Australia in World War II (1941-1945)

Japan’s devastating opening blows in the Second World War on 7 December 1941 were massive land, sea and air onslaughts on six widely separated points in the Pacific. They were Malaya, Pearl Harbour, Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, No 1 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force flew Hudson aircraft into action against a Japanese invasion force at Kota Bahru on the northeast coast of Malaya. The Japanese attack was launched two hours ahead of the Pearl Harbour attack, when they began shelling shore defences at Kota Bahru soon after midnight on 8 December.

No 1 Squadron bombed the invasion convoy, caused heavy casualties and sank the Awagisan Maru, a 9700-tonne troopship, the first Japanese merchant ship to be sunk in the Pacific war. However, the success of No 1 Squadron was to be short lived. Next day, Japanese squadrons based in Thailand attacked the airfield at Kota Bahru, destroying most of the Australian Hudson’s and forcing the squadron’s withdrawal to Kuantan. Another Australian Squadron, No 21, was attacked at Sungei Patani and seven of its Buffalo fighters were put out of action.

Later in the same day two Australian pilots were sent to Singora in Thailand but were attacked by 12 Zero fighters and were unable to complete their mission. On 10 December Britain suffered one of her worst blows of the war at sea when the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were attacked and sunk by Japanese naval aircraft of the Japanese Navy’s 22nd Air Flotilla then based at Saigon. The warships, accompanied by the Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire and other escorts, had sortied from Singapore into the South China Sea to seek out and destroy Japanese invasion convoys. No 453 Squadron, RAAF, was standing by at Sembawang to give fighter protection to the warships, but they were called to the scene too late. HMAS Vampire and HMS Electra rescued 796 survivors, however 840 officers and men died.

Meanwhile, a three-pronged thrust into Malaya by Japan’s 25th Army was succeeding on all fronts as it pressed down the Malayan peninsula towards Singapore. By 19 December, Penang Island was occupied. On 7 January the Japanese Army destroyed an Indian brigade and crippled a second in a crucial battle on the Slim River, the last natural barrier on the road to Kuala Lumpur. Five days later the Japanese 25th Division entered the city after its defenders were ordered to withdraw. Maintaining their momentum, the Japanese divisions pressed southwards to Johore State, which is separated from Singapore Island only by the narrow Straits of Johore.

The Australian 8th Division was deployed in Johore and on 14 January was sent into action for the first time. Its 2/30th Battalion ambushed and killed a large number of bicycle-riding Japanese soldiers at Gemas. After two days of fighting, the battalion had lost 81 killed, wounded or missing compared with an estimated 1000 enemy casualties. It withdrew in good order. On 15 January, the partly trained 45th Indian Brigade was attacked by the veteran Japanese Guards Division on the Maur River line, and were defeated. Two battalions of the 27th Australian Brigade were sent to strengthen them and at Bakri. The 2/29th Battalion destroyed eight tanks while the 2/19th routed the Japanese force to their front. However, Japanese forces cut their escape route leaving the Australians and Indian forces with no choice but to fight their way out. Lieutenant Colonel C.G.W Anderson led the breakout with lorries and all available weapons on the morning of 20 January. The column fought southwards overcoming numerous roadblocks but sustaining heavy casualties. To their despair, when the survivors reached the bridge at the river at Parit Sulong on the morning of the 21 January, they found it blocked. Anderson’s force held its ground on the northern side of the river, surrounded by the enemy while the British 53rd Brigade made a failed rescue attempt from the South. A request to allow the vehicles carrying the wounded through was rejected by the Japanese. Throughout the night, the force withstood artillery shelling, tank attacks, machine gunning, mortars, snipers and bayonet charges. On the morning of 22 January, Anderson, realizing his force faced annihilation, ordered every man who was able to walk to break out in small groups and attempt to reach the Allied lines. Most of the wounded left behind were later killed by the enemy. The two battalions lost over 75 per cent of their men. For his courage and leadership during these actions Lieutenant Colonel C.G.W. Anderson, commanding officer of the 2/19th, earned the Victoria Cross.

A new threat developed on 25 January when a Japanese force landed from the sea at Endau, on the east coast of Johore, less than 100 miles from Singapore. Australian Buffalo and Hudson aircraft opposed the landing but were overwhelmed by a force of 50 enemy fighters.

A Japanese column on the east coast was ambushed at Jemalaung on 26 January by the Australians of the 22nd Brigade. The Australians lost 89 killed or missing in this bitter fight but inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

After the crushing defeat in Johore, all forces were ordered to immediately fall back on Singapore. The withdrawal from Johore took 4 days and was successful. The Australian 22nd Brigade, reinforced by Gordon Highlanders, had covered the approaches to the Johore causeway and early on 31 January, they were piped out of Johore by the only two surviving pipers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The northern end of the causeway was then wrecked with demolition charges. Singapore, with its population swollen to a million people by refugees from the North, was now under siege. From January, large formations of Japanese bombers had pounded Singapore’s four airfields, forcing the withdrawal of all but a few fighter aircraft. Most Australian Hudson bombers were sent south to Sumatra.

Thereafter Japanese aircraft dominated the skies and their long range artillery maintained a constant barrage over the island from Johore. With no serviceable aircraft left, No 21 Squadron was ordered back to Australia.

The Japanese were not long in coming. On 8 February after heavy artillery and air bombardments lasting several days, assault troops crossed the narrow straits in assault craft propelled by outboard motors and attacked the western side of the island defended by the Australian 22nd Brigade. Although they inflicted heavy casualties, the Australian forces were thin on the ground and were forced to retreat. The brigade received reinforcements but by 6am the next day the situation was desperate. Next to come under attack was the Australian 27th Brigade when a third Japanese division, the Guards, also attacked the western area, ignoring the northern area where the bulk of the forces were deployed, including the 3rd Indian Corps and the newly arrived British 18th Division. Thus the main weight of the Japanese attack fell on the Australians.

Late on 10 February, a counter attack was ordered to regain the Krangi line. It was a hopeless mission by numerically weak forces against two Japanese divisions. Inevitably it failed, resulting in further losses. Widespread fighting continued on 11 February and on 12 February, Japanese tanks advancing towards the Bukit Timah Road were turned back. With the enemy enjoying control of the seas and of the skies over Singapore, General Percival withdrew his forces to a 40km arc around the city. A million civilians were in jeopardy and water supplies disrupted.

Churchill was consulted on the ‘ugly’ decision that had to be made. On 15 February, Percival was given discretion to end resistance. Later that day he met General Yamashita and at 8.30pm fighting ceased.

Australia had suffered a grievous blow. Of the 18,000 AIF, 1100 RAAF and 1500 RAN personnel who served in the Malaya / Singapore campaign, more than 1800 men and 33 women were lost and over 15,000 others were taken prisoner to suffer brutal and degrading forms of captivity which, before the war ended, resulted in the deaths of one third of their number.

Sandakan Prisoner of War

The most infamous example of inhumane treatment of Allied troops by their Japanese captors on what was to become Malaysian soil occurred at the POW camp at Sandakan and on the subsequent death marches to Ranau. Of the 2428 Allied service men (1787 Australians and 641 British) held at Sandakan Carp from 18 July 1942 to 15 August 1945 only six Australian soldiers escaped to survive the War. The remainder were either killed by their captors or died as a result of illness or starvation in the POW camp or on the subsequent “Death Marches” to Ranau.

Liberation – VJ Day

The first British territory in South East Asia to be liberated was Labuan Island. On 10

June 1945, an allied invasion force of 29,000, spearheaded by the Australian 9th Division, landed in Brunei Bay. In securing the Island, Australia lost 34 men. A total of 138 Australians were killed in the liberation of Labuan, Sabah and Sarawak.