Operation Battle of Muar

The 'Battle of Muar' was fought between Japanese and British-led Australian and Indian troops in Malaya (14/22 January 1942).

The battle was the last major engagement of the Malayan campaign that started with the Japanese 'E' (i) invasion, and was fought around the Gemensah bridge and on the Muar river. After the British defeat at the Slim river, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, decided that Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath’s Indian III Corps should withdraw some 150 miles (240 km) to the south and into the State of Johore to rest and regroup, while Major General H. G. Bennett’s Australian 8th Division attempted to stem the Japanese advance.

Allied troops under Bennett’s command inflicted severe losses on the Japanese forces in an ambush at the Gemensah bridge ambush and in a second battle a short distance to the north of the town of Gemas. Men of the Australian 8th Division killed an estimated 600 men of Lieutenant General Matsui Takuro’s Japanese 5th Division in the ambush at the bridge itself, whilst Australian anti-tank guns destroyed several Japanese tanks in the battle to the north of Gemas. Although the ambush was an Allied success, the defence of Muar and Bakri on the west coast was a total failure which resulted in the near-annihilation of Brigadier H. C. Duncan’s Indian 45th Brigade and heavy casualties for the two Australian battalions attached to it. This was also the first engagement between units of Major General M. Beckwith-Smith’s British 18th Division and Japanese forces in Malaya.

The ambush was ordered by Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, commander of the Malaya Command, as he felt strongly that ambush was the optimum manner in which to fight the Japanese. 'Westforce', which was a multi-national force under Bennett’s command, was assigned to defend the Muar area, and took up positions covering the front from the mountains to the shore of the Malacca Strait. There were two main areas, each of them subdivided into sectors, which were themselves widely separated and linked with each other chiefly by signal communications of a decidedly fragile nature.

The first of these two areas was that around the central trunk road and the railway beyond Segamat. The area had three subordinate sectors: firstly, there was that astride both the road and the railway near Gemas, where Brigadier W. A. Trott’s Indian 8th Brigade was the holding force; secondly, there was a sector farther forward along the same road held by Brigadier D. S. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade with the task of undertaking a counter-offensive and had already prepared an advanced ambush by the Australian 2/29th Battalion to tackle the advancing Japanese a few miles ahead of the Gemensah bridge; and thirdly, there was Brigadier G. W. A. Painter’s Indian 22nd Brigade with the task with guarding the approaches to Segamat from Malacca on each side of Mt Ophir.

Captain D. J. Duffy’s B Company of Lieutenant Colonel F. Galleghan’s Australian 2/30th Battalion dug in and concealed itself on one side of the Gemensah bridge. spanning a stream, as part of the ambush. The bridge itself had been readied for demolition, and one battery of field artillery was sited behind the infantry on higher ground from which commanded the Japanese approach to the bridge.

On the Japanese side, Colonel Mukaida’s 'Mukaida' Force had been created to spearhead the advance in place of the tired 5th Division, and was approaching Gemas and the Australian ambush at Gemensah bridge. The 'Mukaida' Force initially comprised Mukaida’s own 1st Tank Regiment (31 Type 97 Chi-Ha medium and 17 Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks at the start of the campaign) with an infantry battalion and artillery for support under the command of the 9th Brigade. Reinforcement was provided on 15 January by the 11th Regiment on 15 January.

The second area was that which covered the western coast and the roads running beside it to the Johore Strait. This area had two sectors, actually more in line with each other than those of the first area, but even less effectively in touch. The defence of this area was assigned to Duncan’s Indian 45th Brigade reinforced with a single battery of field artillery. The area included the port of Muar, and stretched some 30 miles (50 km) inland into the jungle toward Segamat, along the course of the winding Muar river between deep-wooded and creeper-covered banks. As ordered by Bennett, two of the brigade’s battalions were disposed along the river line, which they thus divided between them, while the third was in reserve near the coast.

Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division was advancing to the south along Malaya’s western coast with a battalion-sized force under the command of Colonel Masakazu Ogaki approaching the Muar river area from the sea, while the 4th Guards Regiment and 5th Guards Regiment approached Muar from the north under Nishimura’s direct command.

Brigadier C. L. B. Duke’s newly arrived British 53rd Brigade of Beckwith-Smith’s British 18th Division was also part of 'Westforce'. The brigade included the 2/Cambridgeshire Regiment, 5/Royal Norfolk Regiment and 6/Royal Norfolk Regiment. Although Percival ordered these battalions' deployment, they were in fact unfit for immediate employment after being at sea for 11 weeks.

The Gemencheh bridge ambush started at about 16.00 on 14 January as men of the 5th Division approached the area on bicycles and crossed the bridge unharassed. Then came the main column of several hundreds of men, and also mounted on bicycles, followed by tanks and engineer trucks. At this point, the bridge was demolished, sending timber, bicycles and bodies flying. B Company of the Australian 2/30th Battalion, which was spread along each side of the road, concealed in well-protected firing positions, then opened fire and the Japanese column took severe losses as rows of men and equipment were mowed down by machine gun and rifle fire. Most of the Japanese troops had tied their rifles to the handlebars of their bicycles, making the Australian ambush even more successful. Casualties continued to mount in the ambushed column. However, the bicycle infantry who had passed through the ambush area discovered the field telephone cable providing a link to the gun positions and hidden in patchy undergrowth, and promptly severed it. As a result, the Allied artillery received no signal, and thus provided no support for the ambush party.

The Australians nonetheless did receive a measure artillery support, though this came from their opponents as most of the Japanese shells rained down on the Japanese main column at the bridge, adding to its rising casualty list. Having executed a substantial slaughter, the ambush party fell back in several groups that same evening, and by next day most of B Company had rejoined its battalion in a position near Gemas. B Company had lost only one man killed and six men missing in the fighting at the bridge. It was later learned that these six men had been captured and shot by the Japanese. The 9th Brigade's war diary puts the casualties of the 'Mukaida' Force at 70 men killed and 57 wounded, but this figure does not include the losses of attached units.

On the morning of 15 January, Japanese aircraft arrived and began dive-bombing the town of Gemas. Six hours after the ambush, the Japanese had repaired the bridge and were moving toward Galleghan’s main position at the 61-mile (98-km) marker on the road linking Gemas and Tampin. The surviving members of the 'Mukaida' Force were now reinforced by the 11th Regiment. The Australian 2/30th Battalion was positioned astride the road and railway line with two 2-pdr anti-tank guns facing the road. By 10.00 on 15 January, Japanese infantry had started to clash with the Allied defence line, and as the day continued the Japanese were boosted by the arrival of an increasing number of tanks. In a short but violent battle the guns of the Australian 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment destroyed six of the eight Japanese tanks and their supporting infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese infantry following the tanks.

After a full day of fighting, Galleghan withdrew his battalion from the area. The Australian 2/30th Battalion had inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese with minimal loss to itself inasmuch as it had lost only 17 men killed, 55 wounded and nine missing. In the two days of fighting, at the bridge and on the Gemas road, it is estimated by Australian historians that the 5th Division suffered some 1,000 casualties, though this figure is disputed.

The withdrawal was unhindered by the Japanese, and for the next day or so quiet settled over the Segamat area. Boosted by the initial success, Bennett was quoted in the Singapore Times as saying that his troops were confident that they would not only halt the Japanese advance, but compel them to be on the defensive.

The Muar river ferry crossing, where the Indian 56th Brigade was deployed along 24 miles (39 km) of river front with four companies of infantry to the north of the river and the remainder positioned to the south of it, was tasked to cover the main coast road at Muar against the advance of the Imperial Guards Division.

On the night of 15/16 January, the Japanese captured a number of barges moored on the southern bank of the Muar river, filled them with men and towed them to flank both the town of Muar and the Indian garrison’s only reserve battalion. Packed barges and junks were making their way across the river mouth, meeting no resistance except a subsequent brush with an Indian patrol, which retired after a brief exchange of fire. The patrol did not alert headquarters that the Japanese were already on the south bank. As day broke, the outflanking force surprised and routed one company of the 7/6th Rajputana Rifles. The other three Indian companies (two of the 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles and one of the Rajputana Rifles) on the north bank were cut off and soon taken prisoner without the main garrison at Muar even realising that an entire Japanese division was on the other side of the river. By 12.00. the Japanese were attacking from upstream both the town of Muar and the garrison’s line of communications with its only reserve battalion, the 4/9th Jat Regiment, which was located near Bakri, on the main road to the south from Muar.

At Muar itself, a Japanese attempt to land and seize the harbour was repulsed by Australian artillery firing at packed barges and junks as they tried to make their way across the river mouth. By a time late in the afternoon, though, the Japanese, who had already made another crossing farther up the river, were in the town of Muar itself. The commanders of the Rajputana Rifles and the Royal Garhwal Rifles were killed along with most of their officers during the fighting around the town, leaving the mostly teenaged Indian soldiers leaderless. To add to the mounting disasters for the Indian 45th Brigade it was at this point that an air raid by Japanese aircraft destroyed the headquarters of the Indian 45th Brigade, killing all the staff officers and concussing Duncan, who was one of the only two survivors of the raid. As a result of Duncan’s concussion and the deaths of two of his battalion commanders and most of the headquarters staff, command of the Indian 45th Brigade was temporarily handed to Lieutenant Colonel C. G. W. Anderson, commander of the Australian 2/19th Battalion.

By the fall of night on 16 January, Muar town and the harbour had fallen into Japanese hands. The remnants of the Indian 45th Brigade retreated to the south along the coast as far as Parit Jawa. Japanese ambushes were soon deployed to repel any Allied counterattack, while at the same time the Japanese continued their seemingly relentless advance toward Bakri, Parit Sulong and Batu Pahat.

On 17 January, the surviving units of Indian 45th Brigade, with the Australian 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions serving as reinforcements, were despatched to recapture Muar. The Indian and Australian forces rallied around Bakri and organised a rough perimeter defence of the town. Lieutenant Colonel J. Robertson’s Australian 2/29th Battalion dug in around the road linking Bakri and Muar with anti-tank, anti-aircraft and mortar emplacements. The partially recovered Duncan planned a three-pronged advance from Bakri to Muar: up the main road between the towns, from the jungle inland, and along the coast road. The attack went wrong before it could even be launched. The Indian 45th Brigade ran into one of the Japanese ambushes, and the counterattack was cancelled.

At 06.45 on the following day, Nishimura ordered his own three-pronged attack on Bakri. It was spearheaded by nine Type 95 Ha-Go tanks under Captain Shiegeo Gotanda. Inspired by the Japanese armour’s success at the Slim river, Gotanda advanced without infantry support against the Australian 2/29th Battalion. Repeating what the Australian gunners had achieved at Gemas, Lieutenant W. McClure’s two anti-tank guns, also from the Australian 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment, destroyed all nine of Gotanda’s tanks. Robertson, commander of the Australian 2/29th Battalion, was killed soon after this: he was shot while retreating from an attack on a Japanese roadblock. Lacking tank support, the Japanese infantry was unable to break through. By dawn on 19 January, the Japanese were in action on the main road, nearly surrounding the Indian 45th Brigade.

The 6/Royal Norfolk Regiment of the British 53rd Brigade was defending a ridge about 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Yong Peng, covering the effectively encircled Indian 45th Brigade’s line of retreat. Early in the afternoon of 19 January, two battalions of the Japanese 4th Guards Regiment attacked and drove the Norfolks off the ridge, the British retiring through the thick jungle to the summit of the northern ridge. The Norfolks were unable to inform headquarters of their position as they had no wireless.

At dawn on 20 January, the Lieutenant Colonel H. Moorhead’s 3/16th Punjab Regiment was instructed to recapture the ridge. By the time the battalion reached it, it had come under 'friendly fire' from the Norfolks, who had mistaken them for the Japanese, causing several casualties. After losses on both sides, it was later sorted out. But before a proper defence could be organised, the Japanese attacked, killing Moorhead and driving both the Norfolks and Punjabis off the hill. The Indian 45th Brigade and the two Australian battalions at Bakri were now in danger of being cut off.

On this same day, Duncan, who had recovered from his concussion and was commanding the rear guard, was killed when he led a successful bayonet charge to recover lost vehicles. With Duncan and Robertson dead, Anderson assumed command of the Indian 45th Brigade and all other units around Bakri. Early in the morning of 20 January, Anderson was ordered to pull out of Bakri and attempt to break through to Yong Peng, and decided to delay until the 4/9th Jat Regiment could reach the column. During this delay most of the Australian 2/29th Battalion was cut off from Anderson’s position. Only an estimated 200 Australians and 1,000 Indians were able to join Anderson’s column. Other survivors of the Australian 2/29th Battalion later made it back in small parties. Within 1.25 miles (2 km) or so of Bakri, Anderson’s column was held up by a Japanese roadblock. Several efforts to break through failed, until a bayonet charge led by Anderson himself was successful.

More roadblocks lay ahead of the brigade, and by sunset, after a struggle which had raged throughout the daylight hours, the column had covered only 3 miles (4.8 km). Anderson warned that there was to be no rest that night and ordered the march to be continued. The brigade had now reached the edge of some more open country and passage was easier, though the column was laden with wounded.

Containing only young and inexperienced soldiers, the Indian 45th Brigade had ceased to exist as a unit. Most of its officers, including Duncan and all three battalion commanders, had been killed or wounded. In the space of a few days, therefore, Percival had lost an entire Indian brigade and the best part of two Australian battalions as well as one brigadier, three Indian Army battalion commanders and one Australian battalion commander. It took Anderson’s column two days to fight its way 15 miles (24 km) to approach the Parit Sulong bridge. Scouts from the column reported at 07.15 that the bridge was in Japanese hands. The guards left there by the 6/Norfolks, cut off from all contact and without rations since the Japanese raiding force drove the battalion from the defile a short distance farther on, had left their position and set off along the river bank to Batu Pahat.

Anderson’s column found a well-fortified Japanese machine gun position at the Parit Sulong bridge. The column made a dawn attempt to dislodge the Japanese on 21 January, but was driven back by tanks, aircraft and artillery. It was then forced into an area measuring only about 440 yards (400 m) of roadway. Fighting raged all day, and by 17.00 casualties had become severe. A wireless message was then received during the morning that a relieving force from Yong Peng was on its way, and the sound of distant gunfire between Parit Sulong and Yong Peng gave the column hope. The rear of the column was repeatedly attacked by tanks and infantry. During the late afternoon and until after the fall of darkness, two soldiers successfully disabled the leading tank using grenades, and then an anti-tank gun hit the tank and set on fire, forming a temporary roadblock. This gave the rearward defenders an opportunity to disable the other tanks, using grenades and Boys anti-tank rifles.

With 25-pdr gun and mortar ammunition almost exhausted, Anderson sent a message to Bennett requesting an air attack at dawn on the Japanese holding the far end of the bridge, and for food and morphine be airdropped on the column.

At dusk, with his dead and wounded piling up, Anderson sent two ambulances filled with critically wounded men to the bridge under a flag of truce, requesting that they be allowed to pass through to the Allied lines. The Japanese refused, and instead demanded that the Indian brigade surrender, offering to care for the wounded. Still hopeful of relief, Anderson refused to consider surrender. The Japanese then ordered that the ambulances were to remain on the bridge to act as a roadblock, and they would be shot if they attempted to move. After dark, a lieutenant and a driver, both of whom were themselves wounded, slipped the brakes of the ambulances, and let them run quietly backward down the slope from the bridge. Amid the roar of gunfire, they started the engines and drove back to the brigade.

During the morning of the following day, two Fleet Air Arm Fairey Albacore single-engined biplane bombers arrived from Singapore and dropped supplies on the Indian 45th Brigade. Escorted by three Royal Australian Air Force Brewster Buffalo single-engined fighters, they then turned their attention on the Japanese holding the far end of the bridge, and bombed them. Soon after this however, Japanese tanks were again active and delivered an infantry-supported flank attack on the shrinking Allied position.

Anderson later received a message from Bennett saying 'Sorry unable help after your heroic effort. Good luck', and stating that there was no hope of relief reaching the column on time, leaving it to Anderson’s own discretion whether and when to withdraw. As a last resort, Anderson sent one company to test the Japanese resistance at the bridge later in the morning of the same day in the hope that the air attack had weakened the Japanese sufficiently for the column to break through. The response convinced him there was no chance of success. At 09.00, after the guns, vehicles and other equipment had been destroyed, Anderson ordered a retreat. The 150 wounded who were unable to walk were left in the care of voluntary attendants. Anderson and the remnants of the brigade then dispersed to the east through jungle and swamp to Yong Peng. Eventually, about 500 Australians and 400 Indians, out of more than 4,000 men from the Indian 45th Brigade and two Australian battalions, survived to reach the British lines. Small groups of stragglers kept arriving from the units cut off at Bakri.

On 23 January, in the battle’s final act, the 2/Loyal Regiment, covering the last men of Anderson’s column to reach the British lines, had two companies positioned as a rearguard facing the defile on the road to Yong Peng. At 14.00, as the battalion was about to withdraw, seven Japanese tanks supported by an estimated two battalions of infantry emerged rapidly from the defile and attempted to dismantle the Loyals' roadblock. In the short battle that followed, the Loyals inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese infantry, but ultimately for lack of any anti-tank weapons were driven off by the Japanese tanks and numerically superior Japanese infantry. During the 'Battle of Muar' and as the rearguard, the Loyals suffered an estimated 200 casualties before being withdrawn to Singapore.

The Indian 45th Brigade’s losses were devastating, especially in officers, and it was impossible to rebuild the brigade in the last few weeks of the Malayan campaign. Only 400 Indian soldiers of the Indian 45th Brigade and 500 men of the two Australian battalions escaped with Anderson’s force. The brigade was soon disbanded, and the remaining troops were transferred to other Indian brigades. The two Australian battalions fared little better: 271 men of the 2/19th Battalion made it to the British lines, but only 130 men of the 2/29th Battalion reached the British lines before Singapore surrendered on 15 February. Many of both battalions' men were still in the jungle when the campaign ended.

Some 700 Japanese troops were killed in the ambush at Gemas, making this the largest loss suffered in any single action at the time. Japan’s losses at Muar were one company of tanks and the equivalent of one battalion of men.

Shortage of signal equipment and transport were the cause of the Allies' slow response. During the week, the Japanese were able to operate 250 bombers and 150 fighters from airfields in Malaya and southern Thailand. Operational Allied aircraft available at this stage of the campaign were probably no more than 35 bombers and about as many fighters.

Whatever its limitations, the Indian 45th Brigade did achieve one vitally important task in nearly a week of constant combat. While the Indian brigade continued to fight from Muar harbour to Parit Sulong bridge, stalling the Imperial Guards Division despite this latter’s strong air and tank support, the three brigades of 'Westforce' in the Segamat area were able to withdraw safely down the central trunk road to Labis, and thence toward the key crossroads at Yong Peng.

Even though it suffered very substantial losses in the process, Anderson’s force had kept the Imperial Guards Division occupied for four days. Percival recorded in his official record that 'The Battle of Muar was one of the epics of the Malayan campaign. Our little force by dogged resistance had held up a division of the Japanese Imperial Guards attacking with all the advantages of air and tank support for nearly a week, and in doing so had saved the Segamat force from encirclement and probable annihilation. The award of the Victoria Cross to Anderson was a fitting tribute both to his own prowess and to the valour of his men.'

One criticism levelled at Percival was his decision to deploy the British 53rd Brigade into the front line. The brigade had disembarked at Singapore on 13 January and only three days later was despatched to the front after nearly three months at sea in crowded troopships, travelling from England to the east coast of Africa, where the men had no exercise whatsoever. Part of the British 18th Division, the brigade had originally been assigned to the North African campaign, but the troopships were redirected to Singapore after the Japanese had invaded Malaya.

News of the ambush at Gemensah bridge was well received in Singapore. Despite the defeat at Muar, Bakri and Parit Sulong, many of those in Singapore thought that the action at Gemensah was the long-awaited turning point of the campaign and that the rout of the Japanese invasion force would not be long in coming.