WORLD WAR 2 - Malaya

The Fight for Malaya 1941-1942

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The invasion of Malaya began with reports of Japanese landings around 01.00 hours on December 8, 1941. To divisions of the Japanese Twenty Fifth Army under the formidable General Tomoyuki Yamashita came ashore, at Kota Bharu in Malaya and at Singora and Patani in Thailand. The landing at Kota Bharu was opposed with small arms and artillery fire by men of 2/10 Baluch, 3/17 Dogras and 1/13 Frontier Force Rifles and 21 Mountain Battery of 8 Indian Bde. The situation looked promising for the British when at 02.00 hours RAF Hudson bombers flew in and hit three troop transports including the Awajisan Maru the vessel on which the headquarters staff of 18 Division under Major General Hiroshi Takumi were embarked. The bomb killed 50 men and started a fire.

The Dogras had fought well and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, but at 03.45 hours two of their central positions either side of the Kulla Pa’amat had been taken.  At 16.00 hours following rumours that the Japanese had broken through the RAF evacuated Kota Bharu airfield. At 19.00 hours Brigadier Key commanding 8 Indian Inf Bde was told that more transports had been seen offshore and received permission to withdraw his troops. The Japanese had suffered 850 casualties but gained a lodgement ashore.

On the ground the Japanese were actually outnumbered – General Yamashita’s three divisions the 5, 18 and Imperial Guards had a total strength of 60,000 (he could have deployed four but considered that three were sufficient for the task). However his infantry were supported by 158 Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft and 459 aircraft of the Japanese Army Air Force III Air Division. Offshore were the guns of Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s Malaya Force of a battle cruiser, ten destroyers and five submarines. The Twenty Fifth Army also had medium and light tanks, armoured cars and two regiments of heavy field artillery as well as divisional artillery.


Command structure

The command structure in Malaya consisted of C-in-C Far East, the 63 year old Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham with recently appointed General Arthur Percival GOC Malaya as his land forces commander. 

Percival had under command 88,600 Australian, British, Indian and Malay troops, some 158 obsolescent aircraft and no tanks.  The ground forces consisted of Lt General Lewis “Piggy” Heath’s III Corps made up of 9 and 11 Indian Divisions and 28 Independent Inf Bde that were tasked with the defence of northern Malaya and 8 Australian Division commanded by the abrasive Maj General Henry Gordon Bennett defended Johore.  There were two infantry brigades in Singapore with a third in reserve.  There were tensions in the command even before the invasion.  Heath had been Percival’s superior officer before the latter was appointed GOC Malaya and now found it difficult to serve under him.

Though there seemed to be a decent number of British and Commonwealth forces available to Percival numbers can be misleading. While the Japanese Twenty Fifth Army were seasoned veterans of the war in China, some of the Indian formations had received only basic training and this had been directed towards mobile vehicle mounted operations in the open deserts of North Africa.

Following the landings at Singora ithe Japanese III Air Group had quickly established itself and began air attacks in northern Malaya.  The under strength squadrons of obsolescent RAF fighters and bombers were either shot down in air combat or often caught on the ground.  By the evening the operational strength of the RAF in northern Malaya had shrunk from 110 aircraft to 50.  The surviving aircraft then withdrew to Singapore.

Both the British and the Japanese had realised that the airfields and ports at Singora and Patani in southern Thailand were critical to the defence of the Kra Peninsula and northern Malaya.  In an operation that was reminiscent of the Anglo French deployment into Belgium in May 1940 following the German attacks, the British had drafted Operation Matador a plan that would send 11 Indian Division north to take and hold Patani and Singora.

The decision by General Percival to defend as far north as possible in the Malayan peninsula was predicated on the plan that this would allow enough time for reinforcements from Australia and India would arrive by ship to defend the naval base of Singapore.       

However a few days into the new conflict protected from Japanese reconnaissance aircraft by cloud cover the ships of Force Z  under command of the 53 year old 5ft 4in Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, C-in-C Eastern Fleet put out from Singapore and sailed north to intercept the invasion fleet.

On December 8 Brooke-Popham finally ordered Percival to send the Indian 11 Division into Thailand to take The Ledge a prominent feature that if held would delay the Japanese advance from Singora and Patani.


Force Z

On December 10 marks the first of a series of grim days in the campaign in Malaya.   On December 9 cloud cover had lifted and the old battlecruiser Repulse and brand new battleship Prince of Wales had been located by Japanese aircraft and a submarine.  The two capital ships – had set out from Singapore and had this formidable formation designated Force Z got in amongst the Japanese transports the outcome of the Malayan campaign might have been different.    Ninety six Japanese aircraft of 22 Air Flotilla based in Indo China took off and though not all attacked, those that did launched concerted and deadly attacks against the two capital ships.  Captain George Tennant of the Repulse masterfully avoided 19 torpedoes recalling afterwards   “I found dodging the torpedoes quite interesting and entertaining, until in the end they started to come in from all directions and they were too much for me.”

Aboard the Prince of Wales the then Sub-Lieutenant Geoffrey Brooke remembered how “It was agonising to watch the gallant battle cruiser, squirming and twisting her way through what we knew was a web of crossing torpedo tracks.

Eventually, hit five times, she took a severe list to port and her speed came right down. Although she was still making headway, her bow began to go under. As the waves came aft along the fo'cs'le, tilted towards us and then engulfed the great 15 inch turrets, she listed further; then rolled over, bridge, funnels and all splashing onto the surface of the sea.”

The bombers then concentrated on Repulse attacking simultaneously at different altitudes and directions.  Shortly after midday who capsized and sank  

The Repulse lost 27 officers and 486 men, the Prince of Wales 20 officers and 307 men. Admiral Phillips and Captain John Leach were drowned, but Captain Tennant survived.


Kota Bharu

The landings at Kota Bharu was a two phase operation.  On December 8 Takumi Detachment from 18 Division had landed and secured the area.  It was followed on December 28th by the men of Koba Detachment from the same division.  The two detachments worked their way down the eastern coast via Kuala Trengganu, and Kuala Dungun to the port of Kuantan which they reached on December 31.  Here the detachments split – Koba continuing the drive along the coast while Takumi cut across the jungle covered highland of Pahang State to add its weight to the thrust on the western seaboard.  It was all a powerful demonstration of the aggression and flexibility that characterised Japanese operations in Malaya.  

Though the landings in Malaya had focussed the attention of the British command, the Japanese main effort was actually at Singora and Patani in Thailand.  Here Lt General Takuro Matsui commanding 5 Division had orders to get ashore on the 8th and push hard along the roads that led south to the towns of Alor Star and Kroh in Malaya and seize the key ground at Jitra.  He was able to land tanks and other vehicles.

Jitra is at the junction of the Kangar road and the main trunk road.  Control of the feature would deny the airfield at Alor Star along with other subsidiary airstrips. The Jitra was potentially an excellent defensive position swamp on the left flank with higher ground on the right.    

The formation tasked with holding Jitra was 11 Indian Division commanded by Major-General D.M. Murray-Lyon, however it had been training for a quick advance into Thailand in the Matador operation.  It now had to go onto the defensive and take over the waterlogged positions that had been dug at Jitra.  Worse still its stores were still in the rear where they had been held against a fast move into Thailand.  With the Japanese approaching the division only had time to erect barbed wire obstacles, lay anti-tank mines and run out a minimum of telephone cables before the Japanese were on the position.


Regular soldiers

The core of the division were two regular British Army battalions The Leicesters and the East Surreys the rest of the forces consisted of four newly raised and half trained Indian Army battalions and three Gurkha battalions, one of which consisted of 18-year olds who had only recently arrived in Malaya.

Murray-Lyon opted for a two-up defence with 15 Bde astride the road and 6 Bde on the left flank with 28 Bde in reserve. It was good plan in theory however the men were spread very thinly on the ground.  15 Bde had a frontage of 6,000 yards including jungle rice paddies, and rubber plantations and the 6 Bde a huge frontage of 18,000 yards to the coast.

The first Japanese probing attack came in at 08.00 hours on December 11 against 1/14 Punjab on the right flank of 15 Bde other attacks followed against the boundary between the two forward battalions.  Under pressure Brigadier K.A. Garret decided to withdraw the brigade to an intermediate position. 

However before long 11 Division was in full retreat with the Japanese advancing so rapidly that their reconnaissance motor-cyclists were often driving through the retreating columns. On one occasion Murray-Lyon was quick enough on the draw his service revolver that he shot one off his motorcycle as he sped past.

The first of a series of air raids hit George Town on the Malayan island of Penang on December 8.  There were virtually no Air raid Precautions (ARP) and consequently no air raid warning and so in the fires that followed at least 1,000 people were killed. The civil administration collapsed and power, water and sewerage broke down bodies littered the streets.  On orders from Singapore the evacuation of Europeans in small boats from Penang took place on the night of December 16, leaving the local Malays, Chinese and Indians to the mercy of the Japanese, was a source of shame for the British that alienated them from the local population.  Three days later the Japanese secured the island and captured weapons, 24 motorised boats and other craft, supplies and even a working radio station that was quickly put to work broadcasting anti-British propaganda.

On December 17 British and Commonwealth forces fell back to the River Perak.  It seemed a good place to halt the Japanese advance, the coastal plan was only 30 miles wide with the right flank covered by the jungle covered Central Highlands. On the same day the British sent urgent signals to London requesting reinforcements of troops and aircraft.

On December 23 Percival sacked Murray-Lyon replacing him with Brigadier A.C.M. Paris who had been commanding 12 Indian Infantry Bde and on the same day Air Chief Marshall Sir Brooke-Popham resigned and was replaced by Lt General Sir Henry Pownall.  The elderly Brooke-Popham was described as “past it” with a tendency to fall asleep at meetings who even though he had 15 months in command in the Far East, before the war with Japan, had not pressed the case for more modern aircraft for the RAF.

Pownall was almost immediately replaced by General Sir Archibald Wavell who, at the request of US President Franklin Roosevelt, had been given command of the new American-British-Dutch-Australian Command or ABDA.  ABDA was a short lived command - established on January 15, 1942 it was disbanded on February 25.  .

On January 2 British and Commonwealth troops were outflanked at Kampar and were forced to withdraw to the River Slim.  Five days later the Japanese crossed the Slim and Percival was forced to order his forces to withdraw. 

When Wavell flew into Singapore on January 8 Percival remained optimistic and said that he hoped to hold Johore at least until mid February.       

By the end of the first week in January, the entire northern region of Malaya was in Japanese hands.

On January 11 the Japanese 5 Division entered Kuala Lumpur the main supply base for III Indian Corps. Here the Japanese discovered train loads of military stores and rations in the marshalling yards. For Yamashita this windfall, that the troops quickly nicknamed “Churchill supplies”, resolved his re-supply worries and allowed him to keep up the pace of his operations.  .      

By mid-January the Japanese had reached the southern Malayan State of Johore and for the first time, on January 14 they had their first encounter with the Australians of the 8 Division AIF.


Enter the Aussies

The site of the first action between the Japanese and 2/30 Bn, commanded by Lt Colonel Frederick Galleghan, who was universally known as “Black Jack” because of his mixed race, was the Gemencheh Bridge.  The bridge spanned the Sungei Gemencheh and connected the community of Gemas with the larger neighbouring town of Tampin.

The Japanese advance guard had crossed the bridge when, "B" Company 2/30, sprung their ambush. As Japanese soldiers entered the ambush “killing ground”, the bridge was blown behind them.  A vivid account of the action was sent home in a letter by a young Australian gunner. 

“Dawn of the great day broke clear.  A few straggling vehicles of our rearguard crossed the bridge – then nothing.  The terse comment of the infantry commander telephoned back to the battalion that anything further coming would be Japanese gave us a thrill of anticipation.

We had not long to wait.  At about four o’clock in the afternoon the look-out announced, “Large party of cyclists crossing the bridge.” We froze and my heart stepped into “high” as on the roadway 15 feet below passed the first of the enemy.  Oblivious of the fate in store for them, they cycled easily under our gaze, laughing and chattering while Aussie fingers tightened around triggers and Mills bomb pins. 

After some hundreds had crossed the river and entered the cutting, the captain gave the order.  With a roar like the crack of doom, the bridge and the Japanese on it soared skywards on a dense column of smoke and fragments.

This was the signal for hellfire to break out.  From each side of the road for a length of half a mile the Aussies poured into the congested, panic-stricken ranks of the Japanese cyclists a devastating fire with machine-guns, sub-machine-guns and rifles; the while our men leisurely removed pins from Mills grenades and rolled them over the lip of the defile to further rend the enemy ranks with their ear - splitting bursts.

After a brief but terrible few minutes, the order was given to retire.  The job was done, the road a shambles on which no living thing remained.”

The fighting that followed, and a further battle closer to Gemas, lasted two days. It ended with the Australian withdrawal through Gemas to Fort Rose Estate. The Japanese had suffered up to 600 casualties but their sappers repaired the bridge within six hours.

As the Japanese attempted to outflank the Australians to the west of Gemas, on January 15 one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign began on the west coast near the Muar River. Bennett had allocated the new and half-trained 45 Indian Bde under Brigadier H.C. Duncan to defend the south bank of the river but it was outflanked by Japanese units landing from the sea.

The Australian 2/29 Bn was now sent to Bakri to reinforce the brigade while 2/19 arrived at Parit Sulong about 12 miles further back down the road. The 2/19 commanded by Lieut Colonel Charles Anderson MC, was ordered forward to assist 2/29 and to re-establish contact with the isolated 14 Bde. Above the chaos, confusion, cowardice and ultimate humiliation of the Malayan campaign Lt Colonel Anderson towers as a real hero and a man who truly merited the Victoria Cross the British and Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry with which he was to be awarded.

His battalion managed to reach the rear of the Indian and Australian positions but were cut off when the enemy employing their now proven tactics moved in behind them and formed a new road block.

Eight Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks were ambushed and destroyed by Australian 2 Pounder anti-tank gunners on a jungle road at Bakri on January 18. Photographs that appeared of the burning tanks, with one pinned by a felled tree and the crew lying dead beside it gave a false impression of a successful defence of the Malay Peninsula.

On the morning of January 19 when Japanese aircraft hit 45 Bde HQ putting it out of action Anderson took command of the battered brigade which was now designated Muar Force. He delayed their withdrawal until the recovery of the decimated Indian unit and by the morning of January 20, both 2/29 and 2/19 were involved in heavy fighting and had to break through Japanese forces who had worked round behind them. Anderson led the successful attack to extricate his units and conducted a fighting withdrawal to Parit Surong, which they discovered had been captured by the Japanese.  Anderson attempted re-open an escape route for the column but by nightfall next day many of his men were wounded and ammunition was running low. The Muar Force was surrounded under artillery fire and air attack so Anderson ordered the men to destroy all vehicles and guns and split into small groups and escape to the British lines at Yong Peng.  Over five days they fought their way back over 25 miles (40 km) but in the end only 500 of the 1,500 strong force reached British lines.

However about 150 and 300 Australian and Indian soldiers were too badly wounded to be moved, and so the only option was to leave them to surrender. When they reached the position the Japanese Imperial Guards kicked and beat the wounded with rifle butts. Other prisoners were tied up with telephone wire dumped in the middle of the road, machine-gunned and then dead or alive soaked in petrol and set alight.  Local Malays said that others were tied together with wire and forced to stand on the parapet of a bridge over the Simpang Kiri.  A Japanese soldier shot one man who tumbled dragging the others with him into the river and their death.

Incredibly a young officer Lt Ben Hackney of 2/19 feigned death and managed to escape. Crippled with two broken legs he evaded capture in the jungle for six weeks, before he was recaptured. Incredibly Hackney then survived internment in Japanese POW camps, and work on the Burma Railway.  In 1945 along with two other survivors he provided evidence to Allied war crimes investigators about the Muar River massacre which would ensure that Lt Gen. Takuma Nishimura the commander of the Imperial Guards would be brought to justice after the war.

By January 20 final British and Commonwealth defensive line in Johore ran from Mersing on the east coast through Kluang in the centre to Bat Pahat on the west but it was now under attack along its full length. Unfortunately Percival had resisted moves to build fixed defences in Johore, as well on the northern shore of Singapore, dismissing them in the face of repeated requests to start construction from his Chief Engineer, Brigadier Ivan Simson, with the comment "Defences are bad for morale".


It would prove a bitter irony that the requests for more troops and aircraft that had urgently been requested for the defence of Malaya on December 17 now began to bear fruit. The low cloud of the monsoon and the redeployment of aircraft from the Japanese 3 Air Group to support operations in the Dutch East Indies meant that shipping was able to reach Singapore unmolested. On January 22 an Indian Army brigade landed followed two days later by the British 18 Division and Australian troops– less then a month later they would be dead or part of the huge number of prisoners of war taken by the Japanese.

On January 27 Percival received permission from Wavell to order a general withdrawal across the Johore Straits to Singapore.  Shortly after 07.00 on January 31 the men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched across the causeway between Johore in the Malay Peninsula and Singapore and with this ended the last organised Allied resistance in Malaya. 

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Malayan Campaign - Battles of the campaign (Source Wikipedia)



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