Relief map of Malaya

Malaya is a peninsula located in southeast Asia just north of the equator.  It is mostly jungle-clad and has a spine of mountains down the center of the peninsula. It is rich in natural resources, particularly tin and rubber, but also iron, manganese, bauxite, and tungsten. Malaya produced 38% of the world's rubber and 58% of its tin in 1941. Foreign trade made Malaya a major source of dollar currency for the British Empire early in the Second World War, with the colonial governor describing the colony as "the dollar arsenal of the Empire" (Thompson 2005).

Malaya was controlled by the British in 1941 as a federation of princely states and crown colonies.   The native Malays were mostly Moslem, but there was also large Indian and Chinese minorities attracted by the economic opportunities fostered by British rule. The total population was around 5.5 million, of which just over half were ethnic Chinese while the Indian population numbered around 750,000. Indians made up a large fraction of the civil service. Euiropeans numbered just 31,000 persons.

The Malaya Campaign

British military strategy in Malaya was deeply flawed.  The British had built a major fleet base at Singapore, an island at the south end of the peninsula, but by 1941 their commitments elsewhere meant that there was no fleet. The only naval forces present on December 7, 1941, were the battle cruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales and a few destroyers .  The carrier Invincible was supposed to be part of the force, but had run aground in the West Indies and was still under repair.

There were several modern airfields both on Singapore Island and in the northern part of the peninsula, but the British had only obsolete aircraft to spare for the Far East. Fighter defenses were based on the Buffalo, which proved no match for the Zero or even the Japanese Army's Nate. The Army had protested in vain against the construction of airfields on the northeast coast, arguing that there were not enough forces to keep a Japanese invasion from swiftly seizing the airfields for their own use. This is exactly what happened at Kota Baharu early in the campaign.

British troops on the peninsula consisted of two Indian divisions and an Australian division.  None was fully trained, and training had in any case been oriented towards desert warfare.  The Australian 8 Division in particular was very green, incompletely equipped, and was missing one of its three brigades.  The greatest weakness, however, was in the quality of generalship.

Japanese intelligence on the British in Malaya was faulty, but in a way that actually helped the Japanese. The British were estimated to have perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 troops in the peninsula, rather than the 88,600 that were actually present on 8 December 1941. The Japanese commander, Yamashita Tomoyuki, later commented that "our battle in Malaya was successful because we took the enemy lightly." His intelligence chief, the notorious Tsuji Masanobu, put it more pithily: "Ignorance is bliss" (Marston 2005). Encouraged by their underestimate of British strength, the Japanese deployed just three divisions against Malaya (the 5, 18, and Imperial Guards Divisions) and even these took over a month to fully deploy against the British. The initial drive down the peninsula would take place with the equivalent of just two divisions.

The east coast of Malaya is subject to heavy monsoon rains in December, and roads are few and poor. As a result, the British correctly anticipated that the Japanese would land farther up the Kra Peninsula, in Thai territory, where there were small ports at Patani and Singora.  The Japanese would then drive across the peninsula and down the west coast, where a good network of roads was shielded from the worst of the monsoon by the central mountains. The British contingency plan (MATADOR) called for an immediate attack on any Japanese landing at Singora, while a second force (KROHCOL) destroyed the road from Patani at The Ledge in order to secure the British rear.  The alternative was to man a defensive line around the village of Jitra in northernmost Malaya, which was the plan preferred by Heath, who feared that MATADOR would overextend his forces. Unfortunately, when the Japanese landings came, political considerations delayed the decision on MATADOR, and the troops that were to execute it were left awaiting orders rather than either attack or prepare their positions in Jitra.

Willmott (1982) has concluded that the fate of Singapore was decided in the first four days of the war, in the Battle of Jitra. KROHCOL lost the race to The Ledge and the Japanese were able to threaten the British rear. The local British commander, Murray-Lyon  of 11 Indian Division, bungled the use of his reserve and the withdrawal to Alor Star, which became a rout. The remainder of the campaign went little better.  Field fortifications were not constructed even when there was enough time, out of a strange fear that this would destroy morale; air cover was nonexistent; the British had no tanks, and their few antitank weapons were poorly employed against the Japanese tank spearheads.  Counterattacks were few, badly timed, and not driven home.  Demolitions were inept, leaving many vital facilities intact while sometimes destroying bridges while British defenders were still on the other side. The Japanese often showed a better understanding of the terrain than the British themselves, as when a Japanese force exploited a trail from Grik (101.131E 5.434N) to Kuala Kangsar (100.904E 4.777N) to turn the entire British position and force the British to hastily withdraw from northern Malaya.

From a strictly military perspective, the British might have done better to have abandoned northern Malaya and taken up strong positions in Johore. Here a partial line of fortifications had been constructed in 1939; though never completed, they could have formed the backbone of a new defensive line. However, apart from political considerations, the British were reluctant to abandon the northern airfields, and almost all the rice supply of Malaya was in Kedah in northern Malaya.

Arthur Percival, the top British commander in Malaya, rejected the recommendation on 17 December by Heath and Barstow to pull 9 Indian Division away from the northeast coast, which was of little military value, to reinforce the defense of the vital southwest coast corridor. Willmott (1982) considers this his biggest blunder of the campaign. Willmott has also described the continuing failure to prepare defensive positions for fear of the effects on morale as "stupifying imbecility": When the exhausted 11 Indian Division attempted to reform at Gurun (100.45E 5.866N), which Percival regarded as the most defensible position on the entire peninsula, they found that the labor force expected to prepare positions had never arrived. Gurun held for only a day against the Japanese attack on 13 December.

Heath attempted to regroup again at Kampar (100.993E 4.251N), where the terrain was as favorable as anywhere in central Malaya, but he had already concluded that central Malaya could not be held. However, he dismissed Murray-Lyon from command of 11 Indian Division on 23 December, replacing him with Paris. Paris proved unsatisfactory and was returned to command of his brigade on 12 January and command of the division given to Key. Brooke-Popham was finally relieved by Pownall a few days later, but Pownall could not reverse the situation. Kampar was abandoned on 1 January 1942.

The second great disaster of the campaign came on 7 January at Slim River (101.401E 3.835N). The position was defended by 12 Indian Brigade and 28 Indian Brigade, both exhausted and demoralized from the long retreat, and the British forces were further weakened by the need to detail forces to guard against Japanese landings at Kuala Selangor (101.249E 3.331N). Guns were not in position, mines (though available in quantity) were not emplaced, and dead ground was not covered along the main highway, which had recently been straightened to leave loops on either side. The Japanese hit this position on the run, conducting reconnaissance by drawing fire with a force strong enough to launch its own attack off its line of march. The Commonwealth troops were caught in the open and overwhelmed, and by the end of the day the two brigades had been reduced to about a battalion of effectives. Most of the casualties were listed as missing rather that dead or wounded, an indication that the British force was very close to collapse. 11 Indian Division was effectively destroyed as a fighting force in the battle.

Wavell intervened on 8 January to compel Percival to put Bennett, commander of 8 Australian Division, in charge of the defense of Johore. This was probably unwise. Bennett has been characterized by Willmott (1982) as a good field officer, with a sound understanding of tactics, but who had been promoted beyond his abilities when he was given a division to command. In the defense of northern Johore, Bennett would be commanding the equivalent of a corps. Bennett's plan to shift 8 Australian Division to the west put a relatively capable and fresh division in the line of the main Japanese advance, but at the cost of creating chaos in the rear areas and on the flanks. Furthermore, Wavell insisted on trying to hold the Segamat-Muar line, which was 40 miles (64 km) long, instead of the Tampin-Malacca line, which was just 15 miles (24 km) long. The Australians held at Gemas and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, but the Japanese simply shifted their main effort to the coastal road.

Here 45 Indian Brigade, which had just arrived but was poorly trained, was deployed according to the book to cover a 25 mile (40 km) front of which only 9 miles (14 km) actually mattered. There was also the open flank to the sea. Yamashita quickly grasped the opportunity, hit 45 Indian Brigade with two regiments of Imperial Guards Division, then landed a battalion of 4 Guards Regiment at Batu Bahat (102.945E 1.844N) to complete the encirclement and annihilation of 45 Indian Brigade. 80% of the brigade was lost, many massacred after they had surrendered. Percival rushed elements of 22 Australian Brigade, 53 Brigade, and 15 Indian Brigade to shore up his left flank, but the Japanese moved faster, and it was clear Johore, and Singapore, were lost.

Churchill recognized this by 21 January, sending a cable to Wavell asking whether further reinforcements might better be diverted to Burma. The Australian government responded with a cable expressing such a strong sense of betrayal at the thought of abandoning Singapore that Churchill allowed the stream of reinforcements to continue.

The Australian retreat was orderly, but the other units fell back in chaos. A final attempt to hold the line Batu Pahat (102.921E 1.845N) - Kluang - Mersing ended in further disaster. Heath meant to hold the town at all cost, but the commander of 15 Indian Brigade evacuated the town after he lost communications with headquarters. Ordered to retake the town, he withdrew a second time on 25-26 January when it became clear that his force was in imminent peril of being cut off and destroyed.The brigade was forced to abandon its vehicles when yet another bridge was blown too soon, and more than 1000 men had to be evacuated by sea as the rest infiltrated back through Japanese lines. Some 4000 men escaped to British lines or were evacuated by sea.

22 Indian Brigade successfully ambushed the Japanese advance from Mersing on 26 January, driving the Japanese back to Mersing and delaying their advance by three days. However, the brigade was caught on the wrong side of a river the next day when yet another bridge was prematurely demolished. The commander of 9 Indian Division, Arthur Barstow, was ambushed and killed when he went forward to reestablish communications. Only a handful of survivors of 22 Indian Brigade ever reached Singapore. T

he pattern of bridges blown too soon was nearly repeated with the Singapore causeway, where an Australian officer actually drew his pistol to prevent the sergeant in charge of the demolition from destroying the causeway before the bulk of the Australian forces could retreat across it.

British reinforcements continued to flow into Singapore, including 44 Indian Brigade, most of 18 Division, and 1900 Australian replacements with only two weeks' training. These could not be integrated into the defense in time to be of much use and simply added to the British losses. The troops of 18 Division, in particular, had arrived after three months at sea and were quite out of shape.

Percival was convinced that the Japanese would attack on the eastern side of Johore Strait, where the naval base was located. Wavell felt otherwise, since the best loading sites were on the east side of the strait, which was also narrower and faced marshy terrain cut by numerous streams that would be harder to defend. However, Percival could not be persuaded, and he placed the remains of III Corps and the newly arrived 18 Division on the east and 8 Australian Division on the west. The limited supply of fortification material, originally delivered to the west side, was moved to the east side and used there, and Australian officers later complained that they had been refused the use of large stores of barbed wire available from the rear area.

The Japanese attack came at 2030 on 8 February 1942. Assault units were drawn from both 5 and 18 Divisions and had as their first objective the seizure of Tengah airfield and the crossroads at Bukit Panjang (103.756E 1.366N). Imperial Guards Division would then cross around the causeway and swing east to isolate the naval base. Yamashita then planned to seize the reservoirs supplying water to Singapore City, which would compel the British to surrender. Yamashita himself watched the battle from the palace of the Sultan of Johore, which the British were reluctant to shell.

The Japanese seemed to be aware of Percival's expectation that the attack would fall on the eastern sector, and reinforced his expectations with deception measures such as simulating heavy truck traffic in this area and noisily and visibly occupying Ubin Island (103.943E 1.410N).

Thus, when the attack fell on the Australians in the western sector, the Japanese had local superiority of 16 to 3. The landings were preceded by an extremely heavy artillery bombardment, peaking at over 100 shells per minute from the 168 Japanese guns, that the British insisted on believing was a feint. Each of the assault divisions had 50 barges and 100 collapsible boats for the crossing, capable of moving 4000 men in each wave. The Japanese nevertheless insisted on mounting a bayonet assault and took heavy casualties before switching to small arms fire and driving the Australians back. The Australians later claimed that the Japanese were armed with a very large number of automatic weapons. By the early hours of the 9 February, the Australians had retreated into battalion perimeters.

Tengah airfield fell on the afternoon of 9 February, forcing the one remaining squadron of Hurricane fighters (which had provided cover at considerable cost to themselves) to retreat to Sumatra. By this time the RAF commander, Pulford, was reportedly near mental breakdown (Thompson 2005). The British made an attempt to hold a line anchored at Jurong (103.684E 1.344N), but this collapsed when Imperial Guards Division made its crossing at the causeway and the commander of 27 Australian Brigade interpreted a contingency plan for falling back as an immediate order to retreat. This was particularly unfortunate, as the demolition of oil tanks in the area had spread blazing oil across the strait and nearly thrown Imperial Guards Division into a panic. The retreat of 27 Australian Brigade uncovered the flanks of adjacent formations that felt compelled to fall back as well, and the line collapsed like a row of dominoes.

A counterattack by a scratch brigade of service troops collapsed before it truly got underway when the force was surprised at night by the Japanese and slaughtered with bayonets. The Japanese then committed over forty tanks to the attack on Bukit Timah, which fell on midnight of 10-11 February. Twelve British soldiers who were captured while trying to break out of the village were tied up with barbed wire, bayoneted, and shot; one survived to tell the tale.

The British fell back to their final defense line, abandoning the north shore and naval base and forming a 28-mile (45 km) perimeter around Singapore city, on the night of 12-13 February. Percival ignored the pleas of his subordinates (Heath and Bennett) to surrender until it became clear that the city was about to lose its water supply. Thompson (2005) claims that the massacre at Alexandra Hospital at about this time was a deliberate attempt to terrorize Percival into capitulating.

By this time, the Japanese logistics were close to breaking down, but the British didn't know this. On the late afternoon of 15 February, Yamashita succeeded in bluffing Percival into surrendering Singapore and some 85,000 troops, of whom 70,000 were combat troops, to a smaller Japanese force that was almost out of ammunition.

The campaign in Malaya seriously strained relations between England and Australia, with the English making exaggerated claims of Australian cowardice and the Australian general Gordon Bennett making self-serving claims of British incompetence. The fall of Malaya also permanently damaged Western prestige in the Far East.  It became inevitable that even after the Japanese defeat, the former European colonies would achieve independence.   This occurred for Malaya on 31 December 1957.

Japanese order of battle, 7 December 1941

25 Army

2 Fleet

Allied order of battle, 7 December 1941

Malaya Command

Far East Fleet


Corrigan (2010)

Marston (2005)

Thompson (2005)

Willmott (1982)

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