2/4th Machine Gun Battalion (Australia)
|2/4th Machine Gun Battalion|
|Role||Direct fire support|
|Part of||8th Division|
|Unit Colour Patch|
The 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion was an Australian Army unit raised for service with the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) during the Second World War. Formed in late 1940 as part of the 8th Division, the battalion provided fire-support to the division’s component infantry brigades. In 1941–42, it was deployed north to meet the Japanese threat, seeing action in the disastrous the fighting in Singapore and on Java. During these campaigns, the 2/4th was all but destroyed with the majority of its personnel being either killed or becoming prisoners of war after the fall of Singapore in February 1942. During the three and half years they were in Japanese captivity, members of the 2/4th were sent to various prison camps around the Pacific where they were used as slave labour and subjected to harsh conditions and extreme brutality until being liberated in August 1945. After the war, the surviving members of the battalion were returned to Australia, but the 2/4th was not re-raised.
Formation and training
In mid-1940, amidst the tide of German successes in Europe, there was an influx in volunteers for the 2nd AIF. As a result, the Australian government decided to raise a third all-volunteer division for overseas service; this was designated as the 8th Division. Established around three infantry brigades, the division was supported by various corps troops including engineers, cavalry, artillery and pioneers, and a machine gun battalion for organic direct fire support. Within this formation, the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion came into being on 25 November 1940 when Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anketell, a First World War veteran who had commanded a Militia infantry battalion before the war, established his headquarters at Northam Camp, near Perth in Western Australia. While the rest of the 8th Division had drawn its personnel mainly from the more populous eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, upon the battalion’s formation, the decision was made to only recruit personnel for the 2/4th only from the west.
Like most 2nd AIF units, the 2/4th drew its cadre staff of officers and senior non commissioned officers (NCOs) from volunteers from local Militia units. These were then augmented by partially trained Other Ranks (ORs) from the three local recruit training depots; the first batch of these, numbering 394 men, arrived at Northam on 27 November, while a further 262 marched-in on 4 December. As the battalion was brought up to its authorised strength of around 800, they were quickly formed into four machine gun companies, designated 'A' through to 'D', under a headquarters company, although in the early stages there were no platoon commanders until these arrived from the regional Officer Training Units. Initially training was hampered by a lack of equipment with only 12 of the battalion’s 48 Vickers machine guns available, and as a result at the start the focus was on individual training rather than collective. As more stores arrived, the training ramped up with the help of experienced Militia NCOs and old First World War veterans who were brought in to share their experiences with the new troops. Just before Christmas and New Years leave, the battalion received its distinctive Unit Colour Patch: a black and gold triangle.
Early in the New Year, the establishment of the battalion’s command formation was completed with the appointment of subalterns as platoon commanders following their return from their first appointment courses. Meanwhile, the training continuum evolved with the establishment of an NCO school and various specialist courses including range finding and transport. A bugle and drum band was also raised at this time. In February 1941, training focused upon skill-at-arms, before undertaking a 60-mile (97 km) march from Northam to Perth, which was conducted over the course of three days. Upon their return training progressed to field firing, night manoeuvres, portage, defensive exercises and further specialised training, which continued until July, by which time the battalion was considered ready for deployment.
That month the battalion received orders to move to Adelaide in South Australia. Proceeding in four drafts – one each on the transports Katoomba and Duntroon and two by rail – they were established at Woodside, in the Adelaide Hills, by the end of the month. There they endured a bitter winter conducting field exercises amidst the steep wooded slopes of the Mount Lofty Range; these grew in tactical complexity and physicality as Anketell worked the battalion up to a peak of efficiency in preparation for an impending deployment amidst growing tensions in the Pacific.
With the dispatch of the 27th Brigade to Malaya in August 1941 to reinforce the 22nd, which had been serving in a garrison role since February, the only 2nd AIF troops remaining in Australia were those of the 23rd Brigade. As a result of concerns about Japanese intentions in the region, the decision was made to move the brigade north to bolster the defences around Darwin. In the event of fighting in the Pacific, the government planned to split up the brigade’s infantry battalions to defend the island chain to Australia’s north, dispatching forces to Rabaul, Ambon and Timor. The role of the corps troops from the 2/4th Pioneers and 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion remained uncertain. The 8th Division’s commander, Major General Gordon Bennett, unhappy with the broad dispersal of his command, had been agitating for the dispatch of the machine gunners to Malaya to support his two infantry brigades and although initially his requests had been rejected initially, by mid-September Army headquarters had begun to plan for this eventuality. Nevertheless, in early October, the battalion received orders to move north to Darwin in the Northern Territory, where they were to serve in a home defence role.
Garrison duties in Australia
On 11 October 1941 the battalion entrained at Oakbank and began the journey north. They detrained at Alice Springs, where they camped overnight before continuing the journey by road in a 44-vehicle convoy, which took them further north to Larrimah. There they once again entrained for the final journey to Winnellie, which they reached on 19 October after overnighting in Katherine.
At Winnellie, the battalion was allocated a large defensive zone between Nightcliffs, Lee Point and Shoal Bay, which included a large beach frontage, as well as extensive swamp lands and creeks further inland. Throughout November, extensive work was undertaken improving the camp and preparing this position with hardened emplacements. They also undertook various other garrison duties such as guarding ammunition dumps, and road and railway construction. Heavy summer rains resulted in heavy flooding in the camp and surrounding area, and as well as hampering construction, also brought a wave of dengue fever amongst the battalion and the threat crocodile attacks as the creeks within the battalion position swelled; the battalion’s mascot, a dog named "Gunner", was one that fell victim at this time. News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and invasion of Malaya came in early December, and with it the urgency to bolster the Australian forces in the Pacific. As Bennett pressed harder for reinforcements, on 23 December the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion received orders to embark for Malaya.
On 30 December, after transferring responsibility for their defensive area to a Militia Light Horse machine-gun regiment from South Australia, the battalion embarked upon two troopships, Westralia and Marella, bound for Malaya via Port Moresby. Reaching there on 4 January 1942, they were transferred to the transport Aquitania, which was to take them the rest of the way. Before they had completed transhipment of all the battalion’s equipment, news was received that Rabaul, about 500 miles (800 km) north-east, had been bombed by carrier-based aircraft. Due to concerns that the aircraft may have been looking for the convoy and any US warships fleeing the Philippines, and that Port Moresby might be bombed next, the convoy’s departure was advanced and so they departed immediately. Instead of proceeding to Malaya, though, they were taken to Sydney, New South Wales, as it was decided that it would be safer to proceed via the southern route.
After a brief stay in Sydney where the battalion’s equipment deficiencies were made good and some reinforcements were received from local recruit training depots, they embarked again on 10 January in company with HMAS Canberra, and proceeded through the Bass Strait. As they were under way, the troops were kept occupied with training on the Bren light machine gun and the Thompson sub-machine gun, quantities of which were hastily added to the battalion’s equipment scale. They reached Fremantle, Western Australia, on 15 January. Overnight, a large number of 2/4th men defied their orders to stay aboard ship and went ashore to spend time with their families, as a result when the Aquitania sailed the next day, 94 men were left behind. The situation in Malaya was grave as the Japanese were steadily pushing the British and Commonwealth defenders south down the peninsula, and as the gravity of the situation dawned upon the Australian government, a knee-jerk reaction saw the dispatch of 150 partially trained reinforcements from Northam. They arrived just as the Aquitania departed, being ferried out to Rottnest Island where they joined the ship’s company late in the afternoon of 16 January, and although their arrival made good the men that had been left behind, they were only partially trained and were ill prepared for the fighting that would follow.
After departing Fremantle, the convoy steamed towards Java and reached Ratai Bay early on 20 January. Proceeding on to the Sunda Straits, which was reached mid-morning on 21 January, the men were then transferred to a number of smaller, faster Dutch ships to run the gauntlet of Japanese bombers that were attacking Allied shipping in the area. In concert with several Australian, British and Indian escorts, and two Dutch Catalina flying boats, the convoy entered Keppel Harbour on 25 January 1942. Upon arrival in Singapore, consisting of 942 personnel of all ranks, the battalion was allocated to the task of preparing machine-gun positions on Singapore’s north coast and around the naval base. They stepped into a maelstrom of activity. The Japanese were bombing the naval base – where the 2/4th were accommodated – on a daily basis, and the fighting on the Malay Peninsula was all but over. Having been pushed back down the peninsula over the course of seven weeks, in the final week of January, the Allied troops finally withdrew from Johore, on the mainland, to Singapore, where they would make a final stand. Covering the withdrawal, the 22nd Brigade was last Australian unit to cross the 70-foot (21 m) wide Causeway before the it was finally blown up early on the morning of 31 January to prevent the Japanese from capturing it.
One of only two machine gun battalions available for the defending forces, as preparations were made to repulse the expected Japanese assault across the Johore Strait, the battalion was split up to provide support to troops from the 22nd and 27th Australian Infantry Brigades and the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade around the western part of the island where the Japanese assault was expected. On 7 February, due to concerns about the lack of defending infantry, about 90 machine-gun reinforcements, who had been hastily formed into a sixth company – ‘E’ – were detached at this time to form part of a 400-strong Special Reserve Battalion, initially under the command of an officer from the 2/19th Infantry Battalion, but later being taken over by Major Albert Saggers, formerly of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion.
The Japanese attack came in the night of 8/9 February after a heavy artillery and aerial bombardment that had lasted throughout the day. ‘D’ Company, positioned in various locations in support of the Australian 22nd Brigade in the north-western area, found themselves in the thick of the fighting as the Japanese concentrated their landing in the Australian 8th Division’s area of responsibility. Shortly after 8:00 pm, 13 Platoon, supporting the 2/20th Infantry Battalion around the head of the Lim Chu Kang Road, was confronted by a large number of Japanese landing barges filled with Japanese assault troops. For almost six hours, the platoon, under Lieutenant Eric Wankey, fought a desperate action to repel the invaders. With four machine-guns, and the rest of the platoon arming themselves with small arms and grenades, the platoon inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese and sunk several barges. Despite heavy casualties from Japanese mortar and machine-gun fire, they kept fighting until early in the morning on 9 February when, threatened with being outflanked and low on ammunition – each gun had fired over 10,000 rounds – and having had one gun knocked out, the platoon was forced to withdraw. Destroying their equipment as they went to prevent it from being captured, the platoon was forced to withdraw in contact, taking their wounded, with them; the action was later rewarded with a Military Cross for the platoon commander, who was badly wounded after taking over one of the machine-guns after its crew had been wounded.
Near the Sungei Murai (Murai River), 15 Platoon – under Lieutenant John Meiklejohn – had been stationed in support of a company from the 2/18th Infantry Battalion, in a thickly wooded area with low hills and many inlets. 15 Platoon established an enfilade formation near the shore, with its machine guns distributed in two sections on a north-south axis, facing a narrow, peninsula between the mouth of the Murai and a small inlet. According to the official history by Lionel Wigmore, after a Japanese landing party approached, the southern section under Meiklejohn "opened fire against six approaching barges, and kept on firing for two hours, despite retaliation by hand grenades, as the Japanese landed and crossed the neck of the peninsula." As was the case elsewhere in the extremely wide sector assigned to the 22nd Brigade, many Japanese landing parties were able to outflank the thinly-spread Australian positions. At risk of being cut off and with ammunition running low, Meiklejohn ordered the southern section to retreat. According to Wigmore: "Meiklejohn led his section along a jungle path where they came upon a party of Japanese resting. He shot some with his revolver, and another was knocked out with a swing from a [machine gun] tripod, but Meiklejohn lost his life in attempting to cover his section's withdrawal." The northern section of 15 Platoon held its ground "until it was informed that a near-by infantry platoon was almost surrounded, and about to withdraw". Forced to retreat without its machine guns, the northern section also found Japanese troops blocking its path. When Private Cliff Spackman was attacked by a Japanese officer wielding a sword, Spackman "bayoneted him", took the sword and used it against another Japanese soldier.
As the situation worsened, early on 9 February ‘A’ Company, which had been in reserve, and HQ Company were sent forward to provide further assistance to the 22nd Infantry Brigade, which was slowly being pushed back towards the strategically important Tengah airfield, via the village of Ama Keng. They took up positions at Bulim, east of the airfield; shortly afterwards they were joining by 7 Platoon, from ‘B’ Company, which had been detached from the Causeway sector. The remnants of the 22nd, numbering around only 500 men from its original 2,500, with a further 500 or so isolated and attempting to fight their way through, was pushed further back throughout the day. Orders were passed for a counterattack around the airfield, but as the size of Japanese forces in the area grew to around 20,000, they were later cancelled in favour of establishing a line between Bulim and Jurong, to the east of the airfield. Established in the early afternoon, within this line, the 2/4th’s ‘A’ Company was positioned east of Bulim with 7 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, while the remnants of ‘D’ Company, amounting to only 47 men, were moved south, where they joined with ‘C’ Company, which was supporting the Indian 44th Brigade, which although it had not yet been engaged, had fallen back from the south-west coast to avoid being cut off, and had established itself west of Ulu Pandan, behind the Sungei Jurong.
Meanwhile, late on 9 February, the Japanese launched fresh landings, this time in the Causeway sector, held by the 27th Infantry Brigade. Despite having been reduced to just two infantry battalions due to the transfer of the 2/29th to the hard-pressed 22nd Infantry Brigade, they were able to mount a stiff defence, supported by the machine guns of ‘B’ Company. 8 Platoon was strongly engaged during this time, inflicting heavy casualties amongst the Japanese landing craft coming ashore at the mouth of the Sungei Mandi. Nevertheless, with casualties mounting and pressure being placed on the brigade’s rear due to a large gap that had developed around Kranji due to the Japanese advances in the 22nd Infantry Brigade’s area, the decision was made to withdraw from the beach and realign north-south along the Woodlands Road. Further south, the Australian 22nd and Indian 44th, 6th/15th and 12th Infantry Brigades also established themselves along this axis between Bukit Panjang and Pasir Panjang on the south coast, and as a result, by early evening on 10 February the Japanese had secured the entire west coast of the island.
For the next four days, the Allied troops were pushed south-east towards the city of Singapore. Throughout this time, the battalion’s companies were in almost constant action, either – in the case of ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’ Companies – under separate command, or ‘A’ and ‘HQ’ Companies with Battalion Headquarters. The reinforcements of ‘E’ Company, detached to the Special Reserve Battalion, suffered heavily. In three days, they lost 43 men killed or missing, before the ad hoc formation was disbanded and the men returned to the 2/4th. One of ‘B’ Company’s platoons – 7 Platoon – took on a mounted role, procuring four Bren carriers with which they began patrolling operations in support. On 12 February they were heavily engaged along the Buona Vista Road while supporting the Malayan Regiment. The following day, they were attacked by a Japanese light tank, which knocked out one of the carriers before the platoon extricated themselves.
By 14 February, the Allied troops had withdrawn into a small perimeter around the city. The 8th Division were holding a position 2 miles (3.2 km) east of the city, centred upon the axis of the Holland Road, with its headquarters at Tanglin Barracks. With the Japanese gaining ground to their north and south through the porous lines of the Indian 44th and British 54th Brigades, the situation reached criticality.
Threatened with being cut off, Anketell began to make plans to make a final stand; moving forward to survey the situation he was badly wounded by mortar and small arms fire, and after being evacuated to Alexandra Hospital, he died of his wounds late in the evening of 14 February. Despite his loss, the battalion kept on fighting to the very end, sending out patrols throughout the following day, and severely mauling a Japanese vehicle convoy that came too close to their position. Finally, late on 15 February the British commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival gave the order to surrender. The physical process of the surrender was slow, and despite orders to surrender weapons and ammunition, the men proceeded to destroy the majority of their equipment the following morning before the Japanese arrived. Later, they were marched to Changi prison, during which several men from the battalion attempted to escape; of these, two were ultimately successful in reaching Australia.
While the majority of the battalion was fighting on Singapore, a small detachment of 106 men were sent to Java. The majority of these were the 94 men that had failed to return in time during their unofficial leave in Fremantle. These men had tried to make it back in time, but after missing their movement, had been arrested by the military police and were confined to quarters in Karrakatta Camp for two weeks. On 30 January they were released and, under the command of two officers and a small group of NCOs, they embarked upon Marella, which set out for Singapore via Palembang in Batavia, escorted by Canberra. 
After reaching Tanjong Priok on 10 February, the detachment found itself placed under Dutch command and formed into a composite infantry company within the reserve battalion of the ad hoc formation known as "Blackforce", which had been formed under Brigadier Arthur Blackburn. At the end of the month, having taken Sumatra, the Japanese invaded Java with three divisions. Despite several fierce naval battles, they managed to succeed in getting ashore. The detachment from the 2/4th found itself around Buitenzorg, where they fought several defensive actions before finally being overwhelmed and taken into captivity on 12 March 1942. A small number continued to fight as guerrillas, but they were eventually all captured. Some of the men were held in camps in Java and Sumatra, although the majority were later sent to Singapore before being transported elsewhere.
Prisoners of War and disbandment
During the fighting, out of a total of 976 men deployed, the battalion lost 137 men killed in action and 106 wounded, while a further 24 suffered from shell shock. A total of 808 men were taken into captivity, including most of the wounded. Four of these managed to escape to Australia, but of the remaining men 263 men died while prisoners of war. Following their capture, the men from the 2/4th captured in Singapore were initially concentrated in Changi prison, in Singapore, before being split up and sent to various prison camps around the Pacific, including Borneo, Burma, Thailand, Java, Sumatra, Japan and Formosa. There they were used as slave labour on the Burma–Thai Railway, in coal mines and on wharves, during which they were subjected to harsh conditions, starvation, disease and extreme brutality, which took a heavy toll. Many soldiers from the 2/4th were also killed while being shipped to Japan, when the ships that they were being transported in were sunk by Allied submarines.
Throughout the period of their captivity, the soldiers continued to contribute to the Allied war effort, building a series of home-made radios with which they transmitted Japanese shipping movements to British forces in India, and through which they were able to gain news from home. They were finally liberated in August 1945 and after the war, the surviving members of the battalion were returned to Australia, but the 2/4th was not re-raised. Members of the battalion received the following decorations: one Military Cross, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, two British Empire Medals, and nine Mentions in Despatches; in addition one member of the battalion was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
- Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anketell.
The 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion received the following battle honours for its service during the Second World War:
- Malaya 1942, and Singapore.
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- Rodger 2003, p. 483.
- "2/4th Machine Gun Battalion". Second World War, 1939–1945 units. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- Cody, Les (1997). Ghosts in Khaki: The History of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, 8th Division AIF. Carlisle, Western Australia: Hesperian Press. ISBN 0-85905-235-4.
- Grey, Jeffrey (2008). A Military History of Australia (3rd ed.). Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-69791-0.
- Hall, Timothy (1983). The Fall of Singapore 1942. North Ryde, New South Wales: Methuen Australia. ISBN 0-454-00433-8.
- Rodger, Alexander (2003). Battle Honours of the British Empire and Commonwealth Land Forces 1662–1991. Marlborough, Wiltshire: The Crowood Press. ISBN 1-86126-637-5.
- Wigmore, Lionel (1957). The Japanese Thrust. Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army IV (1st ed.). Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 3134219.
- Anonymous (1961). 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, A.I.F, On Active Service 1941–1945. Perth, Western Australia: 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion Association. OCLC 758343423.
- Ewen, Murray (2003). Colour Patch: The Men of the 2/4th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, 1940–1945. Victoria Park, Western Australia: Hesperian Press. ISBN 0-85905-312-1.