The 'Battle of Malaya', otherwise the Malayan campaign, was fought between Japanese and British-led forces for possession of Malaya and Singapore in South-East Asia (8 December 1941/15 February 1942).
The crux of the battle was the land campaign between British and Commonwealth army formations and Imperial Japanese army formations, though there were also a number of minor skirmishes at the beginning of the campaign between British and Commonwealth force and the Royal Thai police. The Japanese had air and naval supremacy from the opening days of the campaign, and for the British, Indian, Australian and Malayan forces defending the colony, the campaign was a total disaster.
The operation is notable for the Japanese use of bicycle infantry, which allowed troops to carry more equipment and move at speed through thick jungle terrain. Royal Engineers used demolition charges to destroy more than 100 bridges during the retreat to the south, yet this did little to delay the Japanese. By the time the Japanese had captured Singapore, they had suffered 9,657 casualties; Allied losses totalled 145,703, including 15,703 casualties and 130,000 prisoners.
By 1941 the Japanese had been attempting over a period of four years to subjugate China. They were heavily reliant on imported materials for their military forces, particularly oil from the USA.In 1940/41, the UK and the Netherlands imposed embargoes on the supply of oil and war materials to Japan. The object of the embargoes was to assist the Chinese and persuade the Japanese to halt military action in China. The Japanese considered that a withdrawal from China would result in a strategically significant loss of face and decided instead to take military action against US, British and Dutch territories in South-East Asia. The Japanese forces for the 'E' (i) invasion of Malaya were assembled during 1941 on Hainan island off the southern coast of China and in French Indo-China. This troop build-up was noted by the Allies and, when asked, the Japanese advised that it related to their operations in China.
When the Japanese invaded Malaya, they had more than 200 tanks, comprising Type 95 Ha-Go, Type 97 Chi-Ha, Type 89 I-Go and Type 97 Te-Ke types. In addition, they had nearly 800 aircraft. The Commonwealth troops were equipped with the Lanchester armoured car, Marmon-Herrington armoured car, Universal Carrier and only 23 obsolete Mk VIB light tanks (in the Indian army’s 100th Light Tank Squadron), none of which was sufficiently well armed for use in armoured warfare. The British and Commonwealth forces had just over 250 combat aircraft, but half of these were destroyed in the first few days of combat.
Between the wars, the British military strategy in the Far East was undermined by a lack of attention and funding. In 1937, Major General William Dobbie, the commander in Malaya investigated Malaya’s defences and reported that during the monsoon season, from October to March, landings could be made by an enemy on the eastern coast and bases could be established in Thailand. He predicted that landings could be made at Singora (Songkhla) and Pattani in south-eastern Thailand, and at Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya. Dobbie recommended significant and immediate reinforcement. Dobbie’s predictions were proved by events to be correct, but his recommendations were ignored. The British government’s plans relied primarily on the stationing of a strong fleet at the Singapore naval base in the event of hostilities, in order to defend both the UK’s Far Eastern possessions and the maritime routes to Australia and New Zealand. A strong naval presence was also thought likely to act as a deterrent against aggression.
By 1940, however, the army commander in Malaya, Lieutenant General Lionel Bond, who had succeeded Dobbie in 1939, conceded that a successful defence of Singapore demanded the defence of the whole Malay peninsula, and that the naval base alone would not be sufficient to deter a Japanese invasion. Military planners concluded that the desired Malayan air force strength would be between 300 and 500 aircraft, but this total was never reached because of the higher priorities in the allocation of men and matériel for the UK and the Middle East.
The defence strategy for Malaya rested on two basic assumptions: first, that there would be sufficiently early warning of an attack to allow for reinforcement of the British forces, and second, that US help would be available in the event of an attack. By a time late in 1941, after Lieutenant General A. E. Percival had taken over as commander in Malaya, it became clear that neither of these assumptions had any real substance. Moreover, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK and President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA had agreed that in the event of war in South-East Asia, priority would be given to finishing the war in Europe. The eastern theatres, until that time, would be a secondary priority. Containment was considered the primary strategy in the east.
Planning for the 'E' (i) offensive was undertaken by the Japanese Military Affairs Bureau’s Unit 82 based in Taiwan. Intelligence on Malaya was gathered through a network of agents which included Japanese embassy staff; disaffected Malayans (particularly members of the Japanese-established Tortoise Society); and Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese business people and tourists. Japanese spies, who included a British intelligence officer, Captain P. S. V. Heenan, also provided intelligence and assistance. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Japanese intelligence officers such as Major Iwaichi Fujiwara had established covert intelligence offices linking with the Malay and Indian pro-independence organisations such as the Kesatuan Melayu Muda in Malaya and the Indian Independence League. The Japanese gave these movements financial support in return for their members' provision of intelligence and later assistance in determining British and Commonwealth troop movements, strengths, and dispositions. Through the operation of these networks before the start of the invasion, the Japanese knew where the British and Commonwealth forces were based and their unit strengths, possessed good maps of Malaya, and had available to them local guides.
In November 1941 the British became aware of the large-scale increase in the numbers of Japanese troops in French Indo-China. Thailand was also seen to be as much under threat from this build-up as was Malaya. British strategists had foreseen the possibility of Thailand’s Kra isthmus being used by the Japanese to invade Malaya. To counteract this potential threat, plans for 'Matador', a pre-emptive invasion of southern Thailand, and similar undertakings had been drawn up, but by the time the invasion became highly likely the British had decided for political reasons not to use any such plan.
The Malayan campaign began when the 25th Army invaded Malaya on 8 December. Japanese troops launched an amphibious assault by the 'Takumi' Force, based on Major General Hiroshi Takuma’s 22nd Brigade, on the north-eastern coast of Malaya at Kota Bharu and started advancing down Malaya’s eastern coast. Lieutenant General Matsui Tayuko’s 5th Division also landed, farther to the north-west in south-eastern THailand, at Pattani and Singora, then moved to the south into western Malaya. French Indo-China was still under Vichy French administration, and had little option but to co-operate with the Japanese. The Vichy French authorities therefore submitted to the Japanese military use of the territory’s ports as naval bases, building air bases, and massing forces there for the invasion. Japan also coerced Thailand into co-operating with the invasion, though Thai troops resisted the landings in Thai territory for eight hours.
At 04.00, 17 Japanese bombers attacked Singapore for the first time, in the process confirming to the British that Japanese bombers based in French Indo-China were now within range of Singapore.
The Japanese were initially resisted in northern Malaya by elements of Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath’s Indian III Corps and several British battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending coastal objectives before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force their surrender. In northern Malaya, the Japanese forces held a slight advantage in numbers, but were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience asa result of their previous commitment in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. The British and Commonwealth forces lacked tanks, which put them at a severe disadvantage, and the Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, which provided them with the capacity for swift movement through terrain covered by thick tropical rain forest, criss-crossed by native paths. To speed their disembarkation processes, the Japanese had not brought bicycles with them, but knew from their intelligence gathering that suitable machines were plentiful in Malaya and quickly seized what they needed from civilians and retailers.
A replacement for 'Matador', 'Krohcol' was implemented on 8 December, but this small-scale undertaking was easily defeated by the Royal Thai police and the 5th Division. The Royal Navy’s Force 'Z' comprising the modern battleship Prince of Wales, elderly battle-cruiser Repulse and four destroyers, under the command of Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, had arrived just before the outbreak of hostilities. Japanese aircraft based in French Indo-China sank Prince of Wales and Repulse on 10 December, leaving the eastern coast of Malaya exposed and allowing the Japanese to continue their invasion unhindered by any British naval strength.
As a lower-priority theatre, the UK and Commonwealth had comparatively few modern aircraft with which to challenge the Japanese over Malaya. Moreover, the British and Commonwealth nations had decided that Japanese aircraft were in no way a significant threat. In 1941 the Allies in general had assumed that Japan would have only a few hundred aircraft, and these of poor quality and outdated design. A respected reference publication of 1941 started that the Japanese had only a modest number of outdated foreign and indigenous aircraft. Japanese pilots were also underrated, and were considered unlikely to make good pilots.
Before the start of 'E' (i), there were 75 Allied aircraft stationed in northern Malaya and 83 in Singapore. The only fighter unit in northern Malaya was the Australian No. 21 Squadron, which was equipped with 12 Brewster Buffalo single-engined fighters. The Japanese had available to them at least 459 aircraft.
The Imperial Japanese navy’s 22nd Air Flotilla of 110 aircraft under the command of Vice Admiral Matsunaga Sadaichi operated from three air bases near Saigon in French Indo-China, and took part in the initial attacks on Malaya. The 22nd Air Flotilla included the 22nd (Genzan), Bihoro and Kanoya Air Groups, which marshalled 33 Mitsubishi G3M1 'Nell' twin-engined bombers. The air flotilla also had 25 Mitsubishi A5M4 'Claude' single-engined fighters. The Genzen Air Group was a key participant in the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse off the eastern coast of Malaya on 10 December 1941, and lost only one aeroplane and its crew during the battle. On 22 January 1942, bombers of the Genzan Air Group attacked Kallang airport in Singapore, and subsequently provided air support for Japanese offensives in Malaya including the landings at Endau on the south-eastern coast.
The Imperial Japanese army’s 3rd Air Corps and three air combat groups of the 5th Air Corps also took part in the Malaya campaign. In total, there were 354 Imperial Japanese army air force forst-line aircraft together with the 110 Imperial Japanese navy air force aircraft. The army units were equipped with a number of types including the Nakajima Ki-27 'Nate' single-engined fighter, Nakajima Ki-43 'Oscar' single-egined fighter, Mitsubishi Ki-51 'Sonia' single-engined light bomber, Kawasaki Ki-48 'Lily' twin-engined light bomber, Mitsubishi Ki-21 'Sally' twin-engined medium bomber, Mitsubishi Ki-30 'Ann' single-engined ligt bomber, Mitsubishi Ki-15 'Babs' single-engined reconnaissance aeroplane and Mitsubishi Ki-46 'Dinah' twin-engined reconnaissance aeroplane.
Most Japanese army pilots and at least one-quarter of the Japanese navy pilots had combat experience against the Chinese and the Soviets. They were all very well trained.
Before the start of hostilities, the British and Commonwealth air arms in Malaya and Singapore had four fighter units: the RAAF’s Nos 21 and 453, the RAF’s No. 243 and the RNZAF’s No. 488 squadrons, each flying the Brewster B-399E Buffalo single-engined fighter, which can most charitably be characterised as indifferent: its engine had fuel starvation problems and poor supercharger performance at higher altitudes; its manoeuvrability was poor; and the engine tended to overheat in the tropical climate, spraying oil over the windscreen. In service, some effort had been made to improve performance by removing the armour plate, armoured windscreen, radio, gun camera and all other unnecessary equipment, and by replacing the 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine guns with 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine guns. The fuselage tanks were filled with a minimum of fuel and run on high-octane aviation petrol where available.
The offensive aircraft consisted of four RAF units (Nos 27, 34, 60 and 62 Squadrons) of Bristol Blenheim Mks I and IV twin-engined light bombers, two RAAF units (Nos 1 and 8 Squadrons) Lockheed Hudson twin-engined bomber bomber and coastal reconnaissance aircraft, and two RAF units (Nos 36 and 100 Squadrons) of Vickers Vildebeest single-engined biplane torpedo bombers. The last were rightly seen as obsolete for the European theatre of operations, and were in fact obsolete for the Far East. No. 36 Squadron also had some Fairey Albacore single-engined biplane torpedo bomber, which were more modern but at best obsolescent. There were also two Consolidated Catalina twin-engined flying boats of the RAF’s No. 205 Squadron and three Catalina 'boats of the Royal Netherlands East Indies army air force at Singapore.
The squadrons were beset by numerous problems including inadequate spare parts and a lack of support staff, airfields that were difficult to defend against air attack with no early warning of impending attack, a lack of any clear and coherent command structure, a Japanese spy in the army air liaison staff, and antagonism between RAF and RAAF squadrons and personnel. Through their network of agents, the Japanese knew the strength and disposition of British and Commonwealth aircraft before the start of 'E' (i).
Many of pilots lacked adequate training and experience. For example, a total of 20 of the original 169 examples of the Buffalo had been lost in training accidents during 1941. Those fighter pilots with experience had been trained in methods that were very effective against German and Italian fighters, but wholly inadequate against the altogether more nimble Ki-43 and Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' fighters of the Imperial Japanese army and navy respectively. A counter-tactic of avoiding dogfights with a slash and run attack was developed by Colonel Claire L. Chennault of the American Volunteer Group serving with the Chinese, but was too late for the Allied pilots serving in the Malayan campaign. Two days before the start of 'E' (i), Hudson aircraft of the RAAF’s No 1 Squadron spotted the Japanese invasion fleet but, given uncertainty about the ships' destination and instructions to avoid offensive operations until attacks had been delivered against friendly territory, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the commander-in-chief of the British Far East Command, did not allow the convoy to be bombed.
On the first day of 'E' (i), the focus of the Japanese air assault was on the British and Commonwealth air bases. Ki-21 Sally bombers of the 7th Hikodan bombed the airfields at Alor Star, Sungai Petani and Butterworth. A total of 60 Allied aircraft were lost on this first day, primarily on the ground. Those British and Commonwealth fighters that did manage to engage the Japanese performed adequately against the Ki-27 'Nate' with its fixed landing gear, but the appearance of ever-greater numbers of Japanese fighters, including markedly superior types such as the Ki-43 with retractable landing gear soon overwhelmed the Buffalo pilots, both in the air and on the ground.[citation.
While contesting the Japanese landings on Malaya’s coast, Hudson bombers of the RAAF’s No. 1 Squadron based at Kota Bharu became the first aircraft to make an attack in the Pacific War, sinking the Japanese transport ship Awazisan Maru, while also damaging Ayatosan Maru and Sakura Maru off the coast of Kota Bharu, for the loss of two of their own number, at 01.18 local time, one hour before the Japanese 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor. The squadron was transferred to Kuantan on the following day.
By 9 December, Japanese fighters were operating from Singora and Patani in Thailand and Kota Bharu airfield was in Japanese hands. The British-led forces attempted to attack Singora airfield, but the bombers were intercepted on take-off by a Japanese raid which disabled or shot down all but one of the aircraft. The sole surviving bomber, a Blenheim, did manage to bomb Singora. No 62 squadron had been moved from Alor Star to Butterworth, and on 10 December it was moved to Taiping.
On 10 December, No 21 Squadron RAAF was withdrawn from Sungai Petani to Ipoh, where it was joined on 13 December by thre RAAF’s No 453 Squadron. No 453 Squadron had been sent to protect Force 'Z' on 10 December, but arrived after the warships had started to sink. On 15 December both squadrons were pulled back to Kuala Lumpur, receiving replacement aircraft for those shot down or destroyed. Within the first week of the campaign the Japanese had established air superiority. On 19 December the bombers were moved to Singapore, where No 62 Squadron was re-equipped with Hudson bombers.
Continued Japanese domination eventually forced both squadrons back to Singapore on 24 December, where they were merged until more replacement aircraft could be obtained. No 64 Squadron had run out of aircraft and its surviving groundcrew and airmen were shipped to Burma. The RAAF’s Nos 1 and 8 squadrons were amalgamated, again as a result of aircraft losses. This left the British and Commonwealth ground troops and shipping completely open to air attack and further weakened the defensive position. When bombers of the Genzan Air Group sank Prince of Wales and Repulse on 10 December, this also established Japanese naval supremacy. In comparison, the Japanese army enjoyed close air support from the start of the campaign, and sought to capture bases from which their air support could operate.
On 25 December, the 2nd Division of of the Royal Netherlands East Indies army air force’s No. 5 Squadron was deployed to Singapore, contributing to the Allied cause before being recalled to Java on 18 January. Several Dutch pilots responded to a number of air raids over Singapore while stationed at Kallang airport. These pilots claimed a total of six aircraft, particularly the Ki-27, which fared poorly over Malaya.
On 3 January 1942, 51 disassembled Hawker Hurricane Mk IIB single-engined fighter-bombers reached Singapore along with 24 pilots, of whom many were veterans of the 'Battle of Britain', and who had been transferred to Singapore to constitute the nucleus of five new squadrons. The 151st Maintenance Unit assembled the 51 Hurricane aircraft within two days and of these, 21 were ready for operational service within three days. The Hurricane warplanes were fitted with bulky Vokes dust filters under their noses and were armed with 12, rather than eight, machine guns. The additional weight and drag made them slow to climb and unwieldy to manoeuvre at altitude, although they were more effective bomber killers.
The recently arrived pilots were formed into No. 232 Squadron. In addition, the RNZAF’s 488 Squadron, a Buffalo unit, converted to the Hurricane. On 18 January, the two squadrons formed the basis of No. 226 Group. On the following day No. 453 squadron provided an escort of eight aircraft for five Commonwealth Wirraway sinle-engined aircraft and four Dutch Glenn Martin twin-engined bombers attacking Japanese troops on the Maur river. All the Martin and one of the Wirraway aircraft were lost.
The RAF’s No. 243 Squadron, equipped with Buffalo fighters, was disbanded on 21 January, and No. 232 Squadron became operational on 22 January, the same day that the Genzan Air Group attacked Kallang airport. No. 232 Squadron thus had the first Hurricane losses and victories in South-East Asia on that day. Most of the bombers were moved to the island of Sumatra in the middle of January.
Aircraft from Nos 36, 62 and 100 Squadrons attacked the Japanese invasion fleet at Endau on 26 January, suffering heavy losses but failing to achieve any positive result. The surviving aircraft were evacuated to Sumatra on 31 January.
In the middle of January, the three sentais of the 5th Air Corps returned to Thailand for their planned involvement in the to participate in the 'B' (iii) invasion of Burma and the 3rd Air Corps turned its attention to the Netherlands East Indies. In the end, more than 60 Brewster aircraft were shot down in combat, 40 destroyed on the ground, and approximately 20 more destroyed in accidents. Only some 20 Buffalo fighters survived to reach India or the Dutch East Indies. The last airworthy Buffalo in Singapore flew out on 10 February, five days before the island surrendered. The RAAF and RNZAF fighter squadrons left for Sumatra and Java at the beginning of February.
It is not entirely clear how many Japanese aircraft the Buffalo squadrons shot down, although RAAF pilots alone managed to shoot down at least 20. A total of 80 was claimed, a 1.3/1 kill/loss ratio. Additionally, most of the Japanese aircraft shot down by the Buffalo fighters were bombers. The Hurricane, which fought in Singapore alongside the Buffalo from 20 January, also suffered severe losses from ground attack, and most of these aircraft were destroyed.
The defeat of the British-led forces in the 'Battle of Jitra' by Japanese forces supported by tanks moving to the south from Thailand on 11 December 1941 and the rapid advance of the Japanese inland from their Kota Bharu beach-head on the north-eastern coast of Malaya overwhelmed the northern defences. Without any real naval presence, the British were unable to challenge Japanese naval operations off the Malayan coast, which proved invaluable to the invaders. With almost no aircraft remaining to oppose them, the Japanese also had air supremacy, leaving the British-led ground forces and the civilian population exposed to air attack.
The Malayan island of Penang was bombed daily by the Japanese from 8 December and abandoned on 17 December. Weapons, boats, supplies and a working radio station were left to the Japanese. The evacuation of Europeans from Penang, with local inhabitants being left to the mercy of the Japanese, caused much embarrassment for the British and alienated them from the local population. However, many who were present during the evacuation did not experience it as a scramble. It was a response to an order from the British high command, which had come to the conclusion that Penang should be abandoned as it had no tactical or strategic value in the rapidly changing military scheme of things at that time.
On 23 December, Major General D. M. Murray-Lyon, commander of the Indian 11th Division, was removed from command and succeeded in temporary command by Brigadier A. C. M. Paris, but this had little effect on the situation. By the end of the first week in January, the entire northern region of Malaya had been lost to the Japanese. At the same time, Thailand signed a treaty of friendship with Japan, which completed the formation of their loose military alliance. Thailand was then allowed by the Japanese to resume sovereignty over several sultanates in northern Malaya, thus consolidating their occupation.
The Indian 11th Division managed to delay the Japanese advance at Kampar for a few days, in which the Japanese suffered severe casualties in terrain that did not allow them to use their tanks or their air superiority to defeat the British. The Indian 11th Division was forced to retreat when the Japanese landed troops by sea on the coast to the south of the Kampar position. The British retreated to prepared positions on the Slim river.
At the 'Battle of Slim River', in which two Indian brigades were practically annihilated, the Japanese used surprise and tanks to devastating effect in a risky night attack. The success of this attack forced Percival into replacing the Indian 11th Division with Major General H. G. Bennett’s 8th Australian 8th Division, and cleared the route to the city of Kuala Lumpur. It did not take long for the Japanese to take Kuala Lumpur, which they entered and occupied unopposed on 11 January. Singapore island was now less than 200 miles (320 km) away.
By the middle of January, the Japanese had reached the southern Malayan state of Johore where, on 14 January, they encountered troops of the Australian 8th Division for the first time in the campaign. During engagements with the Australians, the Japanese experienced their first major tactical setback as a result of the stubborn resistance put up by the Australians at Gemas. The battle, which was centred around the Gemencheh Bridge, proved costly for the Japanese, who suffered up to 600 casualties. However, the bridge itself, which had been demolished during the fighting, had been repaired within six hours.
As the Japanese attempted to outflank the Australians to the west of Gemas, one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign began on 15 January on the peninsula’s western coast near the Muar river. Bennett allocated Brigadier H. C. Duncan’s Indian 45th Brigade, a new and only half-trained unit, to defend the river’s southern bank, but the unit was outflanked by Japanese units landing from the sea and the brigade was effectively destroyed with its commander, and all three of the brigade’s battalion commanders were also killed. Two Australian battalions, which had been sent to support the Indian 45th Brigade, were also outflanked and their retreat cut off. One of the Australian battalion commanders was killed in the fighting around the town of Bakri, to the south-east of Muar. During the fighting at Bakri Australian anti-tank gunners had destroyed nine Japanese tanks, slowing the Japanese advance long enough for the surviving elements of the five battalions to attempt an escape from the Muar area.
Led by the Australian Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson, the surviving Indian and Australian troops formed the 'Muar' Force and fought a desperate four-day withdrawal, allowing remnants of the Commonwealth troops withdrawing from northern Malaya to avoid being cut off and to push past the Japanese to safety. When the 'Muar' Force reached the bridge at Parit Sulong and found it to be firmly in Japanese hands, and with mounting numbers of dead and wounded, Anderson ordered 'every man for himself'. Those who could do so took to the jungle, swamps and rubber plantations in search of their division headquarters at Yong Peng. The wounded were left to the mercy of the Japanese, and all but two out of 135 were tortured and killed in the Parit Sulong Massacre. The 'Battle of Muar' cost the Australians and Indians an estimated 3,000 casualties including one brigadier and four battalion commanders.
On 20 January, more Japanese landings took place at Endau, in spite of an air attack by Vildebeest bombers. The final British and Commonwealth defensive line in Johore, between Batu Pahat and Mersing via Kluang, was now being attacked along its full extent. In the face of repeated requests from his chief engineer, Brigadier I. Simson, Percival had resisted the construction of fixed defences in Johore, as also on the northern shore of Singapore island, dismissing them with the comment that 'Defences are bad for morale.' On 27 January, Percival received permission from the commander of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, General Sir Archibald Wavell, to order a retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore.
On 31 January, the last organised Allied forces left Malaya, and Allied engineers blew a gap 70 ft (21 m) wide in the causeway linking Johore and Singapore. A few stragglers waded across over the strait during the next few days. Japanese raiders and infiltrators, often disguised as Singaporean civilians, soon began to cross the Straits of Johore in inflatable boats soon.
In less than two months, the 'Battle for Malaya' had ended in comprehensive defeat for the British and Commonwealth forces and their retreat from the Malay peninsula to the fortress of Singapore. Nearly 50,000 British and Commonwealth troops had been killed or taken prisoner during the campaign. The Japanese invaded the island of Singapore on 7 February and completed their conquest of the island on 15 February, capturing 80,000 more prisoners out of the 85,000 defenders. The final battle before the surrender was with the Malay Regiment at Bukit Candu on 14 February.