World War 2

A World Turned Upside Down – British Defeat In Malaya And Singapore

World War 2

The problem with the Japanese was that they just didn’t follow the script.

Britain was meant to be ruling supreme in Asia, and they, at least according to all the anti-Japanese propaganda, were meant to be spectacle-wearing, pea-shooter carrying, ineffectual midgets.

Never mind that they’d beaten the Russians – a white nation - in their 1904-5 war. In terms that would not be acceptable in today's society, these ‘racially inferior yellow dwarves’ were still, well, looked down on by the British come December 1941, when they invaded Singapore and Malaya (the western half of modern-day Malaysia.)

This is a little ironic because, as Mark Stille points out in ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42’, the British colony on the Malay peninsula was established precisely because the Japanese threat had been anticipated:

“Coming out of World War I, the British Government marked Japan as a future potential threat to the British Empire and its interests in the Far East. Since the size of the Royal Navy was much reduced after the war, it was not large enough to commit powerful forces to the Far East on a permanent basis. This led to the strategy that called for the British to send a powerful fleet to the Far East in times of crisis. To execute this strategy, a large naval base would have to be available.

“The Admiralty considered several possibilities for such a base. Among the choices were Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore. Hong Kong was ruled out because it was too close to Japan and could not be properly defended; Australia, particularly Sydney, was ideal from several perspectives, but was simply too far from the interests that it was supposed to be protecting. The only remaining option was Singapore. It was ideally located at the strategic chokepoint from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean and was far enough from the nearest Japanese bases to offer it strategic depth from attack. Most of all, it was immediately accessible to the areas needing defence.”

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Malaysia shown outlined in red, with part of the Malay peninsula making up the western half of the nation; ‘Malaya’ was short for ‘British Malaya’, the portion of the peninsula under British control at the time (image: Google)

But the Japanese apparently didn’t get the memo: as just outlined, Singapore was supposed to be there to resupply and protect Britain’s existing possessions, not to become a target itself; if it did become a target itself, it was meant to be far enough from Japan to not be seriously threatened; and any attack that did come was supposed to be seaborne because the jungle-strewn interior was supposed to be impenetrable. 

Lastly, for goodness sake, everybody was supposed to wait their turn. As Max Hastings notes in the Discovery Channel’s ‘The Fall of Singapore and Malaya’:

“Because the British were then prioritising the campaigns in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, they sent their best, or at least their least bad generals there. And Malaya was bottom of the cue for good commanders, as it was bottom of the cue for everything else, but (Lieutenant General Arthur) Percival (GOC – General Officer Commanding) was a pretty poor specimen.”

Percival was further hampered by the likes of Major General F Keith Simmons, who was meant to be preparing Singapore’s defence. Incredibly, according to Stille:

“He argued against the construction of landward defences for Singapore since he believed it would adversely impact morale.”


Percival’s opposite number was Lieutenant-General Yamashita Tomoyuki.

He is generally regarded, because of the Malaya campaign, as having been brilliant, but according to Stille, “this is an overstatement. (However, he) did possess many essential attributes of a successful commander including charisma, audacity, decisiveness and command intuition… He was charismatic and bold, was known as a thoughtful commander and made decisions intuitively (and)… Somewhat unusually for an IJA (Imperial Japanese Army) officer, he worked well with the IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) and with the IJA’s air force.

“Most importantly for the conduct of the campaign, he assessed that the British troops, especially Indian forces, were grossly inferior to Japanese troops in fighting spirit. In addition, the Japanese also grossly underestimated the strength of British forces in Malaya, which led Yamashita to build his campaign plan around a ‘driving strategy’ against the British. This assessment ultimately proved correct, and Yamashita remarked after the battle that ‘our battle for Malaya was successful because we took the enemy lightly’.”

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Yamashita, left, and Percival on the right © IWM (K 652)

Unlike Yamashita’s misunderstanding of British strength in Malaya and Singapore (they had about 90,000 troops), the British underestimation of the Japanese most definitely did not work in their favour.

Part of the reason for this is that Europeans were used to dominating the globe, and it had become commonplace going through and coming out of the 19th Century to chalk this up to genetic superiority. 

It was, of course, more likely down to geographic luck, though in the case of the Japanese, the disparity between capability and western estimation was particularly stark.

As the Discovery Channel reminds us:

“Britain was not the only colonial power in Southeast Asia – the Netherlands, France and America were also plundering the riches of the Orient. But there was one Asian country which had its own imperialist ambitions, and saw itself in direct competition with the west: Japan.”

Max Hastings notes that:

“Japan felt that it had a destiny to have an empire in Asia. And when it looked around and it saw all these European powers in Asia, it thought, ‘Why not us?’ It saw racism, condescension of a kind that proud, Japanese imperialists… found intolerable.”

In ‘Blood, Tears and Folly’, Len Deighton lays out the background behind the political and cultural sea change that had been taking place in Japan since the mid 19th Century:

“Ever since the Shogunate, the military dictatorship established in the late twelfth century, and probably for some centuries before, Japan had been controlled by feudal nobility who, being the only ones permitted to bear arms, believed that a soldier’s career is mankind’s highest aspiration. The behaviour of this samurai class was codified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Bushido, the way of the warrior, exalted loyalty and self-sacrifice for one’s superior and for the sake of honour. A Westerner born in Tokyo said Bushido was ‘the traditional samurai mystique of killing with honour, of magnanimity towards the chastened and defeated, of utter ruthlessness towards the base and the mercantile, of appreciation mainly for the contrived artistic beauty of poems and paintings in life, and for the moonlight reality of the spirit world in death’.

“The second half of the nineteenth century saw dramatic improvements in the war technology of Western powers: breech-loading guns, rifled barrels, warships with ironclad hulls and screw propulsion brought new methods and tactics on land and sea. These developments gave the colonists of Europe and America overwhelming power, and the Japanese were becoming more and more vulnerable to it.

“In this same period China was seen to be growing weaker, and Japan’s ruling class became determined to take over her dominant role in the Far East. But it could not be done without modern technology and a mass army. Having decided that reforms should start at the top, provincial war-lords overthrew the Shogun – a hereditary commander-in-chief who ruled in the name of the Emperor – and in 1868 established the Emperor Mutsuhito on the throne. This ‘Meiji restoration’ led to a constitution based on Prussia’s, while more liberal Western models were rejected as unsuited to Japan. A period of such radical change has never been equalled anywhere in the world’s history. Local war-lords disbanded their private armies, although not without some blood being spilled, and a national army was created by conscription. Railways, factories, hospitals and schools were built, and compulsory education changed a nation virtually illiterate in 1860 to one with 95 per cent literacy before the end of the century. Schoolchildren bowed towards the Imperial Palace every morning, and each day answered the call: ‘What is your dearest ambition?’ with the chorused answer: ‘To die for the Emperor’. Such teaching fitted well with the modernization of Japan’s armed forces and conscription, but older people felt that the samurai code was incompatible with arming conscripts. So a distorted form of Bushido was revived as a way of reconciling traditional Japanese values of honour, humility and unassertiveness with a newly formed army that would be obedient in training, savage in battle and pitiless in victory.”

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Japanese soldiers shooting Sikh prisoners © IWM (SE 4819)

A culture that promoted conformity without equality only aided these military, economic and technological reforms, and Prussia’s defeat of France in 1870-71 seemed to confirm their necessity.

In fact, necessity, or at least the belief in the need to capture new territory and resources militarily, was also a major factor for a rising power “…hampered only by the lack of vital minerals, the absence of indigenous energy sources apart from a little coal, and, as the population grew, a scarcity of arable land”. One might say Japan faced a stark choice: expand or die.

“The 1920s in Japan were marked by calamitous droughts, earthquakes, bank failures and unemployment. As in Germany, democratic politicians were blamed for the slump while demagogues and extremists flourished. A Communist party was formed and then brutally suppressed by tokko – the specially trained secret police. By equally drastic economic measures, Japan made a quick recovery from the world depression. Abandoning the gold standard it devalued the yen, suppressed home consumption and brought living standards down. At the same time the government was doubling steel production and investing in heavy industry.

“But the world depression had sharpened Japan’s need for raw materials and cheap labour. Adding Manchuria (in northern China) to the Japanese empire would provide both.”

But in actual fact, things may not have been this black and white.

When the Forces Network contacted the London School of Economics (LSE), Professor Janet Hunter provided a more nuanced picture of inter-war Japan:

“The 1920s in Japan were marked by a harsh deflationary policy (attempting to bring about a drop in prices and a drop in demand/spending, the opposite of inflation), a major earthquake in 1923, as well as bank failures and a financial crisis in 1927. As in Germany, democratic politicians were on occasions blamed for the economic problems, and in the early 1930s there was increasing evidence of right-wing extremists and nationalists….”


“Japan made a relatively quick recovery from the world depression, abandoning the gold standard, which led to a devaluation of the yen, (which) in turn (encouraged the) growth of Japanese exports.”

For economic novices, DK’s ‘How Money Works’ explains very simply that, during this time, “Countries that (left) the gold standard early (could) depreciate their currencies to combat deflation (and tended to recover from the global depression) sooner”. 

In other words, by not being pegged to a set amount of gold, the yen’s relative value to other currencies could float more freely; and as Professor Hunter has pointed out, in practice, that meant a reduction in its value since it was generally regarded as having been overvalued to begin with. 

This had the (not necessarily deliberate) effect of increasing the amount of Japanese goods that could be purchased when the by-now-more-valuable foreign currencies were exchanged for the yen. This in turn led to more exports, which aided Japanese economic growth and recovery.

Hunter notes that there was an important aspect of the Japanese economy that came into play here:

“The depression was global in reach, but the low cost [and often low quality] of Japanese goods meant that they appealed to low-income consumers (which the Great Depression of the 30s had, of course, greatly increased in number.) Much of Japan’s export recovery during the 1930s was based on exporting cheap commodities to Europe and the US, and, increasingly to other countries in Asia.”

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Ginza, Tokyo, in 1933

As well as the currency side of things, there were other key measures that improved the health of the economy:

“Government policy* also supported the growth of investment in heavy industries such as steel (which aided the recovery), not so much with the view of increasing exports but more with a view to making full use of existing capacity (within Japan)… 

(*Government borrowing and the lowering of interest rates created a duel stimulus package, the former pumping money into the economy directly, and the latter making it cheaper, for both the government and the private sector, to borrow money in order to invest in industry. The professor said this has been referred to as ‘Keynes before Keynes’, after the British economist John Maynard Keynes who advocated government spending during the depression to make up for a lack of private sector demand). 

“The living standards of many suffered in the depression, recovering during the 1930s, only to fall again after Japan declared war on China in 1937. Japan’s continued economic growth, however, was associated with a need to import raw materials and energy, and free access to such imports had become more difficult with changes in the global economy since World War I. Concerns over such raw material access were among the political, strategic and economic motivations that drove the desire to enhance Japanese control on the Asian mainland, not least in Manchuria.”

And here is the key: according to Hunter, the Japanese associated economic growth and recovery with a need to take over foreign markets. But this wasn’t necessarily the correct view. It was more, she points out, merely the way the Japanese saw things:

“Japan did indeed lack natural resources, but it did not in itself necessitate imperial growth. Before World War I Japan had found it easy to trade in a relatively open global economy and get what it needed. This changed in the interwar period, as countries became much more protectionist and some markets became more closed to Japan. Japan was increasingly afraid that it wouldn’t be able to get what it needed, and to some extent the growth of empire by the 1930s was associated with the search for raw materials. But necessitated is far too strong a word.”

Perhaps Japan took a harder military line than it might have actually needed to because it was the threat of western technological supremacy that forced it out of isolation in the 1850s.

Or perhaps the revised Bashido code had such a strong influence internally that it tilted Japan towards aggression and imperialism unnecessarily.

Then again, perhaps it was both.

Either way, what’s now evident is that once the Japanese began beating the British and Americans, the view of them swung from one stereotype to another.

In ‘War Games’ (or ‘Brains and Bullets’), Leo Murray examines the role of psychology in combat. In doing so, he knocks down the reputation for fanaticism that the Japanese acquired, explaining that the propensity of Japanese soldiers later in the war to stay in their bunkers and be burned to death by flamethrowers rather than surrender was really down to a cultural misunderstanding. 

While the threat of being burnt alive is obviously an enormously strong compulsion towards surrender for any soldier, the apparent Japanese stubbornness in the face of this threat was actually caused by their comparatively stricter hierarchical social structure. This caused them to freeze for far longer than Allied troops would have done in similar circumstances.

As Murray explains, learning this proved a fairly steep learning curve for Allied troops:

“Language also played a role in extending this loop of the barbarity cycle. At that time, there was no Japanese word that really fit our word ‘surrender’; but the problem ran deeper. One psychological warfare study relates how shouting through a loudspeaker, ‘You @$*! Japs get out of that bunker or I’ll #$%^ burn you out!’ did not work. What did work was, ‘Attention, honourable Japanese soldiers! I am the authorized American commander for this area, and I have been ordered to make it secure. Attention! I have flame-throwers. I will use flame-throwers to carry out my lawful orders. I regret the unfortunate consequences resultant on the use of flame-throwers! Japanese soldiers! I order you to come out and assemble properly at (some designated landmark)’.”

This speaks strongly to the importance of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s first rule of war – to empathise with your enemy, in order to better understand his actions. 

And what all this proves, in general, is that history is always about different points of view. 

To the Japanese, the Second World War was a legitimate contest for precious resources and was the culmination of a modernisation process America had forced them into. For them, World War 2 was instead ‘The Fifteen Years’ War’ and it ran from 1931 to 1945.

For the Chinese, the Second World War was instead ‘The Second Sino-Japanese War’, and it started in 1937 when China’s divided Communist and Capitalist forces ceased fighting each other and instead started fighting the Japanese invaders on the mainland.

And in the west, of course, World War 2 began in 1939 for the Europeans and 1941 for the Americans - Japan’s attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor occurring, as it happens, concurrently with the start of their invasion of the Malay peninsula.

An in-depth review of the film ‘The Last Samurai’ that explains the importance of the Meiji Restorations as a backdrop to the events in the Pacific Theatre in World War 2


Just as the British underestimated their enemy, they also underestimated his ability to utilise the jungle. 

While it was considered largely impassable for the British, for the Japanese, the flora gave excellent cover, and racing down roads and trails on bicycles proved a novel way to stay mobile. 

Picking of routes was aided by spy networks. Royal Australian Air Force member Jim Boyle told Discovery:

“You couldn’t believe, no matter where you turned, (how many) spies (there were). Our hairdresser was a spy. People would go up there and have a hair cut and say ‘so and so, so and so,’ and… in two seconds, the Japanese knew about it. So they (the British) shot him, on the spot. Bang! See ya later.”

As well as utilising social divisions between the British and the locals, there was also a growing chasm within the Army ripe for exploitation:

“The Japanese, aware of the growing discontent (that existed between the Indian troops and their British imperial masters), believed they could persuade them to change sides and fight against the British. Intelligence officer Fugiwara Iwaichi targeted one of their leaders, Captain Mohan Singh.”

And just who was Mohan Singh?

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Fujiwara Kikan greeting Captain Mohan Singh in April 1942 after the fall of Malaya and Singapore

“Mohan was a die-hard anti-imperialist who wanted to drive the British out of India as soon as possible by whatever means available (including Japanese help.)… After the formation of a new Indian National Army) Singh agreed to become commander… and help recruit… from those the Japanese were able to capture in Malaya.”

As well as exploiting social tensions, prior postings were also of great use to the Japanese - they’d been stationed on China’s southern-most point, the island of Hainan, as well as on Taiwan. Both of these places provided comparable flora and climatic conditions in which to train (though technically, Taiwan is only sub-tropical).

Additionally, Taiwanese terrain was very similar to that on the Malay peninsula – it too is crested with central mountain ranges with most of its roads and settlements around the edges.

Jungle in Hainan (image: David Schroeter)
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View of Liyu Lake on Taiwan (left), which shows the subtropical flora, and the nearby Toroko Gorge (right), an example of the island’s rocky and mountainous terrain (images: writer’s collection)

For the British, meanwhile, acclimatisation frequently began in India.

Before arriving, men would normally have had six weeks of basic training before being given instruction on weapons (including on mortars and Bren guns), signals, tactical exercises and route marches at various Infantry Training Centres (ITCs) across the UK.

From there it was a three-month boat trip to India, and from there, according to Alan Jeffries in ‘British Infantryman in the Far East 1941-45’, yet more travelling awaited them:

“On arrival in Bombay the troops only had time to notice the smell and heat of the city and then were despatched into trains to take them to their training camps… The BORs (British ‘other ranks’) were accommodated in open carriages with wooden benches, with the officers in compartments, while civilians often travelled on the outside of the trains which intrigued those new to India. The trains brought the British Tommies into contact for the first time with char-wallahs selling their wares of tea and ‘egg banjos’ (rolls) costing four annas.

“Life in the cantonments took time to get used to. The British soldiers found the heat very oppressive and it usually took a couple of months for troops to adapt. The infamous Deolali transit camp was nicknamed ‘Doolally Tap’, which was slang for going crazy, tap being Urdu for fever.

“The typical weekday routine started with reveille at 6.00 am with a first parade at 6.45 am and breakfast at 7.30 am. Morning parades from 9.30 am until 1.00 pm and there was a siesta until tea at 4.00 pm and parades again until supper at 7.00 pm. However, in contrast to pre-war military life, the siesta was dropped after the first few weeks and troops began marching and training in the heat of the day rather than resting. Prickly heat affected most new arrivals and could be excruciating, with scratching leading to bleeding and then frequently to infection. Disease was another problem associated with acclimatisation, dysentery being particularly prevalent among unprepared soldiers.”

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3D maps showing the Malayan peninsula, the southern-most point of the Eurasian continent, and Hainan and Taiwan visible next to the Chinese mainland (images: Google)

These kinds of stresses, the annoyance of having to constantly hang up one’s kit so that it wasn’t overrun by ants, and culture shock could all end up taking their toll on a young Tommy’s morale:

“The experience of poverty and social divisions prevalent in the British Empire in India and Malaya also came as a shock to many of the wartime soldiers. They were unable to comprehend the hierarchical nature institutions such as the Indian Civil Service or a society where soldiers, officers and men, could be shunned socially by those, even in the European community, whom they were there to protect. It has been suggested that these experiences prompted many to vote for the Labour party in the 1945 general election.”

It presumably didn’t help either that certain off-duty pastimes were soon disallowed:

“In Delhi there was an army-run brothel near Hakman’s Astoria, nicknamed ‘the regimental brothel’. The entrance resembled a cinema where a soldier gave the last three digits of his army number and 5 rupees to the corporal in the booth in return for a chit with a room number on it. The soldier was escorted to the room and given condoms. The girls received weekly medical inspections by the Royal Army Medical Corps. Once this arrangement became known in Britain these ‘official’ brothels were shut down and Delhi was made out of bounds for BORs not on duty. As a result, the prostitutes went on the streets and the incidence of venereal disease shot up.”

Snobbery, racism, the apparent disconnect from what was really going on and the soon-to-be severe defeat by the Japanese all make the British higher-ups look very incompetent.

But in actual fact, they weren’t as obtuse as they appeared – at least, not all of them were.

David Attenborough explains how much of the overlapping flora in tropical jungles (Malaysia lies within the tropics, and very close to the equator) in general, and Southeast Asia in particular, is built up – some useful lessons for infantry jungle training, past and present

Brigadier General Vinden, who’d become a staff officer in the Malaya Command in 1937 questioned the notion of the ‘impassable jungle’, even during monsoon season. (The Northeast Monsoon season occurs during the window of the Japanese invasion and brings more rainfall than the Southwest Monsoon.)

“(Vinden) sailed up the coast and found Chinese junks (sailing ships) landing on the east coast in order to avoid Malaya’s immigration quotas. He also destroyed the myth of the impenetrable jungle after an exercise with three British battalions and the Johore Defence Force (Johore is in the south of the Malay peninsula) against an attacking battalion of Gordon Highlanders. The Gordons’ commanding officer had had jungle experience in West Africa and Vinden told how ‘he sent his attack through the jungle… and caught the defence in the rear. Another Malayan myth was destroyed’. To counteract this threat Vinden suggested an increase in the number of troops who ‘would have to be trained in jungle warfare about which, even me, knew little’.”

Vinden wasn’t alone. A few grades down the command structure, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart was leading 2 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Malayan jungle was a far cry from HQ at Stirling Castle in Scotland, but as his unit was to be a mobile reserve if the peninsula was invaded, he had every reason to figure out just how mobile it could be in the jungle.

The answer, of course, is not very. As was discovered later in the war in Burma, “it took an NCO and five (stretcher) bearers 17.5 hours to take two walking wounded and a stretcher from the first-aid post to a dressing station three miles away”.

The jungle was also claustrophobic and isolating – not good for a sense of unit cohesion and morale – and, of course, there were the leeches and the mosquitos, possibly bearing malaria.

Osprey Publishing
A two-sided flanking manoeuvre, one side being a feint – what the British could have done if jungle training had been more widespread (image from ‘British Infantryman in the Far East’ by Alan Jeffreys © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

But delightful wildlife aside, low mobility and no mobility were not the same thing, and one crucially important feature of the jungle was that it screened movement.

In War Games, Murray explains that one of the most effective manoeuvres combat units can perform is some kind of flank or encircling attack. For some reason, being caught off guard from behind or the side has a significantly higher chance of destroying enemy resistance and causing surrender.

In other words, jungle terrain lent itself perfectly to this kind of attack, a lesson Lieutenant Colonel Stewart had picked up by the time of the Malaya campaign:

“Stewart thought it took six months for a unit to get fully acclimatised to the jungle. He realised that control of the roads was vital and this would be best maintained through thorough mobility in the jungle rather than through static defence. He developed tactics for the jungle that included ‘filleting’, which was an encircling attack to the rear of the enemy combined with a front attack that would split the opposing force (see diagram above.)

Unfortunately, Stewart’s efforts to properly train up his men were undermined by “continual ‘milking’ of the battalion, including the transfer of 30 Argylls to orderly duties at Malaya Command”. (Garrisons were normally in key cities such as Kuala Lumpur).

Period news bulletin that includes jungle training which was, in reality, only conducted in a few British units


“The full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean, or the Pacific. Over all this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme, and we, everywhere, were weak and naked.”

Churchill’s comment refers to the sinking of the main British battleship the Prince of Wales and the (lighter, faster) battlecruiser Repulse on December 10, 1941, a few days after the start of the campaign. They’d been part of a 13-ship force that also had four (escorting) destroyers, three light cruisers – all Royal Navy – and four supporting vessels from the Australian and New Zealand navies.

Force Z, as they were dubbed, had been embroiled, essentially, in a comedy of errors in which the British ships were left without air support:

“A report reached Prince of Wales that a Japanese landing had occurred at Kuantan (on the east coast of Malaya), which was only 120 miles from Force Z’s current position. The report was completely false, but, as Kuantan was a critical location (it is the capital city of the state of Pahang), (Acting Admiral Sir Tom) Phillips (Commander of the Far Eastern Fleet) decided that it should be investigated. Accordingly, Force Z changed course at 0052hrs on 10 December to the south-west. Critically, Phillips did not request air support for this change of plan, thinking that his Chief of Staff in Singapore… would know he was headed there and arrange fighter cover. Besides, Kuantan was some 450 miles from the nearest IJN airbase and thus probably beyond the range of effective air attack.

“By 0800hrs next morning, Force Z was located off Kuantan and sent an aircraft from Prince of Wales and a destroyer to investigate inshore. Nothing was found. Instead of making directly for Singapore, Phillips lingered for some 90 minutes off Kuantan to investigate an earlier report of some barges and a tug. This delay proved fatal.

“At about 1015hrs, a lookout on Prince of Wales spotted a Japanese aircraft. Even at this point, Phillips did not send a signal for fighter cover. Just after 1100hrs, the first wave of attacking aircraft was spotted and the action began.”

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A map showing the route of Force Z in blue – the route of Japanese IJN aircraft is shown by the red dotted line (image from ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42’ by Mark Stille © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

They were aeroplanes from the IJN, Imperial Japanese Navy, flying out of French (or rather, now Japanese) Indo-China. Not out of range after all then.

Repulse and Prince of Wales were clobbered with aerial bombs and torpedoes. Many of these attacks were inaccurate, of course, given the technology of the time, but the Japanese were tenacious and eventually, both ships were crippled and then sunk:

“The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse marked not only the end of the dreadnought era but also the end of the British sea power in the Far East. Since the RAF was also crippled early in the campaign, the fate of Singapore would be decided by the British Army.”

According to Stille, the Japanese had started out the campaign with 142 aircraft, 99 of them bombers. 

Back in London, the feeling had been that the British only needed 336 aircraft, though commanders in Malaya had warned them that 566 were needed, especially since airpower was required, it was reckoned, to reduce the anticipated Japanese seaborne assault by 40 percent before it reached land.

In any event, what the RAF got was 155 operational aircraft and 88 in reserve. 

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A map of the Malay peninsula and Singapore (image from ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42’ by Mark Stille © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

On land, the two sides were closer to parity, at least in terms of numbers.

Once they’d been deposited by boat to the north of Malaya, Yamashita’s 25 Army pushed south. 

The Australian commander summed up their progress at the end of the campaign:

“The whole operation seems incredible: 550 miles in 55 days – forced back by a small Japanese army of only two divisions, riding stolen bicycles and without artillery support.”

In actual fact, Yamashita had three divisions under his command – 5 Division and the Imperial Guards Division, both mechanised; and 18 Division, an infantry unit, about 50,000 men – as well as supporting troops. This all came to about 88,000 men, which was almost exactly the same size as the British Army force (though they’d be resupplied with troops… the reinforcements arriving just in time to surrender.)

(Mark Stille has advised the Forces Network that 88,600 was the number assigned to British combat units at the start of the campaign, though not all were in Malaya – some being in Singapore, of course; conversely 88,689 was the total number assigned to Yamashita’s 25 Army. These too were combat, or combat support, troops but, likewise, not all of them were present when the campaign started).

Once ashore, the Japanese captured RAF airfields and plunged down the peninsula, making mincemeat, as already noted, of the notion that the swamps and jungles were impassable. According to Stille:

“To maintain the speed of the advance, the infantry would advance along the roads until contact was made, then the Japanese would move through the adjoining jungle or plantations to encircle the enemy. Once the enemy was flanked, the Japanese would set up roadblocks to complete the encirclement. Only if an enemy position could not be flanked would a frontal assault be attempted. This is where the tanks would come in, which the 25th Army had a plentiful supply of.”

Here too, the British had been outthought - they’d also presumed that tanks would be unusable in the jungle.

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“…on 7 January… A force of 30 Japanese tanks went on six-hour rampage against 11th Indian Division and destroyed the better part of two brigades” (image from ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42’ by Mark Stille © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

At Slim River, one unit opposing the Japanese was the 2 Argyll’s. 

Lieutenant Colonel Stewart’s three to five-man ‘tiger’ patrols had mortars and at least one Thompson submachine gun each, a replacement for the less powerful and less reliable Sten guns and mortars. (Having fired a Thompson M1 as a teenager in the US, the author can attest that they are very powerful because they certainly kick). 

Had things gone better for the Argyll’s, and if they’d been surrounded by troops trained to a similar level of expertise, they might have been able to put into practice some of the lessons described by Jeffreys:

“Operations in Burma and Malaya had shown the importance of junior leaders, as command must be decentralised in the jungle and therefore junior officers had to make instant decisions without recourse to the chain of command. This came through training and practical experience. Other lessons included the necessity of patrolling. There were two types of patrol, ‘reconnaissance’, which consisted of not more than six men, and ‘fighting’, where the minimum was platoon strength. The fighting patrol was often organised into three manoeuvre sections and one support section, the latter armed with 2in. mortars, rifle grenades and two light machine guns. Troops were encouraged not to leave litter on patrol and movement was off the tracks so as not to give intelligence to the enemy.

“During an attack in the jungle, the attacker has the advantage through intelligence and previous patrolling, and has the element of surprise. Thus, the frontal approach was usually discounted in favour of encirclement and flanking movements. The attacking force would be divided into four components… The first element fixes the track or some tactical features and fixes the enemy. The second and third outflank one or both of the enemy’s flanks or even the rear of the enemy. The fourth component was the reserve, which would exploit the success of the flanking movement or be able to contain the enemy counterattack (see the diagram above.) Similar tactics had proved effective when used by the Japanese in their advance through Malaya and Burma. Therefore, troops needed to counter-attack immediately after Japanese infiltration and before the enemy could build up its forces (see diagram below.)”

british infantryman in the far east
British ‘aggressive defence’ (in blue) anticipates Japanese flanking – most British units in Malaya weren’t trained to do this (image from ‘British Infantryman in the Far East’ by Alan Jeffreys © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In any case, the Argyll’s roadblock didn’t need to be flanked by the Japanese, because the Japanese ploughed straight through it, presumably assisted by their tanks.

Armour may have provided a nasty shock for British defenders, and they helped with the rapid capture of cities like Taiping, Kuala Lumpur and the advance to the island of Penang.

Max Hastings summed up the imperial snobbery that characterised the evacuation of the territory:

“The British very quickly made it plain that escape was something that was reserved for white people. That what happened to Malayan people, or Chinese people, or Indian people – the British, by their actions, showed they simply did not care. And this destroyed, in a matter of weeks, centuries of instinctive respect by colonial subjects towards the British imperial power, and so it deserved to.”

But the advance didn’t go entirely unchecked everywhere, and even the tanks ran into trouble near the Muar River, south of Kuala Lumpur.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 (image: someformofhuman)

When Japanese tanks ventured down one road there, they were confronted by two Australian anti-tank guns.

Charles Edwards, an Australian infantryman remembered:

“The anti-tank (guns) inflicted heavy casualties on their tanks; they took them out. One went up in smoke, the other one started to circle round and they got hit.”

Jimmy Kerr of the Australian Anti-Tank Regiment recalled:

“Our two guns knocked out the eight tanks and they immediately rushed us up to the front line, so when I got there and our gun was set up, the tanks were still on fire.”

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Smoke from burning rubber goes up from a Malayan rubber plantation as the British retreated to Singapore © IWM (KF 97)

Charles Edwards, an Australian infantryman remembered small explosions going off within the tanks as he approached:

“All the ammunition, the small-arms ammunition that they had started to go off. And then (there was) the smell of hamburgers – that was the crew of the tank being burnt… War is a terrible, stinking, horrible, shocking state of affairs. You’re asked to kill a man you’ve never met, and if you don’t kill him, he’ll kill you.”

As per the template, Stille points out that the Japanese sent 5,000 troops to outflank the Aussies:

“To maintain speed of the advance, the infantry would advance along the roads until contact was made, then the Japanese would move through the adjoining jungle or plantations to encircle the enemy. Once the enemy was flanked, the Japanese would set up roadblocks to complete the encirclement.”

This aligns exactly with Leo Murray’s observations. The take-home message appears to have been that if the British had spent a bit less time in India parading and a bit more doing jungle training, they might not have been caught off guard quote so badly.

Selangor in southern Malaysia today (image: andre oortgijs)

Now they were paying dearly for their faulty assumptions, as local Australian commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson was forced to evacuate, and to leave behind the seriously wounded (115 Australians and 35 Indians.)

He thought they’d be cared for, but infantryman Jimmy Kerr revealed their fate to Discovery:

“The Japanese shot or bayoneted them, poured petrol over them and set them on fire.”

History professor Hiromi Tanaka argued that, as shockingly brutal as this sounds, there was another way to think of it:

“As far as the Japanese were concerned, the cremation was an act to show their respect for the deceased. In the Japanese culture, burial is demeaning to the dead. To bury human bodies as if they were objects in believed to be wrong.”

And then there is the more holistic picture of escalation to consider. Australian infantryman Lieutenant Jack Verley noted:

“My view of what the Japanese did – it was an act of war. We did the same in similar situations. Up towards (the river) Muar, the Japanese wounded there, they were lying in a trench but they were also about to pull out pins of grenades and blast the advancing troops with them. Our men were told to kill them, shoot them. We were shooting their wounded, and when we got back to the bridge, the Japanese shot our wounded because… what could they do with them?”

With British forces rapidly peeling away, the Japanese now had Singapore in their sights.

osprey publishing
The Japanese attack on Singapore shown in red; British defenders (in blue) were spread around the island with the bulk in the northeast and west (image from ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42’ by Mark Stille © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

For many on the island, denial seems to have been the go-to response to the impending Japanese attack. According to Discovery:

“For nearly 150 years, Singapore, on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s east Asian colonies. In early 1942, with the Japanese on their doorstep, the colonial population on the besieged island appeared to be in denial. The ballroom at Raffles Hotel was shrouded in black curtains, but the orchestra still played from eight to midnight.”

One thinks of the band playing on the deck of the sinking Titanic, or the portrayal of Nazi soldiers and their families in the 2004 film ‘Downfall’, throwing a dance party as the Russian army closed in on Berlin in April, 1945.

Australian troops preparing on the north of the island couldn’t afford to be so deluded, though it appears some of their commanders still entertained unrealistic fantasies, at least according to one of them:

“We were stationed just over the causeway… and we watched… the last of the Argylls then the blowing up of the causeway. It was just like… as if… you’d burst a balloon… after it died down we said to our officers, ‘What a bloody little hole… that’s not much good’. (They said), ‘Ah, that’s only temporary because we’ll be advancing (soon)’.”

The campaign against Malaya and Singapore was launched more or less simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor, hence the emphasis, by this point, on Anglo-American cooperation

Any advancing soon was, of course, going to done by the Japanese, though not where the British necessarily expected. Yamashita had his men drive trucks at night up to the east side of Johore straits, then turn their headlights off and circle back before repeating the exercise. In this way, he was able to convince the British his main assault would come from that direction, when in fact he planned to send most of his forces across the strait to Singapore island at the narrowest point, in the west.

Stille tells us that, from here, they were able to quickly overrun the defenders:

“…the forward Australian positions were swamped by the weight of the Japanese attack. The Australians fought without artillery support and once ashore the Japanese infiltrated between the widely separated Australian defences.”

Appropriately enough, the Australian commander was named Gordon Bennett.

Churchill had ordered Percival to fight until the last man, but one can see why, with the prospect of savage street fighting occurring as the Japanese continued their advance, he was reluctant to carry out this instruction.

In fact, Japanese soldiers did manage to get inside Alexander Hospital where they bayonetted over 100 doctors, nurses and patients.

Another period news report on allied cooperation, this time between Britain, the US and Russia

Little wonder Percival cabled Churchill and asked for permission to just end it all by surrendering.

As we know, of course, once the 130,000-man British garrison did surrender (its ranks having been swelled by reinforcements), things were far from over. Many would die in captivity.

(Stille has also advised that of these 130,000 troops, only a portion, perhaps as few as 65,000, were combat troops; the Japanese, by contrast, sent about 35,000 combat troops onto Singapore island – still a significant difference, and a huge defeat for the British).

It wasn’t just Commonwealth troops who were to suffer under the Japanese. Many civilians were also killed, and the Chinese, in particular, were victimised.

Former Japanese infantryman Ryozo Kawate broke down in tears as he recalled for Discovery what he’d seen and done as a young Japanese soldier: 

“We were driven kilometres into the mountains and ordered to dig holes: ‘Dig holes two metres by five metres. Make sure they’re more than two metres deep. One hole per team’. A truck full of locals was brought from the military police compound. They were forced to stand around each hole. Soldiers surrounded them, holding bayonets. An officer went up to a high spot. He ordered us to circle them and stab them… Well, I did such a horrible thing. War is bad. I really understand how bad it is. There were dead bodies in the water. We tossed dirt over them with shovels. If someone stuck his hand out, we hit it… as we wept. We soldiers wept as we hit them. I think war is a terrible thing.”

Max Hastings sums things up:

“It’s impossible to overrate the shock that the fall of Singapore inflicted on the British people. They’d been told it was a fortress – there was this great British army there, up against a load of pathetic, little Japanese midgets. And it was going to be defended to the last man. This was going to be a heroic imperial saga. But suddenly, they see this huge imperial army surrendering to these despised Orientals, to the Japanese, and they were stunned.” 

British news report just before the battle of Singapore that must have seemed ludicrously upbeat, even at the time

Now the ‘despised Orientals’ had an empire of their own:

“At its peak in 1942, the Japanese empire extended over 20 million square miles. It’s land conquests were a third greater than Germany’s… The fall of Singapore has become a short-hand symbol for a huge swath of history. In the battle for Singapore and Malaya, 15,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilians of more than 10 nationalities gave their lives. It was not only Britain’s most humiliating defeat, but was the tipping point that led to the end of colonialism throughout the world, and changed Southeast Asia forever.”

Or, as historian Paul Ham put it: 

“The withdrawal of Britain from Singapore, the withdrawal of France from Indochina, the withdrawal of the European powers throughout Asia, led to a void that would be filled with something better, with something that would be their own. And so Singapore then became a symbol for a new kind of Asia. If the age of European imperialism began with Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to America, then it ended in 1942 with the fall of Singapore.”

For more on the fall of Malaya and Singapore and on jungle training, read ‘Malaya and Singapore 1941-42: The fall of Britain’s empire in the East’ by Mark Stille’, ‘British Infantryman in the Far East 1941-45’ by Alan Jeffreys, both from Osprey Publishing and ‘Blood Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II’ by Len Deighton; and read ‘War Games: The Psychology of Combat’ by Leo Murray for more on tactical psychology.

Thanks to Janet Hunter at the LSE for assistance with this article.

Image of Hainan Jungle from David Schroeter.

second world war
Japan's 1942 empire encompassed parts of modern China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Mariana, Caroline & Marshall islands (image: Mackay 86 (talk) and TastyCakes)

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