Lt Col John Robertson's letters from Malaya 1941 - 1942
By Andrew Warland
'Robbie to Dorrie' was published in 2014 by Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd under its Arcadia general books' imprint, ISBN 978-1-925003-66-6.
Lieutenant-Colonel John Robertson
('Robbie') was the Commanding Officer of the 2/29th Battalion AIF from 1939 to 18 January 1942. He was a decorated veteran of the First World War. He was killed in action in Malaya on 18 January 1942, on the first day of his Battalion’s encounter with Japanese forces at the slightly misnamed Battle for Muar
(the 2/29th fought at Bakri, south of Muar).
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.
Some historians suggested that he was too old and 'hidebound' for command, 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. There is no documentary evidence to support such claims.
The book presents a fascinating case study 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'.
The 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
- Postscript, 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
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. A number of statements have been made or claimed, none of which are based on the facts. For example:
- Various publications (quoting unnamed sources, sometimes quoting other publications that do not name the sources) have stated that John was unwell and due to be 'medically boarded'. There is absolutely NO truth in this statement; his formal medical record (which has only been made available to members of his descendants) says nothing about this, neither does his (publicly accessible) service file. These statements are untrue.
- There are at least eight different and conflicting accounts of his fateful final motorbike ride. One of these is that he shot at and wounded (and then died) on his way TO a conference at Brigade HQ. Unfortunately for those who make this claim, his presence was recorded at the meeting at Brigade HQ. He was returning to his Battalion when he was killed.
- Another claims that he was quite lucid when brought in on a carrier after he fell, wounded, off the motorbike returning from the conference, and allegedly apologised to the anti-tank gunners before he died. Captain Brand (who was present) made it very clear while he was alive that John was unconcious when brought in and died within 30 minutes. John may well have made those comments, but not as he lay dying - it was most likely before he left for the conference, and the gunners were certainly due for that praise.
- Perhaps one of the most grievous claims is that John was buried with Japanese officers at the 101 mile post. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has advised in writing that this was not the case. There was also a story that, after exhumation, his remains were taken via Yokohama before being returned to Singapore for burial in a mass grave. This story comes from someone who claimed to have seen the actual wooden box with his name on it. Again, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has stated that this story is not true and that the remains were taken directly to Singapore along with others that were retrieved.
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 unsubstantiated and hearsay-based claims or statements made about John after his death, including those above.
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.