Monday 8th -Tuesday 16th December 194162
Martin Ogle takes part in the defence of Penang beach in Northern Malaya
Martin Ogle was a schoolteacher in Penang and also a volunteer part time soldier—the colonial equivalent of a “territorial”. Until November 1941 he had told his pupils that Japan was far too preoccupied in China to have the resources to attack Malaya and believed this firmly himself. He was mobilized on 1 December 1941 and arrived at his unit headquarters in Peel Avenue, Penang, at seven the same evening. His unit was soon allocated to beach defence duties in pill boxes and bunkers made of the trunks of palm trees. Ogle’s pill box was close to the Penang Swimming Club.
8th December 1941 (Monday)
We heard on the radio of the Japanese landing at Kota Bahru. We had hardly had breakfast before there was the distant sound of bombing, and up rose a great pall of smoke. Sungei Patani aerodrome was being blitzed; it is believed that most of the Blenheim aircraft were caught on the ground, some of the pilots being on the Penang side of the water, waiting for the ferry to take them across. Alor Star aerodrome was done for at the same time.
Butterworth aerodrome, opposite Penang, was attacked, and reconnaissance planes appeared over Penang without dropping anything. This gave the Asian population the illusion of safety—a fine view of the bombing over Butterworth and no harm to themselves. ARP wardens and Police were powerless to disperse the thousands that congregated on the Esplanade, gaping at the excitement. The Safety First propaganda that had been drummed into them for so long was no match for their curiosity…..
About 11am a swarm of bombers appeared, and at first it looked as if they were going to have another go at Butterworth airfield. But they came on and on, in a dead straight line for Beach Street, Penang. We Volunteers were a mile or so to the right of their line of flight, cowering in split trenches, but when it became apparent that they were not coming directly for us we had a ring side view of what followed. There were twenty seven Japanese bombers (a favourite number with them) flying at eight to ten thousand feet. There was not a single anti aircraft gun or fighter to oppose them so they came on in tight formation directly for the town from the north. We felt they meant business, but everyone was shaken by the horror of the reality. One moment there was nothing but the drone of 27 engines, next moment the pandemonium of bombs; they all seemed to let go together, yet the explosions kept up a continuous rumbling for several minutes, like an earthquake. The planes went on out of sight; they may have turned round the island because, 20 minutes later, a “V” of nine appeared, again from the north. Smoke and flames were already piling up from the town. These nine dropped another load and were hardly out of sight before the second nine appeared and then the third. And finally, after half an hour they all came back again, 27 in close formation and dropped what they had left. In effect 81 bombers had passed over in little more than an hour.
Western Road, close by the camp, was soon thick with Asians fleeing to the safety of the Botanical Gardens, Penang Hill etc. and in the afternoon we met civilians who had been caught in the blitz. Those I spoke to had taken shelter in the new shelters built in and around Fort Cornwallis which had not been hit. The bombs were evidently of light calibre as not many substantial buildings were flattened, but older buildings and the flimsy houses of the Chinese quarter were said to be badly knocked about. Far worse of course was the loss of life. It was announced later on the radio that 506 casualties were brought to the General Hospital on this day alone; these were people still alive when found so there must have been many times that number found dead or never found at all. The Fire Station had been hit and most of the appliances put out of action in the first attack. An ARP organisation had been built up but there were not nearly enough Europeans in it, and in any case this first ( and almost last) of its air raid experiences was altogether too much for it. I believe the Chinese wardens did wonders in a hopeless situation, but the panic and destruction were beyond them. The greatest need was for drivers of cars and lorries but the great majority of local drivers had run away.
15th December (Monday)
The Japanese had achieved their object—the terrorizing of the population and the breakdown of normal life. The town was practically empty of Asians who were camping out on the lower slopes of Penang Hill, and a handful of Europeans were struggling with an impossible task to keep things going. Forty eight hours after our move out to the coast our quartermaster appeared with some food. He told us that the Singapore Cold Storage plant and bakery had been taken over by the Army, some bakers etc impressed from somewhere, and that some semblance of order was being restored out of chaos. The few European civilians and fewer European Volunteers on Headquarters staff were working day and night distributing food to Asians who came in on bicycles, in cars, with handcarts etc to collect rice and other foodstuffs of which there were plentiful stocks. But those native shops not destroyed were bolted and barred, the owners having run away, and in some cases the Army had to break them open. As for the general news about the situation, he knew little more than we did. The incredible news of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse shook morale badly, but we kept up the pretence before the Malays that there was nothing to worry about. Meanwhile the days passed idly with less and less to do, while we waited for a possible attempt at a landing.
About 6.30pm we got moving at last, in lorries and with many stops, down to Swettenham Pier. It was pitch dark before we got there and it had started to rain heavily so I saw nothing at all of the town or of bomb damage. There was no light anywhere—it was rumoured that Butterworth Power Station had been blown up (by us), and in any case no lights were allowed for fear the Japanese might get wind of what was going on and try a night raid. At the Pier we found the Straits Steamship’s SS Pangkor, but before we could embark we had to load up piles of equipment, machine guns, ammunition boxes which were lying on the wharf in the rain. Everything and everybody piled in somehow, leaving the sorting out to be done in the morning as the Captain wanted to get as far as possible from Penang before daylight. We cast off about 11pm. The ship was totally blacked out and crowds of people were milling about in the dark. Presently all Volunteers were called for, to go to a lighted room and clean machine guns etc for Ac-Ac mounting in the morning. We had a chance, then, to see who was who. And some appeared to be missing, though whether left behind in the confusion no one knew.
Had I known that we were bound for Singapore, leaving Penang to its fate ( and not, as some said, going to land further down the coast to form a line against the enemy), I should have felt very much inclined to slip away in the darkness before embarking and remain in Penang. The thought of scuttling away in this shameful manner, leaving thousands of people—including all those I had myself been teaching to trust us-- was extremely depressing.
On the first day of the invasion, Martin Ogle observed hopelessly outdated RAF Brewster Buffalo fighters performing poorly against their Japanese opponents and saw at least one Buffalo shot down. Stragglers from the Leicester Regiment began to move through their area on 15 and 16 December, bringing news that defences at the front were crumbling. At this point Asian volunteers were given the option of disbanding, throwing away their uniforms and going home to put on native dress. The majority did so.
After an eventful voyage to Singapore, Martin Ogle would evade capture by sailing to Sumatra in a small fishing boat on 15 February 1942.
62 Reproduced from “The Faraway War” by Richard J Aldrich who extracted this diary entry from Martin Ogle’s diary donated by him to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.