75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gemas
Thursday 12 January, 2017
Malaya, 17/1/1942 – A Japanese type 97 Tankette, camouflaged by leaves, in the Gemas area during the invasion of the Malayan Peninsula.
On the 14th of January 2017, we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gemas. The Battle of Gemas is not a household name but is significant because it was the first major Australian battle against the Japanese in World War II, a well-planned ambush that was one of the few successes for the Allied forces in the Pacific in 1942.
The Japanese invaded Malaya on the 8th of December 1941, quickly advancing and pushing back the British and Indian forces throughout December and into January 1942. After the invasion and the disastrous Battle of Slim River, General Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya (GOCM), accessed that the most that could be done, pending the arrival of reinforcements, was to attempt to slow the Japanese advance and hold Johore, the southern state of Malaya linked to Singapore.
Charged with carrying out this action was the 2nd/30th Battalion, under the Command of Lieutenant Colonel F G “Black Jack” Galleghan. The 2nd/30th was formed on the 22nd November 1940 in Tamworth, mainly drawing men from NSW, reinforced from other states. It was a well trained unit and the soldiers became known as Galleghan’s Greyhounds, after their Commander.
The 2nd/30th was ordered to act as a “shock-absorber” at first contact with the enemy, to inflict as many casualties as possible, and to hold its position for at least 24 hours before falling back. Major General Gordon Bennett, Commander of the Australian 8th Division, had long discussed with his commanders the belief that resolute aggressive action might check the Japanese advance. General Bennett also hoped that that such actions may also disrupt the Japanese plans.
An ambush was planned at Gemas. Instructions were given for the withdrawal of the III Indian Corps leaving the Japanese unchallenged for 30 miles. Orders were given for “…bridges along the road to be left intact to give the impression of a helter-skelter retreat and tempt the Japanese to become over-confident and careless as they continued their advance.” High hopes were entertained about what could be achieved by the 2nd/30th Battalion, toughened by strenuous training and severe discipline, when it encountered the enemy in such circumstances.
The 2nd/30th Battalion chose an ambush location near the Gemencheh River, seven miles west of Gemas. This was chosen as it consisted of a main road leading to a wooden bridge over a small river where dense jungle grew on both sides of the road. “B” Company, under the command of Captain Duffy, was entrusted with the ambush, while the rest of the battalion was established in other positions around Gemas.
At approximately 4pm on the 14th of January a small number of Japanese soldiers on bicycles entered the ambush site, followed by a column of Japanese troops riding five or six abreast. It was remarked that “they looked more like a picnic party rather than an advancing army”. Believing the sounds they heard down the road to be motor transport and possibly the main body of the enemy convoy, Captain Duffy decided to allow the 200 – 300 cyclists through to be dealt with by the troops in the rear. The noise they heard actually turned out to be three motor cyclists, followed by several hundred more Japanese troops on bicycles. Captain Duffy waited for this group to be tightly packed into the ambush site and on the bridge, and gave the order to blow the bridge. The explosion flung bicycles, bodies and pieces of the bridge skywards. Almost simultaneously three of Captain Duffy’s platoons swept the Japanese troops with machine gun fire and launched grenades into the ambush.
An artillery bombardment was scheduled at this point however, the signal lines for both Captain Duffy and the artillery observer had been cut and the signal to begin the barrage was unable to be sent. The battle only lasted 20 minutes. Captain Duffy stated “…the entire 300 yards of road was thickly covered with dead and dying men.”
Mindful of the 200 to 300 troops who had moved through the ambush site, Captain Duffy ordered his Company to withdraw. During the withdrawal a number of troops were engaged and wounded in skirmishes including one of the Platoon Commanders, Lieutenant Head. As it appeared that the Japanese were amassed in numbers along the road, Captain Duffy led his company single file through the jungle. During the withdrawal a large section of men split from the main group, including all of the platoon commanders. Lieutenant Head was leading the second group until the pain from his earlier injury forced him to give up the lead. Unaware the other platoon leaders (Lieutenant Jones and Lieutenant Geike) were in his column, he handed the lead to Sergeant Doolan, a shop assistant from Stawell, VIC. It wasn’t until they made their way out of the jungle the next morning that they became aware of who was in their column and Lieutenant Jones took charge. Japanese forces attacked the rear guard on a number of occasions but were beaten back. During one of these attacks six men were listed as missing, their last words to their comrades: “We’ll pin them down – you get back”. They were never seen again and were presumed dead.
There were miraculous stories of survival. Lance Corporal Hann, a barman from Moree NSW, became separated from his unit after he jumped into a river when he was fired upon. Hann was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned in a hut. A local Tamil freed Lance Corporal Hann and disguised him in a turban and Indian clothing. He was given supplies and was guided through the jungle. Eventually he came across an Australian patrol and removed the turban to ensure he was recognised as an Australian soldier.
Despite the early success of the ambush, within six hours of the bridge being blown the Japanese had rebuilt it and were able to advance. Japanese tanks moved towards the battalion’s main position, a roadblock just outside Gemas. They were sighted soon after 9am on the 15th of January. Six of the eight tanks that advanced on the roadblock were destroyed by the men of “C” Company, under the command of Captain Lamacraft, 4 Anti-Tank Regiment, and fire from 2nd/15th Field Regiment.
As sections of Captain Duffy’s company began arriving back with information on the successful ambush, Lieutenant Colonel Galleghan ordered “D” Company, under the command of Captain Melville, to advance on a hill held by the Japanese. As a result of this assault “D” Company inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese and forced their withdrawal. Captain Morrison took over command when Captain Melville was wounded. The men of “D” Company continued their attack, despite Japanese resistance, until they were confronted by several tanks and came under heavy cross fire. Only then did Captain Morrison give the order to withdraw to their previous position.
The Japanese took advantage of their superiority in the air. Dive bombers began hitting Gemas and the battalion headquarters. No trenches had been dug at the headquarters building and the men could do little more than cower on the ground as the bombs exploded around them.
Reports indicate that Lieutenant Colonel Galleghan suspected the Japanese had been able to locate battalion headquarters through wireless signals and he abandoned use of the radio for short distance communications.
Japanese Forces began rapidly growing in strength on the immediate front. The battalion began to withdraw in the early afternoon. In two days of fierce fighting the battalion suffered approximately 20 missing or killed and over 50 men wounded. The toll they inflicted on the Japanese is reported to be approximately 1000 men.
The 2nd/30th Battalion continued to fight with distinction. Sadly, less than a month later the battalion was captured when Singapore fell and its soldiers spent the rest of the war as Prisoners of War. Over 300 men from the 2nd/30th died during captivity.
Lieutenant Colonel Galleghan became commander of the AIF prisoners and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the Battle of Gemas.