On the first day of 1941 a bespectacled Japanese staff Colonel named Tsuji Masanobu reported to a modest building in Taipei. His job was to head a military small research department. The task of this unit of 30 officers, enlisted men and civilian workers was to plan a possible southward attack by the Japanese Army to conquer South Asia and the East Indies. As the year passed Colonel Tsuji himself began planning an attack on the British stronghold of Singapore.
The prospect was daunting. Singapore is an island off the southern coast of Malaya. The seaward side was heavily fortified, and could hardly be taken by direct attack. The landward side was vulnerable, but to get there an army would have to traverse the five hundred mile length of the Malay peninsula. The peninsula is accessible from both sides at its narrowest point, the Isthmus of Kra, where Malaya and Thailand meet. But further south the peninsula widens out, and the center is rugged jungle. The route south lies along the west coast. The Japanese would have to advance those hundreds of miles on the Indian Ocean side, where their naval strength could not help them. They would have to cross rivers and fortified positions. Then at the end of this odyssey, they would attack the Island of Singapore, considered by the British to be the keystone of their defenses in the far east.
Tsuji himself was a controversial figure, and would become more so. He had been heavily involved in the disastrous war with Russia in Nomonhon, on the borders of Mongolia and Manchuria. By his own account he was thrown out of China because of his involvement in a pan-Asian society. At the end of World War II he vanished to avoid the war crimes tribunal, to surface several years later as an author and member of the post-war Japanese legislature. A book has been written branding him as a war criminal (“The Criminal They Called a God”, by Ian Ward). Tsuji wrote a colorful and interesting account of the Malaya campaign, which was translated into English as “Japan’s Greatest Victory, England’s Greatest Defeat”, casting himself in a leading role. This book is a great source on the campaign from the Japanese side.. This article will assume that Tsuji’s book is fairly accurate, keeping in mind that there are some things he chose to leave out.
The Japanese would have some advantages. They were in the process of seizing control of French Indochina, heedless of the fact that it was under the authority of an authoritarian government nominally allied with their friends in Germany. This would give them air bases that would allow their planes to reach Malaya and the surrounding waters, and a jump-off place from which to invade Thailand. The Japanese had no intention of honoring Thai neutrality. Japanese resources would be stretched, as they planned to attack numerous locations in the South Pacific simultaneously, but Tsuji could expect to have experienced troops and leaders assigned to the Singapore operation. Some armor might be available.
In September Tsuji was transferred to Indochina. War was obviously coming, and the plan for attacking Malaya and Singapore had not been finalized. Desperate for information, Tsuji went on two long reconnaissance flights over northern Malaya and southern Thailand. Looking down he could see large British airfields at Alor Star and Kota Bharu, as well as an airfield at Singora in Thailand. After he returned home he considered these airfields with a mixture of fear and greed. Planes operating from northern Malaya could make a mess of an invasion fleet if they were aggressively handled. On the other hand, if the fields could be captured promptly, Japanese air power could be installed right in the British back yard.
Having looked the situation over, Tsuji created his plan for the attack. He proposed that the Japanese land almost simultaneously at Singora, in Thailand, and Kota Bharu, just to the south in Malaya in order to seize the airfields. Meanwhile a strong force would march through Thailand. He flew to Tokyo to present his plan in late October. It was accepted. Tsuji reports that Colonel Hattori, Chief of the Operations Section of the General Staff, told him that “However excellent your opinions might have been, I would have hesitated to agree with your intention to modify the plan determined by the Imperial General Staff according to your own judgments based only on maps. But as the modifications were suggested as a result of your own observations in the face of danger, no objections could be raised.”
Command of the operation was given to General Yamashita Tomoyuki. General Yamashita was an able and experienced officer, although mostly in staff positions. He earned the sobriquet “Tiger of Malaya” in the ensuing operations. At the end of the war he was convicted and executed for war crimes committed under his command. However, since atrocities were a way of life for the Japanese Army during World War II, virtually every senior officer could have been executed on that basis, and it is generally considered that Yamashita was no more guilty than most, and less than many.
General Yamashita was given command of the 25th Army. It consisted of three divisions. The 5th Division had seen extensive service in China, and was considered one of the best in the Japanese Army. The 18th was also an experienced and excellent unit. The third division was the Imperial Guards Division. They were considered an “elite” formation, but had no combat experience. Tsuji is dismissive: “Over a long period of years they had been trained for elegant traditional ceremonies, but they had no taste for field operations and were unsuitable for them. Their staff officers had a tendency to disobey their superior Army Commander.” The 25th Army also contained a tank regiment, which was to prove very useful, three regiments of engineers, which were to prove invaluable, and various artillery and supply troops. The total was about 60,000 men. The invasion troops were gathered at Hainan Island, off the south coast of China, while the overland group was poised in Indochina. A good understanding was reached with the navy, which would cover the landings, and army and navy air units which would try to protect them.
The British were not unaware of the threat to their far eastern possessions. In theory, Singapore was the second most important point in the British Empire (after London), and considerable money had been spent in the thirties developing and protecting the naval base there. The plan was that if Singapore was attacked, a powerful fleet would be sent to the rescue. However, from 1939 through the middle of 1941 Britain was fully occupied with the struggle against Nazi Germany. The Royal Navy was heavily engaged in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and the only ships that could be spared for the Indian Ocean were a few obsolete battleships and cruisers, and the old carrier Hermes. In his perceptive book “The Command of History”, David Reynolds points out how little mention there is of far eastern affairs in the first two books of Winston Churchill’s monumental history of the Second World War. As 1941 wore on, however, Washington made the British aware of the deteriorating diplomatic situation in the far east and the urgent need to prepare for possible war with Japan The easiest thing to find was troops. Soldiers were available from that huge reservoir of manpower: British India. The III Indian Corps was in Malaya, including the 9th and 11th divisions, and the 28th and 45th brigades. There were also two British brigades, the 53rd and 54th. The Australian government was watching the situation carefully, especially concerned because all of their best divisions were fighting in North Africa. They agreed to send their recently formed 8th division to Singapore. There were also plans to send a further British division, and when it arrived, the army totaled about 120,000 men.
Britain’s man on the spot was the commander of General Headquarters Far East, Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. As an airman he encouraged the development of the airfields Tsuji had spotted, and the deployment of the army north to protect them. The army commander did not quite see this, so he was replaced by Lt. General Arthur Percival. Percival was a tall gawky man, with considerable military experience, but no charisma at all. He was to prove completely unequal to the difficult task before him. Actually, the man who turned out to be Britain’s most capable combat leader of the war was available, commanding a division in Syria. But Slim’s time had not yet come, and it is possible that the British situation in Malaya and Singapore was too dire for even his prodigious abilities, It would have been unfortunate for him to have spent the war as a prisoner.
Although the British had plenty of men, equipment was another matter. There were no tanks at all, and a shortage of anti-tank guns. There was some mechanized transport in the form of lorries and bren carriers. The air force for whom those nice airfields had been built was using the Brewster Buffalo as its first line fighter. Back in the thirties the United States Navy was looking for a new fighter to replace its biplanes. The Buffalo was designed to this specification, only to be rejected in favor of the Grumman F4F Wildcat. However the Brewster company sold quite a few to other countries in need of a modern monoplane fighter. The Finns bought some, and liked them. No one else did. By 1941 the Buffalo was definitely obsolete. To make matters worse the Brewster people had supplied many of the far eastern Buffalos with engines recycled from commercial transports. Some of the planes were being flown by British pilots, some by Australians. They hated each other. When squadron Leader W.J. Harper, veteran of the Battle of Britain, arrived to take command of the 453 RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) squadron, he later reported that “I was amazed to notice amongst many of the Australian personnel on the Station the prevalent dislike that some of them bore for the English–Englishmen were spoken of as ‘Pommies’ with an air of contempt…..It should be noted in turn that RAF personnel elsewhere ostracized the Australians.” Harper was so unhappy with the quality of some of his men that he asked for and received permission to go to Australia to beg for some more experienced pilots. For heavier aircraft the RAF and RAAF squadrons were using Bristol Blenheims and Lockheed Hudsons. The Blenheim was nothing special when it was new, and by 1941 had been relegated to training on most fronts. The Hudson was a military version of the Electra transport, and was useful mainly for reconnaissance. The British had capable planes–Spitfires, Hurricanes, Beauforts, Halifax heavy bombers, the matchless Mosquito, but they didn’t feel they could spare any of them for Malaya. There was also a huge ignorance of the capabilities of Japanese air power. It was generally felt that Buffalos and Blenheims were good enough for the far east.
Although he was focused on the struggle with Nazi Germany, in late August Winston Churchill gave some thought to what could be done to strengthen the British position in south Asia. He came up with a very Churchillian idea: send a battleship. Better yet, send two, and maybe a carrier. Call it “Force Z”. Admiralty was very dubious, feeling that all the Royal Navy’s battleships were needed in European waters, but Churchill was insistent, and, as usual, he got his way. Orders were given for the newest battleship in the navy, HMS Prince of Wales to proceed to Singapore. Prince of Wales had been launched in May, and was a 32,000 ton ship mounting 10 14″ guns. She had already been in action. So new that civilian workers were still aboard, she had proceeded in company with HMS Hood on a mission to intercept the German battleship Bismarck. Having successfully done so, her crew watched in horror as the Hood blew up after an exchange of salvos. Prince of Wales’ captain decided to withdraw, making her perhaps the only Royal Navy battleship in history to refuse combat with an enemy battleship. There was not a lot of adverse comment:, the untried condition of the Prince of Wales, the fact that the Bismarck was accompanied by the powerful heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and the eventual destruction of the Bismarck by other units of the Royal Navy may have helped mute criticism. Joining Force Z was the battle cruiser Repulse. Repulse had been built during the First World War, but unlike many older ships she was very speedy. She was armed with 6 15″ guns. Her main defects were comparatively light armor, and a lack of anti-aircraft weapons. She was already in the Indian Ocean on convoy duty. The old battleship Revenge was also in the Indian Ocean, but was too slow to keep up with Prince of Wales. The carrier Indomitable was supposed to be part of the Force Z, but she accidentally grounded near Jamaica, and the need for repairs made it impossible for her to arrive on time. No other carrier could be spared, so none was sent. At that time the carrier Hermes was operating in the Indian Ocean, and, in fact, crossed paths with the Prince at Capetown. Hermes was an old ship, the first ship ever built as a carrier, but she was quite fast and could have kept up with the battleships. Her tiny and obsolescent air group could not have provided much protection from Japanese bombers, but she would have given the task force much needed reconnaissance capability. The failure to include her in Force Z was probably a mistake, especially since she was pounced on and overwhelmed by Japanese carrier aircraft near Ceylon the following year. Command of the force was entrusted to Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. He was a very short man, with a reputation for being opinionated and autocratic. He and General Percival must have looked like Mutt and Jeff together. Phillips had very little sea experience, having served most of the war in staff positions. His orders were not specific. Churchill said later that his squadron was “….sent to these waters to exercise that kind of vague menace which capital ships of the highest quality whose whereabouts is unknown can impose on all hostile naval calculations.” However, the Japanese had a pretty good idea where Force Z was, and Admiral Yamamoto ordered an additional 40 bombers to southern Indochina to deal with it. Force Z arrived in Singapore on December 2, 1941. Prince of Wales immediately underwent boiler repairs, but waited a week to inform the RAF that her surface radar was not working. It was not until December 8th that technicians came aboard, and were unable to fix the radar on short notice. Phillips himself flew to the Philippines on December 4th to confer with the Americans, and did not return to Singapore until December 7th.
Unlike the navy, the army had a specific plan. It was called Operation Matador. As soon as the Japanese invaded Thailand, units south of the border would also enter Thailand and occupy a strategic position called the “Ledge”, where the road was cut through a high ridge. Unlike the Americans in Hawaii, the RAAF was flying reconnaissance over the Gulf of Siam. About midday on December 6th, they discovered the Japanese attack convoy, which had left Hainan Island the day before. This would have been a good time to sortie Force Z and start Operation Matador. But Admiral Phillips was still in Manila, the Prince was not ready to sail, and Brooke-Popham was not prepared to violate Thai neutrality until the Japanese did so. He did notify London, which in turn notified Washington, but somehow the significance of this Japanese convoy did not make it to Pearl Harbor.
At 4 AM on December 8th, local time, Japanese troops went ashore at Singora. Colonel Tsuji, was there with the first wave. Because of the time difference, this was actually a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, so this landing may be considered to have started what the Japanese refer to as “The Pacific War”. The Japanese had hoped that the Thais would not resist, but the troops at Singora were met with machine gun fire, and the first Japanese officer to enter Bangkok was pulled from his car and killed by an angry mob. But soon elements of the Guards division were marching into the city, and the Thai government accepted the inevitable. First came the cease-fire, then an alliance with the Japanese. Although this was extorted by force, Thailand did have strong irredentist feelings about land in Malaya and Indochina, and hoped that the Japanese would help them to recover it. By being a co-belligerent, Thailand was spared some of the worst features of Japanese occupation. Thai military units did not do much actual fighting.
Almost at the same time as the landing at Singora, Japanese troops came ashore fifty miles south at Kota Bharu. They met a warm reception. The British had prepared positions covering the airfield, and they resisted the Japanese landings effectively. RAAF and RAF bombers attacked the transports at low level, and in spite of having several aircraft shot down by anti-aircraft fire, they sank one transport and set two others on fire. Now that hostilities had definitely started, quick action was needed from Singapore. But nothing much happened. General Percival found time to attend a meeting of the Legislative Assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Brooke-Popham couldn’t decide whether Operation Matador was on or off, and Force Z was still at anchor. By afternoon the Japanese had penetrated to the edge of the Kota Bharu airfield against heavy resistance, and attacks by Japanese aircraft operating from Indochina had made flight operations there impossible. At 6 PM British and Indian troops were ordered to retreat. The Japanese had suffered about a thousand casualties, the British about five hundred.
Force Z had missed its chance. The Japanese troops were ashore, their attack was underway, and they could bring up supplies and reinforcements by land. In London Churchill convened a meeting on the evening of December 9th to “review the naval position.” The big question was what to do with Force Z. Churchill tells us that he favored sending the ships across the Pacific to join the American Fleet. Heading south for Australia was also a possibility. But it was all academic.
Admiral Phillips was unwilling to leave Singapore without taking some action, but the city had already been bombed, and it was obviously unsafe just to sit in the harbor. He decided to head north along the east coast of Malaya. It is unclear what he was hoping to accomplish. Perhaps he thought that there would be further landings, although the Japanese had no need to put troops on the relatively isolated east coast. He requested fighter cover and reconnaissance off Singora, but since he was determined to maintain radio silence at sea, and the RAF and RAAF were in full retreat in northern Malaya, it is hard to see how this could have been practical, even if the airmen were willing to try. The two battleships and four destroyers sailed the evening of the 8th, and made their way north all the next day. The weather was bad, rainy and cloudy, which hid the force from Japanese aircraft, but made it hard for it to find anything. They were spotted by a Japanese submarine, which reported their position but was unable to get in position to attack. At about 8 PM Force Z turned back to the south. Admiral Phillips did not know it, but he was very close to Japanese cruisers that were covering the flank of the invasion. Had Phillips any idea that the Japanese task force was so close to him, there would have been a major battle. It might not have turned out well for the British. Although the Japanese force was composed of cruisers and destroyers, visibility was very poor, and the Japanese were armed with the famous Long Lance torpedoes.
During the night Admiral Phillips received a message that the Japanese were invading at Kuantan, about halfway down the east side of the peninsula. He decided to slow the task force so he could investigate. Although this proved to be a fatal mistake, it is hard to see how he could have done otherwise. Having sortied to interfere with the Japanese invasion, he could hardly ignore one that might be happening right under his nose. He probably thought that he was already out of range of torpedo bombers, not knowing that the Japanese had provided their very long-legged medium bombers with that ability. At 8 AM a destroyer was off Kuantan. Nothing at all was happening. There have since been varying accounts of what happened: a water buffalo blundered into a minefield, some fisherman were fired on. The nervous garrison had been spooked, but not by Japanese. Force Z headed for Singapore.
Early that morning almost a hundred Mitsubishi G3M and G4M twin-engined bombers, later code named “Nell” and “Sally” took off from bases in Indochina in search of Force Z. About a third were armed with bombs, two-thirds with torpedoes. About 11 AM the bombers, at the end of even their prodigious range, sighted the Force Z. The level bombers attacked first, scoring a hit on the Repulse. Then came the torpedo planes. Two torpedoes hit the Prince of Wales, one doing fatal damage to her propellers. The next group of attackers focused on the Repulse. She maneuvered desperately, evading 20 torpedoes, but with Japanese planes attacking from every angle, it was just a question of time. She was hit first about noon; four other hits followed, and she quickly rolled over and sank. Now the Japanese could concentrate on the already crippled Prince of Wales. Six more torpedo hits, and she too was on her way to the bottom. None of the accompanying destroyers was damaged, and they managed to rescue many survivors, but not Admiral Phillips. British sea power in the far east was temporarily extinguished. Churchill says, “in all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”. And, “Over all this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme, and we were naked.”
With the navy and the air force defeated, the defense of Malaya was now up to the army. They planned to resist the Japanese advance at Jitra, just south of the Thai border on the west side of the peninsula. A column had been finally sent to try and occupy the “Ledge”, but it was too late. Japanese forces accompanied by light tanks had beaten them to it, and sent them tumbling back into Malaya. After driving in British forces screening the Jitra position in a pouring rain, the Japanese arrived in front of the main positions the evening of December 10th. A Japanese officer, Lieutenant Oto, penetrated the British positions, killed a sentry, and reported that there were gaps in the defenses, and a night attack was advisable. But when the Japanese tried to advance, they were met with severe resistance and turned back. British artillery fire began falling about them and the attack seemed to be in trouble. Colonel Tsuji went back to hurry reinforcements forward. But as morning dawned the British and Indian troops were looking over their shoulders. The airfield at Alor Star which was covered by the Jitra position was being abandoned by the RAF, and the soldiers couldn’t help wondering why they were defending it. General Heath, commanding the III Corps, went back to Singapore to request permission for his forces to withdraw. Percival was reluctant, but as the Japanese began forcing the British defenses, the order to retreat was given. A position which was expected to hold out for weeks, or even months, was lost in a few hours. How could this happen? The most important cause was the Japanese troops, who were experienced in combat and advanced with the elan which characterized their operations throughout the war. The British and Indian soldiers, by contrast, were seeing the elephant for the first time. The British commanders were also caught wrong-footed by the failure of their operations in southern Thailand, and had not carefully prepared their defenses at Jitra. Finally, the British forces were unsettled by the possibility of being outflanked by Japanese forces coming over from the east coast. They also greatly overestimated the forces against them, as they were to do throughout the campaign.
The defeat at Jitra started a trend which continued clear down the five hundred miles of the Malay Peninsula. The British would try to make a stand, the Japanese would attack, the British would retreat. It is often true that soldiers retreating toward their base can move faster than their pursuers. Supply lines shorten, and the advancing enemy must contend with blown bridges and obstructed roads. However, in the Malaya campaign the Japanese were able to stay right behind the retreating British, never giving them time to catch their breath. There were at least two reasons for this. First, the British abandoned vast quantities of stores and supplies. Tsuji refers to theses as “Churchill Supplies”, and the Japanese helped themselves to food, transport, and munitions, which greatly eased their somewhat tenuous logistical situation. The second reason was that the Japanese had issued their soldiers thousands of bicycles. Western Malaya had good hard surfaced roads, and the Japanese soldiers rode down them, as much as twenty hours at a stretch. The Japanese had sold many bicycles in Malaya before the war, so they were able to find parts and repairs in most towns and villages. When they could no longer repair the tires, they rode on the rims. If the Japanese soldiers came to an unbridged stream, they slung their bikes over their shoulders and waded through. When larger bridges were blown, the Japanese engineers performed prodigies of quick repair, so that not only bicycles, but tanks and lorries as well could pass over in a surprisingly short time. “Even the long-legged Englishmen could not escape our bicycles”, says Tsuji, “This is the reason they were continually driven off the roads and into the jungle where, with their retreat cut off, they were forced to surrender”.
What could General Percival have done? The most obvious thing would have been to move replacement troops up to man defense lines well to the rear. There were plenty of troops available in Singapore. But Percival was concerned, especially after the demise of British sea power, that the Japanese might bypass the whole Malay Peninsula and attempt a landing directly on Singapore. He also seemed gripped by a sort of lassitude where problems upcountry seemed far away, and the idea that the defense of Malaya was absolutely essential to the holding of Singapore never really penetrated. In theory, although the British did not have strong naval forces available, they should have owned the sea flank, since the Japanese did not have a single vessel in the Indian Ocean. But the threat of air power deterred the Navy, and it was the Japanese who managed to make amphibious end runs, often using captured small boats.
The next possible defensive position after Jitra was on the Slim River. It was overrun in a matter of minutes by a Japanese tank charge. The Japanese tanks were not very good–their medium tank mounted a 57mm gun, their light tank a 37mm, and neither was very well armored. The Japanese tankers were lucky they did not have to face the Russian T34’s, with their 76mm cannon and powerful sloped armor. But the Japanese tanks were too much for the British, who had none, and the Gotenda Regiment roared down the road for several miles, spreading panic and destruction.
Squadron Leader Harper returned from Australia in mid-December. He did not have any new pilots with him. The Australians quite sensibly felt that the few experienced pilots they had were needed as instructors and cadres, and should not be wasted in what was shaping up to be a hopeless battle. He found his squadron in complete disarray. They had been sent up to Ipoh, about halfway up the peninsula, to assist another squadron that had been severely handled by the Japanese. Morale was terrible, logistics were a mess, and one maintenance group was trying to do the work of two. The only possible way the Buffalo could fight with the Japanese planes was by using zoom and boom tactics, diving through enemy formations from a great height, and using the speed gained to climb again. Dogfighting with Zeros was suicide. But there was a total lack of any warning system at Ipoh, and Buffalos were being destroyed on the ground, or shot down while taking off and landing. The success that American P-40s and F4F’s of the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal had later in the year was due in large part to the devoted effort of coastwatchers up the Slot, who were able to give warning of Japanese raids. Without such a network in Malaya, Harper’s men were helpless. He also commented that “The ex civil Airline engines on the Buffalos were quite unsuited to the treatment they were getting in combat and on the ground…” Just about the time Harper began to establish an observer system and bring some order to the situation, the squadron was forced to retreat again. The one saving grace to the air situation was that the Japanese air units were not coordinated with the army, and tended to raid civilian targets. There was a horrific raid on Penang City on December 11, and daily attacks on Singapore. In mid January a reinforcement convoy brought in 60 Hurricane fighters in crates. The arrival of these planes was greeted with great optimism, but although the Hurricane was a capable fighter, certainly a big improvement on the Buffalo, it was not better than the Zero. The Japanese had over four hundred planes available by that time, and the Hurricanes were too few in number to make much of a difference. However Colonel Tsuji notes, “…the Hurricanes flying low over the rubber forest were a serious challenge. Their intrepid pilots continually machine-gunned our roads, shooting up our motor transportation and blocking traffic…..”
At the end of December Brooke-Popham was relieved, probably much to his relief. General Henry Pownell was appointed to take his place, but soon after that the Far Eastern Command was shut down, and everything from India east was placed under the command of Field Marshal Earl Wavell. Pownell became his Chief of Staff. Wavell and Pownell flew to Singapore in January. They were not impressed with Percival. “He is an uninspiring leader, and rather gloomy…” noted Pownell in his diary. But they couldn’t think of anyone to replace him, so he was left in charge. Meanwhile the Japanese continued to move south. Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaya, fell on January 11th.
The onrushing Japanese received a check on January 14th. The Australians were finally in action. Their flamboyant commander, General Gordon Bennett, was anxious for his men to have a crack at the enemy, and the 27th Brigade was given responsibility for blocking the main road south through Lohore. At a hamlet called Gemas the Australians ambushed the Japanese, letting several bicycle-riding groups ride by, then catching them from the rear. The Japanese 5th Division suffered casualties, but it is still not clear how many–certainly more than a hundred The tanks also took a beating. Australian Sergeants Ken Harrison and Charlie Parsons set up a pair of anti-tank guns near the main road. They remained there in spite of being told by the commander on the spot, Lt. Colonel Galleghan, that the Japanese wouldn’t be attacking with tanks, and that the guns were not needed or wanted. Sure enough, the tanks of the Gotanda Detachment came roaring up the road in their usual aggressive style. T-34’s, American Grants, or German PkW IV’s would have laughed at the sergeants’ 2 pounder popguns, but the thin-skinned Japanese tanks were vulnerable, and the Australians shot them to pieces. “The Gotanda Tank Detachment came under heavy fire in a mined zone”, says Tsuji, “and lost its ten tanks one after the other…”
But although the Australians had a strong position astride the main road, their flanks were shaky. Japanese advancing up the coast, and along the jungle were able to force them out. This would have been a great time for General Percival to commit some of those troops he was saving in Singapore, but, like all generals who are getting licked, he was convinced that he was heavily outnumbered, and that falling back was the only option. Another problem with operations in the southern part of the Malay peninsula was the vast rubber plantations on either side of the main road. Crisscrossed with little access roads, they made it very hard to establish a flank. Of course, this could have worked both ways, but the Japanese were going forward, and the British were going back. On the last day of January the Argyll regiment filed across the causeway to Singapore, which was blown up behind them. The battle of Malaya was over. The battle of Singapore was about to start.
The RAF and the RAAF were just about at the end of their strength. The last major operation was on January 26th, when the decision was made to attack a Japanese reinforcement convoy landing on the lower east side of the peninsula using Hudsons and antiquated biplane Vildebeest torpedo bombers, escorted by the remaining Buffalos and Hurricanes. Some damage was done to the Japanese shipping, but the Vildebeests in particular were massacred by Japanese fighter cover. Early in February all remaining flyable planes were flown off to Sumatra. Ground crews were instructed to remain to be issued weapons and fight as infantry. Flight Lieutenant Harper remained with the ground crews, who were upset at being abandoned this way, and at Harper’s stiff upper lip attitude. A couple of days later it occurred to someone that trained ground crew were as necessary to flight operations as trained pilots, and the whole unit was evacuated by ship. The Japanese also transferred a major part of their air strength to the attack on the Netherlands East Indies. Colonel Tsuji was very indignant about this, ascribing it to jealousy at General Headquarters. This may have been true, but it was also possible that GHQ saw the Singapore campaign as almost over, and while the capture of Singapore was an important objective, it was even more vital to capture the oil fields of Sumatra and Borneo quickly, before they could be destroyed by the allies.
At this point the situation on Singapore was hopeless. If there was one lesson from World War II, it was that islands could not be held under determined attack when air control above them was lost. Crete, Pantellaria, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, it was the same story every time. And the one occasion–Wake–when the attack was fought off, the Japanese simply returned with enough strength to do the job. And Singapore had several disadvantages that many of islands listed above did not have. Although General Percival’s strategy, if he had one, seemed to be to husband his strength for a final defense of Singapore, surprisingly little had been done to fortify the beaches on the landward side. No pillboxes dug and poured, little wire strung, etc. Singapore is not very far from Malaya, so the entire island could be commanded by artillery sited on the mainland. And worst of all there was a huge number of civilians, maybe as many as a million, all needing food and water. The British kept pushing in reinforcements: the British 18th division, the 44th Indian Brigade, 7000 Indian replacements, and 1700 Australian replacements all came in on convoys. The ships that brought them in also took refugees out, mostly Europeans, but only a tiny percentage of Singaporeans could leave. The rest were just another worry for an already very worried General Percival.
Having said that, however, there is no reason why Singapore could not have held out for weeks, perhaps even months. While their morale was sky high, the Japanese troops were exhausted from their long trek down the peninsula. The 5th Division had been given two days rest, which it badly needed. There were few if any reserves. The Japanese army was committed to operations in the Philippines, East Indies, and as far as New Britain and the Solomons, and had no troops in the area to spare. There was a serious shortage of artillery ammunition, and, as indicated above, a major part of their air support had been moved. And the Japanese were still outnumbered two to one. General Yamashita Tomoyuki stood in the glass-enclosed observation tower in the palace of the Sultan of Johore looking out over Singapore. He wanted it. He wanted it now. He knew all the problems that have just been listed, but he was determined to assault the island as soon as possible. Nothing he had seen of the British impressed him, and he felt that a sharp attack might lead to success. He approved a simple but effective plan. The Guards Division would carry out a feint to the northwest, the 5th and 18th Divisions would cross the straits at their narrowest point and attack the east and north coasts of Singapore. The Guards would follow. The commander of the Guards Division objected to this plan on the grounds that his troops did not have a prominent enough role, and it was adjusted to give them a little more to do.
On the other side, General Percival was clueless. Singapore is a fairly large island, with a circumference of about 70 miles. Unable to discern where the attack might come from, Percival decided to to spread his troops out along the entire coast, thus insuring that wherever the Japanese attacked, the defenders would be too weak to resist them. Nor would there be any significant reserve available to counterattack. He was convinced as always that the Japanese were far more numerous than they were, but this made his failure to put his troops where they could be concentrated at need all the more puzzling. He was never able to lose his fear that the enemy would swoop in from the seaward flank, and he told Wavell, that he thought the Japanese would probably attack from the northwest, down the Johore River.
Troops sent to the northeast coast were discouraged by what they found. Not only was there nothing in the way of fortifications, but the terrain was unsuitable for coastal defense, since mangrove swamps limited visibility and field of fire. The Japanese were shelling the island, and soon set fuel dumps ablaze, but the British were conserving artillery ammunition for what Percival was hoping would be an extended siege. When Australian General Bennett was asked privately by one of his brigadiers about the garrison’s chances, he gave them about ten days. However, he didn’t seem to have any ideas about how to improve that, and ignored the brigadier’s request to have at least some reserve available.
On February 8th the Japanese shelling increased, and the Guards carried out their feint. This did not affect Percival’s depositions in any way, serving merely to confirm his opinion that the blow would not fall in the obvious place. That night the 5th and 18th divisions crossed over to the east and northeast coasts of Singapore in several waves, as all the small boats available to the Japanese plied back and forth. The thinly spread defenders on the coast were overwhelmed, in some cases fighting bravely, in others fleeing. By dawn the Japanese were firmly lodged on the shore, and no British troops were available to drive them off. The next night the Guards division attacked near the broken causeway, further to the west. Soon Yamashita’s headquarters received reports that the attack was a failure, and that the British had flooded the water with burning petroleum. However, the report turned out to be false, and Tsuji was given another opportunity to dismiss the Guards: “Did not this incident show the true nature of the Kanoe [Guards] Division?”, he asks rhetorically.
Having succeeded in crossing the water, Yamashita was not in a great hurry. He knew that time was on his side. The Japanese advanced deliberately toward the center of the island over the next two days. Their goal was the village of Burkit Timah, and control of the island’s reservoir. The British attempted to establish a defensive line along the Jurong Creek, but although there was sporadic heavy fighting, most of the defending troops lacked enthusiasm. At British headquarters plans were made and orders were given for counterattacks and heavy resistance, but on the front lines not much was done. The smell of defeat was in the air, along with the burning oil tanks, and everyone had a strong whiff of it. Deserters, those unfortunate Australian “replacements”, and desperate civilians were all running around Singapore town getting drunk rioting, or looking for a way out. The harbor was still full of ships, and they began leaving. Most made it to some destination, although several were sunk with great loss of life. Some attempt was made to evacuate military specialists, such as Squadron Leader Harper’s ground crews. It took General Percival a few days to accept the inevitable, but on February 15th he agreed to surrender. Most books on the subject have pictures of the surrender at the damaged Ford Motor Company factory: Percival gaunt, unhappy, Yamashita sleek, triumphant.
In the short interval before the Japanese were able to establish control quite a number of people attempted to escape on anything that would float. Some were lucky. General Gordon Bennett wandered down to the waterfront with his aide and a couple of other officers, and managed to commandeer a junk. They climbed aboard, later changed to another vessel, made it to Sumatra, and from there back to Australia. General Bennett said he had fled to give the Australian government the benefit of his expertise in fighting the Japanese, but no one was impressed. There was considerable criticism of his having left his men, but he probably felt that was a small price to pay for being able to spend the war in Australia instead of a Japanese prison camp. He eventually wrote a fulsome introduction for the English translation of Colonel Tsuji’s book. Some were not so lucky. Mr. Vivian Bowden, the Australian Trade Commissioner for Shanghai, been instructed to close the consulate there in September and go to Singapore because of the increasing threat of war with Japan. He requested permission to return to Australia, but was told to “stick to his post.” On February 14th he succeeding in finding a place on a small launch, but the craft was intercepted by a Japanese naval vessel and forced to return to Singapore. He was seen arguing with a Japanese guard, was taken outside the movie house where civilians were being held, and shot.
Once the Japanese did establish control, they moved in to stay. They renamed the city Shonan “Light of the South”, requisitioned various buildings and facilities, later established the Southern Army headquarters there, and used its magnificent port facilities to base various units of the Imperial Fleet. The dreaded military police under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Oishi took control of the city, and immediately rounded up tens of thousands of Chinese men. They were screened by kempaitai officers against lists of known supporters of the Nationalist Chinese. In addition anyone with a tattoo, indicating tong membership, teachers, lawyers, other professionals, community leaders, or anyone else who gave a wrong answer or had the wrong face was taken outside town, shot, and dumped into mass graves. Estimates of the number killed range from 5000 to 50,000. General Yamashita said at his trial that he was unaware that this was going on, but it seems hard to believe that civilians could be killed on that scale totally unbeknownst to the man who was nominally in charge of the whole island. More likely the General chose to be unaware of proceedings he did not approve of but could not control. There was, of course, no paper trail, but there is considerable testimony that Colonel Tsuji was involved in the planning the massacre. Soon he was off to the Philippines, where the defeat of American forces there was behind schedule, and the “war planning god” was needed.
Not quite every British serviceman in Malaya was a Japanese captive. Some were still blundering around in the jungle waiting to be picked up, but the British had also authorized a few “stay behind” parties to serve as the nucleus for resistance. One of these was headed by Lt. F. Spencer Chapman. Chapman’s group attempted one ambush, then realized that pinpricks like this were futile once Singapore had surrendered. They went to ground in the wilds of the central peninsula. Chapman himself joined up with communist insurgents, who were doubtful about his politics, but liked his military skills and used him as an instructor. After many adventures, including being captured and escaping, and an abortive attempt to set up an intelligence network in Singapore, Chapman was evacuated by submarine in 1945 and wrote a book about his experiences.
The day after the surrender a large number of Indian Army personnel, officers and men, were taken to a large open area called Farrer Park. Here they were addressed briefly by a British officer, and then at length by Captain Mohan Singh, an officer who had been captured in northern Malaya. He told the assembled Indians. that they were invited to join the Indian National Army, a military organization that would, under Japanese auspices, liberate India from British rule. Reaction was mixed, some enthusiastic, some skeptical. But the Japanese had no plans to invade India immediately. The Burma campaign was just under way, so they were patient. Eventually quite a large force–a division and a good part of another–was recruited. Readers interested in the story of the Indian National Army should read Peter Ward Fay’s objective, detailed and sympathetic book “The Forgotten Army.”: Many other sources are either dismissive (traitors!) or fulsome (heroes!)
What lessons were learned? The British learned that the Japanese, far from being contemptible little buck-toothed losers, were dangerous, tenacious, and aggressive enemies. They learned that the Japanese Army and Navy could strike far and fast, on the surface and in the air. They also learned that the Japanese could be extremely cruel and vicious.
The Japanese learned that the Western soldiers and their Asian allies were poorly led and poorly motivated, and that the Japanese could conduct operations with inadequate numbers on a logistic shoestring, counting on their matchless elan and on capturing supplies as they went. When they attempted to apply these lessons against better soldiers with better leaders at places like Guadalcanal and Imphal, the results were disastrous.
Perhaps the people of Asia learned the most. They learned that these British who had been walking around as if God had chosen them to colonize the world could be beaten and humiliated just like anyone else. But the Asians also learned that being ordered around by the Japanese could be even more annoying, and often much more painful. What, they thought, if we were able to run our own affairs? That thought had to stay on hold for a few years, but it would eventually come into its own.
by Allen Parfitt
* * *