Chapter XV – THE RETREAT TO JOHORE

THE first reinforcement convoy reached Singapore on 3 January. It brought the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade Group and a Pioneer Battalion, a non-combatant labour unit. The 45th Brigade, com-manded by Brigadier Duncan, was part of the 17th Indian Division. All the units of this brigade group had, with the exception of one battalion, been raised during the preceding few months, for the expansion of the Indian Army had not started until a year after the beginning of the war with Germany. The troops were very young, unseasoned and under-trained, and straight off the ship after their first experience of the sea. Such training as the brigade had done had been for warfare in the open spaces of the Middle East, which had been its intended destination until war with Japan broke out. Only a short time before it left for Malaya its divisional commander had expressed his opinion that it was unfit for service overseas. It was typical of many formations and units which came to Malaya. In making these statements I have no wish to blame anybody for sending these troops to Malaya. After all, it was better than having none at all. But it does serve to illustrate the difficulty of expanding rapidly enough for the needs of a major war when our armed forces have been allowed to sink to such a low level as they were before this last war. I would have dearly liked to give the troops of the 45th Brigade Group a period of training under Malayan conditions before sending them into action, and it was with this in mind that I sent them up at once to the Malacca-Jasin area where accommo¬dation and facilities existed. But it was not to be and it was not long before the brigade found itself involved in a death struggle with the flower of the Japanese army.

On 5 January, at a conference held at Segamat in North Johore, I had given out my plan for the withdrawal to and defence of Johore. At that time I still hoped that we would be able to come back in our own time and that we would at least be able to impose substantial delay on the enemy. I did not contemplate giving up Kuala Lumpur until the middle of the month at the earliest, by which time our forces would, I hoped, be getting a bit stronger. The plan in outline was that the 3rd Indian Corps was to fall back slowly by the west coast roads and take up a position on the general line Segamat-Muar, while the A.I.F. remained responsible for the defence of the east coast. Gordon Bennett, I think, would have liked the whole of the A.I.F. to be transferred to the west coast and the 3rd Indian Corps to take over the east coast, but I did not feel that this was a sound proposal. It would have involved some very complicated moves as we could not afford to leave the east coast weakly defended even for a day and it is always simpler for a formation to fall back on its own communications. Moreover, one of the divisions of the 3rd Indian Corps was in reasonably good fettle, even if numerically weak, and there was the fresh 45th Brigade Group just arriving. So I told Gordon Bennett that I could not at that time agree to his proposal but that I would watch the situation carefully. Gordon Bennett had for some time, under my instructions, been planning the defence of this area and after the conference he and I and Heath went to look at the Muar sector on the left flank which presented some difficulties. The Muar River itself, after rising in the central mountain range, passes a few miles west of Segamat and then winds a tortuous course through swampy valleys to the sea at the town of Muar, or Bandar Maharani, as it is marked on some maps. West of Segamat it is crossed by two road bridges and by one railway bridge, but in the whole stretch of forty miles, as the crow flies, between there and the sea there is no bridge. At Muar, where it is several hundred yards wide, the river is crossed by a vehicle ferry. As a result of our reconnaissance we decided to site the defences on the south bank of the river so as to make the best use of the water obstacle.

Another matter discussed at that time was the possibility of the Japanese attempting a landing direct on to the west coast of Singapore Island which, in view of our naval weakness, seemed to be not out of the question. Keith Simmons, the commander of the Singapore fortress, had some time previously been instructed to make plans for the defence of the north and west coasts of the island and he was now told to pay particular attention to the latter. The appearance of what appeared to be Japanese military landing-craft off the coast of Selangor a few days previously had made the west coast threat look a great deal more possible than it previously had done. From what we now know this view was fully justified.

Before the plans which I have outlined above could be put into effect the situation was completely altered by the disaster at Slim River, recorded in the last chapter. On the morning of 7 January, the day on which that battle took place, General Wavell reached Singapore en route to Java where the headquarters of the new South-West Pacific Command were to be established. Early the following morning he left for Kuala Lumpur to see for himself the situation at the front. Accompanied by Heath he visited the headquarters of the nth Indian Division at Batu Caves and then went forward to see the troops who had survived the Slim River battle. It was only too apparent that they were no longer in a condition to withstand the enemy’s advance and that immediate steps must be taken to withdraw them behind fresh troops for a rest. The decision was therefore taken to withdraw the battle-front without delay to Johore where a new front could be formed with such fresh, or comparatively fresh, troops as could be made available. Verbal instructions were issued by Wavell to Heath to start preparing plans at once for this withdrawal pending the issue of written orders. Wavell returned to Singapore the same evening. On the eleventh he left Singapore for Java.

On the ninth, as a result of instructions received from Wavell, I issued revised orders for the withdrawal to and defence of Johore. The main points of these orders were as under:

(a) Gordon Bennett was to concentrate one brigade group of the A.I.F. in the Segamat area as soon as possible.

(b) The 45th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was to come under Gordon Bennett’s command at once and the 9th Indian Division as soon as it entered Johore.

(c)    The 3rd Indian Corps to withdraw from its present position into Johore as soon as possible under orders to be issued by the corps commander, covering its withdrawal with the maximum number of demolitions.

(d)    After withdrawal the 3rd Indian Corps, less the 9th Indian Division, to take over operational responsibility for South Johore up to and inclusive of the line Endau-Kluang-Batu- Pahat, absorbing the 22nd Australian Brigade Group, which was still on the east coast. Gordon Bennett with his newly organized force, to be known as Westforce, was to be responsible for that part of Johore which lies north of the above line.

It will be observed that the main difference between this plan and the original one was that the State of Johore, instead of being divided longitudinally so that each force would be in depth and fall back on its own communications, was now divided laterally. The new plan also involved the temporary splitting up of the A.I.F., which I had been doing my utmost to avoid. All the same, I do not see how any better plan could have been evolved in the circumstances as they existed at the time.

For those who are not acquainted with the topography of Malaya it will be of interest to point out here that this withdrawal to Johore extended over a distance from north to south of nearly 150 miles and involved the abandonment of the States of Selangor and Negri Sembilan, two of the most highly developed States in the whole of Malaya, and of the ancient colony of Malacca; also of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Federated Malay States, and of many other prosperous towns. The military evacuation of Kuala Lumpur had started over a week before, but there were still vast quantities of military and civil stores there and in other parts of the area to be evacuated which it was quite impossible to move. Pillars of smoke and flame rose into the sky as rubber factories, mine machinery, petrol, and oil stocks, were denied. Small wonder that British prestige sank to a very low ebb among the population.

On the morning of the tenth I held another commanders’ conference at Segamat. The outline orders were confirmed and supplemented by allotment of supporting arms and by administrative instructions. Two infantry battalions from the garrison of the Singapore fortress were ordered to the mainland, the 2/17 Dogras to the east coast and the 2nd Loyal Regiment (less one company) to the Segamat area. It was decided that the main line of resistance should be on the general line Batu Anam-Muar. Batu Anam is some eight miles west of#Segamat and in front of the Muar River. It was selected because there was a large open area astride the road there where we thought we could make good use of our superior artillery. I laid down that there was to be no withdrawal beyond the line Segamat-Muar without my personal permission. As our area of manoeuvre was becoming so restricted, I felt that the time had now come to exercise more direct personal control of the operations than had previously been possible.

After the conference, we did a rapid reconnaissance of the position to be occupied. We spent some time examining and discussing a forward position west of Gemas which Gordon Bennett had selected for a major ambush. These were tactics which I had constantly been advocating as I felt that the terrain was so admirably suited to them and that the Japanese disregard of ordinary precautions as they advanced would make success almost certain. And so it proved. But you must have fresh troops for ambushes and the pity was that we so seldom had any. The position selected in this case was where the main road passed through a belt of thick jungle. There were small wooden bridges over streams which could be blown at the right moment and there was a good obstacle behind covered by gun-fire where the enemy tanks could be stopped. Altogether almost an ideal position.

The next day I went forward and visited the troops in the forward areas. On the way back I saw a sight which was all too common in Malaya in those days—the destruction of a village by fire. This was the large village of Gemas, typical of many similar villages with its rows of wooden shops and dwellings, all built of the flimsiest material. What had set it on fire I do not know. It may have been a bomb or it may have been a fifth-column agent. But in a very few minutes it was a blazing furnace and before long there was very little village left. It was a sad sight.

For the withdrawal of the 3rd Indian Corps there were available two good roads in the west coast area, i.e. the main Kuala Lumpur- Segamat trunk road and the coastal road Klang-Morib-Port Dickson-Malacca, and one secondary road which lay between these two. The 9th Indian Division, moving along the high ground on the right, had the tortuous and little-used road Bentong-Durian Tipus and thence either via Kuala Pilah or Bahau to join the main trunk road two miles north of Tampin. As the ferry at Muar had only a most limited capacity, the weakness of this road system was that all roads converged at Segamat through which all southward-bound wheeled traffic had to pass. This would have taxed the most carefully planned traffic organization. In the circumstances of a hurried retreat, congestion and traffic jams are almost certain to occur even in an experienced army with a good traffic control organization. Picture then the situation in our semi-trained army with drivers and traffic control personnel often speaking different languages, with all roads leading to one bottle-neck and with nerves already on edge. Traffic jams there were, but it was fortunate that they occurred chiefly at night when the Japanese aircraft were not often active. In the end we got away with much bad language but without much material damage. But I anticipate, for we had to break off contact before all this happened.

On the morning of 10 January the situation on the west coast front was that the 28th Indian Brigade, with various units besides its own under command, was in position near the village of Serendah, five miles north of Rawang on the main road; the 6th/i5th Brigade, also with other units under command, was blocking the roads south of Batu Arang, and on the west coast road there was a composite force, under Lines of Communications Area, north of Klang where the Kuala Lumpur-Port Swettenham road crosses a large tidal river. The long withdrawal was to start that night.

Soon after dawn the Japanese attacked the Serendah position in strength with strong air support and, adopting their usual tactics, began to envelop both flanks. The job of the 28th Brigade was to avoid being enveloped before the withdrawal began, so the forward troops gradually fell back after hand-to-hand fighting between Gurkhas and Japanese in Serendah village. Two or three miles south of this is the village of Sungei Choh. The 3/17 Dogras, who had opposed the first landings at Kota Bharu so stoutly and were now loaned to the nth Indian Division, were the first to reach the village and found it already held by the enemy. They gallantly attempted to clear the village with the bayonet, but were prevented from coming to grips by the stout creeper-clad fences surrounding the houses. The battalion casualties in killed, wounded, and missing, were very heavy, and another fine battalion had lost much of its fighting value, for there were no longer any trained reserves with which to fill the gaps. Eventually, late in the day, the brigadier managed to extricate what was left of his brigade and withdraw, in pouring rain and overcrowded transport, through Kuala Lumpur to a reserve area at Tampin.

The 6th/i5th Brigade, after leaving Batang Berjuntai where one of its battalions had had a rough time, was left comparatively unmolested on the tenth. It provided the rearguard for the with-drawal through Kuala Lumpur which was completed in the early hours of the eleventh and at 4.30 a.m. the last bridge in the Federal capital was blown. The brigade went to Labu, west of Seremban.

On the coast road things were more lively, and fighting developed over a wide area. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture Klang in the morning the enemy moved eastwards and cut the main road between Klang and Kuala Lumpur. After dark they succeeded in ambushing two columns of our troops as they withdrew along this road. Nevertheless, most of our troops including those from Port Swettenham got clear away and moved during the night to the Port Dickson area, but the big bridge at Klang was rather ineffectively blown.

Contact with the enemy had now been broken off, and during the next three days the withdrawal continued without interference except from the air. By the fourteenth all troops of the 3rd Indian Corps had passed through the forward troops of Westforce and the command of the forward area passed to Gordon Bennett. Heath assumed responsibility for South and East Johore at 8 p.m. on the same day. During the withdrawal, demolitions were carried out on all roads. In particular gaps were blown in all bridges over what might constitute an anti-tank obstacle but, as usual, they did not seem to impose any great delay on the enemy. In fact, throughout the campaign, the Japanese showed them¬selves adepts at overcoming obstacles. The bridges, big and small, destroyed by our troops as they fell back, some of them no doubt not too effectively, ran into many hundreds. In our prewar planning we had anticipated that by this means we should be able to impose considerable delay on the enemy, but this was in fact far from what happened. Although these extensive demolitions must have had some considerable effect on the Japanese maintenance problem, even the gaps over the biggest obstacles— and there are some big ones in Malaya—never delayed the advance of their armies for more than two or three days at the outside. In a rough practical way the Japanese were certainly very efficient.

At this stage Heath represented to me that an Indian Army officer was required to pull together and re-establish confidence in what remained of the i ith Indian Division. To this I agreed, though at the same time I took pains to explain to Paris that the change by no means indicated loss of confidence in him. He was succeeded by Key, whose place in command of the 8th Indian Brigade was taken by Lay. At the same time Col. Challen took over command of the 6th/i5th Indian Brigade.

Our rapid withdrawal from North and Central Malaya had taxed our administrative organization to the utmost. For reasons I have explained earlier in this book a proportion of our reserves of all descriptions had been placed at selected sites on the mainland of Malaya. In particular many of them were in the Kuala Lumpur area, which was an additional reason for wanting to hold on to it for as long as we could. There was also a large dump just south of Segamat, which had been sited there to serve both east and west coast railways. This again influenced my decision to hold a position west of Segamat. By careful organization we managed to evacuate a good proportion of our reserves. The exception was petrol which, being contained in large drums, was bulky to handle and required more transport than we had available to move it. Most of it had to be denied on the spot by puncturing the drums and letting it run to waste. To avoid the Johore Causeway bottle-neck we now created new dumps in the South Johore area. Another problem which faced us in this curious war was how to keep the troops in the forward areas supplied when the enemy, as so frequently happened, cut the road communications behind them. One of the guiding principles of administration in the field is to keep your reserves mobile in the forward areas, but it is no good doing that if you have not got control of your own communications. The best answer, of course, and the one which was such a big factor later on in the success of our operations in other theatres, is to supply your forward troops by air. But then we had no proper aircraft available for this and our air force even had very few containers for supply dropping. So I had to resort to what seemed the only solution and order that seven days’ reserves of all sorts would be held by troops in the forward areas if they were in danger of having their communications cut.

The rapid increase in the population of Singapore Island as refugees streamed south caused us some concern as regards the food situation. There were some who asserted that refugees should not be allowed to cross the Causeway, but again we were up against the colour problem. Naturally we did not want to leave Europeans to the mercy of the Japanese, so why any more should we leave Asiatics, many of whom were doomed men if the Japanese got hold of them? There was no time to sort them out, so we took what seemed to be the right and proper course and, while trying to persuade them to stay in their own homes, allowed those who wanted to do so to come to Singapore.

The need for increased hospital accommodation in the Johore and Singapore areas now began to make itself felt. All the hospitals in North and Central Malaya and the large Australian base hospital at Malacca had been cleared. The Alexandra military hospital was full and new buildings had to be taken over. Included among these was a wing of the large new civil hospital at Johore Bahru. Both the War Office and Australia had been approached with a view to provision of hospital ship accommodation but, owing to the needs of other theatres of war, no final arrangements could be made and no ship could be promised. With the help of the navy, however, the Wu Sueh, a Yangtze river boat of 3,400 tons and five feet draught, had some time previously been bought and redesigned as a hospital ship. She was not considered capable of making an ocean voyage, though later she did so. It was, however, the best that could be done and might at any rate make transport possible to the Dutch East Indies.

One of the most serious consequences of the rapid withdrawal was the congestion which developed on the railway. There was only a single line except at the stations and there were not enough sidings in the south to accommodate all the trains we wanted to bring back. In consequence, thirteen trains fully laden with valuable material had to be parked on the Malacca branch line and there they had to be left. Last minute efforts to destroy them by air attack were made, but this was only partially successful. On one of these trains was a large consignment of maps of Singapore Island, which had been printed to a special order by the Malayan Survey at Kuala Lumpur. Many may have wondered why they had to fight the battle of Singapore without maps. That was the reason.

In spite of the loss of the aerodromes in Central Malaya, the important convoy of large American liners reached Singapore safely on 13 January. The ships were discharged with great rapidity and left again in a very short time. I must say something here about the arrival of these convoys because they were operations which demanded the utmost care and the most careful planning, and also because very little was known about these operations outside those directly responsible. They were essentially combined operations in which all three Services were involved. The navy was responsible for routeing and docking the ships and for their protection from sea attack, the air force for their protection against air attack, and the army for anti-aircraft ground defence once they had come within the umbrella and for the discharge of the cargoes. The air force took over their responsibility as the convoys passed through the narrow Banka Straits off the coast of Sumatra, 300 miles south of Singapore. From there on they were within easy range of the Japanese aircraft based either on the Malayan aerodromes or, after they had occupied them, on those in West Borneo. If the convoys were going to the Naval Base they had to pass along the south coast of Singapore Island and enter the Johore Straits from the east. These were periods of great anxiety. The great ships appeared to be so vulnerable and it seemed almost impossible that they could escape detection. And we knew that they had on board men and material that we so badly needed. It speaks volumes for the care with which the plans were worked out and for the secrecy with which they were kept that only one ship of these convoys was lost before it had discharged its cargo. But the story of that will come later.

In the convoy with which we are dealing came the 53rd British Infantry Brigade group, one heavy and one light anti-aircraft regiment, and fifty Hurricane fighters packed in crates. On the face of it these were very valuable and important reinforcements. The 53rd Brigade Group was part of the 18th British Division, one of the second-line Territorial formations, which had left England during the previous October destined for the Middle East. When war with Japan broke out it was off the east coast of Africa and, as we have already seen, was diverted for service in Malaya. The 53rd Brigade Group came on ahead direct, while the remainder of the division went to India where it was landed for a fortnight or so before coming on to Malaya. When the 53rd Brigade Group arrived at Singapore it had been at sea for eleven weeks so that the troops, although fit, were naturally very soft. Few of them had ever been out of England before and practically none of them had been in the Tropics. They arrived without their transport and the artillery without its guns, which were coming on in a slower convoy. These deficiencies we were able to make up temporarily on a modified scale. I naturally wanted to leave this brigade for as long as possible in a quiet area, for it had a hectic time ahead of it unpacking and sorting out equipment, drawing and issuing vehicles, guns, and tropical clothing, and generally becoming accustomed to the strange surroundings. Any officer who reads this story, and especially commanding officers and quartermasters, will know what that means. Time was also required for the troops to become acclimatized. So I put them first of all into billets and camps on Singapore Island in the hope that it would be possible later to move them to the east coast in relief of the 22nd Australian Brigade Group which would then be able to rejoin the A.I.F. We even got so far as to send forward an advance party to arrange the relief. But the swift march of events on the west coast eventually made this impossible.

About this time we had a further proof of the loyalty and wholehearted co-operation of our Dutch allies. It came in the form of the offer of a detachment of Marechaussees, native troops with European officers specially trained in guerrilla fighting in the jungle. I accepted the offer and the detachment arrived at Singapore about the middle of the month. During the latter part of January it operated against the Japanese communications and had considerable success, inflicting a number of casualties and doing material damage. Eventually it exhausted its supplies and was forced to leave the country, about half of the force returning to Sumatra by sea.

We had great hopes of the Hurricane fighters. We had seen what they could do in the Western theatre and we saw visions of them clearing the navy “0”s out of the air in a very short time. To avoid the danger of losses on the aerodromes while they were being assembled, they were dispersed in ones and twos all over the island and one suddenly came across them in the most unexpected places. All ranks of the air force set to work with a will to get them ready for the air, a task which was completed in an incredibly short space of time. But again we had counted our

chickens before they were hatched. The machines themselves were not of the most modern type. There were only twenty-four pilots and there was no formed squadron ready for service. None of the pilots had had experience of flying in Malayan conditions, which are very different to those in the West, and there was no time to give them this experience. In short, the air force reinforcements suffered from the same limitations as the army reinforcements. For a day or two these Hurricanes did much damage, but then the Japanese, with their infinitely greater resources, got the measure of them. Casualties could not be replaced and after a week or two our temporary advantage had vanished.

To offset to some extent the increase in our strength through the arrival of reinforcements we had now lost the services of the Federated Malay State Volunteer Force as a formed body—and that in rather an unexpected way. This force had been recruited on a State basis and, as the withdrawal took place, the Asiatic members of the force rather naturally began to show concern for the safety of their families, most of whom were residents of the States in which they were serving. We were faced with the alternative of attempting to compel them to fulfil their contracts, at the expense almost certainly of discontented and rather ineffective units, or of allowing those who wished to do so to hand in their arms and disperse to their homes. This was no time to try to enforce the letter of the law. What was important was that the troops which we did have should be full of the fighting spirit. Moreover, we were desperately short of weapons and could make much better use of them elsewhere. So I decided to let those go who wanted to. Each man, as the State to which his unit belonged was evacuated, was given the option of coming south with us and continuing the fight or of handing in his arms and returning home. The great majority of the Asiatics chose the latter course.
Reviewing the situation at this stage (the middle of January), I estimated that the Japanese had a minimum of five divisions with adequate local reserves in Malaya and at least two divisions with a formation of air-borne troops in reserve in Indo-China or on the water. Their army in Malaya included an armoured, component which conferred a great advantage upon them as we had no tanks. We had a total of approximately three divisions with fixed and anti-aircraft defences. In addition we might expect to receive the equivalent of about another division before the end of the month. In the air, the Japanese probably out-numbered us at this time by about four to one, while the all-round performance of their machines was distinctly better than that of ours. From 10 January onwards they made daylight attacks with bombers escorted by fighters against the Singapore area, mostly directed against our aerodromes. On the twelfth three attacks were made by a total of 122 aircraft while on the same day our photographic reconnaissance recorded 200 aircraft on aerodromes in Malaya excluding those in Kelantan. On the sea, Japanese coastal vessels were now able to move freely down the west coast covered by aircraft.

It was very important that we should hold as much as possible of the State of Johore. In the first place, we wanted room for manoeuvre and we wanted room to deploy reinforcements on the mainland as they arrived. Then, as in Central Malaya, there was a string of aerodromes and landing-grounds in the centre of Johore—the unfinished aerodrome of Kahang on the right, the large modern aerodrome at Kluang in the centre and the small aerodrome at Batu Pahat on the left. If the Japanese could get possession of these their attacks on Singapore would be greatly intensified. Finally, there were political considerations. The State of Johore was an Unfederated Malay State bound to us by treaty. It maintained at its own expense a small military force and had in the past made a most generous contribution to Imperial Defence. These factors made it politically desirable that we should hold as much of that State as possible.

A large part of the State of Johore, especially in the western area, is under rubber and other plantations. The centre and eastern areas are not so highly developed, though here also there are some extensive rubber plantations. Communications are limited. Through the west coast area run the railway, the main trunk road, and a fairly good coastal road. There is also a good motor road from Johore Bahru, the capital, which lies at the northern end of the Causeway, to Mersing and thence to Endau. There is only one lateral road which runs from Jemaluang south of Mersing to Kluang and thence to Batu Pahat. This road, therefore, was of great strategic importance.

I estimated that the 18th British Division could not be deployed and ready to fight on the mainland at the earliest before the end of the first week in February, i.e. three and a half weeks ahead. We were obviously going to have our work cut out to hold the enemy for as long as that, especially as the fighting value of some of our troops was not now what it had been at the beginning. Nevertheless, we were all determined to make a great effort— especially the Australians, who had now got their chance. I felt that the crisis of the campaign had come and that its result might well be determined within the next few days.

Advertisements