WE British have fortunately had little experience in the past of campaigns fought in our own country or in territory under our control. It is true that at the beginning of this last war we had to make preparations to meet invasion at home, but theory and practice are very different things. In Malaya we had to put our plans into practice and we soon came up against new and difficult problems—problems which were made infinitely more difficult by the fact that we were fighting not in our own country but in a country to whose people we had promised our protection. As it was towards the end of December 1941 that these problems began to have an important influence on the course of the campaign, it will not be out of place to discuss them at this stage in the story.
We know now, as many of us suspected at the time, that Japan’s aims were based on her own self-interest, i.e. the expansion of the Japanese Empire. But she was clever enough to launch her offensive to the accompaniment of slogans such as “Join the Co-Prosperity Sphere of Greater East Asia” and “Asia for the Asiatics”. In doing so she endeavoured to rally to her standard the native races of the East to drive out what she described as “the white intruders”. That was a fact which had a profound influence on our problems, because it was quite useless for the white population to try to stand alone in the East. We had at all costs to endeavour to retain the goodwill and active support of the inhabitants of the countries in which we were fighting.
One of the first and most difficult problems which confronted us in Malaya was the question of how much damage we ought to do as we fell back. Before the war started fairly comprehensive “denial” schemes had been drawn up. They envisaged, generally speaking, the denial to the enemy of material which might be of value to him for his war effort. They included, for instance, plans for the removal of means of transport, i.e. coastal craft, lorries, etc., and of essential parts of machinery from commercial installations. By this means it was hoped that it would be possible to get the wheels of industry moving quickly again when the country was reoccupied, as we hoped it would be very soon. About the middle of December, however, instructions were received from home to the effect that an unrestricted scorched earth policy was to be applied throughout Malaya. It will be remembered that a few months previously the Russians had successfully applied such a policy as they fell back through their own country in face of the German onslaught. If the Russians could do it, why could not we do it? From a purely military point of view, it would obviously be the right thing to do. Yet there is a great difference between a dictator of a totalitarian state imposing a scorched earth policy as his armies fall back through their own country and an European power imposing a similar policy as its forces are driven back through an Asiatic country to which it has promised its protection. If we deprived these people of the necessities of life such as food and water, or of modern amenities such as electric power for their hospitals, they would say that we were not treating them in accordance with our promises and would become a fertile ground for Japanese propaganda. The destruction of road and rail bridges was a different matter. That was a military necessity and would be no more than an inconvenience to the inhabitants. It had in fact been our policy to do this since the beginning of the campaign. Then there were the big commercial installations—the tin mines, the rubber estates, and the factories. Many of these were owned by European firms, but there were thousands of small Asiatic-owned businesses. The scorched earth policy could certainly be applied to the former as the problem was the same as if one had been operating in one’s own country, but it was not so easy as regards the latter. If these people were to be left for any length of time under Japanese domination, one did not want to deprive them of their means of livelihood. It really boiled down to the potential war value of their businesses. If they were going to be of real value to the Japanese, then they had to go. Otherwise it seemed better to leave them. It was with these ideas in mind that the Far East War Council considered the instructions to apply an unrestricted scorched earth policy. After an exchange of views between London and Singapore, instructions were issued that the scorched earth policy was to be enforced, but that it would not apply to such things as foodstuffs already issued to the civil population, to water supplies, or to power plants.
Certain practical problems arose in the application of the policy. Fires and explosions behind the fighting front both give a sure indication to the enemy that a withdrawal is contemplated and are liable to have a bad moral effect on one’s own troops. On the other hand, a scorched earth policy cannot be applied successfully at the last minute or it will certainly fail. The decision as to when to order it in any particular area is an important one and must be made by the military commander. In general, authority to make the decision was delegated to the commander in the field, but in some of the more important cases, such as putting out of action the Batu Arang coal mines and big concerns like the Pahang Consolidated tin mines, the decision was taken at Singapore. Then there was the question of how to execute the demolitions. Obviously the Army could not undertake this work over such a large area. It must be done by the owners themselves. All we could do was to send officers round to see that the plans had been prepared and were adequate. When the time came, the orders for the demolitions had to be issued through the civil authorities and one had to trust the proprietors or their representatives to see that the work was done. Human nature then enters into the problem because men who have spent long years in developing a business and who look forward to the day when their activities can be resumed are naturally tempted to try to save something from the wreck. Nevertheless, a very great deal of property was loyally and completely destroyed without thought of the past or the future. One can only hope that, when the question of compensation is finally settled, those who in this way did their duty unflinchingly will receive their just reward.
In places there were very large quantities of rice stored in bulk. It was almost impossible to prevent some of these stores falling into the enemy’s hands. Distribution to the local population was not always practicable owing to lack of transport. Again, rice does not burn easily and, if you remove the covering and expose it to the rain, the top portion only of the store is affected. So the Japs got some of it.
Such were some of the initial problems which confronted us in the application of the scorched earth policy. I shall have some more to say about it later on.
Another important matter which came before the Far East War Council at about the same time concerned the evacuation of women and children. In the old days before the advent of “total war”, women and children were of course, for the most part, bouches inutiles, and it was customary to remove them to a safer place. Of course, some of them were still bouches inutiles, but I cannot help thinking that the home authorities, when they issued instructions for the evacuation of all women and children, were living a little in the past and had failed to appreciate the part which women play in the modern “total war” and especially their role in a war in Malaya. As nurses, as motor drivers, as clerks, in the A.R.P. services and in many other ways women were doing invaluable work in which they could not be adequately replaced. Then, and of even greater importance, there was the question of differentiating between European and Asiatic women. The compulsory withdrawal of all European women, just at a time when success or failure might turn on whether or not we could succeed in rallying the Asiatic population round us, was bound to be most damaging to our cause. There were, it is true, some women who were doing no war work whose presence was an encumbrance. The sooner they were got out of the way the better. There were others who had children and they also were better in a place of safety. But we felt that it would be very wrong at that stage to order away the many who were doing valuable war work and who wished to stay. Moreover, if the European women were sent away, why should not the Eurasian, Chinese, and other Asiatic women who were working side by side with them also be sent away? That, even if it had been practicable, would have left big gaps in the administrative services and what is the good of building up these services if you are going to cripple them as soon as war breaks out? In the end we sent away the bouches inutiles and we compelled none of the women to stay if they wished to leave. Only at the end, when I knew how the Japanese had treated nursing sisters at Hong Kong, did I order ours away, and that decision I shall always regret, for many of these brave people lost their lives at sea. For the rest, let us pay tribute to those gallant souls who stayed behind and suffered the rigours of internment. I know there are many who will not agree with me, but I for my part am quite certain that they took the right course and that they made a very valuable contribution to the general war effort and especially to the maintenance of morale.
Civil defence now began to assume great importance. However carefully plans may have been laid in time of peace it is unlikely that in any country the machine will work smoothly until it has been properly run in. That applied particularly in Malaya where, with very few exceptions, the people had had no experience of war. Things are difficult enough when the enemy’s action is confined to air attack, as it was in the United Kingdom. They were infinitely more difficult in Malaya where, from the very first day, the country was being invaded and there was no time to run the machine in. As always happens in such cases, the wildest rumours were sent flying round with their damaging effect on morale. The situation was no doubt aggravated by the difficulty of giving the people exact news of what was happening. In a retreat that is almost impossible to do because one is usually trying to slip away without letting the enemy know that one has gone and the last thing one wants to do is to let the enemy know where one is going to make the next stand. In Malaya the effect of our early reverses and of the uncertainty which accompanied them was doubly great as a result of the pre-war talk of the impregnability of Singapore.
Towards the end of December it became evident that vigorous action was required if civil defence was to keep pace with the march of events. This was particularly the case in the Singapore area where, in spite of a reasonably efficient A.R.P. organization, there was still much to be done, especially as regards the material protection of buildings and other important installations. The control of labour and of transport were other matters which required urgent attention. It was in these circumstances that Mr. Duff Cooper, the Cabinet representative in the Far East, proposed the introduction of martial law and the appointment of a Director-General of Civil Defence.
Now martial law is usually introduced when the civil government is no longer capable of maintaining law and order in a country. It is applicable particularly in the case of internal trouble and especially when the military are able to concentrate all their efforts on the restoration of normal conditions. In Malaya neither of these conditions prevailed. Although there was a certain amount of apathy, there was no internal disorder and the armed forces were already fully occupied in endeavouring to repel an invader. It seemed to me that martial law would put a further and unnecessary strain on those forces, and especially on the commanders and staffs. For that reason I did not welcome the proposal. Eventually martial law was declared in the colony of Singapore only, Keith Simmons being appointed administrator. Heath and Gordon Bennett were authorized to declare martial law at their discretion in the Federated Malay States and in Johore and Malacca respectively, but they never found it necessary to do so.
The question of appointing a military governor was also dis-cussed at different times. We have, of course, military governors at places where defence is of paramount importance, such, for instance, as Gibraltar and until recently Malta. For a short period before war broke out there was temporarily a military governor at Hong Kong. This does not necessarily mean that there is any difference in the system of government. The advantage of such an appointment is that a military governor is likely to be more experienced in matters of defence than a civil governor. One of the main objections to the appointment of a military governor in Malaya shortly before or after war broke out was the complicated political organization of the country which would have been very difficult for anyone to take over at short notice. In my opinion the solution in these days of “total war” lies in the training of governors, before appointment to a post of such responsibility, in the art of governing both in peace and in war. Such training could be given at a very much enlarged Imperial Defence College.
I come now to the creation of a Directorate of Civil Defence. I was asked if I would make my chief engineer, Brigadier I. Simson, available for the appointment of director-general. Simson had only recently come to Malaya from the United Kingdom where he had had considerable experience in passive air defence work. I was naturally loath to lose the services of so important an officer at this juncture, but I agreed to make him available provided he retained concurrently his appointment of Chief Engineer Malaya Command. Had he not done this he would have suffered considerable financial loss as there was no provision in the civil establishment for a Director-General of Civil Defence. The directorate was created on 31 December, Simson being appointed Director-General, and Mr. F. D. Bisseker, the general manager of the Penang Smelting Works and the senior unofficial member of the Legislative Council, Deputy Director-General. Bisseker was also appointed Director of Labour and Transport. In the original proclamation the director¬ate was to cover Singapore and the State of Johore but, for constitutional reasons, Johore was subsequently excluded so that ultimately the directorate operated in Singapore Island only.
The question which immediately arose was “what was included in the term civil defence”? In creating the directorate, Duff Cooper had given the Director-General plenary powers, subject only to reference to the War Council where considered necessary. This presumably meant that he could issue orders direct to the various departments of the Government. Where then did the Colonial Secretary come in and where did the Governor himself come in if the Director-General could refer direct to the War Council? It seems to me that the situation was analogous to the appointment of a Minister for Defence in the United Kingdom with no responsibility to the Prime Minister. In a country at war within its own territory, practically every department of state is to a greater or less degree concerned with civil defence, the ultimate responsibility for which must rest with the head of the civil government. To attempt to relieve him of this responsibility or to by-pass him is certain to lead to trouble. Such was the case in Malaya. I do not in any way wish to belittle the efforts of the Director-General or his staff. They did all that it was humanly possible to do, but they were in my view handicapped from the start by a faulty organization. This is not a case of being wise after the event, for I expressed a similar opinion when the new directorate was first suggested. As I saw it working, I became more and more confirmed in that opinion. To make matters worse it suffered also from lack of an adequate clerical staff and of suitable office accommodation. It is true that an expansion of civil defence in the broadest meaning of the term was urgently required, but the framework was already there. There was a Secretary for Defence and there were organizations for dealing with labour and transport. I feel convinced that it would have been better, instead of creating a new organization at short notice, to have built on that framework, strengthening it as necessary with men of character and proved ability.
The failure of civil labour had from the very beginning a crippling effect on our war effort. It started up in Kedah where most of the civil labour disappeared as soon as war broke out, including the labour force which was being assembled for the construction of the Gurun position. It happened in Penang, where the municipal workers left Georgetown for the hills as soon as the bombing started. It happened on the railway which was only kept going by a volunteer military operating unit and by the use of troops. It happened at the Singapore docks where ultimately ships had to be discharged and loaded with military labour. And it happened in the end in Singapore Town itself, where it made no small contribution to the situation which brought about the final capitulation. It was not due, speaking generally, to default on the part of the management or of the leaders. With few exceptions, the leaders, both European and Asiatic, stuck to their posts manfully. Particularly was this so in the case of the railway, the posts and telegraphs, and the survey department. I do not think either that it was due to fear, for the Chinese, who formed a large part of the labour force, are not people who normally set great store by human life. I believe that it was due more to the spirit of apathy which prevailed throughout Malaya and the feeling on the part of the workers that this war was no affair of theirs. There was very little real patriotism or deep- rooted love of country in this mixed population, so why should they risk their own lives and those of their families? There was plenty of food in the country for them to live upon, so why should they not get out of harm’s way until it had all blown over? That seemed to be the general attitude. What was the solution?
In the first place, it may be asked, “Why did you not form military labour companies?” That indeed would have been a very good solution, for all experience showed that the Asiatics of Malaya, of whatever race, were extremely good workers so long as they were under military control. Shortly before war broke out we had received War Office authority to expand our two labour companies up to six, and we immediately set about trying to get recruits, but by the beginning of January only one additional company had been formed. The reason for this was almost entirely financial. We were still bound by War Office regulations and the War Office refused, in spite of representations, to increase the fixed rate of forty-five cents per day for coolies. At that time the current rate in Singapore was in the region of one dollar per day plus free rations and accommodation. So you could hardly blame the coolies for not joining up. Eventually I had to take the law into my own hands and inform the War Office that I was going to accept decisions by the Director-General of Civil Defence as to conditions of service reached after consultation with all interested departments. A Director of Army Labour was appointed and he had under him a corps of officers, recruited mostly from civilians, who understood the Asiatic labourers and who could converse with at least some of them in their own language.
Then it may be asked, “Why was not labour conscripted?” I have already explained in a previous chapter that the view of those best qualified to judge, with which I agreed, was that we were likely to get better service by a voluntary system, provided we could get the support of influential leaders, than by compulsion. As the difficulties increased, there was a growing demand in some Service quarters for compulsion to be applied. It was in answer to this demand, and when the voluntary system had failed to produce the required results, that a measure was passed on 20 January to introduce compulsion. It came too late for its value to be disclosed.
From the army point of view, the failure of labour in the Singapore area had very serious consequences. I have already explained that, in the hope of regaining some measure of air supremacy, I had agreed to give the air force first priority call on all civil labour for the maintenance of the existing aerodromes and for the construction of new air strips. A considerable labour force was required for these purposes, especially when the Japanese Air Force began bombing the aerodromes every day. It was hardly ever forthcoming, and I frequently had to provide working parties from our reinforcement camps. Thus not only was there no civil labour available for work on our own land defences of the island, but there was very often no military labour available either.
The Japanese, of course, in their advance applied a system of forced labour to meet their requirements. The workers probably got nothing except their subsistence. As a short-term policy that undoubtedly pays and it may be that we British are a bit too soft in our methods. But there is the other side to the picture. Acts of repression are not quickly forgotten and, as the Japanese found to their cost, are apt to react upon the oppressor. Perhaps, after all, our methods are the best in the long run.
I have referred earlier in this book to the Combined Operations Room where the operational staffs of the army and air force worked. I would like to say something more about this room now in the light of experience because, though it may seem a small matter, I believe it exercised a great influence on the higher direction of the campaign.
As early as 1936 the idea of the operational staffs of the fighting services working together had begun to take shape in the plans for the bomb-proof headquarters at Fort Canning. That, when built, was already too small but, following a combined operations exercise early in 1941, it was decided to build a large room where the army and air force staffs could work at Sime Road adjoining R.A.F. headquarters. On the other side of it were built offices for the Army operational staff. The idea was that the staff officers of the two Services and their clerks should all work in the Combined Operations Room, though they had their own rooms to which they could go if they wanted to. This was excellent in theory. In practice it had many faults. It meant that our staff officers were permanently in that room because they could not in fact work in two places. That in turn meant that their clerks were permanently there too and—worse than that—it meant that the commanders had to spend much of their time there, so as to be close to their staff officers. Had we worked entirely in our own offices, either we or our staff officers would have been faced with a journey of a hundred yards or so every time we wanted to talk to each other—and that during the black-out was not too pleasant. The conditions in the Combined Operations Room were not conducive to good work or clear thinking. They were too cramped and there was too much noise. The problem may not arise again in these days of integrated staffs, but I am sure the right solution in those conditions is for staffs to work in their own offices and to have a common room where everything of interest to all Services, i.e. situation maps, intelligence reports, messages, etc., can be seen, and where conferences can be held. It may seem a small point to some, but I feel sure that all who have had experience of the working of headquarter staffs will agree with me that the conditions under which they work have a very great influence on their efficiency and, in consequence, on the efficiency of the fighting formations which they direct.