In the first clash, the Japanese lost heavily. However, weight of numbers forced the Argylls back. Company C managed to hold back the 42nd Japanese Infantry Regiment for a time but had to fall back to Sumpitan, conducting a fighting withdrawal down 150 miles of the Grik Road.
With the 5/2 Punjabis, the Argylls fought at Sumpitan, Lenggong, and Kota Tampan. Captain Kenneth McLeod paid tribute to the support provided by the 2/3 Australian Motor Transport Company. “They were always at the waiting points ready to take our troops. Every now and again, they would grab a rifle and have a shot at the enemy. They were great chaps.”
Lieutenant General Sir Henry Pownall reached Singapore on December 23 to take over command from Brooke-Popham and wasted no time in touring the battlefields on the western front. He hoped to hold the Japanese at Kampar, a hill position that gave scope for artillery, an arm in which the British were superior. He wrote, “The 11th Division have had a pretty good shaking up. They were thrown on to the wrong leg and took some time, indeed too long, to recover. Heath is, I think, all right. He has aged a lot since I knew him in India. He’s not ‘full of fire,’ but he does know what is to be done to pull the troops around.”
Pownall was not overly impressed by Percival and confided to his diary that he hoped he wouldn’t have to relieve Percival, whom he found lacking in inspiration and “gloomy.”
The combined remnants of the 6th and 15th Brigades were to dig in at Kampar, while the 12th and 28th Brigades fought delaying actions to the north. Eleventh Division commander Murray-Lyon and all three of his brigade commanders had been replaced. On the night of December 27-28, Archibald Paris, Murray-Lyon’s temporary replacement, sent his own 12th Brigade south of Ipoh.
The 28th Brigade was to join the defenders at Kampar while the 12th Brigade delayed the Japanese approach, then withdraw through Kampar to Bidor. They were largely ineffective at delaying the Japanese; the Argyll’s armored cars came to their aid by holding the bridge over the Kampar River and allowing them to pass. By the time 12th Brigade reached the reserve position, it was shattered, losing 500 men and most of its vehicles.
The British commanders were well aware that reinforcements—the 18th British Division and 50 Hurricane fighters and pilots—were on their way. It was vital to hold the Japanese as far north as possible to keep their aircraft away from Singapore; but the convoy was not expected to arrive until January 13-15.
On December 31, the Japanese started probing the positions at Kampar. The next day, the main attack came, with bitter fighting lasting 48 hours. Then the 6th and 15th Brigades started to pull back. However, it was not the assault at Kampar that forced this withdrawal; the Japanese had outflanked the position by sea. In an armada of small boats they had used the Perak River via Telok Anson.
When news of the landing reached Brigadier Paris, he sent the weakened 12th Brigade from Bidor to stall the enemy. The Argylls and 19th Hyderabad Regiment initially held the Japanese 4th Guards at Telok Anson. The fighting was fierce, and the Argylls bore the brunt of the attack. The 12th Brigade could not keep the road south open, so the good position at Kampar was lost and the 11th Division withdrew to an inferior one on the Slim River.
The 12th Brigade took up positions on a stretch of road between Songkau and Trolak, with the 28th Brigade covering the line eastward along the road to the Slim River Bridge. Most battalions were down to company strength and lacked antitank defenses, and the country did not favor field artillery.
On January 5, the Japanese attacked down the railway line after 12th Brigade had been heavily bombed. They were initially thrown back but came forward the next day via the railway and road with tank support. The bridge over the Slim River should have been blown but was taken intact.
The thrust came to a halt with the Japanese penetrating 19 miles into the 11th Division’s area. With the loss of this battle, central Malaya was gone and with it the largest city, Kuala Lumpur.
Australian Maj. Gen. Henry Gordon-Bennett became more involved in the battle after the decision was made to make an extensive withdrawal into Johore. Giving up the provinces of Negri Sembilon, Selanger, and Malacca, this would mean fighting in open country where Japanese armor would be even more useful. However, Gordon-Bennett felt he had a good chance to hold the Japanese, although he had not been impressed by the display of British leadership so far. The decision was taken to stand at Muar, where there were no bridges over the Muar River’s lower reaches.
On December 30, General Archibald Wavell was appointed Supreme Commander, South West Pacific. On January 7 he arrived in Singapore then flew north to review the situation. He soon confirmed Percival’s opinion that the decisive battle should be fought in northwest Johore using the Australians and 45th Indian Brigade. It was hoped this would give time for the 18th British Division to arrive and for the 9th and 11th Divisions to rest and reorganize.
Wavell was impressed with Gordon-Bennett even if the Australian was dismissive of the Indian soldier’s lack of fighting qualities. His contention that “one Australian is worth 10 Japanese” was largely bluster. However, Wavell was well aware of the fighting spirit of Australian troops and he felt Gordon-Bennett was the aggressive commander needed. He informed London that Gordon-Bennett would “conduct very active defence and will hopefully be able to delay enemy till collection of reserves enables us to deliver counter-stroke which will not be before the middle of February.”
On January 13, the 53rd Brigade of 18th British Division disembarked in Singapore with 50 Hurricane fighters but only 25 pilots.
Meanwhile, Yamashita was resting his 5th Division at Seremban, 30 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, while the Imperial Guards concentrated in Malacca. By this time the remainder of Mutaguchi’s 18th Division had landed at Singora. On January 14, the Japanese moved against the Australians of Gordon-Bennett’s Westforce.
At Gemas, the Japanese were allowed to cross the river via a bridge, but it was then blown behind them. They met the 2/30 Australian Battalion and a field artillery battery, which cut the Japanese to pieces. The renewed attack the next day was repulsed, but pressure increased and the Australians withdrew that night.
On the west coast, the Japanese landed by sea behind the British position at Muar, then cut the Muar-Bakri Road behind the British 45th Brigade. The road to Yong Peng was open, threatening the Australians in the center. Gordon-Bennett sent the 2/29 Battalion to reinforce Muar.
While the newly arrived 53rd Brigade (which had been on ships for three months) relieved an Australian battalion on the east coast, Percival was convinced he now faced five Japanese divisions and flung the 53rd into the fight before it was acclimated.
More Japanese landings were made between Muar and Batu Pahat. The British 45th Brigade was ordered to recapture Muar to allow the Australians in the center to withdraw south from Segamat before becoming trapped. The counterattack soon broke down, the brigade having to fight its way back through Japanese roadblocks.
Finally, the 45th, with the 2/29 Australians, took to the jungle, abandoning vehicles and guns. Out of 4,000 men, fewer than 1,000 made it back; the Japanese massacred the wounded. However, their sacrifice had held up the Imperial Guards, allowing Westforce to escape south.
The next defense line was 90 miles south, crossing Malaya from Batu Pahat through Kluang to Mersing on the east coast. This was III Corps’ area, and Lt. Gen. Heath took command. Percival ordered no retreat without his permission. However, it was the same story as the Japanese moved by sea. At Batu Pahat, the 6/15 Brigade was withdrawn after losing half its strength, 2,700 men escaping the surrounding Japanese by sea. This compelled Westforce at Kluang to pull back.
Thanks to two Australian battalions, in six days of fighting ending on January 22, Muar Force managed to destroy a company of Japanese tanks and the equivalent of a battalion of Imperial Guards.
General Yamashita was now running behind schedule. He wrote in his diary that Nishimura, commander of the Guards Division and Matsui of the 15th Division, had disobeyed his orders and delayed the advance.
In the east, the Australians repeated their ambush technique near Hersung, luring the Japanese into a “firebox” of rifle companies and field guns and wiping out a Japanese force. But such actions did not reverse the trend of withdrawal.
On January 30, Wavell authorized Percival to withdraw to Singapore Island. The Japanese managed to slip between the retreating brigades of the 9th Indian Division and, during this last period of the mainland campaign, the 45th and 22nd Indian Brigades suffered so many causalities they no longer existed. The III Corps arrived at Singapore Island with several thousand men missing.