19 January 1942. Kuala Kangsar, Malaya.
Lt-Col Ian Stewart couldn’t have been prouder of his 2nd Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Ever since they’d arrived in Singapore Stewart had trained the men to live and fight in the worst terrain Malaya had to offer. Now that they were finally able to put that training into practice, Stewart kept finding wherever he went in the Battalion’s positions that the men were in high spirits.
General Murray-Lyon had agreed to Stewart’s request to stay on the western side of the Perak for as long as possible. He wanted to give the Japanese a taste of their own medicine, even though he was short of one full Infantry Company detached in various places. The men of the Administrative and Pioneer Platoons had volunteered to a man to leave their normal jobs to strengthen the fighting strength of the Battalion. Stewart joked with the Padre that he seemed the only man not sporting at least a handgun. But the Padre was up with a party of stretcher-bearers with A Company, so Stewart had no complaints about the Church of Scotland minister. The Pipe Major accompanied the Battalion CO wherever he went, acting as a personal bodyguard, along with his own and Stewart’s batman.
Stewart had managed to beg, borrow or steal (mostly steal) enough Thompson submachine guns so that there was at least one in each section of infantry, most of the infantry Companies managed two per squad. Much of the work done by the men would be up close and personal, and there was something of the Jimmy Cagney ‘gangster’ look that the men liked. With the Carrier Platoon not using their vehicles, the extra Bren teams were spread among the platoons. Extra bags of grenades were carried in each section, and most of the men, since they were moving from one prepared position to another, carried as little kit as possible except for ammunition.
The battle had begun the previous day when just after dawn the Japanese artillery opened up after an air raid. The road from Taiping to Kuala Kangsar went through a fairly narrow valley, which Stewart had chosen to be the place where he would show the Japanese what jungle fighting was really like. It was an obvious chokepoint, and Major-General Kawamura’s 9th Brigade led the way with 11th Regiment, supported by two companies of 2nd Tank Regiment. The leading battalions had deployed expecting a fight, one battalion pushing up each hill on either side of the valley. Most of the tanks concentrated on the road, attempting to support the infantry with cannon and machine gun fire, a few enterprising tank commanders attempted to accompany the infantry through the jungle.
Stewart had organised his signal platoon to work with a pair of Royal Artillery Forward Observers on each hill, who’d had time to work out fire plans. As the Japanese advanced, they were under almost constant, accurate bombardment. The Argylls had been preparing for this battle for over a week. Just about every foot of ground had been gone over, sorting out firing positions, withdrawal routes, and having prepared killing grounds, often created with the help of the 15 Field Company Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners, and a good supply of mines and explosives.
All that preparation was immediately effective as the first platoons of Japanese troops, usually showing signs of being undertrained, fell into trap after trap. No sooner had an officer or NCO tried to bring some kind of order into the Japanese movements than Scottish snipers cut them down. The Scots weren’t interested in a stand-up fight. They drew increasing numbers of Japanese troops into the killing zones, and then withdraw to do it all again. By the middle of the day, both Japanese Battalion commanders were dead, and their units’ strength was depleted. The road itself was pockmarked with craters rapidly filling with water from the heavy rain showers that covered the battlefield in the early afternoon. Kawamura had ordered the third battalion of 11th Regiment to stop for nothing but to get to the far side of the valley. With great bravery the men set off to do so, but the concentration of a British Division’s worth of artillery raining down HE on them, and with a Machine Gun battalion putting down indirect fire along the road, their bravery didn’t stop them dying in large numbers.
Brigadier Paris (CO 12th Indian Brigade) had 5th Bn, 2nd Punjab Regiment support the Argylls, ready to cover them as they withdrew eventually the river crossing. The Punjabis had put up a roadblock at the eastern end of the valley which the survivors of 11th Regiment didn’t have the strength to even attempt to attack. A battery of 2-pdrs were on hand to persuade the Japanese tank commanders that forward movement wasn’t a solution to their problems.
The problems encountered by the Japanese 11th Infantry Regiment had in no way dissuaded Yamashita from his expectation of victory. He was well aware that this was never going to be easy. Some of his staff had suggested earlier in December that by 18 January his men would be in Johore readying for the final attack on Singapore that should fall by the middle of February! Fanciful nonsense of course.
The order to Major-General Kawamura was for the rest of his Brigade to advance and keep up the momentum. For every Japanese soldier killed, at least one British soldier must also have died. Kawamura requested, and got, more artillery to try to counter the British artillery. 25th Army’s twenty-eight 150mm guns were already concentrated and were given special permission to use more shells than they were normally allowed. In addition, another Battalion of 81mm mortars were released to Kawamura from Army reserves. An extra 36 mortars would certainly make life difficult for the British in the hills.
Lt Col Stewart had his Pipe Major play the Regimental Quick March “The Campbells are Coming” during a lull in the fighting. The tired men of the Argylls hearing the pipes recognised the ‘well done’ from their CO. If they heard ‘Hielan’ Laddie’ they would know it was time to withdraw. As part of their reconnaissance of the battlefield the Argylls had planted stores of ammunition, fresh water, cold rations and medical kits at various points. These replenished the men, with each platoon trying to make sure that every section had time to get their breath back, clean their weapons, recharge their ammo supplies and if possible, get something to eat.
The fighting went on in the hills until failing light and exhaustion had the Japanese halt and try to consolidate their gains. The nightly resupply was brought up and carried up to the forward companies. The Argyll’s ‘goodnight’ to their opponents was a barrage of 2-inch mortar rounds, and a few rousing reels on the bagpipes. Once darkness had fallen completely each platoon sent out a squad split into two four-man patrols. Using all the skills honed in pre-war exercises, many a Japanese sentry was found the next morning dead, with the occasional crash of a handful of grenades being thrown into Japanese positions. Not many Japanese soldiers slept at all that night, almost none slept well, even those completely exhausted by their efforts of the day.
To the north, on the road from Grik, the Imperial Guards Division’s problems continued, and once more it was a Scottish Regiment causing them difficulty. Trying to move a large body of men over very poor roads and tracks had its own problems. If the men were carrying heavy equipment, manhandling artillery pieces, and under the occasional ambush, then that was a whole other problem. The objective of putting in a flanking attack meant the Division had to cover fifty miles from Grik to Kuala Kangsar. They managed just five miles, and to make matters worse, four RAAF Hudsons appeared and managed to land their sticks of bombs pretty accurately near the crossroads at Grik where an ammunition dump had been set up. The RAAF crews noted in their briefing that they had seen secondary explosions as they left the area. At the scene itself large numbers of casualties had been caused, especially among the Division’s supply troops.
To the south, the 1st Duke of York’s Own Skinners Horse, with their various supporting units, had given up ten miles to Major-General Sakurai’s 33rd Division. In doing so the Indian cavalry had managed to frustrate Sakurai who ordered the commander of 214th Infantry Regiment to allow no level of casualties to slow down the advance. Without the width, or speed, to flank and envelop the Indian Cavalry, there was no way the Regiment could achieve anything other than being bled at just about every turn in the road. Even the intervention of Japanese bombers and fighters to support 33rd Division’s progress couldn’t derail the Cavalry’s slowing of the Japanese advance.
To the east, Lieutenant-General Watanabe’s 56th Division (113 and 148 Regiments) had relied on the railway on Thailand’s east coast to bring the men and equipment most of the way to the front line. The Australian Rose Force had been doing their best, with the occasional help from a Dutch or British submarine, to infiltrate and do whatever damage they could to the railway, concentrating on the bridges. Two groups had been captured and killed, but others had got away scot-free and the Japanese railway units, along with engineers and impressed Thai workers were doing their best to keep the line open. The delays meant that most of the men of 113th Regiment had arrived, but much of their heavier equipment and ammunition resupply hadn’t.
Two battalions of 113th Regiment moved up to reinforce the men of 143rd Regiment, who in turn had taken over from 142nd Regiment. 143rd Regiment, having been reassigned from the southern tip of Burma, hadn’t had much chance to make progress against the 9th Indian Division. Japanese probes were finding that the Indians were firmly seated in well prepared defences, with their supply line was keeping them well provisioned. The efforts of those who had attempted to defeat the Indians never managed to get the weight of men necessary to break through the Indian’s lines. The arrival of 113th and 148th Regiments to strengthen 143rd Regiment would finally give at least parity with the three Indian Brigades, though the British had a far higher number of artillery units than the Japanese did.