On the 28th, the Japanese scattered a counterattack by the 4/19th Hyderabads and blasted through the usually reliable 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. For the only time in the campaign, Argyll officers had to draw their pistols to stop a retreat. The Scots regrouped and fought hard, but it was not enough. Colonel Watanabe’s 11th Regiment, using small craft captured at Penang, landed south of the Perak River. The British abandoned Ipoh and continued to retreat.
On December 30, the War Cabinet in London appointed Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell as Supreme Commander of the Australian-British-Dutch-American Command area, which included Malaya. He received the telegram while pig-sticking with his family at Meerut, 40 miles from Delhi, India. When Wavell read the telegram, he said, “I have heard of having to hold the baby … but this is twins!” Pownall was appointed his chief of staff, and the post of Commander in Chief Far East was abolished.
Wavell brought a long record of literary achievement and combat service to his new task, including overseeing the British victories over the Italian Army in North Africa in 1941. He also oversaw defeats in Libya, Greece, and Crete after that.
By December 31, the battered British-Indian 3rd Corps had fallen all the way back to Kampar, 25 miles south of Ipoh. Once again, Heath deployed his troops for battle, and Matsui decided to launch two prongs, the 11th Regiment down the road with the 42nd Regiment detouring to the west.
On New Year’s Day, 1942, the Japanese attacked. Matsui’s plan disintegrated due to the terrain, the 42nd Regiment floundering in the swamps. However, his artillery barrage weakened British defenses, and his frontal attack went in against the British Battalion.
“The [enemy] attacks were made with all the well-known bravery and disregard of danger of the Japanese soldier. There was dogged resistance in spite of heavy losses, by the men of the British Battalion and their supporting artillery, and finally, when the enemy had captured a key position and the battalion reserves were exhausted, there was a charge in the old traditional style by the Sikh company of the 1/8th Punjab Regiment,” an Indian Army historian wrote. “The charge went in through heavy Japanese mortar and machine-gun fire, killing the Indian company’s commander. The charge re-captured the ground, but only 30 Punjabis were left after the battle.”
While this battle raged, Yamashita, using shipping captured at Penang, hurled a landing force 20 miles south of the British lines at Utan Melintang. The British were again forced to withdraw.
The same day, the Japanese landed at Kuantan on the east coast and chased the 22nd Indian Brigade off the Kuantan airfield, putting the Japanese 160 miles from Singapore. Once the airfield was taken, the Japanese moved bombers and fighters to the captured strip, which, like many other captured RAF bases, was full of intact British stores, abandoned in panic and retreat.
Wavell’s Arrival in Singapore: “The Day of Minute Papers Has Gone”
Two days later, the 45th Infantry Brigade landed at Singapore. Percival found them “very young, unseasoned and undertrained, and straight off the ship after their first experience at sea.” Part of the 17th Indian Division, the 45th and 44th Brigades had just finished training at Poona in India. Trained and equipped for the North African desert, the brigades lacked compasses and wireless sets. Indian Army Director of Training Brigadier Punch Cowan said that without further training, the 17th was only good for fighting against a second-class enemy. Despite this, they were rushed to Malaya.
In Singapore, Japanese air raids became a daily event. The constant bombing frightened coolies, and British troops had to work as stevedores. At least 150 people per day died from the bombs, and martial law was declared. The Army was finally able to place AA guns on the golf club’s property, but there was still dancing every night at the Raffles Hotel. The Straits Times wrote, “Everybody in this country seems to have been lulled into a false sense of security by confident statements regarding continuous additions to our armed might. The only people who have not been bluffed by them are the Japanese.”
Yamashita launched another west coast amphibious flank maneuver on January 2, when Guards Division detachments landed at Kuala Selangor and Port Swettenham. This time the British hung on, and the Japanese could not gain a foothold at Kuala Selangor until January 4.
Percival ordered the Royal Navy to repulse the landing. However, Rear Adm. Geoffrey Layton, who took over after Admiral Phillips went down with Prince of Wales, had already withdrawn his surviving cruisers and destroyers to Ceylon. His last message—“I have gone to collect the Eastern Fleet. Keep your heads high and your hearts firm until I return”—had only damaged morale for the remaining sailors. All that was left were two destroyers and two motor launches.
With the Navy unable to cope, the RAF defeated, and the Army in retreat, Wavell flew to Singapore to inspect the situation. His first move was to deliver a telegram to Duff-Cooper that sent the politician home. Duff-Cooper was happy to go, having been overtaken by events. Even so, Duff-Cooper described Simson’s complaints to Wavell, and the Field Marshal was astonished that fortifications had not been built. Wavell initially thought that Simson was a lying troublemaker, paying off an old score against Percival.
Wavell summoned Percival, and the two flag officers went to Singapore’s north shore. Wavell was stunned to see that Simson was right. “Very much shaken,” as he wrote in a letter, Wavell asked Percival why nothing had been done, and also for an explanation “for his neglect.” Percival gave the stock answer about morale. Wavell repeated (probably unknowingly) Simson’s words about the Japanese pouring onto the island being worse for morale. Wavell ordered Singapore’s defense team to start digging entrenchments.
Wavell’s anger had some impact. Sir Shenton Thomas sent out a circular to the Malayan Civil Service: “The day of minute papers has gone. There must be no more passing of files from one department to another, and from one officer in a department to another.” The Straits Times acidly commented on this: “This announcement is about two and a half years late.”
Colonel Deakin’s Punjabis Collapse
The 11th Division now retreated to the Slim River to dig in. Under constant bombing and strafing, the troops had no rest. “The battalion was dead tired,” wrote Colonel Deakin of the 5/2nd Punjabis. “Most of all the commanders, whose responsibilities prevented them from snatching even a little fitful sleep. The battalion had withdrawn 178 miles in three weeks and had had only three days’ rest. It had suffered 250 casualties of which a high proportion had been killed. The spirit of the men was low, and the battalion had lost 50 percent of its fighting efficiency.”
On January 5, Deakin wrote, “I found a most lethargic lot of men who seemed to want to do nothing but sit in slit trenches. They said they could not sleep because of the continued enemy air attacks. In fact, they were thoroughly depressed. There was no movement on the road, and the deadly ground silence emphasized by the blanketing effect of the jungle was getting on the men’s nerves.… The jungle gave the men a blind feeling.”
That day the Japanese attacked again. This time the 4/19th Hyderabad’s Bren guns chewed up the attack, leaving 60 dead on the field. At 3 am the next day, under a late-rising moon, the Japanese sent in tanks and lorried infantry. The tanks were stopped by mines, and the infantry leaped out of the trucks to attack. The British charged back with bayonets, knocking out three tanks. The Japanese regrouped and flanked the British via some loop roads overgrown with bushes. Tanks rumbled over the bushes and smacked into the Punjabis’ Reserve Company.
“The din … baffles description,” wrote Deakin of the Punjabis. “The tanks were head to tail, engines roaring, crews screaming, machine-guns spitting, and mortars and cannon firing all out. The platoon astride the cutting threw grenades, and one tank had its track smashed by anti-tank rifle. The two anti-tank guns fired two rounds one of which scored a bull, and then retired to the Argylls’ area. One more tank wrecked itself on mines.”
Battered, the Japanese found another loop road and drove around the Punjabis. The Indians tried to warn the Argylls by phone, but Japanese tanks cut down the phone line just after sappers set it up. Six miles north of the Slim River Bridge, 30 Japanese tanks attacked the Argylls and 3rd Indian Hussars, equipped with armored cars that mounted Vickers machine guns and Boys’ antitank rifles. The crews had never been trained on either weapon. The Japanese tanks knocked out the armored cars and rolled on, grabbing the bridge before anyone could blow it. The disgusted Scots withdrew while the Japanese slammed into the Punjabis from behind, forcing them to withdraw as well.
Deakin was enraged as his outfit collapsed around him. “How many men of the Battalion were killed and wounded and how many took to the jungle was not known and perhaps will never be known. Be what it may, the battalion had disintegrated and had failed to stand and fight to the last man. Whether or not an Indian Battalion can be expected to stand against an overwhelming number of tanks with practically no anti-tank defenses is not a question for decision in the War Diary,” he wrote.