Tom Marsh - War in Earnest

Just before we were due to leave our orders were changed. The attack on the radio station was off. It was too late! The Japs already had full command of the channel and were bringing up heavy artillery and field pieces to attack the Island. We would stay where we were for the night and report at Brigade Headquarters in the morning. We had no sooner settled in for the night when we got orders to report immediately. Two trucks were sent to enable our speedy delivery. Hurriedly we put on our equipment, loaded ourselves with hand grenades and ammunition, filled our water bottles, and with our machine guns, were ready. In our hurry to depart the two men on guard were left behind. Lieut. Birkett inquired their whereabouts. I told him they were still at their post, no orders having been given to withdraw them. He decided to leave them there as we could not carry all our stores and hoped to return to the same billets, which we never did.

The two trucks hurtled down the winding road in pitch darkness. There were now twenty-nine of us. Lieut. Birkett rode in the front seat of the forward truck. I rode on the front seat of the one following. This was going to war with a vengeance. Ahead of us we could see the red sky and the fires in the City. We careened and bumped over and around obstacles in the road, crashed through roadblocks before being challenged. I quite expected to see the truck in front blown to pieces by the road mines that we had so assiduously planted. It was a miracle of instinctive actions on the part of our own driver that we did not crash headlong into the truck ahead of us. Before leaving we had been told that the Japs were already on the Island. We soon knew this to be true as we approached our objective.

The air was bright with sparks and acrid with the smell of smoke. Guns thundered. Shells shrieked and exploded. The deadly rattle of machine guns and the whine of sniper’s bullet added to the bedlam. Steel helmeted figures crouched behind barricades but we saw few civilians. That dense mass of humanity that was Hong Kong lay hidden in their cellars. Many were killed by bomb or bullet and others were burned alive.

The Japs were following a carefully laid plan. Spies and saboteurs had prepared landing places by the seizure of strategic positions and aided by Japanese troops garbed as civilians, who fired from the buildings. The main body of the enemy crossed the channel in barges and boats. Many of them swam across.

We arrived at Brigade Headquarters at Wong Nei Chong without casualties. This Headquarters was situated in a small fort on a hillside outside the City. Here, a day or two later, Brigadier J.K. Lawson and some of his staff were killed. Sergeant Bob Manchester told me that from his position at the Gap he had seen Brigade Headquarters surrounded and that Brigadier Lawson and his staff had decided to try to breakout. He saw a few red tabbed figures run out of the fort towards our own lines. They came under direct machine gun fire and he saw some of them fall.

At Wong Nei Chong we left the trucks, which were shortly afterwards destroyed by mortar fire, and awaited further orders. They soon came. Lieut. Birkett returned to the platoon with a member of the Hong Kong Volunteers who was to act as our guide. We were ordered to occupy a small fort or pillbox called “Jardine’s Lookout” about a mile away. With Lieut. Birkett, who had a map, and the Volunteers in the lead, the men picked up their loads and followed. We were strung out over some distance and had difficulty keeping in touch, as it was very dark. I brought up the rear to encourage the stragglers. The men cursed and sweated under their heavy loads as we left the main road and took a side path that wound over and along the foothills. Although we were unaware of it we were walking right into the Japs. They had already infiltrated up to and past our destination. Rifle and gunfire was all around and we could hear the peculiar cries of the enemy as they sought to make their positions known to each other. We could not see them however, and fortunately they could not see us. Our leaders must have avoided the enemy patrols. We came to a pillbox occupied by a detail of the Hong Kong Volunteers. They were very glad to see us but were disappointed when Lieut. Birkett said that he had his orders to go to Jardine’s Lookout and to Jardine’s Lookout he would go. He did not say so but he had a date with destiny, and he was going to keep it.

Again we loaded up and started down a small valley and up the hill on the other side. Now we were going into the thick of it. We were being fired upon. Evidently the Japs had located us and were shooting from the darkness. Our pace quickened until finally the leaders broke into a run. It was Follow-My-Leader with a vengeance. Men called to each other, a machine gun was coughing death, and several were hit. The ground was very uneven and many stumbled and fell.

There was a shout up ahead. They had found Jardine’s Lookout. It was a pillbox built into the side of the hill near the top. One side stuck out, from it a short tunnel led into the pillbox which contained a room about 10' x 10' in area. In the front was an iron door with a machine gun slot but we never used it. It was evident that this position was under, or soon to be under attack. Possibly the former garrison had just left and the Nips thought they were still there for we walked right into a battle. The day was just breaking. A number of our platoon never actually entered the pillbox for Lieut. Birkett assigned the men to positions below the fort as soon as they had struggled that far up the hill. They immediately setup their machine guns and opened up on the enemy. I believe we lost three men coming in. Several others were wounded and these we sent to the pillbox for dressing. I was the last up the hill. I took up a position behind a rock and with my rifle shot at the flashes of the enemy’s fire.

As it got light I could examine our position and the nature of the terrain. We were on a steep slope. The hillside of soft volcanic rock was very rough and broken. Ridges and gullies were everywhere covered with sparse vegetation, thistles, coarse yellow grass and other cactus like plants. I saw no trees. It was ideal ground for cover both for the attacker and the defender. The Jap however had the advantage, as we were pinned down and he knew where we were. During the night he had infiltrated our lines in many places. Wearing rubber sneakers and light equipment, their helmets camouflaged with greenery, they were hard to detect. I learned that they also carried a week’s ration of rice that enabled them to stay out on patrol for several days.

While climbing over the top of the hill, back of the pillbox, I came upon an English artillery Observer studying the enemy’s position through his binoculars. He was surprised at their rapid advance and its boldness. “By George.” He remarked. “They are even flying battle flags. We will soon take care of that.”

And he hurried away, as I supposed to his battery. But we never received any artillery support in the vicinity.

When I joined Lieut. Birkett he was lying behind a rock on the slope in front of the pillbox. On our right we could see small figures moving slowly backwards. This, we were told by Lieut. W.V. Mitchell who made his way over to us in passing, was A Company of the Grenadiers. He wanted to know what unit we were. He also said that he thought we had fired at A Company. This was possible in the confusion when we first took our position but as Lieut. Birkett pointed out, it was much more likely that the fire came from the enemy who was attacking our own position and who now, nearly surrounded us. Lieut. Mitchell was able to rejoin A Company, which we did not see again.

The Japs firing was increasing. Trench mortar shells were bursting on the hill. The twang of bullets and flying pieces of rock followed any movement. We lay flat behind cover and returned the fire with our rifles, grenades, three Bren guns and two Tommy guns. After studying the situation our Commander decided that we were too spread out and that it would be better to have all the defenders on the crest of the hill, in or behind the pillbox. He therefore gave orders that our forward guns were to be withdrawn. Under heavy fire he then started to climb the slope. He had almost made it when I noticed that his leg was dragging. He had been hit, but continued. I was told later that he took up position with one of the Bren guns on the roof of his objective.

There were two Bren guns, and their crews, in my immediate vicinity. One, who had heard Lieut. Birkett’s order, was withdrawing. The other, manned by Bugler K. Simpson and Private L. Hallett, lay a little to my left. Taking advantage of all cover I crawled over to warn them. I lay just above them on a ledge behind a rock. Their position was at the base of an almost perpendicular drop of about six feet. I lay flat on my stomach in a firing position, my rifle pointed towards the enemy. I called to Hallett and got an answer. Just at that moment, right in front of us, a Japanese officer jumped up waving a sword and shouting “Banzai! Banzai!”

I took careful aim and shot him through the middle. He spun and collapsed, lying in full view, his hand still waving as our machine guns pumped lead into him. Hallett now informed me that his companion, Bugler Simpson, had been shot through the neck while working the gun and was helpless. I told him of the order to get back to the pillbox. He wanted to know what we were going to do about Simpson. I could hear Simpson pleading not to be left and heard the assurance of Simpson. We then decided that we would try to get Simpson out. It was arranged that I should unfasten one end of the sling and pass my rifle down slowly, butt first, and that Hallett would put Simpson’s belt through the sling. On a signal from Hallett I would pull and he would lift. We waited for a particularly vicious burst of enemy fire to subside and in the lull that followed Hallett cried, “Ready!” and threw Simpson up. I pulled, or rather jerked, and he fell behind the rock beside me. There was a hail of fire but we were well covered. Hallett threw up the Bren gun and a short while later jumped up quickly to join us. So far, so good, but the really dangerous task lay in getting Simpson up that steep rugged slope. We turned him on his back. He was semiconscious but I did not think his chances were good. Hallett was determined to save his friend. Slowly and painfully we commenced the climb, dragging Simpson by the shoulders. We took advantage of every bit of cover. Bullets whined and rocks flew. We had completed about half our journey and had come to a place where the ground was open and where we would be more likely to attract attention. Both of us were exhausted so we rested for a while. I called up to the pillbox asking for someone to help us get Simpson in. Corporal C.W.Darragh came down keeping well covered behind rocks until he lay behind another rock just above the open space we had to cross. Waiting for what we thought was a favorable moment we started to pull our comrade up and across the open space. We had almost made it and Cpl. Darragh had stretched forth his arm to grab Simpson when all hell broke lose. An enemy machine gun, a short distance away, had us directly in his sights. A hail of lead was around us. First Hallett was shot mortally, crying, “I’m hit. I’m hit.”

Simpson’s body was riddled. I saw my trousers flick as a bullet grazed the bone of my leg just below the knee. I had doubled up over my rifle to fling myself down the hill out of the zone of fire when I felt a terrible blow and tumbled in earnest head over heels down the hill. The vicinity where I landed was rugged with rocks and gullies where grew thistle like plants and long tufts of course grass. I must have landed in one of these gullies and passed out, for how long I do not know. When I regained consciousness I examined myself for damage. I noted that I was bleeding profusely from the mouth and first thought that I had been hit in the stomach. Having a horror of a serious stomach wound, as I believed that under the circumstances I was now in, it would be both painful and fatal, I put my rifle to my head. I do not suppose I recalled Kipling’s lines from his “Barrack Room Ballads” giving advice to the British soldier, “When you lie wounded on the Afghans Plains, and the ladies (he could say Japs) come out to cut up your remains, roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your God like a soldier.”

I had another thought. One always does in such desperate situations. Seeing I was thus able to use my rifle I could, for a while at least, postpone my desperate resolution. I therefore lowered the weapon. My whole body was bruised by the fall and my head was dizzy and numb. I examined my stomach but did not find the horrible wound I had visualized. Perhaps I had struck my head on a rock, but feeling around where the blood was trickling down my face I found that I had been shot clean through the head. The Japs use a smaller caliber bullet then we do, both for their rifles and machine guns. To this fact I am sure I owe my life. The bullet had entered just under my right cheekbone, passing over the roof of my mouth and out the other side of the left cheek. I was losing a lot of blood, mostly from my mouth and I must have swallowed a good deal. Taking out my first aid kit I supplied a dressing to both cheeks and put the bandage around my head to hold the dressing in place. These dressings and the bandages were soon soaked in blood. I must have had a very gory figurehead. Examining myself further I found that the bullet, which had grazed the bone of my leg, had made a painful wound. This I also dressed.

As the enemy seemed to be paying no attention to me I removed all nonessential equipment but kept my rifle. I remembered my dad telling me of a similar experience in the First Great War and how we agreed that a soldier should never let go of his rifle under any circumstances while still in battle.

Taking advantage again of every bit of cover and the short lulls in the firing, which came from both the enemy and our own boys in the fort, I gradually made my way up the hill. Fortunately my comrades had identified me for I was not fired upon by them and was able to reach the summit and tumble into the trench behind our pillbox.

Here the situation was indeed desperate. All but the seriously wounded were up top along the parapet manning the machine guns or supporting them with rifle fire. The Japs had brought their mortars to bear on the emplacement and shells were exploding all around us. Being weak and dizzy, and not being able to see properly, I was of little or no use. I almost passed out again so I took cover inside the tunnel that ran to the partly underground chamber of the pillbox. Here I collapsed on the floor and tried to collect my senses.

Several of the platoon, dead or desperately wounded, were lying in this inner chamber. The place was also being used to store ammunition and spare arms. At intervals men came in to get ammunition or to dress their wounds.

I spoke to Corporal Darragh who, as I said before, was shot in the hand. He informed me that when I was hit and rolled down the hill he, and others who had witnessed the incident from the pillbox, were convinced that I was dead. He also told me that Lieut. Birkett was still on top manning a machine gun. The enemy had, by this time, brought up field artillery and was shelling us.

Suddenly there came a terrific explosion. They had scored a direct hit on the pillbox. I was blown into the connecting tunnel flat on my face. I felt someone rush over me as I crawled out into the main trench. When I reached the end of a small branch trench I lost consciousness.

I awoke later in the afternoon to find a Corporal Brittain lying across me. He was badly wounded and when I tried to move he motioned for me to lie quietly. The Japs had wiped out all resistance by mortar and artillery fire and their infantry was now storming the position and bayoneting the wounded. I again passed out and remembered no more until I awoke to a fine drizzle of rain in the darkness.

There was no movement from the pillbox. All was quiet. Only the dead remained. There was just enough light for me to see my way around. I sat up. It was cold. This and the rain had no doubt revived me. I found that I had little or no use of my left arm. Later I learned it had been broken when I was blown out of the blockhouse. After a while, when the sky became a little lighter, I struggled to my feet and made my way back into the pillbox. It was deserted and partly collapsed. Extending from the pile of rubble I could see the bodies of comrades. Along one side there still remained a rack of rifles. I took one of these, found a full water bottle from which I drank and decided to make my way as best I could towards the first pillbox we had stopped at on our way to our present position, the one manned by the Hong Kong Volunteers.

I believe now that the reason the Japs, who stormed the pillbox, did not make a complete job of me was that I was shot through the head. They were sure that I was dead and as the position was under their own artillery fire they did not hang around. If they had they would have removed the rifles from the rack.

As I stumbled away from Jardine’s Lookout I looked back and saw the pile of rubble that had been the fort. I thought of Lieut. Birkett and the other gallant lads who lay or were buried there. This heap of rubble was their cairn. It should be marked with a plaque or some other memorial to their courageous stand.

I made my way down the hill in the early morning mist, seeing nobody, and up the next rise further back. I finally located the other pillbox. I cautiously approached the barbed wire that was strung along the top of the ridge. I saw two figures lying on a parapet and believed them to be our guards on observation duty. I crawled through the wire and down the trench. Staggering along with my rifle slung over my back I saw a rifle with a fixed bayonet moving slowly up and down beyond a turn in the trench. I had made it. Soon I would be with friends and have my wounds attended, but to my amazement when turning the bend of the trench I came face to face with a Jap.