Japanese on bicycles advancing on Singapore

The attack on Pearl Harbor was preceded by one hour by the Japanese invasion of the Malay peninsula. That operation was the first step in a drive to take Indonesia’s oil fields after the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan. In terms of the number of people involved the Malay offensive was far larger than the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After the surprise victory over the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were unstoppable for about a year. They took Guam and the Wake Islands around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and invaded the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, the Malay peninsula and after a few months captured Manila, Rangoon, Singapore and Jakarta. By early 1942 the Japanese conquered or appeased Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, Timor, the Bismarks, the Gilberts, most of the Solomons, and half of New Guinea. Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines were the only places that American forces held on for several months.

In a few weeks, the Japanese managed to dismantle an empire in Southeast Asia the Europeans took centuries to build. The resulting “Co-Prosperity Sphere” was the closest thing to a unified Asia the world had ever seen. The bold offensive gave Japan control over 20 million square miles of territory in Asia and the Pacific, five times the amount of territory controlled by Nazi Germany at the height of its of its power. At its peak the Japanese empire included the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Malaya, Thailand (as an ally), Burma, northern New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and a number of Pacific islands. By mid 1942, Japan was poised outside Australia and ready to strike.

David Powers of the BBC wrote: “The speed and ease with which the Japanese sank the British warships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, off Singapore just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor - followed by the humiliating capture of Singapore and Hong Kong - transformed their image overnight. From figures of derision, they were turned into supermen - an image that was to endure and harden as the intensity and savagery of fighting increased.” [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Invasion of Hong Kong and Occupation of Indochina

After Japan captured Canton in 1938. Hong Kong became a smuggling route for weapons bound for Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist forces. Anticipating trouble, two thirds of the population of Hong Kong had fled before Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of thousands more Chinese were deported to the mainland by the Japanese who feared a Chinese "fifth column."

On December 8, 1941, a dozen Japanese battalions invaded Hong Kong and captured the colony by Christmas Day 1941, after overpowering a British garrison guarded by British, Canadian and Indian soldiers. Despite pleas from the Hong Kong governor to "Fight on! Hold fast King and Empire" neither the Chinese or the British in the colony put up much of a fight.

After Germany captured Paris in May 1940, the Vichy French government gave the Japanese access to French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), which proved to be an convenient staging area for raids on China. Later is also provided Japanese soldiers with a staging area for their advance on Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma. For the duration of World War II, French Indochina was occupied by the Japanese through an agreement with the Nazi-supported Vichy regime in France.

Invasion of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore

fighting in Malaysia

Singapore was the Japanese goal in Southeast Asia. On December 8, 1941, the day after the raid on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Malaya and began bombing Singapore. The Japanese overran the Malay peninsula in about eight weeks, advancing on bicycles across the Malay peninsula on excellent British-built roads while the British forces in Southeast Asia retreated to Singapore.

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “Malaya was known for its rich natural resources, and that very aspect was eyed by the Japanese militarists and industrialists. In 1939, Malaya was the resource of 40 percent of the world's rubber and 60 percent of the world's tin; that fact alone interested Japanese expansionists, but two additional reasons sealed the approval on the invasion planning that started in early 1941. The first was that most of this rubber and tin supply went to Japan's potential cross-ocean rival, the United States. Secondly, Japan needed oil. Every drop of oil consumed by Japan's military and industrial capacities had to be imported. The Japanese Navy alone needed 400 tons of oil an hour to maintain its war readiness. While Malaya only had a limited amount of oil production, the peninsula was a perfect staging point to launch and support further invasion for the oil rich islands of Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. In Jun 1941 Japan was refused supplies of iron and oil from United States, Britain, and Netherlands, therefore further reinforced Japanese thought that Southeast Asia must be taken. In addition to the natural resources, Malaya was also part of Japan's "Outline Plan for the Execution of the Empire's National Policy", a plan to expand the outer perimeters so wide that her enemies would not be able to attack by air against the home islands. This perimeter extends from the Kurile islands down to Wake, Guam, the East Indies, Borneo, Malaya, and up to Burma. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com <|>]

“In general, the Japanese troops knew very little of jungle warfare. The Japanese Army did not embark on conducting research with jungle warfare until Dec 1940, and even then the effort was not fruitful, as the responsibility of the research was given to the Taiwan Army, and the island of Taiwan lacked any jungle for this purpose. Furthermore, Japanese intelligence only detected 30,000 to 50,000 British and Commonwealth troops in Malaya, when in fact there were about 88,600 men; this under-estimation could have easily caused serious harm in the Japanese invasion, but General Tomoyuki Yamashita would later admit that "our battle in Malaya was successful because we took the enemy lightly". Yamashita was given the overall responsibility of the invasion. On paper, he commanded a force 70,000-strong, organized into three divisions; in reality, the Japanese strength was less than that, as the 5th Division left behind a whole regiment in Shanghai, China as late as 26 Dec 1941, while the 18th Division left two headquarters regiments in Canton, China. Meanwhile, the Imperial Guard Division, elite academically, had no combat experience.<|>

“The defenses in Malaya and Singapore were equally unprepared for war. Coordination between the ground troops and the small Royal Air Force contingent in the region was poor, while the ground troops, particularly conscripts from India, lacked training and were not properly equipped. High ranking British officers, too, lacked training in jungle warfare. In fact, some of them were not even considering that they needed to know how to conduct a war in the Malayan jungles, as indicated by some of their frustrated complaints that there was no room for them to conduct training maneuvers because the jungle was in the way. While Singapore was boasted to be a fortress that could resist an amphibious invasion, defense against a convention invasion down the Malayan peninsula was inadequate. Finally, another hint of Singapore's unpreparedness was the lack of food rationing despite its mother country had been in war since 1939 and the Japanese invasion seemed inescapable by late 1941. The only major attempt that the British had committed in building the defense of Malaya and Singapore seemed to be a request for the United States to station capital ships of the US Pacific Fleet in Singapore, but that request was denied. <|>

Lee Kuan Yew's Account of the Invasion of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore

The Japanese began attacking Singapore with planes before dawn, just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. Lee Kuan Yew, the future leader of Singapore, wrote in Newsweek: "I was awakened by the dull thud of exploding bombs. The war with Japan had begun. It was a complete surprise. The street lights had been on, and the air raid sirens did not sound until those Japanese planes dropped their bombs, killing 60 people and wounding 130...Nearly everyone believed Singapore would be the main target for an attack, and it would therefore be prudent to return to the countryside of Malaya, which offered more safety from Japanese bombers."[Source: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]

Later, Lee wrote In Newsweek, "Stories came down from Malaya of the rout on the war front, the ease with which the Japanese were cutting through British lines and cycling through rubber estates down the peninsula, landing behind enemy lines on boats and sampans, forcing more retreats. By January the Japanese forces were ensnaring Johor, and their planes started to bomb Singapore in earnest, day and night. I picked up my first casualties one afternoon...A bomb had fallen near the police station and there were several victims. It was a frightening sight." [Ibid]

“The British had thought Singapore was impregnable. They expected the Japanese to arrive by sea and built a line of guns facing the sea in Maginot Line fashion, and were unprepared for an overland attack from Malaya. The Japanese crossed into Singapore on a causeway which the British didn't blow up. "The Royal Engineers blew open a gap in the Causeway on the Johor side. But that didn’t delay the Japanese for long. The British engineers also blew up the pipeline that carried water from Malaysia to the island of Singapore.

Capture of Singapore

Capture of Kuala Lumpur

On February 2, 1942, the Japanese entered Singapore, easily driving out the British and capturing the naval base there on February 15. It was Britain's largest defeat ever. The capture of Singapore exposed the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the Indian Ocean to a Japanese advance. When Hitler heard the news he said, “Yes, a relief, an immense relief. But it was a turning point in history. It means the loss of a whole continent, and one might regret it, for it’s the white race which is the loser.”

Describing the first Japanese soldiers he encountered, Lee wrote in Newsweek, "They were outlandish figures, small, squat men carrying long rifles with bayonets. They exuded an awful stink, a smell I will never forget. It was the odor from the great unwashed after two months of fighting along jungle tracks and estate roads from Kota Bahru to Singapore." [Source: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]

On the looting he witnessed in Singapore, Lee wrote: "I saw Malays carrying furniture and other items out of bigger houses...The Chinese looters went for goods in warehouses, less bulky and more valuable. The Japanese conquerors also went for loot. In the first few days, anyone in the street with a fountain pen or wristwatch was relived of it. Soldiers would go into houses either officially to search, or pretending to do so...appropriating any small items they could keep on their person." [Ibid]

The British in Singapore surrendered on February 15, an event Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Some 130,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were captured. Many Allied soldiers were imprisoned in the infamous Changri Gaol, and then transferred from there to work on the infamous Burma-Thai Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai as prisoners of war. Describing the movement of British, Australian and Indian forces, Lee wrote, "The march started on 17 February 1942, and for two days and one night they tramped past the house and over the red bridge on their way to Changi. I sat on my veranda for hours at a time watching those men, my heart heavy as lead. Many looked dejected and despondent, perplexed that they had been beaten so decisively and easily. The surrendered army was a mournful sight." [Ibid]

Surrender of Singapore from the View of a British Soldier

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “At the conclusion of the Japanese campaign at Malaya, all Allied troops at the peninsula, numbered at over 138,000, were killed or captured. Many of the captured would endure a four-year long brutal captivity as forced labor in Indo-China. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered the British defeat at Singapore one of the most humiliating British defeats of all time. Many historians suggested similarly. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com <|>]

Len (Snowie) Baynes wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “At a quarter to three, I received what I hope will remain as the greatest shock of my life, as a messenger came with the order to lay our weapons down in front of us and surrender. I find it quite impossible to describe my feelings. Until now we had felt that we were holding our own, and anticipated pushing the Japanese back off the island before many more days had passed (we were still optimistically awaiting the arrival of Allied aircraft). [Source: BBC’s People’s War website <>]

“Our wildest guesses did not take into account the possibility of abandoning the territory to the enemy - we had been told that the island must be retained at all costs, since it was an essential link in our communications with Australasia. In any case we did not think of throwing in the sponge while any of us remained alive - that was not the British way. I crept round the position passing on the order, adding the instruction to remove the rifle bolts and bury or otherwise hide them. <>

“Private Tanner stood 6ft 2in, and had proved himself in the fighting to be a very brave soldier - when he heard the order, he stood there unashamedly with tears streaming down his cheeks. His were not the only tears that sad day. I felt as though my bowels had been painlessly removed, my mind refused to work properly, and I was unable to grapple with the situation. Hardly a word was exchanged between us, as we awaited further orders. Talking about this afterwards, we agreed that we were still undergoing a feeling of bitter shame, with our arms lying useless on the ground and our country's enemy only a hundred yards away. Military reasoning. <>

Events on the remainder of the island had been going very badly however, and we were one of the few regiments not to have been forced to withdraw from its allotted area. Singapore had no previously prepared positions for defence against an attack from the mainland of Malaya, and the story of the big unmanageable guns pointing out to sea is now familiar. For the previous few years, our military people had taught us the necessity for all-round defence in modern warfare, yet Singapore's only big guns were still concreted in to positions facing out to sea. Their main defensive weapons were therefore hardly used. This was at a time when nearly every army in the world was training paratroops, and our potential enemy had been advancing through the Chinese mainland for years. A few thousand pounds worth of concrete pill-boxes, strategically placed, a few mobile guns or tanks, and Singapore could well have proved, like Gibraltar, an impregnable fortress. <>

“No plans seemed to have been worked out for the deployment of troops, however, should the Japanese do the obvious and attack from the dry land, instead of sailing into the muzzles of our big guns from seaward. At the time of surrender, as we were to learn later, the enemy had penetrated nearly everywhere, and Singapore City was full of leaderless men making for the docks in the hope of getting away on a ship from this doomed place. We were also told later that the order for surrender was given because the Japanese had cut off Singapore’s only water supply, which came from the mainland, and that we were giving in for the sake of the civilian population. Oriental people fully understand what face-saving is all about, and in the weeks that followed, they showed no gratitude to us for laying down our arms for their sakes. The Malays spat on the ground when they saw us during the first days after our surrender - but they were soon to learn that there are worse masters than the British “ <>

Japanese Take Thailand and Burma

Japanese in Burma

In December 1941, after a Japanese assault that lasted only a few hours, the Thais surrendered to the Japanese. During the raid a bomb fell in the main post office but failed to explode. When the Japanese invaded Bangkok they immediately occupied Chinatown (Sampeng) and turned the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce into a command post. The Thais signed a treaty with Japan, allowing the stationing and transit of Japanese troops in exchange for the preservation of Thailand’s sovereignty.

In 1942, the Japanese unexpectedly swept into Burma from Thailand. Some Japanese units entered Burma from the jungles of northwestern Thailand where they had encounters with tigers and elephants. The Japanese won a string of victories against Chinese and British troops and finally captured the key town of Yenangyaunh near the Burmese oil fields, which the British destroyed before withdrawing.

The only seriously resistance against the Japanese in the Indochina campaign was in Burma, where the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, shot down dozens of Japanese planes. The Tigers flew a hundred P-40 fighter planes that were sent to China after the passage of the Lend Lease Act in April, 1941.

Albert John Harris wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “I fought in Burma and Malaya during WW2 and went there in December 1942. I lost some good friends being in the Infantry but looking back it was a fantastic experience especially in Burma. We actually used elephants there and in the jungle you could be 50 yards from a Japanese and not know they were there. When the Japanese attacked Burma their lines of communication were widely stretched. They had attacked so many countries and areas that they never had enough ships. After what had happened in Malaya and Singapore the Japanese thought they could frighten the British to leave India. By 1943/4 we had 1 million Indian troops (5 to 1 British). [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

Describing the fighting at the height of the British retreats from Burma in April 1942, General Sir William Slim wrote: "More Japanese were coming in from the east and were reported on the river. The situation was grave. At half-past four in the afternoon, Scott reported on radio that his men were exhausted from want of water and continuous marching and fighting. He could hold the night, he thought, but if he waited until morning, his men, still without water, would be so weakened they would have little or no offensive power to renew the attack. He asked for permission to destroy his guns and transport and fight his way out that night."

"I thought for a moment...Then I told Scott he must hang on. I had ordered a Chinese attack with all available tanks and artillery for the next morning. If Burma Division attacked then we ought to break through, and save our precious guns and transport." Later he faced his staff and "putting on what I hoped was a confident cheerful expression, 'It might be worse!'...One of the group, in a sepulchral voice, replied in a single word, 'How?'...I could cheerfully have murdered him." The fighting in Burma during the entire war was costly for both sides. About 180,000 of the 305,000 Japanese Imperial Army soldiers stationed in Burma died.

Capture of Indonesia and Attacks on Australia

Entering Batvia

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Dutch declared war on Japan. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Dutch East Indies on January 1, 1942 under the pretext of creating the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere. During the last week of February 1942, the Japanese defeated American, British and Dutch forces in the Battle of the Java Sea. The victory allowed Japan to break the Allied defensive perimeter (the Malay Barrier) and drive the Allied naval forces out of Southeast Asia, extending Japanese control to what is now Indonesia.

The Japanese took Indonesia from the Dutch colonialists for the most part without a fight. The Dutch didn't have a large military force in the Dutch East Indies (the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans by that time). The Dutch navy in Indonesia was virtually destroyed. The Dutch colonial government abandoned Batavia (Jakarta) and surrendered it to Japanese forces in March 1942. Japanese soldiers marched into Batavia carrying the Indonesian “Red and White” flag along with the Japanese flag. Members of the Royal Dutch Indian Army that remained were taken prisoner and transported to Singapore .

Indonesia was not a major military theater in World War II. No major battles were fought. After two months of heavy fighting the Dutch colonial army surrendered, the Dutch navy was virtually destroyed, and about 65,000 Dutch and Indonesian soldiers were sent to labor camps. Some ended up working in the Burma Railroad in Thailand. Others worked in mines in Japan.

Some scholars have suggested that even before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was determined to go to battle with Japan because the American government feared that the Japanese would restrict their access to the vast resources found in the Dutch East Indies.

On February 19, 1942, Japanese began its attack of Australia, with Japanese carrier-based aircraft raiding Darwin. Japanese planes bombed Northern Queensland several times in 1942. Darwin was bombed 64 times and nearly destroyed. "I remember the scare," the journalist Russ Terrill wrote: "My parents spoke darkly of Oriental barbarism, and excitement rose in our town when fishermen sighted a Japanese dingy off the coast."

Worried about a Japanese invasion, American and Australian engineers and soldiers built the 1,000-mile road between Mount Isa and Darwin, linking north and south Australia, in 100 days. A DC-3 that crashed near Bamaga and seven people gallantly lost their lives, a Queensland government employee told National Geographic, delivering a cargo of what turned out to be spam.

Image Sources: YouTube, National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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