The Loss of Northern Malaya
By now the Japanese Army was deployed in Siam and Northern Malaya and the British decided to conduct an exercise akin to rearranging deckchairs of the Titanic. They formed the Far East War Council, chaired by Conservative politician Alfred Duff Cooper who had been appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was sent to Singapore as Minister Resident. He had authority to form a War Cabinet there, but both military and civil authorities were reluctant to cooperate with him. The committee consisted of the Governor, Brooke-Popham, the three Service commanders-in-chief and the Australian Gordon Bennett was told he may attend the daily meetings, should he wish to do so. Although the Far East War Council had a remit for the entire Far East, it tended to focus on Malaya and Borneo, which were regarded as the most pressing. Hong Kong’s garrison was effectively isolated and would have to fight its own battle.
The Japanese now had a slight numerical advantage in northern Malaya and were superior in close air support, armour and mobility. Their tactics had been honed in China and they would make great use of light tanks and bicycle infantry. This allowed them swift movement through the difficult terrain of the rainforest on the native paths. Although the Japanese had not brought bicycles with them (in order to speed the disembarkation process), they knew from their intelligence that suitable machines were plentiful in Malaya and quickly confiscated what they needed from civilians and retailers. Given their lack of mobility, one has to wonder what the Allies didn’t do the same.
The Battle of Jitra
Key to the defence of the north was Jitra and the airfield at Alor Star, which was the raison d’etre for Commonwealth troops being in northern Malaya. But the Allied defences at Jitra were not complete by the time of the Japanese invasion Barbed wire lines had been erected and some anti-tank mines laid but heavy rains had flooded the shallow trenches and gun pits. Many of the field telephone cables laid across the waterlogged ground also failed to work, resulting in a lack of communication during the battle.
Two brigades of Major General David Murray-Lyon’s 11th Indian Division held the front line. On the right was the 15th Indian Infantry Brigade, composed of 1st Battalion (Btn) The Leicestershire Regiment, the 1st Btn 14th Punjab Regiment and the 2nd Btn 9th Jats. On the left was the 6th Indian Infantry Brigade, composed of the 2nd Btn East Surrey Regiment, the 1st Btn 8th and 2nd Btn 16th Punjab Regiments. Batteries from the 155th Field Regiment, the 22nd Mountain Regiment and the 80th Anti-tank Regiment provided the artillery support. The 28th Indian Infantry Brigade, consisting of three Gurkha battalions was placed in Divisional reserve. The British front line was as long as 14 miles, stretching across both roads and a railway and far beyond on either side, from the jungle-clad hills on the right, via flooded rice fields and a rubber tree estate to a tidal mangrove swamp on the left.
After Operation Matador, a forestalling attack into Thailand was cancelled, the 11th Indian Division moved back to defensive positions around Jitra. The Jitra position was still in an extremely poor condition on 8 December 1941 and Murray-Lyon needed time to complete the defences. Malaya Command came up with a secondary plan to delay the Japanese; three mini-Matadors (Krohcol, Laycol and an armoured train), that would hopefully keep the Japanese away from Jitra long enough for Murray-Lyon to get his defences in shape. Krohcol invaded Thailand from south-east of Jitra and was partially successful in delaying the Japanese but unsuccessful in its main objective. The other two columns, Laycol and the armoured train operated from north of the Jitra position.
On the 10th December Murray-Lyon realising the Jitra defences were still not ready, ordered Brigadier Garret to take the 1/14th Punjab and the 2/1st Gurkha Rifles to positions on the Trunk Road north of Jitra, in an attempt to delay the Japanese advance until 12th December. Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzpatrick’s 1/14th Punjab—supported by the 4th Mountain battery (from 56 Mountain Regiment, IA), a section of 2-pounder anti-tank guns (from 2nd Battery, 80th Anti-Tank Regiment) and a company of engineers separated into two ambush positions, one north of Changlun and one south of the village.
The Japanese vanguard commanded by Colonel Saeki, had completed repairs on the road and bridge unopposed by the afternoon and had started heading down the Trunk Road toward the 1/14th Punjabs position at Changlun. At around 21:00 on 10th December the first two Japanese tanks were destroyed by anti-tank guns and the supporting infantry were mauled. But then the Punjabs broke off contact and withdrew to a position south of Changlun. It was early morning on 11 December before the Japanese caught up with the 1/14th Punjabs at their next ambush position. In full daylight, Saeki’s men were able to send a flanking party around the Punjabs position forcing them to withdraw before they were cut off. Fitzpatrick decided to withdraw his mostly intact battalion back to the Gurkha’s position at Asun. The key to the Japanese success was their ability to swiftly infiltrate around enemy positions, through the jungles the Commonwealth forces believed were impenetrable.
Murray-Lyon arrived at Fitzpatrick’s headquarters and ordered him to set up another ambush north of Asun. While Murray-Lyon, Garrett, Fitzpatrick and all four of his company commanders then drove south to see the new ambush site, Japanese tanks arrived in the heavy rain in the middle of 1/14th Punjabs’ positions and scattered the Btn. Only 270 of the Punjabs made their way back to the British lines. The Japanese rapidly drove through the destroyed battalion and headed toward Asun.
Fitzpatrick, a couple of miles down the Trunk Road, learned of the disaster from the few survivors racing toward Asun. He and the few men with him attempted to build a roadblock but he was severely wounded when the Japanese tanks reached him. Garrett gathered the 270-odd survivors and escaped south. By early evening on 11 December, Saeki’s column had reached the Gurkhas at Asun. The main reason the Commonwealth forces had set up in such unideal defensive positions was to defend the airfield, but most of the RAF aircraft had been destroyed on the ground and the airfield was in the process of being abandoned.
At Ansun Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Fulton’s 2/1st Gurkhas were positioned on the south bank of a fast-flowing stream, just to the north of the town. Unlike the Punjabs, the Gurkhas had no anti-tank guns but engineers had placed demolition charges on the road bridge. The arrival of the survivors of the 1/14th Punjab gave a few minutes warning to the Gurkhas who attempted to blow the bridge but the heavy rain may have damaged the charges. As the first of Saeki’s tanks arrived, Havildar Manbahadur Gurung, using a Boys anti-tank rifle managed to stop the first two tanks on the bridge, blocking it. Saeki’s infantry moved swiftly across the stream on either flank, supported by heavy mortar and machine gun fire. The mostly young and inexperienced Gurkhas soon broke and scattered. By 19:00 on 11 December, the small Japanese force had broken through the Gurkhas. Most of the 2/1st Gurkhas were captured, but Fulton managed to save around 200 of the 550 men.
Two Btns had been destroyed north of Jitra and Colonel Saeki’s Detachment sped down the main Trunk Road to the 11th Indian Division defensive line at Jitra itself. Murray-Lyon had placed the majority of his two brigades to the east and west of Jitra with a four battalion front to face any attack frontal attack. The 6th Indian Brigade covered the west of Jitra following the line of the Jitra River. The 2/16th Punjab on the extreme left flank and the 2nd East Surrey Regiment closer to Jitra. The 1/8th Punjab, minus the two companies that formed Laycol, were covering the Kodiang road through the state of Perlis at Kanjong Iman.
The 15th Indian Brigade (now under the command of Brigadier Carpendale) covered the main Trunk Road at Jitra. The 1st Leicestershire Regiment were covering the road and town north of the Jitra River with the 2/9th Jat Regiment on the east flank. The 2/2nd Gurkhas covered the divisional area behind the Leicesters and Jats positions, while the remaining Gurkha battalion (2/9th Gurkhas) protected the 11th Indian Divisions line of retreat. By late afternoon of 11 December, Murray-Lyon had lost the better part of three battalions and was now without any reserve units to commit to the main battle.
The situation from the 11th to the 13th December was grim. The survivors of Garrett’s two battalions were streaming through the 11th Indian Division and with his line of retreat threatened by the Japanese advance south of Jitra at Kroh, Murray-Lyon requested permission from Malaya Command to retire from Jitra to a position he had already selected about 30 mi (48 km) south at Gurun. It was a natural stronghold, though it had not been fortified. General Percival refused, fearing that such an early and long retreat would have a demoralising effect on the troops and civilian population. Murray-Lyon was told that the battle must be fought out at Jitra
At 20:30 on 11 December, Saeki’s advance guard overran a forward patrol of the 1st Leicesters but was held up by an improvised roadblock until dawn of 12 December. Saeki believing he was still attacking small British delaying forces launched his men into a three-hour attack on the Leicesters’ and Jat positions without success. By midday of 12 December, Saeki realised he was fighting against the main 11th Indian Division positions. General Kawamura (commanding the Imperial Japanese Army’s 9th Brigade) placed the 11th and 41st Infantry Regiments in readiness to resume the attack that night. Saeki’s advance guard impulsively attacked again, this time into D Company of the 2/9th Jats resulting in a wedge being driven between the Leicesters and Jats and D Company was practically cut off. The Leicester attempt to close the gap during the afternoon was a costly failure. Lt.Col Bates led two of his companies from the 1/8th Punjab in an attack on the wedge. Bates with two officers and twenty-three men were killed. The Jats D Company, running out of ammunition, was overrun soon after. At the same time Lt.Col Tester the 2/9th Jats commander, had lost contact with A Company on the right flank.
At 19:30 on 12 December, Murray-Lyon again sought permission to fall back to the position at Gurun. General Percival finally agreed and Murray-Lyon was given permission to withdraw at his own discretion. The withdrawal from Jitra on the night of 12/13 December was when the 11th Indian Division incurred most of its casualties. Due to extremely poor communications, Murray-Lyon’s orders for withdrawal failed to reach many of his forward companies who would still be in their positions at daylight of 13 December. At midnight on 13 December, a Japanese effort to rush the single bridge over the River Bata was repulsed by the 2/2nd Gurkha Rifles. Two hours later, the bridge was blown and the battalion withdrew through a rear guard formed by the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles, who fought another fierce engagement before withdrawing at 04:30 and by noon the British had broken away. Murray-Lyon was to try to hold North Kedah, block Japanese tanks on good natural obstacles and to dispose his forces in depth on the two parallel north–south roads which traversed the rice-growing area, to give greater scope to his artillery. At 22:00, the 11th Indian Division was ordered to withdraw to the south bank of the River Kedah at Alor Star, beginning at midnight.
The Battle of Jitra and the retreat to Gurun had cost the 11th Indian Division heavily in manpower and strength as an effective fighting force. The division had lost one brigade commander wounded (Garrett), one battalion commander killed (Bates) and another captured (Fitzpatrick). The division had lost the equivalent of nearly three battalions of infantry and was in no condition to face another Japanese assault without reinforcements, reorganisation and rest. After 15 hours of bitter combat, the Japanese 5th Division had captured Jitra and with it a large quantity of Allied supplies in the area. Around that same time, Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft conducted massive air raids on Penang, killing more than 2,000 civilians. After the destruction of most of the Allied aircraft at Alor Star, General Percival ordered that until reinforcements arrived, all aircraft were only be used in the defence of Singapore and for the protection of supply convoys moving north into Malaya. Murray-Lyon was relieved of command on 23 December. Percival later wrote of the battle of Jitra:
This withdrawal would have been difficult under the most favourable conditions. With the troops tired, units mixed as the result of the fighting, communications broken and the night dark, it was inevitable that orders should be delayed and that in some cases they should never reach the addressees. This is what in fact occurred. Some units and sub-units withdrew without incident. Others, finding themselves unable to use the only road, had to make their way as best they could across country. On the left flank, there were no roads, so some parties reached the coast and, taking boats, re-joined farther south. Some, again, were still in position the following morning. The fact is that the withdrawal, necessary as it may have been, was too fast and too complicated for disorganised and exhausted troops, whose disorganisation and exhaustion it only increased.
From the battle of Jitra to the fall of Singapore, the pace of the Allied collapse accelerated. The Air component had been swept from the skies in the north and aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The lack of tanks and shortage of armoured cars made point defence difficult, although the 2pdr anti-tank guns were effective when well placed and resolutely manned in good defensive positions. Arguably Percival was tardy in not allowing Murray-Lyon to fall back to Gurun, as the airfield at Alor Star had lost any strategic significance. Sadly, Jitra was merely a foretaste of what was to come.
© Blown Periphery 2019
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