Robbie to Dorie: Lt Col John Robertson's letters from Malaya 1941 - 1942

By Andrew Warland

'Robbie to Dorrie' - link to book

Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd under its Arcadia general books' imprint, ISBN 978-1-925003-66-6.

Front cover

Lieutenant-Colonel John Robertson ('Robbie') of the 2/29th Battalion AIF, a decorated veteran of the First World War, was killed in action in Malaya on 18 January 1942, the first day of his Battalion’s encounter with Japanese forces. His death devastated his men but they gave a good account of themselves in the desperate battle of Muar Road, and ‘Robbie’ continued to be revered by veterans who endured more than three years of captivity.

By contrast, some historians have described him as too old and hidebound for command, as having lost the confidence of General Gordon Bennett, and as having imperilled his troops by refusing to co-operate with the battery from the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment.

Andrew Warland, Robbie's grandson, asks whether the evidence supports these views. Reproducing in full the more than 100 letters 'Robbie' wrote home to his family from 1940-42, he presents a fascinating casestudy of a man who left his family and his business, and ultimately gave his life, to make (in his own words) 'a better world for us all'.

This 230 page, 72,000 word book includes the following chapters

  • Family history, early life in Geelong, postcard from Egypt, World War 1 experience (including winning a Military Cross at Bullecourt), return to Australia, marriage to Dorie
  • Activity between the wars, loss of job during the Great Depression, finding work selling fuel, and activities with the 23rd/21st Battalion, known as the 'Geelong Regiment'
  • World War 2 breaks out, joined the AIF, formation of the 2/29th Battalion, training at Bonegilla and Bathurst, 27 October 1940 - 29 July 1941
  • En route to Malaya by troop ship, 30 July - 13 August 1941
  • Settling in to Singapore, 14 August - 15 September 1941
  • Segamat camp, 15 September 1941 -
  • Brief sojourn in the Cameron Highlands, 3 - 27 November 1941
  • Awaiting the first strike, 28 November - 7 December 1941
  • War Declared, 8 December 1942, Japanese invade Malaya and bomb Pearl Harbour and Singapore
  • Preparing for battle, movements between Kluang and Kahang, 1 - 15 January 1942
  • 101 Mile Peg, fighting against a 2,500 strong Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Guards, Japanese tanks destroyed, John's death, Battalion surrounded and withdrawal under fire, 2/19th Battalion, 45th Indian Division, withdrawal to Parit Sulong thence to Yong Peng and Singapore, 17 - 23 January 1942
  • Postscrip, telegram arrives, letters from Bennett, Maxwell and Padre Macneil
  • Farewell Robbie, a poem composed at Changi POW camp
  • The aftermath, Dorie's life without John, the lives of their children
  • Appendix, Imperial Guards Division, how many Imperial Guards did the 2/29th Battalion face at Bakri, were tanks expected at Bakri, accounts of John’s death
  • Details of Robbie's Officers
  • Bibliography

John's last letter home to Dorie written on 15 and 16 January 1942

Most of John's letters were subject to military censorship, and so additional supporting information was needed to shine light on some of the events, locations and individuals mentioned in John's letters. The various sources used for this purpose are listed in the bibliography, with footnotes in the body of the book itself.

Details of John's last few days and even hours were not easy to establish, especially once first contact with the Japanese was made on the evening of 17 January 1942. For example, there are at least eight different and conflicting accounts of his fateful final motorbike ride. Accordingly, while collating material for this book I sought every primary source I could find to provide the most accurate and reliable evidence about John's life and end. As a result, and for want of such evidence, I discarded several claims or statements made about John after his death.

Importantly, and with the exception of the chapter describing the final hours of John's life, the book does not seek to describe in fine detail events that are already well documented elsewhere, including in the 2/29th Battalion's own history. To help the reader understand the context of John's letters, I have included brief details of movements of both the Japanese and British/Indian forces and various events that led up to the assault by a 2,500 strong Regiment of the Japanese Imperials Guards Division against the 600 or so men of the 2/29th Battalion, plus Anti Tank gunners at the 101 mile peg just north of the Bakri crossroads from the evening of 17 January 1942. Lt Col Robertson was killed on the morning of 18 January 1942.

'Robbie to Dorie' was released on 24 April 2014 at the annual reunion lunch of the 2/29th Battalion Association in Melbourne. See the Battalion Association's website for further information about the activities of the Association.

Added 11 February 2014, updated 3 June 2014. Copyright 2014, Andrew Warland