Overcoming bayonet wounds to win the VC

Royal Engineers prepare to blow up a bridge in Malaya during the British retreat to Singapore. In the background Chinese rickshaws loaded with rice from abandoned government stocks are crossing the bridge.

In Malaya the long retreat down the peninsula to the stronghold of Singapore was underway. British forces were confounded by the Japanese ability to travel across country and outflank them. There were determined attempts to resist them wherever possible, even though the overall British strategy was very poorly co-ordinated.

Just a few of these fiercely fought actions gained official recognition. One was near the airfield of Kuantan, defended by a Sikh regiment:

On 3 January 1942 near Kuantan, Malaya, the Japanese made a furious attack on the battalion and a strong enemy force penetrated the position. Lieutenant Colonel Cumming, with a small party of men, immediately led a counter-attack and although all his men became casualties and he, himself, had two bayonet wounds in the stomach he managed to restore the situation sufficiently for the major portion of the battalion and its vehicles to be withdrawn. Later he drove in a carrier, under very heavy fire, collecting isolated detachments of his men and was again wounded. His gallant actions helped the brigade to withdraw safely.

This brief account, from the official Victoria Cross citation, cannot do justice to the action that night. Colin Smith devotes a whole chapter to reconstructing the episode in his excellent history of the campaign ‘Singapore Burning’.

Lieutenant Colonel Cumming and Captain Grimwood were inspecting the wire perimeter which they noticed was ‘festooned’ with windfall coconuts:

Then they realized that the windfalls were the heads of japanese soldiers climbing the wire. Soon their bodies were clearly silhouetted by the rising moon. The two officers stepped a few paces forward, their hands going to their holsters.

It is not clear how many, if any, of the japanese were shot on the wire. It seems to have taken Cumrning and his companions a few seconds to comprehend what was happening for in that time, according to Grimwood, they were rushed by seven japanese with bayonets fixed who managed to knock them to the ground. Only after they had gone down did they start shooting, the colonel faster and perhaps more accurately than the younger man. When they had finished six of the japanese were dead or dying and Cumming was momentarily stunned by his fourth and last victim who had dropped on top of him and knocked him cold with his steel helmet. He was also bleeding badly fiom two bayonet wounds in the stomach but, though he lacked the protective flab of many forty-five-year-olds, these would turn out to be less serious than they looked.

Grimwood staggered to his feet, reloaded his revolver and was shooting at some more intruders when reinforcements arrived at the scene from battalion HQ. Badly outnumbered on this sector, the survivingjapanese melted into the night. At first it was feared that they might have taken Cumming with them. Then the signals havildar spotted the wiry frame of his colonel trying to crawl out from beneath a small pile of japanese corpses and dragged him clear.

This was only the beginning of an extraordinary night for Cumming. Taken back to battalion HQ, where a field dressing was put on his bayonet wounds, he began to inspire his men like a man possessed, though at times he was obviously in some pain. When the japanese renewed their attack on the HQ position and its defenders started to run low on ammunition, Cumming remembered there were five boxes of .303 in his Bren gun carrier and, accompanied by his driver, Sepoy Albel Singh, went and collected them.

As they backed the carrier up to a trench and started to unload they were spotted and charged by a few brave men who obviously realized how important the boxes were. But they were bunched together in the way infantry are taught never to bunch, probably because in the heat of battle it is the most natural thing in the world. Singh passed Cumming a Thompson, a weapon he had not used before but sub-machine-guns, like grenades, were ideal at night at close quarters. None of the japanese got anywhere near the pair.

Read the whole account in Colin Smith: Singapore Burning: Heroism and Surrender in World War II.

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