Operation Battle of Kampar

The 'Battle of Kampar' was an engagement in the Malayan northern state of Perak between Japanese and British-led forces during the Japanese 'E' (i) invasion of Malaya (30 December 1941/2 January 1942).

The battle pitted men of Lieutenant General Takua Matsui’s Japanese 5th Division and British and Indian troops of the Indian 11th Division under the temporary command of Brigadier A. C. M. Paris.

On 27 December, in an effort to prevent the capture of the RAF base at Kuala Lumpur, the Indian 11th Division occupied Kampar, which offered a strong natural defensive position. The formation was also tasked with delaying the Japanese advancing for a time long enough to allow Major General A. E. Barstow’s Indian 9th Division to withdraw from the eastern coast of Malaya. On 30 December the Japanese began to surround the British and Indian positions, and fighting began on the following day. The British forces were able to hold for four days before withdrawing on 2 January after achieving their objective of slowing the Japanese advance.

The site overlooking Kampar is set on what is now called Green Ridge wich, together with the nearby Thompson, Kennedy and Cemetery Ridges, overlooks the main road to the south from Ipoh, the main city of the state of Perak, and was of great strategic value. The ridges sit on top of the Gunung Bujang Melaka, a 4,070-ft (1241-m) jungle-covered mountain. The mountain offered a clear view of the surrounding plains covered with swamps and open tin-mining sites. The Gunung Bujang Melaka lies to the east of the town of Kampar, its steep slopes leading down to the Kampar road. With this town and the mountain under control, the Japanese would have an excellent view of the Kinta river valley to the south. The Allied forces knew that if the Japanese took Kampar, the 5th Division would also be able to use it as a foothold into the Kinta river valley.

After the start of the invasion of Malaya by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army, Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath’s Indian III Corps, defending the north of Malaya, was forced into a series of costly retreats to the south. The outcome of these retreats, ordered by Lieutenant General A. E. Percival’s Malaya Command, was a severely mauled and decimated strength of British and Indian infantry. The losses suffered by the Indian 11th Division in the battles at Jitra, Kroh, Alor Star and Gurun meant that the division’s British and Indian battalions had mostly been amalgamated. After the loss of Kedah province, Paris’s Indian 12th Brigade, which was Malaya Command’s reserve and well trained in jungle warfare, replaced the Indian 11th Division and began a successful fighting withdrawal to the Kampar position, inflicting heavy casualties on the Japanese spearhead units. The Indian 12th Brigade’s task was to buy time for the reorganisation of the battered Indian 11th Division and the preparation of Kampar’s defences.

Of the Indian 11th Division’s three brigades, the Indian 6th Brigade and the Indian 15th Brigade had been amalgamated as the 15th/6th Brigade under Brigadier H. Moorhead, the commander of 'Krohcol'. The 15th/6th Brigade now consisted of the survivors of the 1/Leicestershire Regiment and 2/East Surrey Regiment, which had been amalgamated to form the British Battalion, and a composite Jat-Punjab Regiment formed from survivors of the 1/8th Punjab Regiment and 2/9th Jat Regiment. The brigade’s remaining battalions were the 1/14th Punjab, 5/14th Punjab and 2/16th Punjab Regiments, and these were used to cover the rear of the Kampar position. Even with all of those battalions in one unit, the 15th/6th Brigade still totalled only some 1,600 men. Lieutenant Colonel W. R. Selby’s 28th Gurkha Brigade was largely intact but low in strength and morale: its three Gurkha battalions had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting around Jitra, Kroh, Gurun and at Ipoh.

The temporary commander of the Indian 11th Division. Paris had to defend a line from the coast through Telok Anson up to the defensive positions at Kampar. The defensive perimeter at Kampar was an all round-position, straddling Kampar Hill to the east of Kampar town, overlooking the Japanese advance and well concealed by thick jungle. Paris placed artillery spotters on the forward slopes protected by the Indian 15th/6th Brigade on the western side of the position, and the 28th Gurkha Brigade covered the right flank on the eastern side. The two brigades were supported by the 88th Field Artillery Regiment, which was equipped with 25-pdr gun/howitzers, and the 4.5-in (114.3-mm) howitzers of the 155th Field Artillery Regiment. Once the Indian 12th Brigade had passed through Kampar, Paris sent it to cover the coast and his line of retreat at Telok Anson.

The Japanese attacking force was part of Matsui’s 5th Division. The intact and relatively fresh 41st Regiment of about 4,000 men from Major General Saburo Kawamura’s 9th Brigade spearheaded the attack on Kampar Hill. Kawamura’s brigade comprised Colonel Watanabe’s 11th Regiment and Colonel Kanichi Okabe’s 41st Regiment.

On 30 December Kawamura’s brigade arrived in the Kampar area and quickly began to encircle and probe the British positions. On the following day, Kawamura launched probing attacks on the 28th Gurkha Brigade’s position on the right flank with a battalion of Watanabe’s 11th Regiment. Once the Gurkhas' well-concealed positions had been located, the Japanese formed up to attack and the howitzers of the 155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Artillery opened a concentrated fire on the Japanese troops. All through 31 December the attacks of the 11th Regiment were beaten off by the Gurkhas and the close-support artillery fire.

At 07.00 on 1 January, Kawamura launched his main attack against the western side of the Kampar position. This attack was carried out by the 41st Regiment, and its brunt fell on the area held by Lieutenant Colonel E. Morrison’s British Battalion. The 41st Regiment attacked straight into the British Battalion’s positions, supported by heavy mortar fire. The fighting became fierce, and the Japanese and British positions were taken and retaken in close-quarter fighting. Japanese casualties were heavy, as evidenced by the steady stream of wounded which passed Okabe’s headquarters. Combined with their infantry assaults, the Japanese made continuous use of artillery fire, and bombed and strafed the British positions with impunity as the Japanese had almost total air superiority by this stage of the campaign. Matsui brought in fresh soldiers to replace his mounting casualties, but the well-concealed and entrenched 15th/6th Brigade, supported by the 88th (2nd West Lancashire) Field Artillery, held their positions throughout the two days of fierce fighting on the western slopes of Kampar Hill.

During the two-day battle, Japanese troops managed to capture trenches in the eastern sector of Thompson Ridge. After two counterattacks by D Company of the British Battalion and a third by the Jat-Punjab Battalion had failed, a reserve mixed company of 60 men of the Jat-Punjab Battalion was brought in to attempt to retake the trenches. This half company, under the command of Captain J. O. Graham and Lieutenant C. D. Lamb, fixed bayonets and charged the Japanese position. The Japanese fire was so heavy that 33 men, including Lamb, were killed as they charged. Graham continued to lead the attack after being wounded and only stopped when a grenade mangled both his legs beneath the knees. Nevertheless, he continued to shout encouragement to his men and was seen throwing grenades at the Japanese trenches. Altogether 34 Indians died in the attack, which retook the position.

Matsui realised that the British position at Kampar was too strong for his comparatively small force to take, so Yamashita ordered landings, on the western coast to the south of Kampar near the 12th Brigade’s positions at Telok Anson, in order to outflank and cut off the Indian 11th Division’s line of retreat. The 11th Regiment was to land at Hutan Melintang and attack Telok Anson from the south, and a force of Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division advanced overland, following the Perak river to attack Telok Anson from the north.

The landings were successful and Telok Anson was taken after a brisk battle with the Indian 3rd Cavalry and the 1st Independent Company on 2 January. Once Telok Anson had fallen, the Indian 3rd Cavalry and 1st Independent Company fell back to the 12th Brigade, which delayed the Japanese from taking the main north/south road. With his line of retreat threatened, Paris ordered the Kampar position to be abandoned. The 12th Brigade covered the retreat of Indian 11th Division and the British pulled back to the next prepared defensive position on the Slim river.

During the four days between 30 December and 2 January 1942, the Indian 11th Division had managed to fight off determined Japanese attacks and at the same time to inflict heavy losses on them. The Japanese losses were so heavy, indeed, that the 41st Regiment was unable to participate in the later assault on Singapore. Japanese newspapers at the time claimed 500 Japanese casualties against an Allied loss of 150, but there was no official release of any real figure. The 'Battle of Kampar' was the first serious defeat the Japanese had experienced in the Malayan campaign. Even though the battle was an Allied defensive success, the lack of reserves within the Malaya Command with which to support the Indian 11th Division forced the division’s withdrawal toward the Slim river.