2/20 Bn AIF in Singapore and Malaya in May 1941.
‘Pounding Along to Singapore’ is the book I wrote about the 2/20 Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who were sent to Singapore and Malaya in 1941 as part of the 8th Division. Captain Bill Gaden’s letters to and from the family provide the timeline along which the story of the 2/20 Bn is woven, from inception in June 1940 to the end of the Second World War. Other threads come from the 2/20 Battalion’s War Diary and Routine Orders, newspapers and magazines of the day, interviews with some of the men who survived the eventual POW years and came home and other reports from the time.
4 May 1941
Unit moved tactically by M.T. from Seremban to Port Dickson and took over lines vacated by 2/18 Bn who moved into Seremban. The move was carried out very quickly and without any delay. Several officers were reported as being in hospital. The next day the unit and Company HQ took part in an exercise in preparation for a whole unit exercise in a couple of days time. Unfamiliarity with the area caused many difficulties but it raised many points of interest and ideas.
6 May 1941
The 2/20 settled into their new quarters and made preparation for the exercise to be held the next day. This exercise covered movement through jungle, attack, organisation of HQ and the exercising generally of all Companys. The War Diary reported it was the best ‘all day’ exercise so far. It was umpired and organised by the Brigade to produce situations and events in such a manner as to thoroughly exercise all personnel in their duties and coordinate all branches of the unit. As a result of these lessons the troops themselves became more interested in tactical training.
8 May 1941
Unit out training all morning in jungle on Movement on Compass bearings. Unit B Echelon Recce. Op. on receipt of message from Brigade moved out on a Recce in connection with Div. exercise the next day. Ptes Sym, Storey and Serong were selected to play for Negri Sembilan in the inter-State soccer match versus Selangor on Saturday 10 May and Pte Quinn was selected as referee. (Sadly two of these men were destined to die as POWs, Daniel Quinn (15 November 1943, Naoetsu) and Gordon James Storey (8 April 1945, Sandakan). Lest we forget.
9 May 1941
Several NCOs marched out on a 15 week course at an OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit).
10 May 1941
Bill Gaden wrote to his mother that “Our batmen ….are becoming expert gardeners and … tomorrow, Mother’s Day, they will decorate the place with white flowers in jam tins. Our white flowers are frangipani, petunias and some small ones I have no name for.”
Mother’s Day was obviously important for the troops. In my history of the 2/20, “Pounding Along to Singapore”, there is a transcription of an interview given by four released POWs to ABC reporter Fred Simpson whilst waiting in Thailand for repatriation. Padre Harry Thorpe (‘D’ Force) told listeners “Each year we observed Mother’s Day in our jungle area. It was moving to see a thousand men going to work with white paper flowers in their mixed kinds of headgear.” Alick Davis (‘A’ Force) asked “Where did you get the paper? We used all our paper for cigarettes!” and was laughingly admonished for being a “heathen” by Bill Gaden (‘D’ Force).
11 May 1941
Major Robertson, in command of unit during the absence of the CO, and the Adjutant, went to Malacca to visit the CO and discuss several administrative matters. They found Lt Col Jeater to be greatly improved and he was to shortly rejoin the unit.
12 May 1941
The guard left for duty in Kuala Lumpur, several men went on leave to Singapore.
14 May 1941
22nd Brigade held a Sports Day meeting at the Malay Regiment’s Sports Ground (they also competed). The 2/20 did ‘quite well’ but the 2/19 finished a long way ahead. The Adjutant commented that the meeting was very well enjoyed by the troops who need such distractions to keep them in good spirits.
16 May 1941
The Unit was carrying out the syllabus in the camp area to help with the prickly heat.
Syllabus of Training
A Syllabus of Training for a week in May 1941 showed how the troops were kept busy. Squads used a “Bull Ring” within each Company to rotate all troops so they learned how to use the equipment. Every day they spent an hour on each of their weapons, using the Bren LMG (Light Machine Gun), the Thompson SMG (Sub Machine Gun) and the Anti-tank Rifle. They also did rifle exercises, Smartening Drill, had Brigade Sports on Wednesday afternoon and on Saturday morning did a 3½ hour Route March.
19 May 1941
A check of personnel admitted to hospital with VD complaints showed very small figure of 2.55% of Unit active strength since arrival of unit in Malaya. A slight unrest amongst the more difficult of the Unit’s trouble makers has again appeared and a number of minor but annoying cases of ill behaviour have occurred in the last few days. These cases seem to be due to the fact that this type of man is not used to discipline and does not wish to remain so far from “action”. Apart from these few cases, the Unit discipline has been really splendid.
20 May 1941
A couple of men were detached to the Port Swettenham Detention Barracks.
21 May 1941
The Battalion’s War diary reported that a Divisional Conference was held in the Officers Mess to discuss the exercise held on 9 May 41. The G.O.C. considered that the exercise showed distinct improvement in all phases to that held in April. The Battalion had a rest day on Sirusa Beach (about 7km from Port Dickson near the Alor Gajah peninsula). Boats were hired and all appeared to have benefited from the day. Bill Gaden wrote to tell his family of his visit to Malacca, a town full of historical buildings which captured his interest, for example the old Gate and the fort, both built by the Portuguese in 1511.
28 May 1941
Lt-Col Jeater was still suffering from a severe skin rash but he remained with the unit. This day the first issue of the unit’s magazine ‘Thumbs Up’ was published and it appears that it was the only issue as no others have been located. The unit was on the range getting used to the Bren Gun.
31 May 1941
Several officers either left the unit to go to an Indian exercise, or rejoined the unit from Convalescent leave. The Officers organised a dance in their Mess and invited the nursing sisters to come from Malacca and Port Dickson, an evening which proved ‘most enjoyable’.