Chapter III – THE PLAN OF DEFENCE

IT is now necessary to go back and see how the defence plan had developed since it was first decided, after the termination of our Treaty with Japan, to build a Naval Base at Singapore. First of all I cannot stress too strongly that the object of the defence was the protection of that base and that the holding of any part of Malaya, whether it be Singapore Island or part or the whole of the mainland, was merely a means to that end. That is equally true of the problem as it presented itself right at the beginning and as it was at the time of the Japanese invasion, although the methods adopted, of course, varied as the years passed.

Right up to the late ‘thirties the security of the Naval Base depended ultimately upon the ability of the British fleet to control the sea communications to Singapore. During that period the nearest Japanese base was 1,700 miles from Singapore and the long sea voyage would both have limited the size of the expedition and would also have greatly prejudiced the chances of obtaining surprise. Moreover, in the early days the range of military aircraft was very limited compared to what it is now, and the Japanese, if they had wished to support an attack on Singapore with shore-based aircraft, would have had to seize some territory comparatively close to Singapore itself and there develop an air base. This would all have taken time and would have enabled the British fleet to reach Far Eastern waters before the main attack could be launched. The only chance the Japanese had of success therefore really lay in a coup de main attack direct on to Singapore Island itself. It was against this type of attack that the defences were initially laid out. The problem was one mainly of the defence of Singapore Island and the adjoining waters. For this a comparatively small garrison only was required.

The rapid development of air power towards the end of the ‘twenties and the early ‘thirties greatly affected the problem of defence. On the one hand, Singapore became exposed to attacks by carrier-borne and shore-based aircraft operating from much greater distances than had previously been thought possible. On the other hand, our own defence aircraft would be able to reconnoitre and strike at the enemy much farther from our own shores. This led to the lengthy discussion on the relative merits of the gun and of aircraft for the defence of fortresses, which was very sensibly settled in May 1932 by a ruling that coast defences should be organized on the basis of co-operation between the three defence services. It was laid down that the gun should retain its place as the main deterrent against naval attack but that the Royal Air Force should continue to co-operate in the defence of Singapore with such forces as might from time to time be considered desirable. It was further laid down that such co¬operation should extend to all branches of the defence, including fighters for anti-aircraft defence and offensive operations against aircraft carriers and capital ships and against other forms of attack by sea, land, and air.

Before considering the defence plan as it developed in later years let us turn for a moment to the topography of Malaya, for nobody could appreciate the problem rightly without a fair knowledge of the size and characteristics of the country. Those who look at Malaya on a small-scale map may be surprised to find that in area it is very nearly as large as England and Wales. Nor, if you eliminate some of the south-western parts of England and Wales, is it unlike those countries in its general features. Malaya is about 400 miles long, as the crow flies, while its width varies from about 200 miles in the widest part to about 60 miles in the narrowest. It is bounded on all sides, except on the north, by sea. The Island of Singapore corresponds approximately in size and position to the Isle of Wight. Down the centre of Malaya runs a range of hills rising to some 7,000 feet which forms a backbone to the peninsula, and there are only a few communications between east and west. The west coast area is much more developed and more thickly populated than is the east. Through it run the main road and rail communications linking Singapore with the north. There are also a number of lateral roads, especially in the central area, and branch railway lines which link the main north-south communications with coastal centres. In the east coast area there are few roads, the only ones of importance being those constructed to connect the ports of Mersing, Endau and Kuantan with the interior and the internal road system in the Sfate of Kelantan. The only road communication between this State and the rest of Malaya is a fine-weather track which follows the coast of Trengganu to Kuantan. The east coast railway branches from the main line at Gemas in northern Johore and, running east of the mountain range, passes through the State of Kelantan into South Thailand where it rejoins the main line at Haad’yai Junction, near Singora. The main roads in Malaya are well metalled and the railways are all single-track metre gauge.

In the extreme north of Malaya, where there is much rice grown, the country is in places more open than it is in the south, but there is little really open country as we know it. There are also some comparatively open areas in the tin-mining country in the States of Perak and Selangor. By far the greater part of the country, however, is covered with vegetation. There are the vast rubber plantations situated along the road and rail communications which, while providing good cover from the air, can easily be traversed by men on foot, by animals, and in most places by light-tracked vehicles. There are the various other plantations, some thick and some comparatively open. Finally there is the jungle of varying types, some dense and almost impenetrable and some providing little or no obstacle to the passage of men or animals, and there are the formidable mangrove swamps which only the fittest of men can traverse. Except for the rice and tin- mining areas, visibility is almost everywhere restricted to a hundred yards or even less.

On the east coast there are good sandy beaches almost through¬out. There are also some good stretches of sandy beach on the west coast, but a great deal of this coast is covered by mangrove swamps.

To sum up, the country generally tends to restrict the power of artillery and of armoured fighting vehicles. It places a premium on the skill and endurance of infantry. As is true of most types of close country, it favours the attacker.

The climate throughout Malaya is humid and enervating, though not unhealthy for normal people. The temperature, which is not excessive, varies little, and similarly the rainfall, which comes mostly in tropical storms, is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Between April and September the wind blows from the south-west and between October and March it blows from the north-east. During the latter period rough seas are at times encountered on the east coast.

The efficiency of Europeans who work at high pressure for long periods is liable to be affected unless periodical visits to places where the climate is more invigorating are possible.

Malaya is a country where troops must be hard and acclimatized and where strict hygiene discipline must be observed if heavy casualties from exhaustion and sickness are to be avoided.
Such was the country in which the defences of the Naval Base had to be built. Although political and commercial considerations demanded that some development of the east coast area should take place, it had always been the policy of the army authorities to limit, as far as possible, developments in this area so as to exploit to the maximum the natural obstacles provided by nature. With the development of air power, however, other considerations arose. Up to the early ‘thirties the only R.A.F. aerodrome in Malaya was at Seletar on Singapore Island. The construction of two additional aerodromes on Singapore Island was immediately put in hand while a fourth was provided by the civil airport at Kallang, on the eastern outskirts of Singapore Town, a really wonderful engineering feat which converted a virgin swamp into a modern up-to-date aerodrome with a flying- boat base adjoining. So far there was no difficulty, except as regards the actual work of construction, because all these aerodromes were within the defended area, but it was another matter when the Royal Air Force proposed to build aerodromes on the east coast of the mainland. They must, they said, be able to get the maximum value from their aircraft by being able to find and hit the enemy as far as possible from the shores of Malaya. There¬fore, their aerodromes must be as near the east coast as possible. All this was very logical, but it was obvious that the protection of these aerodromes was going to be a commitment which the army at its existing strength could not possibly undertake satisfactorily. The danger of constructing aerodromes in an area where the defence forces might not be strong enough to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy was also obvious. On the other hand, the methods of rapid construction of aerodromes evolved during this war were then but little known, and it took months, if not years, to construct aerodromes in Malaya, so that if they were to be there when wanted construction had to start well in advance. The solution of the problem, as I saw it, depended mainly on the probability or otherwise of there being sufficient modern aircraft on the spot when the time came for them to go into action to deal the enemy such a shattering blow that he would only be able to land a small proportion of his invasion forces. If this was not likely to happen, then it would be much better to construct the aerodromes farther inland where it would be easier for the army to defend them and infinitely more difficult for an enemy, even if he succeeded in landing, to capture them. This was a point of view which, during my tour as staff officer in 1936 and 1937, I never ceased stressing, but I was invariably assured that the mobility of air forces would enable sufficient air strength to be concentrated in Malaya when the time came. It is true that, when the time did come, we were heavily engaged elsewhere, but that was not the only reason for our inability to reinforce the air force in Malaya quickly. The cutting of the reinforcement route by the Japanese would in any case have made it difficult for any but the longest-range aircraft to reach Malaya. In the event, when war with Japan broke out, there were three modern aerodromes in the State of Kelantan, one at Kuantan, and a landing-ground at Kahang, in Eastern Johore, with quite inadequate forces, either land or air, to defend them, while only one or two enemy ships were at any time sunk by our air forces. This was the first of two serious failures to face realities which were largely responsible for the weakness of the army dispositions when war broke out. Selection of sites for aerodromes should be made jointly by army and air force authorities, a system which, though too late, was set up in Malaya in 1941. A proper consideration of the problems of defence will then be assured.

The other failure to face realities occurred in 1937 and onwards. The defence policy was still based on the fundamental assumption that the British fleet would sail from home waters immediately on the outbreak of war with Japan, if not before, and that on arrival in the Far East it would immediately put an end to any danger to Singapore. It followed from these assumptions that the defence plan only had to provide against such types of operations as the Japanese might hope to complete successfully within a limited period and that the role of the garrison was confined to holding out for that period.

In 1937 it seemed to me, as it did to many other students of the world situation, that events in Europe had reached such a stage that it was at least doubtful whether, in the event of war breaking out with Japan, the British public would allow the British fleet to leave home waters for the Far East, while if we were already at war with Germany it was certain that the fleet would not be able to leave. The whole conception of the defence of the Singapore Naval Base was therefore changed. It was in these circumstances that I wrote the appreciation for an attack on Singapore from the point of view of the Japanese, already referred to in Chapter I of this book. In this appreciation it was pointed out that, as a result of the political situation in Europe, it was unlikely that the British fleet would be able to sail immediately for Singapore when required and that in consequence a more deliberate form of attack could be undertaken by the Japanese. The plan recommended consisted of preliminary operations by the Japanese to seize aerodromes in South Thailand and in Kelantan, the Island of Penang, and the naval and air facilities in Borneo, followed by the main operation to capture Singapore itself. From this appreciation deductions were made as to the main points in the defence plan which required attention. These deductions stressed the probability of the Japanese making use of territory in South Thailand, the increased importance of the defence of North Malaya and of Johore, for which only meagre forces were available, the threat from Japanese activities within Malaya, the urgent need for the strengthening of our air forces and of our local naval craft and for more infantry, and the un¬satisfactory situation as regards food stocks. This appreciation received the full concurrence of General Dobbie, who himself wrote shortly afterwards:
It is an attack from the northward that I regard as the greatest potential danger to the fortress. Such attack could be carried out during the period of the north-east monsoon. The jungle is not in most places impassable for infantry.

It was, to say the least, unfortunate that this appreciation did not, as we had hoped, have the effect of bringing home to the authorities in England the change in the whole problem of the defence of the Singapore Naval Base. The existing policy that the British main fleet must sail for Singapore in the event of war, whatever the circumstances might be in European waters, was reaffirmed. What a short-sighted policy. How could the British main fleet ever leave home waters if we were fighting to keep our supply routes open for our very existence? Perhaps the definite limit to the amount of money at that time available for rearmament had more than a little to do with the decision. But should not the Government in such cases take the public fully into its confidence and vote more money with a clear explanation of why it is required? National interests should come before any party or private considerations.

It was not until the summer of 1939 that it was officially recognized that the British fleet might not be able to sail from home waters for the Far East on the outbreak of war with Japan, but even then the only action taken was to dispatch a brigade group from India to Malaya and to authorize an increase up to 180 days of reserves of all descriptions to be held in Malaya. The defence plan still contemplated holding only Singapore Island and part of the State of Johore. A scheme to construct outer defences of Singapore in the southern part of Johore had been drawn up by General Dobbie and work had started but had later been suspended. This was partly due to a cut in the estimated expenditure. The centralized system of financial control tended to have a crippling effect. When things go wrong the public are naturally inclined to blame the man on the spot. Why was this not done and why was that not done? The answer generally is that the man on the spot was not a free agent. He certainly was not in Malaya in peace-time. Obviously he cannot be given unlimited financial powers, but when he is dealing with such an important link in our system of imperial defence as Singapore, he can and should be given wider financial powers, in consultation with his financial adviser, than was the case in prewar days, or else it should be made clear that he cannot be held responsible. Again, it is a question of the Government taking the public into its confidence.

The extension of the period before relief to 180 days of course affected vitally the whole problem of the defence of the Naval Base. The Japanese would now have ample time to establish an advanced base, possibly in South Thailand, where they could build up their forces for an attack on Singapore and establish air bases within bombing range of that place. Further, if they invaded Malaya from Thailand they would be able to increase greatly the scale of air attack on Singapore by using advanced aerodromes. Clearly the defence problem, which had hitherto remained one of the defence of Singapore Island and of a portion of Johore only, had now developed, as had appeared inevitable to those on the spot as early as 1937, into one of the defence of the whole of Malaya. Small wonder then that General Bond, who had succeeded General Dobbie as G.O.C. Malaya, asked for official confirmation of this in the spring of 1940. He pointed out that the northern frontier of Malaya might have to be held against a considerable force for a matter of months and estimated that he would require for this something in the nature of three divisions with two tank regiments. He realized that it might well be impossible to send such a force at that time, when Germany was just starting upon her invasion of Western Europe and when our trained troops were alarmingly scarce and ill-equipped, even for the defence of our own homeland, and he suggested that the Royal Air Force might assume a greater share of responsibility for the defence by making it impossible for the Japanese to maintain a base within striking distance of our aerodromes even if it could not prevent them landing. If this could be done, then his estimate of the land forces required could be reduced.

In the summer of 1940 the threat to Singapore was greatly increased by the internal repercussions in Japan which followed the collapse of France in June of that year. Democracy appeared to have failed and totalitarianism raised its head in Japan. There was a general feeling that this unique opportunity for the advance¬ment of Japan’s destinies must not be missed. A new cabinet, under the premiership of Prince Konoye, took office in July. In it the influence of the Army was predominant. With a view to freeing themselves from economic dependence on the United States and the countries of the British Empire, the plan for establishing a Co-Prosperity Sphere of Greater East Asia, about which we were to hear so much in later years, was launched.

Fortunately Dill who, as has been seen in a previous chapter, was fully conversant with the Singapore problem, was now Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and at last the gravity of the situation was fully realized in military circles at home. In August the Chiefs of Staff officially recognized the necessity for holding the whole of Malaya, and laid down that, until a fleet should again become available, reliance should be placed primarily on air power. The role of the land forces was defined as the close defence of the naval and air bases, internal security, and the defeat of any enemy land forces which might succeed in gaining a footing despite the action of the air force. Then there was the question of building up the air force. The Battle of Britain was at its height and clearly it would be difficult to spare any aircraft in the immediate future. It was estimated that a minimum of 336 first- line aircraft would be required. And so it was laid down that the aim should be to complete this programme by the end of 1941 and that in the meantime the absence of aircraft should be made up by the provision of additional land forces. Unfortunately the air programme never even approached completion.

In September there were two further serious developments in the Far East. Firstly, Japanese troops occupied the northern part of French Indo-China, which gave them a base very much nearer to Malaya than they had ever had before. Secondly, Japan signed a Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy and thus became definitely committed to the Axis connection. The political object of the pact was clearly to prevent the United States from coming to the armed assistance of Britain, but in return Japan expected, after the defeat of Britain, to be able to take over all the British and Dutch possessions in the Far East. Militarily, the pact provided an opportunity for Japanese-German staff talks, of which the Japanese were quick to take advantage. Japanese naval and military missions were immediately dispatched to Berlin, while the German Government sent experts to Japan to study an attack on Singapore and to assist in developing the Japanese air¬craft industry. The Japanese mission to Berlin was headed by Lt.-Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who later commanded the Japanese forces in the attack on Malaya and who undoubtedly learnt from the Germans the technique of “blitz” tactics which he employed in that campaign. Similarly the rapid technical and tactical progress made by the Japanese air force, which caused some surprise in the Malayan campaign, was no doubt due to the assistance they had received from their German friends. The whole conception of the defence problem had again been changed because a Japanese invading force, instead of having to be trans¬ported all the way from Japan, could now be concentrated and prepared, with its land-based supporting aircraft, within close striking distance of Malaya. There is also evidence to show that from this time onwards the Japanese Government began to pile up supplies of war material, using for the purpose a large percentage of the money which was voted for the prosecution of their campaign in China. In fact, the comparative slowness of their progress in that country can probably be explained, at least to some extent, by the fact that their leaders were now concentrating all their efforts on preparations for their southward drive.

In October a joint tactical appreciation was prepared in Malaya. It estimated that 566 first-line aircraft would now be required and that, when this target was reached, the strength of the land forces should be twenty-six battalions with supporting arms,’ ancillary services, etc. The Chiefs of Staff declined to increase the previously approved air scale though they accepted the revised army estimate.

It was in the autumn of 1940 that reinforcements in strength began to reach Malaya. The latter part of the summer was a period of much anxiety, as indeed it was also in the United Kingdom, for had the Japanese taken the bit between their teeth and decided to attack then, as there were strong grounds for thinking they might do, they would have found extremely little to oppose them and might well have brought off a quick success with comparatively small forces. But apparently their leaders decided that more time was required to develop and consolidate their military strength and, like the Germans, they let the opportunity pass. The first reinforcements, in the shape of two British battalions with some administrative troops, came from Shanghai in August on our evacuation of that place. These were followed in October and November by the 6th and 8th Indian Infantry Brigades and the headquarters of the nth Indian Division. In February 1941 the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force, consisting of the headquarters and administrative units of the 8th Australian Division and the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade Group, reached Singapore. In March the 15th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 1st Echelon of Headquarters 9th Indian Division arrived from India and one field regiment from the United Kingdom, followed in April by the 22nd Indian Infantry Brigade.

When I took over command in May 1941 the troops in Malaya were disposed as follows:

The Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps (Lt.-Gen. Sir Lewis Heath) with headquarters at Kuala Lumpur, was responsible for the whole of Malaya north of Johore and Malacca and for the Island of Penang, which lies off the west coast of Province Wellesley some 350 miles as the crow flies from Singapore. In the east coast sub-area he had the 9th Indian Division with its two brigade groups only, less one infantry battalion. One of these brigade groups, the 8th (Brigadier Key), was in the Kelantan area, and the other, the 22nd less one battalion (Brigadier Painter) was in the Kuantan area in the State of Pahang. In the northern sub- area he had the nth Indian Division, also of two brigade groups only. One of these, the 15th (Brigadier Garrett), was at Sungei Patani, in South Kedah, while the other, the 6th (Brigadier Lay), less one battalion, was at Tanjong Pau in North Kedah. There was also one infantry battalion each in the State of Perlis, the Island of Penang, and at Kroh on the Thailand frontier in North Perak. The battalion at Penang was there for accommodation only and was not part of the garrison, which at that time consisted of one infantry volunteer battalion, two 6-inch batteries with searchlights, some Royal Engineer and administrative units. The approved scale of defence for Penang, which it had been decided to fortify in 1936, was much greater than this, but the remaining equipment for the fixed defences had not arrived and there were no anti-aircraft defences. Then there was the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force (Brigadier Moir), organized on a State basis and consisting of four infantry battalions and some support¬ing units, which was not yet mobilized. This force, which was not fully trained for mobile warfare, had been allotted static tasks in defence of aerodromes and other vulnerable points. Brigadier Moir also commanded the lines of communication area which lay south of the River Perak on the west coast, for which he had a separate staff. In corps reserve, located south of Kuala Lumpur, was one infantry battalion.

The Commander of the Singapore fortress (Maj.-Gen. Keith Simmons) was responsible for the defence of Singapore and adjoining islands and of the eastern area of Johore. He had under his command all the fixed defences, i.e. coast defence guns and searchlights, the anti-aircraft defences, the beach defence troops, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (except for the battalion at Penang), and the various fortress and administrative units. It was a pretty important command, especially as he also became heavily involved with civil problems connected with the 3 defence of Singapore. In addition to this he had the responsibility for the defence of the east coast of Johore where the small port of Mersing, connected to Singapore by a good motor road, had always been thought to be a likely landing-place for an invading force. For the defence of this area he had to rely on what field troops could be made available from Singapore—not a very satisfactory state of affairs and one about which I never felt very happy. In fact the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Paris), which was entrusted with this task, had also a role assigned to it in the defence of Singapore fortress. This was the brigade which had come from India in August 1939 and, having been nearly two years in Malaya, was probably the best trained and most experienced brigade in the country. On Singapore Island there were, in addition to the Volunteer Forces, two infantry brigades available for manning the beach defences, i.e. the 1st Malaya Brigade (Brigadier Williams), which consisted of two battalions only, and the 2nd Malaya Brigade (Brigadier Fraser).

In Command Reserve was the A.I.F., i.e. the 8th Australian Division less two infantry brigade groups. It was located in the Malacca-Negri Sembilan area with headquarters at Kuala Lumpur. It was to be prepared to operate anywhere in Malaya.

There were also in Malaya several States Forces units from the Indian States. With traditional loyalty to the Empire their services had been offered by the rulers of the States concerned. They were a valuable addition to our forces though they varied greatly in training, strength, and efficiency. Being, from lack of transport and of field training, more suitable, for a static role they were employed principally on aerodrome defence, coming under the commanders of the areas in which they were situated. During the campaign which followed some units showed themselves fully qualified to take their place with other fighting troops in the general scheme of defence; others found their lack of training and of war experience a great handicap in operations which were a severe test for even the most highly skilled troops.

So far the defences of Malaya only have been discussed. But Malaya Command had commitments also in British Borneo, an area of much the same size as Malaya itself, and in Christmas Island which lies some 200 miles south-west of Java. These commitments will be discussed more fully in a later chapter. Unfortunately there were few troops available to meet them. In consequence there were at this time only a small force of one Indian battalion (less one company) with some local forces and administrative detachments at Kuching in Sarawak, a detachment of about one infantry company and one 6-inch battery with some engineers at Miri, where the important oil-fields are situated, and a small coast artillery detachment at Christmas Island.

It would be a mistake to look upon the problem of the defence of Malaya as a local problem only. The defence of all the interests of the anti-Axis countries in the Far East was really one vast problem which required a great deal of joint study and planning. Of course, what could be done at that time was limited because all our eventual allies had not then entered the war but, as the situation became more strained, so it became possible for more to be done and in fact, after the Commander-in-Chief Far East had established his Headquarters at Singapore in November 1940, a great deal of spade-work was done at international conferences held at Singapore.

The basic assumption of active French collaboration from Indo-China had, of course, vanished with the collapse of France, but China, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma, and later the United States were all vitally interested. Agreements were reached for the co-ordination of the defence in the event of war breaking out, though no political commitments were involved by these agreements.

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