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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter Seventeen:-

For two days running the British battalion, the composite unit made up of the remnants of the East Surreys and Leicesters, was subjected to attacks at dawn. Japanese infantry would loom suddenly out of the mist while from behind these shadowy figures their big four-inch mortars sought out Morrison’s positions among Kampar’s secondary jungle. Mortar bombs do not whistle in flight like artillery shells. Sometimes the distinctive plop they made as they were fired sent men diving for cover. Otherwise, if their luck held, the nerve shattering crack of the first bomb exploding and perhaps the cries of the less fortunate, was the first indication that they were being mortared.

But thanks to the forward observation officers of 88th Field, one of whom found himself dictating co-ordinates down his telephone within fifty yards of the enemy, the British were able to return the high explosive with interest. None of the Japanese mortars were firing a projectile anything like as big as the 25-pound shells that were rarely less than worrying and sometimes scored bullyseye that would have broken lesser troops. Tsuji watched “a continuous stream” of casualties coming back down the hill to safety. “Either carried on stretchers or supported on the shoulders of comrades who were themselves wounded.”

In places the ebb and flow of battle, attack and counter-attack left the British and the Japanese inextricably mixed. One of Morrison’s lieutenant waking alone in a trench shortly before the main action of the day started, heard movement in some neighbouring diggings which were supposed to be empty and found himself face to face with several baleful looking representatives of the Emperor. He emptied his revolver at them and fled into the arms of his alarmed platoon who killed some and scattered the rest. A driver from one of the gunner regiments, out delivering rations, saw that a nearby Bren gun position which was below him but overlooking the observation post he was was visiting, had just been overrun. Instead of tiptoeing away with the bad news, Driver Walker emerged from his cab with a Thompson, got close to the Japanese unobserved and then delivered a one man surprise attack which drove away those who could still move. According to his unit’s history of the campaign, he was “immediately awarded” a Military Medal.

Eventually, the Japanese had succeeded in seizing part of some high ground known as Thompson’s ridge. Morrison felt the British Battalion needed a rest before it mounted any more counter-attacks. A company made up of two platoons of Sikhs and one of Gujars, who are mainly Hindus, was given the job, part of another makeshift battalion built from the detritus of Gurun and Jitra. Its commander was a twenty-one-year-old named Charles Lamb who held the lowest commissioned rank of second lieutenant, another indication of casualties for a company was commanded by at least a captain and very often a major. Because of this that Captain John Graham, the battalion’s second-in-command, decided to lead the attack himself. Towards dusk a double dram of rum was issued and, as they sipped, Graham reminded them that, though few would witness what they were about to do, their own honour and that of the regiment were at stake.

Shortly afterwards, having approached their objective using every scrap of available cover, Graham’s sixty or so men got to their feet and, screaming their old war cries, followed his charge towards the Japanese with seventeen-inch bayonets fixed. Young Lamb and several others went down in the first rush but Graham rallied the rest and pushed on until a small mortar bomb mangled his legs below the knee. Even then he levered himself up off the ground, yelling his men on and, at least one account insists, was seen throwing grenades after he was hit. The only Japanese left on the position were those incapable of leaving it but they had exacted a high price.

Thirty-four of the Indians died, including a Viceroy Commissioned Officer. Lamb was killed outright. Graham, who would probably have been a double amputee had he survived, bled to death though he lived long enough to learn they had won the day. Judging from the pep talk he gave his men it seems obvious that he expected heavy casualties. Nobody was decorated for this epic charge though after the war there was talk in old Indian Army circles of getting Graham a posthumous Victoria Cross. But by that time most of the living witnesses were middle-aged farmers lost among the mud brick villages of the Punjab, their youthful valour as dusty as their land.


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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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