Chapter V – THE WAR CLOUDS GATHER

SHORTLY after taking over command I was instructed to review the army strength required for the defence of Malaya. Before doing so I decided to make myself completely au fait with the problem as it presented itself at that time—a problem which was so very different to what it had been when I had left Malaya three and a half years earlier. And so I toured all parts of Malaya to visit the various formations and study the problems on the spot. Nowadays a commander travels about in some luxury in his own private aeroplane, but it was not so in Malaya at that time. Not only were there no military transport aircraft of any sort but the resources of the R.A.F. were so thin that the A.O.C. asked me to refrain from using his aircraft for communication purposes except on special occasions. In consequence I and my subordinates, if we wanted to travel by air, as often as not used the civil air line or went in single-engine Moths piloted by members of the Volunteer Air Force. All credit to those men who were amazingly clever in the way they found their way about over that inhospitable country, where a crash meant almost certain death and where there was little chance of a forced landing, but I must confess to a feeling of relief at times when all had arrived safely.

In assessing the strength required, a commander in a theatre which is for the time being inactive is usually, I think, inclined to err on the side of understating his requirements, especially when the national resources are so strictly limited as ours usually are. He knows that what resources are available are so badly wanted elsewhere and feels that, if he asks for and gets more than his minimum requirements, he will be tying up troops and material which might be invaluable in the active theatres. That at any rate is the way I approached the subject in 1941, and I asked for what I thought was the absolute minimum in view of the greatly increased threat to Malaya which was then developing. This I explained in a private letter to the War Office saying that if, as might well be the case, I could not get what I wanted, then I would do the best I could with what I did get. Now, a commander of the land forces cannot assess his requirements until he has an estimate of what damage is likely to be done to the enemy before they can launch their attack—in our case before their invading forces could land on the shores of Malaya. This is a naval and air problem—in our case chiefly an air problem because the naval forces at that time were too weak to do much damage. And so I asked for and was given an estimate of what damage it was thought the air force would do, and it was on this that I based my estimate of the land forces required. There is no need to go into details of my estimate here. The main differences in it com¬pared to those which had been submitted previously were that it made provision for a 3rd Corps reserve in North Malaya of one complete division and certain Corps troops units, for a complete division instead of only two brigades in the Kelantan-Trengganu- Pahang area, for two regular infantry battalions for Penang and for a brigade group instead of only one battalion in Borneo. It also asked for two tank regiments. This was not the first time that tanks had been asked for from Malaya. They had been asked for as far back as 1937 and on several occasions after that date. The weight of the tanks which could be used in that country was limited by the carrying capacity of the bridges which, in some cases, was not very great. This estimate received the general approval of the Commander-in-Chief and was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff, but it was recognized that the target could not in the existing circumstances be fulfilled in the foreseeable future.

One day towards the end of July, on my return to Singapore from a visit up-country with the A.O.C., we were sent for by the Commander-in-Chief and told that the Japanese had moved into South Indo-China. That was one of the most momentous moves in the whole of the Far East drama. It gave the Japanese Navy a first-class base within 750 miles of Singapore and it gave them airfields within 300 miles of Kota Bharu, the nearest point in Malaya, and 600 miles of Singapore. It gave them a base from which they could launch a sea-borne expedition against Malaya with a short sea-voyage instead of having to bring it from Japan or Formosa as they would have done in pre-war days. Moreover, it brought them right up against the frontiers of Thailand and enabled them to increase their pressure enormously on that State. No step in the strained relations which already existed could have been more provocative. It is easy to see in it the influence of the military leaders which, after the collapse of France, had become predominant in Japan. It could not be allowed to pass unnoticed, but in the political atmosphere which now existed any counter- measures were likely to precipitate a crisis. The British and United States Governments and the British Dominions immediately “froze” all Japanese assets in their territories, to which the Japanese retaliated by “freezing” British and American assets in Japan and in territories controlled by them. At the same time the Government of the Netherlands East Indies stiffened its attitude towards the Japanese demand to be allowed to purchase increased quantities of oil. The effect of these measures was virtually to deprive Japan of those commodities which she required most urgently for war purposes, i.e. rubber, oil, and scrap iron. How could she even continue to carry on her war with China for long without these commodities? On the other hand, how could she terminate that war without loss of face? These were questions to which there was no answer, and it is not surprising that a large- scale mobilization of the Japanese Army was ordered which was completed about the middle of August. The Japanese Navy had already been mobilized early in July. Sir Robert Craigie, the British Ambassador to Japan, has told us that it was obvious to him in August that another southward move was impending and that he informed the British Government accordingly. In Malaya the immediate action taken on hearing of the Japanese move into South Indo-China was to order an increased degree of readiness for all troops, an order which was modified after a week or two owing to the strain which it imposed on the troops and the inter¬ference with the construction of defences and with training. We were also authorized by the home government to expel Japanese from defence areas in Malaya if we thought it necessary to do so. This was a problem which admitted of arguments on both sides. It was obviously desirable that the enemy should not get first-hand information of our defence preparations if we could avoid it, but with so many potential agents among the mixed population of Malaya it was unlikely that the mere fact of expelling Japanese would prevent them getting this information. Also, if we expelled them, they would merely cross the water and join the Japanese forces and be available as guides and interpreters when they invaded Malaya, while if we let them remain where they were we might be able to seize and intern them when war broke out. We also had to bear in mind that our Government still wanted to avoid, or at least postpone, war with Japan if it possibly could, and therefore any provocative act was to be avoided if possible. In the event, we decided to remove all the Japanese from that part of south Johore which overlooks the Naval Base and the approaches to it. In point of fact, a good many of the Japanese removed themselves as soon as the “freezing” order had been put into force and doubtless joined the Japanese Army, as many of them appeared again during the invasion, some even as high-ranking officers.

With the usual Axis technique the Japanese attempted to defend their occupation of South Indo-China by saying that they had in¬formation that we were on the point of invading it ourselves. Such a suggestion is, of course, absurd. They also attempted to make great capital out of our concentrations near the frontier of Thailand as being a threat to that country. The true facts have already been given in a previous chapter. There was never any suggestion of our occupying any part of Thailand unless it became quite clear that the Japanese were on the point of doing so themselves.

These important events in the Far East unfortunately clashed with even more important events in Europe and in Africa. Russia had been attacked by Germany and was fighting for her life while our forces in North Africa had been driven back by Rommel’s counter-attack and our life-line through the Suez Canal itself was being threatened. Small wonder then that no very considerable reinforcements were available for the Far East. Nevertheless, during the summer and autumn of 1941, a fairly steady trickle of reinforcements continued to reach the army in Malaya. In August the second Australian contingent, the 27th Brigade Group, arrived, and was accommodated temporarily on Singapore Island pending the completion of hutted accommodation in West Johore and Malacca. Lt.-CoI. Maxwell, the C.O. of one of the battalions in the 22nd Australian Brigade, was appointed by the authorities in Australia to command this brigade in place of its original commander who had been prevented on medical grounds from accompanying it. Recommendations for these appointments went direct from the G.O.C. A.I.F. to his own Government and did not pass through my headquarters. In September the 28th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Carpendale), landed at Port Swettenham and was allotted as a reserve to the 3rd Indian Corps. It was stationed in the Ipoh and Taiping areas. This brigade consisted of three Gurkha battalions which, like other Indian units, had lost a large proportion of their leaders and trained personnel under the Indian expansion scheme. Later, some field and anti-tank artillery arrived, mostly from the United Kingdom, and one reconnaissance regiment, the 3rd Cavalry, from India. This latter was in process of being mechanized.

Other arrivals included various technical and administrative units and personnel, and a considerable quantity of weapons, ammunition, motor transport, supplies, and other war material from the U.K., India, Australia, America, and South Africa, only occasionally impeded and thrown out of gear by sinkings en route. All of this considerable expansion called for a corresponding expansion of Command Headquarters, but this was difficult to meet. Apart from establishment restrictions, there was a pronounced shortage of staff officers and clerks with the necessary training and experience, to fill vacancies in an establishment which had grown in a comparatively short time from the peace-time headquarters of an overseas base to the headquarters of a field army and the military staff of a country on the eve of war. The situation was aggravated by the exasperating conditions which practically prohibited the employment at Command Headquarters of Indian Army officers, among whom was the largest available source of supply. This was explained by the fact that British Army personnel in Malaya were paid at British rates of pay, plus colonial allowance, and were liable to home income tax. The Indian Army in Malaya was paid at Indian Army rates and was liable to no income tax. How this worked out in practice may be illustrated by the case of a 1st Grade General Staff Officer of an Indian Division, a British Service Officer, whose combined pay and allowances were less than those of the Indian Army 3rd Grade Staff Officers working under him. By regulations an Indian Army officer, on employment at the headquarters of a British formation, came off the Indian establishment and was paid at British rates. It could hardly be expected that many Indian Army officers, even the most patriotic, would in these circumstances be willing or able to accept the heavy financial loss which the acceptance of a staff appointment at Command Headquarters would entail. To further complicate matters, there was an astonishing variety of war establishments in Malaya—British, Indian, Australian, Colonial, State Forces, Regulars, and Volunteers. Hardly any two units of the same type were equipped in the same way. This surely is a matter which could be coordinated in time of peace.

The arrival of these reinforcements brought about certain alterations in the defence plans. In the first place, Gordon Bennett had for some time been pressing for a change in the role allotted to the A.I.F., urging that his force should be given a definite territorial responsibility instead of being kept in reserve. Personally I have always looked upon a reserve as a position of honour, but I think Gordon Bennett felt that the prestige of the Australian forces, which elsewhere were in the forefront of the operations, might suffer and the morale of his troops be affected. I had myself never been happy about the arrangement under which the commander of the Singapore fortress and part of his garrison had responsibilities also for the defence of the east coast of Johore, and as the 22nd Australian Brigade had now been training for six months and would undoubtedly benefit from being given some responsibility in the coast defences, for which it was fully ready, I felt that the time had come to make the change. Accordingly the responsibility for the defence of Johore and Malacca passed to the Commander A.I.F. at midday on 29 August. The 12th Indian Infantry Brigade Group came into Command Reserve, though it remained for the time being under Singapore fortress for administration.

The other changes were in North Malaya where the arrival of the 28th Indian Infantry Brigade enabled the Kelantan force to be reinforced by the battalion which had previously been held in corps reserve. I also sent up to Kelantan an Indian State Forces battalion from the south for aerodrome defence and some supporting units.

The standard of training among the various units in Malaya at this time varied greatly. There were some, especially those which had been in the country longest, which were well trained. The best trained units were undoubtedly those whose commanders were ready at any time to go and spend a few days in the jungle. Other units, chiefly the more recent arrivals, were much less well trained. Practically all the Indian Army units had suffered severely from the rapid expansion of that army which had only been commenced a year after the outbreak of war with Germany. Officers and non-commissioned officers had been withdrawn to meet the needs of this expansion until the lack of leaders, and even of potential leaders, reached a dangerously low level. Few units had more than two or three British officers with experience of handling Indian troops and of the junior British officers only a few had had Indian experience. The majority of the troops were young and inexperienced. Both British and Australian units suffered from the lack of leaders with experience of modern war. In these conditions the first essential was to develop the training of the individual and of the junior leaders, especially as it was clear that individuality would be of first importance in any operations in Malaya. I hoped later on, during the “close season”, when the north-east monsoon would be at its height, to be able to withdraw temporarily some of the troops from the beaches and to hold formation exercises. Curiously enough we had planned to study problems of defence against a Japanese advance from South Thailand by an exercise to take place early in December, in which troops of the nth Indian Division were to take part. Of course this had to be cancelled and we had to do the operation as the real thing instead of as an exercise. It was a great pity we were not able to bring this off as we should undoubtedly have learnt a great deal of value from it.

Work on the defences caused great interference with training. It may be asked: “Why was not this work done with civil labour?” The answer is twofold. Firstly, there was not at that time very much surplus civil labour available in Malaya and, secondly even if there had been, there was not the money available to pay for it. Beyond this, a great deal of the work was of a skilled or semi¬skilled type for which special training was required. Further interference with training was caused by the state of tension which followed the entry of the Japanese into South Indo-China and continued in varying degree right up to the outbreak of war.

In September, when the state of the defences had made reason¬able progress, I decided that we must give up more time to training and issued an instruction defining the relative importance of training and of defence works. Some formations and units were able to take advantage of this, but in general the war came before the training of the majority of even the smaller formations could be completed. None of the troops which came to Malaya had had any previous experience of jungle warfare; some of them had in fact been specially trained for desert warfare. Jungle warfare is not a thing which can be learnt in a day—it is a matter of months of hard work—and so it was not to be expected that in the conditions which existed the army in Malaya could be fully trained for the task which lay ahead of it.

For intelligence from outside Malaya we were mainly dependent upon the Far East Combined Bureau, an inter-Service organization under the control of the naval Commander-in-Chief. Inside Malaya our intelligence mostly came from the Civil Police Intelligence Branch, an efficient organization which was greatly handicapped in its work by the excessively complicated constitutional organization of Malaya. On Command Headquarters we had only a small intelligence staff whose work consisted mostly in collecting and coordinating information received from outside sources. Those who have had first-hand knowledge of the Japanese and their methods will know the extreme degree of secrecy which permeates all military matters. They are in fact so secretive that one wonders sometimes how they ever succeed in getting things done. It is a crime, for instance, in time of war to mention in advance even the routine move of any officer. Destinations are hardly ever divulged until the last minute. Soldiers overseas are practically cut off from any sort of communication with their families at home. This sense of secrecy is instilled into every soldier from the day he joins and, as is the custom of the Japanese soldier, he obeys the instructions implicitly. It is hardly to be wondered at then that our information of the Japanese intentions and their methods was not in all respects very accurate though it would be untrue to say that we were in any way sur¬prised by their attack. In the strategical field, General Head¬quarters Far East apparently did not believe until the end of November that Japan might be on the verge of starting war, which is a little strange when compared with Sir Robert Craigie’s statement that he had warned the British Government in August that a new southward drive appeared to be imminent. It appears that there must have either been another failure on the part of our Government to trust the man on the spot or else a failure to communicate his views to the most important military head¬quarters in the Far East. The forces which Japan might have available for a southward drive were fairly accurately gauged, though it was not thought, and very naturally so, that she would be so ambitious as to attack British, American, and Dutch territories simultaneously. On the other hand, there was in certain respects an under-estimate of the efficiency of the Japanese army and air forces. This applied particularly to the mobility, individual initiative and ability to overcome difficulties quickly of the Japanese soldier and to the performance of the naval single-seater fighter known as the Zero type. There is no doubt that the Japanese army and air force had both greatly increased in efficiency since the start of their war with China, partly as a result of their close liaison with the Germans and partly because they were able to use China as a training-ground for their troops and to try out their new weapons and new methods of warfare. With this increase in efficiency our intelligence had been unable to keep pace. Successful intelligence in the Far East is a matter of long study of the people and their habits combined with a knowledge of their language. It is not to be expected that ordinary Service officers put on to this work at short notice will have immediate success. It is necessary to take a long-term view and to build up from the bottom an organization based on a corps of professional experts.

All great leaders are agreed on the vital importance of administration in war and Malaya was no exception to this rule. The administration of a newly created and constantly increasing army in a semi-developed and in parts very sparsely populated country taxed our resources to the utmost. The provision of accommodation, often at short notice, was particularly difficult. In Malaya there are no large country houses or farm buildings which are so invaluable for billeting troops in the United Kingdom or in other parts of Europe. There are, it is true, excellent modern school buildings, many of which the civil authorities readily made available, but beyond this one is dependent for the most part on accommodation specially constructed. Some of the Indian units brought tentage with them, but even tents are not too pleasant in the Malayan climate for long periods because they are almost certain to become waterlogged after the heavy rainstorms which are a feature of that country. So we went in for hutted camps. These, of course, took some time to build in spite of the fact that we received great assistance from the Public Works Department. Often we had to wait long periods for material and fittings required from overseas. Sometimes units arrived before their accommodation was ready and had to be temporarily housed elsewhere, but on the whole the builders did their job well and the accommodation provided was as good as could be expected under the circumstances. We came up against one serious difficulty, however, which arose from the actual selection of sites for the camps. In the early days the decision had been left to local commanders who had, perhaps naturally, selected sites in the rubber plantations where there would be good cover from the air. This there certainly was, but from the health point of view the sites were far from desirable. Rubber trees shut out the rays of the sun so that everything under them becomes damp, and darkness sets in early. This tends to have both a physical and psycho-logical effect on those who have to live in these conditions—a state of affairs which caused me much anxiety for I realized that it might affect adversely the morale of the troops. It was impossible to move the camps so we had to do what we could by thinning the trees and by organizing “change of air” camps in more salubrious places. Incidentally, every rubber tree cut down cost a considerable sum of money in compensation so that was another factor which had to be considered. Undoubtedly these camps affected to some extent the fighting efficiency of the troops, though the full effect is impossible to assess. The disease became known as “Rubberitis”.

The welfare of the troops was catered for by the N.A.A.F.I., which expanded rapidly and took over responsibility for the Indian as well as the British troops. In addition the inhabitants of Malaya of all races were most hospitable in entertaining and in every way helping the troops. In most of the large towns clubs were organized and run for the benefit of the troops, very often entirely by the local civilians, many of whom travelled considerable distances and spent long hours in the work. To them the thanks of all Services are due.

The pre-war hospital accommodation was, of course, quite inadequate for the increased garrison. The A.I.F. took over a wing of the fine new civil hospital at Malacca, where a most up-to-date and splendidly equipped base hospital was established. Elsewhere schools and other buildings had to be taken over and equipped as temporary hospitals. There were also convalescent and “change of air” camps for both British and Indians. The medical services were supplemented by Red Cross organizations supplied by the governments of Australia and of India.

It has been said that it was the policy to accumulate 180 days’ reserve stocks of all descriptions in Malaya. As regards foodstuffs these were approximately complete before hostilities broke out. The situation as regards ammunition, except in certain categories, and petrol was also satisfactory. The problem of the distribution of these stocks required very careful consideration. Initially they had all been held on Singapore Island in specially constructed accommodation but, when the rapid increase took place, the policy had been to disperse the dumps so as to limit the risks of loss or damage from air attack. With the extension of the defence to cover the whole of Malaya, however, it became necessary to locate a proportion of the reserves on the mainland. It was an unusual situation because with the loss of sea supremacy any part of Malaya had become almost equally exposed to attack. A successful enemy attack on Johore, for instance, might result in all our troops in Central and North Malaya being cut off from Singapore and they might have to depend for a time on their own resources. It was also necessary to hold certain reserves well forward to meet the requirements of operation MATADOR should that project be implemented. It was therefore decided that the main reserve stocks should be held on Singapore Island, that reserves on a scale to be fixed in each case should be held in the forward areas, and that the balance should be held in advanced depots in Central Malaya.

Water presented no problem in Malaya except on Singapore Island. Here we were dependent upon two main sources of supply (a) reservoirs at Gunong Pulai, in South Johore, and (b) rainwater catchment areas and open-air reservoirs on Singapore Island. Of these there were three, the Seletar, Peirce, and MacRitchie reservoirs. Water from the Johore reservoirs was brought by above-ground pipe-line to Singapore where it filled two high- level covered reservoirs at Pearls Hill and Fort Canning. The supply from the Seletar, Peirce, and MacRitchie reservoirs was ample to give a restricted supply indefinitely even if the population was increased by refugees, provided the control of these reservoirs remained in our hands and the machinery for distribution continued to operate.

As for weapons, the scale of armament had been dangerously low early in 1941. After March, however, a steady and increasing flow came to Malaya, but it was not until November that formations received the higher scale of weapons and were issued with the modern 25-pounder guns for their artillery. Even then many units were below establishment in light automatics and rifles and there were never more than a few of these weapons in reserve.

In peace-time, married families accompanied the troops to Malaya. After the outbreak of the Second World War, however, no married families of the army or air force were allowed to enter Malaya, but those that were already there remained there. The same policy applied to officers’ families. Families of officers coming to Malaya from China were sent to Australia where living was very expensive, as it was also in India. In consequence, a number of officers of both the British and Indian service became financially embarrassed. On the other hand, women were urgently required in Malaya as V.A.D.’s, car drivers, for work in offices and for other war work. At the request of the Commander- in-Chief I recommended to the War Office that officers’ families should be allowed to enter Malaya at my discretion, but this request was refused though they were allowed to visit Malaya for short periods.

Leave ex-Malaya was another matter which required attention. Many officers and men had already been in Malaya for periods considerably longer than the normal peace-time tour and there was no prospect of them being relieved. To avoid as far as possible a deterioration in their health and consequently in their efficiency a scheme was drawn up whereby all ranks might get leave ex-Malaya in turn if they wished to take it. Unfortunately, owing to expense and difficulties of travel, few were able to avail themselves of this privilege.

Following an administrative tour which I made of all the principal depots, hospitals, and other installations in Malaya I was satisfied that, as far as lay within our power, everything possible was being done to ensure maintenance of the essential administrative services should war break out.

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