The British fall back in Malaya
21 December 1941: A humiliating retreat for British forces- down the Malayan peninsula towards the island of Singapore
The Japanese were attacking on multiple fronts across the Far East. It was a familiar story in many locations. They had almost immediately established air superiority with surprise attacks that destroyed many aircraft on the ground. Their invasion forces then made good progress against ill prepared and unsupported defence lines.
In Malaya and Singapore the British were well prepared for a Naval assault against the island of Singapore. When the Japanese chose to land on Malaya and work their way down the peninsula towards the landward side of Singapore, the British seemed to have no answer.
John Wyatt was amongst the troops who experienced the Japanese onslaught. The 21st December was the first opportunity he had to record his experiences in a letter home:
Dec 21-41 L/C J Wyatt
Dear Mum & Dad & Elsie,
Well mum before I start I would like you all to give thanks to God at church for the mercy he has shown not only to me but to the whole battalion. Three times I have just waited for death but with God’s help I am still here. I have felt all along that with all your prayers God would keep me safe.
I will only give you one instance of it. Ten of us were in a trench in a little native village in the jungle, we were told last man last round for we were surrounded by the Japanese, and they were closing in on all sides, some of the chaps were saying goodbye to each other, and I was really frightened at the thought of dying, but as the minutes dragged on I resigned myself to it then all of a sudden three aircraft came over, was they ours? Was they be buggered, down came the bombs all round us.
‘All of a sudden, we heard a shout ‘run for it lads’, did we run, but the last I saw of the brave officer who said it, I shall never forget him, was him, pistol in hand, pointing at the Japs, holding them off while we got away. I haven’t seen him since.’
All we could do as we crouched there was to wait for one to hit us, but that good old trench saved our lives for it rocked and swayed with the impact. About one minute after they flew off, four tanks rumbled up the road, and gave our positions hell. They flung everything at us, grenades, machine guns, but we still crouched in that little trench. We could not return fire for if we showed our heads above the trench the advancing Japs were machine-gunning us.
All of a sudden, we heard a shout ‘run for it lads’, did we run, but the last I saw of the brave officer who said it, I shall never forget him, was him, pistol in hand, pointing at the Japs, holding them off while we got away. I haven’t seen him since.
Anyway we waded through about a mile of paddy with bullets whistling past all the time, but we reached the jungle and safety, then on to find the British lines. We tramped thirty miles that day living on jungle fruits.
The fight started at seven in the morning we reached safety at five at night. Then for sleep, food, clean clothes and a shave, for we had been at the front for eight days without sleep or clean clothes. We have lost everything, the Japs have got everything, all my personal stuff, photos, prayer book everything, but thank God I am still here, most of the battalion reached safety but a lot of poor chaps are still missing, some of my friends too.
Your ever loving son
This excerpt from No Mercy from the Japanese: A Survivors Account of the Burma Railway and the Hellships, 1942–1945 appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.
Follow the full course of the war, right the way through, on the eightieth anniversary. All the key events and much, much more.
Follow the war with a new story every day…
Try World War II Today for free for thirty days if you sign up now. Offer valid for both annual or monthly subscriptions made during December 2021. Unsubscribe at any time.