Extracts Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Monday, December 18, 2006
From Chapter One:-
Up country planters, across the Johore Straits in the Malayan peninsula, miners and planters often did lead hard lives, working from dawn to dusk with their Malay and Tamil labourers in places not long hacked out of virgin jungle. Some planters, veterans of what was starting to be known as the Great War, had accepted government grants to ex-soldiers of 100 acres rubber plots, sometimes forming consortiums to make sizeable holdings. This was the backcloth Somerset Maughan chose, after a short visit, for his stories of quiet desperation punctuated by drink, adultery, abandoned Eurasian children and vengeful Asian mistresses. Not surprisingly Maughan’s subject matter was highly indignant. Sport was their substitute for sex and plenty of it: a constant round of tennis, badminton,cricket, rugby football, hockey and what the Malays, an athletic race, called “kickball”. Furtive visits to the bordellos of Kuala Lumpur - Malaya’s capital and always known as ‘KL’ - rarely made their letters, diaries or memoirs. Nor did the common practise of new assistant rubber estate managers hiring a “sleeping dictionary” to improve the vocabulary they had acquired from the best selling “Well’s Coolie Tamil”.
The crudeness of South African style apartheid was unknown in Malaya and the Tuans and their Mems, passing through Cape Town on the Blue Funnel line ships that carried them to and from Southampton, were sometimes surprised to discover the rigid colour bar. In Malaya it was done with more subtlety. Clubs such as the Selangor Club in KL, known as “the Spotted Dog’ for its enormous black and white tropical tudor premises, rarely allowed a non- European membership. Urbane, intelligent, and often deeply Anglicised Malay, Indian and Chinese civil servants were passed over for promotions awarded to less able British colleagues. Only occasionally was the boot on the other foot. In KL some wealthy Chinese started a “millionaires’ club” from which whites were excluded. The young journalist Ian Morrison, son of a famous missionary to China, thought that the Dutch, who had been in the East Indies longer and were far more tolerant of intermarriage, made a better job of things. “ People of mixed blood could, and did, rise to the highest positions in the Indies. They formed a bridge between the Dutch on one hand and the natives on the other.”
Apart from sex, one of the few things that was truly multiracial in British Malaya was sport. A district officer played for a cricket team which included, “Eurasians, Indians, Ceylonese, a Sikh bowler and a Japanese wicket keeper.” But for the young British male seeking the pleasures of the East nowhere was as glamourous, or sometimes as debauched, as Singapore . The island was rapidly becoming known, even more than Nairobi, as one of the more hedonistic beacons of the sprawling Empire on which the sun never set. (“Because God doesn’t trust the British in the dark,” declared nationalists from Peshawar to Penang.) Even when rubber prices slumped in the world wide economic depression that began with the New York stock market crash in 1929, and redundant Tuans were being declared “Distressed British Persons” and granted government assisted passages home, Singapore somehow partied on.
On the whitewashed walls of St Andrew’s cathedral there were brass plaques commemorated some of those killed restoring British rule during the sepoy mutiny of February 1915. ‘Ready Aye Ready,’ read the epitaph for a stoker off HMS Cadmus assigned to one of the shore parties. But twenty years on it seemed that all most people were ready for was fun. Few of the younger dancers at Raffles, or on the terrace of the Swimming Club with its five bars, or at the Happy World with the professional Chinese dance hostesses known as Taxi Girls, or being seen at the races at Bukit Timah, knew or cared of the mutiny of the 5th Light Infantry . Even fewer of the grisly executions which followed.
From Chapters Seven and Eight:-
The Hudsons were virtually flying circuits and bumps as they took off, bombed, landed and were immediately rearmed in a process that seemed to work with conveyor belt efficiency. There was no need to refuel for so little fuel was used; ground crews could hear the bombs they had just loaded explode. The armourers and fitters, soaked in oil and sweat, worked methodically away, cocking an ear when they had the chance to catch what the air crews were saying. It seemed the Japs were getting a pasting though not without cost. The squadron’s first casualty was an aircraft piloted by Flight-Lieutenant “Spider” Leighton-Jones which had simply failed to return. Nobody had seen Jones, a popular officer with the wiry build of a jockey and a perpetual grin, go down. Later there were unconfirmed Japanese reports of a badly smoking Hudson hardly under control which seemed to seek out a crowded landing craft and dive into it. Several of his friends watched John Ramshaw crash. He was seen to ditch while making his second skip bombing attack, this time on the Sendai which had much better anti-aircraft defences than the transports. The warship’s rudder and perhaps a propeller shaft was damaged and before long the cruiser would limp back to Indo-China’s Cam Ranh Bay for repairs.
Dowie, the co-pilot and ultimately the only survivor from the four man crew, was never certain whether they were bought down by anti-aircraft fire or being too close to the blast of their own bombs. When they hit the sea he and Ramshaw had both been thrown through the perspex roof of the cockpit and for a while, though it was too dark and too rough to see each other, they had been close enough to talk. Then Ramshaw had announced that he didn’t think he was going to make it; shortly afterwards Dowie realised he was on his own. He discovered he had little movement in his arms and legs (he had fractured his spine) and was just about being kept afloat by his half filled mae-west. His mouth was near the tube used to inflate the lifejacket. Dowie decided to risk removing the plug, which he eventually managed with his teeth. Inhaling was painful but he succeeded in blowing enough air into it to fully inflate it. Then somehow he managed to get the cap back on the tube too. The water was warm and he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he heard outboard motors nearby and realised he must be in the path of the small craft ferrying ashore the Japanese troops he had been bombing. Dowie half expected a bullet but no doubt their eyes fixed on the yellow tracer and the flashes that lit up the palm-fringed shoreline ahead.
Afterwards, a Japanese journalist called the Kota Baharu landings, “the Hill 203 of the Ocean”. There could be no higher praise. In 1904, Hill 203 was the Russian held stronghold above China’s Port Arthur (now Lü-shun) where, in the war against the Czar, Count Nogi Maresuke had sacrificed wave after wave of infantry, among them one of his sons, until the Russians tired of killing and the hill was his. (Known as “The Last Samurai”, in 1912 the Count and his wife mourned the Emperor’s death by committing ritual suicide.)
Nogi lost more killed than Takumi’s entire command and the only tactical similarity was that Hill 203 and Kota Baharu were both diversionary attacks. What happened to the first Japanese to step ashore in Malaya had much more in common, though again on a smaller scale, with what the American infantry would suffer some thirty months later on Normandy’s Omaha beach. It was, by any standards, a sanguinary beginning to Japan’s assault on South-East Asia.
For some time, the barbed wire entanglements continued to prove insurmountable and, as they bunched up behind them, so the Japanese losses mounted. Those who tried to get away from the more obvious fixed lines of the Bren guns began to set off the land mines that had been sewn in such profusion. Nearly all the battalion and company commanders were hit though at least two were trying to continue to lead while being carried about on stretchers. Major-General Takumi managed to leave the stricken Awagisan Maru and get ashore with the second wave some time around 3am, arriving with a company whose commander had been killed on deck when one of the Hudsons straffed the ship. Within minutes of getting to the beach the officer who had succeeded him was also killed. Takumi then personally took command of this and another leaderless company and ran and crawled with them towards the wire.
Most contemporary western armies of the day used explosive charges to get through thick barbed wire entanglements. The British, for instance, had developed the Bangalore Torpedo: an alloy pipe about one-and-a-half inches in circumference packed with gun cotton and usually six foot in length though sections could be joined together to clear a way through both entanglements and, it was hoped, mines by detonating those either side of it.
For all their intensive preparation, Takumi’s men do not appear to have had anything like this at their disposal. Instead, using bayonets, helmets and spoons taken from their knapsacks, his soldiers began to burrow their way like turtles into the soft sand under the wire until they were deep enough to crawl beneath it. According to one Japanese account this was done by lines of men lying abreast, “digging the ground frantically and gradually crowding forward”. Behind them the next line of crawling men would deepen the trench the vanguard had excavated beneath wire, gently pulling aside casualties.
Then Sendoi and the other Japanese warships had begun to lay down accurate fire with their heavy guns. Near misses were blowing sand through the loopholes of the pillboxes which, combined with the sweet smelling cordite from the bren guns, made the defenders’ eyes water and stung their faces. Soon the air in these concrete boxes became so bad their defenders started wearing their gas masks. In any case, some of them were already convinced that they were dealing with something more lethal than a cocktail of sand and gunsmoke. “A kind of tear gas,” suspected one of the Dogras’ British officers. Japan had acquired a reputation for occasional chemical warfare in China where neutral observers had accused them of using mustard gas. Whether some of the naval shells that landed on the beaches at Kota Baharu were loaded with gas has never been confirmed. It seems an unlikely tactical risk. The British were not the Chinese. However threadbare their military garrisons east of Suez were, the pre-war obsession with gas attacks was such that perhaps the one thing they were well prepared for was retaliation. Stockpiled in Singapore were almost 12,000 mustard gas shells for 25-pounder field guns plus bombs and cylinders for the RAF to drop or spray like crop dusters.
Gas or no gas, here were men trying to defend pillboxes during a night attack who could now see even less through their thick gas goggles. Nor was this their only setback. Brigadier’s Keys worst fears had come true. Despite the cross fire, armoured landing craft had managed to get between the two spits of sand where a boom might have stopped them but certainly not the Indians’ heaviest weapon, the Boys anti-tank rifle which fired a huge .55 round, kicked like a mule and had acquired a reputation during the German blitzkrieg across France for rarely meeting its trade description.
By daybreak on 8 December, with the war about six hours old, a good many of the Japanese had penetrated the waterways which jigsawed the land behind the beach defences. Japanese walking wounded on their way back to the beach, some of them helped by comrades, were filing past Takuma’s headquarters staff bloody, muddy, soaked to the skin and utterly exhausted.
From Chapter Twelve:-
This time the ammunition behaved and an eight barrel pompom could be deadly at close range - a twenty second burst delivered 320 rounds. Yamamoto’s Betty flopped into the sea on its belly. Some of its crew were seen trying to get out when it exploded into a ball of flame of which soon the only trace was a ring of sea on fire. Nakajima’s aircraft was slightly higher and for a moment looked as though it might have escaped. Then the first flames were seen flickering forward from the tailplane towards the cockpit and by the time it hit the water its whole fuselage was alight.
From his lofty vantage point on one of the Prince of Wales’ Air Defence Positions Sub-Lieutenant Brooke, the young officer caught easing his bowels when the first torpedo struck his ship, was among those who saw the Bettys shot down and particularly remembered the descent of Nakajima’s aircraft. “Although it was clear the men inside had only seconds to live I watched with undiluted pleasure... We all cheered.”
They were cheering on the Repulse too but not for long. All three of the torpedoes Iki and his wingmen had dropped struck home followed within minutes by a fourth from the aircraft on the starboard side. In all, five torpedo hits in the space of a few minutes. Tennant knew there was no way his stout hearted old ship, whose luck he and his crew had nurtured for so long, could take this kind of punishment and, heartbreaking though it was, he did not hesitate. “All hands on deck. Prepare to abandon ship. God be with you,” came the announcement over the tannoy. Even as Tennant spoke the Repulse was already taking on a heavy list to port.
From deep within the innards of the ship men came scrambling like flooded miners towards daylight, climbing familiar ladders and companionways which were rapidly assuming crazy angles. In the aft High Angle Control Position Taffy Bowen and his companions, still concentrated on their tasks, had no idea of the seriousness of the situation. The loudspeaker system in that part of the ship had been destroyed by the bomb that hit the Walrus hanger at the beginning of the action. Their midshipmen, one of the five Australians on board, eventually heard the news over his headphones and hurried them out.
They made their way up a vertical ladder and then through the Captain’s lobby flat, part of Tennant’s quarters, where about a dozen wounded, among them the scalded stokers, were lying on stretchers. Some were groggy with morphia but others were all too aware of what was going on. As he passed one of the stretchers its occupant tugged at Bowen’s leg and asked for a hand up.
“Being a kid like I turned to help him but one of the Royal Marine bandsmen gave me a shove and said, ‘Keep going.’ As it was, just after we got out on deck the armoured door slammed shut. There was a warrant officer there shouting ‘go forward’ because the screws were still turning and they didn’t want people cut up.”
From the time the last torpedo hit her it took no more than eight minutes for Repulse to sink and it is unlikely that any of the wounded in the captain’s flat area escaped. Fortunately most of the casualties were gathered in the two main Medical Distributing Centres, one forward and the other aft and both down three decks, where the cool headed devotion of some of the medics got most of their patients off the ship though some succumbed to their wounds either in the water or later.
The last man out of the forward centre was Sick Berth Attendant Walter Bridgewater who had been pushing the wounded up wooden ladders, sometimes into the arms of passing magazine hands on their way up to the top. Bridgewater, who would received a Mention in Dispatches for his actions, got all the wounded on deck except for one man who appeared to be in a coma and incapable of helping himself. “When the ship gave quite a shudder I just decided I better get out myself and left the last one propped up in a corner...I will always remember his helpless, pathetic look.”
Bridgewater was almost on the upper deck when his arm became trapped behind the angle bar of the scuttle covering a porthole he was trying to open and he resigned himself to drowning . “Then, all of a sudden, I felt my right arm free and I was out in a split second, possibly the last to leave the old ship alive.” Some of the first to abandon ship had simply swum off the port side as it dipped below water level; but this became increasingly dangerous as the list increased. An avalanche of heavy items including the four inch gun mountings began to break free and follow the swimmers overboard. There was obviously a danger that Repulse would soon capsize and fall on people not yet far enough away from the ship. Some were already finding swimming difficult as they tried to cough and spit out the fuel oil they had swallowed and get the filthy stuff out of their nostrils and eyes.
It made more sense to climb the sloping deck to the higher starboard side and climb over the guard rail. Then, bending their knees as if they were coming down a steep and treacherously loose hillside, they went down the concave slope to where the torpedo bulge and the red paint above it were now indecently visible. The Express reporter Gallagher chose this route. But when he got to the bulge he paused at the bulge for beyond it lay an uninviting prospect for a non-swimmer with only his rubber life belt to rely on: a twelve foot drop into a darkening sea.
...playing for time, I opened my cigarette case. There were two cigarettes in it. I put one in my mouth and offered the other to a sailor standing besides me. He said, ‘Ta. Want a match?’ We both lit up and puffed once or twice...He said, ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you mate.’ I replied, ‘I certainly hope so. Cheerio.’ The sea was black. I jammed my cap on my head and jumped. I remember drawing breath first.
Others got down on their bottoms, almost as if they were on a water slide, gathering speed as they went. This was not always a good idea. Ankles, heel bones and even spines were fractured by hitting the bulge legs first too fast; flesh flayed by the rivets and marine encrustations encountered en route. One of the luckier ones was Ordinary Seaman Bowen who did part of it this way, climbed the bulge and dived off. Most former boy seamen had been taught to swim properly. Now he swam the fastest crawl he could ever remember doing for, like all young sailors, Bowen had been told how a sinking ship could pull down the men who had abandoned her. Then he heard one of his mates shout, “You can stop swimming now Taffy”.
Two sixteen-year-old boy seamen were among those who had the awful luck to leave the starboard bulge immediately over its single torpedo hole and be dragged back into the blackness of what had become stagnant caverns of diluted oil . But a petty officer soon spotted what was happening and warned people off. Otherwise, there was precious little suction from the Repulse because, instead of filling slowly from all sides the way an old pot drowns in a pond, she was going down stern first. A midshipman made a sixty foot dive into the water from the gun director’s platform on the foremast and survived though years later friends would wonder if it did not bring on the brain tumour which killed him.
There had been very little time to lower boats though somebody had got the captain’s launch, all polished brass and wood into the water. Most of the survivors were either clinging to bits of wreckage or one of Repulse’s twelve Carley floats, huge canvas rings of canvas covered cork with slatted wooden floors. Everybody was black with fuel oil which stung the eyes dreadfully and sometimes made those who had swallowed too much of it retch until it killed them. Gallagher briefly found sanctuary on a round lifebelt already supporting two blackened figures.
I told them they looked like a couple of Al Jolsons. They said, ‘We must be an Al Jolson trio, because you’re the same...Another man joined us, so we had an Al Jolson quartet on one lifebelt. It was too much. In the struggle to keep it lying flat on the sea we lost our grips and broke up, possibly meeting again later though not being able to recognise each other because of our masks of oil.
The water was warm, fear of sharks which had beset some people when they first entered it, had largely evaporated some believing it was the oil as much as the explosions which had kept them away. Sing-songs were started: the inevitable “Roll Out the Barrel”. As the Repulse started to go down some of her crew gave her a last cheer and officers were seen to salute.
In Bowen’s group the cheering stopped when they saw a Marine bandsman they knew hanging in the chains of the paravane mine sweeping device on the bow. It was well known that musician could not swim and it seemed that, suspended there at the equivalent height of a four storey building and getting higher, he was too terrified to let go. Some of his friends began yelling at him by name to drop. Still the bandsman clung on until suddenly, as if he had heard the pleas of the men in the water for the first time, he fell, legs pedalling furiously, to be returned gasping to the surface by his life belt. Some sailors paddled over on a Carley float and picked him up.
Another late departure was Captain Tennant. Most of his crew had last seen Dunkirk Charlie leaning over his tottering bridge with a megaphone as he told them, “You’ve put up a good show. Now look after yourselves and God bless you.” As if to emphasise Tennant’s words of praise, there came from the starboard side the defiant rattle of a lone Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun which could still be depressed low enough to take on low flying aircraft. Behind it was Midshipman Robert Davies, A cherub faced Australian always considered a bit on the quiet side by his gunroom messmates. Thanks to Davies Repulse was literally going down fighting but the eighteen-year-old had harnessed himself to the gun and left it too late to save himself.
Tennant very nearly went with him. The list was now so steep, his ship was practically on its side, he chose to walk down to the port gun deck rather than attempt what had become an almost vertical climb the other way. When he met the sea he was still wearing his steel helmet which he had forgotten he had on. He might have floated serenely away had not Repulse, in her death throes, chosen that moment to turn almost on top of him, taking him down to some black place where he nearly gave up and started swallowing water. Then the rubber life belt around his lean frame and his long legs kicking took him back towards the light.
Breaking the surface was marred only by sharing that small piece of it with some hard piece of flotsam. It was than that he realised he still had his helmet on; without it he felt he would have surely been knocked out and might yet have drowned. As it was, he was quite stunned. One of the Carley floats was nearby and somebody was offering his hand and saying, “Here you are,sir”.
After their astounding victory a few of the Japanese aircrews diverted to the newly captured British landing strip at Kota Baharu, either because they considered their aircraft too short of fuel or too damaged or both to risk the long flight back to Indo-China. But most of them did return, engines spluttering as their fuel feeds began to run dry, to the airfields around Saigon they had left some twelve hours before. One of the Bettys, which had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire, crashed on landing and was written off though it appears the crew survived. Had all the ninety-five aircraft 22nd Air Flotilla employed on the operation been lost it would have remained an enormous triumph and worth every one of them. As it was, total casualties were the crews in the three aircraft shot down by the ships: eighteen Japanese airmen for 840 British sailors.
There was a night of riotous sakai fuelled partying. But not long after dawn Lieutenant Haruki Iki, who had lost two Bettys from his Chutai during the last devastating attack on the Repulse, had roused his hungover crew and ws heading south. It was not hard to find the place for it was still stained by oil and debris and what might have been bodies. Iki took the Betty down low and circled the spot and then opened the bomb doors . Out of them dropped a small, flat circular object with cork floats and weighted so that it would fall the right way up. The wreath, briefly splendid, settled amidst the flotsam. Iki is sometimes quoted as saying it was for all the dead and perhaps it was.
From Chapter Fifteen:-
There was the usual problem about wireless and in such a fluid fight field telephones were out of the question. Luckily, another advantage of being a battalion still predominantly made up of regular soldiers was that the Argylls knew their bugle calls which were lightly coded just in case the clever Japanese had got to know them too. So when Drummer Hardie, who apart from being Stewart’s batman was a bugler, wet his lips and sounded the regimental call followed by “The Stand Fast” it meant just the opposite. Usually their Lanchester armoured cars covered their withdrawals and were often in no hurry to leave. The crew of one of these, parked under a few twigs of camouflage at the road side, permitted a fifteen strong Japanese reconnaissance patrol to get within fifty yards of their twin Vickers then “killed the lot”.
Another skirmish became perhaps the Argylls’ most famous exploit in Malaya and certainly the one which seemed to best sum up the kind of measured ferocity Stewart had inculcated into his men. It was an impromptu Tiger Patrol led by the very solidly built Captain Bal Hendry, an accomplished rugby forward in his early thirties who played for Edinburgh and might have been capped for Scotland had the war not got in the way.
Hendry, who was commanding A Company, went out with one of the Lanchesters delivering rations to his most remote seven man section who were occupying an observation post overlooking a small country railway station. He was accompanied by Company Sergeant Major Arthur Bing, a deceptively mild mannered individual and his batman cum bodyguard, Private James Anderson. Known as “Big Jimmy” in the battalion, Anderson came from that part of Glasgow where a man’s razor was not always kept for his own face.
When they arrived the corporal in charge was excited. He told Hendry that they had just counted a patrol of about fifteen Japanese, who appeared to have a Tamil guide with them, walk down the track and enter the deserted station. In the distance a larger party, some of them with bicycles, could be made out coming down the line from the same direction. Hendry immediately decided that he, Sergeant-Major Bing and Anderson would attack from a flank while the twin Vickers of the armoured car, plus the seven men they were revictuelling, provided covering fire. Bing and Anderson both carried Thompsons and, as well as his revolver, Hendry had acquired a rifle .
Having shot two Japanese who were guarding the approach Hendry had chosen it was discovered that further progress was blocked by a swamp. They went back a little way and entered from the other side. It soon became apparent that the enemy had taken cover behind the teak walls of the waiting room and ticket office from the gusts of fire the Vickers were putting down on them Some of them were firing back through the windows .
The Japanese outnumbered the three Argylls approaching their backs by five to one but they had the considerable advantage of surprise. Possessed by some bezerker fury the mild mannered Bing kicked open the door of the waiting room, emptied the fifty round drum magazine of his Thompson into five of the men inside then clubbed a sixth man to the ground by wielding the weapon by its hot barrel. Anderson shot at least two more as they tried to escape down the track while Hendry, the rugby forward, was engaged in the deadliest ruck of his life with four Japanese he had cornered in the narrow confines of the ticket office. Two of these he eventually managed to shoot but then they all seem to have got too close to use a weapon because a wrestling match ensued with the survivors who began to use their teeth as well their boots. Hendry finished it by getting a hand to his steel helmet and then employing it to belabour both his opponents into unconsciousness - probably a unique use of the British battle bowler. By now the larger group of Japanese on the railway track were nearing the station. “Captain Hendry thereupon picked up the least dead looking Jap, whom he subsequently sent to battalion headquarters, and withdrew,” wrote Colonel Stewart in his own account of he action.
Yet for this bold sortie, pressed home against superior numbers in hand-to-hand fighting and culminating in the rare capture of a Japanese prisoner*, Hendry merely received a Mention in Dispatches, the lowest British award for gallantry in the field, and not the expected Military Cross. The other two received no recognition whatsoever, possibly because Stewart wanted to make it plain that their conduct, rather like the route march from Mersing, was no more than he expected and to make too much fuss would be yet another indication of declining British standards. Certainly Hendry’s success was ample vindication of Stewart’s training mantras, particularly: “Fix Frontally - Encircle”. Twelve of the enemy had been killed without loss and the only member of the encircling trio who emerged with wounds that would need treatment for several days was Sergeant-Major Bing.
As he closed in on his sixth victim, Bing had ignored what the hot barrel of his upturned Thompson was doing to his hands. The next day the sergeant-major was displaying the painful blisters across his palms to Ian Morrison, the Times’ reporter. He was one of a group of war correspondents who had been taken up country to visit the Argylls by an escort officer from the Singapore-based Services Public Relations Office, delighted to be able to top up the Argylls’ success story with a recent victory however small.
Inevitably, UK British troops were going to get more press attention than British officered Indians. But the Argyll cult must have become galling for the rest of Brigadier Archie Paris’ 12 Brigade. Paris had been in Malaya for two years and was reckoned to handle a brigade as well as Stewart commanded his battalion. His two Indian battalions, the 5/2nd Punjabis and the 4/19th Hyderabads had also inflicted some cruel ambushes as they leapfrogged down the road with the Argylls. The hair trigger reactions of Lt-Colonel Cecil Deakin, who commanded the Punjabi battalion, had become particularly well known.
During one such leapfrog Deakin was responsible for holding the Merbau Pulas bridge while the Argylls, who had just passed through, prepared a new position some ten miles to the south. Shortly before dawn Deakin, his Indian subedar-major (sergeant-major) and three signallers were standing at the bridge’s southern end waiting in case any stragglers turned up before the bridge was blown at first light. Suddenly the crossing was rushed by Japanese infantry covered by mortar and machine-gun fire. Deakin made no attempt to step back but, like an enraged bull, charged straight at these impertinent trespassers . Hard on his heels came his subedar-major and the three signallers whose duties were normally of a more non-combatant nature. Three of the enemy were killed and the rest fled. The bridge was then blown up.
From Chapter twenty-three:-
As the night wore on, the Japanese shelling intensified and with it the feeling that they were preparing to attack.
It came at 6.45am, shortly after dawn. It was spearheaded by nine T95 tanks commanded by Captain Shiegeo Gotanda who came from Kagoshima, Japan’s most southerly port sometimes known as the “Naples of the Orient” and one of the few parts of the country which ever came close to being as sticky as Malaya. Gotanda, inspired and no doubt envious of Shimada’s success at Slim River, had volunteered to charge into Bakri and do it without infantry support the way, by the time he got to the Slim road bridge, that the dashing Watanabe had done it.
Colonel Masakazu Ogaki, the Guards officer in charge of the Muar operation, had some reservations about this, particularly the lack of infantry protection from anti-tank guns and Molotovs. Plus there was always a chance that the British would use their field artillery in an anti-tank role as they had eventually done at Slim. In the end, it was decided that if the infantry did not travel with the tanks they would not be all that far behind. Some would also try to exploit Gotanda’s attack by hooking around the Australians and establishing a road block behind them.
To get to Bakri, Gotanda had to pass through a narrow, fairly high banked cutting with thick vegetation on either side. Waiting for him there, around a bend and slightly off the road, was a two-pounder under Lance-Sergeant Clarrie Thornton, a mature young man of twenty-four from a farm amidst the Snowy Mountain sourced streams of the Riverina pasturelands. At the end of the cutting McCure had deployed another of his anti-tank guns.
Six tanks approached in single file. There was no artillery preparation; no cover other than the fast melting early morning mist. Within a minute Thornton’s crew had hit the first, third and fourth machine but they all trundled resolutely on. The only indication of anything amiss were whisps of what might have been white smoke rising delicately from some parts of them and the lack of accurate return fire, in some cases any return fire at all. As Harrison and the others had discovered at Gemas, armoured piercing rounds could go in one side of a T95 and out the other, easily penetrating plate which was nowhere more than twelve millimetres thick. Their interiors might resemble a butcher’s shop but, as long as the engine and the throttle was open the tank went on.
For some reason the kind of high explosive shells that had worked so well at Gemas were not lying besides their gun. By the time McCure and his batman had delivered some, the tanks had not only gone by but the vanguard of Ogaki’s infantry were glimpsed advancing either side of the road. The young farmer and his crew who, according to McCure, were all in high spirits pushed the gun into the middle of the road. With their backs to the advancing infantry, they began firing their newly delivered high explosive into the rear of the tanks. At the same time the T95’s were being hit from the gun the other end of the cutting which was in a slight hollow and did not open fire until the nearest tank was forty yards away. All six of these tanks were immobilised and eventually totally destroyed. So were three more who appear to have waited for the Japanese infantry, presumably because the fate of the tanks which had proceeded according to plan without rifle support were plain to see. By now a sniper had managed to get close enough to Thornton, who probably stood out as the man in charge, to give him a hip wound. But this had not stopped him and his crew from turning their gun around and start punching holes in the other tanks in the same deliberate way. Only when it was obvious they were no longer any threat did Thornton consent to be carried off to a field dressing station. He was awarded an immediate Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Gotanda tank company, which would receive a unit citation, had been wiped out. “A glorious death,” declared Yamashita though he may have had some sympathy with a Japanese history of the Imperial Guard which concluded that brave men had been squandered. Some of the tank crews did attempt to escape from their crippled machines only to be cut down by the waiting infantry. Others turned them into beleaguered fortresses, working their guns as long as they had ammunition to fire from them and the strength to squeeze a trigger. “Until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, rendered useless and uninhabitable,” recalled Lieutenant Ben Hackney, a grazier from Bathurst, who was among the nearby infantry. At Slim the defenders had been surprised by a night tank attack and the use of tracer but once again the Australians had demonstrated what could be achieved with two-pounders in the hands of resolute men.
Also watching the death throes of Gotanda’s tanks were the cameramen Metcalf and Bagnall who had spent the night at Duncan’s brigade HQ at Bakri and appear to have turned up just as the action came to a close. They could hardly believe their luck. These were the images everybody had missed at Gemas when Harrison and the others had been cheered by the infantry. “Some of the few really good pictures that were taken of the war in Malaya,” wrote Ian Morrison of the Times in his wartime book, “Malayan Postscript”. It was all there: smoking tanks with dead crewmen lying alongside them and the Australians only a few yards away crouched behind their small, high velocity guns . Since it was not long after first light, and the nightly battle against mosquitoes only just ended, some of the gunners are still wearing their roll-up Bombay Bloomer shorts let down almost to their ankles.
From Chapter Seventeen:-
For two days running the British battalion, the composite unit made up of the remnants of the East Surreys and Leicesters, was subjected to attacks at dawn. Japanese infantry would loom suddenly out of the mist while from behind these shadowy figures their big four-inch mortars sought out Morrison’s positions among Kampar’s secondary jungle. Mortar bombs do not whistle in flight like artillery shells. Sometimes the distinctive plop they made as they were fired sent men diving for cover. Otherwise, if their luck held, the nerve shattering crack of the first bomb exploding and perhaps the cries of the less fortunate, was the first indication that they were being mortared.
But thanks to the forward observation officers of 88th Field, one of whom found himself dictating co-ordinates down his telephone within fifty yards of the enemy, the British were able to return the high explosive with interest. None of the Japanese mortars were firing a projectile anything like as big as the 25-pound shells that were rarely less than worrying and sometimes scored bullyseye that would have broken lesser troops. Tsuji watched “a continuous stream” of casualties coming back down the hill to safety. “Either carried on stretchers or supported on the shoulders of comrades who were themselves wounded.”
In places the ebb and flow of battle, attack and counter-attack left the British and the Japanese inextricably mixed. One of Morrison’s lieutenant waking alone in a trench shortly before the main action of the day started, heard movement in some neighbouring diggings which were supposed to be empty and found himself face to face with several baleful looking representatives of the Emperor. He emptied his revolver at them and fled into the arms of his alarmed platoon who killed some and scattered the rest. A driver from one of the gunner regiments, out delivering rations, saw that a nearby Bren gun position which was below him but overlooking the observation post he was was visiting, had just been overrun. Instead of tiptoeing away with the bad news, Driver Walker emerged from his cab with a Thompson, got close to the Japanese unobserved and then delivered a one man surprise attack which drove away those who could still move. According to his unit’s history of the campaign, he was “immediately awarded” a Military Medal.
Eventually, the Japanese had succeeded in seizing part of some high ground known as Thompson’s ridge. Morrison felt the British Battalion needed a rest before it mounted any more counter-attacks. A company made up of two platoons of Sikhs and one of Gujars, who are mainly Hindus, was given the job, part of another makeshift battalion built from the detritus of Gurun and Jitra. Its commander was a twenty-one-year-old named Charles Lamb who held the lowest commissioned rank of second lieutenant, another indication of casualties for a company was commanded by at least a captain and very often a major. Because of this that Captain John Graham, the battalion’s second-in-command, decided to lead the attack himself. Towards dusk a double dram of rum was issued and, as they sipped, Graham reminded them that, though few would witness what they were about to do, their own honour and that of the regiment were at stake.
Shortly afterwards, having approached their objective using every scrap of available cover, Graham’s sixty or so men got to their feet and, screaming their old war cries, followed his charge towards the Japanese with seventeen-inch bayonets fixed. Young Lamb and several others went down in the first rush but Graham rallied the rest and pushed on until a small mortar bomb mangled his legs below the knee. Even then he levered himself up off the ground, yelling his men on and, at least one account insists, was seen throwing grenades after he was hit. The only Japanese left on the position were those incapable of leaving it but they had exacted a high price.
Thirty-four of the Indians died, including a Viceroy Commissioned Officer. Lamb was killed outright. Graham, who would probably have been a double amputee had he survived, bled to death though he lived long enough to learn they had won the day. Judging from the pep talk he gave his men it seems obvious that he expected heavy casualties. Nobody was decorated for this epic charge though after the war there was talk in old Indian Army circles of getting Graham a posthumous Victoria Cross. But by that time most of the living witnesses were middle-aged farmers lost among the mud brick villages of the Punjab, their youthful valour as dusty as their land.
From Chapter Twenty-three:-
For the Australians all the rumours they had ever heard about Japanese bravery, or “fanaticism” if you were at the wrong end of it, were coming true. But it seems that several of the Japanese, though prepared to die rather than be captured, were playing dead in the hope that the Australians would move on and leave them to fight another day.
Sergeant Desmond Mulcahy’s particular Lazarus was a fallen sergeant of the Konoye Guards. He was about to search him for the letters and unit identification beloved by battalion intelligence officers, when the dead man sprang indignantly to his feet with a grenade in his right fist. Mulcahy grabbed his left hand to stop him pulling the pin. This was good thinking but it allowed his opponent to bludgeon him about the head with his grenade while he did his best to fend him off with left jabs. Mulcahy shouted for help and while he was holding his arms the Guards NCO, so far from the pomp and circumstance which had moulded his military career, was first bayoneted and then shot.
More puzzling was the case of the unarmed man who got to his feet and charged Private ‘Bluey’ Watkins, a Welshman born in Swansea. Watkins had sportingly thrown down his rifle and took on his assailant only to have the bout ended by a .303 fired at such close quarters it left him deaf for a while. There appears to be no good reason why this particular Japanese could not have been restrained and captured. But it seems that it rapidly became the norm, as it did almost everywhere the Imperial Japanese Army ever met western troops, to regard almost any attempt to take them alive as much too risky. “From that first engagement we learnt not to trust their wounded,” remembered Charles Warden, a private in B Company during the fight outside Bakri and, five months short of his seventeenth birthday, one of the 2/19th’s underage infantrymen.
Both sides could be unpredictable. At Slim river the Argylls’ Lt Primrose had shot a Japanese officer in the stomach at close range and survived a beating to be taken prisoner. Yet the Japanese had casually murdered those wounded prisoners unable to walk rather than be inconvenienced by them.
By the time they had made sure of every Japanese they could see, and counted all the bodies, Anderson’s battalion reckoned they had killed 140. Among them was an officer wearing a distinctive white shirt who died leading an ill-advised charge. “He was hit by Bren and tommy and rifle fire and his shirt just flew into little pieces,” observed Warden. Australian losses had been ten killed and fifteen wounded. With this and the destruction of the tanks the Australians had started as well at Bakri as they did at Gemas but it would turn out to be their high water mark.
From Chapter Twenty-five:-
Over the next few days some more stragglers from Painter’s brigade got to the island. By 3 February the grand total had reached 62 officers and men. The last was a British signalman called Winterbottam who removed his boots and swam across. None of these appear to have brought news of Painter’s capture and it was sometime before Percival’s HQ could bring themselves to accept that his brigade was lost. Dane and other daring Tiger Moth pilots went searching for them but brought back nothing more than fresh holes in their four wings for the fitters to patch and glue.
At night the search was continued by a couple of officers from the newly arrived Sherwood Forresters, part of the 18th East Anglian Division which was now almost all on the island and had been allotted positions on its northern shore. Captain “Black Bill” Thirlby, a keen yachtsman, had discovered an abandoned RAF launch armed with twin Lewes guns. Along with Lieutenant John Goatly, the battalion’s intelligence officer, they would go to the broken end of the Causeway, switch off the engines and then drift towards the enemy occupied shore, calling into the darkness, “Are there any British troops there?” But the only reply was the, “tok,tok, tok” of the nightjar which sounded remarkably like a small engine coming towards them and made them reach for their machine-guns.
There were, of course, plenty of British Imperial troops still at large on the other side of the water but mostly well out of earshot. The loose ends of Percival’s shaken command were distributed the length and breadth of the peninsula. In Kota Baharu bazaar some of the Dogra soldiers of Keys’ old brigade, who had given the Japanese such a bloody nose on the beaches there, were learning to pass themselves off as locals. On Penang island, deep in its mountain forest, were seven Leicesters under a Sergeant Bennett. With the help of some courageous Chinese, they had been hiding out there ever since Jitra and the ambush of their battalion as Morrison led it singing into Alo Star. In central Malaya, often still not all that far from Slim River, there were scores of Argylls in various states of repair as malaria, blackwater fever and beri beri began to take their toll. Dr Ryrie, the Scots doctor who had witnessed Kuala Lumpur’s moment of anarchy, was feeding a party of Argylls hiding out in he jungle near his leper colony at Sungei Buloh . The Japanese were suspicious of him but, terrified of leprosy, they seemed willing, for the time being at least, to let the doctor stay on. Lindsey Robertson, who had enjoyed such a brief moment as the Argyll’s commander, was leading a small party of determined men south and had made it plain that he did not intend to be captured. Others were heading for the west coast in the hopes of getting a boat across the Malacca Straits to Dutch Sumatra. Among these was the Australian anti-tank gunner Harrison who had wreaked such havoc at Gemas and had spent a few days with some Chinese guerrillas before heading west. Most of the evaders were helped by the more politically aware Chinese, often at a terrible price. A sick Argyll officer, gradually recovering his health because of the bundles of food delivered daily to a certain tree by the teenaged daughter of a Chinese schoolteacher, one day discovered with his lunch a note in English: “They took my father and cut off his head. I will continue to feed you as long as I can.”
Near Parit Sulong a strange Ben Gunn figure with filthy matted hair, long bushy beard and wild, staring eyes haunted the Malayan villages in the area. This was the Australian Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the 2/29th battalion, survivor of the massacre of the Australian and Indian wounded at Parit Sulong who, unable to walk, had told his companion to go on. He was being fed by nervous locals who were not as hostile as the more middle class Malays, particularly the school teachers and doctors, who had organised the pro-Japanese Malayan Youth Union. They would not allow him into their homes but would put food out for him the way people sometimes feed stray cats. Hackney was living from day to day, giving time for his legs to mend, determined not to be recaptured. Already the fate of his fellow survivor, Lance-Havildar Benedict who had been caught with his two comrades in the Sappers and Miners while they were trying to find a boat at Muar. This time they were reasonably treated. Nor did their new captors show much interest in the prominent half healed gash in Sapper Periasamy’s neck.
Not all the British on the northern side of the Straits were evaders. The SOE stay behind parties had gone into action. After a shaky start when most of his explosives were stolen Spencer-Chapman had not only recovered them but was beginning to refine his ambush techniques, supplementing War Office plastic explosive with some mining gelignite they had acquired.
"I hit Sartin on the shoulder and we all pressed our bodies down into the soft soil. Harvey and I pulled the pins out of our grenades. As far as we could make out on reconstructing the scene later, the bomb must have exploded beneath the petrol tank and ignited that too...the flash was followed by a steady and brilliant blaze which lit up the whole scene like stage setting. As I threw my grenades, I caught a glimpse of another large closed truck crashing into the burning wreckage and the third one turning broadside on with a scream of brakes."
From Chapter Thirty-two:-
Every time the gun on Blakang Mati fired Katherine Stapledon noticed how the blast flapped her trousers against her legs. She was standing on the deck of the SS Gorgon, a small Blue Funnel liner anchored in the roads and not far from where the coastal gunners were firing inland. Next to her was her friend Billy, an Australian woman who had worked at the RAF communications centre with her. The ship had come in from Australia a couple of days before laden with tinned food. When the crew discovered that, because of the air raids, most of the dockers had fled they had unloaded it themselves.
Like many of the wives, Katherine had put her name down for evacuation under protest and when the chance came had left only because her husband had insisted. There had been very short notice and the two permitted suitcases were not fully packed. At the last moment she had scooped up some table silver and cutlery, wrapped them in a silk petticoat and stuffed them among her clothes. Partings of this kind were a wretched business . There could be no certainty whatsoever that they would meet again and many did not. Nor was it always the ones who remained who died. Few realised it but the situation was rapidly reaching the point where Japanese naval and air supremacy would make it more dangerous to go than to stay. Women registered on evacuation lists would often be telephoned at home or their place of work and told they had an hour to pack and get down to the docks. “The men said goodbye to us cheerfully, waving and saying they would come down next morning, but none of them came. They realised too well how painful it would be for all of us.”
Twenty-four later, the SS Gorgon had got no further than an anchorage in the roads and during that time they had been boarded by two gangs of deserters. The first were sixteen British soldiers off a motor launch. Katherine Stapledon watched them come aboard.
There was no-one to stop them. They were armed and looked very determined. They went straight to the captain and demanded to be taken with us. Their story was that they had been told to get out as best they could... They commanded the deck with their rifles and we thought that if the Captain refused to take them, some of us would surely get shot. As soon as they heard they could come along they collected their rifles and gave them up. It was clear that they had seen heavy fighting and appeared dazed and strung up...
To avoid a repetition of this the Gorgon’s master took his ship a little further out to sea but an hour later thirty-two Australian soldiers under a sergeant came out to the vessel in sampans and Katherine was amazed at the way they managed to paddle through the swell. This was followed by a brief struggle with some of the Gorgon’s crew who were in a launch at the bottom of the gangway.
It was a ghastly sight. They shouted, “Take us, Oh! Take us - don’t leave us behind.” We then hoped they would get aboard safely...Directly they appeared on deck our feelings changed...all of us were feeling bitter and distraught at the thought of our husbands left behind, most of them unarmed. ..who knows what mental and physical strain had led them to take this cowardly step?... I approached the sergeant and asked him why they had come. He said that Singapore was falling and they thought they might as well leave. They could do nothing.... I told him they should have stayed and done their best. After all, they were armed, and many civilians including our husbands, had stayed though they had no means of defending themselves. He then told me that they got lost and didn’t know to whom they ought to report... the women ignored them though some of the men made much of them and bought them drinks.
When Wizardus woke up he was in a bed which he later discovered was in an overcrowded ward of Alexandra hospital. He had probably been given quite a lot of morphia because he kept drifting in and out of consciousness and even when he felt awake he suspected he was dreaming. Shells were apparently landing close by. Sometimes he thought he could feel their blast. It was night and the orderlies were putting blackout boards on the windows but as fast as they put them up they were blown out again. In one of his waking moments he asked the man to the right, who was not on a bed but lying on a stretcher below him, if he still had a right hand. The man picked up his arm and for the first time Anckorn saw there was a stump or lump at the end of it bandaged up like a boxing glove. Then his neighbour put his hand in inside the boxing glove and started, finger by finger, with “This little piggy went to market”. By the time the last little piggy had gone all the way home, the conjuror knew he had not made his last stage appearance after all. He drifted back to sleep. The next time he woke up he was obviously dreaming because there were Japanese in the ward. Then he noticed his neighbour seemed to be staring in the same direction.
I said, aren’t they Japanese soldiers and he said yes they are. I said what are they doing? He said they’re taking people on the front lawn and killing them. I said, “Oh I see.” Then I went off again. The next time I woke up the Japanese were back in the ward, going from bed to bed with fixed bayonets. I said out loud to myself two things. “I’ll never be 24”. The other one was, “Poor Mum”. By then they had got close to my bed for my turn of bayoneting. Book by Colin-SmithBuy this book fromAmazon for the complete story.