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:

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:

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.

Page created 11 February 2014, updated 7 April 2020. Copyright © 2021 Andrew Warland