On 8 December 1941, just after midnight, Japan invades Malaya, one hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour. Less than eight weeks later, on 31 January 1942, the British Indian army has to retreat across the causeway to Singapore. A fascinating chronology of the invasion can be found here
One of the most decisive battles between the Japanese and British Indian army in the Malaya campaign has been fought near Kampar, the Battle of Kampar. The Japanese army advanced along the trunk road nr 1 and the British army had built fortified positions on the Bujang Melaka hill ridges near Kampar, overlooking the trunk road. My friends Chadel and Keong explored one of these ridges a couple of years ago and Chadel asked me recently if I was interested to go again and explore more. I was….:-)
We decided to follow the retreat of the British Indian Army from Kuala Kangsar until Serendah. In the three maps below (click to enlarge), the old trunk road nr 1 is highlighted in black. Red circles indicate points of interest. In what follows, I will comment on these “red spots”
The Sungei Perak bridges
On 19 and 20 December, heavy fighting took place on the Grik-Kuala Kangsar road near Lenggong. Japanese troops used the Cenderoh lake and the Perak river to float down in rafts, in the night bypassing Kuala Kangsar. It would be a disaster if they would take the two bridges (road and railway) across the Perak river, therefore the commander of all troops west of the Perak River, ordered on 21-12 an immediate withdrawal across the Perak river. This withdrawal was complete on 23-12 and the two bridges were demolished.
Here is where our recce started. We drove along the highway to Kuala Kangsar, where we had lunch in the Yat Lai shop, boasting on the best halal pow of Malaysia..:-) It was crowded and we shared a table with Ali, a friendly Malay gentleman, 83 years old. Of course I asked him if he had memories of the Japanese invasion. Not really anything memorable, of course he was still a young boy, living in ‘remote’ Sauk.
The two bridges are still there, repaired of course, the impressive Iskandar bridge still in use. The scenic Victoria railway bridge has been replaced by a new railway bridge parallel to it.
Following the nr 1 trunk road to Ipoh, we passed Sungai Siput. It was here, 16 June 1948, that at the Phin Soon and Elphin plantations three European managers were killed by communists, leading to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). A few years ago I had looked for these plantations and found them, but no sign of a memorial. So it was a surprise to notice a signboard now at the entrance of the Phin Soon estate. Followed by disappointment when the security guard told us that a visit of the memorial was only possible with permission of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association in KL. After some sweet talk we could meet the estate manager, who was cooperative and willing to bring us to the memorial shed, but he didn’t have the key, so we could not enter. We will have to come back here.
The British plan was to delay the advance of the Japanese army in order to give the troops in Kampar time to fortify their defensive positions. Chemor was one of the locations where the Japanese would be lured into an ambush. My military background is non-existent so I do not really understand the details of the ambush, except that it failed completely. The text pages below are from “Escape from Singapore” The limestone crop, mentioned in the text, has now been partly destroyed by the Lafarge Cement factory…:-)
The Kuala Dipang bridge
Our last stop for the day was at the Kuala Dipang bridge, near the confluence of the Dipang and the Kampar river, a few km north of Kampar. The present bridge over the Kampar river is a new one, but on a picture stumps in the water, remains of the old bridge, were still visible. On 28 and 29 December 1941 heavy fighting took place here. The bridge was demolished, delaying the advance of the Japanese army.
We found the new bridge over the Kampar river, but did not see any stumps. A friendly local angler explained that those stumps had been removed already quite some time ago, but that some bits and pieces could still be found in the field next to the river. And indeed, we found some old remnants, nothing spectacular, but still interesting
We stayed overnight in Kampar. The Rumah Rehat (Resthouse) was fully booked, but hotel Fully Well (what’s in a name, lol) was a good alternative. We had dinner with claypot chicken rice, one of the best I ever have tasted.
Kampar must have been a small village during the war, a few streets, between the slopes of the Bujang Melaka and the numerous tin mining ponds. With a famous school, the Anglo-Chinese school, which became the headquarters of the Japanese army during the occupation. Now the town has expanded a lot, many tin mining ponds have been filled in and become residential areas and the location of the TAR college.
The Battle of Kampar
Just before Kampar the British Indian army had built fortified positions on three ridges overlooking the trunk road, Thompson’s ridge, Green Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. It is here that from 30-12-1941 until 2-1-1942 the battle of Kampar was fought. Chye Kooi Loong, a Kampar teacher and local historian has written a monumental book about it. We would have loved to meet him, but he passed away last year April. The book is also available online (in pdf format)
When Chadel and Keong explored the Green Ridge a few years ago, there was still a signboard. It had disappeared now, so we had to find our own way. Not easy, no trail, swarms of mosquitoes. We found a few trenches, got lost a bit, found our way back. According to Chadel there should be more remnants, but we could not find them. On our way down we followed the stream between Green Ridge and Thompson’s ridge, with even a nice waterfall…:-) A pity that the authorities apparently are not interested to preserve this part of Malaysian history..:-(
After lunch in Kampar we relaxed at the Batu Berangkai Fall. A big pool, nice cascades. When I went back to the car to get my swimming gear, I managed to lock myself out… Fortunately Chadel turned out to be an experienced car thief, breaking into his own car!
The resistance of the British Indian army was so fierce and the Japanese losses so considerable that after four days of fighting the Japanese commander seriously considered to retreat and fall back to Ipoh. But at that same time, the British Army became aware that Japanese troops had landed at Teluk Intan. They were worried that these troops would cut off the main supply route from the south, and decided to pull back, to the surprise (and relief) of the Japanese! Would history have been different if the Japanese had retreated earlier…:-)?
The British Indian army retreated along the trunk road to Trolak and Slim River, where on 7-1-1942 the Battle of Slim River took place. We followed them, 73 years later…:-)
The Trolak Bridge
We had seen a picture of the Trolak bridge, a few km before Slim River, fallen undamaged in the hand of the Japs. After studying the maps we found it. The trunk road 1, as it was in 1942, is not everywhere identical with the present one! After the war this road has been “straightened” in several places. Look at the map. The original nr 1 road is in black, the straightened parts are in red. Near Trolak it is only a small stretch, but from Slim River to Tanjung Malim it is a completely new road. Actually the first toll road in Malaysia! My friends still remember that you had to pay 50 cents toll, until later the highway (green color) was constructed.
In Slim River the Rumah Rehat had rooms available. I always like to stay in these Resthouses, originally built for traveling civil servants. Sometimes quite basic, but often in a nice location. We had to pay RM 10 more, because we were not civil servants..:-). Slim River was a small kampung in 1942, now it has grown into a village, no problem to get food.
The Battle of Slim River
The two Slim River bridges are far apart, not easy to defend. The map below gives the defensive positions. Main line of defense was at Trolak, where railway and road run very close. See map. It became a disaster. The Trolak force cold not stop the Japanese army, and through miscommunication, the troops near the Slim River bridges were not aware that the Japanese were approaching, resulting in such a chaos that the two bridges fell undamaged in Japanese hands! Here are the two bridges, the railway bridge has been made double track, the road bridge could well be unchanged since the war. You can read more about this debacle in Britain’s Greatest Defeat
The old nr 1 road from Slim River to Tanjung Malim (now the A121) still evokes a feeling of the past. Very winding and quiet. Could the enemy be waiting around the corner? Here is a short video
On our way back home, we made a detour to Batang Kali, to find another location related to the Malayan Emergency. On 24 December 1948, six months after the killing of the three planters in Sungai Siput, twenty four unarmed villagers were killed by British troops in what now is known as the Batang Kali Massacre. The British government has always denied responsibility for this war crime. There are plans for a memorial, I know the location of the plantation where it happened, but we could not find anything, it looks like the plantation doesn’t exist anymore. Here too we have to come back another time
The Battle of Serendah
After the debacle of Slim River, the British commanders decided to give up Selangor (including Kuala Lumpur!)and Negri Sembilan and fall back to Johore for a final attempt to stop the Japanese approach to Singapore. Trying to delay the advance of the Japanese army, a Gurkha detachment fought a battle with the Japanese at Serendah, 10-1-1942. The frightened population had sought refuge on the Chinese cemetery, looking down on the village.The Gurkhas lost the battle and destroyed the Serendah bridge, but the Japanese were quick to repair it and the following day they entered Kuala Lumpur.
After lunch in Ulu Yam (famous for its loh mee), we had a look at the bridge and drove to the top of the cemetery, with a view of Serendah and the tin mining ponds. So peaceful now!
A fascinating trip. We are thinking about another one to Johore. The battle of Muar and Gemas, the massacre of Parit Sulong and of course the fall of SIngapore.