Sketch by Jack Chalker

Retreat to Tebong

Slim River02

Lt Hartley was one of only 200 men of 137 Regt to survive the Slim River battle. They decided not to surrender but to regain the British lines at Kuala Lumpur, about 50 miles to the south. They split into two parties, taking rifles, handguns and water but little food. One party was quickly captured; the other, including Lt Hartley, crossed the Slim River by the railway bridge.

They "trekked through jungle and formed human chains to get across the rivers", says Harold Payne on his tape. It was a "choice between crocodiles and Japs". They could not shoot the crocodiles, for fear of being heard, so they threw rocks at them.  Payne remembers being "tail-end Charlie" during one hand-holding river crossing.

They were on the move from around midday on 7th January until 9th January. During this time, though they did not know it, the Japanese were resting and regrouping. By day the exhausted British survivors hacked through the hot jungle, out of sight of the Japanese reconnaissance aircraft constantly overhead. At night, to avoid meeting Japanese troops on the adjoining road, they marched along the railway line.

In the jungle they probably made no more than three miles in the daylight hours left after the Slim River battle of 7th January. During the night on the railway line, no doubt after a brief sleep beside the track, they may have made 15 miles.

Burt Briggs, 28, regimental HQ personnel officer, recalls wading across the river at Slim station, where the railway and the road meet. At Tanjong Malin, on the morning of 8th January, they met an Australian transport unit, which took them the 40 miles to Batu Caves on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The Australians probably wanted to stay on the direct road to Singapore, about 200 miles to the south, to avoid Kuala Lumpur centre. Today Batu Caves are marked on maps of Malaysia as a tourist attraction.

The Slim River survivors expected a major British stand at Kuala Lumpur, and it was their duty to get there. Waving thanks to the Australians, they walked into the centre of Kuala Lumpur on the morning of 10th January, or possibly the previous evening.

Slim River-2

"We didn't look very smart", recalls Payne. A very senior British commander on a fact-finding visit from Singapore rebuked them: "You look disgraceful. Smarten yourselves up". Payne recalls that the men were not impressed.

At Kuala Lumpur station - hungry, filthy and totally exhausted, and having found no "British lines" - the 137 Regt survivors of Jitra, Kampar and Slim River fell into a train, probably the last for Singapore. They had been in desperate action without respite for a whole month, with no air cover and in monsoon jungle conditions for which they had never been trained. They had hardly slept or eaten for four days.

At Tebong, about 80 miles along the track, the train found the level-crossing gates closed and so stopped in Tebong station. At least one of the survivors has always believed that a Japanese agent had arranged for the level crossing to be shut to facilitate the ensuing air attack.

Burt Briggs believes that the aircraft which now attacked the stationary train were Japanese Navy Mitsubishi Zeros. They attacked with   bombs and guns, killing ten British soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. One of the dead was 2nd Lt Robert Hartley.

Harold Payne remembers looking out of the carriage window just before the attack and seeing "a lot of Malays running in all directions". His bizarre first thought was that they were being attacked by a swarm of bees. He quickly realised that it was an air raid, jumped out of the train and took cover among the trees. Payne says on his tape in the Imperial War Museum that "a brother officer was killed in the next carriage to mine".

Through the Far East Prisoners Association I tracked him down to his home in Tunbridge Wells. Yes, he confirmed, "the brother officer in the next carriage" was Bob Hartley. He had been killed in a direct hit on the train. Survivors had to be extricated from underneath the carriage roof and baggage racks. Lt Hartley was buried by "the other lads from Blackpool."

Harold Payne recalls that a Malay asked him to conduct the burial service. Pretending to read from a Prayer Book (in fact his pocket diary) "I said a few appropriate words".

The military burial procedure is to hand in to HQ one of the two identity tags worn by every soldier, together with a note of his burial location. This is not always possible in the confusions of war, but the tags of the ten men killed at Tebong would probably have been handed in to HQ Singapore. Records may not have survived the administrative chaos preceding the surrender of Singapore six weeks later (15th February). The 137 Regt War Diary's last entry was on 31st December.

 

Next Chapter

Aftermath

 

 

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[2nd Lt. R. Hartley] [Orders to Sail] [Journey up Malaya] [Japanese Invade] [Kajang to Jitra] [Slim River] [Retreat to Tebong] [Aftermath] [Regiment History] [Map of Malaya]

 

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