Return home to the Introduction to 'Robbie to Dorie': Lt Col John Robertson's letters from Malaya 1941 - 1942, by Andrew Warland
The 2/29th Battalion, of the 27th Brigade, 8th Division, AIF (less its D Company), with around 600 men, saw action against Japanese forces on the Muar Road, at the 101 mile peg just north of the Bakri crossroads, Johore State, Malaya, from the evening of Saturday 17 January until the evening of Monday 19 January 1942 when they withdrew to the 2/19th Battalion perimeter at the Bakri crossroads.
'Robbie to Dorie' tells the story of the Battalion Commander, Lt Col John Charles Robertson ('Robbie'), and provides first hand background, through the letters he wrote to his wife Dorie, about the formation of the Battalion and its activities up until the evening of 16 January 1942 (when he wrote his last letter). Sadly, Lt Col Robertson was killed early in the morning of 18 January 1942, at a time when his Battalion was surrounded by Japanese forces and cut off from the 2/19th Battalion a mile south at the Bakri crossroads.
Despite being outflanked and having lost its Commander Officer, the Battalion defended its position strongly and bravely, losing many men in the fighting, but holding back the Japanese forces and their movement south until forced to withdraw during the evening of 19 January. 676 men (including from reinforcements before the fall of Singapore) were to give their lives.
The text below has been drawn from a number of sources listed at the bottom of the page.
On Thursday 15 January 1942, the 4th Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Guards, whose role was to move south along the coast road and head for Batu Pahat, appeared at the mouth of the northern side of the Muar River, considered by the Japanese to be ‘a very difficult obstacle’, and were fired upon by the 65th Battery on the southern side. During the night and into the next day, the Guard's 5th Regiment with the Gotanda Medium Tank Company overran the two companies of the 7/6th Rajputana Rifles further east on the northern bank of the river. The Regiment crossed the river upstream and quickly moved towards Simpang Jeram, pushing the company of the 5/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles back towards the Bakri crossroads. Japanese troops from the 4th Regiment in small coastal craft travelled by sea down the coast, coming ashore at Parit Jawa and Batu Pahat in an encircling action designed to cut the road from Muar to Yong Peng. [Lodge (1986), 91. Tsuji (1960), 230. Farrell & Pratten (2009), 167]
Bennett received reports on the morning of 16 January that a patrol of the 45th Indian Brigade had encountered Japanese troops along the coast road from Muar to Batu Pahat. Bennett ordered the Brigade to investigate. Bennett travelled after breakfast on 16 January from Labis to Segamat to meet Maxwell and Barstow. Maxwell told Bennett that the 2/30th Battalion needed to rest after the Gemas action. Bennett agreed to replace the 2/30th with the 2/29th Battalion during the night. [Wigmore (1957), 224 - 225. Lodge (1986), 91. See also Bennett (1944), 124]
Soon after his meeting with Maxwell and Barstow, Bennett received a message from Brigadier Duncan, commanding the 45th Indian Brigade, indicating that Japanese troops had managed to cross the Muar River but 'he had the matter in hand', which seems somewhat understated given the events that were unfolding. Another 'panic' message arrived from the 9th Indian Division suggesting that Japanese paratroopers had landed near Buloh Kasap (the location of the 2/29th Battalion); this proved to be without foundation. A third message then arrived from an Air Force patrol indicating that 'a large number of enemy troops, estimated at a company [around 200 men] was across the Muar River at Kuala Lenga', with the apparent objective of cutting in on the main northern road behind Segamat. [Bennett (1944), 125. Whitelocke (1983), 81]
Given these reports, Bennett ordered additional protection for parties (including himself) moving along the road between Labis and Segamat. This was to include four armoured cars from the 2nd Loyals and the 2/29th Battalion's D Company - a move that may have affected the later ability of the Battalion to defend its position. D company was to be relieved by Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson’s 2/19th Battalion expected from Jemaluang once it had been relieved by the 53rd Brigade the following day, 17 January. [Bennett (1944), 125]
Just after lunch on 16 January, Bennett received 'an alarming message' from the 45th Indian Brigade stating that it had been pushed south from the Muar River which would result in a 'wide flanking movement to Yong Peng'. With no troops between Yong Peng and Singapore, and the inability of the 45th Indian Brigade to stop the Japanese movement south, Bennett decided to send the 2/29th Battalion 'less the company guarding the road’ to reinforce the Muar front. Bennett noted that this move not only would deprive the 2/30th Battalion of a well-earned rest but also would take away his reserves from the Segamat front. [Bennett (1944), 126 - 127. See also Farrell & Pratten, 167 - 168]
The 65th Battery remained in place defending the southern bank of the river at Muar until the same evening as the battery 'was now in an impossible situation as there were no infantry to help defend the guns'. The Battery withdrew from 2030 hours south towards Parit Jawa along the coast road, thence to the Bakri crossroads. [Whitelock (1983), 81. Farrell & Pratten (2009), 167]
Early in the morning of 17 January, Lt Col Robertson and O Group left to report to Divisional Headquarters at Labis, south east of Segamat on the main trunk road to Yong Peng, to be briefed by Bennett. Bennett ordered Lt Col Robertson to 'consolidate our position there and then toss the enemy back to the Muar River'. He gave Robertson a composite troop from the 13th and 16th Battery of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment that had seen action at Gemas, and a troop of armoured cars. [Bennett (1944), 126 - 127. Lodge (1986), 93]
The following men were members of the composite 13th and 16th Battery lead by Lieutenant Bill McCure and crew, including Tich Morley:
At 0715 hours, Lt Col Robertson ordered his Battalion to be ready to move (to Bakri). After an initial hold up caused by an air raid, the 2/29th Battalion reached Labis at 1130 hours on 17 January. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]After lunch on 17 January 1941, Bennett met Percival, Fawcett (3rd Indian Corps), and Key to discuss a withdrawal from Segamat given the deteriorating situation at Muar. Bennett urged an attack at Muar and requested that the 2/19th Battalion be sent to the Bakri area from Jemaluang, to be replaced by the 5th Royal Norfolk Regiment from the recently arrived 53rd Brigade. This was agreed by Percival and Bennett ordered the 2/19th Battalion to move at 0400 hours on 18 January. [Bennett (1944), 128 - 129. See also Lodge (1986), 93]
After this meeting, Bennett met Lieutenant-Colonel Byrne, who had just returned from the 45th Indian Brigade. Byrne advised Bennett that 'about 100 Japanese were seen moving around the flank north of Bakri, along Parit Tubi, in an easterly direction'. In Bennett’s own words 'things at the Muar front are not too good'. He ordered the 2/29th Battalion’s D Company (Captain Hore), then guarding the road between Segamat and Labis, to return to support the 27th Brigade. That company was then ordered forward to Batu Anam where it came under the command of the 2/26th Battalion. [Bennett (1944), 129]
The 2/29th Battalion, less its D Company (and a platoon), arrived at the location of the 45th Indian Brigade headquarters just south of the intersection of the road to Parit Jawa near the village of Bakri, along the road to Muar, at 1500 hours on 17 January. The 65th Battery was also at the crossroads, having withdrawn up the road from Parit Jawa. [Lack et al (2005), 82. Wigmore (1957), 226]
Lt Col Robertson conferred with Brigadier Duncan at 45th Brigade Headquarters and was advised that there were Japanese troops between that location and Muar. He was also told that the 4/9th Jats that had been positioned along the Muar River were expected to arrive shortly. The 2/29th Battalion was ordered to replace the 5/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles (who the previous day had lost their Commanding Officer, Lt Col Wooldridge, to an ambush and then been pushed back from their position at Simpang Jeram) in a defensive position at the 101 mile peg, past the intersection of the road to Parit Jawa on a straight stretch in rubber plantations between two slight and opposing blind bends on the road towards Muar. The Battalion was expected to rest at the 101 mile peg and then, pending the arrival of the 4/9th Jats, attempt to capture Simpang Jeram further along the road towards Muar at daylight on 18 January. The 5/18th Garhwal Rifles was, in turn, ordered to deploy to Parit Jawa on the coast road. [Lack et al (2005), 82. Wigmore (1957), 226]
At least three war correspondents, Hedley Metcalfe, the official British photographer, Frank Bagnall, the official Australian cinematographer, and Clifford Bottomley, an Australian photographer with the Department of Information, arrived at the Bakri crossroads during the afternoon. [2/15th Field Artillery War Diary, entry on 17 January 1942. 'A.I.F. Success with Anti-Tank Guns', Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1942. See also Philips (1992), 202]
The 2/29th Battalion was said to have taken almost one hour to travel the mile and a half to the 101 mile peg through Indian troops (Garhwalis, probably) heading south away from the Muar front. The Battalion was in place by 1800 hours. [Harrison (1966), 45]
Map of the Bakri Crossroads area, Johore State, Malaya, as at 1900 hours 17 January 1942 (Map copyright Andrew Warland)
Captain Maher’s B Company (approx 150 men) was located right forward in low shrub and rubber plantation. Half a mile further in was jungle, and beyond that, swamp. Captain Bowring's C Company (approx 150 men) was left forward, also in low shrub and rubber plantation, and jungle half a mile further in. Both B and C Companies looked towards a slight crest in the road where it turned to the right about half a mile ahead; behind them was a short cutting where the road narrowed. Captain Sumner’s A Company (less one platoon, approx 138 men) was located at the right rear, with some low shrub across open ground behind them leading in less than half a mile to a swampy area. Major Olliff's HQ Company (approx 370 men) were to the left rear, '... the latter on the crest of a small rise in a patch of rubber only about 150 metres wide, with the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) nearby, about 50 metres in from the road'. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]
One of the 4th Anti-Tank guns, manned by Sergeant Clarrie Thornton and his gun crew from the 13th Battery, was positioned forward of the Battalion on the left side '... to cover a slight turn (about 400 yards away to the right) in the road'. A second gun manned by Sergeant Charley Parsons and his crew from the 16th Battery was positioned about 400 yards back alongside Battalion HQ, also on the left side of the road. Lieutenant Bill McCure's base was located in C Company's perimeter, about 300 yards behind Thornton. The other two guns, with Sergeant Ken Harrison, were positioned at 45th Brigade HQ located at the 99.5 mile location south of the crossroads. [Finkemeyer (1994), 33]
Facing the 2/29th Battalion around two miles ahead over the crest in the road, was the Imperial Guards 5th 'Iwaguro' Regiment with around 2,500 men, as well as the Gotanda Medium Tank Company. The Japanese prepared to attack the Australian position directly along the road and attempt to outflank it through the jungle to the west of the Battalion's position with the objective of cutting off their line of withdrawal. The Japanese Regiment was probably hoping to repeat their success at Slim River, by driving their tanks directly through the 2/29th Battalion’s position and then following this up with an infantry assault and flanking manoeuvres to the west. The 4th Guards Regiment, meanwhile, crossed near the town of Muar and headed down the coast to Parit Jawa and Batu Pahat to conduct a broader outflanking manoeuvre around British forces. [Tsuji (1960), 203 - 204. Farrell & Pratten (2009), 170. Wigmore (1954), 133]
Just after dark, at 1800 hours, both sides started probing each other's positions. An armoured car went forward to reconnoitre the road and exchanged shots with a Japanese machine gun post about two miles ahead. An hour later, a Japanese patrol advanced down the road and was fired upon by C Company in the left forward position. Neither side suffered any casualties in this initial encounter. Bowring later noted: 'It was the general opinion that the Japanese did not know the Australian troops were there'. That is, the Japanese may have thought that the Australians were still the troops of the 5/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles who had only a few hours before vacated the same position. [2/29th Battalion War Diary. Bowring (1954), 2]
Thirty minutes later, the Battalion came under heavy attack from Japanese mortars. Lt Col Robertson, perhaps recalling the sound from his experience in France in World War 1, reportedly called out 'Here come their mortars'. One member of C Company was killed, and several were injured. [History of 2/29th Battalion, 65. Lack et al (2005), 81]
A small Japanese force began to close in. In the confusion that followed, eight 2/29th troops were wounded, six shot by their own side. Soon after, the Japanese mounted a bayonet charge and were forced back with between 70 and 80 dead and wounded against three C Company dead and twelve wounded. The mortar barrage died down by midnight although the Anti-Tank gunners apparently fired a shell every hour towards the Japanese positions. [Lack et al (2005), 82]
The following deaths were recorded for C Company on 18 January, but it seems more likely they were the four deaths recorded during the evening of 17 January:
During the same evening, the 5/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles that had been sent to Parit Jawa were ambushed and forced back along the Bakri - Parit Jawa road to about a mile from the Bakri crossroads, in an area held by the 7/6th Rajputana Rifles. [Wigmore, 226 - 227]
At 2130 hours, ration trucks for each 2/29th Company came forward. In the dark of the evening, the Despatch Rider and the truck for C Company passed straight through the Battalion’s positions and were stopped by Japanese machine guns. The truck ran off the road and the Company Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS) and one other man were killed. The Despatch Rider (Signaller Wiles), a cook, and the wounded driver managed to escape the abandoned truck. Wiles headed off into the jungle and was found a few days later. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]
News of the withdrawal of the 5/18th Garhwal Rifles from Parit Jawa was conveyed in a message to Lt Col Robertson by Major Julius (65th Battery), with the request that his Battalion provide infantry support for his guns. Accordingly, at 2330 hours, Lt Col Roberston ordered Captain Sumner’s A Company, located at the rear across the road from Battalion HQ, to move back to the Bakri crossroads to provide infantry support for the guns, with the promise that it would be returned to re-join the Battalion once reinforced. A Company arrived around 0130 hours and during the night there were several heavy artillery exchanges. It was becoming quickly apparent that the 2/29th Battalion could be cut off by Japanese movements to the west and south. [Wigmore (1957), 226 - 227. Lack et al (2005), 82]
At 0600 hours on 18 January, the 2/29th Battalion War Diary recorded that the weather was fine. 45 minutes later, Japanese mortars began falling and 'all hell broke loose'. Five Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks advanced along the road towards the 2/29th Battalion's forward positions. The Anti-Tank gunners successfully attacked and destroyed the tanks and their occupants, with rifle and grenade support from the Battalion. At 0715 hours, three more tanks moved forward down the road and were also destroyed. Soon after, or around the same time, several large trees were felled across the path of the tanks. [Finkemeyer (1994), 11. Farrell & Pratten (2009), 174. 2/29th Battalion War Diary. Lodge (1986), 94. Tsuji (1960), 203. Lack et al (2005), 82 - 83]
After the tanks were put out of action, the cinematographer Bagnall and the photographer Metcalfe were selected by lot to move forward to the 101 mile peg from the Bakri crossroads. Metcalfe took at least eight photographs and Bagnall filmed the leading three tanks (captured in the middle of a longer film (from 0:42 to 1:35), titled 'Singapore and burning tanks' that runs for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. (Australian War Memorial. Singapore and Tanks Burning (film). AWM F01171)), and then moved towards the next two or three tanks near C and B Companies. They returned back to Charley Parsons’ position to take at least two more photographs and film, including the iconic photograph of Parsons’ crew posing behind their gun facing towards the destroyed tanks (see below). [Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania. 21 January 1942. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1942, 6]
The photographs and film provide visual clues as to the location and terrain of the 2/29th Battalion in the area of the 101 mile peg. The photographs below have been placed in the same order as the film.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 040370)
The first part of the film corresponds to the photograph above (AWM 040370). The photographer and/or film maker have walked over to the first tank that was knocked out. The film maker then moved closer to the tank, filming it from the side where the flames are visible. A second tank is clearly visible behind the felled tree.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 011301)
The photographer then climbed the bank on the side of the road to gain a better position of the tanks in this photograph (AWM 011301),obably beside the location where A Company had been located the previous evening (to the right of the photograph), and looking north. Two tanks are visible behind the lead tank, and bodies are visible beside the second tank.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 011298)
The photographer has now moved down the bank and approached the first tank on the other side to take this photograph (AWM 011298). Dead Japanese crewmen are clearly visible on the ground next to the second tank.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 011307)
The photographer then moved past the first tank (now to his left) to gain a better photograph (AWM 011307) of the second and third tanks, and dead Japanese crewmen. The film maker moved forward of the felled tree to capture the same scene.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 040369)
The photographer has now moved a little further north along the road and taken a photograph (AWM 040369) of the second tank and two dead Japanese. The film maker continued north along the road to film the three leading tanks, looking south along the road. The third tank in the film clearly has severe damage to its rear. The film then shows pierced armour plating, possibly on the tanks.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 011300)
The photographer and film maker now moved further along the road in the area around (or just north of) where C Company (left) and B Company (right) were located, and close to Clarrie Thornton’s Anti-Tank gun position on the left. In this photograph (AWM 011300), the damaged vehicles on the left include a Marmon-Herrington All Wheel Drive truck that may have been the truck bringing rations as well as additional vehicles. Telegraph wires have been damaged or cut. The film maker shows the same scene, but from the middle of the road looking north back toward the Japanese position.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri (AWM 011306)
The photographer has now moved closer to the burning tank to include a second tank in the background in this photograph (AWM 011306). The film maker was in the same spot and captured the same scene. Destroyed vehicles can be seen on the left, with what appear to be the tyre marks of a vehicle that has headed off the road. C Company’s position is possibly to the rear and left of this photograph. The photographer and film maker then moved back to Charley Parson’s location to take the next photographs and film.
Destroyed tanks at Bakri from Charley Parson's gun (AWM 011302)
The photograph above (AWM 011302) shows the destroyed Japanese tanks in the near distance from Charley Parsons’ gun, said to be located just near Battalion HQ on the west side of the road. A ladder (that does not appear in the film version) has been placed against a telegraph pole, and possibly the rear end of a truck appears on the right hand side. A small square-shaped structure to the right of the photograph could be the 101 mile peg. A Company was located behind the low bush to the right. The film shows the same scene from a similar angle but includes four Anti-Tank gunners appearing to re-create the scene of the battle. A second scene shows Parsons and one of his crew looking forward.
Charley Parson’s (centre) anti-tank crew at Bakri (AWM 011309)
This photograph (AWM 011309) is said to show Charley Parsons and his gun crew, the same three men shown in the previous photograph. To the left, at the rear of the gunners, is a group of men. One of these, to the far left of the photograph, appears to be an officer. To the lower left of the photograph appears to be the rear end of a tracked vehicle, probably a Bren carrier. A soldier stands to the rear of the gunners. The film ends with a short scene showing pierced armour plating.
As the Japanese tanks had been put out of action, a positive mood swept through the Battalion'. [Lack et al (2005), 84]
From around 0830 hours, the Japanese again attacked the forward C Company, and it was discovered that Japanese snipers had infiltrated the area during the night. [Brune, 2014]
While these events were taking place, the 2/19th Battalion was moving from Yong Peng with Maxwell and Colonel Thyer, Bennett’s senior staff officer. The Battalion arrived at the 45th Indian Brigade HQ at the 99.5 mile peg at around 0930 hours. Anderson reported to Brigade HQ at 0945 hours, adding that 'owing to a breakdown of comms [communications] the tactical position was not very clear'. [2/19th Battalion War Diary]
Despite ongoing attacks on the C and B front companies, Lt Col Robertson was probably sufficiently confident (or needed) to head off, riding as pilion on a motorbike driven by Sgt Syd Baulkham, to Brigade HQ at the 99.5 mile peg for a conference with Brigadier Duncan and Lt Col Anderson, arriving in that location at 1000 hours. [Lack et al (2005), 84]
At 1000 hours the 2/19th Battalion War Diary noted that Lt Col Robertson arrived at Brigade HQ for a conference attended by Brigadier Duncan, Colonel Thyer, and Lt Col Anderson. Lt Col Robertson reported enemy movement to his south west, and asked that A Company, located at the Bakri crossroads since the previous evening, be relieved. This was agreed to by Brigadier Duncan - as soon as the 2/19th Battalion was in a position to do so. Duncan also decided that the 2/29th Battalion would wait for the Jats to arrive so a counter attack could be mounted. [2/19th Battalion War Diary. Lack et al (2005), 84]
Around the time that Lt Col Robertson left for the conference at Brigade HQ, Japanese machine gun fire was again directed at the Battalion. The War Diary noted that, at 0945 hours, 'one carrier went forward to silence M.Gs [machine guns] but on jamming Vickers was forced to withdraw, further attempts [word not clear, possibly 'both'] (A) & C Comps patrolled well forward and were in contact with the enemy force estimated to be 2 Bns [Battalions]'. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]
Quoting Bagnall and Metcalfe, a news article in Australian newspapers reported the same event a few days later:
They had just secured photographs when about 10 o'clock light fire announced the infiltration of a Japanese platoon. Our troops replied with mortar, rifle, and machine-gun fire on the Japanese position, only to find the Japanese fire coming from other directions, including steady sniping from trees.
The Japanese were said to be 'in trees and must have come up during darkness. Engaged with S.A. [small arms] fire and later with 3” mortars'. [Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1942, 6]
The Battalion War Diary recorded the presence of a road block at 1000 hours between the 2/29th position at the 101 mile peg and the Bakri crossroads:
Recce patrol detailed contact Bde HQ - forced back at rd block approx 500x E Bn HQ. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]
Communications with Brigade HQ south of the crossroads were probably cut at around this time. Soon after 1000 hours, Japanese infantry, including 'a couple of hundred' troops on bicycles, advanced towards B and C Companies with machine gunners in front. Captain Bowring later wrote that 'every man of the left [C] company was pinned down, although there were not too many casualties among them'. Dozens of Japanese were reportedly killed in this attack. According to Bowring, 'these machine gunners were fearless, taking tremendous risks to reach favourable positions'. [Bowring (1954), 2 - 3. Lack et al (2005), 84]
After the conference at Brigade HQ, and possibly unaware of the road block between that location and the 101 mile peg as communications had been cut, Lt Col Robertson returned to his Battalion riding as a pillion passenger on a motorbike driven by Dispatch Rider Sergeant Syd Bauckham. Travelling past a blind bend in the road they were shot at by a platoon of Japanese troops that had infiltrated between the two Battalions. Lt Col Robertson fell off the back of the motorbike within 100 or 200 yards of Battalion HQ. Bauckham made it back to the Battalion, with one arm wounded, and 'a strained smile on his face'. [2/29th Battalion War Diary. Christie (1983), 66. Harrison (1966), 50. Geelong Advertiser, 21 January 1942]
Although unconfirmed, this photograph (taken by the same photographer at Bakri) appears to show Captain Brand attending to a wounded 2/29th soldier; the motorbike in the background lends credence to the possibility that this could be Sgt Bauckham (AWM 011308)
Upon learning of the situation, Sergeant Wedlick and Captain Gahan took an armoured carrier to where John had fallen off and brought him back in. Lt Col Robertson was seriously wounded, having been hit by at least one bullet in the knee or thigh and probably also with critical injuries when he fell off the motorcycle. Captain Brand stated that, after arrival at the RAP, John 'was lifted out of the carrier, badly wounded and only partly conscious ... with a head injury and ... some bullet wounds. Half an hour later he quietly died'. The War Diary noted that 'he died a few minutes after reaching HQ'. [2/29th Battalion War Diary. Christie (1983), 66. Harrison (1966), 50. Geelong Advertiser, 21 January 1942]
In their newspaper report of the events three days later, the photographers reported that Lt Col Robertson was taken 'to the dressing station in a carrier but he died some four hours later without regaining consciousness'. They then noted that, after Lt Col Robertson’s death, reconnoitring patrols left the encampment to discover the extent of Japanese penetration. The patrols returned and revealed that the Japanese had encircled the position and made a road-block cutting off retreat. Meanwhile in camp, all men were lying in deep mud, the aftermath of rains, while Japanese snipers were pinging bullets into the camp. [Melbourne Argus, 21 January 1942]
Map of the Bakri Crossroads area, Johore State, Malaya, as at 1100 hours 18 January 1942 (Map copyright Andrew Warland)
Major Olliff now took command of the Battalion. Japanese snipers continued to target Australian officers. At around 1100 hours Lieutenant Harry Clark was killed by a sniper. [2/29th Battalion War Diary]
The 2/19th Battalion was in position at the Bakri crossroads by 1230 hours on 18 January 1942, and was probably pre-occupied with setting up positions and, with the re-assurance of Lt Col Robertson's visit from 1000 hours, appears not to have noticed that a platoon of Japanese troops had infiltrated between its position and the 2/19th Battalion from around 1000 hours and were probing its left flank. [Lack et al (2005), 85. 2/29th Battalion War Diary. 2/19th Battalion War Diary]
At 1300 hours, the 2/19th Battalion’s B Company (Captain Keegan), located on the left flank of the Battalion, around 1,400 yards (1,300 metres) down the Parit Jawa road, reported the movement of Japanese troops to the south-west of its position (towards Parit Jawa). The Battalion's C Company (Captain Snelling), 'stationed astride and to the left of the Muar Road, just forward of Bakri village' (and therefore closest to the 2/29th position), reported that the road between the 2/19th and 2/29th positions was cut. An initial attempt by armoured cars to clear the road failed. [Lack et al (2005), 85. 2/29th Battalion War Diary. 2/19th Battalion War Diary]
As it had by now been relieved by the 2/19th Battalion’s C Company, the 2/29th Battalion’s A Company under Captain Sumner was ordered to break through the road block, said to be some 600 yards north-west of the crossroads. The first attack, at 1430 hours, ascertained that the roadblock consisted of a burnt out truck and a number of fallen trees, and there were Japanese on both sides of the road. A second attack at 1510 hours, with the support of the 2/19th Battalion’s C Company and a mortar detachment, succeeded. It was only then that they found that Lt Col Robertson had been killed that morning. [2/19th Battalion War Diary. Wigmore (1957), 229]
With the roadblock removed, supplies of ammunition and food, a wireless truck and other gear was sent forward at 1600 hours 'with little opposition' under escort of the 2/19th Battalion’s carriers. Burials could now be performed. Padre Macneil, who had come up with the ration truck, officiated at burial of Lt Col Robertson, Lieutenant Clark, and 3 Other Ranks. Bowring wrote that when Captain Gahan detailed a section of the mortar platoon to dig [Lt Col Robertson’s] grave, in the forward position in front of Bakri, the sergeant in charge of the section burst into tears and most of his men were also visibly affected. [2/19th Battalion War Diary. 2/29th Battalion War Diary. Bowring (1954), 3]
Lt Col Robertson’s service file records that he was buried at Bakri, ‘near 101 Mile Peg, Muar Road. Ref Sheet 3. 9/15 836605’.
At 1630 hours, Major White (second-in-command of the Jats), Captain Gibson (2/29th HQ Company Commander), wounded men (including the Despatch Rider Pte Syd Bauckham), and the photographers, 'having secured motion films of the guns and infantry in action' were evacuated back to the 45th Brigade headquarters and thence to Yong Peng, becoming the source of much-needed information on the battle at Bakri, including Lt Col Robertson’s death. [2/15th Field Regiment. 65th Battery, War Diary]
The following deaths were recorded for 18 January 1942. The list excludes C Company deaths which almost certainly occurred sometime during the evening of 17/18 January, as noted earlier:
At around 2000 hours, around 100 - 150 Japanese again attacked the 2/29th Battalion's C Company but were pushed back. [Brune, 2014]
The 2/19th Battalion’s C Company was ordered to keep the road open overnight between the two Battalions. The night 'which was very dark', passed without incident in the 2/19th Battalion perimeter. Plans were in place to mount an attack by the 2/19th along the Muar Road the next morning, to facilitate the recovery of the the 45th Indian Division's 4/9th Jats from Muar. [Lack et al (2005), 90. 2/19th Battalion War Diary. 2/19th Battalion War Diary. Lodge (1986), 109. Brune (2014)]
At 0600 hours the 2/29th War Diary recorded that the weather was fine.
Before any plan to attack could happen, Japanese troops attacked the 2/19th Battalion position on the crossroads from 0750 hours, again closing the road between the two Battalions. Their dual aim was to encircle and destroy the 2/29th Battalion and cut off the line of withdrawal to Yong Peng via Parit Sulong. The attack on the 2/19th position failed, however Captain Newtown's A and B Echelon, located around 1.5 miles to the rear of 45th Brigade HQ was attacked. [Lack et al (2005), 90. 2/19th Battalion War Diary. 2/19th Battalion War Diary. Lodge (1986), 109. Brune (2014)]
At 0930, two scouts were sent out from the 2/29th Battalion to contact the 2/19th Battalion but failed to do so. [Brune (2014)]
At 0940 hours, a Japanese roadblock was reported to be in place at the 98 mile peg further south along the road to Parit Sulong and then to Yong Peng, threatening the line of withdrawal. [2/19th Battalion War Diary]
At 1100 (1000? according to PB) hours, Japanese aircraft scored a direct hit on Brigade HQ south of the Bakri crossroads. Brigadier Duncan was concussed and in severe shock. Lt Col Anderson (2/19th CO) took over command of the Brigade. [Lack et al (2005), 90. 2/29th Battalion War Diary. 2/19th Battalion War Diary. Lodge (1986), 109. Brune (2014)]
At 1130 hours the 45th Division Brigade Major (BM) arrived at 2/29th Battalion HQ (from where, it is not stated) and advised that Brigade HQ had been heavily bombed. He asked for a section to accompany him in an endeavour to support the movement of Jats who were reported to be coming in from the jungle on the right flank. [Brune (2014)]
At 1330 hours, the Jats finally began to arrive at the 2/29th position. They were subject to heavy Japanese fire. [Brune (2014)]
From 1400 to 1430 hours a Japanese dive bomber dropped bombs in vicinity of the 2/29th Battalion HQ, but there were no casualties. [2/29th Battalion War Diary. Brune (2014)]
At about 1500 hours, a Japanese force attacked the 2/19th Battalion's B Company on the crossroads. [2/19th Battalion War Diary. Brune (2014)]
From 1530 hours, Japanese artillery shelled the 2/29th A Company area on the east side of the road. The Jats in the Battalion perimeter suffered heavily and, in their attempts to escape shelling, crossed the road in the area between C and HQ Company [Note, this was probably around the area where the tanks were destroyed]. The artillery then shifted to the west side of road. C Company sustained casualties whilst the mostly unprotected Jats suffered further heavy losses.
Japanese shelling lifted from 1630 hours but mortar fire and air attacks resumed. An infantry attack was launched by the Japanese on the front B and C companies. B Company repelled the attack but with heavy casualties. C Company suffered heavy mortar attacks and automatic fire, driving a platoon back 50 yards. C Company then counter-attacked and drove enemy back for a distance 600 - 800 yards.
The Battalion's Commanding Officers met at 1735 hours. Information was given that the 2/19th Battalion had been trying to link up with the Battalion all day, unsuccesfully. As nightfall neared, and given its increasingly untenable position, the Battalion was ordered to cut its way back to the 2/19th Battalion, travelling on the east side of the road. A Company was to move first, followed by Battalion HQ, HQ Company, C Company and then B Company at the rear, moving at 10 minute intervals. Transport, said to be with around 40 - 50 wounded troops, was to move last at 1815 hours, with the anti-tank guns and a small rifle detachment at the rear.
It was to be another 'very dark night'. Artillery support for the withdrawal was provided by the 2/19th Battalion and 65th Battery from the crossroads. Japanese machine gunners were in place in two concrete/brick dwellings around the same area as the previous roadblock and possibly across the road also, ready to block any attempt at withdrawal. This meant that they were probably just out of the line of fire of the 2/19th Battalion and 65th Battery at the crossroads.
It is worth examining the terrain of the area in the map below from the 2/19th War Diary to understand what happened during the withdrawal. Photographs taken after the war show that the swamp came almost right up to the road, making any withdrawal very difficult - the Japanese had machine guns on both sides of the road, and there was little or no space between the swamp and the road to withdraw.
Map of the Bakri Crossroads area, Johore State, Malaya, 19 January 1942 (AWM - 2/19th War Diary)
Australian War Memorial Description: 'The area between the Bakri village and the 101 mile peg on the Muar Road where the Japanese bayonetted 19 wounded Australian soldiers to death and then threw their bodies into a swamp'. (AWM - 117510)
Although some of its men were ordered to silence the Japanese machine guns, A Company, which left first at 1800 hours, was caught in heavy fire whilst crossing the open ground to the rear of its original position on the east side of the road, and suffered many casualties. Only 45 Other Ranks made it back to the Bakri crossroads.
The following men from A Company were reported killed on 19 January (the list appears low and needs checking):
HQ Company, located on the west side of the road, was next to attempt the withdrawal, but had to cross the road which by that time was controlled by heavy Japanese machine gun fire. At 1815 hours, Major Olliff CO was shot in one hand and, after noting aloud that he had been shot, was then killed by a shot to the chest. Individual men then attempted to cross the road - by running, approximately 20 yards, only to come under the same barrage of fire that A Company had faced. Several detachments from A Company attempted to reach the Japanese machine gun position/s but failed and were either killed or forced back to the open area. Faced with little alternative, HQ Company moved back north east to skirt the open ground (around the Japanese) and then into the swamp to the east of the road, missing a small track that had been used by some of the Jats, and soon after by B and C Companies. HQ Company came under fire from a barrage of artillery fire from the Australian battery meant to support the withdrawal and many were killed as a result. Having missed the track, HQ Company continued east of the Bakri to Parit Sulong area, aiming to reach Yong Peng.
The following men from HQ Company were reported killed on 19 January:
C Company detached a Platoon under Captain West to attempt to bomb the Japanese machine gun positions and clear the area for transport but were unsuccessful. The Company then followed the route into the swamp taken by HQ Company, where they continued to come under Japanese machine gun fire. C Company eventually caught up with HQ Company around 1930 hours, probably after leaving the swamp. A mixed body consisting of seven Officers and 150 ORs from C and HQ Companies then assembled under Captain Morgan.
The following men from C Company were reported killed on 19 January:
B Company followed the main body of HQ and C Companies throught jungle to the east and reached the 2/19th Battalion that evening without further casualties. Five carriers and two Anti Tank guns, acting as rear guard, remained in position until B Company were clear of area.
The following men from B Company were reported killed on 19 January:
At least 50 wounded men who were unable to leave remained with Captain Brand (the Medical Officer) and the remaining transport drivers, waiting for the road to be cleared. (Note: It is not clear if these were all from the 2/29th, see below). At 1930 hours, the Anti Tank guns at the 101 mile peg were demobilised. Two carriers attempted to get past the road block, one (with a truck behind it driven by Jim Vague) was successful while the other was abandoned. The remaining three carriers were demobilised. As their position seemed hopeless, Captain Brand made the decision to depart with six walking wounded and eleven Anti Tank personnel, leaving around 50 wounded men. According to Captain Brand's personal account, yelling and screaming from the wounded after they left made it clear that the Japanese were killing them. The party headed north east and eventually linked up with the 2/19th Battalion on the road to Parit Sulong during the evening of 20 January 1942.
After arrival at the 2/19th position by around 2030 hours on 19 January, Captain Maher (B Company) assumed command of the 2/29th Battalion which now consisted of B Company (4 Officers under Captain Lovett, 100 ORs), C Company (3 Officers including Captain Morgan, 45 ORs), and A Company (45 ORs) - around 200 of the approximately 600 men who had been at the 101 mile peg. Whilst organising this force it came under heavy machine gun fire but suffered no casualties. The force moved inside the 2/19th permimeter and bedded down for the night.
HQ Company, meanwhile, continued to move east of the 2/19th position.
Lt Col Anderson decided to withdraw from the Bakri crossroads from dawn on the morning of 20 January. Around 1000 men from the 2/29th, 2/19th, and Indian Divisions withdrew heading for Parit Sulong and Yong Peng at around 0700 hours. The 2/29th Battalion's A and C Companies (consisting of around 90 men) were allocated to the 2/19th Battalion's D Company (Captain Westbrook). The 2/29th Battalion's mostly intact B Company (Captain Maher) as the rear guard (along with the Jats, one section of the 65th Battery, the last section of carriers, and two 4th Anti Tank guns).
The convoy came to a Japanese roadblock soon after leaving Bakri, at around 0800 hours. The 2/19th Battalion's leading B Company attacked at first but faltered. That Battalion's A Company (Captain Beverley) then attacked, singing (under order) 'Waltzing Matilda'. The singing of this song has also been attributed to the 2/29th Battalion a few hours later.
Now with the 2/19th Battalion's A Company as the advance guard, the convoy reached another roadblock at around 1230 hours. One platoon composed of men of the 2/29th Battalion's A and C Company (the 2/19th Battalion composite D Company), led by Lieutenant Cootes, unsuccessfully attacked the Japanese machine gun position. 19 members survived that attack but failed to re-join the main group and were eventually caught or executed, including Lt Cootes (executed 12 March 1942).
A second platoon, made up of 2/29th Battalion men led by Lieutenant Carr, also unsuccessfully attacked the same Japanese position. The following men from different 2/29 Battalion Companies were reported killed on 20 January:
After further attacks by the Japanese were repulsed during the morning, the column arrived on the north side of the Parit Sulong bridge during mid morning of 21 January 1942, having learned during the night that it was controlled by Japanese troops. Japanese pressure from the rear exacerbated the already difficult situation. Japanese shelled the convoy during the day and through the night.
The following men from different 2/29th Battalion Companies were reported killed on 21 January:
24 hours later, suffering constant shelling, Lt Col Anderson made the decision to abandon that position, leaving around 140 wounded. Japanese troops killed all except three. The following 59 men from different Companies (except HQ Company - see below) were reported killed (or were murdered by the Japanese at Parit Sulong) on 22 January 1942:
On (possibly) the same day (quoted in several sources as 'about three days after' the evening of the 19th), the 2/29th HQ Company group that had not re-joined the main force found that Yong Peng had already been taken by the Japanese (note, this may have been more than three days given that the main Anderson convoy reached Yong Peng by around 22/23 January). According to Bob Christie, the officers in the group (Gibson, Morgan, McGlinn) decided to split the group into groups of six, but then took the compasses. The fate of each group varied. Some ran into Japanese patrols and were either captured and taken to Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur or executed, joined the Chinese communists, managed to escape to Sumatra (where they were captured), or made it to Australia. The following HQ Company troops, who had been at Muar, were reported to have died from 22 January to 4 February 1942, many of them listed as 'probably Killed in Action'.
The following lists HQ Company deaths that were recorded for 22 January 1942, all 'probably Killed in Action'. Note that this is the same day as the killings at Parit Sulong. It is not known if these men were at Parit Sulong or with the rest of HQ Company.
The following is the list of 2/29th Battalion men who had served at Bakri and who died from 23 January 1942 until 27 January, presumably during the withdrawal to Yong Peng.
There were no deaths recorded for (the separate group of) HQ company men from 22 until 28 January 1942. This may be because they attempted to keep well away from the Japanese. The following is the list of 2/29th HQ Company men who had been at Bakri, and who were reported killed on (or possibly around) 28 January 1942. All except Pte Stanton and Pte Wheatley (who were reported as Killed in Action) were 'probably Killed in Action'.
The following is the list of other (non-HQ Company) 2/29th Battalion men who had served at Bakri and who were reported killed on 28 January 1942.
By the time the Anderson convoy reached Yong Peng, only 130 of the 2/29th Battalion men were said to have remained. (Brune)
The following 2/29th HQ Company Private was reported to have been killed on 4 February 1942, probably Killed in Action. It is not known if he was with the Anderson convoy or HQ Company.
After reaching Yong Peng, the remnants of the 2/29th Battalion withdrew to Singapore where they were reinforced with around 500 men. Before 4 February, the Battalion was then deployed to the Causeway Sector as the 8th Division reserve. On 9 February, the 2/29th was deployed to a position between Mandai village and the intersection with the road to Choa Chu Kang (or Tengah airfield?). (Brune: 434, 439). Two Bakri veterans of the 2/29th Battalion were killed on that day:
On 10 February, the 2/29th Battalion was deployed near Bulim (the Kranji - Jurong line). Faced with Japanese flanking movements, the Battalion withdrew first to near Keat Hong and then Bukit Panjang on the intersection of the Woodlands and Choa Chu Kang roads. In an attempt to re-take the Jurong line, the 12th Indian Brigade with the 2/29th attached was to attack the right flank. After dark, the 2/29th Battalion was attacked and withdrew first to the pipeline thence to the racecourse. (Brune, 452 - 460). The following 2/29th Battalion Bakri veterans were killed on 10 February:
The 2/29th Battalion re-grouped early on 11 February. The following Bakri veterans were recorded as being killed in action from that day until 20 February 1942:
From 12 March 1942 (when two were executed) a further 239 men of the original 2/29th Battalion who had served at Bakri died mostly as Prisoners of War, but also from drowning and from injuries received. Of the original 1003 men who joined before Bakri, 455 died by the end of the war. Of the 597 men who joined as reinforcements at Singapore (including from other Battalions who had been in Malaya for a period of time beforehand), 222 died, 44 of which were before the fall of Singapore.
Lest we forget.
'Robbie to Dorie: Lt Col John Robertson's Letter from Malaya 1940 - 1942' 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.
Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania, 'Photographers Narrowly Escape Capture in Malaya', 21 January 1942.
The Argus, Melbourne, 'AIF Advance Relieves Imperial Units', 21 January 1942. A similar article was published on the same day in a number of other newspapers under the headline 'AIF Clearing Up Situation in Muar River Area'.
Anderson, W. (2/29th Battalion). Personal account of his experience. Australian War Memorial. 88/51.
Australian War Memorial. War Diary, 27th HQ Brigade. AWM 52 8-2-27-13.
Australian War Memorial. War Diary, 2/15th Field Regiment. AWM 52 4/2/15.
Australian War Memorial. War Diary, 2/19th Battalion. AWM 52 8-3-19-9.
Australian War Memorial. War Diary, 2/29th Battalion. AWM 52 8-3-29-1 to AWM 52 8-3-29-7.
Australian War Memorial. Singapore and Tanks Burning (film). AWM F01171.
Australian War Memorial. Untitled film made by Mr Aiken of Ipoh showing the 2/29th Battalion marching in Segamat, and includes colour video of Lt Col Robertson (film). AWM F03385.
Bennett, H.G. Diary & Related Matters. 1941 to 17 January 1942. Australian War Memorial.MF0020 (Roll CY 783).
Bennett, Lieutenant-General H.G. Why Singapore Fell. Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1944.
Bowring, Captain W. B. The Muar Road Battle in Stand-To (magazine), RSL, Canberra, May-June 1954.
Brune, Peter. Descent into Hell. Allen and Unwin, 2014.
Christie, R.W. (ed). A History of the 2/29th Battalion – 8th Australian Division AIF. High Country Publishing, Melbourne, 1983 and 1985.
Coates, Lieutenant-General John. ‘Out-generalled, outwitted, and outfought’ – Generals Percival and Bennett in Malaya, 1941 – 1942. Australian Army Journal, Volume II, Number 1, pages 201 – 214, 2004.
Department of Interior. File of Papers - Notes from General Bennett's Diary. February - March 1941. Australian War Memorial. AWM67, 11/75.
Farrell, Brian, &atten, Garth. Malaya 1942. Commonwealth of Australia Army History Unit, 2009, 2011. Includes detailed diagrams for each phase of the tank assault.
Finkemeyer, Colin E. (ed). It happened to us. Fast Impressions P/L, 1994.
Finkemeyer, Colin E. (ed). It happened to us – Mark II. Fast Impressions P/L, 1998.
Finkemeyer, Colin E. (ed). It happened to us – Mark III. Fast Impressions P/L, 2003.
Finlay, I. with Shepherd, A. Savage Jungle. Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Geelong Advertiser, 21 January 1942, quoting VX42812ivate Walter Garnet Fisher, HQ Company.
Hackney, Ben. Dark Evening (personal papers). Australian War Memorial MSS 0758.
Harrison, Kenneth. The Brave Japanese. (Also published as ‘The Road to Hiroshima’). Rigby Limited, 1966. Reprinted 2010. See also http://guyharrison.squarespace.com/bravejapanese/.
Howe, Sgt Fred. The Battle of the Bakri Cross Roads on the Muar. The Burrowa News, 3 December 1948 – 7 January 1949, 8 April 1949. Howe’s articles describe events after midday on 18 January 1942.
Lack, J. et al. No Lost Battalion: An oral history of the 2/29th Battalion. Slouch Hat Publications, Melbourne, 2005.
Lodge, A. B. The fall of General Gordon Bennett. Sydney, Allen & Unwin. 1986.
Long, G. Interview with Maxwell and Taylor (Personal Notebook). December 1946 and February 1947. Australian War Memorial. AWM67, 2/109.
Morrison, Ian. Malayan Postscript. Angus and Robertson. Sydney, 1943.
National Archives of Australia. War Crimes - Massacre at Parit Sulong, Malaya - NX71148 Lieutenant BC Hackney. SP459/1, 573/1/234. 1945. 23 page file includes Hackney's 10 pages of evidence given at the Australian War Crimes Commission on 12 November 1945 describing events at Parit Sulong.
Percival, A.E. The war in Malaya. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1949.
Robertson, John Charles. Service File. VX38973. National Archives of Australia.
Silver, Lynette R. The Bridge at Parit Sulong: An Investigation of Mass Murder, Malaya 1942. The Watermarkess, 2004.
Sydney Morning Herald, 'A.I.F. Success with Anti-Tank Guns', 21 January 1942.
Tsuji, Masanobu. Singapore: The Japanese Version. (Translated by Margaret E. Lake). St Martin'sess, New York, 1960.
Uhr, Janet. Against the Sun: The AIF in Malaya, 1941 - 42. Allen & Unwin. St Leonards, 1998.
Whitelocke, C. & 2/15 Field Regiment Association. Gunners in the Jungle. Maxwellinting Company, 1983.
Wigmore, Lionel. Volume IV, The Japanese Thrust of the Second World War Official Histories. Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957.
Added 1 May 2014, updated 8 October 2014. Copyright 2014, Andrew Warland. andrewwarland(at)gmail.com