Japanese break through at the battle of the Slim river

Stocks of rubber, held by a factory on a rubber plantation in Malaya, are burnt during the British retreat to Singapore.

Disaster struck the British attempt to hold off the Japanese fighting their way down the Malayan peninsula. In the early hours of the 7th a small force of Japanese tanks led an assault down the main trunk road towards Kuala Lumpur. Although substantial re-inforcements of fresh troops were now arriving in Singapore very few were being sent north to relieve the men on the front line defences. The 5/2nd Punjab regiment which faced the first assault in the early hours of the morning in pouring rain were ill prepared to meet the attack, as their commander Lieut. Colonel Deakin recalled:

The battalion was dead tired; most of all, the commanders whose responsibilities prevented them from snatching even a little fitful sleep . The battalion had withdrawn 176 miles in three weeks and had only three days’ rest. It had suffered 250 casualties of which a high proportion had been killed. The spirit of the men was low and the battalion had lost 50 per cent of its fighting efficiency .

The Indian troops had no anti-tank guns and were soon overrun. The Japanese continued their headlong advance down the road and now had the advantage of surprise. The second line of defence was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where once again a lack of anti-tank guns crippled the defences. In fierce fighting over 400 men out of 576 were killed or taken prisoner.

The Japanese continued their advance and next met a column of Indian troops being marched up the road as re-inforcements. They had no inkling that the enemy had broken through so far. There were extensive casualties amongst the men in the front of the column whilst the remainder were dispersed into the surrounding jungle as they sought to escape.

There seemed to be nothing capable of stopping the Japanese. Lieut. Colonel Harrison was driving up from 11th Division HQ to investigate:

I rounded a sharp bend near the Cluny Estate, and thirty yards ahead of me I saw what I took to be one of our armoured cars bearing down on me. The next thing I knew a deafening volley of machine gun bullets shattered my windscreen. I wrenched the wheel hard to starboard, crashed into the ditch, opened the door, leapt out and ran like hell over fifty yards of open ground to the flimsy security of some scattered rubber. Then I flopped down into a foot of muddy water at the bottom of a far too shallow irrigation ditch.

The tanks pressed on and were able to make a direct assault on the road bridge at the Slim river, where the defending artillery shells bounced off the tanks because they had no solid shot available. The Japanese were able to cut the lines to the demolition charges which had been set to blow up the bridge and press on.

The tanks continued down the road where they met the 155th Field Regiment travelling up the road to meet them. Once again they were surprised and the leading guns and HQ were destroyed, but the following guns were brought into action at point blank range and finally halted the tanks.

The Japanese had broken through the main defensive force on the peninsula. Hundreds of Indian and British troops had been killed or captured. For those that had escaped away from the road into the jungle, only small groups would be able to find their way back to British lines.

See Australian Official History.

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