|THE PERCIVAL REPORT
|First published 1948
Events leading to the war
The following Despatch was submitted to the Secretary of State for War on April 25, 1946 by Lieut–Gen. A.E. Percival, C.B., DSO., O.B.E., M.C. formerly General Officer Commanding, Malaya.
It was officially released for publication by the War Office in London last night.
The Despatch says: -
The preparation of this Despatch on the Operations in Malaya which took place between December 8, 1941 and February 15, 1942, has been influenced by the fact that since the conclusion of those operations a great deal of literature has appeared on the subject.
Statements have been made and opinions expressed by writers, many of which have a cursory knowledge of Malayan conditions or of the factors which influenced decisions. Often these statements and opinions have been based on false or incomplete information.
The Malayan campaign had two novel features (a) It was the first large-scale campaign for a very long time to be fought within British or British-protected territory, and (b) It was our first experience of a campaign fought with modern weapons in jungle warfare conditions. In reading this Despatch it should be borne in mind that the knowledge which now exists was not at that time available to those responsible for the conduct of the operations, whose task it was in consequence to attempt to solve many new and novel problems.
Malaya is a country where troops must be hard and acclimatized and where strict hygiene discipline must be observed if heavy casualties from exhaustion and sickness are to be avoided. The country generally tends to restrict the power of artillery and of Armoured Fighting Vehicles. It places a premium on the skill and endurance of infantry. As is true of most types of close country. It favours the attacker.
The form of government of Malaya was probably more complicated and less suited to war conditions than that of any other part of the British Empire. In pan-Malayan matters the High Commissioner could not deal with the four Federated States as one entity. He had to consult each, either direct or through the Federal Secretariat. More often than not he had to deal with ten separate bodies, i.e. the Colony plus the nine states, and sometimes with the Federal Government as well, making eleven. This naturally tended to cause delay when subjects affecting Malaya as a whole were under discussion.
The British Government had by various treaties promised to afford protection against external aggression to most, if not all, of these Malay States. This was a factor which had to be borne in mind in the conduct of the operations. In a country where there was so little national unity, it was natural that the Sultans should be inclined to consider the security of their own territory as of primary importance. Prior to the outbreak of World War 11 there was a Defence Organisation in Malay modelled on the committees of Imperial Defence at Home. There were a number of sub-committees. The members of these sub-committees were as a rule partly military and partly civil.
Up to November, 1940, the three Fighting Services worked independently, the commanders of the Army and Air Force being responsible direct to their own Ministries. The Senior Naval Officer at Singapore was originally responsible only for the sea defences of Singapore Island and for the local defence of the adjoining waters. Later he became, as Rear-Admiral, Malaya, responsible for all the coasts of Malaya.
From July 1940 onwards, however, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, China Station, flew his flag on shore at Singapore and assumed responsibility for all the waters off the coasts of Malaya, except that the responsibility for those off Singapore Island was still delegated by the Rear Admiral. In October 1940, a Commander-in-Chief Far East (C.I.C. Far East) was appointed, the position being filled by Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham.
He was informed that the two main principles to guide his actions were
(a) It was the Government’s policy to avoid war with Japan,
(b) Reliance for the defence of the Far East was to be placed on Air Power until the fleet was available.
He was further instructed that the General Officer Commanding (G.O.C.) Malaya was to continue to correspond with the War office on all matters on which he had hitherto dealt with it, to the fullest extent possible consistent with the exercise of his command.
The C-in-C Far East had no control over any naval forces, nor did he have any administrative responsibility, the various Commands continuing to deal with their respective Ministries in this respect. The C-in-C, Far East therefore, had only a small operational staff and no administrative staff.
On May 18, 1941, I assumed the duties of G.O.C. Malaya Command. I had previously served as Chief of Staff Malaya Command (General Staff officer 1st Grade) in 1936 and 1937. At that time the Air Officer Commanding Far East was Air Vice-Marshal C.W. B. Pulford. He had taken over command only a short time previously.
The Commander-in-Chief China was Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton. Rear-Admiral Drew was Rear Admiral Malaya but was shortly afterwards succeeded by Rear-Admiral Spooner. When hostilities started the headquarters of the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Civil Government were grouped in one area, while those of the two Commanders-in-Chief and of the Rear-Admiral Malaya were grouped in another some 10 miles or more apart. This was far from an ideal solution, but possibly the best under the circumstances.
Had there been at that time a Supreme Commander with an integrated staff probably many of these difficulties would have disappeared.
With the increase in the garrison as the defences developed and relations with Japan became more strained, so there was an increase in the strength of Headquarters, Malaya Command. After the outbreak of war with Germany the filling of vacancies on the staff became more and more difficult as the supply of trained staff officers in the Far East became exhausted.
Regular units serving in Malaya were called upon to supply officers with qualifications for staff work until it became dangerous to weaken them any further and selected officers were sent for a short course of training at Quetta (Indian Army Command and Staff College at Quetta). The supply of trained staff officers from Home was naturally limited by non-availability and by the difficulties of transportation.
At the same time even before war broke out with Japan the work at Headquarters Malaya Command was particularly heavy including as it did war plans and the preparation of a country for war in addition to the training and administration of a rapidly increasing garrison.
Local War Office
In addition the Command was responsible for placing orders to bring up to the approved scale the reserve of all supplies and stores, except as regards weapons and all munitions. In fact Headquarters Malaya Command combined the functions of a Local War Office and those of a Headquarters of a Field force.
Authority for the raising of new units and for all increases in establishment had to be obtained from the War Office. With the pressure of war-time business it will be appreciated that delays occurred some of which had serious consequences.
In 1941 sea voyages from the United Kingdom were taking 2-3 months, so that there was a long delay in filling staff vacancies from Home, even after approval had been given. In consequence the strength of Headquarters Malaya Command was usually much below establishment.
When war with Japan broke out there were less than 70 officers at Headquarters Malaya Command, including the Headquarters of the Services. This is about the war-time establishment of the Headquarters of a Corps. Our resources were thus strained to the limit.
It should be realized that the G.O.C. Malaya did not have a free hand in developing the defences of Malaya. In principle, the defences were developed in accordance with a War Office plan which was modified from time to time in accordance with recommendations made by the G.O.C. By the beginning of 1941 the overall estimated cost of the War Office scheme had amounted to slightly over one? million, and actual expenditure to March 31, 1941, was over £4 million.
Although originally the defence items were mainly in respect of coastal artillery and fixed defences the scheme was later expanded to included services on landward defences. Such expansions of the main scheme had to receive War Office and Treasury approval and though they were submitted as major services, this entailed delay.
On December 11, 1941 when Malaya became an active theatre of operations, the War Office gave the G.O.C. Malaya a free hand with regard to such expenditure. In circumstances such as those which existed after the outbreak of World War 11 it is recommended that very much wider powers should be delegated to General Officers Commanding in important potential theatres who would naturally act in consultation with their Financial Advisers.
It cannot be too strongly stressed that the object of the defence was the protection of the Naval Base, and later of the Air Bases also at Singapore.
First Defence Plans
When in 1921 it was decided to build a Naval Base at Singapore, it was considered that the security of that base depended ultimately on the ability of the British Fleet to control sea communications in the approaches to Singapore. This it would doubtless have been able to do as soon as it had been concentrated in the Far East. For success, therefore, the Japanese would have had to depend on a “coup-de-main” attack direct on to the island of Singapore.
At that time the range of military aircraft was limited and it was considered that the only area suitable for the operation of shore-based aircraft against Singapore was a strip of land in the vicinity of Mersing on the East coast of Johore. Further the long sea voyage from Japanese territory would both have limited the size of the expedition and greatly prejudiced the chances of obtaining surprise. It was against this type of attack that the defences were initially laid out. The problem was one mainly of the defence of Singapore Island and the adjoining waters. For this a comparatively small garrison only was required.
Influence of Air
The rapid development of Air Power greatly affected the problem of defence. Singapore became exposed to attack by carrier-borne and shore-based aircraft operating from much greater distances than had previously been considered possible.
Similarly our own defence aircraft were able to reconnoitre and strike at the enemy at a much greater distance from our own shores. In April 1933, as a result of Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, the Cabinet decided that immediate steps should be taken to increase the defences of Singapore. As a result of these decisions the question with location of aerodromes arose. In order to obtain the greatest possible value from the range of aircraft, it was urged that new aerodromes should be constructed on the east coast, an area which it had up till then been the policy to leave as undeveloped as possible, consistent with civil requirements, so as to present the enemy with difficult transportation problems should he land on that coast. It was obvious from the start that these aerodromes, if constructed on the east coast, would present the Army with fresh commitments for their defences – commitments which the existing garrison would be quite unable to meet. When war with Japan broke out, three aerodromes had been constructed in the State of Kalantan and a further one at Kuantan and a landing ground at Kahang in Eastern Johore.
Seventy Days’ Plan
Although these were strategically well placed for air operations, they were quite inadequately defended either by land or air forces. In 1937 the defence policy was still based on the fundamental assumption that the British fleet would sail from Home waters immediately on the outbreak of war with Japan and would arrive at Singapore within a maximum of 70 days. It was further assumed that the arrival of the fleet in the Far East would automatically put an end to any danger of capture of Singapore. It followed from these assumptions that the defence plan only had to provide against such types of operations as the Japanese might hope to complete successfully within 70 days and that the role of the garrison was confined to holding out for that period.
In November 1937, having as G.S.O.1., Malaya, made a careful study of the problem of the defence of Singapore, I prepared on the instructions of the General Officer Commanding (Major – General, now Lieut. – General Sir W,G. S. Dobbie) an appreciation and plan for an attack on that place from the point of view of the Japanese.
In this appreciation it was pointed out
(a) that, as a result of the political situation in Europe, it was unlikely that the British Fleet would be able to reach Singapore in 70 days,
(b) that in consequence, a more deliberate form of attack could be undertaken.
The plan recommended consisted of preliminary operations to seize the aerodromes in South Thailand and in Kelantan, the Island of Penang and the naval and air facilities in Borneo, followed by the main operation to capture Singapore itself.
From this appreciation deductions were made as to the main points in the defence plan which required attention. These deductions stressed the probability of the Japanese making use of territory in South Thailand, the increased importance of the defence of North Malaya and of Johore, the urgent need for the strengthening of our Air Forces and Local Naval Craft, and for more infantry, and the unsatisfactory situation as regards food stocks.
North Attack Fears
In May 1928, General Dobbie in another appreciation of the defence problem wrote:
“It is an attack from the northward that I regard as the greatest potential danger to the fortress. Such an attack could be carried out during the period of the north-east monsoon. The jungle is not in most places impassable for infantry.”
Up to the summer of 1939 the defence policy continued to be based on the assumption that the British Fleet would sail from Home waters immediately on the outbreak of war with Japan whatever the situation in Europe might be. It was then, however, officially recognised that this might not be possible.
180 Days’ Plan
The “Period before Relief” was increased from 70 to 180 days and authority given for reserves to be built up on that scale.
In August, 1939, the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade Group, which had been held in readiness for this purpose, was, in view of the threatening political situation, despatched from India to Malaya.
In 1940 the problem, which had hitherto remained one of the defence of Singapore Island and of a portion of Johore, developed and had appeared inevitable as early as 1937, into one of the defence of the whole of Malaya
The G.O.C. asked for official confirmation of this. The problem was further complicated by the collapse of France in June 1940, the immediate result of which was that Malaya was exposed to a greatly increased scale of attack. The necessity for holding the whole of Malaya, with reliance primarily on Air Power, was recognised.
In September, 1940 the Japanese occupied the northern portion of Indo-China, thereby greatly increasing the threat to Singapore. In fact, the whole conception of the defence problem had been changed because a Japanese invading force, instead of having to be transported all the way from Japan could now be concentrated and prepared within close striking distance of Malaya.
The Singapore Defence Conference held in October 1940 attended by representatives of Australia, New Zealand, India and Burma, and by one American observer estimated that 566 1st Line aircraft would now be required and that, when this target was reached, the strength of the land forces should be 26 battalions with supporting arms, ancillary services, etc.
The Army estimate was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff who, however, declined to increase the previously approved air scale. The general situation and war plans were further discussed at staff conversations with officers from the Dutch East Indies on 25-29th November, 1940, at a conference with Dutch and Australian representatives and United States observers in February 1941. (“A.D.A. Conference”) and at a full conference with American and Dutch (as well as dominion) representatives in April, 1941 (“A.D.B. Conference”).
Further reinforcements now began to arrive in Malaya. In August 1940, two British battalions arrived from Shanghai on the evacuation of the latter place, and in October and November, 1940, the 6 and 8 Indian infantry Brigades, both of the 11 Indian Division (Major-General Murray Lyon) reached Malaya. In February 1941, the first contingent of the Australian Imperial force (A.I.F.) arrived.
||It consisted of the headquarters and Services of the 8 Australian Division (Lieutenant-General Gordon Bennett) with the 22 Australian Infantry Brigade Group. In March 1941, the 15 Indian Infantry Brigade and the 1st Echelon of the 9 Indian Division (Major-General Barstow) arrived from India and one Field Regiment from the U.K., followed in April by the 22 Indian Infantry Brigade also of the 9 Indian Division.
In May the 1st Echelon of headquarters 3 Indian Corps (Lt-General Sir Lewis Heath) arrived, and was located at Kuala Lumpur. It took over the 9 and 11 Indian divisions, the Penang fortress and the Federated Malay States. Volunteers (FMSVF). Some readjustment of formations in the two Indian Divisions had previously been made.
Before leaving London to take command in May, 1941, I discussed on broad lines a proposal which was then under consideration to advance into south Thailand if a favourable opportunity presented itself. Immediately after taking over command I was instructed by the C-in-C Far East to give this matter my further detailed consideration. It was also discussed on several occasions at conferences. The operation was known as MATADOR.
I was informed that it could not be carried out without reference to London, since MATADOR could only be put into effect if and when it became clear beyond all reasonable doubt that an enemy expedition was approaching the shores of Thailand. As time would then be the essence of the problem it appeared almost certain that by the time permission had been asked for and obtained, the favourable opportunity would have passed.
The military advantages of the occupation of South Thailand, or of part of it, were great. It would enable us to meet the enemy on the beaches instead of allowing him to land and establish himself unopposed. It would provide our Air force with additional aerodromes and, by denying these aerodromes to the enemy, it would make it far more difficult for his air force to interfere with our sea communications in the Malacca Straits.
Too Few Troops
It was a question, however, whether it was a sound operation with the meagre resources available. No troops could be spared for the operation other than the 11 Indian Division, strengthened by some administrative units.
The proposal to occupy the narrow neck of the Kra Isthmus was rejected as being too ambitious and the discussions centred round the occupation and denial to the enemy of the Port of Singora and the aerodromes at Singora and Patani. After careful examination of the problem, it was decided:
(a) That provided a favourable opportunity presented itself, the operation MATADOR would be put into effect during the period October-March
(b) That it would take the form of (i) an advance by road and rail to capture Singora and hold a defensive position north of Haad’yai Junction and (ii) an advance from Kroh to a defensive position, known as “The Ledge” position on the Kroh-Patani road some 35-40 miles on the Thailand side of the frontier. The reason for this limited objective on the Kroh front was lack of resources both operational and administrative.
(c) That at least 24 hours start was required before the anticipated time of a Japanese landing.
Detailed plans were worked out and preparations made for this operation. Maps were printed, money in Thai currency was made available and pamphlets for distribution to the Thais were drafted, though to preserve secrecy, the printing of them was deferred till the last minute.
By a special arrangement made by the C.-in-C. Far East, authority was obtained for a limited number of officers in plain clothes to carry out reconnaissance in South Thailand.
In all 30 officers including some of the most senior officers, were able to visit Thailand in this way. They frequently met Japanese officers who were presumably on a similar mission.
On December 5, 1941, I was informed by the C.-in-C. Far East that in accordance with the terms of a telegram just received from London, MATADOR could thenceforward be put into effect without reference to London
(a) if the C.-in-C. Far East had information that a Japanese expedition was advancing with the apparent intention of landing on the Kra Isthmus, or
(b) if the Japanese violated any other part of Thailand.
Throughout the whole length of the east coast of Malaya there are numerous beaches very suitable for landing operations. For the greater part of the year, the sea is comparatively calm off this coast. The exception is the period of the north-east monsoon. It had, however, been determined as a result of a staff ride held in 1937, that even during this monsoon landings were possible, though it was thought they might be interfered with for two or three days at a time when the storms were at their height.
In consequence, it was thought that the enemy would be unlikely to choose the period December-February if he could avoid it. In view of the possibility of enemy landings on the east coast, detailed arrangements had been made with the civil authorities for the removal or destruction of all boats and other surface craft on this coast on receipt of specified code words.
Prior to the outbreak of World War 11, Air Defence in Malaya had been for all practical purposes, limited to the anti-aircraft defence of selected areas on Singapore Island, though plans had also been made for the defence of Penang.
With the extension of the defence problem, however, to embrace the whole of Malaya and the more imminent danger of active operations in the Far East, the plans for active air defence underwent rapid expansion, and passive air defence was organized.
When hostilities opened there were 60 Heavy Anti-Aircraft guns in the Singapore area out of the 104 which had been authorised. Outside Singapore Island, there were no guns available for the defence of cities on mainland such as Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh.
In 1940 the Air Defence was strengthened by the arrival of fighter aircraft. A proportion of these was always retained at the Singapore bases for defence of the important objectives in that area, the remainder being allotted to the northern area, which appeared to be the most vulnerable to attack.
With the arrival in Malaya in the summer of 1941 of Group Captain Rice, who had had much experience in connection with the Air Defence of Great Britain, the task of building up a co-ordinated Air Defence scheme for Malaya was energetically pushed forward.
As part of the Air Defence scheme an efficient Warning System was essential. An organization of civilian watchers had already been started. Efforts were now made to extend this organization and provide it with better equipment.
There were two main difficulties.
1. Firstly, there was the difficulty of finding suitable people in the less developed parts of Malaya to complete the chain of watchers.
2. Secondly, and more important still, was the paucity of communications.
The civil telephone system in Malaya consisted only of a few trunk lines, which followed the main arteries of communication, and local lines in the populated areas.
This was quite inadequate for a really efficient Warning System, as it was impossible to allot separate lines for this purpose. There were a few radar sets available, but efforts to supplement the system with wireless communication met with only partial success owning to the unreliability of wireless in the difficult climatic conditions of Malaya.
Nevertheless, in spite of these difficulties, an organization was built up which proved of great value during the subsequent operations, though it should be pointed out that it covered South Malaya and the Singapore area only and that there was no adequate Warning System for North Malaya.
On August 2, 1941, I gave my estimate of the Army strength required to defend Malaya in a telegram to the War Office. Summarised it asked for: -
48 Infantry Battalions
4 Indian Reconnaissance units
9 Field Artillery Regiments
4 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiments
2 Tank Regiments
3 Anti-Tank Regiments
2 Mountain Artillery Regiments
12 Field companies with the necessary administrative units
This was exclusive of the Volunteers, the infantry, anti-aircraft and tank units required for aerodrome defence and also of the Anti-Aircraft units required for the defence of localities including the Naval Base.
The main difference in the above estimate over those which had been submitted previously was that it made provision for a 3rd Corps Reserve in North Malaya of one complete division and certain Corps Troops units, for a complete division instead of two brigade groups in the Kelantan-Trengganu Pahang area, for two regular infantry battalions for Penang and for a brigade group instead of one battalion in Borneo.
This estimate was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff, but it was recognised that the target could not, in the existing circumstances, be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. A working target was subsequently approved by the War Office.
On August 15, 1941, the second contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) arrived in Malaya. It consisted of the 27 Australian Infantry Brigade with attached troops.
The Brigade Group had had the advantage of a period of training in Australia but had had no experience of bush warfare. It was accommodated temporarily on Singapore Island pending the completion of hutted accommodation in West Johore and Malacca. In September the 28 Indian Infantry Brigade disembarked at Port Swettenham. It was composed of three Ghurkha battalions which, like other Indian units, had lost a large proportion of their leaders and trained personnel under the expansion scheme. It joined the 3 Indian Corps and was accommodated in the Ipoh area, being earmarked for operations under 11 Indian Division.
In November-December, 1941 two field regiments and one anti-tank regiment arrived from the U.K. and one field regiment and one reconnaissance regiment (3 Cavalry) from India. These were all placed under orders of 3 Indian Corps. The artillery regiments consisted of excellent material but were lacking in experience and had had no training in bush warfare.
The Indian reconnaissance unit had only recently been mechanised and arrived without its armoured vehicles. It was so untrained that drivers had to be borrowed for some of the trucks which were issued to it. On arrival of the 2nd Contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) I decided to make certain alterations in the Plan of Defence.
A.I.F. In Johore
I ordered the A.I.F. to take over responsibility for Johore and Malacca and brought into Command Reserve for operational purposes the 12 Indian Brigade Group, leaving it under the Commander Singapore Fortress for training and administration.
My reasons for this step were: -
(a) I considered the dual task imposed upon the Commander Singapore Fortress of defending both Singapore Fortress and East Johore to be unsound as he might well be attacked simultaneously in both areas. Similarly some of the Fortress troops had alternative roles in the two areas.
(b) I was anxious to give the 22 Australian Brigade Group, which had now had six months’ training in Malaya, a role which involved responsibility.
(c) There was a greater probability under the new arrangement that the A.I.F. would be able to operate as a formation under its own commanders instead of being split up. The advantages of this need no explanation.
In this connection I had enquired on taking over command whether there were any special instructions with regard to the status and the handling of the A.I.F. I had been informed that there were none.
The responsibility of the defence of Johore and Malacca passed to the Commander A.I.F. at noon on August 29, 1941.
Excess Of Secrecy
In the summer of 1941, a Branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare was started in Singapore. It suffered from an excess of secrecy and from a lack of knowledge on the part of the gentlemen responsible as to how to set about the work.
Thus valuable time was lost. Later, however, some very useful work was done by this organization. Apart from the garrison of Singapore Fortress and the Command Reserve, of which most units had been in Malaya for some time, there were in 1941 very few trained units in Malaya.
Few had more than two or three senior officers with experience of handling Indian troops and of the junior officers only a proportion had had Indian experience. The majority of the troops were young and inexperienced. The Australian units were composed of excellent material but suffered from a lack of leaders with knowledge of modern warfare.
The same applied in some degree to the British units in which there were few men with previous war experience. No units had had any training in bush warfare before reaching Malaya. Several of the units had in fact been specially trained for desert warfare.
To summarize the troops in North Malaya were less well trained when war broke out than those in the South. Had we been allowed a few more months for training, there is reason to suppose that great progress would have been made.
Throughout the Army there was a serious lack of experienced leaders, the effect of which was accentuated by the inexperience of the troops. For intelligence within Malaya the Services were naturally dependent to a great extent on the civil Police Intelligence Branch.
The Inspector General of Police was Chairman of the Defence Security Committee, of which representatives of the services and of the Civil Police were members. This Committee examined and made recommendations upon all matters affecting security in Malaya in whatever form.
The constitutional organization of Malaya necessitated multiple separate Police Forces and Police Intelligence Services, but the Inspector General of Police Straits Settlements was also Civil Security Officer for the whole of Malaya. Shortly before the outbreak of war the Malayan Security Service was set up to coordinate the work of the various Police organizations in the Peninsula, to establish a central control and uniform legislation for aliens to provide security control of the northern border and pan-Malayan direction from a central office in all police civil security affairs, which covered a very wide field.
Malayan Security was in its infancy but showed promising results and did much to overcome the difficulties inherent in the excessively complicated lay-out of the Peninsula. It must be recorded that Headquarters Malaya Command was not well supplied with information either as to the intentions of the Japanese or as to the efficiency of their Fighting Services.
At a Senior Military Commanders’ Conference held at my Headquarters as late as the end of October, 1941, to survey the defence arrangements and to consider the Far East situation as it affected Malaya at that time, a representative of the Far East Combined bureau painted a very indecisive picture of the Japanese intentions.
Flights of Japanese aircraft over Malayan territory, orders to their nationals to leave Malaya and other indications, however, gave us sufficient warning of the coming attack.
As regards the Japanese Fighting services, it was known that their troops were intrepid fighters and that they were experts in Combined Operations, but their efficiency in night operations, their ability to overcome difficulties, and the efficiency of their Air Force had all been underestimated.
Information of Thailand’s attitude was similarly lacking, even up to within a few days of war. It is difficult to say whether the Thai officers who came on official visits to Malaya were sent with the intention of misleading us or not, but there can be no doubt that there was at least an advanced degree of co-operation between some of their most responsible authorities in Thailand and the Japanese, and that the preparations made in South Thailand by the Japanese for their landing there and for their attack on Malaya were made with the connivance, if not with the actual assistance, of those Thai authorities.
Early in 1941 the scale of armament had been dangerously low. In particular all Indian formations and units arrived in Malaya with a very low scale of weapons. After March, however, a steady and increasing flow came in Malaya, but it was not until November that formations received the higher scale of weapons and were issued with 25-pounder guns for the artillery.
Even then many units, i.e. Artillery, Signals, R.A.S.C. (Royal Army Service Corps) were below establishment in light automatics and rifles and there were never more than a few of these weapons in reserve.
The food problem was complicated with the Australian ration differing from the British ration and with the Indian and other Asiatic troops having their own specialised rations. Nevertheless, approximately 180 days reserve stocks of all types had been accumulated before hostilities broke out. The food supply for the civil population of Malaya was a complicated problem.
The question of a rationing scheme had been under consideration by the Civil Government for some years but by summer of 1941 no result had been achieved. Committees appointed to examine the problem reported that the difficulties in producing a rationing scheme for the Asiatic population were so great that they could not put forward a satisfactory solution.
As a result when hostilities broke out, only a modified and limited scheme existed. In the light of a subsequent experience it appears that it should have been possible to produce a workable scheme, though it is true that during the campaign there was no shortage of foodstuffs for the civil population.
The hospital accommodation which had been prepared in peace-time was of course quite inadequate for the increased garrison. However, the Civil Medical Services were well developed.
The Civil Population
The European civilians in Malaya fell into two main categories, the Officials and the Unofficials. Most of them were men of energy and ability but there were some who, after many prosperous years in Malaya, especially during and after World War 1, had lapsed into an easier routine. To this the climate partly contributed.
This class was gradually disappearing, their place at the beginning of World War 11 being taken by a splendid type of young man who came out to join the Civil Service or to take up other appointments in civil life.
The picture, so often portrayed, of the “whisky-swilling” planter, was a gross misrepresentation of the conditions under which Europeans in Malaya lived at the time of World War 11. That the consumption of alcoholic liquor was fairly high is not to be denied, any more than it can be denied in other tropical countries, there was little drunkenness and the vast majority of Europeans lived very normal lives.
The standard of living, however, as a result of the natural wealth of the country and of the climate conditions, was exceptionally high – possibly too high for the maintenance of a virile European population.
I felt that in some quarters long years of freedom from strife had bred a feeling of security. This frame of mind was voiced in one of the local newspapers which wrote, when the decision to defend Penang was first announced: “There are not a few who view with concern the disturbance of the restful and placid atmosphere of Penang which will result from the military invasion.”
Even in 1941 there were those who found it difficult to believe that an attack on Malaya was within the bounds of practical politics.
Rubber and Tin
It should be stated, however that most of the unofficial Europeans were engaged, directly or indirectly in the rubber and tin industries which, by order of the Home Government, were working at maximum pressure. Bearing this fact in mind, Malaya, taken as a whole, shouldered its responsibility as war approached in the same loyal spirit as was evident elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
The bulk of the Asiatic population consisted of Malays and Chinese in approximately equal proportions. In general, the Chinese were to be found in the towns and larger villages while the Malays inhabited the country districts and the sea-boards. The reason for this was that the Chinese, being more industrious by nature and more commercially minded, had gained control of a great deal of the business of the country while the Malays, a more easy going and less ambitious race, were content to live on the natural products of the soil.
The Chinese themselves were of two categories – those who were and those who were not British subjects. For practical purposes the political sympathies of the Chinese population could be divided into four groups: -
(a) The pro-Kuomintang. This was probably the most powerful group.
(b) The pro-Wang Chingwei, i.e., those who were in sympathy with Japanese aims. A small and not dangerous group.
(c) The pro-Communists, predominately Chinese of the working classes. The most active and vocal group.
(d) The pro-British and Independents, the former being genuinely loyal adherents of the British Empire, and the latter those who wished to be left alone in the pursuit of fortune and their own self-interest. This group formed the large majority but unfortunately was only too prone to dragooning by (a) and (c) above.
The temporary reconciliation between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party following the invasion of Russia by Germany resulted in the formation in Malaya of a “United Front” which on the outbreak of war with Japan, absorbed all Chinese with the exception of Group (b).
As will by readily understood from the above summary, the Chinese population taken as a whole lacked homogeneity and centralised leadership.
The Malays were divided into four classes, i.e., the Ruling class of Malay Nobles, the “Intelligentsia”, the artisan and clerical class, and the peasant. The Ruling Classes naturally felt that there should be an ever-widening control by the Sultans. Among the “Intelligentsia” were signs of a movement towards Nationalism. The other two classes were not in the broad sense politically minded.
The remainder of the Asiatic population totalling less than 20 percent of the whole consisted of Indians, Eurasians, Japanese, etc. The Indians, the great majority of whom were Hindu by religion with an active proportion of Sikhs were divided politically into: -
(a) Indian Nationalists who, through the Central Indian Association of Malaya, were bidding for control of the Indian population of the country on a strongly nationalist basis.
(b) The general mass of Indians, normally a peaceful but ignorant section of the population which was mainly interested in the quiet pursuit of its livelihood but was becoming an easy prey to the agitator.
(c) Indians who were whole heartedly British in their loyalty.
The Eurasians were to be found mainly in the Colony and particularly in Singapore. The community as a whole was loyal and presented no political problem. It was not politically active. There were a number of Japanese in Malaya and, as all foreigners were treated alike, no special restrictions had up to 1941 been imposed on their activities. They were located mainly –
(a) In Singapore City, where there were large business houses, stores, hairdressing and photographic establishments, etc.
(b) In Johore, where they owned rubber and other estates and iron ore mines
(c) In Trengganu and Kelantan where they owned large iron ore mines.
(d) In Penang where they carried on similar activities to those in Singapore.
To sum up, the majority of the Asiatic population were enjoying the benefits which British occupation had brought to Malaya. They had so long been immune from danger that, even when that danger threatened, they found difficulty in appreciating its reality and in bringing themselves to believe that the even tenor of their lives might in fact be disturbed.
As will be appreciated from this brief review of the civil population of Malaya, the sense of citizenship was not strong nor, when it came to the test, was the feeling that this was a war for home and country.
Perhaps more might have been done by the Government in pre-war days to develop a sense of responsibility for service to the State in return for the benefits received from membership of the British Empire.
Prior to the outbreak of war with Japan Malaya had been given a charter for its participation in World War 11. It was to produce the greatest possible quantities of rubber and tin for the use of the Allies. This was a factor which had considerable influence on its preparations for war.
The subject of the proper utilisation of the available manpower had been carefully examined in peace-time. There was no leisured or retired class in Malaya which could be called upon for wartime expansion.
Soon after the outbreak of World War 11 the Governor and High commissioner, under the powers conferred upon him, ordered that all European males resident in Malaya should between certain ages be liable for service in one of the local volunteer corps.
At Singapore a Controller of Man-Power was appointed in place of the Man-Power Sub-Committee and in each Colony and State Man-Power Boards, on which both civil and military interests were represented, were set up to consider and give decisions on claims for exemption. Many exemptions had to be granted, even after allowing for the fact that in many cases Government and business could be carried on temporarily with reduced staffs. No liability to military service was imposed upon the Asiatic population.
Many of the Asiatics were of a type unsuitable for training as Soldiers and the difficulties of nationality, of registration and of selection would have been great. Moreover, as already stated, there were no rifles or other arms available with which to equip Asiatic units.
There was, however, great difficulty in filling the Chinese sub-units in the existing Volunteer organisation. This was in no way due to lack of available material or to lack of effort on the part of the military authorities. It was due chiefly to the lack of unity and of forceful leadership which existed among the Chinese population.
Early in 1941, half the Volunteers were for the first time called out for a period of two months continuous training. It was unfortunate that in April-May labour troubles, involving the calling out of troops, developed on some of the estates in the Selangor and Negri Sembilan area and at the Batu Arang coal mines. This was imputed in some quarters to the absence of European officials, who were away at the training camps. At the instance of Government the calling out of the remainder of the Volunteers was postponed to a later date. It never in fact took place.
In Singapore and other large cities Local Defence Corps were formed.
They were trained in the use of small arms, but their role was primarily to assist the Civil Police. They were not incorporated in the military organisation but came directly under the Civil Government.
The question of the conscription of labour in time of war had been considered and, in accordance with the advice of those best acquainted with labou5r conditions in Malaya, rejected as unworkable. The question of the control of labour in time of war had, however, been the subject of frequent discussions and tentative schemes had been worked out.
Although the grave labour problems which developed after the outbreak of hostilities had admittedly not been fully foreseen, some of the trouble could in my opinion have been avoided had the problems of war-time control of civil labour been tackled more energetically in time of peace.
The Singapore Harbour Board and the Municipality independent bodies operating in co-operation with the Government and carrying out its policy had their own labour forces. A few blast walls to important buildings were built.
Only very few air-raid shelters were constructed for the civil population. As regards Singapore itself this was partly due to the difficulty of constructing underground shelters, and partly due to the advice of the civil medical authorities, who were of the opinion that to obstruct the circulation of air by building surface shelters in the streets might well lead to epidemics.
A number of slit trenches had been dug but these soon became waterlogged and bred mosquitoes. In Singapore, the general policy was to rely rather on dispersal to camps constructed outside the town area. Apart from members of the Fighting Services, gas masks were provided only for those persons, such as members of salvage squads, whose duties might compel them to work in gassed areas.
This decision was made by the War committee after consultation with gas experts, on the grounds that the danger from gas bombing was not great in the climatic conditions of Malaya. Generally speaking it may be said that the arrangements for Passive Air Defence were in 1941 on too small a scale and inadequate to deal with anything but sporadic air raids.
The civil population following the example set by the Governor and High Commissioner were generous in their hospitality to the troops. Clubs were built, equipped and operated by civilians for their benefit. Many civilians invited troops to their houses and entertained them in other ways.
A debt of gratitude specially is due to the women of Malaya, many of whom worked untiringly in that enervating climate in the interests of the troops. Nevertheless, an atmosphere of unreality hung over Malaya. In the restaurants, clubs and places of entertainment peace-time conditions prevailed. There was no restriction on the consumption of food stuffs.
A measure to restrict the hours during which intoxicating liquor could be sold was not passed into law after long delays until November, 1941. Long immunity from war had made it difficult to face realities. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1941 the co-operation between the Services was good.
Relations with the Civil Government also showed a marked improvement. Generally speaking, officials throughout the country co-operated willingly with the military commanders.
No Team Spirit
I feel bound to record, however, that in my experience of Malaya there was a lack of the team spirit between the Service Departments on the one side and the Civil Government on the other in tackling problems of common interest. The vital importance of attaining the common object, i.e., the security of Malaya, was at times overshadowed by local interests, aggravated by the insistence of the Home Government on the maximum production of tin and rubber.
The task of balancing the requirements of a country of vital strategical importance to the Empire with those of a wealthy and prosperous commercial community was a difficult one requiring great tact and patience. Clashes of interest naturally occurred, followed very often by long delays, due in part to the complicated form of government. Other delays, as has so often happened before in our history, resulted from discussions as to the relative financial responsibility of the Home and Malayan on matters of defence. There was also a difficulty in getting full and accurate information as to civil defence measures.
During 1941 the tension with Japan increased and there were various signs that she was prepared for hostilities in the Western Pacific. Towards the end of July she occupied the southern part of Indo-China, where she increased her concentrations. She also increased her political activities in Thailand.
The attitude of the Thais was uncertain. On two occasions Thai military officers paid official visits to Singapore, where they protested their friendship for Britain. One of them was actually there when war broke out.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Japanese were permitted to make preparations in advance for their occupation of South Thailand, for our officers, carrying out reconnaissance’s in that area, frequently met Japanese there and one of them, though too late, found large petrol dumps on the Patani aerodrome which had been made ready for the occupation.
In the autumn many Japanese nationals received orders from their Government to leave Malaya, and Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew over Malaya and Sarawak.
As a result of these activities varying degrees of readiness were from time to time ordered by the Commander-in-Chief Far East.
On December 1, 1941, the 2nd Degree of Readiness was ordered and a State of Emergency was declared. On the same date the Volunteer forces were mobilized.
The Air Situation
The Air Officer commanding Far East, air vice-Marshal Pulford, on taking over command at Singapore on April 26, 1941, was faced with tremendous difficulties. The aircraft at his disposal were still very deficient in numbers and few of them were of modern types.
There were no special army co-operation aircraft in Malaya. There was a great shortage of spare parts, reserve aircraft, and reserve pilots. The Air Force in Malaya had been drained of trained personnel to supply shortages in the Middle East. Trained personnel were also withdrawn from the Australian squadrons to act as instructors in Australia.
When war broke out with Japan, the total of operationally serviceable aircraft in Malaya was as under:-
Hudson General Reconnaissance land-based 15.
Blenheim 1 Bombers 17
Blenheim IV Bombers 17 including 8 from Burma
Vildebeeste Torpedo-Bombers 27
Buffalo Fighters 43
Blenheim 1 Night Fighters 10
Swordfish (for co-operation with Fixed Defences) 4
Shark (for target-towing, reconnaissance (recce). and bombing) 5
Catalinas 3 (of which 1 in Indian Ocean)
This contrasted with the 566 1st Line aircraft which had been asked her (sic). In addition, to the above, there were a few Light aircraft (Moths etc.,) manned by the Volunteer Air Force. This was the Air force with which we started the war.
There was in fact no really effective Air Striking force in Malaya and the fighters were incapable of giving effective support to such bombers as they were of taking their proper place in the defence. The A.O.C. was fully alive to the weakness of the force at his disposal. He frequently discussed this subject with me and I knew that he repeatedly represented the situation to higher authority.
When the war broke out with Japan on December 8 1941, there were some glaring weaknesses in the arrangements for the defence of Malaya. The Navy no longer controlled the sea approaches to Malaya and there was a great shortage of craft suitable for coastal defence.
There were no modern torpedo-bombers and no dive-bombers, the two types required for offensive action against an approaching seaborne expedition, and no transport aircraft, the type essentially required for the maintenance of forward troops in jungle warfare. In addition, there were comparatively few trained pilots and there was a great shortage of spare parts.
The dispersion of the land forces and the lack of reserves needs no stressing. The dispositions on the mainland had been designed primarily to afford protection to the aerodromes, most of which had been sited without proper regard to their security. The situation was aggravated by the fact that there was no adequate Air force to operate from them.
It is true that, even without this commitment, it would have been necessary, in order to protect the Naval Base, to hold at least most of Malaya but, had it not been for the aerodromes, better and more concentrated dispositions could have been adopted.
As soon as the threat to Malaya developed in the summer of 1940 everything possible was done, both at Home and in Malaya, to strengthen the land defences.
The fact that more could not be done was no doubt due to our Imperial commitments elsewhere. The time proved too short to put a country almost the size of England and Wales, in which there was no surplus labour, into a satisfactory state of defence. The financial control also had a restrictive effect.
As regards the Army itself, the troops generally were inexperienced and far too large a proportion of them were only partially trained. There was a shortage of experienced leaders, especially in the Indian and Australian units. Instead of the 48 infantry battalions and supporting arms (excluding the Volunteer Forces and troops required for aerodrome defence) which had been asked for, we had only 32 infantry battalions and supporting arms.
There were no tanks which as the operations developed, proved a very serious handicap. The Japanese did not gain either strategical or tactical surprise. Our forces were deployed and ready for the attack.
As regards Civil Defence, much had been done but, viewed as a whole, the preparations were on too small a scale. There were many who responded nobly as soon as the call came but it cannot be said that the people of Malaya were fully prepared for the part they were to play in a total war.
About 11:30a.m. on December 8, 1941, the morning air reconnaissance, which was watching the approaches to the Gulf of Thailand, reported having sighted Japanese convoys consisting of warships and transports approximately 150 miles S.E. of Pt. Camo (South Indo-China) steaming westward. Information that there were two separate convoys was received at 2.p.m.
The position of these convoys was about 80 miles E.S.E. of Pul Obi. At that time I was at Kuala Lumpur, whether I had gone by civil air line that morning to confer with the Commander 3 Indian Corps. I received the information by telephone about 3p.m. At 3.15 I ordered the commander 3 Indian Corps to assume the First Degree of Readiness, and anticipating that Operation MATADOR might be ordered, to instruct the Commander 11 Indian Division to be ready to move at short notice.
On returning to my headquarters at Singapore at 6:30p.m., I was informed that the C.-in-C. Far East appreciated that the Japanese convoy had probably turned North West with a view to demonstrating against and bringing pressure to bear on Thailand; that in consequence he had decided not as yet to order Operation MATADOR, also that one convoy consisted of twenty-two 10,000 ton ships escorted by one battle ship, five cruisers and seven destroyers, and the other of of twenty-one ships escorted by two cruisers and ten destroyers.
Two Hudson reconnaissance aircraft had been sent out at 4p.m. to shadow the convoys until relieved by a Catalina flying boat which would continue the shadowing throughout the night. These Hudsons failed to make contact owing to bad weather, which prohibited relief Hudsons being sent.
During the evening I called on the Governor and the C.-in-C. Far East to whom I reported that the First Degree of Readiness had been assumed by all troops under my command. The first Catalina sent out failed to make contact during the night December 6-7.
First Shots Fired
A second was despatched early on December 7 and instructed that, if no contact was established, a search was to be made from 10 miles off the west coast of Indo-China, as G.H.Q. anticipated that the convoys might be concentrating in the Koh Kong area where there was a suitable anchorage.
No reports were received from this Catalina and, from information subsequently received, it would appear that this boat was shot down by the Japanese. Further Hudson reconnaissances were sent but only single merchant vessels were sighted in the Gulf of Siam at 1:45p.m. and 3:45p.m. respectively.
These Hudsons were then sent on a diverging search off the Siamese Coast, and at 5:50p.m. one merchant vessel and one cruiser were sighted steaming 340 degrees. The cruiser opened fire on the reconnaissance aircraft. At 6:48p.m. under conditions of very bad visibility four Japanese vessels, perhaps destroyers, were seen off Singora steaming south.
For a period of nearly 30 hours after the first sighting the air reconnaissance sent out failed to make contact with the main invasion forces, owing to bad weather
If the report of the Catalina flying boat having been shot down by Japanese aircraft on the morning of December 7, 1941, is correct, then this was the first act of war in the Malaya area between Japan and the British Empire. If not, then the first act was the firing on the Hudson reconnaissance aircraft by the Japanese ship on the evening of December 7.
An appreciation of the situation showed that the enemy convoy, if it was bound for Singora, could reach there about midnight December 7-8, whereas if MATADOR was put into operation it was unlikely that our leading troops, even if they met with no opposition or obstacles on the way would arrive there before about 2a.m. An encounter battle with our small force and lack of reserves would have been very risky, especially as the enemy was expected to include tanks in his force.
There was also the complication of part of our force having, owing to the lack of motor transport, to move forward by rail and subsequently be linked up with its transport in the forward area. For these reasons I informed the C.-in-C. Far East at a Conference held at Sime Road that I considered Operation MATADOR in the existing circumstances to be unsound.
On the Kelanian front about 11:45p.m. on December 7 the Beach Defence troops on Badang and Sabak beaches, the point of junction of which at the Kuala Paámat was about one and a half miles N.E. of the Kota Bharu aerodrome, reported ships anchoring off the coast.
Shortly afterwards our beach defence artillery opened fire and the enemy ships started shelling the beaches.
About 12:25a.m. December 8 the leading Japanese troops landed at the junction of the Badang and Sabak beaches and by 1a.m. after heavy fighting, had succeeded in capturing the adjacent pill-boxes manned by troops of the 3/17 Dogras.
The garrisons of the latter inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy before being themselves wiped out almost to a man. Hudson aircraft between midnight and dawn pressed home numerous attacks in the face of heavy A.A. fire from warships and transports.
One of the transports which believed to have contained tanks and artillery was set on fire either by air attack or gunfire, or perhaps both, and prevented from discharging its cargo. As soon as the first landing took place the 2/12 Frontier Force Regt. (less one company West of the Kelantan River) and 73 Field Battery were ordered up from Chon-Dong with orders to prevent any penetration towards the aerodrome with a view to a subsequent counter attack. In the meantime I had informed C.-in-C. Far East and the Governor that hostilities had broken out.
About 4:30a.m. December 8, a Japanese air formation raided Singapore. It had presumably come from French indo-China, a distance of about 700 miles. Damage was slight. This was the first indication the citizens of Singapore had that war had broken out in the Far East.
The A.O.C. Far East, in consultation with myself, decided that the task of the Air Striking Force was to co-operate with the Army in repelling the attack on Kelantan.
Accordingly the Squadrons based on the Kedah, Kuantan and Tengah aerodromes were ordered to attack the enemy ships lying off Kota Bharu at dawn.
Upon arrival at Kota Bharu these aircraft were unable to find the Japanese transports, which had by then withdrawn behind the Perhentian Islands some 15 miles off the Kelantan coast.
One squadron went on to Patani, where other Japanese transports were seen and attacked, but owing to fighter opposition it is doubtful if results were obtained. From now on the absence of modern escorting fighters was keenly felt.
Jap Air Surprise
On return to the aerodromes in Kedah some of our aircraft were attacked by Japanese bombers and fighters while refuelling, and considerable losses were sustained. The aerodromes at Alor Star, Sungei Patanim Penang, Kota Bharu, Gong Kedah and Machang were all attacked on this day.
The performance of the Japanese aircraft of all types and the accuracy of their high level bombing had come as an unpleasant surprise. Our own air force had already been seriously weakened.
At 8:20a.m. G.H.Q. Far East reported that Operation MATADOR had been approved by the Chiefs of Staff if the Japanese attacked Kota Bharu but G.H.Q. added “Do not act.”
Air reconnaissance sent to Singora and Patani at dawn reported that enemy forces had landed at those places, that there were a number of ships lying off the coast and that the Singora aerodrome was in use. It was clearly too late now to put Operation MATADOR into effect, so I authorised the Commander 3 Indian Corps to start harassing activities and to lay demolition charges on the roads and railways.
At 10a.m. the Straits Settlements legislative council in accordance with previous arrangements met at Singapore. I took the opportunity to report the situation to it. At 11a.m. sanction to enter Thailand then having been obtained from the C.-in-C. Far East orders were issued to the Commander 3 Indian Corps to occupy the defensive positions on both the Singora and Kroh-Patani roads, and to send a mobile covering force across the frontier towards Singora to make contact and delay him.
On Wrong Foot
The change from an anticipated offensive, for which the 11 Indian Division had been energetically preparing for some weeks, to the defensive undoubtedly had a considerable psychological effect on the troops.
It was aggravated by the fact that on December 7 certain preparatory moves had been carried out within the division in preparation for MATADOR, including the moves of two battalions of the 15 Indian Infantry Brigade to Anak Bukit Station to entrain.
The division was thus caught to some extent on the wrong foot for the defensive operations which were to follow. It had, however always been realised that the chances of being able to put Operation MATADOR into effect were not great in view of the political restrictions and Commanders had been instructed to prepare for either alternative.
Possibly the defensive preparations had been to some extent sacrificed in favour of the offensive. It was originally intended that the column operating on the Kroh-Patani road, known as Krohcol and commanded by Lt. Colonel Moorhead, should consist of the 3/16 Punjab Regt., the 5/14 Punjab Regiment from Penang, one company sappers and miners, one Field Ambulance and a light battery of the Federated Malay States Voluntary Forces (F.M.S.V.F.).
The F.M.S.V.F battery had however, been unable to mobilise in time, and was replaced later by the 10 Mountain Battery from the North Kedah front.
The 5/14 Punjab Regt., was moved up to Kroh on December 8 leaving one company in Penang, but had not arrived when operations started. Responsibility for operations on the Kroh front was on December 8 delegated by Commander 3 Indian Corps to Commander 11 Indian Division.
At 10p.m. December 8 the Commander Krohcol received orders to occupy “The Ledge” position some 38-40 miles beyond the frontier. It was hoped that the Thais would at worst be passively neutral. These hopes were speedily disillusioned.
As the vanguard crossed the frontier at 3p.m. they were immediately engaged by a light automatic post manned by Thais. Throughout the afternoon the advance was disputed by snipers assisted by road blocks, the enemy fighting skilfully. By nightfall our troops had cleared only three miles of the road and then they halted for the night.
The enemy were all Thais, some of whom were armed with Japanese rifles.
North Kedah Front
On the North Kedah front, a mechanised column consisting of two companies and the carriers of the 1/8 Punjab Regt., with some anti-tank guns and engineers attached, crossed the frontier at 5:30p.m. December 8, and moved towards Singora to harass and delay the enemy. Concurrently an armoured train with a detachment of 2/16 Punjab Regt., and some engineers, advanced into Thailand from Padang Besar in Perlis.
The Singora column reached Bah Sadao 10 miles north of the frontier at dusk, where it halted and took up a position north of the village. Here about 9:30p.m. it made contact with a Japanese mechanised column, headed by tanks and moving in close formation with full headlights. The two leading tanks were knocked out by the anti-tank guns, but the Japanese infantry quickly debussed and started an enveloping movement.
Our column was then withdrawn through the outpost position at Kampong Imam, destroying two bridges and partially destroying a third on the way back. Meanwhile the armoured train party had reached Klong Gnea, in Thailand and successfully destroyed a large bridge before withdrawing to Padang Besar.
To return to the Kelantan front. As soon as it had become clear from the dawn reconnaissance that there were no ships off the coast further south, the Commander Kelantan force moved up his reserve battalion, the 1/13 Frontier Force Rifles, with some anti-tank guns attached from Peringai with a view to counter attacking the enemy who had landed.
Some local counter-attacks had already been put in and progress made. By 5p.m. the advance of our troops was stopped. About 4:30p.m. the R.A.F. Station Commander decided that Kota Bharu aerodrome was no longer fit to operate aircraft and obtained permission from the A.O.C. Far East to evacuate the aerodrome.
All serviceable aircraft were flown away and the ground staff was evacuated by road to rail-head. No offensive or reconnaissance aircraft were then available in that area.
By 7p.m. more ships were reported off the Sabang beach and the Japanese had started to infiltrate between the beach posts in the Kota Bharu area. The commander Kelantan force therefore decided to shorten his line and ordered a withdrawal during the night to a line east of Kota Bharu.
It was pouring with rain and pitch dark and communications had been reduced for the most part to Liaison officers. It was therefore not surprising that some of the orders went astray. As a result part of the 1/13 Frontier Force rifles were left behind.
Japs Gain Objectives
Thus within 24 hours of the start of the campaign the Japanese had gained their first major objective, but at considerable cost. It is believed that the forces landed in Kelantan consisted of rather less than one Japanese division. This force lost its accompanying tank formation and many of its guns before it got ashore and subsequent reports indicated that the Japanese suffered some of their heaviest losses during the first day’s fighting in Kelantan.
A midday air reconnaissance reported two cruisers and fifteen destroyers moving towards Besut, six transports lying off Patani and twenty-five transports off Singora.
The War Council
On December 10, 1941, in accordance with instructions received from the Home Government, the Far East War Council was formed at Singapore. Its composition was as under: -
The Rt. Hon. A. Duff and High Commissioner, Malaya.
The Commander-in-Chief Far East.
The Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet.
The General Officer Commanding Malaya
The Air Officer Commanding Far East
Mr Bowden representing Australia, and later Sir George Sansom, as being responsible for propaganda and Press control.
Major Robertson, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (staff officer to the Cabinet representative in the Far East). In addition to the above Lieutenant-General Gordon Lieutenant Commanding the A.I.F. was told that he was at liberty to attend meetings if and when he wished to do so, and that he would be informed if and when matters particularly affecting Australia were on the agenda.
In January, after the departure from Singapore of Mr Duff Cooper and Sir George Sansom, the Governor and High Commissioner became Chairman, Mr Scott took Sir George Sansom’s place and Mr Dawson became Secretary.
Later, Brigadier Simson, as Director General of Civil Defence, joined the Council.
The defences in the Jitra position, although well advanced, were not complete. In addition, most of the posts had become waterlogged after a week’s heavy rain, which still continued for the next few days. It was in these conditions that the troops set to work to complete the defences.
The rain also had a serious effect on the demolitions, all of which were charged on December 8, but several of which subsequently failed to operate. On the Singora road the advance of the enemy column was delayed by the engagement at Ban Sadao and by demolished bridges and it was not until 4:30a.m. December 10 that contact was again made about the frontier a few miles north of Changlun.
On December 10 the covering troops of 6 Brigade withdrew to Kodiang without incident, carrying out important demolitions on the railway before they went. This withdrawal entailed the evacuation of the State of Perlis, as a result of which Britain was accused by one of the Perlis Ministers of State of violating her treaty by abandoning the State.
About 8a.m. December 11 the 1/14 Punjab Regt was attacked in the Changlun position but succeeded in driving the enemy back. By midday, however, the enemy attacking from the right flank had penetrated into the middle of our position and Commander of the Covering Force decided to withdraw behind the Asun outpost position, calculating that he would be able to reach there before the enemy tanks could negotiate the damaged bridges. At 2:30p.m. however, he was ordered by the divisional commander to occupy a position 1 ½ miles north of Asun with a view to imposing further delay on the enemy.
At 4:30p.m. when the force was moving back, covered by a rearguard, occurred the first of many incidents which showed the influence of the tank on the modern battlefield, especially against inexperienced troops. Suddenly, with little warning, 12 Japanese medium tanks followed by infantry in lorries and other light tanks attacked the rear of the column. Few of the troops had ever seen a tank before.
The tanks advanced through the column inflicting casualties and causing much confusion and approached the bridge in front of the Asun outpost position. The demolition exploder failed but the leading tank was knocked out by anti-tank fire and blocked the road. By 6:30p.m. the tanks followed by infantry, had come on again and broken into the outpost position held by the 2/1 Gurkha Rifles. Shortly afterwards the Battalion Commander decided to withdraw all his three companies. But communications had been broken and of the forward companies only 20 survivors ever rejoined. The losses of the battalion in this action were over 500.
On the Perlis road, as may often happen, with inexperienced troops a demolition was prematurely exploded behind the covering and outpost troops. For various reasons it was not repaired in time although there was no contact on this front, and all the transport, guns and carriers of the covering and outpost troops and seven anti-tank guns in the main Jitra position were lost.
Withdrawals are admitted to be among the most difficult operations of war even for seasoned troops and the above incidents which have been described in some detail, serve to illustrate the great difficulty of conducting them successfully with inexperienced troops. They had profound influence on the Battle of Jitra.
At the same time I am of the opinion that some of the trouble might have been avoided had the commanders reacted more swiftly to the problems created by the appearance of tanks on the battlefield.
The Kroh Front
The advance was continued early on December 9. Our column was still opposed by the detachment of the Thailand Armed constabulary which was now some 300 strong and which adopted guerrilla tactics. As the leading troops approached Betong, however, in the afternoon all opposition ceased.
At first light on December 10 Krohcol embussed in the 2/3 Australian Reserve Motor Transport Company (2/3 RMTC), and moved forward towards “The Ledge” position. When about four miles short of its objective the advanced guard came under fire from Japanese troops. It continued to advance rapidly for 1 ½ miles and then was held up. An encounter battle developed in which there was heavy fighting with considerable casualties on both sides, but again the issue was decided by Japanese tanks which made a surprise appearance on this front.
During the afternoon of December 11 the enemy made repeated attacks on the forward troops of Krohcol, but were repulsed with heavy losses. The battalion casualties, however, after three days and nights fighting had passed the 200 mark.
The Commander Krohcol estimated that he was opposed by four enemy battalions and reported accordingly to Headquarters 11 Indian Division. It was the night after the affair at Asun, recorded above and in reply, the Commander 11 Indian Division sent a personal message to the effect that the object of Krohcol must now be to ensure the safety of the whole division.
The Commander Krohcol was given full permission to withdraw as necessary to the Kroh position where his stand must be final. A detachment of anti-tank guns was sent to this front.
Civil plans during the first day of war had gone smoothly under the capable direction of Mr Kidd, the British Adviser. During December 8 all European women and children were withdrawn to Kuala Krai and thence out of the State, and plans for the denial of sea and river craft to the enemy were put into effect. The few Asiatic civilians who wished to leave did so under control and there was no refugee problem. During the night, December 8-9 heavy fighting went on at the Kota Bharu aerodrome.
Having in view the threat to his communications should the enemy make fresh landings further south on the coast of Kelantan, the Commander Kelantan force, decided on the morning of December 11 to give up the Gong Kedah and Machang aerodromes, which were no longer required by our air force, and to concentrate his force south of Machang to cover his communications.
Unfortunately the runways at both the Gong Kedah and Machang aerodromes had to be left intact, for at neither had the demolition arrangements been completed. Information was received that the Japanese had on December 10 landed another force at Besut in South Kelantan.
On December 9, Japanese aircraft attacked the Kuantan aerodrome. In the afternoon the aerodrome was abandoned as being unserviceable. Early on the night December 9-10 reports were received from the northern part of the beach defences that the enemy ships were approaching the beaches and about 4a.m. torpedo-bombers attacked three ships off this coast.
No landing took place but subsequently some boats with Japanese equipment were found on the beach south of Kuantan. This incident had a great influence on the movements of the “Prince of Wales” and “ Repulse.”
In accordance with pre-war plans, submarines of the Royal Netherlands Navy operated off the east coast of Malaya and in the approaches to the Gulf of Thailand during this period. They reported sinking 4 Japanese transports off Patani on December 12, and a merchant ship and a laden oil tanker off Kota Bharu on December 12 and 13. Towards dark on December 8 Admiral Sir Tom Phillips put to sea with the battleship “Prince of Wales” and the battle cruiser “Repulse” to attack the Japanese ships in the Gulf of Thailand. They were escorted by four destroyers.
The decision to take the fleet to sea was made by the Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet, after discussing the situation with the Commander-in-chief, Far East.
On the evening of December 9, the British Fleet was sighted by a Japanese submarine and also by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The Japanese air striking forces, which were being held in readiness, probably in South Indo-China, for this purpose, set off for a night attack on the fleet but ran into thick weather and were forced to return to their base.
The Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet, realising from his having sighted Japanese aircraft that his movements had been seen, and that the element of surprise had been lost, decided to abandon the project and return to Singapore.
During the night December 9-10, however, he was informed by his shore headquarters at Singapore that a landing had been reported at Kuantan. Reconnaissance aircraft were flown off and the Fleet closed the shore in order to clear up the situation before returning to Singapore. Shortly after daylight the Fleet was again located by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and their striking force was again despatched. About 11:15a.m. it attacked the “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse” when about 60 miles off Kuantan, and by 1:30p.m. both these ships had been sunk.
Fighter aircraft from Singapore were despatched as soon as the attack on the ships was reported but only arrived in time to see them go down. A total of 2,185 survivors were picked up by the destroyers and brought to Singapore.
The Commander-in-chief, Eastern Fleet, was lost and was succeeded by Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton. With the sinking of these two ships the Japanese again obtained undisputed control of the sea communications east of Malaya and became exposed to attack.
I wish to pay tribute to the gallant manner in which the C.-in-C. Eastern Fleet endeavoured to assist the land and air forces by attacking the enemy’s sea communications.
Early on December 9 our Air force attacked targets in the Singora area. Owing to lack of fighter support five out of 11 of our aircraft were lost. During the morning Alor Star aerodrome was again heavily bombed and was evacuated later in the day, the buildings being set on fire.
Further attacks were carried out on Sungei Patani and Butterworth aerodromes and again owing to the lack of light anti-aircraft and fighter defence, casualties were inflicted on the aircraft grounded there.
On December 10 our aerodromes on the Kedah front were again heavily attacked. Sungei Patani aerodrome was evacuated during the day.
On this day also the first of a series of heavy Japanese air attacks on Penang Island took place. It was carried out by 70 enemy bombers and Georgetown was the target. There were no anti-aircraft defences, except small arms fire and few shelters.
The inhabitants thronged the streets to watch the attack. The casualties from this raid ran into thousands. A large part of the population left Georgetown and moved to the hills in the centre of the Island but the A.R.P. and the Medical and the Nursing Services stood firm.
The small garrison in addition to manning the defences was called upon to assist the Civil Administration by taking the place of labourers and of the personnel of essential municipal services. It also had to assist in burying the dead.
On the following day Georgetown was again raided by 25 aircraft and the experiences of the previous day were repeated on a smaller scale. On the east coast front the enemy during this period concentrated his air attacks on our aerodromes, all of which in the States of Kelantan and Pahang became unserviceable.
Since the outbreak of hostilities the general situation had changed greatly to our disadvantage. The Japanese had established complete air superiority over North Malaya and had gained full control of the sea communications east of Malaya. As a result of this the whole of the east coast of Malaya and Singapore Island itself lay open to attack and to meet attack, reliance would have to be placed almost entirely on the land forces.
As regards the land situation the Japanese had established strong forces both in south Thailand and in Kelantan, and nothing could now prevent them from bringing in reinforcements as far as their resources would admit. To make matters worse they had, as far as could be ascertained, landed these forces with the loss of only seven ships, of which six had been sunk by Dutch submarines, in place of the considerable losses which it had been hoped that our Air Force would inflict, and which had formed basis of my estimate of the Army strength required.
Our own forces were weak everywhere and we could not expect any reinforcements until at least the following month, though it was certain that every endeavour would be made to send us such reinforcements as could be made available as early as possible.
Further it had been established that the Japanese force included tanks while we had none. It was apparent that the safe arrival of reinforcements of paramount importance and, if we were to attain our object of securing the Naval Base, it was essential that they should arrive in time to take part in operations on the mainland.
To enable them to do this, it was necessary that we should impose the maximum delay on the enemy but that at the same time we should avoid having our forces destroyed in detail
Japs Crowd Airfields
Photographs taken of the aerodromes in South Thailand on December 11 showed that the Japanese were already operating large numbers of aircraft from them. On Singora aerodrome alone there were upwards of 100 aircraft with comparatively little anti-aircraft gun protection – a wonderful target had we had an adequate and balanced Air Striking Force.
The enemy were of course also operating their longer range types of aircraft from their bases in Indo-China and possibly also from aircraft carriers. It is probable that they were operating some 300 modern aircraft at this time.
In face of this attack the losses suffered by our small Air force in North Malaya had been comparatively heavy.
On December 9-10 Dutch air reinforcements arrived in Malaya from the Netherlands East Indies. Unfortunately the Dutch bomber pilots were not fully trained in night flying or in advanced navigation over the sea, so that it was necessary for them to return, a squadron at a time, to the Netherlands East Indies for further training in these subjects.
Nevertheless, the Netherlands East Indies had shown a most co-operative spirit in sending these aircraft, as well as submarines so promptly to our assistance.
On the morning of December 11, 1941, rather more than 100 aircraft were available for operations. It was decided that the primary tasks of the fighters would be the defence of the Singapore Base and the protection of convoys bringing land and air reinforcements to Malaya. The reason for this was that we could not hope to regain superiority without powerful reinforcements.
As a result of this policy it was clear that the Army would suffer from lack of air support and of close co-operation in the fighting on the mainland though some seaward reconnaissance would still be possible. I accepted this situation.
On December 12 the Commander, 3 Indian Corps, visited Command headquarters to discuss the policy as regards the Kelantan Force. It will be recalled that the task of the Kelantan Force had been the protection of the three aerodromes in that State for the use of our Air force and the denial of them to the enemy.
In view of the situation some fresh instructions were clearly necessary. The alternatives were either to leave the force in Kelantan or to withdraw it for employment elsewhere. After full consideration I decided, with a view to conserving our resources and concentrating them for the main battle which would probably develop on the west coast, to withdraw the Kelantan Force as soon as rolling stock could be made available.
On December 12, the enemy became very active and attacked in strength, but the 2/10 Baluch Regt, counter-attacked coming to close grips with the enemy and inflicting casualties.
On December 13 the 2/10 Baluch Regt. again inflicted casualties on the enemy who were trying to advance round their flank. During the next few days the withdrawal continued systematically, the enemy being made to fight for each position, with comparatively little loss to the defenders.
By December 16 all surplus stores and equipment had been evacuated and the withdrawal of the troops by rail began. A lifeguard under Lt. Col. McKellar, known as Macforce, was left behind to watch the railway and prevent the repair of the bridges. It included troops of the Pahang Volunteers and the Malay Regiment, and carried out its duties most efficiently. The withdrawal was completed on December 22. The casualties suffered in the Kelantan fighting had been fairly heavy but not excessive.
Battle of Jitra
Shortly after midnight December 11-12 the Japanese attacked the left forward company of the 2/9 Jats east of the Singora road. Two hours later the frontage had been extended to involve the right forward companies of the 2/9 Jats and the 1 Leicesters.
At dawn the Japanese infantry made a determined frontal attack on the Jats and Leicesters and suffered heavy losses but my midday had penetrated deep into the area held by the Jats. The Leicesters formed a defensive flank to their right .
In the meantime the Commander 15 Brigade called upon the Commander 6 Brigade for assistance and had been given 1 ½ battalions which he used to protect his right flank. In the early afternoon the enemy infantry resumed their advance on the right and attacked the 2/2 Ghurkha Rifles holding the line of the Bata River. The left of this battalion was at the iron bridge on the main road and between it and the right of the Leicesters further north was a gap of 1 ½ miles.
The Leicesters were now ordered to withdraw from their prepared position and to take up a new position with their right on the iron bridge, their centre on Jitra village and their left at Rimba. This gave them a front of over two miles with a pronounced salient in the middle. Later in the afternoon the road south of Jitra came under close range enemy fire.
The traffic on it at the time was heavy and some confusion developed. The Divisional Commander, fearing the enemy would move round our right flank, ordered two companies of the East Surreys to move back by rail to guard the vital bridges of Kepala Batas.
About 7:30 p.m. the Commander 11 Indian Division asked for permission to withdraw. After consultation I authorised the following message to the Commander 11 Indian Division: -
“After consultation it is decided that your task is to fight for the security of North Kedah. Estimated that you are only opposed by one Japanese division at most. Consider best solution may be to hold up advance enemy tanks on good obstacle and dispose your forces to obtain considerable depth on both roads and to obtain scope for your superior artillery. Reserves for employment in divisional area are being expedited”.
The divisional orders for the withdrawal were sent out at 9 p.m. The plan in out-line was that the 28 Brigade, reconstituted under Brigadier Carpendale and with one battalion of the 15 Brigade under its command should hold a position between Langgar and the south bank of the River Kedah at Alor Star.
This meant a withdrawal of some 10 miles. The remainder of 15 Brigade was to be in reserve. The 6 Brigade was to occupy a position seven miles further back at Simpang Empat. A small composite force was to hold the line of the River Padang Terap until the 15 Brigade had passed through. This withdrawal would have been difficult under the most favourable conditions.
With units mixed as a result of the day’s fighting, communications broken and the night dark, it was inevitable that orders would be delayed and in some cases would not reach the addressees. This was what in fact occurred.
Some units and sub-units withdrew without incident. Others, finding themselves unable to use the only road, had to make their way as best they could across country. Some parties reached the coast and taking boats, rejoined further south. Some again were still in position the following morning.
On the day after the battle the strength of the 15 Brigade was only about 800 and it was temporarily unfit for further fighting. The 6 Brigade, though still a fighting formation, had also had serious losses. In the 28 Brigade the 2/1 Ghurkha Rifles, except for one intact company, had been almost wiped out. The other two battalions had suffered about 100 casualties between them.
Several guns had been lost. The loss of carriers, small arms weapons, signalling equipment etc. had also been very heavy. These were serious losses as in many cases there were not sufficient reserves in Malaya to replace them. The 11 Indian Division needed to be relieved, rested and reorganised before being again called upon to fight, but there were no troops available to relieve it.
It is unlikely that the Japanese employed more than one division during the battle of Jitra. Their success was won primarily by bold and skilful infantry tactics and by the use of tanks. They employed no artillery heavier than the infantry gun and in this action they made little use of aircraft in support of ground forces.
They exploited the moral value of noise behind the defences. They also appear to have had an organised “fifth column” plan which had at least a partial success by spreading false rumours. It is probably true to say that the battle of Jitra was half lost before it began.
The change from an anticipated offensive to a strategically defensive had an adverse moral effect on the troops.
The temporary loss of battalions in the previous day had left serious gaps in the reserves on the right flank. In consequence, when the enemy broke into the defences, the reserves were not strong enough to prevent the enemy getting control of the one vital artery of communications.
Veteran troops would have found these conditions trying enough. They were in some cases too trying for the young and inexperienced troops of which the 11 Indian Division was composed.
Finally, the eventual withdrawal, carried out in very difficult circumstances, was too complicated and too long for troops who were already exhausted and considerably disorganised.
The Kroh Front
Early on the morning of December 12 (the day of the Jitra battle) the enemy again attacked the 3/16 Punjab Regiment but was driven back. An outflanking movement however forced the Punjab’s to withdraw with heavy casualties to one of their forward companies.
Eventually the 3/16 Punjab Regiment withdraw through the 5/14 Punjab Regiment to Kroch, Their strength, including 50 reinforcements was now about 400. They destroyed three bridges on the road to Klian Intan and Grik and moved into a prepared position two or three miles west of Kroch.
The orders given to the commanding Officer of the 5/14 Punjab Regt. were that he was to delay the enemy but not become inextricably involved. Two Japanese companies attacking at dawn on December 13 were practically annihilated by the fire of our light automatics. Enemy enveloping movements round both flanks, however, forced a withdrawal and the 5/14 Punjab Regt. with attached troops fell back to Betong, where the battalion embussed, by dusk the whole force in occupation of the position west of Kroh.
At midnight 12/13 December the Commander 3 Indian Corps took over direct command of Krohcol from the Commander 11 Indian Division. At midday on December 14 the Commander 12 Indian infantry Brigade took over command of Krochol and moved it to the Baling area some nine miles west of Kroh, Krohcol was an independent force, was then dissolved.
The withdrawal of Krohcol to the position west of Kroch left uncovered the jungle road through Kilan Intan to Grik and thence the metalled road to Kuala Kangsar and Ipoh. Reports on this road had indicated that as far as Grik it was passable only for light motor transport in dry weather. We were soon to learn that these reports were optimistic. To meet the threat a company of the 2 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with a detachment of the Federated Malay States Armoured Cars was ordered to Grik.
Battle of Gurun
At dawn on December 13 there were only three companies in position on the south bank of the Kedah River with one company at Langgar. During the night and the morning of the 14th all troops of 11 Indian Division were withdrawn to the Gurun position. Here, where the plain merges into the rolling, thickly wooded rubber country of South KJedahm was perhaps the best natural defensive position in Malaya.
It had previously been reconnoitred and was again reconnoitred as soon as the Japanese advance began. A large labour force had been ordered to assemble but failed to appear and no work had been done on the position when the division arrived. The Gurun position was occupied with the 28 Indian Infantry Brigade on the right and the 6 Indian Infantry Brigade on the left with the weak 15 Indian Infantry Brigade in reserve. On the afternoon of the December 14 the enemy attacked down the main road with tanks followed by infantry in lorries and supported by aircraft. Some penetration took place but the enemy were surprised by local counter attacks.
During the night, however, the enemy effected a deep penetration down the road end at 7a.m. attacked the headquarters of the 6 Brigade. All the officers except the Brigadier himself were killed. There was a large gap now between the main road and Kedah peak. East of the road however, our forward troops were still in position, but they were now moved to block the main road down which the enemy was advancing. By the afternoon the division was again in confusion and the 28 Brigade was the only one which could for the time being be relied upon.
The River Muda
The Divisional Commander, 11 Indian Division, decided to withdraw his force behind the River Muda during the following night covered by the only fresh troops which were available i.e, the Independent Company which had just arrived from Penang and one squadron of 3 Indian Cavalry
Units of the 28 Brigade and the 2 East Surrey Regt. did some splendid work in covering the withdrawal. As had happened before, the premature demolition of bridges was the cause of losses of many vehicles and carriers.
By December 16 the Division was south of the River Muda and had passed into Province Wellesley. The 12 Indian Brigade Group (less one battalion) had moved into position on its right with one battalion (the 5/2 Punjab Regt.) at Batu over the River Muda, and the Argylls at Baling.
The Division was in no fit state for further operations. Most of the men were tired and dispirited. They badly needed time to reorganize and refit. There had been a heavy loss of vehicles and weapns. Some of these it was now impossible to replace. The tanks had again played their part in the battle of Gurun, but the enemy should not have been allowed to penetrate as he did down the main road.
Later, lack of communications made it difficult for formation commanders to control the battle. All the infantry brigade Commanders had become casualties. On December 15 the R.A.F. evacuated Butterworth aerodrome.
Although the Island of Penang had been since 1936 officially a fortress, it was in fact in December 1941, far from being one. The garrison on December 12, 1941 consisted of:
Fortress Headquarters and Signals.
11 Coast Regt. Hong Kong and Singapore Royal artillery (two 6-in. Batteries)
36 Fortress company Royal engineers (manning search-lights)
One Company 5/14 Punjab Regt.
1 Independent company.
Detachment of 3 Indian Cavalry
The 3 (Penang and Province Wellesley) Battalion S.S.V.F.
A Mixed Reinforcement Camp
There were no anti-aircraft defences as the guns and searchlights had not yet arrived from the U.K. The civil airport was too small for normal R.A.F. requirements. The only fighter defence was provided by five Buffalo Fighters which were able to operate for one day only from the Butterworth aerodrome.
The effects of the first air attacks on Penang on December 10 and 11 have already been described. On December 13, 50 Naval Ratings, survivors from the “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse” arrived to operate the ferries, the crews of which had disappeared.
On December 12 at a meeting between the Fortress Commander and the Resident Councillor it was decided to evacuate on the following night all European Service families and the Resident Councillor was asked to arrange for the evacuation of all civilian European women and children. This decision was taken as a normal measure to evacuate “bouches inutiles.” (useless months),
The evacuation of the sick and wounded from the military hospital was also ordered. On December 13 the policy as regards the defence of Penang had to be reviewed in the light of the situation on the mainland which has been described earlier. There was a very real danger that the 11 Indian Division, which at this time was in an exhausted and very disorganized condition, would be overrun and cease to exist as a fighting formation.
There was also the danger from Kroh, which was now much greater than we had anticipated, would cut the communications of the 11 Indian Division in the Kuala Kangsar area. If either of these things had happened, the enemy would have had a clear run down the west coast, for there were no other troops with which to oppose him north of Johore, and by doing so he would have cut the communications of 9 Indian Division on the East coast.
That was the situation we had to face and we had the choice of trying to fight the enemy both on the mainland and on Penang Island or of concentrating the whole of our resources for the battle on the mainland. The anchorage was no longer of any use.
The matter was of such importance that I brought it before the Far East War Council on the morning of December 14. I sent the following telegram to the Commander 3 Indian Corps. Importance of covering Penang is increased by fact that bulk of remaining cables to U.K. and India pass through that Island. Considered that ability to hold Penang depends upon result of Kedah battle.
You are at liberty therefore to use any part of the garrison of Penang that can be made available to take part in Kedah operations, particularly Independent Company. Should it become impossible to cover Penang from mainland, policy will be to evacuate Penang removing by sea the garrison and such essential stores as possible and destroying remainder.
Preliminary arrangements should be made as necessary but to avoid causing alarm it is of utmost importance that such arrangements should be kept secret. Resident Councillor Penang is being given similar instructions.
On December 14 the Municipal Commissioners of Georgetown presented a memorandum to the Fortress Commander stating that the Civil Administration had broken down and point out the danger of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid owing to the fouling of the water catchment area and the breakdown of the sanitary and conservancy services.
At 11a.m. December 15, following a warning the previous evening the Fortress Commander received an order from the Commander 3 Indian Corps that the evacuation, which was to take place by sea, would be completed on the night of December 16-17,. Shipping had to be found locally.
Most of the troops were moved to the mainland but the remainder and all Europeans, except a few who remained behind at their own request, were evacuated. Asiatics serving in the Volunteers were given the option of being evacuated or of staying. The majority decided to stay to protect their families. Lack of transport would have made it quite out of the question to evacuate large numbers of Asiatics. Moreover it was undesirable at that stage to increase the population of Singapore. A great deal of denial work was done at Penang.
The Fixed Defences were effectively destroyed and the smaller weapons were withdrawn.. But it was hardly to be expected in the circumstances that the destruction would be complete and there were two unfortunate omissions which had a very considerable effect on subsequent events. One was the failure to destroy the Penang Broadcasting Station from which during the rest of the campaign a stream of anti-British propaganda was sent out and the other was the failure to remove or scuttle all the small vessels and barges in the harbour.
The latter was probably due, at least in part, to the masters and crews having disappeared. The Japanese later made great use of them in developing their threats to our communications from the west coast. When this omission was discovered a destroyer was sent by night to mine the southern exit from the harbour, but this could not have been entirely effective.
On December 16 heavy fighting developed at the Batu Pekaka Bridge on the right of the river Muda position where the 5/2 Punjab Regt. was attacked by enemy troops led by a European. Late in the afternoon the enemy succeeded in getting a footing south of the river but were ejected by counter-attacks. The Argylls were withdrawn from Baling to Titi Karangan. The Commander 3 Indian Corps, in consultation with the commander 11 Indian Division, decided to withdraw the division behind the river Krian, the main bridges over which were at that time being held by personnel from the Penang Camp.
The 28 Brigade moved by road and rail to Simpang Lima and the next morning took over the defence of then River Krian from the railway bridge at Nibong Tebal to the sea. Fifteen miles to their right at Selama was the 3/16 Punjab Regt. from Kroh. During December 17, the troops on the Muda River and in the Bukit Mertajam area were withdrawn to the Taiping area where they came into reserve to the Krian defences. The 12 Brigade Group fought a rear-guard action from the Batu Pekata Bridge to the Terup-Selama area. By December 18 all troops were south of the River Krian.
The Grik Road
On the Grik road contact was made a little north of Grik during the night December 16-17. Our small force, which consisted only of one company of the Argylls and a detachment of F.M.S.V.F. Armoured Cars was hard pressed on Dec. 17 and fell back to the area south of Sumpitan. It was reinforced by two platoons of the Perak Battalion FMSVF.
It now became clear that the enemy had directed the main body of his Patani force down this road, difficult as it was for wheeled transport, and was endeavouring to cut off the 11 Indian Division by reaching the main road at Kuala Kangsar.
Indeed, reports from Japanese sources have subsequently indicated that this was a strong attack and that their grand strategy was to cut off and annihilate the whole of the troops in Kedah and province Wellesley. On the evening of December 17, the Commander 3 Indian Corps decided that the 12 Brigade Group which he had intended to withdraw into reserve at Taiping, should go straight through to Kuala Kangsar and that the 1 independent company should leave Taiping at first light on December 18 for Lenggong on the Grik road.
On the evening of December 17 I authorised the Commander 3 Indian Corps to withdraw to the line of the river Perak if he thought such a withdrawal absolutely necessary. I now foresaw that, if the Japanese advanced into Perak, their communications would become very vulnerable to raids from the sea coast. I therefore arranged for a small force of about 50 picked Australians to be organized for seaborne raids on the enemy’s communications, using Port Swettenham as a base.
Dec. 17-25, 1941
Beginning Page 9
Following the loss of the “Prince of Wales’ and “Repulse” the seagoing naval forces based on Singapore consisted only of a few light cruisers and half a dozen destroyers and sloops. Most of these were employed on escort work leaving only three destroyers and a number of auxiliary vessels and small craft for local defence.
The main concern of the Japanese Air Force was obviously to confirm and extend the superiority which it had already established. Apart therefore from the heavy attacks on Penang and a few attacks on targets in the battle area, its activities continued to be directed against our aerodromes The strength of our Air Force including the Dutch reinforcements, was now a little over 100 –probably about one quarter of the Japanese strength.
As regards the possibility of reinforcements, the Japanese had cut the established air route between Singapore and India. In order to provide accommodation for the large number of aircraft which it was hoped would shortly concentrate in the Singapore area, the construction of new aerodrome strips was put in hand, both in South Johore and on Singapore Island.
There was no way of regaining superiority unless and until a sufficient number of modern fighters superior to the Japanese fighters could be brought to Malaya and until their pilots could have time to develop full fighting efficiency in conditions that would be strange to them. The first of these fighter aircraft could not be expected to reach Malaya in much under four weeks.
Our troops who had been in contact with the enemy had suffered severe losses both in men and material. Our strength on the west coast, apart from the Volunteer units was now barely one division on the Grik road. Behind these we estimated that they had in reserve and already landed further forces at least equal to those in the front line.
On the east coast the enemy had landed one division in the Kelantan area. In Indo-China he undoubtedly held reserves. The striking power of his field force was greatly increased by the inclusion of a component of modern tanks, of which we had none.
On the west coast the terrain in the State of Perak was generally speaking more suitable for delaying action than in the States of Selangor and Negri Sembilan further south. The States of Perak and Selangor also were the centre of the tin-mining industry which was at that time of such vital importance to the Allied war effort. There were also vast rubber estates in this area. The weakness of the Perak area from the defence point of view lay in the fact that the long road and rail communications lay roughly parallel to the River Perak. Consequently if enemy detachments could get a footing on the left bank of that river they would be able to harass and temporarily interrupt our communications.
It was necessary also to take into consideration of the troops of the 11 Indian Division. Though their morale was not broken it could not be regarded as being high as one would have wished. They were exhausted by almost continuous fighting and movement both by day and night. Moreover the superiority which the Japanese possessed in the air coupled with the complete absence of tanks on our side could not but have the most adverse effect upon the trust reposed by the Indian troops in the might of the British Empire.
As regards the enemy’s course of action, it was now clear that he intended to continue his advance down the west coast with a view to attacking Singapore from the North. By December 20 the importance of the lateral road Jerantut-Kuala Lipis – Raub Kuala Kubu which was the main communication between East and West Malaya, became apparent. If our forces on the West coast were driven back beyond Kuala Kubu, the enemy would be able to cut the only road communication of our forces on the east coast.It was agreed as a general policy that we should withdraw the Kuantan garrison at a time to be decided later in accordance with the development of the situation.
On the evening of December 21, all troops west of the River Perak including those on the Grik road, were placed directly under the Commander 11 Indian division. He decided that in view of the situation on the Grik road, an immediate withdrawal behind the River Perak was necessary. He realised the importance of covering the Blanja Pontoon Bridge over the River Perak which gave direct access to the Ipoh area, and the communications south of it.
On December 22 there was further fighting on the Grik road and that night the 12 Brigade Group withdrew across the Perak River covered by troops of the 28 Brigade Group. By the morning of December 23, all troops except for a bridgehead at Blanja were east of the river. The Blanja bridgehead was withdrawn on the night of December 23-24. A gap was successfully blown in the Iskander Bridge, the fine main road bridge over the River Perak.
A portion of the pontoon bridge at Blanja was swung to the eastern shore and the pontoons sunk.After sixteen days of continuous and exhausting operations our troops on the west coast were back behind the River Perak.
On December 26 and 27, the 12 Brigade Group fought a delaying action north of Chemor (10 miles north of Ipoh) inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy whose units moved forward in close formation.
By the 26th all troops remaining in Ipoh had moved south. Among the last to leave their posts were the Chinese and Eurasian girl operators of the telephone exchange and who continued to do so in the face of bombing and the approach of the enemy until ordered to leave. They deserve the highest praise.
December 23 was the first day of intensive air action against our troops in the forward areas. Heavy attacks were made against troops in bivouac areas and on the move and against Ipoh railway station. These attacks continued for the rest of the month.
Our own troops were almost entirely without air support as all the remaining fighters except for a few which operated from Kuala Lumpur had by now been withdrawn to the Singapore area.Air attacks against the Singapore area were not renewed until December 29 when the first of a succession of night attacks took place. Our own Air Striking Force which seldom consisted of more than half a dozen machines, carried out night attacks against enemy occupied aerodromes.
On December 28 the Commander Singapore Fortress was ordered to prepare schemes for the destruction of the Causeway which connected Singapore Island with the mainland. On January 5 Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet moved his headquarters from Singapore to Batavia.
The Rear-Admiral Malaya (Rear-Admiral Spooner) became Senior Naval officer at Singapore and resumed responsibility for the whole of the local naval defence of Malaya.
On December 23,1941, Lt.-Gen. Sir Henry Pownall arrived to succeed Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooks Popham as Commander-in-Chief Far East in accordance with a decision which had been made before the outbreak of hostilities.
On January 17, 1942, General Sir Archibald Wavell (now Field-Marshall Earl Wavell) arrived at Singapore to assume the appointment of Supreme Commander South West Pacific Command. After visiting Headquarters 3 Indian Corps and troops of the 11 Indian Division on January 8, General Wavell left Singapore for Java. On the establishment of Headquarters South West Pacific Command, the appointment of Commander-in-Chief Far East lapsed. Mr Duff Cooper, the Cabinet representative in the Far East, also left Singapore early in January. It was generally agreed that these rapid changes in the Higher Command, necessary though they may have been had an unsettling effect and did not make for continuity.
Early in 1941 a denial scheme for the event of the invasion of Malaya had been prepared and necessary instructions issued. This scheme was directed principally to the destruction or removal of everything that might facilitate the movement of invading forces, i,e., the destruction of any form of repair workshop, the demolition of bridges and the removal or destruction of all forms of vehicle or boat. The plan did not envisage a complete Scorched Earth Policy.
About the middle of December 1941, the Cabinet Representative in the Far East informed the War Council that he had received instructions to the effect that as our troops withdrew, an unrestricted Scorched Earth Policy was to be applied throughout Malaya. It was at once apparent that our problem differed in some important respects from that which had a few months previously confronted the Russians. This was due in the main to the fact that, whereas their armies were withdrawing through a country inhabited by their own people our forces were withdrawing through a country inhabited by Asiatic peoples to whom we had by treaty promised our protection.
If we deprived these people of the necessities of life such as food, water etc., or destroyed the symbols of modern civilization such as the power supplies of their hospitals, they would claim that we were not treating them in accordance with our promises and they would become fertile ground for the seeds of the enemy’s propaganda.
On the other hand the machinery, most of which was owned by British firms and individuals, and the rubber stocks could quite properly be destroyed. Of greater importance from the military point of view was the destruction of road and railway bridges.
This was obviously essential if we were to succeed in our efforts to delay the enemy, and it had in fact been done since the beginning of the operations. However widespread destruction of property is not an operation which can be carried out effectively at the last minute.
To be effective it must be both prepared and put into execution in advance of the final withdrawal. In that case, however, the explosions and fires give to the enemy a sure indication of the intention to withdraw.
It was impossible also for the military authorities to carry out or supervise the destruction in so large an area. The executive work had to be left to the owners or agents on receipt of orders from a central authority. The moral effect on both soldiers and civilians would be, it was anticipated extremely adverse.
At a time when we were doing our utmost to raise the morale of troops, we feared that the noise of explosions and the sight of smoke in their rear would have the opposite effect. As regards the civilians, we wanted all the help we could get from the Asiatic population, but, as is well known Asiatics tend to take the side of the more powerful and we feared that the sight of destruction being carried out well behind our lines would induce them to help the enemy rather than ourselves.
With these considerations in mind the Far East War Council, after referring the matter to London, issued instructions that a scorched earth policy would be enforced, but that it would not apply to foodstuffs already distributed to the civil population, to water supplies or to power plants.
Women and Children
In December, on instructions from Home, the question of the evacuation of women and children from Malaya came before the War Council. It was at once apparent that important issues were involved. In the first place many of the European women were engaged in essential war work. In many cases it would be difficult to release them without weakening the organization.
Moreover many of them, especially in the Passive Air Defence Service were working side by side with Eurasian and Asiatic women. If these women were to be withdrawn now that war had broken out, and there was work to be done the effect on the Eurasian and Asiatic population would clearly be little short of disastrous and a severe blow would be dealt to British prestige.
Again if European women were to be evacuated why should not those Eurasian, Chinese, Indian and other Asiatic women who were not natives of Malaya, also be evacuated if they wished to go?
The Far East War Council , after full consideration of the factors involved issued instructions that evacuation should start forthwith. The Civil Government ordered that all nationalities should receive absolutely equal and impartial treatment.
It had become apparent very soon after the outbreak of hostilities that the pre-war civil defence arrangements were in many respects inadequate for the situation which was developing. This did not apply so much to the Passive Air Defence Services which were for the most part operating efficiently in the area which had been bombed though they required strengthening especially as regards the Fire Fighting Services whose work was invaluable.
It applied chiefly to the material protection of important buildings and to the control of labour and transport.
Towards the end of December the Cabinet Representative in the Far East proposed the formation of a Directorate of Civil Defence under a Director General. The Directorate was created on December 31.
The Minister gave the D.G.C.D. plenary powers on all matters pertaining to Civil Defence in Singapore Island and Johore subject only to reference to the War Council through the Minister where considered necessary.
On January 1, 1942, under amended terms of reference issued by the Governor, Johore was excluded, so that the Directorate of Civil Defence actually operated in Singapore Island only.
The Director-General and his staff worked untiringly, but I remain convinced that the organization was fundamentally unsound. It is true that at this time strong action was required for the rapid development of some of the Civil Defence arrangements but, by making the Director-General of Civil Defence responsible through the Minister to the Far East War Council the Governor and his subordinates were presumably deprived of some at least of what should have been.
War experiences soon showed that while the organised military labour units worked on the whole satisfactorily, this was far from being the case with civil labour. Trouble first broke out in Kedah, where civil labour disappeared as soon as the operations started.
At Penang during the heavy air raids, the majority of the Asiatic municipal employees disappeared leaving the troops to carry on their functions, an experience which was to be repeated later in Singapore. On the railway, after the spasmodic enemy air attacks on the stations, many of the non-European officials and labourers absented themselves. These included such key men as engine-drivers, stokers, signalmen, plate-layers etc. The conduct of the senior railway officials throughout was, however, exemplary. In the Singapore area the trouble first appeared on the aerodromes. Large labour gangs were required to fill in the craters caused by enemy bombing and for work on the new air strips. After each raid, however, the greater part of these gangs disappeared and after a time it became difficult to get labourers to work on the aerodromes at all
To ease the situation I had to arrange for working parties to be found whenever available, from the Army Reinforcement Camps for work on the aerodromes, even though this meant that little or no labour was available for work on the beach defences of Singapore Island.
The trouble soon spread to the Naval dockyard, where after one or two air attacks many of the permanent civil staff absented themselves. After the Dock workers, employed by the Singapore Harbour Board, similarly disappeared when the Docks became the main target for enemy air attacks. Here also military personnel had to be called in to unload the ships.
In the Army, War office authority had been received shortly before war broke out to form up to six labour companies, but for some time the War office refused to agree to increase the fixed rate of 45 cents per day for coolies. As the current rate in Singapore at that time was in the region of one dollar per day plus free rations and accommodation, it was not surprising that, in spite of strenuous recruiting efforts, these companies could not be formed.
Early in January efforts were made to solve the grave labour problem, Mr F.D. Bisseker (the senior Unofficial and General Manager of the Penang Smelting works) was appointed Director of Labour under the Director-General of Civil Defence.
He worked through the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and through influential representatives of the other communities. The Services applied to him for their requirements. However, we continued to be hampered by the lack of centralized leadership among the Chinese in Singapore, from whom the bulk of the labourers were drawn.
The coolies understood little of the war and many of them were quite content to hide in their villages unpaid. There were few who would go among them and lead them.
The situation was to some extent aggravated by the distribution of rice to each Asiatic household to be held as a reserve, a measure taken by the government in order to disperse food reserves but which had the effect of making it unnecessary for the labourers to earn their subsistence.
There were those who urged that compulsion should be applied but those best acquainted with the Asiatics, and especially with the Chinese were opposed to it. They considered that better results would be obtained by trying to find, and get the co-operation of, Asiatic leaders. I supported the view.
It was only when this had failed to produce the required results that a measure was passed on January 20 to introduce compulsion, but it came too late for its value to be disclosed. The shortage of civil labour remained a great source of weakness throughout the campaign.
It is right to add, however, that many of the senior officials both European and Asiatic, performed their duties loyally and well.
This was particularly the case in the Railway and in the Posts and Telegraphs Departments which were kept working in spite of very great difficulties.
Visit to Front
I went north on December 30 to discuss with the Commander 3 Indian Corps and his Divisional Commanders the details of the strategy to be pursued. I impressed upon all commanders the importance of taking adequate measures to prevent penetration by enemy tanks down the main road – a danger which I considered a very real one in view of our complete lack of tanks with which to counter it.
We discussed policy as regards the Federate Malay States Volunteer Force (FMSVF). In practically all cases the families of the Asiatic personnel were resident in the State and would remain there after withdrawal. Faced with the prospect of moving into south Malaya and leaving their families behind, some of the Asiatic Volunteers began to show discontent and desertions had taken place.
We were faced with the alternative of continuing to enforce service with the Colours at the expense, almost certainly of weak and discontented units or of releasing those who wished to leave. We decided on the latter course.
Thereafter, when a unit was to be withdrawn from its State every Asiatic member was given the option of remaining with it or of handing in his arms and equipment and going to his home. In almost every case the latter course was chosen.
The arms and equipment were re-issued to units requiring them as there were few or none at that time in reserve.
Threat to Kuantan
It was now apparent that the threat against the Kuantan area was developing from the North and on the morning of December 30 1941 the Japanese advanced via the Jabor Valley in greater strength than they had previously shown.
They were engaged by our artillery and small arms fire and confused fighting continued throughout the day. During the night of December 31 the rearguard was withdrawn across the river and the ferry destroyed.
At that time, however, the River Kuantan was fordable in its upper reaches, a most unusual occurrence at that time of year, This seriously weakened the defence. In the meantime the Commander Kuantan Force had been ordered to hold the aerodrome till January 5 and this had been later extended to January 10.
On January 2, however events on the west coast and the serious threat to our communications there forced the Commander 3 Indian Corps to expedite the programme and early on the morning of January 3 the Commander Kuantan Force received orders to withdraw his force to Jerantut forthwith.
During the withdrawal the rearguard was twice ambushed on the main road by a Japanese force, which had passed by bush tracks west of the aerodrome, and suffered heavy casualties.
One infantry battalion (5/11 Sikhs) was still nearly at full strength. The strength of the other two battalions combined was rather less than one battalion. The Kuantan Force by denying the aerodrome to the enemy for a month it had greatly decreased the scale of air attack which the enemy was able to develop against the Singapore area.
That this was so was proved by the rapid increase in the scale of that attack during the month of January. It has also been ascertained from Japanese sources that heavy casualties were inflicted on them during these operations.
There is little doubt that these casualties were considerably in excess of those suffered by our own troops.
Battle of Kampar
The Kampar position was the strongest of any occupied in Malaya. On December 31 the Japanese increased the pressure which had commenced the previous day on the 28 Indian Brigade Group but made no headway.
The Gurkhas who were fighting in country suited to their well-known qualities, proved themselves superior to the Japanese and, ably supported by the 155 Field Regiment, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.
At 7a.m. on January 1 the enemy started a determined attack on the Kampar position and heavy fighting continued throughout the day, particularly on the right flank where the British battalion was located. The garrisons of the defended localities held on grimly and localities lost were immediately recaptured by counter-attack. At the end of the day all positions were intact.
On the following day the enemy renewed his attacks east of the main road where fierce fighting took place. The influence of events elsewhere however, again predominated though it is doubtful whether in any case the position could have been held much longer and at 9 p.m. under orders from the divisional commander the 6/15 Brigade Group started to withdraw.
The withdrawal was closely followed up but, covered by the 28 Brigade Group, the 6/15th eventually disengaged and moved to the Tapah Bidor area. The Battle of Kampar, where our troops fought extremely well, showed that trained British troops are at least the equal of the best Japanese troops.
The West Coast
The 1 Independent Company had been sent to the Telok Anson area to watch the seaward approaches. Here it was joined by a squadron of the 3 Indian Cavalry. Supporting units were moved to the Changkat Jong area on the Telok-Anson/Bidor road, where work on defensive positions was begun.
On December 28 long distance reconnaissance patrols reported Japanese troops at Lumut and at Sitiawan.
On December 31 air reconnaissance reported small steamers with barges in tow moving down the Perak coast. On the afternoon of January 1 six small steamers accompanied by other craft were reported anchored at the mouth of the River Bernam, which flows into the sea a few miles south of the River Perak.
At dawn on January 2 an enemy force, strength about one battalion landed at Telok Anson. It had come down the river Perak in boats. By the evening the Commander 12 Brigade Group situated in the Changkat Jong area estimated that he was being attacked by at least a regiment and reported that he could not guarantee to keep the main road open for more than 24 hours.
It was as a result of this report that the withdrawal from Kampar was ordered.
On January 3 the enemy again attacked strongly in the Changkat Jong area supported by their Air Force but were repulsed. In the evening the 12 Brigade Group withdrew to the Triolak sector of the Slim position, the 6/14 Brigade Group followed them to a covering position at Sungkai, The 28 Brigade Group moved to the Slim River Village area.
Orders were given for the Denial Scheme to be put into force at the Batu Arang coal mines – the only coal mines in Malaya – which are situated in this district.
One destroyer (H.M.S.”Scout”) and naval patrol craft was operating against enemy craft off .the west coast.
On January 3, the 45 Indian Infantry Brigade with attached troops arrived at Singapore. This was a comparatively newly formed brigade which was only semi-trained. It had been intended for operations in the Middle East and had had no experience of jungle warfare.
On January 4 the Commander A.I.F.(Lt-Gen Gordon Bennett informed me that if 3 Indian Corps fell back to Johore, he would like to be allowed to exercise operational control over all troops in Johore. If this was impossible, then he would prefer that the A.I.F. should be responsible for the West area and the 3 Indian Corps for the East area. I replied that I could not agree to this for the following reasons: -
The proposal to transfer the A.I.F. must lead to Command and Administrative difficulties.
The proposal to transfer the A.I.F. as a whole from East to West Johore was not practical owing to the complicated moves that would become necessary in the middle of active operations and the weakening of the east coast defences.
I informed him that the only practical solution at that time seemed to be for the A.I.F. to be responsible for the East area and the 3 Indian Corps for the West area, but that I would be guided by events.
At 11 a.m. January 5, I held a conference at Segamat in North Johore as previously arranged (see Section XXXI) to discuss plans for the withdrawal and the defence of Johore. It was attended by the Commanders 3 Indian Corps and A.I.F. with members of their staffs and by staff officers of Headquarters Malaya Command. As a result of this conference, orders were issued for the withdrawal to and defence of Johore the main points of which were as under:
The intention was to continue to ensure the security of Singapore Naval Base. The broad policy was to continue opposition on the mainland to cover the arrival of reinforcements.
There was to be no withdrawal without my permission south of the line Endau (later amended to read Mersing) – Batu Anam (N.W. of Segamat) – Muar.
North of the line given above the 3 Indian Corps would continue to fight the enemy in areas selected by the Corps commander. No withdrawal from one area to another would take place until necessitated by enemy action. The enemy should be attacked in flank and rear.
It was of the utmost importance for strategical reasons to deny to the enemy the use of the Kuala Lumpur and Port Swettenham aerodromes for as long as possible, but at least until January 14.
After withdrawal the 3 Indian Corps would be responsible for the defence of the West area of Johore and the A.I.F. for that of the East area.
Slim River Battle
At dawn on January 4 the 12 Brigade Group was moving into Trolak sector and the 28 Brigade Group into harbours near Slim River Village ready to man its positions in that area when ordered. No battalion could now muster more than the equivalent in men of three poorly armed companies. No battalion had more than two anti-tank rifles,. Some had none.
To block the road against tanks a supply of large concrete cylinders had been sent up. Owing to the constant presence of enemy aircraft which flew up and down the road bombing and machine-gunning all day, work on the defences had to be done under cover of darkness.
On the afternoon of January 5 an enemy attack down the railway was repulsed with heavy loss. At 3.45 a.m. January 7 the enemy attacked the forward troops frontally in bright moonlight.
They succeeded in clearing the tank blocks and 15 tanks followed by infantry advanced down the road. On reaching the second sub-sector the leading tank struck a mine and some 30 tanks piled up behind it in close formation.
The attack was held up for some two hours in this sub-sector during which seven tanks were destroyed. Then they cleared the obstacles and continued their advance closely followed by infantry.
The news of this tank break-through had, partly owing to lack of telephone cable, not reached the troops in rear who were in turn taken completely by surprise.
Two battalions were overtaken by the tanks while marching along the road to occupy their position and were badly cut up. Artillery units were similarly surprised. It was not until the tanks had reached a point two miles south of Slim and 15 miles from their starting point that they were stopped by a 4.5-in. Howitzer of the 155 Field Regt. There was practically nothing between them and Kuala Lumpur. The effect of this breakthrough was disastrous. The enemy tanks were now in control of the bridge at Slim and all our wheeled transport was on the further side of it.
The enemy infantry had followed up quickly and there was considerable fighting during the day in the forward areas. In the afternoon the brigade commanders issued orders for a withdrawal down the railway line to Tanjong Malim, 17 miles away.
Our losses from this battle were very heavy. The three battalions of the 12 Brigade mustered only the equivalent of about a company each. One battalion of the 28 Brigade had been obliterated while the remaining two had a total strength of less than one battalion.
On January 8 the Supreme commander South-West Pacific, who had visited 3 Corps area on taking over command, initiated a plan to withdraw what remained of 3 Indian Corps into Johore without delay.
Reasons For Defeat
It would be easy, but unprofitable, to attribute the defeat at the Slim River Battle to the inadequacy of the anti-tank defences, the failure to blow the bridges or to a variety of other causes. The real cause lay in the utter weariness of the troops, both officers and men.
They had been fighting and moving by day and by night for a month, and few of them had had any proper rest or relief. In the exhausting and enervating climatic and topographical conditions of Malaya this is far too long. The enemy’s troops also no doubt suffered from the local conditions which were no more natural to them than to the majority of ours.
But the enemy, with the initiative conferred by the offensive and by the freedom of the sea and air and with the ability to concentrate the whole of their forces against portions of ours in detail, could always relieve their tired troops or ease the pace whenever they found it necessary.
Without reserves we were able to do neither. Had we had at this time the reserve division, which had been asked for, in 3 Indian Corps area, the story might have been very different.
THE WITHDRAWAL TO JOHORE
On January 9 in accordance with instructions received from the Supreme Commander, South West Pacific, 1 issued outline orders for the withdrawal to Johore and the defence of that State. On January 10, I held a conference at Segamat. It was attended by the Commanders 3 Indian Corps and A.I.F. with their staff officers and staff officers of Headquarters, Malaya Command.
At this conference it was decided the troops in Johore would be reorganized into two forces, the one under Lt–Gen. Jordon Bennett to be known as Westforce, and the other under lt.–Gen Sir Lewis Heath to be known as 3 Indian Corps. This did not include troops under command Singapore fortress or directly under Headquarters, Malaya Command.
The task of Westforce was to hold the North-West portion of Johore, the main line of resistance to be on the general line Batu Anam – Muar. There was to be no withdrawal behind the line Segamat – Muar without my permission. The task of 3 Indian Corps was the defence of Johore south of and inclusive of the line Endau – G. Beremban – Kluang – Batu Pahat except the Pengerang area, for which Singapore Fortress was responsible.
After the conference we reconnoitred in detail the positions to be occupied. I approved a plan for a major ambush on the road west of Gemas.
At 6 a.m. January 9 the 1/14 Punjab Regiment on the right of the Batang Berjuntal position was suddenly attacked and suffered considerable losses. In the afternoon the 6/15 Brigade Group fell back to a position about three miles north of Klang. Soon after dawn on January 10 the enemy attacked the 28 Brigade Group at Serendah and, adopting his usual tactics, quickly enveloped both flanks.
Some force fighting went on during the day our troops gradually falling back to Sungei Choh Village, which they found already in possession of an enemy force which had come from the West. They managed to force their way through, however, though suffering severe losses, and late in the afternoon embussed for Tampin leaving behind a party to cover the engineers working on road demolitions.
The 6/15 Brigade Group, which had been withdrawn the previous night from the Batu Arang area, followed the 28 Brigade Group through Kuala Lumpur. The last bridge in the Federal Capital was blown at 4:30 a.m. January 11 and the Brigade, leaving a small force to cover further demolitions, moved to the Labu area west of Seremban. The 12 Indian Infantry Brigade now only some 600-700 strong, was already in position guarding the Mantin Setul Pass.
On the coastal road Port Swettenham was evacuated on the afternoon on January 10 and the big bridge at Klang was rather ineffectively blown at 10:30 that night. After some local engagements with the enemy, all troops were withdrawn during the night of January 10-11 to positions covering Port Dickson. On the night January 12/13 the 6/15 Brigade withdrew to the Alor Gajah area and the remnants of the 12 Brigade entrained at Gemas for Singapore.
On the coast road the Line of Communications (L of C) troops fell back to a position covering Malacca. The 9 Indian Division moved in conformity. On the evening of January 13, the final stage of the long withdrawal started. As there is only a ferry crossing over the broad river at Muar, all wheeled transport had to pass through Segamat which thus became a bad bottleneck.
By January 14 however, all troops of 3 Indian Corps were clear and the command of the forward area passed to the Comdr. Westforce. The Commander 3 Indian Corps assumed responsibility for south Johore on January 14. As a result of our rapid withdrawal from North and Central Malaya there had naturally been losses in material and reserve stocks. There had been heavy expenditure of field and light anti-aircraft ammunition in the series of battles on the mainland. Our stocks in these categories had never been very satisfactory and now began to give rise to some anxiety.
The need for increased hospital accommodation in the Johore and Singapore areas now began to make itself felt. All the hospitals in North and Central Malaya and the large Australian Base Hospital (2/10 Australian General Hospital) at Malacca had had to be cleared. The Alexandra Military Hospital was full and some overflow branch hospitals for the less serious cases had been established in private houses under the pre-war scheme. New buildings had to be taken over.
Sick and wounded not likely to be fit for duty within two months, were ear-marked for evacuation. Accommodation on Singapore Island was becoming very congested. It was clearly impracticable to prohibit the entry of European civilians from the mainland. It was equally impossible to prohibit the entry of influential Asiatics whose lives would be at stake if they fell into Japanese hands.
In consequence, though measures were taken to prevent the mass influx of refugees from Johore the population of Singapore Island increased very greatly during January. As a result of the rapid withdrawal, great congestion had occurred on the railway. Consequently, when the withdrawal through Central Johore took place, thirteen fully laden trains had to be abandoned on the Malacca branch.
Efforts to destroy them by air attack were only partially successful. Included in the loss of these trains was a large consignment of maps of Singapore Island which had been printed to a special order by the Malayan Survey at Kula Lumpur.
The lack of these maps was to prove a great handicap at a later date. It is not known what, if any, use the Japanese made of them.
On January 13 an important convoy reached Singapore safely bringing the following formations and units; 53 British Infantry Brigade Group of the 18 British Division; One Heavy British Anti-Aircraft Regiment, One Light British Anti-Aircraft Regiment; One British Anti-tank Regiment; 50 Hurricane fighters with their crews.
The transports including several large American liners which were discharged with the utmost despatch and left again without delay. The reception and protection of this and subsequent convoys were combined operations of considerable magnitude.
It stands to the credit of all three Services that only one ship in convoy was sunk before reaching Singapore. The 53 Infantry Brigade Group had left the United Kingdom in October bound for the Middle East and had been diverted off the east coast of Africa. The voyage had lasted exactly eleven weeks.
On arrival the troops were healthy but soft. The Brigade had had no experience of bush warfare conditions. It arrived without its guns and transport, but it was found possible to replace these temporarily from local reserves.
On January 14 and 15 a detachment of Dutch Marechaussees reached Singapore by air from the Netherlands East Indies, this detachment, the strength of which was about 80 all told, consisted of native troops from the N.E.I. with European officers. They were specially trained in jungle guerrilla warfare. After arrival the Marechaussus concentrated in the Labis area of North Johore and after the Japanese advance, operated against their communications in that district. During the latter half of January they had considerable success killing a number of Japanese and doing material damage. Later, however, they experienced difficulties from lack of food and from the unreliability of some elements of the local population. Rather more than half the detachment eventually made its way to Sumatra.
The Hurricane Fighters arrived crated, but were unpacked and assembled with the utmost despatch by the R.A.F. They were in the air within a few days of their arrival. These machines were not the most modern type of Hurricane. Most of the twenty-four pilots had previously seen active service, but had been drawn from several different units.
Our object remained as before i.e., the Defence of the Naval Base. We knew that on the west coast the enemy had two divisions in the front line. From the manner in which they were able to maintain the momentum of the attack we thought that they had the equivalent of two divisions in reserve with which they were able to effect regular reliefs of their front line troops.
There was little evidence of what troops the enemy might have on the East Coast, but we knew it was a minimum of one division. In addition, the enemy was known to have in Indo-China a formation trained in air-borne landings and he was believed to have there at least two divisions in reserve which might be employed in Malaya or elsewhere.
We estimated therefore that the enemy had at his disposal a minimum of seven divisions with a formation of air-borne troops. His land forces included an armoured component. Our forces were approximately under: -
East force – One Brigade Group at full strength.
West force – the equivalent of about 1 ½ brigade groups.
Singapore Fortress – Two weak infantry Brigades and the Straits Settlements Volunteer force.
Fix defences at full strength
Anti-Aircraft Defences at Full Strength
Command Reserve – One Brigade Group
This gave a total of approximately three divisions with Fixed and Anti-Aircraft Defences. In addition we might expect to receive by the end of the month the equivalent of one additional division and a number of reinforcements.
Before the arrival of the Hurricanes our air resources had sunk to a very low level. It had not been possible to replace the daily losses. In consequence there were seldom a dozen aircraft, and often considerably less available for attack on selected targets.
North of Segamat the Commander West force had disposed the 27 Australian Brigade Group and the 8 Indian Brigade Group astride the main road and railway with one battalion (the 2/30 Australian Bn.) forward in an ambush position west of Gemas.
The 22 Indian Brigade Group was similarly disposed in depth astride the Melacca-Segamat road with the forward battalion about the Jementah cross roads.
The ambush laid by the 2/30 Bn. (Lieut. Colonel Gallaghan) was very carefully prepared. The forward company covered 700 yards of road immediately east of the River Gemencheh and was 3 miles in front of the main battalion position. The troops were concealed in the thick jungle bordering the road.
At 4p.m. on January 14 the leading enemy troops appeared. By 4:20 p.m. about 259 cyclists had passed through towards the main position, 500 cyclists were in the ambush and another 500 were seen approaching. At this moment the bridge was blown and fire opened. Some 400/500 of the enemy were killed before the company withdrew. More would have been killed had not the enemy cut the artillery telephone line.
By 10a.m, the following day the enemy were in contact with the main battalion position. Attack and counter-attack went on throughout the day in the course of which more of the enemy troops were killed and 8 or 9 tanks destroyed. Our own losses were under 70.
The ambush of Gemas provides an excellent example of the success that will often attend with tactics in jungle country. But fresh and reasonably well-trained troops are required and these in the Malayan campaign were seldom available.
Battle of Muar
The defence of the Muar sector was entrusted to the newly arrived 45 Indian Infantry Brigade to which was attached a battery of Australian field artillery. The enemy’s air offensive against Muar started on January 11.
The bombing of the town, as in other places started a general exodus and among those who left were the ferrymen. Nearly all the Asiatic employees of the water works and power station also deserted.
By the morning of January 15 the enemy had reached the north bank of the river, though no information of their approach had been received by the forward troops.
In the afternoon a number of boats was seen off the mouth of the River Muar and a small party landed on the coast between Muar and Batu Pahat. Early the following morning another small force landed at the lighthouse west of Batu Pahat where it was engaged by our troops.
About 2a.m. January 16 the leading Japanese troops crossed the River Muar at a point a few miles up-stream from the town and by 9a.m. had reached the road and established a block 2 miles east of Muar. Continuous fighting went on throughout the afternoon in the outskirts of the town.
By the evening of the 16th all troops of the 45 Brigade south of the river, except for the right forward battalion were concentrated in the Bakri area.
Early on the 17th January the Commander Westforce withdrew the 2/29 Bn. A.I.F. from the Segamat front and dispatched it to Bakri to meet the threat which was now developing.
It arrived in the afternoon. The enemy’s attack from Muar, though it had not been possible to assess the full strength of it, obviously constituted a very real threat to Westforce’s communications in the Yong Peng area, for if the enemy could reach the road, there the whole of the Segamant force would be cut off.
I arranged to make available immediately the 2/19 Australian Battalion from Jemaluang, relieving it temporarily by the Reserve Battalion of the 53 Brigade.
Early on the morning the 18th January the 41 Indian Infantry Brigade with the 2/29 Australian Battalion attached, was strongly attacked by the enemy in its perimeter position west of Bakri.
Nine enemy tanks were destroyed by the Australian anti-tank guns and tank hunting platoons. The enemy cut the road between this force and Brigade Headquarters situated a short distance to the east, but with the arrival of the 2/19 Australian Battalion the situation was restored. On the afternoon of the 18th the enemy landed a strong force on the coast a few miles north of Batu Pahat.
Our Intelligence Service on this day reported that the Japanese were advancing with two divisions in front line, a Division of the Imperial Guards being in the Muar area and the 5 division on the main road. The full intent of the threat from Muar now became clear,
I felt that our chances of holding up this thrust for any length of time were not great and that a withdrawal from Segamat would sooner or later be force upon us,
By an agreement with the Commander Westforce I placed the whole of the Muar front temporarily under the Commander 3 Indian Corps. My reasons for this were: -
• I thought it difficult for Commander Westforce with his small staff to give the close attention to the Muar front which the dangerous situation there demanded as well as controlling the operations on the Segamat front some 70 miles distant.
• It would obviously be necessary to build up a supporting front west of Yong Peng in order to keep open communications both with the Muar and Segamat forces. This could only be done by troops at that time under command of 3 Indian Corps.
On the morning of January 19 very heavy fighting again developed in the Bakri area. About midday the right forward battalion of the 45 Brigade (4/9 Jats) which had remained detached was ambushed when rejoining the main forces and suffered heavily. Brigade Headquarters was practically wiped out by a bomb.
The Commander 53 British Brigade was now made responsible for the bridge at Parit Sulong and to the high ground S.E. of the junction of the Yong Peng – Batu Pahat roads.
Events however anticipated the implementation of this plan, for on the afternoon of January 19 an enemy force attacked and captured the defile east of Bukit Payong and later occupied the bridge at Parit Sulong.
The Muar Force started to concentrate on the evening of January 19 but was attacked from all sides and suffered heavily. Early on the 20th the withdrawal started, the force being organized into seven company groups.
The road which passed through miles of swampy country, had been blocked in many places. Each block had to be cleared in turn and some of the fiercest and most terrible fighting of the whole campaign took place on this day, our troops harassed on all sides, repeatedly charging with the bayonet, and the Japanese Guards fighting with their traditional fanaticism.
It was not till 6a.m., January 21 that the head of the column reached the bridge at Parit Sulong to find it held by the enemy. Early in the withdrawal them Commander 45 Indian Brigade (Brigadier Duncan) was killed while leading a bayonet charge. He had set a magnificent example of courage and fortitude and can in no way be held responsible for the disaster which overtook his untrained brigade. The command of the force devolved upon Lt.-Col. Anderson A.I.F., who for his fine leadership was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Change of Command
On January 21 I ordered the Commander Westforce to assume command of all troops on the Yong Peng – Muar road at a time to be arranged direct with the Commander 11 Indian Division. The reasons for this change in command were as under: -
(a) The movements of the Segamat and Muar Forces now required very careful co-ordination.
(b) The shortening of communications now made it possible for the Commander Westforce to control both forces.
c) The only possibility of communication with the Muar Force was by radio from headquarters Westforce.
Throughout January 21 desperate efforts were made by the Muar Force to force the river crossing at Parit Sulong. But the bridge was strongly held and the attacks were repulsed.
In the rear a new threat appeared in the shape of heavy tanks, several of which were destroyed by anti- tank guns and tanks – hunting parties.
By nightfall however, the position held had become very contracted. The following morning food and medical supplies were dropped by three aircraft from Singapore, but at 0900 hrs, the Commander Muar Force reluctantly gave the order for all guns, vehicles and heavy weapons to be destroyed, for the wounded to be left behind in the charge of volunteers and for all who could walk to make their way through the jungle to Yong Peng. Eventually some 550 Australian troops and some 400 Indian troops rejoined. I regret to have to record that the wounded who were left behind were, almost without exception subsequently massacred by the Japanese.
Unfit For War
The 45 Infantry Brigade ceased to exist. Those killed included the Brigade Commander, every battalion commander and second-in-command and two of the three adjutants.
Only one or two of the surviving British officers had more than a few months’ service. This brigade had never been fit for employment in a theatre of war. It was not that there was anything wrong with the raw material but simply that it was raw. It was the price of our unpreparedness for war and over-rapid expansion.
The Battle of Muar, which lasted six days, was one of the most sanguinary of the Malayan campaign. Our small untried force, in spite of its handicaps, had held at bay a division of the Japanese Imperial Guards and by doing so had saved the Segamat Force which would otherwise inevitably have been lost. However, it was able to withdraw safely through Yong Peng. The extrication of the Segamat Force from its perilous position was a matter for considerable satisfaction. The whole of the Segamat-Muar operations required the most careful handling by all commanders and quick compliance with orders by all formations and units. They imposed a great strain on commanders and staffs, in illustration of which I may mention that during the twenty-five days ending January 23 I motored over 2,500 miles and held numerous conferences in the forward areas working late into the night at my Headquarters at Singapore.
The denial of the line of aerodromes in Central Johore to the enemy until the 18 British Division had safely arrived was now of primary importance. It was clear that the crisis of the campaign had arrived. The Batu Pahat Force withdrew during the night January 25/26 and reached Senggarang at dawn on the 26th where it found the road blocked. Repeated attempts made throughout the day to force the block and open the road were unsuccessful. Here again as elsewhere the exhaustion of the troops after several days and nights continuous operations in conditions to which they were not acclimatised told its tale.
In the evening the Commander Batu Pahat Force decided that there was no longer any possibility of the brigade fighting its way out as a formation. He therefore gave orders for units to make their way to Benut on foot by a route on the coastal flank of the road.
A chaplain and personnel of the Royal Army Medical Corps voluntarily remained behind with the wounded, who on this occasion were not molested by the Japanese
Looked at in retrospect, it seems that owing largely to the uncertainty of the communications, the authority to withdraw from Batu Pahat was delayed for 24 hours too long. When the authority was given the Force was given a task which in the existing circumstances was beyond its powers.
Mersing, 100 miles from Singapore on the North East Coast of Johore had long been regarded as the backdoor to Singapore Fortress, particularly since the completion of the road Kota Tinggi – Jemaluang. The beaches in the Mersing area are suitable for landings though not ideal. The Mersing area was strongly defended. It was covered by a large number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, though the effective life of these in the humid climate of Malaya is limited.
On January 14, when contact was first made on this front, Eastforce (Brigadier Taylor) was composed of: -
22 Australian Brigade Group
2/17 Dogras (released from the Singapore Garrison)
Detachments of the Johore Military Forces
On January 22 a Japanese attempt to cross the river at Mersing was repulsed with heavy loss. On January 23 a naval convoy was sighted between Singapore and Mersing moving south. This convoy was twice attacked during the day by Hudson, Albacore and Vickers V1’debeeste aircraft escorted by Hurricanes and Buffalos. Each time a large force of Japanese Navy Zero fighters operating from Kuantan was met and there was much air fighting. A minimum of 13 enemy fighters were destroyed while we lost 11 Vickers Vildebeeste, 2 Hurricanes and 1 Buffalo. Both enemy transports were hit, but the landing was not prevented. Our Air Striking Force in Malaya, even such as it was, had now vanished.
On the night of January 26/27 H.M. Australian destroyer “Vampire” and H.M.S. “Thanet” were sent to sweep up the coast and attack the Japanese transports. Off Endau they fell in with and engaged three destroyers and a cruiser. The “Thanet” was sunk and a Japanese destroyer severely damaged. The fresh enemy troops advanced rapidly from Endau and at midnight January 26/27 their leading battalion marched into an ambush which had been prepared for them in the Nithsdale Estate. There was confused and bitter hand-to-hand fighting during the night in the course of which over 300 of the enemy were killed while our losses in killed, wounded, and missing were less than 100.
Our ambush troops then fell back through the Jemaluang position.
THE BATTLE OF SINGAPORE
On January 27 I received a telegram from the Supreme Commander South West Pacific giving me discretion to withdraw to Singapore Island if I considered it advisable. On that day the full significance of the dispersal of the Bhatu Pahat Force and the opening to the enemy of the West Coast road became apparent. Our remaining troops on that road were not strong enough to stop the enemy’s advance for long and there were no reserves available. I felt that any further delay might result in the loss of the whole of our forces on the mainland. I therefore decided to authorize a withdrawal to Singapore Island even though this meant failure to achieve our object of protecting the Naval Base. The withdrawal of East force was carried out according to plan without enemy interference. Of the Batu Pahat Force one contingent moved east of the road and reached Benut on the night of January 27/28. The remainder comprising of about 2,000 officers and men reached the sea at the mouth of the river Ponggor. From here they were evacuated during four successful nights by the Royal Navy and taken to Singapore.
On the Main road
On the main road and railway front the enemy followed up our withdrawal energetically and much fighting took place. The withdrawal of the two columns required most careful co-ordination. There was little rest for the troops. Astride the main road a number of local engagements were fought by the 27 Australian Brigade Group with 2 Gordons under command and many casualties were inflected on the enemy by local counter-attacks.
On the railway front disaster overtook the 9 Indian Division on January 28. A wide gap developed in the Layang Layang area between the 22 Indian infantry Brigade, which was forward, and the 8 Indian infantry Brigade which was supporting it. Into this gap enemy troops penetrated having moved round the eastern flank by estate roads. The 22 Brigade in an endeavour to rejoin the division, moved through the jungle west of the railway.
Some parties of the enemy were met and dispersed, the 5/11 Sikhs again distinguishing themselves, but the dense jungle proved too much for the troops who were hampered by having to carry a number of wounded. In spite of a continuous march of three days and nights they were unable to catch up and efforts to locate them by ground and air patrols failed. The final withdrawal was postponed as long as possible in an effort to recover this brigade but without success, and arrangements were made to ferry them across the Straits from a point east of Johore Bahru. Eventually only about 100 were saved in this way. The remainder were captured in the neighbourhood of Johore Bahru on February 1. The final withdrawal on the night of January 30/31 was carried out without incident, and with little interference from the enemy’s Air Force.
At 8:15a.m. January 31 all troops had been withdrawn and a gap of 70 feet was blown in the Causeway. It is estimated some 300 bridges were destroyed or damaged during the campaign.
During this period the Japanese Air Striking force concentrated their attacks chiefly on the aerodromes on Singapore Island. Some attacks also were made on the Naval Base and the Docks area and some bombs fell in the Town area. On several days the civilian casualties ran into several hundreds. The attacks were usually carried out in daylight by formations of 27Bomber aircraft escorted by fighters. The maximum number of aircraft which attacked the Singapore area in any one day was 127.
On our side, great hopes had been placed in the Hurricane Fighters which reached Singapore on January 13. It was hoped that the superior quality of these machines might enable us to regain at least some measure of air superiority over the Japanese. Such, however, did not prove to be the case. In the first place the machines, which were not of the most modern type, did not prove to be superior to the Japanese Navy Zero Fighters. Secondly the pilots lacked knowledge of the Malayan climatic and geographical conditions. As a result, several of these Hurricanes were lost daily, some being brought down in battle, some accidentally lost, while a few were destroyed or damaged on the ground.
Our Bomber and Reconnaissance machines also continued to be a wasting asset. I wish to pay tribute to the gallant air crews who throughout the later stages of the Malayan campaign went unflinchingly to almost certain death in obsolete aircraft which should have been replaced many years before and also to those members of the Malayan Volunteer Air Force, who with no protection of any sort, continued to carry out reconnaissance in Moths and other light aircraft with complete disregard for their own safety.
On January 30 1942, it was decided to withdraw the whole of our Air force, except one fighter squadron, to bases in the Netherlands East Indies.
It was now known that it was not intended to send any additional naval forces to Malayan waters. The following reinforcements reached Singapore during the latter half of January:
The 44 Indian Infantry Brigade with attached troops and 7,000 Indian reinforcements. The 7,000 Indian reinforcements were extremely raw and untrained and included very few non-commissioned officers or even potential leaders, who were badly needed in our Indian units.
An Australian machinegun battalion (2/4 Machine Gun Battalion) and about 2,000 Australian reinforcements. ‘Many of the 2,000 had only had a few weeks’ training. They had not been in the army long enough to learn true discipline.
The 18th British Division less the 53 Infantry Brigade Group and a machinegun unit, a reconnaissance anti-tank and other units. This division had left the United Kingdom the previous October for the Middle East. In the same convoy arrived a light tank squadron from India the only tanks ever to reach Malaya.
The tanks which were obsolescent had been collected from training establishments in India. On arrival, several of them had to be taken into workshops for overhaul before they could take to the field.
About January 20 the War Office asked for my personal assurance that if the worst came to the worst, nothing of military value would be left intact on Singapore Island. This was a big problem. One of the main ammunition depots, for example was within a short distance of the military hospital and nobody could be certain what the effect of such a demolition would be.
Other equipment could only be destroyed at the last minute in any case and civilian equipment and stocks would be required as long as Singapore was being held.
Accordingly I informed the War Office I could give no such guarantee. Meanwhile the evacuation of women and children proceeded smoothly. By the end of January, only comparatively few European women and children remained. The majority remaining were engaged on important war work.
In the end some 300 European women were interned in Singapore. The difficulty regarding the evacuation of Asiatics was to find a country willing to accept them. There were no sailings to China and few to India. Australia agreed to accept 1,500 Chinese. A number was sent to Ceylon. There was obviously no question of evacuating the Army even if ships had been available.
The Battle of Singapore
Gen. Percival opens his account of the battle on Singapore Island with an explanation that prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Japan no defences had been constructed on the northern or western shores of Singapore Island.
This had been imputed in some quarters to a lack of foresight on the part of successive general officers commanding. It had however perhaps not been realised that the object of defence was not to hold Singapore Island but to protect the naval base. To do this it was necessary at least to prevent the enemy bringing that base under observed fire and also as far as possible to keep the enemy out of close bombing range. The estimate of cost was however, so ruthlessly cut down by the War office that the defences were never completed. Such resources, financial and material, as had been available, and therefore been applied to the preparation of defences at a distance from Singapore beginning with the Mersing area and subsequently extending further north. The estimate of cost was however, so ruthlessly cut down by the War Office that the defences were never completed.
As for guns, those most likely to be available were the 15-in. Guns (Forts Johore and Buona Vista) and the 9-2-in. Guns on Blakang Mati (Fort Connaught). But the 9-2-in. Guns only had about 30 rounds each of high explosive ammunition while the 15-in. Guns had none at all.
Early in January orders were given that the preparation of the defences of the northern part of Singapore Island was to be undertaken at once as an urgent measure. Labour difficulties however then intervened. Nevertheless a great deal of work was done. Singapore was not a fortress in the old sense of the term. It comprised a large area of land and water with strong anti-ship defences, reasonably strong anti-aircraft defences but weak infantry defences and no tanks.
The coasts facing the Straits of Johore were, when war broke out, completely undefended. From time to time exaggerated statements had appeared in the press as to the strength of the Singapore defences. It is certain that troops retiring from the mainland, many of whom had never seen Singapore before, were disappointed not to find the immensely strong fortress which they had pictured.
It is difficult to state with any accuracy what food reserves were available on Singapore Island at the end of January but there was probably not less than three months’ supply for both troops and civilians. European and Asiatic.
After the Japanese captured the main source of Singapore’s water supply at Gunong Pulai in South Johore on January 27 the Island was dependent on water from the reservoirs. The water level in those reservoirs was rather lower than usual owing to an abnormally dry season. Nevertheless there was with care adequate supply even for the greatly increased population of Singapore Island.
The ammunition situation was on the whole satisfactory. As the Naval Base was now under observed artillery and small arms fire and within close range of enemy aircraft, to which we could offer only limited opposition, we had clearly failed to achieve our object of protecting that base. From now onward our object was to hold Singapore.
It was estimated that the Japanese could probably deploy three divisions against Singapore Island giving a total of about 60,000 men. Behind these it was reasonable to expect that they had local reserves in Malaya and they also probably still had a general reserve in Indochina or elsewhere, of one or two divisions. It was estimated therefore, that they probably had for operations against Singapore a total strength of seven or eight divisions. They were known in addition to have tank units and a formation of airborne troops.
As regards our own strength I have no official figures available now but I believe it to have been in the neighbourhood of 85,000. I.e. an equivalent of four weak divisions with a large number of base, other administrative and labour and medical troops. Probably about 70,000 of the total were armed and equipped. A large number of these were very inadequately trained.
As is usual after long withdrawals our troops who had fought on the mainland were suffering from exhaustion and from lack of sleep, Their confidence had been shaken by the enemy’s naval and air supremacy and by his great superiority in armoured fighting vehicles.
The fact that the Naval Base had ceased to be of use to us and the evacuation of the air force, except for one fighting squadron, necessary as it may have been, were factors which had the most adverse effect on the morale both of the troops and the civil population. It was understandable that some among the troops should begin to think of their own homes overseas which were now being directly threatened. As regards equipment the enemy had complete superiority in tanks as we still only had a few obsolescent light tanks available. We were, however, reasonably well equipped with anti-tank guns and still had a good number of Bren gun carriers and armoured cars. Our coast artillery was strong and our field artillery was equal if not superior to that of the enemy though our ammunition reserve was limited. The Japanese had a good infantry gun and their troops were well trained in the use of the mortar which was a better weapon than our own. We had two fully equipped machine-gun battalions, but few units even approached establishment in light automatics, mortars or Thompson sub-machine guns owing to heavy losses in the fighting on the mainland. There were comparatively few anti-tank rifles. I estimated that it would take the enemy at least a week to prepare his attack and that we must therefore be ready to meet his attack any time after the first week in February,
Essence of Defence
The essence of the defence was that the enemy must be prevented from landing or, if he succeeded in landing, that he must be stopped near the beaches and destroyed or driven out by counter-attack.
For this purpose the defences were organised into three areas (Northern, Southern and Western) and the Anti-Aircraft Defences. A force of Chinese Irregulars which had been operating on the mainland under command of Lt.-Col. J.D. Dalley was now expanded and became known as Dalforce. Owing to lack of weapons it could only be partially armed. Detachments of this force were placed under orders of Area Commanders with the object of (a) patrolling the swampy areas where landings might take place (b) acting as a nucleus of fighting patrols sent to operate on the mainland.
As a result of two months of almost continuous day and night operations on the mainland a great deal of re-organization was now necessary in almost all formations. This was especially the case of a 3 Indian Corps which had borne the brunt of the fighting. The Australian units which had suffered so heavily in the Muar Battle were brought up to strength with new drafts which, however, lacked training and experience. The preparation of defences could now be continued by troops who were to occupy them. Most of the work on forward defences had to be done by night as they were directly under enemy observation by day. In most areas it was found desirable to withdraw garrisons from foremost defended localities by day leaving only observation posts and to re-occupy them at night.
Empress of Asia
Early on February 5 a convoy of four ships bringing reconnaissance, machine-gun, anti-tank and certain administrative units of the 18th Division and some Indian troops was attacked by enemy dive-bombers. The Empress of Asia received several direct hits and soon began to sink. Nearly all weapons and equipment on board were lost and the ship became a total wreck. All troops had to take to the water owing to fire. Rescues were quickly effected by the Navy and the loss of life was small. Owing to heavy air attacks on the docks area, some of the vehicles and heavy stores were not discharged from other ships, which left again the following night. It thus happened that some of these units landed without their equipment. They were re-equipped as far as possible with small arms and fought thereafter as infantry.
The withdrawal of the Air Force, except for one fighter squadron, and the evacuation of the Naval Base had a bad moral effect on certain sections of the civil population. I gave interviews to the Press and leading members of the Unofficial European community in which I explained the reasons for withdrawal and emphasised our intention was to defend Singapore in the best of our ability.
On February 2, a Chinese District Watch force was formed whose duties, among others, were
(a) to assist in arresting looters, hooligans etc.,
(b) to assist in calming the populace,
(c) to advise the populace in to resume business after alerts,
(d) to assist in food distribution.
By this time the Communist element was taking a major part in the Chinese war effort. Civil labour continued to be a great difficulty.
Japanese artillery adopted harassing tactics, batteries becoming active in the plantations of Pulau Ubin and on the high ground east and west of Johore Bahru. One battery with a specially long range of about 24,000 yards shelled the Government House area from near Johore Bahru. The Japanese used an anchored balloon to assist in observation from Johore Bahru. Our artillery replied with counter-bombardment and harassing fire within limits laid down. On all fronts our night patrols advanced to the Straits and reconnoitred enemy dispositions.
At 1:30p.m. on February 8 heavy artillery fire opened on the fronts of the 22 Australian and 44 Indian Brigade Groups, in the Western area of the Island, following lighter shelling during the morning. Forward communications received special attention. After a lull at sunset the bombardment continued with increased intensity. It was apparent that the enemy had greatly strengthened his artillery during the previous week, the bombardment being reminiscent of that during the World War 1. Casualties to personnel were, however, not heavy owing to the protection afforded by slit trenches, but cable communications were cut and damage was done to search-light and other equipment.
The 22 Australian Infantry Brigade was disposed on a three battalion front, each battalion finding its own reserves. The Brigade front, which stretched from the River Kranji on the right to the River Berih on the left, measured 16,000 yards. In rear of the position there is a comparatively narrow neck of about 3,000 yards where the headwaters of the Rivers Kranji and Berih nearly join.
The problem was whether to allow the enemy to land unopposed and to endeavour to stop him on this neck or to hold further positions near the coast with a view to attacking the enemy when he was most vulnerable, i.e., when he was crossing the Straits and landing on the shores of the Island. In accordance with the general policy laid down by Headquarters Malaya Command the forward positions were opposed. The 2/20 Battalion A.I.F. with a company of Dalforce attached was on the right on a front of 8,000 yards between the River Kranji and Sarimbun Island. The 2/18 Battalion A.I.F. was in the centre on a front of 4,000 yards between Sarimbun Island and Murai Point. The 2/19 Battalion which had absorbed a large number of reinforcements since its heavy losses at Muar, was on the left on a front of 4,000 yards between Murai Point and the River Berih. The first landings took place at about 8:45 p.m. February 8 and very soon the whole of the front between the River Buloh on the right of the 2/20 Battalion and the right company of the 2/29 Battalion was being attacked. Some craft also attempted to enter the mouth of the River Berih but were driven off.
The troops which formed the first flight of the attacking force were conveyed across the Straits in special armoured landing craft. Successive flights came in more vulnerable types of craft. These landing craft were available in very large numbers, as many as 40-50 appearing on the front of one of the forward companies in the first flight. Each landing craft carried 40 men. It has been ascertained from Japanese sources that 13,000 troops landed during the night and a further 10,000 soon after dawn, so that our defending troops were heavily outnumbered. The landing craft emerged from the rivers opposite the north-western and western shores of Singapore Island. It is now known that the Japanese carried them overland by road from Pontian Kechil on the west coast of Johore. The enemy landing craft in the first flight were in many cases sunk or beaten off, but they were quickly followed by others and the enemy succeeded in landing at many points.
Very heavy, and, in many areas, fierce hand-to-hand fighting developed. Some of the machine-guns continued fighting until their ammunition was practically exhausted. Unfortunately, it appears that the S.O.S calls for artillery support were not answered until sometime after the attack started.
This was due partly to the inadequacy of Verey Light signals in that close country, partly to the severing of cable communications by the enemy’s bombardment and partly to a failure to make full use of radio. When the artillery fire did come down, however, it was maintained within the limits of the resources available, at a high level throughout the night and must have done considerable damage. During the evening of February 9 and the enemy attack on the front between the Causeway and the River Jurong a number of his landing craft were knocked out by artillery and machine-gun fire but again he succeeded in getting a footing. Fighting went on in this area until midnight.
Throughout the day Hurricane fighters had been in the air almost continuously as had indeed been the case during the whole of the previous week. They had inflicted casualties on enemy aircraft and sustained some themselves.
This one weak squadron fought gallantly against the Japanese air force. With the loss of Tengah aerodrome, Kallang was the only one now serviceable. There was also a failure to make proper use of the beach searchlights for reasons which it has not been possible to ascertain. This disadvantage was however, countered to some extent by the illumination provided by burning ammunition barges. The strongest enemy attack was directed from the west up the banks of the River Murai with Ama Keng Village, the key point lying between the headwaters of the River Kranji and the River Berih, as its objective. In this area a wedge was driven between the 2/18 and 2/19 Battalions A.I.F.
About midnight the commanders of the three battalions ordered the forward troops to withdraw into battalion perimeters.
The plan for the forward troops to fall back to battalion perimeter positions was contrary to the policy laid down by Headquarters Malaya Command and in my opinion, involved an operation which was too difficult in the middle of a night battle which was being fought fiercely at close quarters. As a result of it there was much confusion and disorganisation, groups of men becoming detached and lost in the close country. Some were collected and taken back to the Base Depot where they were refitted and reorganised. Others made their way to Singapore Town. The 22 Australian Infantry Brigade, however, did not cease to exist- on the contrary it continued to fight well later on as will be seen – and it would be very wrong to judge the performance of the A.I.F. by these stragglers. The action of these men must be judged in relation to the existing conditions. They were not long-service soldiers and discipline was not deep-rooted. They had volunteered for service and had been sent to Malaya to defend the Naval Base.
The Naval Base was no longer of any use, but Australia, their homeland, was being threatened. Many of them belonged to units which, after heavy casualties on the mainland, had been reorganised but had had no time to regain their full fighting efficiency. They had fought well throughout a long night against heavy odds and were exhausted. This is the true picture and should be judged on its merits. In the middle of the day of February 9 there was a lull in the fighting which had been focused chiefly round the Tengah aerodrome. The enemy’s thrust now exercised a very serious threat to our depots and dumps along the Bukit Timah road, especially to the large Kranji ammunition magazine and to the vital food and petrol dumps east of Bukit Timah Village and in the Racecourse area. The Air Officer Commanding (A.O.C ) with my consent, decided to withdraw what remained of the fighter squadron to a base in the Netherlands East Indies intending to use Kallang as an advanced landing ground only in the event, non British aircraft were seen again over Singapore.
Events of February 10
Shortly after midnight on February 9/10 his left battalion having been forced back from the beaches, the Commander of the 27th Australian Infantry Brigade issued orders for his brigade to withdraw to positions north and south of Bukit Mandai. The enemy was not slow to occupy the hill south of the Causeway. By 7:30 a.m. a strong attack had developed against the right of the Kranji-Jurong position and later the attack spread southwards. Our troops were forced back to positions covering Bukit Panjang to the south of it and further south to a position astride Jurong Road, covering Bukit Timah village.
The eighth Brigade from the Divisional Reserve occupied high ground south of the Causeway at 10 a.m. A little later a battalion of the Eighth Brigade attacked and recaptured Hill 95 overlooking the Causeway. By dusk the 12 Brigade was in position astride the main road south of Bukit Panjang Village where at about 8:15 p.m. it was attacked by enemy tanks closely supported by infantry. The tanks broke through and proceeded south towards Bukit Timah Village but were held up for a time by the 2/29 Battalion A.I.F and other troops. About 40 tanks were used in this attack.
The Supreme Commander South West Pacific arrived at Singapore early on February 10 and left late at night. During the day he visited all formation commanders. Therefore leaving he issued orders to the effect that Singapore must be held to the last. These orders I passed on to all ranks.
During this and subsequent days enemy aircraft were very active over the forward areas and over Singapore Town. They were now unopposed except for anti-aircraft and small arms fire,
Events of February 11
During the night there was a great deal of mortar and patrol activity on the Jurong Road front and by 8:30 a.m. the enemy was attacking this position in rear from the direction of Bukit Timah Village.
• By mid-day the front ran approximately from the hills east of the Bukit Timah Rifle Range on the right along the line of the railway, then forward to the junction of Ulu Pandan and Reformatory roads and then south to a point on the coast north of Pasir Panjang Village.
• By 7:00a.m. it had become clear that a dangerous gap existed between the MacRitchie Reservoir and the Racecourse which was not held by any of our troops.
• At 7:45 a.m. February 11, Advanced Headquarters Malaya Command closed at Sime Road, which was now closely threatened, and moved to Fort Canning.
• About 8 a.m. the Main Reserve Petrol Depot east of the Racecourse was set on fire by enemy action and destroyed.
During the morning a letter from Lieut.-General Yamashita Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Army, was dropped from an aeroplane calling upon me to surrender the fortress. I made no reply to this and reported to headquarters, South-West Pacific Command: “Have received letter from Commander of Japanese Army asking for surrender of fortress. Letter was dropped by air. “Have no means of dropping message so do NOT propose to make reply which would of course in any case be negative.”
In the Causeway sector there was no change in the situation during the morning. Our artillery succeeded in keeping the gap in the Causeway open and at the same time inflicted numerous casualties on enemy parties trying to repair it.
During the day enemy troops penetrated between the 28 and 8 Brigades towards Nee Soon Village. During the night 11 Indian Division fell back to the line River Simpang-Simpang Village – inclusive Sembawang aerodrome – inclusive Seletar Reservoir.
During the period February 9-11, the Johore 15-in Battery and the Connaught 9.2-in. Battery had co-operated by shelling the Tengah Johore Bahru and later the Bukit Timah Village areas. The fire, most of which was with Armour Piecing (A.P.) shells, could of course not be observed but from reports subsequently received it is believed that heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy by these guns.
The loss of the food and petrol depots and dumps in the Bukit Timah area, in spite of all our efforts to hold them, was a very serious blow. We now only had about 14 days’ military food supplies in the depots which remained under our control. As regards petrol, so little remained that I issued an order that no further supplies, either Army, Air Force or Civil, must be destroyed without my permission.
Events of February 12
Thursday February 12, was a day of heavy fighting on the whole front. The enemy who had now been greatly reinforced launched strong attacks at several different points. At about 9 a.m. the enemy attacked with tanks on the Bukit Timah road front and almost reached the Chinese High School area before they were stopped. I decided that the time had come to organise a close perimeter defence round Singapore town itself. This defence must however, include sources of vital water supply. This plan involved the withdrawal of all troops from beach defences on the north side of the Island and also from the Changi area, with a consequent loss of the Changi coast defences. I informed the Governor of the dangerous situation which was developing on the Bukit Timah road front. He ordered the destruction of the broadcasting station and took certain steps to reduce stocks of currency notes held by the Treasury. The administrative situation now began to cause great anxiety. As a result of further withdrawals, military food reserves under our control were now sufficient for only about seven days’ consumption. The Pearls Hill water reservoir was empty and the Fort Canning reservoir began to lose water rapidly. In the town area breaks in mains from bombing and shelling began to gain steadily over repairs with the result that from February 12, pressure failed seriously and water at low pressure was only available at certain street and ground floor levels. Special water carrying parties were organised.
Events of February 13
The main Japanese offensive during February 13 developed along the Pasir Panjang ridge on the left of our position. By the afternoon the enemy had reached the Gap dominating the position where the Buona Vista road crosses the ridge. In the Tyersall – Tanglin area the Commander A.I.F. (Western Area) had organised an all-round perimeter defence into which most of the units of the A.I.F. including all surplus personnel of administrative units, had been drawn. On the Northern Area the 53 Brigade Group fell back under pressure during the day along the Thomson road, and by the evening had taken up the position allotted to it north of Braddell road and east of Thomson road.
The 11 Indian Division was holding a position astride the Serangoon road south of Paya Lebar and with its right in tough with the Southern Area eastern defences which included the Kallang aerodrome where some pre-war defences had been constructed.
Southern Area still held the beach defences in the Singapore Town area, and also Pulau Barani and Palau Bukom. Blakang Mati, Tekong and the Pengerang Area.
On the morning of February 13, the Rear-Admiral Malaya decided to sail all the remaining ships and sea-going craft to Java during the night February 13-14 and to leave Singapore himself. There was accommodation on these ships and small craft for about 3,000 persons in all, in addition to the crews.
At a meeting held by the Rear-Admiral the vacancies were divided between the Services and the Civil Government. One thousand eight hundred vacancies were allotted to the Army. The conference then discussed the allotment of Army. I decided that
(a) All female members of the military Nursing Service should be sent. This decision was taken as a result of a report from G.H.Q. South-West Pacific on the treatment of nurses by the Japanese after the capitulation of Hong Kong and
(b) Trained staff officers and technicians no longer required at Singapore could be sent at the discretion of formation commanders.
The decision as regards trained staff officers was made in accordance with instructions received from G.H.Q. South-West Pacific that any surplus were to be evacuated as they were badly needed both in Java and in India. Technicians were evacuated to avoid them falling into the hands of the Japanese.
As a result of views put forward at a conference on February 13 I formed the opinion that the situation was undoubtedly grave but was not hopeless. As so many and vast Imperial interests were involved I felt it my duty to report the situation fully and candidly as I saw it to the Supreme commander, South-West Pacific.-
As some misleading statements have been made as to the purport of a telegram which I sent to the Supreme Commander, South-Pacific on that day I quote below: -
“Your instructions are being carried out but in the above circumstances would you consider giving me wider discretionary powers?’
In this reply the Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific made it clear that while he appreciated our situation, continued action was essential and instructed me to continue to inflict the maximum damage on the enemy for as long as possible.
Throughout February 13 both Japanese aircraft and artillery were active. About midday there was a particularly heavy and accurate air attack on the Orchard Road area.
The effect of the collapse of civil labour now began to make itself more and more felt. At the docks all civil labour had disappeared and the Harbour Board staff was no longer in control. In the town, area debris from bombing and shelling remained untouched, the dead remained unburied and water ran to waste from mains from lack of labour to clear demolished buildings.
In the afternoon the Governor moved his headquarters from Government House to the Singapore Club. I regret to have to report that the flotilla of small ships and other light craft which as stated above, left Singapore on the night February 13-14 encountered a Japanese naval force in the approaches to the Banka Straits. It was attacked by light naval craft and by aircraft. Many ships and other craft were sunk or disabled and there was considerable loss of life. Others were wounded or were forced ashore and were subsequently captured. Included in this flotilla was a patrol boat on which were the Rear-Admiral Malaya and his party and the Air Officer Commanding Far East. This boat was driven ashore on a deserted island by a Japanese destroyer and its engines dismantled. After some weeks on the island the Rear-Admiral and the Air officer Commanding Far East both died.
I wish here to pay a special tribute to the loyalty of Air vice-Marshal Pulford, the Air officer Commanding Far East. Though at liberty to leave Singapore at any time on or after February 5, he preferred, from a sense of duty and of personal friendship to myself, to remain there until February 13 and would have remained longer had I wished him to do so. This gallant officer’s self-sacrifice cost him his life.
In Cold blood”
During the day the Japanese renewed their attacks. Their main thrust was again made against the western front of the southern Area. By the end of the day our troops had been driven back by the weight of the attack to the line Alexandra-Gillman Barracks – Keppel Golf course. Further north the enemy reached the Alexandra hospital area. Japanese troops entered the Alexandra Military Hospital and attacked some of the staff and patients. Later many of the staff and patients were removed from the hospital by the Japanese and were massacred in cold blood.
On the Seragoon road front the enemy attacked strongly from the direction of Paya Lebar Village but was stopped by units of the 11 Indian Division. After advancing to within a few hundred yards of the vital Woodleigh Pumping Station.
Early in the morning of February 14, a new and serious situation developed when the Municipal Water Engineer (Mr Murnane) reported to the Director-General of Civil Defences that he considered a complete failure of the water supply was imminent. He reported that, owing to breaks in the water mains and pipes as a result of bombing and shelling a heavy loss of water was going on; that, though both pumping stations were still working, well over half the water was being lost; that all civil labour had disappeared and that it was difficult to get repairs done. He estimated that the water supply would last for 48 hours at the outside and that it might only last for 24 hours.
At 10:30 a.m. I met the Governor at the Singapore club. The Colonial Secretary (Mr Fraser) was also present. The Governor stressed the dangers which would result if Singapore with its large population was suddenly deprived of its water supply. I informed the Governor that I intended to go on fighting as long as we could, as I did not consider that the water situation, though undoubtedly serious had yet rendered the further defence of Singapore impossible. It was agreed that the Governor would report the situation fully to the colonial office and that I would report it to the Supreme Commander South-West Pacific. The Supreme Commander South-West Pacific in his reply said: “In all places where sufficiency of water exists for troops they must go on fighting”, and, in a later telegram he said: “Your gallant stand is serving purpose and must be continued to limit of endurance.”
Situation in Singapore
It may not be out of place here to give some description of the conditions which existed in Singapore Town on February 14. The Secretariat and other government offices were operating on a skeleton basis only. The only newspaper being published was a Government-controlled single sheet newspaper of which free issues were made. Practically all offices, business houses and shops were closed.
The Asiatic population with few exceptions was apathetic. There were few people on the streets and public services were practically at a standstill. The Civil Hospitals were working to capacity. Those on the higher levels, including: the General Hospital, were without water and special water-carrying parties had to be organised. This applied also to some of the military hospitals. The St. James Electric Power Plant, situated in the Keppel Harbour area was still working but it was now directly threatened as the enemy were within one mile of it. The Pierce and MacRitchie water reservoirs were in enemy hands although water, whether by design or oversight, continued to flow to the pumping stations. The enemy were within a few hundred yards of the Woodleigh Pumping Station.
During the night of February 14-15 enemy infantry infiltrated on all sectors of the 18th Brigade Division front and also succeeded in getting a footing on the Mount Pleasant ridge. Lack of an organised reserve made it difficult to deal with these pockets of penetration.
At 9:30a.m. a senior commanders’ conference met at Fort Canning. As I viewed the situation the alternatives were either (a) to counter-attack immediately to regain the control of the reservoirs and of the military food depots and to drive back the enemy’s artillery with a view to reducing damage to the water supply system or (b) to capitulate immediately.
Formation–Commanders were unanimously of the opinion that, in the existing circumstances, a counter-attack was impracticable. I could see the immediate solution for the critical water situation and decided to capitulate. Other members of the conference concurred unanimously with this decision.
Delegation to Japs
It was decided that a joint military and civil deputation should proceed into the Japanese lines as soon as possible and that it should consist of the Deputy Adjutant General, the Colonial Secretary and an Interpreter. The deputation was instructed (a) to propose to the Japanese a cessation of hostilities as from 4 p.m. February 15, (b) to invite a Japanese deputation to visit Singapore to discuss terms. Orders were issued for the destruction before 4 p.m. of all secret and technical equipment, ciphers, codes, secret documents and guns. It was deemed inadvisable at this stage to destroy personal weapons in case the Japanese should not agree to a cessation of hostilities or should attack before an agreement had been reached.
The following is an extract from a telegram received from the Supreme commander South-West Pacific on the morning of February 15.
“So long as you are in a position to inflict losses and damage to enemy and your troops are physically capable of doing so you must fight on.
“Time gained and damage to enemy are of vital importance at this juncture. When you are fully satisfied that this is no long possible I give you discretion to cease resistance ... Inform me of intentions.
“Whatever happens I thank you and all your troops for your gallant efforts of last few days.”
At the Ford Factory
In reply to the above I notified him of the decision to cease hostilities. In the afternoon the deputation returned with instructions that I was to proceed personally with my staff to a given rendezvous. The meeting with the Japanese Commander (Lt. – Gen. Yamashita) took place in the Ford Factory north of Bukit Timah Village. There is not, and never has been, any copy of the terms of surrender in my possession.
As far as my recollection goes, only one copy was produced by the Japanese and this was retained by them. Certainly no copy was handed to me. The actual terms of surrender cannot therefore be recorded accurately.
The main conditions were as far as my memory goes, as under: -
There must be an unconditional surrender of all Military Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) in the Singapore area.
Hostilities to cease at 8:30 p.m. British time, i.e. 10 p.m. Japanese time.
All troops to remain in positions occupied at the time of cessation of hostilities pending further orders.
All weapons, military equipment, ships, aeroplanes and secret documents to be handed over to the Japanese Army intact:
In order to prevent looting and other disorders in Singapore town during the temporary withdrawal of all armed forces, a force of 100 British armed men to be left temporarily in the Town area until relieved by the Japanese.
As regards paragraph (d) above I informed the Japanese Commander that there were no ships or aeroplanes in the Singapore area, and that the heavier types of weapons and some of the military equipment and all secret documents had already been destroyed under my orders.
This he accepted.
Orders for the cessation of hostilities were issued to all formation Commanders soon after 7 p.m. Hostilities finally ceased at 8:30 p.m. February 15 British time.
The general line of our foremost positions at the cessation of hostilities was from right to left as under: -
All inclusive the Kallang Aerodrome (Civil Airport) – The Tariat Air Strip – The Junction of Braddell and Thomson roads – the Broadcasting Station – Bukit Brown – Adam road – Raffles College area – Tyersall area – Tanglin area – Mount Echo – the Biscuit Factory – The Alexandra ammunition Magazine – Mount Washington – The eastern end of the Keppel Golf Links.
We also held Blakang Mati, Pulau Brani, Tekong and the Pengerang area. Japanese troops entered Singapore town on the morning of February 16. There was a military demonstration in which 175 Medium and Light Tanks took part. The majority of the Japanese troops, however, were retained outside the Town area.
After the cessation of hostilities it was five-and-a-half days with engineers and water parties working at full pressure before water again reached the lower areas of Singapore town which had been deprived of it and the first floor of buildings in the lowest areas. It was 10 days before water again reached the General Hospital and many other buildings on higher levels.
On the basis of 20,000 men per division and 150 tanks per regiment, I estimate that the Japanese employed a minimum of 150,000 men and 300 tanks in the Malayan campaign.
Against this we had on the outbreak of hostilities the equivalent of 3 ½ divisions with Fixed and Anti-Aircraft Defences but no tanks. Later we received as reinforcements about the equivalent of another two divisions and one squadron of obsolescent light tanks. The total number of officers and men who took part in the campaign on the British side was a little over 125,000, though the strength in Malaya at any one time was considerably less than this. This number included a high 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,
The initial attack on Singapore Island was carried out by three Japanese divisions. There were two and possibly three divisions in reserve. Two of the reserve divisions had recently arrived in Malaya and it may be assumed that they were at full strength. Some of the others may have been at less than full strength. On this basis I estimate that there were at the cessation of hostilities a minimum of 100,000 Japanese troops on Singapore Island or in South Malaya.
There is evidence to show that at least 23,000 crossed on the first day of the attack. There were also a minimum of 175 Japanese medium and light tanks on Singapore Island at the cessation of hostilities.
The total of the British forces in the Singapore fortress area at the same time was in the neighbourhood of 85,000. This figure included a large number of non-combatant troops i.e., Medical Services, Pioneer and Labour units, etc., of troops for whom no arms were available owing to a general shortage of personal weapons, and of sick and wounded. Probably about 70,000 of these men were armed and equipped, but many of them belonged to Base and other administrative units and were very inadequately trained. There was one squadron of obsolescent light tanks.
In the final section of his despatch Gen. Percival makes this assessment of Japanese strategy: This Japanese attack on Malaya was very carefully planned and there is now no doubt that preparations had been going on for a very long time before hostilities actually started. The Japanese themselves admitted that the terrain of Malaya, our battle methods and our equipment were all carefully studied for years before the outbreak of war. The Commander-in-Chief of the 25th Japanese Army detailed for the Malayan campaign had spent six months in Germany before taking over command. He was given the best possible senior staff officers. Japanese divisions employed in Malaya are known to have been among the best in the Japanese Army.
The Japanese in commenting on the Malayan campaign, have attributed their success 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 officially selected, and to the fact that their land operations were closely supported by their Navy and by their Army and Navy Air Forces.
The policy for the defence of Singapore Fortress area necessitated weak forward defences and inadequate reserve. The Japanese were able to concentrate their forces for an attack on a selected portion of our defences. By doing so they affected a landing and made a deep penetration in spite of severe losses.
The Japanese in accordance with their strategy of a vigorous offensive invariably attacked with the least possible delay. They seldom made frontal attacks. Their usual tactics were to probe the front and search for flanks. Having found the flanks they would then push mobile forces round to an attack on our communications, which usually followed a single road. They also employed widely infiltration tactics by individuals and small parties of men as a means of creating alarm; the use of trees as fire positions and the use of noise i.e. fireworks and crackers resembling machineguns in action as a weapon of war.
There is no evidence to show that there was an extensive fifth column organization in Malaya, but there is no doubt whatever that the Japanese obtained considerable assistance at times from local inhabitants. On many occasions, arrows indicating the position of headquarters or other important targets were found on the ground.
It stands to the credit of all ranks that in many critical situations which developed in the course of the long withdrawal down the peninsula the enemy, in spite of the great advantages which he enjoyed, was never able to effect a complete breakthrough, an occurrence, which, in view of the lack of reserves with which to meet such a situation, would have spelt immediate and irreparable disaster.
The local forces played their part in the Malayan campaign in the Navy, in the Army and in the air force. The newly formed Malay regiment in particular acquitted itself with distinction, as did others of the locally raised units,
In the Malayan campaign the reinforcing units suffered much from lack of local knowledge and from their inability to converse with the inhabitants. I recommend that each reinforcing unit on arrival in Malaya from whatever part of the Empire it comes should have attached to it an intelligence platoon of local Asiatics with European or Asiatic leaders and a team of interpreters, either European or Asiatic. Another activity which might well devolve upon the Local Forces is the provision of commando groups whose role would be, in case of invasion, to harass the enemy’s communications and rear installations. Local forces may be called upon to take their part in ensuring internal security or in the defence of the country in a major conflict. In the latter eventuality the defence of Malaya must ultimately depend on troops from outside acting in co-operation with the other Services. They will want all the assistance they can get from the Local Forces who should be trained primarily for this purpose.
The failure of civil Asiatic Labour and in the closing stages, of some of the military labour also under air attack was one of the most crippling events of the Malayan campaign.
Pre-war plans to organise civil labour had never reached finality and efforts made to raise additional Army labour companies had, as previously explained in this Despatch, been frustrated through delay in obtaining official sanction. In consequence, when war broke out, reliance had to be placed initially on the peace-time system of obtaining labour through contractors. This system soon proved to be most unsatisfactory. The labour problem was never satisfactorily solved. To the end labour continued to disappear under air attack. There is no doubt that during the Pre-war period the problem was not tackled with sufficient vigour.
When the danger of the situation became apparent and efforts were made to improve it, there was insufficient time to solve the many and intricate problems which arose. When war came many men and women of all races both official and unofficial played a creditable and often an heroic part in the defence of the country. Many of them lost their lives and many of them suffered a long period of imprisonment or internment at the hands of the Japanese. Most of those who survived suffered heavy losses of property.
I wish to express my deep appreciation of the loyal assistance and self sacrifice of these people.
Nevertheless, both during the period before the war and during the campaign itself an artificial and unwarlike atmosphere prevailed throughout Malaya. There seemed to be a lack of a unified effort by people determined to repel the common foe at all costs. There were many causes for this – a lack of knowledge of war owing to Malaya’s long immunity from it, an inability in some quarters to realise the real danger which threatened, the lack of common citizenship and the high standard of living resulting from the wealth of the country’s resources. Difficulties arose from the complicated machinery of Government comprising as it did a large number of separate administrations.
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 had it been desirable to do so. It has been hailed as a disaster but perhaps the judgement of history will be that the effort and money expended on the defence of Malaya and the sacrifice and subsequent suffering of many of those who fought in the Malay campaign were not in vain. The gain of ten weeks and the losses inflicted on the enemy may well have had a bigger influence than was realised at the time on the failure of the Japanese to reach even more important parts of our Empire.
An analysis of what has been said in this Despatch shows that a great many of the causes which contributed to our defeat in Malaya had a common origin. Namely the lack of readiness of our Empire for war. The lack of experience of modern war of some of the senior commanders and the weakness of our intelligence service 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 Empire. But it is becoming more and more expensive and, as the tempo of war increases, more and more dangerous.
I submit that the security of the Empire can only be assured by making proper provision for its defence in time of peace.
Formerly General Officer Commanding Malaya.
(These despatches have been condensed by Reuter and Straits Times Staff Correspondents)
These Papers, which were actual pages from the Straits Times – The Percival Report dated 27 February, 1948, were provided to me by Mary Jane Bennett, who was the daughter of J.T. (Jim) Rea ( former member of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force and POW of the Japanese). Mary Jane Bennett is also the daughter-in-law of Major Vincent Bennett (Medical Officer and former POW of the Japanese). These cuttings were in papers retained by her father Jim Rea since 1948.
The Percival Report was typed by Mrs Jean Hartz. It was a mammoth task and done with amazing accuracy.
Lt Col (Retired) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP June 2011