When the 11th Indian Division got to Jitra no defences were in operation, antitank mines laid in piles, the defences had not been wired for communication and the trenches were waterlogged. The troops started the impossible task of preparing to defend the vital stronghold of Jitra with time running out.
Rumours of a Japanese breakthrough at Khota Bharu although untrue provided panic at the nearby air field and an order by an unknown officer ordered the denial plan to be put into operation and the buildings were set on fire and the staff retreated leaving bombs and fuel and the runways intact. The troops on the beaches now had no air cover as the air craft had been withdrawn to Kuantan. Brigadier Key decided to withdraw from the beach leaving the Japanese with their beachhead.
Airfields at Gong Kedah and Machang were also abandoned and General Heath ordered his troops to withdraw to stronger positions in central Malaya. The Japanese were moving into these air fields and establishing them as their bases to control the air space over Malaya and Singapore.
Back in Jitra the Murray-Lyon had placed the 15th Brigade on the right, 6th Brigade on he left and 28th Brigade in reserve, the front line covered 24,000 yards and 6th Brigade had to hold three-quarters of that. Two batteries of 155th Field Regiment, 22nd Mountain Regiment and the 8th Antitank Regiment supported the infantry, and 1/14th Punjab supported the main position. At 0800 hours on the 11th December the Punjab unit came under attack and were soon over run and two ant-tank guns were lost. They then started to withdraw but at 1500 hours were told to hold Nangka, two miles before Jitra. Before they could do this the Japanese had caught up the rear guard and carried on though the column causing the unit to break up and run for cover leaving ant-tank guns that had not even been fired. When the Japanese came up against the 2/1st Gurkhas at Asun they were held but the Gurkhas were soon over run by the larger forces and had to withdraw. After dark the outpost troops of 6th Brigade were withdrawing to the main Jitra positions with seven ant-tank guns and four mountain guns, when they approached a bridge ready for demolition a officer thinking they were Japanese blew the bridge, there were no engineers or materials to repair it so the guns had to be abandoned to the oncoming Japanese.
Saeki decided to attack the troops at Jitra during the night of the 11th and in doing so suffered heavy losses by the allied positioning of their machine guns. Saeki then decided to throw everything he had at the centre of the British defences and succeeded in driving a deep wedge into their positions before he came up against the Leicesters and the 2/2nd Gurkhas who stopped the Japanese attack, the 2nd East Surreys then counterattacked to help the Leicesters. By the 12th December Major-general Kawamura commanding the 9th Infantry arrived at Jitra and sent his 41st Regiment down the eastern side of the main road and the 40th Regiment down the western side to assist Saeki who was still being held by the Leicesters. Murray-Lyons ordered the Leicesters to withdraw behind a stream called the Sungei Jitra, the Leicesters had fought bravely and their good positions were argued but they had to obey the order. Later that evening with rumours about positions being over run he signalled Heath that he wanted to withdraw to behind the Sungei Kedah at Gurun. Heath and Percival who were still in Singapore agreed and Percival gave the order:
‘It is decided that your task is to fight for the security of North Kedah. It is estimated that you are opposed by only one division. Consider the best solution may be to hold up the advance of enemy tanks on good obstacles and dispose your forces to obtain considerable depth on both roads and to obtain scope for your superior artillery. Reserves for employment in the divisional area are being expedited.’
Murray-Lyon was therefore given permission to withdraw at his discretion, so at 2200 hours he sent the orders to go back fifteen miles south behind the Sungei Kedah. The moral now amongst the troops was very low, practically the Leicesters who thought they had been in a good position. The withdrawal was not planned at all and it was left to unit commanders to get their men back. Hundreds of men and guns were lost at Jitra and the moral of the troops was low and their faith in the command took a heavy knock.
The 13th December saw the 11th Indian Division falling back to behind the Kedah at Alor Star with 28th Brigade providing rearguard action. Many of the troops had lost their weapons in the rush and confusion at Jitra and were in a state of shock trying to find their units, the Japanese did not help the situation as they had infiltrated the Allied ranks with snipers dressed as Malays. To slow up the Japanese advance the bridge across the Kedah was blown up and charges were laid that night. On the 14th December while waiting for the last stragglers to cross Murray-Lyon was confronted by two Japanese motorcyclists, these were shot and the road and rail bridges were blown. At this time more Japanese arrived and tried to cross the river but the 2/9th Gurkhas drove them back,
Looking at his troops Murray-Lyon decided they were not in any condition to withstand the Japanese and to give them time he would retreat twenty miles to Gurun, and the expected reinforcements might arrive. So again they retreated in the monsoon weather to Gurun only to find no defensive positions had been set up, they had to carry out exactly the same hurried defences as at Jitra. Murray-Lyon set up his positions astride the main road three mils north of Gurun and hoped thinking he would have time for his troops to recuperate. This hope was dashed when soon after midday on the 14th December Japanese transport were seen approaching, the Japanese engineers had repaired the bridges in only thirty hours. Antitank gunners knocked out the first tank, the Japanese infantry then attacked the Punjabis to the left of the road and after two hours of fighting the force of the attack was telling, Brigadier Lay knew something had to be done and he counterattacked, the Punjabi position was stabilised.
At a meeting just south of Gurun, Murray-Lyon told General Heath that his troops were not in condition to withstand another retreat but if they had to a strong defensive position should be chosen and a concentrated defines should be planned, with transportation for his troops. General Heath agreed that the 11th Division should hold Gurun and the 12th Brigade would hold the Japanese to the east at Kroh and Grik. After a conversation on the phone that night with Percival, Heath got his way and it was agreed that the 11th would retreat a further sixty mile to a defensive position beyond the Perak River delaying the Japanese as long as possible so Penang could be evacuated.
That night the Japanese attacked in numbers and drove a gap in the Punjabi defences and reached the 2nd East Surrey headquarters and then the 6th Brigade headquarters, killing everyone there, when Murray-Lyon saw the damage he immediately ordered a seven mile withdrawal, but finding the numbers of troops left, sent more orders to withdraw behind the Muda River. The remaining troops had some luck as the Japanese had been hit hard as well and they did not follow up on the action giving the remains of the 11th Division time to fall back, giving the British time to evacuate Penang.
There were many reasons for the Jitra defeat, the wide area for the troops to cover allowing the Japanese to out flank them, the confusion when Matador was called off and not having any defines of Jitra ready to fall back on. There was too many mistakes and poor judgement which caused this long retreat back towards Singapore by the demoralised troops.