Chapter XVII – OPERATIONS IN CENTRAL AND EAST JOHORE

WE were now back on a ninety-mile front on the general line of the one and only lateral road which runs from Mersing on the east coast via Jemaluang, Kluang, and Ayer Hitam to Batu Pahat on the west coast. Behind us there was no prepared position upon which to fall back, for the pre-war project to construct defences from Kota Tingghi to the west coast had, as we have seen, made little progress, largely for financial reasons. Nor was the country generally very suitable for anything in the nature of a protracted defence. The main body of the 18th British Division had not yet arrived and it would be at least another fortnight before it could be deployed on the mainland. But some other reinforcements had arrived. These included the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Ballantine), a sister brigade to the 45th which had fought at Muar. It was equally raw and only semi-trained. I dared not send it into action at once on the mainland, so I decided to retain it on Singapore Island in the hope that it would get a chance of some training and also be able to work on the defences. We found it accommodation in the south-western part of the island. The reinforcements also included 7,000 Indian troops. They also were extremely raw and untrained. To make matters worse there were very few non-commissioned officers among them and that was what we most needed now in the Indian units. After discussing the matter with Heath, I decided that it would be unwise and even dangerous to draft more than a proportion of these men to the units. The balance were retained in the reinforcement camps. From Australia came a machine-gun battalion and 2,000 reinforcements. Many of the latter had only been in the army for a few weeks. Excellent material they were but not soldiers as yet. I have no wish to blame the authorities either in India or in Australia for sending these untrained men. After all they had no better to send at that time. But I make these factual statements so that the public may understand from this concrete case what in fact are some of the fruits of our failure to prepare for war. Let it not be forgotten also that these untrained men were included in all estimates of the strength of the garrison of Singapore Island.

From the middle of January, i.e. as soon as they could escort their bombers with fighters, the Japanese Air Force carried out daylight attacks on targets in the Singapore area on a scale of two or three attacks daily by formations of twenty-seven or more bombers. They were mostly directed against our aerodromes, but some against the Naval Base and later the docks area. The air defences of Singapore, both active and passive, were now thoroughly tested and within their limits worked satisfactorily. They were, of course, seriously handicapped by the contraction, and eventually by the total loss of, the warning system. They were handicapped also by the fact that the Japanese aircraft usually flew at heights of over 20,000 feet which rendered our 3-inch A.A. guns quite ineffective. But the co-ordination of the guns and the fighters under a senior air force officer worked smoothly, though the appointment of an air defence commander, having under him all the means of air defence, would probably have been better. For a few days there were some great aerial battles as our Hurricanes went into action but these died down as the Japanese Air Force again asserted its superiority. Matters were made very much worse than they otherwise would have been, both on the aerodromes, at the Naval Base, and later at the docks, by the disappearance of civil labour as soon as the bombing started.

The air directive issued from the headquarters of the South- West Pacific Command is of interest. It laid down that the protection of convoys should take precedence over all other tasks, but that all available air effort should be directed against expeditions threatening the east coast of Malaya or endeavouring to pass south of Singapore. Further, it stressed the importance of slowing up the Japanese advance on land by attacking Singora and by intervening in the land battle, and of reducing the scale of the Japanese air attack. That directive, in view of the extreme weakness of our air force at that time, suggests a failure to appreciate the realities of the situation. For instance, the attacks on Singora were seldom made by more than half a dozen machines and it is idle to suppose that this could have any material effect on the rate of the Japanese advance.

It was still my intention to deploy the 18th British Division on the mainland if I could, as this was the only way of achieving our object of protecting the Naval Base. We were up against much the same problem as had arisen in Central Malaya, i.e. the defence of the string of aerodromes and landing-grounds at Kahang, Kluang, and Batu Pahat, with a view to preventing the Japanese doubling the scale of their air attacks on the Singapore area and on the reinforcement convoys as they came in. The one lateral road which connects these places was an important factor in the problem.

The orders for the further conduct of the operations were given out at conferences held at Yong Peng on 21 January and at Rengam on 23 January. Briefly, they were to the effect that, after the withdrawal from Yong Peng, all troops in Johore, except those in the extreme south which formed part of the defences of Singapore, would come under the 3rd Indian Corps. These troops were to be grouped into three separate commands. Firstly, there were those on the east coast, to be known as Eastforce, whose role was to hold Jemaluang and Kahang with detachments forward in the Mersing area. These came under Brigadier Taylor, the commander of the 22nd Australian Brigade which was already in this area. Secondly, there was Westforce under Gordon Bennett which consisted of the remainder of the A.I.F. and the 9th Indian Division and which was responsible for the defence of Kluang and Ayer Hitam. In fact, it became responsible for the defence of the two lines of advance via the railway and the main trunk road which passed through these two places respectively. Thirdly, there was the nth Indian Division under Key, whose role was to hold the Batu Pahat area and operate on the west coast road. The 53rd British Brigade Group, as soon as it could be released by Westforce, was to join this division.

It will be seen that the defences were in fact concentrated round four areas, i.e. the Jemaluang-Mersing area, the Kluang area, the Ayer Hitam area and the Batu Pahat area. These areas were to a large extent inter-dependent because, if the enemy succeeded in capturing any of them, he would be in a position to move against the flanks of the adjoining ones. The weakness lay in the fact that in some areas, especially between Ayer Hitam and Batu Pahat, there were secondary lines of advance along which Japanese mobile troops (and they were all pretty mobile) could move against our communications.

It was for reasons indicated above that I laid down that the general line Jemaluang-KIuang-Ayer Hitam-Batu Pahat would be held and that there would be no withdrawal from this line without my personal permission. I am doubtful even now whether this decision to keep the final authority in my own hands was a wise one, though it was made after talking the matter over with Heath. In favour of it was the fact that there were many considerations involved which could not be known to the local commander in Johore. Against it it could be argued that things were moving so rapidly that only those in close touch with the situation could be in a position to make the necessary quick decisions.

As Batu Pahat proved to be the decisive area in our long line of defence it will be best to take the operations in that area first. Batu Pahat itself was a district centre and small coastal port of the same type as Muar. The town lies some seven miles from the coast on the south bank of an estuary which was crossed by a power-driven road ferry. Roads radiate from the town north-westwards to Muar, northwards to Bukit Payong, and thence to Yong Peng, eastwards to Ayer Hitam, twenty miles away, and south-eastwards along the coast to Pontian Kechil and thence to Johore Bahru, passing on the way through the fishing villages of Senggarang, Rengit, and Benut. Batu Pahat itself is dominated by the jungle-covered Bukit Banang, which lies to the south of the town. Before the war, many rubber estates and iron ore mines in this district were owned by the Japanese who had spread their influence far and wide. When their forces arrived here, therefore, they were on well-known and prepared ground. In fact, one of the former residents returned as a colonel commanding troops.

Batu Pahat had first been garrisoned on 15 January by troops of the 1 xth Indian Division and it was, as we have seen, on the following day that the leading Japanese troops landed near the lighthouse. After a skirmish they disappeared on to the jungle- covered slopes of Bukit Banang. Here they remained, defying the attempts of our rather inexperienced troops to expel them, raiding our gun positions and communications, and being supplied by air when they ran short of food and ammunition.

The strategical importance of the Batu Pahat area was obvious, and immediate steps had to be taken to strengthen the garrison. The headquarters of the 6th/i5th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Challen) was moved there and by the evening of the nineteenth the garrison consisted of two British battalions, a company of the Malay Regiment, a weak field battery of four guns only, a heavy anti-aircraft battery and some administrative units. The landing- ground, which lies a few miles south of Batu Pahat, had already been denied. The task allotted to the force commander was to hold the town and to keep open the road to Ayer Hitam, being assisted in this latter task by troops from Ayer Hitam itself.

Contact was first made with Japanese troops on the Batu Pahat- Ayer Hitam road on the evening of the twenty-first at the same time, it will be remembered, as the Muar force was making its final stand at Parit Sulong. In point of fact, the enemy narrowly missed making a good bag, for the corps and divisional commanders, after a visit to the Batu Pahat garrison, had passed along this road only a short time before. In fact, the operations had now become so fluid that there was always a chance of meeting enemy troops on the road anywhere near the front line. During the next thirty-six hours there was a series of encounters on this road until it was finally closed by the Japanese on the morning of the twenty-third. It afterwards transpired that the Japanese during this time were passing strong forces across this road to strike against the communications of our Batu Pahat force.

Challen realized the danger, and on the evening of the twenty- third, being unable to communicate with higher authority owing to a breakdown in W.T. communications, began to withdraw to Senggarang but later, communications having been restored, he was instructed to make a further effort to hold Batu Pahat with the aid of a fresh battalion which was due to arrive the following morning. It is quite likely that Challen’s decision was the right one—at least as far as his own force was concerned, though he was not in a position to appreciate the full effect of a withdrawal on the general strategy. It was a case where personal contact would have been invaluable but ground communications were so precarious that that was hardly possible. The very uncertain W.T. was inadequate to give commanders behind the true picture of the situation.

Throughout the twenty-fourth fighting continued in the town, where the British battalion and the 2nd Cambridgeshires fought stubbornly, but most of these troops had now been on the move for several days without sleep. On the morning of the twenty- fifth the enemy attacked again with fresh troops, released no doubt from the Muar front, and at midday Challen reported that he doubted his ability to hold the town much longer. The situation was reported to me by telephone and I arranged to attend a conference which Heath was summoning at rear head-quarters Westforce at 3 p.m. that day. As other portions of the front were involved and as our ability to continue fighting much longer in Johore was at stake, I felt that a full discussion with my subordinate commanders was desirable before definitely authorizing a withdrawal from any part of the front.

On the east coast we still held Mersing though our forward detachments had been in contact with enemy troops moving down the coast from Kuantan and had had to withdraw from Endau. On the twenty-first also our air reconnaissance had reported an enemy convoy of warships and transports off the coast of Trengganu moving south. In the Kluang area the 5/1 x Sikhs had fought a highly successful action in the course of which they killed some hundreds of the enemy. This was an example of what could be done by a well-trained battalion splendidly led by its commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Parkin. The vital Kluang area, including the aerodrome, was in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy, and the 5/11 Sikhs were ordered to make a flanking march and attack the enemy from the west as part of a general brigade counter-attack. The counter-attack did not come off and the battalion, after establishing contact with the enemy, was ordered to withdraw. Parkin decided that the only way to disengage without heavy losses was to attack the enemy first, which he did with such success that the Japanese fled in confusion before the Sikh bayonets. In thirty hours the battalion marched over thirty miles and fought this successful action.

Rear headquarters Westforce was situated in a rubber plantation at the twenty-first milestone on the main trunk road. It was here that the commanders’ conference took place at 3.15 p.m.— a little late as I .had been held up by congestion on the road. Key told us of the critical situation at Batu Pahat and of the efforts he was making to relieve the force there by pushing forward the 53rd Brigade. He strongly advocated an immediate withdrawal from Batu Pahat. We all agreed that there was no other possible course and he went off at once to his headquarters to send the necessary orders. We had to face the fact that this would involve the loss of the area Ayer Hitam-Kluang with the advantages which it would confer on the enemy. These would include a good aerodrome within sixty miles of Singapore, the control of the lateral road to the east coast, and the loss to us of the chain of observer stations which were already at the minimum distance to give warning to Singapore and for which no possible alternative existed. It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that I ordered the withdrawal of Westforce from Kluang and Ayer Hitam that night, instructing Heath who, it will be recollected, was responsible for all operations in Johore, to continue the withdrawal on subsequent nights in accordance with the development of the situation and to co-ordinate the movements of the columns on the east and west coasts with those of Westforce. The real danger, of course, now was on the west coast flank as I no longer had any reserves with which to meet a break-through either by land or from the sea.

The 53rd Brigade occupied Benut and Rengit without opposition and its forward detachment reached Senggarang, a village thirteen miles from Batu Pahat, but the rear of this detachment was attacked as it approached the village. In fact, the Japanese detachments, which had been moving south across the Batu Pahat-Ayer Hitam road, were now beginning to close in on the coast road which from now on was never free of road blocks. We have had full accounts of the march of these Japanese columns from prisoners who were forced to accompany them. As typical of any similar movements they are of interest. The Japanese moved chiefly by tracks, their only transport being bicycles. They carried with them on the man several days’ supply of rice and commandeered other food from villages. They drank water from the streams and ditches. Their ammunition and other necessary stores were carried by impressed civilians. Medical stores were almost non-existent. The wounded and sick were just left—to die or to recover. They marched long distances each day. When resting their protective precautions were very sketchy. The road blocks seem to have consisted generally of about a company equipped with mortars, light automatics, and rifles.

The Batu Pahat force withdrew during the night 25-26 January and reached Senggarang at dawn. I had hoped that this brigade would have been able to brush aside opposition and continue its fight down the coast. But it was not to be. Finding its passage blocked south of Senggarang it deployed its leading battalion and attacked but made no headway. Other attacks were put in later in the day, some of them led in person by Lt.-Col. Thome, the gallant commanding officer of the 2nd Cambridgeshire, but without success. This was just another case of the troops being too tired for effective action. In the meantime, the divisional commander had organized a column of armoured cars and Bren gun carriers at Benut to go forward and relieve the Batu Pahat force. But the Japanese were already in control of the road. The column was ambushed and only one officer got through. He reported the situation to Challen who in the evening decided that there was no possibility of reaching Benut with his guns and vehicles by the following morning, as he had been ordered to do. He gave orders for units to make their way to Benut by foot after destroying all wheeled vehicles. The wounded were left behind in charge of R.A.M.C. personnel and of Padre Duck¬worth, better known as the cox of the Cambridge boat, all of whom subsequently worked untiringly and with great devotion. The Japanese did not molest the wounded.

Benut is thirty-one miles from Batu Pahat and the task of reaching it thirty-six hours after leaving that place was, if viewed in the light of the existing conditions, clearly beyond the powers of a force which had already been fighting for several days. The better course would have been to order it to move to Senggarang as a first step and then to have seen how the situation developed.

One part of the Batu Pahat force moved east of the road and reached Benut. The remainder, totalling some 2,000 officers and men, were evacuated by sea by the Royal Navy during the four succeeding nights—an operation of great difficulty on account of the shallowness of the water inshore. Its successful accomplishment reflected the greatest credit on those responsible for it.

North of Ayer Hitam the enemy had made contact again on the twenty-fifth but were well held by the 2nd Loyals. On the night 25-26 January, Westforce fell back south of the line Kluang-Ayer Hitam, and this important area passed to the enemy. The 2nd Gordons, sent forward from garrison duty at Singapore, relieved the 2nd Loyals and had their baptism of fire.

About this time the east coast of Johore came at last into the limelight. The original defence plan here had been based on the assumption that the Mersing area would be attacked from the sea, and both the 12th Indian Brigade, which originally had the responsibility for its defence, and subsequently the 22nd Australian Brigade, one of the best-trained formations in jungle fighting in Malaya, had put in an immense amount of work in the construction of the defences. These, when war broke out, were among the strongest of any part of Malaya. But, like those at Kuantan, fate decreed that they should never be tested, for the attack again developed by land from the north, where contact was first made in the State of Pahang on 14 January. The following day our air photographic reconnaissance, which the two pilots, Flight-Lieut. Phillips and Sergeant Wareham, kept up day after day with what seemed to be charmed lives, reported the arrival of a large convoy at Singora, and it seemed that our expectation of a seaborne attack on the coast of Johore was about to be fulfilled. That this expectation was justified is now apparent, for we have learnt from Japanese sources that this convoy brought two fresh divisions to Singora which it had been the intention of their high command to launch against the east coast of Johore. For some reason, however, the plan was changed and they were eventually sent by land to the Kluang area.

The land threat from the north and the withdrawal of a battalion from the 22nd Australian Brigade to help in the Muar operations necessitated a reorientation of the Mersing defence plan—to the great disappointment of the Australians who were prepared to fight to the last there. The new defence centred round Jemaluang with Mersing held only as an outpost. Moreover, we had had to withdraw our advanced troops from Endau, a likely landing-place twenty miles north of Mersing.

Between the eighteenth and the twenty-third, there were several small encounters north of the Mersing River which ended in our favour. The next two days passed uneventfully. The reason for this became apparent early on the twenty-sixth, when our air reconnaissance reported two transports and many small craft, escorted by two cruisers and twelve destroyers, closing the shore at Endau. Our lack of air striking strength was again pitifully evident and cost us dear. Air headquarters put all that they could muster into two attacks on this convoy, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, delivered mostly by the ancient Vildebeestes escorted in the morning by Buffaloes and in the afternoon by Hurricanes. The enemy kept a constant screen of scores of navy “O” fighters, operating from Kuantan, over the convoy and some desperate fighting took place. Only about half a dozen of the Vildebeestes survived the two raids, but the most tragic aspect of the loss was the throwing away of highly trained torpedo-bomber crews condemned to fight in aircraft which should long ago have been on the scrap-heap. On the credit side a minimum of thirteen fighters were destroyed and both transports were hit—but the landing was not prevented; in fact, it was probably well under way before the attacks took place. Our air striking force in Malaya, even such as it was, had now vanished for good.

The enemy convoy was also attacked the following night by two of our destroyers, one of which after a gallant action was itself sunk.

The new enemy troops lost no time, for no sooner had they landed at Endau than they started marching south and in the evening crossed the river west of Mersing. A little farther south the Australians had laid an ambush for them. Two companies of their 2/18 Battalion were in position astride the road with a company forward on either flank ready to attack the enemy column as soon as it entered the box. The supporting artillery was also in position ready to fire on the road. Into this trap the leading Japanese battalion marched at midnight. The result was not quite so devastating as it had been at Gemas, partly owing to the confusion which generally attends night fighting, but still the enemy were dealt a severe blow which slowed up their advance and enabled Eastforce to fall back in accordance with the general plan. Over 300 Japanese graves have since been counted in this area while our losses were less than 100.

It was now the morning of 27 January and the full significance of the dispersal of the Batu Pahat force and the opening of the west coast road to the enemy was apparent. Although provisional arrangements had been made for a withdrawal to the island and an outline plan issued, I still hoped even up to this late hour that it might be possible to avoid putting it into effect, especially as the 18th British Division was on the point of arriving. I had been given discretion by the Supreme Commander South-West Pacific to withdraw to the island if I considered it advisable, and I now decided that I could no longer risk the loss of the whole of our forces on the mainland by delaying further. I therefore approved a plan which was being worked out by 3rd Indian Corps for the withdrawal.

Many people have wondered why we did not hold a bridgehead in South Johore covering the Causeway. The possibility of doing this had been made the subject of a special study, but I had decided against it for what seemed to me very cogent reasons. Firstly, there had not been sufficient time to prepare defences and, without proper defences, the position was too extensive for the forces we had available. Secondly, it would have been extremely risky to have occupied a position in South Johore with only a single channel of communication behind us and that the very vulnerable one of the Causeway. Lastly—and this was the determining factor—our flanks would have been in the air, especially as we no longer controlled the sea approaches, and it would have been possible for the enemy to have landed a force behind us direct on to the shores of Singapore Island. For these reasons it seemed to me far better to concentrate on the defence of the island itself, making use of the water obstacle provided by the Straits of Johore.

The plan envisaged a coordinated withdrawal by night on all four routes with a final withdrawal to the island on the night 30-31 January. To avoid congestion at the bridgehead, this final withdrawal through the Johore Bahru area was to be carried out rapidly in M.T. For the immediate ground defence of the Causeway an outer and inner bridgehead were organized. The passage of so large a force over the Causeway in the course of a single night naturally gave us cause for some anxiety, for if the enemy had succeeded in blocking the Causeway by air attack there would almost certainly have been great confusion. To reduce this danger as far as we could, careful plans were made for the anti-aircraft defence of the Causeway and for the conveyance of troops, but not vehicles, by water craft as an alternative to the Causeway.

Apart from some skirmishes near Benut on the west coast road and later in the neighbourhood of the Gunong Pulai reservoirs, one of the main sources of Singapore’s water supply, most of the fighting during the four days’ withdrawal developed on the front of Westforce, where the Japanese followed up quickly and aggressively. The problem here was complicated by the fact that on the railway front, along which the 9th Indian Division was retiring, there was a gap of twenty miles between Rengam and Kulai in which no through road followed the railway line, though there were many estate roads east of the railway extending as far south as the village of Layang Layang. That meant that no wheels could accompany the column over this stretch of the railway; they all had to proceed south by the main road.

On the main road front the Japanese pressure was continuous, strongly supported by their air force which, as always, had undisputed control. That is not a good tonic for tired and harassed troops. Where were the Hurricanes, they asked, which were going to sweep the air, and what were the chances, as they had been told, that even though we had been driven off our northern airfields we had only to hold on for a few weeks before our air force would stage a come-back from aerodromes in Sumatra? To say that intelligent troops were becoming despondent as to the answer is far from implying that they were less determined to fight on. In fact, during this retreat some of the fighting on the main road by both Australian and British troops was of a very high standard. Enemy attacks were met by counter-attack which many times ended in a bayonet charge, while their tree-top snipers were hunted out and shot down. Our troops were getting used to this strange type of warfare. But, as always, it was the threat to the communications which dominated the situation.

On the railway front disaster overtook the 9th Indian Division on 28 January. For some reason a wide gap developed between the 22nd Indian Brigade, which was forward, and the 8th Indian Brigade, which was supporting it. Into this gap enemy troops penetrated, moving round the eastern flank by estate roads, and they occupied Layang Layang. Barstow, unhappy about this gap and not knowing that the enemy was already between his two brigades, went forward by the railway with two staff officers to confer with Painter, the commander of the forward brigade. A little south of Layang Layang the party was fired on by Japanese at close range. Barstow threw himself down one side of the embankment, his staff officers down the other side. That is the last that was seen of Barstow. There can be little doubt that he was killed. The loss of this gallant and gifted officer was a severe blow and had its effect in a much wider circle than that of his own division.

The 22nd Indian Brigade, in an endeavour to rejoin its division, started to move through the jungle west of the railway aiming for Sedenak. Only one battalion of this brigade, the 5/11 Sikhs, was at anything approaching its proper strength. The others were mere skeletons after their heavy losses up-country. To start with things went well, the 5/11 Sikhs again distinguishing themselves in a brush with the Japanese, but soon the density of the jungle began to tell its tale. Moreover, there were with the column a number of stretcher cases which had to be carried by the troops. The average rate of advance did not exceed half a mile per hour, but the march was continued by day and by night. It is on such occasions as this, when a force is really up against it, that the value of true leadership comes out, especially among the regimental officers and N.C.O.s. Parkin, the C.O. of the Sikhs and a strong disciplinarian, was at his best. The value of British leadership, backed up by experienced Indian officers and N.C.O.s, was well demonstrated, as also was the weakness which results from the lack of experienced and trained junior leaders. On the twenty- ninth a member of an Indian medical detachment, which had been captured by the Japanese, joined the column. He was the bearer of a general invitation in writing from the Japanese to all Indian troops to abandon their British officers and be welcomed by their loving Asiatic brethren. As an earnest of the fraternal sentiments of the Japanese he had been warned that, if he failed to deliver the message, he would be beheaded. That was typical of the ruthless methods of those who preached “Asia for the Asiatics”. Needless to say, the invitation was refused.

Desperate efforts were made to locate this brigade both by ground and air reconnaissance. In particular Flight-Lieut. Dane, a resident of Malaya and member of the Malayan Volunteer Air Force, was untiring and quite fearless in the efforts he made. In fact, the whole of this Volunteer Air Force, flying a miscellaneous collection of light flying club aircraft, was at this time doing most gallant work. Operating from a temporary landing- ground on Singapore Island, these frail and defenceless aircraft were carrying out daily reconnaissance patrols and generally managing to get back.

Unfortunately we entirely failed to ascertain the brigade’s whereabouts though we postponed the final withdrawal as long as could safely be done. The best we could do was to arrange for survivors to be ferried across to the island by the Royal Navy. Ultimately about one hundred officers and men were saved in this way. Most of the rest became prisoners of the Japanese. It is of interest to record that for many of the Indian troops the turning-point in this grim struggle came when the wounded had to be left behind in the Tamil lines of a rubber plantation owing to the extreme exhaustion of the bearers. This action, which may often be necessary in modern war but is contrary to the teaching of the Indian frontier, seemed to undermine the determination of these men to continue the unequal struggle.

The final withdrawal across the Causeway on the night 30-31 January was carried out without incident and with little interference from the enemy’s air force. By about 6 a.m. on 31 January all troops, except those in the bridgeheads and those still missing, were back on Singapore Island. All were weary. Many had been fighting, and withdrawing to fight again, in an exhausting climate and cruel country for seven weeks on end in the face of a powerful enemy equipped with every advantage. The most remarkable thing perhaps is that so many of them were still full of fight after such an ordeal.

By 7 a.m. the last battalion of the outer bridgehead, the Gordons, was crossing the Causeway. Behind it came the inner bridgehead, the Argylls, headed by their pipes. At 8 a.m., Lt.-Col. Stewart stepped out of Johore on to the Causeway—the last to do so. The Causeway, which was solidly built, was seventy feet wide at the water line and wider below it. Its demolition presented certain technical difficulties. Nevertheless, a demolition charge had been successfully inserted in it by the Royal Navy and at 8.15 a.m. it was exploded. A moment later the water was racing through a seventy-foot gap. The operations on the mainland were at an end and the battle of Singapore had begun.

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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.

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.

Chapter XIV – OPERATIONS IN CENTRAL MALAYA

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.

Chapter XIII – SOME ADMINISTRATIVE PROBLEMS

WE British have fortunately had little experience in the past of campaigns fought in our own country or in territory under our control. It is true that at the beginning of this last war we had to make preparations to meet invasion at home, but theory and practice are very different things. In Malaya we had to put our plans into practice and we soon came up against new and difficult problems—problems which were made infinitely more difficult by the fact that we were fighting not in our own country but in a country to whose people we had promised our protection. As it was towards the end of December 1941 that these problems began to have an important influence on the course of the campaign, it will not be out of place to discuss them at this stage in the story.

We know now, as many of us suspected at the time, that Japan’s aims were based on her own self-interest, i.e. the expansion of the Japanese Empire. But she was clever enough to launch her offensive to the accompaniment of slogans such as “Join the Co-Prosperity Sphere of Greater East Asia” and “Asia for the Asiatics”. In doing so she endeavoured to rally to her standard the native races of the East to drive out what she described as “the white intruders”. That was a fact which had a profound influence on our problems, because it was quite useless for the white population to try to stand alone in the East. We had at all costs to endeavour to retain the goodwill and active support of the inhabitants of the countries in which we were fighting.

One of the first and most difficult problems which confronted us in Malaya was the question of how much damage we ought to do as we fell back. Before the war started fairly comprehensive “denial” schemes had been drawn up. They envisaged, generally speaking, the denial to the enemy of material which might be of value to him for his war effort. They included, for instance, plans for the removal of means of transport, i.e. coastal craft, lorries, etc., and of essential parts of machinery from commercial installations. By this means it was hoped that it would be possible to get the wheels of industry moving quickly again when the country was reoccupied, as we hoped it would be very soon. About the middle of December, however, instructions were received from home to the effect that an unrestricted scorched earth policy was to be applied throughout Malaya. It will be remembered that a few months previously the Russians had successfully applied such a policy as they fell back through their own country in face of the German onslaught. If the Russians could do it, why could not we do it? From a purely military point of view, it would obviously be the right thing to do. Yet there is a great difference between a dictator of a totalitarian state imposing a scorched earth policy as his armies fall back through their own country and an European power imposing a similar policy as its forces are driven back through an Asiatic country to which it has promised its protection. If we deprived these people of the necessities of life such as food and water, or of modern amenities such as electric power for their hospitals, they would say that we were not treating them in accordance with our promises and would become a fertile ground for Japanese propaganda. The destruction of road and rail bridges was a different matter. That was a military necessity and would be no more than an inconvenience to the inhabitants. It had in fact been our policy to do this since the beginning of the campaign. Then there were the big commercial installations—the tin mines, the rubber estates, and the factories. Many of these were owned by European firms, but there were thousands of small Asiatic-owned businesses. The scorched earth policy could certainly be applied to the former as the problem was the same as if one had been operating in one’s own country, but it was not so easy as regards the latter. If these people were to be left for any length of time under Japanese domination, one did not want to deprive them of their means of livelihood. It really boiled down to the potential war value of their businesses. If they were going to be of real value to the Japanese, then they had to go. Otherwise it seemed better to leave them. It was with these ideas in mind that the Far East War Council considered the instructions to apply an unrestricted scorched earth policy. After an exchange of views between London and Singapore, instructions were issued that the scorched earth policy was to be enforced, but that it would not apply to such things as foodstuffs already issued to the civil population, to water supplies, or to power plants.

Certain practical problems arose in the application of the policy. Fires and explosions behind the fighting front both give a sure indication to the enemy that a withdrawal is contemplated and are liable to have a bad moral effect on one’s own troops. On the other hand, a scorched earth policy cannot be applied successfully at the last minute or it will certainly fail. The decision as to when to order it in any particular area is an important one and must be made by the military commander. In general, authority to make the decision was delegated to the commander in the field, but in some of the more important cases, such as putting out of action the Batu Arang coal mines and big concerns like the Pahang Consolidated tin mines, the decision was taken at Singapore. Then there was the question of how to execute the demolitions. Obviously the Army could not undertake this work over such a large area. It must be done by the owners themselves. All we could do was to send officers round to see that the plans had been prepared and were adequate. When the time came, the orders for the demolitions had to be issued through the civil authorities and one had to trust the proprietors or their representatives to see that the work was done. Human nature then enters into the problem because men who have spent long years in developing a business and who look forward to the day when their activities can be resumed are naturally tempted to try to save something from the wreck. Nevertheless, a very great deal of property was loyally and completely destroyed without thought of the past or the future. One can only hope that, when the question of compensation is finally settled, those who in this way did their duty unflinchingly will receive their just reward.

In places there were very large quantities of rice stored in bulk. It was almost impossible to prevent some of these stores falling into the enemy’s hands. Distribution to the local population was not always practicable owing to lack of transport. Again, rice does not burn easily and, if you remove the covering and expose it to the rain, the top portion only of the store is affected. So the Japs got some of it.

Such were some of the initial problems which confronted us in the application of the scorched earth policy. I shall have some more to say about it later on.

Another important matter which came before the Far East War Council at about the same time concerned the evacuation of women and children. In the old days before the advent of “total war”, women and children were of course, for the most part, bouches inutiles, and it was customary to remove them to a safer place. Of course, some of them were still bouches inutiles, but I cannot help thinking that the home authorities, when they issued instructions for the evacuation of all women and children, were living a little in the past and had failed to appreciate the part which women play in the modern “total war” and especially their role in a war in Malaya. As nurses, as motor drivers, as clerks, in the A.R.P. services and in many other ways women were doing invaluable work in which they could not be adequately replaced. Then, and of even greater importance, there was the question of differentiating between European and Asiatic women. The compulsory withdrawal of all European women, just at a time when success or failure might turn on whether or not we could succeed in rallying the Asiatic population round us, was bound to be most damaging to our cause. There were, it is true, some women who were doing no war work whose presence was an encumbrance. The sooner they were got out of the way the better. There were others who had children and they also were better in a place of safety. But we felt that it would be very wrong at that stage to order away the many who were doing valuable war work and who wished to stay. Moreover, if the European women were sent away, why should not the Eurasian, Chinese, and other Asiatic women who were working side by side with them also be sent away? That, even if it had been practicable, would have left big gaps in the administrative services and what is the good of building up these services if you are going to cripple them as soon as war breaks out? In the end we sent away the bouches inutiles and we compelled none of the women to stay if they wished to leave. Only at the end, when I knew how the Japanese had treated nursing sisters at Hong Kong, did I order ours away, and that decision I shall always regret, for many of these brave people lost their lives at sea. For the rest, let us pay tribute to those gallant souls who stayed behind and suffered the rigours of internment. I know there are many who will not agree with me, but I for my part am quite certain that they took the right course and that they made a very valuable contribution to the general war effort and especially to the maintenance of morale.

Civil defence now began to assume great importance. However carefully plans may have been laid in time of peace it is unlikely that in any country the machine will work smoothly until it has been properly run in. That applied particularly in Malaya where, with very few exceptions, the people had had no experience of war. Things are difficult enough when the enemy’s action is confined to air attack, as it was in the United Kingdom. They were infinitely more difficult in Malaya where, from the very first day, the country was being invaded and there was no time to run the machine in. As always happens in such cases, the wildest rumours were sent flying round with their damaging effect on morale. The situation was no doubt aggravated by the difficulty of giving the people exact news of what was happening. In a retreat that is almost impossible to do because one is usually trying to slip away without letting the enemy know that one has gone and the last thing one wants to do is to let the enemy know where one is going to make the next stand. In Malaya the effect of our early reverses and of the uncertainty which accompanied them was doubly great as a result of the pre-war talk of the impregnability of Singapore.

Towards the end of December it became evident that vigorous action was required if civil defence was to keep pace with the march of events. This was particularly the case in the Singapore area where, in spite of a reasonably efficient A.R.P. organization, there was still much to be done, especially as regards the material protection of buildings and other important installations. The control of labour and of transport were other matters which required urgent attention. It was in these circumstances that Mr. Duff Cooper, the Cabinet representative in the Far East, proposed the introduction of martial law and the appointment of a Director-General of Civil Defence.

Now martial law is usually introduced when the civil government is no longer capable of maintaining law and order in a country. It is applicable particularly in the case of internal trouble and especially when the military are able to concentrate all their efforts on the restoration of normal conditions. In Malaya neither of these conditions prevailed. Although there was a certain amount of apathy, there was no internal disorder and the armed forces were already fully occupied in endeavouring to repel an invader. It seemed to me that martial law would put a further and unnecessary strain on those forces, and especially on the commanders and staffs. For that reason I did not welcome the proposal. Eventually martial law was declared in the colony of Singapore only, Keith Simmons being appointed administrator. Heath and Gordon Bennett were authorized to declare martial law at their discretion in the Federated Malay States and in Johore and Malacca respectively, but they never found it necessary to do so.

The question of appointing a military governor was also dis-cussed at different times. We have, of course, military governors at places where defence is of paramount importance, such, for instance, as Gibraltar and until recently Malta. For a short period before war broke out there was temporarily a military governor at Hong Kong. This does not necessarily mean that there is any difference in the system of government. The advantage of such an appointment is that a military governor is likely to be more experienced in matters of defence than a civil governor. One of the main objections to the appointment of a military governor in Malaya shortly before or after war broke out was the complicated political organization of the country which would have been very difficult for anyone to take over at short notice. In my opinion the solution in these days of “total war” lies in the training of governors, before appointment to a post of such responsibility, in the art of governing both in peace and in war. Such training could be given at a very much enlarged Imperial Defence College.

I come now to the creation of a Directorate of Civil Defence. I was asked if I would make my chief engineer, Brigadier I. Simson, available for the appointment of director-general. Simson had only recently come to Malaya from the United Kingdom where he had had considerable experience in passive air defence work. I was naturally loath to lose the services of so important an officer at this juncture, but I agreed to make him available provided he retained concurrently his appointment of Chief Engineer Malaya Command. Had he not done this he would have suffered considerable financial loss as there was no provision in the civil establishment for a Director-General of Civil Defence. The directorate was created on 31 December, Simson being appointed Director-General, and Mr. F. D. Bisseker, the general manager of the Penang Smelting Works and the senior unofficial member of the Legislative Council, Deputy Director-General. Bisseker was also appointed Director of Labour and Transport. In the original proclamation the director¬ate was to cover Singapore and the State of Johore but, for constitutional reasons, Johore was subsequently excluded so that ultimately the directorate operated in Singapore Island only.

The question which immediately arose was “what was included in the term civil defence”? In creating the directorate, Duff Cooper had given the Director-General plenary powers, subject only to reference to the War Council where considered necessary. This presumably meant that he could issue orders direct to the various departments of the Government. Where then did the Colonial Secretary come in and where did the Governor himself come in if the Director-General could refer direct to the War Council? It seems to me that the situation was analogous to the appointment of a Minister for Defence in the United Kingdom with no responsibility to the Prime Minister. In a country at war within its own territory, practically every department of state is to a greater or less degree concerned with civil defence, the ultimate responsibility for which must rest with the head of the civil government. To attempt to relieve him of this responsibility or to by-pass him is certain to lead to trouble. Such was the case in Malaya. I do not in any way wish to belittle the efforts of the Director-General or his staff. They did all that it was humanly possible to do, but they were in my view handicapped from the start by a faulty organization. This is not a case of being wise after the event, for I expressed a similar opinion when the new directorate was first suggested. As I saw it working, I became more and more confirmed in that opinion. To make matters worse it suffered also from lack of an adequate clerical staff and of suitable office accommodation. It is true that an expansion of civil defence in the broadest meaning of the term was urgently required, but the framework was already there. There was a Secretary for Defence and there were organizations for dealing with labour and transport. I feel convinced that it would have been better, instead of creating a new organization at short notice, to have built on that framework, strengthening it as necessary with men of character and proved ability.

The failure of civil labour had from the very beginning a crippling effect on our war effort. It started up in Kedah where most of the civil labour disappeared as soon as war broke out, including the labour force which was being assembled for the construction of the Gurun position. It happened in Penang, where the municipal workers left Georgetown for the hills as soon as the bombing started. It happened on the railway which was only kept going by a volunteer military operating unit and by the use of troops. It happened at the Singapore docks where ultimately ships had to be discharged and loaded with military labour. And it happened in the end in Singapore Town itself, where it made no small contribution to the situation which brought about the final capitulation. It was not due, speaking generally, to default on the part of the management or of the leaders. With few exceptions, the leaders, both European and Asiatic, stuck to their posts manfully. Particularly was this so in the case of the railway, the posts and telegraphs, and the survey department. I do not think either that it was due to fear, for the Chinese, who formed a large part of the labour force, are not people who normally set great store by human life. I believe that it was due more to the spirit of apathy which prevailed throughout Malaya and the feeling on the part of the workers that this war was no affair of theirs. There was very little real patriotism or deep- rooted love of country in this mixed population, so why should they risk their own lives and those of their families? There was plenty of food in the country for them to live upon, so why should they not get out of harm’s way until it had all blown over? That seemed to be the general attitude. What was the solution?

In the first place, it may be asked, “Why did you not form military labour companies?” That indeed would have been a very good solution, for all experience showed that the Asiatics of Malaya, of whatever race, were extremely good workers so long as they were under military control. Shortly before war broke out we had received War Office authority to expand our two labour companies up to six, and we immediately set about trying to get recruits, but by the beginning of January only one additional company had been formed. The reason for this was almost entirely financial. We were still bound by War Office regulations and the War Office refused, in spite of representations, to increase the fixed rate of forty-five cents per day for coolies. At that time the current rate in Singapore was in the region of one dollar per day plus free rations and accommodation. So you could hardly blame the coolies for not joining up. Eventually I had to take the law into my own hands and inform the War Office that I was going to accept decisions by the Director-General of Civil Defence as to conditions of service reached after consultation with all interested departments. A Director of Army Labour was appointed and he had under him a corps of officers, recruited mostly from civilians, who understood the Asiatic labourers and who could converse with at least some of them in their own language.

Then it may be asked, “Why was not labour conscripted?” I have already explained in a previous chapter that the view of those best qualified to judge, with which I agreed, was that we were likely to get better service by a voluntary system, provided we could get the support of influential leaders, than by compulsion. As the difficulties increased, there was a growing demand in some Service quarters for compulsion to be applied. It was in answer to this demand, and when the voluntary system had failed to produce the required results, that a measure was passed on 20 January to introduce compulsion. It came too late for its value to be disclosed.

From the army point of view, the failure of labour in the Singapore area had very serious consequences. I have already explained that, in the hope of regaining some measure of air supremacy, I had agreed to give the air force first priority call on all civil labour for the maintenance of the existing aerodromes and for the construction of new air strips. A considerable labour force was required for these purposes, especially when the Japanese Air Force began bombing the aerodromes every day. It was hardly ever forthcoming, and I frequently had to provide working parties from our reinforcement camps. Thus not only was there no civil labour available for work on our own land defences of the island, but there was very often no military labour available either.

The Japanese, of course, in their advance applied a system of forced labour to meet their requirements. The workers probably got nothing except their subsistence. As a short-term policy that undoubtedly pays and it may be that we British are a bit too soft in our methods. But there is the other side to the picture. Acts of repression are not quickly forgotten and, as the Japanese found to their cost, are apt to react upon the oppressor. Perhaps, after all, our methods are the best in the long run.

I have referred earlier in this book to the Combined Operations Room where the operational staffs of the army and air force worked. I would like to say something more about this room now in the light of experience because, though it may seem a small matter, I believe it exercised a great influence on the higher direction of the campaign.

As early as 1936 the idea of the operational staffs of the fighting services working together had begun to take shape in the plans for the bomb-proof headquarters at Fort Canning. That, when built, was already too small but, following a combined operations exercise early in 1941, it was decided to build a large room where the army and air force staffs could work at Sime Road adjoining R.A.F. headquarters. On the other side of it were built offices for the Army operational staff. The idea was that the staff officers of the two Services and their clerks should all work in the Combined Operations Room, though they had their own rooms to which they could go if they wanted to. This was excellent in theory. In practice it had many faults. It meant that our staff officers were permanently in that room because they could not in fact work in two places. That in turn meant that their clerks were permanently there too and—worse than that—it meant that the commanders had to spend much of their time there, so as to be close to their staff officers. Had we worked entirely in our own offices, either we or our staff officers would have been faced with a journey of a hundred yards or so every time we wanted to talk to each other—and that during the black-out was not too pleasant. The conditions in the Combined Operations Room were not conducive to good work or clear thinking. They were too cramped and there was too much noise. The problem may not arise again in these days of integrated staffs, but I am sure the right solution in those conditions is for staffs to work in their own offices and to have a common room where everything of interest to all Services, i.e. situation maps, intelligence reports, messages, etc., can be seen, and where conferences can be held. It may seem a small point to some, but I feel sure that all who have had experience of the working of headquarter staffs will agree with me that the conditions under which they work have a very great influence on their efficiency and, in consequence, on the efficiency of the fighting formations which they direct.

Chapter XII – OPERATIONS IN BORNEO

ALTHOUGH during the years which preceded the war it had gradually been assumed that the General Officer Commanding Malaya was responsible also for the military defence of British Borneo it had, as has been shown, never been possible through lack of resources to station more than token forces there. It was never in fact considered that these forces would be able to do much more than give time for the all-important oil-fields in East Sarawak and Brunei to be demolished and to force the enemy to deploy a larger force than they otherwise need have done to capture the air landing-ground at Kuching, thereby depriving them at least temporarily of the use of this force for operations elsewhere. In war, the General Officer Commanding Malaya, with no transport aircraft at his disposal, could obviously exercise little control over the operations in British Borneo, and equally the O.C. Troops Sarawak and Brunei would himself have little control over the Miri portion of his force. Kuching and Miri are, as the crow flies, some 400 miles of virgin jungle apart, and the only communication between them was by coastal steamer once a week, the journey in each direction taking thirty-six hours. There were no railways in Sarawak and no roads except in the immediate neighbourhood of the few small towns.

The oil-fields, which were worked by the Sarawak Oil-fields Ltd., were in two groups—the one at Miri in Sarawak, a short distance from the coast up the Miri River, and the other at Seria in Brunei, close to the sea-shore. These groups were thirty-two miles apart. The field at Miri was the older one of the two. From it the oil was pumped to the refinery at Lutong on the coast, from which loading-lines ran out to sea as there were no deep- water wharves at Lutong and no ocean-going vessels could come alongside. The Seria fields were comparatively new and still in the process of development. From it the oil was pumped through pipe-lines to the Lutong refinery. Seria, Miri, and Lutong were connected by a road which, for most of its length, ran either along or close to the beach, but a through journey for M.T. was not possible owing to river obstacles. The beach itself is practically straight and suitable for the landing of troops. The oil-fields were, therefore, for practical purposes, impossible to defend against a determined attack with the resources at our disposal. All that could be done was to ensure that they would be of little use to the Japanese if they captured them and, in accordance with instructions received from the Home Government in August 1941, a scheme of complete destruction had been drawn up with the object of making it impossible for the enemy to obtain oil from the fields at least for an extended period. The scheme was not to be influenced by any considerations of the eventual recovery of the fields for our own use. A party of civilian experts was flown out from Europe to advise on this scheme. The responsibility for carrying it out devolved upon the Army—no small responsibility in view of the exposed situation of the oil-fields and the great value of their contents to the Japanese if they could capture them intact.

As has already been related, in order to reduce the amount of work which would have to be done if and when the time came, steps were taken late in 1941 to cut down the production of the fields and to ship away the machinery thus rendered surplus. The Miri portion of the fields was closed down completely. At Lutong one of the two refining plants was closed down. At Seria all the flowing wells were closed and cemented up. All surplus machinery was then shipped away. Orders for the final demolition of the oil-fields reached the O.C. Troops Miri and Seria (Major Slatter of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment) on the morning of 8 Decem¬ber. The first step was the wrecking of engines, pumping machinery, and furnaces. The next was the denial of the gas-lift wells at Seria. Then the sea-loading lines were blown up and the various subsidiary plants, laboratories, etc., were laid waste. The programme went to time without a serious hitch and in a manner reflecting the greatest credit on all concerned, and particularly on Major Davis of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment and on the young R.E. officer, Lt. Hancock, upon whom the responsibility for most of the detailed arrangements had devolved. Although the Japanese claimed to be obtaining oil from the fields within a few weeks of occupying them, it could only have been in very small quantities. A long period must have elapsed before the produc¬tion and export of oil from Miri or Seria reached any figure worth  considering. The damage done to the Sarawak oil-fields was certainly among the most successful of those organized under the scorched earth policy.

On 13 December, H.M.S. Lipis (a former coastal steamer) and one other small steamer arrived at Miri from Kuching to take off the troops. There also arrived in the roads, unnotified, a steamer from Hong Kong with a British captain and a mutinous Chinese crew. A guard was put on this vessel and the three vessels left for Kuching, taking with them the troops, a detachment of Straits Settlements police, which had been sent from Singapore as reinforcements to Brunei, most of the senior officials of Sarawak Oil-fields Ltd., and most of the equipment of the 6-inch battery. At midday on 14 December, H.M.S. Lipis was attacked by a single enemy aircraft which was engaged by small arms fire but succeeded in inflicting casualties among the troops. Among the killed was the gallant Major Slatter, who had himself seized a light automatic and was engaging the enemy aircraft from the bridge. There were no other incidents on the voyage and the three ships reached Kuching safely. The 2/15 Punjab company rejoined its battalion; the remainder of the troops and the police returned to Singapore.

The destruction of the oil-fields had been completed not a bit too soon, for at 3.30 a.m. on the sixteenth Japanese troops landed at Seria. From here some of them proceeded by road to Belait and thence to Danau, which they reached on the twenty-second. On the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth, Dutch aircraft attacked Japanese ships lying off Miri.

From 16 December onwards, enemy reconnaissance aircraft were frequently sighted over Kuching. On the nineteenth the town of Kuching itself was attacked from the air with bombs and machine-gun fire, special attention being paid to the Chinese quarter. A general exodus from the town started and continued throughout the next day. By the twenty-third the O.C. Troops reported that there had been a complete break in civil labour. Air attacks were also made on the landing-ground but without much damage being done. Let me repeat here that there were no anti-aircraft defences of any sort, except small arms fire, at Kuching. When London and other British cities were attacked by the Luftwaffe in 1940 there was a considerable exodus to the countryside even though most of our cities had at least some measure of anti-aircraft defence. It is not for us, therefore, to criticize the people of Kuching for leaving a town which was for all practical purposes defenceless against air attack.

During the twenty-third, reconnaissance aircraft from Singapore sighted a force of nine Japanese warships and transports at sea, evidently heading for Kuching. Although the first sighting was made during the morning it was not until 8.30 p.m., owing to communication difficulties, that the information was received in Kuching. By that time O.P.s north and north-west of Kuching had already reported searchlights to seaward. Before arrival, however, the convoy had been attacked by submarines of the Royal Dutch Navy, who reported having sunk or disabled three transports and one tanker. There is no evidence to show whether this was before or after the sighting by our reconnaissance aircraft referred to above.

Ten minutes later, i.e. at 8.40 p.m., an order from Air Head-quarters Far East for the demolition of the landing-ground was received in Kuching. There is no doubt that this came as a great shock to the defenders who had been encouraged by the confident belief that the landing-ground was of strategical importance and who, not unnaturally, believed that our aircraft would be operating from it as soon as Kuching was threatened. The fact, of course, was that there were no aircraft to send there. This unexpected development also had the effect of putting the O.C. Troops (Lt.-Col. Lane) in the same quandary as that in which many other subordinate commanders found themselves during the course of the Malayan campaign. He had been told that his primary object was to secure the air landing-ground for the use of our air force and to deny it to the enemy, but it was now quite clear to him that our air force was no longer in a position to use it and, once it had been demolished, there seemed no point in denying it any longer to the enemy. At that time we in Singa¬pore were only just beginning to realize that it was not possible to deny the use of an aerodrome to the enemy by demolitions for more than a few days and Lane no doubt thought, as we had done, that the Kuching landing-ground, once demolished, would be useless for a very considerable time. In the instructions issued to him Lane had further been told that if, owing to the enemy’s strength, his primary object could no longer be attained, then he should act in the interests of the defence of West Borneo as a whole, his line of withdrawal being by the bush track into Dutch West Borneo. It is necessary here to explain what was in my mind when these instructions were issued. As British and Dutch air plans had become more closely coordinated, it had been decided that Singkawang II should become the principal Anglo- Dutch air base in West Borneo. This aerodrome was situated, not at Singkawang which is on the coast of Dutch West Borneo, but at Sanggau, sixty miles inland and about thirty miles from the Sarawak border. The R.A.F. already had a small ground staff with some stores there and it was through the W.T. station there, manned by Dutch personnel, that military communication between Singapore and Kuching was maintained. This aerodrome at Singkawang II was also of great strategical importance because it was only 300 miles or so from Singapore and from the communications between Singapore and the Sunda Straits through which our sea-borne reinforcements now had to come. In other words, in Japanese hands it would constitute a very serious threat both to the defence of Singapore and also to the security of Java and Sumatra. Looked at from the broad strategical point of view the denial to the Japanese of the aerodrome at Singkawang II was undoubtedly of far greater importance than the denial of the landing-ground at Kuching. Unfortunately, between Krokong, the end of the road on the Sarawak side, and the beginning of the road on the Dutch side, there was only a bush track quite impassable for wheeled transport. That meant that all the transport and much of the reserve ammunition, supplies, and other stores of a force moving by this route would have to be destroyed or left behind. The decision to use it was therefore one which no commander would lightly take. These were the considerations which now faced Lane, and they should be carefully weighed by anyone who passes judgment on the operations which followed.

The country between the town of Kuching and the sea is practically roadless but is intersected by a number of waterways which flow northwards to the sea. The main river is navigable for small ocean-going vessels as far as Pending, which lies some four miles east of Kuching. Some of the other waterways are navigable for light craft. The principal roads radiating from Kuching run east to Pending, north-west to Matang, and south to Serian, a distance of forty miles from Kuching. The Serian road passes the aerodrome some eight miles south of Kuching. At that point a road takes off to the west which, after passing Bau, terminates at Krokong, fifteen miles short of the frontier. The River Bintawa was crossed at Batu Kitang by a vehicle ferry.

On the morning of 24 December, observers at an O.P. north of Kuching reported Japanese transports anchored in Santubong Bay and landing-craft making for the Santubong River, one of the waterways referred to above. The first landing took place at Lintang on the banks of that river. Other craft penetrated farther inland, some being engaged by our forward posts at Pending and elsewhere while others succeeded in penetrating as far as Kuching Town itself. Many of the Japanese troops were dressed in British and Sarawak police uniforms, a ruse which on more than one occasion deceived the Indian soldiers.

These developments were unknown to Lane for some time as a cable upon which he depended for information from his forward posts had been cut during the bombing of the town. At 4 p.m., however, it became known that the enemy had entered Kuching and had planted the Japanese flag on the Astana, the residence of His Highness the Rajah; also that the Chief Secretary and the Secretary for Defence were in their hands. At 6.30 p.m., Lane ordered his forward detachments to withdraw to the aerodrome.

In Singapore little was known of these events nor were they to be heard of for several days to come. The civil W.T. station had fallen into enemy hands and repeated efforts from both the Singapore and Kuching ends to gain touch with each other via the Dutch station at Singkawang II failed except for one message. That was a request from Lane for further instructions in view of the new situation created by the demolition of the landing-ground. I replied to the effect that he should fight the enemy for as long as possible and that subsequently he should act in the best interests of West Borneo as a whole, withdrawing if necessary into Dutch territory. I do not know whether this message was ever received.

On the morning of 25 December, Lane decided to withdraw his force into Dutch West Borneo that evening. The European women and children, the sick, and some officials with the State records, were sent on ahead and crossed the river safely, but then trouble developed at the ferry after firing had broken out in the vicinity, the native ferrymen disappearing and leaving the ferry on the far side of the swift-flowing stream. The withdrawal from the aerodrome, which was now being attacked from the east and from the south, was expedited, but the rearguard company was unable to extricate itself and suffered heavily. The total casualties of this battalion during the fighting in Sarawak were four British officers and 229 Indian other ranks, a proportion of which could be classified as “missing”.

After trekking through the jungle on the twenty-sixth, the force crossed the frontier on the twenty-seventh and that evening reached Siloeas, the road-head on the Dutch side. Here it was met by the Dutch district officer and farther on by the Dutch military commander, who arranged for it to occupy the barracks which had been built for the R.A.F. at Singkawang II (Sanggau) aerodrome. In the meantime, Lane had been able to get a message through to Singapore, as a result of which containers of food, ammunition, and water were hurriedly prepared and an effort was made to arrange for the R.A.F. to drop these supplies. For lack of suitable and available aircraft the effort came to nothing. Efforts to ascertain the possibility of landing aircraft on the aerodrome itself were also unsuccessful as no information could be obtained as to whether it was in a serviceable condition. Eventually the supplies required by our troops there were sent by sea to Java, where we had a military liaison officer, with a request that they should be forwarded to Borneo as early as possible.

Sanggau was reached on 29 December and the force then came under the orders of the local Dutch commander. Its further adventures, therefore, do not belong to this history but may be briefly summarized to round off the story.

The 2/15 Punjab Regiment, after re-forming and being as far as possible re-equipped though still without transport, was allotted local defence tasks in the Siloeas-Sanggau area. Stragglers and local agents reported that the Japanese had landed 3,000-4,000 troops in Kuching. They soon had coolies at work on clearing and bridging the Bau road and on repairing the landing-ground, from which aircraft were operating within two or three weeks. On 7 January the Japanese arrived at the Sarawak-Dutch West Borneo frontier and between then and the eighteenth much bitter fighting took place between there and Sanggau. The 2/15 Punjab Regiment fought gallantly in an endeavour to prevent the enemy reaching this important aerodrome, losing about another 150 men, but it succeeded in gaining time for the aerodrome, its installa¬tions and bomb stores, to be demolished.

By that time the Japanese had landed another force on the west coast of Borneo, so retreat in that direction was out of the question. The battalion, therefore, struck south-eastwards, fighting a rear-guard action as far as Ngabang, where contact with the enemy was lost. The battalion was now operating independently again, and it was decided to move to the south coast in two columns in the hope of being able to find transport there to take it to Java. One column was to make for Sampit in the centre of the south coast and the other for Pankalang Boen, 120 miles farther west. The columns started on 3 and 5 February respectively and, after traversing wild and undeveloped country, reached their destinations simultaneously. The Sampit column, however, found the Japanese already in possession and, after a brief skirmish, moved off to join the west column, which it succeeded in doing after six days’ march through dense jungle on a compass bearing. By the end of March, officers and men were exhausted after a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare. Since leaving Kuching most of them had marched over 800 miles through some of the worst country in the world, most of the time on half rations and carrying with them their light automatics, rifles, equipment, and ammunition. It says much for the morale of this fine battalion that it remained a formed and disciplined body till the end. The Netherlands East Indies had already surrendered to the Japanese and on 3 April the 2/15 Punjab Regiment became prisoners of war.

What did this battalion accomplish for all its journeyings? That is a question that may well be asked. It was not a political sacrifice, as has been suggested. It was sent to Sarawak, firstly to ensure that the important oil-fields at Miri and Seria did not fall intact into the Japanese hands, and secondly to secure for our air force the use of the landing-ground at Kuching and to some extent also of the Singkawang II aerodrome, but in any case to ensure that they also did not fall intact into Japanese hands. The force was never strong enough to stop the Japanese—that was due to lack of resources—but it did make the Japanese deploy a fair-sized force, it did gain time for both the oil-fields and the air facilities to be denied to the enemy as far as this could be done and it did help to prevent the enemy from occupying the all-important aerodrome at Singkawang II until 18 January, thereby making a definite contribution to the delay imposed on their southward advance. A military sacrifice it may have been, but it was a sacrifice which, judged by results, was in my opinion fully justified.

I must complete this story of the loss of British Borneo by relating briefly the events in Labuan and British North Borneo. It will be recollected that the only military force in these terri¬tories was a small volunteer force in British North Borneo which the Governor had been instructed by the Commander-in-Chief Far East to use for internal security purposes.

On 3 January a small Japanese force took possession of the Island of Labuan. On the same day a detachment from this force proceeded in a captured motor vessel to Mempakul on the coast of British North Borneo and from there to Weston, a small port at the mouth of the River Padar. At Weston, the detachment commandeered a train and proceeded to Beaufort, twenty miles distant. Here it was reinforced and on the sixth Japanese troops from Beaufort, moving by train, entered Jesselton, fifty-six miles distant. British North Borneo was divided into two administrative divisions, the West and the East Coast Residencies. The whole of the west coast area was now under Japanese control and the Governor, Mr. C. R. Smith, whose headquarters were at Sanda- kan, now severed all connection between the West and East Coast Residencies.

On 19 January a Japanese force, estimated at 600 strong, arrived at Sandakan, the capital of British North Borneo. It had assembled at Bangghi Island off the north coast of British North Borneo two days earlier. It came in two coastal vessels which had been captured in Brunei waters and in twelve Japanese motor fishing vessels. The troops from the latter, after landing in two creeks north of the town, reached Sandakan by land at 9 a.m. The two coastal vessels entered the harbour at about 9.30 a.m. The Governor surrendered the State and refused to carry on the administration under Japanese control. He and his staff were interned. Tawau, situated on the east coast near the Netherlands East Indies border, was occupied by the Japanese on 24 January, and Lahad Datu, between Tawau and Sandakan, on 26 or 27 January. Kudat on the north coast was occupied about 1 February. The whole of British Borneo was then under Japanese control.

British North Borneo, under the energetic and able leadership of its Governor, had done more than most of our possessions in the Far East to prepare itself, as far as its very limited resources would admit, for the possibility of war. It had co-operated readily in the preparations for the construction of the aerodromes and landing-grounds, which had been part of the original air plan, it had raised and equipped under its own arrangements a small volunteer force and it had prepared careful plans for the denial of military facilities to the Japanese should they come. In these plans the Governor had had the wholehearted co-operation of both the European and native population. Under his orders a great deal of denial work was done which incensed the Japanese occupying forces and made their treatment of the internees all the harsher. In particular, coastal vessels and local craft, including a number of Japanese-owned craft, were sunk. It is no reflection on the way this work was carried out, but a valuable lesson for the future, to state that the Japanese, without the help of heavy modern machinery, succeeded in raising many of these craft in a very short space of time. For all their faults they are in many ways a resourceful and practical people.

In pre-war days little was known by the general public about this outpost of our Empire, but the affection and loyalty shown to the Europeans there by the native population during the Japanese occupation is a wonderful proof of the benefits brought by British rule and of the soundness of our system of government. I have little doubt that in the years to come this will be appreciated more fully than it is now by many of those who cry so loudly for independence.

Chapter XI – OPERATIONS IN NORTH PERAK

IT was necessary now to review the results of the first ten days’ fighting. At sea the Japanese navy had obtained undisputed control of the waters east of Malaya though it had as yet made no attempt to interfere with our communications either to the south or to the east by naval or air action. Even the submarines of the Royal Dutch Navy, which during the first few days had operated so successfully in the waters east of Malaya, had by now almost been wiped out. The main concern of the Japanese Air Force was obviously to confirm and extend the superiority which it had already established. Most of its attacks, therefore, were still directed against our aerodromes. The strength of our air force, including Dutch reinforcements, was now only a little over a hundred. The Japanese probably outnumbered us by about four to one while their aircraft were technically superior to ours. As regards the army, our strength on the west coast, apart from the volunteer units, was now barely one division. Owing to the difficulties of air reconnaissance it was impossible at the time to know at all accurately what strength we had against us. We thought we had roughly one division based on Singora and one on Patani with a third division in Kelantan. Actually it appears that the Japanese made their initial landings with two divisions, or perhaps a little more, and one tank regiment. Of these most of the 5th Division, which was one of their crack divisions and had been specially trained in amphibious operations, landed at Singora. In addition, about the middle of December a division of the Japanese Imperial Guards arrived in South Thailand by train from the north and started to move down in support of the forward troops while a second tank regiment arrived in December or early January. The strength of these Japanese divisions could be put at about 20,000 each and of a tank regiment at about 150 tanks. We had no tanks, a situation which caused us much embarrassment when considering the tactics to be adopted. In addition to their actual formations it is probable that the Japanese also held strong reinforcements at their base camps, for throughout the campaign they kept the same formations in the front line for prolonged periods and always seemed able to fill them up with fresh troops. Another factor which had to be taken into con-sideration was the condition of the troops of the nth Indian Division. Though their morale was by no means broken, they were undoubtedly very exhausted by almost continuous fighting and movement both by day and by night. Moreover, it is not too much to say that the Indian troops in particular were dismayed to find the British so outclassed in the two essentials of modern war—aircraft and tanks. As regards the enemy’s strategy, it was now pretty clear that he intended to continue his advance down the west coast with a view to attacking Singapore from the north. Combined with this, his naval and air superiority made it possible for him to land a force on any part of the east coast with a view to attacking our communications or even to attack Singapore Island itself. It was not at all an enviable position in which we found ourselves. We could not risk denuding our already weak garrisons of Singapore and Johore any further, for a successful enemy attack there would have broken the whole fabric of our defence. There were some who thought that we ought to with¬draw all our forces at once from North and Central Malaya and concentrate in Johore. This view was held by some of the com¬manders in the forward area who, having seen the aerodromes which they had been told to protect evacuated, perhaps quite naturally began to wonder what their future role really was. Looked at purely from the point of view of the land operations there was much to be said for this point of view, but it failed to take account of the long-term strategy. Our task was still the protection of the Singapore Naval Base, and if we had withdrawn our forces to Johore at that stage we should have allowed the enemy to establish their superior air force within close striking distance of that establishment. Moreover, it would have been able to reach out and attack our convoys bringing reinforcements to Singapore. We knew that every endeavour would be made to send reinforcements to Malaya but we also knew that no reinforce¬ments could arrive before some time in the first half of January. Yet it had already become abundantly clear that our only hope of turning the tables on the enemy was to get these reinforcements in safely. This applied both to reinforcements for the air force and for the army. Already by seizing the aerodrome at Victoria Point in South Burma the enemy had made it impossible for fighter reinforcements to fly to Malaya and even the longer-range aircraft had to come via Sabang, the island off the northern tip of Sumatra. Fighters either had to come crated by sea or else be flown off carriers. I held the view that the first step towards recovery of any sort was to regain control of the air and that this could only be done by bringing in more fighters. I was prepared to make almost any sacrifice to get these fighters in safely and to get them into the air. As regards the latter, it was clear that we should in the future have to rely on aerodromes in Johore and on Singapore Island and the existing ones were already becoming very congested. There was urgent need to increase the ground facilities, but there was no time to make big aerodromes. So the A.O.C. started on a programme of building a series of air strips and I promised him all the help I could. I agreed in fact to give him priority for such civilian labour as he required. This was later to cause us much embarrassment but I never departed from the agreement. To ensure the safe arrival of the convoys, fighters would also be required to protect them during the last stage of their journey to Singapore, and I agreed to give this priority over other requirements. It was the old story—there weren’t enough fighters to go round and the forward areas were left desperately short.

I have said that our task was still to ensure the security of the Singapore Naval Base. This was confirmed about this time by the Chiefs of Staff in a telegram in which they emphasized that no other consideration must be allowed to compete with this. On 18 December, in accordance with a proposal made by President Roosevelt, an inter-Allied conference took place at Singapore. The conference decided that the immediate plan should be to dispose our combined forces then available in the Far East so as to:

(a)    Keep the enemy as far north in Malaya as possible and hold him in the Philippines, and
(b)    Prevent the enemy acquiring territory, and particularly aerodromes, which would threaten the arrival of reinforcements.

The conference also recorded its opinion that our urgent and immediate need was for reinforcements which must be on a scale, not only to meet the present scale of attack, but also that likely to be put into the field against us.

On 17 December I decided to go to Ipoh, an important road and rail centre in the State of Perak, to discuss the situation with Heath. Before I left Singapore, Heath rang me up on the telephone and said he was very anxious about his troops on the Krian River in view of the situation which was developing on the Grik road. He asked for permission to withdraw his whole force behind the River Perak—one of the largest rivers in Malaya. I told him that he could do this if he really thought it absolutely necessary. Although the River Perak is a very fine natural obstacle, it has distinct limitations as a defensive position because the road and rail communications in Central Perak run roughly parallel to it for a distance of about seventy miles which makes the lines of communications very vulnerable.

On arrival at Ipoh about midday on the eighteenth I found that orders had already been issued for the withdrawal behind the River Perak but no movement had yet taken place. The situation on the front was slightly better. There had been no fighting on the Krian River line and the xst Independent Company had already been dispatched to Lenggong on the Grik road to help to stabilize that front. Moreover, the 12th Indian Brigade Group was moving back into reserve at Kuala Kangsar. In view of my instructions I wanted to impose all the delay we possibly could on the enemy, and it seemed a pity not to take advantage of the good ground west of the River Perak. On the Grik road, which was now the dangerous front, the enemy were still nearly forty miles from the main road at Kuala Kangsar, and there seemed no reason why in that close country we could not hold them up for several more days. Heath agreed with this view and that afternoon he sent out a fresh instruction to the effect that, while adhering to the general policy of withdrawal behind the River Perak, the enemy would be held west of the river as long as possible without permitting our forces to become inextricably committed. Heath and I then went off for a reconnaissance of the River Perak, a fast- flowing river about a quarter of a mile wide in most parts. We looked particularly at the Blanja bridge, the first crossing south of the main road and some twenty miles from it. This bridge, which was constructed of pontoons, was likely to become a vital point when our withdrawal started. Between it and Kuala Kangsar on the main road a good secondary road ran parallel to the river on the west side, but there was no road on the east side. This we thought would be a weakness as far as defence was concerned because it Would give the enemy easy access to the river while at the same time making it very difficult for us to watch it. From there we went north to Kuala Kangsar, where we met several units which had just come back from the fighting farther north. Most of them were in good heart though badly in need of rest. The great Iskandar bridge north of Kuala Kangsar, by which the main road crosses the River Perak, was being prepared for destruction. It was one of the finest bridges in Malaya and it seemed terrible that it should have to be destroyed when it had, comparatively recently, been built at such great cost. We got back to Ipoh late at night and talked at length in the special train in which Heath had established his headquarters. It was quite comfortable that night but became the centre of an air attack the next day and had most of its windows broken. I left for the south again the following morning.

During the visit I discussed many matters with Heath. It was obvious that both the 6th and the 15th Indian Brigades were unfit for the battle until they had been rested, reorganized, and re- equipped. These brigades were in the process of concentrating in the Ipoh area and were both very weak. We decided that the only thing to do was to amalgamate them into one brigade which was to be known as the 6/15 Indian Infantry Brigade. This was to be done by amalgamating battalions which had similar charac¬teristics, i.e. the two battalions of the 16th Punjab Regiment became one, the two British battalions (the Leicesters and the East Surreys) were joined and became known as the “British Battalion”, and so on. All this was done in the space of a few days and the success of the scheme, at least in most cases, says much for the co-operative spirit of all concerned. Indeed the British battalion, which was to distinguish itself greatly during the remainder of the campaign, has without doubt formed a perpetual link between the two famous regiments from which it was formed.

All other units had to be re-equipped as far as our slender resources would permit, but we were already getting short of arms and equipment and we could not make good all the deficiencies.

For the rest of the campaign there was always a shortage of light automatics and of anti-tank rifles.

The question of formation commanders also had to be considered. All the brigade commanders of the nth Indian Division were now in hospital. The command of the 6/15 Brigade was given to Lt.-Col. Moorhead, who had distinguished himself as a tactician and leader on the Kroh road. The 28th Brigade was already being commanded by Lt.-Col. Selby of the 2/9 Gurkha Rifles, and it was decided to leave him in that appointment, which he filled with great success for the remainder of the campaign. Then there was the question of the divisional commander. It was already apparent that the Japanese troops were, taken as a whole, much more skilful in the tactics of bush warfare than were our own troops. I felt that an officer with the widest possible experience of bush warfare was required to lead the x ith Indian Division in future and suggested that Brigadier Paris, the commander of the 12th Indian Brigade, should succeed Murray Lyon who, though undoubtedly a brave and tireless leader, had had limited experience in that particular type of warfare. Paris, a senior and most experienced officer, had been in Malaya for two and a half years and commanded what was probably at that time the best trained brigade in the country. Heath agreed to this change which took place a few days later. That left vacant the command of the 12th Indian Brigade, which was given to Lt.-Col. Stewart, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a fine fighting soldier who had made a special study of bush warfare tactics.

We decided that all troops must be given a minimum period of forty-eight hours’ rest as soon as that could be arranged. The only way to do this seemed to be to organize the defence in depth by brigades as soon as the Perak River had been crossed. Owing to the vulnerability of our communications to an attack across that river it did not seem sound to attempt any protracted defence north of Ipoh, even though a withdrawal would expose the rich Kinta Valley tin-mining area which lies immediately south of that town. It was therefore arranged that Heath should select and have prepared a series of positions between Ipoh and Tanjong Malim. In point of fact he accompanied me on my return journey for part of the way and we made a preliminary reconnaissance of some of these positions together. In selecting positions, priority was given to tank obstacles and cover from air in both of which arms the enemy were well equipped while we were entirely deficient.

To the 9th Indian Division we assigned the task of continuing to deny the Kuantan aerodrome to the enemy and of securing the nth Indian Division and its communications against attack from the east coast. I conveyed these instructions verbally to Barstow whom I met by arrangement on my way south.

Finally, we felt that the farther and the faster the Japanese advanced south the more vulnerable would their communications become. We knew that the administrative arrangements of the Japanese Army have never been very strong, but I don’t think any of us realized fully at that time how very sketchy they in fact were. There were two ways of attacking these communications, one from the sea and the other by land. I had already, when leaving Singapore, left instructions that a special raiding party of fifty picked Australians was to be formed to operate from the sea against the enemy’s communications, and the Royal Navy was organizing a west coast flotilla of lightly armed craft which was to be based on Port Swettenham. It was a great pity that we could not make use of the Independent Company which had been specially trained for this sort of work, but it was too badly required at the front at this time to warrant its withdrawal. As regards attacks on the Japanese communications by land, the Gurkhas were selected for this work, for which their characteristics were specially suited, and arrangements made for a special party of these grand little fighters to be trained in guerrilla fighting.

I returned to Singapore on the morning of 20 December and shortly afterwards issued a paper containing information of the Japanese tactics and instructions as to how they should be countered. In this I stressed that the first essential was rigid discipline and absolute steadiness and, secondly, that the enemy’s outflanking and infiltration tactics must not lead to withdrawals which should only take place on the order of higher authority. I suggested that the best method of defence might be for a holding group to be dug in astride the main artery of communication with striking forces on the flanks ready to attack as soon as the enemy made contact with the holding group. With a view to trying to curb the many wild rumours which were flying about, aggravated by the difficulty of finding out what really was happen¬ing, I ordered that the spreading of rumours and exaggerated reports of the enemy’s efficiency must be rigidly suppressed. I pointed out that in this type of warfare it was generally the efficiency, alertness, and cunning of the individual which counted; that troops must expect to be shot at from unexpected directions and that all must be prepared to hit back; and that we could not defeat the enemy by sitting in prepared positions and letting him walk round us but that we must play him at his own game and attack him on every possible occasion. I believe that these instructions were fundamentally sound. There was no lack of offensive spirit among the troops, but though the spirit was willing the flesh very often was weak, and it was the utter weariness which overcame most of the troops during the campaign rather than any defence complex which made it so difficult for commanders to organize attacks.

If my readers will turn for a moment to the map of Malaya they will see that there is only one road in the centre of the country which joins the west coast area with the east. This road runs from Kuala Kubu (north of Kuala Lumpur) via Raub to Jerantut and thence to Kuantan. This lateral road was now assuming great importance, for if our forces on the west coast were driven back beyond Kuala Kubu the enemy would be in a position, if they could capture Raub, to cut the only road communication of our forces on the east coast. This situation caused me to review the whole question of our policy as regards the Kuantan garrison. I discussed the problem with the Commander- in-Chief Far East and the Air Officer Commanding, and it was agreed as a general policy that we should withdraw the Kuantan garrison at a time to be decided later in accordance with the development of the situation.

Let us return now to the battle-front and first see how things were going on the Grik road. The Argyll and Sutherland High-landers, the first battalion of the 12th Indian Brigade to reach Kuala Kangsar, had been ordered to move up this road at dawn on the nineteenth, after a short night’s rest, and Lt.-Col. Stewart, their commanding officer, going on in advance reached Lenggong, thirty miles north of Kuala Kangsar, early that day. The Japanese were then in Sumpitan, a large village four miles farther north, and Stewart ordered the Independent Company to move forward immediately and recapture it. The attack was carried out by this small unit with fine spirit and after a sharp and gallant action it captured the village but later, in face of a counter-attack and shortage of ammunition, it was ordered to withdraw. The Argylls and a battery of artillery had now come up, and that night the forward troops took up position at Lenggong with a company of the 5 /2 Punjab Regiment watching their rear at Kota Tampan, where the Perak River approaches the road. It was as well that this company had been posted here for late the next day a body of Japanese infantry, exercising as usual much initiative, came down the river on rafts and attacked the right of the company. In the meantime, the Argylls had been heavily engaged all day at Lenggong and in the evening had to send back a strong detachment to clear their communications. By the twenty-first the Argylls had concentrated again in the Kota Tampan area, where they held off renewed enemy attacks while the 5 jz Punjab Regiment occupied positions west of Chenderoh Lake. This large lake, which measures several miles both in length and in breadth, is situated just east of the Grik road and on its southern shore is the great Perak hydro-electric power station which supplies the State of Perak with electric current. The Japanese now began to exploit this lake and several rafts laden with soldiers were sunk. It was difficult, however, to prevent this movement at night and the approach through the lake gave the Japanese the opportunity of by-passing Kuala Kangsar and of threatening the main road and railway bridges over the River Perak and the communications east of them. Fortunately, the 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment, which, it will be remembered, had been withdrawn from Kelantan, now came on the scene and was concentrated east of the River Perak to meet this threat. But the enemy was now only some twelve miles from Lawin, where the Grik road joins the trunk road west of Kuala Kangsar. The small force which had been opposing them on this road for the last week had done its duty gallantly but with considerable loss, and the situation now clearly demanded the speedy withdrawal of the 28th Brigade Group before it could be cut off in its positions north of Taiping.

On 19 and 20 December there had been some activity on the right of the extensive Krian River position and, to avoid being outflanked, the 28th Brigade Group had fallen back to more concentrated positions at Ulu Sapetang and Bagan Serai after destroying the bridges over the Krian River. But the situation was still a delicate one. These troops were forty miles west of the vital road junction at Lawin, whereas the Japanese on the Grik road were, as we have seen, only twelve miles from it. There was also the possibility of a sea-borne landing in the Port Weld area directed at Taiping. Three valuable days had already been gained, but it was clearly high time that our scattered forces got back behind the Perak River, and there is no doubt that Murray Lyon, who now had command of all troops west of the river, was absolutely right when he ordered a general withdrawal to commence on the night 21—22 December. The 28th Brigade Group fell back with its right column on the main road with orders to cover the withdrawal of the 12th Brigade Group across the Iskandar bridge and with its left column directed on to the Blanja pontoon bridge. The reader may wonder how it was possible for infantry to cover such great distances in such a short time. The answer is that it was frequently possible throughout the campaign, by the use of troop-carrying transport and requisitioned civilian vehicles, to make the weak infantry brigade groups or even larger formations fully mobile. On the afternoon of the twenty-second the 5/2 Punjab Regiment on the Grik road repulsed a determined enemy attack and inflicted heavy casualties in two well-laid ambushes, but this was the last fighting west of the Perak River. During the night 22-23 December, all troops, except for a bridgehead at Blanja, were successfully withdrawn across the river. The Blanja bridgehead was withdrawn the following night. A gap was successfully blown in the Iskandar bridge. At Blanja a portion of the pontoon bridge was swung to the eastern side and the pontoons sunk.

In sixteen days the Japanese had succeeded in capturing the whole of that part of Malaya which lies north and west of the Perak River, including the island of Penang, and also the State of Kelantan. The undefended State of Trengganu lay open to them. They had also sunk two capital ships and decimated the offensive strength of our air force, which had been driven off the northern aerodromes into which so much money and labour had been poured. There is no denying that those were remarkable achievements. Yet they were not nearly so remarkable as had been planned and the Japanese were already well behind their programme. For we now know that their grand strategy was to cut off and destroy the whole of our forces in Kedah by a rapid thrust from Patani via Kroh to cut the west coast communications west of the Perak River and that they hoped to reach the line of that river in two days. Had they done so, not only would our land communications to North Malaya have been severed but the whole structure of our defence would have been undermined. The road to the south would have lain wide open and the communications to our east coast forces would have been exposed. As a result of all this hard fighting and of these desperate situations we still had a force with which to oppose the enemy on the line of the Perak River. That was no mean achievement.

South of Ipoh in the Kinta Valley lies one of the most productive tin-mining areas in the world. Here much of the country has been cleared and, though the ground is broken and intersected with water-courses, it is in general more open than most parts of Malaya. In consequence, it is better suited to artillery action, an arm in which we had definite superiority. Twenty miles south of Ipoh the main road and railway and the surrounding country are dominated by a rocky bastion in the township of Kampar, which rises precipitately from the plain to a height of 4,000 feet. Here a position was selected where it was hoped that it would be possible to make a protracted stand and it was rapidly being put into a state of defence. Other positions farther back were selected in the Tapah, Bidor, and Slim River areas, and finally one north of Tanjong Malim to cover the important Kuala Kubu road junc¬tion. The plan was for the reorganized 6th/15th Indian Brigade Group, which had now been partly, though far from completely, re-equipped, to occupy the Kampar position while the 12th and 28th Indian Brigades fought delaying actions on the main road north of Ipoh and on the Blanja front respectively. This they succeeded in doing with much success. On 26 and 27 December, the 12th Brigade Group was heavily engaged in the Chemor area (ten miles north of Ipoh), where it succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy whose units moved forward in cldse forma¬tion. By the twenty-sixth all troops in Ipoh had moved south and as much as possible of the military stores had been evacuated. Some it had been necessary to destroy. Among the last to leave their posts were the Chinese and Eurasian girl operators of the telephone exchange who were handling military traffic and who continued to do so in the face of bombing and the approach of the enemy until ordered to leave. All honour to them. On the left flank, where our forward troops had fallen back from the line of the Perak River to Siputeh, there had been no contact except by fighting patrols. The 12th Indian Brigade on the main road front, however, had now been in action continuously for twelve days. The men had fought well and knew it, and their morale was unbroken, but their condition was like that of troops who have had twelve strenuous days of manoeuvres under foul conditions. Tired troops against fresh troops inspired by success and capable of exploiting to the full the mobility conferred on them by their ability to live on the country, to eat its rice and to move on its cycles; fighting blind against an enemy in possession of detailed information of our strengths, movements, and dispositions and enjoying also the advantages of freedom of the seas and supremacy in the air. That was the picture. I had issued instructions that the 3rd Indian Corps, while imposing the maximum delay on the enemy, must remain in being as a fighting formation, for I had no reserves with which to replace it. It was vital that the nth Indian Division should not be sacrificed, and Paris, who had now taken over command, quite properly decided to fall back behind Ipoh on the night 27-28 December. The withdrawal of the 12th and 28th Brigades was timed to begin at 7 p.m. It was a complicated move as transport was insufficient for a single lift and the routes of the two brigades converged in an awkward bottleneck at Senlu. It proceeded, however, without a hitch. And so Ipoh went to the enemy.

The 28th Indian Brigade moved into its allotted position on the right flank of the Kampar position while Stewart, now commanding the 12th Indian Brigade, was given the task of delaying the enemy’s approach to the main position held by the 6th/i5th Brigade with freedom of action north of Kuala Dipang. It was hoped that the delay would last for three days, but early on the twenty-ninth the Brigade Group was again in contact with the enemy. The attack was repulsed but, realizing that the enemy was now in strength, the divisional commander ordered the brigade to withdraw that evening through the Kampar position and to come into reserve at Bidor. The enemy followed up closely and again tanks produced a demoralizing effect on tired troops, but the situation was saved by the Argyll armoured cars and carriers. Eventually the Kampar River was crossed and, after several abortive attempts, the large bridge over it was blown.

Actually this demolition was not of great moment for, as so often happens with the Malayan rivers which rise and fall rapidly, it was found shortly afterwards that the river was fordable for all arms.

The 12th Brigade Group went to Bidor that night. It had had a gruelling time for, since the battle of Gurun, it had borne the brunt of the fighting and in its doggedly fought rearguard actions between Batu Pekaka and Selama, on the Grik road and in the Ipoh area, it had gained time for the reorganization of the remainder of the nth Indian Division and for the occupation of the Kampar position. It had also inflicted delay and heavy casualties on the enemy though it had suffered severely itself. Like many other formations it needed rest and rebuilding but that was not to be.

The long and vulnerable communications south of the nth Indian Division now began to cause us anxiety, for they could be threatened either from the sea or from the lower reaches of the Perak River. To meet this threat the 1st Independent Company had been sent to the Telok Anson area, a small port near the mouth of the Perak River, from which it sent out distant boat and cycle patrols. It was supported by an infantry battalion at Changkat Jong.

Both sides now tried to make use of the sea off the west coast of Malaya. The Japanese had for years had a fleet of self- propelled craft specially designed for landing operations, and in the middle of December a number of these were landed at Singora and conveyed by road across country to the Kedah coast where they were launched on 22 December. We on our side had no such craft but, as already recorded, a west coast flotilla had been improvised from local craft and an Australian raiding party organized. It was known as Roseforce from the name of the liaison officer seconded to it. It went into action for the first time about Christmas, when after an approach journey and landing by night it ambushed successfully a M.T. column west of the Perak River. Lorries and staff cars containing high-ranking officers were destroyed. This little operation showed the great possibilities of such attacks against the enemy’s very vulnerable communications and it was hoped to repeat it on many future occasions. But again it was not to be. Before many days had passed the Japanese Air Force had made it impossible for our small unprotected craft to move in daylight and H.M.S. Kudat, the base depot ship for the force, was bombed and sunk in the harbour of Port Swettenham. The final blow fell on 1 January. Some time before war started in the Far East we had ordered from America five “Eureka” fast coastal vessels which we had contemplated using for this very purpose. They arrived in December and we handed them over to the Royal Navy to man and operate. They left Singapore on the last day of December destined for Port Swettenham to join the west coast flotilla, but when approaching that place early on 1 January they were spotted and attacked by Japanese aircraft. All five vessels were either sunk or driven ashore. It was not long, as will be seen, before the Japanese began to develop their own coastal operations always supported by their aircraft. The outstanding lesson from all these operations round the coasts of Malaya is that supremacy in the air is a prerequisite if they are to be conducted successfully without heavy losses.

In the air the Japanese effort was concentrated chiefly against our aerodromes until 23 December. On that day heavy attacks were made against troops in bivouac areas and on the move. These attacks continued for the rest of the month. Our troops were almost entirely without air support as all the remaining fighters, except a few which operated from Kuala Lumpur, had by now been withdrawn to the Singapore area. Air attacks against the Singapore area were not renewed until 29 December when the first of a succession of night attacks took place. Our own air striking force, which seldom consisted of more than half a dozen machines, carried out night attacks against enemy occupied aerodromes. The Sungei Patani aerodrome, in particular, where over a hundred Japanese aircraft had been located, was attacked on several occasions. In addition, aerial reconnaissances were carried out daily off both the east and west coasts as far as the availability of aircraft permitted.

And so closed in Malaya the momentous year of 1941 in which war had again come to that country after so many years of peace. Before we resume the story of the operations in the New Year, let us digress for a little to see what had been happening in other parts of the far-flung Malaya Command and to consider some of the problems of the civil front which were already beginning to have such an important influence on the development of the campaign.