UP to 5 December, MATADOR was not to be carried out without reference to London, but on that day the Commander-in-Chief Far East received a telegram authorizing him to carry it out without reference to London in either of the two following contingencies:
(a) If he had information that a Japanese expedition was advancing with the apparent intention of landing in South Thailand, or
(b) If the Japanese violated any other part of Thailand.
This was news of the first importance. It gave us in fact freedom from the control of London for which we had been pressing for so long and made MATADOR look a possible operation. Up to that time it had never really seemed likely that we should get the necessary permission in time. It was not, however, all plain sailing because the carrying out of MATADOR would almost certainly mean war with Japan and it was still the policy of His Majesty’s Government to avoid war if possible. It was therefore a very difficult decision that the Commander-in-Chief had to make. In fact the whole future of our Empire might have depended upon what he did.
I felt that this change in the situation was so vital that I decided to go to Kuala Lumpur the following day, Saturday, 6 December, to discuss it with Heath. I travelled by the Civil Air Line plane which left Singapore daily early in the morning and returned the same evening. Shortly before 3 p.m., when I was at the head¬quarters of the Federated Malay States Volunteers in company with Heath, we received a message to the effect that the morning air reconnaissance, which was watching the approaches to the Gulf of Thailand, had at about x 1.30 a.m. that day reported having sighted two Japanese convoys, consisting of warships and transports, approximately eighty miles ESE. of Point Camo, the most southerly point of Indo-China, steaming westward. A reference to the map showed us that, if they continued on the same course, these convoys would strike the coast of South Thailand somewhere about Singora. So after all, it seemed, we had got the news in time and should be able to put MATADOR into operation. Heath immediately ordered his Corps to assume the first degree of readiness and, in anticipation of MATADOR being ordered, instructed Murray Lyon to be prepared to move forward the nth Indian Division at short notice. After discussing plans in further detail I left Kuala Lumpur at 4.30 p.m. for the return journey to Singapore. It was a curious sensation seeing everybody going about their business in the ordinary way quite oblivious of the bedlam that seemed certain to break loose in a day or two’s time. One longed to tell them the news but of course that was out of the question.
On returning to my headquarters at about 6.30 p.m., I was informed that one convoy consisted of twenty-two io,ooo-ton merchant vessels escorted by one battleship, five cruisers and seven destroyers and the other of twenty-one merchant ships escorted by two cruisers and seven destroyers. Obviously this was a big expedition and I was a little surprised to find that MATADOR had not yet been ordered. But the Commander-in-Chief had information which I had not got, i.e. that another small convoy, consisting of one cruiser and three merchant ships, had been sighted farther west but steering north-west. At a conference between the Commander-in-Chief Far East, Admiral Layton and Admiral Sir Tom Phillips’s Chief of Staff (the Admiral himself was then at Manila visiting the Commander of the American Asiatic Fleet) it was decided that the probability was against the main convoys continuing their course due west and that they were more likely to follow the small leading convoy round Point Camo, possibly making for a good anchorage at Koh Rong on the west coast of Indo-China which could be used as a base for the next move against Thailand. Bearing in mind the policy of avoiding war with Japan if possible, Brooke-Popham decided that he would not be justified in ordering MATADOR on the information he had up to date but impressed upon Pulford the vital importance of maintaining contact with the convoys.
Contact had been made by Hudson aircraft of No. 1 Royal Australian Air Force squadron at the limit of their patrolling range. This made it impossible for them to remain in contact until relieved, so a Catalina flying-boat was sent out to shadow the convoys during the night. As this flying-boat failed to make contact, a second Catalina was sent out early on 7 December and instructed that, if no contact was established, a search was to be made off the west coast of Indo-China in case the convoys had, as anticipated, concentrated in the Koh Rong area. No reports were received from this boat and, from information published in the Japanese press when we were prisoners-of-war, it seems certain that it was shot down. If so, this was the first act of war in the Malay area between Japan and the British Empire. Three Hudson aircraft sent out on the morning of 7 December similarly failed to make contact owing to bad weather which forced two of them to abandon the search.
In the meantime at Singapore we had been making all necessary preparations for war. All troops were brought to the first degree of readiness and the combined Army and Air Force Operational Headquarters was opened at Sime Road near the Singapore Golf Course some three or four miles out of the town itself. The administrative branch of Headquarters Malaya Command, however, remained at Fort Canning with the headquarters of the Services, partly because the accommodation at Sime Road was not completed and partly because it was more convenient for them to remain in close touch with the civil departments. After returning from Kuala Lumpur on the evening of the sixth I discussed the situation both with the Governor and with Brooke- Popham—and incidentally had to absent myself from an attractive dinner-party to which I had been invited that evening.
Sunday, 7 December, was a day of suspense. We were all ready waiting for the flag to fall and, like runners in a race, feeling a bit impatient. Lunch-time came and still not a word from our reconnaissance aircraft. Further reconnaissances sent out in the afternoon only sighted a few single merchant vessels in the Gulf of Thailand. We began to wonder whether our conviction that we were on the eve of war was really false and whether after all this was only a demonstration against Thailand after the Hitlerian fashion. The evening passed and still no word came. But at a little before 8 p.m.—I cannot remember the exact time—we got our answer. At 6.48 p.m., a Hudson aircraft on reconnaissance in the Gulf of Thailand and flying low in very bad weather had sighted four small Japanese vessels, which looked like destroyers, about seventy miles off Singora steaming south. We also learnt later that at 5.50 p.m. another Hudson aircraft had been fired on by a Japanese cruiser. Should it prove that the Catalina flying- boat was not in fact shot down, then this was the first act of war.
It will thus be seen that for a period of nearly thirty hours after the first sighting, the air reconnaissances sent out had failed to make contact with the main invasion forces. To what was this due? Partly to a lack of aircraft to cover the area properly, partly to bad visibility, and partly, it may be assumed, to the misleading tactics purposely adopted by the Japanese. But it stands as a classical example of the danger of relying on visual sighting from aircraft in climatic conditions such as those which exist in the region of Malaya, Thailand, and Burma. No doubt modern science will do much to eliminate this danger.
In an instant the problem had changed from one which was almost entirely political to one which was mainly strategical. It is true that there was still no certainty that the ships seen were part of an expedition advancing to attack South Thailand or Malaya, but there was little doubt in my mind that this was the case and I felt that we should have been fully justified in moving into Thailand if it had been strategically to our advantage to do so. But was it? One of the conditions which had always been laid down for MATADOR was that the forestalling of the Japanese in the Singora area was essential to the success of the operation. That necessitated twenty-four hours’ start before the Japanese landed and rapid movement of our force once the order was given. These conditions did not exist now. The enemy convoy, if it was bound for Singora, could reach there about midnight 7-8 December whereas, if MATADOR was put into operation, it was unlikely that our leading troops, even if they met with no opposition or obstacles on the way, would arrive there before about 2 a.m. on the eighth. That would have meant an encounter battle which, I felt, with our small and untried force and lack of reserves would have been very risky, especially as the enemy was expected to include tanks in his force. There was the further complication that part of our force had, owing to lack of motor transport, to move forward by rail and be linked up with its transport in the forward area. For these reasons I informed the Commander-in-Chief at a conference held at Sime Road that I considered operation MATADOR in the existing circumstances to be unsound. We then went together to the Naval Base where a conference was held with the Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet, who had just returned from Manila. It was at this conference that the final decision was taken by the Commander-in-Chief Far East at about 10.30 p.m. not to order MATADOR that night. The possibility, however, of putting it into operation the following day, if the development of the situation showed it to be feasible, was not precluded. The Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps was informed of this decision before midnight.
I went to bed hoping to get a little sleep in preparation for the morrow which promised to be a busy day. But there was not to be much rest that night. Somewhere about 1 a.m. a telephone message reported that what seemed to be hostile ships had appeared off Kota Bharu in Kelantan shortly before midnight, and a little later another report came in to the effect that the enemy were shelling our beach defences and had commenced landing. The first landings actually took place at the junction of the Badang and Sabak beaches about half an hour after midnight. The point of landing was almost exactly opposite the Kota Bharu aerodrome, and there is no doubt that the Japanese ships were guided in by a light displayed prominently on rising ground behind the beaches. Our field artillery engaged the enemy ships and the tows as they approached the shore, and the enemy troops got a warm welcome as they landed from men of the 3/17 Dogras manning the pill-boxes. But the defence was too thin and, though the Dogras in this area fought doggedly and were killed almost to a man, it was not long before the Japanese had got control of this section of the beach.
In the meantime, there was great activity at Singapore. Messages were flying in all directions to announce the outbreak of hostilities. It was a tense moment. In addition to our heavy commitments in other parts of the world, we were now also at war in the Far East. There was no time to think out all the repercussions of this but its general effect on the conduct of the war was only too obvious. There were many things to be done, not the least among which was the rounding-up and internment of all the remaining Japanese civilians throughout Malaya.
We were not for long, however, left in peace at Singapore to get on with our work. Somewhere about 4 a.m.—I have no record of the exact time—the sirens went and shortly afterwards came the well-known sound of falling bombs. Most of them were directed against the aerodromes but a few fell in the very centre of the town and did some damage. For some reason the head-quarters of the civil A.R.P. organization had not been manned and lights were still on in some of the streets when the aeroplanes arrived—not that this really made much difference for there was no mistaking the water-front at Singapore even at night. It must be admitted that this raid came as rather a surprise for the nearest Japanese aerodromes were 700 miles from Singapore, which was a considerable distance at that stage of the war though nothing later on, and we hardly expected the Japanese to have any very long-range aircraft. It was a bold enterprise on their part. It was also the first indication most of the citizens of Singapore had that war had broken out.
One of the first decisions which the A.O.C. and I had to take jointly was how best to use our air force. The Hudsons of No. 1 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, based on the Kota Bharu aerodrome, were already attacking the Japanese ships and landing- craft off that coast, and the Vickers-Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers, operating from east coast aerodromes, had joined in the attack. One ship, which is believed to have carried tanks, was set on fire and sunk. It was claimed by both the air force and the gunners. Perhaps they both had a finger in the pie. There were other bomber aircraft on the Kedah and Province Wellesley aerodromes and we decided to send these across the mountains to attack the enemy shipping off Kota Bharu at dawn. When they got there they couldn’t find the enemy ships—they had probably withdrawn by then—so went on to Patani in South Thailand where they were met by enemy fighters. Some bombs were dropped on enemy ships but probably without result. On return to their aerodromes some of our aircraft were attacked by Japanese bombers and fighters and considerable losses were sustained. The rapidity with which the Japanese got their air attacks going against our aerodromes was quite remarkable. Practically all the aerodromes in Kelantan, Kedah, Province Wellesley, and Penang, were attacked on that day and in most cases the bombers were escorted by fighters. There is little doubt that these fighters were operating from the aerodromes in South Thailand which had been got ready for their use and where stocks of fuel and other necessaries had already been accumulated. To allay suspicion the grass was allowed to grow on the Patani aerodrome right up 5 to the last minute, but reports received by us, unfortunately just too late, showed that it was all ready for the reception of the Japanese aircraft, with drums of petrol hidden under the trees, the day before the invasion took place. The performance of Japanese aircraft of all types and the accuracy of their bombing came as an unpleasant surprise. By the evening of the eighth our own air force had already been seriously weakened.
One of the most urgent requirements was to find out as soon as we could just what the enemy was doing. So air reconnaissances were sent to Singora and Patani at dawn. They reported that the enemy had landed at both those places and that the aerodromes were already in use. It was obviously too late now to put MATADOR into operation, so I authorized the Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps to set in motion certain harassing activities which had been planned and also to lay demolition charges on the roads and railways.
It so happened that a routine meeting of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council had been fixed for 10 a.m. on the morning of the eighth at Singapore. I felt it would be all to the good to give these representatives of the people some first-hand information of what was really happening, so I snatched a few minutes to go down and address them. Everybody was quite calm. Even in Singapore itself, apart from a few groups of people discussing the news, there was no outward sign that anything abnormal was happening.
On returning to my headquarters I received permission from G.H.Q. Far East to move troops into Thai territory if I wished to do so. It will be remembered that the position selected for defence on the Kroh-Patani road was well inside Thai territory, so I now ordered the Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps to occupy the defensive positions on both the Singora and the Kroh-Patani roads. In a telephone conversation with him I also suggested that he should send a mobile covering force across the frontier towards Singora to make contact with the enemy and to harass and delay him. This was in accordance with the ordinary text-book procedure and, beside imposing delay on the enemy, it would give much-needed time for our main force to settle into their position.
There is no doubt that this change from an anticipated offensive to a defensive had a great psychological effect on the troops. Although the chances of being able to put MATADOR into operation had never, up to the last moment, really been very great, yet it is a fact that the offensive is always more attractive than the defensive and, when there is a possibility of both, people tend to concentrate on the former rather than on the latter. Perhaps we at headquarters, who were in a position to appreciate the political factors more clearly, did not communicate our views sufficiently to the forward troops, or perhaps they did not percolate through Corps Headquarters, or perhaps the degree of secrecy which it was necessary to preserve in this matter had its effect. I cannot say for certain who, if anybody, was at fault, but the fact remains that the nth Indian Division was much more confident of being able to operate MATADOR than were commanders farther back. So much so that on the seventh, Murray Lyon, the divisional commander, had as a precautionary measure moved two of the battalions of his 15th Infantry Brigade a distance of some miles to Anak Bukit station to entrain. On the eighth, when the order to man the defensive positions was given, these battalions had to retrace their steps—never a good thing to do. Added to all this, heavy and continuous rain fell during the next few days, so that the troops completing the defences in waterlogged ground were never dry. As a result, when the Japanese attack developed, morale was not at its highest and the division was, to some extent at least, caught on the wrong foot. In war we British are always meticulously careful not to lay ourselves open to the charge of breaking faith with neutrals—and no doubt in the end it pays us to do so. But there have been many cases where military plans have in conse¬quence been seriously prejudiced, and Malaya in December 1941 is certainly one of them.
On the North Kedah front the first troops crossed the frontier at 5.30 p.m. They consisted of two companies and the carriers of the 1/8 Punjab Regiment with some anti-tank guns and a detachment of engineers. The whole column was mechanized and had received orders to move towards Singora to harass and delay the enemy. At the same time an armoured train, with a detachment of the 2/16 Punjab Regiment and some engineers, advanced into Thailand from Padang Besar in Perlis, a small State in the extreme northern corner of Malaya. At dusk, which comes on at about 6.30 p.m. at that time of year, the Singora column had reached Sadao, a village some ten miles north of the frontier. Here it halted and awaited developments. At about 9.30 p.m., a column, closed up and with full headlights blazing, was seen coming down the road. It was headed by tanks and the two leading tanks were quickly knocked out by our anti-tank guns. But the Japanese infantry who were following in lorries quickly debussed and, as they were so often to do later in the campaign, started an enveloping movement through the woods. It was not the intention that this column should become engaged in a dog-fight in darkness—its job was to harass and delay, which had already been effected by forcing the enemy to deploy—so the commander now ordered the column to withdraw. It fell back through the other half of the same battalion which was holding an outpost position at Kampong Imam, destroying some bridges on the way. Meanwhile the armoured train party had successfully destroyed a large railway bridge in Thailand before withdrawing to Padang Besar.
Reference has already been made to the plan of action on the Kroh front. It was, in brief, to counter any Japanese advance along the road from Patani by seizing the Ledge position. This was a stretch of road some thirty-five to forty miles beyond the frontier which formed a defile where the road was cut into a steep hill-side which rose sharply to the west of the road and fell away to the Patani River on the east. The intention was, having seized it, to carry out on it a series of demolitions. The force, which was known as Krohcol, was originally to have consisted of the 3/16 Punjab Regiment stationed at Kroh, the 5/14 Punjab Regiment from Penang, an army troops company sappers and miners, a field ambulance and the light battery of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, the whole under the command of Lt.-Col. Moorhead, the C.O. of the 3/16 Punjab Regiment. In the event, the 5/14 Punjab Regiment, less one company which was retained at Penang, did not join the column until after operations had been launched, and the volunteer battery, which had been unable to mobilize in time, had to be replaced by a mountain battery with¬drawn from the north Kedah front. It was realized that the force was weak for so important a role but there were no other troops available. Everything depended upon reaching the Ledge position in time.
At 1.30 p.m. on 8 December, Moorhead received orders to occupy the Ledge. His force was not yet concentrated so he decided to hold Betong, a village a few miles across the frontier, with one company and the carriers of his own battalion and to move the remainder of the battalion with the sappers through them straight on to the Ledge. In spite of the Thai Government’s pronouncement that they would defend their country against all-comers, it was hoped that the Thais would at worst be passively neutral. But it was not to be. The leading scout of the 3/16 Punjab Regiment was shot dead as he crossed the frontier. Throughout the afternoon the advance of the column along this jungle road was disputed by snipers and road blocks. The opposition amounted probably to only a few score men but they fought skilfully. Many of them were concealed up trees and would let scouts and advanced guards through, reserving their fire for main bodies in rear and for parties clearing road blocks. On two occasions our leading troops were charged, and altogether in hilly country and without guides they found the opposition very awkward. By nightfall they had cleared three miles of road at a cost of fifteen casualties to themselves and twenty-four to the enemy—all of them Thais. We were already well behind schedule.
We must now return to the Kelantan front. The Badang and Sabak beaches, where the Japanese had landed, were the northern¬most of those manned by the 3/17 Dogras and their point of junction was only about a mile and a half north-east of the Kota Bharu aerodrome. In rear of them was a maze of creeks, lagoons and swampy islands in which it was difficult to move reserves, while the beaches themselves were often no more than narrow spits of land. The Japanese no doubt knew this well for their soldiers were specially equipped for operations in this type of country.
After making their first narrow breach in the beach defences the enemy began to widen it by fanning out along and in rear of the beaches. Some of the enemy also got ashore on some islands in an estuary where, for the time being, they remained. Key, the Brigade Commander, decided that he must counter-attack the lost beach posts. The C.O. of the 3/17 Dogras was in no position to do so since he had already committed his reserve company in rear of the beaches to protect the aerodrome, so Key ordered up the 2nd Frontier Force Regiment, less one company, and a field battery from his reserves, keeping in hand the ist Frontier Force Rifles in case the enemy should make another landing farther south after dawn. The lost beaches were to be counter-attacked from north and south, but before these attacks could be put in dawn broke to show nine enemy ships steaming away leaving a number of motor landing-craft behind them. This gave a feeling of great optimism which was later somewhat dispelled when our air reconnaissance located twenty enemy ships discharging into landing-craft under cover of a group of islands which are situated not far from the Kelantan coast.
Fierce fighting developed on the beaches, and losses on both sides were heavy. At first the counter-attacks both from the north and from the south made progress, but they were both held up in front of the posts which the enemy had originally captured and the breach remained open. It was essential that this breach should be closed before nightfall in order that reserves could be re-formed and an unbroken front presented to the enemy’s next big effort. So Key gave orders at about 10.30 a.m. for his remaining reserve, the 1 st Frontier Force Rifles less one company watching the land frontier and one covering Kota Bharu, to counter-attack from the north and the 2nd Frontier Force Regiment less two companies from the south. The attacks went in during the afternoon but did not succeed in closing the gap. The elements were against them. Heavy and drenching rain which had set in in the morning had made the tracks almost impassable for wheeled transport and had turned the waterways into raging torrents. Several men were swept away and drowned. By dusk both attacks had been held up, but the Japanese, on their own admission, had suffered on this day as heavy casualties as they suffered on any other day in Malaya.
In the meantime, the situation in the air was developing unfavourably for us. The enemy had established constant fighter patrols over Kota Bharu aerodrome making it most hazardous for our bombers without fighter support to leave the ground. The anti-aircraft detachment of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery defending the aerodrome was in action almost continuously throughout the day, and splendidly it acquitted itself, but the defence was too weak to beat off the attack. Some of our aircraft were destroyed while others remained earthbound. At about 4 p.m. the Air Officer Commanding ordered the evacuation of the aerodrome. Thus began the long series of evacuations of aerodromes which had been laboriously prepared and for the protection of which our troops had been specially disposed. As a result many valuable aerodromes fell into the hands of the enemy and damaging blows were struck at the morale of our troops.
What was Key to do? One of the aerodromes which it had been his task to protect had already been evacuated by our air force and, if he continued to fight in the swamps of Kota Bharu, it was quite likely that the enemy would land another force farther down the coast and cut his communications—a danger which was constantly to recur in this campaign. He rang up his divisional headquarters at Raub where, fortunately, he found Heath in consultation with Barstow, the divisional commander. He was given permission to withdraw his troops from the beaches if he found it necessary to do so. He decided to await the latest reports from his forward troops and make his decision accordingly. These, when they arrived, were not encouraging. In the area of the Badang and Sabak beaches the situation was very confused and communications scarce. Visibility was almost nil. The enemy were said to be infiltrating between and behind the posts. From farther south came reports of smoke to seaward from behind the Perhentian Islands which might indicate a new landing in preparation. There were no longer any aircraft available to carry out reconnaissances or to make attacks if enemy ships were seen. In these circumstances Key decided to withdraw from the Sabak and Badang beaches and from the Kota Bharu aerodrome and to take up a position covering Kota Bharu town with his left on the Kelantan River. It was pouring with rain and pitch dark and communications were reduced for the most part to liaison officers. It is therefore not surprising that some of the orders went astray and that some confusion ensued. What is indeed more surprising and what testifies to the high state of discipline of the units engaged is that by the time dawn came the new line was manned in reasonable strength and that the great majority of the sub-units and individual soldiers who became detached made their own way back and joined up again later on.
To meet this attack in Kelantan I decided to use one battalion of the Command Reserve. Accordingly at about 11.30 a.m. on the heigth, the 4/19 Hyderabads, which was then in the Negri Sembilan area on the completion of brigade training, was placed under orders of the 3rd Indian Corps and immediately moved up by rail to Kelantan. In the 3rd Indian Corps area the 28th Indian Brigade was ordered to move up the same day to the area of the Alor Star aerodrome and placed under orders of the commander of the nth Indian Division.
So the first day of war drew to a close. We had not been surprised, but it cannot be said that things had gone in our favour. The enemy had got a footing in Kelantan and had landed large forces unopposed at Singora and Patani. Worse than that he had struck damaging blows at our air force which had suffered considerable losses. It was clear that the fight would be grim and arduous, but we were all determined to give of our best to the limit of our resources.