The Story of 8th Division
An abridged copy of a lecture delivered to the Royal United Services Institute by Major John Wyett A.M., the last surviving Staff Officer of General Gordon Bennett’s H.Q. of the 8th Australian Division.;;
By 1941 Germany controls all Europe as well as Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete. Rommel was at the gates of Cairo. Japan seizes her opportunity, signs a pact with Thailand and establishes bases and air fields. Their Army lands in Thailand and Malaya in early December 1941 at the height of the monsoon season.
Churchill sends Britain's two most powerful and modern battle cruisers to Singapore and they are sunk within 10 days of arrival. Only a few days after hostilities begin Japan has control of both sea and air. Her aircraft, thought to be obsolete and ineffective,, prove to be far superior in performance and in much greater strength than those of the R.A.F. AND R.A.A.F.
The American defence chiefs had made an appreciation of the Far East situation 12 months earlier and reported to Roosevelt, “Malaya is indefensible”. This was proved to be true.
The early stages of the campaign in Malay were marked by a series of disasters, and more were to follow. The defence strategy codenamed “Matador” and aimed at attacking the enemy as he attempted to land was never implemented.
There were strict orders from London that Thailand's neutrality must be respected. Troops must remain on the Malayan side of the border and “Matador” could not be implemented without the consent of the Prime Minister. Churchill delegated this authority to Wavell who passed the authority to Air Chief Marshall Brooke Popham, who had been brought out of retirement to act as Commander in Chief of forces in Malaya and Singapore.
As soon as the Japanese invasion fleet was sighted off the coast of Thailand, troops from the 11th Indian Division were placed on full alert awaiting the order to cross the frontier. Brooke Popham could not make up his mind and the troops were left waiting in the drenching rain of the N. E. Monsoons for a day and a half.
The Japs meanwhile were ashore in Thailand opposed only by those valiant efforts of the airforce which were no match for the invaders and were soon overcome.
They seized the two Thai airports – Singgora and Pattani and soon had possession the British airfield at Kota Bahru. By the time operation “MATADOR” was authorised, the Japs had over 26,000 troops ashore. A vital strategic advantage had been lost.
From that point on, all the initiative was in the hands of the enemy. He was ashore in strength, he had quickly gained supremacy in the air, and his ships could move freely, virtually unmolested.
The 8th Division Involvement
Five weeks from the time the Japanese landed unopposed in Thailand, they had gained control of 80% of Malaya, with the defending forces in constant retreat in a campaign similar in many respects to the blitzkrieg conquest of Europe by the German allies. But in this case, using the subtler tactic of encirclement and avoiding wherever possible, the brute force of direct confrontation.
10th January 1942 – At this stage the Japanese Forces were south of Kuala Lumper and approaching a defence line stretching across the southern part of the peninsula from coast to coast.
The central portion of this line was manned by the Australian 27th Brigade of the 8th Division together with the 2nd Loyal British Regiment and the remnants of 9th Indian Division. This rather mixed group was named Westforce and placed under the command of General Bennett. Our 22nd Brigade was in its original position at Mersing where elaborate and effective defence positions had been prepared. They became part of East force together with the 11th Indian Division and were under the command of Brigadier Taylor, Lt. Gen. Heath of the 3rd Indian Corps was in overall command.
14th January 1942 – A strong force of Japanese was trapped in an ambush by 2/30 Battalion at Gemas and received many casualties when the bridge over the Gemencheh River they were crossing was blown up. However a small advance party had been allowed trough the trap, and following their usual procedure, immediately found and cut the telephone lines to the ginners and H.Q. As a result the artillery barrage which had been planned did not occur until much later and when much of the target had deployed in the usual encircling movement.
Meanwhile, following troops had managed to cross the river and cut off the ambush party. Japanese engineers quickly repaired the bridge with timber from a near by sawmill, which had been left intact. Although the Japs had received a severe setback it was not long befre their light tanks and infantry were exerting considerable pressure on the 2/26th Battalion near Segamat, as the forward unit of the main defence group.
As divisional H.Q. was situated too far back for effective control, I had been sent forward to set up an advance operational headquarters in Seramat, where the main stand against the Jap advance was to take place. I chose a small unobtrusive house in a side street and the small but efficient staff I had brought with me soon had things working smoothly.
A day or so later General Bennett paid us a visit. He was highly critical of the position I had chosen as being out of keeping with the dignity and importance of his status as Commander of Westforce. He pointed to a very large and ornate, pretentious looking brick house in a prominent and very exposed position at a crossing on the main road and instructed me to move there at once. He then departed and I decided to stay put in our little house among the trees.
As it turned out, the Japs made the decision for us, because next day low flying planes made a couple of passes and then bombed us. Fortunately, I had managed to get all the staff into the slit trenches we had dug in the lawn so nobody was hurt.
;The planes flying were low and we watched fascinated as the doors to the bomb bays opened and one by one the bombs came out horizontally, slowly righting themselves and dropping in a graceful curve. ;It was possible to judge fairly well just where they would fall, and one seemed to be coming directly into our trench. Fortunately it was aimed at the house but still too close for comfort. It went straight through the roof, through the floor and exploded when it hit the ground underneath. Our pleasant little wooden house was no more, but, surprisingly it did little damage to our equipment and we were soon operational again in a couple of little outhouses. But not for long.;
While all this action was going on at the Segamat position a strong Japanese force of cruisers, destroyers and two transports, all with heavy air cover was spotted off Endau by an Australian Hudson Aircraft and the information relayed to Singapore. Once again fortune favoured the Japanese. They had avoided the more accessible beaches at Mersing because they knew every detail of the well prepared defences of the 22nd Brigade.
Never the less, the Australians were in a good position to deal with the enemy advance towards the important road junction at Jemaluang when orders were issued by Malaya Command to withdraw. Confusing and disappointing though such orders were, the Brigade group managed to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy and a delay of three days to his advance. An ambush arranged on the road to Jemaluang was completely successful.
The defenders were able to withdraw safely and the fire of the 2/10th Field Regiment was so devastatingly accurate that the Japanese wanted to know how we did it. (this was later, after hostilities ended) They were given some very strange details. All this came about because of an imminent threat to the left flank of Westforce. The crack troops of the Japanese Guards Division had landed at Muar on the west coast and had quickly overcome the untrained, newly enlisted men of the 45th Indian Division. Their commander and most of his British officers had been killed and there was little resistance left.
With superiority and command of both sea and air, Yamashita, the Japanese General, was able to mount a giant pincer movement aimed at bottling up and destroying the whole of the army in Malaya.
I was ordered to arrange a conference in Segamat of the commanders of the 9th Indian Division, General Bennett, General Barstow and General Key. General Bennett was late and we were kept standing around for over half an hour before he arrived.
When he did so, he burst into the room looking all hot and flushed and without further ado immediately began shouting a tirade about low morale and a cowardly withdrawal complex. After about ten minutes of totally inappropriate and offensive remarks he turned abruptly, left the room and went.
I simply did not know where to look in the utter confusion and embarrassment of the vacuum he had left. It was Colonel Coates who broke the grim silence by saying, “Well I wonder what that was all about”. Then seeing my dejected face he came and put his arm about my shoulders saying. “Come on Wyett, we will soon work something out.”
General Bennett must have been acutely embarrassed at having to order a withdrawal so soon after his successful ambush at Segamat because only a few days previously General Barstow had suggested that such a plan be prepared in the event that it might be needed in an emergency. This had been summarily dismissed and General Barstow rudely rebuked as being defeatist. I think the incident marked the beginning of a mental decline in General Bennett, which was to lead to a decision by General Sturdee, Chief of Staff in Australia, to relieve Bennett of his command of the 8th Division. A decision never implement due to the turn of events.
Meanwhile things on the west coast were not going well. Having practically wiped out the 45th Indian Brigade, the Japanese Guards division was not firmly established with very little between them and Singapore. Two Australian battalions, the 2/9th from the east coast and the 2/29th from Segamat had been hastily dispatched to the Maur area to try to stem the tide and were now heavily engaged. The commander of the 2/29th had been killed. Reinforcements sent by Malaya Command did not arrive due to mismanagement and the 2nd Royals lost their equipment and were delayed because of demolitions prematurely exploded in front of them by over zealous fortress engineers.
At this stage Lt. Col. Anderson, C.O. of 2/19th Battalion gathered most of the remnants and took over command of the group. They fought gamely knowing that the fate of the whole of Westforce depended on their efforts. They suffered appalling casualties but succeeded in blocking the advance of a whole division of crack Japanese troops. Finally after food, water and ammunition had run out, “Andy” ordered his group to disband in the night rather than surrender, and make their way out as best they could. It was a dire case of “Save yourself”.
The withdrawal from Segamat and the east coast had been completed. Westforce had been saved from the threatened pincer grip. When General Percival heard the news he said, “We breathe again.” There was now no alternative but to retreat to the Island of Singapore. This was completed without incident on the night of 31st January 1942.
On the Island
I cannot imagine what possessed General Percival to make the dispositions he did for the defence of the Island of Singapore. It was virtually a thin red line stretched to breaking point around the perimeter of the island with the main strength of his sorely depleted forces concentrated in the North East. The two brigades of the 8th Division were given 13 miles of mangroves with orders to defend the beaches.
I had reconnoitered the area the day before the withdrawal and now had the dubious task of marking the maps of the units as they came through before guides took over to show the way. My heart went out to these tired men coming back to the much vaunted “impregnable fortress” only to be given an extremely difficult area to defend which was entirely devoid of any form of prepared positions.
As they came across the causeway linking the island to the mainland they saw the famous Naval Base, Britain's “Bastion of the East” now being demolished. This was the Naval Base without ships which they had come here to defend, now blown up and useless. They were puzzled and perplexed. Even more so when they found there was no barbed wire, no pillboxes and no earthworks. Attempting to dig slit trenches was useless as they filled immediately with water in the sodden ground. We managed to obtain a small quantity of wire from the Ordinance stores, but were told supplies were limited.
In spite of everything morale was good – but the puzzle persisted. Why were the gunners forbidden to fire on the towers of the Sultans Palace or the Administrative Building in Johore Bahru where we could see the Japanese only a gunshot away watching our every move? These were on the narrowest part of the Strait and we could hear distinctly the hammering as the Japanese prepared their assault craft for the crossing.
We sent patrols across at night and these came back with reports that thousands of Japanese troops were massing opposite out positions. We sent copies to Malaya Command with requests for reinforcements and more guns to strengthen our position. Still General Percival persisted with his belief that the attack would come from the North-West, the most difficult part of the Strait to cross.
To strengthen his belief, Yamashita ordered spasmodic shelling of the area – instructing his guns to continually alter their positions in order to make it seem that there was massed artillery in the area. These moves together with a small feint attack were sufficient to convince Percival that he was right. There was a large ammunition dump in the 2/26th Battalion area, but we were forbidden to use it. Eventually it had to be destroyed to prevent the Japs using it.
On the 6th February, the heavy bombardment started. The massed artillery of two divisions poured a hail of shell on our positions day and night for two days. Hundreds of sorties by bomber aircraft from aerodromes only a few miles away in Johore dropped tons of bombs with great accuracy on our positions. The bombardment was incessant. As fast as the Sigs. Repaired cut telephone lines they were cut again. We soon ran out of telephone wire and no wireless. The sets had been sent days before to Malaya Command Ordinance stores for overhaul and repair but had not been returned. Yamashita kept up shelling on the North East sector with his mobile gins hoping to conceal his real intention. We had first-hand evidence of his intention to attack our two Brigade groups, even Wavell agreed but Percival remained stubbornly unconvinced.
As far as we were concerned everyone was exhausted from the incessant bombardment and lack of sleep. This was the position when the Japanese launched their attack on the North-West of the Island on the night of 7th-8th February 1942. Under cover of darkness they launched two divisions against the 22nd Brigade front. They swarmed across the Strait which is so narrow at this point that some of the more fanatical actually swam across. The rest came in their light landing craft especially designed for the purpose.
The heavy artillery barrage we had planned to destroy any thing on the water never came. Frantic attempts to contact the gunners were unsuccessful as all the telephone lines had been destroyed by the blanket bombardment, many Veroy lights were wet and would not fire, also we had no radio and were soon surrounded.
;Although the forward units inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, they continued to swarm ashore. We were out numbered three to one and all our positions on the 22nd Brigade front were soon engaged in hand to hand fighting. All the Japanese had been given definite objectives marked with great accuracy on their maps from data collected by low flying aircraft, spotting from an observation balloon and a continuous study of all our movements from the tower of the Sultans Palace. With little or no communication, Divisional H. Q. had only a hazy idea of what was happening. 27th Brigade on the right of the 22nd was separated on it by a river, the Sunjei Kranjiand, and had no direct communication with them. They were lightly engaged at this stage as the third Japanese Division, the Japanese Guards, had delayed their attack until the other two divisions were ashore. Soon after dark the attack on the 27th Brigade front started and all forward positions were soon heavily involved, particularly on the 2/26th Bn. front. The fighting here was pretty much the same as that of the night before with all the forward positions forced back by over whelming odds. In addition to the massive artillery barrage for most of the night, almost continuous aerial bombardment and machine ginning of our position began at first light and continued throughout the day.
I had left H.Q. at first light the day before to check the position for myself, as the reports coming through were too fragmentary to form a clear picture. I found the headquarters of the 22nd brigade situated near the Tengah aerodrome and at the end of the only good defence position in the North-West area. The General had sent me to survey the line connecting the Sunjei Kranji and Sunjei Durong. Unfortunately, the General did not favour its development and Malaya Command forbade it as being bad for morale. Wavell was all in favour of manning it, but not insist so, a good fall back opportunity was lost.
Rather belatedly, the British and Indian Units from the North-East positions were brought into action, but now fresh Japanese troops were pouring across the repaired causeway bringing their tanks with them.
Singapore was a shambles. There were now over a million civilians crowded into the city and Japanese bombers had concentrated on their destruction. Large areas of the city were alight, water was short as the Japanese had cut the main pipeline from the mainland. Dead bodies were lying unburied in the streets, the defenders had been forced back to the outskirts of the town and food was running out. The situation was hopeless to the point where continued resistance could only result in a massacre.
Finally despite continued urging from Churchill to fight on, General Percival very sensibly decided to surrender. Singapore was lost and the men of the 8th Division who had fought so bravely and so well were ordered to cease fire – maintain their positions- and reluctantly become Prisoners-of-War.