Australians in Malaya
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2019

Among the motley collection of Allied troops available to defend Malaya in December 1941, the most capable large unit was the Australian 8th Division. Considered much less battle-worthy than the other three divisions of the Australian Imperial Force, with those units committed to the Middle East the 8th Division was the only available Australian force.

Australia maintained two separate armies during the early years of the Second World War: the Second Australian Imperial Force, made up of volunteers willing to serve overseas, the the Citizen Military Force, commonly called the Militia, of draftees and volunteers barred by law from leaving Australian territory. Many militia members volunteered for the AIF, however, and after the Japanese attacked in late 1941 the government became very liberal in its definition of “Australian territory,” committing Militia units to combat in New Guinea.

The Second AIF (the First served in World War One) formed four infantry divisions and one armored division, keeping the numerical sequence of the 1st AIF divisions and brigades (thus starting with the 6th Division and 16th Brigade). A planned 10th Division had to be broken up before it completed forming, to make up losses in the other units, while 1st Australian Armoured Division never left the home country (though some of its battalions fought the Japanese in New Guinea).

Australian soldier’s rendering of Joey, the 8th Division’s mascot. Died of wounds sustained during scuffle with small Malayan children, 1941.
The 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions saw action in the Middle East, with 9th Division headquarters and several brigades spending some months in England awaiting an expected German invasion. Eighth Australian Division formed in July 1940, along with 7th, but did not join the other AIF divisions in the Middle East.

In February 1941, 8th Division received a new assignment and a new commander. It would defend the northern approaches to Australia. Its 22nd Brigade went to Malaya, while 23rd Brigade moved to the Northern Territory and eventually was broken up to send three reinforced-battalion task forces to Rabaul, Ambon Island in the Dutch East Indies, and Timor. The 24th Brigade went to the Middle East to become part of 9th Division, eventually being replaced by the newly-raised 27th Brigade which arrived in Malaya along with division headquarters and the division’s kangaroo mascot, Joey, in August 1941.

Lt. Gen. Henry Gordon Bennett took command in February 1941. One of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, Gordon Bennett had been wounded repeatedly during the First World War and had become an Australian hero for his stellar command of the 6th Battalion at Lone Pine during the Gallipoli campaign. The youngest Australian officer ever promoted to general’s rank, Gordon Bennett took command of the 3rd Brigade in December 1916 and led this unit for the remainder of the war.

Henry Gordon Bennett. Australian War Memorial P01461.002.
Though Gordon Bennett had a well-earned reputation for personal bravery, it soon became clear why he had not been deployed to the Middle East with the “fighting” divisions — his was an abrasive personality, particularly jealous of others’ honors. He seethed at being passed over for command of the Second AIF, a post given to his rival Thomas Blamey, and seems to have regarded command of 8th Division as a poor substitute.

Australian official histories of the Malaya/Singapore campaign call the 8th Division “raw” and sometimes even “untrained,” but this is neither accurate nor fair. While not combat-hardened like the other AIF divisions, it contained the same mixture of pre-war regulars and enthusiastic volunteers as the other divisions, had trained for a year and a half by the time of the Japanese invasion, and had had some months to become acclimated to Malaya’s damp heat. These qualities did not apply to many of the other Commonwealth formations present in Malaya, which were indeed raw and often untrained (British and Indian infantry battalions especially so), but the Australians represented a first-line combat force.

The Diggers of 8th Division were not committed in the fighting for northern and central Malaya in December 1941 and early January 1942, where the Japanese successively outflanked positions of the III Indian Ciorps and drove the British and Indian troops back into Johore, the Malayan sultanate flanking Singapore. With the newly-arrived Indian 45th Brigade attached, 8th Division met the Japanese on 12 January 1942.

An ambush laid by 27th Brigade’s 2/30th Battalion at the Gemencheh Bridge over the Muar River killed over 1,000 Japanese and destroyed 10 tanks. The Aussies allowed the first bicycle-mounted elements to pass over the bridge, then blew it up behind them. The Japanese trapped on the wrong bank of the river died to the last man.

Australian anti-tank gunners overlook the Johore Strait. Singapore, early February 1942.
A Japanese dawn attack by the 5th Guards Regiment and Gotanda Tank Company fell apart when the Australians destroyed all eight of Gotanda’s tanks and then killed all of their crews, who apparently attempted to attack the Diggers bare-handed after the loss of their machines. However, Japanese attacks broke through 45th Indian Brigade and 53rd British Brigade, which had just arrived from England. Isolated, the Australians fought their way through the Japanese blocking position at Parit Sulong, with Lt. Col. Charles Anderson of the 2/19th Battalion winning the Victoria Cross for personally leading a bayonet charge that broke the roadblock. However, a number of wounded had to be left behind and the Japanese Imperial Guard massacred over 150 of them. Gordon Bennett led a fighting retreat back onto Singapore, helped by air attacks from newly-arrived Hurricane fighters and a fierce bayonet charge by the 5/11th Sikhs.

Once on Singapore, the Australians covered the island’s western shores, with 45th Indian Brigade attached along with several companies of fanatic ethnic Chinese volunteers raised by Lt. Col. John Dalley. The Japanese landings during the night of 7/8 February 1942 fell on 22nd Brigade. Things began to go wrong when artillery fire cut the telephone wires leading to the searchlight batteries emplaced to guard against a night landing; 22nd Brigade’s radios had been withdrawn from the front-line companies for servicing and had not yet been returned. The Diggers killed hundreds of Japanese with machine-gun fire, but shorn of effective artillery support they fell back. The Chinese companies, armed with swords and shotguns for the most part, fought with suicidal abandon and sought hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese, ignoring Australian officers’ commands to retreat.

On the night of the 9th, the Japanese Imperial Guard began to land in the sector near the Kranji River held by 27th Australian Brigade. Once again the Diggers could not deploy their artillery or searchlights thanks to broken communications, but Sapper Lt. A. Watchorn opened the valves at the big Kranji oil storage depot and coated the Strait with a large oil slick, which he then ignited. Hundreds of Guardsmen perished in the flames.

Australian nurses, Singapore, 1942. Sister Dora Gardham (left) died in captivity; Matron Irene Drummond (right) was machine-gunned in cold blood by Japanese soldiers of the Imperial Guard Division.

Honor of the Samurai. Ellen Keats (left) was murdered alongside Irene Drummond.

As both Australian brigades and the Indians retreated to the Jurong River, Gordon Bennett received orders from Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, commander of all Commonwealth forces in Malaya and Singapore, marked “Secret and Personal.” This would not be the final defensive line, Percival informed Gordon Bennett; that would be further to the southeast just outside the city itself. Gordon Bennett, who died in 1962, never shared his reasoning for his next act, but he circulated Percival’s private message among his brigade and battalion commanders. Some of them took this to mean that they should retreat immediately to this new line, others held their units in place. The entire Commonwealth position began to unravel, and Japanese troops quickly infiltrated into the gaps.

Despite the disaster, the Commonwealth brigades managed to extract themselves and man the final perimeter outside the city. With outside support now limited to bombastic rants from Winston Churchill demanding “protracted fighting amidst the ruins of Singapore City,” Percival contemplated surrender. On the 12th Gordon Bennett and Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, commander of III Indian Corps, advised that he do so, while the Australian general ordered his artillerymen to only fire in support of Australian units. Gordon Bennett also informed the Australian government that he intended to immediately surrender any Australian unit cut off by the Japanese — but did not inform Percival of either decision. On the 15th, again urged by Gordon Bennet and Heath, Percival finally capitulated to the Japanese.

Percival surrenders Singapore. Painting by unknown Japanese artist.

Apparently Gordon Bennett thought this a fate suitable for his remaining 15,000 troops, but not for his own august person. He and two staff officers seized a junk and made their way to Sumatra, Java and then Australia. The general informed his superiors that he had abandoned his troops because his personal knowledge of Japanese tactics was far more valuable than any gesture he could make in Singapore. In a society that esteems physical courage, his pleading carried no weight, and a Court of Inquiry found him guilty of abandoning his command.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.