Chapter VII – THE EVE OF WAR WITH JAPAN

DURING the autumn of 1941 there was a succession of visitors to Singapore. From India came the Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Archibald (now Field-Marshal Viscount) Wavell, the Maharajah of Patiala, and others; from Australia came General Sturdee, the Chief of the General Staff, and a party of newspaper editors and other representatives; from China came the British Ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr (now Lord Inverchapel); from Thailand the British Minister (Sir Josiah Crosby) and from the United Kingdom a War Office liaison officer. There was also a continual stream of officers between Australasia and the Middle East. Mr. Duff Cooper arrived in Singapore on his appointment as Cabinet representative in the Far East. We were, of course, glad to see these visitors and were able to have valuable discussions with them, but it meant that one was tied down to Singapore for a good deal of the time. The visit of the War Office liaison officer in particular was very welcome because one was able to explain the situation to him and state one’s requirements much better than one could have done on paper. It was intended that there should be regular visits but unfortunately war intervened before the next officer could arrive.

The attitude of Thailand at this time caused us much speculation. It was obvious from reports we received that the Japanese were already getting a strong grip on the country by peaceful penetration, but right up to the last the British minister in Bangkok seemed to believe that there was such a strong pro-British element in Thailand that, if we could help them with arms and equip¬ment, they would join us in resistance to the Japanese. In July a Thai military mission, consisting of an army colonel who had been trained at our Staff College and an air force officer who had been attached to one of our air squadrons, visited Singapore where they spent a considerable time. In November the colonel returned and was in fact still in Singapore when war broke out. He was eventually interned. What was the object of these visits? Were they definitely intended to deceive us or were they genuine?

Knowing the two officers concerned I cannot believe that they were playing a double game, but I think it is quite possible that they were sent, unknown to themselves, to throw dust in our eyes. For there can be little doubt that some at least of the highest officials in Thailand were at that time in close touch with the Japanese. Had it not been so, the Japanese surely could never have made all the secret preparations in South Thailand in anticipation of their arrival and, when hostilities opened, the Thais would not have opposed our advance into their territory as they did. Probably the dominating factor which influenced the actions of the Thai authorities was fear. They saw powerful Japanese forces concentrating on their frontiers, they had practically no modern equipment themselves and their requests to us for material assistance had been unsuccessful. So they followed the example of other weak nations and threw in their lot with the stronger side. It is difficult to blame them but what a difference it might have made to the course of the war if all these nations had seen the red light in time and rallied to the flag of freedom.

The continuation of the diplomatic talks in Washington between the Americans and Admiral Nomura, who was joined about this time by Mr. Kurusu, seemed to indicate that the Japanese might still be trying to find a peaceful solution of the impasse which had developed in the Far East following the mutual freezing of assets by the British and American Governments on the one side and the Japanese Government on the other. The fact that most of the Japanese merchant shipping had been necessarily withdrawn from the high seas as a result of the suspension of trade also deprived us of what is normally a sure indication of approaching war, i.e. the withdrawal of shipping to home ports. In November, however, Japanese aircraft began to fly over British territory both in Malaya and in Sarawak. The aircraft flew very high and it was not possible to intercept them and find out their business, but it was pretty obvious that these were photographic reconnaissances, and a nation does not risk creating a diplomatic crisis in this way when tension is already high unless it is prepared for war. This was the first positive indication of Japanese intentions. Others were the increase of Japanese aircraft in Indo-China from under 100 at the end of October to about 250 at the end of November, the strengthening of the Japanese naval forces in the South China sea by four cruisers and some destroyers, and reports that a number of motor landing-craft had left the coasts of Central China, though there was no indication as to where they had gone. In view of these activities precautionary steps, including the guarding of certain vulnerable points, were taken in Malaya on 22 November.

Towards the end of November I received reports of an unsatisfactory state of affairs at Kuching in Sarawak and decided to visit the place myself. Ordinarily one would have gone by air, but as aircraft were so scarce and the landing-ground at Kuching, which was then being extended, was often unfit for the operation of the heavier types of aircraft in wet weather, I decided to make the journey by sea. The Commander-in-Chief China kindly placed a destroyer at my disposal, H.M.A.S. Vampire, which was then in Malayan waters. We arrived at Kuching on the morning of 28 November.

I spent two days at Kuching during which I went all round the defences, discussed and settled many matters with the O.C. Troops (Lt.-Col. C. M. Lane) and attended a meeting of the Council. One of the things which impressed me most was the vastness of the area which we were trying to defend. The town of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, a country nearly as large as England with a population of only about six to the square mile, lies some eight miles from the coast and is approached only by waterways. The intervening country is mostly bush-covered or marshy. The landing-ground is some seven miles south of the town. The problem was complicated by the fact that there were large Japanese-owned rubber plantations to the east of the aero-drome. The O.C. Troops only had at his disposal one Indian infantry battalion, the 2/15 Punjab Regt. (of which one company had been detached to the oil-fields in East Sarawak), the Sarawak Rangers, a reconstituted local force composed of Dyaks, the Sarawak Volunteers, and some administrative detachments. The local forces were only very partially trained and poorly equipped as we could not even find enough rifles to complete their establishment. So the problem was not an easy one. The original object in sending the detachment there was to protect the landing- ground. This could only be done in that vast country by close defence of the landing-ground itself, but that would leave the town completely undefended, and it was hardly to be expected that the volunteers, who had taken up arms in defence of their homes and families, would be prepared to abandon Kuching and go and sit on the landing-ground. Of course, the only true defence of the place was to prevent the enemy ever landing by air and sea attack, but then we had insufficient aircraft or ships available for this. So as usual we had to compromise. The Sarawak Rangers were employed as scouts north of Kuching, a role for which they were best fitted, and some detachments of regular troops were pushed forward to block the waterways in the hope of being able to hit the enemy when he was most vulnerable, i.e. when he was in boats. The remainder of the force was held back in reserve near the landing-ground which was put into a state of defence. Nobody could pretend that this was a satisfactory situation, but at least it would make the enemy deploy a bigger force to capture the place than would have been necessary if it had not been defended at all and that, I think, is the true way to look at it. It is not very pleasant though, either for the troops or for the civilians who have to remain in isolated places like that, as was abundantly patent to me when I attended the Council meeting. I was told that Japanese aircraft had already flown over the town and I was asked where our aircraft and anti-aircraft guns were. It is cold comfort to people in that position to tell them that it is against the principles of war to disperse military resources. All they are thinking about is how they are going to be defended when the enemy bombers come. The best I could do was to promise to send them a few anti-aircraft guns and to tell them of the arrival of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, which were due at Singapore in a few days’ time—not that I expected the anti¬aircraft guns to be of much practical value but I felt that the moral effect of their presence there would more than counterbalance some slight dispersion of force. Unfortunately war broke out before they could be dispatched, so the people of Kuching did not even have that comfort. I felt that Sarawak at that time was badly in need of strong leadership and it was a very great pity that Rajah Brooke, who had left for a holiday in Australia after the centenary celebrations, had not returned, for his influence, based on a hundred years of family tradition, would have been far greater than that of a newly appointed Council. I left the country with a sense of great sympathy for the people but with an uneasy feeling that all was not well and with a feeling of frustration that one could do so little to put things right.

On the evening of 29 November, while listening to the wireless news at Kuching, we heard that all troops at places of entertainment at Singapore had been ordered to return to barracks forth-with. This sounded ominous but I did not know at that time what the cause was. When I boarded the destroyer early the following morning, however, for the return journey, I found that the captain had received instructions to return to Singapore with all possible speed. We did the journey in twenty-four hours and reached the Naval Base early on 1 December. On arrival I learnt that the Commander-in-Chief had received a telegram from the War Office to the effect that it was expected that the Kurusu negotiations at Washington might break down at any time and that offensive operations might be started by Japan against Thailand, the Netherlands East Indies, or the Philippines. The second degree of readiness was ordered on that day and the volunteers were mobilized. Air reconnaissances over the China Sea were instituted.

The following day, i.e. on 2 December, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse, escorted by four destroyers, arrived at Singapore. This was an historic occasion. It was the first time that a battle fleet had been based on Singapore. I can remember now the thrill it gave us all as we watched those majestic ships steaming up the eastern channel of the Johore Straits and coming to anchor at the Naval Base. But yet one wondered. When I had been a student at the Royal Naval Staff College I had been told that the essence of naval warfare was a balanced fleet, i.e. a fleet consisting of all types of warships, each with their own part to play, and here we saw these two great ships arriving accompanied only by a few destroyers. We knew that there were only a few light cruisers and a few destroyers at Singapore and that none of them were modern ships. There were no aircraft carriers, without which a battle fleet loses most of its value in modern war, no heavy cruisers, and no submarines. Obviously this was not sound strategy and obviously a great risk was being taken. All the same we were glad to see the big ships and we assumed that they had been sent in an eleventh-hour effort to deter the Japanese from going to war. If that was so they were too late because there is no doubt now that the Japanese were irrevocably committed to war before they arrived.

I think it was the next evening that I was invited to dinner with Admiral Spooner and his charming wife to meet the new arrivals. It was a delightful evening as I already knew most of them intimately. Admiral Sir Tom Phillips I had met when I was at the War Office and he at the Admiralty. John Leach, the captain of the Prince of Wales and one of the finest of men, had been an instructor at the Royal Naval Staff College when I was a student there and was a good personal friend of mine. So also was Bill (now Sir William) Tennant, the captain of the Repulse, and Captain Bell of the Naval Staff, whom I had also known at Greenwich and met several times since. I felt that here at any rate was a group of men who could do the trick if anybody could do it. How little we expected at that time that within a week both the two great ships would be sunk, that Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach would both be lost, that Captain Tennant would go down with his ship but would be picked up from the water, and that our host, Admiral Spooner, would die some months later marooned on a desert island with no ship to take him off. What a queer trick fate was to play on us.

Let us now review the strength of the forces at our disposal and the organization for defence as it existed immediately prior to the outbreak of war.

Taking the army first, we had the equivalent of about divisions with, in addition, the anti-aircraft defences and the fixed defences of Singapore fortress, but we had no tanks. In all there was probably a ration strength of rather over 80,000 which included a large number of base and other administrative personnel. This force was disposed as follows:

(a) Lt.-Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, the Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps, was responsible under myself for everything north of Johore and Malacca including the implementation of MATADOR if that was ordered. His headquarters were at Kuala Lumpur and he had under him:

  • The nth Indian Division of two brigade groups in Kedah and Perlis and with one additional battalion at Kroh in north Perak watching the Patani road. Another battalion accommodated in Penang was earmarked to join the Kroh Force if war broke out.
  • The Penang garrison consisting of one volunteer infantry battalion, two 6-inch coast defence batteries with search-lights, one field company and some administrative units.
  • The qth Indian Division of two brigade groups only, of which one strong group with some additional aerodrome defence troops was in the Kelantan area and the other, a weak group, was in the Kuantan area.
  • The Lines of Communication Area on the west coast in which was the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, less one battalion on the Kelantan lines of communication.
  •  One Infantry Brigade in reserve in the Ipoh area but ready to join the nth Indian Division should fighting develop on that front.

(b)    Maj.-Gen. Gordon Bennett with the A.I.F. of one division less one brigade group and with the Johore military forces under his command was responsible for everything in Johore and Malacca except elements of the Singapore anti-aircraft defences located in Johore and the Pengerang defences in the south-eastern corner of Johore.

(c)    Maj.-Gen. F. Keith Simmons, the Commander of the Singa-pore fortress, was responsible for the defence of Singapore and adjoining islands and of the Pengerang area in South-East Johore. He had under him:

  • The Fixed Defences which were divided into two fire commands, i.e. the Changi fire command which covered the approaches to the Naval Base and the Faber fire command which covered the approaches to Keppel Harbour and to the western channel of the Johore Straits. In each fire command was one 15-inch and one 9-2-inch battery and a number of 6-inch batteries, also searchlights and smaller equipments.
  • Field Troops of two infantry brigades, etc., to man the beach defences. Included in these was the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force less the Penang and Province Wellesley battalion which, for operational purposes, was under the Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps.
  • Fortress Units which included field companies, Royal Engineers, etc.

(d) Brigadier A. W. G. Wildey, the Commander of the anti-aircraft defences, was responsible in co-operation with other arms for the defence of selected targets in the Singapore area against hostile air attack. He had under his command four heavy anti¬aircraft regiments, one light anti-aircraft regiment less one battery which was under 3rd Indian Corps, and one searchlight regiment. During an attack, Group Captain Rice, the co-ordinator of the air defence of the Singapore area, was authorized to issue orders to him direct. Most of the guns were of the static type and the range of the 37’s was very limited by modern standards. A few mobile guns were placed under the Commander 3rd Indian Corps for work in the forward areas and a senior officer was allotted to his headquarters as anti-aircraft adviser.

(e) The Command Reserve of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade Group under Brigadier A. C. Paris. This brigade group was to be prepared to operate anywhere in Malaya, and the Commander 3rd Indian Corps had been informed that, in the event of an advance into Thailand, it would immediately be moved north and placed under his orders. Both the Commanders of the 3rd Indian Corps and of the A.I.F. were instructed that, in the event of this brigade group being committed to operations, they must be prepared to replace it with another infantry brigade group if called upon to do so. This brigade had been carrying out formation training in the Port Dickson area during November and some of the units were still in that area. The brigade headquarters and the other units had returned to Singapore.

(f) In Borneo, Lt.-Col. C. M. Lane with one Indian infantry battalion, less one company, and some local units was responsible for the defence of the Kuching air landing-ground. In the Miri area of east Sarawak there was a detachment of one 6-inch battery, one infantry company, and a demolition squad. It had been decided that it was useless to attempt to defend the refinery or either of the oil-fields. In consequence, a partial denial scheme, whereby the oil output was reduced by some seventy per cent, was carried out before the outbreak of war. The orders to this detachment were to complete the denial scheme as soon as war broke out and withdraw to rejoin their units. No regular military forces were maintained in Labuan or in British North Borneo, though there was a small volunteer force in the latter territory. The senior civil officials were responsible for internal security.

(g) In Christmas Island there was a coast defence detachment with two 6-inch guns. It was responsible for the protection of the phosphate deposits.

(h) In the Singapore area and elsewhere in Malaya, there were a number of command troops and of base and other administrative units for the maintenance of all troops in Malaya.

Such were our dispositions. They had been forced on us primarily by the necessity for protecting aerodromes, most of which had been sited without any regard to their security, though it must in fairness be admitted that it would in any case have been necessary to hold most of Malaya if only to prevent the enemy landing and establishing aerodromes at his leisure. In that case, however, more suitable dispositions could have been taken up. A comparison has already been made between Malaya and England and Wales, shorn of some of the south-western areas. It will give a good idea of the dispersion of the land forces if I now develop that comparison. Let us further assume, therefore, that the enemy with a superior fleet and air force is in occupation of Norway and that Scotland is a neutral State, whose territory may not be entered unless the enemy is advancing with the obvious intention of landing in the south of Scotland or has already violated some part of that country.

Imagine then one weak division in Cumberland and Westmoreland watching the main road and railway approaches from Scotland with a reserve brigade in the Lancashire area ready to support it; on the east coast a strong brigade group in Northumberland and a weak brigade group in the Humber area; in the south of England one division of two brigade groups only, one of which is about the mouth of the Thames while the other is in the Oxford area; and finally on the Isle of Wight, where army headquarters is situated, strong coast defences on the seaward side and reasonably strong anti-aircraft defences. The Command Reserve, which consists of one brigade group only, is partly on the Isle of Wight and partly in the area of the Cotswolds, where it has recently been training. To complete the picture, we must bodily remove Portsmouth, the naval base which the defences are designed to protect, from Hampshire and put it down on the north coast of the Isle of Wight.

I wonder how the people of England and Wales would feel if they knew that their safety depended on those defences. I have an idea they would not sleep very comfortably in their beds, and I believe they would be still more unhappy if they knew that there were no tanks in the land forces and that the navy and air force were quite incapable of preventing the enemy landing. Their discomfiture would be complete if they knew that, in spite of a high determination to do their best, the majority of the troops were quite inexperienced in modern war and that many of them were only very partially trained, a state of affairs which in general applied to the junior leaders as well as to the rank and file.

Let us now turn to the other Services—very important in this case because the defence of Malaya, as indeed of all peninsulas, must in the end depend largely upon naval and air power. With-out this the enemy will always be able to turn the flanks of the land forces from the sea and make their task doubly difficult.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the greater part of the China fleet had of necessity to be withdrawn for operations elsewhere. There remained at Singapore only a few light cruisers and destroyers and a very inadequate fleet of craft for local defence which was strengthened later by the arrival of three gunboats from the River Yangtze. On the arrival of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, the newly formed Eastern fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, replaced the China fleet. As regards material defences, the approaches to the Naval Base and to Keppel Harbour were strongly defended by mine-fields, booms, submarine nets, and other devices. In the general naval situation there were two glaring weaknesses. Firstly, there was no balanced fleet, for there were no aircraft carriers, heavy cruisers or sub¬marines, though it is true that arrangements had been made with the Dutch naval authorities for some of their submarines to operate in the waters off Malaya in the event of our both becoming involved in war—an arrangement which they honoured to the letter when the time came. Secondly, there was a great shortage of local naval craft, such as motor torpedo boats, suitable for coastal defence and capable of operating in the shallow waters off the Malayan coast. Had we had these, the enemy would never have been able to turn our flanks from the sea with light forces transported in shallow-draught coastal craft as in fact he did. In short we no longer controlled the sea communications either in the ocean or in the coastal waters.

What of the air force? We have seen that our requirements had been assessed at a total strength of 566 first-line aircraft, a figure which the Chiefs of Staff accepted as an ideal but found to be quite beyond the limits of their resources. They considered that 336 first-line aircraft should give a very fair degree of security and this became the target figure. It should be stressed here that when a strength of so many first-line aircraft is fixed as a target it implies that that strength can be maintained in face of reason¬able casualties, which in turn means that there must be adequate reserves to take the place of those which are lost. Unfortunately our commitments in the Middle East and in Russia during the latter part of 1941 made it impossible to build up our air force in Malaya to anything like the target figure, and when war broke out we had all told only 141 operationally serviceable aircraft without counting a few light aircraft manned by the Volunteer Air Force. It is worth considering how this figure of 141 was made up. To start with, there were 43 Brewster Buffalo fighters, comparatively slow machines whose performance at heights exceeding 10,000 feet was relatively poor. The interrupter gear of the two fuselage guns also was faulty. They could not be com¬pared to the best modern fighters and in fact were outclassed by the Japanese Navy “O” fighter. There was one squadron of Blenheim night-fighters. As regards bombers, there were two squadrons of Blenheims, a reasonably modern medium bomber which, however, suffered from lack of range, and two squadrons of Vickers-Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers. The latter had since 1940 been officially considered as an obsolete type and were to have been replaced by Beauforts built in Australia but, owing to difficulties in getting material, it had not been possible to com¬plete the latter in time, so the Vickers-Vildebeeste were still there. They had a very limited range and a speed of less than a hundred miles per hour—not much fun for the unfortunate fellows who had to fly them. Then there were two squadrons of Hudson general reconnaissance machines, neither of which was up to strength. These were modern machines which were to be used for seaward reconnaissance and for attacks on shipping. Finally there was one flight of aircraft for co-operation with the fixed defences and there were three Catalina flying-boats. To make matters worse, there were few reserves and a great shortage of spare parts as a result of which flying had had to be curtailed during the greater part of 1941 at a time when it was of the utmost importance to train pilots as quickly as possible, for many of the pilots had had no experience in flying operational aircraft. Few of the fighter pilots, for instance, had had any previous experience in flying fighter aircraft. They were made up of pilots drawn from the other squadrons and of men straight from the flying training schools—many of them Australians and New Zealanders. Some of the squadrons in fact were manned entirely by the Royal Australian Air Force.

There were in Malaya no transport aircraft, no long-range bombers, no dive-bombers, no army co-operation aircraft and no special photographic reconnaissance aircraft. To sum up, there was in fact no really effective air striking force in Malaya, there were none of the aircraft which an army specially requires for close support or for transport purposes, and the fighters were incapable of giving effective support to such bombers as there were or of taking their proper place in the defence. The blame for this state of affairs cannot be laid on the Air Officer Commanding at that time, the late Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, who was as concerned as we all were about the weakness of the forces at his disposal and repeatedly represented the situation to higher authority; nor can it be laid on the Commander-in-Chief Far East, who never ceased pressing for reinforcements; nor, I think, can it be placed upon our national leaders at that time who had other and even more pressing calls to meet. The trouble goes right back to those pre-war days when, in spite of all warnings, our leaders would not really face the dangers which threatened us and allowed vital strategical areas like Malaya to remain weak in the pious hope that all would be well on the day.

Nevertheless, there was throughout the fighting services a firm resolve to do our best, with the limited means at our disposal, to ensure the security of the great Naval Base which had been entrusted to our care. I have nothing but admiration for the way in which all ranks courageously faced a situation which was prejudiced from the outset through lack of resources to compete with the magnitude of the task.

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