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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapter twenty-three:-

As the night wore on, the Japanese shelling intensified and with it the feeling that they were preparing to attack.

It came at 6.45am, shortly after dawn. It was spearheaded by nine T95 tanks commanded by Captain Shiegeo Gotanda who came from Kagoshima, Japan’s most southerly port sometimes known as the “Naples of the Orient” and one of the few parts of the country which ever came close to being as sticky as Malaya. Gotanda, inspired and no doubt envious of Shimada’s success at Slim River, had volunteered to charge into Bakri and do it without infantry support the way, by the time he got to the Slim road bridge, that the dashing Watanabe had done it.

Colonel Masakazu Ogaki, the Guards officer in charge of the Muar operation, had some reservations about this, particularly the lack of infantry protection from anti-tank guns and Molotovs. Plus there was always a chance that the British would use their field artillery in an anti-tank role as they had eventually done at Slim. In the end, it was decided that if the infantry did not travel with the tanks they would not be all that far behind. Some would also try to exploit Gotanda’s attack by hooking around the Australians and establishing a road block behind them.

To get to Bakri, Gotanda had to pass through a narrow, fairly high banked cutting with thick vegetation on either side. Waiting for him there, around a bend and slightly off the road, was a two-pounder under Lance-Sergeant Clarrie Thornton, a mature young man of twenty-four from a farm amidst the Snowy Mountain sourced streams of the Riverina pasturelands. At the end of the cutting McCure had deployed another of his anti-tank guns.

Six tanks approached in single file. There was no artillery preparation; no cover other than the fast melting early morning mist. Within a minute Thornton’s crew had hit the first, third and fourth machine but they all trundled resolutely on. The only indication of anything amiss were whisps of what might have been white smoke rising delicately from some parts of them and the lack of accurate return fire, in some cases any return fire at all. As Harrison and the others had discovered at Gemas, armoured piercing rounds could go in one side of a T95 and out the other, easily penetrating plate which was nowhere more than twelve millimetres thick. Their interiors might resemble a butcher’s shop but, as long as the engine and the throttle was open the tank went on.

For some reason the kind of high explosive shells that had worked so well at Gemas were not lying besides their gun. By the time McCure and his batman had delivered some, the tanks had not only gone by but the vanguard of Ogaki’s infantry were glimpsed advancing either side of the road. The young farmer and his crew who, according to McCure, were all in high spirits pushed the gun into the middle of the road. With their backs to the advancing infantry, they began firing their newly delivered high explosive into the rear of the tanks. At the same time the T95’s were being hit from the gun the other end of the cutting which was in a slight hollow and did not open fire until the nearest tank was forty yards away. All six of these tanks were immobilised and eventually totally destroyed. So were three more who appear to have waited for the Japanese infantry, presumably because the fate of the tanks which had proceeded according to plan without rifle support were plain to see. By now a sniper had managed to get close enough to Thornton, who probably stood out as the man in charge, to give him a hip wound. But this had not stopped him and his crew from turning their gun around and start punching holes in the other tanks in the same deliberate way. Only when it was obvious they were no longer any threat did Thornton consent to be carried off to a field dressing station. He was awarded an immediate Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The Gotanda tank company, which would receive a unit citation, had been wiped out. “A glorious death,” declared Yamashita though he may have had some sympathy with a Japanese history of the Imperial Guard which concluded that brave men had been squandered. Some of the tank crews did attempt to escape from their crippled machines only to be cut down by the waiting infantry. Others turned them into beleaguered fortresses, working their guns as long as they had ammunition to fire from them and the strength to squeeze a trigger. “Until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, rendered useless and uninhabitable,” recalled Lieutenant Ben Hackney, a grazier from Bathurst, who was among the nearby infantry. At Slim the defenders had been surprised by a night tank attack and the use of tracer but once again the Australians had demonstrated what could be achieved with two-pounders in the hands of resolute men.

Also watching the death throes of Gotanda’s tanks were the cameramen Metcalf and Bagnall who had spent the night at Duncan’s brigade HQ at Bakri and appear to have turned up just as the action came to a close. They could hardly believe their luck. These were the images everybody had missed at Gemas when Harrison and the others had been cheered by the infantry. “Some of the few really good pictures that were taken of the war in Malaya,” wrote Ian Morrison of the Times in his wartime book, “Malayan Postscript”. It was all there: smoking tanks with dead crewmen lying alongside them and the Australians only a few yards away crouched behind their small, high velocity guns . Since it was not long after first light, and the nightly battle against mosquitoes only just ended, some of the gunners are still wearing their roll-up Bombay Bloomer shorts let down almost to their ankles.

 

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Buy this book from Amazon.co.uk
  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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