The Campaign in Malaya
In October 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was appointed Commander-in-Chief Far East, and G.H.Q. Far East opened at Singapore on the 18th November, 1940. The Commander-in-Chief was responsible for the operational control and direction of training of British land and air forces in Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong, and for the co-ordination of plans for the defence of these territories; also for the control and training of British air forces in Ceylon and of reconnaissance squadrons in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. His headquarters was an operational one, not administrative, and had no control over any naval forces.
In November 1940, the army strength in Malaya was 17 battalions, with 1 mountain regiment of artillery. Reliance for the defence of the Far East was to be placed on air power until the fleet was available; but it was the Government's policy to avoid war with Japan. The strength of the air forces in Malaya in November 1940, however, was only 88 first-line aircraft, of which only 48 could be counted as modern. The previous month, the Singapore Conference had recommended a strength of 582 aircraft for the Far East; but it was admitted that this was an ideal, and far beyond the bounds of practical possibility.
When in July 1941, the Japanese spread into southern Indo-China, the potential danger to Malaya and Burma increased, as the move gave them a naval base within 750 miles of Singapore and airfields only 300 miles from Kota Bharu, the nearest point in Malaya. By the latter part of November, 1941, information accumulated which showed that an early Japanese attack was likely, despite the negotiations in progress in Washington. Both land and air reinforcements had been reaching Malaya, and by 7th December, the eve of the Japanese attack, there were 158 first-line aircraft available, with 88 in reserve; the land forces counted 31 infantry battalions, plus the equivalent of 10 volunteer battalions with some artillery, engineers, and a small armoured car unit, and 5 battalions of Indian States forces, with 7 field regiments, 1 mountain regiment, 2 anti-tank regiments, 4 coast defence regiments and five anti-aircraft regiments of artillery and 10 field and 3 fortress companies of engineers - a total strength of close on 87,000 men. Almost one quarter of them were British, about one-sixth Australians, nearly one-half Indian Army, and the remainder local forces. Even then, the R.A.F. Far East Command was not in a position to fulfil its responsibility of being the primary means of resisting Japanese aggression, while the Army strength was far short of what was required to compensate for the deficiency in aircraft. There were only two-thirds the number of infantry required, no tanks and few armoured cars, and the lack of mobile anti-aircraft guns was serious.
In May 1941, Lieutenant-General A. E. Percival had been appointed General Officer Commanding, Malaya Command, and about three weeks earlier Air Vice-Marshal Pulford had assumed command of the Far East Air Command.
In the afternoon of 6th December word was received of Japanese convoy movements to the south of Indo-China, but reconnaissance conditions were bad, and it was impossible to maintain contact-one flying-boat which attempted to do so was shot down. The first clear evidence of the opening of hostilities was when, in the early morning hours of 8th December, Japanese troops started to land from about ten ships at Kota Bharu, in the extreme north-east of Malaya. Later reports stated that large Japanese forces were also landing at Singora and Patani in Thailand, in the southern part of the Kra isthmus. Very soon after these reports reached Singapore, the first Japanese air-raid on the city was made; the results achieved were small, but it was the first indication to most of the citizens that war had begun. At almost the same time the Japanese attacks on Hong Kong, Pearl Harbour and the Philippines had been launched.
At that date, the 3rd Indian Corps were in northern Malaya, with the 11th Indian Division to the west of the peninsula in Kedah, Perlis and northern Perak, and the 9th Indian Division to the east with the 8th Indian Brigade Group in Kelantan around Kota Bharu and the airfields and the weaker 22nd Indian Brigade Group in the vicinity of Kuantan. The Corps Headquarters was at Kuala Lumpur. In the south of the peninsula, the Australian force in Malaya, a part of the 8th Australian Division, was responsible for Johore and Malacca; it comprised the 22nd and 27th A.I.F. Brigades with divisional artillery and Engineers. Singapore and Penang had their own fortress garrisons, which included the heavy artillery defences of Singapore. The 12th Indian Infantry Brigade formed a Command reserve, and there were a number of Command troops and base and other administrative units. These troops had to defend a country approximately the size of England and Wales without Devon, Cornwall and the westernmost counties of Wales, their Command headquarters and principal base being on an island roughly comparable in size and position to the Isle of Wight.
On the first day of the campaign all the aerodromes in Northern Malaya were subjected to Japanese air attacks, and there were losses which could ill be afforded; the airfield at Kota Bharu had to be evacuated in the afternoon. Attacks on the airfields and considerable fresh Japanese landings in Thailand just north of the border were the main events of the next two days. On the western side of the peninsula reconnaissance forces of the 11th Indian Division had crossed the Thai frontier in the afternoon of 8th December, meeting with some resistance from the Thais, and had made contact with the Japanese. Farther to the south-east a force based on Kroh (hence known as Krohcol) also crossed the frontier and met some opposition from the Thais. They occupied positions a short distance within Thailand, but both forces were compelled to withdraw by 11th December.
Meanwhile, on the 10th, disaster had befallen the Navy. On the 8th, the new Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, had left Singapore with the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse and four destroyers. Japanese reconnaissance aircraft spotted this naval force on the evening of the 9th and picked them up again the following morning; soon after noon on the 10th both the capital ships were sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers. Many of the crew of both ships were saved, but the Commander-in-Chief and the Captain of the Prince of Wales both went down. This, following upon the Pearl Harbour attack, gave the Japanese undisputed command of Far Eastern waters.
On the 11th, a heavy Japanese air raid on Georgetown, on the island of Penang, caused many casualties; as a result the greater part of the population left the town.
In the early hours of 12th December the Japanese launched an attack on the Indian troops in Northern Kedah, who, after a delaying action at Jitra, were obliged to withdraw to positions just north of Alor Star. After two more days of heavy fighting, our forces on the left were pushed back twenty miles south of Alor Star. Farther east, Krohcol also had had to retreat and had come under the command of the 12th Indian Brigade, which on 12th December was ordered to move up from the south as reinforcements.
The British forces in Kelantan, just south of Kota Bharu, were in the unhappy position of having no road communications with southern Malaya. They early had to withdraw, and fresh Japanese landings farther south on 10th December, which threatened the British communications and also the two airfields at Gong Kedah and Machang, south of Kota Bharu, forced the decision to abandon these aerodromes. Once that decision was taken, the principal task of the Kelantan force was gone, and on 12th December orders were issued for the evacuation of Kelantan by the only route, the single-line railway. This operation was successfully completed by 22nd December.
The Withdrawal to Southern Malaya
On the west coast, the Japanese attack at Jitra against the 11th Indian Division had reduced the Division to a state where it would normally have required relief - but there were no troops available to relieve it. The situation in the west soon began to cause great concern. The 11th Indian Division had withdrawn to a position at Gurun, half-way between Alor Star and Butterworth. But they were allowed little time to settle into this position; within a matter of hours the Japanese were attacking forward localities. The 6th Indian Brigade, on the left of the front, guarding the vital road and railway, was overwhelmed by a strong Japanese force early on 15th December. A further withdrawal to the river Muda, the southern boundary of Kedah, was ordered. On the 15th, too, the final decision to evacuate Penang was taken. The following day, the 11th Indian Division was ordered to withdraw to the southern boundary of Province Wellesley, to the Krian River line. Very soon, however, a serious threat to this position too developed, as a considerable Japanese force advanced down the main road farther east, that which leads south from Patani, and threatened to cut off the 11th Indian Division by reaching Kuala Kangsar.
Although the northern aerodromes had all been captured or evacuated, it was still thought essential to keep the front as far forward as possible, in order that reinforcements, now promised, might be landed in safety; the Japanese could not be permitted to establish air bases within close striking distance of Singapore. This policy was emphasised at an inter-Allied conference held at Singapore on 18th December. On that day, however, yet another withdrawal, behind the River Perak, was sanctioned, although the enemy were to be held west of that river as long as possible. That day, too, it was decided that the remnants of the 6th and 15th Indian Brigades, both of which had suffered severely, should be amalgamated to form a single brigade. To the 9th Indian Division, now withdrawing from Kelantan, was assigned the duty of protecting Kuantan aerodrome and of securing the 11th Indian Division and its communications against attacks from the east.
The withdrawal behind the Perak River was soon inevitable, and was ordered to commence on the night 21st/22nd December. In sixteen days the Japanese had taken all of Malaya to the north and west of that river, and also the State of Kelantan; the State of Trengganu, on the east coast, lay undefended. But even so, there is no doubt that they had not progressed as rapidly as they had hoped.
On the night of 27th/28th December the 12th and 28th Brigades began to withdraw to positions some twenty miles south of Ipoh. During the last few days of December and the early part of January there were various changes in command: General Sir Henry Pownall relieved Sir Robert Brooke-Popham as Commander-in-Chief; when the headquarters of the Eastern Fleet moved first to Batavia and then to Colombo, Rear-Admiral Spooner was left as senior naval officer at Singapore; and General Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed Supreme Commander of the new Allied South-West Pacific Command, General Pownall becoming his Chief of Staff when on 15th January Command Headquarters was established in Java.
The New Year opened with the hope of early reinforcements. A fresh Indian Infantry brigade was expected soon, and the whole of the 18th British Division later in the month. Fifty Hurricane fighters in crates, with their crews, were also in a convoy due to reach Singapore about 13th-15th January. They, along with other aircraft that were promised, would do something to counter Japanese air superiority. The Japanese also, however, were known to have received reinforcements at the end of December.
On the night 29th/30th December the Japanese commenced what developed into a four-day battle for the positions south of Ipoh held by the 11th Indian Division. That Division had to deal not only with frontal attacks but with a threat to its rear and its communications by landings from the sea and across the River Perak at Telok Anson against the 12th Brigade. This menace to the rear of the main positions forced a withdrawal on 2nd January, after a determined struggle. No respite was granted by the enemy, who continued to press forward and at the same time made a further landing in some strength some thirty-five miles farther south on the west coast.
In the east, too, the early days of January saw withdrawal. On 30th December the Japanese began their attack on Kuantan, defended by troops of the 9th Indian Division. There was some fierce fighting around the town and the aerodrome, and early on the morning of 3rd January orders were issued for a withdrawal towards the west. In the evening of that day, the rearguard suffered severe losses when it was furiously attacked by the Japanese. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Japanese during these few days, however.
On 7th January came a disaster on the main road southwards in western Malaya. The 12th and 28th Brigade Groups were holding positions astride the road near the Slim River, which forms the boundary between the States of Perak and Selangor. For a few days there had not been much fighting, when in the early morning of the 7th the Japanese launched a heavy attack with tanks straight down the road. Despite gallant opposition, they broke right through and captured intact the bridge by which the main road crosses the river. Both brigades were thrown into confusion, and, obeying the order that the Division must remain in being as a fighting formation, had no alternative to cutting their losses and withdrawing as best they could. The losses in both men and materials were very heavy.
The Defence of Johore
Plans had been made for a withdrawal to the southernmost State, Johore, and for its defence. It had not been expected that this would be necessary before the middle of January, but the Slim River disaster made it essential to establish a front in Johore at once; General Wavell, who visited the front on his way to his new headquarters in Java, issued instructions to this effect. It was decided that the 3rd Indian Corps less the 9th Indian Division should be responsible for operations in southern Johore, south of a line Endua-Kluang-Batu-Pahat, absorbing the 22nd Australian Brigade Group, while Major-General Gordon Bennett with the remainder of the A.I.F. formations, the 9th Indian Division and the 45th Indian Brigade Group (just arrived from India) was responsible for Johore to the north of that line.
This withdrawal into Johore meant the abandonment of the States of Selangor and Negri Sembilan and of the ancient colony of Malacca; also of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Federated Malay States. By 14th January all the 3rd Indian Corps troops had passed through Gordon Bennett's force, carrying out demolitions on all roads, and by mid-day on that day the dispositions of the Australian force (known as Westforce) were completed.
The first Japanese attack came in the afternoon of the 14th, when a Japanese column fell into an ambush prepared by the Australians at Gemas and suffered several hundred casualties and the loss of a number of tanks at comparatively small cost to the Australians. Unfortunately, this success was soon cancelled by a series of disasters on the Muar River at the western extremity of the front, where Japanese troops penetrated the area held by the new and untried 45th Indian Infantry Brigade and practically destroyed one battalion. A serious threat to Australian communications resulted, as the Japanese penetration was not far from the main road seventy miles south of the forward troops. It did not yet seem necessary to withdraw these forward troops, but the strength of the threat at Muar had not been fully appreciated, and despite efforts to reinforce on that sector, by the evening of the 18th a withdrawal on the whole front was inevitable. This withdrawal could only be carried out at night because of Japanese air superiority. The force at Muar was in fact cut off on the 19th, and less than 1,000 of the 4,000 or more who were originally there succeeded in escaping and rejoining the main force. From the 15th to the 22nd Australian and Indian troops held up at Muar a division of the Japanese Imperial Guards, gaining valuable time for the withdrawal of their comrades farther to the east.
Already the defensive line was on what had been planned as the northern limit of the Indian Corps' responsibilities. Some thousands of reinforcements had arrived from India and from Australia, but almost all were raw and untrained troops-the only ones available at the time. The main body of the 18th British Division had not yet arrived.
By this time the Japanese had obtained possession of airfields sufficiently close to Singapore to enable them to escort their bombers with fighters, and so Singapore became the target of two or three attacks by daylight each day, directed mainly against aerodromes on the island, but also against the docks and the naval base.
The defence on the mainland was now formed into three separate commands, all of which came under the 3rd Indian corps. To the east was a group under Brigadier Taylor, commander of the 22nd Australian Brigade, which was already in that area. In the centre, defending the railway and the main trunk road, were the remainder of the A.I.F. and the 9th Indian Division, all under Major-General Gordon Bennett. On the west coast was the 11th Indian Division, under Major-General Key.
Again, as at Muar, the western sector proved the critical one. Japanese troops landed near Batu Pahat on 16th January, and before long were driving between the western and central sectors, threatening to cut off the 11th Indian Division. That division was forced to withdraw its forward brigade during the night 25th/26th January, and on the same night the troops on the central sector also had to withdraw, thereby leaving the Japanese in control of a main road from east to west across the country. These withdrawals, coupled with fresh landings on the east coast and attacks upon the group on that sector, made it clear that a retreat to the island of Singapore was inevitable; it was too risky to attempt to hold a line in southern Johore, with only a single line of retreat across the causeway which linked the island to the mainland. It was, therefore, decided that the whole force still on the mainland should be withdrawn across the causeway on the night 30th/31st January. During the preparations for this retreat the 22nd Indian Brigade of the 9th Indian Division became cut off by the Japanese, and only some 100 officers and men of that brigade were later ferried across the Strait of Johore to safety. The withdrawal of the remainder of the troops across the causeway was carried out successfully with little interference from the Japanese air force. About eight o'clock on the morning of 31st January the last troops crossed the causeway, which was immediately demolished.
The Battle of Singapore
The battle of Singapore was about to begin, with only a few days in which to make dispositions to counter the assault. Some reinforcements had just arrived: a number of Hurricane fighters flown off an aircraft-carrier, a light tank squadron from India, and the main body of the British 18th Division under Major-General Beckwith-Smith.
The defences were divided into three main areas. For the Northern Area, the 3rd Indian Corps was responsible; it now comprised the 11th Indian Division, into which the remaining brigade of the 9th Indian Division had been incorporated, and the 18th British Division, and was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir L. M. Heath. The Southern Area, which included the city of Singapore, was defended by the original Fortress Troops, with most of the fixed defences, and the 1st and 2nd Malaya Infantry Brigades and the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force. The Fortress Commander, Major-General F. Keith Simmons, remained in command here. In the Western Area, believed to be the danger area, was the Australian Imperial Force, with the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade, under Major-General Gordon Bennett. The Australian troops were the freshest of those that had had experience of fighting on the mainland.
The anti-aircraft defences, under Brigadier A. W. G. Wildey, had been re-organised; and the Command reserve was constituted by the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier Paris. In addition, detachments of a force of Chinese irregulars (known as "Dalforce" from their commander, Lt.-Col. Dalley), were placed under orders of the Area commanders-but they were not fully armed or equipped.
During the first week of February there was artillery activity on both sides, and there were Japanese air attacks, mostly on the docks and the civil aerodrome. Early on the morning on the 8th, Australian patrols returned from the mainland to report that large Japanese reinforcements were now opposite the western shores of Singapore Island; shelling on that front started later that morning and increased in intensity until evening. A little more than an hour before midnight the first Japanese landings took place, and soon the whole of the Australian 22nd Brigade front was engaged. Although there was fierce fighting on the beaches, the Japanese got ashore at many points. They drove a wedge between two of the Australian battalions, and the situation soon became confused. The weight of the attack was not at first realised; two Japanese divisions were engaged in the assault, 13,000 troops being landed during the night and a further 10,000 soon after dawn. Later a third division joined in the attack, and the total force numbered some 70,000 infantry supported by 150 tanks, 168 guns and more than 500 aircraft.
What British reserves were available were soon thrown in, but by eight O'clock in the morning on the 9th the Japanese were attacking the aerodrome in the western sector, and were advancing towards Bukit Timah and Singapore city. In the evening came a further Japanese attack across the Strait of Johore, this time in the north, close to the causeway, and once again the enemy gained a footing. Already it was proving necessary to withdraw units from the northern sector to reinforce the west. General Wavell visited Singapore on the 10th and, before he left, issued orders that Singapore must be held to the last. On the 11th the Japanese continued to advance both from the west and from the north and, despite all efforts to save them, the food and petrol dumps near Bukit Timah were lost. This meant that little petrol and only fourteen days' military food supplies remained to the defenders-although the civilian food situation was less critical.
On the 12th, it had to be agreed that there was no point in leaving forces in the north-eastern part of the island when Singapore City itself was imminently threatened, and orders were given to withdraw all forces within a perimeter around the city, which should include the water supply reservoirs and the civil aerodrome-though the sole remaining fighter squadron had left it two days before. There was heavy fighting along the whole front on the 12th; the Australian 22nd Brigade held an advanced position south of Bukit Timah until evening, when after forty-eight hours' stubborn resistance it was withdrawn.
On the 13th, the main Japanese attack was made along a ridge to the west of Singapore City; it fell chiefly upon the Malay Regiment, which held its ground that day and the next until forced by heavy losses to yield. In the afternoon at a staff conference all the senior commanders were agreed that, owing to the exhaustion of the troops, a counter-attack could have no chance of succeeding. A start was made that evening with the evacuation of numbers of surplus staff officers, nurses, technicians and others whose knowledge would be of value to the Allies for the prosecution of the war. Among those who left were Rear-Admiral Spooner and Air Vice-Marshal Pulford; the patrol boat on which they travelled, pursued by a Japanese destroyer, was run aground on a deserted island, and more than half of the party died there, including these two officers. Many of the small ships that took off evacuees on that day met a similar fate, and those on board were either drowned or taken prisoner.
Early on the 14th the water situation became serious; mains broken owing to bombing and shelling were causing losses that repairs could not keep pace with, and it was estimated that at most the supply would last for forty-eight hours-possibly only for twenty-four.
General Wavell in reply to a report on the situation urged that resistance should continue, and said, "Your gallant stand is serving purpose and must be continued to limit of endurance".
During the night 14th/15th February, Japanese infantry infiltrated in the central sector, and there was bitter fighting on the extreme left, where the 2nd Bn. The Loyal Regiment, which bore the brunt of the attack, was now reduced to only 130 fighting men. The water situation was reported in the morning to be critical, ammunition reserves were very short, and only a few days' military food stocks remained, although there were large reserves in the area now occupied by the Japanese, and there were civil reserves. There were only two alternatives: a counter-attack to regain control of the reservoirs and the food reserves and to drive Japanese artillery back; or capitulation. A counter-attack was judged by all to be impossible; so at a meeting in the afternoon terms of surrender were agreed with the Japanese commander, Lieutenant-General Yamashita, and hostilities ceased at 8.30 in the evening of 15th February (British time).
This was the end of the fighting in Malaya - seventy days of struggle without respite. In both naval and air strength the Japanese had overwhelming superiority; on land, it is estimated that at the time of the surrender they had some 120,000 troops and 150 tanks on Singapore Island and in southern Malaya, compared with a total of some 85,000 troops of the British Commonwealth and Empire in Singapore (among whom were a fairly high proportion of non-combatant units - medical, pioneer, etc.).
Operations in Borneo
Borneo came within the Malaya Command, but through lack of resources only token forces could be stationed there, which could be expected to do little more than gain sufficient time for the demolition of the oil-field installations. The garrison of Borneo in December 1941 consisted of the 2/15th Punjab Regiment; they were stationed at Kuching in Sarawak, where there was an airfield, and at Miri, some 400 miles as the crow flies to the north-east. At Miri and at Seria, near by in Brunei, were the oilfields; on 8th December 1941, orders were received by the local garrison for their demolition, which was carried out successfully, the troops, oil company officials, and a detachment of Straits Settlements police being evacuated by sea to Kuching on the 13th. On the 16th, Japanese troops landed at Seria.
On 23rd December, orders were received at Kuching for the demolition of the landing-ground, which, as well as the town, had suffered several air attacks during the few days before that date. On 24th September, Japanese landing-craft made their way up the waterways between the sea and Kuching, and by the afternoon of that day the Japanese flag was flying over the residence of the Rajah of Sarawak. The following morning, the British garrison commander, Lt.-Col. Lane, decided to withdraw his force westwards into Dutch West Borneo. On reaching Sanggau on 29th December, the battalion came under the orders of the local Dutch commander. There it fought alongside the Dutch to prevent the Japanese from taking the airfield at Sanggau, the principal Anglo-Dutch air base in West Borneo. Finally, through February and March, after fighting a rearguard action, the Punjabis made their way through wild and difficult country to the south coast of Borneo, which they reached, exhausted, towards the end of March, having covered a total distance of some 800 miles since leaving Kuching. But the Dutch had by then been forced to surrender, and on 3rd April the 2/15th Punjab Regiment became prisoners of war.
Prisoners of War
The end of hostilities was only the beginning of fresh tribulation for many of those who survived the battle. A great many of the men who are commemorated on the Singapore Memorial to those who have no known grave died as prisoners of war.
Some perished on Japanese transports which were sunk while carrying them into forced labour or to permanent prisoner-of-war camps elsewhere. A host of others died of illness, frequently of malnutrition diseases, during the years of captivity. Many were employed by the Japanese in the construction of the railway from Thailand to Burma, and thousands lie buried in the two war cemeteries on the line of that railway, at Kanchanaburi and Chungkai. The completion of the link between Bangkok and Rangoon was effected by October 1943, after a year of intensive forced labour by many thousands of British, Australian, American and Dutch prisoners-of-war and by local civilians. An example of the death-rate is given by the fact that of one party of 7,000 sent from Singapore to Thailand in April 1943, 25 per cent were dead by the end of August and 90 per cent of the remainder were ill. The total number of deaths of members of the Allied forces has been estimated at 24,000.
In Malaya itself, there are only two war cemeteries, at Taiping, on the line of the retreat down the west coast, and at Kranji, on Singapore Island, where also stands the memorial already referred to. A number of those who died are buried in civil cemeteries in Singapore and elsewhere in Malaya; but by far the majority lie in the war cemeteries.