Private Bruce H. Holland
Unit : "B" Company, 2/30 Battalion
Served : Singapore (captured).
Service No. : NX 26331
Camps : Changi, Kranji, Selarang
Book Four - Malaya, September 1941 to January 1942
After a short time spent in cleaning up the camp and organising a training syllabus we were at work again, but more advanced and interesting tasks were our lot. "B" Coy training area was on the road leading to Batu Pahat Aerodrome (about 1 mile from camp), the aerodrome being about 18 miles distant, right on the coast. Our area was mainly rubber, fairly hilly in places, and it contained both a Malay and a Chinese cemetery. The Malay gravestones were only a foot or two in height and each grave had two, head and feet. The Chinese sported a more elaborate memorial in the shape of a double concrete horseshoe. We saw one of their funerals - the relatives enjoyed a good meal and smiled and joked while two professional mourners wept and wailed over the huge red coffin, and crackers exploded to frighten the devils away. We did section, then platoon, and, finally, company training in these surroundings. Attack, defence, and, in the latter stages, even withdrawals although Gordon Bennett had told us "the 8th Div will never withdraw!!"
Several times we visited the aerodrome. No planes were housed there, it was an emergency drome only. One day during an attack on "Cemetery Hill", Bill Delaney ran into a nest of hornets and received no less than 42 stings.
The Malay Volunteer Guards mixed with us and taught us the commonly used words of their language, Athol Nagle being an apt pupil. Their rifles were French polished and their equipment quite new and modern alongside our frayed and sweat-stained gear, but the Sultan apparently had plenty of money.
We also built a bridge in the jungle at rear of the camp, chopping down trees with parangs and binding them with creepers. The bridge would not have held a motor bike, let alone a truck, but we enjoyed the change. We had our photo taken on it on completion. Dan climbed out ? ? , to try and get into it. We also built a stockade in the jungle. Thank God, we never had to fight in one. The jungle cutting was very fatiguing as only one man could work with the parang or brush hook at a time, the section being behind him in single file. We did three fairly long route marches during our stay at Batu Pahat. The first one led us through the town then out to Minyak Beku, about 7 miles distant on the coast. We then struck into a coconut plantation and suffered great discomfort from the steamy heat. Our path lay beside a noisome, muddy creek and we were greatly surprised on seeing our first "walking fish" and also a large, dead, python. Here we were messed about for some time as the ancient map had let us down and lost us. Eventually, after many hours' march, we emerged from the swamp having drunk many coconuts in an attempt to assuage thirst. A short distance along a jungle track, over a large cleared patch planted with young rubber, and we were on the aerodrome road. There we eventually contacted "B" Echelon and had a good march in, after dinner at 3 pm.
On the next march we reversed and went out a fair way along the aerodrome road before turning into the jungle. I saw a huge scorpion here that Paget had caught in his dixie. It was like a huge blue crab. We got lost again, naturally, and both mirth and annoyance were recorded when L/Cpl Johnstone informed us that "we had found the contour but not the track." Kiwi Bland got his bottle filled at a native house - he did his stripes over it. After crossing and re-crossing a stream several times we reached our rendezvous where S/Sgt Peebles awaited with our midday meal. It was in a Malay kampong which had no less than 3 schools (education is a big thing in Johore, the pupils learning English amongst other things.) We were glad to rest in the shade. On resuming the march Captain Howells led us round the swamp and finally we arrived at Minyak Beku once again. Seven miles to go and already footsore and weary. About 4 miles from camp I fell out to fix my puttees and could not catch up again as the Company was racing away at a great speed. So, with Harry Wilson, Joe Noble and Sailor Weir I boarded a wood truck which carried us till we met the Company 30 cwt returning to pick us up. On reaching the camp the entire platoon went on sick parade and all bar a few got no duties!
Reinforcements had been detailed during our absence, and they were quite a good bunch - Frank Dyson and "Tiny" Hicks to 8 Sect., Hilton Blanch to 7 and "Bluey" Thompson and Dave Baker to 9.
The third march was from a point just out of Ayer Hitam whither we were conveyed by transport, and we marched all the way along the road. Having no shade, the roadway reflected the sun's glare and made us thirsty in a short time, but we finished in good form and had a good session that night.
We also did a stunt at Kluang Aerodrome, being defenders against a full dress aerial attack and subsequent paratroop infiltration. First we were transported to a position on Singapore Island near Seletor Aerodrome where we waited for our movement order. It rained a fair bit in the afternoon but cleared up as we climbed into the trucks for our night journey north. Crossing the Causeway, we saw huge flares dropping from the sky where planes were endeavouring to locate our convoy. It was not long before all hands dozed off. There were 16 fully-equipped infantry men in our 3 ton truck and the tangle was terrific; legs, arms rifles and equipment everywhere.
In the early dawn light we awoke, cramped and weary, to find ourselves on the road near the back entrance to the drome. Our path led winding through thick rubber, till the actual drome was sighted. There were buildings everywhere - barracks, canteens and decontamination centres nestling amongst the rubber on small hills overlooking the runways. Malay Volunteers (J.M.F.) occupied sentry posts on the roads, also MMG gun pits and AA positions. Near their sleeping quarters we got our first look at the Sultan of Johore as he chatted with several of his officers. Our position was occupied but we held ourselves ready to race to the trucks, as "B" Coy was the "reserve mobile company" with the special job of locating and destroying paratroops.
The attack commenced, Brewster Buffaloes and Bristol Blenheims roaring in for a mock bombing raid while previously-planted charges exploded around our positions to simulate bomb explosions. We got the alarm and were rushed out into the rubber to attack enemy paratroops, but never located them as they (2/29 personnel) actually landed on the drome and were captured by our HQ guards.
On completing the exercise we moved back to Batu Pahat in a huge convoy of AIF, Indian AA and JMF. It was considered a good show, but propaganda made it out as a huge success to try and bluff the World about Malaya's air power.
Our work in camp was mainly recapitulation of Bren, Tommy gun and bayonet training. Men from every section attended Vickers MMG classes, Tige Sylvester, Frank Dyson, Tiny Hicks and Ted Gill being our representatives. They learnt quickly and later this training came in useful. We had to qualify at snap-shooting on the range and most men passed easily. I got 12/15, Sipper 15/15, and the others about 12/15 average.
On duty days I used to claim the job of cleaning all automatic weapons, and, although there were only two of them, it took me all day. That is, if other duties were flying around. It was common to see men leaping through the large windows at the rear of the huts as the sergeant entered the door. Our rifles were locked away each night in a room adjacent to the sergeants'. At Changi we had no such room and removed the bolts and hid them.
Snipers were issued with their rifles, Neil Huntley and Frank Sullivan receiving one each. Stretcher bearers were detailed - Dan Cann, Bluey McDonald, Darcy Pickard and Ken Stone. Ken was indignant - he wanted to be a soldier like his pappy, not a SB. He transferred to the 2/19 Battalion, his original unit. Jack Melouney came down from Jemaluang as the 2/19 padre's driver one Sunday. "Don" Company returned also, and told us tall stories of their experiences. They, and the Pioneer platoon under Captain Boss, were sorry to come once again under the battalion's discipline as they had a fairly free and easy time whilst away. Digger Preen was a casualty from the Pioneers. He was unlucky enough to stop a fragment of rock from a gelignite blast and lost the sight of one eye. L/Sgt Lindsay of Don Company was fatally injured ion a football match, and his body was taken to the AIF cemetery at Malacca. We handed in our old webbing equipment and received the new Bren type. The cartridge carriers were a nuisance but the mess tins an improvement on the old pattern. Fred Hodges and I secured a good job sorting out the various items of the old stuff and packing it in boxes. We also received an issue of tropical capes, (Black Jack bluffed 22 Brigade out of them, they say) and a jack knife and lanyard. A system of swapping NCO's for a certain period was mooted, Harry Holden being picked to visit the Manchesters.
We had quite a few changes in personnel during our stay at Batu Pahat. Capt. Howells went to HQ in charge of the mortars and Capt. Kearney from C Coy became our 2IC. Lt. Garner of 10th had a blue with Lt. Jones and was eventually transferred to 27 bde protective platoon with Sgt. Perkins and Pte. Dinnen. WO Walker, as a prospective subaltern, took his place, and Vic Gordon rose from CSM to Walker's old job as RSM, while Don Garner became CSM and Mossy Doolan took his place as 11 Platoon sergeant. Dinny Garland had gone to OCTU and eventually entered the JMF, so Dick Noble was 10 platoon sergeant. We still had Merv Dixon as sergeant and he was an old nuisance at times. Harold Russell dislocated his shoulder and spent some time at Malacca; Darcy also on account of his varicose veins. Russ returned to the platoon but Darcy had to enter 10 platoon, there being no room in the section. Alf Austin was boarded owing to perforated eardrums and reached Australia about Xmas time. Eb George lost his voice but they did not board him - he eventually recovered it anyway. Bob Chaney and Alan Smith transferred to 8 Div Sigs as DR's and various other changes took place within the battalion.
We generally rose as soon as Reveille sounded, tidied our hut and gear and had the usual cigarette and tea before administration and emu parades. After breakfast we donned the usual gear - shirt, shorts, f. s. hat, sock tops and puttees and fell out for inspection with rifles well cleaned and boots polished. A short march to the training area then smoko while we waited for the Coy truck with Brens, tripods, picks, shovels etc. A tactical exercise followed, then a discussion of same, each section and platoon commander tearing his opponent's story of the show to pieces.
The Bren tripod and spare barrel were carried by my no. 2, Ted Gill, and he fumed when told that he would have to carry them in an attack.
Dinner was followed by another such exercise, then we would march home to a cold shower and tea, maybe a swim also. After tea we would visit the canteen for some liquid refreshment, play 500 or "Slippery Sam" or go to town to have a Chinese meal and maybe visit the picture show. On Saturdays we would hold a battalion parade in the morning and sports in the afternoon. The parades were watched by many inhabitants; they had a reassuring effect on them we were told. There was a good canteen in town, run for our benefit by the local white inhabitants and staffed by Eurasians. There we could have buckshee coffee and cakes, and converse with our hostesses. They weren't bad, either.
There was a "cold storage" in the town, and many delicacies were sold, but not to me as I received only $12 per fortnight. I sampled the various "mees" and found them OK, but could not pluck up courage to try the curious foodstuffs of the Malayan food stalls.
Batu Pahat means "stone chisel" and the story is that a Siamese landed at Minyak Beku (which means, roughly, "hard oil" - I know not why) and he cut himself a well with a stone chisel, hence the name. The town was the cleanest we were in in Malaya, right on the river and possessing well paved streets (stained with betel nut juice), good drains, and electric light. The young scholars of the English schools had been trained to say "Hullo George" or "Hullo Harry" instead of the monotonous "Hullo Joe". They liked to air their knowledge of English and were extremely ambitious. With Mick McHugh I visited and enrolled with a Malay school to learn the language. Athol Nagle was a star performer there, his training as a school teacher stood him in good stead and he shot ahead of the rest of us.
The picture show put on quite modern films at the price (if we could be coerced to pay) of 25c. I never visited the Chinese theatre, it was quite entertaining, they tell me. Alan Gilbert had his hair cut in one of the "salons" by a woman hairdresser, quite a novelty. Beer was 70c in town so we did most of our drinking in camp. A constant habitue of the camp canteen was Cec Larkin of the Sig Platoon. He would stand near the door dressed in shirt, goon pants and hat - a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other - and his stare was disconcerting when focused on one. When he thought no one was watching he would raise the bottle, drink, then smile like a cherub. He could soak a fair amount away, too. The canteen sold State Express Ready Rubbed at 48c per 2 oz tin (about 1/6d), pineapple at 15c (5d) per tin and beer at the usual prices.
In the canteen one night we were surprised to see Mac, the guard corporal, dash in with a wild look in his eye. It appeared that a prisoner, Buckley, had broken out of the back of the guard hut and Mac was responsible. Buckley came into the canteen later, and when the still-perspiring Mac came and nabbed him he said that "he only wanted to come out and have a drink". He had a bottle, too, before he went back. I did several guards here, and also town pickets.
In anticipation of Singapore leave we commenced to save what we could and raised a platoon fund to assist those members whose means were limited, on a loan system. In addition to the 25c levy each pay day, a raffle for $50 was organised which showed a profit of $50. Even Black Jack and General George bought $1 tickets. It was won by Stan Heuston and Joe Bennett. I was fortunate in winning $30.60 at slippery sam, which went into my pay book, and pay was raised 1/- about this time, which brought the fortnightly earnings up to $17.50. We received many comfort issues of tobacco, papers, soap, cigarettes, toothpaste and brushes, etc. and this saved a lot of expense. I smoked the tobacco, Log Cabin Fine Cut, in my pipe, eventually. I bought a book on Johore and posted it home. I'm afraid it painted too glowing a picture of Malaya, as did Miss Smith, who earned our undying animosity.
The band had a wonderful time at Malacca when they played at the funeral of a very wealthy Chinese - they ate and drank like princes for a day. A fortune teller and a masseur used to visit us occasionally. I am afraid the fortune teller could not see very far into the future. I had my ears de-waxed. The tropics soon fill them and I was quite deaf for a while. Two natives had a combination shop and barber's salon in tents at the back of our lines, and they would allow a lot of credit. When we finally moved, their bad debts must have been terrific. Some men owed as much as $100 and over.
We had several monkeys in camp, one in Don Boys' lines being the most intelligent. He would jump and swing on a springy bough as often as we swung him up. Sipper had his photo taken with him on his shoulder. We decorated our huts with ferns and other plants, a company order. I remember several cases where snakes were found in them. A Brewster Buffalo shot up the camp one day; I thought he was diving into "C" Coy's mess hut at one period. We thought that the Buffaloes were good planes at that time. We were surprised at first by curious chirpings in our huts, and finally located the cause, a small lizard which lived in the roof and helped us by destroying flies, mosquitoes, etc. They were called "chi-chaks" and (were) never molested or chased away. Jack Molloy, who slept next to me, got Singapore Ear and suffered intensely, yet could not get better than Light Duties from the MO. Apparently, this affliction, with U.R.T.I. (upper respiratory tract infection, or the flu), did not warrant lying up as in Australia.
We were told that tigers were plentiful around Batu Pahat but never saw one. A woman was taken about 7 miles out during our sojourn there.
The other units of our division were well scattered, the 2/18th and 2/20th at Mersing, the 2.19th at Jemaluang, the 2/26th at Jason and the 2/29th at Segamat. Also the 23rd Brigade was well dispersed, the 2/22nd on New Britain, the 2/21st on Amboina and the 2/40th on Timor.
The food was good and plentiful, in fact it was the best camp for tucker that we struck. Apart from the inevitable meals of herrings and some rancid butter issued in the first few weeks, it was as good as the average home diet. For breakfast we had either porridge or bread and milk, bacon (from Bali), new potatoes and bread, butter, jam and cheese. Dinner was generally cold meat or herrings with potatoes or greens, stewed fruit and custard, bread, etc. and several times a week we received pineapple juice instead of tea. Tea was always a good meal - roast beef, baked spuds, onions, pumpkin, either plum duff and custard or rice, or bread and butter pudding, bread, etc. and tea. The waste was enormous in bread, cheese, jam, in fact we rarely backed up at all, and the boong scavenger got a good haul every day. Some Chinese kids hung around the window every tea time and some one would spread a liberal slice of bread with butter, jam and a slice of cheese and hand it out to them. I suspect that their mother sent them along, for they started bringing a basket, which was filled to the brim by the mess orderlies. The official scavenger tried to hunt them away but the boys soon stopped that.
Xmas parcels commenced to arrive early and our late suppers were supplied from this source. Fruit salads and cream, Xmas cake, chocolate, etc. were washed down by a drink of "coffee and milk" contained in a tin and needing only water to make it.
When pay day arrived, "housie" was started to augment platoon funds, and an added attraction was the sale, through the battalion, of "Nathans" beer at 30c per bottle, and 4 bottles credit given!
I had a fair spell on "spud barbering", and used to moan at the smallness of the potatoes, which had to be peeled to be baked. The pumpkins we used to split with an axe, but they weren't bad, and the beans were good. Fred Campbell, Harry Jarrett, Charlie Phillips were our cooks, and Jimmy Walker, Joe Noble, Horny Hann, Legs Hall and Roy Taylor comprised some of the fatigue which cleaned up and served the tucker. Vince Bylos and Mark Wilson were our company buglers and they enjoyed a good bludge under the pretence of "practising".
The boongs exploited us in the matter of fresh fruit - some of our boys paid $1 for sugar cane worth 1c ! Ricksha boys in Batu Pahat were paid the set rate of 15c from the camp to the town. They were a clean, decent mob compared to their opposite numbers in Singapore. Jack McLean, Tom Yates and Dick Andrews spent an afternoon at Pontian Kechil on the coast road. They had a "grouse" meal at the rest house, and were amused by the locals who had not seen Aussies before, apparently. I have sat in a Chinese restaurant with a bottle of soft drink or beer, and had a large gaping circle of Chinese around, just staring, but moving hastily when I finished and rose to my feet.
There was a large list of houses that were out of bounds, the Shinpo Hotel being one, because of the Japanese staff. Many of our boys visited these places, however - the ban served to advertise them.
On 22/11/41 we celebrated the first anniversary of the 2/30 Bn with a good spread, speeches and entertainments. Russ and Darcy, who were at J.B. in G.B.D., got permission to come up and we had also representatives from the J.M.F. and the local Chamber of Commerce. The spread was held in H.Q. Coy's mess hut, our tables being just outside near the large open window. We each drew a bottle of beer then sat down to cold meat and mashed potatoes, beans etc - plum duff and sauce and fruit salad and cream. There was plenty for all, in fact, Frank Dyson and I were cleaning up later and found gallons of unused fruit salad etc. We left early in the night and went back to our hut to talk with Russ and Darcy, who were anxious to return to the unit and leave the innumerable guards that were their lots in Base. They were drafted back in a few days, Russ to 8 Sec. and Darcy to 10 Pl., much to his disgust.
On 30/11/41 we had our first big scare. Jack Maclay, several others, and myself were enjoying supper - fruit salad made from one tin each of peaches, pears, pineapple and passionfruit, plus cream, fruit cake and "coffee and milk", when the "fall in" and "double" were sounded. Most of the camp was in town and the few that were in lines were ordered into "battle order" and told to pack their kit bags, draw rations, etc. Men started to dribble in from the town, and they told us of the stampede that occurred when they were recalled. The picture show and circus were emptied in a flash, and our 30 cwt. Pl trucks sagged under the weight of enormous loads of excited men. Everyone was laughing and talking as they hurriedly emptied their boxes and packed valises, kit bags, and haversacks. The rubbish we discarded covered the floor yet still we had a struggle to get it all stowed away. In "battle order" - shirts, swamp trousers, sock tops, puttees, steel helmets, webbing, haversacks and rifles - we fell out and drew 30 rounds of S.A.A. each. Black Jack addressed us as we stood in Section groups, stressing that this was an emergency measure and that we were not to molest Jap nationals yet.
Guards were doubled around the camp and posted on all essential services in the area, the aerodrome, water pumping station, oil tanks, etc. Others garrisoned cross roads and patrolled the roads as far as Segamat to the north, Kluang to the east and Scudai to the south. I was in the latter patrol with Jimmy Ambrose, Sailor Weir, Ted Gill, Joe Noble, Harold Russell, Frank Dyson, Tiny Hicks, etc. Our base was at Ayer Hitam and we got a presento of nine pineapples on our first trip to Scudai and back. The next trip took us out to Batu Pahat aerodrome then south through Benut and Pontian Kechil to Scudai, then back to Ayer Hitam for breakfast. Jimmy, Sailor, Ted and myself comprised the day patrol and the remainder returned to camp. We did the round trip again, then the Scudai trip again, before we handed over to the J.M.F. and returned to camp in a violent thunderstorm. We were all pretty truck-happy, having covered about 500 miles in the back of a 3 ton truck in less than 24 hours. We had a grouse meal on return - the steak had been braised, the baked spuds and beans were delicious, and the plum duff and "Columbia" milk topped it off handsomely. We were disappointed that the scare was only that, but remained in a state of vigilance, eager for action to relieve our boredom. We lived out of our haversacks, never unpacking kit bags, and had to be able to move at a minute's notice. Our old packs were re-issued and a list of gear to be carried was compiled. Mosquito nets were dyed a brownish-red, the Platoon truck was loaded and unloaded until the numerous articles - Brens, grenades, picks, shovels, valises, tripods, mess gear, etc. could be packed in the most compact manner.
Our rifle room was always guarded closely, as was the Battalion ammunition store with its 3" mortar bombs, .5 antitank, .45 Tommy gun and .303 S.A.A. and grenades. We were issued with additional weapons - 7 Sec., Dick Andrews received an English Bren and Joe Noble took our Tommy gun - 8 Sec., I had Bren no. A112 and 9 Sec., Ray Donald had Bren no. A105. We received additional magazines and loaded them to 26 capacity to eliminate stoppages. When not on a scare I had to ease them down to 20 to save the springs. I had no repair wallet, no sling, no pistol and had never fired my gun - we were prepared all right ! Johnny Walker went back to R.S.M. and Vic Gordon rejoined the Company. Our supporting troops, A.A.A., A.S.C., etc. arrived and were camped in the canteen. At a concert in H.Q. mess hut, Black Jack told us of a Jap convoy off Indochina. He said "I don't think the little --------- will fight". We hoped he was wrong.
We did town pickets with full battle dress and enjoyed the circus and pictures free of charge, as per usual. The ringmaster was glad to see us. At Kluang the 2/19th had nearly wrecked his show, so we were welcomed and installed in the best seats. The night that the blue actually started was spent in a fever of booze and gambling, stakes were high and Kiwi Bland, Joe Cochrane, Bomber King, Sailor Weir, etc. lost quite large sums at Slippery Sam. I finished up with a bottle of Richmond Pilsener for my morning drink. I put it in my kit bag and never had time to get it out in the morning, worse luck. I finished up broke, too, but never minded much as money seemed superfluous now.
We were awake early and absorbed a hurried breakfast, while numerous rumours flew around unceasingly. Singapore and Kluang had been bombed, we were told, also that Khota Bahru and Mersing had been attacked - the balloon had "gone up" with a rush. Our charpoys, kit bags and green boxes were stored away and we were dispersed in the rubber to await movement orders. Our clothes were returned from the dhobies, bar the towels which were too wet to pack (we got them a fortnight later). Trucks were commandeered from the town and the maintenance party, to stop behind, detailed. The camp was later occupied by Con. Depot, and bombed as they eventually left it. Our platoon strength was now as follows:-
Pl. Cmdr: Lt. Head
Pl. Sgt: Merv. Dixon
Batman: Tommy Evans
Runner: Sipper Charlton
Driver: Len Clavins and - (sic)
Mortar men: Ray Brown and Bill Smith
7 Section: Cpl. Jack McLean, L/Cpl Dave Swindail, Bren Gunners Dick Andrews and Don Watts, Privates Sam Watts, Joe Noble, Jack Maclay, Hilton Blanche, Tom Yates, Jimmy Walker and Harry Wilson.
8 Section: Cpl. Jimmy Ambrose, Bren Gunners myself and Ted Gill, Privates Harold Russell, Fred Hodges, Sailor Weir, Frank Dyson, Tiny Hicks, Tige Sylvester and L/Cpl. Alan Gilbert.
9 Section: Cpl. Harry Holden, L/Cpl. George Phelps, Bren Gunners Ray Donald and Jeff Gillespie, Privates Bill Death, Jack Dean, Stan Waterson, Eck Gottees, Bluey Mcdonald and Dan Cann.
Each man was equipped with the following gear: Shirt, swamp trousers, sock tops and puttees, steel helmet, respirator with "alert" position, webbing, bayonet, water bottle, field dressing, mosquito cream, jack - knife, pull - through, gauze and oil, identification discs, and haversack containing hard rations, mess tins, mug, knife, fork and spoon, hold - all, housewife, towel and waterproof cape. Tobacco was carried in webbing pouches or respirator haversacks - against orders, but convenient.
On the Platoon 30 cwt. each man had his valise containing spare shirts, shorts, socks, boots, towels, mosquito net, blanket and bivouac sheet. (We had our own sea - kit bags stacked on, too, having no chance to pack all in the valises.) I had my Bren box, spare barrel, tripod, ramrod and box of 12 magazines on also, carrying the gun and 5 mags. myself. The Coy. had only one 2" mortar and one .55 anti - tank rifle (instead of 3 each) and our platoon had the mortar, at first.
Equipped thus, we moved out to the padang to embuss in 3 ton trucks, 16 men to each one. Spotters for aircraft were detailed. I saw a chap from the M.T. "Dutchie" Hollands, behind a twin Lewis, scanning the skies anxiously for hostile planes.
We embussed and moved off at 12 noon, bound for Kluang Aerodrome. We raced along the roads in aircraft formation - 4 trucks to 1 mile of road; passing a scene of activity at Ayer Hitam where Indian A.A. gunners occupied the high ground and transport of all types cluttered the cross roads. We reached the back road into the drome without incident and debussed to occupy the same possies as in the stunt. Ted and I set up the gun on a fixed line in an old mortar pit overlooking the runway, and our fixed line, I don't know why, would have passed through the nose of the only visible plane, a Blenheim, which lay in the open all the time. This plane, plus a few "Moths" were all that Kluang had to defend Johore. The J.M.F. were in their gun positions. In case of a blue we were instructed to take over their Vickers M.M.G.'s as they could not be trusted to maintain them. In fact, they openly admitted that if the enemy came they would "go home".
Len Ryan, the bass, and Monty the drummer from the Battalion band were attached to 12 Pl. and seemed glad to leave B.H.Q. for a while.
We shaved and showered in one of the spacious wooden barrack buildings that stood empty about us, then erected bivouacs for the night with laths, net and groundsheet.
Our sleep was undisturbed and we awoke on 9/12/41 with more rumours in our ears. Mersing had been heavily attacked, the 2/18th and 2/20th nearly annihilated, and we were to move up to reinforce the 2/29th, said the furphies. Also, a gas attack was imminent. This was strengthened by the issue of additional gas - proof gear - 3 gas capes (one on our shoulders, one in the Platoon truck and one in the battalion reserve), gas gauntlets, wallets, mica eyeshields, helmet covers, etc. Also we received 2" mortar bombs (and Ray Brown set up his mortar at long last) 4-second "36" grenades and camouflage nets for the L.M.G.'s, so our carrying capacity was strained even more. Then the other rumour (re Mersing) seemed to come true also, for after a hurried mid-afternoon meal, 12 platoon had to pack and embuss for Jemaluang, 8 Div H.Q., they said. Rain was falling as we passed through the streets of Kluang, crowded with refugees from the east. We passed over 70 truckloads of unfortunate refugees on our journey - they sat in the rain, unmoving and stoical in their misfortune. Mersing, Endau and Jemaluang had to be evacuated and destroyed, and they were moved into camps in western Johore.
The road became narrower as we progressed, splashing through a decent rain storm in two 3 ton trucks. We arrived at our destination in pitch-black darkness and had trouble in locating the people who expected us - we were not expected until next day, anyway. At length, our truck load was disgorged into a dirty boong hut, we received a supper of bread, butter, bully beef, jam and tea, then bedded down on the floor. The other truck load occupied tents for the night and we met them at breakfast.
Morning light 10/12/41 showed that we were in a fair sized harbour on the left hand side of the road about 2 or 3 miles before Jemaluang, and 8 Div. Sigs. were spread all over the place in huts, tents, dug-outs and trucks. After our first quinine issue we had a substantial breakfast of stew, bread, butter, syrup and tea, then set about establishing ourselves for we were to be the protective platoon for the whole show.
We stripped the flies from several tents and installed beds. Some were the real thing, but I had to be content with a fowl house door for a while. We had 5 posts and 3 patrols, one at the front gate with a fixed line across the entrance, one at the sig. hut, one at another gate, at the siren (?) and at the rear of our position, and the patrols linked these up. Our position was actually ridiculous and laughable, but we felt very important at the time - we carried gear that the sigs. had never seen before - Brens, Tommy guns and 4 second grenades. I often had an interested audience while stripping and cleaning my gun. We had preference at meal times and went to the head of the queue with our new mess tins, bright and shining.
We did 24-hour guards at first and Ted Gill, Tige and myself were on the post at the front gate. We built a ramshackle shelter over the gun and tripod and had one man on duty constantly. The other two slept in the adjacent boong hut on stretchers, and left the post only at meal times. After a while we worked 6 hour guards, 6 on, 12 off, and, occasionally, 6 on, 18 off, to allow us a decent sleep in the rarely-occupied tents. The nights we spent here were extremely dark, and nervous moments were caused by fireflies, glow-worms and a curious "carpenter bird". This bird made a knocking noise, just like hammering in the distance. 8th Div. Provosts occupied portions of our hut and they picketed the road, turning back many Chinese attempting to return to Mersing. They delighted in flourishing their big .45's or newer .38's in the boongs' faces, and held them up for a presento occasionally.
Smokes were short; occasionally we got an issue or got the D.R.'s to buy some in Kluang. Matches also were short and I had a small slush lamp glowing all night in the hut to light our cigarettes. We got souvenirs from the empty huts - lamps, mirrors and postage stamps. Tom Evans wangled a trip to Jemaluang and brought back cigarettes, matches and a Mah-Jongg set for Ted Gill. Ted posted it home later on, just before the anti-looting order came out. It was a very good set and it never arrived. We were issued with beer several times, and could buy one bottle per man occasionally. We got a tin of pineapple juice each day while on sig. rations. This made us very suspicious of our own Q.M. The tucker was good and plentiful, and I always remember the abundance of bread, butter and golden syrup that was available. Our Xmas parcels had been put in a joint tucker-box to conserve space and the H.Q. had a royal time with it. We heard here of the fate of H.M.S. "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse". Complaints were made that we did our guards laxly, so we tightened up - for a while. Sipper rammed his Tommy gun into the stomach of an officer at the sig. hut door, to find that it was the C.O. and that he did not know it. The passwords were the names of various race courses in Australia - Kensington, Flemington, etc. and the Jap knew them as soon as we did. In fact, he would broadcast them to us! We had been warned of a black car that had been forcing one D.R. per day into the ditch. They later got it, they said.
The sig. R.S.M. would rise early each morning and bellow "Stand to!" till everyone turned out fully equipped. We used to turn over, instead. I met Vince Coote here, a D.R. from Ernest Street, Lakemba.
The Battalion had moved to a position between us and Jemaluang on 13/12/41, and we began to worry about action and our probable isolation from the Unit. On 16/12/41 we were pleased to be relieved, 18th of "Don" Company taking over. We piled into our truck and were carried right to our new camp, a rubber-covered hill overlooking a large, recently-cleared patch of jungle. We erected tents, one each for 7, 8 and 9 Sections, one for odds and sods, and two for Platoon H.Q. Our tent crew consisted of Sailor Weir, Harold Russell, Ted Gill, Frank Dyson, Tiny Hicks, Tige Sylvester, Jimmy Ambrose and myself. We had various stretchers and camp beds, and were very snug, even in bad weather. There were half a dozen houses in the clearing, and vegetables grew in profusion. We lived well on the abandoned pigs, fowls, paw paws, sugar cane etc., although the first arrivals had skimmed the cream. We later burnt all the huts and fruit trees in a scorched earth policy. The pigs we shot, or ran down with parangs; pork chops were on the breakfast menu quite often.
We swung into training, but never took it too seriously. We did the usual recapitulations of Bren, Tommy gun, bayonet and grenade practice. We were introduced to the new "68" grenade, fired from a cup discharger, and the "69" or bakelite grenade. We made Molotov cocktails from petrol and latex and practised with them. We were told that S.A.A. was seriously short in Malaya and got only 15 rounds to practise with - 7 to Ted and 8 to myself - before we actually went into action. Tiny found some good files and we made sheath knives from old saw blades, and sharpened our bayonets. Jimmy cut his chin with his, and he blunted it again. I swapped him rifles, as my old Z3666 was the better, and his went to Ray Brown for rifle bombing. Our steel helmets were tastefully camouflaged with green and brown paint, as were our trucks. We did many patrols to locate natives who would not give themselves up. We found a jungle camp about a mile from ours, but it was empty. While destroying a rubber factory we found a "plant" of sandshoes destined for our enemy if he came our way. Many other evidences of 5th column were discovered. Several boongs were shot for tampering with sig. wires and some innocent ones for not halting when ordered. On New Year's Eve I discovered some good rice under a log, in several tins. On reporting it I was detailed to watch the possie that night. With Harry Head and Jimmy Ambrose (all with Tommy guns) I spent several uncomfortable hours in a clump of tapioca, with no result. What a New Year's job!
Some days we worked on the corduroy road into our harbour, bringing in gravel from a neighbouring tin mine. We would prevail on the driver to drop us in the town for a buckshee cup of coffee at the "Salvo's Joint". The town was a wreck, having been looted by the 2/19th, as was Mersing by the 2/18th and 2/20th. We grabbed furniture for our mess and had a bonser table, cane grass chairs, and even a barber's chair and mirror for Alan. I scrounged a bottle of Chinese brandy. It was a fierce drink, made in Batu Pahat.
Lou Brown was a shell shock casualty, having copped an air raid in Kluang while drawing rations. Dutch planes flew over us some days, also "Leaping Lena", as the old biplane was called. Some of the boys went down with fever, among them Hilton Blanche and Mick Murray. Sailor Weir and Norm Wilding were accepted for a Commando job under Capt. Lloyd, and left for K.L. and action on the west coast.
Our mail was irregular, one load being shot down, we were told. We were awakened each morning by the siren-like howling of a certain tribe of grey monkeys. They sounded like a dozen steam whistles in action. The nights were moonlit and warm; so bright was the moon that the boys played cards by its light until 1 or 2 a.m. We did our guard duty in a comfortable easy chair, feet on the table and butter, biscuits and jam always available. At "stand-to" we had to occupy slit trenches till the light grew bright enough to "stand-down". Then, Tom would light a fire and boil some tea to drink with our first smoke. I found a good, heavy parang and sharpened it till it was like a razor. The issue ones would bend like tin. I gave Ted my bottle to fill and he lost it at the water truck, so Stan Heuston "lent" me one from the store. I never returned it, either. Around the tin mines the earth was very treacherous, and one man from the sigs had a lucky escape. Only his head was showing above the quicksand when our boys got him out. Ray Brown received photos of his "nipper" here, and never tired of proudly showing them. We spent many nights listening to Harry Head's gramophone - boogie-woogie, Bing Crosby and Deanna Durbin being the most popular. Tiny Hicks spent three quarters of an hour telling me about bee farming at Ballina. He certainly knew the game.
Propaganda told us that the Japs carried no bayonets, that their bullets could be extracted and the wound would heal in two or three days, and such-like fantastic tales. We were told our roles in the defence of Johore, about 14 of them altogether, from the defence of the west coast (with one battalion!) to the attempted ambush of a complete enemy brigade! We practised this battalion ambush and promised ourselves good shooting. Our brigade was to be used on the offensive as we had never got the defensive complex that the 22nd Brigade had, behind their barbed wire, artillery and land mines. The 2/30th was reserve mobile battalion attached directly to 8 Div. H.Q. We had another role, that of occupying the 2/19th position at Jemaluang cross roads, and we visited these possies to get acquainted with the country. "B" Coy of the 2/19th occupied Palm Hill, a small knoll with only scant undergrowth as cover - thank the Lord we never had to take it over, the Jap artillery and mortars would have annihilated us. We did a mock attack on this position, after a breakneck scramble along steep jungle tracks in the hilly jungle at the rear of the town. Harry Head carried a gunpowder bomb and kerosene tin, Ray, Dick and myself carried Brens and Frank Sullivan his sniper's rifle. We were a covering force on the mountainside, while the Company (?) put their show on. The signal to commence was the explosion of the bomb in the tin. The fuse was short and the explosion nearly blew Harry's hand off. The 2/19th gunners nearly shot us, as they had not been warned of the stunt! A Jap plane flew over at the same time, and the town was being burnt down, so it was an eventful day. The 2/19th were sleeping in small bivvies in great discomfort, while we luxuriated in tents. One of their men shot himself in this position for no apparent reason. The jungle seemed to have taken a bigger grip on the 22nd Brigade than on us. The 2/10th Artillery were in this area, and were experts on camouflage. I particularly remember one heavy calibre anti-tank (75 mm) gun that covered the road near our camp - one was past it before it became apparent.
Dave Swindail went to 11 Platoon and I was offered the position of Lance Jack to 7 Section, but remained as no. 1 gunner, Tom Yates taking the stripe instead.
I had an attack of dhobie itch and suffered as much from the ointment (weak (?) fungicide) as from the affliction.
We had a good tong built in the stream below our camp and could keep fresh and clean always. Tigers were suspected in the vicinity but we never saw one. Our rations were brought to Coy H.Q. in trucks then carried down to the Platoon position by volunteers. They were good and plentiful - I remember well the "Maconochie Stew" (1/3 meat, 1/3 spud, 1/3 peas), the baked spuds (Jimmy's obsession), and the stews full of scrounged lentils. Jam was always on the table with biscuits and butter. Russ and myself, being the only marmalade eaters, did well. On Xmas day the whole Platoon dined together, as well as the M.T. drivers attached to our Company. We had received our A.C.F. parcels and they supplemented rations to make a good meal. The parcel contained a Xmas pudding and cake, a tin of preserved fruit, a tin of cream, chocolate, biscuits, sweets, etc. The Coy wanted to take our parcels and issue only a bit at a time, but we protested and received the full amount. They heated all the puddings, however. We got only one bottle of beer per man as Army Regs. said we were in action stations, and no drinking could be done "in the presence of the enemy". We accordingly sat down to roast pork, roast beef, baked spuds and beans, plum pudding and sauce, pears and cream and sweets, tea, and beer to top it off. Russ and I ate our parcels that day, I am sorry to say. We had plenty of cigarettes, now - the comforts issues were regular and we had a superabundance of soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc. also. Padre Polain gave us good talks on church parades. He was one Padre we did not mind going to hear. On New Year's Day we had a good time also, still having pork and poultry, tinned fruit, etc. and Xmas parcels arriving regularly augmented these with bonser cakes and other dainties. Surface mail was in and we got quite homesick over the Aussie newspapers.
On 9/1/42 we received our movement orders and hurriedly packed in a drizzle of rain. 9 Section came in late from a jungle patrol and we had to bustle to be ready. The two trucks had been equipped with seats to accommodate all the Platoon, Tom and Len being in the 30 cwt. We struck and stacked our tents, and had to carry all surplus furniture up to the road, but in the darkness I am afraid most of it went over the bank at the rear. Spare drivers were detailed, Frank Dyson in our truck and Joe Noble in the other. I stripped the canvas from Ted's stretcher to cover the gun as the rain showed no sign of slackening. As we bounced out along the rough corduroy Ray Brown lost his rifle over the side - I don't think his pay book ever suffered, though! The Platoon 30 cwt. went on ahead, Tom taking his little bitch "Cavell", to liberate her where she would have a chance of surviving. He put her off at Yong Peng, which was later almost completely razed to the ground. The 30 cwt. went over a bank later, and Tom and Len were lucky to be unhurt. All trucks that broke down were to be pushed into the ditch for the L.A.D. to pick up. One D.R. abandoned his bike and climbed in with us.
The Battalion carriers escorted us - they were a curious sight with their bluish spotlights and toad-like appearance. We dozed intermittently, and the last thing I remember was Ayer Hitam, where the convoy turned north, till we reached Segamat in the early dawn and eventually pulled up in rubber to the left of Batu Enam Railway Station. A late breakfast of "Maconochie", bread, butter and apricot jam, then we remained dispersed under our bivouac sheets till about midday and corned beef, tomato sauce and apricots. I pinched a tin of syrup from a carrier - it went well with the ration biscuits.
Our role, we were told, was that of stopping infiltration of enemy troops from Kuala Lipis direction. We built bivouacs with young rubber trees, ten quid a tree we were told, but we had to have shelter. Jimmy and I shared one bivouac. We were lucky to drain ours before the rain came, for the remainder of the Section were flooded out properly, and spent a miserable night.
In the morning, (11/1/42), we saw a convoy of Indian Engineers move into harbour opposite us. They panicked when a plane was heard, as they were just out of action, but they cheered up when we told them we were Aussies. They had a good brand of rum, which was freely distributed, and we later got an issue of their "Caravan" smokes. Several Englishmen, civilian refugees from K.L., invited us to their quarters in the rubber estate houses. They had looted K.L., they said, and promised us whisky, etc., but we could not keep the appointment. An anti-tank gun was sited on the road near us, and we felt much more secure after watching the smooth working of the gun crew. I was detailed to bring in a load of Dannert Wire from the station. It was a scene of bustle and activity. War materials were stacked everywhere, including transports and pontoons. Battalion H.Q. was in a large house over the road, a train load of J.M.F. was just pulling out, and Indians moved everywhere. We brought in the wire, and another party took it back the next morning - wouldn't it?
The night was uneventful, and we packed our gear at dawn (12/1/42) and embussed once more. Our road lay on the right of the permanent way, through large clearings of young rubber where Indians were cleverly entrenched behind wire and land mines. We had been warned that the town we were to pass through, Gemas, had been bombed that morning and was burning. The fires were out but scorched and blackened walls showed everywhere. Rolling stock cluttered the sidings, loaded with war stores. A.A. was in position to defend this, the main junction of the east and west coast railway lines.
We passed the Customs post on the boundary between Johore and Negri Sembilan, then turned into the rubber about 3 miles from Gemas and debussed. The seats were dragged out of the trucks - we were on Shanks' pony from now on. The Company occupied a small hollow on the left of the road, with Bill Death, Jack Dean and the anti-tank rifle covering our flank. I had no field of fire in my position, so I just sat still and hoped nothing happened. Ahead of us a huge column of oily smoke hung in the sky, so black and unmoving that many thought it was a mountain. It was a dump of rubber going up behind our troops as they fell back from Tampin. Convoys streamed past in endless flow. We saw our first Ghurkas here - survivors of Slim River - and they could not believe that we were Aussies, either. A curious sight was the many steam rollers, crawling to safety from as far up as Ipoh. Armoured cars, carriers and ambulances were plentiful, the latter unfortunately so, generally full of Indian troops. We heard several planes pass overhead, and peered up through the rubber to identify them. They were three, small, single-engined bombers after the style of the Wirraway. Ted Gill exclaimed "They're Dutch, I can see the markings!", then suddenly a string of black objects fell from the "Dutch" planes and we heard the distant explosions as they fell on Gemas. A.A. bursts stained the sky, but the planes and their fighter escorts sped serenely back to reload. They paid several visits and caused a few casualties amongst the sigs. in the town, we were told.
Our position was explained to us as follows: The Battalion was astride the road at our present position with the nearest troops in support about 4000 yards back. "B" Company was to go forward to a bridge over the Gemenche River, which was being mined, to ambush the head of the expected Jap column. "B" Company was then to retire behind the Battalion, which would then face the assault. We were also to be a reserve, then, in case an emergency arose. The 3" mortar crews were in position and the Sigs. were building a dug-out in anticipation of bombings. The 4th Anti Tank covered us from A.F.V.'s, the 2/15th R.A. were in support, and the 2/12 R.A.E. were on the bridge job.
In the afternoon it came on to rain again, so we built the usual bivvies and crawled into them after tea. Then about 8 p.m. we were pulled out (8 Section) and sent up to guard the mined bridge at Gemencheh. We piled into our ration truck and bowled along to the post, about three miles ahead. Trucks were pulled into the side and engineers moved wearily about as they put the finishing touches to the structure. There was a hole sunk in the exact centre at each end, to take the explosives, and they were covered with boards to keep them from caving in. Our job was to direct the traffic away from these holes as well as to defend the position, so two posts were accordingly manned, the remainder lying down in the rain beside the road to sleep, there being no shelter at hand.
The "river" was quite narrow but had steep slippery sides and was swollen by rain. Mosquitoes and sandflies were very bad and the ceaseless rattle and roar of convoys made sleep impossible, at first. Gilbert and I got a bottle of beer from one Pommy, and a drunken Aussie driver wanted to shake hands with everyone. Tiny was nearly run down by a carrier and several reckless Indian drivers ran over and smashed the planks in the road, despite our efforts. One silent convoy of armoured cars scared Fred - he thought it was the vanguard of the Jap Army when they would not answer him. The "ginger beers" told us that they had been bombed and machine-gunned that afternoon while withdrawing charges from the preceding bridges. This was done to allay suspicions of our bridge - the Jap would be flushed with success after about 97 miles unopposed.
Book Five - Malaya, January to February 1942
The engineers returned at dawn, 13/1/42, and we rigged small shelters to sit under till we were recalled to the Battalion. Eventually the ration truck picked us up and we rejoined the Company to have a belated breakfast in the rain, bread, jam and cold coffee with a tin of "Columbia", pinched en route. Jimmy was all "het up" about the position, and made up a yarn about us being bombed and machine gunned, as were the engineers. This tale flashed to Battalion H.Q., and he was severely reprimanded and threatened with exclusion from the show as a punishment. Rations were drawn for several weeks and buried near Battalion H.Q. position, as we might have to wait a fair while in ambush. Gemas was to be evacuated and shelled behind us, to further deceive the enemy. I received my last letter here, and destroyed it and all other identification papers. Traffic was thinning out on the road. We were issued with brand new parangs, extra rations (one tin of bully in each shorts pocket), and as many grenades as we could carry. Volunteers were called for from amongst the single men to be grenade throwers, and take up dangerous posts. After dinner we were assembled in platoons and given the "P". We were to travel as lightly equipped as possible, so, accordingly, dumped respirators, gas capes, haversacks and valises. At first, we were intended to also dump our rain capes, but eventually kept them with us, as the rain had not ceased. We were to burrow into the jungle and make no movement or noise till the charge blew up the bridge, then the "grenadiers" were to perform, closely followed by L.M.G.'s, rifles, etc. My position was on a high bank overlooking the bridge and my job was to engage the first transport on the other side, then the third, fifth, etc., while Ray Donald on the opposite bank opened up on the second, fourth, etc., one magazine to each truck. 12 Platoon had the position of honour nearest the bridge, with 8 Section on the left and 9 on the right hand side of the road, then 7 Section, Company H.Q., 10 Platoon and finally, 11 Platoon, 620 yards along the road.
Captain Duffy would be in telephone communication with B.H.Q. all the time and would explode the charge when he considered a suitable number had passed the bridge. We had a hot meal, thick stew which we drank out of jam tins, as our gear had been stacked. The padre, kitchen fatigue and Company orderly room staff joined us as we got our orders. We got a quick treatment from our C.A.P. orderlies Ken Dale, Laurie Drayton and Bluey McDonald, and were told "no prisoners", "leave the wounded" and "if any man panics, cut his throat!". These orders were never carried out to the letter, however. To pass the time, as it was too wet to sit on the ground, I read a book, "Gold out of Celebes", standing under a tree, wet to the skin. I put this book up on a tree crotch, intending to return and finish it, but never came that way again. My spare barrel, ramrod and tripod were on B5. I was glad that Ted never had to lug them along. As Joe Noble had a Tommy gun, he was temporarily attached to 8 Section. The anti-tank rifle and 2" mortar were not taken with us, and the rifle bombers carried "68" (anti-tank) grenades, to deal with trucks on our side of the river, as well as 36's and 69's.
We moved out in aircraft formation, 8 Section in single file on the right of the road with two scouts well out in front. "C" Company was dug in on the right, and "A" and "Don" on the left of the road. They yelled out "Give them one for me, mate!" as we passed them and their supporting anti-tank gun crews. We froze when the air alarm sounded, but it was only a misunderstanding and no planes appeared. Trucks were piled in the ditch where they had broken down and been abandoned, and we alternately passed and were passed by a sig. truck laying wires with the aid of a long fishing-pole affair.
Alan took my gun. He said, "You will be flat-out carrying this before you're finished." Ted also got assistance with the cumbersome steel box of 12 magazines, loaded now to their most efficient capacity, 26 rounds.
The engineers were still labouring when we reached our destination; they had mined only one side (near) of the bridge, and put in more than the customary charge. Their traces they cleverly concealed with fresh asphalt, etc. They gave us many tins of fruit, which were greatly appreciated. Ted got a tin of peaches and Company H.Q. some whiskey. We never got a drink, however, as we moved immediately into the jungle to prepare our position, a position to be occupied silently for a week, if necessary. I scrambled up to my little bank and hacked a small opening in the matted vines to site the gun. My lying-down posture was uncomfortable as my feet lay uphill and to the left. The ground was a sodden carpet of dead, decaying leaves and the icy cold drips from the foliage overhead were 100 times worse than the actual rain. If I lay on the groundsheet, the rain fell on me. If I pulled it over me, the ground was sopping, so it really mattered not what I did. The gun was covered, though, ready for instant action. Ted was about 10 feet away on my right, overlooking the cutting, and Joe Noble was on my left with his Tommy gun. Down underneath were Ray Brown and Bill Smith with their cup dischargers and grenades, and the rest of the Section were behind Ted, lining the bank back to Company H.Q. When pulling out we would have to descend to the road. Other sections would have to cross it, so all enemy had to be mopped up before moving back.
An Artillery officer, Lt. Makepeace (2/15 R.A.A.) and his batman were with Company H.Q., as were several engineers. Our orders for the night were that no one slept (!), that we remain silent and show no light. It rained constantly, and I must confess that I smoked both pipe and cigarettes till the rain found its way into my matches, and I could not get a light. I dozed in the early hours and awoke to a deserted scene - no traffic at all on the road and no sound or movement from the surrounding jungle. Towards noon, the drizzle ceased and the sun shone sickly through the clouds. I peeled off equipment and shirt and spread out my pay book etc. in a patch of sunlight to dry, after servicing the gun. Half of a 7 lb. tin of Bully was passed down to Joe and me, and we ate some off my sheath knife blade, some biscuits, and drank some cold water. Joe had about 200 cigarettes in watertight tins, so I promised myself to hang close to him.
Several boongs appeared on the road. They glanced around curiously as they crossed the bridge and hurried past our post. Sam Watts stood up, over the road, and yelled out "Do you want these, Mr. Head?" It was a dead give-away but apparently the boongs were genuine refugees and not 5th columnists. We should actually have executed them, as their knowledge of the trap could have doomed us all.
We sensed the approach of the enemy when a small, single-engined plane flew over us several times, following the roadway. Then, at 16.02 I saw three cyclists appear around the bend, about 400 yards away. I said to Joe "Here come three boongs on bikes", and he looked up and said, "By ------, they've got rifles!" They had them, too - slung across their shoulders or strapped to their bikes. Several more appeared in single file, then suddenly a living avalanche swept around the bend, 6 deep and about a hundred yards long. They reached the bridge, swept past it, and up the slight rise past me, hundreds of yellow men clad in many different costumes, some with only singlets, shorts and sandshoes, and their bikes were just as varied in appearance. Some ran smoothly, some rattled and scraped, and the men laughed and joked as they panted past. I wonder now why they did not see me as I gazed down on them and snuggled into my gear. More and more bunches appeared and pedaled past till hundreds had crossed the river. Several men rode past on motor bikes, probably officers, then I awoke from a daze to realize that the bridge was gone. A few splintered timbers, a huge cloud of dense smoke and the constant "thud - thud" of grenades in the cutting bringing me to realization of my job. At first I could not see over the river and fired several magazines into the smoke haze. When the air cleared a scene of carnage was apparent, for the road was literally carpeted with still bodies for about 100 yards. The blast from the explosion had killed these men as well as blowing those on the structure into oblivion. Debris fell all around me. On my side of the river there was more action - the hail of shrapnel from grenades had ceased to tear through the leaves overhead, and automatics and rifles were cracking at the survivors. I saw several of the enemy attempting to gain possession of their weapons which were still strapped to the bikes. They had left the saddles and hit the lalang with astonishing speed. First a hand would appear, I would line up my sights, and then a head would come into view to be sprayed with a short burst. I sent several tin hats flying in this manner, then a Jap gunner opened up on my position and I tried to smoke him out, too. Six Japs were under my position on the bank and Jack Dean, 9 Sec Tommy gunner, picked them off very smartly. I saw a movement in the ditch under Jack and put a burst into the area, then everything seemed to be silent. Joe and Ted had disappeared, and Jimmy was screaming out to me to hurry. I shoved my wallet inside my shirt front, picked up gun and magazine box and struggled out through the monkey vines, past a litter of discarded equipment in Company H.Q., and onto a small track where the rest of the platoon were crouching in cover. Ted took the mags and I put my equipment on properly, then struggled towards the head of the column whence came cries of "Bren gun to the front!", and the staccato rattle of many automatics. I halted for a short while where the wounded were being treated - Ray Brown was unrecognisable, with blood and bandages. Harry Head was in a state of collapse with a bullet in the knee and shrapnel in the ankle. Ken Dale was peppered with small wounds, Laurie Drayton was shot through the arm and Tige had a smashed leg. I found that I had lost my pipe, tobacco, matches, paybook and knife, as my shirt was hanging out and they had slipped clean through.
Captain Duffy came up to lead us out, and we followed him over a huge log and along another track until suddenly we received the order "About turn and move into the jungle on the left". We were ambushed in turn and suffered more casualties: bullets struck the trees about us as we formed a small perimeter and prepared to sell our lives dearly. Captain Duffy ordered "Lie doggo until dark, then we will move round their flank", so we refrained from uselessly returning the enemy's fire. We could hear their voices and the rattle of bolts as they reloaded, and also the thud of axes in the distance, probably preparations for repairing the bridge. One voice we heard crying "Forward, forward! ", but no movement eventuated. It was probably a ruse to draw fire. There were only about 3 dozen with our party, and we feared for the safety of comrades we could not see around us.
It was dark when we finally moved out in single file. When we halted at a small road to reconnoitre we heard Jap voices in the position we had just evacuated. They must have moved in as we moved out. I heard here for the first time, of our first fatal casualty, Athol Nagle, "B" Coy Orderly Room Sergeant, who was killed instantly when shot through the head by a sniper from the treetops. This sniper also wounded Vic Gordon before he was in turn hit and killed.
We were in a precarious position, for our retreat to Battalion along the road was blocked by enemy, who had passed the trap then doubled back. Capt. Duffy had let too many through as he expected the transports, but they never came. Finally, we turned away from the road and followed this new, smaller one in the direction of the railway, passing many dismantled bridges and fallen trees. A huge water buffalo tethered to one of these put the wind up some of the boys in the now intense darkness. Then lights appeared on the right and we heard Chinese voices. Two of these woodcutters eventually agreed to guide us to the railway line and we struck into the jungle on the worst trip on the worst trip I had experienced in my life. At the head of the column was an electric torch to facilitate progress, at the rear we were encumbered with wounded, Bren guns, darkness, and the inevitable lag experienced in a file of men. Time and time again, the cry went up: "Halt in front, lost behind! ", as someone would lose hold of his neighbour's bayonet scabbard. I finally removed my rear carrying handle as it caught too often in the vines and thorn bushes. I was full of thorns for weeks afterwards. Sgt. McLean was with us and he had a terrible job keeping us in touch with the front, as the going was steep and treacherous. When we halted to allow stragglers to catch up, I would sink to the ground and sleep. I was trodden on often, before I awoke to struggle on again. Jack Blackstock collapsed and fell down a hole. He wanted us to go on and leave him, but he was dragged out and assisted to the front. The wounded also were sent forward, and this helped to speed us up. Then a "feeler" was sent down the line - would we move on all night, or sleep and continue in the morning? Finally, we were ordered to get what sleep we could, each alternate man keeping watch. Promptly, everyone went to sleep and no watch was kept; it was nearly dawn, anyway.
When it grew light I found that I had slept on a 45 degree slope, jammed under a tree trunk, while a good level possie was available beside me! We heard someone slashing their way towards us in the rear, and safety catches clicked off and grenades were produced. But it was one of the Chinese woodcutters; he was lucky that we saw him in the light. Bill Delaney gave me a packet of "Pirates", as I had no weed at all, and we filled our bottles at a creek and chlorinated them. Then we moved on about 200 yards, and reached the edge of the jungle. I shook hands with the two Chinese before climbing through the fence into the rubber. I hope the Japs never caught them.
In the rosy glow of morning we could now take stock of our party, as we occupied a rubber-covered hill in perimeter defence. From Coy H.Q. we had Capts. Duffy and Kearney, W.O. Gordon, L/Cpl Streatfield, Ptes. Douglas, Cowan, Webster and McWilliams, as well as Lt. Makepeace (R.A.A.) and his batman, and two sappers from the 2/10 R.A.E. From 10 Platoon we had Ptes. Buckingham, Hall, Meadows, Bennett, Forbes and Smith. From 11 Platoon we had Sgt. Garner, Cpl. Paget, Ptes. Hanlon, Rope (?), Egan, Jones, Delaney, Hann, Blackstock, Blackadder and Bahnson, and from 12 Platoon we had Sgt. McLean, Cpl. Yates, Ptes. Gill, Hodges, Gottaas, Waterson, Noble, Wilson, Smith and myself. "Spud" Gordon had a bullet in the leg, as had Stan Waterson and Red Hanlon. Eck Gottaas had a piece of shrapnel in the face, Fred had some in the leg and Paget's face had several bullet wounds. Lt. Makepeace had a lucky escape - a bullet passed through his mouth, smashing several teeth.
Ted had lost the case of mags in the jungle and was too exhausted to help carry the gun, even. Tom Yates had lost his tin hat. He said he felt very insecure without it. I opened a tin of Bully but he and I could not eat it and no-one else could, either. Nerves, I suppose. We heard the opening shots of the main show here, also the sound of Jap transport on the road. The bridge had been repaired in quick time as the artillery received no word from us and consequently did not register as previously planned. Our position was ascertained on the map, and a patrol sent out to contact Battalion and lead us in. This patrol, Sgt. Don Garner and Ptes. Noble and Hann, disappeared completely. When they had not shown up some hours later, we decided to move without them. 12 Platoon survivors formed the point section as we moved cautiously through the rubber, then swung left to follow the railway line. Tamils clustered in excited groups around a dhobie line and we froze as aircraft roared overhead to attack the Battalion positions, the thud of bombs and the rattle of automatics growing closer as we progressed. We could hear artillery in action in front, and the Arty. officer declared that he recognised the "double bang" of his 25 pounders. He went forward but could not contact them, luckily for him, as they were actually Jap heavy mortars. Ray Streatfield did a good job here, as with map and compass he reconnoitred our proposed route and told us when to advance. We were drinking water from rubber cups and creeks now, no time for hygiene measures, and I used to dip up a tin hat full and drink on the move. Late in the afternoon Ray came back with distressing news - the Battalion had withdrawn and the Japs were in occupation of the position. We halted near a small palm plantation and held a council of war. Nearby, the thunderous reports of the mortars sounded as they pounded the battalion withdrawal, and Captain Duffy hinted that "two men with a Bren could creep in and silence them" - (no volunteers, however!).
Paget and his section had been chased in from the flank by a shower of bullets when investigating the sound of transport, so our position was precarious. Finally the order was given: " Over the railway line ", and we plunged through waist-high bracken to the embankment, and mounted it. I had a funny feeling in the small of the back as I crossed the rails in full view of the enemy, but our luck held and we were apparently not observed. We entered the jungle on the other side and moved along a handy path running parallel with the line. The pace was fast and furious, despite the hampering vines. When we were opposite the previous left flank of the Battalion, we emerged once more and mounted on the actual embankment in a hurried dash for safety. Smoke was billowing from many points in the position (action had ceased by now) but again we and again we had phenomenal luck, and our long-drawn-out single file was unmolested, if not unseen. The wounded and Bren gunners naturally lagged here, Stan Waterson had a tough time, and Jimmy Webster stayed back to help him along. Around several bends, then we ducked into the lalang for a breather. Many men were discarding their surplus gear. Harry shed his equipment but was prevailed upon to carry his rifle. Then we started off again, seeing no signs of friend or enemy, till nearly to Gemas, when we turned into the rubber on the right, moving about half a mile before halting to rest and re-organise. As darkness fell, we moved into the jungle towards the town, and I began to feel the reaction of the past 24 hours. "Legs" Hall helped me with the gun and I took out, smashed and discarded two magazines, even that being a help. While resting in an "anti-malaria" gully, we were startled by several loud explosions. It was the 2/15 commencing their all-night shoot on the sidings, town, etc. We finally came out on Gemas golf course and moved to the clubhouse, past many stacks of sleepers arranged to prevent aircraft from landing. The clubhouse was deserted, and yielded a few bottles of soft drink only. "Legs" secured an A.R.P. warden's tin hat, however. We settled down in perimeter, most men falling asleep immediately. Finally, we were shaken into wakefulness and moved to the other side of the course, just in time for shells struck the house later in the night. They fell all around us as we dozed, shrapnel and nose caps whizzing everywhere. Many were duds, one such rolling into our circle from further up the slope.
We were awakened and moved into the jungle just before dawn on 16/1/42, a sorry-looking bunch indeed. For hours we struggled through the jungle, crossing precarious log bridges and wading through swamps, until finally we reached rubber again. Paget went forward with a small party to a boong house and returned laden with Indian "issue" biscuits and hot, sweet tea. We moved in, a few at a time, to partake of these, 2 or 3 biscuits and a mouthful of tea each. Coconuts were being slaughtered when, suddenly, we froze. Aircraft were rushing towards us at tree top level. We shouted with joy as they flashed over us. Brewster Buffaloes, their .5 machine guns crackling, and Bristol Blenheims, diving in to attack a Jap convoy in Gemas. Much heartened, we resumed our journey through a patch of pineapple (many casualties recorded) and into hilly rubber country. It was hard going, up and down the slippery slopes in extended formation. Finally we struck a road and straddled it to move to the right. Then suddenly the roar of engines and rattle of trucks were heard around the bend. We dived for cover, hastily lined up Brens and groped for grenades, and into sight came two carriers with the familiar "23" emblazoned on them, the most welcome sight we could have seen in years. Everyone was laughing and trying to talk at once - we had been given up for lost, naturally. Finally the wounded (and others) clambered onto the carriers and moved off. The rest, myself included, marched on with Capt. Kearney. I had put the gun on a carrier, so had an easy journey into Fort Rose, the new Battalion position. Black Jack greeted us on arrival, and complimented us on the show. "B" Coy 2/26 Bn had sent over their midday meal, but we could not eat the appetising roast meat and beans although hot, sweet tea was appreciated. I pinched a tin of milk off a truck and sucked it dry, the first time I realised how delicious it could be.
Air alarms sent us to cover several times, as our aerial superiority of the morning had ceased and Jap planes flew over us with impunity. They never located us, but bombed and machine-gunned our reinforcements on their way up. We heard the details of the previous day's engagement, the news that the remainder of "B" Coy had arrived back without loss being the first item sought. Apparently, they had been hampered by the wounded, could not keep up, and took the wrong track. When they realized the position, they decided to rest for the night and accordingly settled down, to be alarmed by the howls of a large monkey all night. In the morning, the fringe of the jungle was reached, and they deployed into the rubber, encountering 3 Jap L.M.G.'s and "doing them over" on the way. The open patch before the Battalion position was crossed to the cries of "Don't shoot! B Company coming in! " and without casualties, but 6 men were missing on the left flank - Fred Collett (Bren), Kiwi Bland (Tommy gun), Smiler Mulligan, Joe Cochrane, Jacko Sams and Terry Trevor. Months were to pass before we heard their fate. "B" Coy was fed (a slice of bread and an apricot each) then moved into "Don" Coy's position when "Don" Coy moved out on their bayonet charge.
The planes were active and caused some casualties, none fatal, however. Tanks attacked "C" Coy. and Freddy Brieze fired 27 rounds from his .55 Boyes anti-tank rifle. He was deaf for a long while afterwards. Lt. Clements was killed here by the tanks. 14 successes were claimed over them by the 4th A/Tk not confirmed however. Our mortars had a good day and broke up Jap concentrations continuously, unluckily they lost every "gun" in the withdrawal, having to dump them in the Gemas River along with other war stores. Capt. Taylor did a wonderful job, working coolly under fire with the padre, and thoroughly deserving his subsequent M.C.
"Don" Coy suffered in the attack, Les Webster from Sydney Steel being amongst the M.B.K. Capt. Melville, their O.C., was shot through the face (and later invalided home) "B" Coy had been abandoned as the last news was that the enemy were in sight then the sig wires were cut and the next news was that "C" Coy was attacked. The whole operation was a success, for the unit had withstood the attacks of 2 Jap brigades (one armoured), inflicted severe losses and retired in good order with few casualties. We were glad that we had trained hard now; Black Jack's iron discipline stood us in good stead.
We rejoined our platoons, and were warmly greeted. The wounded were packed off straight away; even the slightest wound sufficing. Tige had gone the day before - Lofty Ferry carrying him in all the way. He deserved a decoration for that. Jimmy Cooper (Bn Sigs.) was our new Platoon Commander, and our possie was on a hill top overlooking a road junction. Jack Dean had been with 8 Section (I had the Bren away) and now returned to 9. Darcy and Bluey McDonald were astray somewhere, they were S.B.'s attached to Bn H.Q. Sam Watts showed me his rifle - he was taking a sight when a bullet hit the knox form (?) - close shave!
I walked down to the stream and had a good wash, then scrounged new clothes at a 2/26 Bn Pl dump nearby. The trousers were too short and the socks too small but mine were filthy with jungle slime. I got my blistered feet attended to at the R.A.P. - Jimmy Parsons, Fitzy and the padre were there, asleep on their feet. They had lost all their gear the day before and had few stores. On my way back I was presented with a bucketful of tinned fish, meat, milk, etc., so filled my pockets, luckily.
After getting a blanket, ground sheet etc. from the dump, I moved with the platoon to another position, on another hill, where we saw our reo's move in in single file. After dark we were shifted again, and took up a possie on a steep slope for the night. Here the platoon was reinforced, 8 Sect. receiving Sailor Weir, Bunny Billsborough and Charlie Coggins, the two latter being QX's, as were the majority of the new men.
All night the artillery of each side waged a duel, the whispering of the Jap mortars overhead being most ominous. Then, at dawn 17/1/42, we returned to our hill top and drowsed away the morning after a hard ration meal. Sailor gave us cigarettes and told us of the commando force that he had accompanied. They ambushed the Jap and caused a fair bit of damage before retiring to the coast and their vessels.
After dinner, we were detailed to patrol as far as the 2/26 position, so moved down to Coy H.Q. Here we saw Horny Hann in an exhausted condition. He had been separated from Joe and Don Garner, and captured by the Japs. Friendly Tamils aided his escape and he entered our lines disguised as a Tamil woman with a bundle on his head. Nearly got shot, too, as the boys were getting 5th column conscious.
We moved out on patrol after stripping some gear. I carried only 3 mags, as it was not anticipated that more might be needed. Gilbert was in charge of 7 Sec. and explored a dhoby line on our right. The Tamil occupants were herded back to Battalion, Harry Wilson being one of the guards. We reached our objective, an anti-tank gun post covering a level crossing, and moved back along the railway line. Over the line, on the left, some "Indians" were sighted and 8 Sec crossed over, covered by my Bren, but the "Indians" had fled. Then we heard the thud of mortars and the rattle of automatics from the post we had just left. We should have gone back to Battalion, but turned and moved toward the sound of action. Jimmy influenced Cooper to do this - as he passed me he said, "We will see some action now! ". We halted, deployed in the gully just before the position, and Jimmy, Russ and Ted moved forward to gain information. They had no sooner disappeared over the rise than we heard the "tap! tap! " of mortars being fired. We crouched apprehensively behind cover as they burst where the boys had moved over. I felt sick with foreboding, and my fears were realised soon, for Russ came running wildly back and exclaimed, "They've got Jimmy! ". A bomb had burst between the three of them and he had copped the only fragment, in the head. They dragged him into the anti-tank slit trenches and he died without regaining consciousness. I felt as if my guts had been kicked in - Jimmy was one of the cleanest, best blokes I ever knew. Volunteers were called to go and bring his body in, but we were stopped. We were in a state of indecision, did not know whether to attack or not as it was actually 2/26 responsibility. Then the gun crew retired on our right and we lined up to advance on the position. We had moved a hundred yards, then had to dive for cover as our 25 pounders ranged on the target. I did not know whether to carry the gun in or sling it and fire from the hip. I had no proper sling. Then we turned once more and retired to a line on the next ridge. Through the rubber on our left we could see hurried movement, probably part of the 2/26. Anyway, Sipper hurried them along with a snap shot. Sailor Weir had disappeared, and Russ and Sip were nearly killed while searching for him in front. The mortars were still active. Merv Dixon received a large dint in his tin hat from a fragment. Neill Huntley joined us here, with a small patrol. We got in touch with Capt. Swartz, O.C. "B" Coy 2/26, and he helpfully said: "You re-take the position, and we will consolidate for you! ". We lined up again, (this was worse than the actual assault), then retired once more. Finally, at dark, we received orders to rejoin the Company. Just in time, for we could hear Jap transport moving up and were settling down to sell our lines dearly. The anti-tank crew told us that the Japs sneaked the mortar up behind a boong hut, moving in on bicycles disguised as Tamils. They must have been there when we visited the post, and waited till we moved on before attacking. They smashed the anti-tank gun and fired the truck with mortars, then opened on the crew, and killed Jimmy when he appeared. I hope he got decent burial - he was left in a pit with all identification discs, pay book, etc. still on him.
Russ had been unanimously elected Section leader and led us as we hurried back to the Company. We found our gear in the dark and reassembled it in a flurry of excitement; the Battalion had withdrawn and a couple of carriers were the only support we had. I grabbed Jimmy's ground sheet and was turning to go when I saw Sailor's gear, so went through it and secured his cigarettes. He was either dead or "shot through", I argued. In any case he would not be back that way. Later I found out that his haversack contained $100 - the Japs spent that for him!
We raced up the narrow red dirt road through thick rubber, being directed by scouts later picked up on the carriers. Thirst grew on us, and we seized rubber cups from the nearest trees and drank them "en route". God knows how many wogs we drank in the dark! We passed an area that had been pounded by mortars. The stench, of H.E. and smashed rubber, remains the most vivid in my experiences. We turned into a patch of young rubber and collapsed to rest amongst the rows of undergrowth. Had a smoke under a groundsheet and slept fitfully until mortars crashed in the vicinity once more, then moved on to a new possie near a small creek. Here we filled our water bottles, posted sentries, and, heads pillowed in tin hats, we fell fast asleep in action positions, ready to wake and fight on immediately.
Before dawn on 18/1/42 we moved again, mortars being active again, as soon as light showed. We were cheered to see a rearguard of 2/29 - one company only (Don) was here however. The rest were at Muar. There was even talk of leave in Singapore as we moved back along the right-hand side of the line, then over the embankment. A Buffalo had been stunting over us for some time but now he was gone, shot down, and two Jap dive bombers cruised around, looking for trouble. In the intervals when they were away we moved across the railway line and road into a stretch of young rubber, then we were stuck there for the rest of the morning. One bomber was always in the vicinity, engaged in strafing an Indian anti-tank gun post towards Batu Enam, and it was hours before they both disappeared. I opened a tin of fish, Japanese mackerel, it was, and really enjoyed a meal, the first for days. We realised why we were halted here when an Indian came dashing up and informed us that we were in their minefield. An unfortunate D.R. rode over a mine in our vicinity. The "boom! " as he went up alarmed us all. Fortunately he was not killed. Eventually, we were conducted through the defences by a round-about route, passing cleverly concealed dug-outs and O.P.'s manned by Indian troops. A truck had received a bomb on its bonnet from the Jap planes. I found out later that it was Don Wilk's vehicle (2/10 Field Ambulance).
We moved along the road in aircraft formation, past many bomb craters, to within a quarter of a mile of Batu Enam, then turned left down a dirt road just where some rolling stock had jumped the rails. Capt. Duffy had gone on ahead to arrange tucker, etc. Capt. Jones was in charge and the guides to direct us (Legs was one) fell asleep, so we got lost for the rest of the day. We passed the other Companies of the Battalion and still plugged on for miles. My feet gave me hell, and the gun bore heavily on my shoulders as I tailed the field, stopping now and then for a tin hat full of water from a ditch. The boys killed a large black cobra in the road ahead. Sipper had scrounged a push-bike and offered to let me ride, but it would not have worked. He would have had to walk and carry the gun instead of me.
We reached a huge rubber estate (Dunlop - Perdriau) where the young rubber stretched for miles, traversed part of it, then halted at cross roads on the fringe of heavy rubber. My feet were in a terrible state by now. Horrie Neill gave me some fresh socks and foot powder, and we ate some bully and biscuits. Equipment lay around the position, valises etc. from the 2/26. We did not know why it had been abandoned, but took up a perimeter defence. Then, armoured cars appeared and told us that the enemy were in the vicinity. Later we received orders to move back to the Battalion. I scrounged a ride on an armoured car, sitting up like Jacky in the turret as we lumbered along the narrow and gravelled roads. Practically all the mob got a lift in eventually.
At the rendezvous was a good meal - roast meat, tinned potatoes, bread, jam and tea, eaten with fingers as we had no utensils. Letters came up, too, but none for me. Groundsheets were issued, and in the semi-darkness we moved across the road, over a single-plank bridge (guided by a sig. wire), and into a very close perimeter. We were told that we could sleep all night - guards were few and we would have only about 15 minutes duty each. Imagine our feelings when we were awakened before the first guards had done their stretch and told to prepare for a forced march to Segamat. I said: "My feet are done. I cannot walk. Can I get transport? " and was told "There is no transport - you will have to walk! " and I did! At 10 pm we crossed the narrow bridge again (Sam Watts fell off it!) and raced up the road towards Batu Enam. I could not keep up and carry the gun, so the rest of the Section took turn about.
We reached the level crossing at Batu Enam then turned left onto the permanent way, two files, one each side of the single track, past silent stores and rolling stock. Miles passed at a fair pace. My feet grew used to the constant pain, but stiffened up and caused agony after each halt. Eventually, we reached a level crossing where transport still moved and a heavy calibre gun lit the sky with each explosion. Just past the crossing we halted and slept for a while. The steel rail was my pillow, and a comfortable one, too. Before moving on, we were told that a bridge had to be crossed, that it was mined, and not to touch any wires. WE had crossed several small bridges but this was a larger one over the Muar River. It was nervous work, as the sleepers were widely spaced and a false step could mean a broken leg or worse. We were blind with fatigue and could not judge our steps too well. A sleeper had only to be a quarter of an inch lower than expected, and it seemed like a foot! The clanging of a tin hat into the river below advertised an accident. Harry Wilson had stumbled and nearly went with it, but Horrie Neill helped him along.
Halfway across, a black hand shot out as we passed and guided us onto some planks, an Indian sapper on the job. We were glad to be off the structure and onto the permanent way again. Then light and noise were apparent on our left, where the road ran parallel with the line. A convoy of armoured Marmions was lined up to receive us. Their headlights were on and everyone was laughing and smoking, quite a contrast to the darkness and silence we had been used to. We clambered aboard and dozed as they rattled their way through Segamat and on into the rubber beyond. Some loose planks in a bridge, that rattled like mortars as we passed over, alarmed us. Our nerves were still on edge. Then we halted at a cross roads, tumbled off into the undergrowth of a rubber plantation, and fell fast asleep, completely done-in.
Daylight woke us on 19/1/42 and we stirred, cramped but rested. The R.A.P. was established just over the road so I hobbled across for treatment, waiting my turn in a large queue. Capt. Taylor looked at my feet, then said "I will have to send you down the line for a couple of days" So I handed in my name and prepared to leave. I dumped the gun with Ted and took his rifle, said "So long! " to the boys, and jumped into the waiting ambulance. We handed in all the water bottles, tucker, etc., as they would be taken from us eventually. Black Jack waved good-bye with a big grin on his face as we moved off. "Good luck, boys! ", he said. Doug Chambers was unlucky - he was rotten with ring worm but had to stay. We were dropped off at 2/9 M.D.S. a couple of miles down the road. The drivers told us of Jap planes machine-gunning their ambulances. Here we were relieved of rifle, equipment, ammunition, grenades, etc. as they could not be carried in ambulances, and we waited for transport to the C.C.S. at Kluang. Bill Walmsley (M.A.C. - from Belmore Day Boys) was our driver and I sat in front with him, telling him news of the action and of the boys that he remembered. He gave me cigarettes; I had run out long ago. We passed Labis, bombed and smoking, and had a scare, leaving the vehicle, at a palm plantation when a large bomber passed overhead with rear guns crackling. His bombs fell a short way up the road, where a J.M.F. convoy was halted, riddled with shrapnel and covered with red dirt. The drivers were just re-appearing as we drove past. We had no spotter with us, but relied on other vehicles to warn us. When they pulled into cover, so did we.
Engineers were mining all bridges and embankments as far as Yong Peng. The Muar landing had upset all our strategy and we had to withdraw. Yong Peng was burnt out. It was a good target being a vital cross roads, as was Ayer Hitam. WE turned left at Ayer Hitam and reached Kluang late in the afternoon. It seemed peaceful and far from war to us. There was no room in the C.C.S. for us, so we backed out and moved south towards Rengam. Our route lay alongside the railway line. When we reached Rengam we turned into an Indian C.C.S. and disembarked. We were not expected and it was some time before we were installed on stretchers in temporary quarters. The place was full of wounded Indians. A long line of stretchers led to the door of the operating theatre where the doctors toiled unceasingly. WE got a feed after dark: meat, vegetables and gravy, bread, and hot, sweet tea. And was it sweet! We had not eaten since the night previous, and with the relaxing of nervous tension our appetites were re-established and asserted themselves once more. Cigarettes were also issued, and we lay back and yarned with the orderlies, telling them that the Jap was a walk-over. Ron Stokes (Bn Sigs) and Jimmy Wilmot (A Coy) were with us here and Dave Jordan came in a later ambulance.
We were not allowed to rest long, however, for a convoy was leaving for J.B. that night and we were on it. We packed into the ambulance again, all walking cases, and dozed fitfully as the convoy crawled south. As we approached Singapore, a rosy glow became apparent in the sky, the oil tanks afire at the naval base, turning night into day. Our ambulance turned in at the 13th A.G.H. at Tampoy, and we hobbled in to be admitted by drowsy orderlies. I had a touch of tinea as well as septic feet, so was conducted to the skin ward and given pyjamas, mosquito net, etc. After a cold shower (at 3 a.m.) and a cup of tea we fell into the cool sheets and remembered no more.
It was good to sleep in in the morning. When we made our beds it was broad daylight and breakfast was brought to us. The hospital was located in the former lunatic asylum. It was a large establishment with many concrete buildings connected by covered pathways, and surrounding it was a high iron fence. Atap huts were in course of construction (the Chinese worked on these right to the last), huge red crosses adorned all roofs. This was wise, for soon we saw the danger. At 10 a.m. that morning (and every other morning) the usual 27 bombers appeared and flew serenely over us on their way to Singapore. Their fighter escort was invisible, although sometimes we did see the vapour trails that they left. A.A. bursts formed a huge black path in their wake, but did not trouble them much. We were told of a huge dog fight over J.B. a week previously, when 105 planes took part, ours being outnumbered and driven from the sky. The burning oil tanks made a huge black serpent of smoke in the sky; it was days before they were under control.
Harry Wilson, Sailor Weir and Horny Hann joined us. Horny was asked to write an account of his experiences for Intelligence. We were questioned too, about the Jap and his equipment. Joe Noble and Don Garner had turned up, in Brigade, but Darcy and Bluey were still missing. I wrote a letter home. It was a rather rambling and disjointed missive. I handed it to the padre to censor. My clothes were handed in to the dhobies. Later, when I applied for them, they were still away. I never got them back. The canteen was out of bounds to us, but we managed to buy several bottles of beer each night. There, we received news of the Muar battle, and also of our casualties in the show at Ayer Hitam, where L/Cpls. George Phelps and Wally Pont were killed. Days were spent in relaxation, reading or playing cards. We made the most of it, as we realised that soon we would be "for it" again. The tucker was good and plentiful, bread and condensed milk being a favourite dish. My sores healed up bar one on the right heel, and on 23/1/42 I was drafted to Con Depot. The previous night we had a gramophone recital in the ward, and when leaving, the nurses could not do enough for us. Merv George and Paddy Cloherty were still in the ward when I left. They were later boarded.
We had an impromptu meal in a marquee tent before leaving, each man cutting his own bread and opening his own tins of salmon, fruit, jam, milk, etc. Then we sallied forth to the waiting ambulances. I had on a pair of blue silk shorts, a pyjama coat, tin hat and wooden clogs, and carried all other worldly possessions in a dry-ration bag - razor, comb, jack-knife, wallet and field dressing. The convoy rolled down to J.B. and over the causeway, where we saw the engineers preparing for its eventual destruction, then by a round-about route to the Island Golf Club where Con Depot was newly established. On the highest point of the course we erected our marquee tent and installed iron bedsteads, mattresses, etc. Serious cases were installed in the clubhouse, and Q staff and kitchen occupied the dhoby lines. G.B.D. was in the rubber at our rear, and the road to it led past our tent. The transports wound over the luxurious greens, soon destroying their beauty. An A.A. Battery was installed on a neighbouring hill top. (Later on, it received a direct hit, we were told.) Fred Hodges, Bert Higgins and 2/29 and 2/26 reps. shared our tent. Harry Wilson, Dave Jordan and Mick Murray shared another one. I got some clothes here - shirt, shorts, socks, boots, mosquito net, blanket, etc. Tucker was light. We all had voracious appetites and clamoured for more. Beer was issued several times. Some of the boys bought it from passing trucks at $1 a bottle. The same entertainment was on at 10 each morning, but we could see it better from here, as well as the clouds of smoke and debris as they unloaded their eggs on Seletar Aerodrome or the Naval Docks. Shrapnel fell in our area, but no casualties were recorded. Hurricanes flew around the sky in small batches but never attempted to molest the formation; they had orders to avoid action and preserve their planes. One night we were treated to a brilliant fireworks display, half a dozen Bofors A.A. converging on a lone raider with fiery red tracer shells. A glow on the ground later showed where the victim fell.
We had a scare one day when a rifle shot rang out in the direction of G.B.D. It was Norm Buckley, drunk as an owl. He fell on his bed, raised his rifle, and shot himself in the foot! Harry Wilson formed one of a party that "went through" to the U.J. and had a good booze up before catching a taxi home. Dave Jordan and I resolved to emulate him. We thumbed a lift along Thomson Rd., then another down Lornie Rd. to the big British camp. They said they were dry, so we got another couple of lifts back to Braddel Rd., met Jimmy Wilmot and some others, and found another camp and canteen. The huge building was packed tight with Pommy reinforcements. It was a battle to get to the bar, but the "Tiger" was worth it. Dave and I struck up a conversation with a sergeant and, finally (very merry) decided to stay the night. We slept on charpoys in one of the many huts and woke at dawn to the blistering abuse of a Pommy R.S.M. as he harangued his men. We hitch-hiked back to our tent, arriving as the sun came up. A very good night; finance prevented me from repeating it, in this camp, anyway.
On 29/1/42, the Con Depot was shifted once more, to Mount Rosie. In a drizzle of rain we piled into trucks and were conveyed to our new quarters, tents pitched amidst palatial houses where the better class of Singapore had resided. I installed my gear in one tent (4 men to each) and walked out to view my surroundings. A chap from the 2/19th, named Ronnie, said to me: "I wonder how far it is to town? " so I said "Wait a minute ", went and got my helmet, and away we sailed. We walked down Chancery Lane to Bukit Timah Rd., and thumbed a lift to Jalan Besar. Sirens sounded and our driver would not continue, so we got out to walk. As we clattered along the silent streets (Singapore was like a dead city), an excited Chinese A.R.P. warden tried to shepherd us into a shelter, with no success. We reached the U.J. and gained admittance to the bar, filled with a motley, perspiring crowd. Beer flowed freely. The only trouble was that, on an alarm, the Chinese staff would close the bar and turn out the lights. We overcame this by buying plenty of beer, and condescended to put on our hats when the alarm sounded. I met Otto Woods here, very drunk. He had seen Billy off to Sumatra that night, he told me. I also met Cpl. Bruce Stokes, from Lakemba. He was stationed at G.B.D. and had charge of a truck. The truck was outside and, after a good session, we went out and slept in it for the rest of the night.
The next morning, 30/1/42, we shaved at the U.J., breakfasted on eggs and rolls, and hung around till the bar opened at 2 p.m. Beer was short for some reason, small consignments arriving in the bar at irregular intervals. We chummed up with some Malay Volunteer sergeants and bit them for about $15. A chap from the 2/18th turned up and joined us. His name was Charlie, and he was a Sydney barrister in civil life. He and Ronnie set off home at about 5 o'clock, the blind leading the blind, and Bruce and I went around to the Anzac Club for a feed. The Club was shut, so we moved on to the Rex Hotel but could not get served. Bruce got obstreperous; he would salute all of the bigwigs in the Rex before I could get him out. Then he got homesick and cried like a baby. I got him back to the U.J. Our truck was gone, so I secured beds, saw him safely installed, and bedded down myself.
The next day, 31/1/42, we did much the same in the morning, and got a good start on the beer after dinner. We were pretty well tanked when we left, intending to return to camp. Charlie had rejoined us - he had lost Ronnie, and slept all night in an archway. Anyway, we bought 10 bottles of beer and went along to the Solar Café for a feed. The Chinese would not serve us at first, but some Manchesters prevailed on him to do so, and we drank all our beer with our meal and went back for more. Survivors from the "Repulse" were in possession of the U.J. They wanted to sell us a huge naval bayonet-cutlass affair. I saw Capt. Pride and L/Cpl. McKenzie (B1), but they never saw me. We struck up an acquaintance with a R.A. gunner and saw him off to Blakang Mati. I don't know whether he got there as his navigation was wonky. We bought some beer and two bottles of whiskey with the balance of our money, and set off down Bukit Timah Rd., getting a lift as far as the roundabout near Serangoon Rd., then casting about for a place to drink the grog, as our ways parted there. Finally, we sat down up a narrow laneway and polished it all off, rendering the "Volga Boatman", I remember, to help some heavily-laden ants up a wall. Were we happy!
Then a Dutchman appeared. We engaged him in conversation, and finally he sent his son home to bring back beer, which he did, likewise a bottle of Bols orange gin and half a bottle of French wine. We stood in a circle toasting "Holland forever!" "The East Indies forever!" and "Singapore will never fall!" till this supply was exhausted also.
It came on to rain, so he took us to his brother-in-law's house till the shower passed (his own had been demolished by a bomb), then we parted company with mutual esteem. I remember hitch-hiking in a daze along Bukit Timah Rd., half carrying Charlie up Chancery Lane, then chasing Lofty Ferry around Mt Rosie with my tin hat, reiterating solemnly "I met a Dutchman!" "I met a Dutchman!" The boys dragged off my wet clothes and tossed me into bed. No good, however, for I got out as often as they put me in. Finally, I slept in the rain all night and awoke to the best hangover of my career. I could get no relief, could not eat for two days, and finally sweated the liquor out by sitting in the sun all day, drinking hot tea. Tommy Evans and Sailor Weir went into town a few days later and came back in a like state, sick and sorry.
Lofty Ambrose was with us, a broken man. He collapsed when he heard of Jimmy's death, and desired only to be boarded home. Joe McManus was employed in the cookhouse. Jack McLean was with us, too, and also Dutchie Hollands, badly shell-shocked. He ran away whenever planes approached, as did Sailor Weir. I saw a plane hit while here. It fell out of formation, leaving a cloud of white vapour. We received a pay, $5, which was spent on "Magnolia" ice cream. Lofty Ferry ate sixteen 10-cent buckets, then bought a $1 bucket and ate that. Tom and I enjoyed one, buckshee. I reported the loss of my pay book while here. Mac told us of Black Jack and his Jap sword. Capt. Melville took it with him on 9/2/42 when the hospital ship, bearing surgical cases, left.
On 5/2/42 I was drafted to G.B.D. with Jack McLean, Tom Evans, Lofty and Doug Chambers. We were lucky to arrive safely as our driver was quite mad. He tangled with 3 vehicles on the road there. Our new quarters were situated in the rubber to the east of the junction of Thomson and naval Roads, near a huge dump of aviation fuel, millions of gallons stored in under the trees (later fired). Gordon Preen was the Q.M. The other boys, Harry Wilson and Fred Hodges, ad gone back to the unit that morning. Lts. Rooke and McLean were the reinforcement officers, Ernie Renike a batman, Maj. Lloyd (not 2/29th) was O.C. and was an old nuisance - he tried to teach us veterans our fire orders and wanted to put us on the miniature range. No go, however. I was made a Lewis gunner. The gun they produced was on the wonky side but I had to carry it on paratroop patrol the next morning. We got new rifles, but the only equipment was old type - I swapped a cook to get the Bren type. We had no eating utensils, and none were in the store, so had to eat with jam tins, knife blades and fingers The tucker was good - porridge for breakfast with bread, butter and jam. For dinner and tea we generally had bully beef stew with tinned peas, spuds, carrots, onions, etc., bread, jam, cheese and tea. We did weapon training, in our own manner, all day. Then, desiring liquid refreshment, I volunteered to guide the boys to the Pommy canteen. Accordingly Gordon, Tom and myself set out through the rubber to Thomson Rd., then hitch-hiked to the canteen. We drank two bottles each, loaded up with 3 or 4 more, and returned early to polish them off in Gordon's tent. In the morning, 6/2/42, young Veech (A Coy) produced a bottle, which we shared before going over to the golf links on patrol. It was a life saver. We took up a possie there, about 100 yards from the site of our old tent, remained till the sun was well up, then came back for breakfast. Gilbert turned up this day - his nerves were bad. Mail was in for some men but none for me. It was probably chasing me up the mainland. We ordered some beer, but could get only one bottle, so that night we set out again, Tom, Gordon, Doug Chambers and myself. We did the same as previously, but had trouble in getting back as no lifts were available. Braddel Rd was lit by the most vivid display of fireflies that I ever saw; they flashed on and off in the trees while over all hung the black pall of smoke from the Naval Base. We eventually got a lift in, in a Marmion, and each had a bottle for the morning, this time.
We were paraded to the R.A.P. early, and certified fit for action (7/2/42). Lofty and Gilbert stayed behind. Lofty wrote a note for Arnie and I took it with me. We were messed around all morning and moved up to the petrol dump for dinner, bully beef stew, bread, butter and jam, and was it good! Then we embussed. Cpl Johnson, C Coy., was spotter, and away we went down to Bukit Timah Rd., out past the village, the Ford works and Bukit Panjang, till we turned in at Mandai Rd and debussed in a hurry to the tune of an air alarm. There, Lt. Hislop and W.O. Purdon picked us up (Hislop had just been hit in the forehead by a shell fragment), and we were led into the Battalion position by compass bearing. It was funny when the first shell fell in our vicinity, all the new men fell on their faces and only the two leaders judged the sound rightly. We passed through B.H.Q. and were directed to Company H.Q. We were warned not to show ourselves, as the Japs had a balloon up. We met W.O. Smythe en route, a huge revolver strapped to his waist. (His commission came through that day, and he was killed that night.)
Company H.Q. was in a small house with a huge dugout alongside it. 5000 sandbags were said to have gone into its construction, plus many tightly-jammed railway sleepers. A protective platoon had been formed in each Company to protect Company H.Q. It was mainly composed of reinforcements. Men had been drawn from the Companies to man Vickers M.M.G.'s on the waterfront, Bill Smith and Ray Albury being some of those so detailed. Black Jack was in Con Depot as his ears had broken down, and Lt. Col. Ramsey was C.O. Don Garner told us of a 60 lb shell that he dug out in front of his pit, and we resolved to dig deep and stay down.
The Battalion was in position on the causeway, "A" Coy near the actual crossing and "B" Coy facing a swamp to the left of the position. 2/26th was half a mile across with no one in the gap. 12 Platoon was in position above a crossroads, and thither we were conducted, to be warmly greeted by our cobbers.
A camouflaged screen covered the crossroads from view, our wire was over the road, and we sat over it in a row of slit trenches if action commenced, but during the day we occupied shelter pits under trees further back. Harry Holden had been acting Platoon sergeant but now moved to the Company Protective Platoon, and Mac took his place. Many changes were apparent in the Platoon. I found that Ted Gill had been killed in tragic circumstances two nights previously, and was buried at Reformatory Rd. Frank and Charlie had the gun. Frank stayed on as my no. 2 and I gave him the brand new 1941 rifle I had brought back for Ted. Darcy and Bluey had turned up, after being adrift for days after Gemas. Tiny Hicks was in hospital with malaria, and 8 Sec had reinforcements in Bert Wills (QX), Snowy Moller (Mob Bath), Alec McGregor and Jack Beehan. Jimmy Cooper had gone back to the Sigs. and we had a choice specimen from "C" Coy as Platoon commander - Lt. Dengate. He wanted to throw out our trusted N.C.O.'s and put in Jack Beehan, Dud Bushby and McGregor "because he knew them". The boys told him otherwise in no uncertain manner.
Book Six - Malaya, February 1942
Dengate was full of brilliant ideas - he wanted us to call him "Denny", so that the Japs would not pick him out as an officer, and to post two sentries per section where one would suffice. He had a plan where we would leave our trenches and plunge into the swamp after any Japs that appeared (telling Coy H.Q. after we returned). He said: "I have studied these Japs' tactics at base, have been reading them up in the papers! " After a few days' shelling, however, he was content to stay in his dug-out, modelling in clay and sending his batman out for meal issues. I delivered Ray's note to Arnie as he passed through our position on a patrol. Norm Wilding passed us, too, on the way back from the 2/10 M.D.S. on Bukit Timah Rd. He said that Don Wilks had been asking about us several days previously. Sipper had jumped a truck into Singapore in an attempt to see Tige, but he was unsuccessful and returned early. He told me of his experience on the mainland when he fell asleep and was left behind by the Company. Jimmy Walker's predicament came in for mirth too, but both could have been serious for those concerned.
It was a very patchy platoon, as many were absent, some ill and some detached for other duties. Sgt. Dixon, Hilton Blanch, Jimmy Walker, Vern Hicks, Sailor Weir, Bill Death, Jack Dean, Bluey McDonald and Eric Gottaas were in hospital with malaria, dengue or shell-shock. Bill Smith was with an M.M.G. post in the swamp, Harry Holden and Joe Noble with Company protective platoon, and for reinforcements we had Vince Beggs, Jimmy Brown, Ray Smithson, Bert Wills, Tom Fitzgerald, Bob Watson, Sid Pike, Jack Thomas and Ernie Bray. N.C.O.'s were Tom Yates, Harold Russell, and Tom Fitzgerald. McLean came back to 12 Platoon, and I took over my old job as gunner with Frank Dyson as no. 2. The gun was still OK - I had a new box of mags, my spare barrel and tripod. I gave Frank my new 1941 rifle, and he found the extractor spring missing. Peebles fixed it in a few days.
Packs and haversacks had been brought up to Company and some of the boys had theirs, rifled of most of the contents. Mine was still missing. Sipper had his mosquito net and bivouac sheets erected in the stunted scrub back under the rubber trees. I slept under a small attap shelter with Fred and Russ for the first few nights. Our mess was served out at a rude table in the scrub. We had stocks of naval base stores - tobacco, chocolate, etc., stacked under it. Often our meals were interrupted by shellfire and we had to carry them into our pits to finish them. The reason was obvious and without remedy, as the enemy could see our ration truck during its progress along Bukit Timah Rd., and timed the shellings so they would coincide with its arrival at our position at the crossroads. Consequently, Peebles or Stan Heuston would not delay, but whipped out our issue and buzzed off. The main enemy O.P. was in the Johore Administration Building. It was marked by only one shell and we understood the Arty. had orders not to fire on it. The enemy shelling was easy to judge and I soon learnt the language of their projectiles, disregarding the whining of those destined for C (?).H.Q. or 2/15 R.A.A., but ready to bite the dust at the hissing roar of close ones. Our batteries would fire one round, Nippon would reply with several dozen in an endeavour to silence them. Nippon would cease fire, then our drop-shorts would wake him up with one more round, and so on ad infinatum.
When in Singapore, I had seen headlines that acclaimed our guns as victors in an artillery duel. They claimed to have driven the Jap back 12 miles and silenced them. It became the ironical habit to shout, as a strafe commenced, "And the guns of Johore were silenced!" We became thoughtful when told that rubber trees shed their leaves in February/March. We anticipated a lovely time when the foliage no longer sheltered us. The leaf fall was only partial, however. An anti-tank gun crew was stationed on the road at our right front. They had a Breda gun with no sights, and had never fired it to see if they could hit anything. They were well dug-in, with a covered pit to accommodate the whole team. Parcels, mail and newspapers had arrived (none for me) and Sipper and I shared a tin of Xmas pudding during one night's watch together. Athol Nagle's position had been taken by a bespectacled midget named Tryson, and Duffy had a new batman, a red haired chap named Robertson. Phil Bailey and his A.A. section passed us on patrol. They were relegated to ordinary section duties in the Battalion. A reinforcement to "A" Coy named (?) lost his block, in more ways than one, for he walked into a boong house, pulled out a grenade and held it to his head. Result: "finis" or "sudah habis" as the Malays say.
One duty that I never had time to strike was the swamp patrol, which occupied several hours if done conscientiously. Our patrol (2 men) moved up to "A" Coy on the right, then down the railway line to the M.M.G. posts in the swamp, returning through the left of the position. There were wide gaps between platoons, companies and battalions, and defences were hurried and light. We had expected to find prepared positions after falling back down the mainland, but nothing had even been attempted. Our wire was alongside the road. One night, Dengate ordered us to drag the end around and across the road, with the result that an Indian truck ran into the rusty coils of Italian concertina wire. They took hours to cut themselves free. Sipper's observation that "Dengate ought to have his head under it!" was overheard by that worthy, who, surprisingly, said that he was glad to hear a chap speak his mind, and welcomed criticism!
Our showers were down over the road. We "tonged" in a small gully, with all gear handy, often to the accompaniment of desultory shelling. I had pinched a Pommy camouflage net for my helmet while at base, but it tangled in most everything and rumour said nets helped bullets to penetrate so I discarded it. We got two hot meals a day, breakfast porridge or vita brits, steak. bread, butter and jam, and tea, bully beef stew, bread, butter, tinned fruit, etc. Dinner was a dry ration affair. We boiled the billy and made coffee or chocolate whenever possible, taking care to use dry wood only. Some of the boys had bought tinned eatables on the Island to eke out their rations. We were not as hungry as them, apparently, but could have done with more.
At any rate, after I had settled myself in on 7/2/42 we were told that a convoy of Marmions would be up that night to take a load of oil from tanks near the Causeway. They would drive in under black-out conditions, covered by an artillery barrage to blanket their engines. Sentries were allocated their jobs, 8 Sec was glad to see us back as they were very short-handed in this respect. We settled down for a well-earned sleep, but Fate willed otherwise, and we stood-to all night. The trucks went down the road, as planned, and were picking up the oil when, suddenly, the alarm was given. Our defensive fire opened and we groped our way to our trenches amid the racket of shell fire, mortar bombs and Vickers on fixed lines, guided by the glare of the still-burning oil tanks near Yew Lee. A small boat manned by volunteers (including Mick Murray) under Lieut. (Admiral) Smythe, encountered a strong Jap force at the mouth of Kranji River. Smythe threw a grenade into the nearest enemy craft, and then dived overboard. All reached te shore safely, except for the "Admiral", and it was surmised that either a shark or a crocodile accounted for him. The Japs withdrew, but our M.M.G.'s played tunes all night and we got no more sleep. The trucks "went through" very smartly, and never attempted to draw from those tanks again.
The next day (8/2/42) was Sunday, but it was certainly no day of rest. The enemy artillery swamped us all day long; we spent the whole period in our shelter trenches. Sipper and I shared one. We sat on a box, back-to-back, and talked, smoked, and read Aussie papers. When our situation palled on us, we commenced recording the nearer shell bursts. Sipper stuck a match into the clay wall for each one. Before long, his supply was exhausted and he had to halve them. Then he ran out of halves and gave it up. The shells were still just as numerous - most of them falling in the swamp, fortunately. A number straddled our defensive slit trenches. In the lull, we cautiously ventured out to see the damage, and in full view over Johore was an observation balloon, the "eyes of the enemy"! Planes flew over us, all marked with the red spot, and A.A. sometimes burst near them. A curious hissing roar and explosion down the road was thought to be a crash, but it was never confirmed, however. Our own A.A. shrapnel fell around us; one fragment pierced a sandbag only inches from Sipper's head, and another brought our attap lean-to crashing to the ground.
The strafe ceased at nightfall, and we settled down for sleep again. My sentry-go commenced at about 23:00 and was interrupted by a resumption of the shelling. The shells were not exploding and in the darkness I detected a curious smell - "gas!", I thought, and rushed for my respirator, frantically recalling to mind all that I had been told about gases and their characteristics. I put on the respirator, took it off, put it on again, then decided to take it off and take my chance. A bloke would suffocate just as quickly in the mask as in a gas cloud! There were many duds that night. I counted over 70 consecutive ones. Jack Beehan, the next relief, had dug himself a one-man shelter which I had difficulty in finding. In fact, his shift was nearly over before I located and woke him, to hand over the wrist watch and crawl into my own bivvy.
9/2/42: Shelling ceased at dawn, and Sipper and I resolved to construct a more commodious shelter, one that we could sleep in, if necessary, and that would shelter us from the elements. Accordingly, we marked out and set to work on an excavation 7' x 5' x 3' under some handy rubber trees. The spoil we camouflaged as we dug it out, with cut bushes. Fighter planes were sporting overhead and we moved circumspectly. Russ, Pick and Tom were engaged in enlarging and roofing their pit, as were Fred and Jack McLean. Dengate had a covered shelter, as did Bunny and Bert. I cultivated quite a few blisters swinging the unaccustomed "changkol", and by mid-afternoon we were deep enough and started filling sandbags and scrounging timber for the roof. We pulled down a partially-dismantled building on the crossroads, but could not get stout enough planks, so decided to call it a day. After a shower and clothes-washing parade, we were sitting in the pit when a shell advertised its coming in no uncertain manner. It burst in a tree crotch about 10 yards away and sprayed the area with shrapnel and rubber branches. Frank received one of the latter in the small of his back and thought he was done-for, for a moment. Charlie had been sent to B.H.Q. as a runner and Frank chewed his discs alone. I was in a quandary, I was undecided which was the best end of the new pit to occupy, as the shrapnel from a shell bursting in a tree behind me would be a danger if I got under the fore bank and vice versa. Then I decided to join Fred and Mac in their roofed pit, and Sipper joined Russ, Tom and Pick. I think that our engineering operations had been observed, for the new strafe was right on us and fairly severe.
As well as the usual field artillery fire, we were subjected to mortars and A.A. shells. The last named were fired with a flat trajectory, and arrived at our end before the noise of the discharge, or the whistle of the approach. Some would bounce off the ground and burst in the air, and some cannoned their way through the trees without exploding. Dick Andrew and Don Watts passed the mouth of our shelter just prior to a sudden salvo. We thought they were hit, at first, but later they said that they did "100 yds in 5 seconds" back to their position. At dusk, the ration truck arrived and Mac was in two minds whether he would go down to draw it. He reasoned it would draw the crabs, and it did! Stan Heuston dropped off the hot meal and buzzed off, with an issue of beer for the platoon still on the truck. We were a bit wild about that - a bit of "moral support" would have gone well. The mess was doled out and I raced into my possie with a tin of bully stew, some slabs of bread, and a container full of hot, sweet tea. Very good!
Orders came for Dengate to report to C.H.Q. He was dubious and nearly jacked up on going. When he returned, he told us that an attack was expected, and issued quite silly orders about our behaviour in the event. He told me that, on the signal of 4 flares from C.H.Q., I was to fire a magazine into the swamp! No target visible, our patrols still in there, and a dead giveaway. I said nothing and resolved to do nothing so silly. In the meantime we maintained two sentries in the forward pits and stood-to in the dug-outs. Mac and Fred were out of tobacco so I brought out mine. WE smoked so many "nerve sticks" that night that I was out in a very short time, too, 5 packets and 2 oz of Havelock lasting no time. I was abused for throwing a lighted butt out into the night. The boys were jittery and reckoned that the enemy O.P.'s would see it, across a mile of water! The enemy shells and mortar bombs raked up and down our position, and I began to appreciate the feelings of a criminal under sentence of death. A heavy howitzer joined in. We jumped at the flat crashes that drew perceptibly nearer, then passed over. A small tree was blown onto the top of the pit and branches littered the ground. My afternoon's washing, shorts, shirt and socks, vanished, as did my water bottle, from outside the shelter. I was dressed in blue pyjama shorts, shirt, boots and socks, and presented a curious spectacle.
10/2/42 In the early hours we stood to, then were allowed back into the pits again. Frank and I resolved to get some sleep, so we lay down in our new pit and dozed till we were alarmed again. A raging thirst grew on me, and having no bottle, I bludged a drink from the A/Tk gunners as they pulled out. It was a petrol tin about half full of water, and having no mug I was obliged to lift the tin and drink from the ragged hole. I kept the tin and had constant recourse to it as long as we remained there. We found out later that the gunners took our beer with them as they left. About 4 a.m. we were aroused and told to be prepared to move. Frank and I consumed a tin of bully beef, the order to move was given, and away we went towards C.H.Q. I carried the gun, and had a large pack on my back as well as a bayonet and respirator. We forgot our spare barrel, but Russ burdened himself with the tripod. We had to abandon all sheets, mosquito nets, spare tucker, packs and blankets. We did not understand themove as we were loath to leave our defensive positions. We did not know that the Jap was already on the Island, and that we were in danger of encirclement. Our 25 pounders and 3" mortars were pooping out shells as fast as they could send them. The whizz of the mortar bombs overhead and the subsequent clanging explosion along the railway line were very comforting. They, and the stuttering Vickers, covered us as we moved. Ray Albury was killed at his gun post at about this time, and several 2/4 M.G.'s were wounded. A partly severed rubber branch suddenly snapped and fell as we descended into the first gully. The ground was littered with smashed limbs and the overpowering stink of H.E. assailed our nostrils afresh. In open order, we moved up the asphalt road to C.H.Q. where Captain Duffy, from a commanding position on the bank, gave us a short talk on our predicament. We had to fall back to protect our flank, as the Jap had infiltrated the Kranji defences and was on our left rear. It seemed like running away, from security in the form of trenches and wire defences, to a dangerous and yet unknown position in the rear. When he finished by telling us the distance, about 4000 yards, growls of annoyance were audible and Sipper suddenly hurled his pack into the ditch. Duffy gave a yelp of anger and shouted "Charlton! I ought to shoot you for that!" It was a bad example to set the numerous reinforcements in our ranks, still strange to the Company and lacking the comradeship that bound the old hands together. He picked it up later and carried it for the first day.
We plunged into the rubber and followed a narrow road that led out of the rear of C.H.Q. In single file, we trudged along the sandy track, stopping and starting several times in the grey haze that preceded the dawn. A 30 cwt truck lay on its side, abandoned, in the ditch. No sound came from the several native kampongs we passed en route. Only the incessant racket of the barrage behind us and the glow of oil fires around the horizon testified that men were fighting on Singapore Island.
Suddenly, we reached an asphalt road, and realised that we had been led in a huge circle back onto Bukit Timah Road. We were only a couple of hundred yards from our old section position, and could, within a few minutes, have re-occupied the defences. This cautious detour called forth more criticism from the heavily laden men. Frank was sagging under the weight of 16 mags in an Indian haversack and 12 mags in a box, as well as pack, rifle and equipment. I motioned to the swamp on the left of the road, and the box of mags described a graceful parabola, to splash and sink in the peaty ooze. Further along, we met two carriers that covered our move. Bill Smith and other Vickers personnel were on them, and they loaded a fair bit of spare ammunition to help us along. We never saw it again, or the carriers, till the blue was over.
The next change of direction was into the rubber on the left, then right to follow the pipe line that appeared. This line ran from the Gunong Putai Reservoir in Johore, across the straits to Singapore. It was about 3 ft in diameter, painted black, and supported on concrete trestles at intervals. The line ran straight as a die, uphill and down dale, and we followed its course in thecleared spaces on either side.
Dawn was breaking and the roar of enemy planes was apparent when we halted for a breather at the top of a steep pinch overlooking Mandai Rd. I unslung my pack and hurriedly diced some unnecessary gear - two books (one of them was Treasure Island), the clumsy mess gear I had acquired at base, towel, blanket, etc. went into the grass and, immensely relieved, I turned to take stock of the situation. In front, over the road, rose the shell-scarred slopes of the bare hill we had seen before only at a distance. The sun shone from a mass of rosy clouds on our left and, at intervals around the horizon rose columns of oily smoke to form one big cloud, a fitting pall for Singapore. In precise formation, squadrons of Japanese medium bombers droned over at ridiculously low altitudes (they knew they had little to fear) which made us shrink even further under our protecting canopy of rubber trees. Occasional shells whined over, but it was apparent that the storm had been severe before our arrival. There were smashed trees, shell holes and many dud shells in evidence on all sides. Craters in the asphalt road, telegraph and power lines in hopeless confusion, and abandoned transport blocked the narrow defile known as Mandai Rd.
Word came back that we were to take up positions on top of the ridge and conceal ourselves as well as possible in the tall lalang grass which grew there. This was a poser - to lie all day in the sun screened only by lalang grass was no joke, and my costume would not bear the light of day, being composed of tin helmet, bright red army boots, blue and white striped pyjama jacket, and blue silk pyjama shorts. I was relieved when Frank produced a spare pair of swamp trousers from his pack, and more relieved still when we were moved downhill to the right and into rubber again. Slit trenches had been dug in this area, and we promptly occupied them. Frank, Fred and myself found ourselves in one pit. Abandoned gear littered its floor, from whence I secured two "69" Bakelite grenades and a water bottle. The bottle lacked a cork, and I was obliged to make shift with a roughly-trimmed plug of wood.
A quarry and kampong lay about 100 yards over the road. Fred roared with laughter when a great fat sow was lifted into the air by a Japanese shell. Pigs lay dead everywhere, and those that still ran about carried their share of shrapnel. George Guan was killed here when a shell came right into the slit trench with him.
Harry Holden received our envious salutations with a smile as he ran past to the R.A.P. Dengue fever had him in its hold, and didn't we wish it would grab us, too! I did my turn as guard on the ridge behind; no one knew where the enemy was, but it paid to be cautious. Three members of "Don" Company patrolled with Tommy guns in front of me while I lay in a shallow stump hole and apprehensively sniffed the strange mixture of high explosive fumes and smashed rubber branches. Small arms fire was evident, but at some distance. When I returned to the boys I found them preparing to move to a new position. Captain Duffy emerged from the dug-out that he had pre-empted and led us down to the road-side. I sprawled awkwardly over the lip of a boong well to fill my bottle. I drank the lot, and filled it again. When the patrolling planes had momentarily passed, we doubled across in dribs and drabs to reassemble in the kampong under cover. We passed several mortar crews with their "guns" at the ready, many more dead pigs, and some dead that were not pigs, carelessly covered with coarse sacking. Those boongs would not rejoice in the Co-Prosperity Sphere. They had been unlucky, as the kampong contained some excellent dug-outs, well ballasted, and even concreted. We skirted the green, slimy ponds in the gardens, scaring fowls and ducks from amongst the tapioca, banana and papaya patches, then were dispersed and told to get shelter until dark. Russ had abandoned the tripod, so that was one less worry, and we set about digging trenches. My hands were swollen with pus from the blisters acquired during Monday, and I knocked off when my pit was deep enough to shelter me lying down. Darcy earned my admiration by the deft way in which he swung his changkol. (We all learned to swing one later!) It was mid-afternoon, and the Nippon war eagles were still droning monotonously along the axis of the road. Nerves were taut, and we all jumped when a shot rang out nearby. It was Tommy Cullinane, a QX reinforcement to Platoon, who had accidentally shot himself through the foot. We were startled shortly afterwards by a repetition of this occurrence, this time a reinforcement to 7 Sec named Ray Smithson, from Hurstville, Sydney. Apparently, he placed his hand over the muzzle to assist him in jumping down into a pit when the rifle exploded and shattered his hand. He was half carried past me in a fainting condition, the white bones of his mangled hand contrasting with the crimson flesh exposed. I started to think about wounds, then, and how severely wounded a man would have to be wounded, to be evacuated. I compromised with Fate in this manner: that I would sacrifice a couple of joints of my little finger, but no more, to get out of the show. No S.I.W. for me though, I wasn't that bad.
Bill Douglas came past me with a hat full of eggs for his boss. The boys were scrounging what they could for a meal. Tom Evans got onto some Cascade beer in an R.A.P. dump and I had a mouthful. Then Darcy brought to light a sandbag of tinned stuff, and 8 Section ate once more! We consumed the tinned fish, biscuits, apricots, shredded pineapple and milk that it contained, eating in turn out of the tins with spoons or forks. (Three years later we found the owners (?) of the sandbag, Hilton Blanch's section. Apparently they bought it to eke out rations and were carrying it in turns. Dick Henderson dumped it when in a hurry and earned the censure of his mates but our hearty thanks!)
The Chinese occupants of the dug-outs could not be coaxed out under any pretext, so pineapples and papayas "went off" unheeded. Captain Duffy closed us in and gave us the "P" for the night's move. We were to move along the road for a few miles to form a new defensive position. The Japs were to be thrown off the Island by a concerted attack. He stressed the need for silence and discipline during the dark hours. Accordingly, when it grew fairly dusky, we were assembled and moved towards the road once again. IN single file, we were cautiously descending a path beside the pipeline when suddenly a glorious pillar of flame rose into the southern sky and it became as light as day. Like criminals caught in the act, we crouched while the flame wavered then grew again, a perfect target for the Nips if they had been on the spot. Apparently the oil tanks on either Pulau Brani or Blakang Mati had been fired, adding their quota of flame and smoke to the ring around us.
We hurried onto the road to escape this blinding exposure, moving toward B.T. Road in A.A. formation. Shell craters, overhead wires, and debris of all descriptions, impeded us. We turned a corner and saw the glare of the Bukit Panjang tanks, straight ahead. The crimson glow was reflected on the wet road surface; we seemed to be marching into an enormous, fiery furnace. We turned left along B.T. Rd towards Yew Lie, then left again into a granite quarry at the base of Bukit Mandai. Up a narrow, metalled road, past the silent quarry buildings, then into the rubber and so to the summit of the hill. We were formed into a very close perimeter. Actually, each man could have touched his neighbour. We were told to get a good sleep for the projected moves tomorrow, and given 10-minute guards each. I lay on the dew-soaked ground and pulled the ground sheet over me. The rubber-covered cloth condensed more moisture onto me but I was wrapped in slumber in a matter of seconds. The gun was beside me, rusty but still efficient. My pack pillowed my head, and I even loosened my boots a trifle.
11/2/42 We were wakened before sunrise and stretched our aching bones in the cool darkness. A new position had been allotted us and we had to occupy it immediately. From the hill top, our descent was through spindly, stunted rubber trees in the general direction of Mandai, and along the axis of B.T. Rd. In freshly-dug slit trenches (dug by God-knows-who) we settled ourselves. I set up the gun in the moist red clay of the parapet, and considered the view, which was limited and disgusting. Our front was B.T. Rd, about 50 yards. It petered out on each flank behind a shoulder of the ridge. On the left was the quarry, on the right a Chinese cemetery with curious gravestones silhouetted against the dawn light. Over B.T. Rd the smothering blanket of vegetation showed no sign of life. Half right (?) we could see the straits shining placidly in the distance. Small arms fire was apparent from the right and Nippon lost no time in sending over his planes. One pilot flew several times along the road, with some definite object in view. We crouched close to the ground and hid our faces as the roar of his single engined recce plane warned us of his approach from the left. He came into view, his plane banking easily from side to side, just clearing the tree tops, actually level with our position on the ridge as he followed the winding course of the road. His helmeted head swung from side to side as he sought evidence of our presence. We remembered the plane that had spotted for the advance at Gemencheh, and suspected close cooperation with Jap infantry. When he had passed on, some of the boys poked down to the road and searched several boong huts on the edge of the cemetery. Bert Wills came running back and got a carrying party to help him with some tinned pineapple. I didn't expect him to bring back as much as he did, however. There were five cases in all and no tins. We sent a case and a half to each of the other sections and kept two for 8 Sect. Jack knives were produced and a fruit breakfast eventuated. I ate two tins, and had just lent my spoon to Russ, when 9 Section opened fire on the left. We dived for our firing possies but could see no sign of movement on our front. 9 section, under Tom Fitzgerald, had sighted some Nips on bicycles and had sent them to ground. Their small arms fire commenced to crackle on the left; on the right, the firing had grown in intensity, and our Brens could be heard in continuous automatic fire. Orders arrived to withdraw, and Dengate panicked again. He wasn't the only one, for 9 section was composed mainly of reos and they "shot through like Bondi trams". Ray Donald had trouble convincing his number two to carry his rifle. I had an eye to the future, and grabbed as many tins of pineapple as I could. I had nine altogether, shoved down the front of my shirt - I bet they would have stopped any bullet!
We moved hurriedly through a native kampong and over the ridge into comparatively clear country. The gun bounced heavily on my shoulder as I slithered down the black, muddy track, through native gardens to a narrow earth causeway across a slimy green lake. Water hyacinth and duckweed covered the surface, and ducks scattered at our approach. We clumped across a single plank bridge over an irrigation sluice, and turned to gaze apprehensively at the cemetery skyline, for another creek had appeared with no bridge in sight. There was nothing for it but to jump from the bank into the evil, smelly ooze, with a slippery climb out on the other side. I was labouring up the other side when I heard a loud burst of profanity from behind. Sipper had slipped and fallen into the creek. He ripped off his respirator and hurled it furiously away.
We filed past pig sties and fowl pens, then attap huts, till the rest of the Company came in view. I dropped down beside Bill Delaney in a pineapple patch to regain my breath, and gave him a tin of fruit. The hut behind us smelt of fowl dung and incense, so it must have been Chinese. A road led south through stunted scrub, over another ridge. Behind loomed the shell-scarred ridge that had been a landmark from the start. We felt apprehensive, but more secure with the rest of the Company to back us up. After a short interval (Here, Bruce ends his account of the events leading up to the surrender and his captivity. I think he had grown tired of remembering and writing all that had happened.)
Bruce Holland passed away in 2004.
My thanks to John Holland for this account.
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