Chapter XVI – OPERATIONS IN NORTH-WEST JOHORE

BY midday on 14 January the dispositions of Westforce were complete. I would stress here that, on account of the vastness of the country in which we were operating and the comparative weakness of our forces, no form of purely static defence offered any prospect of success because the enemy would always be able to walk round our flanks. My view was that it was essentially a war of mobility and that our best chance of slowing up the enemy’s advance was to block him astride the main arteries of communication and hit him with such strength as we could muster when he tried to move round the flanks. The dispositions of Westforce were based broadly on this conception. Thus on the main trunk road the 8th Brigade of the 9th Indian Division was disposed in depth in battalion areas astride the road and railway as a holding force. On its right was a battalion of the 27th Australian Brigade located in a rubber plantation with a mobile offensive role, while another battalion of the same brigade was in reserve in the Buloh Kasap area where the road and railway cross the Muar River. It might be argued that our main position should have been behind this river obstacle, but there was thick vegetation with little visibility along its banks and it would have required a larger force than we had got to defend it properly. To the left of the 8th Brigade and some little distance from it was the 22nd Brigade of the 9th Indian Division. It had a dual role, firstly of covering the approaches to Segamat from Malacca, and secondly of stopping any Japanese forces which might fan out round the flanks of the 8th Brigade. In the words of Barstow, the divisional commander, “We’re going to squeeze this lemon hard and some of the juice may run out at the bottom. Your job is to catch it and see that none of it gets away.” Some distance in front of the main position on the trunk road was the ambush laid by the 2/30 Battalion of the 27th Australian Brigade with supporting troops, which I will describe in more detail later.

It will be appreciated from the above that units of the various formations were somewhat intermingled. Especially was this the case as regards the artillery units. All the complications which arose were, however, happily settled without friction, thanks to the excellent spirit of co-operation between British, Australian, and Indian troops, which had grown up during the few days during which Westforce had been settling down into position. A fine lead in this respect had been given by Barstow, the senior commander on this flank and one of exceptional qualifications, who now had his first opportunity in the campaign of really exercising command. The personification of drive and kindliness, his tall, spare figure, gentle manner and terrific energy made an immediate and lasting impression, and he set an example which all were quick to follow. The advantages of training at our Staff Colleges, where students from all parts of the Empire learn to work together for the common good, were well illustrated in his general outlook. In general, Westforce by 14 January had their tails well up and were confident that they would be the first to put a definite stop to the enemy’s progress down the peninsula.

On the left flank at Muar the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade was also in position with some Australian artillery in support as it had no artillery of its own. This new and untried brigade had an exceedingly difficult task allotted to it, and one that was to prove beyond its powers, for it not only had to watch a tortuous river line on a front of twenty-five miles as the crow flies but it also had to be prepared to protect its own left flank and rear against sea-borne landings. It was disposed with two battalions forward on the river line and one in reserve, the latter being responsible also for watching the coastline. To make matters worse, the brigade commander had been told to establish an outpost position across the river and two companies of each of the forward battalions were allotted to it. In my opinion this was a tactical error. The river obstacle should have been used as the basis of the defence and there should have been no more than a few patrols in front of it. I have the impression that Gordon Bennett’s attention was concentrated unduly on what he considered to be his main front and that he looked upon the Muar sector rather as a flank from which no real danger was likely to develop.

The battle opened most auspiciously with a great success at Gemas. The 2/30 Australian battalion was disposed with one company forward immediately east of the bridge over the river Gemencheh and some three miles in front of the main battalion position. Seven hundred yards of road were covered by the weapons of this company, while the fire of the artillery was to come down on the road beyond. The rest of the force was in position just west of Gemas covering an anti-tank obstacle. This battalion, under the energetic leadership of its commander, Lt.-Col. Galleghan, had been practising these tactics for some time past in the quieter areas of Johore. It was expected that the Japanese would arrive on the fifteenth, but at 4 p.m. on the fourteenth their leading troops appeared mounted, as had been anticipated, on bicycles. Twenty minutes later 250 cyclists had passed through the ambush area, 500 were in it, and another 500, all on bicycles, were seen approaching. At that moment the bridge was blown and timber, rocks, bicycles, and bodies were thrown high into the air, while the fire of the Australians swept through the helpless Japanese within and approaching the ambush. Only one thing went wrong—when the artillery fire was called for it was found that the telephone line had been cut by the Japanese who had passed through the ambush area. The company then fell back on to the main position. On the fifteenth the enemy attacked this position with infantry supported by tanks, so once again their sappers must have done a quick repair job. Fighting went on throughout the day, several enemy tanks being knocked out by our anti-tank guns. The following night the force withdrew to a position east of Gemas. It had inflicted several hundreds of casualties on the enemy and destroyed several tanks at a loss to itself of under a hundred casualties. It was a very fine performance and showed clearly what could be done by trained troops in this type of operation. It was not until the evening of the eighteenth that the Japanese attacked again on this front. Unfortunately events elsewhere intervened as usual and prevented us completing the trial of our new tactics. As far as they went they had been outstandingly successful.

The Japanese air offensive against Muar had started on the eleventh. The bombing of the town, as in other places, started a general exodus, among those who left being the Asiatic employees of the waterworks and of the power station and the ferrymen. The manning of the ferries became another job for a hard-worked company of sappers and miners already engaged on preparing bridges for demolition, the construction of a river boom, the obstruction of open spaces against air landings, the laying of minefields, and many other jobs. By the fifteenth, Japanese troops were firmly established along the north bank of the river though little news of their advance had come from the outpost troops. A small party had also been landed on the coast south of Muar and another at the lighthouse near Batu Pahat, another small town at the mouth of the river of that name thirty miles down the coast from Muar. During the following night groups of the enemy appear to have crossed the River Muar above Muar town. In the morning steps were taken to attack them and drive them back, but the penetration turned out to be on a bigger scale than expected and before long they had cut the road which leads from Muar to Yong Peng, a village on the main trunk road, at a point between Muar and Bakri where the reserve battalion was located. The commanding officer of this battalion ran into the road block and was killed.

In the meantime a series of disasters had happened in the Muar area. The troops who had been sent to eject the enemy from the area east of Muar had suffered heavily, a fresh landing from barges or special landing-craft had been made at the mouth of the river, the battalion commander, second-in-command, and all company commanders had been killed, and the battalion, with two companies lost across the river and deprived of most of its British officers, had practically ceased to exist. The right forward battalion, which had had little contact during the day, succeeded in withdrawing its two companies from across the river and occupied a perimeter position for the night in the Jorak area close to the river. By nightfall all that remained of the rest of the brigade was concentrated in the Bakri area. Muar was in the hands of the enemy.

Bakri is thirty miles from the village of Yong Peng through which passed the only road communications to Westforce still seventy miles to the north. The situation was very threatening and demanded action both by Gordon Bennett and by myself. Gordon Bennett immediately withdrew the reserve battalion, the 2/29th, from his 27th Brigade and sent it by M.T. to reinforce the Muar front. It arrived the following day. For my part, I was fortunately up forward at the nth Indian Division headquarters when the events recorded above took place. Here I took two decisions. Firstly, as I thought that Gordon Bennett with his small divisional staff already had his hands more than full in controlling two such widely separated fronts, I decided to make the 3rd Indian Corps responsible for the protection of his communications against these threats from the west. I therefore extended its area of responsibility to include the area bounded by the road from Ayer Hitam to Yong Peng and thence to Batu Pahat. Secondly, I placed the 53rd British Brigade Group, recently arrived at Singapore, under orders of 3rd Indian Corps and ordered it to move the following night to the Ayer Hitam area. Gordon Bennett has expressed his disappointment that this brigade was not used to relieve his own 22nd Brigade on the east coast so that the latter could have been transferred to his command. The fact of the matter, apart from any other reason, was that there simply was not time in the existing situation to carry out the relief.

At noon the following day, after a short visit to the head-quarters of the nth Indian Division at Ayer Hitam, where the lateral road crosses the main trunk road, I met Gordon Bennett at his rear headquarters on the Paloh road some four miles east of Yong Peng. I took Key and Fawcett, the B.G.S. of 3rd Indian Corps, with me. An important decision had to be taken. We were faced with the alternatives of starting immediately a rapid withdrawal of the whole Segamat force or of trying to stabilize the Muar front. Gordon Bennett and I were both very averse to ordering a withdrawal from Segamat. We felt that it would be so damaging to morale. The Australian troops had only just gone into action with orders to stop the enemy and had already had a success. The Indian troops, who had had such a bad time up- country, were just beginning to find their feet again and another withdrawal would undoubtedly put them right back. But if we left them there we might easily lose the lot. We decided to take a chance and anyway to make an effort to stabilize the Muar front. To this end it was arranged that Gordon Bennett would strengthen the Muar force with any troops he could make available from the Segamat front while I, for my part, issued orders for the immediate relief of the 2/19 Australian battalion from Jemaluang on the east coast front by a battalion of the 53rd British Brigade and for the dispatch of that battalion to the Muar front to come under orders of Westforce. This relief was carried out with such dispatch that the battalion reached its destination on the morning of the eighteenth. It should be noted that at this time we had little idea of the strength of the enemy opposing us on the Muar front. Indeed, throughout the campaign we were so blind from lack of ground visibility and lack of air reconnaissance that we frequently under-estimated the strength of the enemy opposed to us. It appears certain now that Duncan, the commander of the 45th Indian Brigade, was equally in the dark, for at that time he was still planning a counter-attack to recapture Muar. It was only when he started to move forward that he found himself opposed by strong enemy forces which included some tanks. He therefore decided to organize a perimeter defence near the Bakri road junction and to concentrate on withdrawing into it his detached right forward battalion. Contact was made with it, but the road was blocked by enemy detachments and it was not till twenty-four hours later that it reached the vicinity of the perimeter camp. Almost at the last moment it was ambushed. The commanding officer and his adjutant were killed and there were many casualties. The young Indian recruits were helpless. They did not even know how to take cover and there were not enough officers to control them. I say this in no spirit of disparagement. It was the penalty of years of unpreparedness for war coming out in all its stark nakedness.

On the eighteenth our Intelligence Service reported that the Japanese were advancing with two divisions in the front line, a division of the Imperial Guards being in the Muar area and the 5th Division, known to have been specially trained in landing operations, on the main road. It was only then that the real threat from Muar became apparent. We did all we could to harass the enemy in this area including air attack and shelling of Muar town itself by a gunboat during the hours of darkness, but I felt that our chances of holding up this division for any length of time were remote, especially as further landings had been reported a few miles north-west of Batu Pahat on the afternoon of the eighteenth. That evening Gordon Bennett rang me up. We both felt that to hang on any longer in front of Segamat would be to court disaster and I at once gave approval to his suggestion that he should immediately withdraw his whole force on that front behind the River Segamat as a preliminary to a further withdrawal should such become necessary. This decision was naturally taken with the utmost reluctance, but events were to prove that it was undoubtedly the right one. In fact, had it been delayed even for twenty-four hours it is probable that the greater part of that force would have been lost.

At the same time I regrouped the forces by placing the whole of the Muar front temporarily under 3rd Indian Corps. This decision, although nobody raised any objection to it at the time, may seem strange and needs some explanation, especially as it had to be reversed not long afterwards. The reasons for it were twofold. Firstly, it was necessary now to co-ordinate all the operations in the Muar-Yong Peng-Batu Pahat area, which could only be done by putting this area under one command. Secondly, the Westforce commander and staff were now faced with an intricate problem on the Segamat front and were not in a position to give the same attention to the Muar front as were the head¬quarters of the nth Indian Division. In any case the latter were already responsible for building up a supporting position west of Yong Peng. It has been suggested that at this stage all available troops should have been used to counter-attack up to Bakri to relieve the force there. That is a local view which might naturally have been held by those interested only in the safety of the Muar force, but it fails to take into account the wider threat which was developing from the coast down as far as Batu Pahat. The fact of the matter was that sea-power, supported by air-power, had become, as so often in our history, one of the dominating factors in the situation—only this time it was the enemy and not we who held the trump cards.

Five miles west of Yong Peng is a long causeway flanked on each side by swamps. A little farther on the road runs for a mile and a half through a defile between the ridges of Bukit Payong. Here it is joined from the south by the road from Batu Pahat. About five miles beyond the end of the defile the road to Muar crosses a stream called the Sungei Simpang Kiri by a bridge at Parit Sulong. The distance from Parit Sulong to Bakri is about fourteen miles.

Since the morning of the seventeenth a battalion of the 53rd British Brigade had been in position astride the defile on Bukit Payong, the dominating feature in that part of the country. It sent forward a platoon to garrison Parit Sulong bridge. On the afternoon of the nineteenth the battalion was attacked from the direction of the Batu Pahat road and was driven back from the defile which thus fell into the enemy’s hands, severing all land communication with the Muar force. In this action some excellent work was done by a battery of the 155th Field Regiment.

In the Bakri area also things were developing badly that day. In the morning enemy columns coming in from the south cut the road behind our defensive position, at the same time capturing and destroying much transport which had been parked in that area. Brigade headquarters received a direct hit from a heavy aerial bomb and was practically wiped out, though the brigadier and brigade major escaped with a bad shaking. In the afternoon repeated attacks were made on our position and there was much bitter fighting at close quarters.

At 2.20 p.m. on the nineteenth I held a conference at Yong Peng. Heath, Gordon Bennett, Key, and Duke (the commander of the 53rd Brigade) were present. It was decided that the 53rd Brigade Group should hold a position from the bridge at Parit Sulong to the high ground west of the causeway and that the 45th Brigade Group should be ordered to withdraw at once through it to a position west of Yong Peng; also that the Segamat force should continue its withdrawal at once. The withdrawal of the latter force could only be carried out at night owing to the enemy’s air supremacy, and we estimated that the force could not be clear of Yong Peng till the night 23-24 January at the earliest. So we still had to hold the enemy on the Muar front west of Yong Peng for four and a half days. The situation was extremely critical. As the only communication with our Muar force was now by wireless from Headquarters Westforce, Gordon Bennett was instructed to send the order for withdrawal on return to his headquarters. It got through and the Muar force started to concentrate ready for the withdrawal on the evening of the nineteenth.

It should be explained that Duke now had only one of his own battalions in his brigade. One battalion was at Batu Pahat where a separate force had now been organized and one had been used for the relief at Jemaluang, from which place it was now again withdrawn. In place of them he had an Indian battalion and later the 2nd Loyals, which had been brought forward from the Singapore garrison. This breaking up of an organized formation is, of course, contrary to all military teaching but, with so many danger points and so few troops to guard them, it proved most difficult to avoid.

Events anticipated the full implementation of the above plan for, as we have seen, even as it was being made the forward troops of the 53rd Brigade Group were being driven off the defile west of the causeway. During the following night and the morning of the twentieth, great efforts were made to recapture this position. Some progress was made, but the necessity for staging the attacks with a force which was only then being assembled, combined with the thickness of the jungle, militated against success and the enemy remained in possession of the defile.

In the meantime the difficult withdrawal from the Segamat area was going well though closely pressed by the enemy and by the morning of the twentieth the force was east of the double bottle-necks formed by the rivers Muar and Segamat with comparatively light losses in men and material. By the morning of the twenty-first the 27th Australian Brigade Group was already in position covering the vital road junction at Yong Peng. The forward brigade of the 9th Indian Division was in the Labis area, where it again ambushed the leading Japanese troops with success.

At this stage, i.e. early on the morning of the twenty-first, I again regrouped the forces, transferring the command of all troops on the Yong Peng-Muar road to Gordon Bennett. The reasons for this were that he already had one of his brigades in the Yong Peng area, that he alone now had communication with the Muar force, and that the operations of the Segamat and Muar forces required very careful co-ordination. This with shortened communications he was now able to do. There are obvious disadvantages in such rapid changes of command, but in very mobile operations they are not easy to avoid. The problem is further complicated when the army is made up of contingents from different parts of the Empire which, quite naturally, prefer to serve under their own commanders. But the avoidance of too much insularity should in the future be one of the corner stones of our military doctrine.

At 4.30 a.m. on the twentieth orders were issued for the withdrawal from Bakri to begin. The column moved with Australian troops as advanced guard and rearguard and with Indian troops as flank guards to the guns and vehicles, which had to move on the road. Block after block was encountered and the fighting developed into a series of desperate attacks to clear them. The Japanese fought like demons and each block had to be cleared at the point of the bayonet. To make matters worse the column began to telescope under pressure of repeated enemy attacks from behind, in which tanks played a prominent part. It was in an attempt to repel one of these that Duncan, the commander of the force, was killed while personally leading a bayonet charge. A very gallant officer who, with the situation collapsing about him, remained to the end a model of calmness, courage, and devotion to duty. By nightfall, after twelve hours of bitter and bloody fighting, the column had advanced less than three miles. There was no time, however, to be lost, and Lt.-Col. Anderson, who had succeeded to the command of the force, ordered the advance to be continued immediately. Better progress was made during the night and by dawn the column was approaching Parit Sulong bridge, only to find it strongly held by the enemy. An attack to dislodge them failed. At 8.30 a.m. a new danger appeared in rear of the column in the shape of heavy tanks. Some of these were knocked out but, supported by their artillery and by their air force, the Japanese pressed their attacks until the area occupied by our force measured only 200-300 yards in each direction. Dead and wounded were lying everywhere. The place was becoming a shambles. An effort was made to get the Japanese to allow trucks with wounded to pass through their lines, but this they refused unless the whole force surrendered. At dusk the enemy attacked again with tanks, several of which were knocked out by our artillery and by infantry tank hunters.

While this was going on we had at midday on the twenty-first held another conference at Yong Peng. At this conference we considered what could be done to help the Muar force and formulated plans for future operations. It was reported that arrangements were being made for an early counter-attack by the 2nd Loyals, the only fresh battalion available, to recapture Bukit Payong with the object of subsequently reopening communications with the Muar force. For various reasons, in no way due to any lack of effort, this attack never got going. Even if it had, the chances of a single battalion advancing seven miles through that type of country were, in my opinion, quite remote. It should be noted that at this time the 53rd Brigade was under orders of Westforce. At the conference I undertook to arrange for medical and other supplies to be dropped over the Muar force. This was done the following morning, though again lack of suitable aircraft and of dropping equipment proved a great handicap.

At dawn on the twenty-second, the Japanese renewed their ground and air attacks on the confined space occupied by the Muar force. The Australian gunners during this action fought with the most desperate gallantry, man after man falling before the fire of the Japanese tanks and machine-guns, only for his place to be taken by another. A new attempt was made to force the bridge but without result. At 9 a.m. Anderson, realizing that his force could not resist much longer, gave orders for all guns, vehicles, and heavy weapons to be destroyed and for those who could walk to take to the jungle and make for Yong Peng. Eventually some 550 Australians and 400 Indian troops, out of the 4,000 or more who comprised the Muar force, succeeded in rejoining. The wounded who could not walk were of necessity left behind. It stands to the eternal shame of the Japanese that they were subsequently, almost without exception, massacred in cold blood.

In the 45th Indian Brigade the killed included all the officers except two (both wounded) of Brigade Headquarters and Signals, all the battalion commanders and seconds-in-command, and two of the three adjutants. Of the British officers who remained, only two or three had more than a few months’ service. The brigade was shattered beyond repair and there was neither time nor sufficient trained personnel to build it up again.

The Battle of Muar was one of the epics of the Malayan campaign. Our little force by dogged resistance had held up a division of the Japanese Imperial Guards attacking with all the advantages of air and tank support for nearly a week, and in doing so had saved the Segamat force from encirclement and probable annihilation. The award of the Victoria Cross to Lt.-Col. Anderson of the A.I.F. was a fitting tribute both to his own prowess and to the valour of his men.

By midnight on 23-24 January the rearguards of both the Segamat force and of the 53rd Brigade Group had passed through the Yong Peng bottle-neck and we breathed again. Another Japanese effort to annihilate our forward formations had been frustrated, but it had been an exhausting time for all concerned. Here is a typical day in my life at that time. Rise at 6 a.m. at Flagstaff House, where I usually slept at that time as it was easier to get some rest there. Dress and breakfast and to the office at 7.30 a.m. where I received reports of the night’s events and discussed the agenda for the Far East War Council meeting with Torrance, the B.G.S. He usually attended these meetings when I was away. Leave by car for the battle-front at about 8.30 a.m., taking one of the staff officers with me. The B.G.S. stayed behind both to attend the council meetings and to deal with the many important matters which came up every day. Yong Peng is eighty-five miles from Singapore and we would get up there before noon. Then there would be interviews and usually a conference and generally a visit to some of the troops. Back to Singapore in the evening where we would usually arrive about 7 p.m. Then conferences with the senior staff officers, drafting of a personal report to the supreme commander and very often talks to the civil authorities. It would often be near midnight when I got home for a late supper and usually well after midnight before I got to bed. A critic would say, “It is quite wrong for a commander to work those long hours. It gives him no time to think and plan ahead.” That is perfectly true in theory, but when things are as critical as they were at that time a commander must exercise close personal supervision. The problem also was made no easier by the dual functions of command headquarters and by the extent of the area over which operations were taking place.

It was encouraging, however, to know that our efforts were being appreciated, for on the twenty-fifth I received the following telegram from General Wavell:

Recent reports of heavy fighting on the Muar front show what determined resistance your troops are making against odds. You have not much ground behind you and this resistance is necessary and well timed. I have no doubt that troops have inflicted severe casualties on the enemy. Well done.

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