Chapter XXI – RETROSPECT

THE fall of Singapore came as a great shock to the British public and, as usual, there was a hunt for scapegoats. Press and public charged the military commanders and the civil administration of Malaya with gross incompetence. Such has always been the British custom. In all wars many of those who have risen early to positions of responsibility have fallen by the wayside while those who later have had the advantage of fighting with the fully developed resources of the Commonwealth behind them have emerged as conquering heroes. Other nations are sometimes more generous, realizing that lessons learnt in the hard school of adversity are often more valuable than those learnt when things are easier. Thus we saw Rommel, driven out of Africa with the loss of his entire army, given another even more important command in the European theatre.

Before Japan entered the war the British public generally, like a large part of the American public, was profoundly ignorant about things in the Far East. It knew that there was a place called Singapore and that there was a great Naval Base there, but it knew little about its geographical importance or about the wider problems, political, strategical, and commercial, of the Far East. This ignorance was reflected in the outlook of the troops who came to defend Singapore. Few of them had any clear idea of the importance of the task which was being entrusted to them except that it was to defend the Naval Base. I once asked an intelligent young soldier why it was that our men had such a hazy knowledge of the Far East. He replied, “Because we are never taught in our schools”, adding that in his view a great deal more time might be given up to teaching the problems of Empire. I entirely agreed with him. I am delighted to know that “Current Affairs” has now been introduced as one of the subjects in the Army education curriculum. I hope it is equally being taught in the schools.

Coupled with this general ignorance of the problems of the Far East was a failure to appreciate the aggressive intentions of Japan and the rapid increase in the strength and power of her fighting forces. For that the public cannot be blamed, for the true state of affairs was never put before them by our national leaders. The first act of militant aggression by the Japanese was in June 1928 when the old Manchurian war lord, Marshal Chang Tso-Lin, was murdered by a bomb exploded under his train as it entered Mukden Station. That was followed by the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in September 1931 when Japan successfully flouted the League of Nations of which she was at that time a member. For a time Japan’s designs were directed against Russia with the idea of securing herself from a blow from behind before she embarked on her drive to the south. The object of her attack on China in 1937 was primarily to secure for herself an adequate supply of raw materials. In the meantime, on 25 November 1936, she had concluded the anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, and it was under German influence that she eventually decided to change her plans and to drive southwards instead of attacking Russia. That decision was not made until after the Tripartite Pact was signed in September 1940. It was made as a result of pressure from Germany to attack Singapore. Thereafter a group of German and Italian specialists was established in Tokyo to study the best methods of reducing Singapore while General Yamashita, who had been selected to lead the Japanese Army of Malaya, was sent to Berlin where he spent several months studying the most modern German methods of warfare. The Japanese themselves have attributed their success in Malaya, among other things, to their pre-war preparations, to the fact that this campaign was the centre of interest throughout their whole army, to the fact that their commanders, senior staff officers, and troops were specially selected, and to the fact that their land operations were closely supported by powerful naval and air forces. This fact is important because it has often been asked why Singapore did not hold out longer when the Chinese had frustrated all the Japanese efforts to subdue them for several years and when the combined American and Filipino forces were able to hold the Japanese at bay for another two or three months. I do not in any way wish to belittle the efforts of our gallant Allies, but in passing judgment on Malaya it must be realized that Singapore was the place above all others which the Japanese wanted to capture and that against it they threw the pick of their armed forces.

Of what did those forces consist? Here again many misleading statements have been made. I have seen it stated that 100,000 British surrendered to 30,000 Japanese. That, of course, is sheer nonsense. Does anybody seriously think that the Japanese, advised by their German friends, would have been so foolish as to try to win the prize they wanted so badly with 30,000 men? The Japanese may have been inexperienced in the higher direction of a modern war, but they are certainly not fools where the military arts are concerned. But they are a secretive race, and it is never easy to get accurate information on military subjects. There is now no doubt, however, that we under-estimated their strength, but even their own statements vary widely. It is safe to say that they employed a minimum of 150,000 men in the Malayan campaign, though some Japanese reports suggest much higher figures than this. They also employed two tank regiments which probably contained somewhere between 200 and 300 tanks. For the attack on Singapore Island the Japanese say they employed some 68,000 combat troops in addition to their administrative units. They also had reserves and L. of C. troops on the main¬land. There can be little doubt therefore that at the end of the campaign there were over 100,000 Japanese troops on Singapore Island and in South Malaya.

It appears that the Japanese found it impossible to deploy all their divisions on the limited operational fronts and that they therefore adopted the expedient for much of the campaign of keeping the same divisions in front line and feeding them from behind. In this way they had fresh troops in action every thirty-six hours or so while our troops were fighting for weeks on end without rest.

On the British side the total number of officers and men who took part in the campaign (excluding the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) was a little over 125,000, though the strength in Malaya at any one time was considerably less than this. This number included a large proportion of command, base and lines of communication troops, many of whom belonged to non- combatant units or were unarmed owing to shortage of personal weapons. At the time of the capitulation the total of British forces in the Singapore fortress area was in the neighbourhood of 85,000, but this again included a large number of administrative troops, some of them non-combatant and all inadequately trained for a fighting role, and also the very poorly trained reinforcements which had recently arrived. We never at any time had more than one squadron of obsolescent light tanks.

It was in the air and on the sea, however, that there was the greatest disparity of strength. The Japanese say that their Third Air Division which took part in the Malayan campaign was com-posed of three army air brigades and two additional air regiments, and that its strength at the outset was 670 aircraft, which included 100 heavy bombers. Later 270 replacement aircraft with their pilots were received from Japan. That would give a total strength of 940 aircraft. Our air force had all told, including reinforcements, little more than a quarter of this number. Many of them were obsolescent types and there were no reserves. The Japanese fighters and medium bombers had ranges of 1,500 to 1,600 miles, which enabled them to operate from bases outside the range of our own aircraft. On the sea the Japanese had complete superiority after the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse.

The immediate object of the Japanese at the outset of the operations appears to have been, firstly, to cripple our air force and, secondly, to cut off and destroy the whole of our forces in Kedah by a rapid thrust from Patani via Kroh to cut the west coast communications west of the River Perak, which they hoped to reach in two days. Thereafter their strategy consisted of a continuous land and air offensive pressed with the utmost vigour with the object of advancing into South Malaya and capturing Singapore before our reinforcements could arrive. Their offensive was supported by their navy on the east coast and, as soon as they could transport their landing-craft across the peninsula, on the west coast also. These sea-borne operations had good and continual air cover. Had there been available at Singapore some flotillas of fast armoured and properly equipped coastal craft, it is certain that the enemy would not have been able to exercise the constant threat to our communications with sea-borne forces which they did in fact succeed in doing.

British pre-war strategy in Malaya was based, as has been shown, on the thesis that there would always be a British fleet available to go to the Far East when required and that, on arrival, it would control sea communications in the waters off Malaya. The failure to modify that strategy in conformity with the changed conditions when the German menace developed in Europe and when Japan and Germany came together in 1936 was the first cause of the weakness of our defences in Malaya. The army dispositions, moreover, were dictated primarily by the necessity for protecting aerodromes from which large air forces, when available, would operate. Looked at from the army point of view alone, these dispositions were faulty because the comparatively small force available had to be widely dispersed. They were doubly faulty when the large air forces did not materialize and when the aerodromes fell like ripe plums into the enemy’s hands. Surely the lesson of this is that the siting of aerodromes should always be done jointly by Air Force and Army and that they should never be sited in places where they cannot be properly defended.

It is of interest to speculate as to what might have happened if MATADOR had been put into effect. Looked at from the air point of view it would undoubtedly have had great advantages if it could have been successfully accomplished, for not only would it have enabled our air force to use the important aerodrome at Singora, but it would also have denied to the Japanese the use of both that and the Patani aerodrome. On the other hand, it was never intended, owing to lack of adequate resources, to occupy Patani itself and, if the Japanese had succeeded in landing there and we had failed to hold them on the Patani-Kroh road, there might well have been an early and irreparable disaster, MATADOR suffered from the dangers always inherent in such projects, namely the difficulty of deciding when the time has come to enter neutral territory. It would have been folly to attempt to reach Singora on the night of 7-8 December when the Japanese were already close to that port. Had we done so we should probably have become involved in an encounter battle with our forces still dispersed and with the Japanese having the advantage of a tank force against which we should have had no proper counter. The latest time at which MATADOR could have been ordered with any possible prospect of success was when the Japanese convoys were first sighted on 6 December. But at that time international considerations predominated.

Our later strategy was influenced by the necessity for ensuring, as far as lay in our power, the safe arrival of our land and air reinforcements, for it was only with their help that we could hope to turn the tables on the Japanese. The strategy adopted, therefore, aimed at a gradual fighting withdrawal with a view to an eventual concentration in South Malaya where it was hoped that the main battle would be fought. That this strategy was not successful was due primarily to a lack of strength in all three Services, but particularly in the navy and air force. In fact, the army after the first few days had to bear practically the whole weight of the Japanese attack with little air or naval support. This was the main cause of defeat, for the enemy’s sea-borne thrusts continually forced us to make detachments to meet them which, combined with the lack of reserves, left our forces on the main central front far too weak for the task in hand. Once again it was proved that a balanced force of all three fighting services is necessary for success in modern war and that an army alone, however well equipped, is no match for an enemy enjoying the advantages of sea-power and air-power. But the army of Malaya was further handicapped by the complete absence of an armoured component. That, apart from the moral effect which will be discussed later, had a decisive influence on our tactics, for we had to move from obstacle to obstacle giving up, very often, more ground than we otherwise need have done. This lack of an armoured component was due, not to any weakness in our army organization, but to inability, owing presumably to lack of resources and commitments elsewhere, to send an armoured component to Malaya when it was asked for.

Successful fighting in jungle country is largely a question of the confidence and self-reliance of the individual. That cannot be acquired without a reasonable period of training in such conditions. It probably requires a minimum of six months’ continuous training before ordinary troops become good jungle fighters. That, as has been shown, was only possible in Malaya for those troops which had been longest in the country, and most of those were well trained. Criticisms of the training in Malaya of the later arrivals fail to take into account the demands on military man-power imposed by the necessity for putting into a state of defence a whole country the size of England and the frequent orders for varying degrees of readiness which resulted from the state of political tension prior to the outbreak of war. In this connection, it must be remembered that it was only late in 1940 that the policy of holding the whole of Malaya received official sanction, so that little more than a year was available for the construction of defence works. Those who had any responsibility for the defence of the coasts of Britain in 1940, when much more man-power was available, will, I feel sure, understand what that means.

A most important aspect of training to fight in jungle is the ability to live on the country and, if necessary, to exist on short rations and with little water. In that the Japanese held a distinct advantage. Their columns were frequently dispatched into the jungle carrying a week’s rations. They made great use of local resources and for long periods were able to dispense with the normal system of supply. They were, of course, more ruthless in their methods vis-a-vis the local inhabitants than is our custom and they had the advantage that their basic foodstuffs were almost everywhere obtainable. But our troubles were partly of our own making. In the years preceding the war, great stress had been laid on the welfare of the troops. That is excellent so long as it is not allowed to obscure essentials, such as the ability of the soldier to endure hardships when conditions demand it. When I was a prisoner-of-war I had the opportunity of very intimate talks with men of all ranks. One of the most intelligent of them, a regular soldier with a few years’ service, once said to me, “We soldiers, sir, don’t want to be pampered. All we want is to be treated fairly and to be given a man’s job to do.” Those are simple words and I cannot help thinking that there is a great deal of truth in them. Certainly there was a tendency to pamper the soldier before the war and even during the early part of the war. In the Far East it required the experience of war and later of the prisoner-of-war camps to prove that Europeans are capable of enduring hardships under Eastern conditions and of living on Asiatic food to a far greater extent than was ever before thought possible. That is a lesson which must never be forgotten.

I now come to the all-important question of morale. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities confidence had been steadily growing among the forces in Malaya due in a great measure to the steady flow of arms and equipment, but few realized the magnitude of the task of defence, made more difficult from week to week by the increases in commitments. I have said that the great majority of the troops were young and inexperienced and in this connection Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery has written as follows:

New and untried troops must be introduced to battle carefully and gradually with no failures in the initial ventures. A start should be made with small raids, then big-scale raids, leading up gradually to unit and brigade operations. Great and lasting harm can be done to morale by launching new units into operations for which they are not ready or trained and which are therefore likely to end in failure. When new units and formations are introduced to battle there must be no failure.

Those are very true words as all who fought in Malaya will testify, but they are not always applicable when the enemy is calling the tune. That was our problem. The very first impact of the Japanese attack, which was heavier than had been anticipated and which, to some extent, caught our troops on the wrong foot, had an unsettling effect, from which there was never a real opportunity to recover completely. Rather was the effect increased when it became apparent that the Japanese, that distant Eastern race about which the ordinary man knew so little, held complete supremacy both in the air and in armoured fighting vehicles, the two essentials of modern warfare. The effect of that cannot be over-estimated even though we were fighting in a country whose woods and forests provide some natural protection against these two weapons. I must confess that at the outset I myself hoped that, helped by this protection with which nature had provided us, we should not suffer too much from the advantage which the enemy held in these two arms, but I was very soon disillusioned. It is the psychological rather than the material effect which is so damaging and it becomes more so as troops suffer increasingly from physical and mental exhaustion. When that state arrives, human reactions tend to become slower and disaster may at any time result. Another thing which had a bad psychological effect on the troops concerned the aerodromes. When our own air force evacuated them it was found impracticable to deny them to the enemy by demolitions for more than a very few days. We were therefore faced with the problem, not of holding them for the use of our own air force, but of holding them to deny their use to the enemy air force. The effect on the troops needs no stressing.

In these circumstances leadership was of paramount importance, and it was there that most of our units were not strong. It was nobody’s fault. It was just that there were not enough trained leaders to meet the demands of the expansion which had taken place in the armed forces. In this matter the Indian units were harder hit than the others because the young Indian soldiers needed leadership above all else—and they needed British leadership. In each Indian unit there was only the bare minimum of experienced British officers and casualties among these were soon heavy—partly because, true to their traditions, they readily accepted personal risks in leading their men, and partly because the Japanese no doubt made special efforts to eliminate them, well knowing how badly they were needed. They could not be adequately replaced, for such officer reinforcements as we could make available, excellent fellows as they were, had not the necessary knowledge of the Indian soldier or of his language. In the A.I.F. also the officers were of a splendid type, but the nucleus of officers properly trained in the art of war, and especially of modern war, was very small. In jungle warfare it is more than ever the junior leader that matters, for small bodies so often get detached from the rest and have to act on their own initiative.

When there is any weakness in leadership, esprit de corps and regimental tradition become of even greater importance than in normal circumstances. Before the war there was a body of opinion, both inside and outside the army, which held that there was little or no value in regimental tradition. If any practical demonstration is needed to disprove that theory, it is to be found in the Malayan campaign. It would be invidious to mention any special regiments, but time and again units with a strong regimental tradition behind them gave of their best in circumstances which might well have dismayed even the bravest.

The trials of the campaign were very great, and it was hardly to be expected that the inexperienced troops would withstand them as steadfastly as would regular seasoned troops. Nevertheless, it stands to their eternal credit that, although they became more and more exhausted and were bewildered and often disheartened, their morale was never broken. Throughout the campaign and right up to the end there was a great deal of heavy fighting, much of it at short range and even hand-to-hand, in which our troops fought courageously and well. Had they not done so, we should never have been able to extricate ourselves from the many perilous positions in which we found ourselves.

I am of opinion that we did not make proper use of the local forces. We tried to train them more or less on the lines of regular troops. That, I think, is a mistake, for it is not possible in a country like Malaya for volunteers to give up sufficient time to reach a proper standard of proficiency. On the other hand, reinforcing units arriving in Malaya from overseas are badly in need of men with local knowledge to act as their guides and helpers. That is one job for the volunteers. Others could form specialist units, i.e. engineers, signals, railway units, armoured car units, docks units, etc., according to their special calling. Others again could be trained for coast defence or as garrisons of vulnerable points, but there should be no attempt to train them in mobile operations. In saying this, I do not, of course, include regular units such as the Malay Regiment which have shown themselves worthy to take their place with troops from any other part of the Commonwealth.

In modern total war, labour plays a prominent part both in the areas of operations and on the home front. Its organization and control demand very careful consideration. I have shown that during the campaign in Malaya there was a breakdown in civil labour. For this there were several reasons. In the first place, labour in Malaya presents a very complicated problem—less complicated perhaps on the mainland, where much of it is provided by Tamils, than on Singapore Island, where the bulk of the labour is Chinese. The Tamils mostly come from the estates where they are already organized with their own overseers and they have a common language. On Singapore Island, on the other hand, most of the labour is controlled by contractors. The Chinese labourers are divided into clans, or “Bangsar”, as they are called in Malaya, each of which has its own language, and these clans are not always in harmony among themselves. There are few Europeans who can speak even two of the languages, which greatly complicates the problem of control. The second main reason for the breakdown was that before the war the labour problem had not been tackled with sufficient energy or foresight. I think that its importance was perhaps not fully realized, and in any case everybody was working “all out” at that time and it was not easy to find anybody with the time to tackle such an intricate problem. When war came we had to fall back, as far as Singapore was concerned, on the contractor system, and that proved most unsuitable for war needs. As soon as this became apparent, efforts were made to replace it by controlling labour direct and later by a measure of compulsion. But all these came too late. There was no time to give them a proper trial and no deductions can there¬fore be drawn as to what might be best. One thing seems certain and that is that labour must be carefully organized and properly administered. In my opinion, as much labour as possible should in war be brought under military control.

A great deal of criticism has been levelled at the civil administration of Malaya. Much of it is unjust. It had been told that the primary duty of the people of Malaya was to produce as much rubber and tin as possible for war purposes. It had to keep this object in mind while making at the same time preparations against eventual attack. It had also to watch over the interests of a mixed population of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans. In the circumstances, it was inevitable that clashes of interests should occur. It was further handicapped by a constitution totally unsuited to war requirements. Even at home it required the impulse of national danger to bring about that complete harmony and co-operation between the ministries which is so essential in modern war. Perhaps it was not surprising that in Malaya with all its complications we never quite arrived at that perfect state. But, as war is now all-embracing, the integration of military and civil control is a matter which in the future must be properly planned. The first essential is that all the most senior officers and civil officials should, before assuming their appointments, be trained in matters of Imperial defence at a common school.

What was so difficult to attain in Malaya was a determined and united effort on the part of all, both military and civil, to repel the common foe. Nevertheless when war came many men and women of all races, both official and unofficial, played a creditable and often a heroic part in the defence of the country. Many of them lost their lives and many of them suffered long periods of imprisonment or internment at the hands of the Japanese. Most of them suffered heavy losses of property. Let us remember and appreciate the self-sacrifice and suffering of these people, and above all let us pay tribute to the three hundred brave women who spent three and a half long years in internment, most of it in a common jail.

So far I have dealt chiefly with the handicaps which beset us in the Malayan campaign and with the lessons which should be drawn from it. Let me conclude by summarizing some of the achievements. We know now that the Japanese, instigated by their German friends, set out to capture Singapore as part of the general strategy of the World War and that they meant to capture it quickly. They hoped to reach the Perak River in two days and in so doing to cut off, and subsequently destroy, all our forces in North Malaya. Then, presumably, they would have marched triumphantly on Singapore, unopposed at any rate until they reached Johore. This danger was averted, as were others when Japanese forces landed on the west coast of Perak and later at Muar. Thus, with great difficulty and with narrow margins, we extricated our forces from three successive pincer thrusts. Had we failed to do so on any of these occasions, there would have been complete and irreparable disaster. For that the chief credit must go to the fighting troops, for without great fighting at critical moments it could not have been done. Let us not forget either the less spectacular operations of administration, of communication and of command which were going on steadily day and night. Then there were the losses inflicted on the enemy. What their total casualties were will perhaps never be known accurately, but undoubtedly they were heavy. Many of their armoured fighting vehicles were destroyed even though, until the last few days, we had none with which to oppose them. It is estimated that over three hundred enemy aircraft were destroyed by our land and air forces. Several enemy ships were sunk and others were damaged.

The retreat from Mons and the retreat to Dunkirk have been hailed as epics. In the former our army was able, with the help of a powerful ally, to turn the tables on the enemy. In the latter our army was evacuated by the navy with the loss of all heavy equipment. Each of these retreats lasted approximately three weeks. The retreat in Malaya lasted ten weeks in far more trying conditions. There was no strong ally to help us and no navy to evacuate the force even if it had been desirable to do so. Those ten weeks may well have been of far greater importance to the war as a whole than was realized at the time. They enabled Australian divisions to be taken back from the Middle East to defend their homeland, and they enabled the deplorably weak defiences of India to be developed. Had there been no war in Malaya the Japanese tentacles might well have stretched much farther than was in fact the case. Perhaps, therefore, the judgment of history will be that all the effort and money expended on the defence of Malaya and the sacrifice and subsequent suffering of many of those who fought in the Malayan campaign were not in vain.

A great many of the causes which contributed to our defeat in Malaya had a common origin, namely the lack of readiness of the British Commonwealth for war. Our shortage in fighting ships and in modern aircraft, our lack of tanks, the inexperience of many of our leaders and the lack of training of most of our troops can all be attributed to a failure to prepare for war at the proper time. This unpreparedness is no new experience. It is traditional in the British Commonwealth. But it is becoming more and more expensive and, as the tempo of war increases, more and more dangerous. It is the duty of governments in time of peace to put the issues fairly and squarely before the people, however unpalatable they may be. If that is done, I do not believe that we shall again have to take the risks that we took in Malaya.

In 1941, when the crisis came in the Far East, it was too late to put things right. Then we were engaged in a life and death struggle in the West, and war material which might have saved Singapore was sent to Russia and to the Middle East. The choice was made and Singapore had to suffer. In my opinion this decision, however painful and regrettable, was inevitable and right.

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