John Charles Robertson
Lt Col John Charles Robertson
Lt Col Robertson at Bonegilla in May 1941
|Born||28 October 1894|
Geelong, Victoria, Australia
|Died||18 January 1942 (aged 47)|
Bakri, Malaya, Malaysia
|Years of service||1916–1942|
|Commands held||2/29th Battalion|
|Battles/wars||First World War|
Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Robertson (MC, VD) (28 October 1894 - 18 January 1942) was a senior officer in the Australian Army who served in the First and Second World Wars.
Born in Geelong, Victoria, in 1894, Robertson was a member of the Citizen Forces where he was promoted to Sergeant and Lieutenant. In July 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War and was assigned to the 23rd Battalion which he joined in France in May 1916. He fought at the Battle of Pozieres and was wounded there. He was then transferred to the 6th Light Trench Mortar Battery and received the Military Cross for his action at Bullecourt in late May 1917.
On his return to Australia he briefly worked as a procurement specialist in his family's timber firm. When that firm closed during the 1929 recession, he established a fuel business which prospered. Robertson was the Officer Company, A Company, of the 23rd/21st composite Infantry Battalion formed in 1929 as part of the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). This battalion was more commonly known as the City of Geelong Regiment.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he raised and commanded the 2/29th Battalion which was deployed to Malaya in August 1941. The 2/29th Battalion - less its D Company and a platoon from A company - was deployed from the Segamat area to the Bakri crossroads area on 17 January 1942 to push back the Japanese Imperial Guards that had broken through the Muar river area defended by the newly arrived 45th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Duncan). Robertson died of his injuries during the morning of 18 January 1942 when returning from a conference at Brigade HQ and was buried later that day in the same location. His remains, and those of other Australians who died at the Bakri crossroads and thereafter, were later re-interred at Singapore's Kranji War Memorial.
After his death, Robertson's commanding officers described him as having 'a fine character had permeated through all ranks, both officers and men, who looked up to him for leadership and guidance' (Brigadier Maxwell) and 'an able ... brave and brilliant leader' who death was 'a sad loss to Australia and his force' (Bennett). He was regarded highly by the men he commanded.
Early life[edit | edit source]
John Charles Robertson was born on 28 October 1894 in Geelong, Victoria. He was son of George Robertson and Jessie Neilson, and the first of five children.
Robertson received his primary and secondary education in Geelong including at the Geelong College.
Robertson registered in the Senior Cadet Service, aged 16, on 31 January 1911 in Geelong. On 12 December 1911, John was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in training area 69B. Four months later, on 24 April 1912, John undertook a further examination for entry into the Citizen Forces.
After completing his secondary education at the end of 1912, Robertson joined Hawkes Bros, Hardware and General Merchants in Geelong, a company that carried all lines including iron, steel, tools, brushware, and so on. Over three years he filled various positions in the office and warehouse including filling country orders. He then joined his father in his late grandfather’s firm, now named John Robertson and Sons Pty Ltd.
Robertson was promoted to Sergeant on 12 February 1913, then to Color-Sergeant on 18 August 1913. On 14 May 1914, Robertson received a letter from the 70th Infantry notifying him that he as been recommended for appointment as a Commissioned Officer in the 70th Infantry. Robertson was formally appointed, on 16 May 1914, as ‘an Officer of the Military Forces of the Commonwealth’, to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant (Private).
First World War[edit | edit source]
Robertson was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 1 July 1915. He enlisted as a Private with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 23 July 1915. He was assigned to the 23rd Battalion following that Battalion's withdrawal from Gallipoli in late December 1915. As an Acting Sergeant, Robertson embarked for Europe on 8 February 1916 on board the HMAT A68 Anchises.
When he disembarked in Egypt in April 1916 the 23rd Battalion was already in France. Robertson joined the 23rd Battalion in France in May 1916. He fought at the Battle of Pozieres from 23 July 1916 to 7 August 1916 where he was wounded. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant on 14 August 1916 and hospitalised until late December. He received a promotion to Lieutenant in the field on 4 January 1917. Robertson transferred to the 6th Light Trench Mortar Battery on 6 April 1917. A few weeks later he was at Bullecourt where he constructed a mortar out of two broken ones he found in a German trench and used it to fire over 230 rounds. For this action, he was awarded the Military Cross, recorded in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No 189 of 8 November 1917. On 7 August 1918, he was accidentally wounded in the leg following live practice.
After the war, Robertson was assigned to administrative work at Headquarters in London for five months prior to embarkation home. He arrived back in Australia on 4 January 1920 on the HMT Ypiringa.
Interwar period[edit | edit source]
On his return to Geelong, Robertson worked for Pettitt Robertson Pty Ltd, the new name of the timber company that his grandfather had established, John Robertson and Sons Pty Ltd having been amalgamated with Pettitt that year. John was placed in charge of the Order Department.
Robertson’s appointment with the A.I.F. was terminated on 4 March 1920. He joined the 23rd Battalion, part of the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), also known as the militia, on a part-time basis and went away on camps every year. His letter of termination from the A.I.F. noted that, had he not joined the CMF, he would have been placed on the Reserve of Officers. Robertson was promoted to Captain on 30 April 1921.
He married Margaret Dorothy Aikman in Geelong on 23 September 1922 and they had three children. He was a buyer for Pettitt Robertson until the mid-1920s, travelling to Tasmania, New South Wales and all over Victoria inspecting and procuring their requirements for contracts with companies such as the Melbourne Harbour Trust, the Tramways Board, and the Electricity Commission. In the late 1920s, Robertson was put in charge of the Geelong yard and dispatch where one of his duties was to inspect and report on all timbers received. The onset of the depression years forced Pettitt Robertson Pty Ltd to close in 1929 and Robertson lost his job at a critical point in his life, with a very young family. In 1929, Robertson was jobless and in desperate straits. The family was forced to move to Belmont. Times were very hard for the family. Robertson heaved bails of wool in the wool stores, drove an ice truck, and finally started selling wood (for fuel) from a house with a vacant block in Chilwell owned by his father-in-law Alexander Aikman.
In 1932, Robertson was top of his 21A Course under Major Pain of 4th Division. A year later he was Officer Commanding, A Company, in the 23rd/21st Battalion, a composite infantry battalion formed in 1929 and part of the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). Its territorial title was the 23rd/21st Battalion, known commonly as the City of Geelong Regiment or the Victoria Rangers. Robertson was awarded the V. D. (Victoria Decoration) and was promoted to Major on 3 April 1935.
Robertson's fuel business began to thrive. He added petrol bowsers on the corner of Sharp and Pakington Streets, and bought another block on the other side of the house to carry more stock. In October 1938, it was reported in the Geelong Advertiser that Robertson had passed the examination for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Second World War[edit | edit source]
When war was declared on Germany on 3 September 1939, Robertson was second in command of the composite 23rd/21st Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Harry Langham Godfrey, the Battalion’s Commanding Officer since October 1939, was seconded to the A.I.F. on 13 October 1939 and given command of the 2/6th Battalion which embarked for the Middle East in April 1940. On 22 May 1940, after the 6th and 7th Divisions were complete, the Australian War Cabinet authorised the formation of an 8th Division. On 1 August 1940, Major-General Sturdee took command of the new 8th Division, including the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Infantry Brigades.
Robertson formally enlisted in the 2nd A.I.F. On 29 October 1940, General Bennett let Robertson know in a confidential letter that he had recommended him for the command of the newly formed 2/29th Battalion, part of the 27th Brigade, adding that it was not decided if the 2/29th would be part of the 8th or 9th Division. Robertson was ordered to build up his battalion as quickly as possible. He decided to sell his fuel business.
On 7 November 1940, the Geelong Advertiser noted that the Minister for War (Mr Spender) had announced John’s promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel and command of the 2/29th Battalion. Major John Kevin Lloyd was appointed Second in Command (2IC) of the Battalion on 13 November 1940.
The 2/29th Battalion travelled by train to Bathurst in late February 1941, where it commenced extensive training. By July 1941, the it became apparent that the 2/29th would be sent to Malaya. Just before the Unit embarked for Australia, the 8th Division's Brigadier Marshall fell sick (he died in late 1942). He was replaced by Lt Col Maxwell, then Commanding Officer of the 2/19th Battalion, already in Malaya. Major Anderson was promoted to command the 2/19th.
The 2/29th Battalion embarked for Singapore and Malaya in two groups: one group (which included the 2/30th) boarded the Johan van Oldenbarneveldt in Sydney; the second group, including Robertson, boarded the Marnix van Saint-Aldegonde (usually shortened to Marnix) on 30 July 1941 in Melbourne.
Malaya[edit | edit source]
At the end of August 1941, the 8th Australian Division was allocated responsibility for the defence of Johore and Malacca. General Bennett established his headquarters at Johore Bahru on 29 August 1941 and the 22nd Brigade replaced the 12th Indian Brigade in the Mersing-Endau area, where it was considered adequate defences needed to be prepared in light of the strategic importance of roads and airfields from that area across to Kluang just off the main north/south highway.
The planned strategy was that, in case of a Japanese attack on the east coast, the 22nd Brigade would defend the coast at Mersing with the 2/18th and 2/20th Battalions (less one company), leaving the 2/19th in reserve at Jemaluang. A company of the 2/20th would be posted at Endau, with companies from the 2/18th and 2/19th at Sedili Besar.
In the event of war, the 2/26th Battalion of the 27th Brigade would protect the road north of Sedili Besar. The 2/30th would be a mobile unit located near the Jemaluang junction, and the 2/29th would be responsible for the Bukit Langkap iron mine area and the airfields at Kahang and Kluang. On Monday 15 September 1941, the 2/29th moved from Singapore to the Segamat area (including Kluang, Kahang, Buloh Kasap and Jemaluang) where it would be based, train and prepare to defend. Robertson appears in the last few seconds of a film made of the 2/29th at Segamat on 11 October 1941 by the Reverend Aiken of Ipoh (AWM Ref AWM F03385).
Just after midnight on 8 December 1941, troops from Japan's 25th Army commenced landed in the north of Malaya and southern Thailand. The Japanese 18th Division landed at Kota Bharu, while the Japanese 5th Division landed at Singora and Pattani in Thailand. The Japanese Imperial Guards under Lt General Takuma Nishimura arrived in Malaya on 22 December 1941.
Elements of the 2/29th were moved around Johore State during December. In the first few days of January 1942, General Bennett outlined a plan to defend Johore State following the withdrawal of British and Indian forces to the north. He recommended that the Muar river line would be defended by the newly arrived 45th Indian Brigade and that the 22nd Brigade located on the east coast should be replaced by an Indian Brigade and moved to western Johore. On 8 December, General Bennett ordered the 2/30th (Lt Col Galleghan), 2/26th (Lt Col Boyes) and 2/29th (Lt Col Robertson) back to Segamat to prepare for an ambush of the Japanese 5th Regiment at the Gemencheh Bridge near Gemas.
The poorly trained 45th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Duncan) arrived in Malaya on 11 January, the day that Japanese forces occupied Kuala Lumpur, and had based its HQ at the 99.5 mile post on the road between Parit Sulong and Muar south of the Bakri crossroads. Its role was to defend Muar and the river hinterland area. The Indian forces fell to the 4th and 5th regiments of the Japanese Imperial Guards (with upwards of 6,000 men) during 15 and 16 January 1942.
Battle for the Bakri Crossroads[edit | edit source]
Bennett received reports that a small Japanese force with upwards of 200 men had broken through the defences at Muar. He ordered the 2/29th, along with a troop of carriers and a combined section of anti-tank gunners, to the area north of the Bakri crossroads on Saturday 17 January 1942 to push the Japanese back in the early hours of Sunday. The battalion - less its D Company and a platoon from A Company - arrived in the area and deployed in a rubber plantation on a straight stretch of road around the 101 mile post, replacing the Indian Garhwalis at that location. The 2/29th had deployed its B Echelon further south near Parit Sulong on the way and now had between 500 and 600 men.
The 5th Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Guards arrived on the same road north west of the 2/29th the same day, 17 January. Both sides tested each other's positions that night. The 2/29th's front C and B Companies came under attack as the Japanese launched frontal 'holding' attacks designed to draw fire, identify the opposing side and distract from outflanking activity.
The 2/29th was aware of the potential for flanking activity and was warned to avoid remaining in fixed defensive positions as a result. It may not have realised, however, that the frontal attacks were part of the tactics designed to distract from flanking activity through what seemed like unpenetrable jungle to its west. Early on Sunday morning, up to 9 tanks were destroyed by the anti-tank gunners. The aftermath was photographed by and filmed by . The photographs would later provide graphic testimony to the destruction of the tanks, for which this battle is most known.
While these events were taking place, the 2/19th Battalion was moving from Yong Peng to the Bakri crossroads, having been ordered by Bennett to provide support for the planned offensive against the Japanese. The Battalion arrived at the 45th Indian Brigade HQ at the 99.5 mile peg at around 0930 hours. Anderson reported to Brigade HQ at 0945 hours, noting that ‘owing to a breakdown of comms [communications] the tactical position was not very clear’. As the Japanese tanks had been put out of action, ‘a positive mood swept through the Battalion’.
Robertson was probably sufficiently confident with the success of the ambush to head off to Brigade HQ at the 99.5 mile peg for a conference at Brigade HQ, leaving in time to arrive there at 1000 hours. Communications with Brigade HQ were probably cut at around this time. Soon after 1000 hours, Japanese infantry, including ‘a couple of hundred’ troops on bicycles, advanced towards B and C Companies with machine gunners in front. Dozens of Japanese were reportedly killed in this attack.
On his return from the conference riding as a pillion passenger on a motorbike, and possibly unaware of a road block between that location and the 101 mile peg, Robertson was shot at by a platoon of Japanese troops that had infiltrated between the two Battalions. Robertson fell off the back of the motorbike within 100 or 200 yards of Battalion HQ. The Despatch Rider, Syd Bauckham made it back to the Battalion, with one arm wounded, and ‘a strained smile on his face’. Upon learning of the situation, Sergeant Wedlick and Captain Gahan took an armoured carrier to where Robertson had fallen off and brought him back in.
Robertson was seriously wounded, having been hit by at least one bullet in the knee or thigh and likely with critical injuries received when he fell off the motorcycle. Consistent with the photographer’s account reported three days later, Captain Brand stated that after arrival at the RAP, Robertson ‘was lifted out of the carrier, badly wounded and only partly conscious. Half an hour later he quietly died’. Captain Bowring stated that Robertson ‘died from loss of blood and shock half-an-hour later’. The War Diary noted that ‘he died a few minutes after reaching HQ’. In his letter to Dorie written nine days afterwards, Padre Macneil wrote that ‘We laid him to rest in the spot the same night’. John’s service file records that he was buried at Bakri, ‘near 101 Mile Peg, Muar Road. Ref Sheet 3. 9/15 836605’.
Major John Olliff, the 2IC, now took command. Olliff was also killed during the withdrawal from the 101 mile post on the evening of 19 January 1942. 200 men from the 2/29th's A and B Company made it back under machine gun fire and through the swamp to the rear right to the 2/19th position. The men of HQ and C Company withdrew separately and did not make it back to the 2/19th position; they would join up and then split into smaller groups making their way to various destinations. The last group to leave was Captain Victor Brand, a small group of walking wounded and others including anti-tank gunners and drivers. Captain Brand's small group would re-join the 2/19th column before it reached Parit Sulong.
Robertson's remains were exhumed after the war and re-interred, along with other remains collected at the Bakri area, in a collective grave at Kranji War Memorial in Singapore.
Obituaries[edit | edit source]
Death notices appeared in the Geelong Advertiser in the days that followed. They included a number of comments such as the following: 'A good man, loved and respected by all his Battalion. One of nature's gentlemen. A brave and true soldier. One of the noblest. A man who was treasured and respected by his Battalion. Held in the highest esteem and affection by all'.
John’s obituary, published in the Geelong Advertiser on the same day as the above article, stated that John devoted a good deal of his spare time to the work of various bodies of which he was a member, including Geelong Legacy Club, the board of management of St David's Presbyterian Church, the committees of Chilwell State School and Chilwell Free Library, and the Geelong Branch of the 23rd Battalion (AIF) Association of which he was the first president. He was treasurer of the Alba Social Club which, as a result of its activities, distributed some hundreds of pounds among Geelong charities.’ In his letter of 23 January 1942 to Robertson's widow Dorothy, General Bennett that, 'under his able leadership [the 2/29th] stopped an enemy tank attack at a vital point thereby preventing a severe blow to the whole force in Malaya. He was a very brave and brilliant leader and his death is a sad loss to Australia and to his force and to the many friends he made in the A.I.F. in Malaya.'
Padre Macneil also wrote to Dorothy on 28 January 1942. He stated that, [Robertson] '... was shot by Japs while running the gauntlet back to the Unit from Brigade H.Q. on the back of a motor bike. It was a probable risk and he took it willingly. ... [he] rose to the occasion and had the satisfaction of leading the battalion bravely and skilfully in their first really heavy action.' ... He retained a deep sympathy with and understanding of the men right through. They respected and liked him. ... He was facing battle bravely and I shook hands as we parted.'
Brigadier Maxwell's letter to Dorothy, dated 2 February 1942, stated that [Robertson] 'had endeared himself to us all, and personally after our close association of the last six months, he and I had become personal friends. ... He had been discussing the situation with a senior member of the staff, and was moving forward again, on the back of a motor bicycle [sic] to his leading troops, when he was shot and killed. ... The example of his fine character had permeated through all ranks, both officers and men, who looked up to him for leadership and guidance.'
References[edit | edit source]
- Warland, Andrew (2014). Robbie to Dorie: Lt Col John Robertson's letters from Malaya 1941 - 1942. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
[edit | edit source]
- Andrew Warland, , The Battle for the Bakri Crossroads.
Category:1894 births Category:1942 deaths Category:Australian Army officers Category:Australian military personnel of World War I Category:Australian military personnel of World War II Category:People from Victoria
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