The Japanese attack on Malaya started on December 8th 1941 and
ended with the surrender of British forces at Singapore. Malaya was a major prize for the Japanese as it produced 38% of the world’s rubber and 58% of the world’s tin. The capture of Singapore would provide Japan with a highly valuable military base in the region and it would also greatly undermine British authority in the region. The Japanese commander for the attack on Malaya was General Yamashita. He had under his command the XXV Army made up of 60,000 soldiers many of whom had gained experience in the war against China. He could also count on III Air Group, which had 459 aircraft and the Japanese Navy’s Southern Command, which comprised of a battle cruiser, ten destroyers and five submarines.
The only issue that the Japanese had to sort out was what type of attack were they going to use. The navy wanted a preliminary naval bombardment of known defences along Malaya’s eastern coastline combined with air attacks against known air bases. Senior navy commanders believed that if the navy faced an attack from the air, they “would be like sitting ducks”. The army was against this as it was lose for them the element of surprise. They wanted to land their men without any prior bombardment. The army got surprising support from the head of Southern Naval Command who despite what the Naval Staff had said stood up at a joint army/navy conference and said:
“I say that the navy should accept the army’s proposals, even at the risk of annihilation.” (Vice-Admiral Ozawa)
The invasion force set sail on December 4th and was first sighted by a RAF Hudson on December 6th. However, low cloud and heavy rain made proper reconnaissance difficult and no one in Singapore was quite sure where it was heading. The GOC Malaya, Lieutenant-General Percival wanted to start ‘Operation Matador’ – the occupation of the port and air base of Singora in southern Thailand. But the War Cabinet refused to support this as they believed that the Japanese might claim that this was an act of aggression and use it as an excuse to attack Malaya – especially as there was no evidence that Japan was targeting Malaya at this moment in time.
Poor visibility meant that the reconnaissance flights lost sight of the invasion force until 17.30 on December 7th when it became clear that Singora was a target. The Japanese III Air Group soon took control of the air base at Singora and used it as a base to attack the RAF in northern Malaya. By the evening of December 8th, the RAF had lost 60 of its 110 aircraft.
Shortly after midnight on December 8th, men from the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade, based at Kota Bharu, were shelled by the Japanese Navy, which was covering an amphibious landing by Japanese infantry. The attack on Malaya had begun and the RAF was ordered into action.
By 19.00, the Japanese had achieved a beachhead at Kota Bharu despite losing 15% of her landing force. A combination of well-placed machine guns and a heavy sea led to 850 Japanese soldiers being killed or wounded. Despite this, the air base at Kota Bharu was neutralised and British troops there were ordered to withdraw.
By December 10th, the Japanese had advanced into Kedah Province in northwest Malaya. By December 12th, the town of Jitra had been taken. This was of great importance as it guarded one large airbase at Alor Star and several smaller ones. As the British forces withdrew, they left behind large amounts of equipment. The policy of destroying bridges as they withdrew was solved by the Japanese equipping all their infantry regiments with engineering units.
On December 17th, Percival decided to establish a line on the Perak River. He wanted to hold up the Japanese for as long as was possible to allow for four infantry brigades to be sent to Singapore along with eight new RAF squadrons. However, this could only serve as a holding operation and on December 26th the Japanese crossed the Perak River. A second defensive line was established at Slim River but this was also broken on January 7th.
On January 11th, Japanese forces entered Kuala Lumpur, the main base for the British 3rd Corps. While petrol stocks had been set alight, the Japanese found a great deal of other supplies and equipment. A third defensive line at the Muar River, some 100 miles to the northwest of Singapore, was also broken on January 19th. Little stood between the Japanese and Singapore. By January 31st, as many British and Commonwealth troops as was possible had withdrawn into Singapore itself. The only seeming plan of action was to destroy the causeway that linked Singapore to the Malayan mainland.
The military historian Arthur Swinson called the defeat in Malaya “one of the most disastrous campaigns in British military history.” Including the surrender of Singapore, British and Commonwealth losses were 9,000 killed and wounded with 130,000 captured. Why did this happen? Swinson believed that it was very much the case that senior British officers totally undervalued the ability of the Japanese military. They put their success in China down to the fact that the Japanese were fighting Chinese and not British and Commonwealth forces. They also developed a form of Maginot Line mentality with regard to the dense jungle in Malaya believing it to be impenetrable. As one British officer later explained:
“It’s like this. Before the war we would be working from a map to conduct our manoeuvres. Our colonel or a brigadier would say, “Now this is thick jungle and this is mangrove swamp. We can rule this out. In this sector all we have to concern ourselves with is the road.”