Operation Battle of Kranji

The 'Battle of Kranji' was the second stage of Japan’s plan for the invasion of Singapore (9/10 February 1942).

On 9 February Japanese army forces assaulted the north-western front of the British defences of Singapore, capital of the Straits Settlements. These forces' primary objective was to secure a second beach-head after the successful assault by the 5th Division and 18th Division at Sarimbun, farther to the west, on the previous day, in order to breach the defence line between Jurong and Kranji as part of their southward thrust towards the heart of Singapore City. Defending the shore of Singapore island between the Kranji river and the Johor-Singapore Causeway was Brigadier D. S. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade and one irregular company.

On 10 February the Japanese forces suffered their heaviest losses while moving up the Kranji river, which caused them to panic and almost abort the operation. However, a series of miscommunications and withdrawals by Allied forces in the ensuing battles allowed the Japanese to win strategic footholds, which eventually led to the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942.

Most of the terrain around Kranji was mangrove swamp and tropical forest cut by streams and inlets. The shore between the Kranji river and the Johor-Singapore Causeway, nearly 2.5 miles (4 km) long, was defended by the Australian 27th Brigade, which comprised three battalions (the 2/30th, 2/29th and 2/26th Battalions) and was supported by the 2/10th Field Artillery Regiment, as well as one platoon of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. These Australian units were supported by one company of 'Dalforce', so named for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Malayan Police Special Branch, a local Chinese militia unit consisting of communists, nationalist supporters and other volunteers. As the war intensified, the 'Dalforce' volunteers were given only three to four days of training and sent to the front with basic weapons. Lacking uniforms, the volunteers improvised by wearing a red triangle on their blue shirts to avoid being mistaken for Japanese by the Australians.

The Japanese assault force was Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura, and as an initial step some 400 men of this division had landed and taken Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore, in a feint attack on 7 February, when they encountered only minimal resistance.

On 9 February, two divisions of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army had landed on the north-western shore of Singapore island in the area of Sarimbun area, where the 'Battle of Sarimbun Beach' took place between predominantly Australian and Japanese troops. Yamashita’s headquarters was located at the sultan of Johor’s palace at Istana Bukit Serene, which offered him and his subordinate officers a bird’s-eye view of virtually every military and civilian key target in the northern part of the main island of Singapore, only 1 mile (1.6 km) across the Straits of Johor. The British artillery was under orders not to fire on the sultan’s palace, even when it had become clear that the Japanese had located their headquarters there, because any damage caused to the palace would have had major negative repercussions on relations between Johore’s royalty and their British colonial counterparts.

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

Shortly after 00.00 on 9/10 February, the 2/29th Battalion was detached from the Australian 27th Brigade and sent to defend the western outskirts of Tengah airfield, and subsequently came under the command of Brigadier H. B. Taylor (from 11 February Brigadier A. L. Varley’s) Australian 22nd Brigade. This left Maxwell and the 27th Brigade with only two of its three battalions, and no reserves, for the forthcoming battle.

During the early hours of 10 February, Japanese forces suffered their heaviest losses during the course of the battle for Singapore. While moving up the Kranji river, advance landing parties of the 4th Regiment found themselves under heavy fire from Australian machine gunners and mortar teams. They also found themselves surrounded by oil slicks, which had been created by Allied personnel emptying the nearby Woodlands oil depot to prevent its capture. A scenario that had been feared by Yamashita came to pass by accident as the floating oil was set alight by Allied small arms fire and many Japanese soldiers were burned alive. After sustaining heavy losses, Nishimura requested permission to abandon the operation, but Yamashita refused the request.

Maxwell, who had only limited communications with the headquarters of his superior formation, Major General H. G. Bennett’s Australian 8th Division, was concerned that his force would be cut off by fierce and chaotic fighting at Sarimbun and Jurong to the south-west involving the Australian 22nd Brigade. Maxwell’s force consequently withdrew from the shoreline, and this made it possible for the Japanese to land in increasing strength and take control of Kranji village. The Japanese also captured Woodlands, and began repairing the causeway, without encountering any Allied attacks.

Japanese tanks, such as Type 95 Ha-Go and Type 97 Chi-Ha, which were regarded as light and possessed relatively good buoyancy, were towed by army boats across the straits towards Lim Chu Kang, from which they were soon able to join the battle, at dusk, on Lim Chu Kang road. With reinforced Japanese forces and their supporting tanks rapidly advancing along the Choa Chua Kang road, the defending Australians were forced to retreat and pulled back to the south-east to the hills of Bukit Panjang. The 5th Division had captured Bukit Timah village by the evening of 11 February.

Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, the British officer heading the Malaya Command, drew a defence perimeter covering Kallang Airfield, the MacRitchie and Peirce reservoirs and the Bukit Timah supply depot area to ensure the integrity of the city’s defence. One line of the north-western defence perimeter was the Jurong-Kranji defence line, a narrow ridge connecting the sources of Sungei Jurong and the Kranji river and constituting a natural defence line protecting the north-west approach to the city of Singapore. (This line’s eastern counterpart was the Serangoon Line sited between Kallang airfield and Paya Lebar village in the eastern part of Singapore island). Percival ordered his forces to defend this line as strongly as possible. The line was defended by Brigadier G. Ballentine’s Indian 44th Brigade, which covered milestone 12 on the Jurong road, Lieutenant Colonel I. MacA. Stewart’s Indian 12th Brigade and the beleaguered Australian 22nd Brigade, which guarded the northern part of the line and maintained contact with the Indian 44th Brigade. Brigadier J. B. Coates’s Indian 15th Brigade was repositioned near the Bukit Timah road to guard the island’s vital food and petrol supplies. A secret instruction to protect this area was issued to Percival’s senior subordinates.

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

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

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

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

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