Chapter 11: Australians into Battle: The Ambush at Gemas
General Percival had decided before the debacle at Slim River that the most he could hope to do pending the arrival of further reinforcements at Singapore was to hold Johore. This would involve giving up three rich and well-developed areas – the State of Selangor (including Kuala Lumpur, capital of the Federated Malay States), the State of Negri Sembilan, and the colony of Malacca – but he thought that Kuala Lumpur could be held until at least the middle of January. He intended that the III Indian Corps should withdraw slowly to a line in Johore stretching from Batu Anam, north-west of Segamat, on the trunk road and railway, to Muar on the west coast, south of Malacca. It should then be responsible for the defence of western Johore, leaving the Australians in their role as defenders of eastern Johore.
General Bennett, however, believing that he might soon be called upon for assistance on the western front, had instituted on 19th December a series of reconnaissances along the line from Gemas to Muar. By 1st January a plan had formed in his mind to obtain the release of his 22nd Brigade from the Mersing–Jemaluang area and to use it to hold the enemy near Gemas while counter-attacks were made by his 27th Brigade on the Japanese flank and rear in the vicinity of Tampin, on the main road near the border of Malacca and Negri Sembilan. Although he realised that further coastal landings were possible, he thought of these in terms of small parties, and considered that the enemy would prefer to press forward as he was doing by the trunk road rather than attempt a major movement by coastal roads, despite the fact that the coastal route Malacca–Muar–Batu Pahat offered a short cut to Ayer Hitam, far to his rear. It was therefore on the possibilities of action along the trunk road that his mind was fixed.
It is not in the nature of retreat to inspire confidence; and certainly what had happened to the 11th Division between Jitra and Kuala Lumpur, with its series of failures, heavy losses, and progressive demoralisation, had not done so. While General Yamashita basked in the sunshine of success, Generals Percival and Heath might have reflected, as Hitler was to do a year later, that “it is a thousand times easier to storm forward with an army and gain victories, than to bring an army back in an orderly condition after a reverse or a defeat”.1 (Later, perhaps, they might console themselves with the thought that, because of the priority given to the war against Germany, retreat in Malaya was in some part the price of the Allied
successes which evoked that strangely chastened remark from the strutting Führer.)
To Bennett, concerned with the part which the AIF was now to play in the dangerously deteriorating situation, it seemed that the withdrawals in Malaya had been the outcome of faulty leadership. On 4th January he proposed to Percival that upon withdrawal of the III Indian Corps into Johore, all forces in that State should come under Bennett’s command; alternatively, that the AIF be responsible for the west of the State, and the Corps for the east. Percival rejected both proposals, on the grounds that fusion of the Corps and the AIF must lead to command and administrative difficulties, and replacement of the 22nd Australian Brigade on the east coast by troops unfamiliar with the area would weaken the defences of that area. He said that the only practical solution seemed to be to make the AIF responsible, after the withdrawal, for the east of the State and the Corps for the west; and at a conference next day he issued orders embodying this principle, with the proviso that there must be no withdrawal without his permission south of the line Endau2–Batu Anam–Muar.
Bennett reported to Australia on 6th January that Heath’s men were tired and in most units lacking determination; that “unless great changes in outlook take place withdrawal will continue, exposing my left flank and ultimately creating impossible position for AIF.” He continued that he had therefore urged that his fresh and fit 22nd Brigade should be replaced in its existing position by an Indian brigade, and placed in the forefront of the fight in western Johore; that the retiring units should occupy a supporting position, and the former “purely defensive attitude” should be replaced by “strong counter-attack methods.” General Sturdee, who had received Bennett’s report, replied that while he felt it would be most unwise to attempt from Australia to influence dispositions in Johore, it was difficult to believe that when the enemy reached northern Johore he would not attempt concurrently landings in eastern Johore. These, he said, seemed likely to be pressed with even more determination, and would be actually closer to Singapore.
In global perspective, the misfortunes being suffered at the time by the defenders of Malaya were far more than counter-balanced by the significance of a document signed by the representatives of 26 nations on New Year’s Day, 1942, as the outcome of the meetings between Mr Churchill and President Roosevelt in August and December 1941. It was a document which gave birth to the United Nations, pledged to the principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter created at the August meeting, with the addition of religious freedom, and to united action against the Axis Powers. This great marriage of aims and action, precipitated by
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, was to have a tremendous effect not
only upon the course of the war, but also upon world affairs thereafter.3
It was of course in keeping with the more immediate purposes of the document that the setting up of a united command against Japan should proceed. The main architect of the ABDA Command organisation was
the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Marshall. The principal problem had been how to reconcile the varying national interests of those countries concerned – Britain, the United States, the Netherlands East Indies and Australia – in such a command, and to allow of employment of their forces in such ways as would be acceptable to them. As, however, the United States was anxious to build up American forces in Australia for recovery of its power in East Asia, there existed a ready basis of agreement between these two countries. Britain’s interests were involved primarily in the retention of Singapore and of control of the Indian Ocean, as well of course as in the defence of Australia; while the Dutch sought to safeguard their East Indian possessions. Because of the importance she attached to maintaining resistance by China, and the fact that the only practical supply line to that country was by the Burma Road, the United States sought the inclusion of Burma in the command.4 The British representatives demurred on the ground that Burma had so recently been transferred from the Far Eastern to Indian Command, and was dependent upon India for administration, reinforcements, and supplies. Finally it was agreed that it should be included in the ABDA area for operational purposes, though it would continue to be administered from India. Australia and New Zealand were excluded from the ABDA area in the first directive, but, in response to a protest by Australia, it was agreed that a naval force under the strategical direction of the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy should operate in what would be known as the “Anzac Area,” to include the eastern coast of Australia and the whole of New Zealand. Eventually (on 24th January) after representations by General Wavell and with Australia’s concurrence, the ABDA area was extended to include the portion of Australia north of a line from the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria to Onslow on the west coast, thus including Darwin and as much elbow-room as was deemed necessary for its defence.
When formally assigning the command to Wavell on 29th December, Churchill cabled: “You are the only man who has the experience of handling so many different theatres at once, and you know we shall back you up and see you have fair play. Everyone knows how dark and difficult the situation is.”5 The first directive, dated 3rd January, reached Wavell on the 4th.6 It set out that the ABDA area had been constituted to comprise initially all land and sea areas, including the general regions of Burma, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies and the Philippine Islands,
as were defined in an annexure; and that Wavell had been designated Supreme Commander of this area and of all armed forces therein of the ABDA governments, and of such forces in Australia as had been allotted by their governments for service in or support of the area.
The basic strategic concept of the ABDA Governments for conduct of war in your area (continued the cabled directive) is not only in immediate future to maintain as many key positions as possible, but to take offensive at the earliest opportunity and ultimately to conduct an all-out offensive against Japan. The first essential is to gain general air superiority at the earliest moment through employment of concentrated air power. The piecemeal employment of air forces should be minimised. Your operations should be so conducted as to further preparations for the offensive.
General strategic policy will be therefore:
(a) to hold Malaya barrier defined as line Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, North Australia as basic defensive position of ABDA area and to operate sea, land and air forces in as great depth as possible forward of barrier in order to oppose Japanese southward advance;
(b) to hold Burma and Australia as essential support positions for the area and Burma as essential to support of China and to defence of India;
(c) to re-establish communications through Dutch East Indies with Luzon to support Philippines garrison;
(d) to maintain essential communications within the area.
Conditions common to the employment of Australian forces in oversea theatres of war were embodied in the directive, to the extent that interference was to be avoided in the administrative processes of the forces of the governments concerned, and there might be free communication between the commanders of those forces and their respective governments; and each national component of a task force would normally operate under its own commander and would not be subdivided into small units for attachment to other components except in cases of urgent necessity.
It was decided that Wavell should report to a new British-American military committee consisting of the American Chiefs of Staff and the senior representatives in Washington of the three British Services. This body was named the Combined Chiefs of Staff.7
Onerous though the task would be, and risky to his reputation as a general, Wavell was not the kind of man to shirk it. Realising that it involved a race against time, and anxious to gain a practical grasp of the situation which would face him, he left Delhi by air on 5th January, and reached Singapore early on the 7th. He hoped that the enemy could be delayed north of Johore till the end of January, allowing the 18th Division to reinforce the defence, and the I Australian Corps to be landed and to prepare a counter-offensive. He had in mind that the Indian troops in Malaya might then be withdrawn to reinforce the Netherlands East Indies.
When, however, Wavell visited the III Corps on 8th January, and assessed its condition after the Battle of Slim River, he promptly decided that it must be withdrawn to Johore for rest and reorganisation before
again facing any major encounter with the enemy. He told Heath, whom he thought tired, of this decision, and said that, though he should cover Kuala Lumpur as long as possible, he should not await a full-scale enemy attack. After he had discussed the situation with Bennett, he decided to give the Australian commander the responsibility he sought, and laid down next day the following plan for the defence of what remained of Malaya in British hands:–
(a) III Indian Corps, after delaying the enemy north of Kuala Lumpur for as long as possible [Wavell did not expect it to be longer than 11th January] to be withdrawn by rail and road into Johore, leaving sufficient mobile rearguards to cover the demolition scheme.
(b) The 8th Australian Division, leaving its 22nd Brigade Group in the Mersjng area on the east coast, to move forthwith to the north-western frontier of Johore and to prepare to fight a decisive battle on the general line Segamat-Mount Ophir-mouth of Muar River. The 22nd Brigade Group to join the remainder of the Australian division as soon as it could be relieved by troops from Singapore Island. [Wavell considered that this could not be completed before the arrival of the 53rd Brigade.]
(c) The 9th Indian Division, to be made up from the freshest troops of the III Indian Corps and the 45th Indian Brigade, to be placed under General Bennett for use in the southern portion of the position allotted to the Australian division.
(d) The Australian division as soon as possible to send forward mobile detachments to relieve the rearguards of III Indian Corps and to harass the enemy and delay him by demolitions.
(e) III Indian Corps on withdrawal to take over responsibility for the east and west coasts of Johore south of the road Mersing-Kluang-Batu Pahat, leaving Bennett free to fight the battle in north-west Johore. The Indian Corps to rest and to refit the 11th Indian Division and to organise a general reserve from reinforcements as they arrived.
The plan conceded the enemy a further southward advance of nearly 150 miles. Although it involved weakening the east coast defences, Wavell held that in view of the state of III Indian Corps, and since the well-developed road systems in Selangor and Malacca made delaying tactics difficult, a risk must be taken temporarily on the east coast, which was not immediately threatened, for the sake of the west which was so threatened. He was confident that Bennett – although initially the forces available to him for operations in north-western Johore would include only one of the Australian brigades – would conduct “a very active defence”, and he still hoped that a counter-stroke could be delivered once the Australian Corps had arrived. He hoped also that expected air reinforcements would enable close support to be given to forward troops, and that small naval craft would be able to cope with enemy attempts to land on the coast. Wavell ordered that work be begun on defences on the north side of Singapore Island, where, he was concerned to find, “no defences had been made or even planned in detail”; and he received from Duff Cooper “a gloomy account of the efficiency of the Civil Administration and the lack of cooperation between the civil and military”.
As a result of the creation of Wavell’s new command, Duff Cooper’s position as Resident Minister now lapsed, and meetings of the Far Eastern War Council were suspended pending decision whether it was to continue to function. It was decided on the 10th January that it should resume as “War Council, Singapore”, with its scope limited to the area under Malaya Command and the administration of the Governor. As in fact it had never operated in the wider sphere implied by its former title, and had acted as a consultative rather than a directing body, this made little difference to its activities.
On the initiative of the Chinese of Malaya, who thereby displayed a refreshingly lively approach to the subject of civilian cooperation in the struggle, there had been formed a Chinese Mobilisation Council. Seeking to avoid in Singapore a collapse of essential services such as had occurred in Penang, it was to be primarily concerned with maintaining a supply of labour. Delegates to the council included representatives of such widely diverse bodies as the Malayan Kuomintang (allied to the then ruling party in China) and the Malayan Communist Party. Its president was a leading Malayan business man, Mr Tan Kah-kee.
The activities of the small British naval force remaining at Singapore had become confined almost wholly to protection of convoys, and Admiral Layton had transferred with his staff to Batavia, leaving Rear-Admiral Spooner8 in local command.
At this time Mr Bowden sent to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Colonel Hodgson9 – who referred it to the Minister, Dr Evatt – a letter containing penetrating comment on some of the men principally concerned in the conduct of affairs in Malaya. Of Mr Duff Cooper he wrote that he was an able man but not a dominant one, and did not provide the War Council with the strong leadership that a body of that sort should have. Brooke-Popham had shown “an extraordinary diffidence of manner for a man in his position” and was “definitely too old for such a post in wartime”. Pownall had become the outstanding man in the Council; Percival appeared to be able but not a particularly strong personality; Air Vice-Marshal Pulford was “very worried and greatly overworked”. The Governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, appeared to Mr Bowden as more ready at producing reasons for not doing things than for doing them, and in the Malayan civil service there seemed to be too much of the old bureaucratic doctrine that action means to risk making blunders, and inaction means safety.10
These opinions, hewn in the stress of the times, could hardly have done full justice to those concerned. They were none the less the opinions of an able man, concerned for the welfare of his country, and anxious that the gravity of the situation in Malaya should not be obscured in responsible quarters in Australia by the veneer of Malayan official optimism.
On the 10th Wavell flew to Batavia, where he met the principal officers who were to be on his staff. It was a strange turn of fortune that placed this learned, high-principled old soldier again in chief command in the main eastern theatre (which the Far East had now become in succession to the Middle East). Despite the importance of the task assigned to him, it is doubtful whether Churchill ever had full confidence in him. Indeed, he had not even met him until August 1940; and in July 1941 he had sent him upstairs from Cairo to Delhi. Now Wavell faced even more baffling problems than those the Middle East had presented in mid-1941 with revolution in Iraq, Crete lost, a German force on the Egyptian frontier, and the likelihood that he would be asked to attack in Syria.
On Wavell’s right, MacArthur’s main Filipino-American army had fallen back, as shown in Chapter 10, to a line across the neck of the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese had recently occupied not only British North Borneo, but also Tarakan in Dutch Borneo, and Menado in the Celebes. Such British and Dutch naval forces as were available were engaged chiefly in escorting supplies and reinforcements to Singapore. There were only small American surface naval forces in the ABDA Command, and Japanese planes had mastery in the air. Thus not only was the enemy at the throat of communications with the Philippines, but there was little to prevent him from occupying more island bases whence his aircraft could attack Java and dominate the supply route to it from Australia. In Malaya the British forces might be driven back to Singapore Island. On Wavell’s left, in Burma, the Japanese had not yet made a major attack.
As Wavell’s directive required, his staff included officers of the various Services of four nations. The position of Commander-in-Chief, Far East, was to lapse, and Pownall, who had held it hardly long enough to gather the reins, had flown from Singapore with him to become his Chief of Staff. The Deputy Commander-in-Chief was Lieut-General George H. Brett of the American Army Air Force, until recently in command of the nucleus American forces in Australia. Admiral Hart (United States Navy) was Chief of the Naval Staff, with Rear-Admiral Palliser (British Navy) as his deputy. Major-General Brereton (United States Army Air Force) was in command of the Allied air forces, pending the arrival of Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse11 (RAF). It seemed likely that Australia would soon be providing the largest military contingent in the combined force, and
Wavell sought some Australian officers for inclusion in his staff.12 The Allied land forces under his direction were commanded by the following officers:
Java, Lieut-General H. ter Poorten
Burma, Lieut-General T. J. Hutton13
Malaya, Lieut-General A. E. Percival
Philippines, General D. MacArthur
Darwin, Major-General D. V. J. Blake14
Headquarters were to be in a hotel at Lembang, near Bandung, the site of the Netherlands East Indies Army headquarters. At the first conferences of the Combined Staff, the Dutch and American officers urged the necessity of holding and reinforcing such forward air bases as survived in Allied hands: Ambon, Kendari (Celebes), Samarinda (Dutch Borneo), Sabang (Sumatra). However, each had only a small garrison, and Wavell was unable to see how with his very limited resources he could afford to reinforce them. He therefore clung to his plan to concentrate on the line Darwin-Timor-Java-southern Sumatra-Singapore.
Wavell had not yet formally assumed command because his headquarters had not been fully established, and he was not, in the words of his directive, “in position effectively [to] carry essential functions of supreme command”.15 In the meantime, on 13th January, he flew to Singapore again to visit his main sector in Malaya. There, on the morning of the 9th, Percival had issued orders to Bennett consequent upon those given by Wavell to him.
As supplemented on the 10th, Percival’s orders provided that troops in Johore be divided into two forces. The force under Bennett, to be known as Westforce, would comprise:–
9th Indian Division;
AIF less 22nd Brigade;
45th Indian Brigade Group;
2/Loyal Regiment (from Singapore Fortress) less one company;
Artillery, engineer, and administrative units not included in formations;
An Indian pioneer battalion.
Westforce was to hold north-west Johore, principally along the line Batu Anam-Muar. The composition of the other main force – III Indian Corps – would be:–
11th Indian Division;
22nd Australian Brigade Group and attached troops, including 2/17th Dogra Battalion from Singapore Fortress, under Brigadier Taylor (to be known as Eastforce);
Corps troops, inclusive of artillery, engineer and administrative units.
The III Indian Corps was to defend the remainder of Johore up to and including the line Endau (on the east coast) through Kluang to Batu Pahat on the west coast. Although the 11th Indian Division was included in this force, it was to be placed in areas where it could be rested and reorganised, and the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade was to be withdrawn direct to Singapore. The plan split the Australian division – something which Percival hitherto had sought to avoid, and which Bennett accepted with reluctance, thinking perhaps that events might soon restore his 22nd Brigade to him.
On the ground that an Indian Army officer was now required to pull together and establish confidence in what remained of the 11th Division, Brigadier Key was appointed to command it in place of Major-General Paris. Brigadier Lay, having returned to duty, was given command of the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade (9th Division) and Colonel Challen16 replaced Brigadier Moorhead in command of the 15th Brigade (11th Division).
Percival impressed on Bennett that the new position must be held and declared that “if this position is lost, the battle of Singapore is lost”. Percival’s ground forces on the peninsula amounted to three under-strength divisions, including the weak 11th Division. He expected to have the equivalent of one more division by the end of the month, and a number of reinforcements. It was almost impossible for the time being to give any effective air support to the infantry. On the other hand the Japanese were now bombing targets, including Singapore Island, with increasing freedom, as well as supporting their forward troops. The seas around Malaya lay open to the enemy.
While these plans were being made, the Japanese were building their strength in Malaya. The 21st Regiment of the 5th Division landed at Singora on 8th January and the Guards Division, having been relieved of its duties in Thailand, had its 5th Regiment in Ipoh. Preparations were being made to land at Endau towards the end of January the portion of the 18th Division which as yet had not been employed in Malaya, and at the same time the Anambas Islands, off the east coast of Malaya, were to be occupied so that they might be used as an advanced naval base.
The principal immediate danger to the safe withdrawal of III Indian Corps to Johore, however, was presented by the Japanese 4th Guards Regiment. The main body of this regiment crossed the Sungei Selangor unopposed on the night of 9th–10th January, and forced its way to Klang. There it captured the bridge over the Sungei Klang held by the Jat-Punjab Battalion of the 15th Brigade, and forced its withdrawal to Batu Tiga by 1 a.m. on 11th January. The battalion, reduced to about 200 all ranks, was then embussed and moved southward through Kajang, on the trunk
road. Concurrently, the II/4th Battalion of the Guards Division had been moved by sea to near Port Swettenham, at the mouth of the Sungei Klang, and landed unopposed on the afternoon of the 10th. It then set out for Kajang, hoping to come on to the flank of the 11th Indian Division. In
this endeavour it was too late, for the British Battalion, acting as the rearguard of the 11th Division, had withdrawn from Kuala Lumpur at 4.30 a.m. on the 11th, and the division was clear of Kajang when the Guards battalion arrived there that evening.
For days past, smoke had billowed up at Kuala Lumpur from great quantities of stores which could not be moved because of the swift collapse
at Slim River. Even so, much was left to the enemy. The southward move from the city had begun on the morning of Saturday, 10th January.
All Saturday and Sunday, all day and all night, the great withdrawal continued (wrote a war correspondent who witnessed it). An interminable convoy, composed of all manner of vehicles, began to roll south: large lorries filled with British troops so dog-tired that they slept in spite of bumps and jolts; civilian motor-cars commandeered by the military and hastily camouflaged by being spattered with mud; lorries bearing the names of half the rubber estates in Malaya; dispatch-riders darting in and out of the traffic on their motor-bicycles; eleven steam rollers ... which had steamed all the way down from Kedah and Perak; two fire-engines also making their way south; enormous tin-dredges towed by Diesel tractors ... so broad that they took up most of the road, and so heavy that their treads curled up the tarred surface; low trollies towing sticks of heavy aerial bombs saved from the northern airfields for further use; private motor-cars, from Austins to Rolls Royces, carrying Local Defence Volunteers, ARP wardens, police officials; camouflaged staff cars through whose windows one caught a glimpse of red tabs and hatbands; Red Cross ambulances, ordnance vans, trucks fitted with cranes and lathes and all equipment needed for field repairs. ...
In the villages and towns along the route Malays and Chinese and Indians stood in silent little groups. ... Neither pleasure nor malice nor sympathy were to be seen in their impassive countenances. ... War was a phenomenon completely strange to these pacific, indolent, happy people. And now they saw the white tuans [masters], who had always been in Malaya since they could first remember, heading south. ...17
The white tuans had indeed been humbled. Not only were they giving up great military, commercial, and personal possessions; they were being forced to leave behind them millions of Asians whom they were pledged to protect. It was a bitter moment, relieved only by hope of ultimate victory.
Enemy troops entered Kuala Lumpur at 8 p.m. on 11th January, thus completing the first phase of the Japanese plan for the conquest of Malaya. Preparing for the next, and establishing control in the capital, the invaders paused, and the 11th Division moved without further fighting to successive positions in its withdrawal to Johore. No longer able to enter the trunk road at Kuala Kubu, the 9th Indian Division withdrew southward through Bentong and Bahau, and on the 13th reached the Segamat area, where it came under Bennett’s command.
It is naturally disturbing to learn that the Japanese have been able to overrun the whole of Malaya except Johore (cabled the Australian Prime Minister to Mr Churchill on the 11th), and that the Commander-in-Chief considers that certain risks have to be accepted even now in carrying on his plan for the defence of this limited area.
It is observed that the 8th Australian Division is to be given the task of fighting the decisive battle. ... I urge on you that nothing be left undone to reinforce Malaya to the greatest degree possible in accordance with my earlier representations and your intentions. I am particularly concerned in regard to air strength. ...
To this Churchill replied on the 14th –
I do not see how any one could expect Malaya to be defended once the Japanese obtained the command of the sea and while we are fighting for our lives against
Germany and Italy. The only vital point is Singapore Fortress and its essential hinterland. Personally, my anxiety has been lest in fighting rearguard actions down le peninsula to gain time we should dissipate the force required for the prolonged defence of Singapore. ... Some may think it would have been better to have come back quicker with less loss. ... Everything is being done to reinforce Singapore and the hinterland. ...
Faced with the great challenge to the AIF and to himself in the Westforce plan, Bennett briskly set about his task. As approved in principle by Percival, the crossings over the Sungei Muar and Sungei Segamat in the vicinity of Segamat were to be secured strongly against all forms of attack. Bennett directed that, westward of these, localities were to be held at focal points, with striking forces available to prevent the enemy from moving around the flanks. An ambush force and road-block were to be placed along the main road west of Gemas, on which it was expected that the principal enemy force would converge. Believing that the Japanese would not stand up to resolute blows, Bennett wanted to ensure that they were hit hard when they first encountered the AIF. In the coastal area to the west the 45th Indian Brigade Group18 would cover the main coast road at Muar, south of the river, with detachments and patrols along the river to Lenga, about 25 miles inland. Discussing the plan with General Barstow, commander of the 9th Indian Division, Bennett “told him definitely that there would be no withdrawal. He said that was all right, but if the troops could not stand, a withdrawal would be forced on us.” Bennett “reiterated that there would be no withdrawal”. Barstow “accepted the decision and immediately set to work to pass on the determination to his brigadiers”.19
Bennett impressed on Brigadier Maxwell (27th Brigade) and his battalion commanders that “fixed defensive positions were dangerous, and that a fluid defence with as many men as possible for counter-attack was sounder”.20 He expounded these tactics also to Brigadier Duncan,21 commander of the 45th Indian Brigade. As the 27th Brigade was disposed on 13th January in the Segamat sector, the foremost position, on the trunk road three miles west of Gemas, was occupied by the 2/30th Australian Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Galleghan) with Major Ball’s22 battery of the 2/15th Field Regiment, and the 16th Anti-Tank Battery (less a troop) under command. The role of the battalion was to act as a shock-absorber at the first contact with the enemy, inflict as many casualties as possible, and hold its ground for at least 24 hours before falling back on the main positions. The 2/26th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Boyes), with the 29th Field Battery under command, was on the Paya Lang Estate, north of the trunk road, and between Gemas and Batu Anam. Behind the 2/26th
was the 2/29th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Robertson), at Buloh Kasap, between Batu Anam and Segamat. Headquarters of the 27th Australian Brigade and of the 2/15th Field Regiment were near Segamat, and advanced headquarters of Westforce at Labis, south-east of Segamat. Units of the 9th Indian Division were allotted various responsibilities from Segamat to Batu Anam, and westward of the main road to guard approaches through Jementah, on a road from Malacca and the west coast. Their dispositions were: 8th Indian Brigade: 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles astride the road west of Batu Anam; 2/10th Baluch between Batu Anam and Buloh Kasap; 3/17th Dogras, Segamat. 22nd Indian Brigade: 5/11th Sikhs near bridge over Sungei Muar four miles west of Segamat on the road to Jementah; 2/18th Garhwals about the junction of the roads Batu Anam to Jementah and Segamat to Jementah; 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment, between the Garhwals and the Sikhs. The 2/Loyals, in reserve, were responsible for the local defence of Segamat. The 29th Australian Field Battery was placed in the area occupied by the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles. Other Indian units were supported by Royal Artillery units.
The ambush was a device which Bennett had for long discussed with his commanders pursuant to his belief that resolute aggressive action might check the Japanese advance, and perhaps disrupt their plans. He saw in the situation now facing him means of putting it into practice, though on a smaller scale than originally had been contemplated. It was expected that the III Indian Corps would make a clean break away from the enemy, who would be unopposed for thirty miles. Bridges along the road would be left intact to heighten the impression of helter-skelter retreat, and tempt the Japanese to become over-confident and careless as they continued their advance.23 High hopes were entertained of what could be done by the 2/30th Battalion, forged and toughened by strenuous training and severe discipline, when it encountered the enemy in such circumstances. The battalion area was closely reconnoitred,24 and the spot chosen for the ambush consisted of a length of the main road leading at this point to a wooden bridge over a small river – the Gemencheh – about seven miles west of Gemas. Dense jungle grew on both sides of the road for about 500 yards, including a cutting, twelve feet high and forty yards long, which ended within 60 yards of the bridge, giving way to low scrub offering little or no concealment. On the far side of the bridge the road ran in a straight line for about 250 yards with open ground on either side. Percival, who visited the spot with Bennett, considered that it was too far in advance of where the main stand was to be made, near the Paya Lang Estate, but Bennett upheld the choice.
As Galleghan disposed his forces, positions forward of battalion headquarters, extending from north of the road to the railway line, were
occupied by “C” Company (Captain Lamacraft25), on the right, with responsibility for establishing a road-block ahead of its positions, “A” Company (Major Anderson26) in the centre, and “D” Company (Captain Melville27) on the left. “B” Company (Captain Duffy28), entrusted with the task of manning the Gemencheh ambush, three miles ahead, took up its position amid teeming rain on 13th January while Japanese planes droned overhead to bomb and machine-gun rearward targets. Lieutenant Head’s29 platoon lined the cutting with company headquarters nearby. Platoons commanded by Lieutenants Geikie30 and Jones31 were in echelon along the road. Rear headquarters were established close to a track known as Quarry road, along which the company was to withdraw after taking maximum toll of the enemy. Galleghan was insistent in putting into practice his belief that the use of transport in the battle area should be kept to a minimum.
To prevent Japanese troops not caught in the ambush from attempting a flanking movement, two sections of Head’s platoon were posted on opposite sides of the road where they could cover both the road and the flats beside it. A small holding force was given the task of securing the junction of the road with Quarry road. This force comprised headquarters details under Warrant-Officer Gordon,32 the company sergeant-major, on the right and a detachment of Jones’ platoon on the left, under Sergeant Garner.33 Two signal lines were laid, one to battalion headquarters and one to the supporting battery, which was to fire on enemy troops following those who had been caught in the ambush.34 On his way to the ambush position Duffy had noticed the artillery signal wire lying conspicuously beside the road. The NCO in charge of the truck from which the line was being laid undertook to send a party on foot to camouflage it after it had been laid. Galleghan, inspecting the position soon after first light on the 14th, also noticed the wire and gave instructions for its concealment. Wireless telegraph equipment was not provided. Engineers of the 2/12th Field Company prepared the bridge for demolition. All transport and carriers were sent to B Echelon except one truck for each
company, two ammunition trucks with Intelligence, two carriers and signals trucks, and Galleghan’s car.
The 27th Brigade was now ready for its first experience under fire. Withdrawal of the III Indian Corps was completed on the night of 13th–14th January. As all wheeled transport had to pass through Segamat this became a dangerous bottleneck, but, surprisingly and fortunately, enemy planes failed to take advantage of it.
Galleghan told his commanders and staff on the eve of battle: “The reputation not only of the AIF in Malaya, but of Australia, is in the hands of this unit.” Soon after 10 a.m. on the 14th he passed on to his companies the code word “Switch”, indicating that control of the front had passed from Heath to Bennett. Thus the men were braced for battle when, shortly before 4 p.m., a few Japanese on bicycles rounded the bend near the Gemencheh bridge. Soon a column of blithely chattering Japanese push cyclists, riding five or six abreast, was streaming over the bridge. They resembled a picnic party rather than part of an advancing army, except that they carried arms. Reporting by telephone to battalion headquarters that the cyclists were moving through, Duffy found that the voice at the other end of the line reached him only faintly. Sounds along the road forward of his position suggested that motor transport, with perhaps the main body of the enemy convoy, was following. He therefore let from 200 to 300 of the cyclists pass, to be dealt with by troops in the rear. As it happened, only three motor cyclists appeared, followed by several hundred more push cyclists. When these were tightly packed into the ambush, and on the bridge, and it seemed to Duffy that the head of the column would have reached the Quarry road position, he gave the order for the bridge to be blown.
The charge hurled timber, bicycles and bodies skyward in a deadly blast. Almost simultaneously, Duffy’s three platoons hurled grenades among the enemy and swept them with fire from Bren guns, Tommy guns and rifles. The din was so great that when Duffy ordered artillery fire the artillery forward observation officer thought his battery’s guns were firing. Both he and Duffy soon found, however, that their signal lines back from the ambush position had gone dead – cut, it was believed, by Japanese who had discovered them at the crucial moment in the artillery fire plan. In the absence of wireless telegraph equipment35 there remained no means whereby the artillery could be given the signal to fire as had been planned on to the enemy troops and transport which it was assumed would bank up on the far side of the bridge.
Battalion headquarters, straining their ears for the sound of the bridge being blown, heard nothing they could rely upon as a signal that the action had commenced, and that would indicate when and where artillery fire was required. On the other hand, they knew that premature or wrongly
directed fire might be disastrous. Thus the Australians were now threatened by the “fog of battle” that had hampered the III Corps throughout its long withdrawal from the north.
But there was no frustration of Duffy’s men in their immediate task. The ambush had caught the Japanese completely by surprise. Their rifles and automatic guns were strapped to their cycles, and there was little opportunity to use either their bayonets or their grenades. The best hope of those who had survived the onslaught lay in pretending to be dead. In twenty minutes it was all over. Of the sight across the river, Duffy related: “... the entire 300 yards of road was thickly covered with dead and dying men – the result of blast when the bridge was blown up and the deadly fire of our Bren guns, specially told off to attend to the section on the far side of the bridge.”36 Undoubtedly the first encounter with the Australians had been costly to the enemy.
Duffy now ordered withdrawal, especially as so many Japanese had been let through the ambush before the action commenced. In the withdrawal Head and some of his platoon became engaged with these Japanese, who had turned back. He shot an enemy officer, but was himself wounded and had to be supported by Sergeant Doolan37 to the rendezvous at Quarry road. Geikie, who with his platoon also encountered the enemy, led several successful bayonet attacks and he too was wounded, but not badly. Gordon’s and Garner’s parties, after fighting fiercely, joined company headquarters in the jungle near Quarry road. Jones’ platoon also withdrew, fighting a rearguard action.
As it appeared that the Japanese were in strength on the trunk road, Duffy led his company in single file through the jungle in an attempt to move round the enemy’s flank. He did not discover until 5.15 that contact had been lost between the party immediately following him and the rest of the company. With Duffy were Captain Kearney,38 his second-in-command; Sergeant Garner and his party from Jones’ platoon; approximately one section from each of Geikie’s and Head’s platoons; the Forward Artillery Observation Officer and his party; and the engineers group – a total of thirty-eight. All three platoon commanders were with the others, who therefore would not be short of leaders in finding their way.
Hearing Japanese nearby, but deciding against attack in the circumstances, Duffy headed south, towards the railway line. Soon after the party moved off wild firing broke out and continued for about fifteen minutes. The party formed a circle and went to ground, but although they were not seen by the Japanese, Lance-Sergeant Nagle,39 the. company orderly room sergeant, was killed by the fire and one man was wounded. In the course of their further endeavours to rejoin their battalion the party came
under fire of artillery where it was shelling the enemy; but with the exception of a patrol led by Garner, they reported to battalion headquarters at noon on 16th January.
Jones, with the rearguard, followed Geikie’s platoon from the ambush position; and both thought they were following Duffy. They were in fact following Head, who had continued the original eastward movement through the jungle with a group including part of 12 Platoon, and was unaware of the presence of the others. When the pain he was suffering compelled Head to give up the lead, Doolan took over and brought the column out of the jungle next morning. It was then discovered that Jones and Geikie were part of the column, and Jones took charge. Two attacks by parties of Japanese were beaten off, the latter one by the rearguard comprising two sections of Jones’ platoon under Corporal Huntley.40 Of these men, six were missing when the column reached the battalion perimeter during the morning.41 “We’ll pin them down – you get back,” they had said.
Garner’s patrol, which had been sent by Duffy to warn battalion headquarters of his party’s approach, comprised Garner, Lance-Corporal Hann42 and Private Noble.43 In an encounter with a Japanese patrol Noble killed three of its members with his machine-gun. He and Garner reached brigade headquarters on 16th January but Hann, who became separated from them by jumping into a river when he was fired upon, was captured and imprisoned in a hut. Released by a Tamil – of whom many were employed at the time in Malaya – he donned a turban and other Indian clothing and made his way to the house of a second Tamil, who gave him food and cigarettes. With two other Tamils as guides, Hann set off again and eventually met an Australian patrol, hurriedly pulled off his turban, and was recognised.
Tension at battalion headquarters naturally had increased as it was realised that the signal lines to Duffy’s company had been cut, and that action of some kind probably was in progress. Patrols were sent out to endeavour to restore communications. The patrols became involved in several clashes with enemy troops and one, led by Lance-Corporal Heckendorf,44 was cut off but rejoined the battalion later with valuable information obtained behind the enemy lines. It was discovered that the Japanese were in control of the Gemencheh ambush area (where they restored the
bridge for traffic within six hours of its having been blown up45) and were advancing in force, with tanks, towards the battalion’s main position.
Preceded by a storm of machine-gun fire, two Japanese tanks appeared soon after 9 a.m. on 15th January near the road-block in front of Lama-craft’s company, but turned tail under assault by anti-tank guns. Next came three tanks – two medium and one light – which fired along the road. Armour-piercing shells either passed through or ricocheted off them, but when high-explosive shells also were used the first tank was set ablaze, the second one was disabled, and the third towed it away. The blazing tank served as a screen for three more tanks which then appeared, soon followed by another. The tanks, and machine-guns dismounted from two of them, were quickly sending a stream of fire along the road. This was supplemented by fire from mortars and machine-guns brought up by Japanese infantry, but the Australian mortar and anti-tank fire was so effective that the first of the four tanks was hit, the second disabled, the third set on fire, and the fourth wrecked by a mortar bomb which exploded after entering its turret. Artillery now opened fire on the troops in the Japanese rear. The Japanese still pressed forward along the road and commenced flanking movements, but the combined effect of the Australian artillery and infantry fire was too much for them. The assault was over within an hour, at heavy cost to the enemy. It was during the ensuing lull that Jones’ party rejoined the battalion, with its stimulating news of the success of the Gemencheh ambush.
To Galleghan, with the information now available to him, this seemed to be the time for an attack which he had planned. Melville’s company was chosen to advance on a hill occupied by the Japanese about 1,000 yards from the company’s position, hold it if possible till dusk, and then return. As reports flowed in to battalion headquarters it was realised that the Japanese were massing much more quickly than had been thought likely. Their use of tanks, so soon after the Gemencheh bridge had been blown, added to the danger that the battalion would be overpowered or cut off if it attempted to hold on to its advanced position. It was accordingly decided that a plan for the battalion’s withdrawal behind the Sungei Gemas should be put into effect that evening.
The struggle was not only between ground forces, with the Australians outnumbered: taking advantage of their command of the air, Japanese planes were bombing Gemas, and suddenly dive bombers pounded battalion headquarters. Except at the command post, no trenches had been dug, and the men could only lie on the ground as the bombs exploded around them. A divisional signals wireless truck attached to the battalion was destroyed, but from it emerged an unscathed signaller holding a broken buzzer key.46
The dive bombers next attacked in the area held by Anderson’s company, apparently seeking to destroy anti-tank guns and 25-pounders, but without success:
At fifteen minutes to one o’clock a great cry went up from the platoon on my left, and there on the flank was “Don” Company advancing in open formation across the clearing. It was magnificent to see them, each man in place, with his rifle held high across his body, walking forward as if on a training exercise... We had prepared for this for two years, and as we others watched we yelled and roared with excitement to see “Don” Company doing its job so well.47
While Melville was leading his men forward a report was received that the Japanese were only 300 yards ahead of the start-line. It was by then too late to change the plan, and the company was soon under heavy fire from ground and air. Although the supporting artillery fire was landing too far behind the Japanese, the company pushed them back and inflicted heavy casualties on them. Melville was soon wounded, but directed his men until they were out of range of his voice, when Captain Morrison48 took command.
Thick undergrowth hampered the advance of Lieutenants Parry’s49 and Donohue’s50 platoons on the left flank and gave the Japanese ideal cover. Privates Dever,51 Hilton52 and Williams53 of Parry’s platoon, using bakelite grenades and then their bayonets, captured two Japanese guns and destroyed their crews. Private Beattie,54 racing towards a Japanese machine-gun which was holding up Lieutenant Hendy’s55 platoon on the right flank, was killed within twenty yards of the gun. The platoon was temporarily surprised by fire from Japanese perched in rubber trees around them, but it was not until the men came under cross-fire and were confronted by several tanks that their attack was halted and they withdrew. When they met Parry’s platoon it was making headway, but as the tanks now were a serious threat Morrison ordered the company to return to its former position.
a platoon which gave covering fire, had been wounded and two sections of Booth’s platoon led by the company’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Boss,58 had also encountered tanks. Both these sections had therefore returned to their original positions, but not before there had been some very spirited action.
Two-thirds of the way to our goal (wrote a section leader) the machine-gun fire, though still badly aimed, suddenly increased. “Don” Company having now withdrawn to the left, all the Japanese fire-power available was concentrated on our front. Behind us the second-in-command of our company brought up another platoon which traversed the Japanese front from the right of the road and stopped some of the barrage. At the same time the sounds of tanks moving up to confront us could be clearly heard. ... Not hearing the order to withdraw being shouted by the platoon commander at the rear, we kept moving forward, and forty yards from the fence across the front, came upon four men of “Don” Company, three of them wounded, with a little red-haired fellow lying guard over them. They had all been caught on the fence, which was high and thick at this point. It was obvious to us then that we would have to return.59
Directed by Major Ball, a troop of guns of the 30th Battery, which had been placed forward of Anderson’s company, was firing over open sights while these withdrawals were occurring, and probably was responsible for keeping the Japanese tanks in check.
The counter-attack appeared to have surprised the Japanese and to have forestalled an attack by them. One of the most notable of many individual acts arising from the engagement was performed by Corporal Abbotts.60 Although himself badly wounded in the chest during an attack on a machine-gun post, he carried a wounded man back to the aid post.
Other air attacks were made during the morning, on battalion headquarters and company areas. Early in the afternoon, to the accompaniment of heavy mortar fire and a final air attack, tanks moved against Lama-craft’s company. As another signal line had been cut, the company could not ask battalion headquarters for mortar fire, and the tanks were protected by trees from the anti-tank guns; but they were spiritedly attacked with hand grenades and bullets from the cover of trees and logs in the course of a running fight. Lieutenant Clemens,61 shot through the heart, was the first of the battalion’s officers to be killed in the campaign. The fire from the tanks was wild and largely ineffective, and they withdrew.
Valuable aid to the infantrymen had been given throughout the day by the mortars under Captain Howells,62 whose three sections, acting on information from the forward companies and from Private Reid63 of the mortar platoon from his observation post in a tree, had been remarkably
accurate. The medical officer, Captain Taylor,64 and his men had worked bravely in rescuing the wounded under fire. The Red Cross symbol on the ambulances brought forward for the purpose was respected by the Japanese.
Owing to the rapidly mounting strength of the Japanese on the immediate front, the battalion began to withdraw in mid-afternoon. Although they were being fired at by a Japanese tank over open sights, and were also under heavy mortar fire, Bren carriers under Captain Tompson65 persisted, until they were ordered to withdraw, in attempts to pull out antitank guns. They then picked up other weapons, walking wounded, and a section of Lamacraft’s company, on their way back to Gemas. Heavy mud had bogged anti-tank and field guns, and only one – a 25-pounder was saved. Most of the trucks in the area were got out, several (carrying ammunition) under fire. Driver Pearce66 was killed when a cannon shell hit his truck, but Warrant-Officer Schofield67 kept the vehicle under control. Galleghan ordered Melville, Booth and three others, all wounded, into his car and himself moved on foot, accompanied by his Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Eaton,68 with Lamacraft’s company, which was the last out. The car was fired on from the air and one of its occupants was again hit. Melville maintained pressure on the man’s severed artery while Booth, wounded in one leg, stood on the running board to maintain a lookout for planes.
In the two days’ action the battalion’s casualties were one officer and sixteen other ranks killed, nine men missing and four officers and fifty-one others wounded. The battalion had taken heavy toll of the enemy, and although the withdrawal took place in daylight, a clean break was made. The behaviour of the Australians under intense fire did great credit to them and to their training.
Japanese losses in the 35-day advance to Kuala Lumpur had been light. They had captured big quantities of material and a large number of prisoners. The 5th Division was tired, however, and was therefore given a few days’ rest. What was known as the Mukaide Force was thereupon organised to come forward as the spearhead of the advance along the trunk road. It consisted of the 1st Tank Regiment with an infantry battalion and machine-gun and artillery support. Unable to overcome the resistance of the Australians and having suffered heavy casualties, it was brought on 15th January under command of the 9th Brigade which threw additional strength – evidently the 11th Infantry Regiment – into the battle. Further to force the issue the 21st Brigade (21st and 42nd Regiments)
were detoured by a southern road leading to the left flank and rear of the 27th Australian Brigade. These moves were testimony to the blows struck by the Australian 2/30th Battalion in the role to which it had been assigned of checking the enemy at the trunk road approach to the Westforce positions in Johore.
Enemy aircraft had continued throughout the first fortnight of January to support Japanese ground forces both directly and indirectly. Though the effect on the morale of insufficiently trained troops in the defending forces was severe, they had caused few casualties and little material damage, and had missed big opportunities, such as the withdrawal through Segamat, of delivering what might have been shattering blows. Raids on Singapore Island, particularly on Tengah airfield west of the trunk road into the city, had been intensified. The defending aircraft, inferior in both numbers and performance, had been employed mainly in protection of the island, patrols of the sea approaches to eastern Malaya and northern Sumatra, a raid on railway yards and shipping at Singora on 7th January, and attacks on the airfields at Ipoh, Sungei Patani, and Kuantan in Japanese possession. British hopes that sufficient time would be gained to deploy reinforcements in Johore had been stimulated by the safe arrival on 13th January of a convoy of large American vessels bringing the 53rd British Infantry Brigade Group of the 18th British Division, the British 6th Heavy and 35th Light Anti-aircraft Regiments, the 85th British Anti-tank Regiment, and fifty-one Hurricane fighter aircraft. A swarm of Japanese aircraft appeared as the convoy neared Singapore, but stormy weather had closed in, giving the ships far more protection than the aircraft at the disposal of Malaya Command could supply. The British brigade group which included three battalions-2/Cambridgeshire, 5/Norfolk, and 6/Norfolk-135th Field Regiment and 287th Field Company, was without its transport or its guns, which were following in another convoy. These needs had therefore to be met from local resources. Percival hoped to use the 53rd Brigade, if time permitted, to release the 22nd Australian Brigade for Bennett’s command; but having been at sea for eleven weeks, the 53rd Brigade was not considered to be fit for immediate employment. Arrival of the Hurricanes was hailed in some quarters as the beginning of the end of Japanese air supremacy. The machines were, however, in crates, and accompanied by only twenty-four pilots, and these lacked experience of Malayan conditions. Time was needed for assembling and conditioning the aircraft and giving experience to the pilots.