2/20 Bn AIF in Singapore in February 1942
The 2/20 Bn AIF in Singapore, February 1942
The Sydney newspapers were reporting that withdrawal was forecast. On 2 February the SMH editorial advised “The withdrawal of the Empire’s forces across the Johore Straits into the island of Singapore brings to an end a campaign which, despite the heroism of the forces engaged, will always be a depressing chapter in British military history because of inadequate preparation and in some respects, performance.”
It was a time to regroup, rest and reflect, the Australians were sick of being ordered to withdraw and retreat; they were now reunited with friends, had food and were eager to stand and fight. However the 22nd Brigade as a whole was at half strength, having lost so many men fighting on the peninsula. The 2/20 had 32 officers and 757 men, around 80 had been evacuated to hospital and some were sent to reinforce the depleted 2/19 who had endured a horrific time in Malaya.
The 22nd Brigade was to defend the NW of the island, a sector of 16000 yards with the 2/20 alone covering 8000 yards from the Kanji River to Serembun River adjoining the 2/18 Bn; the 27th Brigade had a frontage of 4000 yards on the Causeway sector… half the frontage of the 2/20 Battalion. In the centre of the 2/20’s area was a sealed road direct from a sea wall to the Tengah airfield, an obvious place where the Japanese would want to land their heavy equipment. But Percival was convinced the Japanese would attack the NE sector so placed his main forces there.
On 2 February Bill Gaden wrote home, telling his mother and sisters that they had been on Singapore Island for a couple of days during which time it had been “very peaceful and sunny on the ground” but the Japanese planes were continually flying over and were being shot at by the Allies ‘ack-acks’. He remarked “The planes keep up so high that they are only little black dots in the sky. The ack-ack shells bursting make a ring round the plane with little white puffs. The war is pretty looking up at it from here.”
This was to be the last letter which got through before the fall of Singapore, it would be another 11 months before his family would hear if he had been killed in the fighting…. imagine the despair of that interminable wait.
For those unfamiliar with military terms:- Arty = Artillery, Bn = Battalion, Bde = Brigade, Comd = Command, Coy = Company, Dalforce = the local Chinese fighters, Ech = Echelon = military formation in which units follow one another but are offset sufficiently to allow each unit a line of fire ahead, Fd = Field, Ind = Indian, Inf = Infantry, LMG = Light Machine Gun, MG = Machine Gun, MT = Motor Transport, Pl = Platoon, RAP = (Regimental Aid Post ie First Aid station), S = Sungai = River, Tps = Troops, Yds = yards (not quite 1 metre in length).
The War Diary of the 2/20 Bn AIF reported:
February 1; Singapore Island, Kranji District, Recce of areas continued and defensive work commenced.
Dispositions: ‘A’ Coy occupied NE Sector on west bank of S. Kranji (S=River); ‘D’ Coy centre sector facing north on Johore Straits; ‘C’ Coy western sector, also fronting Johore Straits; ‘B’ Coy unit reserve in perimeter in Namazie Estate; Bn HQ East of Lin Chu Kang Road, 1½ miles south of Johore Straits; RAP approx 100 yards South of Bn HQ, ‘B’ Ech under Bde vicinity Tengah Airport; Supporting Arms One Bty. 2/25 Fd Regt., One tp 15 A/T Regt., One Pl. 3/4 MG Bn., One Coy Dalforce (Chinese Irregulars). Dalforce boundaries right S. Buloh Bessar, left Rubber Factory Namazie Estate.
2 February: Normal Routine, Capt JM Lowe rejoined unit ex JMP.
3 February: Major Robertson detached to HQ AIF on special duty. Normal routine.
4-5 February: Normal Routine, recce and defensive works, B Ech moved to Bn Area, Capt Lowe resumed appt as Adjutant.
During this week 2/20 numbers were boosted by 80 reinforcements recently arrived in Singapore by ship…they were unfit with insufficient training and no fighting experience… what a dreadful baptism of fire these poor lads would face. Letters sent home at this time gave no indication of what was to come, everyone had swallowed the propaganda that Singapore was the ‘Gibraltar of the Far East’ and their letters home were full of misplaced optimism.
However there were no defensive positions here at all… at Mersing there were highly organised, well prepared defences, they’d used 400 tons of Barbed wire… here there was nothing. Percival hadn’t ordered defences to be dug as he didn’t want to affect the morale of the local population… the barbed wire was still in storage. Quartermaster Capt Betteridge went to the Ordnance Base to collect barbed wire from the hundreds of tons stored there, only to be told it was ‘reserved for other sectors’. (Eventually those ‘other sectors’ proved to be ships for the Japanese and for use round Changi POW camp)
Brigadier Simson, the Chief Engineer, thought the Japanese would attack this western sector and ordered numerous obstacles to be prepared for here. However Percival disagreed and the defences were sent to the north eastern sector. Why did Percival not listen to the experience and advice of his Chief Engineer? Another issue was a switch in Field Regiment…they were to work with the 2/15 Field Regiment. But the 22nd Brigade had trained with the 2/10 regiment all year, the officers knew each other and had worked together for a year. Why were the 2/10 sent to the 27th Brigade rather than the Brigade they knew? Yes they crossed the causeway just after the 27th Brigade but Singapore is a small island, there was time to move them back to work with the men they knew.
6 February: ‘C’ Coy patrol; led by Lieut R Homer, crossed Johore Straits to reconnoitre enemy position. Other 2/20 who volunteered were Harry Dietz, Mat Barker, Ray Potts and A ‘Snowy’ . Ray Potts admitted to being a non-swimmer but went anyway having being told “if the boat sinks we’ll float you back on a log”. Other troops were told of their patrol and advised to look out for them the following night.
7 February: Recce patrol returned safely about 2300 hrs, later than expected, report passed direct to Bde HQ with details of gun emplacements (every 50 yards, in pits, well camouflaged) large kitchens ready to feed thousands of troops, plenty of telephones, collapsible boats. A similar report came in from a patrol from 2/19 led by Lt Ottley. But there were difficulties convincing Malay Command that an attack was imminent to the western sector because there was considerable enemy movement opposite the Naval Base. Much information was not even passed on to Bennett.
Harassing fire by enemy arty during day, directed by GP [OP?, writing very pale and hard to read] from mainland and planes. Capt Gibbings evacuated to hospital with Fever. Lieut Hepburn appointed to Comd ‘C’ Coy.
Meanwhile back in Australia the Sydney Morning Herald published a list of AIF casualties in Malaya, the first for the 8th Division. From NSW alone there were 67 Killed in Action, 71 wounded, 177 were posted as missing, 68 missing believed wounded, and 12 missing believed killed. What anxious eyes would have devoured those lists.
8 February: Major Robertson from GBD was appointed Comd 2/19 Bn during illness Lt Col Anderson V.C. M.C. … why was an officer of the 2/19 not appointed?
Bennett advised CRA Brigade Command could shoot as much as they wished, however this was not passed on to CRA who insisted all requests for harassing fire go through him, consequently there was no harassing fire to bear during the day.
Enemy arty and aircraft very active in Unit area. Enemy observation balloon over Mainland with an unimpeded view of all dispositions. Men were forbidden to fire at the Sultan’s Palace another excellent observation post for the enemy, nor were they allowed to fire at enemy commanders on the foreshore!
Intensive shelling in early evening by arty and mortar. Our arty on counter battery work. During evening reports received at Bn HQ of enemy landings on Palau Buloh at the mouth of S. Buloh Besar, Namazie House and in the western sector. At 2200hrs definite reports of enemy landings in strength in ‘C’ and ‘D’ Coys areas and Dalforce Area. Lieut JJ Read reported Killed in Action.
10 Pl ‘B’ Coy moved up in support ‘C’ Coy who were covering 2000 yards with just 100 men, there were gaps between Platoons of hundreds of yards with only telephone contact to Company HQ… and telephone wires were subject to failure under shelling.
2200-2400hrs ‘C’ Coy forced to withdraw and disorganised, falling back on Bn HQ Area. Heavy fighting in all areas except ‘A” Coy. Lieut Maclean severely wounded and evacuated to hospital. 12 Pl (Lieut B Tipping) plus one sec Carriers sent to cover road entrance to fighter strip, contacted ‘D’ Coy and came under comd. 11 Pl held as Bn Reserve.
9 February 1942
0200 hrs ‘C’ Coy moved to position West of Lim Chu Kang Road, and with ‘B’ Coy and ‘HQ’ Coy details formed a perimeter round Bn HQ Area. B Ech moved in and joined perimeter.
Enemy LMG fire with red tracers directed at Bn HQ Area from high ground to the West. Enemy movement to the NW and in a SE direction endeavouring to get round our left flank. 3″ mortars countered this move and enemy NW withdrew.
‘A’ Coy less 7 Pl ordered to withdraw and cover right flank of Bn perimeter. 7 Pl ordered to Bn HQ area.
0315 hrs 7 Pl reported in with a party of Dalforce. This party under Lieut R Cornforth ordered to take up a position West of Lim Chu Kang Road and South of position held by 10 Pl.
0345 hrs approx 50 men from Dalforce arrived at Bn HQ and were sent to join others under Lieut Cornforth. Fighting patrol led by Lieut Chave and Lieut MacIntyre reported heavy enemy infiltration of our West flank. Patrol by Lieut Lennon in original areas between ‘D’ and ‘A’ Coys reported no enemy movement there. Lieut MacIntyre killed in this action.
0500 hrs message to ‘D’ Coy ordering them to withdraw to the Bn perimeter.
12 Pl ordered to withdraw directly South and take up a position about 200 yds North of Bn HQ.
0545 hrs Heavy enemy fire from our West flank on a frontage of 2/300 yds. Our mortars replied with satisfactory results. ‘C’ Coy withdrawn under Bn orders to conform with 12 Pl’s new position and ultimately called in as Bn reserve.
0700 hrs General firing with some small enemy advances on our West flanks. Firing heard from direction of D Coys original position, ‘D’ Coy not yet reported in to Bn perimeter. ‘A’ Coy ordered to Bn area.
‘D’ Coy unable to reach Bn area owing to enemy pressure, Coy ambushed, heavy casualties, withdrew along general line to Aerodrome.
0730 hrs Enemy in large numbers seen moving from West of Bn perimeter East across Lim Chu Kang Road. Our mortars engaged and scattered them, inflicting casualties, but did not stop the movement.
Enemy movement round Southern flank reported.
Lieut Baeyertz seriously wounded and evacuated.
‘A’ Coy less 7 Pl occupied a position in perimeter North of Bn HQ.
12 Pl plus HQ details successfully counter attacked North along road supported by 3″ mortars and drove enemy back over the Fighter Strip Road. Heavy casualties inflicted on enemy.
Capt JM Lowe killed and Lieut B Tipping died of wounds at RAP
0915 hrs CO ordered withdrawal to Ama Keng Village, ‘A’ Coy less 7 Pl to cover the withdrawal from hill immediately North of Bn HQ. ‘B Coy plus details to hold a feature in rear and East of the road. Capt Ewart wounded in neck by ambushing party and Lieut Lennon Bn IO (Intelligence Officer) killed by same party. 7 Pl (Lieut Cornforth) cleared up the ambush, all enemy being killed. ‘B’ Coy on reaching area position found it occupied in strength by the Japanese, opened fire which was returned by the enemy from several directions. Casualties on both sides. Lieut Davies and 2 ORs believed wounded and captured. Our force much reduced, withdrew to Tengah Aerodrome. B Ech under Maj RH Cohen and Capt AJ Betteridge ordered to conform. Both these officers killed during this action. Heavy casualties in B Ech personnel.
1130 hrs CO Lt Col CF Assheton killed in action whilst leading a mixed party of 2/18 Bn and 2/20 Bn personnel in vicinity of Tengah Aerodrome. Lieuts HW Porter and BA Chave believed killed during this withdrawal.
1300 hrs Capt Ewart and about 40 ORs reported to Brig HB Taylor South of Tengah Aerodrome, remainder of Unit in small groups fighting their way South through strong enemy detachments.
‘A’ Coy less 7 Pl withdrawing after holding delaying position toll 1000 hrs were machine gunned from both flanks and the rear and Coy broke into small detachments. Coy Comd Maj Merrett with Lieuts Gavan and Brooks passed through Tengah Aerodrome. Lieut Brooks wounded in back and evacuated to an RAP in the rear area. Maj Merrett and remnants of ‘A’ Coy reached Bulim Village. Lieut Rowe and party, being cut off from main body, crossed S. Kranji (ie the River). On arrival at Bde HQ Bulim Village Maj Merrett with about 50 men of the Bn were ordered to move forward to the left flank of the 2/29 Bn NW of the Aerodrome but on arrival found the 2/29 heavily engaged and preparing to withdraw. Maj Merrett’s party conformed to this movement of 2/29 and later, when 2/18 Bn retired and Aerodrome troops withdrew, 2/20 Bn moved back to Bulim Village. Elements of 2/19 and 2/20 Bns were then organised into a composite force to hold a reserve position in the Bde Sector of a line from S. Kranji to S Jurong.
10 February 1942
Composite 19/20 Bn withdrew to Bde Assembly Area Racecourse Village, and at 1700 hrs moved out under Maj Merrett to Reformatory Road Area. Other 2/20 Bn Officers -Lieuts Gavan, Stanistreet and Homer. Remainder of 22 Aust Inf Bde trps collected at Racecourse Village and moved by MT to GBD at Golf Course.
“X” Bn under Comd Lt Col Boyes formed from Unit elements and moved out from GBD during afternoon. 2/20 Bn Officers with this force were Capt G Maxwell, OC, HQ Coy, Capt RJD Richardson, OC Rifle Coy, Lieut WJ Richardson 2i/c, Lieuts Brooks, Mudie, Rowe, and Woods, Pl Comds. A number of ORs of the Bn also served in this Unit.
“Y” Bn under Comd Maj Roberston was in process of being formed. Owing to lack of fit personnel not more than one Coy could be raised. With this force were Capt WA Carter, Capt EW Gaden and Lieuts Cowden, O’Keefe and Lee of 2/20 Bn with a number of 2/20 Bn ORs. THis force moved out by MT during the night and debussed in Holland Rd Area moving by march route to Ulu Pandan Road. On arrival received orders from Bde to form perimeter astride junc. Holland-Ulu Pandan Rds. Dispositions occurred by first light.
Heavy fighting heard from vicinity of Reformatory Rd and Bt Timah Village.
During night 10/11 Feb composite 19/20 Bn under Maj Merrett were surrounded by Japanese and Bn Comd decided to withdraw and fight way back to Bde Area.
Lieut Homer received fatal injuries during this action.
During the withdrawal heavy enemy MG fire caused casualties and Maj Merrett wounded.
Composite Force made its way back in groups to an area near Botanical Gardens where Lieut F Gaven established collecting point.
During the same night “X” Bn involved in heavy fighting and ultimately dispersed. Capt RJD Richardson was wounded and Lieut WJ Richardson reported Missing in this action.
11 February 1942
Major Robertson’s Force: Capt Chisholm 2/18 Bn arrived with orders to join Lt Col Varley and 2/18 Bn in Reformatory Rd area. Coy advanced deployed across country and occupied a RA position (Known as The Fort), a half Coy of Indian tps with two white Officers were in possession. Contact established with Comd 44 Ind Inf Bde at whose HQ Lt Col Varley was.
One casualty by shell fire
Some heavy fighting on this front during the day with heavy casualties among Indian and 2/18 Bn tps. 2/20 sector quiet except for sniping and machine gunning.
2/18 and 44 Bde HQ withdrew during the night and a perimeter was formed by Maj Robertson’s Coy (now called 2/20 Bn ) at this Fort and on a hill feature immediately North of that position; on our right and echeloned back covering several hill features was 2/4 MG Bn. On our left flank and echeloned well back was a Punjab Bn. Night of 11/12 Feb was quiet, little enemy activity noted. Own arty caused many casualties in our position. Lieuts O’Keefe and Cowden were wounded, the former fatally.
12 February 1942
Lieut F Gaven with a Coy of 60 men from 2/19 and 2/20 Bns reported to Bde and came under Comd 2/18 Bn. Later joined by a Pl under Lieut J Rowe and a Pl under Lt Varley 2/19 Bn. 2/20 Officers with this force were Lieuts F Gaven, Stanistreet, Rowe, Meagher, Mudie and Blackford. Coy took up a position on left flank of 2/18 Bn.
2/20 Bn at the Fort had no close contact during day, much sniping by the enemy and machine gun fire.
A good deal of enemy movement seen and arty support called for on several occasions. Punjabis on our left flank withdrew during afternoon and later a patrol from a detached Coy of 2/18 Bn established contact with a patrol of 2/20 Bn.
Enemy tps concentrations engaged by our arty, and broke up.
During late afternoon and early evening enemy supported by mortars, attacked in force the positions of 2/4 MG Bn on our right with success and afterwards attacked and captured the feature held by our right flank. Prior to this the Officer I/c of this hill, Capt EW Gaden, was evacuated with ptomaine poisoning (food poisoning). Unit received orders from HQ AIF to withdraw and conform to Bde perimeter which was ultimately established with 2/20 Bn and 2/4 MG Bn holding the most westerly position astride road junc Holland -Ulu Panden Rds.
Much enemy activity round both flanks and heavy arty fire caused casualties.
At approx 2130 hrs force ordered to disengage and withdraw through 2/18 Bn to Buena Vista Rd triangle. Move successfully accomplished, all serviceable tpt and wounded being evacuated. After arrival at Buena Vista Rd Unit ordered to rd junc Holland and Farrar Rds to reorganise.
Lt Gavan’s Coy acted as extricating Coy of 2/18 Bn which withdrew to Buena Vista Rd triangle following withdrawal of 2/20 Bn and 2/4 MG Bn and enemy penetrated in forward and right sectors of Bn Area. On arrival the Coy took up a position on a hill North of the Triangle.
13 February 1942
2/20 Bn ordered to occupy Hill 90 and surrounding area in Holland Hill Rd locality to conform with a perimeter then being established. The following tps came under Comd:- Two detachments of Mortars 2/19 Bn, a half Coy of 2/19 general personnel, 2 Officers and 100 men of Ord Fd Park Coy, and ‘E’ Coy 2nd Bn The Gordon Highlanders, OC Maj Innes. Capts AI Yates and CC Gibbings rejoined Bn with this draft.
Enemy air arm very active and some arty and mortar fire. No casualties. Lieut Gavan’s Coy with 2/18 Bn received reinforcements in Lieut Hiddlestone and 30 men of AASC.
Major Robertson promoted Lt. Col. and appointed in Comd 2/20 Bn. Capt Gaden with Lieuts Cornforth and Cowden with a composite force of 100 men in defensive position as part of AIF perimeter East of Tyersalls Palace on Clunice [?] Rd.
14 February 1942
Active patrolling by night and day and Lieut Gavan’s Coy destroyed an enemy cyclist patrol and drove another patrol off. Casualties 10 wounded by enemy mortar fire.
Japanese movement in force seen well to the South of 2/20 Bn sector moving in direction of Alexandra. Enemy observation balloon observed NW of our position.
Intermittent shelling by both sides and mortar fire.
Our mortars shelled enemy positions vicinity Tanglin Halt.
Capt WA Carter promoted to Major.
Quiet night, normal patrol routine.
15 February 1942
Situation as on previous day. In late afternoon AIF perimeter subjected to two very accurate and intensive arty barrages. Lieut J Rowe and 5 ORs wounded and evacuated.
Orders received to cease fire at 2030 hrs and withdraw patrols etc.
A mighty island fortress, The guardian of the east.
As impregnable as Gibralter, A thousand planes at least.
Simply can’t be taken, Stand a siege for years.
We’ll hold the place forever, ‘Twill bring our foes to tears.
Our men are there in thousands, Defences are unique.
But the Japs did not believe it, They took it in a week.
By John Edward Proudford, NX34594, 2/20Bn AIF.
16 February 1942
Lieuts Grieve, Simpson, Felsh and Ryan joined the Unit ex GBD and during the day considerable numbers of officers and ORs returned from service with other units.
All tps under Comd 2/20 Bn reverted to own units control. Major WA Carter performing duties of Bn 2i/c Capt DF Thompson performing duties of unit Adjutant.
17 February 1942
Unit moved to RV at 1700 hrs for march to Changi Barracks.
Summary Lt Col 1, Maj 1, Capt 6, Lieut 16, WO1 1, WO2 1, S/Sgt 3, Sgt 22, L/Sgt 4, Cpl 39, L/Cpl 12, Ptes 392, Total 489
When the 2/20 Battalion had arrived on the Island just over two weeks earlier the War Diary reported their numbers were 32 officers and 757 men, total 789. They had already lost men in the fighting on the mainland. Now they had lost an additional 300 men in the days of fighting on Singapore island.
18 February 1942
Unit arrived at Barracks 0230 hrs, cup hot tea given to all ranks and barracks taken over in reasonable condition. WO1 Balckie resumed duties as RSM.
Coys allocated as follows:- HQ and B Coys on centre floors, A,C,D Coys on top floors while bottom floor used as Mess.
19 February 1942
Educational Scheme decided upon for training of men in various occupations. Bn areas defined and clearing of same going on. Lieut Lusk performing duties of QM. Lieut Blackford performing duties of Hygiene Officer.
On this day the Japanese bombed Darwin
20 and 21 February 1942 – no entries in the War Diary
22 February 1942
Bde Church Pde held in Barracks
23 February 1942
Capt Yeates and Lieut Mudie selected as Education Officers.
The specific dates of the next entries are unknown as the paper edge which included the dates was torn away and lost. However it happened from 24-28 February, so I will assume it is one paragraph per day.
24? February 1942
Owing to Bn strength being increased by personnel marching in it has become necessary to form it into 6 Coys with Admin Group. Maj Merrett resumed duties as Bn 2i/c.
Coys allotted accommodation as follows, C & D Coys top floor, A & B Coys centre floor, HQ1 and HQ2 Coys ground floor.
25? February 1942
An inspection of all Prisoners of War in Changi Area was made by the GCC Japanese Imperial Army at 1600 hrs. Lieut Lee to perform the duties of Entertainment Officer
26? February 1942
Bn mounted its first Beach Patrol Picquet at Kampong-Ayar-Gamurah. First day of Bn going on rice rations for three meals a day.
27? February 1942
First day of Agricultural party commencing duties. Inspection of Barracks by Japanese Staff Officer. Ablution Point for bathing and washing completed for use by Bn. Beach Picquet dismounted.
28? February 1942
Bn strength at as 1800 hrs 30 Officers, 376 ORs. Approx Bn casualties 25 officers, 484 ORs.
In early December 1941 the strength of the 2/20 had been 878 O/Rs and 38 officers, total 916.
Total on 28 February 1942 was 406 so there has been the huge loss of over 500 men.
2/20 Bn Routine Orders and War Diary, available from the AWM
Singapore and Beyond by Don Wall
Pounding Along to Singapore by Caroline Gaden
Sydney Morning Herald available from the National Library of Australia ‘Trove’ web site.