ONE of the first problems to which I turned my attention after reaching Malaya was that of an advance into South Thailand. I use this expression “South Thailand” advisedly because I can’t help thinking that the term “Kra Isthmus” was used a good deal too loosely at that time and that some misunderstanding resulted from it. This was probably due to the use of a small-scale map. On the map which I have in front of me as I write the Kra Isthmus is shown as the narrow neck of land which lies just east of Victoria Point, the most southern point in Burma. That is 250 miles from Perlis, the most northerly part of Malaya from which South Thailand stretches in a south-easterly direction for another 140 miles or so before it reaches the Kelantan border. Those are big areas when you are talking in terms of a division or so. The immediate advantages of an advance into South Thai¬land, should it be found to be practicable, were obvious. It would enable us to meet the enemy on the beaches instead of allowing him to land unopposed and base himself on Singora (or Songkla, as called on some maps), a small port with a good anchorage only fifty miles as the crow flies from our frontier. Moreover, there were two good aerodromes in South Thailand, one near Singora and one at Patani farther south. These would be very useful for our air force and conversely, if the Japanese seized them, they would bring their air force within close range of Malaya and enable them to do great damage to our shipping in the Straits of Malacca. Yes, there was no doubt about the advantages, but was it a sound operation of war? There were many factors to be considered. First of all there was the time factor. In some respects the situation was not unlike that which faced us when we sat on the Belgian frontier in the early part of the war and with which, from my experience as B.G.S. 1st Corps, I was well acquainted. In each case we had a neutral State between us and the enemy whose territory we would like to have entered but for political reasons were unable to do so. In each case there was the question whether, when the enemy made the first move and thus freed us from political implications, we should have time to reach our objective before the enemy anticipated us. In the case of Thailand the situation was even more complicated because any premature move on our part might have led to war with Japan, and it was the policy of our Government, hard pressed as it was in Europe and the Middle East, to avoid a Far Eastern War if it possibly could. For this reason the Commander-in-Chief Far East was told that he was not to move into Thailand without previous reference to the War Cabinet. This would obviously take time and as per¬mission could not well be sought before it became reasonably certain that the Japanese were on the point of moving in themselves it seemed unlikely that we should ever get the necessary permission in time. To make matters worse the Thai Government had declared its strict neutrality and announced its intention of opposing any troops who might enter their country, so we had to take into account the probability of some delay in reaching our objective. We also knew that all the bridges on the main road were being reconstructed. We suspected, as subsequently proved to be the case, that this work was being done at the instigation of the Japanese to facilitate their advance, but anyway it left us in doubt as to what sort of state the bridges would be in if we wanted to use them and we had to allow extra time for this. Then there was the question of what forces could be made available if we decided to move forward and how we could maintain them if we reached our objective. We could not move any forces from Singapore or South Malaya because, with the control of sea communications in the enemy hands, those areas were themselves exposed to direct attack. Nor could we move any of our forces, already too weak for their job, from the east coast. We should therefore have to rely on what could be made available of the nth Indian Division. There were two routes leading from South Thailand into North Malaya—the main road from Singora via Haad’yai Junction into Kedah and a secondary road from Patani via Yala to Kroh in North Perak where it branched, the better road going west into Province Wellesley and the other, which was reported to be fit only for light transport, turning south to join the main north-south road west of the Perak River. We should have to cover both these approaches with our small force. As regards maintenance, there was the single line railway from Kedah which we could use if we could push railhead forward, but the bridges might be demolished by the Thais and it would not be safe to rely on it. So in the early stages we should have to rely on mechanical transport. A careful examination of our resources showed that we had not at that time nearly sufficient of this, though the situation became easier later on as more M.T. arrived. Finally, there was the question of our equipment. We had no tanks while the Japanese, if they came, would be pretty certain to bring some tanks with them. During the period of the south¬west monsoon (April-September) the ground on the east coast of South Thailand is comparatively dry and suitable for tank action, but during the north-east monsoon (October-March) it becomes waterlogged. Therefore we concluded that, if we fought there during the south-west monsoon, we should be at a serious dis¬advantage but that during the north-east monsoon the Japanese tanks would be confined more or less to the roads where we should be better able to deal with them.
These were some, but by no means all, of the considerations in this complicated problem. It was a problem of the first importance. If we moved into Thailand and brought it off successfully great results might be achieved. If we failed, we might easily lose our whole force and the peninsula of Malaya would lie open to the Japanese as far south at any rate as Johore. It was a problem which clearly demanded the closest examination and that it received. It was examined departmentally and at joint inter- Service conferences, and here briefly are the decisions reached:
(a) An advance as far north as the Kra Isthmus was quite out of the question with the forces at our disposal.
(b) We had not sufficient force, and especially administrative services, to occupy simultaneously both the Singora and Patani areas, but we could attempt in favourable circumstances to seize and hold the Singora area and to fight defensively on the Patani-Kroh route.
(c) The “favourable circumstances” would only arise (i) during the period of the north-east monsoon, and (ii) if we could be sure of twenty-four hours’ start before the estimated time of the Japanese landing.
Provided we could get the twenty-four hours’ start it was therefore decided to undertake the advance during the period October-March, if an opportunity arose.
The Commander-in-Chief Far East never ceased to stress the vital importance of receiving early permission, but until the end of 1941 there was no certainty that the United States would stand by us if we became involved in war with Japan through our own action, and it was but natural that in these conditions our Government should move cautiously.
The next step was to implement the above decisions and prepare for the operation which became known as MATADOR. Detailed plans were worked out, maps were printed, money in Thai currency was made available, and pamphlets for distribution to the Thais were drafted, though, to preserve secrecy, they were not to be printed till the last moment. The nth Indian Division had the dual task of preparing either to move forward or to stand and fight on the frontier—a task very similar to that which fell to our field force in France in 1939. In such circumstances, the “advance” plan is naturally the more attractive and as such is apt to receive the greater attention.
By a special arrangement made by the Commander-in-Chief Far East, authority was given for selected officers in plain clothes to carry out reconnaissances in South Thailand. This led to some curious incidents as the Japanese were obviously doing the same thing. The two parties frequently met and even stayed together in the same rest-houses. Much useful information was brought back, but difficulty was experienced in reaching areas of special importance, such as the aerodromes, on the approaches to which Thai police were usually posted.
We now had to turn our attention to the defence of the northern frontier. The role of the forces in Kedah, apart from the possible implementation of MATADOR, was to protect the aerodrome at Alor Star and the group of aerodromes in South Kedah and Province Wellesley. The former, unfortunately, like the aero¬drome at Kota Bharu in Kelantan, had been converted from a civil aerodrome and had thus been sited without any consideration whatever being given to its defence. From this point of view it was in a thoroughly bad position because it forced us to go forward into the enclosed country instead of taking advantage of the more open country to the south. The frontier area itself was unsuitable because it was in a bad malaria belt and so, after a careful examination of the problem on the ground, a position was selected covering the road junction at Jitra, where the road to Perlis branches off from the main trunk road to Thailand. It was far from an ideal position—in fact I would go so far as to say that nobody ever really liked it—because it was far too extensive for the force available to hold it, but it was a question of making the best of a difficult job, and I have yet to meet anyone who “knew of a better ‘ole”, as Bruce Bairnsfather would have said. Work on this position was immediately put in hand, the greatest strength being concentrated astride the two roads. Between them and the sea was a stretch of some twelve miles of open or semi-open country intersected by canals and ditches and with practically no roads. This was held by a skeleton pill-box defence combined with the maximum use of natural obstacles. For a time, work on the defences progressed fairly well, but later heavy rains caused delays and also caused the mechanical diggers which had been brought up specially for the anti-tank ditch to become “bogged”. The work on the defences had to be done by the troops themselves as there was no money available at that time for the employment of civil labour on this work. At times, therefore, the preparation and training for MATADOR interfered with the work and caused further delays. It was for these reasons that, when war broke out, the defences were still incomplete though a great deal of work had been done.
On the Kroh front the problem was very different. Here the road forks immediately west of the frontier, the one as already stated going to Province Wellesley and the other southwards into Perak. A defensive position was constructed astride the former, but this was obviously unsatisfactory by itself as it did not in any way cover the latter road. To cover the two with one position it was necessary to go into Thailand and, of course, no work could be done there in peace-time. Reconnaissances were, however, carried out and a position known as “The Ledge” was selected, some thirty-five to forty miles on the Thailand side of the frontier. Here for some miles the road is cut out of the side of a steep hill and it was thought that it would be possible with very little labour to block this road if we could succeed in reaching the area before the Japanese. It would then be possible to hold the position with a comparatively small force.
Farther east a number of bush tracks crossed the frontier into Perak. These could only be used by small parties on foot, but nevertheless they constituted a threat to our communications and we could not afford to neglect them. To watch them we formed a special platoon of local men which was incorporated in one of the volunteer battalions.
Along almost the whole of the east coast of Malaya there are sandy beaches which might have been made for an invading force to land upon. For much of the year the sea off this coast is calm but during the period of the north-east monsoon it becomes intermittently rough, though there are always calm periods between the storms. At one time it had been thought that landings during this period were out of the question, but this fallacy had been exploded as early as 1937 when, after a careful examination of the problem, we established the fact that landings could take place even at the height of the monsoon though the time-table might be subject to delays amounting to a matter of days. For this reason I thought it unlikely that the Japanese would select a date for their attack during the period December-February when the monsoon is at its height as it would involve running considerable risks. It is interesting to learn now that it was publicly stated in Tokyo after the outbreak of war that the Japanese General Staff had been opposed to any postponement of the attack beyond 8 December because a further three months must then have been allowed to elapse before conditions of weather, tide, and moon, would again be equally favourable for an attack on the Malay peninsula. So in this case also apparently the Japanese appreciation of the problem did not differ very widely from our own. It was for this reason presumably that General Tojo stated, on assuming the premiership, that a time limit must be set to the negotiations which were at that time being carried on in Washington between representatives of the United States and of Japan.
Although it had originally been the policy to avoid as far as possible development of the east coast, yet for reasons already stated it had come about that by 1941 the army was committed to the defence of three areas on that coast, i.e. the State of Kelantan right up in the north, Kuantan about half-way down the coast, and the State of Johore in the extreme south.
In the State of Kelantan, one of the Unfederated States of Malaya, the country is in parts rather more open than elsewhere. There are large rice-growing areas with copses dotted about and in some places country lanes not unlike those in England. The State is divided into two by the Kelantan River which, flowing roughly north, empties into the sea close to Kota Bharu, the capital of the State. The east coast railway line crossed the frontier into Thailand, but there were no roads across the frontier though, as in Perak, there were some tracks and navigable rivers. The three aerodromes—a completed one at Kota Bharu, one nearly completed at Gong Kedah, thirty miles farther south and not far from the coast, and one under construction at Machang, not far from the railway—were all east of the Kelantan River. The main task assigned to the commander of the Brigade Group in Kelantan was to secure these aerodromes for the use of our air force and to deny them to the enemy. It was obviously a pretty difficult task with the small force at his disposal. Before I took over command there had been some discussion on the general principles of beach defence. One school of thought held that it would be better to watch the beaches only and to keep the main force more concentrated farther back and to fight on prepared positions astride the communications; the other argued that that policy would enable the enemy to fight on an equality with us and that it would be better to hold the beaches at the most likely landing- places so as to hit the enemy when he was most vulnerable and where it would be easiest to combine the action of the three Services. The Commander-in-Chief decided in favour of the latter policy and orders were issued to all local commanders accordingly. This is a recurrent problem which arose in many other theatres in the course of the war, including the defence of our own country. When you have not nearly enough forces for either plan, as was the case in Malaya, it becomes rather a choice of evils, though there the problem was really solved for us by the location of the aerodromes. For my own part, however, I am in agreement with the Commander-in-Chief that the best plan is to break the enemy up, if you can, on the beaches. If you can also keep a reasonably strong reserve so much the better but, though a commander should make every effort to build one up, that is just where the difficulty comes in when you have not got sufficient forces. Anyway the plan in Kelantan, to which I gave my approval, was to hold the beaches covering the aerodromes and to keep a reserve on the main road which runs from Kota Bharu to Krai. Railhead was at Krai, where the main reserves of supplies and stores of all descriptions were held.
Going south we had no troops in the State of Trengganu, one of the least developed States of Malaya in which communications are extremely poor, except a company of the Malay Regiment at Dungun, where there was a large Japanese-owned iron ore mine. This company was there for the purpose of controlling the considerable Japanese staff if trouble came, but I later withdrew it as it seemed an unnecessary dispersion of force. When war broke out these Japanese were arrested by the local police but, on our withdrawal from the State, they regained their liberty and became the local administrators. A good scheme to deny boats and other property to the Japanese had been worked out in Trengganu and was successfully carried out when the time came by the British Adviser’s staff.
Kuantan lies nearly a hundred miles by road from Jerantut on the east coast railway and another thirty miles from Kuala Lipis, the most important town in that part of the country. Those are big distances when you have at the farther end a detachment of only one weak brigade group. But it had to be there to protect the aerodrome. The problem of defence was much the same as that of Kelantan but on a smaller scale. The aerodrome was situated some ten miles from the coast but between it and the cantonment of Kuantan was the Kuantan River, crossed only by a slow ferry. Again there were long beaches—far too long to be held in strength, but we could not afford to let the enemy come and land there unopposed, so we deployed one battalion on the beaches and held the other back to watch the river line and guard the aerodrome. Communication with Kuantan was by a civil land line and military wireless, both subject to frequent interruptions. For some reason we could never get the wireless to be reliable in Malaya. It was not from want of research or from lack of experts. We had many wireless enthusiasts and some very expert ones in Malaya. It was something to do with the topographical or climatic conditions. Sometimes it would work perfectly well but at others, and generally when you most wanted it, it would fade right away and often remain out of action for quite long periods.
In East Johore, large areas of which are still under virgin jungle, there are two small towns of strategical importance, Mersing and Endau, situated about twenty miles apart. Mersing is ninety miles from Singapore and connected to it by a motor road. There are good landing-beaches both north and south of the town and a small port though, owing to the shallowness of the water, ocean-going vessels have to lie some way out. It had always been considered a likely landing-place for a Japanese invading force. Mersing is also connected to Kluang in Central Johore and thence to Batu Pahat on the west coast by a motor road which branches off from the Mersing-Singapore road at Jemaluang. Endau, a smaller town than Mersing, is connected to it by a motor road. It lies in the extreme north-east corner of Johore on the Endau River on which, some twenty miles up-stream, was situated an important Japanese-owned iron ore mine at Bukit Langkap. From here large quantities of iron ore were shipped to Japan annually, being brought down-river in a fleet of Japanese-owned barges and loaded into Japanese steamers which lay off the mouth of the Endau River. South of Mersing there are a number of waterways which give access to the main Singapore road. We therefore had to provide against the possibility of a landing at Endau, to make use of the Endau River or to advance on Mersing, a landing in force at Mersing, or landings in the rivers to the south to strike at our communications. Clearly the Jemaluang road junction was a vital centre in this part of the country, so our general plan was to hold the Mersing area as strongly as we could with a detachment at Endau and other detachments watching the rivers to the south and with a reserve in the Jemaluang area.
In view of the possibility of enemy landings on the east coast, detailed plans had been made with the civil authorities for the removal or destruction of all boats or other surface craft on this coast on receipt of specified code words.
Another matter which required urgent attention was the organization of air defence. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War this had been, for all practical purposes, limited to the anti-aircraft defence of selected objectives on Singapore Island, of which the Naval Base had first priority. These defences had been laid out in accordance with a War Office plan and had entailed a great deal of work in connection with the acquisition and preparation of sites, the laying out of communications, etc. But with the extension of the defence to cover the whole of Malaya, the arrival for the first time in the country of some fighter aircraft and the requirements of passive defence, the problem had assumed vastly increased proportions. We unfortunately could not find any guns or searchlights for the defence of any of the cities on the mainland nor even for Penang, for which anti-aircraft defences had been approved as early as 1936 but for which no equipment had become available. But we did provide some defence, though very inadequate, for a few of the aerodromes and we managed to organize a light anti-aircraft battery for mobile operations in the northern area. In the Singapore area there were, when I took over, three Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiments, one Light Anti- Aircraft Regiment, and one Searchlight Regiment, which were later reinforced by a very untrained Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment from India. Soon after my arrival I decided to place the anti¬aircraft artillery, which had previously been under the Commander Singapore fortress, directly under my own command, except for that which was allotted to the northern area which was placed under the Commander 3rd Indian Corps. I did this because it had now become necessary to build up a coordinated air defence scheme for the whole of Malaya. The first step was to co-ordinate the fighter and gun defence and, with this object in view, all the fighters allotted to the defence of Singapore were placed under the command of Group Captain Rice, an officer who had recently arrived from England where he had had considerable experience in connection with the air defence of Great Britain. It was also arranged that, during a hostile attack, he should issue orders direct to our anti-aircraft artillery. That arrangement worked very satisfactorily.
The next problem was to establish an air-raid warning system, and here we were up against considerable difficulties. In the first place, it was difficult to find suitable watchers in the more sparsely populated parts of the country; secondly, and more important still, was the paucity of communications. In Malaya there was the trunk telephone system which followed the main arteries of communication and some local services, but these were quite inadequate for a warning system. We drew up a scheme with the civil government for a duplication and extension of this system, but most of the material had to be brought from overseas and the scheme had not progressed very far before war came. Nevertheless quite a useful system was built up for the Singapore area and, as long as we held a reasonable part of the mainland, we could generally reckon on getting about half an hour’s warning of the approach of enemy aircraft. This, however, was not true of the mainland where, especially as regards the northern area, there was never any adequate warning system.
Much attention was given to the defence of aerodromes for we anticipated that the Japanese might well copy the tactics of their German friends whose air-borne troops had, in the European war, landed on Allied aerodromes in Holland, in Crete, and elsewhere. The Commander-in-Chief laid down that, as regards anti-aircraft weapons, the defence of aerodromes would take precedence over everything except the Naval Base. I also allotted to the defence of aerodromes such infantry as could be made available, generally Indian State Forces troops or Malayan Volunteers, and a few armoured cars which had been specially constructed locally for the purpose. The perimeter of aerodromes even at that time, however, varied between three and five miles and the forces we could spare for their defence were far from sufficient. In the event, the Japanese did not exploit the tactics of landing ground troops on aerodromes though the anti-aircraft defences of the aerodromes everywhere got plenty of practice against bombing aircraft.
Let us now turn our attention for a short time to Borneo, that huge island, partly British and partly Dutch, of great strategical importance flanking, as it does, the sea routes from Japan to Malaya and Sumatra on the one side and to Java and the southern area on the other. The British portion, which lies along the northern seaboard, consisted of four territories, i.e. British North Borneo, controlled by the British North Borneo Company with headquarters in London, the Island of Labuan, a British colony administered by a Resident, Brunei, a British Protected State with its own Sultan, and Sarawak, a Malay State which had, for many years, been governed by members of the Brooke family. Borneo is in reality part of the outer defences of Malaya because it possesses some fine natural harbours and the western part of it was, even in those days, within easy striking distance of Malaya for bomber aircraft. It would have greatly strengthened the structure of defence in the Far East if it could have been strongly held, but neither the Dutch nor ourselves had the necessary resources. As a base for our aircraft British Borneo would have been of the greatest possible value, especially so long as Indo- China remained in the hands of our French allies, provided two conditions existed, i.e. that we had aircraft to operate from it and that we could protect the aerodromes with sea or land forces. Plans for the construction of aerodromes and development of air facilities were well advanced but when, towards the end of 1940, it became clear that neither of the above two conditions could be fulfilled they had to be cancelled except as regards the landing- ground near Kuching, in Sarawak. The Commander-in-Chief informed the Governor of North Borneo that his territory could not be defended and that the volunteers and police at his disposal should be utilized for purposes of internal security. No attempt was made to defend Labuan. The State of Brunei was of some importance as in it lay the large Seria oil-field which, with that at Miri, in Sarawak, supplied the refinery at Lutong. In peace-time much of the oil from these fields went to Japan. It was at first intended to attempt to defend them and a 6-inch battery was mounted, but later this was found to be impracticable and a policy of denial was decided upon. In consequence, a partial denial was carried out before hostilities opened, and only a sufficient garrison was left there with the necessary technicians to complete the work.
It was decided to hold Kuching, which lies at the extreme western end of Sarawak, a State over 450 miles long with few communications, partly because there was already a landing- ground there and partly because its occupation by the enemy would bring them within close striking distance of the Dutch aerodromes in North-West Borneo. One Indian battalion (less one company to Miri), and some administrative detachments were therefore sent there and steps were taken to develop local forces, i.e. volunteers and a body of native troops known as Sarawak Rangers. The O.C. Troops Sarawak and Brunei was told that his primary object was to secure the landing-ground at Kuching for the use of our own air force and to deny it to the enemy but that if, owing to overwhelming force, this object could no longer be attained, then he should act in the best interests of West Borneo as a whole, his line of withdrawal being by the bush track into Dutch West Borneo.
In September 1941 centenary celebrations, marking a hundred years of Brooke rule, were held at Kuching. There was much rejoicing. The celebrations were made the occasion of another historic ceremony, i.e. the handing over by the Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, of much of his responsibility to a Council. In October the Rajah left the State for a holiday in Australia.