Realisation of the Japanese Threat and the Landings
On the declaration of war with Germany in September 1939, the Defence Committee, which co-ordinated Malaya’s defence became the War Committee. The group consisted of the Governor Sir Shenton Thomas, GOC Malaya Major-General L.V. Bond, Air Officer Commanding Far East Air Vice-Marshal J.T. Babington and Admiral Sir Percy Noble CinC China squadron. Noble moved his headquarters from Hong Kong to Singapore. Mr C.A. Vlieland held the influential civilian post on the committee of Secretary for Defence.
There were sharp differences of opinion among the members of the committee. Bond was an aloof and distant man, but he was aware that an attack of Singapore would come from landings in Malaya and not from the sea. Bond did not believe he possessed sufficient manpower to defend the whole of Malaya and believed that defence should be concentrated on Johore and Singapore Island itself. This was an anathema to Babington who believed that the Army should defend the RAF’s airfields, many of which were based in the north. The argument was simply a mirroring of inter-Service rivalry and the relative roles of the Services in defending overseas ports. Vlieland believed that the attack would come in the north and that is where it should be stopped. Vlieland’s strategy may have been sound, but both he and Bond overestimated the ability of Bond’s troops to carry it out.
And what of the navy that the base had been built for? It was clear that the Royal Navy lacked sufficient resources to defend the North and South Atlantic, Home Waters, the Mediterranean and the Far East. It was recognised that sending a fleet to Singapore, if indeed a fleet could be found, would take a long time. At the outbreak of war, the production of raw materials from Malaya (38 per cent of the world’s rubber and 60 per cent of its tin), was vital to the war effort and in increase in production was ordered. This led to friction between the military command and the civilian administration. Commercial interest was put above military necessity.
The so-called Phony War in Europe dragged on through the winter of 1939/40, the Governor Sir Shenton Thomas requested that the RAF garrison should be increased, even at the cost of Army reinforcements. But the reality was that the defence of Great Britain and the Middle East took precedence over the Far East. Malaya would have to make do with the resources already at its disposal. Sir Shenton was advised to make better use of the Volunteers, but not at the expense of production of rubber and tin. To add insult to injury, the Governor was told that RAF machines might have to be redeployed from Malaya for use elsewhere. Major-General L.V. Bond realised that in order to defend the airfields and prevent any landings in Siam or Malaya he would need at least three divisions. Even the War Cabinet agreed that the current RAF strength of 88 aircraft was well below the recommended 336 with 168 in immediate reserve. And even these 88 were obsolescent and had a low serviceability rate. Furthermore, there was no Radar coverage or early warning in Malaya, which left the airfields vulnerable to air attack. The War Cabinet also concluded that at least three divisions would be required, but by 1940, the threat of invasion of England meant no aircraft, ships or brigades were available. The chickens of the inter-war period of disarmament had come home to roost.
It was hoped that the Indian Army could provide some additional manpower, but the Indian Army had sent a divisional headquarters and two brigades to the Middle East. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had concluded that the poor working relationship between Major-General Bond and Air Vice-Marshal Babington was not conducive to the defence of Malaya. Air Chief-Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was appointed as Commander in Chief for the Far East and although he was expected to provide ocean reconnaissance, he had no authority over naval units in the area, nor any over the civil administration. He only had a mandate on the “general direction of training” of Army units. Brooke-Popham was a CinC in name only and his responsibilities were vast, while his powers and necessary staff were limited.
July 1940 witnessed the fall of the Japanese government and its militaristic replacement of a cabinet headed by Prince Fumaniro Konoye. The cabinet included fiercely nationalistic “hawks,” General Tojo Minister of War and Foreign Minister Matsuoka who was committed to the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Konoye had engineered Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the cabinet looked for a plan of expansionism into Indo-China, Siam, Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. Gaining territories rich in natural resources was a priority for the Japanese, whose Home Islands had precious little in the way of the natural resources, required for an aspiring world power.
Japan was locked in a vicious cycle that would make war in the East inevitable. Because of its expansionist policies Japan was already at war with China. The Sino/Japanese war was consuming vast quantities of raw materials and the USA imposed economic sanctions on Japan, which made the need for raw materials more pressing. This could have been addressed in early 1940, but with Japan’s chauvinistic outlook and Western failure to understand the problem, war was drawing ever closer.
When France fell in 1940, this left French Indo-China isolated. Japan demanded access to Indo-China and its airfields and on 23rd September 1940, Japanese troops moved into northern Indo-China. This gave them a valuable jumping-off position for subsequent operations against Siam and Malaya. When less than a week later Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, the die was cast.
Even before Japanese troops invaded Indo-China the Chiefs of Staff ordered Layton, Bond and Babington to draw up a strategic appraisal of the Far-East situation. Their conclusion was that as an attack on Malaya would almost certainly come through Siam, it would have to be met in Siam at the narrow Kra Isthmus, just across the border and this would require an additional two divisions. Worse, they believed that 566 aircraft should be deployed in Malaya and asked for three flotillas of MTBs to defend the Malay Peninsula. They also recommended that the shortfall in troops should me made up by Indian and Australian forces.
Air Chief-Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham arrived in Singapore on 18th November 1940 with his small staff contingent and set up headquarters in the Naval Base. That December he warned the Chiefs of Staff against taking a soft line with Japan and recommended a closer relationship with the Dutch, who were resisting Japanese demands for more raw materials from the Dutch East Indies. He also agreed with the defence of the Kra Isthmus, despite the plan’s requirement for more troops. He came under pressure from friends and enemies alike and a memorandum from Churchill baldly stated:
The political situation in the Far East does not seem to require, and that the strength of our Air Force by no means permits, the maintenance of such large forces in the Far East at this time.
Brooke-Popham continued to formalise joint plans in the face of opposition from both London and Washington, the latter stating they would not countenance aiding the British or the Dutch in the Far East, unless they themselves were attacked by the Japanese. In the spring of 1941 the garrison in Malaya was strengthened by an Australian Brigade Group, commanded by Major General H. Gordon Bennett, commander of the Australian 8th Division. The force was to retain its Australian identity, was answerable only to its Australian military and political commanders and was not to be subdivided. The Air Component received two squadrons of the lamentable Brewster Buffalo aircraft.
Brooke-Popham became convinced that the civilian post on the committee of Secretary for Defence. Mr C.A. Vlieland, was becoming obstructive and threatened to resign if he wasn’t replaced. Hurt and embittered, Vlieland resigned and returned to Britain, his position being taken by Mr C. W. Dawson. Brooke-Popham also requested that Major-General L.V. Bond and Air Vice-Marshal J.T. Babington should also be replaced as both were coming to the end of their tenure. Air Vice-Marshal C. W. H. Pulford took over on the 24th April and Bond was replaced by Lieutenant General A. E. Percival on 14th May.
Percival’s name would for ever be associated with the tragedy of Singapore, but he had served with distinction on the Western Front. He had shown considerable physical courage having been awarded a DSO and an MC. Percival was to fly out by flying boat, but he arrived five weeks late due to the perilous serviceability of the aircraft, perhaps an omen for the future. All the main players were now in place to witness the final tragedy.
The Hammer Falls
On 6th December 1941 a Lockheed Hudson of No 1 Squadron RAAF, flying at maximum range from its base at Kota Bharu spotted Japanese troop ships and naval escorts eighty miles south-east of Cape Cambodia, steaming west. From the ships’ course it was likely they were heading for Siam, Malaya or both. As soon as the reports from the aircraft were received, Brooke-Popham held a conference with Admiral Leighton, Rear Admiral Palliser Chief of Staff to Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, whose Force Z the Prince of Wales and Repulse and destroyer escorts had arrived in Singapore on 2nd December. They discussed Operation Matador, the move into Siam to defend Malaya at the Kra Isthmus and although London had given authority to Brooke-Popham to carry out the operation, they cautioned against it because of American opposition to a premature move into Siam. The British ambassador in Bangkok had also warned in the strongest terms against violating Siamese neutrality and in the end Brooke-Popham decided against Matador, but ordered troops in Malaya to be put on the highest alert.
Bad weather in the Gulf of Siam hindered further air reconnaissance and it wasn’t until afternoon of the 7th that further sightings were made. At the Headquarters Malaya Command at 01:00 on 8th December a telephone message was received from Kota Bahru announcing that ships were off the coast. The message was amplified:
“Someone’s opened fire,” said Kota Bahru.
“Who, us or the Japs?” Queried the ops officer.
“Us I think. No it wasn’t – it was the Japs.”
Air Vice-Marshal Pulford ordered the Hudson squadron to take off and attack the fleet. The telephone conversation continued:
Our aircraft apparently met with heavy and accurate flak over the Jap fleet. Kota Bahru wanted to know whether they should bomb the cruisers of the transports.
“Go for the transports you bloody fools,” shouted the ops officer down the phone, “Dear God, didn’t they even know that.”
Despite losing a number of the assault craft to the heavy swell, by 01:30 Japanese troops were ashore. The area around Kota Bahru was defended by Brigadier Key’s 8th Brigade, with two battalions, the 3/17th Dogra and the 2/10 Baluch, which were dug in along the beaches. The area was mined and wired and protected by pillboxes. 25-pounders of the 73rd Field Battery were in support of the forward troops. Two other battalions were further inland as a reserve force.
However, Key’s positions were less favourable than it appeared. The beaches were intersected by streams and creeks and the area behind the defensive positions was swampy. The battalions were covering nearly ten miles of front which included the airfield. The Japanes main assault fell on the 3/17th Dogra between Sabak and Badang. The men in the pillboxes fought desperately but by 03:47 the Japanese had captured two of the main strong-points and were infiltrating around the rear of the dug-in defenders.
The air attacks continued from early morning and the troopship Awaji-San Maru was hit several times and set on fire. The aircraft rearmed and returned at 06:00 causing further damage to the Awaji-San Maru and the Ayato-San Maru was heavily damaged with 130 men killed and the Sakura Maru was hit twice. The air attacks forced the naval commander to suspend landings for a time and a handful of Hudson and ancient Vildebeeste aircraft showed what could have been achieved if the promised 336 aircraft had arrived in late 1941.
But by dawn the Japanese had three battalions ashore and had established a bridgehead. Key decided to counter attack with his reserve battalions, but his plan failed to take into account the nature of the land behind the bridgehead and the counter attacks came to a halt in the swamps and lagoons behind the beaches. The confused fighting continued all day and the Japanese not only held their foothold, they managed to land more troops.
While the landings near Kota Bahru were hotly contested in confused fighting, the Japanese 5th Division and 25th Army Headquarters were having a much easier time in the Siamese port of Singora. General Yamashita had come ashore and a battalion moved south down the road, but became pinned down by Siamese forces. The airfields were swiftly taken without resistance and Japanese aircraft began to land throughout the day. The 5th Division led by three light tanks moved swiftly south-west and by nightfall on the 8th, 12,000 troops, 400 vehicles and five tanks were in Siam, mainly around Singora. The Japanese 55th Division landed further north to secure the Kra Isthmus and any hope of initiating Operation Matador was over.
At Kota Bahru the situation for the British and other troops was worsening. Japanese air attacks destroyed aircraft on the ground refuelling and re-arming and a rumour went round that the airfield defences had broken. Pulford ordered that the surviving Hudson aircraft should be withdrawn to Kuantan. An air reconnaissance showed that the airfield had not been taken, but the damage had been done. The ground crews departed in local transport to the railhead at Kuala Krai, failing to destroy fuel and bomb dumps and leaving the runways usable.
Brigadier Key obtained permission from his Divisional commander to fall back to a defensive position between the airfield and Kota Bahru town, his flank supported by the Kelantan River. The withdrawal was constantly harried by Japanese troops and the airfield at Kelantan was attacked by Japanese aircraft and abandoned. Key consolidated his front with a further retreat after hearing of further Japanese landings behind his right flank at Kuala Besut and the airstrips at Machang and Gong Kedah were isolated and now useless. Keys brigade retreated in good order to a new position south of Machang near Kuala Krai by 11th December.
© Blown Periphery 2019
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