Battle of Malaya

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Battle of Malaya
Part of World War II, Pacific War

Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in the South China Sea.
Date 8 December 1941 - January 31, 1942
Location Malaya
Result Japanese victory
Combatants
British Army
Indian Army
Australian Army
Royal Malay Regiment
Imperial Japanese Army
Commanders
Arthur Percival Tomoyuki Yamashita
Strength
140,000 70,000
Casualties
5,000 killed, 50,000 prisoners of war 34,000 killed or wounded
Pacific campaigns 1941-42
Pearl HarborThailandMalayaWakeHong KongPhilippinesDutch East IndiesNew GuineaSingaporeAustraliaIndian OceanDoolittle RaidSolomonsCoral SeaMidway
South-East Asian campaign
MalayaPrince of Wales & RepulseThailandSingaporeIndian OceanAndaman IslandsBurmaMalacca Strait

The Battle of Malaya was a conflict between British Commonwealth forces, comprised of British, Indian, Australian and Malayan units, and the Imperial Japanese Army from December 8, 1941 until January 31, 1942 during the Second World War.

Contents

[edit] Background

Between the wars, Britain's military strategy in the Far East were undermined by a lack of attention and funding.

The British government's plans relied primarily on the stationing of a strong fleet at the Singapore Naval Base in the event of any enemy hostility, both to defend Britain's Far Eastern possessions and the route to Australia. However, the expected arrival time of the Royal Navy, should Malaya or Singapore be threatened, was extended from weeks to months, until finally, by the time war broke out in Europe in 1939, it was evident that no fleet was likely to be forthcoming.

Lieutenant-General Yamashita, Commander of the Japanese 25th Army
Lieutenant-General Yamashita, Commander of the Japanese 25th Army

Once the World War II commenced, Britain, the Middle East and the Soviet Union received higher priorities in the allocation of men and material. The desired Malayan airforce strength of 300 to 500 aircraft was never reached. Whereas the Japanese invaded with over two hundred tanks, the British Army in Malaya did not have a single one.

[edit] Japan invades

The Battle of Malaya began when the 25th Army invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941. Japanese troops launched an amphibious assault on the northern coast of Malaya at Kota Bharu and started advancing down the eastern coast of Malaya. This was made in conjunction with landings at Pattani and Songkhla in Thailand, where they then proceeded south overland across the Thailand-Malayan border to attack the western portion of Malaya.

The Japanese had already coerced the Thai government into letting them use Thai military bases to launch attacks into Malaya, after having fought Thai troops for eight hours early in the morning. Thailand would later engage in a formal military alliance with Japan to continue to assault on Malaya. For the forces defending the colony, made up of British, Australian, Indian and locally-raised troops, the Battle for Malaya was a disastrous campaign.

Bristol Blenheim Mark I bombers of No. 62 Squadron RAF lined up at Tengah, Singapore, circa February 8, 1941, just before they flew north to their new base at Alor Star, Kedah, Malaya. Captain Patrick Heenan, who betrayed Allies to Japanese military intelligence, was attached to the squadron at Alor Star, between June 1941 and his arrest in December.
Bristol Blenheim Mark I bombers of No. 62 Squadron RAF lined up at Tengah, Singapore, circa February 8, 1941, just before they flew north to their new base at Alor Star, Kedah, Malaya. Captain Patrick Heenan, who betrayed Allies to Japanese military intelligence, was attached to the squadron at Alor Star, between June 1941 and his arrest in December.

The Japanese were initially resisted by III Corps of the Indian Army and several British Army battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending the coastline, before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force their surrender.

The Japanese forces held a slight advantage in numbers on the ground in northern Malaya, and were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience, with the Japanese units having fought in China. The Allies had no tanks, which had put them at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, which allowed swift movement of their forces overland through the terrain that was covered with thick tropical rainforest.

While the Japanese had slightly fewer aircraft than the Allies, their fighter aircraft were generally superior. In addition, recent research has shown that the Japanese military intelligence service had managed to recruit a British officer, Captain Patrick Heenan, an Air Liaison Officer with the Indian Army.[1] While the effects or Heenan's actions are disputed, the Japanese were able to destroy almost every Allied aircraft in northern Malaya within three days. Heenan was arrested on December 10 and sent to Singapore. However, the Japanese had already achieved air superiority.

Lieutenant-General Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in December 1941
Lieutenant-General Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in December 1941
A display at the Malaysian National History Museum, showing the uniform worn by Japanese soldiers and a bicycle that they used.
A display at the Malaysian National History Museum, showing the uniform worn by Japanese soldiers and a bicycle that they used.

The British had had plans in place to forestall Japanese landings in Southern Thailand but Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command refused permission to launch Operation Matador and Operation Krohcol in advance of the Japanese attack, not wishing to run any risk of provoking the coming war.

The naval Force Z, consisting of the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, together with four destroyers, and commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips had arrived right before the outbreak of hostilities. However, Japanese air superiority led to the sinking of the capital ships on December 10 1941, leaving the east coast of Malaya exposed and allowing the Japanese to continue their landings.

[edit] The advance down the Malayan Peninsula

The defeat of British and Indian troops at Jitra by Japanese forces, supported by tanks moving south from Thailand on December 11, 1941 and the rapid advance of the Japanese inland from their Kota Bharu beachhead on the north-east coast of Malaya overwhelmed the northern defences. Without any real naval presence, the British were unable to challenge Japanese naval operations off the Malayan coast, operations which proved invaluable to the invading army. With virtually no remaining Allied planes, the Japanese also had mastery of the skies, leaving the Commonwealth ground troops and civilian population exposed to air attack.

The Malayan island of Penang was bombed daily by the Japanese from December 8 and abandoned on December 17. Arms, boats, supplies and a working radio station were left in haste to the Japanese. The evacuation of Europeans from Penang, with local inhabitants being left to the mercy of the Japanese, caused much embarrassment for the British and alienated them from the local population.

Maps of the Malaya campaign.
Maps of the Malaya campaign.

On December 23 Major-General Murray-Lyon of the Indian 11th Infantry Division was removed from command to little effect. By the end of the first week in January, the entire northern region of Malaya had been lost to the Japanese. At the same time, Thailand officially signed a Treaty of Friendship with Imperial Japan, which completed the formation of their loose military alliance. Thailand was then allowed by the Japanese to resume sovereignty over several sultanates in northern Malaya, thus consolidating their occupation. It did not take long for the Japanese army's next objective, the city of Kuala Lumpur, to fall. The Japanese entered and occupied the city unopposed on January 11, 1942. Singapore Island was now less than 200 miles away for the invading Japanese army.

[edit] Defence of Johore

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By mid-January the Japanese had reached the southern Malayan state of Johore where, on 14 January, they encountered troops from the Australian 8th Division, commanded by Major-General Gordon Bennett, for the first time in the campaign. During engagements with the Australians, the Japanese experienced their first major tactical setback, due to the stubborn resistance put up by the Australians at Gemas. The battle, centred around the Gemensah Bridge, proved costly for the Japanese, who suffered up to 600 casualties but the bridge itself, which had been demolished during the fighting, was repaired within six hours.

As the Japanese attempted to outflank the Australians to the west of Gemas, one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign began on January 15 on the peninsula's the West coast near the Muar River. Bennett allocated the weak 45th Indian Brigade (a new and half trained formation) to defend the river's South bank but the unit was outflanked by Japanese units landing from the sea and the Brigade was effectively destroyed with its commander, Brigadier Duncan, and all three of his battalion commanders killed.

Led by Australian Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, the retreating Indian troops, supported by Australians, formed Muar Force and fought a desperate four day withdrawal, to allow the remnants of the Commonwealth troops withdrawing from northern Malaya to avoid being cut off and to withdraw past the Japanese to safety. When Muar Force reached the bridge at Parit Sulong and found it to be firmly in enemy hands, Anderson, with mounting numbers of dead and wounded, ordered "every man for himself". Those that could took to the jungles, swamps and rubber plantations in search of their battalion headquarters at Yong Peng. The wounded were left to the mercy of the Japanese and all but two out of 135 were tortured and killed in the Parit Sulong Massacre. Anderson was awarded a Victoria Cross for his fighting withdrawal.

Royal Engineers prepare to blow up a bridge during the retreat
Royal Engineers prepare to blow up a bridge during the retreat

On January 20, further Japanese landings took place at Endau, in spite of an air attack by obsolete Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers. The final Commonwealth defensive line in Johore of Batu Pahat-Kluang-Mersing was now being attacked along its full length. Unfortunately Percival had resisted the construction of fixed defences in Johore , as on the North 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".

On January 27, 1942 Percival received permission from General Wavell to order a general retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore.

[edit] The retreat to Singapore

Main article: Battle of Singapore
A view of the causeway, blown up after the Allied retreat, with the visible gap in the middle.
A view of the causeway, blown up after the Allied retreat, with the visible gap in the middle.

On January 31 the last organised Allied forces left Malaya, and Allied engineers blew a hole, 70 feet (20 metres) wide, in the causeway that linked Johore and Singapore (a few stragglers would wade across over the next few days). Japanese raiders and infiltrators, often disguised as Singaporean civilians, began to cross the Straits of Johor in inflatable boats soon afterwards.

In less than two months, the Battle for Malaya had ended in comprehensive defeat for the Commonwealth forces and their retreat from the Malay Peninsula. Nearly 50,000 Commonwealth troops had been captured or killed during the battle.

By the end of January, Patrick Heenan had been court-martialled and sentenced to death.[2] On February 13, five days after the invasion of Singapore Island, and with Japanese forces approaching the city centre, Heenan was taken by military police to the waterside and was hastily executed. His body was thrown into the sea.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Peter Elphick, 2001, "Cover-ups and the Singapore Traitor Affair" Access date: March 5, 2007.
  2. ^ Elphick, Ibid.

[edit] References

  • Dixon, Norman F, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, London, 1976
  • Seki, Eiji, Sinking of the SS Automedon And the Role of the Japanese Navy: A New Interpretation, University of Hawaii Press, 2007
  • Smyth, John George Smyth, Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore, MacDonald and Company, 1971
  • Thompson, Peter, The Battle for Singapore, London, 2005, ISBN 0-7499-5068-4 (HB)
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