Malaya at War (part 1)

by V. Jegatheesan

‘Malaya at War’ was the title of a conference held in Kuala Lumpur on 10th and 11th August 2019. It was organised by the War History Institute, Holiday Tours & Travel Sdn. Bhd. and the Malaysian British Society. As the Research Director of the War History Institute, Mr. Seumas Tan, mentioned, there should be more stories about local war heroes as this would lead to more interest in Malaysia’s war history and consequently more visits to places associated with it. This will, in turn, generate military history tourism.

The Conference

The Keynote Address was by our first Royal Malaysian Navy Chief, Rear Admiral Tan Sri Dato’ Seri (Dr) K. Thanabalasingam. This was followed by Professor Brian P. Farrell of the National University of Singapore on the Defence of Malaya 1941-1942. An interesting first person account of the sinking of the Repulse was given by a survivor – Rear Admiral Guy Richmond Griffiths AO DSO DSC RAN (Rtd.). He is currently the Patron of the HMS Repulse Survivors Association. Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945 was covered by Andrew Barber, a Military History Researcher.

Most distinguished (looks belie their age):                                                      
L- R: Tan Sri J. J. Raj Jr,
Rear Admiral Tan Sri Dato’ Seri (Dr) K. Thanabalasingam
Rear Admiral Guy Richmond Griffiths AO DSO DSC RAN (Rtd.
The participants

Malaysian speakers were next starting with Mr. Harchand Singh Bedi, a Military History Researcher, who spoke on the Battle of Kampar 1941-1942. The story of Sybil Karthigasu was presented by Mr. Law Siak Hong, President Ipoh Heritage Society. War leaves behind a trail of wreckages and relics and Encik Shaharom Ahmad, a Malaysian Military Historian and Researcher, gave an illustrated description of airplane wreckages, bridges and pillboxes. A panel of speakers then gave their viewpoints on battlefield tourism and their involvement in promoting this. The panel comprised of Seumas Tan, Research Director War History Institute Sydney Australia, who acted as the moderator; George Yong and Zafrani Arifin, Malaysian Battlefield Guides; Henry Ong, Head Business Development Holiday Tours & Travel Sdn. Bhd.; and Dennis Weatherall, Australian Military Historian and Accredited Battlefield Guide.

The next day began with the topic on the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) which was very much a war but for various reasons called an emergency. This was covered by Mr. Christopher Hale who is a documentary producer and non-fiction writer. The famous Bukit Kepong Incident was described by Tan Sri J. J. Raj Jr., a Retired Commissioner of Royal Malaysian Police. He was the Officer in Charge of the Police District and was involved in the incident. From the Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Associated Professor Dr. Kumar Ramakrishna spoke on the Role of British Propaganda during the Emergency. The Conference was closed with a skit describing how a couple of Communists pressured a local couple for food. However, they were ambushed and killed. This skit was by the Malaya Historical Group all in period dress and uniform.

Tan Sri J. J. Raj Jr

The Tour

The Conference was followed immediately by a 6-day tour of the battle sites and memorials as well as a few other places of interest. The group comprised organisers Seumas Tan and Henry Ong, guide Zafrani Arifin and 2 officers from Tourism Malaysia. There were fourteen other participants, of which five were Malaysians. The remainder nine participants were Australians including one who had been here during the Emergency and another during the Confrontation.

The following is a description of the tour and a brief explanation of the battlefields, the battles and memorials. It is not meant to be a detailed description of the various battles as this will be too lengthy. The description also follows the tour route and not the specific battle routes as this involved a lot of criss-crossing and backtracking; it was not a straightforward fall back. These intricate details can be read from numerous books and the internet.

The route for the first day follows the start of the Australian forces’ involvement against the advancing Japanese army. As Australian Lieutenant General Gordon Bennet wrote in his book Why Singapore Fell, “Australians go in to bat”, a cricketing term. Their objective was to stop this advance and even drive the Japanese back, if not to delay the onslaught. The Japanese had been rapidly advancing down south largely on the west coast road with forces spread out on the fringes of the road, in the rubber estates and in the jungle, in fact everywhere in a broad sweep. They also had air cover in many places operating from occupied airports. Surprisingly, they also seized boats in Penang and Muar to get ahead and behind the British lines. The Forces, i.e. British Army, may have delayed the Japanese slightly and caused some losses, inflicted heavy damage, but they ultimately had to retreat into Singapore.

While this is where the Australian forces joined the war, the entire army here comprised of Australian, Indian and British units. Many units have been retreating from up north and were exhausted. Units had to be regrouped as each suffered losses.

Tour – Day 1

On the first day, we set off for Sungai Kelamah War Memorial in Gemencheh. This is along the old road south and close to Gemas. The Japanese, who had rumbled down at speed, arrived here on 14 January 1942. An Australian ambush party had already laid explosives under the bridge and awaited the Japanese. Bridges were routinely destroyed in war to stop or delay the advancing enemy forces.

The memorial at Gemencheh

At 4.10 pm, after some 300 Japanese troops had crossed, the Australians blew up the bridge killing about 30 Japanese on the bridge. Australians were also ranged along hillsides further back and fired on Japanese who had crossed. It is estimated that nearly 500 to 700 were killed with minimal losses for the allied troops. As far as they were concerned, the ambush was a success.

Remnants of the bridge. A new bridge can be seen in the background.

Nevertheless, in due course, the Japanese had gotten ahead behind them as the Australian ambush party withdrew towards Gemas, continuously avoiding Japanese advance parties who got behind Australian lines. Generally, withdrawal was not a simple matter in war as they were constantly harassed and fought with by the Japanese behind the lines and by heavy aerial bombings. Many units or soldiers become lost or trapped and had to find their way to their units or other units. The bridge was quickly rebuilt by the Japanese using timber from a local sawmill. Retreating forces destroyed the machinery but did not think the timber would be useful. In war, fuel, machinery, vehicles even street signs or anything that will give an advantage to the enemy is removed or destroyed.

Today we see a memorial site and the remnants of the bridge. Further away we also saw anti-tank cylindrical concrete blocks intended to halt advancing tanks.

Anti-tank blocks and us

A local enthusiast, Rizal, showed us around dressed in the Commonwealth Forces uniform. This uniform was worn by Australian soldiers on the way to the Middle East and when they were diverted to Malaya, they fought in this uniform. Over time Rizal has collected many artefacts, all rusted with time.

Today, the road has been realigned and a new bridge built.

We proceeded to the Gemas Railway Station. We were shown a photo of Japanese troops crawling along the lines anticipating enemy attacks.

The Gemas Railway Station – then and now

The next stop was the Gemas Broken Bridge. Today you can still see the remnants as seen in the photo below while a new bridge has been built nearby.

Gemas Broken Bridge

Next was the Buloh Kasap Bridge, which shared the same fate as the other bridges. A then and now photo shows how the bridge was rebuilt at speed by the Japanese. The ends of the bridge are still intact today. On one side damage from artillery shells can be seen. Markings on the concrete pillars below show that the bridge was built in March 1926.

Photo of the Japanese rebuilding Buloh Kasap Bridge

Both these unusable bridges seem to be painted and maintained by the local Council, but attempts to contact the Council to confirm this is still ongoing. Before the next bridge, we stopped for lunch at the VIP Hotel, a small yet beautiful hotel.

The Segamat Railway Bridge was also blasted and quickly rebuilt. Any advancing army will expect bridges to be blown up and are therefore prepared to rebuild them. It is a matter of speed to get it up and let the forces cross onward. Materials are usually sourced locally as in Gemencheh.

The photo shows the Japanese rebuilding the Segamat Railway Bridge

It is fortunate to have the then and now photos as it helps in imagining the various happenings. Unlike other bridges that have been replaced with realigned roads and new bridges, the Segamat Railway Bridge was repaired after the war and it is still in use. Our night stop was at the Ramada in Melaka.

Tour – Day 2

The second day saw us in Muar town. The local Tourism Officer boarded the bus and gave us a tour of the town. Of interest was the remains of the bombed out building behind the present Streetview Hotel.

We then got on the road, headed southeast and after 5kms arrived outside of Bakri. This is the location of the famous photo of 2 gunners with the anti-tank gun. They managed to do damage to the advancing tanks. Below I quote the caption to the photo from the Australian War Memorial website. (https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/040367/). This caption and the photo say it all.

BAKRI, MALAYA, 1942-01-15 (actually 1942-01-18). GUNNERS OF 13TH AUSTRALIAN ANTI-TANK BATTERY USING A 2 PDR (pounder) ANTI-TANK GUN ACTION AGAINST JAPANESE TYPE 94 LIGHT TANKS AT A ROAD BLOCK. THE FORWARD TANK HAS BEEN SET ON FIRE WHILST OTHER TANKS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF ROAD BLOCK, WHICH IS A FELLED RUBBER TREE, HAVE BEEN DISABLED.

The caption to this photo in Wikipedia reads “Australian 2 pounder gun of 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, firing on Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks of the 14th Tank Regiment on the Muar-Parit Sulong road on 18 January 1942. [1] Sergeant Charles Parsons and his crew were credited with destroying six of the nine tanks in this engagement.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Muar).

The hillock on the right is all that remains of the original as in the photo. A huge swath of land has been cleared behind this for a large industrial estate. We hope this location will at least be marked. This was the purpose of having the two officers from the Tourism Malaysia so they will appreciate the locations and provide feedback on the importance of this and other locations and place a memorial or a plaque.

Interestingly, the gunner, Sergeant Charlie Parsons, mentioned is connected to the family of the daughter-in-law of one of our participants on tour. He found this out when he posted pictures of the tour in his Facebook and she informed him!!

Further south at Parit Sulong, which was taken by the Japanese on the 21st January 1942, we stopped at the Parit Sulong Memorial. A memorial ceremony was held and the following oath recited by Colonel Dr. Robert Likeman, who was one of our group. This is always recited at Australian memorial services.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

(A Verse from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon)

Small Australian flags were placed on the memorial. We then crossed the road to an area that contained abandoned JKR quarters. It was in this area that some 150 prisoners and wounded Australian and Indian soldiers were held captive and then massacred. The Japanese General Takuma Nishimura was later sentenced to death for this.

The Oath by Colonel Dr. Robert Likeman
Placing of flags

After Parit Sulong and many other small battles, the British forces had to withdraw to Singapore.

The plaque on the bridge at Parit Sulong

It is a simple to read about battle sites. It can be another matter to visit them and see the actual spots where it all happened. War is a terrible thing in itself. Being at the sites can evoke emotions though it all happened in the past. We see and we move away.

Parit Sulong – how many know the past of this town

Then we made a “Quantum Leap” (refer old TV series) from the War to the Emergency – to Bukit Kepong, the scene of the annihilation of the wooden riverside police station by the communists on 23rd February 1950. Bukit Kepong is about 60km from Muar town. From the hillside across the station about 180 communists led by Muhammad Indera, looked down on the police station. In the police station were 25 policemen led by Sergeant Jamil Mohd. Shah. At 4.15am, the firing started. The police stood their ground, refusing surrender despite their families being killed as well. The station was set on fire and through all this the police defended the station. After 5 hours, it was over and the communists left leaving only four policemen and nine family members as survivors. This story as with the others is overwhelming.

Today, unfortunately the station has not been rebuilt. However, a gallery has been set up – Galeri Darurat Bukit Kepong or Emergency Gallery Bukit Kepong. On display are pictures and videos not just about the incident but also a lot more about the emergency, the independence, guns etc. There are also personal artefacts of the policemen and their families on display such as the household items of cups and saucers etc. etc.

The police at Bukit Kepong before the attack. Sergeant Jamil Mohd. Shah is seated third from left.

The day finished with our travel back to the Ramada and a good night’s rest before the next day’s events.

This report continues to Part 2 covering days 3-6. It can be viewed at https://museumvolunteersjmm.com/2019/09/02/malaya-at-war-part-2/

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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