8th December 1941
0242 ROMO reports attempted landing by Japanese at KOTA BAHRU
0350 Blackouts and air raid warning.
0410 Fire and aircraft heard for approximately 8 minutes, 2 unidentified fires.
0505 All clear sounded.
0630 Informed by BIO by telephone that Japan declared war on Britain and Japan [sic) as of dawn 8th December ’41. Bombing of Singapore, Manila, Honolulu, Pearl Harbour. Landings made by Japanese forces north of KOTA BAHRU - British land and air forces engaging Japanese. Suspicions of attempted landing south of KOTA BAHRU. Enemy making for KOTA BAHRU aerodrome. Ten bombs dropped at JENJAH aerodrome - no damage. 6
For the rest of December the Battalion, along with everyone else, struggled to come to terms with what was happening; more especially the speed with which everything was happening. The Japanese meanwhile continued their seemingly unstoppable progress down the Malay Peninsula towards Singapore.
On the 10th January General Percival, together with the officers who made up the high command, decided to reorganise the forces at his disposal for the defence of Singapore. It was decided to split the available troops into two groups, and so the 2nd Battalion became part of what was called Westforce, under the command of Major General Gordon Bennett. 7
As a consequence of this reorganisation the 2nd Battalion received new orders. On the night of Sunday the 11th January of 1942 the Battalion was instructed to leave Singapore itself and move on to the Malayan mainland to reinforce the 9th Indian Division who were then holding the area between Muar and Batu Anam, a town some eight miles north-west of Segamat. This was, effectively, the territory that they were meant to hold in the face of the advancing Japanese.
This area was approximately halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The advance party under Captain Payne reported to Major General Barstow in the early hours of Monday and the bulk of the battalion should have arrived at 1000 hours the next day. However, as was to be the case throughout this campaign, things did not go according to plan. The Motor Transport column arrived at 1230 hours, having made the 136 mile journey with few problems, but there was still no sign of the rest of the men. The problem was that no one had seen fit to set up any orders for the movement of the main mass of the men by train to Segamat; consequently the journey which took six hours for the motor transport column by road took twenty-eight hours by rail.
After a tedious journey on the hardest of seats the battalion shuffled into Labis, or more precisely a distance from it, by about 4 p.m. that day…eventually the battalion left the train in the small hours of a very, very wet morning [13th January) and marched about two miles before being picked up by an Australian M.T. section…It was a wet, cold body of hungry and muddy troops that the lorries decanted into bare and smelly billets at 8 a.m. 8
Following their arrival at Segamat, Dick and the rest of his comrades were employed for two days preparing defences in the area. They dug trenches, felled trees to secure lines of fire; strung wire and tried their best to avoid the Japanese bombing attacks. There then came a period of some four weeks that were confusing in the extreme. The Japanese troops continued to press southwards towards Singapore. British, Malayan, Indian and Australian troops were moved from pillar to post, usually in a hurry and often just too late, in the continuing attempts to stem the advance.
On the 15th/16th January the Battalion, after a ten-mile march, took up positions in a line linking Tanjong Balai, Tanjong Kling, Pulau Sekuching and Bukit Sesop, lining up with the Mysore Infantry. By the middle of January the Japanese were in Kuala Lumpur and the 9th Division and the attached 2nd Battalion were withdrawing southwards. On the 15th HQ Company were ordered to recce for reserve Coy position. 9 Then, on the 19th, at 1230 hours the Battalion received an order from HQ to withdraw to Yong Peng. A reconnaissance patrol of two officers and a sergeant was sent to find the troops that the Battalion was supposed to link up with. The sergeant’s name was Swarbrick, but he was not, as far as we know, any immediate relation of ours.
The recce was presumably successful because at 1930 hours on that same day the Battalion began its march towards the area Segamat - Labis Road. There they were picked up and taken to Yong Peng. The war diarist comments that on marching through Segamat large fires (were) burning - presumably scorched earth policy. On arrival at Yong Peng heard that B Coy had gone into action at Hill BINDU 661 attacking towards NORTHWEST. 11
So, on that night of Monday the 19th / Tuesday 20th January elements of the 2nd Battalion, having just arrived in the area of the Bakri-Yong Peng road, were expected to re-take the road despite darkness and thick jungle and the fact that they had just arrived in this unfamiliar area. The bulk of the Battalion appears not to have arrived in the area until 0400 hours after travelling through the jungle for some eight hours; the last part of the journey courtesy of some Australian transport. Needless to say the attack failed to achieve its objective.
From the 20th January the Battalion came under the command of the 53rd Infantry Brigade, along with the 5th Norfolks and the 2/16 Punjabis. On the Wednesday and Thursday of that same week, the 21st and 22nd of January, all of the 2nd Battalion, together with the Norfolks and the Punjabi troops, under the overall command of Brigadier Duke were ordered to halt the Japanese in the region of Bukit Pelandok. The men were tired, having been almost constantly on the move, and there was only limited artillery support. There were difficulties with both reconnaissance and wireless communications, so much so that by the time the artillery began to range and register its targets, the Japanese had had ample time to call up air support and effectively forestall any meaningful attack. By the afternoon of the 22nd Duke had cancelled the attack and gone back on the defensive.
The Battalion war diary described the events of those two days as follows:
Bn ordered to attack ridge of hills which are held by enemy and in a position to control the YONG PENG - LABIS Road - attack to commence at 1400 hrs but it was finally decided that attack will now take place at dawn 22nd. A company of the AIF cut off are hoped to be relieved if the attack is successful.
0430 Bn moved up to slopes of Bt INAS
0630 RA commence ranging fire on hill - fails - retry at 0830
(The artillery began again at 0830) but at 0915 enemy planes [estimated strength 9 bombers and 4 fighters) bombed and machine gunned the area occupied by the Bn and Punjabis until 1010 - inflicting the following casualties: 6 killed and 5 wounded. 12
At 1115 the Battalion withdrew, under sniper fire, to the position previously held by the 6/Norfolks.
The Battalion had moved up to the start line in buses. The artillery failure was due to faulty ammunition and difficulties in registering the range. The attack was supposed to be carried out by A and C Companies; but when the artillery fire failed to arrive the men were left laying out in the open for some three hours at the mercy of the Japanese bombers and fighters which attacked them for upwards of an hour. The Loyals lost six men killed and six others wounded.
0900 Bn commences to withdraw through edge of jungle. A Coy commences and are followed by HQ Coy and 2 pl of C Coy.
1800 Small parties from D Coy arrive and report that the enemy had attacked from the flanks and it is highly probable that B, D and 15 pl. have been cut off. Strength of the Bn is now two weak Coys of very tired men and report is sent that Bn is unable to take up position as ordered but will take up position astride the road. Bn moves by MT to position. 13
We have a more detailed account of part of the action on the 23rd in the form of a statement by L/Cpl A. Busby no. 3854683. This account was included with the Battalion war diary and explains how he came to be separated from and then managed to rejoin the Loyals. I quote it here, in full, because it gives such a vivid picture of the conditions and dangers faced by Dick and his comrades at that time.
On Friday 23 January 42 I was in command of No. 1 Section, 16 Platoon, “D” Coy, The Loyal Regiment.
At 1200 hrs Major RAVEN ordered the company to hold its position west of YONG PENG until 1600 hrs. 17 platoon went forward about 200 yards on the right of the road, 18 platoon occupied the edge of a strip of jungle on the left of the road while 16 platoon was told off to cover the ground between these positions No. 1 section was the right section No. 2 section had an anti tank rifle and bren gun post on the road and No. 3 section was detailed as counter-attack section. We took up our positions and settled down to wait. All this time the Punjabis were withdrawing through our lines.
At 1330 hrs my platoon commander told me that “B” Coy were withdrawing on the left of 18 Platoon. Shortly after this our area was plastered with mortar fire from short range and two Curtis-Wright fighters kept circling very low machine-gunning. Every time they passed a section post there were two or three loud crashes, which I think were small bombs or hand grenades dropped from the aircraft.
The Punjabis were still coming through and I am sure the Japanese were advancing alongside them. Heavy rifle and machine gun fire broke out all round us. Our post on the road was subjected to intense mortar fire and there was no sign of 17 Platoon in front. By this time I had lost all sense of time, 18 Platoon appeared to have withdrawn from the volume of fire which came from down the road. L/Cpl GOOD came running past my post without arms or equipment and shouted, “No. 17 is out of it”. I don’t know whether he meant they had withdrawn or were wiped out. I stood up to view the situation but could not see any of our men. Two machine or sub-machine guns opened up on me but with no effect. The battle seemed to have rushed past me so I ordered my section to withdraw into the swamp in an endeavour to reach the road and cover the withdrawal of any of our other men. We were seen entering the swamp and were again subjected to heavy mortar and small arms fire which was ineffective. The speed of the Japanese advance was such that I could not get sufficiently far ahead to make a stand, travelling as we were on our stomachs through swamp and jungle.
After proceeding thus for about two miles we struck the road only to discover eight medium tanks behind us. We kept to the swamp and brush until the tanks had rumbled up to us. Unfortunately they stopped alongside us and we couldn’t get away. For an hour or more we lay in silence hardly daring to breathe while the Japanese appeared to be making a reconnaissance.
After this the last tank was sent back & shortly returned with at least two battalions. The inevitable occurred and we were discovered. They hauled us out after one of my men was bayoneted in the scuffle. We were stripped of our arms and equipment and our pockets were rifled. They took not only our pay books and papers but also such things as pens, watches and other personal things. We were then motioned to sit down on the side of the road while some of their officers had a very short conference as to our fate. After about two minutes they motioned us to stand up and turn round. I immediately sensed what was afoot and dived off the road. Hell broke lose as I hit the ground. They seemed to open up with every weapon they had. After wriggling for about fifty yards without being hit I looked back and saw one of my section following me. He was Pte Eckersley. At that moment his thigh was smashed by a heavy calibre bullet and blood splashed all around him. I turned back and made a tourniquet of some old flannellette [sic) but by the time I had finished he was inconscious [sic) either from loss of blood or pain. He was heavier than me and I could not drag him with me, so I had to leave him there. I continued to crawl towards the jungle but about that time the Norfolks opened fire on the Japanese and I managed to dodge both lots of fire and reached the Norfolk lines. After a short rest I set out and found my battalion headquarters and reported back. 14
On the 24th there was continued contact with the enemy and increasing evidence that the Battalion was being steadily outflanked by the rapid Japanese advance.
In the small hours of 24th January … the rearguards withdrew, the bridge at Yong Peng having been finally demolished, and the battalion began to wind its way back to the selected outpost position at the 63rd mile peg. The rain had stopped but it was very dark; no Japs had been heard or seen and the march was completed without interference… The position at the 63rd mile peg was reached about 5 a.m. the companies being placed by the officers who had reconnoitred it…About 10 o’clock enemy cyclists appeared at the road block and were engaged by Lieut. Fuller’s platoon, from a good position on the left of the road, when the numbers nosing along warranted opening up with the Bren gun…(Both A and C Companies were being slowly but surely surrounded at this point by large numbers of Japanese who were able to outflank the Loyals because the line they were trying to hold was too extended for the forces that they then had at their disposal.) When it became obvious that both companies would soon be exposed to automatic fire in enfilade and in the rear, the C.O. ordered the withdrawal of C Company through A Company. 15
As a result of all of this activity, the attacks, the counter-attacks and the withdrawals, the Battalion had lost some two hundred men; killed, wounded or missing. This was effectively a third of their fighting strength and the Battalion was at this point reduced to some five hundred and fifty men.
By Sunday the 25th January the 2nd Battalion, now fighting alongside the Australians, had got back to the area around Ayer Hitam, only some fifty or sixty miles to the north of Singapore. There was continuous heavy rain on that day, with little or no activity early on. (1 Jap cyclist shot but died before able to be questioned. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Elrington this unfortunate Japanese soldier suddenly appeared on his bike, whizzing down the hill. He was quickly shot by one of the Australians and his equipment then examined by the Loyal’s intelligence sergeant.) 16 That afternoon they were attacked and then the Battalion counter-attacked and succeeded in halting the Japanese 21st Brigade.
1600 Bn attacked frontally, on right of road and right flanks, under heavy trench mortar and machine gun fire and artillery. Our trench mortar fire is very effective. 17
Despite this dusk attack, the Battalion held its position and the enemy activity died down. At 1845 the attack started up again, from all sides. At 1940 hrs A and C companies were ordered by Lieutenant-Colonel Elrington to withdraw. Most of C Company had been cut off, although some did later get through. The retreat was a difficult affair, through marshy land and under constant enemy fire. Altogether Dick and the rest of the men marched some fourteen miles, with occasional halts, until they were picked up by Australian motor transport and taken to the 41st milestone. The Battalion then transferred to R.A.S.C. transport and moved further south.
On the 26th January at 0800 the Battalion arrived back in Singapore, not to their usual home of Gillman Barracks, but to Bidadaru Camp. The war diary recorded casualties of 7 men known to have been killed and 200 men missing in action. That comparatively huge total of missing men, nearly a quarter of the Battalion’s effective strength, clearly underlines the chaotic nature of jungle warfare. Once companies or platoons of men had lost contact with each other in jungle conditions and with the Japanese advancing so quickly, there was no way in which their fate could be known with any degree of certainty. By the end of January most of the British and allied troops had completed their withdrawal from the Malayan peninsula.
On the 30th January, after three days of rest and refitting at Bidadaru Camp, the Battalion was ordered to take up positions covering the southern end of the Johore Causeway, which connected Johore with Singapore Island. The last surviving entry of the war diary is dated 31st January and records the destruction of approximately seventy-five yards of the Johore Causeway in an attempt to prevent the Japanese crossing over onto Singapore Island itself.
Two days later the Battalion were relieved by the 2/30th Australian Imperial Force and returned to Bidadaru Camp. At that time, though nominally four companies, casualties had meant that C and D companies were joined together to form one effective company. A Company, equipped with Bren gun carriers, under the command of Major F.G. Barnes were ordered to mount internal security patrols to prevent the possibility of rioting by the indigenous population. B Company and the combined C-D Company were detailed to defend the northern shore of the island.
On the 8th of February two Japanese divisions crossed the Putri Narrows and landed on the north-west shore of the island. This was an area of mangrove swamps, previously thought impassable. The situation was now extremely serious and deteriorating rapidly. The 2nd Loyals were now ordered to stop the enemy advance on the west coast approaches. There followed repeated Japanese attacks in the Ulu Pandan and Reformatory Road areas. The 2nd Loyal’s left flank was on higher but more open ground and was protected by machine gun sections of another unit, which was suddenly withdrawn, without warning, which allowed the Japanese to outflank the Battalion’s position. There was added confusion when a force of inexperienced Indian troops, sent as reinforcements, mistakenly opened fire on the Battalion’s position.
The 2nd Loyals then moved back to take up carefully prepared positions in the area of Gillman Barracks, their peacetime home, and the Tiger Brewery. C-D Company, under the command of Captain Brooke, came under very heavy mortar fire in the bungalow area of the barracks until, eventually, their strength was reduced to just three officers and seventeen other ranks. B Company, under Major Leighton, also suffered heavy casualties. [Curiously Dick remembers that, even before the Japanese invasion of the Malay peninsular, he had had a dream about being in Gillman Barracks under attack by bombs).
Just five days after that Japanese landing on the north-west shore, on Friday 13th February, the so-called “Black Friday”, the situation was rapidly spiralling out of control. The whole of the island was covered in thick black smoke from the burning rubber in the godowns on the harbour. That smoke mixed with the smoke from the burning oil installations on Pulau Bukom and the other oil refineries to the south. The Japanese also cut off the water supply from the mainland on that day. Both sides were shelling each other furiously and the Japanese air attacks were almost continuous.
Dick was at this time serving with the H.Q. Company, under Major Barnes [“a damn good bloke” according to Dick). This group was still a sizeable force and was able to cover the withdrawal of their battered comrades to Mount Washington. The H.Q. Company were holding Gillman Barracks and Dick was then with a group of men, serving under the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Elrington; their group occupying and defending what had been the sergeants’ mess and was then, in effect, the Battalion Headquarters. The Japanese subjected the Barracks to a fierce mortar attack, up to “thirty mortars a minute” as Dick remembers it. Despite the ferocity of the repeated enemy attacks Dick recalls that the Colonel, a fine soldier, never wavered in his resolve to hold on. 19
At about 7.30 p.m. (on Sunday 15th, the day of the surrender) a light machine gun section opened fire at some Japanese who appeared on the high ground above Gillman Barracks. These were the last shots fired in the Malayan campaign. Again the Loyals had fought to the bitter end. Nearly an hour after General Percival had surrendered, this news had not yet reached the Battalion who were still preoccupied with the task to which they were called. All ranks were astounded by this development . 20
When the men of the Loyals finally surrendered: a Japanese colonel… walked across the battle-scarred grounds … to the little band whose resistance had been so stubborn. He introduced himself to the colonel of the Loyal Regiment.
“I wish to congratulate you and your men on your defence. How many men have you?”
“A hundred and twenty-nine.”
“Is that all?”
“What other troops are there here?”
“No more here. Beyond that hill there are a few.”
“So! You are to be congratulated; you have opposite you a division.” 21
7 Information from General Percival’s account of the Malayan Campaign published in ‘The London Gazette’ 1948
8 Quote from the account of the 2nd Battalion in Malaya by Lt Col Elrington. CAB 106/174
9 Battalion war diary op cit.
10 This was almost certainly Sergeant Joseph Swarbrick, no. 3853167, born 28th January 1913 and whose home address was 12, Salter Street, Preston, Lancashire. The spaces for father’s and mother’s names on his card are blank, but there is the name Louis Swarbrick and the Salter Street address as the Destination of Report. His occupation in civilian life was given as “Butcher” – on 20th July he was sent to Osaka camp in Honshu – on 10th May 1945 he was sent to Fukuoka Camp [no. XXVII]. He was released on the 22nd September 1945 to Ambassador Griffin at Nagasaki. Japanese POW records - PRO ref. WO 345 / 50
11 Ref. WO 172 / 147 op cit.
14 Statement of no. 3854683 L/Cpl Busby page 402, 403 2nd Loyal’s War Diary op cit.
15 Lt Col Elrington’s account op cit
16 2nd Loyals War Diary op cit.
18 Phone call to the author, 4th November 1997.
19 Dick once related that he had been present when Elrington was speaking to one of the outposts on the radio at this time. He told the officer at the other end of the line that if he withdrew then he, Elrington, would personally come and find him and shoot him.
20 The Loyal Regiment by M. Langley.
21 Page 39 “Honourable Stomach is Empty” by T. H. Wade (Privately printed – copy held in Imperial War Museum.