After the Australian Imperial Force’s 30th Battalion had ambushed the Japanese at Gemencheh on the 14th, the 29th Battalion were now engaged in a famous action to hold up the Japanese at the Muar River. This time they were ready and prepared to deal with Japanese tanks, although this close quarters fighting was only the opening stage in a brutal engagement that was to last four days:
With the rear of the 2/29th Battalion’s main position threatened by penetration from the coast via Parit Jawa, five Japanese light tanks approached the position frontally at 6.45 a.m. unaware that an anti-tank gun awaited them at each end of a cutting through which the Muar road ran. Solid armour-piercing shells were first used against the tanks, but it was found that these went straight through them and out the far side. The tanks continued to advance, firing with all guns as they came.
The leading tank was level with the foremost anti-tank gun when the gun sergeant (Thornton) gave a notable exhibition of courage and coolness. Turning his back on the other tanks, he fired high-explosive shells into the first three as they went down the road. When the other tanks entered the battalion perimeter they came under fire of the rear gun also. All were disabled. Although he was wounded in the engagement, Thornton prepared his gun for further action, and soon three more tanks approached the position.
“A couple attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
Those of their crews who had survived the shell fire were finished off by bullets and grenades. The loss of eight tanks by the enemy produced a lull, but the company in the left forward position then came under heavy automatic fire and sniping from the branches of trees by Japanese who apparently had infiltrated during the night. First one, then two more carriers came forward, and though their armour failed to resist Japanese bullets and nearly every man in them was wounded, they silenced the enemy machine-guns. Behind these were Japanese infantry, but they were held in check by the Australians .
The whole account can be read in the Official History.
This was just the beginning of some desperate fighting by the Australians led by Lieut. Col. Anderson. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions over this period, his citation gives a good overview of what 29th Battalion went through:
During the operations in Malaya from the 18th to 22nd Jan 1942, Lieut. Col. ANDERSON, in command of a small Force, was sent to restore a vital position and to assist a Brigade. His Force destroyed ten enemy tanks. When later cut off, he defeated persistent attacks on his position from air and ground forces, and forced his way through the enemy lines to a depth of fifteen miles. He was again surrounded and subjected to a very heavy and frequent attacks resulting in severe casualties to his Force.
He personally led an attack with great gallantry on the enemy who were holding a bridge, and succeeded in destroying four guns. Lieut. Col. Anderson throughout all this fighting, protected his wounded and refused to leave them. He obtained news by wireless of the enemy position and attempted to fight his way back through the eight miles of enemy occupied country. This proved to be impossible and the enemy were holding too strong a position for any attempt to be made to relieve him.
On the 19th January, Lieut. Col. Anderson was ordered to destroy his equipment and make his way back as best he could round the enemy position. Throughout the fighting, which lasted for four days, he set a magnificent example of brave leadership, determination and outstanding courage. He not only showed fighting qualities of a very high order but throughout exposed himself to danger without any regard to his own personal safety.
The British had no equivalent to the American system of ‘unit citations’. Sometimes the award of the Victoria Cross to an individual can be seen as recognition of the contribution and sacrifices made by the unit they led, as well that individual’s personal example of heroism in the face of the enemy.