A Very British Catastrophe


Illusionary Fortress

December 1941 ‑ February 1942

A Campaign Scenario for the Battlefront Game System

By Ian Trout

It’s coming up to the fiftieth anniversary of this inglorious episode in British military history and, in common with most of Britain’s major disasters in the Second World War, we are still waiting for an honest examination, and explanation, of the events which happened there. The official history paints a picture of an overwhelming Japanese army, enjoying complete air and naval supremacy, crushing a valiant but scattered and inade­quately trained defending force.

A look behind the curtain reveals the facts to be otherwise. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous words; “Never… have so many with so much been beaten by so few with so little!”

What brought on the disaster? How could a 130,000 strong Commonwealth army be defeated by a 80,000 strong Japanese force? Who takes the blame? These questions form the basis for this article.

In addition, given Japanese naval superiority, could Malaya (or Singapore) have been held long enough for real relief to arrive? This is a much tougher question to answer; that’s the nature of what‑ifs. You can decide for yourself. This writer’s opinion will become evident soon enough!

In October of 1940, a conference was convened in Singapore with representatives from England, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands and the United States attending. Its purpose was to consider the defense of the Pacific area in general and the East Indies in particular. There was general agreement that an attack by Japan was inevitable although it was considered unlikely that the United States would be directly provoked. Hong Kong, Burma, Malaya (and Singapore), the Netherlands East Indies and certain islands in the Pacific were probable targets. Australia and New Zealand were too far away to be threatened, at least by the initial offensive.

Hong Kong was considered too isolated to be properly protected. Malaya was the key to the British position in the East Indies. A ground force of three division equivalents (26 infantry battalions, 14 field artillery batteries, 4 anti‑tank batteries and a regiment of light tanks) was considered the minimum necessary to mount a successful defense, provided an air force of 560 modern types was to hand.

It was acknowledged that most of the equipment would have to come from Britain; neither Australia nor New Zealand had the industrial infrastructure to supply the requirements. India might provide the manpower but little else.

There was not much prospect that Britain could supply the aircraft. The Battle of Britain still raged and what little could be spared from Britain’s home defense was dispatched to the Middle East. Nowhere in the plans for the defense of Malaya is it specified where these aircraft were to come from and, more importantly, what could (and should) be done without them. Right up to the Japanese invasion in December 1941, Malaya Command never had a plan for defending itself.

With what it actually had. All plans were drawn up on the expectation that the needed reinforcements would arrive in time to be employed.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil and the most perfunctory study of military history will surely tell you that reinforcements go to active theatres. In 1941, Britain went from crisis to crisis; the debacle in Greece and Crete, the German invasion of Russia and the resurgence of Axis fortunes in the Middle East. There was never a time when there was the slightest likelihood that the air reinforcements needed for Malaya would be forthcoming. Did Malaya Command not read the newspapers! But we’re getting ahead of the story; we’ll get onto the full significance of British military incompetence a little later.

The reliance on the arrival of a British naval squadron to see off Japanese sea power showed the same unwillingness to face reality. Surely the Japanese would launch their offensive at the precise moment when Britain would have the greatest difficulty in finding a fleet for the Far East. Again, no provision was made for conducting a de­fense on the basis of an indefinite delay in the appearance of the Royal Navy. That the Royal Navy, no matter how large a contingent was sent, may not have been equal to the task is another matter.

In the event, we get down to the following. The ground defense plans called for the following de­ployments. A division on the Thai border held in readiness to pre‑empt any Japanese move down the peninsula or an invasion of Southern Thai ports. A second division held in reserve in Johore and Sin­gapore to guard against an end run. A third divi­sion, split up to defend the newly built airstrips on the east coast. A further two brigades made up the theatre reserve.

What of the troops themselves? There were two In­dian divisions, the 9th and the 11th, the 8th Austra­lian division and a collection of local state militia and the Singapore garrison. The official histories, both British and Australian, contain far too many veiled accusations against the Indian and native troops, repeatedly referring to their lack of training and enthusiasm; all this with never a hint of criticism for their predominantly British leadership.

Somehow the impression has been created that the Japanese soldier, through some peculiarly oriental talent, was the master of jungle warfare while Commonwealth troops, and Indian soldiers in particular, were not suited for this kind of fighting. The two Indian divisions had been stationed in Malaya for twelve months or more.

Why were they so ill‑prepared for the impending struggle?

In the two years from the onset of war with Germany until the start of hostilities with Japan, only one training school was set up in Malaya, and that an Officer Training School. This is in direct contrast with the Middle East where there were upwards of a dozen training establishments dealing with every aspect of military endeavour, including those specifically related to desert warfare.

The official histories nowhere offer an explanation for the lack of similar facilities in Malaya. At the very least there was a need for a jungle warfare training facility; where did Malaya Command think its men were going to fight…

The responsibility for these omissions has to go to the top. It was Lt‑General Percival’s job to see his men adequately prepared to engage the enemy and he did no such thing. It didn’t help that there was a dearth of ability and/or initiative among his staff; that’s what usually happens in inactive theatres. Every officer with any drive had already wrangled his way into an active command. The British officers in the Indian divisions who might have been able to help staff these schools were on Indian Army pay scales (considerably higher than British Regular Army pay scales) and one must conclude that their reluctance to accept staff positions in Malaya Command was in some part pecuniary.

There was no attempt to modify the standard infantry doctrine to the densely foliated topography of Malaya. There were no briefings on Japanese infantry doctrine; it is doubtful that any British officer present had ever read the Japanese infantry manual. What is certain is that there was a general belief that any white man, particularly an English gentleman, would be more than a match for a short‑sighted oriental!

Even as late as November when it was obvious to everyone that a Japanese attack was imminent, there was no appreciable change in Malaya Command’s dispositions. The best part of two brigades still garrisoned airfields that were never going to service aircraft; at least not Allied planes!

The Australian division, held back in Johore, was an exception. It was commanded by the ablest soldier in the Australian Army, Major‑General H. Gordon Bennett. His communications with the Australian Government reveal his own sense of unease with Malaya Command’s deployments and the unsuitably of committing its forces in a piecemeal fashion. In his memoirs, every reference to Percival includes the words ‘cautious’, ‘diffident’, ‘unassuming’. It is manifestly clear that Bennett considered the British commander unsuitable, if not downright incompetent, for the position.

There was no attempt to put Japanese amphibious capability into perspective. After the occupation of French Indo‑China in April 1941, the nearest Japanese staging areas for an invasion of Malaya were in the southern Saigon/Cam Ranh Bay vicinity. That’s 400 miles north of Kota Bharu and more than 600 miles north of Singapore! The likelihood of a direct assault on Singapore was minimal; yet Percival persisted in assigning his best British battalions to its defense. The total impracticality of maintaining a line of communications across the open ocean, in the monsoon season, even without enemy air interdiction, when an alternate, land route through Thailand was available, had no impact on Malaya Command’s strategy. It’s as if they expected the Japanese to land everywhere, in strength, and at the same time!

The Japanese did not employ purpose-built amphibious vessels as the United States would do in 1944; they relied on requisitioned merchant ships which had to be returned to their usual duty of transporting raw materials as soon as possible. This was known to Malaya Command. Such craft were not suitable for a contested landing, to say nothing of the economic turmoil which would have resulted from their loss. At Kota Bharu, where the Japanese invasion fleet did meet some air opposition, one transport was lost and two damaged from a total of twenty sorties by obsolete Hudson bombers. Here, and at Singora and Patani, the Japanese were unable to provide more than sporadic air cover. Even with drop tanks, no Japanese fighter had the range to reach south of Kota Bharu.

Malaya Command did not do its sums. A serious invasion south of Kota Bharu was impossible and, of course, the Japanese didn’t try it. On the day the Japanese attacked, over 50% of Commonwealth strength, and arguably the best men in Percival’s army, were 300 miles south of where they should have been. Bennett knew it, but was unable to convince the stultified British General Staff of their error.

In war, the natural condition is to under‑estimate your own strength and to over‑estimate the enemy’s. In this campaign, Malaya Command’s con­tinual over‑estimation of Japanese military potential was never leavened by the events themselves’. In the first two weeks of the war, amphibious landings were made at Singora and Patani in Thailand, at Kota Bharu in Malaya and at Aparri, Vigan and Legaspi in the Philippines as well as various smaller operations in the Pa­cific. There were only so many ships in the Japanese navy!

None of these events could force a change in British strategy. The 8th Australian division continued to lan­guish in Johore while events in the north of Malaya went from bad to worse.

Before examining the course of the campaign, it’s as well to look at the Japanese army, and how well it had been prepared for the coming struggle. The XXV Army, commanded by the very capable General Yamashita, comprised two regular infantry divisions, the 5th and the 18th, two brigade groups from the Guards division, three medium tank regiments, some field artillery and assorted combat support units. A third infantry division, the 56th, remained in reserve in Japan and was not called upon. Army and naval air forces were assigned in support totalling about 700 combat aircraft.

Both infantry divisions were veterans of the long war in China but neither of them had any experience of jungle fighting. The advantages the Japanese army took with them into Malaya were resolute leadership, a fiery fighting spirit, great determination and a stub­born tenaciousness in adversity. They did enjoy air superiority but it was far from the complete ascendancy achieved by Allied air forces later in the war. Japanese air bases were a long way from the front, their fragile bomb­ers capable of delivering only modest pay‑loads and, most significantly, the quality of their maintenance and re­pairs left much to be desired.

Allied air policy in Malaya was not to challenge an enemy. Fighters were assigned to convoy protection duty, at which they did very well; not a single ship was lost to enemy air power until the first week of February. Furthermore, it was coming onto the rainy season and poor weather made air operations futile about one day in three.

They had tanks as well. The Type 95 medium tank mounted a low velocity 57mm gun. The optics were poor and the vehicle under‑powered. It had little off‑road capability. Tank doctrine was aggressive and very much in the Ger­man style; it’s just that the vehicle was not up to the demands placed upon it. On several occasions later in the cam­paign, Australian 2‑pdr anti‑tank bat­teries made mincemeat of them. And there were very few tank models then in service anywhere in the world that a 2‑pdr could dent!

Equally interesting is the list of their disadvantages. A Japanese infantry division was poorly supplied, by any standards, with artillery pieces, there were fewer of them, and of a smaller calibre, than atypical British division. There were fewer machine guns in the division, and no separate machine gun battalion. Radios were scarce and communications were by land line or, more usually, dispatch runners.

Japanese military tradition was such that the nation’s most able men gravi­tated to direct combat roles. Combat support, in particular logistics, intelli­gence and construction services were unreliable with the consequence that the Japanese soldier was often ex­pected to fend for himself and/or go hungry. The Japanese General Staff were aware of the problem but so in­grained was the tradition of Bushido that they could do nothing about it.

Much of the misery later experienced by Allied prisoners‑of‑war throughout South East Asia was due as much to the incompetence and inflexibility of garrison and logistics units as it was to deliberate brutality. Foremost, however, among these disadvantages was Japanese infantry doctrine itself. No other nation went into the Second World War with the same handicap! There was no provi­sion for any kind of retreat or with­drawal, nor was there any variation in the principles of attack. From begin­ning to end of the Malayan Campaign, the Japanese used exactly the same method each time. The front of the Commonwealth position would be pinned while squad/company detachments worked away at the flanks, penetrating well into the rear if they could. Once the infiltration was com­plete and flanking fire started, a frontal assault would dislodge the shaken defenders and another retreat, or rout, would be on. Time and again, Com­monwealth troops were pushed back by an attacking force barely half as numerous as the defenders.

The best response to an attack of this kind is to put in a determined counterattack. The British never really tried this. The Australians did, and scored the only notable successes in the entire Campaign. By then, however, with the Japanese three‑quarters of the way to Singapore was too late.

As the Americans were to demonstrate later in the year on Guadalcanal, the inflexibility of Japanese doctrine was a crucial weakness. If an attack didn’t work the first time, they’d do it again… and again! Resolute commanders with the right tactics could beat off a Japanese attack every time. The Russians, at Nomonhan in 1939, showed that; Viscount Slim showed it in India in 1944.

When the first reports of the Japanese landings reached Malaya Command, there was a half‑hearted attempt to activate Operation Matador, the planned offensive into Thailand to secure, or at least quarantine, the southern ports of Singora and Patani. It didn’t come to anything and defensive position was set up at Jitra. The Japanese began probing the defenses on the 10th and by the 13th they had unhinged the static defenders. This was the first of many retreats, and more orderly than most. Sometimes, as on the Perak and Slim Rivers, wholesale routs occurred and with them the loss of entire artillery batteries, motorised transport parks and huge quantities of supplies.

Malaya Command was a beaten army before it ever began to fight! They were all the time trying to hang onto territory, to hold this line or that; in war you win by beat­ing the other side’s army, by killing their troops. There was never a plan to concen­trate on a part of Yamashita’s army, to mass against it, and try to crush it. The British were short of modern aircraft and they didn’t have as much artillery as they wanted; though they did have more of the latter than the Japanese, and for most of the campaign, much more ammunition. Such short‑comings would not have prevented a determined and resolute attack. The Commonwealth army outnumbered the Japanese throughout the campaign, they had good road and rail communications and the Japanese air force could provide only sporadic interdiction. The means and the men were on hand to force a major battle; only the will was lacking.

The blame for the debacle lies squarely with Percival and his staff. Julius Caesar, de Turenne, Marlborough, Napoleon; they all said it. There are no bad soldiers… only bad generals!

Defeat followed by defeat will break the spirit of even the toughest troops. When soldiers lose confidence in their officers, an army is ruined. Malaya Command’s inability, and unwillingness, to get onto the front foot doomed the defense of Malaya from the very start. The final debacle on Singapore in the middle of February was the inevitable result.


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