern Malaya, Bennett wrote to Army Headquarters in Melbourne:–
I have seen a total absence of the offensive spirit, which after all is the one great remedy for the methods adopted by the Japanese. Counter-attacks would put a stop to this penetration. ... The position has arrived when something must be done – urgently. I strongly urge that, should the request be made, at least one division of the AIF from the Middle East be transferred to Malaya.
Bennett also sent a letter to be read to all ranks of his command, in which he said:–
The recent operations in northern Malaya have revealed the tactics adopted by the Japanese in their offensive movements. It is simply that they endeavour to infiltrate between posts, or if that is difficult, to move small parties via the flank to threaten the flank or the rear of our position. ... This is not a new system; it is as old as war itself. ... Our training during the past twelve months has been to outflank any enemy position which is being held; similarly in any attack, the main attack should come from the flanking party. All units in defence will hold a small reserve in hand which will have the duty of moving around the enemy flanks and creating despondency and alarm by firing into their rear elements. Should it be possible for a small party of the enemy to penetrate between two posts and open fire on the rear of posts, arrangements must be made for alternate sections in a post to face the rear and deal with this enemy party by fire. At the same time a patrol must be sent forward to capture or destroy the enemy which has been successful in penetrating the position. It is imperative that the offensive spirit be maintained. ... There will be no withdrawal; counter-attack methods, even by small parties, will be adopted.
A few days later, in an instruction on tactics to be employed, Percival also emphasised that enemy outflanking and infiltration tactics must not lead to withdrawals, which, he said, should take place only on order of higher authority. The enemy could not be defeated by sitting in prepared positions and letting the Japanese walk round them. “We must play the enemy at his own game and attack on every occasion,” he declared, adding that the efficiency, cunning and alertness of the individual were of primary importance.4
An example of the kind of jungle warfare in which the Japanese had been schooled was provided on 18th December, when four carriers of the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment were ambushed by troops who dropped grenades into them from the branches of trees they had climbed. This simple ruse might have been suggested by falling coconuts, but it was far removed from the training which most of the British forces had been given. Nevertheless, the 8th Brigade’s withdrawal was well controlled, and losses of men and materials were relatively light. Evacuation by rail from Krai of stores and equipment was carried out so successfully under the direction of Lieut-Colonel Trott,5 the senior administrative officer of the 9th Division (an Australian who had transferred from the AIF to the Indian Army in January 1918) that of the 600 motor vehicles with the force only sixty were lost in Kelantan. Forty casualties occurred when the railway station was bombed during the morning of 19th December, but the railhead had been evacuated by the end of the day. The brigade’s strength had been reduced by 553 all ranks who had been either killed or wounded, or were missing. Its losses of machine-guns, mortars, and antitank rifles had been heavy. In the area Kuala Lipis–Jerantut in which the brigade was next concentrated, it was centrally situated, with access by road to either the east or west of the peninsula.
Meanwhile, the 3/16th Punjab on the Kroh front to the west had been attacked at dawn on 12th December, and the Japanese had begun to bypass its position. Then, as the 3/16th was about to be withdrawn, it was again attacked, and shelled by heavy artillery. Spare drivers of the 2/ 3rd Australian Reserve Motor Transport Company fought as infantry in the endeavour to extricate the force. Although the withdrawal was accomplished, the battalion’s determined resistance since its first encounter with the enemy had cost it half its strength by the time it passed through the 5/14th Punjab north-east of Betong, and reached a position three miles west of Kroh on the road to Baling. The 5/14th, now the covering troops, withstood a further attack early on the 13th until its flanks were endangered.6 It then fell back to Betong, where it destroyed the road bridge, and by dusk had joined the 3/16th. The road southward from Kroh to Grik, and thence to the main west coast road at Kuala Kangsar, was thus uncovered. Although north of Grik it was little better than a mountain track, there was a danger that the Japanese would use it as a means of striking at the lines of communications of the Indian Corps, farther to the south. Heath therefore decided on 13th December to send a company of the 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and some armoured cars7 from Ipoh to Grik, and the rest of the battalion to Baling in support of Krohcol. On 14th December he handed over command of the column to Brigadier Paris of the 12th Brigade, and instructed him to hold the Kroh-Baling road. Paris ordered Krohcol to withdraw during the night of 14th–15th December, leaving the Argylls to defend Baling.
The first mass slaughter of civilians in Malaya had occurred on 11th December, when after daily air raids on Penang airfield from 8th December, Georgetown was raided. Thronging the streets to watch the aircraft, thousands of the inhabitants of this principal town on Penang Island, off the coast of north-west Malaya, were bombed and machine-gunned by the raiders. In the absence of anti-aircraft defences and British fighter aircraft, about 2,000 casualties were inflicted. Smaller raids occurred on the two following days. In the panic which these raids caused, so many civilians fled from the town that essential services broke down. Corpses were left in the streets, and ferry transport between the island and the mainland had to be taken over progressively by the military (including some members of the 2/ 3rd Australian Reserve M.T. Company).
The military importance of Penang Island8 lay principally in its port facilities, its stocks of ammunition and stores, and the fact that it was a terminal of two overseas cables. The intention had been to hold the island,
but on 12th December the Fortress Commander (Brigadier Lyon9) and the British Resident Counsellor decided to evacuate all European service families, all civilian European women and children, and inmates of the military hospital. Departure of most of the Europeans on the night of the 13th, and the haste with which it was done, shocked the Asian inhabitants of Malaya generally, and indeed many Europeans also. Few civilians had means of knowing the overall military situation, and how the Japanese were compelling withdrawals. What they did know was that the protection on which, as a subject people, the Asians of Penang Island had learned to rely, was abruptly withdrawn, ties of loyalty and economic bonds were severed, and the Asians were left to whatever fate might befall them. Rather than thus abandon them, a few European civilians stayed behind.
The Europeans on the island at the time of the attack were few in number compared with the Asian population, whose evacuation was not considered feasible even had they elected to leave their homes. It was not easy, however, for the simple people of Malaya to distinguish between the practical limits of what could be done, and racial discrimination. On the other hand Japanese propagandists had been urging the Asians in pamphlets and radio broadcasts to “burn up the whites in a blaze of victory”, thus indicating that they intended violent discrimination against the Europeans, but suggesting that the non-European inhabitants of Malaya might expect friendly treatment. Had they been withdrawn they would have been divorced from their homes, and their safety still could not have been assured. However, the effect at the time, when the enemy was delivering so many other successful blows, was particularly damaging to British prestige. At a meeting on 14th December the War Council decided that unless the Japanese on the mainland could be halted, the island must be abandoned militarily also. Apart from military necessity, withdrawal of the garrison would remove the likelihood of the civilian population being exposed to further air raids.
The withdrawal from Jitra to an area south of the Sungei Kedah by the 11th Indian Division on 12th–-13th December gained little respite for its weary troops, or for reorganisation of its depleted units. Intermittent firing, and penetration by Japanese troops to the south bank of the river, from which they were expelled in a counter-attack by the 2/9th Gurkha, indicated that further pressure was accumulating. Eight carriers of the 2/East Surrey were cut off when a bridge was prematurely demolished. Murray-Lyon decided that the withdrawal must be continued. In heavy rain, and with many mishaps, a badly congested stream of traffic moved on during the night of the 13th–14th to Gurun.
The Gurun position, 19 miles south of Alor Star – the junction of a large, flat, rice-growing area with undulating country thickly covered by rubber plantations – was regarded by Percival as perhaps the best natural defensive position in Malaya. The plantations, on either side of the main road and the railway, were served by a network of roads. Kedah Peak,
a 3,978-foot jungle-clad mountain, stood between the road and the coast. The position had not, however, been prepared before the war for defence. This task therefore faced the fatigued and disconcerted troops. Dispositions taken up on 14th December were: right sector, 28th Brigade, reconstituted under Brigadier Carpendale (Brigadier Garrett having resumed command of 15th Brigade); left, 6th Brigade, astride road and railway and to Kedah Peak; in reserve, 15th Brigade, now only about 600 strong, astride the road a mile south of Gurun. The 6th Brigade’s position was about four miles north of the village of Gurun, and three-quarters of a mile south of where a road from the west coast joined the main road. The 2/16th Punjab were on the railway, with the 2/East Surrey on their left and the 1/8th Punjab astride the main road. The brigade reserve comprised the carrier platoon of 2/16th Punjab.
A Japanese patrol quickly approached the crossroads, and at 2 p.m. three tanks, followed by troops in lorries, came into action. Although one tank was hit and the others withdrew, the enemy infantry forced back the defending patrol and gained control of the road junction. A counterattack led by Brigadier Lay checked further penetration, but when Heath visited the 11th Division’s headquarters during the afternoon, Murray-Lyon said he considered his troops unfit for quick successive encounters, and emphasised the danger that the enemy would cut in on his rear by using the Grik road. He recommended that any further withdrawals should be such as to provide sufficient time for rest and concentration. Although Heath replied that the division must hold the Japanese for the time being at Gurun, he told Percival by telephone during the evening that he considered it should be withdrawn to the Sungei Perak, with an intermediate stand at the Sungei Muda to allow Penang to be evacuated.
From 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. on 15th December, the 1/8th Punjab was under heavy mortar fire. Then, as Lay was organising a further counterattack to regain the crossroads, the Japanese thrust through the battalion and infiltrated the 6th Brigade area. Having seen Japanese passing his right flank, the battalion commander concluded that it had been isolated. He withdrew what remained of it, and a company of 2/East Surrey under his command, towards the coast. The enemy thereupon overwhelmed the headquarters of the East Surreys, killing the commanding officer and five others, and broke into brigade headquarters. There they killed all its occupants, including seven officers but not Lay.
Carpendale redisposed 28th Brigade in an endeavour to stem the enemy advance, but in the hazardous situation which had developed Murray-Lyon decided early on 15th December to make a further immediate withdrawal. He ordered his division to a position on the Sungei Lalang, seven miles south of Gurun. Later in the day, as reports indicated how badly the division had been disrupted, he decided that it should continue during the night to behind the Sungei Muda. Helped largely by supporting fire from the 88th Field Regiment, contact with the enemy was soon broken, and next morning the division was south of the Muda; but losses of vehicles and equipment were again heavy.
Any prospect of more than a brief stand at the Muda was slight, and an outbreak of cholera and typhoid on Penang Island, off the coast a little to the south, appeared likely in the rapidly worsening conditions then existing there. Heath therefore ordered that the small garrison now left on the island be evacuated by daylight’ on 17th December. Hurried steps were taken to destroy and demolish everything likely to be of value to the enemy, but the result showed serious shortcomings. Although little effort was required to wreck the broadcasting station, it was left virtually intact. Many small craft such as would be valuable to the enemy in coastal operations remained in the harbour after the garrison had gone – a fact for which the circumstances offered insufficient excuse. About 500 Asians of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force who eventually were offered evacuation elected to remain to protect their families.
A complex situation now faced Heath and his commanders while 11th Division paused at the Muda. Day and night alternation of fighting and retreat, accompanied by the frequent isolation of units; deficiencies and losses in leadership, upon which the Indians were especially dependent; and rapid decrease in the means of resistance, had severely strained the stamina and resources of the 11th Division. Lack of suitable and adequate training and equipment had been a severe handicap. The road from Kroh through Baling linked with the road system in the Muda area; and the route from Kroh southward through Grik reached the trunk road and the railway west of Kuala Kangsar. How long could the enemy force which had captured Kroh be kept from the division’s present right flank and rear? How long was it safe to keep the division west of the Perak in all the circumstances?
Heath decided on the morning of 16th December to place it behind the Sungei Krian, which was flanked by swamps and presented the principal natural obstacle between the Muda and the Perak. He ordered the 6th and 15th Brigades to Taiping, between the Krian and Kuala Kangsar, to rest and refit; and the 28th Brigade, in relatively good condition, to occupy a position covering the Krian, from the road and rail bridge at Nibong Tebal westward to the sea. Krohcol having been disbanded, the 5/14th Punjab was withdrawn to Taiping and the 3/16th Punjab, with the 10th Mountain Battery, was ordered to hold a crossing of the Krian at Selama, 15 miles east of Nibong Tebal. The 12th Brigade Group (Brigadier Paris) was ordered to cover the withdrawal by fighting a rearguard action through Titi Karangan, where the Baling road linked with the road system south of the Muda, to Selama. There it was to pass through the 3/16th Punjab to Taiping.
In an endeavour to make good the losses on the west coast, Brooke-Popham asked, also on 16th December, that a brigade group and reinforcements from India for III Corps be dispatched immediately. In the upshot, it was arranged that the 45th Brigade Group of the 17th Indian Division, due to sail from Bombay on 22nd December for Burma, would be diverted
to Singapore, and that reinforcements for the 9th and 11th Divisions would be sent from India as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile Paris, realising that continued withdrawal of 11th Division might expose his troops to attack from the west, had ordered the 5/ 2nd Punjab to hold a bridge over the Muda at Batu Pekaka, north of Titi Karangan, and moved the Argylls from Baling to Kupang, six miles westward. His concern was soon justified, and it became apparent that the Japanese had not been deterred by the nature of the route from Kroh to Grik. The company of Argylls, with armoured cars, was attacked on the 16th a little north of Grik, and fell back under the impact to a point where they were joined by two Volunteer Force platoons. On the same day a Japanese force which had swung inland from the main road confronted the 5/ 2nd Punjab. Led by infantry in Malay clothes, the enemy attempted to rush the Batu Pekaka bridge. They were driven off, however, and the bridge was destroyed. Early next day the 5/ 2nd Punjab was withdrawn. Despite destruction of the bridge the Japanese quickly advanced, and by 10 a.m. were in contact with the main body of the Argylls, who had been moved meanwhile to Titi Karangan as ordered by Heath. The ensuing action was of special interest, for the enemy force was now opposed by a battalion which had received realistic training in jungle warfare.
The Argylls’ layout was in keeping with their normal tactics of fighting in self-contained, dispersed company groups of varying composition, controlled by directives rather than by detailed orders, each company group ready to form a firm base if attacked, or if not engaged to strike at any enemy attacking another group. The position, however, was an unfavourable one for a delaying action, and the battalion was handicapped by having been engaged in a succession of sudden moves since 10th December. Both an attack and a withdrawal plan were prepared, with an ambush to fix the Japanese frontally astride the road half a mile north of Titi Karangan.
Apparently the fact that the leading Japanese were in native dress had not been conveyed to the Argylls, for this caused surprise. The enemy opened fire first, and the ambush failed. They quickly developed the “fix-encircle” tactics in which the Argylls also had been trained. Although the latter brought withering machine-gun fire to bear upon an enemy group which moved off the road into rubber trees, the enemy light mortar fire was highly effective. As the engagement progressed it became apparent that there was no choice other than a costly counter-attack or withdrawal. The battalion commander, Lieut-Colonel Stewart,10 under orders to hold Titi Karangan until noon, chose to attack, and was about to give the order when he received permission to withdraw at his discretion. Deciding that the hazards of attack would now be unwarranted, he reversed his decision.
As it happened, the Argylls almost succeeded in causing the prescribed delay, for the rear parties during the withdrawal did not pass through Titi Karangan until 11.55 a.m. So swift was the Japanese pursuit that five minutes later a rearguard armoured car near the village ambushed a leading group of fifteen Japanese and killed them. Another enemy party which emerged from a forest road nearly a mile to the rear, after a wide encircling movement, was met by Argyll armoured cars and carriers, and held until the battalion was clear.
The Jap tactics were constant [wrote Stewart afterwards] – frontal fixing and local encirclement, perhaps to a depth of 1,000 yards, by the leading battalion commander, while the regimental commander, without waiting for the situation to develop, launched a wide and deep (perhaps to four miles) encircling attack with a reserve battalion to cut the road in rear. If that attack ever got established the British situation was bound to become an intensely critical one. Fortunately, it never succeeded against the Argylls, but the very careful and close timings and the great speed of action necessary for jungle fighting will be noted. Had the battalion been asked to delay another quarter of an hour, its counter-attack would have had to go in. ... By that time too the wide Jap encircling move would have got established across the road behind, and what had been a most successful action would within a few moments have turned into a disastrous defeat.11
Reaching Selama, south-east of the Sungei Krian, on 17th December, the 12th Brigade (less the Argyll company on the Grik road) came under command of the 11th Division, which by dawn on 18th December was south of the river.
The road from Kroh through Baling was now no longer a potential danger to the British communications; but events on the Grik road showed that another was swiftly developing. In fact, as it later transpired, the Japanese 42nd Infantry Regiment had taken the more ambitious course offered by this route. Although they had left their light tank battalion behind because of the state of the surface between Kroh and Grik they quickly forged ahead, and under their pressure the small force which stood in their way withdrew to Sumpitan, south-east of Selama. Meanwhile Heath had decided to send the 1st Independent Company12 to its aid; and he now resolved again to use the 12th Brigade as a means of halting this further enemy advance towards the 11th Division’s rear. He had in mind that unless these moves were successful, the division would have to be pulled back to the Sungei Perak or even farther.
Impressed by the aggression of the enemy, and lacking adequate Intelligence, Percival concluded that the Japanese were employing one division along the trunk road, one on the Patani–Kroh–Grik road, and one in Kelantan, with reserves at call in Indo-China, as against his two Indian brigades on the east of the Malayan Peninsula and the equivalent of a division on the west. He considered relieving the 11th Indian Division with the 8th Australian, but decided against it on the ground that piecemeal employment of the Australian force would be undesirable, and its removal
as a whole from Johore would leave the State weakly held by troops unfamiliar with the ground. With their command of the seas, the Japanese would be free to launch landings at Mersing or elsewhere on its eastern coast. On the other hand, the necessity of holding the airfields of central Malaya, from which otherwise the enemy could the more readily attack the naval base and reinforcement convoys approaching Singapore, dictated that the Japanese must be kept as far north as possible. The upshot of Percival’s deliberations was that he decided against any major redisposition of his forces for the time being, but authorised a withdrawal by the weakened 11th Division to the line of the Perak if necessary.
By this time only about a hundred aircraft were available in Malaya for the defence of the base, protection of convoys, and any other duties for which they could be spared. The latter included little action to check the enemy advance. The main weakness of the Perak as an obstacle was that it ran not across the north-south communications, but more or less parallel with them, during the greater part of its course from Kuala Kangsar. On 18th December, after conferring with Heath, Percival issued a series of further orders, which required principally that a flotilla comprising a sloop and some light craft be formed to oppose enemy movement by sea between the mouths of the Krian and the Perak; that delaying positions be prepared east and south-east of the Perak, at Ipoh and Tanjong Malim; that the 9th Indian Division be retained on the east coast to prevent enemy use of the airfield at Kuantan and penetration from that quarter; that what became known as “Roseforce” be formed to raid Japanese communications west of the Perak; that the 6th and 15th Indian Brigades be amalgamated as the 6th/15th Brigade; and that the 12th Brigade be incorporated with them in the 11th Division.
Percival’s resolve to limit losses of strength in northern Malaya was in line with a direction which had been given by Mr Churchill on 15th December. In a cable to General Ismay for the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Churchill, then on his way to the United States to confer with Roosevelt, urged them to beware lest troops required for the defence of Singapore Island were used up or cut off on the Malayan Peninsula. “Nothing,” he said, “compares in importance with the fortress.”13 Indeed, this had now so impressed itself upon him that he required, after consultation with General Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, and the Australian Government, that consideration be given to moving the I Australian Corps from Palestine to Singapore. On the same day Mr Duff Cooper had disclosed to Mr Bowden, Australia’s representative in Singapore, misgivings about the military situation, and said he saw the probability of a gradual withdrawal to a line approximately covering the southern half of Johore, to be held pending arrival of reinforcements about a month hence. On 18th December a conference was held in Singapore, attended by representatives of Great Britain, the United States, Holland, Australia14
and New Zealand, as a result of which a report was sent to the British Chiefs of Staff. In this it was held that the additional forces needed to meet Malaya’s needs must include four fighter and four bomber squadrons with reserves, and aircraft to complete squadrons already in Malaya and their reserves; an infantry division and a brigade group, three light and two heavy anti-aircraft regiments, an anti-tank regiment and fifty light tanks, and reinforcements for the III Indian Corps. The conference endorsed Percival’s policy of holding the enemy as far north as possible. On 19th December, however, Churchill said in a further cable to Ismay that Duff Cooper had conveyed to him anxieties similar to his own. He added: “The Commander-in-Chief (Far East) should now be told to confine himself to defence of Johore and Singapore, and that nothing must compete with maximum defence of Singapore. This should not preclude his employing delaying tactics and demolitions on the way south and making an orderly retreat.”15
To the pleas for reinforcements were added those of General Northcott, the commander of the recently-formed Armoured Division, then visiting Malaya, and General Bennett, cabling on 18th December to the Chief of the Australian General Staff, General Sturdee. Northcott strongly recommended that all possible reinforcements be sent, including a machine-gun battalion to be dispatched immediately. Bennett said: “In my opinion retreat through Kedah into Perak (State) is grave. Situation will grow worse unless troops of quality are available to intervene. My force not yet engaged but cannot leave present location without grave risk and cannot be split as it is already dangerously thin. I consider Australian division from Middle East by fastest means essential to save situation. ...” On 19th December, in a cable to the Department of External Affairs, Bowden raised an issue particularly significant in the light of later events.
“I feel strongly,” he declared, “that before further Australian troops are committed every possible guarantee should be taken that they will not be abandoned with those already here.” Bowden added that in his view the real defensive strength of Malaya fell far short of previous publicity; and that assurances should be sought immediately from Great Britain that Malaya would not continue to be regarded as a secondary theatre of war, but that reinforcements and supplies of modern arms and equipment would be rushed to Malaya even at the cost of slowing down the African offensive. On the same day he received an assurance from his department that the Australian Government was far from satisfied with the results of the policy of subordinating the requirements of the Malayan theatre of war; that despite the assurances given by Brooke-Popham during his visit to Australia that all was well with the Malayan defences, there was anxiety in Australia about the position. On 23rd December the department received through the British High Commissioner in Australia a message from Duff Cooper referring to the appointment of Bowden to
the Far Eastern War Council and saying “We are glad to have him with us, and share your confidence in the soundness of his views.”
Saddled with the task of defending the Grik road, Paris sent Stewart with the Argylls who had fought at Titi Karangan, and a troop of field guns, to Lenggong, about midway between Kuala Kangsar and Grik. Behind them, at Kota Tampan where the Sungei Perak ran close to the road, he stationed a company of the 5/2nd Punjab. Seeking room for manoeuvre, Stewart sought on 19th December to gain control of the road north of Sumpitan, where it entered a jungle defile. As however the Independent Company, now under his command, lost heavily in the endeavour, it was withdrawn, and the Argylls, after a brisk engagement, took up positions at dusk along the road between Sumpitan and Lenggong. There ensued a lull until, at 4.15 p.m. next day, a Chinese from Temelong on the Perak (described by Stewart as “one of that gallant race for whom all Argylls have affection”) reported that four hours previously he had seen a Japanese force moving down the river in boats and on foot. They were forcing local Asians to carry what were evidently mortars, and were demanding direction to Kota Tampan. If this force gained the causeway across a swamp south of Kota Tampan, Stewart recorded, “it was the end, not only of the Argylls but of Kuala Kangsar and much of the 11th Division as well. ... The testing time of the Argylls’ speed had indeed come.” With the aid of the 2/3rd Australian Motor Transport Company, a detachment raced back down the road and repulsed a Japanese thrust along a track from the river.16 It was found that the Japanese were calling “Punjabi, Punjabi”, in an attempt to pass for members of a platoon of the 5/2nd Punjab which had been stationed at the river and which they had dispersed at the outset of their attack.
Although the thrust had been checked, the possibility of further encircling moves was obvious. The withdrawal of the rest of the battalion to Kota Tampan was therefore commenced. It was quickly followed up by the Japanese, who ran into a series of ambushes and lost heavily. By 10 p.m., having covered Kota Tampan until dark as required, the battalion was behind the causeway, which was then demolished. Next morning (the 21st December) when the withdrawal had been completed, the Argylls were again attacked, but the enemy withdrew after close fighting. Instructions were later received for the battalion to retire at night through the rest of 5/2nd Punjab, who were moving up to cover the western and southern shores of Chenderoh Lake. Stewart decided, however, to dispose of a further attack then developing. This occurred during the afternoon, was again resolutely met, and the enemy was dispersed.
The Argylls then moved back through the 5/2nd Punjab, who were concentrated at Sauk, south-west of Chenderoh Lake and 11 miles from the junction of the Grik road with the trunk road west of Kuala Kangsar. The 4/19th Hyderabad, withdrawn from Kelantan, was posted to protect the main road at Sungei Siput, east of the Iskandor and Enggor bridges by which the main road and the railway respectively crossed the Perak. Japanese who tried to cross the Krian at Selama on 20th December were repulsed by the 3/16th Punjab; but because of the growing threat to the vital crossings of the Perak, the 11th Division, including the 12th Brigade, had been withdrawn behind that river by the early morning of 23rd December. The Iskandor and Enggor bridges were destroyed, and during the following night a pontoon bridge at Blanja, south of Kuala Kangsar, was sunk. The 12th Brigade was now at Sungei Siput, and 28th Brigade at Siputeh, at a junction of the road from Blanja.
Extensive changes of commanders were made on the same day. With the commanders of all three original brigades of 11th Division in hospital, Stewart of the Argylls was appointed commander of the 12th Brigade, Lieut-Colonel Moorhead (3/16th Punjab) of the 15th Brigade, and Lieut-Colonel Selby17 (2/9th Gurkha Rifles) of 28th Brigade. On the ground that an officer with the widest possible experience of bush warfare was needed to command the division in the situation which had developed, Murray-Lyon was replaced by Brigadier Paris of the 12th Brigade. On this day too Lieut-General Sir Henry Pownall18 reached Singapore. The United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff had decided some weeks before war with Japan broke out, but when the importance of the role which would have to be fulfilled by the army in Malaya was increasingly apparent, that an army officer with up-to-date experience should replace Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham as Commander-in-Chief Far East; and on 27th December Pownall took over this command.19 Pownall, a cool, clear-headed soldier, had been a student at the Imperial Defence College under Brooke-Popham, and Chief of Staff to General Gort,20 commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939-40. The fact that this decision became generally known in Malaya soon after it was made could hardly have strengthened Brooke-Popham’s authority thenceforward.
Reviewing the situation as it existed on 23rd December, Percival was to record:–
It was now clear that we were faced by an enemy who had made a special study of bush warfare on a grand scale and whose troops had been specially trained in
those tactics. He relied in the main on outflanking movements and on infiltration by small parties into and behind our lines. For support of his forward troops he relied on the mortar and the infantry gun rather than on longer range weapons. His snipers operated from trees. He exploited the use of fireworks. For mobility he made a wide use of civilian bicycles seized in the country. His tanks he had up to date operated mainly on the roads. His infantry had displayed an ability to cross obstacles – rivers, swamps, jungles, etc. – more rapidly than had previously been thought possible. Finally, speed was obviously of vital importance to him and he was prepared to press his attacks without elaborate preparations.21
As has been mentioned much of the information now emerging from Japanese operations in Malaya had been available from various sources before the war; but a gap had existed between this and the realisation which, as Percival’s review showed, was now being forced upon leaders in Malaya.
Bennett had sent one of his staff officers, Major Dawkins, to III Indian Corps headquarters on 19th December to make personal inquiries into the cause of the retreat. In the course of his report Dawkins said that outflanking moves by the Japanese had taken place through all types of country. Either the enemy was well supplied with guides – voluntary or enforced – or he had a trained corps of scouts capable of using the compass and leading companies with accuracy and speed.
There is no terrain which is impassable to infantry suitably equipped and trained (he said). Jungle, forest and rubber areas are par excellence infantry country – every move is screened from air and ground observation, the value of fire of weapons of all natures is very limited, and troops on the offensive can close to within assaulting distance unmolested. The force which has the initiative will have so great an advantage over the enemy that securing and retaining the initiative must be the prime aim of every commander irrespective of grade.
Operations so far, Dawkins continued, had confirmed the suitability of the tactical training carried out by the AIF in Malaya. The enemy had clearly demonstrated reluctance to stand when offensive action was taken against him. He did not press his attacks where they did not attain initial success. The statement that the Japanese were fighting with “fanatical courage” was a gross exaggeration. Well-trained troops of high morale and suitably equipped should easily wrest the initiative from him. Referring to the desirability of “travelling light” in the jungle, Dawkins recommended that the scales of clothing, equipment, ammunition and transport should be reviewed and drastic reductions made to ensure mobility.
Deciding that the time might be near when the AIF would be called upon to defend Johore, Bennett also on 19th December sent some of his staff and Brigadier Maxwell (27th Brigade) to Gemas, on the trunk road just before it entered the State from the north-west, to reconnoitre in detail a suitable defensive position. To the Australian Minister for the Army he wrote a letter giving his views on what he considered to be “the incompetence of higher commanders” in Malaya.22 He decided on the 21st to withdraw the 2/10th Australian General Hospital from Malacca
and the Convalescent Depot from Batu Pahat before 3rd January. On the 23rd, at Jemaluang, he held a conference of commanders of brigades, battalions and ancillary units at which he reviewed the campaign to date, described the methods used by the Japanese, and indicated those to be employed in operations by the Australians. They were not to withdraw, he said, merely because their flanks were threatened, but to send out strong counter-attacking parties. Units must concentrate on practising the attack and adopt ruses to defeat fifth column activity.
The British commanders in Singapore were now concerned by the threat offered by the road across Malaya from Kuantan on the east through Jerantut and Kuala Lipis to Kuala Kubu, on the trunk road in the west. If the Japanese drive down the west coast passed Kuala Kubu while the 9th Division was still in its position on the east of Malaya, the division would be cut off. After consultation, Brooke-Popham, Percival and Air Vice-Marshal Pulford decided to withdraw the division if and when this danger made it expedient. On the 23rd December Percival took the first precautionary steps for the defence of north Johore and Singapore Island, when he ordered Bennett to make preliminary arrangements to deal with an enemy advance down the main road from Kuala Lumpur, capital of the Federated Malay States, towards Singapore and also with landings by “small enemy forces” on the west coast.23 He ordered the Commander of Singapore Fortress to arrange for reconnaissance of the north shore of Singapore Island to select defensive positions in the event of enemy landings – an order which, issued at this stage, indicated how little that possibility had entered into previous planning and preparation.
Reconnaissances and attacks on enemy transport had been carried out from 13th December by Norgroup, a small operational air formation associated with the III Corps headquarters, and based on Ipoh. By 19th December, however, this airfield had been so heavily bombed that it was abandoned, and the supporting craft were back at Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese quickly used the airfields they captured, especially as in the circumstances of their evacuation efforts to wreck them had been inadequate. Even stocks of aviation spirit had been left intact, and piles of road metal were readily available to repair what damage had been done to the runways. On 21st and 22nd December increasingly heavy Japanese air raids were made on the Kuala Lumpur airfield, where the Buffaloes of No. 453 Squadron RAAF were stationed. Despite valiant efforts by the pilots, the superiority in numbers and performance of the enemy craft told heavily against them. By nightfall on the 22nd, only four of the squadron’s sixteen Buffaloes remained in operational condition. To conserve strength for protection of the naval base and reinforcement convoys, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford ordered the remnants of the squadron back to Singapore, and evacuation of the field to begin early next day.
Thus the air force had been swept out of northern Malaya, except that a composite fighter squadron (Nos. 21 and 453) was formed to cooperate with III Corps, using Kuala Lumpur as an advanced landing ground.
There had meanwhile been little activity by Malaya’s bomber aircraft, for the report on 13th December that a large convoy was steaming towards south-eastern Malaya had caused most of them to be held in readiness to help oppose a landing. Daily seaward reconnaissances were made to determine the convoy’s destination, and it was not until 24th December that it was concluded that this had been British Borneo. Other reconnaissances were flown to obtain warning of any movements by Japanese forces in coastal craft along Malaya’s east and west coasts. The first air reinforcements, comprising eight Hudson light bombers, were manned at Darwin by Australian crews from Singapore, and delivered on 23rd December. Hopes which had been pinned on routeing planes through Burma to Malaya vanished, however, when after Japanese air raids on the airfield at Victoria Point in southern Burma, the field was evacuated on 13th December, and occupied by Japanese troops two days later. Thereafter such planes as had sufficient range were to be flown from Rangoon to Sabang, off northern Sumatra, and thence to Singapore. Fighter planes had to be sent by sea, with consequent delay in their arrival. It was arranged by the British Air Ministry on 17th December that 51 Hurricane fighters, in crates due to reach Durban in convoy next day, should then be trans-shipped and sent to Singapore with pilots and ground staff for one squadron. Arrangements also were made for 52 Hudsons to be sent, but as these would take several weeks to reach Malaya endeavours were made to have flown there or to the Netherlands East Indies a number of American four-engined bombers then in Australia.
At the political level in the conduct of the war, a rapidly mounting sense of urgency was shown in cables to the Australian Prime Minister (Mr Curtin) by the Australian Minister in London (Sir Earle Page) and the High Commissioner (Mr Bruce). They were disturbed by a feeling that the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff, though greatly concerned and endeavouring to provide substantial reinforcements for the Far East, were not sufficiently seized with the necessity of meeting swiftly the immediate needs of the situation. “We might only have three or four weeks to save the position, and immediate action might save us five or six years of war,” said Page. He noted in his diary on 19th December, after attending a meeting of the Imperial Defence Committee, that “there was a great tendency to emphasise the importance of the Libyan campaign to the detriment of reinforcements to the Far East”.
Mr Churchill had been pondering the issue during his voyage to America for discussions with President Roosevelt. He landed at Washington airport after dark on 22nd December, and “clasped his strong hand with comfort and pleasure”.24