This article was published in The Star
Saturday June 7, 2008© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission
Back-tracking in Gemas
By LIZ PRICE
A memorial near Sg Gemencheh in Negri Sembilan pays tribute to Australian soldiers who fought to defend Malaya from Japanese forces.
All that remains of the wooden bridge are a few stumps in the river and a couple of posts standing on the embankment. Some metres downstream is a replacement concrete bridge which now carries traffic over the river on Route 1 which connects Tampin to Gemas, Negri Sembilan.
Six decades ago, this was the site of a gruesome battle in which many men lost their lives. On Jan 14, 1942 during World War 2, Australian troops blew up the wooden bridge across Sungai Gemencheh, near Kampung Sungai Kelamah, where many Japanese soldiers were killed.
On Dec 8, 1941, the Japanese Army landed at Kota Baru and Southern Thailand. They travelled down the country and many battles ensued, particularly in Perak. One of the most famous was at Slim River where British Forces destroyed bridges and laid out mines in an attempt to control the rapid advance of the Japanese. However, the Slim River bridge was taken by the Japanese on Jan 7, 1942.
As the Japanese continued their invasion down through the peninsula, on Jan 10, three lieutenant-generals — Brits Arthur Percival and Sir Lewis Macclesfield Heath and Australian Henry Gordon Bennett —went to the Gemencheh River Bridge to plan a major attack of the Japanese invading force.
Heath was appointed to command the Third Indian Corps, part of the Malaya Command during the Battle of Malaya. His commanding officer was Percival. Bennett, who was with the Australian army, was in charge of selecting the area for an ambush.
On Jan 14, Australian troops (New South Wales 2/30th Battalion, backed up by Queenslanders) successfully ambushed the Japanese on Sungai Gemencheh. The bridge had been wired with demolition charges. As a result, the Japanese suffered huge losses, but their General Yamashita acted quickly and called for fresh troops from Kuala Lumpur.
An estimated 400-500 Japanese soldiers were killed while the 2/30 Battalion reported 11 casualties. However, another report said that 700 Japanese died while the Australians lost eight men and 80 were wounded.
On Jan 15, Japanese reinforcements arrived at Sungai Gemas and the 2/30th Battalion came under heavy fire. The Australian army retreated further south.
The action at Gemencheh Bridge was the first time that an Australian Infantry Battalion fought the Japanese, however, several smaller Australian Units were in action prior to this date.
Today, there is a memorial site located near the river. I was confused as the river is Sungai Gemencheh, but for some reason, Tourism Malaysia signs call it the Kelamah River Memorial. The Kelamah River is a tributary that joins Sungai Gemencheh 2km south of the bridge.
One plaque at the site consists of a large wooden keris and a noticeboard in English and Malay, probably erected by Tourism Malaysia. Unfortunately, the date is wrong as it states the battle took place in 1941, instead of 1942. “Australian” is also misspelt.
Nearby is a simple stone plaque by Tourism Malaysia, with a short description in Malay, English, Chinese and Japanese, but again misquoting 1941. It is a pity the authorities have not bothered to change these errors.
Now there is a newer marble war memorial, presumably erected by the Australians. The plaque says: “In memory of the men of the 2/30th Infantry Battalion AIF and supporting units who fought the Japanese Imperial Forces at this site on Jan 14 and Jan 15, 1942. They will be remembered.”
Sadly, this memorial has already been defaced with graffiti and scratches.
Unfortunately, this memorial site is not mentioned in any Malaysian guidebook or leaflet. However, it is shown on the Negri Sembilan map . . . but in the wrong place!
Since the memorial is about 10km from Gemas, we decided to take photos of the historic railway station there. Gemas is at the junction of the east and west railway lines. The station was built in 1922 and is a stopover for trains from the north (Butterworth), east coast (Tumpat and Gua Musang) and the south (Singapore). Other than passenger trains, the station also accommodates cargo trains carrying cement, petrol, rubber and logs.
The original station building is still standing. For railway enthusiasts, there is a 1946 model North British Locomotive Company steam engine called Temerloh. Of course, we couldn’t resist posing on this old loco before having a cold drink in the old station café.
- Directions: The memorial site is 10km west of Gemas on Route 1 to Tampin.