The 5th Battalion (Punjab Regiment) in Malaya
Excluding periods of training on the mainland of Malaya, the Battalion had been in Penang since August 1939, preparing for its main role of defending the southern beaches of the island and the approaches to them from Georgetown. In 1941, however, Officers and V.C.Os. went in relays to Kroh to reconnoitre the positions prepared there by the 3rd/16th Punjab Regiment, with a view to an alternative role of defending this probable Japanese line of advance, 80 miles east of the main route down Malaya. This route closely follows the western coastline, until reaching Kuala Lumpur, when it swings inland and runs down the centre of the peninsula until Singapore is reached.
We first heard that the war had started for us at 0600 hours on 8th December, when a message informed us that Singapore had been bombed. An order from Penang Fortress to man the fixed defences was cancelled almost immediately and we were ordered to Kroh to join the 3rd/16th and a battery of the 22nd Mountain Regiment. This force was named "Krocol" and was under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Moorhead of the 3rd/16th. Its role was to enter Thailand and destroy the road at 'The Ledge', a defile formed by the road being cut through a steep though not high cliff.
On the mainland we were met and transported to Kroh by the 2nd/3rd Australian M.T. Company, under Major Kiernan, the first of many journeys with his company, for whose help we have reason to be very thankful. A grand crowd, they would take their Mormon-Harringtons anywhere and frequently, during the withdrawal, came far closer to the enemy than ordered to pick up the Jawans with whom they formed a great friendship.
'D' Company remained in Penang, for a role, never put into operation, of evacuating the civilians from Puket Island, in conjunction with the Navy.
By midnight the remainder of the Battalion arrived in Kroh to find that the 3rd/16th had entered Thailand earlier in the day, but had been held up by unexpected resistance at the frontier. Next day, while the Battalion strengthened the Kroh Defensive position, Lieut.-Colonel Stokes, with the Adjutant, Capt. Wethey, and Company Commanders, contacted Lieut.-Colonel Moorhead at Betong, 6 kilometres inside Thailand, and on 10th December the 3rd/16th had advanced far enough for the same reconnaissance party to choose a covering position at Kl.15.
Next morning (11th), leaving 'C' company in Kroh for local defence, the Battalion took up a position at Kl.15 with two M.G. sections covering the road. The 3rd/16th met the Japs the same day at Kl.35, just short of 'The Ledge' and, owing to the failure of a demolition, Jap light tanks broke into their position and caused some damage. They were followed by Japs in such large numbers that the 3rd/16th, after inflicting heavy casualties, withdrew through us to Kroh.
After dark on the 12th December, Jap cyclists were fired on at our road block at Kl.15, and during the night their patrols began feeling for our flanks. At first light tanks and motorized infantry joined them (one tank being knocked out by a P.M. with an A/T rifle) and when it became apparent that we were being enveloped the C.O. gave the order to withdraw. Everyone felt that our first encounter with the Japs had been encouraging, as we reached the Kroh position practically intact, with the knowledge that we had accounted for a good many of the enemy.
During the night and the following day (14th December) small parties of Japs attacked the Kroh position, but we now know that the main body, consisting of three divisions, by-passed it and headed down a jungle road to Krik, 40 miles farther south, in an attempt to cut off the whole of the 11th Indian Division fighting on the main west coast route. News of them was not encouraging as the Jitra position had gone and the 11th Division was being forced rapidly southwards.
At 2300 hours Krocol withdrew unmolested from the Kroh position and passed through the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Baling. They were the leading troops of the 12th Brigade, who had come from Singapore to reinforce us and we now joined this brigade under Brigadier Paris.
The next three days were spent in an exhausting withdrawal through rubber Estates in pouring rain with the Japs now close on our heels. On the first day we unfortunately lost Lieut. Davin, injured in a lorry accident, and his place commanding 'B' Company (Sikhs) was taken by Capt. Franks, who came from the Carrier Platoon, which was an unsatisfactory command, as we had received no Bren guns for the carriers. We also had difficulty in carrying of V.B. magazines in the rifle Platoons, as the whole Battalion was still wearing the 1908 pattern of Webb equipment.
The most cheering feature of those three days was the morale of the troops, which was excellent, but we were all glad when, on the afternoon of the 17th December, we were met by the 2nd/3rd M.T. Company and taken south of Salamat to defend the river crossing there. Next day, however, the orders were changed and we were taken south to Kuala Lumpur for a rest.
We rested during 19th, 20th and 21st December, though 'B' Company formed a detachment on the Taiping aerodrome and on a road leading eastwards into the jungle, as the Japs, who had by-passed us at Kroh, were beginning to filter through south of Grik. Then on 22nd December, we moved to Salak North , south of the Perak River, to hold the railway and road bridges across the river, and here Lieut. Ellis with 'D' Company rejoined us, having left Penang by ship and come by road from Port Weld. Early next morning positions were taken up along the river bank, with H.Q. at Endor, and during the day we were severely dive-bombed and had a number of casualties. At 2100 hours a further withdrawal was ordered and, after the bridges had been blown, our friends the 2nd/3rd M.T. company arrived and we embussed for Ipoh, where we came directly under the 11th Division and reconnoitred positions for the defence of the town.
Christmas Day was celebrated as well as possible, the British Officers enjoying a duck roasted in port by Lieut. Ringer of 'A' Company (Pathans), but next day came an order for a further withdrawal to the disappointment of the Jawans who were more than ready for another crack at the Japs. However, as parties of Japs were landing behind us on the west coast, we were to go to Telok Anson to reinforce the 1st Independent Company under Manor Fearon (seconded from us earlier in the year). Lieut.-Colonel Stokes and Major Fearon chose positions in and around Telok Anson and we stood to, awaiting the Jap landing parties.
On 28th December a change of plan sent us to Simpang Tiga on the main road again, where Lieut.-Colonel Stokes took command of 'Stokol' (consisting of the 2nd/1st Gurkhas and ourselves) and Major Lewis took over command of the Battalion. The move, carried out in daylight, attracted the attention of the Jap air force, but, although they tried hard, we only lost one S.A.A. truck. Our position was astride the road just south of Kampar, which the Japs were now approaching from the north, but on New Year's Eve we were ordered to move to another road running westwards from Kampar, to counter-attack some Jap infiltration there. A difficult night march followed but Brigadier Selby cancelled the attack just as we were forming up for it.
During the night of 2nd/3rd January we marched back to the main road and took up a position just north of Tapah to cover the withdrawal of the 15th Brigade from Kampar. They duly passed through us and at 0200 hours Jap tanks, with full headlights showing, arrived at our road block. The Battalion was in 'Y' formation with 'A' and 'D' companies astride the road, 'B' Company back, and 'C' company farther behind in reserve. 'A' Company knocked out two tanks with the A/T rifles, and the crew of a breakdown lorry which drove up to the tanks was also dealt with. Havildar Peo Gul and Naik Alam Khan, both of 'A' Company, did well in this action. Motorized Japs following the tanks were mortared by 'A' and 'D' Companies, and they scattered to right and left of the road. At 1500 hours came the order to withdraw and, closely followed by the Japs, we reached Tapah, where we passed through the 2nd/1st Gurkhas.
The Gurkhas withstood a strong frontal attack and then withdrew, leaving us as rearguard again, but we were not attacked this time and finally were picked up by the 2nd/3rd M.T. Company and taken south.
Our destination was Slim, where we rested during 4th, 5th and 6th January in III Corps reserve, while Lieut.-Colonel Stokes reconnoitred a covering position behind the 4th/19th Hyderabads, who constituted the front line, with the remainder of the 12th and 15th Brigades behind them in depth astride of the road. On 7th January, at 0600 hours, we received orders to take up that position and advanced up the road, only to find a string of large Jap tanks coming down it. With the Jawans marching on either side of the road, the tanks caused a number of casualties and those who took cover in the very dense jungle flanking the road, found it was very difficult to regain their bearings once the road was lost sight of. Lieut.-Colonel Stokes and Major Lewis, who had gone forward by car, ran into the tanks and both were captured after taking to the jungle, the Colonel receiving wounds from which he later died. Thus we lost a very fine C.O. Capt. Wilson (H.Q. Company), Capt. Wethey and Lieut. Ringer were cut off by the tanks and advancing infantry. Wethey was captured that morning, Wilson several days later whilst trying to rejoin our forces farther south, and Ringer, after a fortnight in the jungle, died of fever. Lieut. Hopkins-Husson escaped from a Jap offer who tried to capture him. Capt. Franks managed to collect a party of men, chiefly from 'B' Company, and brought them to safety, and Lieut. Ellis did the same with some of 'D' Company. Owing to tanks establishing themselves on the road bridge across the Slim River we lost all the 'A' Echelon transport, which was in harbour north of the river, though the 'B' Echelon escaped intact as it was brigaded farther south.
During the night of 7th/8th January remnants of the two brigades were filtering southwards, mostly down the railway line, and at Rasa next morning the Battalion mustered 6 B.Os., 5 V.C.Os., and 135 I.O.Rs., excluding 'B' Echelon personnel. Capt. Juneja took command with Capts. Harpham, Dickson and Franks, and Lieuts. Hopkins-Husson and Ellis. Subadar Muhammad Aslam (P.M.) was the senior V.C.O. and did excellent work during the remainder of the campaign.
We stayed at Rasa during 8th January, but withdrew during the night to Kuala Lumpur and on the following night to the top of the hill pass just north of Seremban. Positions were taken up on the pass itself, but on the evening of 12th January, before contact had been made with the Japs, the order came to retire again. This time it was a big strategic withdrawal to reorganize the 11th Division behind the Australian position at Gemas. We had rejoined the 12th Brigade after Slim and were now to leave them again and join the 15th Brigade at Kluang in Johore. We moved by night, partly by lorry and partly by train, arriving at Kluang at noon next day, where we were given comfortable billets by Wing Commander Powell, commanding the aerodrome, which we, in company with a battalion of the Bahawalpur State Forces, were to defend.
Here we lost Capt. Juneja, who had developed fever, and Capt. Franks, whose arm and leg had become septic following a motor-cycle accident. Capt. Harpham took command, with Capt. Dickson as Second-in-Command, and Adjutant, Lieut. Ellis as Q.M. and Transport Officer, and Lieut. Hopkins-Husson commanding a mixed company of Pathans and P.Ms. A similar company of Sikhs and Dogras was commanded by Jemadar Chainchail Singh. Six days of reorganization followed, during which we were joined by two drafts, the first under Lieut. Johnson, who took over command of the Sikh-Dogra Company.
On the night of 19th/20th January we left Kluang, approximately 400 strong, to join the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade under Brigadier Selby at Johore Bahru. On arrival we were sent to join a small force under Lieut.-Colonel Allsbrook at Pontian Kechil, consisting of the 2nd, 9th, 2nd/1st Gurkhas and ourselves. Here we stayed until 29th January, reconnoitring positions to prevent Jap landings, and picqueting the road leading north to Batu Pahat and Muar, whence a few of our troops were withdrawing after the very fierce fighting which had occurred there. We were joined by Lieuts. Cavill, Welsh and Paxton-Harding from the F.M.S.V.F., but due to a false alarm Lieut. Welsh was sent with one platoon to Kukup, where he stayed until taken off by the Navy on 31st January.
Orders now came through for a general withdrawal on to Singapore Island and to cover the Brigade's withdrawal the 5th/14th were ordered to hold the line of the Sungei Pontian Besar until 1800 hours on 30th January. Everything went smoothly as we were only lightly attacked in the afternoon, though we had to change our line of withdrawal as the main Jap attack fell on a small party of Gurkhas upstream from us and a crossing was made, thus cutting our prearranged route. With the 28th Brigade we retired by bounds on 31st January, without further contact with the Japs, until at 2300 hours transport arrived to take the Brigade into the island.
The 28th Brigade's sector was the western part of the Naval Base and we were placed in reserved just outside the Sembawang Gate to allow us to amalgamate with the 1st Battalion, who arrived shortly after us. Major Fearon commanded the combined unit whose strength was approximately equal to one battalion, though we lacked specialist personnel to form an H.Q. Company. The 1st February was spent in reconnaissance and reorganization and on 2nd February we moved up to the area of the Fleet Shore Accommodation to relieve the 2nd/9th Gurkhas. The area was one we had occupied during training in 1940 and consisted of 200 yards of open ground sloping down from the buildings to the shore of the Johore Strait. On the left, however, 'B' Company occupied much closer country. From now onward everyone worked hard at building positions in this sector, as nothing of the sort had been down since our last visit. An M.G. Company of the Manchester Regiment was in support of us. We were now rejoined by Capt. Franks and also Lieut. Maclaren from No.1 Independent Company and a number of officers of the 1st Battalion joined at the same time.
On the evening of 4th February Major Fearon was injured in a motor accident and was sent to hospital. Major Morton of the 1st Battalion took over and next morning was ordered to take the Battalion into reserve again, in the area near the Sembawang Gate. On arrival there Lieut.-Colonel MacAdam arrived and took command of the joint battalion. Our role was now to be one of counter-attack anywhere in the large Brigade area, so the next few days were spent in reconnaissance and reorganization. The Japs had now arrived on the north shore of the strait and started a steady, but ineffective, shelling of the naval base. The most uncomfortable feature of this time was the oil rain caused by the burning of the fuel tanks in the base, and there was a certain amount of pattern bombing by the Japs, who now had no air opposition and came over in formation, every plane dropping its load together. An observation balloon at Johore Bahru was a nuisance by day, as it brought instant fire down on any movement seen, but at night we sent parties forward to help the forward battalions with the preparation of positions. Such was the situation until the Jap landing to the west of the Causeway.
The morning after this the Gurkhas found the Japs occupying Hill 90, on their left flank, and 'A' Company was sent to retake the hill and, after the gunners had finally laid a barrage on the hill, the 1st/13th Frontier Force reoccupied it without opposition. In this attack Lieut. Maclaren was wounded. The Japs never liked our artillery. On 11th February the whole Battalion moved to the Brigade's left flank near the Causeway, to ward off the threat of encirclement, and during the day were unable to advance. At 1900 hours we were ordered to withdraw and, while on the move, received further orders which took us out of the Naval Base altogether to a rubber estate south of Nee Soon village, where we were transferred to the 8th Brigade.
The plan was now to close all troops round the town itself, and in the evening we found ourselves back at Bidadari with H.Q. in the evacuated 7th M.R.C. We dug in all night and the next day, after a slight alteration of our positions in the morning. We also moved our H.Q. to the Alkaff Gardens, a pretty Japanese ornamental garden with a lake in it. The Japs had followed up fairly quickly and that night (13th/14th February) their patrols contacted our forward 'A', 'B' and 'D' Companies, each of whose frontage was about half a mile in difficult thick country. On the 14th a sharp attack gained some ground from 'D' Company but, with the help of the survivors of the 3rd/16th Regiment under Major Brown, the position was restored. At dusk Lieut. Paxton-Harding took a standing patrol to a cross-road forward of our position to give warning of any Jap movement. He never returned, and we can only presume that the patrol was ambushed and wiped out.
The 15th February opened with much air activity and very heavy bombing of the town behind us and a great deal of sniping was going on from all sides, but fortunately it was inaccurate. At 1350 hours we received the order, which even to the last minute, we had somehow not expected - Capitulation. First timed for 1630 hours, it was postponed until 1830 hours, just giving the Japs time for some very heavy shelling and mortaring of our H.Q. and, when the white flags went up on the road blocks in front of our position, they had already infiltrated in the thick country between our forward companies. They showed us the large numbers of troops and heavy tanks lined up for an attack on our sector that night, and were on the whole correct and formal in their attitude. It was over.
Before being separated from the Jawans we received a final message from General Key, commanding the 11th Division. He said that during ten weeks of difficult fighting the line held by the Division had never been broken, although it had been forced to retire continually by superior forces. He added that it had always performed the tasks allotted to it and had never been forced to retire before the time ordered by Command. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the campaign was the morale of the troops. In spite of permanent Jap numerical and air superiority, their only request was to be allowed to stay in position and give the Japs a knock. Arguing rightly that whenever the Japs attacked our positions we had proved our superiority over them, man for man, they were puzzled by the frequent withdrawals caused by the Japs using their command of the sea to land behind us, while there was no apparent opposition on our immediate front. From V.C.O. to follower the whole of the Jawans were cheerful and spoiling for a fight the whole time, sufficient proof that, whatever the conditions, the Indian soldier can "take it".