ON the way home from Singapore I received a wireless message asking me whether I would be willing to take up the appointment of Brigadier-General Staff, Aldershot Command, instead of Brigade Commander. As this was one of the best appointments in the Army for an officer of my rank I naturally accepted without hesitation. I was particularly delighted because Dill, whom I already knew well, was at that time G.O.C.-in-C. Aldershot Command. Later, during the difficult times through which we were to pass together, I got to know him even better. A more delightful man to work for it would be difficult to imagine. Endowed with great charm of manner, he was always courteous and considerate to his staff though he expected, and I think received, loyal and unfailing service at all times. Many times did we work together in Government House till the early hours of the morning putting the finishing touches to some training exercise or perhaps preparing his address at some conference, and those who heard the addresses will, I am sure, never forget them. He had such an uncanny knack of going for the things that mattered and of expressing his views clearly and decisively without treading on anybody’s toes. Moreover, he always had the big point of view. But his was a difficult job, for he held responsibility at a time when our national resources were at their lowest. Whether as Commander-in-Chief at Aldershot, as Corps Commander in France, or as Vice-Chief, and later as Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the War Office, he always had to contend with a terrible shortage of trained men and of war equipment. I know perhaps better than any, for he talked very freely to me, how keenly he felt the folly which had allowed our national resources to sink to so low a level. But he worked indefatigably to do what he could to improve matters, always doing what he himself felt to be right regardless of what other people might think about it. In this he was fortified by a strong sense of religion and a faith and belief that things would come right in the end. His untimely death came as a great shock to all his friends but we can be thankful that he lived long enough to know that his great work was having its reward and that the Allies were on the high road to victory.
I often discussed Singapore with Dill. When I joined his staff at Aldershot he asked me whether I thought it was impregnable. I told him that, in my opinion, far from being impregnable it would be in imminent danger if war broke out in the Far East unless there was an early realization in high places of the complete change in the problem of its defence which was then taking place. I showed him and discussed with him a prize essay, open to graduates of the Imperial Defence College, which I had just written for the Committee of Imperial Defence. In it I expressed the opinion that the areas which would be most vital to us in the event of a world war would be those adjoining the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits and that, owing to the increased tempo of modern war, the system by which we held our overseas bases with skeleton garrisons only, relying on the arrival of the British fleet to make them secure, was already out of date and needed revision. Dill was in general agreement with these views. He never had any doubts as to the great importance to us of Singapore.
For a time, however, our thoughts were fully occupied with events nearer home. This is no place to attempt to describe the ceaseless preparations for war which went on at Aldershot in 1938 and 1939 or the move of the 1st Corps to France soon after the outbreak of war—the spearhead of the expeditionary force as its badge signifies—or that first winter on the Belgian frontier when most of our efforts to consolidate our front were frustrated first by torrential rains and then by a long and severe frost. It was not too pleasant sitting there with the knowledge that both the French and ourselves were woefully deficient in what really mattered in modern war—aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles. Nevertheless, everybody was determined to do what he could with the means available, and I well remember discussing what would be the right thing to do if the German armour flowed round our flanks, as assuredly it would do if they attacked, and the British force found itself marooned on a sort of island in a turbulent sea without any communications. The only difference between our expectations and what actually happened was that we expected the German armoured forces to pass round our left flank to cut us off from the sea rather than round our right flank where they would have to negotiate the wooded country of the Ardennes.
In February 1940 I returned home to command the 43rd (Wessex) Division, which was then in training in Wiltshire, but at the end of April I was summoned to the War Office to rejoin Dill, who had just been brought back from France to take up the appointment of Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff. I was to be one of three Assistant Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff and was to co-ordinate the work of the Operations and Intelligence Directorates. It also fell to my lot to attend a number of conferences on the Vice-Chiefs of Staff level and sometimes to attend meetings of the War Cabinet. The two and a half months during which I remained at the War Office covered the closing phases of the operations in Norway and the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. It was, of course, a time of great interest and great activity but, as time went on, I became more and more convinced that the appointment which I held was really superfluous because much of the time I was merely a link between the Directors of Operations and Intelligence on the one hand and the Chief or Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff on the other. As the former had the various sections working directly under them, they alone were in a position to get a proper grip of the various problems which arose, and it seemed to me wrong that their opinions should not be available direct to the Chief or Vice- Chief of the Imperial General Staff. There was some justification for my position as long as the battles on the Continent were going on as by taking over some of the work I was able to relieve the strain on others, but when after the collapse of France there were for the time being hardly any overseas operations it seemed to me that the time had come for some reorganization and for the elimination of surplus staff. I therefore asked to be transferred to a field formation and was appointed to command the 44th (Home Counties) Division which had recently been evacuated from Dunkirk. Perhaps I was influenced in this request by the fact that, having served for the whole of the First World War as a regimental officer in France and Belgium, my leanings were rather towards active service in the field than the more sedentary, though none the less important, work at the War Office.
I spent the next nine months with the 44th Division, partly in Yorkshire in the East Coast defences but mostly in the Kent and Sussex area of the South Coast, from which a large number of the men in the division came. It was a first-line Territorial Division and full of excellent material, though a bit disorganized after the evacuation from Dunkirk where, of course, it had lost all its heavy equipment and baggage. It was wonderful though how quickly it recovered as soon as new equipment started coming along. On the South Coast we had sixty-two miles of front which, even allowing for the fact that we were allotted an extra brigade, was a pretty long front for one division which was still short of much essential equipment. If the Germans had attacked there we should have had little or no chance of stopping them on the beaches. The best we could have hoped to do would be to slow them up a bit to allow time for our reserves, such as they were, to come into action. During my time with this division I was able to get some up-to-date ideas about the lay-out and construction of beach defences which were to prove useful later in Malaya, or it would be more correct to say that I was able to modernize my ideas, for I had already had considerable experience of this form of warfare theoretically in Staff College exercises and practically at Malta and Singapore. The difficulty is that the fronts are almost always too extended for the forces available to hold them, as the Germans found to their cost on D-day.
Towards the end of March 1941 I received a telegram ordering me to report at the War Office the following morning and to provide myself with tropical kit forthwith. On arrival at the War Office I was informed that I had been appointed General Officer Commanding Malaya in succession to Lt.-Gen. L. V. (now Sir Lionel) Bond and that I was to be ready to leave England by flying-boat in three days’ time. This did not leave me much time to hand over the command of my division, provide myself with tropical kit, settle my private affairs and say good-bye to my family, but, as so often happened in those days, the movement order was quickly followed by another one to the effect that, as the flying-boat had to undergo repairs, the date of departure was postponed for three days. At the end of that time a further postponement was ordered and in the end I remained in a state of suspended animation for five weeks or so until we finally departed on 1 May 1941. I mention this incident because it shows the parlous state of our transport aircraft at that period of the war. If one flying-boat broke down there was apparently no replacement, and so it happened that a number of quite important passengers had to wait for five weeks before a plane could be provided to take them to the Middle East.
For my part I was glad of the delay because it gave me time both to make frequent visits to the War Office and also to settle a number of private affairs, including those connected with the death of my dear mother who died early in April of that year. The news of my approaching departure was too much for that brave woman who, at the age of eighty-three, had stood up un-flinchingly to many air raids in a much-bombed part of Hertfordshire, but I am thankful now that she was taken and was spared the awful anxiety of the years which were to follow.
My visits to the War Office enabled me to obtain information as to the defence forces which were then in Malaya and as to what reinforcements were likely to be available and also to study with the War Office Staff the new problems which had arisen in connection with the defence of Singapore. In particular I heard for the first time of the project to move British troops into Thailand (Siam), if opportunity offered, in order to prevent the Japanese occupying the southern part of that country. I gathered that the War Office strongly favoured an advance into Thailand in some form, and there was even talk of occupying all the southern part of the country south of the Isthmus of Kra. While realizing the great strategical advantages which would accrue if such a step could be taken, I could not help feeling that the proposal was a bit ambitious in view of the size of the country and the limited resources available. I also foresaw that difficulties would most certainly arise in being able to decide when the proper moment had come for the advance without causing political complications. The project was, however, at that time very much in its infancy and I promised to examine it fully when I got out to Malaya.
Before leaving England I had lunch with Dill, who had then just returned from his visit to the Mediterranean in connection with the German invasion of the Balkans. Though naturally much worried at the turn of events in that part of the world, he was still the courteous and considerate man I had always known him to be. It was the last time I saw him alive though we continued to correspond with each other. I shall always remember him as a great soldier and a perfect gentleman.
As for my own prospects, though naturally delighted at being given an independent command, I could not help realizing that my future had become, to say the least of it, a little uncertain. Having fought during the whole of the First World War on the Western Front I was, I suppose, a “Westerner” by instinct, for I realized that the greater plums usually fall to those who remain nearer home. My preference, then, would have been for a field command in the West. In going to Malaya I realized that there was the double danger, either of being left in an inactive command for some years if war did not break out in the East or, if it did, of finding myself involved in a pretty sticky business with the inadequate forces which are usually to be found in the distant parts of our Empire in the early stages of a war. This is all quite natural and I have never been one to complain of what destiny decrees, but the fact remains that those who have the advantage of fighting with adequate resources at their disposal, both in man¬power and more especially in material, have a better chance of making a name for themselves than those who have to struggle with the scales in this respect weighted heavily against them.
And so, as I have said, I left England on 1 May 1941 in a Sunderland flying-boat bound for Egypt, where it was intended that I should transfer to an Imperial Airways machine for the rest of the journey to Malaya. We left early in the morning and unescorted made the journey across the Bay of Biscay and down the coast of Portugal in broad daylight, but no German aircraft appeared. After spending a night at Gibraltar we left the following afternoon for Malta, the timing being so arranged that we did the last part of the journey under cover of darkness. Having a day to spend at Malta I called on my old chief, General Sir William Dobbie, who was then Governor. He kindly gave up an afternoon to show me round the defences and I thus had a further opportunity of studying coast defence problems. Before we left in the evening some heavy air attacks developed on the Grand Harbour, and we had the exciting spectacle of German and Italian aircraft diving to the attack through the beams of numerous searchlights with our anti-aircraft shells bursting all around them. Our flying-boat slipped out in a quiet interval between two of these raids and early next morning landed near Alexandria without further incident.
In Egypt I was held up for a week by the fighting which had broken out in Iraq where, under Axis influence, some of the Iraqi troops had revolted and were attacking the British. In consequence, the Imperial Airways service between Egypt and Basra was temporarily suspended. The present Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Tedder, who was then the acting Air Officer Commanding Middle East, and whom I had previously known in Malaya, came to my rescue and kindly put me up during my stay in Cairo. He also, as soon as the situation in Iraq had cleared up, arranged for my transport in a R.A.F. plane to Basra via the desert route. It was an interesting journey, as fighting was still going on at Rutbah Wells, and when we landed for the night at Habbaniyah we were able to get a first-hand account of the curious battle which had taken place there two days before when the Iraqi forces, established on foothills overlooking the aerodrome, had been able to engage with close-range small arms fire any aircraft which left the hangars, and the aircraft, going out to bomb the rebels, had had to run the gauntlet as they dashed out from behind the hangars, through the gates and into the air. Eventually the Iraqis had been driven off by a counter-attack delivered by a small force of infantry brought in by air from India.
On arrival at Basra I found that the Imperial Airways flying- boat had already left, but by making an early start the next morning I was able to catch it up and we reached Karachi that night. Three days later we reached Rangoon where I was glad of a talk with Maj.-Gen. (now Lt.-Gen. Sir K.) Macleod, who was then G.O.C. Burma. He outlined to me his dispositions for the defence of that country.
As I had some secret papers with me I thought it wiser not to travel via Bangkok and had therefore asked for a R.A.F. plane from Malaya to be sent to meet me at Rangoon. I boarded this plane the following morning and, after a stop for refuelling at Alor Star, the most northerly aerodrome in Malaya, reached Singapore late in the afternoon of 15 May 1941 after a not uneventful journey of a fortnight. I assumed command the following day.
Since I had left Malaya three and a half years before, some considerable changes had taken place in the defence organization. In the first place a Commander-in-Chief Far East (Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham) had been appointed with headquarters at the Naval Base on Singapore Island. He was responsible directly to the Chiefs of Staff for the operational control and general direction of training of all British land and air forces in Malaya, Burma, and Hong Kong, and for the co-ordination of plans for the defence of those territories. It was intended that he should deal primarily with matters of major military policy and strategy, but it was not the intention that he should assume any administrative or financial responsibilities or take over any of the day-to-day functions at that time exercised by the General Officers Commanding Malaya, Burma, and Hong Kong, or the Air Officer Commanding Far East, all of whom came under his command. These officers continued to correspond with the War Office, Air Ministry, Colonial Office and Burma Office on all matters on which they had previously dealt with those departments to the fullest extent possible consistent with the exercise of command by the Commander-in-Chief, but kept him informed as and when he wished. It will be noted that the Commander-in-Chief Far East exercised no command or control over any naval forces. He was responsible for keeping the Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner for the Malay States fully informed of developments, though this did not absolve the General Officer Commanding Malaya or the Air Officer Commanding Far East from maintaining touch, subject to the Commander-in-Chief’s general direction and supervision, with the Governor and High Commissioner. The Commander- in-Chief Far East was also responsible for maintaining touch, where appropriate, with His Majesty’s representatives in various foreign states in the Far East. The degree of “operational control” of British land and air forces, which the Commander-in-Chief Far East should assume, was defined as meaning “the higher direction and control” as distinct from “detailed operational control”.
To enable the Commander-in-Chief Far East to carry out his functions he was allowed only a very small staff, consisting of seven officers drawn from all three Services with the necessary clerical and cipher staff. For intelligence purposes he had at his disposal the Far East Combined Intelligence Bureau, though it remained under Admiralty control. Although the establishment of his staff was later increased to fifteen it was never, allowing for sickness, etc., sufficient for the work to be done. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that, when this headquarters was created there was no war in the Far East, while there were insufficient trained staff officers to meet our requirements in the active theatres of war. He would be a bold man who would say that the decision was wrong.
On assuming command the Commander-in-Chief Far East had issued the following instructions to his subordinate commanders:
You will correspond direct with Headquarters Far East on questions of policy affecting strategy or operations. On other questions you will repeat to the C.-in-C. Far East such of your communications to the War Office, etc., as you judge of sufficient importance.
That then was my position vis-a-vis the Commander-in-Chief Far East. Although his headquarters were situated at the Naval Base and therefore at a considerable distance from the Army Headquarters, Brooke-Popham’s private residence was on the outskirts of Singapore. He was always readily accessible and my personal relations with him throughout were of the happiest. He informed me on my arrival, as indeed I had already ascertained at the War Office, that the two main principles which were to guide his actions were, firstly that it was the Government’s policy to avoid war with Japan, and secondly that until a fleet was available reliance for the defence of the Far East was to be placed primarily on air power.
Another important change which had taken place in the Far East since I had last been there was that the China fleet, such as it was, was now based on Singapore instead of being based on Hong Kong, and the Commander-in-Chief China, Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, flew his flag ashore at the Naval Base. Most of the more powerful units of the China fleet had by that time been moved to take part in the war in the West. There were in the Far East no battleships, no aircraft carriers, no heavy cruisers and no submarines. The Naval Base, which was nearing com-pletion, had, however, assumed increased importance owing to the facilities which existed there for the repair of ships of all types. There was now a Rear-Admiral Malaya, an appointment which was filled shortly after my arrival by Rear-Admiral Spooner, who was later to lose his life after the fall of Singapore.
Of more importance for the time being than the strength of the fleet which, as has been shown, was almost negligible as far as major operations were concerned, was our strength in the air, and I made anxious inquiries about that. There were certainly more aircraft than when I had left Malaya but I was not encouraged when I was told that the same old Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers as before were still there, for I knew full well that, though they might have been reconditioned and fitted with new engines, their age must run into double figures and that they could not be considered of much account in modern war. It is true also that there were fighters where there had been none before but, having seen the paramount importance of the modern up-to-date fighter in the Battle of Britain, I was far from feeling happy when I was told that our fighters were a type which I had not heard of as being in action elsewhere, i.e. the American-built Brewster Buffalo. However, a fighter was a fighter and we were in no position to pick and choose at that time. I was more disturbed to find that there were no heavy bombers, no dive-bombers, no transport and no Army Co-operation aircraft in Malaya.
There was some consolation, however, and that was in the person of the Air Officer Commanding Far East, Air Vice-Marshal C. W. H. Pulford, who had a short time before arrived to take over command. An ex-naval officer and a keen exponent of the torpedo-bomber in naval warfare, he was a man of my own way of thinking in most matters military or non-military. We immediately struck up a close friendship which was to endure until we parted on the eve of the fall of Singapore, he to meet his death with the rear-admiral and I to spend long years in captivity. As my family were not with me, he lived with me at Flagstaff House, and I believe that our close comradeship was a not unimportant factor in fostering the spirit of co-operation which, from the time of our arrival, developed between our respective Services both on the headquarters staffs and in the field units.
Pulford, whose responsibility extended to the whole of the Far East and who had a big task to perform in preparing his command for war, suffered greatly from lack of trained staff. He had in fact only one officer on his staff who had been trained at the R.A.F. Staff College. This threw a great deal of additional work on his shoulders and was, I think, largely responsible for a deterioration in his health.
At my own headquarters we suffered similarly, though not perhaps to the same extent, from a lack of trained staff. As relations with Japan became more strained and the garrison of Malaya increased, so there had been an increase in the strength of Headquarters Malaya Command. After the outbreak of war with Germany, the filling of vacancies on the staff had become more and more difficult as the supply of trained staff officers in the Far East became exhausted. The supply of trained staff officers from home was naturally limited by non-availability and by difficulties of transportation. Regular units serving in Malaya were called upon to supply officers with qualifications for staff work until it became dangerous to weaken them any further. At the same time, the work at Headquarters Malaya Command became more and more heavy, including as it did war plans and the preparation of a country for war in addition to the training and administration of a rapidly increasing garrison. Before war broke out in the Far East our staff was never greater than that normally allotted to a corps in the field and was always far smaller than that in other theatres of war where the forces were of a strength approximately equal to our own. Headquarters Malaya Command had, in fact, to combine the functions of a local War Office with those of a field force. In these conditions, which I believe have been little appreciated outside our headquarters, it was often quite impossible for staff officers with the best will in the world to get out and about the field units as they would like to have done. Even as it was, several of those who had been longest in Malaya were suffering from poor health resulting from overwork long before war broke out. But there was little hope of relieving them. The whole staff were a conscientious and loyal body of men to whom my sincere thanks are due.
There were many more troops in Malaya than when I had left. In the northern part of the country was the 3rd Indian Corps whose headquarters was just being formed at Kuala Lumpur. It was commanded by Lt.-Gen. Sir L. M. Heath, who had only recently arrived in Malaya. He had come straight from the Middle East where he had commanded the 5th Indian Division at the battle of Keren and in the subsequent operations in Eritrea, for which he had been awarded the K.B.E. A veteran of the First World War, in which he had been severely wounded in Mesopotamia, he enjoyed a considerable reputation in the Indian Army where he had had much frontier experience. As a result of his wound he had partially lost the use of one arm, though this seemed to cause him little inconvenience. What was probably a greater handicap was a constitutional inability to eat certain sorts of food from which he was a permanent sufferer.
Heath had two Indian Divisions, the 9th and nth, under his command. The former, which contained two infantry brigades only and was far from complete in other arms, was disposed on the east coast and was commanded by Maj.-Gen. Barstow, whom I had known previously at the Staff College. He was an officer of wide experience who proved himself a brilliant commander during the campaign until he was lost, almost certainly killed, during the operations in Johore. The 1 ith Indian Division, which at that time also contained only two infantry brigades but had a fuller complement of equipment, was in Kedah and Province Wellesley. It was commanded by Maj.-Gen. Murray Lyon, an officer who had transferred some years previously from the British Service to the Indian Army—a brave and gallant officer but with a more limited outlook than Barstow.
On Singapore Island also changes had taken place as the infantry had been organized into two brigades and a fortress commander had been appointed. This appointment was held by Maj.-Gen. F. Keith Simmons, who had been in command at Shanghai and had come to Singapore when that place had been evacuated the previous year. He was a fairly senior officer, having graduated at the Staff College in one of the early courses after the First World War. More recently he had been military attach^ in Spain. He had a particularly tactful and courteous manner which was an undoubted asset in his dealings with the civilians of Singapore. He worked unceasingly for the welfare of the troops in that city. Under his command, in addition to the infantry, came the Fixed Defences, commanded by Brigadier Curtis, a most efficient artillery officer and an expert in coast defence, and the Anti-Aircraft Defences, commanded by Brigadier Wildey who, by enthusiasm and hard work, had made the most of his limited resources.
Finally, in reserve in the Malacca-Negri Sembilan area but with headquarters at Kuala Lumpur, was the Australian Imperial Force. This title is perhaps a little misleading because, although it included a most excellent base hospital and administrative units on a lavish scale, the fighting troops at that time consisted of one brigade group only. Later a second brigade group arrived, but the A.I.F. never had more than that and was in fact always a little top-heavy with a very high proportion of administrative personnel compared to the fighting troops. The 8th Australian z Division, from which this contingent had been drawn, had been formed later than those which were already fighting in the Middle East and included in its ranks a number of men with considerable interests, financial or otherwise, in their own country who had had to settle up their home affairs before offering their services. There was excellent material in the division both in the ranks and among the commissioned officers. It suffered, however, from a lack of up-to-date senior officers, trained in the methods of modern war. Many of those in responsible positions of command, although they had fought with distinction in the First World War, had had little or no practical training for many years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. This was to prove a serious handicap. It is not sufficient that a commander should be merely brave himself, though that is naturally an important attribute. He should also be fully versed in the conduct of modern war and, as far as possible, be practised in the art of command under conditions approximating as nearly as possible to those of actual war.
Among the senior officers who had, so to speak, been out of harness for some years was the commander of the A.I.F., Maj.- Gen. H. Gordon Bennett. It is not for me to criticize a system under which such appointments are made, but modern war gives little time for commanders to learn their trade and I believe that, if the Commonwealth is to get full value from the forces which it raises on mobilization, greater provision should be made for training officers for the higher commands in time of peace. Nevertheless, I formed the opinion that Gordon Bennett, who, though slightly built, was wiry and tough, would fight well when the time came and I hope and believe that my attitude towards him as the commander of a Dominion Force was correct and proper. When I took over command, one of my first actions was to inquire whether there were any instructions defining my authority over the A.I.F. I was informed that there were none. After discussion with Gordon Bennett it was agreed that, though he would not raise objections to his force being split up if the situation demanded it, yet it would naturally be expected to fight better as a whole under his command and therefore should, if possible, remain as a composite force. Difficulties arose, however, from time to time in connection with certain administrative matters common to the Army as a whole in which Gordon Bennett claimed special treatment for his force, thus creating a difference between Australian and other troops. I felt that differences of this sort were unfortunate as my policy was to treat all troops alike. Gordon Bennett has stated that he had special instructions from his Government defining the position of his force in the army of Malaya. I consider it most desirable from every point of view that the position of such a force should be clearly defined and that there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind as to what that position is. It was not so in Malaya.
Finally, a word about civil affairs. The Governor and High Commissioner, Sir Shenton Thomas, was still there. He had recently received an extension of his term of office and was now in his seventh year—a long time in that trying climate. He and Lady Thomas were always very hospitable to the troops and entertained freely at Government House. Among the senior officials some of the old faces had disappeared but, taken all round, there had not been many changes.
I noticed a distinct change in the attitude of the Press. During my previous tour, some sections of it had not been too friendly to the military, but now it seemed to be wholeheartedly behind the war effort and was constantly advocating measures for the welfare of the troops.