The Malayan Campaign 1941 – 1942. Part Five

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Battle of Kampar 30th December 1941 – 2nd January 1942

It was clear by now that the British and Commonwealth forces were facing an enemy that was adept in asymmetric warfare and the Japanese used the weaknesses of the Allies against them. The Japanese soldier travelled light, relying on taking from the enemy everything he needed from bicycles to food and even abandoned weapons and ammunition. By comparison, the Allied infantrymen were carrying so much kit in the sweltering heat of the jungle that they could barely move. Freddie Spencer Chapmen had been an instructor at the School for Irregular Warfare and was now leading a small party behind Japanese lines. He noted:

The majority were on bicycles in parties of forty to fifty, riding three or four abreast and laughing just as if they were going to a football match. Indeed some of them were actually wearing football jerseys. They seemed to have no standard uniform or equipment and were travelling lights as they possibly could….
The general impression was one of extraordinary determination. They had been ordered to go to the bridgehead and in their thousands they were going, though their equipment was second rate and motley and much of it had obviously been commandeered in Malaya.

After the fall of the north, the Allied tactics in Malaya continued to be bound to the defence of the airfields, even though most of the aircraft had by then been destroyed on the ground with the surviving machines and aircrew withdrawn to Singapore. In an attempt to prevent the capture of RAF Kuala Lumpur, the 11th Indian Infantry Division was deployed around Kampar. Unlike Jitra, this area afforded a strong defensive position and the 11th Division was tasked with defence of the airfield and with delaying the Japanese long enough to allow the 9th Indian Division to withdraw from the east coast.

The Japanese intended to capture Kampar as a New Year’s gift to Emperor Hirohito and on 30th December began to surround the Indian and British positions. The main defensive positions were on what is now called Green Ridge and the nearby Thompson, Kennedy and Cemetery Ridges, high ground that dominated the main route south from Ipoh Perak. They were strategically important and sat on top of the Gunung Bujang Melaka, a 4,070 feet limestone mountain. These positions allowed a view of the Kinta Valley to the south.

The 3rd Indian Corps had been forced south in a series of costly defeats and the infantry had been badly mauled and was decimated. The Indian 11th Division losses at Jitra, Kroh and Alor Star meant that the Division’s Indian and British troops had been amalgamated. Three Brigades (Bdes) were now a single 15th/6th Bde, which included the survivors of 1st Leicestershire Regiment and 2nd East Surreys. The Bde was commanded by Brigadier Henry Moorhead. The remaining regiments of the Bde, 1/14th Punjab, 5/14th Punjab and 2/16th Punjab Regiments, covered the rear of the Kampar position. With all of those regiments in one formation the 15th/6th Bde still only numbered about 1,600 men. The 28th Gurkha Bde, under the command of Brigadier Ray Selby, though intact, was low in strength and morale. Its three Gurkha battalions (Btns) had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting around Jitra, Kroh, Gurun and at Ipoh

Major General Archie Paris (temporary commander of the 11th Division) had to defend a line from the coast through Telok Anson up to the defensive positions at Kampar. The defensive perimeter at Kampar was an all-round position, straddling Kampar Hill (Gunong Brijang Malaka) to the east of Kampar town, overlooking the Japanese advance and well concealed by thick jungle. Paris placed artillery spotters on the forward slopes protected by the 15th/6th Brigade on the western side of the position, and the 28th Gurkha Brigade covered the right flank on the eastern side. The two Bdes were supported by the 88th Field Artillery Regiment, which was equipped with 25 pounders, and the 4.5 inch howitzers of the 155th Field Artillery Regiment. Once the 12th Brigade had passed through Kampar Paris sent them to cover the coast and his line of retreat at Telok Anson.

The Japanese attacking force came from Lieutenant General Takuro Matsui’s Japanese 5th Division. The intact and relatively fresh 41st Infantry Regiment (about 4,000 strong) from Major General Saburo Kawamura’s 9th Brigade spearheaded the attack on Kampar Hill. Kawamura’s brigade consisted of Colonel Watanabe’s 11th Regiment and Colonel Kanichi Okabe’s 41st Regiment.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Defensive positions at Kampar

Kawamura launched probing attacks against the Allied positions on December 31st and discovered the well-concealed Gurkha’s positions on the right flank at Thompson’s Ridge. As the Japanese 11th Regiment formed up to attack in force, the howitzers of the 155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Artillery opened up a concentrated fire on the Japanese troops. All through 31st December the 11th Regiment attacks were beaten off by the Gurkhas and the close support artillery fire. On midnight of New Year’s Eve the commander of the 155th Field Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Murdoch, “ordered a twelve gun salute to be fired at the Japanese.”

At 07:00 on 1st January 1942, Kawamura launched the main attack against the western Kampar defensive positions with the 41st Regiment. These positions were held by Colonel Morrison’s British Btn. The Japanese went in supported by heavy mortar fire and the fighting was fierce, hand to hand and bayonet to bayonet and the Japanese losses were heavy. Combined with the infantry assaults the Japanese poured continuous artillery fire and bombed and strafed the British positions with impunity, as the Japanese had nearly complete air superiority by this stage in the campaign. Matsui brought in fresh soldiers to replace his mounting casualties. The well concealed and dug in 15th/6th Brigade, supported by the 88th (2nd West Lancashire) Field Artillery, held on to their positions throughout the two days of fierce fighting on the western slopes of Kampar Hill without relief.

The ferocity and confusion of the close-quarter fighting around the British Battalion was especially violent in the forward positions. Lieutenant Edgar Newland, commanding a platoon of 30 Leicesters, held the most forward position of the battalion. His platoon was surrounded and cut off for most of the battle but Newland and his men fought off all attacks and kept hold of their isolated position throughout the two days. For his actions Newland later received the Military Cross.

Matsui realised that the British position at Kampar was too strong for him to take, so General Yamashita ordered landings on the west coast south of Kampar near the 12th Brigade positions at Telok Anson in order to out flank and cut off the line of retreat of the 11th Division. The 11th Infantry Regiment were to land at Hutan Melintang and attack Telok Anson from the south and a force from the Imperial Guards Division headed overland, following the Perak River to attack Telok Anson from the north.

The landings were successful and Telok Anson was taken after a brisk battle with the 3rd Cavalry and 1st Independent Company on 2nd January 1942. Once Telok Anson had fallen the 3rd Cavalry and 1st Independent Company fell back to the 12th Brigade which successfully delayed the Japanese from taking the main north–south road. Major-General Paris, with his line of retreat threatened, ordered the positions at Kampar to be abandoned. The 12th Brigade covered the retreat of 11th Division and the British pulled back to the next prepared defensive position at Slim River. At Kampar the Allies had fought the Japanese to a standstill and proved that the enemy could be defeated. However, there were insufficient reserves to capitalise on this, the Japanese used an amphibious hook to get round behind the defences at Kampar and another retreat was inevitable.

The Battles of Kuantan and the Slim River

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map of the Major Battles

Tensions within Duff Cooper’s Far East War Council were mounting. Duff Cooper clashed with Brooke-Popham and Thomas during its first meeting and he later told the Prime Minister of his doubts about his colleagues:

“Brooke-Popham is a much older man than his years warrant and sometimes seems on the verge of nervous collapse. I fear also that knowledge of his own failing powers renders him jealous of any encroachment on his sphere of influence… The Governor Sir Shenton Thomas, is one of those people who finds it impossible to adjust their minds to war conditions. He is also much influenced by the last person he talks to… General Percival is a nice, good man who began life as a schoolmaster. I am sometimes tempted to wish he had remained one.”

The Regiment of the Japanese 18th Division which had landed at Kota Bharu had made slow progress down the tracks on the eastern side of the peninsula and was now threatening Kuantan. The British 22nd Bde was holding the airfield, which had been long abandoned by the RAF. But Percival was anxious to hold on to the airfields for when the reinforcements arrived. When the Japanese attacked, Brigadier Painter was ordered to hold the airfield until 5th January. However the 11th Division’s withdrawal from Kampar made the 22nd Bde’s position at Kuantan untenable, and heavily pressed by the Japanese, Painter’s Bde made a messy fighting retreat hampered by the swampy terrain, south down the eastern coast.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Australian Anti-Tank Gun in Action

By January 2nd though, the Indian 11th Infantry Division was outflanked by seaborne landings south of the Kampar position, outnumbered and with Japanese forces attempting to cut the division off from the road to Singapore, they withdrew to prepared positions at Trolak five miles north of the Slim River. On the afternoon of 5th January the Japanese 42nd Regiment commanded by Colonel Ando reached the Hyderabad positions and made a probing attack. This was beaten off with the loss of 60 Japanese dead and Ando held off to await armoured support. On 6 January Major Shimada’s tank company arrived and Shimada begged Ando to allow him to attack straight down the road, instead of following the usual Japanese tactics of flanking the British positions.

On 7th January heavy Japanese mortar fire attacked the positions of 4/19th Hyderabad Regiment, commanded by Major Davidson Brown as Lt.Col Eric Wilson-Haffenden, had been wounded in an air attack earlier. Then the Japanese tanks moved forward through the Hyderabad’s positions and the Indians requested artillery support, which destroyed one tank. Then the Hyderabads lost communication with their artillery and without an anti-tank weapons, the Japanese were able to force the road blocks. The Hyderabads became dispersed groups that scattered into the jungle.

A few Hyderabads fell back to the next Btn the 5/2nd Punjab Regiment commanded by Lt Col Deakin, alerting the Punjabis to the tanks heading towards their position. Shimada lost his two leading tanks to land mines and Boys anti-tank rifles in front of the more experienced Punjabi position. The Punjabis then managed to set fire to another tank with Molotov cocktails, effectively blocking the road and leaving the Japanese column stacked up, almost bumper to bumper. If the British artillery (who were not contacted due to the communication lines being cut) had been called in at this point in the battle, Shimada’s column could have been easily stopped due to their stacked up and vulnerable position, surrounded by thick jungle on the narrow road. This golden opportunity for the British was lost and Shimada’s infantry were able to push through Deakin’s Punjabis, while the tanks found an unguarded loop road that enabled them to by-pass the destroyed tanks. The Punjabis had held Shimada until around 06:00 in heavy fighting. Deakin and a handful of his remaining Punjabis managed to escape across the Slim River, but most of his Btn was mopped up by the 42nd Regiment.

The Japanese captured the Slim River Bridge intact in its entirety. The demolition parties were not told to stand-to and there were still so many Allied troops north of the river, it is unlikely it would have been blown anyway. The sappers had no anti-tank guns and B Troop of the 16th Light Anti-aircraft Battery depressed the barrels of its two Bofors guns to engage the Japanese tanks at 100 yards. The light rounds of the flak guns simply bounced off the tanks’ armour and the tanks massacred the gun detachments. South of the bridge the Japanese tanks encountered the leading elements of the 155th Field Regiment, whose 4.5” howitzers went into action. The first gun and its crew were knocked out, but a second gun commanded by Sergeant Keen opened fire at 150 yards. The first two shots missed but the third stopped a tank at thirty yards, which kept firing. Keen was killed but Bombardier Skone took over and silenced the Japanese tank. The handful of Japanese tanks had covered nineteen miles through Allied lines, captured the Slim Bridge and shattered the Allied 11th Division.

Shhimada’s tanks approached the next the next Btn, the 2nd Btn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under Lt. Col. Lindsay Robertson. The 2nd Argylls were positioned around the village of Trolak itself and protected Stewart’s 12th Brigade HQ. This was a regular British Army battalion and very experienced, considered to be one of the best jungle fighting units the British had in Malaya. The only warning the Argylls had that tanks were on the way was the arrival of panicking sepoys from the Hyderabads. Even so, the first four Japanese tanks were mistaken for Bren Gun Carriers and the tranks went straight through the Argylls and divided the Btn. These four tanks then headed for the railway bridge. The arrival of the remainder of Shimada’s main force and Ando’s infantry soon after, split the Argylls completely and cut them off from the road. The Argylls were reduced to many small groups but they fought ferociously and managed to delay the Japanese infantry longer than either of the other two battalions, holding them up until about 07.30.

The force east of the road, C and B Companies under Col. Robertson fought their way into the rubber estate and tried to flank the Japanese advance by heading south through the jungle inland and breaking up into small parties. Six weeks later some of these soldiers would still be in the jungle. A Company commanded by Lt. Donald Napier, managed to break out of the encircling Japanese and cross the river before the rail bridge was blown. D Company, further north than Napier’s company, suffered the same fate as Robertson’s party of Argylls, having to scatter into the jungle and attempt to reach British lines. Most of D Company would be captured before they could reach the river. Only 94 Argylls answered roll call on 8th January, nearly all from Napier’s A Company.

The Japanese committed atrocities in the area of the rubber trees around Trolak. In In this area were a number of Argyll and Hyderabad wounded. Second Lieutenant Ian Primrose reported that after he regained consciousness from an injury during the fighting, he discovered that the Japanese were dividing the wounded into those who said they could walk and those who said they could not. Primrose decided he could walk, which was fortunate as the Japanese soldiers proceeded to shoot and bayonet the wounded who could not. Afterward the survivors were forced to dig graves for the dead and then told to carry the Japanese wounded.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Japanese tanks in Kuala Lumpur

The Battle of Slim River had wrecked the British plans for an organised withdrawal. The Japanese drove on to Kuala Lumpur, which had been the principal administrative base for Allied troops in Malaya. It was packed full of stores, including thirteen trains full of food and ammunition and newly printed maps of Johore and Singapore Island. War correspondent Ian Morrison was in the city just before the fall and the arrival of the Japanese:

“There was looting in progress, such as I had never seen before. Most of the foreign department stores had been whistled clean since the white personnel had gone. The streets were knee deep in cardboard cartons and paper. Looters could be seen carrying away every imaginable prize with them.”

The British troops were not averse to joining in:

“I noticed several men coming into the cinema armed with boxes of chocolates, tins of biscuits and minerals. Looting was taking place in the closed and shattered shops nearby.”

What was left of the Army of northern Malaya was now withdrawing towards Johore and Singapore Island itself. Deployed around Johore were the Australians under Gordon Bennet.
 

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