2/20 Bn AIF in Singapore and Malaya in January 1942
The Sydney Morning Herald of 1 January 1942 reported the Japanese had a three pronged drive through Malaya towards Singapore. The Japanese News Agency Domei was quoted as saying that Japanese troops had surrounded and were wiping out a formation of Australian Troops south of Ipoh. Bill Gaden wrote home that ‘we have not even seen a Jap’, commenting they ‘seem to be giving us plenty of time to play about’. The 2/20 AIF were busy digging in at Port Dickson and had given names to their own dugout ‘houses’ . The newspapers were reporting the fifth columnists were very active and the invaders had intimate knowledge of the local geography.
Meanwhile the British were dug in at Kampar Hill, they had an all round perimeter defence and had Gurkhas, the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, the 155 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, the merged 15th and 6th Brigades. Attacked by the Japanese 9th Brigade, the Japanese Commander Kawamura admitted his ‘soldiers began to get tired’ as they faced the harassing fire of the Allies.
One New Years Eve, the commander of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Murdoch ordered a twelve round salute to be fired at the enemy. Not long after the first dawn of 1942 the Japanese responded by launching an attack straight down the road to the other flank of the British. The brunt of this attack was faced by the Leicesters and East Surreys, who had already faced action at Jitra and Gurun and were now amalgamated into the ‘British Battalion’, and some local Perak Volunteers who had knowledge of the area and language, making the Battalion numbers about 600 strong.
The battle of Kampar lasted for 3 days and forged strong bonds of an esprit de corps in the newly amalgamated Battalion. They were subject to dawn attacks and mortar bombs and returned fire with 25 pound shells, inflicting great damage on the Japanese troops.
There was attack, there was counter attack, troops suddenly came face to face with the enemy and had to fight their way out. One driver delivering rations saw the Japanese had overrun a Bren Gun position so he picked up his Thompson and killed as many as he could… Driver Walker was immediately awarded the Military Medal. And several other men were awarded medals for their gallantry on this day, reported in Smith’s excellent book ‘Singapore Burning’ But sadly it was insufficient, the courage of the Allied soldiers and their skills were not enough to hold Kampar as the Japanese were able to bring in troops via seaborne landings on the west coast and utilise the boats left intact when people fled from Penang. They launched a three-pronged attack along the River Bernam, and both up and down the River Perak to attack the British troops who were without air support and without reinforcements and told to withdraw.
On 4 January 1942 the Allies laid minefields and commenced to destroy some bridges as they moved south. On the next day, 5th January the Battle of Slim River began. The Allied troops were withdrawing down the Peninsula and set up at Slim River. The 11th Indian Division was on the north of the river which was about 50 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese tanks needed to cross the river at bridges, it was too wide for them to cross. The Indian troops and the Argylls fought bravely and over several days, they were tired and had many casualties. The Japanese spearheaded their attack with an unusual night attack led by tanks… heard long before they were spotted but effective nevertheless, even though road blocks were set up to slow them down. The Japanese infantry were backed by tanks, aircraft, engineers and artillery, the Hyderabads, Punjabis, Gurkhas and Argylls had no tanks, no aircraft in support. Hundreds lost their lives in battle.
By 7 January the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders retreated and the Japanese took Slim River Bridge. The Japanese victory at Slim River was pure blitzkrieg. Those Allies who could faded into the jungle and attempted to make it back to friendly lines, many wasted away, starved, became ill. The captured wounded were shot, the walking wounded made to dig their graves and bury them then carry the wounded Japanese troops. About 32,000 troops surrendered.
The Allied losses were huge. The 12th Brigade could muster no more than 430 officers and men, ⅙ of its strength, with only 200 Argylls still armed. The 28th Division had 750 men: all were exhausted. Percival had already decided to withdraw in one bound and no longer fight any ‘Slim-River-style’ bottlenecks. It was a desperate race against time between the Japanese and their thrust for Singapore and the Allies in getting their reinforcement troops to the Island so they could launch a counter offensive.
However for the 2/20 on the other side of the country “Normal Routine” was written in the War Diary for every day from 1 January to 21 January 1942. On 1 January the Adjutant also reported all carriers were grounded due to steering trouble…. it was not until 7th that they were back in commission. Several casualties went to hospital but no reasons given and several troops were taken on strength, some from “A” list. On 7 January it was reported the Battalion’s strength was 38 Officers and 856 O’Rs.
It was noted that the mustard-keen Australians were on the east coast ‘doing nothing’ whilst Heath’s exhausted Divisions continued to bear the brunt of the attack on the west. As a result of the rout at Slim River, Supreme Commander General Sir Archibald Wavell, newly arrived in Singapore, decided to unleash Major-General Bennett and some of his Australians.
Percival had already decided to pull Allied troops back some 140 miles in one bound, not fighting, just destroying bridges as they retreated. Port Swettenham, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca were to be left to the Japanese. The British scorch earth policy of destroying everything as they left was a shock to the local people who were horrified by the destruction left for them to endure. The British residents fled in ‘shameful displays of panic’ … no wonder the Malayan people were distressed by what they saw.
The new line of defence would be in northern Johore, from Muar in the west to Mersing in the east. Wavell insisted that Bennett’s fresh Australian troops should be involved rather than rely on Heath’s already exhausted troops. Bennett’s brigade, formed on 9 January, was known as Westforce. It consisted of the 9th Indian Division, 45th Indian Brigade and the 27th Brigade of the Australians. They were to dig along the south bank of the Muar River whilst Heath’s 11th Division delayed the Japanese as long as possible.
The newspapers in Australia reported that there were heavy casualties on both sides in the fight for Kuala Lumpur (SMH 10 January 1942). By 11 January Kuala Lumpur was in Japanese hands after the Japanese engineers worked fast to repair the destroyed bridges and the next day the SMH headline was SLIM RIVER BATTLE GOES TO JAPANESE.
Over on the west coast, at Mersing, the 22nd Brigade of Australians were coping with heavy rain which caused damage to field works and all positions were sodden with water oozing from the ground. The river Endau rose 8 ft above normal levels and a barge-boom was carried away. The 2/20 had anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and continued their patrols. These weapons had delightful names such as the Fish Fizzler and the Putrid Pansy.
In Singapore Wavell and Pownall were preparing to leave, along with Churchill’s Special Emissary in the Far East, Duff Cooper, who had been replaced by Wavell so had no official title. Bennett was elevated to Corps Commander by Wavell… he obviously had not spoken with Bennett’s own staff officers who were unimpressed by his ambition, lack of knowledge of tactics, hunches and ‘head in the clouds’.
Lieutenant-Colonel “Black Jack” Galleghan’s 2/30th Battalion of the AIF set up the ambush of the Japanese at Gemencheh River bridge 7 miles NW of Gemas. About 400 Japanese had been allowed to cross the bridge on their bicycles before the bridge was destroyed and the Japanese were dealt with by the Battalion further down the road with grenades and guns… Brens, Thompsons and rifles. Many hundreds of the enemy were killed with no Australian casualties. But six hours later the Japanese had repaired and were crossing the bridge.
For 24 hours Bennett’s troops engaged with the Japanese before it was decided it was time for them to get out, this they did with difficulty and they had to leave behind many of their weapons due to the wet and boggy conditions. Tsuji declared the Australians had “fought with a bravery we had not previously seen” and his troops had suffered many casualties.
Whilst the 2/30 had been fighting, the long-awaited Allied reinforcements arrived at Singapore docks on 13 January. Thanks to low cloud the Japanese had been unable to strike the ships from the air. So at last the Hurricane aircraft had arrived ready to be re-assembled by RAF Technicians and the 53rd Brigade, with Battalions of both Norfolks and Cambridgeshires, had also arrived.
For a short time a more optimistic mood pervaded the air of Singapore but soon news of the fighting at Muar River would arrive, where more Australians, the 2/29 and 2/19 were in action.
On 11 January 1942 the 2/20 War Diary reported that ‘Normal Routine’ was being followed. 3 troops were taken on strength and 4 were transferred. The next day Lieut Bayertz (NX58702) and 8 O/Rs were transferred to hospital and 2 men were missing.
On 14 January a Recce patrol at Rompin sighted 30 Japanese wearing steel helmets, black coats and khaki shorts. Bill Gaden wrote home on 14 January saying letters from home were scarce. He said the monsoon had finally arrived, the past two days had been very wet, torrential rain, the wind came in vicious puffs and their area was flooded with water gushing everywhere, in fact they were marooned with water covering the ground like a big brown sheet and the drainage ditched were out of sight. He remarked that the drains were carefully surveyed masterpieces and were constructed to cope with this amount of water which would soon drain away.
The next day, 15 January, Endau was bombed resulting in 3 battle casualties. A reward of $50,000 for a single seater, $100,000 for a double seater plane was offered to A/A crews of the Brigade. Endau reported 30 Japanese 8 miles north of Endau. Machine gunners were ordered to report to Endau to assist Endau detachment.
The heart-stopping headline of the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 January 1942 was AIF IN ACTION IN MALAYA. … there was no mention of individual battalions so every family would have been very worried not knowing if ‘their’ soldier was directly involved. This action was an ambush sprung by the AIF at Gemas where the Gemencheh Bridge was blown up and about 700 Japanese troops were killed. No one back in Australia knew which battalion of Australians was involved… it was in fact Lieutenant Colonel Frederick (Black Jack) Galleghan’s 2/30 Battalion of the 27th Brigade AIF.
Meanwhile the 2/20 War Diary continued: On 16 January Capt Gibbings rejoined the unit, 9 men were evacuated to hospital and 34 men were taken on strength from GBD. One man was killed, no name given. There was unconfirmed rumours of Japanese landings between Endau and Penyabong. Mersing was bombed at 0907 hrs, only one plane and 4 bombs dropped.
On 17 January arrangements were made to shift Endau Force which had been bombed consistently for 3 days. They withdrew to Bukit Lankap during the night.
On 18 January the use of passwords was discontinued, probably because the troops heard their password broadcast before it was received through the usual channels…. the Johore Military Forces receiving them before the 22nd Brigade. The leak was thought to have come from a senior member of the Sultan’s Force, a Japanese sympathiser. Patrols out on north of the river found Sgt Pilot Harrison of 21 Squadron RAAF floating down the river suffering from slight wounds and exhaustion.
On January 17th, whilst the 2/20’s War Diary was recording ‘Normal Routine’ , arrangements were made to shift Endau force which had been machine gunned and heavily bombed consistently for 3 days. Endau Force consisted of Major AE Robertson, the 2i/c of 2/20, as commander of ‘C’ Company of 2/20 under Capt WA Carter and ‘D’ Company of 2/19 under Major T Vincent. The 2/20 men withdrew to Bukit Lankap during the night, the 2/19 back to their battalion at Jemaluang. Four 2/19 soldiers finally made it back to Allied lines on 20 January having been in contact with the enemy on 16th. They reported the Japanese were occupying many houses in Endau and they’d encountered them 5 miles to the south on the Endau-Mersing Road.
On 19 January enemy aircraft bombed and machine gunned Mersing and the Battalion moved surplus stores to selected dump sites along the Koti Tinggi Road and Johore Bahru. The bombing continued on 20 January.
The 19th and 20th January saw the 2/20 still following ‘Normal Routine’ with patrols on the north of the Mersing river where there were many reports of flares during the night. On 21 January 7 Platoon made contact with the enemy and ambushed a landing party killing 10. The enemy was forced into the minefields which did not explode as they’d been immersed in the flood waters for so long. The Platoon successfully withdrew to the south of the river with 2 wounded. During this day there was ‘considerable minor hostile action’ and ‘increased air action’. At dusk No. 5 Section was withdrawn to the south of the river as their position was considered vulnerable. On 21 January the strength of the 2/20 Bn was 38 officers and 829 O/rs.
Meanwhile on the other side of Malaya the Japanese had taken the northern bank of the Muar river. The 2/30 were under heavy attack at Gemas. Percival and Bennett decided to withdraw “Westforce”. But by now communications were in chaos and heavy fighting was occurring.
Lieutenant Colonel Claude Anderson, then CO of the 2/19, was to win the VC for his deeds during the period of 18-22 January.
The Japanese had arrived at Muar on 15th January and one of the Indian regiments, the Rajputs (nearly all teenagers, newly recruited and just arrived in Malaya) had been overwhelmed and their HQ taken by the enemy. The only thing stopping the Japanese was the 65 Bty of the 2/25 Aust Fd Regt AIF, guns from the 4 Anti Tank Regt AIF, who had both been in action continuously for many days, and the remnants of the 45 Indian Inf Bde.
Early morning on Sunday 18 January saw the 2/29 Bn involved attacking Japanese tanks on the Muar Road and 8 tanks and their crew were hit by anti-tank gunners… the loss of these tanks and crew gave the Allies a lull of half an hour to regroup. The 2/19 were sent to reinforce the 2/29 so from this time onwards the history of the 2/29 and 2/19 really becomes one story. The Bn Recce party moved out to try and get through to Westforce and Yong Peng. The Carrier platoon nursed their vehicles -overheating and petrol consumption being issues- and drove to Kluang
The 2/29 were west of Bakri Village and were still engaged with the enemy. Major Vincent, 2ic was ordered to hold the Battalion at Parit Sulong, one platoon of ‘D’ Company was to cover the bridge, whilst orders were sought from Bakri. Here it was decided that the 2/19 should be brought up to Parit Sulong to add depth to the position of the 2/29th. Part of the 2/19 went to Parit Sulong, part to Bakri to assist the 2/29… every man was very alert and apprehensive as they came within the sound of gunfire.
At Bakri a low level air attack scored a direct hit on the bungalow that was Bridage HQ, just as the morning conference was in progress, killing all in the signals section.
Colonel Anderson ordered attacks on Japanese positions and the enemy were routed, boosting the confidence of the Australians. But the two battalions were being heavily shelled. The CO of the 2/29 Colonel Robertson was killed returning from a conference at Bn HQ, a major loss to those troops. The Australians were finding that Japanese troops who were wounded were prepared to die rather than be captured but were prepared to play dead to entice their enemy to either leave them or come close enough for one last gunshot. By dawn on 20 January it was proving difficult for the 2/29 men to get through to join up with Anderson’s 2/19.
The Battle for Muar was to be one of the most savage of the campaign. Even the Japanese Commander General Yamashita recorded that: survivors of the enemy can feel proud, because in a week long bloody battle, without tank or air support, they held up the whole of my army. There is no doubt that the Imperial Guards in the Battle of Muar and the fact that the Commander and bulk of Officers and men of Japan’s most famous Regiment, the Ogaki, had been lost, had a curious effect upon these elite troops for the remainder of the campaign, acting with unusual hesitancy.
It took 2 days for Anderson’s party to fight their way 15 miles to the bridge at Parit Sulong with hope of crossing the River Simpang Kiri at this point. Singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’, they charged a road block throwing grenades. This was the first of a number of road blocks they encountered as they made slow progress to the bridge, nearly reaching it. They buried their dead, found trucks and set off for what they thought was safety. But the bridge at Parit Sulong was now in enemy hands.
On 21st January 1942 the surviving 2/19th, under the command of Lt-Col. Charles Anderson reached the bridge at Parit Sulong. It was a day of the fiercest fighting yet as the Australians slowly gained ground almost to the bridge itself. But Japanese troops came round behind them and it was the wounded trying to guard the flank. Eventually the Australians had to retreat and were surrounded.
The Japanese refused to allow safe passage of the badly wounded, men with four day old injuries stinking of gangrene. Under white flags of truce the trucks drove to the crest of the bridge hoping for safe passage of these desperately ill men. This was unacceptable to the Japanese. Under cover of darkness the trucks slipped the handbrakes and the trucks free-wheeled back to their own lines.
After a final assault on the narrow, well defended bridge, on 22 January, Anderson ordered an end to this sacrifice of his bravest and best men. He made the difficult decision to abandon the wounded to the Japanese and the ‘able’ troops were to try to make it back to Allied lines… the order was given for the fit men to slip away in the night, ‘every man for himself’, and leave their wounded behind.
During the night these seriously wounded men kept firing towards the Japanese to disguise the retreat of their mates. The next day the Japanese realised they had been tricked. They herded the desperately sick and wounded men, over one hundred and fifty of them, into a small building the size of a tiny garage. They denied them food and water until the following morning when they kicked and beat the men before killing them with bayonets. Only three men managed to survive the massacre and tell the story of what happened.
The fighting at Parit Sulong, and the horrific aftermath has been recorded by several authors including Russell Braddon [The Naked Island], Reg Newton [The Grim Glory of the 2/19 Battalion AIF], Lynette Silver [The Bridge at Parit Sulong] and Colin Smith [Singapore Burning]. They make for exceptionally harrowing reading. Having been to the bridge and seen the buildings where the men were held, then massacred, and the river into which the bodies were thrown, it is one of the acts of war that I find the most distressing and difficult to comprehend .
Reg Newton and his group of wounded men trying to escape were betrayed by locals and eventually captured and taken to Purdu Gaol. I remember Reg telling me that he wrote on toilet paper to compile a list of all the men killed or wounded and some details of what happened. When he was eventually sent to Changi and reunited with Allied Command he went to give the list to ‘Black Jack’ Galleghan. Not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he was meeting a senior officer and therefore ‘reporting in with information’, he saluted Lt-Col Galleghan but called him ‘Fred’ and received a ‘right-royal-bollocking’ for doing so!
The battle by the Australians against the numerically superior Imperial Guards between Muar and Parit Sulong was one of the epic encounters of the Malayan campaign and Percival considered the delay they imposed had saved a large part of his army from being cut off and annihilated at Yong Peng. The loss of the battle at Muar marked the end of any serious attempts to hold onto part of Johore. The Japanese had also engaged the Australians on the East coast. There was nothing left to do but to withdraw to Singapore.
The War Diary and Routine Orders of the 2/20 Battalion AIF showed that on January 22nd there were minor brushes with the Japanese but their own artillery fire was very accurate, inflicting enemy casualties. Sniping occurred along the river bank and one man was KIA, 2 were missing and 1 was missing believed killed. There was intense bombing of Mersing with machine gun fire. Some troops crossed the river to engage the enemy who moved west to seek a crossing. It was thought about 220 Japanese had been killed. The 2/18 HQ moved to Nittsdale Estate.
On January 23rd there were minor brushes with the enemy continued during their constant patrols, the Australians used mortars and artillery and estimated that enemy casualties were ‘considerable’. It was reported that the Mersing to Jemaluang road had been bombed as had Jemaluang itself and on 24th Mersing bridge was demolished and patrols reported Japanese activity at K.Jamari but they were destroyed by the artillery fire.
During the day of January 25th the Japanese appeared to concentrate their efforts on the left flank. At 1400 a conference at Brigade HQ ordered the 2/20 to evacuate Mersing and withdraw at night and take up position at the Jemaluang crossroads. At 15.30 the order was given for 2/20 to withdraw through the 2/18 and take up the position, but no movement was to occur before 2100. Meanwhile Percival, Heath and Bennett met at Johore Bahru where they decided to withdraw Allied troops at Buta Pahat to Singapore.
On 26 January Japanese troops were landed from 2 transport ships at Endau. Meanwhile a 22nd Brigade conference discussed the proposed ambush by the 2/18 Bn. in the vicinity of the Nittsdale Estate, they were then to withdraw through the 2/20 lines to Koti Tinnggi and the 2/20 would come into Reserve at the 29½ mile Harbour. The 2/20 troops reconnoitered their areas, ‘C’ Company rejoined the unit having been at Endau. The Bosche lights left at Mersing were destroyed. ‘D’ Company was located at the Kluang Road, ‘B’ Coy at the Tin Mine area and K.T. Road, ‘A’ Coy at the 69 mile area and ‘C’ Coy at the 67 mile area. Enemy ships and one Battalion on the Endau-Mersing Road were bombed by Allied aircraft, with ‘good results’. During the night firing was heard in the distance, where the 2/18 were located.
Early on January 27, at 0330 three Coys of 2/18 engaged with the enemy at the Luo Tye Estate and at 0900 the 2/18 began to withdraw through the 2/20 lines. This was completed by 1130. During the afternoon the 2/20 made contact with the enemy, sniping tactics only by the Japanese and the 2/20 fired their artillery. At 2100 ‘B’ and ‘D’ Coys moved by foot to the 67 mile Harbour and embussed to Ulu Sidille. Bn HQ, ‘A’ and ‘C’ Coys moved by foot to the 67 miles Harbour and then embussed to the 29½ mile Harbour. .. this was 2½ miles north of Koti Tinnggi. The War Diary reported a clean break had been made with the enemy. The Indian Forces, fighting at Johore, suffered heavy losses and their CO, Major-General AE Barstow was killed.
The next day the War Diary was reporting the Bn was ‘in harbour’ with a strength of 36 Officers and 781 O/rs. Men were able to wash clothes and bodies, which was welcome as they had been in contact with the enemy for some days. Bill Gaden wrote to his family and reported that his troops were cheerful and confident, they were “resting, washing and looking at our feet. We have not seen the latter in days.” Most were “writing letters and most are stark naked with their clothes drying on nearby bushes. We found a creek to wash in.” An English demolition party cratered the road and destroyed a bridge to delay the enemy. A Warning Order was received that the 2/20 would move early on 29 Jan to Johore Bahru as the centre Bn of an outer Bridge Head Force to cover the withdrawal of all forces on the Mainland to Singapore Island.
The Australians moved to the Outer Bridge Head 2 miles outside Johore Bahru on 29 January. The 2/19 were to the right, the 2/20 in the centre and the Gordon Highlanders to the left. They had 2 regiments of artillery support. Enemy air recce was very active but there were no ground attacks. On this day the British 18th Division arrived at Singapore Harbour.
On 30 January the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that Deputy PM Francis Forde was reporting that an attempted invasion of Australia was a “a logical possibility.” Plans for a large scale evacuation of civilians would not be put into effect unless deemed necessary by the military authorities. Back in Malaya plans were put in place for the withdrawal of allied troops to Singapore Island. The Outer line was Line “E” which was from the Western Road along Ayer Hitam Road to Tebrau Junction, the 2/20 were to withdraw west of the railway line and Molek Estate road.
On the last day of January 1942, at 0430 orders were received to withdraw to Line “E” and at 0500 to withdraw to Singapore Island. At 0630 the 2/20 commenced to cross the Causeway and this was completed by 0800. The troops moved across the Straits to the haunting strains of the bagpipes defiantly skirling the Argyll tune “Hielan Laddie”. They moved to Marsilling Estate and then to Kranji in the area of the Lim Chu Chieng Road, the 2/20 to the right, adjacent to the Kranji River, the 2/18 in the centre and the 2/19 to the left. The 27 Brigade was on the Eastern bank of the Kanji River. Battalion strength was 32 officers and 757 O/s. The Causeway was blown up. The last stand was imminent.
LEST WE FORGET
The War Diary and Routine Orders of the 2/20 Battalion AIF,
‘Pounding Along to Singapore’ by Caroline Gaden,
‘Singapore Burning’ by Colin Smith,
‘The Grim Glory of the 2/19’ by Reg Newton,
‘The Naked Island’ by Russell Braddon
“The Forgotten Highlander ” by Alistair Urquhart
“The Sydney Morning Herald” from the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper
Jean Birch, The 2nd AIF in Malaya 1941-1942, (accessed 3 May 2007) from the website