This was the Japanese seizure of Thailand and north-eastern Malaya (8 December 1941/15 February 1942).
The origins of the Japanese invasion of Thailand can be found in the concept of hakko ichiu (‘eight crown cords, one roof’, i.e. all the world under one roof) which began to gain popularity in Japan from the middle of the 19th century. The concept’s first major proponent was Tanaka Chigaku, who saw in the concept the divine destiny of Japanese imperial power to grow and unite the entire world. To Tanaka the concept was posited on the emperor’s moral leadership, but Japanese nationalists increasingly saw it as the foundation of Japan’s task of liberating Asia from the European colonising powers and of establishing Japan as the leading influence in East Asia and the creation of a ‘New Order in East Asia’.
In 1940, the concept was expanded by Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye, who sought to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, comprising Japan, Manchukuo, China and parts of South-East Asia. According to Japanese propaganda, this would establish a new international order of ‘co-prosperity’ for Asian countries which, under the leadership of a benevolent Japan, would share prosperity and peace free from Western colonialism and economic domination.
The Taiwan Army Unit 82 (Strike South Planning) was established in 1939 or 1940 to bring this about. As part of freeing South-East Asia from Western colonialism, the Japanese military planned to invade Malaya and Burma. In order to do this, the Japanese needed to make use of Thai ports, railways and airfields. They wished no conflict with Thailand as such, for this would delay the invasion and significantly reduce the element of surprise.
By the late 1930s Thailand possessed armed forces which were, by local standards, well disciplined and well armed. Early in January 1941 Thai forces invaded French Indo-China in order to recover provinces lost in the Sino-French War of 1994/85) and Franco-Siamese War of 1893, triggering the Franco-Thai War (5 January/28 January 1941). Under the command of Vice-amiral Jean Decoux, the governor of French Indo-China, the Vichy French forces in Indo-China at this time comprised an army of about 50,000 men (including 12,000 French regulars) organised into 41 infantry battalions, two artillery regiments, and one engineer battalion. The Vichy French army’s most obvious deficiency was both the shortage and the obsolescence of its armour: it could only field 20 Renault FT-17 light tanks against the Thai army’s 134 tanks. Most of the Vichy French forces stationed near the frontier with Thailand were Indo-Chinese troops of the 3rd and 4th Tirailleurs Tonkinois, together with one battalion of Montagnards, French regulars of the colonial infantry branch, and Foreign Legion units. The Vichy French air strength was about 100 aircraft, of which about 60 could be considered modern: these were 30 Potez 25 general-purpose machines, four Farman F.221 heavy bombers, six Potez 542 medium bomber/transports, nine Morane-Saulnier MS.406 fighters and eight Loire 130 flying boats.
The Thai army was relatively well equipped, and comprised 60,000 regular soldiers disposed in four armies. Of these, the largest was the Burapha Army, with five divisions. Independent formations under the direct control of the army high command included two motorised cavalry battalions, one artillery battalion, one signals battalion, one engineer battalion, and one armoured regiment. The artillery was a mixture of aged Krupp and modern Bofors howitzers and field guns, while 60 Carden Loyd tankettes and 30 Vickers 6-Ton medium tanks made up the bulk of the army’s armour. The Thai air force possessed both a quantitative and qualitative edge over the Vichy French air units in Indo-China. Among the 140 aircraft that composed the service’s first-line strength were 24 Mitsubishi Ki-30 light bombers, nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 medium bombers, 25 Hawk 75N fighters, six Martin B-10 medium bombers, and 70 Vought O2U Corsair light bombers. The Thai navy possessed two Japanese-built 2,500-ton armoured coast-defence vessels each armed with four 8-in (203-mm) guns, two older British-built armoured gunboats each armed with two 6-in (152-mm) guns, 12 torpedo boats and four submarines, and was technically and tactically inferior to the Vichy French naval element.
As nationalist demonstrations and anti-French rallies were held in Bangkok, border skirmishes erupted on the frontier along the upper reaches of the Mekong river. The Thai air force flew daylight bombing sorties over Vientiane, Sisophon and Battambang without being intercepted, and the Vichy French retaliated but were unable to inflict comparable damage.
On 5 January 1941, after a reported French attack on the border village of Arayanprathet, the Thai forces of the Burapha and Isan Armies launched an offensive into Laos and Cambodia. The Vichy French forces resisted, but many of their units were swept aside by the better equipped Thai forces. The Thais took Laos rapidly, but then faced a more difficult task in Cambodia. On 16 January the Vichy French launched a major counterattack on the Thai-held villages of Yang Dang Khum and Phum Preav, initiating the fiercest battle of the war. As a result of overly complex tactical planning and dismal intelligence, the Vichy French counterattacks were stopped and fighting ended with a Vichy French withdrawal from the area. Yet the Thais were unable to pursue the retreating Vichy French as their armour and infantry were checked by the accurate artillery fire of Foreign Legion units.
With the situation on land deteriorating, Decoux ordered all available Vichy French naval forces (light cruiser Lamotte-Picquet, modern colonial sloops Dumont d’Urville and Amiral Charner, and older colonial sloops Tahure and Marne) into action in the Gulf of Thailand under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau Régis Bérenger. The Vichy French commander’s were simple: attack the Thai coastal cities from Rayong to the Cambodian frontier and thereby force the Thai government to withdraw its forces from the Cambodian frontier.
On the evening of 15 January the squadron got under way at 21.15 and closed the Thai coast at 14 kt, which was the best speed of the older sloops (avisos). The Vichy French ships remained undetected as they entered the Gulf of Siam, but their opponents were not as fortunate, for Loire 130 flying boats from the base at Ream had completed a sweep of the coast between Trat and Sattahip, in the process locating one coast-defence ship and two torpedo boats at Koh Chang, and one gunboat, four torpedo boats and two submarines at Sattahip. The flying boats signalled the fact to the naval headquarters in Saigon, from where the information was transmitted to Lamotte-Picquet. Bérenger decided to make a dawn attack on the Thai ships at Koh Chang. He ignored Sattahip because the sloops could not reach there until later in the day, by which time the element of surprise would have been lost, and because the nature of Sattahip’s coast defences was not known. Moreover, the force at Koh Chang was the weaker of the two and offered the better chance of victory.
Bérenger’s plan was for the squadron to approach at dawn from the south-west. As the anchorage at Koh Chang is surrounded by islands and islets, many of them more than 655 ft (200 m) high, the squadron would divide and use the cover of the islands to concentrate their fire on portions of the Thai squadron while at the same time covering all the avenues of escape. The easternmost channel was regarded as the most likely route by which a breakout would be made, and this was also the area in which the air reconnaissance report had placed the largest Thai ships. Lamotte-Picquet would make for the eastern side of the anchorage to block this route while the colonial sloops blocked the centre and pounded the Thai ships there. The smaller French ships would concentrate to the west. The French squadron closed on the anchorage at 05.30 on 17 January, and 15 minutes later divided into the three groups as planned, Lamotte-Picquet heading for the eastern part of the anchorage, Dumont d’Urville and Amiral Charner continuing to the central position, and Tahure and Marne heading for the western side. The weather was good, and the sea almost flat. Sunrise was due at 06.30, and the area was lit only by the first rays of light on the horizon and by the dim moonlight. A final aerial reconnaissance of the target area had been arranged using one Loire 130 flying boat from the shore base at Ream for, despite the fact that she carried two such 'boats, Lamotte-Picquet could launch neither of these as a result of catapult problems. At 06.05, the 'boat flew over the anchorage and reported the presence of two torpedo ships. This came as an unpleasant surprise to the Vichy French as previous reports had led them to believe that only one of the torpedo boats was present, but during the night Chonburi had arrived to relieve Chandraburi, which was to return to Sattahip later that day for repairs. The 'boat attempted a bombing attack, but was forced off by a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The effect of this air mission was two-edged: the Vichy French were now aware that they faced two Thai ships, but the element of surprise had been wasted and there was still 30 minutes to sunrise.
Caught off their guard by the approaching Vichy French, the Thais desperately began to raise steam and prepared to slip their anchors, but the torpedo boats were sunk by the fire of Lamotte-Picquet’s 6.1-in (155-mm) guns. At 06.38, look-outs on the Vichy French flagship sighted the modern coast-defence ship Dhonburi, armed with 8-in (203-mm) guns, heading to the north-west at a range of 10,935 yards (10000 m). There followed a running battle in which the fire of both ships was frequently blocked by the islets. The fire from the Thai ship was heavy but inaccurate, and by 07.15 fires could be seen on Dhonburi, which then found herself engaged not only by the cruiser but also by the Vichy French sloops. In the beginning of the engagement, a lucky shot from Lamotte-Picquet killed Chonburi’s captain, Commander Luang Phrom Viraphan, and thus severely disrupted her command capability. Believing they had a better chance of hurting the smaller French ships, the Thais shifted their fire onto Amiral Charner, which soon found 8-in (203-mm) salvoes falling around her. Dhonburi shifted fire back to Lamotte-Picquet after a 6.1-in (155-mm) salvo from the Vichy French cruiser’s main battery put her after turret out of action. Soon she reached the safety of shallow water which the French ships could not enter for fear of grounding, but it all came too late for the hapless Thais as Dhonburi was burning fiercely and listing heavily to starboard. Her remaining turret was manned but jammed, and therefore could not fire effectively unless the whole ship was manoeuvred to train these two guns. At 07.50 Lamotte-Picquet fired a final salvo of torpedoes at a range of 16,400 yards (15000 m) but lost sight of Dhonburi behind an island from which she was not seen to emerge.
At 08.40, Bérenger ordered his squadron to head for home, but this coincided with the start of the expected Thai air attacks. Thai aircraft dropped several bombs close to Lamotte-Picquet and also achieved one hit, although the bomb failed to explode. Lamotte-Picquet’s anti-aircraft guns put up a vigorous barrage and further attacks were not pressed home. The final raid departed at 09.40, and the Vichy French squadron returned to Saigon. The Vichy French left behind them total devastation. Dhonburi was heavily damaged and grounded on a sand bar in the mouth of the Chanthaburi river, with about 20 dead, but was later raised and repaired by the Japanese. The torpedo boat Chonburi had been sunk with a loss of two men, and Songhkli also sank with the loss of 14 men.
The survivors were rescued by the torpedo boat Rayong, minelayer Nhongarhai and fishery protection vessel Thiew Uthok. These three ships, which had been sheltering to the north of Koh Chang, had chosen not to break cover and thus had not been seen by the Vichy French.
On 24 the last air battle of the war took place when Thai bombers raided the Vichy French airfield at Angkor near Siem Reap, and the last Thai effort began at 07.10 on the following day, when the B-10 bombers of the 50th Bomber Squadron set out on a raid on Sisophon, escorted by 13 Hawk 75N fighters of the 60th Fighter Squadron.
By the time of the armistice, the Vichy French army had lost 321 men, with another 178 missing. The Thais had captured 222 men. The Thai army suffered a total of 54 men killed in action and 307 wounded, while the navy lost 41 men killed and 67 wounded. The Thai air force lost 13 men. The number of Thai military personnel captured by the Vichy French amounted to just 21.
At this time Japan intervened to mediate the conflict. A Japanese-sponsored conference was held at Saigon and preliminary documents for an armistice between the governments of Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain’s Vichy France and the Kingdom of Thailand were signed aboard the Japanese light cruiser Natori on 31 January, so paving the way to a general armistice. On 9 May a peace treaty was signed in Tokyo, the Vichy French being coerced by the Japanese to relinquish their hold on the disputed border territories.
The resolution of the conflict was received with wide acclaim among the Thai people as, for the first time, Thailand had been able to extract concessions from a European power, albeit a weakened one. For the Vichy French in Indo-China, the conflict was a bitter reminder of their isolation following the fall of France to the Germans in June 1940. In the French view, an ambitious neighbour had taken advantage of a distant colony cut off from her weakened parent. Without hope of reinforcements, the French had little chance of offering a sustained resistance.
The greatest beneficiaries of the conflict were the Japanese, however, for they were then able to expand their influence in both Thailand and French Indo-China. The Japanese won from Thailand a secret verbal promise to support them in the attacks on the British possessions of Malaya and Burma in ‘E’ (ii) and ‘B’ (iii) respectively.
Japan’s intervention had been far from disinterested, however, for the Japanese had seen this as an opportunity to pave the way toward their use of Indo-Chinese ports and air bases. As part of the process, the Japanese held secret discussions were held with the Thai prime minister, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, in which the Japanese military sought free passage through Thailand. Phibunsongkhram had responded positively, but his later actions showed that he may in fact have been uncertain, as he had concluded the British-Thai Non-Aggression Pact on 12 June 1940. By February, the British had started to suspect that the Japanese were planning to attack their possessions in South-East Asia, and were therefore increasingly concerned that the Japanese might establish bases in Thailand in order to further that end.
The situation with which Phibunsongkhram was faced was that France had been defeated by Germany in June 1940, and that the UK was heavily engaged in the west against Germany and Italy; that up to this time the USA had taken a neutral stance on both the European war and the Japanese war with China; and that Japan was at that time the local super-power with increasing military strength in French Indo-China. It is probable that in such circumstances Phibunsongkhram believed that he had little alternative, for Thailand’s would have been unable on their own to check, let alone defeat, any Japanese military foray into Thailand. Moreover, Thailand’s aggression against French Indo-China in 1940 made it politically difficult for the US government to support Phibunsongkhram.
In the middle of 1941, Phibunsongkhram sought British and US guarantees of effective support in the event that Thailand was invaded. Neither the UK nor the USA could give any such guarantee although the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, favoured the issue of a public warning to Japan that an invasion of Thailand would result in a British declaration of war. The USA could not support this proposition, though, and the UK was not prepared to make the declaration alone.
By August, the UK and USA had instituted severe economic sanctions against Japan. The Japanese attempted to have the sanctions lifted by promising not to encroach into Thailand and to withdraw its forces from French Indo-China provided that the USA withdrew its support for China, but this proposal was unacceptable to the UK ands USA because of its wholly negative impact on China.
Late in November, the rapid strengthening of the Japanese forces in French Indo-China persuaded the British that there was a high probability of a Japanese attack on Thailand. On 1 December, General Hideki Togo, the prime minister of Japan stated that he was uncertain of Thailand’s position vis-à-vis Thailand’s stance on allowing Japanese troops free passage through its territory, but was hopeful a clash could be avoided. Further negotiations took place between the Japanese diplomatic representative and Phibunsongkhram on 2 December. Phibunsongkhram was prepared to ignore any Japanese operations on the isthmus of Kra, but wished the Japanese not to pass through the Bangkok plain. After further discussions on 3 December, Phibunsongkhram agreed to the passage of Japanese troops through Thailand in exchange for the territories it had ceded in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, and also the Shan state of eastern Burma.
On 2 December, the Japanese issued the order setting in motion the final events which triggered the Pacific War between Japan and the USA, UK and Netherlands. The main invasion fleet for ‘E’ (ii), as the invasion of Thailand and Malaya was codenamed, departed Sanya (otherwise Samah) on the Chinese island of Hainan during the morning of 4 December. The core of the force was provided by 18 transport vessels carrying 26,640 men of Lieutenant General Takuro Matsui’s 5th Division and the 56th Regiment of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 18th Division. The transport vessels were escorted by the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, comprising the light cruiser Sendai and destroyers of the 12th Destroyer Division (Murakumo, Shinonome, Shirakumo and Usugumo), 19th Destroyer Division (Isonami, Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami) and 20th Destroyer Division (Amagiri, Asagiri and Yugiri). Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Chokai, escorted by the destroyer Sagiri, provided heavy support, and at the same time Rear Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 7th Cruiser Squadron (heavy cruisers Kumano, Mikuma, Mogami and Suzuya) and the 11th Destroyer Division (Fubuki, Hatsuyuki and Shirayuki) departed as the covering force.
On 4 December Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, commander of the 2nd Fleet, departed the Pescadores island group, a concentration point in the South China Sea to the west of Formosa, with the 1st Division of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, comprising the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, and the 2nd Division of the 3rd Battleship Squadron, comprising Haruna and Kongo, as a distant escort force, for the landings on the east coast of Malaya and on Luzon in the Philippine islands group. These heavy warships were screened by the 4th Destroyer Division (Arashi, Hagikaze, Maikaze and Nowake), the 2nd Group of the 6th Destroyer Division (Ikazuchi and Inazuma) and the 8th Destroyer Division (Asashio, Oshio, Michishio and Arashio).
On 5 December the convoy was joined by the minesweepers W-2, W-3 and W-4 from Cam Ranh Bay in French Indo-China, and W-1, W-5 and W-6, a division of submarine chasers, the minelayer Hatsutaka and two transports from Poulo Condore island to the south-east of French Indo-China’s southern tip.
In the afternoon of 5 December Ozawa’s 1st Southern Expeditionary Fleet departed Saigon with the light cruiser Kashii and four transports and the escort vessel Shimushu with three transports, carrying units of the 143rd Regiment of Lieutenant General Hiroshi Takeuchi’s 55th Division, and these joined the convoy to the south of Cape Camao on 6 December.
It was in this area, at about 12.00 on 6 December, that one of three Lockheed Hudson maritime reconnaissance aircraft of the RAAF’s No. 1 Squadron on a reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea, located three Japanese ships steaming to the west, and then, some 15 minutes later, sighted the 1st Southern Expeditionary Fleet's convoy, and reported it as comprising one battleship, five cruisers, seven destroyers and 22 transports. Kamikawa Maru, one of the two merchant seaplane tenders with the convoy, launched a Mitsubishi F1M ‘Pete’ floatplane to intercept the Hudson, but the Australian aeroplane took cover in cloud and thereby evaded the Japanese aeroplane. A few minutes later, a second Hudson also sighted the convoy.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the British commander-in-chief of the Far East Command, was advised of the sightings at 14.00. Not authorised to take any action against the convoy as the UK was not then at war with Japan, the Japanese intentions were unclear, and no aggressive action had been taken against British or Thai territory, Brooke-Popham could only put his forces in Malaya on full alert and order continued surveillance of the convoy.
To cover the Japanese operation, the submarines I-121 and I-122 had laid barrages, each comprising 42 mines, off the north-eastern exits from Singapore during the night of 6/7 December. The auxiliary minelayer Tatsumiya Maru laid a field of 456 mines between Tioman and Anamba islands, and, slightly farther to the north, the submarines I-54 and I-55 took up positions to the north-east of Kuantan and I-53 to the north of Anamba. Off Trengganu, I-57, I-58, I-62, I-64 and I-66 established a patrol line, and I-57 was stationed to the north-east of Redang.
At about 12.00 on 7 December the convoy split into its attack groups. From the 1st Southern Expeditionary Fleet, one transport proceeded to Prachuab, two to Jumbhorn, one with Kashii to Bandon, and three with Shimushu to Nakhorn to block the Kra isthmus. The main force, now comprising 17 transports, the destroyers of the 20th Destroyer Division and 12th Destroyer Division, four minesweepers, the submarine chaser division and nine assault vessels, proceeded to Singora (otherwise Songhkla) and Patani in south-eastern Thailand, and Sendai, the destroyers of the 19th Destroyer Division, the minesweepers W-2 and W-3, submarine chasers and three transports, proceeded to Khota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya. Chokai and Sagiri joined Kurita’s warship group to the south of Cape Camao.
While the Japanese were preparing and starting the commitment of their invasion forces, meanwhile, the British and Americans were formulating their response to the Japanese troop buildup and the potential invasion of Thailand. Phibunsongkhram, on the same day he reached an agreement with the Japanese, advised the British that Thailand was about to be invaded by the Japanese.
At 03.00 on 7 December, Ozawa ordered patrols into the area between Malaya and the convoy, which was at this time about 115 miles (185 km) from Kota Bharu and proceeding to the west through heavy rain and zero visibility. Kamikawa Maru and Sagara Maru, the other merchant seaplane tender, launched 11 F1M2 and six Aichi E13A ‘Jake’ reconnaissance floatplanes. At 08.20, at a point about 20 miles (32 km) to the west north-west of Panjang island, one of the E13A floatplanes from Kamikawa Maru spotted a Consolidated Catalina flying boat of the RAF’s No. 205 Squadron, and attacked this, in the process destroying its radio equipment. The Japanese aeroplane shadowed the Catalina for 25 minutes until five Nakajima Ki-27 ‘Nate’ land-based fighters of the Imperial Japanese army air force’s 1st Sentai in southern Indo-China arrived and shot down the flying boat. This was, in point of time, the first military action of the ‘Greater East Asian War’. Unaware of this incident, the British took no action.
At 11.00 on 7 December, the Japanese presented the Thai government with an ultimatum to allow the Japanese military to enter Thailand, and demanded an answer within two hours.
On this date Thailand had an army of 26,500 regulars and about 23,500 reservists. It also had an air force of some 270 aircraft, of which 150 were combat aircraft, many of them of US origin, and Japan had provided Thailand with 93 more modern aircraft in December 1940. The Thai navy was poorly trained and equipped, and had lost a substantial number of vessels in its conflict with French Indo-China.
The forces in the Kra isthmus included the 38th Battalion stationed at Ban Na Nian near Chumphon, the 39th Battalion, 15th Artillery Battalion and headquarters of Major General Luang Senanarong’s 6th Division at Tambon Pak Phoon near Nakhon Si Thammarat, the 40th Battalion at Trang, the 5th Battalion at Khao Kho Hong near Singora, the 41st Battalion at Suan Tun near Singora, the 13th Artillery Battalion at Suan Tun near Singora, and the 42nd Battalion at Tambon Bo Thong near Patani.
The Japanese had entrusted operations in Thailand and Malaya to Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida’s 15th Army and Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army. Both of these formations were stationed in French Indo-China, and each had its own air support elements. The 15th Army was tasked with the attack on Thailand and thence Burma, and the 25th Army with the seizure of Malaya and the capture of Singapore. In order to attack Burma, the 15th Army needed to pass through the Bangkok plain, while the 25th Army needed to attack Malaya via the Kra isthmus. The Japanese attack Malaya and Singapore through southern Thailand had been planned by Colonel Masanobu Tsuji while he was on the strength of Taiwan Army Unit 82 (Strike South Planning), as noted above, and the Japanese needed to pass about 100,000 troops through Thailand.
As noted above, it was ships of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet which provided support and cover for the landings in Thailand and at Khota Bharu in Malaya. The most important ships involved in the Thai operations were the light cruiser Kashii escorting seven transports carrying troops of the 143rd Regiment from Saigon in French Indo-China; the destroyers Asagiri, Amagiri, Sagiri, Yugiri, Shirakumo and Shinonome supporting the landings of the 25th Army in southern Thailand, the escort Shimushu convoying the transports Zenyo Maru, Miike Maru and Toho Maru to Nakorn Sri Thammarat in southern Thailand with more men of the 143rd Regiment, and the merchant seaplane carriers Kamikawa Maru and Sagara Maru. In total, there were 18 transports involved, this total including used to land troops at Khota Bharu.
Japanese invaded Thailand overland from French Indo-China and with landings to the south of Bangkok and at various points along the Kra isthmus because Thailand had not responded to the ultimatum. The problem for the Thai government was that it could not contact Pribunsongkhram in this period.
At first light on 8 December Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division, Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 33rd Division and Lieutenant General Hiroshi Takeuchi’s 55th Division of Iida’s 15th Army advanced advanced across the border from French Indo-China into Thailand’s recently reclaimed Phra Tabong Province at Savay Donkeo near Battambang. The Japanese met no Thai resistance, and from Sisophon swung to the north-west into the Aranyaprathet district of Prachinburi Province along the nearly finished railway link between Aranyaprathet and Monkhol Bourei.
The 1/143rd Regiment of the 55th Division landed from two transport ships at Chumphon on the morning of December and, while managing to establish perimeter round their beach-head, were pinned down by the determined resistance of the 52nd Youth Army Training Unit of the Thai Youth Army’s Sriyaphai School, the 38th Battalion and Provincial Police of Chumpon. Fighting ended in the afternoon when the Thais received orders to cease fire.
The Japanese transport vessels Zenyo Maru, Miike Maru and Toho Maru anchored off the south-east coast of Thailand near Nakorn Sri Thammarat, under the cover of Shimushu's guns, during the evening of 7 December. The transport ships carried 1,510 men and 50 trucks of the 3/143rd Regiment, the 18th Air District Regiment along with an army air force signals unit, the 32nd Anti-Aircraft Battalion and the 6th Labour Construction Company. Shortly after 24.00 on the night of 7/8 December, the ships began to land their troops at Tha Phae (otherwise Pak Phoon) canal. This was just to the north of Camp Vajiravudh, the Thai army’s main base in the area. Notified earlier of the Japanese invasion at Songkhla, the Thais immediately went into action, and the resulting battle lasted until 12.00, when Phibunsongkhram’s cease fire order was received.
Prachuap Khiri Khan was the base of the Royal Thai Air Force’s 5th Wing, under the command of Wing Commander M. L. Pravat Chumsai. The 2/143rd Regiment under Major Kisoyoshi Utsunomiya landed at 03.00 from one ship, and occupied the town after having crushed police resistance there. More landings took place near the airfield to the south. The Japanese laid siege to the airfield, but the Thai airmen along with the Prachuap Khirikhan Provincial Police managed to hold out until 12.00 on the next day, when they received orders from the Thai government to cease fighting. The Japanese lost 115 dead according to Japanese estimates, and 217 dead and more than 300 wounded according to Thai estimates. The Thais lost 37 dead and 27 wounded.
The 3/Imperial Guards Regiment landed at Samut Prakan in the early hours of 8 December with orders to take Bangkok, the Thai capital. The force was met by a small Thai police detachment. Despite a tense confrontation, fighting did not occur and the Japanese subsequently agreed not to enter the Thai capital until formal negotiations had been concluded.
Japanese aircraft bombed Bangkok. While police rounded up Japanese residents, the Thai cabinet debated its options. Some favoured continued resistance, including the establishment of a government in exile, but when Phibunsongkhram arrived the decision was made to accede to the Japanese demands. Japanese warplanes also attacked the Thai air base at Don Muang, and here the Thais lost six fighters in combat against a numerically superior Japanese force.
One company of the 1/143rd Regiment landed from a transport ship at the coastal village of Ban Don in the early hours of 8 December, and marched to Surat Thani, where it was opposed by Royal Thai police and civilian volunteers. There was desultory fighting amid a rainstorm, and this ended only in the afternoon when the hard pressed Thais received orders to lay down their arms after losing about 17 men killed and an unknown number of wounded. The Japanese then moved into Bangkok, occupying Chinatown (Sampeng) and turning the chamber of commerce building into their headquarters.
As a result of its proximity to the border with Malaya, Patani was the second most important objective of the 25th Army. Here the landing involved five transport vessels escorted and supported by eight destroyers including Shirakumo and Shinonome. The landing of the 5th Division’s 42nd Regiment, under the command of Major Shigeharu Asaeda, was made despite the roughness of the sea and the unsuitability of the selected landing beach. Earlier a member of the Taiwan Army Unit 82 (Strike South Planning), Asaeda had been involved with pre-war gathering of intelligence in Burma, Thailand and Malaya, and it had been he who selected Patani as a suitable landing site. Unknown to Asaeda, however, behind the sandy beach was an area of mud which gave the invaders considerable difficulty. The invaders were effectively opposed by the 42nd Battalion, Patani Provincial Police and 66th Youth Army Training Unit of the Benjama Rachoothit School of the Thai Youth Army until the regular battalion was ordered to cease fire at 12.00. The Thai deaths were the regular battalion commander, 23 other ranks, five men of the Patani Provincial Police, four members of the Thai Youth Army and nine civilians.
The port city of Singora was one of the 25th Army’s primary objectives, and during the early hours of 8 December, three regiments of the 5th Division under the command of Colonel Tsuji came ashore from 10 transport vessels, supported by the destroyers Asagiri, Amagiri, Sagiri and Yugiri. The Thai garrison at Khao Khor Hong (the 41st Battalion and the 13th Artillery Battalion) immediately occupied positions flanking the roads south toward Malaya, but were brushed aside into secondary positions which the main Japanese advance could ignore. A further clash occurred at Hat Yai, and in the Singora area the Thais lost 15 men killed and between 30 and 55 men wounded before the fighting ended with the orders for an armistice were received.
Once the fighting had ended, the 15th Army’s 143rd Regiment moved to the north to replace the Imperial Guards Division, which then headed to the south to join the 25th Army in the campaign to take Malaya and Singapore, and the 15th Army moved to the west for the ‘B’ (iii) invasion of Burma.
Phibunsongkhram’s decision to sign an armistice with Japan effectively ended Churchill’s hope, never more than illusory, of forging an alliance with Thailand. Phibunsongkhram also granted Japan permission to use Thailand as a base of operations for the invasion of Malaya. Within hours of the armistice, numbers of Japanese aircraft had flown into Singora airfield from French Indo-China, and this allowed the Japanese to make comparatively short-range bombing attacks on strategic bases in Malaya and Singapore. From the time of the armistice, the UK and USA regarded the whole of Thailand as Japanese-occupied territory.
On 14 December, Phibunsongkhram signed a secret agreement with the Japanese committing Thai troops in the Malaya and Burma campaigns, and on 21 December a formal alliance between Thailand and Japan was signed. On 25 January 1942 the Thailand declared war on the UK and USA, and in response all Thai assets in the USA were frozen by the government. While the Thai ambassador in London delivered the declaration of war to the British government, Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador to the USA, refused to do so and instead began to organise a Free Thai movement.
The occupation of Thailand secured the south-western flank of the first phase of Japan’s primary objective in entering World War II, namely the seizure of the resources-rich ‘Southern Resources Area’ centred on the Dutch East Indies which, among it other resources, had a major oil industry and also large stocks of refined oil products. The Japanese reckoned that the advantages of seizing and holding this vital resources area, together with the area that flanked this southward expansion on the east and west, more than offset the dangers of committing Japan to war with the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.
The Japanese estimated that the British had 70,000 men and 320 aircraft in Malaya to the south of Thailand (southern flank) and 35,000 men and 60 aircraft in Burma to the west of Thailand (western flank), the Americans 42,000 men and 170 aircraft in the Philippine islands group (eastern flank), and the Dutch 85,000 men and 300 aircraft in the East Indies (south-eastern flank) which were the primary objective.
The Japanese also reckoned that these 232,000 men and 850 aircraft, supported by not insignificant naval forces, were of indifferent quality, however. According to the Japanese, many of the army formations were ‘colonial’ and thus poorly trained, equipped and motivated, the aircraft were obsolete, and the majority of the ships also of second-line quality.
The Japanese therefore believed that ‘B’ (ii) against Borneo, ‘H’ against Celebes, ‘J’ against Java, and ‘L’ against Sumatra, together with ‘M’ against the Philippines, ‘E’ (ii) against Malaya and ‘B’ (iii) against Burma could be accomplished successfully by comparatively small but higher-quality forces.
Thus the Japanese expansion to the south was to be undertaken by 11 army divisions and a number of army and naval special forces totalling 200,000 men, 700 army and 1,600 navy first-line aircraft supported by 1,500 army and 3,300 navy reserve aircraft, and naval forces which were superior in numbers as well as quality.
Moreover, the Japanese believed that so long as they retained the strategic initiative, they could use their greater maritime capability to ensure local superiority of force to ensure victories that were both complete and, just as importantly, timely so that men and equipment could them be switched to other areas should this prove necessary.
Another element rated very highly in the Japanese plans was complete air superiority over the land battlefield, largely through the range capabilities of their two most important aircraft types, the supremely agile and well-armed Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighter and the high-performance Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ bomber.
The Japanese invasion of Malaya began just after 00.00 on 8 December 1941 (local time), which was before the ‘Ai’ attack on Pearl Harbor, and was the first major campaign of the Pacific War. At the time of the Japanese assault, Khota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan State on Malaya’s north-east coast, was the Royal Air Force’s and Royal Australian Air Force’s base of operations in northern Malaya. There was an airstrip at Kota Bharu and two others at Gong Kedah and Machang. Japanese losses in the first phase of their invasion were significant as a result of sporadic Australian air attacks, the Indian-manned coastal defences, and British artillery fire.
The Japanese invasion plan involved landing men of the 5th Division at Patani and Singora on Thailand’s south-east coast, and men of the 18th Division at Khota Bharu. The forces in Thailand were to push almost straight to the south and thereby reach the western coastal area of Malaya in the region of Taiping (from Patani) and Alor Star (from Singora) and thus invade Malaya from the north-western province of Kedah, while the eastern forces would attack from Khota Bharu down the east coast of Malaya.
The British plan against an attack from Thailand into north-western Malaya was based on the ‘Krohcol’ pre-emptive strike into southern Thailand with the object of taking operationally vital positions and thereby delay the Japanese attack. The British plan for the defence of the east coast was based on fixed beach defences manned by Major General A. E. Barstow’s Indian 9th Infantry Division along the northern stretch of the coast and by two-thirds of Major General H. G. Bennett’s Australian 8th Division along the southern stretch. (The other third of the Australian 8th Division was on Ambon and West Timor in the Dutch East Indies, and at Rabaul on New Britain island in the Bismarck islands group.)
The Japanese attackers were part of Yamashita’s 25th Army which, as noted above, departed Sanya on the island of Hainan on 4 December in a convoy later supplemented by other transport vessels from Saigon in the southern part of French Indo-China. It was when this convoy was spotted by air reconnaissance, as noted above, that Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, the British commander-in-chief, China Station, ordered the cancellation of the planned visit of the battle-cruiser Repulse to Darwin in northern Australia and the ship''s immediate return to Singapore to rejoin the battleship Prince of Wales, which was Phillips’s only other capital ship.
Before their invasion, the Japanese had recruited a small number of disaffected Malays into a ‘fifth column’ organisation called the Tortoise Society. The Malayan police knew of the society’s existence and had arrested a number of its leaders just before the Japanese landings, but at Khota Bharu members of the society were on hand to provide assistance and act as guides.
Brooke-Popham feared that the Japanese were hoping to provoke a British attack and thus provide a casus belli, and thus hesitated on 7 December to launch the ‘Matador’, the British plan to destroy the invasion force before or during its landing. Brooke-Popham decided to delay the operation, at least for the night. Shortly after 00.00 on 8 December, Indian soldiers patrolling the beaches at Khota Bharu spotted the transport ships Awazisan Maru, Ayatosan Maru and Sakura Maru as they anchored about 1.9 miles (3 km) off the coast. These ships were carrying some 5,200 men of Major General Hiroshi Takumi’s ‘Takumi’ Detachment, otherwise the 23rd Brigade. Most of these troops were veterans of the war in China.
The Japanese invasion force consisted of units from Mutaguchi’s 18th Division. The initial landing force comprised men of Colonel Yoshio Nasu’s 56th Regiment on board Sakura Maru, supported by one battery of Lieutenant Colonel Katsutoshi Takasu’s 18th Mountain Artillery Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Ichie Fujii’s 12th Engineer Regiment, the 18th Division Signals Unit, one company of the 12th Transport Regiment, one company of the 18th Division Medical Unit and No. 2 Field Hospital of the 18th Division Medical Unit. The transport vessels were escorted by the warships Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto’s Kota Bharu Invasion Force, namely the light cruiser Sendai, destroyers Ayanami, Isonami, Shikinami and Uranami, minesweepers W-2 and W-3, and submarine chaser Ch-9.
The invasion began with a bombardment at about 00.30 on 8 December at a time when the Japanese carrierborne warplanes flying toward Pearl Harbor were about 50 minutes away from their targets, which were attacked from 01.18 local time, although it is usually known as the 7 December attack as it occurred during the morning of 7 December, US time. Loading of the landing craft began almost as soon as the transport vessels had anchored, but was hampered by rough water and strong wind, which caused several of the smaller craft to capsize with the loss of some men drowned. Despite these difficulties, by 00.45 the first wave of landing craft was heading for the beach in four lines.
The defending force was Brigadier B. W. Key’s Indian 8th Brigade of Barstow’s Indian 9th Division, supported by four 3.7-in (94-mm) howitzers of Major J. B. Soper’s Indian 21st Mountain Battery. Lieutenant Colonel G. A. Preston’s 3/17th Dogra Regiment was responsible for the defence of the 10-mile (16-km) stretch of coast which the Japanese had chosen as their landing site. The Indian troops had fortified the narrow beaches and islands with land mines, barbed wire and pillboxes, and were supported by the 73rd Field Battery of the British 5th Field Regiment deployed just beside the nearby airfield. The area defended by the 3/17th Dogras consisted of the narrow beaches of Badang and Sabak at Khota Bharu, and was split by two estuaries leading from the mouth of the Pengkalan Chapa river through a maze of creeks, lagoons and swampy islands, behind which was the Kota Bharu airfield and the main road inland.
By midnight, the first waves of landing craft were carrying Japanese troops toward the beach front, but the Japanese first and second waves were pinned by the intense fire from the Dogras’ pillboxes and trenches. After vicious hand-to-hand fighting the Japanese effected a breach in the defences on the southern bank of the estuary. On the northern bank the Japanese were pinned on an island, where dawn found them trapped in the open. Allied aircraft began to attack the invasion fleet and the soldiers trapped on the island.
The Japanese managed to get off the beach only after the two pill box positions and supporting trenches had been destroyed, and the Dogras were forced to retreat to their defences in front of the airfield. Key now committed his reserve, namely the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment and the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles, in support the Dogras. At 10.30 Key ordered an attempt to retake the lost beaches with attacks by the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment from the south and the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles from the north. The fighting was heavy, and each side suffered more casualties. The British forces made some progress but were unable to close the breach, and during the afternoon a second attack was launched but again failed again to seal the breach.
The airfield at Kota Bharu had been evacuated, and by dusk on 8 December, in very poor visibility, Japanese troops were able to infiltrate between the British units. Given that landings might also be made farther to the south, Key asked Barstow and Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath, commander of the Indian III Corps, for authority to withdraw if necessary.
The RAAF’s No. 1 Squadron, based at Khota Bharu, committed 10 Hudson bombers, each carrying four 250-lb (113-kg) bombs to attack the Japanese transports. In the 17 sorties flown, the squadron lost two Hudson aircraft shot down and three badly damaged. One Hudson crashed into a fully laden landing craft after being hit while strafing the beach-head, killing some 60 Japanese soldiers on board. Only five Hudson bombers remained airworthy at the end of the battle. All three Japanese transport vessels were severely damaged, but while Ayatosan Maru and Sakura Maru were still able to steam, the 9,794-ton Awazisan Maru was left burning and was abandoned after attacks by aircraft of No. 1 Squadron had killed or wounded at least 110 of her crew. The wreck later sank on its own or, possibly, was torpedoed by the Dutch submarine K XII on 12 December.
Despite the strength of the defence, Takumi had three full battalions ashore by mid-morning on 8 December. Key’s counterattacks failed and the Japanese took Khota Bharu town on 9 December. After fierce fighting during the night, which threatened the airfield, Lieutenant Colonel A. E. Cumming’s 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment attempted to hold the airfield and fought a superb rearguard action, but Key then received permission to withdraw from Khota Bharu.
The Japanese claim that the landings at Khota Bharu saw some of the most violent fighting of the whole Malayan campaign, and it is estimated that they suffered an estimated 300 killed and 500 wounded.
The battle for Khota Bharu was merely the first step in the Malayan campaign now launched by the Japanese. In December 1941 the Japanese had been engaged for four years in their effort to seize control of China, and were heavily reliant on import the import of raw materials, and especially oil, for the industries supplying their army and navy, but in 1940 and 1941 embargoes on the supply of oil and war materials to Japan were introduced by the USA, UK and Netherlands. The object of the embargoes was to assist the Chinese and persuade the Japanese to halt military action in China. The Japanese considered that pulling out of China would result in loss of face, however, and therefore opted to take military action against the US, British and Dutch territories in South-East Asia, whose important raw material resources would nourish Japanese industry as well as the Japanese military.
As noted above, the planning of this grand strategic offensive was undertaken by the branch of the Japanese Military Affairs Bureau in Taiwan. Intelligence on Malaya was gathered by mans of agents including Japanese embassy staff, disaffected Malayans (particularly members of the Japanese-sponsored Tortoise Society), and Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese business people and tourists. Japanese spies, which included a traitorous Indian army intelligence officer, also provided intelligence and assistance. Through these means the Japanese had good information about the strengths and locations of the British-led defenders of Malaya, as well as accurate maps of the Malayan peninsula, and had arranged for local guides to provide them with directions.
The 25th Army had some 70,000 men and more than 200 Type 95 Ha-Go light, Type 97 Chi-Ha medium and Type 89 I-Go medium tanks, as well as Type 97 Te-Ke tankettes, and was supported by 568 combat aircraft, most of them on the strength of Lieutenant General Michio Sugawara’s 3rd Air Group (later 3rd Air Division) of the Imperial Japanese army air force and Rear Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga’s 22nd Air Flotilla of the Imperial Japanese navy air force.
Yamashita’s 25th Army was centred on Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division of three regiments totalling 12,600 men as each regiment had 2,600 men, Matsui’s 5th Division comprising the 9th Brigade and 21st Brigade (each of two regiments) totalling 15,300 men as each regiment had 2,600 men excluding service and rear-area elements, and Mutaguchi’s 18th Division comprising the 23rd Brigade and 35th Brigade (each of two regiments) totalling 22,200 men as each regiment had 3,500 men excluding service and rear-area elements. There were also the 1st Independent Tank Battalion, eight independent anti-tank companies, and the 3rd Tank Group, this last comprising the 1st, 2nd and 6th Medium Tank Regiments, and the 14th Light Tank Regiment. Other elements included two regiments and one battalion of heavy field artillery, one mountain artillery regiment, three mortar battalions (two of them horsed), one field anti-aircraft unit with four battalions, three independent field anti-aircraft battalions, four engineer regiments, and the usual complement of bridging, police, railway, signals, medical and logistic echelons.
On 8 December 1941 the 88,600 British-led imperial and commonwealth troops were equipped with the Lanchester 6x4 armoured cars, Marmon-Herrington armoured cars, Universal Carriers and just 23 obsolete light tanks, none of them of significant combat value. Under the command of Air Vice Marshal C. W. H. Pulford’s Far East Air Force, there were also 161 combat aircraft including three Dutch flying boats, but half of these were destroyed during the first few days of combat. The aircraft were in the hands of 13 squadrons (four Australian, one New Zealand and eight British), of which seven were based on three airfields on Singapore island, and six on five airfields in northern Malaya.
On 8 December, Lieutenant General A. E. Percival’s Malaya Command had as its core the majority Indian army component of Heath’s Indian III Corps with its headquarters at Kuala Lumpur. This corps comprised Barstow’s Indian 8th Division at Kuala Lumpur (Key’s Indian 8th Brigade at Khota Bharu with four battalions and Brigadier G. W. A. Painter’s Indian 22nd Brigade at Kuantan with two battalions), Major General D. Murray-Lyon’s Indian 11th Division at Sungai Petani (Brigadier W. O. Lay’s Indian 6th Brigade at Jitra with three battalions, Brigadier K. A. Garrett’s Indian 15th Brigade at Jitra with three battalions as the Indian III Corps’ reserve, and the Gurkhas of Brigadier W. St J. Carpendale’s Indian 28th Brigade at Ipoh with three battalions). The Indian III Corps also had light tank, artillery, anti-tank and engineer elements.
Brigadier R. G. Moir’s Line of Communications Brigade had four battalions of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces at Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembiland and Pahang, together with one light field artillery regiment and one armoured car squadron. Brigadier C. A. Lyon’s Fortress Penang had one reinforced infantry battalion, one coastal defence artillery regiment and one anti-aircraft regiment. Support units for the Indian III Corps took the form of five Indian infantry battalions (three of them supplied by the Indian States Forces) and one signals regiment.
Bennett’s Australian 8th Division was headquartered at Kluang, and comprised Brigadier H. B. Taylor’s Australian 22nd Brigade at Mersing and Endau with three battalions, and Brigadier D. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade at Kluang with three infantry battalions, one machine gun battalion and one anti-tank regiment.
Under the command of Major General F. K. Simmons, and headquartered at Singapore, the Fortress Singapore had Simmons’s own Fortress Singapore Division with Brigadier G. C. R. 1st Malaya Brigade of three battalions, Brigadier F. H. Fraser’s 2nd Malaya Brigade with three battalions, Colonel R. G. Grimwood’s Straits Settlements Volunteer Force Brigade with three infantry battalions and one armoured car company, Brigadier I. Simson’s Royal Engineers Brigade with four fortress companies of the Royal Engineers, and Brigadier A. W. G. Wildey’s Artillery Brigade with two coastal regiments of the Royal Artillery, one defence regiment of the Royal Artillery, two heavy anti-aircraft regiments, and four other anti-aircraft regiments.
Support was provided by two half-strength infantry battalions.
Brigadier A. C. M. Paris’s Malaya Command Reserve comprised Paris’s own Indian 12th Brigade headquartered at Port Dickson with three infantry battalions and one artillery battalion.
Between the wars, British strategy in the Far East was undermined by the twin vices of lack of attention and lack of adequate funding. In 1937, Major General W. G. S. Dobbie, the officer commanding the Malaya Command (1935/39), undertook an examination of Malaya’s defences and reported that during the October/March monsoon season, enemy landings could be made on the east coast and bases established in Siam (from June 1939 Thailand). Dobbie warned that landings could be made at Singora and Patani in south-eastern Siam, and at Khota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya, and recommended the immediate despatch to Malaya of large reinforcements. Dobbie’s predictions proved to be prescient, but his recommendations were ignored. The British government’s plans for the defence of Malaya were posited 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 route to Australia and New Zealand. It was also believed that a strong naval presence would serve as an effective deterrent to possible aggression.
By 1940, however, Dobbie’s successor, Major General L. V. Bond, conceded that a successful defence of Singapore demanded the defence of the whole peninsula, and that the naval base alone would not be sufficient to deter a Japanese invasion. Military planners concluded that the desired air strength in Malaya was some 300 to 500 aircraft, but this was never reached because of the higher priorities in the allocation of men and matériel for the UK and the British possessions in the Middle East.
The British strategy for the defence of Malaya was posited on two primary assumptions: firstly, that there would be warning of an invasion in time to allow for the reinforcement of British troops, and secondly, that US aid would be provided in the event of an attack. By a time late in 1941, it had become clear that neither of these assumptions was valid. Moreover, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed that in the event of the war spreading to Asia and the Pacific, priority would be given first to finishing the war in the west against Germany. Up to that time, the war in the east would have only a secondary priority, and thus containment was considered the primary strategy for operations in the east.
In was in November 1941 that the British became aware of the major enlargement of Japanese military strength in French Indo-China. Thailand as well as Malaya was seen as threatened by this development. British strategists had foreseen the possibility that the Japanese might use the Kra isthmus of Thailand as a stepping stone to an invasion of Malaya, and it was to counteract this potential threat that the ‘Matador’ plan was developed for a pre-emptive invasion of southern Thailand. However, by the time the invasion became probable, the British had decided for political and diplomatic reasons not to implement any such plan.
As noted above, the Malayan campaign began on 8 December as the 25th Army landed at Khota Bharu and then began to advance to the south along the east coast of Malaya. This began at the same time as the Japanese landings at Patani and Singora in Thailand, whence the Japanese started to move directly to the south across the Thai/Malay frontier to attack the north-western portion of Malaya.
With the collaboration of the Vichy French, the Japanese had gained access to naval facilities and supplies in French Indo-China, and it was here that they massed their forces for the invasions of Thailand and Malaya. The Japanese then coerced the Thai government, in a short campaign, into letting them use Thai military bases to launch attacks into Malaya. At 04.00, 17 bombers of the Imperial Japanese naval air force attacked Singapore, the first ever air raid aimed at the colony, and it thus became clear that Japanese bombers operating from the area of Saigon in French Indo-China were within range of Singapore.
The Japanese were initially resisted in northern Malaya by Heath’s Indian III Corps and several British battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending the coast before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force them to surrender.
The Japanese forces held only a slight numerical advantage on the ground in northern Malaya, but were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience, for most of the Japanese formations and units were combat veterans of the war in China. The British had no effective armour, which had put them at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, the former able to carry significant loads, which allowed swift movement overland across terrain covered with thick tropical rain forest, albeit criss-crossed by native paths. Although the Japanese had not brought bicycles with them (in order to speed the disembarkation process), they knew from their intelligence that suitable machines were plentiful in Malaya and quickly confiscated what they needed from civilians and retailers.
A replacement for ‘Matador’, the ‘Krohcol’ undertaking was implemented on 8 December, but the Indian troops were easily defeated by the 5th Division, which had already landed at Patani in Thailand.
Phillips’s Force ‘Z’, known until recently as Force 'W', comprised the new battleship Prince of Wales, older battle-cruiser Repulse and modern destroyers Electra, Encounter, Express and Jupiter. Force 'G' had arrived just before the outbreak of hostilities. The force had been despatched to Singapore for deterrence or, failing that, the interception and destruction of any Japanese invasion fleet to the north-east of Malaya.
In December 1941, as a deterrent to Japanese territorial expansion, recently demonstrated by the invasion of French Indo-China, it had been proposed that a force of Royal Navy warships be sent to the Far East with a view to providing reinforcement for the British possessions there, most especially Singapore. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, maintained that Singapore could be defended adequately only if the Royal Navy sent the majority of its capital ships there, to achieve parity with an estimated force of nine Japanese battleships. However, the despatch of so large a British force was impossible as the British were already at war with Germany and Italy and needed as great a strength as possible for current commitments in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and in the Mediterranean Sea. Even so, Churchill was optimistic about the improving situation in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, and therefore advocated sending two capital ships along with an aircraft carrier to defend Malaya, Borneo and the Straits Settlements. The plan was cut back to the battleship and battle-cruiser after the fleet carrier Indomitable suffered damage when she ran aground in the Caribbean Sea. Another carrier, the older and smaller Hermes, which was with Prince of Wales at Cape Town, was on passage to Singapore, but was not deployed as a result of her lack of speed.
The despatch of capital ships to Singapore had been part of the Admiralty’s strategic planning since the establishment of the naval base. The scale of this planned deployment had been reduced during the 1930s as Germany and Italy came to present new and greater threats to British interests in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it was still assumed that a significant force of capital ships would deter Japanese expansion. Churchill’s plan was based on the assumption that the USA would agree to send its Pacific Fleet, including eight battleships, to Singapore in the event of hostilities with Japan, or that the British force would add to the deterrent value of the Pacific Fleet should that remain at Pearl Harbor.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, which had sent the bulk of their armed forces to the North African campaign, also stressed the importance of a strong force at Singapore in deterring Japanese territorial aims. Australian commitment to the war in Europe had wavered in 1939 and 1940, and would be severely tested following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Darwin in northern Australia and the Kokoda Track to Port Moresby in New Guinea, so Churchill’s effort, while navally unsuccessful, may have been a political necessity.
What was then termed Force ‘G’ arrived in Singapore on 2 December with Prince of Wales, Repulse and the destroyers Electra, Encounter, Express and Jupiter, and then became Force ‘Z’. A few days later, Repulse left for Australia with the destroyers Tenedos and Australian Vampire, but the force was shortly recalled to Singapore to assemble for possible operations against the Japanese. Also at Singapore were the old light cruisers Danae, Dragon and Durban, the modern light cruiser Mauritius, and the destroyers Encounter, Jupiter and Stronghold, and due in a few more days were the heavy cruiser Exeter, Free Dutch light cruiser Java, two more British destroyers (Scout and Thanet) and four US destroyers (Whipple, John D. Edwards, Edsall and Alden).
Although Durban and Stronghold were available, Phillips decided to leave them at Singapore because they were not as fast as the other units. Danae, Dragon, Mauritius, Encounter and Jupiter were under repair and therefore unavailable.
Churchill had made a public announcement that Prince of Wales and Repulse were being sent to Singapore to deter the Japanese and, in response, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commanding the Combined Fleet, sent 36 Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ land-based naval long-range bombers to reinforce the Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell’ bombers of Lieutenant Commander Shichizo Miyauchi’s 'Kanoya' Kaigun Kokutai and Lieutenant Commander Niichi Nakanishi’s 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokotai, air groups whose pilots were already training for an attack on capital ships.
Early in the morning of 8 December 1941, bombers of Lieutenant Commander Hachiro Shoji’s 'Mihoro' Kaigun Kokutai attacked Singapore. Prince of Wales and Repulse added the weight of their anti-aircraft guns to the land-based guns of the city’s defences, but no aircraft were shot down, and the ships sustained no damage.
It was at about this time that news was received that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and eight of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships had been sunk or disabled. Pre-war planning had presumed that the Pacific Fleet would move to Singapore to reinforce the British when war broke out, but this was clearly no longer possible. Philips had concluded in an earlier discussion with General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Thomas C. Hart, the US army and navy commanders in the Philippine islands group, that his two capital ships were insufficient to confront the Japanese. With the Japanese threatening to overrun Malaya, however, Philips was pressed to use his ships in an offensive role, and therefore assembled his flotilla in preparation for an attempt to intercept and destroy Japanese invasion convoys in the South China Sea.
Phillips believed the RAF could not guarantee air cover for his ships, as its warplanes were few in number and obsolescent if not actually obsolete in technical terms. One unit, the Australian No. 453 Squadron with Brewster Buffalo fighters at Sembawang, was available to provide close cover. The unit was designated as the Fleet Defence Squadron for this task, and its commander was given the radio procedures used by Force ‘Z’.
Despite the absence if air cover, Phillips decided to proceed. It is believed that four factors entered into his decision: he thought that Japanese aircraft lacked the range to operate so far out to sea, believed that his ships were relatively immune to fatal damage from the air attack, was unaware of the quality of Japanese bombing and torpedo aircraft and, like many British naval officers, underestimated the fighting abilities of the Japanese. Up to this time, no capital ship had been sunk by air attack while under way at sea.
Prince of Wales, Phillips’s flagship, had what was believed by the British to be one of the most advanced naval anti-aircraft systems of the time, the High-Angle Control System, which had demonstrated accurate long-range radar-directed anti-aircraft fire during the ‘Halberd’ convoy operation in the Mediterranean during September 1941. The extreme heat and high humidity typical of Malayan waters had rendered the battleship’s Type 282 and Type 285 anti-aircraft fire-control radars unserviceable, however, and the ammunition for her 2-pdr ‘pom-pom’ guns had also deteriorated. RAF technicians were summoned to examine the battleship’s radars, but needed a week to effect repairs, and Force ‘Z’ would be under way in a few days.
No. 453 Squadron was not kept informed of the ships’ position. No radio request for air cover was sent until Repulse asked for air cover one hour after the Japanese attack had begun. Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors, commanding No. 453 Squadron, had proposed a plan to keep six aircraft over Force ‘Z’ during the day, but Phillips had declined this. Daylight air cover off the Malayan coast was also offered by Wing Commander Wilfred Clouston of the RNZAF’s No. 488 Squadron, flying Buffalo fighters from Kallang, but his ‘Mobile’ plan was also rejected.
After receiving word of a Japanese convoy bound for Malaya, Force ‘Z’ (now comprising Prince of Wales, Repulse, Electra, Express, Tenedos and Vampire) departed Singapore at 17.10 on 8 December. Phillips hoped to attack the convoy off Singora on 10 December and, had he departed one day earlier, he might have achieved his objective without coming under air attack at all, for the Japanese squadrons had not yet arrived.
At 07.13 on 9 December, Force ‘Z’ passed to the west of the Anambas islands group and changed course of 330°, and later to 345°. Force ‘Z’ was overflown by two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft but not reported, before being spotted by Japanese submarine I-65 at 14.00 on 9 December. The submarine shadowed the British ships for five hours, radioing their positions: Phillips was unaware his ships were being shadowed. After receiving the submarine’s sighting report, Ozawa, in command of the invasion force, ordered most of his warships to escort the empty transport vessels back to Cam Ranh Bay in the southern part of French Indo-China.
I-65’s fuller sighting report, confirming the presence of British capital ships, reached the headquarters of the 22nd Air Flotilla two hours later. At that time, the flotilla’s aircraft were in the process of loading bombs for an attack on Singapore harbour, but quickly switched to air-launched torpedoes and were ready by 18.00 hours. The report also prompted the 2nd Fleet, Southern (Malay) Force, Main Body to sortie to the south from ports in occupied French Indo-China. This force comprised the battleships Kongo and Haruna, three ‘Takao’ class heavy cruisers and eight destroyers, and was joined by four ‘Mogami’ class heavy cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Division, and one light cruiser and four destroyers of the 23rd Destroyer Squadron. Ozawa’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Chokai, was also ordered to the south in an effort to locate Force ‘Z’.
At about 17.30, just a half hour before sunset, Force ‘Z’ was spotted by three E13A reconnaissance floatplanes, which had been catapulted from the heavy cruiser Kumano and the light cruisers Yura and Kinu, which were escorting the transport vessels. These aircraft continued to shadow Force ‘Z’. At about 18.30, Phillips detached Tenedos to return to Singapore as she was short of fuel, with instructions to contact Rear Admiral A. F. E. Palliser, Phillips’s second-in-command and detailed to act as liaison to the RAF in Malaya, with the information that Phillips no longer intended to attack Singora, though Phillips in fact changed course at 19.00 toward Singora, in order to deceive the shadowing aircraft, then to the south in the direction of Singapore at 20.15, after darkness had covered the ships. Tenedos reported at 20.00.
The Japanese attempted a night air attack as they feared that the British would find the ships of the invasion convoy, but bad weather prevented them from finding the ships and they returned to their airfields at Thủ Dầu Một and Saigon at about 24.00.
During the night, one of the Japanese seaplanes dropped a flare over the heavy cruiser Chokai in the belief that she was Prince of Wales. After this, the Japanese force of six cruisers and several destroyers turned away to the north-east. The flare was also seen by the British force, in which Phillips feared that ships ships had been identified and then ordered a turn to the south-east. At this point, the forces were about 5.75 miles (9.25 km) apart but did not sight each other, and the Japanese force was not detected on Prince of Wales’s surface search radar. At 20.55 Philips cancelled the operation on the grounds that it had lost the element of surprise, and ordered the force to return to Singapore.
On their way back, the British ships were spotted and reported by the submarine I-58 at 03.40. The submarine reported that it had fired five torpedoes and missed, and then lost sight of Force ‘Z’ three hours later. The British ships did not see the torpedoes, and never knew they had been attacked. I-58’s report reached the headquarters of the 22nd Air Flotilla at 03.15, and 10 bombers of the 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokutai were despatched at 06.00 on a sector search for the ships. Many more aircraft, some armed with bombs and others with torpedoes, soon followed. The aircraft of the 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokutai took off at 07.55, those of the 'Kanoya' Kaigun Kokutai at 08.14, and those of the 'Mihoro' Kaigun Kokutai at 08.20, and all three groups were ordered to proceed to the best estimated position of the ships.
At 00.50 on 10 December, Phillips had received a report from Palliser of Japanese landings at Kuantan, on the east coast of Malaya, about mid-way between Singapore and Kota Bharu, and Phillips headed in that general direction, but without informing Palliser of his intentions as the signal would have revealed his position. Palliser failed to anticipate this and therefore requested no air cover over Kuantan from Sembawang-based Buffalo fighters. At 05.15, look-outs spotted objects on the horizon and, thinking them to be the reported invasion force, Phillips ordered Force ‘Z’ to turn toward the sighting, which was in fact of a trawler towing barges. At 06.30, Repulse reported an aeroplane shadowing the ships. At 07.18, Prince of Wales catapult-launched a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance flying boat, which flew to Kuantan, saw nothing, reported back to Prince of Wales by radio, and flew to Singapore. Express was sent to investigate the area, and found nothing.
Phillips was unaware that a large force of Japanese land-based bombers was searching for his ships but, not having anticipated his detour to Kuantan, these were searching much farther to the south. At around 10.00 Tenedos, now about 160 miles (255 km) to the south-east of Force ‘Z’, began signalling that she was being attacked by Japanese aircraft. The attack was carried out by nine G3M bomber’s of the 22nd Air Flotilla’s 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokutai, which had taken off from Saigon each carrying one 1,102-lb (500-kg) armour-piercing bomb. The aircraft mistook the destroyer for a battleship and wasted their ordnance without scoring a hit. Then, at 10.15, a reconnaissance aeroplane to the north of most of the Japanese aircraft spotted Force ‘Z’ and transmitted a sighting report which detailed the ships’ exact position.
The remaining Japanese bombers now closed on the retreating British force. The aircraft had spread out in their search patterns, and therefore arrived over the target area in small groups. With fuel running short, the Japanese attacked as they arrived rather than forming into a large force for a co-ordinated effort.
The first wave, comprising eight G3M bombers of the 'Mihoro' Kaigun Kokutai, attacked at 11,13 and concentrated their effort solely on Repulse. Besides seven near misses with 551-lb (250-kg) bombs, they scored just one hit which penetrated the seaplane hangar and the upper deck to explode in the marine mess area, causing no major damage and relatively few casualties. The battle-cruiser continued at 25 kt, still with full fighting capability. Five of the eight bombers were hit by anti-aircraft fire, and two were forced to return to base.
At about 11.40, 17 G3M torpedo bombers (two squadrons of the 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokutai) approached the two capital ships: eight concentrated on Repulse, and the other nine attacked Prince of Wales. Of the latter group, eight launched their torpedoes toward Phillips’s flagship, while the ninth aborted its run on Prince of Wales and veered away to attacked Repulse. Only one of the eight torpedoes hit Prince of Wales, but this achieved a decisive result inasmuch as it detonated at the point where the battleship’s outer port propeller shaft exited the hull. Turning at maximum revolutions, the shaft twisted and ruptured the glands that prevented sea water entering the ship via the broad shaft tunnel’s interior bulkheads. The flagship promptly took in 2,400 tons of water and lost speed to 16 kt as many compartments were flooded.
This torpedo hit had three devastating effects. First, it caused an 11.5° list to port, making it impossible for the starboard dual-role turrets to depress their 5.25-in (133.3-mm) guns to an angle low enough to engage the attackers; power to the after dual-purpose turrets was cut, leaving the ship unable to provide an effective counter to further attacks; and the loss of power to her pumps meant that it was impossible to pump water out at a rate greater than its inrush. Second, it deprived the ship of much of her auxiliary electrical power, which was vital for internal communications, ventilation, steering gear, and pumps, and for training and elevation of the 5.25-in (133.3-mm) and 2-pdr ‘pom-pom’ mounts; of the eight 5.25-in (133.3-mm) turrets, all but the two forward units on the starboard side were almost unmanageable, a factor compounded by the list, rendering their crews unable even to drag them round manually using chains; the crews also had difficulty bringing the heavy 2-pdr ‘pom-pom’ mountings into manual operation. Third, the internal flooding and shaft damage meant that the inboard port propeller shaft had to be halted, which left the ship under the power of only the starboard engines and able to make 15 kt at best; and with her electric steering unresponsive, the ship was virtually unmanageable.
Another torpedo attack was carried out by G4M bombers of the 'Kanoya' Kaigun Kokutai at about 12.20, and Prince of Wales was hit by another three torpedoes on her starboard side: one at the very bow, one opposite B 14-in (355.6-mm) main armament turret, and one abaft Y main armament turret which not only punctured the hull but bent the outer starboard propeller shaft inboard and halted the inner shaft.
Just as this last torpedo attack developed against Prince of Wales, aircraft of the 'Kanoya' Kaigun Kokutai also attacked Repulse from both port and starboard. The battle-cruiser, which had evaded 19 torpedoes up to this point, was caught in this pincer attack and suffered one port-side torpedo hit. Within minutes, further attacks hit Repulse with at least three more torpedoes. The ship lacked the anti-torpedo bulges which had been installed on her sister ship, Renown, and also lacked a modern capital ship’s internal anti-flooding compartmentalisation and subdivision.
Captain W. G. Tennant soon ordered the crew to abandon ship, and Repulse listed heavily to port over a period of about six minutes before rolling over, settling by the head, and sinking at 12.33 with heavy casualties.
Prince of Wales was now under power by only one of her four propeller shafts, but was still able to fire at a high-level bombing attack which developed at 12.41, although only with two of the 5.25-in (133.3-mm) turrets. Although most of the bombs straddled the battleship, one penetrated her deck amidships, penetrated the upper deck and exploded among the wounded in the cinema flat beneath it, causing extensive casualties. Soon Prince of Wales started to capsize to port, despite the fact that the ship had taken more torpedo hits to starboard, and Express came alongside to take off the wounded and non-fighting crew. The order to abandon ship was then given, and soon after this Prince of Wales rolled over to port, settled by the head, and sank at 13.18. As the ship rolled over, Prince of Wales scraped Express, still lying close alongside to take off survivors, with her bilge keel, and very nearly took the destroyer down with her.
The Japanese had launched 49 torpedoes and achieved eight hits, four on each of the two British capital ships, while losing only three aircraft (one G3M machine of the 'Genzan' Kaigun Kokutai and two G4M machines of the 'Kanoya' Kaigun Kokutai) during the attack, and a fourth machine was also so badly damaged that it crashed on landing.
The air cover assigned to Force ‘Z’, totalling 10 Buffalo fighters of No. 453 Squadron, arrived overhead at 13.18, just as Prince of Wales sank. They caught the reconnaissance floatplane which had earlier discovered Force ‘Z’ and had now returned to confirm the sinkings, but managed to escape as the fighters gave chase.
The destroyers Electra and Vampire moved to rescue Repulse’s survivors, while Express recovered those from Prince of Wales. Of the 840 men lost, 513 were of Repulse and 327 of Prince of Wales. After being rescued, some of Repulse’s survivors manned action stations to free Electra’s men for the task of rescuing more survivors. In total, nearly 1,000 of Repulse’s men were rescued, 571 of them by Electra. Vampire recovered nine officers, 213 ratings and one war correspondent from Repulse, and two men from Prince of Wales. The survivors included Tennant, and the losses included Phillips and Prince of Wales's commanding officer, Captain J. C. Leach.
On her passage back to Singapore with the survivors, Express passed Stronghold and the four US destroyers heading north. Express signalled that the action was over, but the other five ships continued on their way to search the area for more survivors. None was found. While returning to Singapore from this search, Edsall sent a boarding party to the trawler which had been sighted by Force ‘Z’ that morning: this was identified as the Japanese Shofu Fu Maru, and was taken to Singapore, where the crew was interned.
While the Japanese bombers were returning to their airfields in French Indo-China, a second wave was being readied for another attack on Force ‘Z’, but their mission was called off as soon as confirmed reports of the sinkings had been received.
Back in Malaya the land and associated air campaigns continued unabated. The two British, one Australian and one New Zealand fighter squadrons in Malaya, all flying the Buffalo fighter, were beset by a host of problems, including aircraft were had been poorly built and and were badly equipped; shortages of spare parts; inadequate numbers of ground personnel; airfields difficult to protect against air attack; lack of a clear and coherent command structure; mutual antagonism between British and Australian squadrons and personnel; and inexperienced pilots lacking suitable operational training.
In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Buffalo fighters were swept from the sky by the Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters of the 59th Sentai and 64th Sentai, and the older but still useful Nakajima Ki-27 ‘Nate’ fighters of three other Sentais. Despite being slower, more lightly armed, underpowered, lacking in any cockpit, engine and fuel tank protection, and in the case of the Ki-27 having fixed main landing gear units, the Japanese fighters quickly gained and held total air supremacy over Malaya as a result of their superior agility and their pilots’ better training and greater experience. The British and commonwealth air forces therefore suffered severe losses in the first week of the campaign, resulting in the ongoing merger of squadrons and their gradual evacuation to the Dutch East Indies, which had contributed one squadron (2-VLG-V) to the fighter effort.
The seven British and one Australian squadrons equipped with offensive aircraft (Bristol Blenheim and Hudson monoplane light bombers, and most especially the Vickers Vildebeest biplane torpedo bomber) were operating aircraft which were considered obsolete for the European and North African theatres of operations. Most were quickly destroyed by Japanese aircraft and played an insignificant part in the campaign.
As the ‘Takumi’ Detachment advanced to the south along Malaya’s east coast to take Gong Kedah, Kuala Tengganu, Kuala Dungun, Kuantan (30 December) and Endau (16 January 1942) before swinging inland toward Johore Bahru opposite Singapore island, a larger effort was developing on and inland of Malaya’s east coast as the 5th Division and 18th Division advanced from Singora and Patani to cross into Malaya at Changlun in the north-west and Kroh father to the south-east against Murray-Lyon’s Indian 11th Division.
The Battle of Jitra (11/13 December) was the first major engagement in the north-western sector, and its loss by Malaya Command prompted Percival to order all surviving Allied aircraft in Malaya to withdraw to Singapore.
The British defences at Jitra had not been completed before the start of hostilities. Barbed wire and some anti-tank mines had been deployed, but heavy rains had flooded the shallow trenches and gun pits. Many of the field telephone cables laid across the waterlogged ground also failed to work, resulting in a lack of communication during the battle.
Two brigades of the Indian 11th Division held the front: on the right was the Indian 15th Brigade (1/The Leicestershire Regiment, 1/14th Punjab Regiment and 2/9th Jat Regiment), and on the left was the Indian 6th Brigade (2/East Surrey Regiment, 1/8th Punjab Regiment and 2/16th Punjab Regimen). Batteries of the 155th Field Regiment, 22nd Mountain Regiment and the 80th Anti-tank Regiment provided the artillery support. The division’s third brigade was in reserve, and was the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade (2/1st Gurkha Rifles, 2/2nd Gurkha Rifles and 2/9th Gurkha Rifles).
The British front line was 14 miles (22.5 km) long and stretched across roads and a railway, and far beyond on each side, from jungle-clad hills on the right via flooded rice fields and a rubber tree estate to a tidal mangrove swamp on the left.
After the cancellation of ‘Matador’, the Indian 11th Division had moved back into the defensive positions around Jitra, and the division sorely needed the time to complete the defences. Malaya Command then came up with a secondary plan to delay the Japanese. This comprised three smaller-scale versions of ‘Matador’, namely ‘Krohcol’, ‘Laycol’ and an armoured train which, it was hoped, keep the Japanese away from Jitra for the time Murray-Lyon needed to complete the defences. ‘Krohcol’ invaded Thailand from a location to the south-east of Jitra and was partially successful in delaying the Japanese, but was unsuccessful in its main objective. The other two columns, ‘Laycol’ and the armoured train, operated from a position to the north of the Jitra position.
After the Japanese landings ta Singora and Patani, ‘Laycol’ and the armoured train attacked toward north-west Malaya on 9 December. The armoured train was manned by a platoon of the 2/16th Punjab and was sent to Perlis, almost half way to Singora, where it blew up a railway bridge and then withdrew. ‘Laycol’ comprised 200 truck-borne men of the 1/8th Punjab, under the command of Major Eric Robert Andrews and supported by two 2-pdr anti-tank guns of the 273rd Battery of the 80th Anti-Tank Regiment, and two sections of engineers. ‘Laycol’ advanced up the Trunk Road from Jitra to Ban Sadao, 10 miles (16 km) inside Thailand. ‘Laycol’ had just completed its defensive positions at 21.00 on 9 December when the vanguard of the 5th Division, in the form of some 500 men of the 5th Division Reconnaissance Regiment and 1st Tank Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Saeki, came into sight with lights blazing. Its anti-tank guns destroyed two tanks and damaged a third before ‘Laycol’ decamped and headed back to the position of the 1/14th Punjab at Changlun, 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south of the border. As it crossed the border, ‘Laycol’ destroyed the bridge and parts of the road behind it in the hope of delaying the Japanese still further.
Realising that the positions at Jitra were still not ready, Murray-Lyon ordered Garrett to take the 1/14th Punjab and the 2/1st Gurkhas of his Indian 15th Brigade to positions on the Trunk Road to the north of Jitra, in an attempt to delay the Japanese advance until 12 December. Garrett placed Lieutenant Colonel L. V. Fitzpatrick’s 1/14th Punjab at Changlun, 6 miles (9.7 km) from the Thai border, and Lieutenant Colonel J.O. Fulton’s attached 2/1st Gurkhas at Kampung Ansun a few miles to the north of Jitra.
Fitzpatrick’s 1/14th Punjab, supported by the 4th Mountain battery of the 22nd Mountain Regiment, a section of 2-pdr anti-tank guns of the 2nd Battery of the 80th Anti-Tank Regiment, and a company of engineers in two strong ambush positions, one north and the other to the south of Changlun, and here the battalion was in position by a time early in the evening of 10 December. Saeki’s vanguard had completed unopposed repairs to the road and bridge, and by a time late in afternoon had resumed its advance along the Trunk Road toward the 1/14th Punjab’s position at Changlun. At about 21.00 on 10 December, Saeki’s leading pair of tanks reached the ambush position to the north of Changlun and were destroyed by the anti-tank guns, while the Punjabis inflicted more casualties on the Japanese supporting infantry before pulling back to the south of Changlun. It was early in the morning before the Japanese caught up with the 1/14th Punjab at its next ambush position. In full daylight, Saeki’s men were able to send a party to flank the Punjabis’ position, forcing the Indians to withdraw before they were cut off. Fitzpatrick then decided to withdraw his mostly intact battalion back to the Gurkha position at Kampung Asun.
At this point, Murray-Lyon arrived at Fitzpatrick’s headquarters and ordered him to establish another ambush to the north of Kampung Asun. Murray-Lyon, Garrett, Fitzpatrick and all four of his company commanders then drove to the south to see the new ambush site, leaving the 1/14th Punjab to pack up and join them. By a time early in the afternoon it had started to rain heavily, reducing visibility to a few feet. Half loaded onto their vehicles and facing the wrong way, the 1/14th Punjab was caught completely unprepared as several Japanese tanks loomed out of the rain and drove into the middle of the battalion. Saeki’s tanks scattered the battalion, of which just 270 men managed to make their way back to the British lines.
The Japanese drove straight through the destroyed battalion and advanced toward Kampung Asun. A short distance down the road, Fitzpatrick learned of the disaster from the few survivors racing toward Kampung Asun, and with just the few men with him tried to establish a roadblock but was severely wounded when the Japanese tanks reached him. Garrett gathered the 270 or so survivors and escaped to the south. By a time early in the evening of 11 December, Saeki’s vanguard had reached the Gurkha position at Kampung Asun.
Fulton’s 2/1st Gurkhas were positioned on the southern bank of a fast-flowing stream just to the north of Kampung Asun. Unlike the Punjabis, the Gurkhas had no anti-tank guns, but engineers had placed demolition charges on the road bridge. The arrival of the 1/14th Punjab’s survivors provided the Gurkhas with a precious few minutes’ warning, and they attempted unsuccessfully to blow the bridge, on which the charges may have been damaged by the rain. As the first of Japanese tanks arrived, Havildar Manbahadur Gurung used a Boys anti-tank rifle to stop the first two tanks on the bridge, effectively blocking it. With the speed to which the British forces were soon to become uncomfortably accustomed, the Japanese infantry swept across the stream on each flank with the support of heavy mortar and machine gun fire. Mostly young and inexperienced, the Gurkhas soon broke and scattered. By 19.00 on 11 December, therefore, the small Japanese force had broken through the Gurkhas. Most of the 2/1st Gurkhas were captured, but Fulton managed to save some 200 of his 550 men.
After destroying Garrett’s two battalions to the north of Jitra, the small but very confident ‘Saeki’ Detachment was making all the speed it could to the south along Trunk Road toward the Indian 11th Division’s defensive position at Jitra. Murray-Lyon had placed the majority of his two brigades to the east and west of Jitra with a four-battalion front to face any attack. The Indian 6th Brigade covered the area to the west of Jitra along the line of the Jitra river. Lieutenant Colonel H. S. Larkin’s 2/16th Punjab was on the extreme left flank and Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Swinton’s 2/East Surrey Regiment was closer to Jitra. Lieutenant Colonel R. C. S. Bate’s 1/8th Punjab (less the two companies that formed ‘Laycol’ was covering the Kodiang road through the state of Perlis at Kanjong Iman, but on 10 December was withdrawn from Perlis, demolishing bridges as the battalion retreated. At the same time as Garrett’s force on the Singora road was being destroyed by the ‘Saeki’ Detachment, a premature demolition of a bridge on the Kodiang road left a large proportion of the 1/8th Punjab stranded on the wrong side of a river.
The Indian 15th Brigade, now commanded by Carpendale, had been entrusted with the task of covering the main Trunk Road at Jitra. Lieutenant Colonel C. E. Morrison’s 1/Leicestershire Regiment covered the road and town to the north of the Jitra river, and Lieutenant Colonel C. K. Tester’s 2/9th Jat Regiment was on the eastern flank. Lieutenant Colonel G. H. D. Woollcombe’s 2/2nd Gurkhas covered the divisional area behind the positions of the Leicesters and Jats, while Lieutenant Colonel W. R. Selby’s (2/9th Gurkhas protected the Indian 11th Division’s line of retreat.
By a time late in the afternoon of 11 December, Murray-Lyon had lost the better part of three battalions and was now without any reserve units to commit to the main battle. With the survivors of Garrett’s two battalions streaming through the Indian 11th Division and his line of retreat threatened by the Japanese advance to the south of Jitra at Kroh, Murray-Lyon sought authorisation to pull back from Jitra to a position he had already selected at Gurun, about 30 miles (48 km) farther to the south. This was a natural stronghold, though it had also not been put into a state of active readiness, but Percival firmly refused to allow any such retrograde movement for fear that a retreat undertaken so early and over so long a distance would demoralise both the troops and the civilian population. Murray-Lyon was therefore instructed that the battle must be fought out at Jitra.
At 20.30 on 11 December, Saeki’s advance guard overran a forward patrol of the 1/Leicesters but was then checked by an improvised roadblock until dawn of 12 December. Believing he was still attacking small British delaying forces, Saeki committed his detachment to a three-hour attack on the Leicester and Jat positions, but gained no success. By 12.00 on 12 December, Saeki had come to the realisation that he was fighting against the main positions of the Indian 11th Division. Major General Saburo Kawamura, the commander of the 5th Division’s 9th Brigade, readied Colonel Tsunahiko Watanabe’s 11th Regiment and Colonel Kanichi Okabe’s 41st Regiment to resume the attack that night. Without waiting for Kawamura’s plan, however, Saeki’s advance guard attacked again, this time into D Company of the 2/9th Jats, which was effectively isolated, and drove a wedge between the Leicesters and Jats and D Company. The British battalion tried to close the gap during the afternoon, but failed with heavy losses. Bates led two companies of his 1/8th Punjab in an attack on the wedge, but the attack failed: Bates, two other officers and 23 men were killed. The 2/9th Jats’ D Company, running out of ammunition, was overrun soon after this. At the same time Tester lost contact with A Company of his 2/9th Jats on the right flank.
At 19.30 on 12 December, Murray-Lyon again asked for permission to fall back to Gurun, and Percival now authorised such a withdrawal at Murray Lyon’s discretion. It was in the course of this withdrawal from Jitra, during the night of 12/13 December, that the Indian 11th Division suffered its heaviest losses. As a result of very poor communications, Murray-Lyon’s order to withdraw did not reach all of the forward companies, who were therefore still in their positions as the dawn of 13 December arrived. At 24.00 on 12/13 December a Japanese effort to rush the single bridge over the Bata river was beaten off by the 2/2nd Gurkhas, and two hours later the bridge was blown and the battalion withdrew through a rearguard formed by the 2/9th Gurkhas, who fought another fierce engagement before withdrawing at 04.30. By 12.00 all contact had ended.
The task now facing Murray-Lyon was to try to hold North Kedah and block Japanese tanks using the advantages of good natural obstacles, and to dispose his forces so as to obtain real depth on the parallel pair of north/south roads which traversed the rice-growing area, and thus be able to use his artillery to greater effect. At 22.00, however, the Indian 11th Division was ordered to pull back, from midnight, to the southern bank of the Kedah river at Alor Star.
This was a withdrawal which would have been tricky even under favourable conditions, but given that the men were exhausted, units mixed as the result of the fighting, communications broken and the night dark, it was inevitable that there would be delays in the transmission of the appropriate orders, and that these would in some cases not reach those to whom they were addressed. Some units withdrew without incident, but others found themselves unable to use the only road and had thus to make their way across country as best they could. On the left flank there were no roads, so some parties reached the coast and, taking boats, rejoined the division farther to the south. Some units were still in position the following morning. Though necessary, the withdrawal was too fast and too complicated for implementation disorganised and exhausted troops, who thereby became still further disorganised and exhausted.
The Battle of Jitra and the retreat to Gurun had cost the Indian 11th Division dearly in terms of its strength and efficiency. The formation had lost one brigade commander (Garrett) wounded, one battalion commander (Bates) killed and another battalion commander (Fitzpatrick) captured. The division had lost the equivalent of nearly three of its nine infantry battalions, and was in no condition to face another Japanese assault without reinforcement, reorganisation and rest.
After 15 hours the 5th Division had captured Jitra and with it the large quantity of supplies in the area.
To the rear of the Indian 11th Division, the island of Penang off Malaya’s east coast came under daily Japanese attack by bombers of the Imperial Japanese navy air force from 8 December, with more than 2,000 civilians killed, and was abandoned on 17 December in haste so precipitate that weapons, boats, supplies and even a working radio station were left to the Japanese. The evacuation of Europeans from Penang, leaving the local inhabitants to the mercy of the Japanese, caused much embarrassment to the British and served to alienate the local population. It has later become a virtual commonplace that the collapse of British moral authority and rule in South-East Asia came at Penang in December 1941 and not at Singapore in February 1942.
After the destruction of most of the British aircraft at Alor Star, at the mouth of the Kedah river, Percival ordered that until the arrival of reinforcements, all aircraft were to be used for the defence of Singapore and the protection of supply convoys moving north into Malaya.
On 23 December Murray-Lyon was relieved of the command of his Indian 11th Division and replaced, on a temporary basis, by Paris, who was succeeded in command of the Malaya Command Reserve by Lieutenant Colonel I. M. Stewart. By the end of the first week of January 1942, the British had lost the whole of northern Malaya. At the same time, Thailand signed a friendship treaty with Japan, which completed the formation of the two countries’ loose military alliance. Thailand was then allowed by the Japanese to resume sovereignty over several sultanates in northern Malaya, thus consolidating their occupation.
On 27 December, in an effort to prevent the capture of the air base at Kuala Lumpur, the Indian 11th Division occupied Kampar, on the Trunk Road to the south of Ipoh, which the Japanese had taken on 28 December. Kampar was a strong natural defensive position, and the division was to hold this position to delay the Japanese long enough to allow Barstow’s Indian 9th Division to withdraw from the east coast. The Japanese started to surround the Indian 9th Division’s positions on 30 December, and the Battle of Kampar began on the following day fighting. The Indian division was able to hold for four days before withdrawing on 2 January 1942 after achieving their objective of slowing the Japanese advance.
Overlooking Kampar, the site of the battle is set on what is now called Green Ridge. Together with the nearby Thompson, Kennedy and Cemetery Ridges. this ridge overlooks the main road to the south from Ipoh, and the complex of ridges at the top of the 4,070-ft (1240-m) Gunong Brijang Melata mountain, was of considerable operational significance. The Gunong Brijang Melaka is covered with jungle, and offered a clear view of the surrounding plains covered with open tin mining sites and swamps. Lying to the east of Kampar, the Gunong Brijang Melaka had steep slopes which lead down to the Kampar Road. With this town and mountain in their grasp, the Japanese would have an excellent view of the Kinta valley to the south. The British appreciated that if the Japanese took Kampar, they would be able to use it as a the ideal starting point for an advance into the Kinta valley.
By this time in the campaign, Heath’s Indian III Corps had already been compelled to make a number of retreats to the south after actions which had badly mauled and decimated the division’s infantry. The losses suffered by the Indian 11th Division in the battles at Jitra, Kroh, Alor Star and Gurun had required the amalgamation of most of the division’s British and Indian battalions. After the loss of Kedah province, the Indian 12th Brigade, which was the Malaya Command Reserve and well trained in jungle warfare) replaced the Indian 11th Division and began a successful fighting withdrawal to the Kampar position, inflicting heavy casualties on the Japanese spearhead units. The Indian 12th Brigade’s task was to buy the time needed for the reorganisation of the Indian 11th Division and the preparation of the Kampar defences.
Of the Indian 11th division’s three brigades, the Indian 6th and 15th Brigades had been amalgamated to form the 15th/6th Brigade under the command of Lieutenant Colonel H. D. Moorhead, commander of Krohcol. The 15th/6th Brigade now comprised the survivors of the 1/Leicesters and 2/East Surreys amalgamated as the British Battalion, and a composite Jat-Punjab Regiment created out of the survivors of the 1/8th Punjab and the 2/9th Jat. The brigade’s other battalions were the 1/14th Punjab, 5/14th Punjab and 2/16th Punjab, and these covered the rear of the Kampar position. The 15th/6th Brigade numbered only about 1,600 men. The 28th (Gurkha) Brigade, now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel W. R. Selby, was intact but of limited strength and poor morale as its three Gurkha battalions had suffered heavy losses in the fighting around Jitra, Kroh, Gurun and Ipoh.
Paris had to defend a line from the coast through Telok Anson up to the defensive positions at Kampar. The defensive perimeter at Kampar was an all-round position, straddling Kampar Hill (Gunong Brijang Malaka) to the east of Kampar town, overlooking the Japanese advance and well concealed by thick jungle. Paris placed artillery spotters on the forward slopes protected by the 15th/6th Brigade on the western side of the position, and the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade covered the right flank on the eastern side. The two infantry brigades were supported by the 88th Field Artillery Regiment, which was equipped with 25-pdr gun/howitzers, and the 4.5-in (114.3-mm) howitzers of the 155th Field Artillery Regiment. Once it had passed through Kampar, Paris sent the Indian 12th Brigade to cover the coast and his line of retreat at Telok Anson.
The was made by units of Matsui’s 5th Division. The intact and relatively fresh 41st Regiment (about 4,000 men) of Kawamura’s 9th Brigade spearheaded the attack on Kampar Hill with Watanabe’s 11th Regiment and Okabe’s 41st Regiment.
The battle which followed pitted some 9,000 Japanese soldiers, supported by tanks and as many as 100 pieces of artillery, against a British force of about 1,300 infantry with no armoured support and fewer pieces of artillery.
On 30 December Kawamura’s brigade started to encircle and probe into the British positions. One day later Kawamura launched probing attacks on the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade’s position on the right flank using a battalion of the 11th Regiment. Once they had established the locations of the Gurkha positions, the Japanese formed up to attack, thereby presenting ideal targets for the concentrated fire of the 155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Artillery’s howitzers. Even so, the 11th Regiment attacked right through the day, but each Japanese effort was beaten off by the Gurkhas and the close-support artillery fire.
At 07.00 on 1 January Kawamura launched his main attack against the western side of the Kampar position using the 41st Regiment, and the main weight of the attack fell on the area held by the British Battalion. Supported by heavy mortar fire, the Japanese infantry attacked straight into the British Battalion’s positions. The fighting was very severe, with Japanese and British positions taken and retaken at bayonet point. Japanese casualties were heavy, and a steady stream of wounded passed Okabe’s headquarters. The Japanese infantry assaults were supported by continuous artillery fire and the bombing and strafing of Japanese warplanes, which could operate with total impunity as the Japanese had complete air supremacy by this stage in the campaign. Matsui, the divisional commander, sent up fresh troops to replace the casualties and maintain the impetus of the Japanese assault, but the men of the 15th/6th Brigade, well concealed and dug in, and capably supported by the 88th (2nd West Lancashire) Field Artillery, held their positions throughout the two days of fierce fighting on the western slopes of Kampar Hill.
During the two-day battle Japanese troops managed to capture trenches on the eastern sector of Thompson Ridge. After the failure of two counterattacks by D Company of the British Battalion and one by the Jat-Punjab Battalion, a reserve mixed company of 60 Sikhs and Gujaratis from the Jat-Punjab Battalion was brought in to attempt to retake the trenches. Under the command of Captain John Onslow Graham and Lieutenant Charles Douglas Lamb, both of the 1/8th Punjab), this little force fixed bayonets and charged the Japanese position. The Japanese fire was so heavy that 33 men, including Lamb, were killed in the charge. Graham continued to lead the attack after being wounded and only stopped when a grenade mangled both his legs beneath the knees. Nevertheless, he continued to shout encouragement to his men and was seen throwing grenades at the Japanese trenches. Altogether 34 Indians died in the attack but they retook the position.
Matsui realised that the British position at Kampar was too strong for him to take, so Yamashita ordered amphibious assaults on the west coast to the south of Kampar near the positions of the Indian 12th Brigade at Telok Anson in order to outflank the Indian 11th Division and cut its line of retreat. The 11th Regiment was to land at Hutan Melintang and attack Telok Anson from the south, and a force from the Imperial Guards Division headed overland, following the line of the Perak river to attack Telok Anson from the north.
The landings were successful and Telok Anson was taken after a brisk action on 2 January with Lieutenant Colonel J. G. B. de Wilton’s 3rd Cavalry and Major S. P. Fearon’s 1st Independent Company of the Indian 11th Division’s command troops. Once Telok Anson had fallen the 3rd Cavalry and 1st Independent Company fell back onto the Indian 12th Brigade, which successfully delayed the Japanese from taking the main north/south road.With his line of retreat threatened, Paris ordered the abandonment of the position at Kampar. The Indian 12th Brigade covered the retreat of Indian 11th Division, and the British pulled back to their next prepared defensive position on the Slim river. Even though the battle had been a British success, it was the lack of reserves in the Malaya Command for the support of the Indian 11th Division which made necessary the withdrawal toward the Slim river.
The Japanese estimated that their success in the Battle of Kampar had cost them 500 men killed, and the British 150 men killed.
The Indian 11th Division pulled back from Kampar to prepared positions at Trolak, some 5 miles (8 km) to the north of the Slim river. These defences began with a 4-mile (6.4-km) corridor at the 60-mile post extending through almost impenetrable jungle to the 64-mile post. Here the road cut through the more open terrain of the Cluny Rubber estate for 5 miles (8 km) before reaching the rail bridge over the Slim river. The road then tuned to the east and followed the river upstream for another 6 miles (9.6 km) before crossing the river by a bridge.
Paris had lost one of his three brigades after the Battle of Kampar, for the amalgamated Indian 15th/6th Brigade, after retreating through the Indian 12th Brigade, had been moved to a coast-defence position farther to the south to defend the western flank of the division and to rest and reorganise. This left Paris with Stewart’s Indian 12th Brigade and Selby’s 28th (Gurkha) Brigade, each much reduced in strength as a result of their heavy casualties in the earlier fighting, with which to defend the northern bank of the Slim river.
Stewart’s battalions were in a line straddling the road and spreading back through the jungle part of the corridor to the north of Trolak at the point at which the Cluny Rubber estate started and where Stewart located his headquarters. The 4/19th Hyderabad Regiment held the forward position with anti-tank obstacles and road blocks. The next, and indeed the last, prepared positions were held by the 5/2nd Punjab Regiment. The 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were grouped in a defensive position but without fixed anti-tank obstacles or road blocks. Selby’s Gurkhas were spread along the road and railway leading up to both bridges, which had been prepared for demolition.
The attack of the 5th Division was made by Colonel Tadao Ando’s battle group, centred on Ando’s own 42nd Regiment, which had taken over from Okabe’s much-depleted 41st Regiment, and was supported by about 17 Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tanks and three Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tanks, under the command of Major Toyosaku Shimada. It was this latter officer who suggested the plan, unusual by World War II standards, of a night attack using tanks to spearhead the infantry, a dangerous proposition for the tanks considering the extremely low visibility their crews would have.
On the afternoon of 5 January 1942 the Indian 15th/6th Brigade’s rearguard withdrew through the positions of the Indian 12th Brigade, and soon after this the advance guard of the 42nd Regiment reached the positions of the 4/19th Hyderabad and launched a probing attack which was beaten off with the loss of 60 Japanese dead. Ando decided to await the arrival of supporting armour before launching another attack, and on 6 January Shimada’s tank company arrived. Shimada requested Ando to allow him to attack straight down the road, instead of following the usual Japanese tactics of flanking the British positions.
At 03.30 on 7 January, in heavy rain, Shimada’s force started a mortar and artillery bombardment on the first of the positions of the 4/19th Hyderabad under the command of Major A. D. Brown as the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel E. L. Wilson-Haffenden, had been wounded in an earlier air attack. The tanks began to manoeuvre through the British defensive obstacles under fire from the Hyderabads, who were able to call in some artillery fire which destroyed one tank. The Hyderabads lost contact with their artillery support and were without any anti-tank weapons, so the 3/42nd Regiment was able to force a breach in the Hyderabads’ roadblock. Within 15 minutes Japanese engineers were dismantling the roadblock and Ando’s infantry was driving back the Hyderabads, now reduced to scattered groups. The infantry were immediately followed by Shimada’s tanks, which broke through the remaining Hyderabads with ease, scattering them into the jungle, and by 04.00 were headed toward the next British unit.
A few Hyderabads fell back to the next battalion, which was Lieutenant Colonel C. Deakin’s 5/2nd Punjab Regiment, alerting the Punjabis to the tanks now heading toward their position. Shimada lost his two leading tanks to land mines and Boys anti-tank rifles in front of the more experienced Punjabi position. The Punjabis then managed to fire another tank with Molotov cocktails, effectively blocking the road and leaving the Japanese column stalled behind it. Had the British artillery, incommunicado as the telephone wires had been cut, been called in at this juncture, Shimada’s column could have been destroyed or severely handled as it filled a narrow road with jungle, impenetrable to vehicles, on each side.
As it was, Shimada’s infantry was able to push through the Punjabis as the tanks found an unguarded loop road that enabled them to by-pass the destroyed tanks. The Punjabis had held Shimada until about 06.00 in heavy fighting, and then Deakin and a handful of his remaining men were able to escape across the Slim river as the majority of the battalion was overrun.
By 06.30 Shimada’s tanks were approaching the next battalion, Lieutenant Colonel L. Robertson’s 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This battalion was positioned around the village of Trolak itself and protected the headquarters of Stewart’s Indian 12th Brigade. A regular British battalion and very experienced, considered to be one of the best jungle fighting units the British had in Malaya, the Argylls were in a defensive position but without fixed anti-tank obstacles or mines. The Scotsmen had only the briefest of warnings of the rapid Japanese approach from a few panic-stricken Hyderabads in which to seek to erect a roadblock. Even with the warning, though, the first four of Shimada’s tanks were wrongly identified as some of the 5/2nd Punjab’s Bren Gun Carriers and drove straight through the Argylls, dividing the battalion into two parts. The four tanks then headed for the railway bridge.
The arrival of the remainder of Shimada’s main force, and Ando’s infantry soon after it, split the Argylls completely and cut them off from the road. Reduced to many small groups, the Argylls nonetheless fought ferociously and managed to delay the Japanese infantry for a time longer than managed by either of the other two battalions, holding the Japanese until about 07.30. The force to the east of the road was C and B Companies under Robertson, and fought its way into the rubber estate in an effort to flank the Japanese advance by heading south through the jungle inland and breaking up into small parties. Six weeks later some of these soldiers were still in the jungle. A Company, to the west of the road, managed to break out of the Japanese encirclement and cross the river before the rail bridge was blown. D Company, farther to the north, suffered the same fate as Robertson’s two companies, having to scatter into the jungle and attempt to regain the British lines. Most of D Company was later captured before it could reach the river. Thus only 94 Argylls, nearly al of them from A Company, answered roll call on 8 January.
Before they reached the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade, Shimada’s tanks were offered a perfect target in the form of Lieutenant Colonel C. A. Stokes’s 5/14th Punjab Regiment, which was in marching order as long columns on each side of the road to Trolak. This battalion was moving up to reinforce Stewart’s brigade. The three leading Japanese tanks drove straight through the Punjabis, machine guns firing at the perfect target offered by the columns of men. Stokes was mortally wounded and his battalion suffered heavy casualties before the tanks carried on toward the road bridge. (The 5/14th Punjab mustered only 146 officers and men by 8 January.) By 08.00 the leading Japanese tanks were within Selby’s brigade headquarters area. The 28th (Gurkha) Brigade was completely unaware of what had happened to Stewart’s whole brigade, and the Japanese tore through it, scattering both the 2/2nd Gurkhas and 2/9th Gurkhas, which were spread around Selby’s brigade headquarters. Despite the two battalions’ heavy casualties, many of their men made it across the rail bridge before the main Japanese force got to their position.
Like the Punjabis, the last battalion of Selby’s brigade, Lieutenant Colonel J. O. Fulton’s 2/1st Gurkhas was on the march on each side of the road as the Japanese tanks reached it. On this occasion, though, the marching columns of Gurkhas were facing away from the approaching Japanese tanks, which thus caught them from behind, so the death toll was even higher than that of the Punjabis: only one officer and 27 other ranks answered roll call on the next day. Fulton was wounded and taken prisoner, and later died.
Shimada’s tanks had by now broken through both brigades and were into the Indian 11th Division’s rear area and heading for the two bridges. Leaving the rail bridge for Shimada and the main Japanese force, the three leading tanks made for the more important road bridge 6 miles (9.6 km) away, in the process breaking through the artillery, medical and other support units in front of the road bridge. On reaching the road bridge at 08.30, the tanks found it defended by a battery of Bofors 40-mm anti-aircraft guns. Although two of the guns managed to fire on the tanks, the rounds did not penetrate the tanks’ armour and the gunners then fled. The Japanese then cut the wires to the demolition charges on the bridge. It was still only early morning and the Japanese attack had managed to scatter the entire Indian 11th Division, leaving most of its survivors attempting to escape across the Slim river.
In the last part of this 16-mile (25-km) dash to the road bridge, some of the tanks were sent to explore the other side of the river where, after 3 miles (4.8 km) they ran into more British artillery, in the form of two of the 155th Field Regiment’s 4.5-in (114.3-mm) howitzers. The leading tank fired on the first of these pieces, oversetting its and thereby blocking the road. The gunners on the second howitzer managed to lower their barrel in time to fire on the tanks at point-blank range, totally destroying the leading vehicle and causing the others to fall back to the road bridge.
The Indian 11th Division had suffered very substantial losses, although some men eventually made their way back to join in the fight for Singapore. Many more were still be in the jungle after the surrender, and most of these survivors were later captured. A few small parties managed initially to avoid capture, but were unable to keep ahead of the rapid Japanese advance. The two brigades’ remaining survivors were soon scattered all over the Malayan peninsula, and some of the Argylls were still at large in August 1945, while one Gurkha non-commissioned officer was found during the Malayan Emergency in October 1949 after living in the jungle since 1942.
The Indian 12th Brigade had practically ceased to exist, and the 28th (Gurkha) Brigade was at less than battalion strength. The former brigade could muster no more than 430 officers and men including 94 officers and men of the Argylls, and the latter was only slightly better off with 750 officers and men. In all, the Indian 11th Division lost an estimated 500 men killed and 3,200 men taken prisoner, as well as a very large quantity of irreplaceable equipment. The Japanese had managed to attack through a division and take two bridges at the cost of 17 men killed and 60 men wounded. After meeting survivors of the battle, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief in India, was appalled by the condition of the men and ordered the Indian 11th Division out of the front line.
The defeat in the Battle of the Slim River allowed the Japanese to take Kuala Lumpur unopposed on 11 January, and Wavell ordered Percival to yield central Malaya and retreat into southern Malaya, and then to replace the Indian 11th Division with Bennett’s Australian 8th Division. The situation also persuaded Percival to change his tactic of using prepared defensive positions and instead order a rapid retreat to the south, where the Australians would prepare an ambush at Gemensah Bridge.
For their part, the Japanese continued their advance with the Trunk Road as the axis for the 5th Division and 18th Division, which progressed via Serandah toward Kuala Lumpur and Tampin. The amphibious hook of 1 January on the west coast from Taiping to the mouth of the Slim river, which allowed the Japanese to outflank the Indian 11th Division at Telok Anson and thereby unlock the Kampar position, was followed on 2/3 January by another amphibious movement, this time to Kuala Selangor, and then by the short hop to Port Swettenham on 10 January. At Port Swettenham the Japanese started to use the coastal road to the south as the axis for the Imperial Guards Division, which pushed forward via Port Dickson to Malacca.
This paved the way to the Battle of Muar, which was the last major battle of the Malayan campaign. Fought on 14/22 January, the battle was fought on the Muar river, which was the final natural barrier of any size in the way of the Japanese advance to Johore Bahru at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula opposite Singapore island. Here the front extended between Muar town on the coast with its bridge over the coastal road and Gemas where the Trunk Road crossed the river by the Gemensah ridge.
After the defeat at the Slim river, Wavell as commander-in-chief India and commander-in-chief of the Allied ABDA command in South-East Asia and the Netherlands East Indies, decided that Heath’s Indian III Corps should withdraw 150 miles (240 km) to the south-east into the Johore state to rest and regroup, while Bennett’s Australian 8th Division attempted to halt the Japanese advance.
Bennett’s forces inflicted severe losses on Japanese forces in an ambush at the Gemensah bridge and in another battle just a few miles to the north of the town of Gemas. The men of the Australian 8th Division killed an estimated 700 men of the Imperial Guards Division in the ambush at the bridge, and Australian anti-tank guns destroyed several Japanese tanks in the battle to the north of Gemas. But while the ambush was an Allied success, the defence of Muar and Bakri on the west coast totally failed and led to the almost total destruction of the failure which resulted in the near-annihilation of Brigadier H. C. Duncan’s Indian 45th Brigade and heavy casualties for its two attached Australian infantry battalions. This was also the first engagement between the Japanese and elements of Major General M. Beckwith-Smith’s British 18th Division.
There were both parts of the reinforcements which reached Malaya in January and February 1942, and comprised Brigadier G. C. Ballentine’s Indian Indian 44th Brigade, the Indian 45th Brigade and the British 18th Division. This last comprised Brigadier C. L. B. Duke’s 53rd Brigade, Brigadier E. K. W. Backhouse’s 54th Brigade and Brigadier T. H. Massy-Beresford’s 55th Brigade, as well as the standard divisional troops and Royal Artillery and Royal Engineer components.
The ambush was ordered personally by Percival, who firmly believed that the best way in which to combat the Japanese was by means of ambushes, and Bennett was ordered to plan and execute such an ambush at Gemas with a mixed force known as ‘Westforce’, which was to defend the Muar area.
‘Westforce’ took up positions along the front from the mountains above Gemas to the coast of the Malacca Strait. There were two main operational areas, each divided into sectors, and were themselves widely separated and linked chiefly by a tenuous signals net.
The first operational area was around the Trunk Road and the railway beyond Segamat, and its three sectors were that astride the road and railway near Gemas held by Brigadier B. W. Key’s Indian 8th Brigade of Barstow’s Indian 9th Division; that farther forward along the same road held by Brigadier D. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade, which was allocated a counterattack role and had already prepared an ambush, several miles forward of the Gemensah bridge, by Lieutenant Colonel J. Robertson’s Australian 2/29th Battalion; and that on the left held by Brigadier G. W. A. Painter’s Indian 22nd Brigade of the Indian 9th Division and tasked with guarding the approaches to Segamat from Malacca, which skirt each side of Mt Ophir.
Captain D. J. Duffy’s B Company of Lieutenant Colonel F. G. Galleghan’s Australian 2/30th Battalion entrenched and concealed itself on one side of the Gemensah bridge, spanning a stream, as part of the ambush. The bridge itself had been mined with explosives, and a battery of field artillery had been sited on higher ground behind the infantry to command the Japanese approach to the bridge.
On the Japanese side, Colonel Mukaida’s ‘Mukaida’ Force had been created to assume the lead from the exhausted 5th Division, and was approaching Gemas and the Australian ambush at Gemensah Bridge. The ‘Mukaida’ Force initially comprised Mukaida’s own 1st Tank Regiment (31 Type 97 Chi-Ha and 17 Type 95 Ha-Go tanks at the beginning of the campaign) with an infantry battalion and artillery for support under the command of the 9th Brigade, but was reinforced with the 11th Regiment on 15 January.
The second operational area covered the west coast and the roads extending along it to the Strait of Johore. This area had two sectors, more in line with one another than those of the first area, but even less effectively in touch. The defence of this area was assigned to Duncan’s Indian 45th Brigade reinforced by a single battery of field artillery. The area included the port of Muar and stretched some 30 miles (48 km) into the jungle toward Segamat along the winding line of the Muar river, whose banks were extensively covered by creeper-clad forest. under Bennett’s orders, two of the brigade’s three battalions were deployed along the river line, which they divided between them, and the third was in reserve near the coast.
The Imperial Guards Division was moving down the west coast of Malaya, with a battalion-sized force under the command of Colonel Masakazu Ogaki approaching the Muar river area from the sea in an amphibious hop from Malacca, while Colonel Kentaro Kunishi’s 4th Konoye Regiment and Colonel Takeo Iwaguro’s 5th Konoye Regiment approached Muar from the north under the command of Nishimura, the divisional commander.
Duke’s newly arrived British 53rd Brigade of the British 18th Division was part of ‘Westforce’, and was based on Lieutenant Colonel G. C. Thorne’s 2/Cambridgeshire Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel E. C. Prattley’s 5/Royal Norfolk Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel I. G. C. Lywood’s 6/Royal Norfolk Regiment, and although ordered to deploy by Percival was unfit for immediate employment after 11 weeks at sea from the UK.
The Gemensah bridge ambush was spring at about 16.00 on 14 January after the leading group of the 5th Division had approached on bicycles and crossed the bridge without being engaged. There followed the several hundreds of bicycle-mounted men of the main column, followed by tanks and engineer vehicles, and it was at this point that the bridge was blown in an explosion which sent timber, bicycles and bodies flying through the air. Spread out on each side of the road in concealed positions, the men of the Australian 2/30th Battalion’s C Company now opened fire and savaged the Japanese column as ranks of men and equipment were mowed down by machine gun and rifle fire. Most of the Japanese soldiers had tied their rifles to the handlebars of the bicycles they were riding, and this made the Australian ambush even more successful.
Even as the ambushed part of the Japanese column was being decimated, however, the soldiers who had already passed through the ambush area discovered the field telephone cable linking the ambush party with the artillery positions, and promptly cut it, thereby preventing the artillery from receiving the signal to support the ambush party.
By a quirk of fortune typical of warfare, the Australians did nonetheless receive artillery support, albeit inadvertently, from the Japanese as most of the Japanese shells in fact fell on the main column at the bridge, adding to the rising death toll. After inflicting large numbers of casualties, the ambush party fell back as planned in several groups during the evening, and by next day most of B Company had rejoined its battalion in a position near Gemas after losing only one man killed in action and six men missing in the fighting at the bridge. It was later discovered that the missing men had been captured and shot. The war diary of the 9th Brigade noted the losses of the ‘Mukaida’ Force at 70 dead and 57 wounded, but this does not include the losses of attached units.
On the morning of 15 January, Japanese aircraft arrived and began dive-bombing the town of Gemas, and six hours after the ambush the Japanese had repaired the bridge and were advancing toward Galleghan’s main position at the 61-mile market on the road between Gemas and Tampin. The ‘Mukaida’ Force’s surviving strength was now reinforced by the 11th Regiment.
Galleghan’s 2/30th Battalion was positioned astride the road and railway line, and had a pair of 2-pdr anti-tanks guns facing the road. By 10.00 on 15 January the Japanese infantry was in combat with the Australian defence line, and as the day continued the Japanese gained the support of an increasing number of tanks. In a short but violent action the Australian anti-tank guns, from Lieutenant Colonel C. E. McEachern’s Australian 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment, destroyed six of eight Japanese tanks, and the anti-tank gunners’ supporting infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese infantry following the tanks.
After 24 hours of fighting, Galleghan pulled his battalion back from the area after inflicting heavy casualties on the Japanese at the minimal cost to itself of 17 men killed, nine missing and 55 wounded. In the two days of fighting, at the bridge and on the Gemas road, the 5th Division had suffered about 1,000 casualties. The Australian withdrawal passed without incident, and for the next day or so quiet settled over the Segamat area.
Downstream of the bridge that spanned the Muar river between Batu Anam and Segamat, Duncan’s newly arrived and wholly inexperienced Indian 45th Brigade was deployed along 24 miles (38.5 km) of river front with Lieutenant Colonel J. A. Lewis’s 7/6th Rajputana Rifles on the left and Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Williams’s 4/9th Jat Regiment on the right. Each of the battalions had disposed two companies to the north of the river and the other two to the south of it, with the task of covering the main coast road at Muar against the advance of the Imperial Guards Division.
On the night of 15/16 January, the Japanese captured a number of barges moored on the southern bank of the Muar river and towed them to flank both the town of Muar and the Indian brigade’s reserve, Lieutenant Colonel H. C. Woolridge’s 5/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. Packed barges and junks crossed the river mouth, meeting no resistance except for a later brush with an Indian patrol, which retired after a brief exchange of shots but did not alert headquarters that the Japanese were on the southern bank. As daylight arrived, the outflanking force surprised and routed a company of the 7/6th Rajputs. The other three Indian companies (two of the 5/18th Garhwals and one of the 7/6th Rajputs) on the north bank were cut off and soon captured, without the main garrison at Muar even realising that an entire Japanese division was on the other side of the river. by 12,00 the Japanese were attacking from upstream both the town of Muar and the defending brigade’s line of communications with its reserve battalion, which was located near Bakri on the main road from Muar to the south.
In Muar, a Japanese attempt to land and seize the harbour was repulsed by Australian artillery, firing at packed barges and junks as they tried to make their way across the river mouth. By a time late in the afternoon, however, the Japanese had entered Muar after making another crossing of the river farther upstream. The commanding officers of the 7/6th Rajputs and 5/18th Garhwals were killed, together along with most of their officers, in the course of the fighting around the town, leaving the Indian troops, most of them young and totally inexperienced, without the guiding hands of experienced commanders. Further confusion was now sowed in the Indian ranks when a Japanese air raid destroyed the headquarters of the Indian 45th Brigade, killing all of the staff officers and concussing Duncan, who was one of just two of the raid’s survivors. The incapacitation of Duncan and the deaths of two battalion commanders and most of the headquarters staff meant that command of the Indian 45th Brigade was temporarily given to Lieutenant Colonel C. Anderson, commanding officer of the Australian 2/19th Battalion.
By the arrival of darkness on 16 January, the Japanese had taken the town and harbour of Muar. The remnants of the Indian 45th Brigade retreated down the coast several miles as far as Parit Jawa. The Japanese quickly established ambush sites to repel any Allied counterattack, and at the same time pressed ahead with their progress toward Bakri, Parit Sulong and Batu Pahat.
On 17 January, the surviving units of the Indian 45th Brigade, reinforced by the Australian 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions, were despatched in an attempt to to retake Muar. The Indians and Australians rallied around Bakri and organised a perimeter defence of this town. Robertson’s 2/29th Battalion dug in around the road linking Muar and Bakri with anti-tank, anti-aircraft and mortar emplacements. Duncan, commander of the Indian 45th Brigade, planned an advance from Bakri to Muar along three axes: one along the road between the towns, one from the jungle island, and one along the coast road. However, the effort failed even before it could be launched when the the brigade encountered one of the Japanese ambushes, and the counterattack was cancelled.
At 06.45 on the following day, Nishimura ordered a three-pronged attack on Bakri. The attack was spearheaded by nine Type 95 tanks under the command of Captain Shiegeo Gotanda. Inspired by the Japanese tanks’ success in the Slim river fighting, Gotanda advanced without infantry against the 2/29th Battalion, and his force was shattered when Lieutenant William McClure’s two anti-tank guns of the Australian 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment destroyed all nine of the Japanese tanks.
Robertson, commanding officer of the Australian 2/29th Battalion, was killed soon after the start of this engagement while retreating from a Japanese roadblock.
Without tank support, the Japanese infantry could not break through, but by dawn on 19 January the Japanese were in action on the main road, nearly surrounding the Indian 45th Brigade.
The 6/Norfolk of the British 53rd Brigade was defending a ridge about 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Yong Peng to cover the Indian 45th Brigade’s line of retreat, and a a time early in the afternoon of 19 January two battalions of the 4th Konoye Regiment drove the British battalion off the ridge. The British retired up through the thick jungle to the summit of the northern ridge, but were unable to inform headquarters of their position as they had no wireless equipment.
At dawn of 20 January, Moorhead’s 3/16th Punjab was ordered to retake the ridge. By the time it reached it, the Indian battalion came under the ‘friendly fire’ of the British battalion, which had mistaken the Indians for Japanese. There were losses on each ‘side’, and before any effective defence could be organised, the Japanese attacked, killing Moorhead and driving both the British and Indian troops off the hill. The Indian 45th Brigade and the two Australian battalions at Bakri were now in danger of being cut off.
On the same day Duncan, who had recovered from his concussion and was commanding the rearguard, was killed when he led a successful bayonet charge to recover lost vehicles. With Duncan and Robertson dead, Anderson assumed full command of the Indian 45th Brigade and all other units around Bakri. Early in the morning of 20 January, Anderson was ordered to pull back from Bakri and attempt to break through to Yong Peng, and decided to delay until the 4/9th Jats could reach the column. During this delay most of the Australian 2/29th Battalion was cut off from Anderson’s position, so only about 200 of the 2/29th Battalion’s men and 1,000 Indian troops of the 45th Brigade were able to join Anderson’s column, though some other men of the 2/29th Battalion later managed to filter back to the Allied line. Only a short distance from Bakri, Anderson’s column was halted by a Japanese roadblock, and after several efforts to break through had failed, a bayonet charge led by Anderson himself was successful.
But this was only the first of several roadblocks through which the brigade had to penetrate, and by the fall of darkness it had moved a mere 3 miles (4.8 km). Anderson ordered the march to continue during the night, and the going was now slightly easier as the brigade, though now hampered by its many wounded, had reached the edge of more open country.
The Indian 45th Brigade had effectively ceased to exist as a unit, for most of its officers had been killed or wounded, including Brigadier Duncan and all three battalion commanders. In just a few days Malaya Command had lost a whole Indian brigade and most of two Australian battalions as well as one brigadier and four battalion commanders.
It required two days for Anderson’s column to fight its way 15 miles (24 km) to a point near the bridge. Scouts reported at 07.15 that the bridge at Parit Sulong was in Japanese hands. The 6/Norfolk guard force, cut off from all contact and without rations since the Japanese raiding force drove the battalion from the defile a few miles farther on, had left their post and set off along the river bank to Batu Pahat.
Anderson found a Japanese machine gun position at the Parit Sulong Bridge, and when his force tried to dislodge the Japanese from the bridge at dawn on 21 January it was driven back by tanks, aircraft and artillery. It was then forced into an length of only 400 yards (365 m) along the road. Fighting raged all day, and by 17.00 the casualties had become severe. During the morning a wireless message had been received to the effect that a relieving force from Yong Peng was on its way, and the sound of distant gunfire between Parit Sulong and Yong Peng gave the column hope.
The rear of the column was repeatedly attacked by tanks and infantry, but during the late afternoon and until after dark, two soldiers used grenades to disable the leading tank, which burst into flames and created a temporary roadblock. This gave the men at the rear of the column the chance disable the other tanks with grenades and Boys anti-tank rifles. However, with ammunition for the mortars and 25-pdr guns nearly exhausted, Anderson asked Bennett to organise an air attack at dawn on the Japanese units holding the far end of the bridge, and for food and morphine be airdropped on the column.
At dusk, with the dead and wounded piling up, Anderson sent two ambulances filled with critically wounded men to the bridge under a flag of truce, requesting that they be allowed to pass through to the Allied lines beyond. The Japanese refused, and instead demanded that the Indian brigade surrender, offering to care for the wounded. Still hopeful of relief, Anderson refused to consider surrendering. The Japanese then ordered that the ambulances were to remain on the bridge to act as a roadblock, and they would be shot if they attempted to move. After the fall of darkness, the two drivers, both of whom were themselves wounded, slipped the ambulances’ brakes and let them run quietly backward down the slope from the bridge and then, amid a cacophony of gunfire, started the engines and drove back to the brigade.
On the morning of the day which followed, two British Fairey Albacore biplane bombers arrived from Singapore and dropped supplies to the Indian 45th Brigade and, escorted by three Australian Buffalo fighters, attacked the Japanese holding the far end of the bridge. Soon after this, though, Japanese tanks were again on the move and, with infantry support, delivered a flank attack on the shrinking Indian position.
Anderson later received a message from Bennett to the effect that there was no hope of relief reaching the column on time, leaving it to Anderson’s discretion to withdraw. As a last resort, Anderson sent a company to test the resistance at the bridge again that same morning, in the hope that the air attack had weakened it enough for the column to break through. But the response convinced him there was no chance of success. At 09.00, after the artillery, vehicles and other equipment had been destroyed, Anderson ordered a retreat. The 150 wounded who could not walk were left to the care of voluntary attendants, and Anderson and the remnants of the brigade then dispersed eastward through jungle and swamps to Yong Peng. About 500 Australians and 400 Indians survived to reach British lines as all that was left of the total of more than 4,000 men of the 45th Brigade and two Australian battalions. A number of stragglers also struggled in from the units cut off at Bakri.
At Parit Sulong the Japanese massacred all but about 150 of their prisoners. It was believed that Nishimura had ordered the massacre, and after the war he was tried, convicted and executed.
On 23 January, as the last stage of the battle, the 2/Loyal, covering the last men of Anderson’s column to make it into British lines, had two companies in position as the rearguard facing the defile on the road to Yong Peng. At 14.00, as they were about to withdraw, seven Japanese tanks supported by an estimated two battalions of infantry emerged rapidly from the defile and attempted to rip apart the 2/Loyal’s roadblock. In a short battle the 2/Loyal inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese infantry attempting to dismantle the road block, but without anti-tank weapons, were inevitably driven back by the tanks and outnumbered by the Japanese infantry. During the Battle of Muar and as the rearguard, the 2/Loyal suffered about 200 casualties before withdrawing to Singapore.
The Indian 45th Brigade’s losses were devastating, especially in officers, and it was rapidly appreciated that it would impossible to rebuilt the brigade in the remaining weeks of the Malayan campaign. The brigade was therefore disbanded, and its remaining men were transferred to other Indian brigades. The two Australian battalions fared little better. Some 271 men of the 2/19th Battalion made it back to the British lines, but only 130 men of the 2/29th Battalion were recovered. Many of the two battalions’ men were still in the jungle when the campaign ended.
The Japanese lost 700 men in the ambush at Gemas, making this the greatest single Japanese loss suffered in any single action at the time: the Japanese losses were one company of tanks and the equivalent of one battalion of men.
The primary reason for the Allies’ slow response during the battle was a shortage of signal equipment and transport. Moreover, during the week the Japanese were able to operate 250 bombers and 150 fighters from airfields in northern Malaya and southern Thailand, while the operational aircraft available to the Allies were probably no more than 35 bombers and about as many fighters.
Despite its defeat, the Indian 45th Brigade did achieve one vitally important task in nearly a week of constant combat. While the brigade fought from Muar Harbour to the Parit Sulong bridge the brigade checked the Imperial Guards Division, which had strong armour and air support, and thereby made it possible for the three brigades of ‘Westforce’ in the Segamat area to withdraw down the Trunk Road to Labis and thence toward the key crossroads at Yong Peng.
A criticism levelled at Percival was his decision to deploy the British 53rd Brigade to the front despite the fact that it had disembarked at Singapore only on 13 January, just three days before being sent to the front, after nearly three months at sea in crowded troopships, travelling from England. A component of the 18th Division, brigade had initially been assigned to the Allies forces in North Africa, but the ships carrying it had been redirected to Singapore after the Japanese invasion of Malaya.
News of the ambush at the Gemensah bridge had been well received in Singapore as, despite the defeats at Muar, Bakri and Parit Sulong, many in Singapore believed that the action at the Gemensah bridge marked the long awaited turning point and that the rout of the Japanese invasion force would therefore not be long in coming.
However, the way was in fact now open for the two-pronged Japanese advance along the west coast of Malaya toward Johore Bahru. The inland prong reached Kluang on 26 January, and the coastal prong moved forward via Batu Pahat and Parit Sulong.
On the other side of the Malayan peninsula the Japanese were also making good progress, and on 20 January the Japanese made an amphibious landing, opposed without success by wholly obsolete Vildebeest torpedo bombers, at Endau, the most southerly major coastal settlement before the road veered inland toward Johore Bahru.
This triggered the naval battle of Endau on 27 January as the first significant naval engagement of the Malayan campaign since the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse, and represented the last British effort to intercept and destroy Japanese convoys around the Malay peninsula. The destroyers Thanet and Australian Vampire were despatched from Singapore in an effort to destroy the Japanese landing force off Endau. Sailing under the cover of darkness, the destroyers were able to locate the convoy’s anchored ships without themselves being detected by land-based bombers, but despite inflicting damage, were repulsed by the convoy’s naval escorts, and Thanet was sunk. At the same time the RAF also failed to inflict significant damage, losing half of the aircraft with which it attacked the beach-head on 26 January, while the Japanese lost only nine aircraft.
The sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse meant that the only assets which the Allies still had at their disposal for attacks on Japanese convoys deep in the Gulf of Siam were seven Free Dutch submarines; there were also another three Free Dutch submarines operating in the defence of Borneo. There were few British ships available as most were away on escort duties for Allied convoys to and from Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch had recorded their first successes on 12 December when the troopship Awazisan Maru had been sunk off Khota Bharu, possibly by K XII, and on 24 December when K XVI had sunk the destroyer Sagiri off the coast of Kuching in Borneo as the first Japanese warship to be sunk by torpedo. Several other Japanese vessels had also been sunk or damaged during the early weeks of the campaign, but the cost was high for the Free Dutch submarine force, whose remaining were now recalled for the campaign in the Dutch East Indies.
The US submarine Seadragon also intercepted Japanese convoys near Cam Ranh Bay in French Indo-China, but failed to sink any ships.
On 20 January, a Japanese convoy of 11 troopships departed Cam Ranh Bay, nine of them to Singora and the other two to Endau. The latter were Kansai Maru and Canberra Maru carrying men of the 18th Division and well as personnel of the 96th Airfield Battalion to bring the airfields of Kahang and Kluang into Japanese service. The two transport ships were escorted by the 3rd Destroyer Squadron comprising the light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Shirayuki, Asagiri, Amagiri and Yugiri, and five minesweepers.
An amphibious assault on Mersing had originally been planned by the Japanese, but believing that the Allied defences there were formidable, they had then switched the landing to Endau. Although their ground forces had already captured Endau on 21 January, the Japanese strength was insufficient to break through the defence of the Sungei and Mersing area by Brigadier H. B. Taylor’s ‘Eastforce’ tasked with holding the east coast of Johore state.
The Malaya Command was aware that the Japanese force would soon be reinforced by sea, a suspicion confirmed on 26 January when two Australian Hudson aircraft sighted the convoy 20 miles (32 km) to the north of Endau. Although the aircraft spotted the Japanese convoy at 07.45, their radio transmissions were jammed and the information did not reach higher command echelons until after the aircraft had returned to Singapore at 09.20. The RAF decided to attack the convoy with all available aircraft, but the launch of the attack was delayed as the Vildebeest and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers of the RAF’s Nos 36 and 100 Squadrons had been carrying out raids against land targets on land and could not be readied for the anti-ship attack until the afternoon. The decision to use the elderly Vildebeest aircraft against the ships in daylight came as a shock to the pilots, who had been restricted to the relative safety of night sorties following the first day of the invasion.
The first air attack was carried out by 12 Vildebeest aircraft of Nos 36 and 100 Squadrons and nine Hudson aircraft of the Australian Nos 1 and 8 Squadrons which lifted off from Singapore early in the afternoon of January 26, with an escort of 12 Buffalo and nine Hawker Hurricane fighters. The Japanese landings at Endau had been in progress for more than four hours by the time the Allied aircraft arrived at 15.00. The Japanese naval force had air cover in the form of 20 fighters, of which 19 were Ki-27 ‘Nate’ machines. Despite heavy opposition, the British and Australian aircraft bombed two transports, and strafed the men and equipment on the beach were strafed. Five Vildebeest aircraft were lost, and one Ki-27 was shot down.
A second wave of aircraft set off from Singapore at 16.15, this force comprising seven Vildebeest and three Albacore aircraft of No. 36 Squadron and two Vildebeest aircraft of No. 100 Squadron. They arrived over Endau at 17.30, but their escort of seven Hurricane and four Buffalo fighters was late and the British biplanes were set upon by the Japanese fighters before their escorts could reach them: five Vildebeest, two Albacore and one Hurricane aircraft succumbed. Of the 72 aircrew of Nos 36 and 100 Squadrons involved in these attacks, 27 were killed, seven were wounded and two were captured.
A third attack, by six unescorted Hudson aircraft of the RAF’s No. 62 Squadron from Palembang on the Dutch island of Sumatra, attacked shortly after this, losing two of their number to Japanese fighters. A fourth raid, by five Bristol Blenheim light bombers of the RAF’s No. 27 Squadron, departed Palembang later in the same day, but had got only as far as Singapore by sunset, so the mission was aborted.
The Royal Navy had received reports that an unescorted convoy was anchored off Endau, and as noted above the destroyers Thanet and Vampire were ordered to attack the ships and break up the landings. The destroyers departed Singapore at 16.30 and headed to the north in the direction of the Seribuat islands group, where there had been reports of another Japanese convoy at anchor. Reaching Seribuat at 02.00 on the next morning but encountering no Japanese vessels there, the destroyers headed for Endau.
Japanese naval intelligence incorrectly reported the two destroyers as light cruisers, further exaggerating that there were British submarines in the area, and the 3rd Destroyer Squadron was therefore summoned from its task of escorting convoys to Borneo.
While approaching Endau, Thanet and Vampire at 02.37 engaged what they believed to be a destroyer at 02.37 but which was actually the minesweeper W-4. Vampire turned to port and launched two torpedoes at the minesweeper from about 650 yards (595 m) but missed. The Allied destroyers were then able to break off in poor visibility, and resumed their search for the transports. They altered course to south-east by east at 03.13, but by this time the Japanese minesweeper had alerted the convoy. At 03.18, Vampire sighted the destroyer Shirayuki off her port bow. Lieutenant Commander W. Moran of Vampire ordered Lieutenant Commander B. Davies’s Thanet to alter course and fire torpedoes. Vampire launched her last torpedo and Thanet all four of her torpedoes, but none of these was successful. Soon after this, the light cruiser Sendai, destroyers Asagiri, Fubuki and Yugiri and minesweeper W-1 entered the fray. Both Allied destroyers opened fire with their 4-in (102.4-mm) guns, retiring to the south-east at maximum speed, and the Japanese warships pursued them for some 40 minutes.
Thanet was hit in the engine and boiler rooms at 04.00: her speed was greatly reduced and an explosion wrecked the destroyer. Dead in the water, Thanet listed heavily to starboard and began to sink. Vampire made smoke in an effort to cover the sinking ship, but was illuminated by Shirayuki’s searchlights and engaged by Amagiri and Hatsuyuki. Thanet sank at 04.15, while Vampire, still under attack and unable to pick up survivors, narrowly escaped undamaged and without casualties, regaining Singapore at 10.00 on the same morning.
Off Endau, both the Japanese troop transports had been badly damaged in the engagement, while one destroyer was reported beached. Some 31 of Thanet’s survivors were rescued by the destroyer Shirayuki, and 30 of them were handed over to Japanese army troops at Endau on the following day, and were never seen again, though they are believed to have been executed in retaliation for losses sustained by the Japanese in an ambush by the Australian 2/18th Battalion to the south of Mersing at about the same time as the naval action off Endau. Some 65 of what are believed to have been between 100 and 110 of Thanet’s survivors managed to reach shore, where they joined forces with downed commonwealth pilots and made their way to Singapore.
Even before the reinforcement of the Japanese troops by those landed at Endau, Taylor had been ordered by Heath, commander of the Indian III Corps, to withdraw ‘Eastforce’ from Mersing on 25 January.
The final British defence line in Johore state, between Batu Pahat and Mersing via Kluang, was now being attacked along its full length. Percival had resisted the construction of fixed defences in Johore, and also on the north coast of Singapore island. Percival dismissed the value of such defences, despite the several urgings of Brigadier I. Simson, his chief engineer, for the start of work, on the grounds that defences were bad for morale. On 27 January, Percival received permission from Wavell to order a retreat across the Strait of Johore to the island of Singapore.
On 31 January the last British and commonwealth forces pulled out of Malaya proper, and engineers then blew up the Causeway linking the city of Johore Bahru in Malaya with the island of Singapore. Japanese infiltrators, many of them disguised as Singaporean civilians, crossed the Strait of Johore in inflatable boats soon after this.
During the preceding weeks, the British and commonwealth forces had been adversely affected by a spate of disagreements (both open and less obvious) among their more senior commanders. Percival, commander-in-chief of the Malaya Command, had some 85,000 men, which was the equivalent, on paper, of slightly more than four divisions. This total included about 70,000 first-line troops in 38 infantry battalions (13 British, six Australian, 17 Indian, and two Malay) and three machine gun battalions. Major General M. Beckwith-Smith’s newly arrived British 18th Division was at full strength but lacked both experience and the training that would have made it effective in South-East Asian conditions. Most other formations and units were below their establishment strengths, and a few had been amalgamated as a result of their heavy losses in the mainland campaign. The local battalions had no experience and in some cases no training.
Percival allocated to the two brigades of Bennett’s Australian 8th Division the responsibility of holding the western half of Singapore island, including the best invasion points in the north-west. Most of the Australians’ zone was mangrove swamp and jungle, broken by rivers and creeks, but in the middle of this Western Area was the RAF station at Tengah, Singapore’s largest airfield. Brigadier Harold B. Taylor’s (from 15 February Brigadier Arthur L. Varley’s) Australian 22nd Brigade was assigned a 10-mile (16-km) sector in the west, and Brigadier Duncan S. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade had responsibility for a 4,000-yard (3650-m) zone just to the west of the Causeway. The infantry positions were reinforced by the recently arrived Australian 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, and also under Bennett’s command was Brigadier G. C. Ballentine’s Indian 44th Brigade, the Jind Infantry Battalion of the Indian States Forces guarding Tengah, and a company from ‘Dalforce’, which was a guerrilla militia recruited from Chinese Singaporeans.
Heath’s Indian III Corps, including Key’s Indian 11th Division, Beckwith-Smith’s British 18th Division and Brigadier K. A. Garrett’s Indian 15th Brigade, was assigned the north-eastern sector, known as the Northern Area, which included the naval base at Sembawang on the south coast of the Strait of Johore.
The Southern Area, including the main urban areas in the south-east, was commanded by Major General F. K. Simmons, who commanded about 18 battalions, including Brigadier G. G. R. Williams’s 1st Malaya Brigade, Colonel R. G. Grimwood’s Straits Settlements Volunteer Force Brigade and Brigadier A. C. M. Paris’s Indian 12th Brigade.
The combination of air reconnaissance, scouts, infiltrators and the use of the high ground across the strait had given the staff of the 25th Army a very good picture of the British and commonwealth positions, which were taken under fire of the Japanese artillery from 3 February. Japanese air attacks on and the artillery bombardment on Singapore were steadily intensified over the next five days, and this severely disrupted communications between commanders and their forces as well as disrupting the continuing preparations of the island’s defence. This defence was based in part on the availability of very heavy coastal artillery, including 15-in (381-mm) weapons in two batteries (one of three guns and the other of two guns), but these were supplied primarily with armour-piercing shells and only comparatively a small quantity of high explosive shells: the former were intended for use against major warships, which it was believed would spearhead an assault from the south, and were therefore largely ineffective against land forces. It is commonly said that the guns could not fire on the Japanese forces because they had been designed only to face south, but this was not so, although the lack of HE ammunition was an error of the same sort and probably the result of British thinking that an attack could not materialise overland from the north. Although emplaced to fire on ships to the south, most of the guns could in fact be traversed to the north and did fire at the Japanese.
Yamashita had slightly more than 30,000 men in three divisions, namely Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division, which was supported by a brigade of light tanks, Matsui’s 5th Division and Mutaguchi’s 18th Division.
The destruction of the Causeway delayed the Japanese for a week as they recast their plans on the basis of an amphibious assault, and the Imperial Guards Division made a feint assault on 7 February toward the eastern end of the Strait of Johore onto the Pulau Ubin island. Then at 20.30 on 8 February Australian machine gunners opened fire on vessels carrying a first wave of 4,000 men of the 5th Division and 18th Division toward Singapore island in the area of Sarimbun Beach, which was held by the Australian 22nd Brigade. Fierce fighting raged all day but eventually the increasing Japanese numbers, combined with their superiority in artillery, aircraft and intelligence knowledge, began to exercise their effect. The Japanese exploited gaps in the thinly spread commonwealth lines such as rivers and creeks. By midnight, the two Australian brigades had lost touch with each other and the Australian 22nd Brigade was forced to retreat.
At 01.00 more Japanese troops landed and the last Australian reserves were committed. Approaching dawn on 9 February, elements of the Australian 22nd Brigade had been overrun or surrounded, and the Australian 2/18th Battalion, in the centre, had lost more than half of its personnel. The Australian 2/20th Battalion, on the right flank, was also heavily committed. At the same time, the Australian 2/19th Battalion, on the left, was being outflanked, and only its B Company faced the initial landings by the Japanese. Percival maintained a belief that further landings would occur in the north-east and refused to reinforce the 22nd Brigade until Tengah airfield itself was threatened.
Before limited British and Indian infantry reinforcements arrived, however, the badly battered Australian, Indian and Singaporean units had retreated to take up positions on the so-called Jurong Line extending south from Bulim village. The Japanese captured Tengah airfield at about 12.00 on 9 February. Shortly after the fall of night on the same day, three Fairmile motor launches were despatched up the western channel of the Strait of Johore, adjoining Sarimbun beach, with the task of attacking Japanese landing craft and communications. These launches came under fire from the Japanese forces on both shores, but pressed on almost as far as the Causeway and sank a few Japanese landing craft before turning back to reach Singapore after sustaining only minimal damage.
Air cover for the defence was limited to 10 Hawker Hurricane fighters of the RAF’s No. 232 Squadron, which was based at Kallang airfield as Tengah, Seletar and Sembawang airfields were all within range of the Japanese artillery at Johore Bahru. Kallang airfield was the only operational airstrip left, and the other squadrons had been withdrawn by January to reinforce the Dutch East Indies. The Hurricane force performed comparatively well, but was outnumbered and often outmatched by the Japanese fighters, and suffered severe losses in the air and on the ground during February.
It was on 8 December that Singapore had been bombed for the first time by Japanese long-range warplanes, such as the G3M ‘Nell’ and G4M ‘Betty’ twin-engined bombers, based in Japanese-occupied French Indo-China. After this first raid, the Japanese bombings ceased throughout the rest of December, and resumed only on 1 January 1942. During December, 51 Hurricane Mk II fighters were sent to Singapore, with 24 pilots as the core of a planned five squadrons. They arrived on 3 January, by which stage the original Buffalo fighter squadrons had been overwhelmed. No. 232 Squadron was formed and No. 488 Squadron of the RNZAF, a Buffalo squadron, converted to the Hurricane. No. 232 Squadron became operational on 20 January and destroyed three Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters on that day for the loss of three of its Hurricane fighters. However, like the Buffalo before them, the Hurricane began to suffer severe losses in intense dogfights. During the period 27/30 January, another 48 Hurricane Mk IIA fighters arrived with No. 226 Group (four squadrons) on the fleet carrier Indomitable, from which they flew to airfields codenamed P1 and P2, near Palembang on the island of Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies. The staggered arrival of the Hurricane fighters, along with inadequate early warning systems, meant that Japanese air raids were able to destroy a large proportion of the Hurricanes on the ground in Sumatra and Singapore.
On the morning of 8 February a number of dogfights took place over Sarimbun beach and other western areas. In the first encounter, the last 10 Hurricane fighters were scrambled from Kallang to intercept a Japanese formation of about 84 aircraft flying from Johore to provide air cover for their invasion force. In two sorties the Hurricane fighters shot down six Japanese aircraft for the loss of one of their own: the British fighters flew back to Kallang half way through the battle, refuelled and reamed, and then returned to the fray. Air battles continued over the island for the rest of the day, and by the fall of night it was clear that with the few machines still surviving Kallang could no longer be used as a base. With Percival’s approval the remaining Hurricane fighters were withdrawn to Palembang, with Kallang now used only as an advanced landing ground. No British aircraft were seen again over Singapore.
On the evening of 10 February, Wavell ordered the transfer of all remaining Allied air force personnel to the Netherlands East Indies as Kallang was by now so cratered by bombs that it was no longer usable.
Meanwhile, in the course of 9 February the next Japanese landings took place in the south-west in the sector of the Indian 44th Brigade. The British and commonwealth units were forced to retreat farther to the east, and Bennett decided to form the so-called Jurong Line as a second defence line around Bulim to the east of Tengah airfield and just to the north of Jurong. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade, to the north, did not face Japanese assaults until units of the Imperial Guards Division landed at 22.00 on 9 February. This operation went very badly for the Japanese, who suffered severe casualties from Australian mortars and machine guns, and from the deliberate burning of oil which had been discharged onto the water. A small number of Japanese succeeded in reaching the shore, however, and and managed to establish and hold small beach-head.
Command and control problems were continuing to cause further problems for the Allied defence. Maxwell was aware that the Australian 22nd Brigade was under increasing pressure, but was unable to contact Taylor and was wary of encirclement. In spite of his brigade’s success, and in contravention of orders from Bennett, Maxwell ordered it to withdraw from Kranji in the central northern part of the island. The Allies thereby lost control of the beaches adjoining the western side of the Causeway. The opening at Kranji made it possible for the Imperial Guards Division’s armoured units to land there without opposition. Tanks supported by flotation equipment were towed across the strait and then advanced rapidly to the south along Woodlands Road. This allowed Yamashita to outflank the Australian 22nd Brigade on the Jurong Line, and also to bypass the Indian 11th Division at the naval base. However, the Imperial Guards Division failed to seize an opportunity to advance into the city centre itself.
On the evening of 10 February, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, cabled Wavell that ‘I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet…that Percival has over 100,000 [sic] men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula…In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out…’
Wavell subsequently told Percival that the ground forces were to fight to the end, and that there should not be a general surrender in Singapore. On 11 February, knowing that the supplies for his divisions were almost exhausted, Yamashita decided to bluff and he called on Percival to ‘give up this meaningless and desperate resistance’.
By this time the combat strength of the Australian 22nd Brigade, which had borne the brunt of the Japanese attacks, was only a few hundred men. The Japanese had captured the Bukit Timah area, and with it most of the British-led forces’ remaining ammunition and fuel, and this gave them control of the main water supplies.
On the following day the British and commonwealth line was stabilised around a small area in the south-east of the island and fought off determined Japanese assaults. Other units, including the 1st Malaya Brigade, had joined in. A Malay platoon, led by Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, held the Japanese for two days at the Battle of Pasir Panjang. The platoon defended Bukit Chandu, an area which included a major ammunition store, and Adnan was executed by the Japanese after his unit had been overrun.
On 13 February, with the British and commonwealth forces still losing ground, senior officers advised Percival to surrender in the interests of minimising civilian casualties. Percival refused, but unsuccessfully sought authority to surrender from his superiors. The British and commonwealth forces continued their resistance on the following day, and civilian casualties mounted as 1 million people crowded into the area still in British and commonwealth hands. The Japanese bombing and artillery bombardment intensified, and the civilian authorities began to fear that the water supply would give out.
By the morning of 15 February, the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence and the Allies were running out of food and ammunition. The anti-aircraft guns had also run out of ammunition and were unable to repel any further Japanese air attacks. At 09.30 Percival convened a conference at Fort Canning with his senior commanders, and proposed two options: either to launch an immediate counterattack to regain the reservoirs and the military food depots in the Bukit Timah region and drive the Japanese artillery off its commanding heights outside the city, or to surrender.
The consensus was that no counterattack was possible, and Percival opted for surrender. A deputation selected to go to the Japanese headquarters consisted of a senior staff officer, the colonial secretary and an interpreter. They set off in a motor car bearing a Union flag and a white flag of truce toward the Japanese lines, and returned with orders that Percival himself was to proceed with staff officers to the Ford motor factory, where Yamashita would issue the terms of surrender. Percival formally surrendered shortly after 17.15. The terms included the unconditional surrender of all military forces in the Singapore area, a cessation of hostilities 20.30 that evening, all troops to remain in position until further orders, all weapons, military equipment, ships, aircraft and secret documents to be handed over intact and, in order to prevent civil disorder and looting, a force of 1,000 British armed men to take control duties in the city over until relieved by the Japanese.
Earlier on the same day Percival had in fact ordered that all secret and technical equipment, ciphers, codes, secret documents and heavy guns be destroyed before 16.00, and Yamashita accepted Percival’s assurance that there were no ships or aircraft still in Singapore.
The mainland part of the Malayan campaign had cost the British and commonwealth forces some 5,500 men killed, 5,000 men wounded and 40,000 men taken prisoner, and the Japanese just 1,793 men killed and 3,378 men wounded. The fighting for Singapore island cost the British and commonwealth forces 5,000 men killed and wounded, together with 80,000 men taken prisoner, and the Japanese 1,713 men killed and 2,772 men wounded. The entire campaign there cost the British and commonwealth forces 15,000 men killed or wounded and 120,00 men taken prisoner, and the Japanese forces 3,506 men killed and 6,150 men wounded.
The British and commonwealth forces had also lost two capital ships and many smaller vessels, as well as almost all of their air strength, and in the process suffered the capture of the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore, the jewel of the UK’s Far Eastern possessions, and a huge loss of national, political, military and naval prestige.