After months of anticipation, Malaysia and Borneo beckons. It’s hard to believe that in a few days’ time I shall be walking sites that I have spent years reading about and researching.
For the best part of a week I will be travelling in the footsteps of so many men who I have interviewed and admired: men like Fred Eva and Tom Eaton, Bob Hamond and Tony Ferrier.
My plan is to explore the battlefields of Singapore and Johore where the ill-starred 18 (East Anglian) Division fought in the first two weeks of 1942. With the help of locally-based expat, Jon Cooper, manager of The Adam Park Project, I will begin my journey in the old Singapore suburbs where the men of the 1st Cambridgeshires, 4th, 5th and 6th Royal Norfolks and 2nd Cambridgeshires together with a range of ancillary units made their final stand during that fateful February. From there, I shall be heading off to northern Johore and the area around Batu Pahat where the 53rd Brigade were hurried into action, barely 48 hours after they walked off the Mount Vernon following an epic three-month voyage that began in the UK in October – two months before Japan entered the war!
At Batu Pahat, I shall make full use of the diaries, complete with sketch plans, made by the late Jimmy Clancy, a subaltern in the 2nd Cambs, who was seriously wounded during the fighting around the village of Senggarang. Like a number of men from the Royal Norfolks, he had to be left behind with a volunteer medical party when the remnants of the brigade and an assortment of other units were forced to break-out, some heading inland through the jungle and the remainder moving towards the coast where they evacuated by flat-bottomed river boats.
One place I am keen to see is the defile at Bukit Pelandok where the 6th Royal Norfolks endured its rough baptism of fire – from the air and their own side! Eventually, they were pushed off the two hills which they were guarding and, controversially, other Norfolk troops withdrew from a nearby bridge at Parit Sulong, thus allowing the Japanese to cut-off a retreating force of Australians and Indians. Many were able to break through the enemy cordon, but those wounded men left behind were slaughtered by the Japanese.
It promises to be an emotional journey, not so much of remembrance but of discovery, and I hope that it will provide ample material for a planned book on the men of 18 Division who suffered the worst fate of any British force sent overseas during the second world war.
In the weeks that follow I shall keep you updated on my progress, initially as I retrace their steps and later as Sandra and I embark on our own mini-adventure, deeper into Malaysia and Sabah, with its links to another wartime tragedy near the northern town of Sandakan, en route to a rendezvous with the orang-utans of Sepilok…