The Action off Endau
The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse brought an effective end to the naval portion of the campaign. Only British naval presence were light RN units, but these were focused on escorting convoys into the fortress and in any case could not contest control of the South China Sea with the Imperial Japanese Navy.
One exception to this reluctance came in the later part of the campaign as the British forces were retreating towards Singapore. Japanese conducted a logistics operation on the south-east coast of Malaya, which had been scaled down from the original plans for a full landing operations due to concerns for British air and naval intervention. And this intervention did happen. Percival believed assault on Endau to be capable of cutting off the British force retreating into the fortress, and thus the Royal Navy decided to attack the assault force with whatever was available.
The Japanese landing was carried out by two IJA transports carrying construction stores, ordnance and personnel to set up an airfield. These were escorted by 3rd Destroyer Squadron, consisting of a light cruiser, six Fubuki-class destroyers, and five large minesweepers. RAFs repeated attacks achieved nothing despite the loss of 15 aircraft, and the only naval units available were the 23 year old S-class destroyer Thanet and the 25 year old Australian V-class destroyer Vampire. Two destroyers carried 4-inch guns and a total of seven torpedoes.
The small force departed Singapore on the afternoon of 26th of January, with the intention of carrying out a night attack. Destroyers sailed close to shore, sneaking past the Japanese destroyer patrols, but were spotted within anchorage by a minesweeper W-4. Vampire launched two torpedoes at the minesweeper at 2:42 but both missed. Failing to find the transports, two destroyers launched all their remaining torpedoes at a Japanese destroyer, and retreated at high speed to south-east. But their luck ran out, and within minutes Thanet was hit in the engine room by a 5 inch shell. Shell severed both main and auxiliary steam lines, leaving Thanet dead in the water. Of its crew, 65 were able to evade capture and return to Singapore, 12 were killed in action, and 32 were captured by the Japanese and later executed. Vampire escaped with the help of its smokescreen, and suffered no damage or casualties.
The Battle of Jitra
The 5th Division raced from its landing areas at Singora and Patani. Main drive was down the road from Singora towards Alor Star, assigned to the 9th Infantry Brigade which was comprised of 11th and 41st Infantry Regiments, supported by a tank battalion and a battalion of artillery. The supporting drive from Patani down the road to Kroh was assigned to the 42nd Infantry Regiment supported by two light tank companies and a battery of artillery. Against them was arrayed 11th Indian Infantry Division, which positioned itself at a weak defensive position at the road junction of Jitra in order to defend the airfield at Alor Star. Unknown to them was the fact that RAF had evacuated the airfield on 9th of December. Because of RAF’s incompetence or arrogance, division was about to expose itself for no purpose. While attempts were made to fortify 11th Division’s positions, these had taken lower priority than preparing for Matador. Front line was manned by two brigades with one brigade in reserve.
Japanese tanks overran Indian positions north of Jitra before proceeding to main position of the 15th Indian Infantry Brigade. Two battalions of Indian troops had been rendered combat ineffective, and morale of the 11th Indian Division had gone from low to none. It also forced redeployment, and with both 15th and 28th Indian Infantry Brigades ordered to Jitra and 28th Brigade’s third battalion assigned to Alor Star airfield, the 11th Indian Infantry Division had no reserve. Next day, a Japanese tank probe down the road was repulsed, but 2/9th Jats battalion holding the British right flank received false reports it was being outflanked. In response, 6th Brigade sent the bulk of two battalions to reinforce the right flank of the 15th Brigade.
The Japanese resumed the attack on 12 December, penetrating into the rear as far as the British reserves. British divisional commander, Murray-Lyon, requested a withdrawal but was denied. But when withdrawal did begin on the initiative of brigade commanders, it resulted in panic fed by reports of Japanese tanks. At 19:30 Murray-Lyon again requested a permission to withdraw, which was granted. Withdrawal was successful, but a retreat over a single road, in a pouring rain and with poorly trained troops led to considerable losses of men and material.
This was one of British Army’s most complete defeats during the entire war. A Japanese battalion supported by a company of tanks had defeated the entire division in prepared positions. Decisive in the outcome were Indian division’s incomplete training and incorrect deployment.
After breaking contact with the Japanese, the 11th Indian Infantry Division reached the Sengei Kedah on the morning of 13th December. A Japanese attempt to cross the river failed, and Murray-Lyon ordered the retreat to continue to Gurun some 20 miles south. As no defensive positions had been prepared, exhausted soldiers had to prepare their own. The 6th Indian Brigade was placed on the right, the 28th Indian Brigade on the left, and the 600-man strong 15th Indian Brigade was designated as a reserve.
The Japanese launched a probe on 14th. While this was stopped, a determined attack on 15th penetrated deep into 6th Indian Brigade’s defences. Because of this, Murray-Lyon withdrew his division to south of the Muda River. Heath decided to withdraw the division further 30 miles southwards to the Krian River, hoping to utilize the river as a giant anti-tank ditch. Percival however assessed that any further retreat would make it difficult or impossible for the desperately needed reinforcements to arrive to Singapore. Convoys were expected in the first part of January, and thus Japanese air power had to be kept out of range of Singapore. Yet because RAF had decided to keep its remaining aircraft in Singapore itself to protect the fortress and the reinforcement convoys, this would be an uphill struggle. Percival further sent the 8th Australian Infantry Division to Jahore due to threat of Japanese landings, leaving Indian 3rd Corps by itself. By 17th December, Percival withdrew his forces behind the Perak river. The 9th Indian Infantry Division was ordered to defend the Kuantan airfield and protect the 11th Indian Infantry Division’s eastern flank. The 11th Indian Division was reorganized with the 6th and 15th Indian Brigades formed into a 15th Brigade, and then reinforced by the 12th Indian Brigade. This gave the division three brigades for the first time, as 28th Indian Brigade had remained assigned. Murray-Lyon was replaced by Brigadier Paris on 24th of December.
The Battle of Kampar
The next serious action was in the area of Kampar from 30 December to 2 January 1942. The Japanese believed the British would defend the Perak River to use it as an anti-tank obstacle, but as Heath had moved his forces south they were able to cross it unopposed on 26th of January. Heath had hoped to hold the Kampar position since it could not be easily outflanked inland, and in fact repulsed several attacks, causing heavy losses to the Japanese troops. But on the 2nd of February Japanese landed forces at Utan Melitang, south of the Kampar position, making British position untenable and forcing a withdrawal. In the eastern Malaya, the Japanese 55th Infantry Regiment landed at Kota Bharu on 30th of December and followed the 56th Infantry Regiment towards Kuantan. The airfield and the town, defended by the 22nd Indian Brigade, fell after heavy fighting on 2nd and 3rd January.
The Battle of Slim River
By 4th January the 11th Indian Infantry Division had withdrawn to the Sungkai-Slim confluence area area. Percival ordered Heath to hold this area at least until the 14th January so as to prevent the Japanese from using Kuala Lumpur and Port Swettenham airfields to attack the reinforcement convoys. The Japanese for their part resolved not to allow the British any time to create a firm defense, and Yamashita ordered the 5th Division to continue its advance straight for Kuala Lumpur. Further forces advanced down the coast to attack the British positions from west.
The 11th Indian Infantry Division selected a defensive position that was assessed to be tank-proof and covered Slim River crossings. Brigadier Paris deployed the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade along the main road, and 28th Indian Infantry Brigade covered the Slim River sector. British believed that dense jungle next to the road made Japanese outflanking tactics impossible, and so only the main defences on the road were provided with anti-tank guns, mines and concrete blocks. And while defences were physically strong, the brigade was tired, demoralized and seriously understrength.
The Japanese made first contact with the covering force of the 4/19 Hyderabad Battalion on 5th January, outflanking it on 6th and forcing it to withdraw by the 7th. Japanese lost four tanks in attack against main British defences, but managed to bypass the resistance after discovering an unused loop road. Defences at Milestone 61.5 held only shortly, and those at Milestone 62 were, despite spirited defense by Indian troops, bypassed through another loop road.
As 11th Indian Infantry Division was short on communications equipment, the extent of the disaster was not apparent to remainder of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade. Improvised British roadblocks were quickly brushed aside, and Japanese tanks rampaged through the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade before reaching and capturing the Slim River Bridge.
After crossing the bridge, the tanks met the 155th Field Regiment and destroyed it, albeit losing one tank in the process.
Overall, the Japanese advance had been a massive success. In six hours, a small group of Japanese tanks had rampaged down a single road, shooting everything in sight and obliterating five battalions of two British brigades. The 12th Indian Infantry Brigade had been completely destroyed, 28th Indian Infantry Brigade reduced to about a third of its paper strength but the loss of transport and artillery had rendered it functionally combat ineffective. Japanese lost 150 men while taking 3 000 men prisoner. British had lost the central Malaya, and the possibility of holding out until reinforcements could arrive had been significantly reduced.
But even the reinforcements that were arriving were clearly inadequate. The most important unit, the 18th Infantry Division, arrived on 5th February – just in time to surrender when the fortress fell. The 85th Anti-Tank, 6th Heavy Anti-Aircraft and 35th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiments arrived on January 13th. Two Indian brigades arrived in January, with 45th Indian Infantry Brigade arriving on 3rd January, and 44th Indian Infantry Brigade in late January. But while plans were made to send the newly-formed 7th Armoured Brigade to Singapore, it never arrived. All these units were untrained and inexperienced in jungle warfare, and Indian units were badly trained in general and tended to have low morale as a result.
The Loss of Johore
Wavell undertook a trip to Singapore, beginning on 7th January 1942., taking stock of the British defense so far. He attributed Japanese successes to mistakes by the British, and took steps to stop the Japanese at Johore. With Wavell and Bennett demanding the Australians be moved from the east coast to stop the Japanese in western Malaya, Indian III Corps was ordered to withdraw into Johore for rest and reconstitution. The 8th Australian Infantry Division would be moved to the area around Segamat in western Johore to stop the Japanese, while the 9th Indian Infantry Division and the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade would be placed under the command of General Bennett and form “Westforce”. Thus Wavell’s main battle would be conducted by Bennett and his two Australian brigades.
Japanese also reinforced their drive. The 5th Division’s 21st Infantry Regiment arrived at Singora on 8th January, and the 5th Guards regiment reached central Malaya on 10th January. The 18th Division advanced down the east coast and occupied Kuantan on 3rd January, with logistical units landing at endau on 26th January. Kuala Lumpur was occupied on the evening of 11th January, and on the night of 13th / 14th January Indian III Corps withdrew through Westforce. Bennett deployed his two Australian brigade groups along the expected main area of Japanese advance, supported by anti-tank units and four artillery regiments. He also prepared an ambush west of Gemas, and on 14th January, an advance detachment of the 5th Division fell into the trap.
Japanese lost 70 dead and 57 wounded, while Australians suffered one dead and nine wounded. Next day however Japanese brought up their tanks and resumed their advance. The first major clash between the Australians and the Japanese happened on 15th February, with an Australian battalion from 27th Brigade repulsing three Japanese attacks before being flanked and forced to withdraw by a single Japanese battalion.
Out of nine battalions deployed in the Gemas-Jementah-Segamat triangle, only two were heavily engaged through 20th January before Bennett was forced to withdraw. Main reason for this was Bennett’s reliance on the badly deployed and supported 45th Indian Brigade to hold Westforce’s western flank along the coast. With Indians being forced off the Sungei Muar, Westforce’s communications were being endangered. Between this and the pressure from the 5th Division and the Imperial Guards Division, Percival decided to withdraw the Westforce. 45th Indian Infantry Brigade was annihilated in the process, and the Westforce pulled back to the road junctions of Lapis and Yong Peng.
Ever since 18th January, Percival had been considering complete withdrawal to the island of Singapore. On the evening of 20th January, Westforce was ordered to pull back to a final defensive line of Batu Pahat – Kluang – Mersing. Wavell personally visited Singapore on 20th January to instruct Percival to defend Johore so as to allow additional reinforcements to arrive. On 21st January, the Chiefs of Staffs in London ordered Wavell to prepare for a prolonged defence of the island.
Withdrawal to Singapore was by this point unavoidable, and between 24th and 31st January, units of the Westforce retreated through Johore under constant Japanese pressure. 11th Indian Infantry Division withdrew along the coast while 27th Australian Infantry Brigade withdrew down the main trunk road, and a well-performed rearguard action allowed them to cross over into Singapore on the night of 30th/31st January. 9th Indian Infantry Division however attempted to avoid a Japanese roadblock by going through the jungle, which ended with the division being captured by the Japanese. Withdrawal was by far Percival’s best conducted operation of the campaign, and the troops crossed into Singapore in order. The Causeway was blown up after the troops had crossed, and the Japanese reached the Strait of Johore on 31st January.
The Air Battle
The air battle was decided within days. The Japanese Naval Air Force opened it with an ineffective bombardment of Singapore, but the very fact that Japanese bombers could reach Singapore was disconcerting. Meanwhile, IJA Air Force opened its air campaign with a series of attacks on British air fields in northern Malaya, beginning on 8th December, 7:30 local time. Bombers attacked air fields at Sungei Patani and Alor Star, while fighters strafed air fields as far south as Butterworth. Some British aircraft were caught on ground and destroyed.
The RAF reacted as best as it could. From 8th December onwards, RAF mounted continuous attacks against the Japanese invasion force. Despite the extremes of effort, the results were meagre: RAF was incapable of preventing the Japanese from landing forces at Kota Bharu, or to save the Indian brigade there from defeat. The main invasion force off Singora and Patani was completely unmolested.
A key part to Japanese plan to gain air superiority was to base fighters on the Malayan Peninsula as soon as possible. On 8th December, Ki-27 fighters were moved to Singora airfield, followed by other elements of the 3rd Air Division. Air marshal Pulford decided to attack Japanese bases at Singora and Patani despite having only completely inadequate forces. First attack led to loss of three out of six bombers, while two squadrons that were to participate in the second attack were destroyed on the ground. By the end of the second day, the British had lost the ability to contest air superiority over northern Malaya, in large part due to inadequate anti-air defences on air fields. By 9th December, Pulford withdrew all but two squadrons to Singapore, leaving a total of ten operational aircraft in the northern Malaya. These ten aircraft were all concentrated on the Butterworth air field. Priority was now defense of Singapore and the convoys bringing reinforcements into the fortress. On 12th December, 453 Squadron equipped with Buffalo fighters was sent to Butterworth to provide air cover for ground troops, but by 22nd December it had been reduced to three fighters and had to be withdrawn.
Even a successful attack on Japanese airfield at Sungei Patani on the night of 27th December failed to relieve the pressure against British ground forces. Gradually, British forces were pushed out of the central Malaya into Johore, while RAF’s focus remained on protecting the transports with reinforcements. But since air reinforcement route was long and insufficiently developed, only small and incomplete groups of aircraft arrived, making RAF unable to maintain the strength. After mid-December, all fighter aircraft had to be delivered by sea, some by the carrier Indomitable.
In the second week of January, the focus of the air campaign shifted to the Singapore itself. Between lack of early warning and poor performance of the Buffalo fighters, air parity proved impossible to achieve. Even the arrival of crated Hurricane fighters changed nothing – they were too few in number, and while they were equal to IJA’s Ki-43, they were still clearly inferior to IJN’s Zero fighters. But the most damning was numerical disparity: between 15th and 24th of January, average Allied strength was 74 bombers and 28 fighters. By comparison, the Japanese had brought 250 bombers and 150 fighters.
In the second half of January, Japanese made large-scale attacks against Singapore, especially the naval base, the port and the air fields. This also had the effect of depleting British air power, as trickle of reinforcements was unable to cover the losses. Still, RAF managed to draw Japanese focus away from the transports carrying reinforcements, and presence of RAF aircraft forced the cancellation of the landing operation in southern Malaya, allowing Percival’s forces to withdraw from Johore to Singapore island. RAF also suffered heavy losses attacking a Japanese convoy on 26th January.
After the demolition of air fields on Kahang and Kluang on 21st of January, RAF had to fly from air bases in Singapore and southern Sumatra. Out of four air fields in Singapore, three were within range of shore-based artillery while fourth was on a salt marsh, making it impossible to repair damage dealt to the runway. Consequently, almost all remaining aircraft were withdrawn to southern Sumatra, denying Singapore effective air cover and causing a major blow to defenders’ morale.
The Attack on Singapore
The island of Singapore is separated from Malaya by the Strait of Johore, which ranges in width from 600 to 5 000 yards. Shortest distance is in the northern part where the Causeway was located. The coast itself was marked by many small rivers and creeks and covered by mangrove swamps, which became islands at high tide. The rest of the island is fairly flat, with the highest point being Bukit Mandai and Bukit Timah at the center of the island, some 600 feet high. Island itself is 27 miles wide and 13 miles deep and was mainly covered in jungle, but several good roads led to the Singapore city in the southern part of the island. In the centre of the island were three water reservoirs providing water for the city, which had swelled from 550 000 prewar to over a million by January.
The British plan to defend the island was based on pre-war concepts, which were focused on defending the naval base from seaward attack. Defense of Singapore against attack from the north was supposed to be carried out by military units stationed in Malaya itself, and was based on preventing the enemy from reaching the island in the first place. By contrast, no preparations had been made to defend against the enemy crossing the Strait of Johore. Only two defensive lines had been constructed on the island itself, but these were intended to stop enemy landings from the west and the east. Northern side of the island was defended only by some scattered beach defences.
While the troops expected to hold the island were impressive in number, they were demoralized, undertrained and poorly equipped. Only 13 out of 38 battalions were British, and of those, seven were understrength. The six Australian battalions had been brought up to full strength by using green reinforcements. Only one of 17 Indian battalions was at full strength, and there were also two Malay battalions and three garrison battalions. Units were short on weapons, and their morale had been destroyed by recent defeats. Percival decided to defend the entire perimeter of the island, and beat back the attack on the shore, in spite of the terrain which prevented any coherent beach defense. Defense was supported by artillery consisting of 226 guns, including most of the coastal artillery.
The Japanese themselves reached the Strait of Johore on 31 January. Yamashita assessed that the British defences will be more formidable in the north-eastern part of the strait. This was true as the 18th Division was there. Thus he decided to avoid a frontal assault against enemy’s best troops, and instead decided to attack the area between Tanjong Buloh and Tanjong Murai, held by the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade. For this attack, Yamashita amassed 16 battalions and another five in reserve against a sector only 4,5 miles wide. Attack was also supported by the 1st Tank Regiment of Facing this assault were only three Australian battalions.
After the main attack had been delivered, a supporting attack would be conducted by the Imperial Guards division in the area west of the Causeway, which was held by the 27th Australian Infantry Brigade. This attack would include seven battalions, supported by the 14th Tank Regiment.
Yamashita went to great efforts to hide the location of his main thrust. The Imperial Guards Division built dummy camps in the north-east sector, conducted a demonstration attack on Ubin Island, and Japanese pre-attack artillery preparations with the 168 available medium and heavy guns focused on this area. The assault troops were not moved forward until the day before the attack. As a result, true Japanese preparations were only noticed the night before the attack.
On morning of Feburary 8th, Japanese aircraft and the artillery started bombardment of the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade. The barrage intensified after sunset, and about 20:30 the Japanese landing craft approached Australian positions.
Australians had no artillery, and thus could not prevent the landings. Once ashore, the Japanese infiltrated between the widely spaced Australian defenses. By nightfall, the British had fallen back to the Jurong line. The Japanese had achieved all their objectives of the day, but the British still maintained viable defense. During the night of 9/10 February, Japanese pushed Australians back and brought up the rest of the Imperial Guards Division without interference.
The British attempted to stop the Japanese at the Jurong Line, but that battle was over before it had started. The northern part of the line was abandoned when the 12th Indian Brigade pulled back without orders to prevent the Imperial Guards division from driving fown from Kranji behind the British defences. Southern part of the line was abandoned when the 15th and 44th Indian Brigades pulled back without orders to protect the Jurong road. As a result, the Jurong Line had been lost by the evening of the 10th, and British defences in the West disrupted.
Yamashita decided to exploit the British confusion and ordered a drive to sieze Singapore, with 18th Division on the Jurong road, and the 5th Division in the Tengah airfield. Percival formed a three-brigade force to cover the road leading from the Causeway, and ordered a counter-attack to regain the Jurong line. The attack never got going, as the Japanese sliced through the 12th Indian brigade and an Australian battalion, reaching the road junction and deposits at Bukit Timah around midnight of 10th/11th February. British counterattack itself had to be cancelled after the Japanese 18th Division attacked British units preparing the counterattack on 11th February. While this attack was held, second Japanese attack at 7:30 smashed through the 15th Indian Brigade.
Japanese failed to press their attacks due to ammunition shortages. But the following British counterattack also failed, and when issues with command and control caused the 27th Australian Brigade to move south of the Race Course, left flank of the 11th Indian Division was left completely exposed. This forced the division to withdraw, abandoning the naval base in the process. By the evening of the 11th, the British had been forced back to the area of the MacRitchie reservoir and the Race Course. This area was defended by the 22nd Australian Brigade, which throughout the day had withstood the attacks of the 18th Division’s 56th and 114th Infantry Regiments.
On 12th February, the Japanese kept up the pressure. The 5th Division, supported by tanks, attacked down the Bukit Timah road towards the Singapore city, while facing opposition by a scratch brigade from the 18th British Division, named, Massy Force. The Imperial Guards Division on its left had occupied all the water reservoirs and began pressuring the perimeter around Singapore from the north and north-east while the 18th Division continued to press along the Holland road and the southern coast. Percival decided to withdraw to a final perimeter around the city itself, which was carried out between the noon and the evening of the 12th February.
By the morning of the 13th, greatly reduced British forces were holding a perimeter stretching 28 miles around Singapore. British morale was unraveling, and while resistence still continued they consistently gave up ground. As end neared, troops in the rear started to desert and comandeer boats to escape.
As the fall of the island began to look imminent, the scale of the British demolition programme increased. Stocks of rubber, tin-smelting plants and factories were being destroyed, yet destruction was handicapped by the staff and owners of some plants. Consequently, the scale of denial was incomplete.
Percival held a conference with his staff and unit commanders on the early afternoon of 13th February. All present concluded that the counterattack had no hope of success. That night, last ships with evacuees were ordered to leave for Java and Sumatra. On the 14th, Japanese units renewed pressure and reached the outskirts of the city. Concurrently, Singapore’s water supply was nearing the point of imminent collapse. With million people crowded in the city and the troops spread throughout it, Japanese shelling and bombing caused significant casualties. The following day, water situation was reported to be dire, with total failure expected within 24 hours. As counter-attack to regain control of the reservoirs was clearly impossible, this left surrender as the only possible option. At 17:15 of 15th February, Percival and his chief of staff followed Japanese instructions to proceed to the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah to meet his Japanese counterpart. Yamashita demanded an unconditional surrender, which was signed at 18:10 and effective as of 20:30 that evening. With this, the campaign was over.
Overall, the British lost because they had pitted firepower against a maneuver-based force. In this however they had little choice, as weak British air force was destroyed almost immediately, and British armored units in Malaya relied on armored cars and other fighting vehicles that could not stand up to Japanese tanks. Japanese also had advantage in their usage of bicycles, which allowed their infantry to repeatedly outmaneuver its British counterparts.
Political reasons were one of key British disadvantages. It were political reasons which had prompted Churchill to send Force Z to Singapore, and because of the political reasons the British could not carry out the operation Matador. As a result, the Japanese were able to gain a solid foothold on the Malayan peninsula. Once they were there, lack of units capable of rapid maneuver meant that British forces could not concentrate against the Japanese, thus being destroyed piecemeal. Even when terrain and fortifications did allow the British to make a stand, poor training and command resulted in a string of defeats.
The battle for central Malaya was the last chance to stop the Japanese offensive. If the Japanese had been stopped or delayed there, reinforcements may have been able to arrive in a timely fashion. Once driven back into southern Johore, British had lost any chance of a counteroffensive, and any future resistance was merely delaying the inevitable. Being driven into Johore meant that the British would sooner or later be driven to the island, and once that happened any future reinforcement became impossible. Island itself had not been prepared for either siege or an attack, and Percival had held powerful formations on the island of Singapore itself due to a fear of an amphibious assault. This meant that the Japanese drive down the western coast was not stopped, despite only two axes of advance (the trunk road and the coastal road) being available. Bennett himself decided to defend the trunk road with three brigades and the coastal road with only one, losing that brigade in the process while others were forced to withdraw.
Defence of Singapore was also poorly carried out. Percival decided to stop the Japanese at the coast, but in order to do so he had to decide where to concentrate his defences. Yet he decided to defend everywhere, with focus on north-east – despite the fact that the north-west sector offered the Japanese several important advantages. This meant that not only was the crucial sector less defended, but also that no reserve was available to reinforce the attacked area or conduct a counter-attack that could throw the Japanese back. After the Japanese started to bring tanks and artillery across the strait, the only fresh British unit – 18th British Infantry Division – was fed into the battle piecemeal. British forces never launched a significant counter-attack, and were held off balance by constant Japanese attacks.
Japanese on the other hand performed extremely well – the campaign to take Malaya was in fact the best organized and executed Japanese campaign of the war. The 25th Army was the best led and equipped Japanese army of the war, and IJA made effective use of armor as well as showcasing infantry tactics far superior to those of their British counterparts. Unlike most of the rest of the war, this campaign was a showcase of good cooperation between the Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Army Air Force. Yamashita had assessed the British troops as inferior to Japanese troops in morale, and thus decided on a “driving strategy” against the British – a choice that would prove correct.
Issue was also strategy. Singapore had been established after World War I in order to defend British interests in Far East against Japanese attack. Hong Kong was too close to Japan, and Australia too far; Singapore, thus, was key. But Singapore was only intended to serve as a base of operations, not to come under attack itself, and too much hope was also placed on protection offered by the jungle. The jungle did offer protection – to the invading Japanese, who used cover of the jungle to execute maneuvers British had no response to. Control over Taiwan meant that the Japanese troops were far better acclimatized to Malayan conditions than their British counterparts, whose acclimatization usually began in India and lasted several months. General William Dobbie in 1936. and Brigadier General Vinden in 1937. had both questioned the notion of the “impassable jungle”. Vinden in fact had carried out exercise in which a battalion of Gordon Highlanders attacked through the jungle. Defending force of three British battalions and Johore Defense Force was caught in the rear and destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart of 2 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders confirmed that mobility was limited in the jungle – but limited mobility and no mobility are not the same, and jungle terrain lends itself perfectly to flanking attacks. Yet nothing was done at high levels to disseminate these tactics, and the Highlanders themselves were constantly bled off by the higher-ups.
British forces were also seriously underequipped. While the Japanese had 500 tanks and 230 modern aircraft, the British had 23 tanks and around 100 aircraft – many of fighters being antiquated models. Japanese tanks were modern Type 95, 97 and 98 models, while the British were using obsolete Mark VI light tanks.
Because of the war in Europe, Malaya was also bottom of the queue for good commanders. Best commanders were taken by the Royal Navy, while most Army commanders were average at best (Bill Slim being a notable exception). Least bad generals were thus sent to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, while Malaya received bottom-of-the-barrel specimens. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival was himself a very poor commander, but his subordinates somehow managed to be even worse. Major General F Keith Simmons was meant to be preparing Singapore’s defense. Instead he did his utmost to dismantle it, believing that landward defences would adversely impact morale.
In the end, the Japanese conquered Malaya. The British had lost 138 708 troops, of which more than 130 000 had been taken prisoner, and Japanese had conquered an important naval base as well as a large stockpile of weapons and other equipment. By contrast, Japanese losses numbered 9 824 for the entire campaign. During the occupation, some 5 000 Chinese inhabitants of Singapore were killed, though the number is often reported as 50 000.
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