DURING the last few days of December and the first of January some most important changes took place in the higher direction of war in the Far East. Both the Commanders-in-Chief left Singapore, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham on relief by General Sir Henry Pownall, and Sir Geoffrey Layton on the move of the headquarters of the Eastern Fleet first to Batavia and then to Colombo. The relief of Brooke-Popham was in no way connected with the course the war was taking for, although not officially announced, it had been decided some time before war broke out. He had been sent out originally to establish the new headquarters and, now that this had been done, it was only natural that he should hand over to a younger man. On the departure of Sir Geoffrey Layton, Rear-Admiral Spooner became senior naval officer at Singapore. Early in January, Mr. Duff Cooper, the Cabinet representative in the Far East, also left Singapore on the termination of his appointment. He was succeeded as chairman of the Far East War Council by Sir Shenton Thomas, the Governor and High Commissioner Malaya. Finally there was the appoint¬ment of General Sir Archibald Wavell (now Field-Marshal Viscount Wavell) as Supreme Commander of the newly created Allied South-West Pacific Command. He arrived at Singapore by air on 7 January and after a tour of the forward area left again on the eleventh for Java where the headquarters of the new com¬mand were to be established. It actually came into being on 15 January. With him went the headquarters of the Commander-in- Chief Far East which was absorbed into the new organization, Sir Henry Pownall becoming Chief of Staff to Sir Archibald Wavell.
I have no wish to suggest that any of these changes were wrong or that things should have been arranged otherwise, but it cannot be denied that the general effect was far from healthy. The Far East is at all times a part of the world which “wants knowing”, and many of the problems, both operational and administrative, with which we were grappling had about them at least a degree of novelty. Continuity was required and, with so many changes in the higher appointments, that was difficult to achieve. Further, these changes and movements, at a time when the steadying of morale both in the fighting services and among the civil population was of such paramount importance, had, to say the least, an unsettling effect.
Let us now return to the battle-front in Malaya. When we left it, our forward troops on the west coast were on the point of occupying the Kampar position south of Ipoh while on the east coast we were still holding Kuantan with a brigade group in reserve in the Kuala Lipis—Jerantut-Raub area. Our task was still to defend the Naval Base, and our general strategy of holding the enemy for as long as we could at arm’s length from Singapore to enable reinforcements to be brought in had been confirmed by higher authority. We now knew that we might expect to receive an Indian infantry brigade with attached troops during the first few days of January and the whole of the 18th British Division, which was en route to the Middle East and was being diverted at sea, later in the month. Of this division, one brigade group with some other units was coming on ahead in large American liners, for which the special permission of the American authorities had been obtained. They were extremely valuable ships, so their safe arrival and dispatch were of the utmost importance. In this convoy also were coming fifty Hurricane fighters in crates with their crews. In them lay our first hope of regaining some sort of air superiority. It was altogether a most valuable convoy, the chief danger to which, of course, lay in air attack. If the enemy could, before its arrival, be in a position to operate his aircraft from the aerodromes in Central Malaya, especially those at Kuantan and Kuala Lumpur, the scale of that attack would be greatly increased. I felt that we ought to do everything in our power to prevent him doing this, and therein lay the key to our strategy at that stage of the campaign. The convoy was due to reach Singapore about 13-15 January.
In addition to the Hurricanes referred to above, a flow of reinforcements of the longer-range type of aircraft had been started from the United Kingdom and the Middle East. These included fifty-two Hudsons. Again our hopes ran high, but only to be dashed as time went by and few aircraft arrived. Of the fifty-two Hudsons only sixteen ever reached Singapore and less than half of all the aircraft that started ever arrived. That seemed to lend force to our pre-war contention that it is better to keep at least a good nucleus of your anticipated aircraft requirements in or near the area concerned and not to rely too much on long distance reinforcements.
On 27 December our air reconnaissance had reported thirty- four Japanese ships lying off Singora. It seemed probable that this indicated the arrival of a fresh division or at least of strong reinforcements for the divisions already in Malaya. As regards the Japanese plan of campaign, it was clear that they intended to continue their advance down the west coast and, in support of this, it seemed likely that they would attempt some landings from the sea. On the east coast they had complete liberty of action. I thought a combined sea and air attack against Kuantan was likely, and I could not disregard the possibility of an attack against the east coast of Johore or even against Singapore Island itself. There was also the possibility of an air-borne attack directed against our aerodromes.
The time had clearly come to formulate a plan of campaign for the next few weeks in some detail. Before doing so it was necessary to find out what the troops in the forward areas were capable of, so I decided to go north again and visit the formations of the 3rd Indian Corps. I left Singapore by road on 30 December for Kuala Lumpur, and on the way I took the opportunity of finding out what the situation on the railway was. There had already been reports of the disappearance of a number of the junior employees and I wanted to try and find out the cause of this. One of the railway stations which I visited was typical of the rest. It had been bombed by a single plane and a lucky hit had set fire to an ammunition wagon. Explosions had taken place. The Indian stationmaster was still in his office, but the rest of his staff had gone. There were no signalmen, no shunters, and no labourers. Inquiries showed that most of these men had taken off their wives and families and gone to the country villages. Part of the trouble was that most of the shops also had closed and there was little food to be had in the town. That was a difficulty which could have been got over by the establishment of canteens, but to get the railwaymen back to work was not so easy. In fact, we never really succeeded in doing it, though we managed to keep the railways running by other methods.
I spent the night with Heath at Kuala Lumpur and the following day we motored up to Tapah where the headquarters of the nth Indian Division was. Tapah is about a hundred miles from Kuala Lumpur and we stopped at several places on the way, so it was afternoon before we got there. One of the places we looked at was the Kuala Kubu road junction, where the road that goes over the mountains to Kuala Lipis takes off from the west coast trunk road. This junction had now become of great strategical importance, because, if the enemy succeeded in reaching it while the 9th Indian Division was still on the east coast, the only land communication to that division would be seriously threatened. We discussed the possibility of using the 9th Indian Division, or part of it, to strike the enemy in flank at this point as he advanced down the west coast road. Farther on we stopped to look at a position north of Tanjong Malim, which was being prepared under Heath’s instructions. A large civil labour gang, collected from the neighbouring estates, was working here, and a great deal of clearance and wiring had been done. It was hoped to make a strong position of it to cover the Kuala Kubu road junction, but, like most other positions in Malaya, there was weakness on the flanks which could be turned by the enemy moving through the rubber or the jungle. North of the Slim River we met Stewart, the commander of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade. He was reconnoitring a position for his brigade in an area where the road and railway, which at this point ran close to each other, passed through a dense jungle belt. The position had much to commend it because the denseness of the jungle would obviously make it difficult for the enemy to employ his favourite outflanking tactics. It would also be quite impossible to operate tanks except down the main road. On the other hand there was no natural anti-tank obstacle on the road itself, and we should have to depend upon our anti-tank weapons and artificial obstacles to stop the enemy tanks. Still that seemed a fair risk to take as the tanks could only come on in single file. All the same, I couldn’t help being a little apprehensive as to what would happen if the Japanese tanks did break through and, as we had so little behind the front, wondering how far they would go before they were stopped. Both Heath and I impressed on all commanders we met the vital necessity of a good anti-tank defence.
At Tapah we discussed the situation with Paris, the commander of the nth Indian Division. He was as usual calm and confident —two valuable characteristics in the situation in which we found ourselves. Things on the Kampar front were going quite well and he expected to be able to hold the enemy there. I had calculated that, if we were to prevent the Japanese getting the use of the Central Malaya aerodromes before the mid-January convoy arrived, we must hold him north of the Kuala Kubu road junction until at least 14 January. That would give Paris a depth of seventy miles in which to manoeuvre during the next fortnight. This he thought he could do without much difficulty, so he was instructed to hold on to the Kampar position for as long as possible and in any case not to fall back behind the Kuala Kubu road junction before 14 January without permission.
No sooner had this decision been taken than a telephone message came through from corps headquarters to the effect that our air reconnaissance had reported some small steamers with barges in tow moving south down the Perak coast that morning. So the Japanese had not been long in starting coastal operations. We had our small garrison at Telok Anson and south of that the responsibility for coast defence rested, under 3rd Indian Corps, with Brigadier Moir, the commander of the lines of communication area. He only had weak forces at his disposal, so Heath immediately ordered the 9th Indian Division to send a battalion to Kuala Lumpur to come temporarily under Moir’s orders, while I instructed Command Headquarters to request the navy and the air force to do what they could to deal with this threat.
It was getting late before we left Tapah for Fraser’s Hill where we were to spend the night. The long drive on the narrow road, passing the columns of military traffic which had begun to move after nightfall and climbing the steep and twisty road to Fraser’s Hill, was a bit of a nightmare, but a night spent in the cool and peaceful atmosphere of the rest-house there did us a world of good. The next morning we left early for Raub, where the headquarters of the 9th Indian Division was located.
The talk with Barstow centred chiefly round the orders to be given to the Kuantan force. Towards the end of December long-distance patrols sent out from there had made contact with enemy troops moving southward through Trengganu by the coast road. As a result of this the Kuantan garrison had been redisposed, the left flank being strengthened, a skeleton force only watching the sea front, and the bulk of the force with most of the material and transport being held more concentrated west of the River Kuantan. The information from the front, however, was not very up to date at the time of our visit as all communications had temporarily broken down and a staff officer who had been sent to ascertain the situation had not yet returned. It will be recollected that the distance from Raub to Kuantan by road was about 150 miles. That will give some idea of the distances over which we were working and the difficulty of maintaining communications. We did not know at the time of our talk that Kuantan was already being strongly attacked by land.
Barstow had instructed Painter, the commander of the Kuantan force, that he was to hold the aerodrome there for another five days provided that he did not thereby jeopardize his force. When he issued that instruction the importance of getting in safely the mid-January convoy was not known to him. We now calculated that we should have to hold the aerodrome until 10 January if we were to prevent the enemy using it before the middle of the month. That would give the Kuantan force a minimum of four days to get back before any threat could develop against the 9th Indian Division from the west. So it was arranged that the Kuantan force should hold the aerodrome until the tenth and amended instructions were issued.
From Raub we returned to Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed the night with Heath and his wife. We were, however, soon faced with another problem, for late that evening Paris rang up to say that an enemy force had landed at Utan Melintang, situated near the mouth of the River Bernam, only a short distance south of the mouth of the River Perak. The significance of this was immediately apparent, for the River Bernam is navigable for small craft almost as far as the main west coast trunk road, so that the presence of the enemy in that neighbourhood exercised a very real threat to the communications of the nth Indian Division. Paris said that he thought he could go on holding the Kampar position, where a strong attack had already been repulsed, but that, if he did so, his ability to hold the enemy north of the Kuala Kubu road junction for any length of time might be prejudiced. He asked for permission to withdraw from Kampar at his dis¬cretion. This was granted.
The next day, 2 January, I returned to Singapore after visits to Port Swettenham and Port Dickson. It was a long day as we had to motor over 250 miles in addition to holding conferences at various places and it was nearly midnight before we got home.
I considered at this stage the possibility of relieving some of the troops of the 3rd Indian Corps with the whole or part of the A.I.F.—a course which at first sight appeared attractive but on detailed examination had many objections. In the first place it would have involved a dangerous weakening for several days of the garrison of the vital area of Johore, which consisted in any case of only two brigade groups. Even if the relief could have been completed, we should not have been very happy with a tired and battered garrison in that area which might at any time be the scene of a sea-borne invasion. Apart from this there were practical difficulties of transportation as most of our resources at that time, both road and rail, were fully occupied with the day-to-day work of evacuation of a vast area. Finally, there was the question of high policy concerning the employment of the A.I.F. I was most anxious that, when it went into action, it would go as a formation under its own commander and I had given an undertaking that it would not, if it could possibly be avoided, be split up. I did not think that the time had yet come to depart from that undertaking. For these reasons I considered the project unsound.
The Kampar position south of Ipoh was probably the strongest occupied in Malaya. The main position was semicircular covering the township of Kampar from the north, west, and south-west, on a frontage of about four miles. The eastern flank rested against the steep rocky feature known as Gunong Brijang Malaka. Close under its western slopes ran the main road bordered by narrow belts of rubber plantation. Beyond these lay an extensive, open, tin-mining area, broken only to the south-west where the Cecily Estate, a large rubber plantation, encroached eastward from the Kinta Valley over what was otherwise a tin-mining preserve. Fields of fire for small arms, except in the Cecily Estate area, extended up to 1,200 yards and more. Artillery observation generally was good and from forward O.P.s on the slopes of Gunong Brijang Malaka it was a F.O.O.’s dream. On the eastern flank the mountain was circled by a loop road which, leaving the trunk road at Kuala Dipang, passed through Sahum and Chen- deriang and rejoined the trunk road a little north of Tapah. The main Kampar position was held by the 6th/15th Indian Brigade Group and the position on the loop road covering Sahum by the 28th Indian Brigade Group. It had been hoped that the 12th Indian Brigade Group would be able to enjoy a little well-earned rest in the Bidor area, but this was not to be. Late on 1 January it was moved to Changkat Jong on the Telok Anson road to meet the threat which was developing from the west coast. That deprived the divisional commander of his main reserve and he had to withdraw a unit from the 28th Indian Brigade to replace it.
The four-day battle of Kampar opened on the night 29—30 December with extensive artillery harassing fire and offensive patrolling on our side. During the four days so much was happening at once on widely separated parts of the front that it will only be possible here to summarize what happened and to state the result.
On the thirtieth the Japanese developed minor activity opposite the Sahum position on our right, which was increased on the thirty-first. A small enterprise was also launched in the Cecily Estate area. In other words, the enemy were pursuing their usual tactics of attacking the flanks. On the thirty-first these activities were continued. On the front of the 28th Brigade Group there were many local encounters which ended very much in our favour. Here, for the first time, the Gurkhas were matched against the Japanese in conditions of terrain familiar to them—rough hilly scrub-covered country—and there was no question which was the cleverer fighter. Their supporting artillery, the 155th Field Regiment (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) also did excellent work and the losses inflicted on the enemy were heavy. Whether it was as a result of this or whether this activity was merely an attempt on the part of the enemy to draw off our reserves to that flank I do not know, but on New Year’s Day the Japanese launched what was undoubtedly their strongest attack against the sector of the Kampar position held by the British battalion. From 7 a.m. till dusk, fighting went on in this sector and particularly on the extreme right of our position in the hills. The enemy tried to outflank us and he tried to infiltrate between our posts. Defended localities were isolated but held their ground. O.P.s were lost but recaptured by counter-attack. When darkness fell our positions were still intact. In its first day’s fighting as a combined unit, the British battalion, under the inspiring leadership of Lt.-Col. Morrison, had shown itself to be worthy of the great traditions of the regiments from which it was formed, the Leicesters and the East Surreys. It was to add to them on the following day. With it worked in complete harmony and with no less gallantry its supporting gunners, the 88th Field Regiment. New Year’s Day drew to a close with the situation intact at Kampar and all quiet at Sahum. But the integrity of the Kampar position was dependent also on the security of its back door at Telok Anson, and in that area disturbing events were taking place.
On 31 December, Japanese troops had been reported at Lumut and Sitiawan. At the latter place they were busy getting the small civil landing-ground into order. On the morning of 1 January our boat patrol discovered a tug with four barges stack on a sand¬bank at the mouth of the Perak River. Unfortunately neither the navy nor the air force was able to take advantage of this unique opportunity. In the evening of the same day as has already been recorded, a flotilla of seven small steamers accompanied by numerous barges or landing-craft appeared in the mouth of the Bernam River and landed some troops at Utan Melintang, where they were engaged by our patrols which fell back on Telok Anson. The uncertainty as regards the intentions of this force, which was now poised to strike at his communications in either of several directions, naturally caused Paris deep concern and forced him to deploy what he could spare of his division to meet the threat. Actually the enemy convoy was only staging for the night, though this could not be known at the time. His concern was not lessened the following morning when another landing took place at Telok Anson, this time by a force which appears to have come down the Perak River in boats. This force was opposed by the Independent Company and some sharp fighting took place in the streets and on the outskirts of the town before the Independent Company fell back on the 12th Indian Brigade, the forward troops of which were then in position four miles to the east. It has been suggested that this brigade might have been more effective if it had opposed the landing at Telok Anson, but it must be remembered that it was responsible for protecting the communications of the division and it had to keep in mind also the threat from Utan Melintang which could have developed east of Telok Anson. By 2 p.m. the brigade was itself being attacked and heavy fighting went on all afternoon in the Changkat Jong area. In the evening Stewart reported that he was being attacked by about a regiment and that he doubted his ability to keep the enemy from the main road at Bidor for more than twenty-four hours. It was that report which forced the decision to withdraw from Kampar, though it is doubtful whether our position there would have been tenable for much longer in any case, for with no reserves in hand we were still in a position of being unable to accept major losses.
To the struggle which had been going on at Kampar from dawn to dusk on the second, it is difficult to do full justice. It was a classic example of what can be achieved by grit and deter-mination and it brought out the finest characteristics of the various troops engaged. There were the enemy’s repeated attempts to gain possession of Thompson’s Ridge and Green Ridge, commanding positions which would have enabled them to enfilade our positions in the lower ground. The attacks were made with all the well-known bravery and disregard of danger of the Japanese soldier. There was the dogged resistance, in spite of heavy losses, by the men of the British battalion and their supporting artillery, and finally, when the enemy had captured a key position and the battalion reserves were exhausted, there was a charge in the old traditional style by the Sikh company of the I /8 Punjab Regiment. Through a tremendous barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire they went, led by their company commander, Captain Graham, until he fell mortally wounded, and then by their Subedar. Their cheering rose to a roar as they charged, routing the enemy with heavy loss. The situation was completely restored, but only thirty of this gallant company remained. The battle of Kampar had proved that our trained troops, whether they were British or Indian, were superior man for man to the Japanese troops.
That same night the 6th/i5th Brigade Group started to with-draw The withdrawal was closely followed up but, covered by the 28th Brigade Group, it eventually disengaged and moved to the Tapah-Bidor area.
On 3 January the Japanese again attacked strongly in the Changkat Jong area, supported by their air force, but were repulsed. In the evening the 12th Brigade Group withdrew to the Trolak sector of the Slim River position. The 6th/i5th Brigade Group followed them to a covering position at Sungkai. The 28th Brigade Group moved to the Slim River village area.
During the whole of this time our troops were fighting practically without air support. Those who have had a similar experience, when enemy planes seem to be always in the air reconnoitring, bombing, and machine-gunning, and when you never see one of your own planes, will know what that means and what a great moral effect it has. It was not the fault of our air force in Malaya. Their resources at that time were at their lowest. They did their willing best and it was no fault of theirs that it was a poor best. The responsibility lies much higher than that.
In the meantime, the enemy’s activities off the west coast were causing grave concern, for they had now got complete liberty of action both on the sea and in the air. Though much of the coast¬line in this area is covered by mangrove swamps, there are nevertheless numerous places where landings can take place. Among the more important of these were Kuala Selangor, forty- five miles south of the mouth of the Bernam River and, farther south still, Port Swettenham, where docks and other facilities existed. From Kuala Selangor roads radiated eastwards to the Batu Arang coal mines and thence to Rawang on our main lines of communication, south-eastwards to Kuala Lumpur, and southwards to Klang and Port Swettenham. It was a likely landing-place and here a small detachment, including some field guns, was in position. It had not long to wait, for late on the 2 January the enemy appeared and closed the shore but were driven off by artillery fire, “one small steamer being sunk. The Japanese, however, were not to be denied and during the night of 3—4 January they appear to have landed a force at a point eight miles farther north, for at about midday on the fourth our patrols met this force moving south by the coast road. Driving back our patrols this enemy force advanced eastward along the north bank of the Selangor River until it reached the bridge at Batang Berjuntai, where a sharp engagement took place. It was now only a dozen miles from Rawang, whereas our foremost troops were still seventy miles north of that place. The situation looked serious and the divisional commander was forced to dispatch the tired 6th/i5th Brigade, heroes of the Kampar battle, to meet this threat. It reached Batang Berjuntai early on 6 January and stabilized the situation. The denial scheme at the Batu Arang coal mines was put into force, thus leaving available in Malaya only such coal as might be in stock.
These events on the west coast had an immediate effect on our whole strategy in the east, for it was no longer certain that we should be able to hold the enemy north of the Kuala Kubu road junction for the specified time. Rapid decisions had to be taken but, before dealing with them, let us see what had been happening in the Kuantan area.
We have seen that, after the fall of Kelantan, the Kuantan defences had been re-oriented so as to strengthen the northern flank facing the State of Trengganu and that the bulk of the force and its transport had been withdrawn west of the Kuantan River. After patrol encounters on the Trengganu coast, a Japanese column, which had been brought down in M.T., attacked our forward posts on the morning of the thirtieth and confused fighting over a wide area took place in the rubber plantations throughout that day. At the same time the Japanese Air Force made repeated attacks on targets in the Kuantan area, including the ferry across the Kuantan River, which had been split into two working halves. One half only remained in action. By the morning of the thirty-first, the Japanese were attacking the ferry and here some desperate fighting took place. They were held off, however, and during the following night our rearguards were withdrawn across the river and the ferry was destroyed. The effect of this unfortunately was not as great as had been hoped because, as a result of the dry season, the river higher up was in places quite fordable.
During the next two days no major action took place, but there were patrol encounters north of the aerodrome indicating that the enemy intended to attack from that direction. Reports were also received of a large enemy concentration in Kuantan Town itself and on this our artillery was turned—apparently with excellent results. Throughout the campaign the Japanese troops showed an extraordinary lack of appreciation of the effect of artillery fire and frequently failed to take the most elementary precautions. There is no doubt that our artillery, when it got an opportunity, did great damage. The pity was that the close country and lack of observation made opportunities so scarce.
Heath was now faced with the choice of relinquishing the Kuantan aerodrome or risking the loss of the 22nd Indian Brigade Group as a result of its communications being cut. The decisive battle was likely to come in the west, and we couldn’t afford to lose this brigade with all its equipment. So early on the morning of the third Painter received orders from Barstow to withdraw to Jerantut forthwith. By dusk the Kuantan force, except for the rearguard of the 2nd Frontier Force Regiment with some attached troops, was already on the way. At 7.30 p.m., the enemy delivered a furious attack against the rearguard as it was about to leave the aerodrome. There was fierce and bloody fighting at close quarters in which the darkness, added to the noise of shots and bursting shells, caused great confusion. Attack after attack was repelled as the rearguard gradually withdrew. Throughout Lt.-Col. Cummings, commanding the 2nd Frontier Force Regiment, was a tower of strength, moving rapidly in a carrier from one part of the battle-field to another until, twice wounded, he collapsed from loss of blood. For his gallantry and leadership he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Eventually the rearguard extricated itself but not before it had suffered grievous losses in the fighting on the aerodrome and in an ambush on the road in which part of it was trapped as it withdrew.
By the eighth the Kuantan force was concentrated in the Raub-Bentong area. Two of its battalions had suffered heavy losses but it was still a fighting formation. The action of this force, like that of many other forces in Malaya, had been greatly influenced by events elsewhere. It can be claimed, however, that by denying the Kuantan aerodrome to the enemy for a month it had greatly decreased the scale of air attack which the enemy was able to deliver against the Singapore area. There is little doubt also that it inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy—probably greater than those which it suffered itself. A Japanese officer has since admitted that their casualties in the Kuantan area were in the neighbourhood of 2,000, a large proportion of which were caused by our artillery fire.
The withdrawal of our force from Kuantan had taken place not a day too soon, for on 7 January was fought the disastrous Slim River battle. With one of its brigades, the 6th/15th, detached to protect its lines of communication, the nth Indian Division was now fighting a delaying action with two brigade groups only available on the main road front. These brigade groups were disposed in depth in two separate areas, the 12th Brigade Group being north of Trolak and the 28th Brigade Group in the vicinity of Slim River village. Divisional headquarters was some way back at Tanjong Malim, where it could also watch developments in its line of communications area. The 12th Brigade had behind it three weeks of continuous fighting and withdrawal during which it had only had two days’ rest—if two days of being bombed by day and tormented by mosquitoes at night deserve the name. The position it was occupying was that which Stewart had been reconnoitring when we met him on our way north on 31 December. He had organized it with his three battalions in depth astride the road and railway. The 28th Brigade Group was resting in harbours near the Slim River village some five miles farther back ready to man its positions when ordered. Such work as it had been possible to do on the defences in these two areas had had to be done by night, for by day the Japanese aircraft had been constantly in the air bombing and machine-gunning. That again broke into the hours of rest and made the tired troops even more tired than they were before. There had not been much fighting on the ground during the days preceding the seventh except on the evening of the fifth when a strong attack down the railway had been repulsed with loss.
At about 4 a.m. on the seventh, in bright moonlight, the attack came in straight down the road. It was led by infantry who cleared the road blocks in front of the foremost localities—rather inadequate blocks it seems, for full use had apparently not been made of the concrete anti-tank cylinders which had been sent up specially for that purpose—and then the tanks came through and advanced down the road firing as they went. On they went, some two dozen of them, through the forward battalion and were not halted until they came to a cutting in the road in the area of the 5/2 Punjabis where mines had been laid. Here there was fierce fighting at close quarters and several tanks were destroyed or immobilized, our troops attacking them with small arms, grenades and fire-bottles, for there were not many anti-tank guns or rifles available. Farther on they were opposed by the Argyles, who again fought gallantly in a battle of men against machines. For over two hours the tanks were held up but then they managed to clear the blocks and continue the advance, supported by infantry.
There had been plenty of time for the news of what was happening in front to reach the troops behind, but communica-tions had never been very strong owing to so much equipment having been lost in the earlier battles and what there were had been destroyed at the very beginning of the attack. And so it happened that the break-through by the Japanese tanks came as a complete surprise to the troops in rear of the forward brigade. Some units and individuals met the tanks as they moved along the road on their ordinary business; others were surprised in their bivouac areas. There was much confusion. Typical of many was the experience of Col. Harrison, the G.S.O.I. of the nth Indian Division. As vague reports of trouble in front began to trickle through to the headquarters of this division, Col. Harrison was sent forward to find out what was happening. As he motored along, still well behind the front, he suddenly found himself face to face with Japanese tanks which came round a corner only a short distance in front. Only a quick dive from the car in the nick of time saved his life, but the tanks passed on behind him and there was no chance of getting back to report to the divisional commander.
At the village of Slim, fifteen miles from their starting-point, the Japanese tanks captured intact the bridge by which the road crosses the Slim River, but they had nearly shot their bolt, for a short distance farther on the leading tank was stopped by a 4*5-inch howitzer of the 155th Field Regiment, which had hastily been brought into action. But the damage had been done. The two forward brigades, as well as many supporting and administrative units, had been thrown into confusion and the Japanese tanks were in undisputed possession of the one and only road which was fit for wheeled traffic, for we had no tanks with which to attack them. What were these two brigades to do? It may be said that they should have fought on where they were for as long as possible, but that would lose sight of the fact that the standing orders to this division were that it was to remain in being as a fighting formation for there were no reserves behind it. The other alternative was to cut their losses and get out what they could down the railway line. That was the course which was eventually adopted after heavy fighting all day with the Japanese infantry. The remnants reached Tanjong Malim seventeen miles away the following morning.
Our losses from this battle were very heavy. The three battalions of the 12th Indian Brigade mustered only the equivalent of about a company each. The battalions of the 28th Indian Brigade were in much the same plight. In the artillery, the engineers and the administrative units the losses were on the same scale. Large numbers of guns and wheeled vehicles had been lost. For the time being the nth Indian Division could hardly be called an effective fighting formation.
It would be easy to lay the blame for this disaster on the failure to organize adequate anti-tank defence, or to warn the troops in rear of what was happening, or to blow the bridges, but to do so would divert attention from the real cause, which was the utter weariness of the troops, both officers and men. They had been fighting and moving by day and night for a month and few of them had had any proper rest or relief. To their physical fatigue was added a mental fatigue brought about by the enemy’s complete supremacy in the air and on the sea and by a general sense of futility. In the exhausting and enervating climate of Malaya this was too great a test of human endurance, and the troops had reached a stage when their reactions were subnormal. It was not unexpected. In fact, it was the anticipation of something of this sort happening that had prompted me to ask for more troops for the west coast front, but our Imperial commitments elsewhere had made it impossible to supply them. I was quite aware at the time that the increasing fatigue of the troops introduced an element of danger into our strategy of trying to hold the enemy as far north as we could, but the great advantages to be gained warranted the risk and the policy had the approval of higher authority.