Operation Battle of Kranji

The 'Battle of Kranji' was the second stage of Japan’s invasion of Singapore island in the sector on the island’s northern coast held by Brigadier D. S. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade of Major General H. G. Bennett’s Australian 8th Division (9/10 February 1942).

Troops of the Imperial Japanese army assaulted the north-western front of Singapore, capital of the Straits Settlements, in the 'Battle of Sarimbum Beach' on 8 February and then the 'Battle of Kranji' on 9 February. The primary objective of the Japanese in the 'Battle of Kranji' was to secure a second beach-head after their successful assault in the 'Battle of Sarimbun Beach' on 8 February, in order to breach the defence line between Jurong and Kranji as part of their thrust to the south toward the heart of Singapore city. Defending the coast between the Kranji river and the Johore-Singapore causeway was the Australian 27th Brigade and one company of 'Dal' Force Singaporean irregulars.

On 10 February the Japanese forces suffered their heaviest losses while moving up the Kranji river, which caused them to panic and nearly to abort the operation. However, there followed a series of miscommunications and withdrawals by the allied forces in the ensuing battles, and this allowed the Japanese quickly to gain strategic footholds, which eventually led to the fall of Singapore on 15 February.

The terrain around the Kranji river was primarily mangrove swamp and tropical forest intersected by streams, inlets and creeks. The shore between the Kranji river and the Johore-Singapore causeway, nearly 21.5 miles (4 km) long, was defended by the Australian 27th Brigade, which comprised three infantry battalions (the 2/30th, 2/29th and 2/26th Battalions) and was supported by the Australian 2/10th Field Artillery Regiment and one platoon of the Australian 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. Further support was provided by one company of the 'Dal' Force, so named for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Malayan Police Special Branch, a local Chinese militia consisting of communists, nationalist supporters and other volunteers. As the war intensified, the 'Dal' Force volunteers were merely three to four days of training and sent to the front with only elementary weapons and no uniforms.

The allied forces at Kranji faced the assault of Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division. Some 400 men of the Imperial Guards Division had landed on and taken Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-eastern part of the Straits of Johore in the course of a feint attack on 7 February, and met with only minimal resistance.

On 8 and 9 February, two divisions of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army had landed on the north-western coast of Singapore, in the Sarimbun area, where the 'Battle of Sarimbun Beach' occurred between Japanese and predominantly Australian troops. Yamashita’s headquarters was located at the Sultan of Johore’s palace at Istana Bukit Serene, which offered Yamashita and his subordinate officers an excellent view of nearly every key target, both military and civilian, in the northern part of Singapore island, a mere 1 miles (1.6 km) across the Straits of Johore. The British had ordered that no artillery fire was to be directed at the sultan’s palace, even after it had become clear that the invading Japanese forces had their headquarters there, because any damage caused to the palace would have extensive negative repercussions for ties between Johore’s royalty and their British colonial counterparts.

The primary objective of the Japanese landing at Kranji was to capture Kranji village, thus enabling them to repair the partially destroyed causeway in order to facilitate the easy flow of reinforcements and supplies down the Woodlands and Mandai roads, and to the rest of the island, for their vanguard force. Once the leading wave of Japanese troops was safely ashore, the massed Japanese artillery switched its fire to the defensive positions at Kranji. Telegraph and telephone communications were destroyed in the bombardment, and communications between the front line and command headquarters were broken. At 20.30 on that night, units of the Imperial Guards Division began to the Straits of Johore crossing from Johore in special armoured landing craft and collapsible boats, and also by swimming.

Shortly after midnight on 9 February, the Australian 2/29th Battalion was detached from the Australian 27th Brigade and sent to defend the western outskirts of Tengah airfield, and subsequently came under the command of the Australian 22nd Brigade, thereby leaving Maxwell and the Australian 27th Brigade with only two of its three battalions and no reserve.

During the early hours of 10 February, the Japanese force suffered its heaviest losses of the 'Battle of Singapore'. While moving up the Kranji river, advance landing parties of the division’s 4th Regiment found themselves under heavy fire from Australian machine gunners and mortar teams. They also found themselves surrounded by oil slicks, which had been created by Allied personnel emptying the nearby Woodlands oil depot in order to prevent this strategic commodity’s capture. A scenario feared by Yamashita came to pass by accident when the spilled oil was set alight by Allied small arms fire, causing many Japanese soldiers to be burned alive. Sustaining heavy losses, Nishimura requested permission to abandon the operation, but Yamashita denied the request.

Maxwell, who had only limited communications with his divisional headquarters, was concerned that his force would be cut off by fierce and chaotic fighting at Sarimbun and Jurong to the south-west, involving the Australian 22nd Brigade. Maxwell’s force consequently withdrew from the sea front. This allowed the Japanese to land in increasing strength and take control of Kranji village. They also captured Woodlands, and began repairing the causeway, without encountering any Allied attacks.

Japanese tanks, such as Type 95 Ha-Go and Type 97 Chi-Ha typs, which were regarded as light and possessed relatively good buoyancy, were towed by boats and miscellaneous water craft across the straits towards Lim Chu Kang where, at dusk, they joined the battle on Lim Chu Kang road. With reinforced Japanese infantry and their supporting tanks advancing rapidly down Choa Chua Kang road, the defending Australians were forced to retreat and fell back to the south-east toward the hills of Bukit Panjang. The 5th Division had captured Bukit Timah village by the evening of 11 February.

Percival, the commander of the Malaya Command, drew a defence perimeter covering Kallang airfield, the MacRitchie and Peirce reservoirs, and the Bukit Timah supply depot area to ensure the integrity of Singapore city’s defence. One line of the north-western defence perimeter was the Jurong-Kranji defence line, a narrow ridge connecting the sources of Sungei Jurong and the Kranji river, and thus constituting a natural defence line protecting the north-west approach to Singapore city. (Its counterpart was the Serangoon line sited between Kallang airfield and Paya Lebar village in the eastern part of Singapore.) The troops were instructed to defend this line strongly against the Japanese advance. The line was defended by Brigadier G. Ballantine’s Indian 44th Brigade, which covered milestone 12 on Jurong road, Lieutenant Colonel I. MacA. Stewart’s Indian 12th Brigade and the beleaguered Australian 22nd Brigade holding the northern part of the line and maintaining contact with the Indian 44th Brigade. The Indian 15th Brigade was repositioned near Bukit Timah road to guard the island’s vital food and petrol supplies: a secret instruction to protect this area had been issued to Percival’s senior commanders.

Percival’s secret orders to withdraw to the last defence line around the city only if necessary were misunderstood by Maxwell, who took this to be an order for an immediate withdrawal to the line, and as a result, the Indian 44th Brigade, the Indian 12th Brigade and the Australian 22nd Brigade, reinforced after their withdrawal from Sarimbun beach in the north-west, abandoned the line on 10 February. Fearing that the large supplies depot would fall into Japanese hands should they make a rush for Bukit Timah too soon, General Sir Archibald Wavell, Allied commander-in-chief of the ABDACOM in the Far East sent an urgent message to Percival that 'It is certain that our troops in Singapore Island heavily outnumber any Japanese who have crossed the Straits. We must destroy them. Our whole fighting reputation is at stake and the honour of the British Empire. The Americans have held out in the Bataan Peninsula against a far heavier odds, the Russians are turning back the picked strength of the Germans. The Chinese with an almost lack of modern equipment have held the Japanese for four and a half years. It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior enemy forces.'

By 11 February, the Jurong-Kranji defence line had been left undefended, and this allowed the Japanese forces to sweep through the line to attack Bukit Timah. On the same day, Percival finally moved his headquarters in Sime Road to the 'Battle Box' underground bunker at Fort Canning.

Despite their fighting spirit, the 'Dal' Force fighters suffered from their poor training and lack of equipment. A further blow was delivered when the Australian 27th Brigade withdrew to the south. As a result, the Japanese established a strong position in the northern Woodlands area and secured a relatively easy passage into the island. Wavell departed Singapore for Java in the Dutch East Indies early on 11 February and sent a cable to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London on his assessment of the war front in Singapore: 'Battle for Singapore is not going well… I ordered Percival to stage counter-attack with all troops possible… Morale of some troops is not good and none is as high as I should like to see… The chief troubles are lack of sufficient training in some reinforcing troops and an inferior complex which bold Japanese tactics and their command of the air have caused. Everything possible is being done to produce more offensive spirit and optimistic outlook. But I cannot pretend that these efforts have been entirely successful up to date. I have given the most categorical orders that there is to be no thought of surrender and that all troops are to continue fighting to the end…'

By 12 February, the Imperial Guards Division had taken the reservoirs and Nee Soon village. The defending troops were, by this time, badly shaken. Thousands of exhausted and frightened stragglers left the fighting to seek shelter in large buildings. On the same night, British forces in the east of the island had begun to withdraw toward the city.

On 13 February, the 5th Division continued its advance and reached Adam and Farrer roads to capture the Sime Road Camp. Yamashita moved his headquarters forward to the bomb-damaged Ford car factory in Bukit Tima and , heading southward, the 18th Division advanced into Pasir Panjang, where the last major battle of Singapore would be fought with the Malay regiments at Bukit Chandu.