Battles of the 2/29th Battalion AIF

The Battle of Muar

Intelligence gathering and accurate briefings are now an intricate part of any battle appreciation. In modern battle procedures, any responsible commander would not venture forward without intelligence reports.

Such was not the case in 1942. Abysmal maps, lack of overall appreciation of the Japanese soldier's ability and resolve, plus absolute arrogance from mainly the British High Command formulated a recipe for disaster.

Exact numbers and dispositions and armour support of the advancing Japanese was only known partially through educated guess work by the Australian High Command. Major General Bennett could not have known critical statistics of the Japanese to a degree where a full and accurate appreciation of the enemy strength and dispositions could have been made. Hindsight is a great teacher, but at the time - at that very moment, life and death decisions were made, rightly or wrongly orders were given ,and the 2/29th paid the price (as did numerous other units).

The Japanese on the other hand were being constantly fed information from their active and well organised Fifth Columnists who had infiltrated the business community, public offices, administrative offices and the various Officers and soldiers clubs and messes (where best to gather information but from the source?). Many of these "spies" had been "planted" years before the outbreak of the war. They ranged from subservient barbers, clerks, waiters, photographers, hawkers and servants to not only the high ranking military leaders, but Government Officials.

No movement or deployment orders went unreported to the Japanese. The Japanese intelligence system proved its worth and contributed greatly to their swift conquest.

Amid this ever increasing turmoil, the 2/29th was ordered to advance to the Muar-Yong Peng Road and hold the road for seven days to prevent any Japanese movement south to Singapore. The Unit was briefed as to the known strength which was believed to be only approximately 200 strong, consisting of dismounted troops with little or no armour support. It was also believed that the advancing troops were inexperienced and poorly led, with no logistical support to sustain a prolonged advance. (This last part of the assessment was in fact fairly accurate - the Japanese only had 10 days of supplies left before Singapore fell).

As a prelude to the advance, the Japanese attacked Muar from the air on the 11th January 1942, and by the 15th January 1942 were approaching Muar from Malacca to the North.

The Battalion, less D Coy (left to defend Kluang aerodrome) were now poised to repel the advancing Japanese. Forward elements of the Japanese advance guard began probing the Battalion's defensive position and small exchanges of rifle fire and a certain amount of screaming and yelling took place, but no serious casualties were suffered. The Japanese then proceeded to lay down a heavy mortar barrage, which proved to be extremely accurate with most of the bombs falling within the Battalion's perimeter. It was here that the Battalion learnt the value of fighting at night with the grenade and the bayonet. Of the 8 Australians wounded that first night, 6 were wounded by the .303 though not seriously (what we now call "friendly fire!")

The Battalion stood too at 0530 hours the following morning of the 18th January 1942. Shortly after, in the distance could be heard a rumbling sound from the direction of Muar. The rumbling sound was accompanied by the whistle of more incoming mortar bombs, preceded by eleven light tanks coming down the road from Muar.

The first wave of tanks were engaged by the Anti Tank guns from the 2/4th Anti Tank Regiment, however it was observed with shocked disbelief by members of the 2/29th that the armour piercing shells went right through the Japanese tanks and exploded uselessly out the other end! Some Japanese ground troops were caught with shrapnel, but the tanks rumbled on.

This enabled the tanks to penetrate the Battalion's outer perimeter, however quick work by the Anti tank crews made short work of the tanks once the correct ammunition had been broken out. If this was not catastrophic enough, the mortar platoon officer in charge of issuing mortar ammunition, issued smoke bombs instead of fragmentation, resulting in blinding and chocking smoke which could be seen for miles.

Again, critical time was wasted whilst fragmentation ammunition was finally ported forward to the mortar base plates.

The picture now was that within the Battalion's perimeter were numerous Japanese tanks burning furiously, the Australians picking off the Japanese using Tommy Guns and hand grenades.

The intensity of the Japanese mortar barrage increased with the advance of the Infantry moving forward under cover of this murderous barrage. The Japanese were fearless in their advance and took suicidal risks to take up a better fire position from which they could bring down horrifying automatic fire into each Company position.

By late afternoon, every Company was pinned down by machine gun fire, mortars and canon fire from tanks. The situation became even more perilous by Japanese snipers who began to systematically pick off machine gunners and then Officers. In order to report the present situation to Brigade Headquarters accurately (all wireless communication had been lost, and runners were being ambushed by snipers), Lt Col Robertson, the commanding officer, decided to go himself. Riding pillion on a motorcycle, he and his despatch rider raced down the road and as Lt Col Robertson and his rider approached a Japanese roadblock, they were gunned down by the waiting blocking force. The despatch rider managed to turn the bike around and return to Bn HQ with Lt Col Robertson severely wounded clinging onto the back of the bike.

Lt Col Robertson was treated by the RMO (Regimental Medial Officer) Capt Brand (later to be awarded a Military Cross for his actions during the Muar Road withdrawal), however his injuries were too severe and Lt Col Robertson died shortly after. The despatch rider was Pte Syd Bauckham; for his courage it was strongly believed by some members of the sig platoon that he should have been Mentioned In Despatches (M.I.D.) but this did not occur. He was one of the fortunate few to be evacuated by hospital ship to Australia after loss of his arm due to the injuries he sustained in bringing Lt Col Robertson back to Bn HQ.

Command of the Battalion passed to the Second in Command, Maj S.F.Olliff, who was a highly respected officer and idolised by his men. He had been given the nickname of "The Count" because of his fine qualities, not only as a soldier, but as a man among men.

As night fell, the Battalion took stock. Loading of the wounded under the tireless direction of Capt Brand into trucks went on in preparation of running the Japanese road blocks. Extra supplies of grenades and ammunition were perilously brought forward in small smuggling parties, who were able to infiltrate through the road blocks.

The Japanese then began probing for weak points by clashing their weapons together and shouting. This only served to aid the defenders in throwing grenades or bayoneting a likely target. Several Japanese bodies were recovered, and it was discovered that they were from the Imperial Guards Division, and as such were well trained and equipped, and wore an olive drab uniform. These were definitely not the ill equipped and ill trained troops that members of the 2/29th were told they were up against.

The situation the following day now became worse, as the Japanese had brought up 5.9" howitzer field artillery and began shelling the Battalion's position with a relentless barrage. The whole position was now becoming untenable, and positive action had to be taken to prevent the entire Battalion being wiped out.

Orders were then received that the 2/29th was to pull back to Bakri some 5-6 miles south of Muar. As the Battalion straddled the road, Maj Olliff decided to marshal what forces he had left on one side of the road and move off, with A Company leading, followed by BHQ then C Company, with B Company as rear guard. The Companies began to move, and as BHQ crossed the road, the Japanese raked the road with devastating machine gun fire and killed Maj Olliff together with the signals platoon commander, Lieut Sheldon.Note: Lt Col John Charles Robertson VX38973 MC,VD buried Kranji War Cemetery Ref. Sp.Mem.20.A.12

It was now obvious that the enemy had completely surrounded the Battalion, as the road blocks were now at either end of Muar Road. The Battalion could not break out and advance and could not withdraw back to Bakri via Muar Road. Meanwhile, sensing they had their quarry right where they wanted them, the Japanese increased the shelling of the entire area, inflicting more casualties and worse still, killing those too wounded to be moved.

The casualties of the Battalion in one week of fighting were 13 Officers killed or wounded and 296 other ranks killed or wounded, or 58% of those who went into action on January 17th.

It is interesting to record that immediately after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, Capt Bowring, the only surviving Company Commander of the action and awarded an MC for his gallantry, revisited the Muar Rd area.

One of the prized possessions of the 2/29th is a translation of the words on an honour board erected by the Japanese to commemorate the Imperial citation which the 5th Division of the Japanese Guards received for its part in the Muar Road battle. According to the Japanese version, the Division was engaged by a force of over 2,000 Australian men and it is equally poignant that the honour board was erected at the place where Lieut Carr, platoon commander 2/29 Bn made a death defying charge on a Japanese machine gun emplacement. The entire platoon was wiped out whilst they charged the Japanese signing "Waltzing Matilda" with bayonets fixed and guns blazing.