The Battle of Muar



The Battle of Muar was the last major battle of the Malayan Campaign during the Second World War. It took place from 14–22 January 1942 around Gemensah Bridge and on the Muar River. After the British defeat at Slim River, General Archibald Wavell, commander of ABDA, decided that Lieutenant GeneralLewis Heath‘s III Indian Corps should withdraw 240 kilometres (150 mi) south into the State of Johore to rest and regroup, while the 8th Australian Division would attempt to stop the Japanese advance.

Allied soldiers, under the command of Major General Gordon Bennett, inflicted severe losses on Japaneseforces at the Gemensah Bridge ambush and in a second battle a few kilometres north of the town of Gemas. Members of the Australian 8th Division killed an estimated 600 personnel from the Japanese 5th division, in the ambush at the bridge itself, whilst Australian anti-tank guns destroyed several Japanese tanks in the battle north of Gemas.

Although the ambush was successful for the Allies, the defence of Muar and Bakri on the west coast was a complete failure which resulted in the near-annihilation of the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade and heavy casualties for its two attached Australian infantry battalions. This was the first engagement between units of the British 18th Division and Japanese forces in Malaya.

The ambush was ordered by the head of Malaya Command, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival‘s own instructions; he strongly felt that ambush was the way to fight the Japanese. A multinational force under Bennett, codenamed Westforce, was assigned to defend the Muar area.Westforce took up positions covering the front from the mountains to the shore of the Malacca Straits. There were two main areas, and both of these were sub-divided into sectors, which were themselves widely separated and linked with each other chiefly by rather tenuous signal communications.

Gemas positions

The first area was around the central trunk road and the railway beyond Segamat. The three subordinate sectors were:

  • (a) Astride both road and railway near Gemas. Here, the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade made up the holding force.
  • (b) Further forward along the same road lay the 27th Australian Brigade. They were charged with a counter-offensive role, and had already prepared an advanced ambush, from the 2/29th Australian Infantry Battalion, for the Japanese several kilometres ahead at the Gemensah Bridge.
  • (c) Leftwards was the 22nd Indian Infantry Brigade tasked with guarding the approaches to Segamat from Malacca, which skirt either side of Mount Ophir.

Gemensah Bridge positions

B Company of the 2/30th Australian Battalion, under Captain Desmond J. Duffy, entrenched and concealed themselves on one side of the Gemensah Bridge, spanning a stream, as part of the ambush. The bridge itself had been mined with explosives, and a battery of field artillery sited on higher ground behind the infantry whence it could command the Japanese approach to the bridge. The 2/30th Australian Battalion was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Galleghan, nicknamed “Black Jack”.

For the Japanese side, the Mukaide Force (commanded by Colonel Mukaida) was created to take the lead from the tired Japanese 5th Division and was approaching Gemas and the Australian ambush at Gemensah Bridge. Mukaide Force consisted initially of the 1st Tank Regiment with an infantry battalion and artillery for support under the command of the 9th Brigade. It was reinforced by the 11th Infantry Regiment on 15 January. Colonel Mukaida was the commander of the 1st Tank Regiment, which at the beginning of the Malayan Campaign, consisted of 31 Type 97 Chi-Ha and 17 Type 95 Ha-Gō tanks.

Muar positions

The second area was that which covered the West Coast and the roads which run along it to the Johore Strait. This had two sectors, actually more in line with one another than those of the first area, but even less effectively in touch. The defence of this area was assigned to the 45th Indian Brigade, reinforced by a single battery of field artillery. It included the seaport of Muar, and stretched some 50 km (30 mi) up into the jungle towards Segamat, along the winding course of the Muar River, with its deep-wooded, creeper-covered banks. Under orders from General Bennett, two of the battalions were disposed along the river line, which they thus divided between them, while the third went into active reserve near the coast.

The Imperial Guards Division was moving down the west coast of Malaya, with a battalion sized force under the command of Col Masakazu Ogaki approaching the Muar river area from the sea, while the 4th and 5th Guards Regiments approached Muar from the north under General Nishimura.

The newly arrived 53rd Infantry Brigade of the British 18th Division formed part of Westforce. The brigade included the 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment, 5th Norfolk and 6th Norfolk Battalions. Although Percival gave the order to deploy them, they were unfit for immediate employment, having been at sea for 11 weeks.

The ambush occurred at about 16:00 on 14 January, when Japanese troops from the 5th Division approached, mounted on bicycles, and crossed the bridge unharassed. Then came the main column, several hundred strong, also cycling, which was followed by tanks and engineer trucks. At this point, the bridge was detonated, sending timber, bicycles and bodies hurtling through the air. B Company, 2/30th Australian Battalion spread out along either side of the road, concealed in well-protected firing positions, then opened fire and the Japanese column took devastating blows as row upon row of men and equipment were mowed down by machine gun and rifle fire. Most of the Japanese troops tied their rifles to the handlebars of their bicycles making the ambush even more successful for the Australians.

Heavy casualties continued to mount for the ambushed column. However, the bicycle infantry who had passed through the ambush area discovered the field telephone cable hidden in a patchy undergrowth which linked back to the gun positions, and promptly cut it. As a result, the Allied artillery received no signal, and were not able to support the ambush party.

The Australians nonetheless did receive artillery support, from their counterparts. Most of the Japanese shells rained down on the main column at the bridge, adding to the rising death toll. The ambush party, having done a substantial slaughter, duly fell back in several groups that same evening and by next day most of B Company had rejoined their battalion in a position near Gemas. B Company lost one man killed in action and six men missing in the fighting at the bridge. The six missing men were later learned to have been shot after being captured by the Japanese.The Japanese 9th Brigade war diary puts the casualties of the Mukaide Detachment at seventy dead and fifty-seven wounded but this does not include the other attached units.

On the morning of 15 January, Japanese aircraft arrived and began dive-bombing the town of Gemas. Six hours after the ambush the Japanese had repaired the bridge and were moving on their way towards Galleghan’s main position at the 61-mile (98 km) peg on the Gemas-Tampin road. The surviving members of Mukaide Force were now reinforced by the Japanese 11th Regiment. The 2/30th Battalion were positioned astride the road and railway line with two 2-Pounder Anti-Tank Guns facing the road. By 10:00 on 15 January, Japanese infantry clashed with the Allied defence lines, and as the day wore on they were supported by an increasing number of tanks. In a short but violent battle the Australian anti-tank guns, from the 2/4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, destroyed six of eight Japanese tanks and their supporting infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese infantry following the tanks.

After twenty-four hours of fighting Galleghan withdrew his battalion from the area. The 2/30th Battalion had inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese with minimal loss to themselves, suffering in all seventeen killed, nine missing and fifty-five wounded. In the two days of fighting, at the bridge and on the Gemas road, Australian historians estimate that the Japanese 5th Division had suffered an estimated 1,000 casualties.

The withdrawal went unharassed, and for the next day or so quiet settled over the Segamat area. Bennett, boosted by the initial success, was quoted in the Singapore Times as saying that his troops were confident that they would not only halt the Japanese advance, but compel them to be on the defensive.

On the night of 15 January, the Japanese captured a number of barges moored on the southern bank of the Muar river and towed them overstream to flank both the town of Muar and the Indian garrison’s only reserve battalion. Packed barges and junks were making their way across the river mouth, meeting no resistance except a subsequent brush with an Indian patrol, which retired after a brief exchange of shots. The patrol never alerted headquarters that the Japanese were on the south bank. As day broke, the outflanking force surprised a company of the 7/6th Rajputana Rifles, and routed them. The remaining three Indian companies (two from the 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles and another from the Rajputana Rifles) on the north bank were cut off and captured soon after,without the main garrison at Muar even realising that an entire Japanese division was on the other side of the river. By noon, they were attacking from upstream both Muar Town and the garrison’s line of communications with its only reserve battalion, 4/9th Jat Regiment, which was located near Bakri, on the main road south from Muar.

At Muar itself, a Japanese attempt to land and seize the harbour was repulsed by Australian artillery, firing at packed barges and junks as they tried to make their way across the river mouth. By late afternoon though the Japanese, who had already made another crossing further up river, were in the town of Muar itself. The commanders of the Rajputana Rifles and the Royal Garhwal Rifles were killed along with most of their officers during the fighting around the town, leaving the mostly teenaged sepoys leaderless. To add to the mounting disasters for 45th Brigade it was at this point in the battle, that an air raid by Japanese aircraft destroyed 45th Brigade Headquarters, killing all the staff officers and concussing Brigadier Duncan (one of only two survivors of the raid).Due to Brigadier Duncan’s concussion and the deaths of two of his battalion commanders and most of the HQ staff, command of the 45th Brigade was temporarily handed over to Anderson of the 2/19th Australian Battalion.

By nightfall of 16 January, Muar Town and the harbour had fallen into Japanese hands. The remnants of the 45th Brigade retreated down the coast several kilometres as far as Parit Jawa. Japanese ambushes were soon deployed to repel any Allied counter-attack, while at the same time they continued their relentless charge towards Bakri, Parit Sulong and Batu Pahat.

Siege of Bakri

The road and open area in front of the high ground at the Bukit Pelandok defile which was held by the 6th Norfolk Battalion.

On 17 January, the surviving units of 45th Indian Brigade, with the Australian 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions serving as reinforcements, were dispatched to re-capture Muar. They rallied around Bakri and organised a rough perimeter defence of it. The 2/29th, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Robertson MC VD, dug in around Bakri-Muar Road with anti-tank, anti-aircraft and mortar emplacements. The commander of the 45th Indian Brigade, Brigadier Herbert Duncan, planned a three-pronged advance from Bakri to Muar; up the main road between the towns, from the jungle island, and along the coast road. The attack went wrong before it could be launched. The 45th brigade ran into one of the Japanese ambushes, and the counter-offensive was cancelled.

The next day at 0645, General Nishimura ordered his own three-pronged attack on Bakri. It was spearheaded by nine Type 95 Ha-Gō light tanks under Captain Shiegeo Gotanda. However, Captain Gotanda, inspired by the Japanese tank’s success at Slim River, advanced without infantry against the 2/29th Battalion, and was wiped out. In a repeat performance of the Australian gunners at Gemas, Lieutenant Bill McClure’s two anti-tank guns (also from the 2/4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment) destroyed all nine of Gotanda’s tanks. Sergeant Clarrie Thornton, commanding the first gun received a Mention in Dispatches, and Sergeant Charles Parsons, commanding the second gun was awarded the DCM. Thornton’s gun fired over seventy rounds during the engagement. Lieutenant Colonel John Robertson, commander of the 2/29th Battalion, was killed soon after, shot while retreating from an attack on a Japanese roadblock. Major Olliff detailed Sergeant Mick Gibbins and a party of three men to bury the battalion commander. Deprived of tank support, the Japanese infantry were unable to break through, an engagement Nishimura later described as “severe and sanguinary”. By dawn on the 19th the Japanese were in action on the main road, nearly surrounding the 45th Brigade.

The 6th Norfolk Battalion of the 53rd British Brigade was defending a ridge about 8 km (5 mi) west of Yong Peng, covering the line of retreat for the 45th Brigade, which was already a practically encircled area. Early in the afternoon of 19 January, two battalions of the Japanese 4th Guards Regiment attacked and drove them off the ridge. The British retired up through the thick jungle to the summit of the northern ridge. The Norfolks were unable to inform headquarters of their position as they had no wireless.

At dawn of 20 January, the 3/16th Punjab Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Moorhead (who took part in Operation Krohcol), was ordered to recapture the ridge. By the time they reached it, they came under friendly fire from the Norfolks, who had mistaken them for the Japanese, causing several casualties. After losses on both sides, it was later sorted out. But before a proper defence could be organised, the Japanese attacked, killing Moorhead and driving both the Norfolks and Indian troops off the hill. The 45th Brigade and the two Australian battalions at Bakri were now in danger of being cut off.

That same day, Brigadier Duncan, who had recovered from his concussion and was commanding the rear guard, was killed when he led a successful bayonet charge to recover lost vehicles. With Duncan and Robertson dead, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson assumed full command of the 45th Brigade and all other units around Bakri. Early in the morning of 20 January, Anderson was ordered to pull out from Bakri and attempt to break through to Yong Peng. Anderson decided to delay until the 4/9th Jat Regiment could reach the column. During this delay most of the 2/29th Battalion were cut off from Anderson’s position. Only an estimated 200 men from 2/29th Battalion and 1,000 Indian troops from the 45th Brigade were able to join up with Anderson’s column. Other survivors from the 2/29th would make it back in small fugitive parties Within 2 km (1 mi) or so of Bakri, Anderson’s column was held up by a Japanese roadblock. Several efforts to break through failed, until a bayonet charge led by Anderson himself was successful.The young Indian recruits were helpless. They did not even know how to take cover, and there were not enough officers to control them. I say this in no spirit of disparagement. It was the penalty of years of unpreparedness for war coming out in all its stark nakedness.


More roadblocks lay ahead for the brigade. By sunset, after a struggle which had raged on throughout all the hours of daylight, the column had covered a distance of 5 km (3 mi). Anderson warned that there was to be no rest that night and ordered the march to go on. The brigade had now reached the edge of some more open country and passage was easier, though the column was laden with wounded.

The young and inexperienced 45th Indian Brigade had ceased to exist as a formation. Most of its officers were killed or wounded, including Brigadier Duncan and all three battalion commanders. In the space of a few days Percival had lost an entire Indian brigade and the best part of two of his Australian battalions as well as one brigadier, three Indian Army battalion commanders and an Australian battalion commander.