The Campaign in Malaya 3
The 2nd Gordon Highlanders and Captivity 1941-5
The Gordons arrived in Singapore from Gibraltar in 1937 to form part of the Singapore garrison. Their modern barracks were at Selarang, Changi.
Perhaps their most famous officer was Captain Ivan Lyon later to distinguish himself on the Sumatra escape route and Operations Jaywick 1943, blowing up Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour, before losing his life in the ill-fated Operation Rimau in October 1944. In the Presbyterian Church on Orchard Road, Singapore there are memorials to both Lyon and the 380 Gordon Highlanders who died in the Campaign and mostly in captivity.
The CO of the 2nd Gordons was Lt Colonel W J Graham who was succeeded by Lt Colonel John Stitt MC in December 1941.
Other characters of interest in the Battalion were Major Reggie Lees, later the inspiration for the Colonel in George MacDonald Fraser's 'McAuslan' stories, and Lt Mo de Mier, probably the only Mexican to serve in a Highland Regiment. Along with fellow Catholic David Wilson of the Argylls, de Mier once arrived most dramatically for Mass at Tanglin Church in an armoured carrier.
Training was not neglected with route marches and field firing near Kuala Lumpur and exercises at Muar, Mersing and Port Dickson but there was shortage of equipment with restrictions placed on the use of carriers vehicles to 150 miles a month. For some time a company of Gordons manned the coastal defences at Pengerang, Johore dominating the Singapore coastal region from the northeast.
On December 1st 1941 the whole Battalion was ordered to take up defensive positions at Pengerang. From here they observed the arrival of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales at the Naval Base. HMS Repulse was well known to the Gordons having transported them from Egypt to Gibraltar. In the early hours of December 8th they witnessed the first air raid by seventeen Japanese bombers on Singapore.
Throughout December the Gordons strengthened the defences at Pengerang, laying anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. On January 15th, with the first fighting in Johore, the Gordons supervised the evacuation of the Malay population of Pengerang and on the 21st handed over their positions to the Ist Mysore Infantry. After a brief return to Singapore the Gordons received, on the 25th, orders to replace the 2nd Loyals reinforcing the Australian 27th Brigade on the main trunk road leading south east from Ayer Hitam. Instructions were to travel light, leaving behind entrenching tools despite the obvious danger of air attack and Japanese tanks.
The Gordons took up position around Milestone 50 on the Ayer Hitam to Johore Bahru Road i.e. 50 miles from Johore Bahru and the Causeway to Singapore. The Japanese attack, preceeded by aircraft reconnaissance and random dive-bombing and machine gunning, came on the morning of the 26th January with intensified air attack by the afternoon. No British aircraft were seen. The Japanese infantry were well supported by snipers, mortar and machine gun fire. The Gordons received effective support from Australian 25 pounders.
48 Gordons were killed or wounded in the day's action. The Battalion was pulled back through the Australian 2/26th Battalion that evening but on the 28th were again front Battalion blocking the Japanese advance down the road. A day of intense often close quarter fighting followed with wide out-flanking movements by the Japanese. Orders came to disengage and withdraw under cover of darkness. The Battalion was tired but felt they had the measure of the Japanese.
By the 29th the Gordons were at Milestone 29. Their task was to deal with any Japanese attack that would outflank the Australian 2/26th Battalion at Milestone 31. No attack came that day but the Gordons successfully mortared Japanese positions. In the early hours of January 31st the Gordons and Australians marched through the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders positions and across the Causeway to Singapore. Two Argyll pipers played them across to their regimental marches 'Blue Bonnets over the Border' and 'Cock o' the North'. The Gordons were transported to Birdwood Camp on the Changi Road, their nearby Selarang Barracks having been turned into a hospital.
2nd Malaya Brigade, of which the 2nd Gordons were a part, were allotted positions opposite Pulau Ubin Island at the entrance of the Johore Straits, round Changi and south-westward. One platoon was sent onto Pulau Ubin. Eight Gordons were killed in the bombing of Birdwood Camp on February 7th and all Battalion records and documents destroyed in the raid. The Battalion was ordered out of the barracks to Point 95 in a nearby rubber estate.
The Japanese landings on the northwest coast of Singapore isolated but did not immediately trap British units like the Gordons who were defending the northeast of the island. It was not until shortly before dawn on February 11th, two days after the Japanese landings that the Gordons were ordered to move west and to Tyersall Park Camp near the Botanic Gardens. This hutted camp was the Argylls/12 Indian Infantry Brigade's barracks and also housed an Indian base hospital. Unfortunately the Japanese detected the newly arrived Gordons carriers parked in the barracks and immediately bombed the camp, fires raging through the hospital which was burnt out with considerable loss of life among the patients. Argylls, Gordons and Royal Marines worked together to rescue those they could and control the fires.
That evening the 2nd Gordons were ordered into the frontline. They were to occupy a gap on the right of the 22nd Australian Brigade between Racecourse Village and the railway so blocking the Japanese advancing from the Bukit Timah area. Infiltrating Japanese could enjoy the cover of long narrow depressions covered with trees and long grass. The Gordons sent out fighting patrols. Captain Whitelaw's 'C' Company, crossing Dunearn Road came under air attack and fought off two Japanese tanks. There was no major Japanese attack on the Gordons that day and despite steady Japanese mortaring that evening the Battalion was withdrawn back to Tyersall Camp for a short rest.
At dawn on Friday, February 13th the Gordons returned to the frontline in the Farrar Road/Holland Road area with the 2/26th Australian Battalion on their left. That day the Japanese intensified their air attacks on the civilian population and shellfire on the British positions to the rear of the Gordons. Lt Colonel Stitt received orders to select one officer and fourteen other-ranks as specialists for evacuation from Singapore. Other Battalions received similar quotas. Of the Gordons selected, only the officer QM Lt W.E. Main made it to Ceylon. Six sergeants who boarded the launch Celia with Brigadier Paris were later lost at sea with the sinking of the Dutch steamer Rosenbaum in the Indian Ocean.
Air attacks and artillery exchanges continued through the night and morning of February 14th. RSM Milne was severely wounded by shellfire. The capitulation came on February 15th and the 2nd Gordons waited two days before the long march to captivity at Changi POW camp. They were allocated the area in and around the Selarang married quarters. They were able to retrieve some personal items stored before hostilities in the barrack's gymnasium.
On October 12th 1942 63 men of the 2nd Gordons left Havelock Road Camp, Singapore for Ban Pong, Thailand as part of D Battalion which was soon to be building the railway line viaduct at Wampo.
With an outstanding medical officer, Dr Stanley Pavillard, and probably the finest of the POW commanding officers Lt Colonel Harold Lilley of the Sherwood Foresters, this POW Battalion was to come through the Speedo and cholera epidemic with a much lower death rate than other POW units.
The main body of 2nd Gordon POWs left Changi as part of Lt Colonel Stitt's 'V' Party on October 27th 1942. Many of these did die in the cholera epidemic. Others, led by Major Reggie Lees, hacked their way through Hell Fire Pass and the most primitive of up-country jungle camps.
By August 1945 and liberation the survivors of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders were dispersed across Southeast Asia and Japan.