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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter Fifteen:-

There was the usual problem about wireless and in such a fluid fight field telephones were out of the question. Luckily, another advantage of being a battalion still predominantly made up of regular soldiers was that the Argylls knew their bugle calls which were lightly coded just in case the clever Japanese had got to know them too. So when Drummer Hardie, who apart from being Stewart’s batman was a bugler, wet his lips and sounded the regimental call followed by “The Stand Fast” it meant just the opposite. Usually their Lanchester armoured cars covered their withdrawals and were often in no hurry to leave. The crew of one of these, parked under a few twigs of camouflage at the road side, permitted a fifteen strong Japanese reconnaissance patrol to get within fifty yards of their twin Vickers then “killed the lot”.

Another skirmish became perhaps the Argylls’ most famous exploit in Malaya and certainly the one which seemed to best sum up the kind of measured ferocity Stewart had inculcated into his men. It was an impromptu Tiger Patrol led by the very solidly built Captain Bal Hendry, an accomplished rugby forward in his early thirties who played for Edinburgh and might have been capped for Scotland had the war not got in the way.

Hendry, who was commanding A Company, went out with one of the Lanchesters delivering rations to his most remote seven man section who were occupying an observation post overlooking a small country railway station. He was accompanied by Company Sergeant Major Arthur Bing, a deceptively mild mannered individual and his batman cum bodyguard, Private James Anderson. Known as “Big Jimmy” in the battalion, Anderson came from that part of Glasgow where a man’s razor was not always kept for his own face.

When they arrived the corporal in charge was excited. He told Hendry that they had just counted a patrol of about fifteen Japanese, who appeared to have a Tamil guide with them, walk down the track and enter the deserted station. In the distance a larger party, some of them with bicycles, could be made out coming down the line from the same direction. Hendry immediately decided that he, Sergeant-Major Bing and Anderson would attack from a flank while the twin Vickers of the armoured car, plus the seven men they were revictuelling, provided covering fire. Bing and Anderson both carried Thompsons and, as well as his revolver, Hendry had acquired a rifle .

Having shot two Japanese who were guarding the approach Hendry had chosen it was discovered that further progress was blocked by a swamp. They went back a little way and entered from the other side. It soon became apparent that the enemy had taken cover behind the teak walls of the waiting room and ticket office from the gusts of fire the Vickers were putting down on them Some of them were firing back through the windows .

The Japanese outnumbered the three Argylls approaching their backs by five to one but they had the considerable advantage of surprise. Possessed by some bezerker fury the mild mannered Bing kicked open the door of the waiting room, emptied the fifty round drum magazine of his Thompson into five of the men inside then clubbed a sixth man to the ground by wielding the weapon by its hot barrel. Anderson shot at least two more as they tried to escape down the track while Hendry, the rugby forward, was engaged in the deadliest ruck of his life with four Japanese he had cornered in the narrow confines of the ticket office. Two of these he eventually managed to shoot but then they all seem to have got too close to use a weapon because a wrestling match ensued with the survivors who began to use their teeth as well their boots. Hendry finished it by getting a hand to his steel helmet and then employing it to belabour both his opponents into unconsciousness - probably a unique use of the British battle bowler. By now the larger group of Japanese on the railway track were nearing the station. “Captain Hendry thereupon picked up the least dead looking Jap, whom he subsequently sent to battalion headquarters, and withdrew,” wrote Colonel Stewart in his own account of he action.

Yet for this bold sortie, pressed home against superior numbers in hand-to-hand fighting and culminating in the rare capture of a Japanese prisoner*, Hendry merely received a Mention in Dispatches, the lowest British award for gallantry in the field, and not the expected Military Cross. The other two received no recognition whatsoever, possibly because Stewart wanted to make it plain that their conduct, rather like the route march from Mersing, was no more than he expected and to make too much fuss would be yet another indication of declining British standards. Certainly Hendry’s success was ample vindication of Stewart’s training mantras, particularly: “Fix Frontally - Encircle”. Twelve of the enemy had been killed without loss and the only member of the encircling trio who emerged with wounds that would need treatment for several days was Sergeant-Major Bing.

As he closed in on his sixth victim, Bing had ignored what the hot barrel of his upturned Thompson was doing to his hands. The next day the sergeant-major was displaying the painful blisters across his palms to Ian Morrison, the Times’ reporter. He was one of a group of war correspondents who had been taken up country to visit the Argylls by an escort officer from the Singapore-based Services Public Relations Office, delighted to be able to top up the Argylls’ success story with a recent victory however small.

Inevitably, UK British troops were going to get more press attention than British officered Indians. But the Argyll cult must have become galling for the rest of Brigadier Archie Paris’ 12 Brigade. Paris had been in Malaya for two years and was reckoned to handle a brigade as well as Stewart commanded his battalion. His two Indian battalions, the 5/2nd Punjabis and the 4/19th Hyderabads had also inflicted some cruel ambushes as they leapfrogged down the road with the Argylls. The hair trigger reactions of Lt-Colonel Cecil Deakin, who commanded the Punjabi battalion, had become particularly well known.

During one such leapfrog Deakin was responsible for holding the Merbau Pulas bridge while the Argylls, who had just passed through, prepared a new position some ten miles to the south. Shortly before dawn Deakin, his Indian subedar-major (sergeant-major) and three signallers were standing at the bridge’s southern end waiting in case any stragglers turned up before the bridge was blown at first light. Suddenly the crossing was rushed by Japanese infantry covered by mortar and machine-gun fire. Deakin made no attempt to step back but, like an enraged bull, charged straight at these impertinent trespassers . Hard on his heels came his subedar-major and the three signallers whose duties were normally of a more non-combatant nature. Three of the enemy were killed and the rest fled. The bridge was then blown up.


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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