Deakin added, “It must be admitted at once that the Battalion had been disappointing and had failed to come up to expectations as a fighting unit and at times had showed a great lack of collective and individual courage. The Indian Commissioned Officers except for Lt. Chadda had failed to show leadership and that spirit of self-sacrifice and courage which is essential to Indian troops. Whether British Officers would have done so under similar conditions cannot be said, but the two in the Battalion who had the opportunity, did so.”
The 11th Indian Division Destroyed
There were more failures. Many of the best men had died in earlier battle. There were no replacements. The men had been fighting day and night for a month without rest against an enemy that attacked constantly and under continuous bombing.
The speed and violence of the Japanese assaults kept the 11th Division off balance. Worse, the Indians relied on phone communications, which kept breaking down when Japanese troops knocked down the poles.
The Japanese roared on, brushing past the 2/9th Gurkhas and into the 2/1st Gurkhas, catching them in column of march and scattering them. Then the tanks shot up two batteries of artillery parked by the road and reached Slim River Bridge.
The defense there consisted of a troop of Bofors antiaircraft guns, which opened fire on the advancing tanks to no avail. The 40mm shells bounced off the tanks’ hulls, and the Japanese machine guns wiped out the Bofors gunners. Then the tanks crossed the bridge and drove south two more miles. There they met up with the 155th Field Regiment of Royal Artillery. Both sides were surprised to see each other, but the British 4.5-inch guns blasted open the lead tank 30 yards away, finally stopping the Japanese advance for the moment.
The battle virtually destroyed the 12th Indian Brigade. The reliable Argylls were down to a hundred men. The Japanese captured or destroyed vast quantities of British guns and transport. Percival was forced to continue the withdrawal, admitting that the “11th Indian Division had temporarily ceased to exist as a fighting formation.”
Percival’s only weapon at hand was Gordon Bennett’s 8th Australian Division. Many of the Australians had only just learned how to fire their rifles. The Australian artillery consisted of pieces captured from the Italians in Libya and French 75s captured in Syria, and the crews had not trained on them. “We were going into action with a 2-pounder, which we had never fired, except in theory,” wrote one antitank gunner.
The Malayan apathy was not broken either. An Army medical unit drove up to the bungalow on a rubber plantation to set up an aid station, and the manager ordered the military out for trespassing on private property. A formal complaint would be sent in for this breach of regulations. The irritated British officer commanding the detachment said, “We’ll be leaving soon, and the Japanese will be arriving. Perhaps they’ll listen to your complaints.”
“Our General is Near to Mental Explosion”
Yamashita was complaining, too, to his diary. Reports of ecstatic press coverage of his victories had come from Tokyo, which did not please the general. He was still one of Tojo’s enemies and feared the prime minister would move to eliminate potential rivals, especially successful ones.
Worse, Yamashita and his staff officer, Tsuji, were at loggerheads. The latter opposed Yamashita’s flanking amphibious moves and had spoken up to support troops who had committed rape and murder in Penang. Yamashita yelled at Tsuji, which cost the staff officer face. When Tsuji offered his resignation, Yamashita overrode it. The angry Tsuji was now sending secret messages back home to Tokyo denouncing Yamashita. Nor could Yamashita trust his boss, Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi, in Singapore, also an old rival.
More prosaically, victory had come with strains. The 25th Army had outrun its supply lines. The men were hungry, sore, sick, and short of ammunition. They were still going on captured British ammunition and rations.
Yamashita filled up his diary with angry comments. January 1: “I can’t rely on communications with Terauchi and the Southern Army, or on air support from them. It is bad that Japan has no one in high places that can be relied upon. Most men abuse their power. They have no conscience and their only aim is to grab even more power.”
When a delegation from Tokyo visited on January 9, Yamashita wrote, “Five staff officers have arrived from Tokyo. I hate them. That bloody Terauchi! He’s living in luxury in Saigon with a comfortable bed, good food, and playing Japanese chess.”
Yamashita also blasted his juniors, particularly the Imperial Guards Division. “[Nishimura] has wasted a week by disobeying my orders.” Matsui’s 5th Division: “On the 6th I ordered them to carry out a flanking movement and so trap the enemy and crush him. But my orders weren’t obeyed. I am disgusted with the lack of training and inferior quality of my commanders.” On January 8: “The battalion commanders and troops lack fighting spirit. They have no idea how to crush the enemy.”
He had serious complaints about issues that would damage the Japanese in battles for years to come. Japanese troops chattered as they moved through jungle; they lost their way; many officers and men couldn’t read maps; infantry-artillery coordination was poor; patrolling was weak.
To be sure, Yamashita was worn out himself, and a staff officer said, “Our general is near to mental explosion.” On January 11, he cheered up, as the British withdrew from Malaya’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, leaving behind a fairly intact airfield, more supplies, burning oil tanks, and brand new maps of Singapore in a railway car.
All day on the 10th, the British pulled out of Kuala Lumpur, with exhausted troops riding in commandeered private cars, motorcycles, 11 steamrollers, and even two fire engines. Chinese, Malay, and Indian natives watched in silence as the once omnipotent white men fled in defeat and exhaustion. The lesson was not lost on Asia’s population.
Yamashita was pleased but wasted no time in victory parades. He scribbled out his appreciation of the situation for his three divisional commanders. The next British defense line would likely be the Muar River. To forestall this, the Imperial Guards would concentrate at Malacca and head south, joined by the 18th Division, which was just landing. After a rest, the 5th Division would continue down the trunk road.
On the 13th, another convoy arrived at Singapore, bringing 51 Hurricane fighters, victors in the Battle of Britain. Already inferior to the latest types of German Me-109 fighters, the Hurricanes were hopeless against the Japanese Zeroes and Oscars that dominated Malaya’s skies. The convoy only brought in 24 Hurricane pilots. Weary Buffalo pilots would have to retrain on the new planes.
A convoy on the 22nd brought in 1,900 Australian reinforcements, including the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and the 18th British Division’s 53rd Infantry Brigade. The 18th had no time to train on their troopships during the 11-week voyage or once in Malaya. The young men, all second-line Territorials, were shocked by the destruction and panic they saw when they arrived. They did not even have tropical clothing. The Australians included men who had only had seven days of serious training. Many had never fired a rifle.
With Japanese guns 100 miles from Singapore, Percival told his troops they were getting their “second wind” and urged his exhausted and poorly trained men to fight like guerrillas. The Australian 27th Brigade was sent north to join the 9th Indian Division and the newly arrived 45th Indian Brigade, under Brigadier H.C. Duncan. All of this group would be designated Westforce. They would hold northwest Johore.
The other main force, the Australian 22nd Brigade and 11th Indian Division, under 3rd Corps, would be Eastforce and would hold the rest of Johore all the way to the east coast of Malaya. Once the 18th British Division had formed up, it would relieve the Australians and the 11th Indian Division, and they would be held back as a counterattack force.
There were more shuffles, as Billy Key took over the 11th Indian Division from Maj. Gen. Paris, giving that battered outfit its third commanding officer in two months.
Ambush on the Mukaide Detachment
On paper, the plan looked fine, but there were plenty of weaknesses. The 11th Indian Division was exhausted. It was unwise to split up the Australians. Duncan’s 45th Indian Brigade was being hurled into a critical battle without any jungle training. Even Winston Churchill pointed out that the only vital point in Malaya was Singapore Fortress, and the battles being fought up north were only weakening the island’s defenses.
Nonetheless, the orders were cut, the motorcycle dispatch riders shot off, and the Australians entered battle at Gemas, facing the tough Japanese 5th Infantry Division. Bennett believed in ambushes, so on January 14th, the 2/30th Australians set one up on Gemas’s main road just east of the bridge there. Lieutenant Colonel F.G. Galleghan told his 2/30th officers, “The reputation not only of the AIF in Malaya, but of Australia, is in the hands of this unit.”