Operation Battle of Jitra

The 'Battle of Jitra' was a battle between the Japanese troops of the 'Seiki' Detachment and the British-led British and Indian troops of Lieutenant General Sir Louis Heath’s Indian III Corps in north-western Malaya during the course of the former’s 'E' (i) invasion of Malaya (11/13 December 1941).

The British-led forces were defeated, and this compelled Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, the British land force commander in Malaya, to order all Allied aircraft stationed in Malaya to be withdrawn to Singapore.

The Allied defences at Jitra were still incomplete when the Pacific War began on 7 December 1941. Barbed wire lines had been erected and some anti-tank mines had been laid, but heavy rains had flooded the Indian troops' shallow trenches and gun pits. Many of the field telephone cables laid across the waterlogged ground also failed to work, resulting in a lack of communication during the battle.

Two brigades of Major General D. M. Murray-Lyon’s Indian 11th Division held the front line. On the right was Brigadier K. A. Garrett’s Indian 15th Brigade, comprising the 1/Leicestershire Regiment, the 1/14th Punjab Regiment and the 2/9th Jats; on the left was Brigadier W. O. Lay’s Indian 6th Brigade, comprising the 2/East Surrey Regiment, the 1/8th Punjab Regiment and the 2/16th Punjab Regiment. Batteries of the 155th Field Regiment, the 22nd Mountain Regiment and the 80th Anti-Tank Regiment provided the artillery support. Brigadier W. St. J. Carpendale’s Indian 28th Brigade, comprising three Gurkha battalions, was placed in divisional reserve.

The British front was 14 miles (23 km) long, and stretched across both roads and a railway line, and extended far beyond on either side, from the jungle-clad hills on the right, via flooded rice fields and a rubber tree estate to a tidal mangrove swamp on the left.

After the cancellation of the 'Matador' forestalling attack into Thailand, the Indian 11th Division moved back to defensive positions around Jitra, which were still in extremely poor condition on 8 December, so Murray-Lyon needed time to complete the defences. The Malaya Command came up with a secondary plan to delay the Japanese in the form of three scaled-down 'Matador' undertakings: 'Krohcol', 'Laycol' and an armoured train. It was hoped that these would keep the Japanese away from Jitra long enough for Murray-Lyon to get his division’s defences in order. 'Krohcol' invaded Thailand from south-east of Jitra and was partially successful in delaying the Japanese but unsuccessful in its main objective. The other two columns, 'Laycol' and the armoured train operated from north of the Jitra position.

After their invasion of Thailand with landings at Singora and Patani on the nation’s eastern coast during 8 December, the Japanese attacked toward north-western Malaya. It was in order to help delay the Japanese that the three columns were despatched. Two of the columns were sent forward into the area in front of the Indian 11th Division. The first was an armoured train manned by a platoon of the 2/16th Punjab, which was sent to Perlis, almost half way to Singora, where it blew up a railway bridge and then withdrew to Malaya.

'Laycol' was the second column, and comprised 200 truck-borne men of the 1/8th Punjab under the command of Major E. R. Andrews, supported by two 2-pdr anti-tank guns of No. 273 Battery, 80th Anti-Tank Regiment, and two sections of engineers. ' Laycol' advanced up the Trunk Road from Jitra to a point some 10 miles (16 km) across the Thai border at the town of Ban Sadao. 'Laycol' had just completed its defensive positions at 21.00 on 9 December when the vanguard of Lieutenant General Matsui Takuro’s Japanese 5th Division (about 500 men of the 5th Division Reconnaissance Regiment and 1st Tank Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Saeki) came down the Trunk Road with lights blazing. The anti-tank guns of 'Laycol' destroyed two tanks and damaged a third before 'Laycol' packed up and headed back to the positions of the 1/14th Punjabs at Changlun, 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south of the border. When 'Laycol' crossed the border it destroyed the bridge and parts of the road behind it in the hope of further delaying the Japanese.

Realising that the positions at Jitra were still not ready, Murray-Lyon ordered Garrett to take his 1/14th Punjabs and the 2/1st Gurkhas to positions on the Trunk Road to the north of Jitra in an attempt to delay the Japanese advance until 12 December. Garrett placed the 1/14th Punjabis at Changlun, some 6 miles (9.7 km) from the Thai border, and the 2/1st Gurkhas at the village of Kampung Asun just a few miles to the north of Jitra.

The 1/14th Punjabs, supported by the 4th Mountain Battery of the Indian 22nd Mountain Regiment, a section of 2-pdr anti-tank guns of the 2nd Battery of the 80th Anti-Tank Regiment and one company of engineers, separated into two strong ambush positions, one of them to the north of Changlun and the other to the south of this village. The battalion was in position by a time early in the evening of 10 December. The Japanese vanguard had completed repairs on the road and bridge unopposed by the afternoon and had started heading down the Trunk Road toward the 1/14th Punjabis' position at Changlun. At about 21.00 on 10 December, the vanguard’s first two tanks to reach the ambush position north of Changlun were destroyed by the anti-tank guns, and the Punjabis inflicted more casualties on the Japanese supporting infantry before pulling out and retreating to the south of Changlun. It was early in the morning of 11 December before the Japanese caught up with the 1/14th Punjabs at their next ambush position. In full daylight, the Japanese men were able to send a flanking party around the Punjabis' position, forcing the Punjabis to withdraw before they could be cut off. Fitzpatrick decided to withdraw his mostly intact battalion back to the Gurkha’s position at Asun.

At this point, Murray-Lyon arrived at Fitzpatrick’s headquarters and ordered him to set up another ambush, in this instance to the north of Asun. Murray-Lyon, Garrett, Fitzpatrick and all four of this last’s company commanders then drove to the south to see the new ambush site, leaving the 1/14th Punjabis to pack and join them. By early in the afternoon, it had started to rain heavily, reducing visibility to a few feet. Half loaded onto their transport and facing the wrong way, the 1/14th Punjabis were surprised by a number of Japanese tanks appearing out of the rain and driving into the middle of the battalion. The tanks scattered the battalion with only 270 Punjabis managing to make their way back to British lines.

The Japanese drove rapidly through the destroyed battalion and headed toward Asun. A short distance down the Trunk Road, Fitzpatrick learned of the disaster from the few survivors racing toward Asun. Fitzpatrick and the few men with him attempted to build a roadblock, but he was severely wounded when the Japanese tanks reached him. Garrett gathered the 270-odd survivors and escaped to the south. By a time early in the evening of 11 December, the Japanese column had reached the Gurkhas at Asun.

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Fulton’s 2/1st Gurkhas were positioned on the south bank of a fast-flowing stream, just to the north of Asun. The Gurkhas had no anti-tank guns, but engineers had placed demolition charges on the road bridge. The arrival of the 1/14th Punjab’s survivors provided the Gurkhas with a few minutes' warning, and they attempted but failed to blow the bridge, possibly because the heavy rain may have damaged the charges. As the first Japanese tanks arrived, the fire of a Boys anti-tank rifle managed to stop the first two tanks on the bridge, thereby blocking it. The Japanese infantry moved swiftly across the stream on each flank, supported by heavy mortar and machine gun fire. The mostly young and inexperienced Gurkhas soon broke and scattered. By 19.00 on 11 December, the small Japanese force had broken through the Gurkhas' position. Most of the 2/1st Gurkhas were captured, but Fulton managed to save around 200 of his 550 men.

After the destruction of the two battalions north of Jitra, the 'Saeki' Detachment moved swiftly down the Trunk Road to the Indian 11th Division’s defensive line at Jitra. Murray-Lyon had placed the majority of his two brigades to the east and west of Jitra with a four-battalion front to face any attack. The Indian 6th Brigade covered the west of Jitra following the line of the Jitra river: the 2/16th Punjab on the extreme left flank and the 2nd East Surrey Regiment closer to Jitra; and the 1/8th Punjab (less the two companies that constituted 'Laycol' were covering the Kodiang road through the state of Perlis at Kanjong Iman. On 10 December, the 1/8th Punjab was withdrawn from Perlis, demolishing bridges as it fell back. At the same time as Garrett’s force on the Singora road was being destroyed by Saeki, a premature demolition of a bridge on the Kodiang road left a large number of the 1/8th Punjabis' men stranded on the wrong side of a river.

The Indian 15th Brigade, now under the command of Carpendale, covered the main Trunk Road at Jitra. The 1/Leicester was covering the road and town to the north of the Jitra river with the 2/9th Jats on the eastern flank. The 2/2nd Gurkhas covered the divisional area behind the Leicester’s and Jat’s positions, while the remaining 2/9th Gurkhas protected the Indian 11th Division’s line of retreat. By late afternoon of 11 December, Murray-Lyon had lost the better part of three battalions and was now without any reserve units to commit to the main battle.

With the survivors of Garrett’s two battalions streaming through the Indian 11th Division and his line of retreat threatened by the Japanese advance at Kroh to the south of Jitra, Murray-Lyon requested the authorisation of the Malaya Command to retire from Jitra to a position he had already selected about 30 miles (48 km) to the south at Gurun. This was a natural stronghold, though it had not been fortified. Percival refused, fearing that a retreat at so early a stage and lover such a length would have a demoralising effect on both the troops and the civilian population. Murray-Lyon was told that the battle must be fought at Jitra.

At 20.30 on 11 December, Saeki’s advance guard overran a forward patrol of the 1/Leicester but was held up by an improvised roadblock until dawn of 12 December. Believing he was still attacking small British delaying forces, Saeki launched his men into a three-hour attack on the Leicester and Jat positions without success. By 12.00 on 12 December, Saeki realised he was fighting against the main positions of the Indian 11th Division. itions. Commanding the Imperial Japanese army’s 9th Brigade, Major General S. Kawamura placed Colonel Watanabe’s 11th Regiment and Colonel Okabe’s 41st Regiment in readiness to resume the attack that night. Saeki’s advance guard impulsively attacked again, this time into D Company of the 2/9th Jats and drove a wedge between the Leicesters and Jats, and D Company was practically cut off. The Leicesters attempt to close the gap during the afternoon was a costly failure. Lieutenant Colonel R. C. S. Bates led two companies of the 1/8th Punjab in an attack on the wedge; Bates with two officers and 23 men were killed. The Jats' D Company, running out of ammunition, was overrun soon after. At the same time Lieutenant Colonel C. K. Tester, the 2/9th Jats' commander, had lost contact with his A Company on the right flank.

At 19.30 on 12 December, Murray-Lyon again sought leave to fall back to the position at Gurun, and Percival finally agreed, giving Murray-Lyon permission to withdraw at his own discretion. The withdrawal from Jitra on the night of 12/13 December was the occasion on which the Indian 11th Division incurred most of its casualties. As a result of the area’s extremely poor communications, Murray-Lyon’s orders for withdrawal failed to reach many of his forward companies, who were in their positions at daylight of 13 December. At 00.00 on 13 December, a Japanese effort to rush the single bridge over the Bata river was repulsed by the 2/2nd Gurkhas. Two hours later, the bridge was blown and the battalion withdrew through a rearguard formed by the 2/9th Gurkhas, who fought another fierce engagement before withdrawing at 04.30. By 12.00 the British had broken away. Murray-Lyon was to try to hold North Kedah, block Japanese tanks on good natural obstacles and to dispose his forces in depth on the two parallel north/south roads which traversed this rice-growing area, to give greater scope to his artillery. At 22.00, the Indian 11th Division was ordered to withdraw to the south bank of the Kedah river at Alor Star, beginning at 00.00.

The 'Battle of Jitra' and the retreat to Gurun had cost the Indian 11th Division heavily in manpower and strength as an effective fighting force. The division had lost one brigade commander wounded (Garrett), one battalion commander killed (Bates) and another captured (Fitzpatrick). The division had lost the equivalent of nearly three battalions of infantry and was in no condition to face another Japanese assault without reinforcements, reorganisation and rest. After 15 hours of bitter combat, the Japanese 5th Division had captured Jitra and with it a large quantity of Allied supplies. Around that same time, warplanes pf the Imperial Japanese navy flew major air raids on Penang, killing more than 2,000 civilians. After the destruction of most of the Allied aircraft at Alor Star, Percival ordered that until reinforcements arrived, all aircraft were be used only in the defence of Singapore and for the protection of supply convoys moving to the north into Malaya. Murray-Lyon was relieved of command on 23 December.