Operation Battle of Pasir Panjang

The 'Battle of Pasir Panjang' was a battle fought between Japanese and British forces at Pasir Panjang on the island of Singapore as part of the final sage of the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore (12/15 February 1942).

Some 13,000 Japanese troops had made an amphibious landing in north-western Singapore in the 'Battle of Sarimbun Beach' and had then advanced to the south toward Pasir Panjang and taken Tengah airfield en route. The 13,000 men of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 18th Division were a significant part of the total strength of 36,000 Japanese troops deployed in the invasion of Singapore.

Brigadier G. C. R. Williams’s 1st Malaya Brigade, comprising the British 2/Loyal Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel M. Elrington, together with the 1st Malaya Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. R. G. Andre, included less than three sections of the Mortar Platoon, Anti-Aircraft Platoon along with the Bren Gun Carrier Platoon under Captain R. R. C. Carter, all of which were held in reserve. These units were tasked with defending the approach to Pasir Panjang ridge, also known as 'The Gap'. Brigadier G. Ballantine’s Indian 44th Brigade was positioned on the Malayan brigade’s right flank.

A 42-man Malay platoon 2nd Lieutenant Adnan Saidi was holding a critical part of the British defences at Bukit Chandu, and it was this small force which was soon to bear the brunt of the Japanese assault.

The first encounter between the Malay Regiment and the Japanese took place at about 14.00 on 13 February. The 18th Division started to attack the south-western coast of Singapore island along Pasir Panjang ridge and astride Ayer Rajah road. The 56th Regiment, under the command of Colonel Yoshio Nasu, supported by a considerable force of artillery, attacked the ridge during the morning.

One of the units defending the line was B Company of the Malay Regiment. Under heavy fire from the Japanese, who had artillery and tank support, B Company was forced to retreat to the rear. Before the retreat could be completed, however, the Japanese succeeded in breaking through B Company’s position. A few of B Company’s managed to escape, while others were captured. This Japanese penetration led after the fall of darkness to the withdrawal of both the Indian 44th Brigade and 1st Malay Brigade to the general line at Mt Echo on the junction of the Ayer Rajah and Depot roads.

At 08.30 on 14 February, the Japanese launched a large-scale attack with heavy support, by intense mortar bombardment and artillery gunfire, on the front held by the 1st Malay Brigade. The defenders managed to beat off this and a number of other attacks despite suffering considerable casualties. The fighting also included hand-to-hand combat, and the Japanese losses were as heavy as those of their Malay opponents. At 16.00 another attack, this time also supported by tanks, eventually succeeded in penetrating the left flank and the defenders on this side were forced back to a line running from the junction of the Ayer Rajah road to Depot road through to Alexandra brickworks and along the canal leading to Bukit Chermin farther to the south-east. As a result of the failure of units on both flanks to hold their ground, the 1st Malay Brigade had to withdraw at 14.30 on the following day. It was at this point that C Company of the Malay Regiment received instructions to move to a new defence position sited at Bukit Chandu.

Bukit Chandu was so named after an opium-processing factory at the foot of the hill. This was also where C Company of the Malay Regiment readied its final stand against the imminent Japanese attack. Bukit Chandu was a key strategic defence position for two important reasons: firstly, it was situated on high ground overlooking the island to the north-west; and secondly, should the Japanese gain control of the ridge, it would provide them with a direct passage to the Alexandra area just behind it. The British military in Singapore had its main ammunition bases and supply depots, one of their military hospitals and other key installations (such as the Normanton oil depot right next to Alexandra.

C Company’s position was separated from that of D Company by a large canal. Oil was burning in this canal, which extended from the bombed-out and severely-destroyed Normanton oil depot, and the burning oil in the canal prevented C Company’s men from any farther retreat. The company commander encouraged his men to defend Bukit Chandu down to the last soldier, and was killed together with many of his men in the last desperate defensive battle at Pasir Panjang.

The Japanese pressed their attack on Bukit Chandu in the afternoon, but this time they did so with the aid of an attempted deception. They sent a group of their men, dressed in captured Indian uniforms, with their faces and skin smeared with dirt and soot, and wearing turbans to pass as Punjabis, to present themselves as Indian soldiers. The men C Company saw through this ruse as they knew that units of the British and British Indian armies typically marched in a line of three columns, whereas the supposed Punjabi soldiers in front of their lines were moving in a line of four columns. When the Japanese reached the Malay Regiment’s defensive line, C Company opened fire, killing many disguised Japanese soldiers. Those who survived escaped down the hill back to their own lines.

Two hours later, the Japanese launched an all-out banzai charge in great numbers in an attempt to destroy the Malay troops through the weight of numbers and strength. Again conducted with artillery fire and tank support, the attack overwhelmed the Malay Regiment and the defensive line eventually broke. Despite being greatly outnumbered and short of ammunition (with only a few grenades to hand and not many rounds for their machine guns and rifles left) and much-needed combat supplies including medication and bandages, the Malay Regiment continued to resist. Both sides engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat/ Adnan was seriously wounded but refused to retreat or surrender and instead encouraged his men to fight to the end.

Soon after this, with the whole area of Pasir Panjang falling under Japanese control, Adnan, who was badly wounded and unable to fight, was captured, kicked, punched and beaten before being tied to a tree and bayonetted to death. (Some sources claim that Adnan was brutally beaten and then thrown into a gunny sack, which was then stabbed repeatedly, and others that the Japanese bayonetted him to death before hanging his body upside down from a tree.)

During the entire Malayan Campaign, but mostly between 12 and 15 February in Singapore, the Malay Regiment suffered a total of 159 men killed: six of them were British officers, and seven others Malay officers, and 146 other ranks were killed; a large but unspecified number of men was wounded. About 600 surviving men of the Malay Regiment reassembled in the Keppel Golf Links area, and here were separated from their British officers. They later joined prisoners-of-war from the British Indian army battalions at the Farrer Park concentration area. It remains unclear how many casualties the Japanese suffered.

The 'Battle of Pasir Panjang' had little or no strategic significance. From a purely operational point of view, the 'Battle of Pasir Panjang' did not alter, or more realistically could not have altered, the fate of Singapore, and it was only a matter of time before the British had to surrender to Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army. The Allied units stationed there had been tasked solely to defend the approach to the ridge, but instead had to resist the main invasion force. Bukit Chandu itself is situated on high ground overlooking the main area of Singapore island to the north, and controlled the direct passage to the Alexandra area in which the British had concentrated their main ammunition and supply depots, military hospital and other key installations. The fall of Bukit Chandu gave the Japanese access to the Alexandra area, indirectly contributing to the Alexandra hospital massacre.

On 14 February, the Japanese renewed their assault on the western part of the Southern Area’s defences near the area that the 1st Malaya Brigade had fought desperately to hold the previous day. At about 13.00, the Japanese broke through and advanced towards the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. A British lieutenant, acting as an envoy with a white flag, approached the Japanese forces but was killed with a bayonet. After Japanese troops entered the hospital, they killed as many as 50 soldiers, including some undergoing surgery, and both doctors and nurses were also killed. On the following day, some 200 male staff members and patients, who had been assembled and bound on the previous day, many of them walking wounded, were ordered to walk about 440 yards (400 m) to an industrial area. Those who fell on the way were bayoneted. The men were forced into a series of small, badly ventilated rooms where they were held overnight without water, and some of the men died during the night as a result of their treatment. The survivors were bayoneted the following morning.