Tragically for the British, no word of the fiasco had reached either the remaining battalions of the 12th Brigade (the Argyls and the 5/14th Punjabis) or the 28th Brigade. The Japanese armored juggernaut, (about 16 tanks strong at this point), with what remained of the accompanying infantry and engineers, continued south at a fast pace.
The next unit they encountered was the unsuspecting Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, who had established two roadblocks in their defensive sector. The speed of Japanese movement, and the abysmal nature of British communications, caught the Argyls unaware and unprepared. The Japanese column burst through the first blocking position almost before the Argyls could offer any resistance. The fight at the second roadblock took only a little longer, with the Japanese destroying several British armored cars before continuing on. The remainder of the Argyl battalion was engulfed by the follow-on Japanese infantry in much the same manner as the other battalions.
To their credit, the Argyls fought ferociously in small groups and held the Japanese infantry longer than any of the other battalions. This, in turn, increased the distance between the Japanese armored column and the follow-on infantry. Had the 28th Brigade been in a better defensive posture, this might have made a difference. As it was, the Argyls’ sacrifice was in vain.
The Japanese tankers took full advantage of the confusion in the British defense to continue their advance down the main road towards the Slim River bridge. Upon reaching Trolak, they scattered the engineers who were preparing the bridge for demolition. The lead tank platoon leader, Lieutenant Watanabe, personally dismounted from his command tank and slashed the demolition electrical wires with his sword. The lieutenant and his company commander sensed that they had the momentum in this drive and that it was urgent to keep the pressure on the disorganized British. The Japanese tanks and the few remaining infantry and engineers that had somehow stayed with them raced ahead. It was approximately 0730. South of Trolak, the Japanese armor encountered the 5/14th Punjabis, who were moving along the road in march column towards their designated blocking position. The tanks literally raced through the surprised battalion, machine-gunning a large number of the Punjabis before they could even get off the road. In only a few minutes, the 12th Brigade’s reserve ceased to exist as an effective unit. The Japanese armor continued its unchecked advance along the main road.
The British had lost track of the battle. General Paris was not informed of the breakthrough until 0630.6 He immediately ordered the 28th Brigade to occupy its defensive positions and to detach its antitank battery forward to the 12th Brigade. Unfortunately, the battery met the Japanese while moving up the road and was destroyed before it could unlimber its guns and engage the enemy. Thus, one of the few units in the 28th Brigade that was capable of stopping the Japanese armor was eliminated at the outset of that brigade’s fight. Incredibly, the 28th Brigade had not received word of the complete penetration of the 12th Brigade. The Japanese armor slammed into the 28th Brigade while it was moving to its defensive positions and swept it aside in a series of short bloody encounters. Like the 5/14th Punjabis, the 2/1st Gurkhas were surprised in march column on the road while moving to their defensive positions and suffered severe casualties before they could get out of the way of the Japanese armor. The other battalions of the 28th Brigade, 2/9th and 2/2nd Ghurkas, tried to engage the Japanese armor, but with no antitank obstacles and only a few 12.7-mm AT rifles, they were quickly bypassed.
The Japanese armor continued to move down the road, shooting up transport columns and disrupting demolition efforts on the road and at three lesser bridges. The Japanese tanks had by now completely outrun their accompanying infantry and engineers. The follow-on infantry battalions continued to fight through the disorganized defenses bypassed by the armor. The Japanese tanks next shot up two artillery batteries of the 137th Field Regiment before reaching the Slim River bridge at approximately 0830. The antiaircraft defenses of the bridge consisted of 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft guns. These engaged the Japanese tanks but were ineffective – their shells would not penetrate. Their crews took many casualties from Japanese return fire. The antiaircraft gunners and the engineers preparing demolitions on the Slim River bridge scattered. Lieutenant Watanabe (who was wounded by this time) directed the machine gun fire of his tank against the wires to the bridge demolition and succeeded in severing them. The Japanese force (by this time consisting of about a dozen tanks) left two of their number to guard the bridge and continued south along the main road. Finally, after continuing for two more miles, the Japanese ran into another British artillery battalion, the 155th Field Regiment. This artillery unit deployed its 4.5-inch howitzers in the direct fire mode and engaged the Japanese over open sights at less than 200 meters. The lead Japanese tank (commanded by Lieutenant Watanabe) was destroyed and the entire crew killed. Other Japanese tanks were damaged. Checked at last, the Japanese tankers returned to the Slim River bridge to guard their valuable prize. The Japanese infantry accompanying the tanks, not less than a company in strength, arrived a few hours later. The main body of the 42nd Infantry Regiment did not link up with the armored unit until almost midnight. The Japanese had lost about eight tanks, some of which were recoverable. Their infantry losses had been moderate, but replacable. Their morale was sky high.
In his book Singapore Burning, Colin Smith quotes Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Harrison, a British artillery commander who was at the battle, as paying a respectful comment to Watanabe. “Heedless of danger and of their isolation they had shattered the [11th Indian Division],” Harrison admits. “They had captured the Slim Bridge by their reckless and gallant determination.”
Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart, commanding the 12th Indian Brigade, meanwhile, accepted the blame for having not destroyed the line of tanks at the beginning of the battle when it might have made a huge difference in the outcome. As he wrote to the British Army’s official historian after the war, “I am rightly criticized for … not using the Field Artillery in an anti-tank role … It is no excuse, but I had never taken part in an exercise embodying a coordinated anti-tank defence or this type of attack. The use of tanks on a road at night was a surprise.” “Surprise” had been the purpose of the night attack, and this gamble, which might have failed, worked splendidly for the vanguard of Yamashita 25th Army.
If the time it took his engineers to rebuild the Perak River bridge is an indication, capturing the Slim River bridges intact shaved a week off Yamashita’s timetable. Meanwhile, the battle of Slim River devastated the 11th Indian Division. Its 12th and 28th Brigades were so badly mauled that they were practically erased, as was the 2nd Argylls. As many as 500 men were killed, and more than 3,000 were captured. Of those who were unable to retreat southward along the main road, a few managed to escape into the jungle. Some were captured and others simply disappeared. One man was found alive, still living off the land, in 1949.
The Japanese had won a smashing victory. In the space of about seven hours, with a single company of obsolete tanks supported by infantry and engineers, and followed by an infantry regiment, they had almost completely destroyed an entire British division. By the afternoon of the 7th of January, the British units the Japanese armor had bypassed were a jumble of disorganized fugitives. In the best shape were the infantry battalions of the 28th Brigade, who could retreat across an adjacent railroad bridge. In the worst shape were the men of the 12th Brigade; literally all of them were either killed, taken prisoner, or moving in fugitive groups trying to infiltrate back.
The losses to the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders were especially tragic to the British, as they had repeatedly proven themselves to be the best trained battalion in Malaya. Had they not been surprised by the Japanese armor, they could conceivably have held the Japanese advance long enough for the 28th Brigade to have reached its positions and unlimbered its antitank guns. The battle probably could not have been salvaged, but at least a more orderly retreat would have been possible, followed by the demolition of the Slim River bridge. As it was, less than one hundred men of this battalion managed to reach British lines. The magnitude of the disaster is reflected in the number of survivors from each brigade. Only 400 men of the four battalions in 12th Brigade managed to break out and rejoin the retreating British army. The 28th Brigade did slightly better, with approximately 700 men, but this unit was also clearly decimated. All in all, the British lost two brigades in the Slim River battle, along with most of two battalions of artillery, as well as transportation, signal, engineer, and other supporting units. Those British and Indian soldiers and units that escaped, escaped on foot. Not a single vehicle was retrieved from north of the Slim River.
The remainder of the Japanese pursuit of the British down the Malay peninsula retained the same flavor as the Slim River actions – relentless, aggressive Japanese pursuit of tired British units who had suffered too many losses in personnel and equipment and who could never keep the Japanese from operating inside their decision cycle. The Japanese did meet a series of reverses when they encountered fresh Australian troops of the 8th Australian Infantry Division. A cautionary note on headlong armored exploitation was sounded just 11 days later near the small town of Bakri. The Japanese attempted to repeat their Slim River success by sending a light tank company to attack down the main road. The Australians defending the antitank obstacle on the road coolly waited for the Japanese to begin negotiating the obstacles and then quickly knocked out nine Japanese tanks with antitank gun fire. The accompanying infantry was also temporarily stopped by the Australians, suffering numerous casualties. The Japanese formula from Slim River was unchanged. The defenders however, were fresh troops who had had the opportunity to emplace their defense properly. Unfortunately for the Australians, the rest of the British forces were simply too depleted from their earlier defeats to offer an effective resistance. As a result, they were compelled to retreat to the island of Singapore with the rest of the British army, abandoning Malaya to the Japanese on 30 January. Singapore would surrender two weeks later.
As the morale of the IJA soared with every victory, that of the Allied defenders plummeted. Kenneth Attiwill later wrote:
brooding above all, adding weakness to morale as well as to military efficiency, lies the jungle itself – a terrifying morass of tangled vegetation, steamy heat, nerve-racking noises and the discomfort of insects; mosquitoes by the myriad, moths, beetles, insects of all kinds, biting, buzzing, irritating and debilitating. Rubber, too, with its gloom, dampness and sound-deadening effect breeds a feeling of isolation. The enemy may be anywhere – everywhere – in front or behind to left or to right. Noise is difficult to pinpoint; men appear and disappear like wraiths. Rumor begins to spread. In the monsoonal season there is the added handicap of torrential rain, hissing down incessantly upon the greenery, dripping dankly on heads and bodies, humid, sweaty, destructive.
Speaking of himself, Attiwill went on to say that:
it was like this for the young and inexperienced troops who took up their places for the first defensive battle of the Malayan campaign, a battle which was noteworthy for two reasons – it was Britain’s first defeat in the jungle; it was the pattern of future defeat in all the attempted defensive actions down the Malayan peninsula.
Masanobu Tsuji recalls debriefing an unnamed British brigade commander who was among the large army of prisoners that had been captured, asking, “Why did your men raise their hands so quickly?”
“For what reason did you attack only on the front where we had not prepared to meet you?” replied the British officer. “When we defend the coast, you come from the dense jungle. When we defend the land, you come from the sea. Is it not war for enemies to face each other? This is not war. There will be no other way than retreat, I assure you.”
As Tsuji comments, “this criticism was characteristic of the British attitude throughout the whole period of operations, and was common to every front.”
The stunning British defeat at the Slim River and the equally surprising Japanese amphibious landings along the coast were met with great consternation by the British. The initial outflanking maneuver along the coast had worked so well that Yamashita conducted more of these using troops of General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division.
Bibliography Allen, Louis, Singapore 1941-1942, Associated University Press Falk, Stanley, Seventy Days to Singapore, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1973 Hall, Timothy, The Fall of Singapore, Mandiran Books, Australia, 1983 Kirby, Woodburn S., Singapore, The Chain of Disaster, Macmillan Co., 1971 Owen, Frank, The Fall of Singapore, Pan Books, London, 1960 Palit, P. K. Brigadier, The Campaign in Malaya, The English Book Store Press, New Delhi, 1960 Percival, Arthur, Lieutenant General, The Campaign in Malaya, Byrne and Spotteswoode Publishers, London, 1949 Stinson, Arthur, Defeat In Malaya, The Fall of Singapore, Ballantine Books, 1969 Tsjui, Manasoburu, Singapore, The Japanese Version, Oxford University Press, 1960 Wigmore, Lionel, The Japanese Thrust: Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957