A note from The Cove Team: This article was published in Smart Soldier 65, August 21. You can access the full edition on the DPN in the Army Lessons page. (Tip: Search for Army Lessons and select the second/third search option).
Although outlined in Australian doctrine (LWD 3-0-3 Formation Tactics), examples of guard missions in military history are rare. Guards are more than a screen positioned to gain contact with the enemy, observe and report. Guards impose a delay on an enemy or ‘shape’ their actions through combat. To do so they must be given sufficient force to fight.
Guard forces are usually purpose designed, self-contained, combined arms forces. Mobility is key to maintaining freedom of action against an enemy of greater strength. Cavalry or mechanised infantry organisations typically form the basis of a guard and, it ideally, will have tanks and artillery in support. Nowadays, helicopter resupply and evacuation would also be considered essential. Not so in 1941.
The battle of the Grik Road was fought between British and Japanese forces in north-central Malaya over the period 16-23 December 1941. It is an excellent case study in the use of a guard force and provides many hard-won lessons that are relevant today. The Japanese operational objective was to capture crossing points over the Perak River near Ipoh. Quickly capturing these bridges via the Grik Road would cut off the 11th Indian Division, retreating after two major defeats, but still essential for the ongoing defence of Malaya. The Grik Road was the enemy’s least likely approach – the road condition was so bad that the Japanese decided not to bring tanks – but the British decided to position a guard on this axis to provide security to the main body, III Indian Corps, on the West Coast. This decision was prudent, as the Japanese committed an entire regiment (three battalions) to advance down the Grik Road. Although operations on this axis of advance expanded from company to brigade strength, it remained an economy of force operation. The Japanese always outnumbered British and Indian troops by a wide margin. Worse, the Japanese also exerted air superiority.
C Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders provided the initial guard force. Attached was a single Lanchester armoured car (with machine guns including a .50 cal) and a single 3-inch mortar. Mobility - superior to the Japanese - was provided by 4WD trucks of the Australian 2nd/3rd Reserve Motor Transport Company. The importance of always controlling access to the roads in order to use this mobility was well understood, as was demonstrated in the coming battle. The Argylls were a highly regarded Scottish battalion, well trained in jungle warfare, and thoroughly rehearsed in immediate action battle drills by their charismatic CO, LTCOL Ian Stewart. He had developed a range of TTPs tailored to the operational environment. One example was the grouping of truck-mounted infantry companies with armoured cars to act as ‘mobile forts’ which provided a base of fire to enable manoeuvre. The Australian drivers were older soldiers, whose ranks included a number of World War One veterans – their steadiness and reliability were remarked on by British and Indian units throughout the campaign.
On 14 December 1941, C Company was positioned at Kampong Krunei. The direction of travel and time available allowed the identification of key terrain. A local mine manager and a frontier patrol officer provided additional knowledge of the ground. The guard first contacted the Japanese 42nd Regiment advancing south from Kroh on 16 December 1941. In line with its delay mission, the guard engaged the enemy, then fell back to planned positions, fighting on two more occasions that day. The guard force sought to trade space for time. Rather than seeking more direct defensive battles that risked decisive engagement and potential destruction, the guard punished the Japanese emphasis on speed by employing ambushes. The Japanese advanced more cautiously on 17 December 1941, having learned that casualties incurred due to poor security stalled the rapid advance desired. The guard force was now achieving delay by inducing hesitancy. Consequently, the guard did not contact the enemy until around midday, south of Grik (now Gerik). The guard force then made a longer bound to Lawin, noting the terrain between offered the Japanese an opportunity to cut off the guard by moving cross-country. On 18 December 1941, the guard fought the Japanese in Lawin, but lost one platoon when the enemy successfully enveloped it. This loss emphasised that a guard commander requires good judgement to determine the precise moment that the risk of being cut off outweighs the potential rewards to be gained by maintaining its current task. After this contact, the guard withdrew even further this time, to the village of Sumpitan.
The actions of the guard force were closely monitored by its higher formations - even up to Malaya Command level. This small yet crucial guard was denying an axis to a Japanese Regiment intent on preventing the escape of the British main force. As such an additional infantry force, the 1st Independent Company, was added to the guard to bolster the defence of Sumpitan. On the afternoon of 18 December, the Japanese heavily attacked Sumpitan, inflicting serious casualties on the Independent Company, but the village remained partially in British hands overnight.
On 19 December, the entire 2nd Argyll battalion was sent to take over the guard mission, with a troop of 4 x 4.5- inch howitzers in support. Stewart was an offensively minded commander who understood his higher commander’s intent and took action accordingly; instead of remaining at Lenggong, he advanced to contact in Sumpitan. Stewart reasoned that taking a fleeting opportunity to attack an enemy who believed they held the initiative would shake their morale, buy time and create the space required for more mobile tactics to be employed. The battalion mounted advance was conducted as per SOPs, and reaction to Japanese contact just south of Sumpitan was aggressive. D Company, in the lead, inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese infantry who had bunched too closely and provided a perfect target for the Argylls’ armoured cars and Bren light machine guns. The following companies formed a ‘porcupine’ at the halt – another battle drill. This formation maintained all round defence, while allowing any enemy working their way around the flanks or rear of flanking companies to be attacked. Since jungle vegetation offered opportunities (to both sides) for concealed manoeuvre, another SOP was to provide security by probing into the jungle flanks with three-man ‘tiger patrols’ – surely a skilled and dangerous task without radios and GPS!
While some aspects of ‘jungle warfare’ were unique, the requirement for basic warfighting skills and sound command decision-making was unaltered. After the initial engagement at Sumpitan, further offensive action successfully forestalled the anticipated enemy infantry envelopment through the jungle. Stewart regrouped his mechanised assets, coordinated a fire plan with his artillery and mortars and attempted to punch down the main road and through the town. The force initially made good progress but the armoured cars were halted by a fallen tree. Even so, the Japanese were now thoroughly disrupted and had suffered heavy casualties. Having achieved this effect, Stewart then withdrew his force by 3km to avoid a potential counter-attack, and further again that night to Lenggong.
On 20 December, the battle did not progress as planned for either side. Early in the morning, A Company engaged a Japanese commander’s reconnaissance party, killing 12 enemy who approached to within 250m of their concealed ambush position. Disrupted again, the Japanese took some time to attack B Company further back in the main position but could not collapse its strong flanks. Reports then came from a civilian that the Japanese were rafting down the Perak River, attempting to seize a crucial causeway in depth at Kota Tampan – this would cut off the Argylls. Again, the CO assessed the situation and made a rapid but correct decision. He deployed his reserve company in Australian trucks with an armoured car to the river bank just ahead of the causeway. After intense combat – in which the OC was wounded and became lost, and so a Lieutenant took command - the Japanese were held back from the causeway, and the remainder of the Argylls were able to withdraw that night securely. Although the Argylls developed expertise in jungle fighting, they understood the road was their lifeline – losing control meant isolation, leading to death or capture. The OC of the reserve managed to work his way back to the battalion three weeks later despite his wounds.
Fighting conditions on 21 December were more favourable to the 2nd Argylls. The remainder of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade was now guarding their flanks and rear. Also, the less densely vegetated riverine terrain allowed the enemy even less scope for manoeuvre than they had previously. Stewart arranged his companies in depth between the Kota Tampan causeway – now demolished by engineers – and the ‘Durian Causeway’ a few kilometres behind. A tiger patrol detected enemy to the east who had moved down the river overnight – despite shelling of this obvious avenue of attack. Although the tiger patrol failed to maintain contact with this force, an attack never materialised from this flank. Heavy Japanese attacks were; however, made from the western flank in the morning and afternoon. The Argyll companies, well prepared, inflicted heavy casualties for negligible cost. The Japanese were also becoming predictable, and this acted against them. From 22 December, a Punjab battalion assumed the delay mission. The entire corps escaped over the Perak River by the 23rd, blowing the remaining bridges that day.
The battle of the Grik Road was a rare success in a disastrous campaign. It was a success because soldiers and commanders at all levels understood their mission, avoided decisive engagement and imposed adequate delay on a larger enemy force. Maintaining contact without over-commitment requires finely tuned professional judgement. On numerous occasions, even when tempted by further gains, the guard commander broke contact before being cut off or committed his reserve to preserve mobility. That said, opportunities to attrit the enemy were rarely foregone. This aggressive mindset, alongside a sound understanding of manoeuvre, and a keen sense of how terrain might aid or hinder the mission, allowed the guard to maintain freedom of action. Well-rehearsed SOPs and intent-based orders allowed rapid action that required no reference to higher command.
The Australian 8th Division, yet to enter combat at Gemas, was actively monitoring and distributing the lessons of jungle warfare. So too can soldiers today teach themselves about warfighting and the conditions in likely future AOs. Guard missions are so rare they are difficult to learn from; therefore, case studies such as the battle of the Grik Road provide important professional development opportunities. The battle is well-documented and key locations are still identifiable on the ground today.
There is plenty more to read and learn about the Malayan campaign – maybe start with the ‘Principles of War’ podcast. If you go to Rifle Company Butterworth, you will have the benefit of a battlefield guide book, battlefield tour opportunities and a Malaysia-specific unit library at the 2/30th Training Battalion. The 2nd Argylls’ history is available through the Defence Library Service.
Lessons from Grik Road
1. Avoid decisive engagement. The Argylls disengaged from the enemy – even when they might have gained further successes or inflicted more significant casualties. Selection and maintenance of the aim on guard missions comes with the implied task of preserving the force for continued operations.
2. Ground appreciation. The guard was able to fight on ground of its own choosing because it understood the terrain and knew the positions it wanted to fall back upon. Use of suitable ground can give you a marked advantage over a superior force - ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’.
3. Aggressive defence. Even though a guard mission is essentially defensive, it should take advantage of opportunities to attack. As on the Grik Road, offensive action interrupts enemy preparations, gains additional space (to later exchange for time), protects other parts of your force and inflicts casualties on the enemy – who might otherwise interfere with your mission or your clean break.
4. Well-rehearsed SOPs. The Argylls generated tempo, maintained security and gained the initiative by employing a range of thoroughly practised battalion SOPs including: advance to contact, action on contact, and quick attack. All ranks understood the purpose of these drills and when they were to be employed.
5. Avoid patterns. The Japanese became predictable with flank attacks. This predictability allowed the Argylls to orientate their firepower, increase depth and provide mutual support between companies, inflicting heavy casualties.
6. Security. Patrolling prevents your force being surprised, particularly in heavy vegetation and darkness. Once the enemy is located, maintain contact to provide ongoing information. Even without aerial reconnaissance being available, HUMINT provided the guard with vital, time-sensitive information.
7. Ambush at every opportunity. The Argylls continually inflicted casualties on the enemy by ambushing. This had the effect of disrupting the enemy, interrupting their timetable of advance and inducing hesitancy. Ambushes allowed the Argylls to regain the initiative against an overconfident enemy. An enemy seeking to generate tempo sacrifices security. Use this to your advantage.
8. Beware of ruses. The Argylls were shocked but rarely surprised by Japanese attempting underhanded tricks. These included: leading advances with European collaborators, wearing ‘native’ clothing instead of uniforms and yelling ‘Punjabi’ to give the impression that friendly troops were attempting to move through battle positions. Although such ruses are prohibited under the laws of armed conflict, it does not mean our adversaries will play by the rules.
9. Learn survival skills. Resourceful soldiers, trained to the point of familiarity with their environment, could escape and re-join their units after many weeks alone. Developing a combat mindset includes learning survival skills that provide the tools needed to continue living. Many of these can be self-taught. The Argylls’ Pioneer Platoon Sergeant was also an amateur yachtsman who escaped captivity by sailing a fishing boat to Sumatra.