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.

On December 8, Japanese troops of two large convoys, which had sailed from bases in Hainan and southern Indochina, landed at Singora (now Songkhla) and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Baharu in northern Malaya. One of Japan's top generals and some of its best trained and most experienced troops were assigned to the Malaya campaign. By the evening of December 8, 27,000 Japanese troops under the command of General Yamashita Tomoyuki had established a foothold on the peninsula and taken the British air base at Kota Baharu. Meanwhile, Japanese airplanes had begun bombing Singapore. Hoping to intercept any further landings by the Japanese fleet, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse headed north, unaware that all British airbases in northern Malaya were now in Japanese hands. Without air support, the British ships were easy targets for the Japanese air force, which sunk them both on December 10. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The main Japanese force moved quickly to the western side of the peninsula and began sweeping down the single north-south road. The Japanese divisions were equipped with about 18,000 bicycles. Whenever the invaders encountered resistance, they detoured through the forests on bicycles or took to the sea in collapsible boats to outflank the British troops, encircle them, and cut their supply lines. Penang fell on December 18, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942, and Malacca on January 15. The Japanese occupied Johore Baharu on January 31, and the last of the British troops crossed to Singapore, blowing a fifty-meter gap in the causeway behind them. *

The main Japanese force moved quickly to the western side of the peninsula and began sweeping down the single north-south road. The Japanese divisions were equipped with about 18,000 bicycles. Whenever the invaders encountered resistance, they detoured through the forests on bicycles or took to the sea in collapsible boats to outflank the British troops, encircle them, and cut their supply lines. Penang fell on December 18, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942, and Malacca on January 15. The Japanese occupied Johore Baharu on January 31, and the last of the British troops crossed to Singapore, blowing a fifty-meter gap in the causeway behind them. *

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]

Japanese troops crossing a river

“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.

Singapore’s Military Defenses Before World War II

The British had begun building a naval base at Singapore in 1923, partly in response to Japan's increasing naval power. A costly and unpopular project, construction of the base proceeded slowly until the early 1930s when Japan began moving into Manchuria and northern China. A major component of the base was completed in March 1938, when the King George VI Graving Dock was opened; more than 300 meters in length, it was the largest dry dock in the world at the time. The base, completed in 1941 and defended by artillery, searchlights, and the newly built nearby Tengah Airfield, caused Singapore to be ballyhooed in the press as the "Gibralter of the East." The floating dock, 275 meters long, was the third largest in the world and could hold 60,000 workers. The base also contained dry docks, giant cranes, machine shops; and underground storage for water, fuel, and ammunition. A self-contained town on the base was built to house 12,000 Asian workers, with cinemas, hospitals, churches, and seventeen soccer fields. Above-ground tanks held enough fuel for the entire British navy for six months. The only thing the giant naval fortress lacked was ships. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Malayan Campaign

The Singapore naval base was built and supplied to sustain a siege long enough to enable Britain's European-based fleet to reach the area. By 1940, however, it was clear that the British fleet and armed forces were fully committed in Europe and the Middle East and could not be spared to deal with a potential threat in Asia. In the first half of 1941, most Singaporeans were unaffected by the war on the other side of the world, as they had been in World War I. The main pressure on the Straits Settlements was the need to produce more rubber and tin for the Allied war effort. Both the colonial government and British military command were for the most part convinced of Singapore's impregnability. *

Even by late autumn 1941, most Singaporeans and their leaders remained confident that their island fortress could withstand an attack, which they assumed would come from the south and from the sea. Heavy fifteen-inch guns defended the port and the city, and machine-gun bunkers lined the southern coast. The only local defense forces were the four battalions of Straits Settlements Volunteer Corps and a small civil defense organization with units trained as air raid wardens, fire fighters, medical personnel, and debris removers. Singapore's Asians were not, by and large, recruited into these organizations, mainly because the colonial government doubted their loyalty and capability. The government also went to great lengths to maintain public calm by making highly optimistic pronouncements and heavily censoring the Singapore newspapers for negative or alarming news. Journalists' reports to the outside world were also carefully censored, and, in late 1941, reports to the British cabinet from colonial officials were still unrealistically optimistic. If Singaporeans were uneasy, they were reassured by the arrival at the naval base of the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle and four destroyers cruiser Repulse, on December 2. The fast and modern Prince of Wales was the pride of the British navy, and the Repulse was a veteran cruiser. Their accompanying aircraft carrier had run aground en route, however, leaving the warships without benefit of air cover. *

Start of the Invasion of Invasion of Malaya on December 8, 1941

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “The invasion fleet left the port of Samah on 4 Dec 1941. Although detected by British scout planes two days earlier, bad weather provided stealth for the invasion convoy. On 8 Dec, after some fighting at Kota Bharu, the Japanese troops took coast cities of Singora (Thailand), Patani (Thailand), and Kota Bharu (Malaya). British planes attempted to attack landing ships, but Japanese troops made beachhead at Kota Bharu within three hours despite the air distraction. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com ]

“At an airfield near Kota Bharu, Indian troops who received incorrect intelligence that the Japanese were far ahead than where they actually were killed their own commander Lt. Col. Hendricks and fled the airfield without destroying anything, providing the Japanese invaders a fully working airfield along with fuel and ammunition. General Yamashita, in Singora, negotiated with the Thai government, and won an agreement that allowed Japanese troops to move within Thai borders toward Malaya without local resistance.

“Meanwhile, Colonel Tsuji's men, disguised in civilian attire, secured key bridges beyond Malaya's borders before the British could destroy them on their retreat. No reinforcements from United States' Philippines appeared during the landings, as the US forces were busy fending off a nearly simultaneous invasion at Philippines and at Pearl Harbor. On the same day, 8 Dec, Japan sent her first air raid on the city of Singapore, resulting in 61 deaths. British command in Singapore still did not call for a general blackout of the city.”

Battle off Kuantan on December 10, 1941

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “With the threat of Germany, the bulk of the British Royal Navy were recalled to defend the English Channel, Northern Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. When it came to the defense of British interests in the Pacific, the duty fell squarely on the shoulders of three capital ships (with a support cast of smaller ships, of course). The battle cruiser Repulse was commanded by Captain W. G. Tennant, an older design but sported six 15" guns. The second ship was the battleship Prince of Wales, a ship practically fresh out of the docks (she was commissioned in March 1941), sporting ten 14" modern guns and good anti-aircraft defenses, but her total tonnage was limited by the treaty. The Prince of Wales was commanded by Captain J. C. Leach of the Royal Navy. The last large ship was the Indomitable, a 23,000-ton aircraft carrier with a compliment of 45 fighters. This force was designated "Force G" and sent underway to rendezvous in Singapore. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com ]

“Indomitable soon ran into bad luck -- she ran aground on 3 Nov 1941 off Jamaica, and had to sail north to Norfolk, Virginia, United States for 12 days worth of repairs. With the Japanese striking earlier than expected (United States estimated that the earliest date Japan would gather enough force to attack United States and/or British holdings in the Pacific would be Mar 1942), she would not make it in time to fight alongside her squadron mates, but this mishap would save her to fight another day.

“Near Ceylon, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales met, and the force was renamed "Force Z", and sailed for Singapore. With Admiral Sir Thomas Philips flagged aboard the Prince of Wales, the fleet of two warships and four destroyers reached Singapore just as news of Japan's mostly successful attack all across Pacific reached the admiral. He decided to take his fleet up the eastern Malaya coast to stop any further landing operations against Malaya. He sailed half-way up the coast of Malaya when he had heard a radio report that a Japanese landing at the port of Kuantan was being staged, and turned the fleet around toward Kuantan during the night, planning on a dawn attack against the landing ships. At 2352, Japanese submarine I-58 spotted Force Z and launched a torpedo, but missed so widely that there were no British reports of being attacked. I-58 reported the finding to Rear Admiral Matsunaga Sadaichi's 22nd Air Flotilla, which launched 76 aircraft to search for Force Z. It was of interest to note that should these planes not be able to find Force Z, they had the orders to fly all the way to Singapore for a bombing run, without ample supplies of fuel for the return trip; the commander essentially told the pilots that should they not find the British fleet, they would not be allowed to return to base with honor. Luckily for the Japanese pilots and unfortunately for the British, Ensign Hoashi Masame of a reconnaissance aircraft spotted the British ships at 1045 on 10 Dec in the Gulf of Siam. Admiral Nobutake Kondo sent cruisers and torpedo planes to attack the ships, but the British warships escaped the first attack.

:As Japanese aircraft of the 22nd Air Flotilla approached, they were surprised to see two capital ships without air cover. With the Indomitable out of action and the airfields at Kota Bharu already under Japanese control, there were no available air cover for the British ships (also interesting to note that when the attack occurred, Philips only requested for destroyers for assistance, not aircraft). Little after 1000 Japanese aircraft began the attack on the British ships. The Repulse, with inadequate anti-aircraft weaponry, was disabled quickly and sank at 1233, killing 500 men. The Prince of Wales suffered heavy damage and was abandoned at 1300. Over 300 men lost their lives, including Admiral Philips and Captain Leach, who stood at the bridge and went down with the ship. Later, the British found out that sending the ships to Kuantan was pointless, as the port was never a target that day. At the end of the battle, Japan had lost only 3 aircraft. After Pearl Harbor and Philippines only a couple of days before, Japan once again proved that airpower was the future of naval warfare, not big warships. Ironically, the largest battleship in history, Yamato, would be launched 11 days later, and become the flagship of the Combined Fleet.”

Prince of Wales and Repulse

Sinking of the Repulse

On December 10, 1941, three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese planes and submarines sunk the British warships, “The Prince of Wales”, nicknamed HMS “Unsinkable”, and the “Repulse”. Both ships lacked air cover. "In all the war,” Churchill later wrote. "I never received a more direct shock."

Describing the attack from the deck of the Repulse”, British journalist Cecil Brown reported: "The torpedo strikes the ship about twenty yards astern of my position. It feels as though the ship has crashed into dock. I am thrown four feet across the deck but I keep my feet. Almost immediately, it seems, the ship lists...Instantly there's another crash to starboard. Incredible quickly, the “Repulse” is listing to port...Captain Tennant's voice is coming over the ship's loudspeaker, a cool voice: 'All hands on deck. Prepare to abandon ship.' There is pause for just an instant, then: 'God be with you." There is no alarm, no confusion, no panic. We on the flag deck move towards the companionway leading to the quarterdeck...There is no pushing, but no pausing either." [Source: “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey, Avon Books, 1987]

"Men are tossing overboard rafts, lifebelts, benches pieces of wood, anything that will float. Standing on the edge of ship I see one man" dive "170 feet and starts to swim a way...Men are jumping into the sea from the four or five defense control towers that segment the main mast like a series of ledges. One misses his distance, dives, hits the side of the “Repulse”, breaks every bone in his body and crumples into the sea like a sack of wet cement. Another misses his direction and dives from one of the towers straight down the smokestack."

"Men are running along the deck of the ship to get further astern. The ship is lower in the water at the stern and their jump therefore will be shorter. Twelve Royal Marines run back to far, jump into the water and are sucked into the propeller. The screws of the “Repulse” are still turning. There are five or six hundred head bobbing in the water. The men are still being swept astern because the “Repulse” is still making way and there's a strong tide here, too...I see one man jump and land directly on another man. I say to myself, 'When I jump I don’t want to hurt anyone.' Down below is a mess of oil and debris. I don't wan to jump into that either...The jump is about 20 feet. The water is warm; it is not water but thick oil.”

"About eight feet to my left there’s a gaping hole in the side of the “Repulse”. It is about 30 feet across, with the plates twisted and torn. The hull of he “Repulse” has been ripped open as though a giant had torn open a tin can. Fifty feet from the ship, hardly swimming at all now, I see the bow of the Repulse” swing straight into the air like a church steeple. Its red underplates stand out stark and as gruesome as the blood on the faces of the men around me. Then the tug and draw of the suction of 32,000 tons of steel sliding to the bottom hits me."

"Something powerful, almost irresistible, snaps at my feet. It feels as though someone were trying to topple my legs out by the hip sockets. But I am more fortunate than some others. They are closer to the ship. They are sucked back. When the Repulse” goes down it sends over a huge wave, a wave of oil. I happen to have my mouth open and I tale aboard considerable oil. That makes me terribly sick at the stomach."

Escaping from the Prince of Wales

Fall of Jitra and Penang in Mid-December, 1941

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “The 11th Indian Division was in no shape to defend Jitra with no working communications systems and flooded trenches. The oncoming Japanese attack captured several artillery and anti-aircraft guns, however, the attack on the city of Jitra on the night of 11 Dec caused heavy losses among the Japanese troops. A shift in tactics allowed the Japanese column to drive a deep wedge into the center of the British line of defense, and then the addition of a reinforcement force broke through the line. During the British retreat, there was much confusion due to the lack of a good communications system, and it was fueled by unorthodox tactics employed by the Japanese, including snipers under disguise as local civilians. The Japanese forces would push to the vicinity of Penang within days. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com ]

“Penang was an island garrison, consisted of four anti-aircraft guns and 500 troops. The first attack on the island by the Japanese was as early as 11 Dec, in the form of air raids. During one of the raids, a bomb was dropped on a firestation, which resulted in no firefighting capability from the civilians. Some RAF resistance was present, but was largely unsuccesful. The city fell under a state of lawlessness within days, with uncontrollable looting while corpses were left rotting on the streets.”

On December 17, “Japanese troops landed on the island of Penang with no resistance, as British forces had already evacuated the island on the previous day. Once again, the British failed to destroy resources that could be used by the invaders, including a fully functional radio station. The Japanese troops used the radio station to broadcast the cruel message "Hello, Singapore, this is Penang calling. How do you like our bombing?" and proceeded to massacre the Penang residents during a large-scale looting. General Tamashita called a stop to the atrocities, and executed three soldiers as punishment. Lt. Col. Kobayashi was also placed under arrest as punishment. However, the image of the Japanese as brutal conquerers would forever be carved in the minds of the natives.

“General Archibald Wavell, British commander-in-chief in the area, had little confidence in Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, who was in tactical command of the defending troops. During the defensive campaign, Wavell interfered in Percival's decision making on several occasions, but he repeated failed to replace Percival, thus further weakening the British ability to fight.”

Fall of Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942

Capture of Kuala Lumpur

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “Japanese troops, originally thought as inferior in jungle warfare, continued to surprise British troops as they moved quickly down the peninsula. Part of the Japanese secret was bicycles, providing Japanese soldiers great mobility in the rubber plantations. On 11 Jan, tanks reached the edge of Kuala Lumpur, and had taken the capital city with relatively little difficulty. In the city Yamashita found stores of food, fuel, and ammunition, solving his previously stressful situation of a long supply line from Siam/northern coasts of Malaya. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com]

“Within weeks, British troops slowly backed into Singapore as Japanese troops advanced. Gordon Bennett and his Australian 8th Division staged several ambushes against Japanese troops, while successful in causing casualties, they largely did not significantly slow the Japanese advance. Blown bridges, however, slowed the momentum, but the Japanese was still able to reach as far south as Gemas on 15 Jan and Johore by the end of the month. The fortress of Singapore was in sight, and the quantity of men killed, wounded, or captured thus far was the equivalent of two divisions of men for the British, while Yamashita had lost about five thousand (two thousand dead).”

Describing the fall of Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942, Ian Morrison wrote: "Civilian authority has broken down. The European officials and residents had all evacuated. The white police officers had gone and most of the Indian and Malay constables had returned to their homes in the surrounding villages...There was looting in progress such as I have never seen before. Most of the big foreign department stores had already been whistle clean since the white personal had gone. There was now a general sack of all shops and premises going on...Looters could be seen carrying every imaginable prize way with them. Here was one man with a Singer sewing-machine over his shoulder, there a Chinese with a long roll of linoleum tied to the back of his bicycle, here two Tamils with a great sack of rice suspended from a pole." On January 27 the defense of Malaysia was abandoned.

Battle of Singapore in Early February 1942

C. Peter Chen wrote in World War II Database: “On 1 Feb 1942, the Japanese reached Singapore island after overrunning British, Australian, and Indian troops. On 5 Feb, down to 18 tanks and lacked ammunition and food, the smaller force commanded of Yamashita attacked the island of Pulau Ubin on the east, creating a bluff that another Japanese force was attacking from the east. This deceived Percival, who moved his major ammunitions stores to the east when the actual Japanese attack came down from the northwest. On 8 Feb, the actual attack on Singapore started with landing of troops on Singapore's northwest coast. Australian troops fought off initial landing attempts while inflicting enormous casualties on the part of the Japanese. However, the Australian troops retreated unnecessarily amidst the confusion of battle, allowing Japanese troops to gain a strong foothold at the shore defense installations. Subsequent landings would be unopposed. [Source: C. Peter Chen, World War II Database, ww2db.com ]

“From very early on, British commander Percival had his troops destroy docks and fuel dumps to prevent enemy capture. While it indeed took away Japan's ability to have readily available infrastructure and various resources, the early destruction of such facilities further destroyed defender morale. Such moves instilled the soldiers with the notion that the battle had already been lost.

“On 10 Feb, the Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions routed the 22nd Australian Brigade, who retreated further into the city and turned on its citizens, pillaging the city of its food and liquor. By this time, Japanese tanks were also in Singapore in force, first routing Indian troops at the hills of Bukit Timah then denying a successful counterattack by British Brigadier Coates. While RAF fighter pilots bravely downed several Japanese bombers early in the assault, most of them were picked off one by one in dogfights by the superior Zero fighters. Singapore citizens continued to evacuate the city as they had done earlier, though at this stage many boats out of the city faced strafing by Japanese fighters. On 13 Feb, Japanese troops would seize or damage most city reservoirs, attempting to cause chaos by drying up the city. "While there's water," Lieutenant General Arthur Percival says, "We fight on."

Burning rubber plantation

“On 14 Feb, Japanese troops closed into the city, and atrocities ensued. Lt. Western, a British medical officer, surrendered with a white flag but was bayoneted to death. Then, the Japanese troops entered the Alexandra Hospital, killing over 300 doctors, nurses, and patients, most by bayonets. When Yamashita heard about the incident, he had the Japanese soldiers responsible for the attack executed at the hospital.

“Other reports of atrocities including gruesome accounts where Japanese troops emasculated captured British soldiers and sewed their penises to their lips before hanging them in trees where Allied patrols would find them; signs on their necks read "he took a long time to die". Such displays were meant to, and were successful to a certain degree, to demoralize Allied soldiers.

“At 1400 hours on Sunday, 15 Feb, Percival decided that he only had enough supplies for two more days of fighting, and surrendered. Yamashita asked Percival, who wore the baggy British tropical uniform shorts that date, "do you wish to surrender unconditionally?", and Percival answered "Yes we do", and that marked the fall of the "Impregnable Fortress" of Singapore to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Yamashita's troops had only enough ammunitions to fight a few more days, but Percival did not have that intelligence. Singapore, the Gibraltar of the East, would remain under Japanese control until the end of the war. Until the last moment of battle, the British shore batteries of 15" and 19" guns pointed southward, waiting for the naval assault expected but never came.”

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."

“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.

Fighting in Singapore During Japanese Malaya Campaign

Singapore faced Japanese air raids almost daily in the latter half of January 1942. Fleeing refugees from the peninsula had doubled the 550,000 population of the beleaguered city. More British and Commonwealth of nations fleets and armed foces were brought to Singapore during January, but most were poorly trained raw recruits from Australia and India and inexperienced British troops diverted from the war in the Middle East. Singapore's Chinese population, which had heard rumors of the treatment of the Malayan Chinese by the invading Japanese, flocked to volunteer to help repel the impending invasion. Brought together by the common enemy, Guomindang and communist groups banded together to volunteer their services to Governor Shenton Thomas. The governor authorized the formation of the Chung Kuo Council (China National Council), headed by Tan Kah Kee, under which thousands volunteered to construct defense works and to perform other essential services. The colonial government also reluctantly agreed to the formation of a Singapore Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Battalion, known as Dalforce for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Federated Malay States police force. Dalley put his volunteers through a ten-day crash training course and armed them with basic weapons, including shotguns, knives, and grenades. [Source: Library of Congress *]

From January 1-8, 1942, the two armies faced each other across the Johore Strait. The Japanese stepped up their air raids, bombing the airfields, naval base, and harbor area. Bombs also fell in the commercial and residential sections of the city, causing great destruction and killing and wounding many civilians. With their mastery of the skies, the Japanese could choose the time and place for invasion and maintain an element of surprise. Yamashita, however, had only 30,000 troops and limited ammunition available to launch against a British force of about 70,000 armed personnel. As the General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival commanded the defense of Singapore under the direction of General Archibald Wavell, the newly appointed commander in chief Far East, who was headquartered in Java. Percival's orders from British prime minister Winston Churchill through Wavell called for defending the city to the death, while executing a scorched-earth policy: "No surrender can be contemplated . . . . every inch of ground . . . defended, every scrap of material or defences . . . blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy . . . ." Accordingly, the troops set about the task of destroying the naval base, now useless without ships, and building defense works along the northern coast, which lay totally unprotected. *

On the night of February 8, using collapsible boats, the Japanese landed under cover of darkness on the northwest coast of Singapore. By dawn, despite determined fighting by Australian troops, they had two divisions with their artillery established on the island. By the next day the Japanese had seized Tengah Airfield and gained control of the causeway, which they repaired in four days. The British forces were plagued by poor communication and coordination, and, despite strong resistance by Commonwealth troops aided by Dalforce and other Chinese irregulars, the Japanese took Bukit Timah — the highest point on the island — on February 11. The British forces fell back to a final perimeter around the city, stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kallang, as Yamashita issued an invitation to the British to surrender. On February 13, the Japanese broke through the final perimeter at Pasir Panjang, putting the whole city within range of their artillery. As many as 2,000 civilians were killed daily as the Japanese continued to bomb the city by day and shell it at night.

Capture of Singapore

Japanese troops in Singapore

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."

Surrender of Singapore

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."

Governor Thomas cabled London that "there are now one million people within radius of three miles. Many dead lying in the streets and burial impossible. We are faced with total deprivation of water, which must result in pestilence...." On February 13, Percival cabled Wavell for permission to surrender, hoping to avoid the destruction and carnage that would result from a house-to-house defense of the city. Churchill relented and on February 14 gave permission to surrender. On the evening of February 15, at the Japanese headquarters at the Ford factory in Bukit Timah, Yamashita accepted Percival's unconditional surrender. [Source: Library of Congress]

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “After a week of fierce fighting and mounting Allied and civilian casualties, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, his open-neck shirt dripping with medals, his boots kicked off under the negotiating table, and Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, wearing shorts and a mustache, faced each other in the downtown Ford Motor Company factory. Yamashita pounded on the table with his fists for emphasis. "All I want to know is, are our terms acceptable or not? Do you or do you not surrender unconditionally? Yes or no?" the Japanese commander demanded. Percival, head bowed, answered softly, "Yes," and unscrewed his fountain pen. It was the largest surrender in British military history. The myth that British colonial powers were invincible and that Europeans were inherently superior to Asians was shattered. Japan renamed Singapore Syonan-to, Light of the South Island. The sun was setting on the British Empire. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, September 2007]

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]

Surrender of Singapore from the View of a British Soldier

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 ]

Allied troops surrender in Singapore

“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.

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. 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]

“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.

Escape from Singapore Under a Hail of Bullets

Len (Snowie) Baynes wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “We seemed to wait in our trenches after the arrival of the cease-fire order for a very long time, without anything happening. An hour and a half after we received it, men dug in fifty yards away, in the centre of a lawn, decided to climb out of their trenches - a machine gun opened fire on them, and they all lay still around their position. I ran back to our RAP to try to borrow a Red Cross flag to take out over the lawn, and fetch in any wounded. [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

“Dodging a hail of bullets from that same machine gun, I found our Medical Officer and explained my mission, but was told that since some of our men had fired on Japanese stretcher bearers, they had ceased to respect the Red Cross, and were firing indiscriminately at both stretcher bearers and ambulances. I was told to stay quietly with my men until further instructions were received. Again, it was later that we learned that Indian troops had fired on the Japanese from the windows of Robert’s Hospital, and this was responsible for the retribution.

“Stepping out through the front door of the house where the RAP was situated, and seeing an ambulance standing there, I looked in over the tailboard. Within seconds I came under machine gun fire from an unexpected direction, and tracer bullets whizzed past me like fireworks and into the ambulance. Although it seemed that I could have touched these bullets, again they all missed me. I jumped to cover into an alcove built in the wall of the house, and as I did so the ambulance burst into flames - a tracer bullet had penetrated the petrol tank. The fire spread and the ambulance became an inferno. The firing did not ease up, and I began to feel the intense heat. Soon I had to choose between roasting and stepping out again into the line of fire.

“The house was built on a slope, and like most of the dwellings in that area it was built on piers, high off the ground. I leapt out of the alcove and fell flat on the ground in a spot where I could roll back under the house, and managed to accomplish this in one movement. I lay there for a few seconds, getting my breath back, and watching the tracers fly past, almost within reach of my hand. Then the heat increased, and I realised that the fire had spread to the house, so crawled to the rear of the under-floor space.

“Teams of men were carrying the wounded to safety out of the back door, and they were not being fired on. I met Captain Coppin at the rear of BHQ, and stopped for a second to speak to him before carrying on behind the house. A steep bank arose a few yards from us, and I thought we were safe from fire for the moment. I continued on my way, but half-way along, two Japanese armed with a light machine gun suddenly appeared from behind a hedge, only four yards away. One yelled something that sounded like “shoot”, and the other released a burst of fire at me from point blank range.

“Before I could move, I felt a pain in the back of my neck, then dived under the building and rolled out of range. I put my hand up to my neck - no blood, I had been hit only by chips of brick from the wall. Captain Coppin had quite a shock when we came face to face later on. He had watched my progress from the corner, and seeing what had occurred, had reported my death to HQ.

“It later transpired that the Japanese had brought up their veteran troops. As we had defended our ground so well, they thought we were a crack regiment under the direct command of General Wavell. These enemy companies acted more or less independently, and had few lines of communication. Their leaders had therefore not been able to inform them of the cease-fire, and as a result this was our worst period, as, without weapons, we were picked off one by one.

I continued unscathed, however. Had I seen myself in a Western, being missed so many times at point blank range, I would probably have classed it as impossible fiction. Once again I reached my men unharmed, and as we awaited the next move our thoughts dwelt on what we had heard of the way the Japanese dealt with prisoners.

We had been told of soldiers' bodies found with their hands tied together with barbed wire and riddled with bullets, and that they liked torturing their captives before disposing of them. We knew that the Chinese, whom they had been fighting for several years, did treat their prisoners this way. Our comrades out on the lawn had been shot down in cold blood. We did not discuss these things as we waited in silence, each kept his thoughts to himself.

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 February 2022

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