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Nations at war
Moffatt, Jonathan and Audrey Holmes McCormick. Moon over Malaya: A Tale of Argylls and Marines. Stroud, UK: Tempus Publishing, 2002.
Introduction; Acknowledgements; Abbreviations; photos; Roll of Honour; Bibliography; Index
Although perhaps not the mood the authors intended to set, it's impossible
to read the opening chapter of Moon over Malaya without a mounting
sense of dread. Moffatt and McCormick introduce a large cast of youthful,
vigorous characters as they enlist in the Argyll and Sutherland
Highlanders, move with the unit among assorted peacetime posts, gain
promotions, and transfer with the 2nd Battalion to Singapore. The authors make it
abundantly clear these lads are more than soldiers: children of the
depression, many from broken homes, soccer players, boxers, pranksters,
well-educated or school leavers, some newly married, enjoying or enduring
Army life and southeast Asia in the last months of 1941. With each snippet
and thumbnail sketch and brief pre-war tale in the soldiers' own words, the
bleak realization rises that these young soldiers are mostly doomed to die
fighting in the jungle or in Japanese captivity.
Lt Col Ian Stewart trained his battalion to a high pitch of fitness in the
jungles of Malaya, proving in the process of maneuvers and marches that the
approach to Singapore from the north, through the "impenetrable" growth,
would be open to a Japanese advance. When the inevitable finally took place
and the Japanese landed, the Argylls were in the north of Malaya and as
ready for action, or more so, as any Allied unit in the theater. With the words of
Stewart's officers and men the authors interweave the story of the
inexorable British withdrawals. At first these were orderly, carefully
timed movements with each company leap-frogging to new delaying positions.
At each position, the first Japanese probes were inevitably met with
roadblocks and heavy fire from the Argylls. Just as inevitably, the
Japanese deployed into the jungle to flank the roadblocks. The Argylls
timed their withdrawal to delay the attackers as much as possible, usually
leaving a rearguard to ambush the Japanese spearhead before getting cleanly
away. The handful of Lanchester armored cars available to the Argylls
played a critical role in repeatedly halting the enemy.
In this manner the Argylls and the other units of the British forces in
Malaya gave ground under pressure only grudgingly in the early going. To
hear the Jocks tell it, they were mostly having the best of the Japanese
despite the constant withdrawals. The general tone of the accounts seems to
be that the Japanese airpower, against which the Argylls were defenseless,
was the major cause of their inability to hold ground long enough to
decisively repulse the assaults. Interestinglyand as a symptom of how perceptions in the heat of combat
don't always match realitythe Jocks quoted here
report a great many instances where the Japanese columns seemed to be led
by Germans. The Jocks were also extremely sensitive to Fifth Columnists. On
many occasions Malay villagers were arrested or executed due to
"suspicious" behavior, such as carrying banana leaves that could be spread
out on the ground like arrows to mark the Argyll positions for Japanese
The British delaying tactics worked well enough to slow but not stop the Japanese,
until the attackers brought up tanks to take the lead. At Slim River the
entire brigade, Argylls included, was caught off guard, infiltrated by
Japanese tanks, and chopped to pieces. The Argylls had given ground,
suffered defeats, and taken casualties in Malaya, but never on this scale.
The reports from individual Jocks are frightening and poignant stories of men
scattered in dense jungle trying to survive and escape the Japanese. As
always in these kinds of situations, both the noblest and basest behavior
emerged as small groups of men were reduced to little more than starving
Given the magnitude of the British defeat in Malaya, the surviving Jocks had little time for rest as the battalion was soon reformed. Some two hundred remaining Argylls (including reinforcements) comprised the final rearguard in Malaya and were the last to cross over to Singapore when the causeway was demolished. Stewart ordered the final march across the causeway led by bagpipes. The CO of the Argyllswho became brigade commanderis for the most part treated reverently in Moon over Malaya by the authors and by most of the Jocks themselves. On the other hand, another recent account of the campaign in Malaya, Singapore by Alan Warren, is not quite so kind to Stewart's reputation.
Reduced to such a pitiful handful after the losses in Malaya, the Argylls were brought more or less up to strength by amalgamation at Singapore with Royal Marines who survived the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse. Fished out of the water, issued new uniforms and equipment, hurriedly trainedmore or lessin jungle tactics, the Marines formed a component of what was temporarily dubbed "the Plymouth Argylls." The authors at this point add for the remainder of the book a fresh mix of Marine voices to complement the recollections of original Argylls.
Even with these reinforcements, the battalion, thrown into the battle again when the Japanese landing on Singapore Island began to break through Australian positions, was unable to stem the enemy advance. The Singapore fighting proved to be another mad dash of chaos and confusion. According to surviving Argylls, the "Sydney" Australiansas opposed to the sturdy Aussies from the Outbackthrew down their weapons and fled to the rear. The Argylls themselves constantly withdrew in search of a secure position they could hold without being infiltrated or flanked, but no such position existed and the battalion soon disintegrated.
In the end, the Plymouth Argylls were as helpless as any other Allied formation at Singapore, and they could only lay down their weapons along with everyone else when the "fortress" surrendered. Stewart, however, and a very small party of Argylls had in the meantime been ordered to evacuate in order to save their expertise at jungle fighting and share their knowledge of Japanese tactics with other Allied leaders in Asia. Stewart arrived safely in Java, then moved to Ceylon and India, briefing Allied generals, lecturing, and eventually making a radio broadcast of his version of the campaign. Remarkably and unexpectedly, upon his arrival in Ceylon, "[q]uite by chance, Stewart encountered his wife Ursula and daughter Cherry Linnhe outside a Colombo hotel."
Other Argylls and Marines attempted to escape as well, including a number who were still on the run and evading the Japanese after the debacle at Slim River. Some died in the effort, some were captured along the way, and a very few successfully evaded the Japanese. Some simply disappeared. The authors recount a number of harrowing escape attempts, most of which, even when successful, make grim reading. One of the grimmest involves "Hoot" Gibson, whose post-war books about his exploits at sea are met with some skepticism by the authors and considerable ill feeling by many of the surviving Argylls. Gibson, like most, was eventually captured.
Over two hundred Argylls died in the fighting in Malaya and Singapore. Only about fifty Argylls managed to reach safety in Australia, Ceylon, or India after the surrender. The remainder ended up in Japanese hands. Desperate as some of the fighting had been, life as a POW was for most men even worse, and over two hundred Argylls died in captivity. When the authors turn their attention, and the memories of living Jocks, to the years as prisoners, the worst feelings of dread conjured in the opening chapter of the book come hideously to life. Despite an occasional lighter moment or even a fleeting interlude of humor, the dismal story of years in captivity, as told by the Argylls, was an endless tale of deprivation, punishment, and death. Beginning with the hospital massacres at the time of surrender and right through the "death railway" and the hellships and the underground mines in Japan, the Argyllsalong with thousands of other Far Eastern POWssuffered terribly.
When the war ended, those Argylls still alive were mostly so broken and malnourished that they could not have survived much longer. The final pages of the book take up the bittersweet story of repatriation and the post-war lives of the survivors. Some of the men were so far gone they did not live long enough to make it home. Others would never regain their health and were mostly forgotten or ignored by governmental
bureaucracies. Quite a few emigrated to Australia or Canada or the United States. Some simply slipped into obscurity. But most of the survivors retained the tight regimental bonds which had helped sustain them through years of combat and captivity, meeting informally and at reunions to share old memories and emotions. Among the most touching stories are the visits by aging Argylls and Marines to the scenes of fighting and imprisonment, and the laying of wreaths and poppies in the sea where the Repulse and Prince of Wales went down.
Even as the authors gathered these stories and wrote of the events of 1941-1945, the aging veterans slipped away one by one, each leaving behind a handful of tattered souvenirs, faded photographs, and a few paragraphs to tell us what it meant to be a Jock of the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, in southeast Asia in those terrible years.
Recommended. A book brought movingly to life by the words of the men who were there.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Tempus or its US distributor, Arcadia Publishing.
Thanks to Arcadia for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 25 August 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone