By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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
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).
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.
Australian soldier’s rendering of
Joey, the 8th Division’s mascot.
Died of wounds sustained during scuffle
with small Malayan children, 1941.
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
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.
Henry Gordon Bennett. Australian War Memorial
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.
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
Australian anti-tank gunners overlook
the Johore Strait. Singapore, early February
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.
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.
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.
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
See the Australians in action in Great Pacific War — available now!
Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.
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.