The British Defence

The British defence posture in Malaya was bound by several constraints, some of which were effectively contradictory. Both Malaya and the Dutch East Indies had long been seen as military backwaters. Despite the economic significance of South East Asia to both Britain and the Netherlands, neither country had really made any great effort to ensure that there was proper planning and organisational procedures in the pre-war years. From the 1920s onward, successive British governments had developed a policy of simply assuming that there would not be another major war for the next ten years; a policy that was renewed periodically by incoming governments as they tried to cope with the depression of the 1930s by limiting spending on defence. The huge investment in the Singapore naval base would be the great exception, but in practice the failure to provide the necessary structure to protect the base would in due course make it something of a white elephant. The base was not simply a military asset. In part it was built to show the power of the British Empire and to demonstrate an intention to retain control of the Far East colonies, and thus the mineral wealth of Malaya and the commercial value of Singapore. It was also a gesture of solidarity with Australia and New Zealand; an indication that Britain was committed to ensuring the viability of the trade routes through the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

It was also a statement aimed at Japan: that Britain intended to be the primary naval power in the Western Pacific in partnership with the United States in the Central and Eastern Pacific. Naturally, such a policy rested on having a powerful and modern fleet that would be the equal of any Japanese force. Since Britain could not possibly hope to maintain such a fleet at Singapore without abandoning her commitments elsewhere, the statement was less than secure, but the British government felt confident – and with some reason – that in the event of a war with Japan, they would be able to count on American support. Planning for war in South East Asia essentially depended on the belief that Singapore could stand for 180 days, the maximum length of time that it would take to mount a relief expedition. In fact, the necessary stockpile of supplies was never amassed and the plan had not taken account of the possibility that there might be a major war in Europe that would prevent the dispatch of ships and materiel to Singapore. Defeat in the East was not inevitable even as late as 1939, and it was not unreasonable that the reality of war with Germany and Italy should take precedence over the possibility of war with Japan. There was little value in preserving distant colonies if the home country was at risk of being conquered. Equally, there was no value to maintaining a very large force of men on the other side of the world if they were not to be equipped properly, trained properly or led properly, and the failure to put sensible policies in place in any of these regards was an inexcusable dereliction of duty on the part of both the civil and military power in London.

The planning process of the 1930s depended on a large air force and a consequent need to protect the many airfields scattered through the peninsula, but there were also political and diplomatic considerations. British rule in Malaya had not been achieved through simple conquest and there was no single unified system of political control. The Straits Settlements – Singapore, Dinding and Penang – constituted a single Crown colony, but the rest of Malaya fell into two groups, the Federated Malay States (FMS) of Pahang, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Selangor and the Unfederated Malay States of Terengganu, Perlis, Johore, Kedah and Kelantan. The latter group enjoyed a greater degree of self-government than the others, but the British administration was obliged to provide defence for all of them. The rapid advance of the Japanese effectively rendered the treaty obligations redundant, but they had only exerted a very minor influence on the general planning process. Although there was clearly little he could do, throughout the course of the campaign Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya Command, would receive a number of remonstrations from sultans who felt, not unreasonably, that the British were failing to live up to their obligations.

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1. Scottish company of the Federated Malay States Volunteers. (Malayan Volunteers Association)

In practical military terms, Percival’s chief responsibilities were the defence of Malaya as a valuable economic asset and that was seen as depending on, and being crucial to, the preservation of the massive Singapore naval base. Construction of the base had been announced in 1923 but progress had been slow until the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931. By the time it was completed in 1939 it had cost something in the region of £60 million and was possibly the most costly naval installation ever built. It covered more than 20 square miles, held a massive fuel supply and had the largest dry dock in the world. It was built to support a massive fleet which could protect British interests throughout Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, but by the time hostilities began in 1941 Britain was already at war with Germany and Italy and most of the fleet was already committed to operations in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, thus little could be spared for operations in South Asia.

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2. Wartime medical pannier, possibly issued to the Federated Malay States Volunteers. (Author’s collection)

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3. A pre-war elevated bungalow in the Singapore naval base. (Author’s collection)

Arthur Percival

Born in 1887, Percival joined the army on the first day of the First World War as a private soldier. After a short spell in basic training he was selected for a temporary commission and had been promoted to captain before the end of the year. By mid-1916 he had transferred to the regular army and was commissioned as captain in the Essex Regiment. He proved to be an effective, conscientious and courageous officer, and he rose to command a battalion and, for a short time in 1918, a brigade. At the end of the war he volunteered for the Archangel Command of the British Military Mission and thereafter served in Ireland where he was the target of two IRA assassination attempts. After passing out from Camberley Staff College, where he made a good impression on the faculty, he was selected for a scheme of accelerated promotion that was designed to undermine the army tradition of ‘buggins turn’, which was – rightly – seen by many as an impediment to good practice. He spent four years as a staff officer in West Africa and, after a spell at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, returned to Camberley as an instructor.

Between 1936 and 1938 he served as a senior staff officer with Malaya Command and identified several of the weaknesses of the situation. He wrote a paper illustrating the means by which Singapore could be attacked overland from Thailand and was acutely aware of the shortage of defensive installations on the northern shore of the island. Despite this knowledge, a mixture of financial stringencies and civil obstruction prevented him from doing very much to rectify those problems when he was appointed as GOC Malaya Command in April 1941; in fact, he actively opposed building fortifications on the northern shore of Singapore Island on the grounds that they would be bad for morale.

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4. Lt Gen. Percival with war correspondents shortly before capitulation in Singapore, late January 1942.

There was nothing he could do to persuade the government in London that Malaya Command needed adequate armoured vehicles and, although he was aware that the policy of defending airfields throughout the peninsula was utterly compromised by the shortage of suitable aircraft, he did not act to overturn the policy. Similarly, he remained focused on the necessity of protecting the great Singapore naval base at Sembawang long after it became redundant through the loss of Force Z at the beginning of the campaign. Percival spent the years 1942 to 1945 as a prisoner of war in Taiwan and Manchuria, and after the war he was active on behalf of FEPOW, the Far East Prisoners of War Association.

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5. Lt Gen. Percival on arrival in Singapore as the new GOC Malaya.


Weighing over 37,000 tons, armed with ten 14in guns and with a top speed of over 28 knots (32mph), HMS Prince of Wales was one of the most modern battleships in the world, but the day of the battleship was long past. She was launched in May 1939 and was not yet complete when the war started. She came close to being destroyed in a German air raid in 1940 while she was still being fitted out. She was in action against the Bismarck and suffered damage which was repaired at Rosyth before being assigned to transport the prime minister, Winston Churchill, to a conference with President Roosevelt. On 10 December 1941 she was attacked by Japanese ‘Betty’ torpedo bombers, with the loss of over 300 of her 1,500-man crew. Prince of Wales and Repulse were the first warships of their respective classes (battleship and battlecruiser) to be sunk by aircraft while at sea. American and Italian ships had been sunk by air power whilst in port at Taranto and Pearl Harbor.

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6. HMS Prince of Wales.

Although there was a general reluctance to accept that there would be war with Japan, it was decided that a strong naval presence in Singapore might act as a deterrent and that the force of one heavy cruiser, four light cruisers (of First World War vintage) and three destroyers currently based at Singapore should be reinforced with the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse. A plan to supplement the force with the aircraft carrier Indomitable had to be abandoned when she ran aground near Jamaica. Repulse, Prince of Wales and four destroyers – known collectively as ‘Force Z’ – arrived in Singapore on 2 December 1941, only a week before the Japanese landings. The arrival of Force Z was a boost to the confidence of the British establishment and played well in the local press, but the absence of an aircraft carrier would prove to be a great weakness when battle was joined.

British Air Strength

The naval base was a significant military and political asset, but it was not a fortification and was not defensible in isolation. As early as 1940, Percival’s predecessor as GOC Malaya Command – Lt Gen. Lionel Bond – was well aware that Singapore could not be held securely without possession of the rest of Malaya, and that this could not be achieved without a strong army and, crucially, large numbers of aircraft.

The airfields to support an extensive air force had already been built, but the demands of the other theatres meant that only a small number – and none of the more advanced models – could be spared for Malaya. At the time of the Japanese attack there was a total of only 158 RAF aircraft in the region, although it had been suggested as early as October 1940 that a force of nearly 600 front-line aircraft was required. In addition to being woefully understrength in quantity, the RAF presence was also of poor quality. Only one-third of the aircraft in front-line service were fighters; all of them Brewster Buffaloes. The Buffalo suffered from several weaknesses: pilot protection was very poor; it was slow and prone to fuel problems at higher altitudes and to overheating. To make matters worse, when the Japanese struck nearly half of the fifty-two Buffaloes in the reserve stock were out of action through problems with a new engine design.


The Brewster F2A Buffalo was originally intended to serve as a carrier-borne fighter for the United States Navy, but was not a success. Considerable numbers were acquired by the British and Netherlands Royal Air Forces for pilot training and as a stop-gap measure in Asia due to the demands for Spitfires and Hurricanes in other theatres. The Buffalo was not a match for the Japanese Navy’s ‘Zero’ or the Imperial Army’s Oscar, but performed reasonably well against the army Nakajima Ki-27 ‘Nate’ fighter. Attempts to improve the Buffalo’s performance by fitting lighter guns – Browning .30 calibre in place of the original .50 calibre – and carrying less fuel and ammunition came to nothing. Buffaloes were flown from stations in Singapore and Malaya by Australian, New Zealand and British squadrons.

The rest of the combat aircraft consisted of a mixture of Blenheim bombers and twenty-four thoroughly obsolete Vickers Vildebeests. The situation was not helped by a general shortage of spare parts to keep the aircraft flying or by the lack of combat experience among the crews. Of the aircraft available, only the Blenheim was not outclassed by its Japanese counterparts, but without adequate fighter protection they would prove terribly vulnerable to the Zero and Oscar fighters of the enemy. Additionally, expectations were unrealistically high in the first days of the conflict. To an extent this was probably a legacy of the Battle of Britain in 1940, but there were two other factors: repeated claims that the Buffalo was more than a match for anything the Japanese had to offer, and that Japanese pilots were not particularly competent, not being able fly at night because of racially congenital eyesight problems. If the RAF was under-equipped in fighters and bombers, the situation was no better in regard to reconnaissance. Only three Catalina and seventeen Hudson aircraft were in service with another two Catalinas and seven Hudsons in reserve. RAF reconnaissance was effective at the beginning of the campaign, but although the approaching Japanese fleet was identified from the air by a Hudson on 6 December no action was taken by Far East Command.

British Ground Force

If Singapore was to be protected the airfields would need to be securely defended with thousands of men, but there would also need to be a powerful field army to repel an invasion by sea or overland from Thailand. Given the needs of the European and North African theatres, it was abundantly clear that troops would be increasingly hard to come by as the war progressed, but Percival was not actually short of troops; he was short of troops with sufficient training and he was short of adequate equipment.

Percival’s immediate superior was General Archibald Wavell. The two men did not always see eye-to-eye on the general approach to the campaign, and Wavell’s appreciation of the situation was not always very realistic. He did not know either the country or the troops and, initially, held the Japanese armed services in poor regard. Percival’s relationship with his subordinates was not altogether positive either.

The chief assets of Malaya Command were III Indian Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath; 8th Australian Division under Major General Gordon Bennett; Singapore Fortress under Major General Keith Simmons; and 12th Indian Brigade under Brigadier Paris. Heath’s position in the command structure was a difficult one. Unlike his colleagues – or his superior – he had recent senior battlefield experience as commander of 5th Indian Division in North Africa. He had very different views about the conduct of the campaign to Percival and suffered from his commander’s general lack of respect for the Indian Army, of which General Heath was a product. His command covered the whole of northern Malaya and was, at best, an unwieldy structure. In addition to two divisions (9th and 11th Indian, though each had only two brigades instead of three) and the 28th Indian Independent Brigade, Heath had responsibility for Penang Fortress and three battalions assigned to airfield defence. Major General Barstow’s 11th Division was stationed between Alor Setar and Sadao in the north-east, 40 miles away from divisional headquarters near Butterworth. The 9th Division was rather more scattered, with 8th Brigade at Kota Bahru and 22nd Brigade nearly 200 miles south at Kuantan. Although both brigades were on the east coast, divisional headquarters had been placed close to Heath’s own HQ in the vicinity of Kuala Lumpur, on the other side of the country. The remaining formation, 28th Indian, was at Ipoh, roughly equidistant from the other concentrations of the corps.

Sir Lewis Heath

Heath was born in 1885. He joined the Indian Army in 1906 and served until his retirement in 1946, save for the period between 1909 and 1913, when he served with the King’s African Rifles. After the First World War he served in Persia and Afghanistan and was appointed to command 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment in 1930. He was an instructor on the staff of the Indian Army’s Senior Officers’ School at Belgaum from 1934–36.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was the commander of the 5th Indian Division based at Secunderabad. At that point the division consisted of two brigades, each of three battalions of Indian infantry. In 1940 5th Division was transferred to the Sudan, where it was joined by three British infantry battalions so that each brigade would have two Indian and one British battalion, which was the normal practice for Indian formations throughout the Second World War. The division served with some distinction in Eritrea in 1940, and in Egypt and Iraq in 1941, and it was from there that Heath – known widely as ‘Piggy’ – was appointed as commander of III Indian Corps in Malaya Command. Heath did not share his superior’s views on the conduct of the campaign but was generally as supportive of Percival as he could be. He was taken prisoner in February 1942 and spent the next three and a half years in captivity in Taiwan and Manchuria.

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7. Lt Gen. Sir Lewis Heath.

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8. Indian mountain gunners in training.

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9. Battlefield Archaeology. A Cambridgeshire Regiment cap badge recovered by Glasgow University’s Adam Park Project. (Jon Cooper)

Bennett’s 8th Australian Division, also of just two brigades, lay further to the south; 22nd Australian Brigade (Brigadier Taylor) was to the north of Mersing and 27th Australian Brigade (Brigadier Maxwell) near Kluang. Percival had distributed his forces widely to ensure that there were troops at all of the places most likely to be attacked, but in doing so had also ensured that none of his formations was in a position to move quickly to the support of any other.

If the general deployment was weak, contingency planning was no better. Arrangements had been made for a mobile force (to be known as Krohcol) to enter Thailand in the event of Japanese landings and to occupy a hillside road position known as ‘the Ledge’. The plan was sound: blocking the Ledge would undoubtedly stall the Japanese advance for a time and allow formations to be brought into the battle in a rational and effective manner, but there was no means of ensuring that the plan – Operation Matador – could be launched in time to secure the position. Additionally, little had been done to prepare for attack. Modest beach defences had been erected at various points, though many of them – notably those to the south of Kota Bahru – were only dummies.

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10. Battlefield Archaeology. Glasgow University is conducting The Adam Park Project (TAPP) excavating an area where the Cambridgeshire Regiment was in action. (Jon Cooper)

Although III Corps was theoretically organised as a combat formation, in practice it was really more a loose collection of battalions scattered across the country. There had been very little in the way of brigade-level training, even less at divisional level and virtually none at corps level. Signals equipment was poor and in short supply, and the failure to conduct regular and challenging exercises meant that the signals staff had had no opportunity to develop techniques and practices. For the same reason, staff work was generally of a poor standard throughout the campaign, though there were some very creditable exceptions. There were plenty of excuses for these deficiencies – shortage of equipment and funds, the continual drain of key personnel to replace losses in the Middle East campaigns – but the single greatest barrier was that few people believed that the Japanese would attack and many of those who thought they might were far too confident that the enemy could be defeated quickly and easily. Shortages certainly were a real challenge, but, in all, Percival and Heath were responsible for doing everything they could to ensure that their troops were fit and ready for battle.

Inadequate training and preparation was not simply a question of failures at a senior level – though commanders should certainly have been making sure that the individual units were being properly prepared – but few of the infantry battalions were really in a condition to fight. Although there were several regular infantry battalions in Malaya Command, only one, 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, had been put through an appropriate training programme. The colonel, Ian Stewart, had adopted a rigorous regime as soon as his battalion arrived in Malaya from India early in 1941. As well as conducting regular exercises and rout marches to ensure fitness and proficiency, he had located some armoured cars in store in Singapore and had had them made ready for combat. Stewart’s actions were seen as eccentric by many, but when the fighting started the Argylls proved to the most useful unit in the entire command. As Wavell put it:

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11. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in training.

If all units in Malaya had been led with the same foresight and imagination that Brigadier Stewart showed with the training of his battalion, the story of the campaign might have been different. It was the realisation of this that led me to order Brigadier Stewart’s return to India to impart his knowledge and ideas to units preparing for the return match with the Japanese.

Major General Woodburn Kirby, The War Against Japan,

HMSO, 1957

The price of being prepared for fighting in Malaya was that the Argylls would be called upon repeatedly to deal with crises and paid a heavy price in casualties, so much so that they would eventually have to have their numbers made up with Royal Marines from the Repulse and Prince of Wales, and would acquire the nickname ‘Plymouth Argyles’ on account of the name of the football team and the marines’ long association with that town.

Commonwealth Troops

Although there were several British battalions, the majority of the infantry were either Indian or Australian. The Indian battalions came from two sources: either battalions of the Indian Army proper or units ‘on loan’ from independent Indian States Forces (ISF). When the war started in 1939 the Indian Army was subjected to a massive programme of expansion, which had been far too rapid to allow for proper training. Most of the officers were young British men, recently recruited and many not yet really competent in the languages of their soldiers. This was a major issue since, because of the very rapid expansion of the Indian Army, it had not been possible to ensure that units were composed of men from a single cultural background and it was not uncommon for two or three languages to be used in just one battalion.

In general, these newly raised units had not attained the high standards of the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions fighting in the desert or that would reach Burma, where by 1944 the majority of the infantry in the Fourteenth Army would be either Indian or African. By December 1941 some of the Indian battalions had been in Malaya for a long time, but few had been properly trained. Like the British battalions, this was, to some extent, a product of having to send trained officers, VCOs (Viceroy Commissioned Officers) and NCOs as replacements for the units in the Middle East, a process known as ‘milking’. Some Indian officers had received only very rudimentary training before being posted to their units and some senior NCOs had been commissioned despite not really being suitable material.


VCOs were officers in the Indian Army. They were junior in rank and status to king’s commissioned officers, but superior to warrant officers. At the start of the war most commissioned officers in Indian regiments were British, though the proportion of Indian-born officers was rising steadily. Almost all VCOs were men with long records of exemplary service and provided a vital cultural and linguistic link to ensure an effective relationship between the officers and the ORs (other ranks). There were three grades of VCO in infantry battalions: jemadars, subedars and subedar-majors.

There were also acute shortages of particular items, notably mortars, light machine guns and Bren carriers. The infantry units were not alone in this. The officer shortage was made worse by the fact that many Indian officers of the pre-war regular army infantry units had been posted to newly raised artillery and armoured units training in India or North Africa. Tropical uniforms were available in adequate quantities, though the standard-issue British Army boots and thick socks can hardly have been comfortable. Almost all troops were issued with steel helmets, but considerable numbers wore general Service caps, regimental bonnets or old- fashioned ‘solar topis’. British and Australian troops were issued with the same pattern of webbing as their comrades elsewhere and Indian troops with the similar ‘India pattern’ variant.

Many Indian Army units had no time to become acclimatised. For most of the men, Malaya was a very different environment from home and this was not always appreciated by British or Australian officers, some of whom rather assumed that all Asian populations grew up in much the same sort of climate. Some Indian units had almost no training at all. The men were recruited, put on ships and transported to Malaya on the assumption that there would be time to train them once they were ‘in-country’. Overall, the remarkable thing is that so many Indian units performed as well as they did in the Malayan campaign, and it is hardly surprising that many thousands chose to join the India National Army (INA).

Gordon Bennett

Born at Melbourne in 1887, Bennett served courageously and with distinction in the First World War. He fought at Gallipoli and in France, and acquired a CB, CMG and DSO, rising to the rank of brigadier at the age of 29. After the First World War he worked in textiles and as an accountant before becoming a senior local government official and the President of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia in 1933. He was appointed major general in the Australian Reserve forces in 1930. He was a fierce critic of Australian defence policy in general and published several articles attacking both the policies and the personnel of the Australian Army in 1937. Partly on account of those articles and partly because it was widely believed that he was not a suitable person to have a command that would involve co-operation with senior British officers, he was not appointed to a command in the Australian force in North Africa – he was just as critical of the British hierarchy as he was of his Australian superiors.

Constantly at odds with his colleagues, subordinates and superiors, Bennett was extremely critical of regular officers, but was appointed to command Australian 8th Division and posted to Singapore in February 1942. In this role he was adamant that his force should be kept intact rather than being split up to support other formations as needed. Unlike his superior, Percival, Bennett chose to abandon his post and escaped to Australia. Although he received a warm welcome from his political superiors, his actions were not appreciated in the Australian Army and by 1943 his career was effectively over; by mid-1944 he had been moved on to the reserve list. He published a book, Why Singapore Fell, which was highly critical of all of his colleagues.

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12. Lt Gen. Percival and Maj. Gen. Bennett.

The Malay Regiment and the various local volunteer units were, naturally, better used to the climate, but they were few in number and, like the rest of Malaya Command, were bedevilled by shortages or obsolescent equipment. Local recruitment did not extend to the large Chinese population until the very end of the campaign, when the battle was already lost.

Pre-war Australia had several reserve forces divisions that were expanded rapidly on the outbreak of war in 1939. Few of the officers, even at brigade and battalion commander level, were professional soldiers. Most 8th Division troops volunteered after the fall of France in June 1940 and had, therefore, been in uniform for more than a year at the beginning of the Malayan campaign.

The Australian policy of giving troops their basic training at home, rather than continuing the process once they arrived overseas, meant that the troops were trained for and in the location to which they were posted. In general this was a sensible policy since it did lead to good standards overall, but it meant that replacements joining the division in the later stages of the battle had not been either fully trained or acclimatised. An infantry division is designed to act as a team, and 8th Division never received its third brigade. Furthermore, though there was a policy that Australian forces should always act as clearly defined entities, operational requirements and questionable policies forced the two brigades to operate separately, thus arguably compromising organisation in battle. There had been relatively little brigade- or divisional-level training to integrate the units properly, so it is unclear how much difference dividing the formation really made once the campaign was underway, but it clearly did not help. Equally, there had been no serious corps-level training at all with the formations of Malaya Command, so none of the divisional or brigade headquarters were fully competent to run battles.

The situation was not helped by the divisional commander, Gordon Bennett. Bennett had served in the First World War, commanding a battalion and later a brigade with some skill, and had served as commander of a militia division before the war. His success in the Great War perhaps helped to encourage his total confidence in his own abilities in 1941–42.

His lack of belief in his fellow commanders – though not entirely misplaced – undermined confidence in Percival and Heath throughout Malaya Command. Abrasive and over-confident, he managed to alienate most of his brigade and battalion commanders, especially the regulars, since he was strongly prejudiced in favour of reserve officers like himself. Bennett held strong views about the nature of operations required, but was not adept at ensuring they were actually mounted. He had no confidence in Percival at all and was willing to go behind his commander’s back or over his head to avoid doing anything he did not want to do.


Infantry units throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth conformed to a common organisation. Each battalion had four rifle companies divided into four platoons and each platoon into three ‘sections’ of ten men. The standard firearm of all the Allied infantry, British, Indian and Australian, was the Lee-Enfield .303 calibre rifle. A reliable and accurate bolt-action weapon with a ten-round magazine, the Lee-Enfield was far superior to the Japanese Arisaka. In addition to the Lee-Enfields, each section had a Bren light machine gun. The Bren – like the Lee-Enfield – was a fine piece of equipment. The magazine could take thirty rounds, though it was common practice to load with only twenty-eight to reduce strain on the magazine spring and prevent jamming. Experience in France in 1940 had shown the need for another automatic weapon at section level. The Sten gun had been invented to fill this need along with large purchases of Thompson sub-machine guns from the United States, but many units in Malaya Command did not receive either in adequate quantities due to the demands of other theatres.


The Vickers gun was adopted by the British Army in 1912 and became the standard machine gun for all the Commonwealth countries. It was gas operated and the barrel was cooled by a water-filled jacket. Despite the tropical heat, the Vickers gun performed admirably in Malaya and Singapore. The gun fired the same .303 calibre bullets as the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Bren gun, but from 250-round canvas belts. Each battalion had a machine-gun platoon usually with four weapons and with six to eight men per gun; two to operate the weapon and the others to carry ammunition and provide protection for the gun team.

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13. The Vickers machine gun was the standard for all Commonwealth countries. This one in use in Malaya, December 1941.

In theory, each infantry battalion also had a machine-gun platoon with Vickers .303in machine guns and a mortar platoon with 3in mortars. These were both good-quality weapons, but again the demands of other theatres had taken precedence and several battalions did not have their full complement. The battalion-level anti-tank weapon was the Boyes anti-tank rifle, a 0.5in bolt-action weapon, which was completely obsolete in Europe and North Africa against German and Italian vehicles, but could still make an impression on some of the lighter Japanese armoured cars and tanks.

One of the peculiarities of the British approach to combat was the Bren carrier. This lightly armoured tracked vehicle was put to innumerable uses, but its chief function was to provide rapid intervention and support for the rifle companies. Although a good deal of the tactical practice of an infantry battalion revolved around its carrier platoon, many units in Malaya Command did not have their full complement and some had none at all.

A great weakness in Malaya Command was communication. There was little wireless equipment and a good deal of what was available was not very effective. Laying cables for field telephones was slow and cumbersome and the cables themselves were very vulnerable to artillery fire.

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14. A Bren light machine gun on a tripod mount; a rare configuration. (Joost J. Bakker)


More Bren carriers were produced than any other armoured vehicle in history. Initially issued in small numbers to infantry battalions as transport for heavy equipment such as mortars, by late 1941 every battalion was supposed to have a ‘carrier platoon’ with 2in mortars and Bren guns to provide rapid support as required. Few of the infantry battalions in Malaya Command had their full complement of carriers and some none at all.


The artillery element of Malaya Command suffered from the same problems as the infantry. Most of the field artillery regiments had been issued with the excellent 25-pounder gun/howitzer, but because of the demands of the North Africa campaign several units had only two batteries of eight guns rather than three. The anti-tank regiments were, in the main, at full strength with forty-eight 2-pounder guns each. The 2-pounder was reasonably accurate and had a good rate of fire, but was relatively slow to deploy. Like the Boyes rifle, it had been made obsolete by the rapid development of armour in European armies, but it was capable of holding its own against Japanese tanks and armoured cars.

The most significant weakness on the ground lay in the complete absence of tanks. British tanks were not particularly well armoured or well armed, though many models were mechanically reliable. The various Vickers light tanks and the Matilda and Valentine models had proved to be entirely inadequate against the Axis forces in the desert, where a high degree of visibility often meant a British vehicle could be knocked out of action long before it was close enough to engage effectively, but these same vehicles would have been on a par with their Japanese counterparts. The lack of tanks was not caused by demands elsewhere, but had been a matter of policy. Although General Bond had asked for at least one regiment of medium tanks as early as 1940, there was a near-universal assumption that tanks could not operate in the terrain of Malaya.

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15. Japanese anti-tank rifle. Developed in the First World War, anti-tank rifles were largely obsolete before 1941, but were capable of penetrating the light armour of the few Allied armoured cars in Malaya. (Author’s collection)

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16. Battlefield Archaeology. An example of the Japanese anti-tank rifle. The tropical climate means that most material degrades very quickly. (Author’s collection)

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17. 25-pounder field guns at Sentosa, Singapore. (Author’s collection)


The 25-pounder was the standard field artillery piece of the Royal Artillery and with Commonwealth armies throughout the Second World War; it remained in service until the 1960s and well beyond in other countries. Each field regiment was equipped with twenty-four guns divided into three batteries of eight, each comprising two troops of four and they in turn consisted of two sections of two guns each. Strictly speaking, the 25-pounder was a ‘gun/howitzer’ since it could fire in both the lower register (0–45 degrees) and the upper register (45–90 degrees). The gun provided sterling service in Malaya despite the hot and damp conditions, though several regiments had only two batteries instead of three.


The 2-pounder was the standard British and Commonwealth anti-tank gun at the beginning of the Second World War. Although it was originally designed to be mounted in tank turrets, the army sought a surface mounting so that it could be used by anti-tank regiments or anti-tank platoons in infantry battalions. The carriage adopted had three legs, two of which folded up under the gun whilst in transport. Those two legs and the wheels had to be moved to position the gun for action, which made it difficult to deploy quickly, but once it was ready the gun could traverse easily through 360 degrees. By late 1941 the 2-pounder had been outclassed by German and Italian tanks but it was quite capable of penetrating the relatively thin and poor-quality hulls of the Japanese Chi-Ha and Ha-Go.

There was a modest supply of armoured cars, mostly Marmon- Herringtons and Lanchesters, but these were slow and lightly armoured. None of them mounted anything heavier than a machine gun and were therefore clearly incapable of standing up to Japanese tanks. The problems were multiplied by an almost total deficiency in training. The Indian 3rd Cavalry had their horses replaced with armoured cars but had had virtually no training at all, with the result that almost all of their vehicles were written off before they could go into action. In addition, because of the assumption that Malaya was not suitable territory for armoured conflict, none of the infantry units had had any worthwhile training in dealing with armoured attacks; many soldiers had never even seen a tank before they encountered them on the battlefield.

The assumptions about the ‘impenetrable jungle’ and the impracticality of armoured warfare were simply ridiculous and should have been challenged by the senior officers in Malaya Command. Armies in general – and tanks in particular – travel along roads primarily, only deploying to countryside when obstructed by the enemy, and although there were few roads running east–west across the country, there were fine highways running south from Thailand to Singapore. Tactical assumptions made once the campaign started were often just as bad. Wavell’s instructions to Percival that he should fight the ‘main battle’ in areas where his ‘superior artillery’ could be used to advantage were not superficially unreasonable, but rather depended on the belief that the Japanese artillery was not capable of effective counter-battery work. In practice, poor communications, poor training, a failure to ensure adequate supplies of ammunition and the inability to stem Japanese advance undermined the premise. After the lengthy retreat down the peninsula, the troops were not confident in combat and became increasingly unlikely to make a determined stand. Often, when they did stop the Japanese advance, they were obliged to retire because of threats to their flanks or breakthroughs against other units that might result in encirclement. A number of withdrawals occurred due to misleading orders or to the perceived need to maintain the integrity of formations as viable combat assets.

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18. Rubber plantation. The endless rows of trees had a depressing effect on many troops. (Author’s collection)


The first Lanchester armoured cars entered service with the British Army in 1929. Lanchesters had a nominal top speed of about 50mph and a range of about 250 miles. They were armed with two .303 Vickers guns and one 0.5 calibre Vickers. In North Africa, Lanchesters proved to be obsolete and a considerable number were sent to India and the Far East. The story goes that Colonel Ian Stewart of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders found that there were some in store on Singapore and promptly ‘acquired’ them and put them to use in exercises with his battalion.


Designated the Type 97 from the Imperial year of 2597. The original main armament was a low-velocity 57mm gun, later exchanged for a high-velocity 47mm gun with better armour-piercing capability. The Chi-Ha was also equipped with two 7.7mm machine guns, one on the hull of the vehicle, the other mounted facing backwards from the turret – a very unusual arrangement. The turret armour was 25mm (1in) thick on the turret, which made the Chi-Ha very vulnerable to even light anti-tank weapons. The 21.7L diesel engine gave the 15-ton Chi-Ha a top speed of 24mph and a range of about 160 miles. Over 1,000 Chi-Ha tanks were built and they saw service in Malaya with 1st, 6th and 14th Tank Regiments.

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19. A speeding Ha-Go Type 95 tank.


Production of the Type 95 Ha-Go, also known as the Kyu-Go, was the most common Japanese tank of the Second World War, with over 2,300 vehicles produced between 1935 and 1943, including a field engineering crane and an amphibious version. Ha-Go tanks were at least as good as any light tank in the world when they were introduced in 1935, and were a match for the Honey (or Stuart) tanks they encountered in Burma and the Pacific in terms of speed and manoeuvrability. The Ha-Go was driven by a 14L Mitsubishi diesel engine and armed with a 37mm gun and two 7.7mm machine guns. Some hundreds of Ha-Go tanks were captured by Chinese forces at the end of the Second World War and they saw extensive service in the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists.

Misconceptions & Shortcomings

In addition to the problems with shortages, poor equipment and inadequate training, the Allied commanders underestimated the Japanese to a ridiculous degree. To some extent this was simply racism. The notion that the Japanese were short, were poor physical specimens generally, had poor eyesight and that their equipment was bad was compounded by faulty strategic and tactical analysis. Japan had already been at war for some years and gained a wealth of experience, but Westerners did not see Chinese forces as serious opposition. The fact that Japan had been roundly defeated by the Soviet Union in 1938 and that now – at the end of 1941 – the Russians were being heavily beaten by the Germans did not mean that the Japanese were incompetent, but that was the general perception of the British military establishment.

None of this was helped by a policy position at Westminster that can only be described as wishful thinking. The assumption that there would not be war in the East ignored the possibility that Japan might see the European war as an opportunity.

By the time General Yamashita’s troops reached Johore, very little of any value had been done to prepare Singapore for a siege. Claims that Singapore was an ‘impregnable fortress’ bore no relation to reality. There were a number of defensive installations dating from the construction of the Singapore naval base. A dozen batteries had been erected and equipped with 6in or 9.2in guns, but they had all been located on the southern coast of the island, on the assumption that any threat to Singapore would come from the sea, not overland from Malaya. By good fortune it transpired that most of the guns would be able to fire to the north, but there was a severe shortage of suitable ammunition. The majority of the supply available consisted of armour-piercing shells that would be effective against ships; there was very few of the high-explosive shells required to break up attacks on land.

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20. Pre-war concrete emplacement for a 9.2in gun. (Author’s collection)

In the last weeks of the campaign on the mainland some effort was made to provide defences on the northern shore, but little progress was made. It was difficult to procure labour since the civil authorities would not allow Percival to pay an adequate wage. An attempt was made to keep the preparations secret from the community for fear that there would be a decline in morale, though it was obviously impractical to maintain security with so many people working on defences. Such work as was undertaken was increasingly at risk from Japanese air attacks. When the bombers came into view, the labourers would scatter and it was very difficult to persuade them to go back to work if there was not going to be any friendly air cover. A number of concrete machine-gun positions had been built in the 1930s and a few more once the campaign started, but they were few in number and far too widely scattered.

Much more could have been done to protect the island; mines and barbed wire were available in the sense that there were extensive stocks of both, but poor record keeping meant that no one knew where they were stored and a general lack of urgency meant that no one tried very hard to find them. In the final days before the battle there was a little more urgency, but some of the arrangements and propositions smacked of fantasy. There were not enough searchlights to cover all the likely landing areas and there were plans to use car headlights. Providing power for headlights other than by leaving them mounted on cars with the engines running would obviously be a challenge, but the illumination would have been marginal anyway.

The civil defence arrangements were equally poor. During the first air raid on the city all the lights were left on because no-one knew how to swtich them off, aircraft were not scrambled for fear of friendly fire and there was a general lack of night-fighter training. There was very little in the way of an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) system and very few shelters. The latter was, admittedly, something of a challenge given the very low water table: the floors of even relatively shallow slit trenches tended to become a soggy quagmire in no time at all.

The appointment of a resident minister to ensure all was being done that could be done did not help. Sir Alfred ‘Duff’ Cooper arrived in 1941 but found he was obstructed at every turn by the governor, Sir Shenton Thomas. Cooper probably did not have the relevant skills or experience to make a great impression on the situation, and he certainly did not have the powers to do so. Although he did manage to secure the appointment of one person to co-ordinate all civil defence efforts in Singapore and Johore, Shenton Thomas ensured that the appointee – Brigadier Simpson – was denied the powers to do the job. Other than a desire to preserve his own authority as governor in all matters, it is impossible to see why Thomas should have been so obstructive; however, he did not get on well with Cooper and may have acted out of nothing more than resentment.

The Japanese Army

The general ethos of the Japanese Army could hardly have been more different to those of Britain, India or Australia. Encouraged to be self-reliant and treated with ruthless brutality, the Japanese soldiers’ training instilled confidence in battle and a high degree of physical fitness. Prior to the invasion, only one regiment had engaged in any degree of jungle training, so the average Japanese soldier was no more familiar with the combat environment than his British or Indian counterpart; the difference was that he had been taught not to fear the jungle, whereas most Allied troops had been conditioned to avoid it.

Japanese Army staff work and the ability to improvise had been honed by years of fighting in China, where considerable distances and a poor transport infrastructure posed major problems with supplies. The term ‘army’ as in ‘Twenty-Fifth Army’ really equates to the term ‘corps’ in other armies. An ‘army’ was not so much a permanent administrative structure as a group of divisions brought together for a particular campaign. The Twenty-Fifth Army consisted of the three infantry divisions, 5th, 18th and the Imperial Guards, supported by elements of four medium and light tank regiments.

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21. Waxwork effigy of a Japanese soldier with an Arisaka rifle at the Si!oso Fort Museum, Singapore.

The Japanese divisional structure varied considerably throughout the war and from one theatre to another, but 5th and 18th Divisions in 1941 each had two infantry brigades, each of two regiments comprising three battalions; some twelve infantry battalions in total. Each division had an artillery regiment, a reconnaissance unit and various divisional troops. The Imperial Guards Division and 5th Division were entirely motorised, but 18th Division’s transport was horse drawn and the reconnaissance unit was a cavalry battalion. The division started the campaign with nearly 6,000 horses, which may seem anachronistic, but in fact almost all of the German divisions other than those in North Africa had horse-drawn transport and artillery throughout the Second World War. The Guards Division had nine battalions in three regiments and although the formation enjoyed a certain status, it was, arguably, the least effective of the three divisions in the Twenty-Fifth Army.

With about thirty officers and a little over 1,000 men at full strength, the Japanese infantry battalion was rather larger than its Commonwealth counterpart and consisted of a headquarters company, a machine-gun company and four rifle companies. The companies, again bigger than their Commonwealth equivalent, had a headquarters company, three rifle platoons each with three squads of thirteen men commanded by a corporal or sergeant, and a grenade discharger squad of thirteen men to give a total company roll of about 200. The standard rifle was the Type 99 Arisaka, a bolt-action weapon of 7.7mm calibre; however, some of the earlier Type 38 models (6.5mm calibre) were still in use, which complicated ammunition supply. The Japanese infantrymen had a rather ramshackle appearance which belied their fighting ability. Their cotton uniforms came in a wide variety of shades of khaki, green and grey, and the puttees worn by many gave them a somewhat old-fashioned look. Steel helmets were issued as standard, but some chose to wear ‘solar topi’-type sun helmets. Soft rubber-soled shoes were popular and gave the advantage of virtual silence on the battlefield, but most soldiers wore slightly curious footwear with a separation to accommodate the big toe.

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22. Japanese machine-gun crew.

The standard squad light machine gun was the dependable and accurate Type 99, which was very similar in appearance to the British Bren gun, even to the thirty-round curved magazine. Japanese officers were expected to purchase their own pistols and many favoured foreign-made weapons over the underpowered and unreliable Nambu models. Japanese officers and NCOs were much more inclined to carry swords into battle. Some were treasured antiques handed down through generations; others were mass-produced weapons of poor quality. One squad in each platoon was equipped with the Type 89 grenade discharger, which could fire a fragmentation grenade or a high-explosive shell weighing about 2lb. The platoon’s offensive power went some way to compensate for the lack of a mortar platoon at battalion level, as was common practice in most armies.

Each regiment had an integral gun company with two sections, each with two 75mm guns, and an anti-tank gun company of six 37mm or 47mm guns. Each division would normally have one regiment of field artillery, one of engineers, a transport regiment, a signals unit and a medical unit; however, divisional structure varied widely depending on location and the nature of the formation. A division with horse transport required a lot more manpower so, for example, with strength of 22,000 men, 18th Division was almost half as large again as 5th Division with 15,000.


The Arisaka was the standard rifle of the Imperial Japanese Army throughout the war, though in practice a large number of its predecessor, the Type 38, remained in use because Japanese industry could not meet the demands of the army. The Arisaka took a 7.7mm cartridge and had a five-round box magazine. Introduced in 1939, the Arisaka was, overall, a good-quality weapon, though neither as sturdy nor as accurate as the Allied Lee-Enfield and with only half the magazine capacity; the quality of production also declined after 1942. Over 3 million Arisakas were made; many saw service with Indonesian nationalists after the war.

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23. Riflemen with the Arisaka rifle.


The Japanese Army adopted only one revolver, the model 26. It was a double-action, 9mm, six-shot weapon based largely on Smith and Wesson designs of the late nineteenth century. The most common automatic pistol was the Type 14 Nambu, which fired a low-velocity 8mm round. Neither model was especially popular and, since Japanese officers were obliged to provide their own side arms, many of them chose to purchase foreign models privately or to acquire them on the battlefield. The Nambu was quite accurate, but was prone to jamming. Something in the region of 200,000 Nambus were produced between 1906 and the end of the war in 1945.

A divisional field artillery regiment would usually have one howitzer and two field-gun batteries. The gun battalions consisted of three batteries each with three sections of two 75mm pieces, a total of eighteen guns. The howitzer regiment would normally have four batteries each with two sections of two 105mm weapons, a total of sixteen.

Estimates of the number of tanks available to the Twenty-Fifth Army run as high as a little over 300. The British Official History gives figures of 70 medium and 100 light tanks but makes no mention of armoured cars at all, though some were certainly in use with reconnaissance units. The Japanese never really developed an armoured doctrine as such and the normal practice was to deploy tanks as infantry support. Since they encountered very little in the way of enemy tanks in China and none at all in Malaya, Japanese armoured units enjoyed great success and carried out some daring and devastating forays penetrating positions, seizing bridges before they could be demolished and overrunning columns of Allied transport or artillery units that were still limbered up. Bicycles – either army issue or seized from civilians – were used in great number and to great effect. As tyres wore out, they were discarded and the troops cycled on the bare rims of the wheels. On at least one occasion the grinding, rattling mechanical noise generated was mistaken by Allied troops for tanks.


The Type 89 Grenade Discharger was widely known as the ‘knee mortar’ by Allied troops throughout the Asia and Pacific theatres, from the widely held belief that the weapon could be fired when braced against the thigh; a practice which would almost certainly result in a broken femur or hip. The discharger was issued in large quantities – often fifty or more to a battalion – and was in service from 1929 until the end of the war. Smoke, incendiary, fragmentation and high-explosive rounds were available and large numbers were used by the Indonesian forces during the war of independence against the Netherlands from 1945.

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24. The Japanese knee mortar grenade launcher.

The Japanese military establishment did not include a separate air service, but two bodies: the army air force and the navy air force. In late 1941 the two air arms had well over 4,000 combat aircraft, but low industrial capacity meant that losses could not be made good – a problem that was exacerbated by the increasing difficulty of getting materials to the factories because of attacks on Japanese shipping and bombing raids on the factories themselves.

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25. Making gas masks in Singapore.

In Malaya the Twenty-Fifth Army was supported by 3rd (Army) Air Division. Air divisions nominally consisted of two or three ‘Air Brigades’. Each brigade would generally consist of either three of four ‘Air Regiments’ and often with more than one type of aircraft in each regiment. The regiment would normally have three squadrons of either nine bombers or sixteen fighters so one regiment might have anywhere between twenty-seven and forty-eight combat aircraft in total. Airfields were staffed by specialist battalions with responsibility for the defence and maintenance of the airfield and the provision of ordnance for regiments on their station, while the air regiment staff tended the aircraft.


Designed by Sydney Camm and brought into service in 1937, the Hurricane was the workhorse fighter of the Royal Air Force. Over 14,000 Hurricanes were built – 10 per cent of them in Canada – before production ceased in 1944. The Hurricane was a big improvement on the Buffalo fighters which had been deployed to Malaya and Singapore, but struggled against the Japanese ‘Nate’ and ‘Zero’ fighters. The Hurricane was normally equipped with four 20mm cannon, had a maximum speed of 340mph and a range of 600 miles.

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26. Hawker Hurricane Mk IIC. (Ad Meskens)


The official Allied code name for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was ‘Zeke’, though the name is seldom used. The Zero was built for the Imperial Japanese Navy as a carrier-borne fighter and entered service in 1940. For the first two years of the war the Zero enjoyed great success in combat, being more than a match for the Buffalo and Hurricane fighters deployed against them in Malaya. Although the Zero was not as fast as the Spitfire or the Hurricane, she was more manoeuvrable and had a better rate of climb. The Zero weighed about 2½ tons when fully fuelled and armed, carrying two 7.7mm machine guns, two 20mm cannon and two 60kg bombs. As the war progressed, naval fighter development failed to match that of the Allies. Over 10,000 Zero fighters were built between 1940 and 1945.

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27. A long-wrecked Japanese Zero fighter plane of the Second World War. (Bartosz Cieslak)

The most well known of the Japanese aircraft of the Second World War is the A6M Zero, a carrier-borne fighter. The Imperial Army’s Nate and Oscar fighters were probably a more familiar sight over the skies of Malaya and Singapore. The Nate was somewhat dated by 1941 but was still widely used as a bomber escort, but the Oscar was a first-rate aircraft more than capable of taking on the Brewster Buffaloes (the only Allied fighters in the theatre at the beginning of the campaign) and were a match for the Hurricanes, which arrived in the closing stages of the fighting. The Zero was completely underestimated by the British, despite the fact that they had been given all of the information relating to the aircraft by Chinese government sources after a Zero had been captured intact.

Perhaps the single most telling strike by air power in the whole conflict was the destruction of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse (Force Z) as they steamed toward Kuantan with the intention of disrupting reported Japanese landings there. Force Z was struck on the morning of 10 December 1941 by a succession of ‘Nell’ torpedo bombers operating from airfields in French Indo-China. Sinking the two ships was not simply a blow to the power of the navy; it was a great blow to both civilian and military morale and rather set the tone for the rest of the campaign. Of all the navies in the world, the British should have been more aware of the power of aircraft at sea since just the year before a force of obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers had destroyed one Italian battleship and severely damaged another two in an attack on Taranto.

The Type 99 ‘Sally’, Type 99 ‘Lily’ and Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ bombers, among others, were used extensively throughout the Malayan campaign. Due to poor surface-to-air communications, the army air service provided little in the way of integrated air support for troops on the ground and much of its effort was focused on bombing towns and cities. The scarcity of anti-aircraft guns and limited quantities of ammunition, coupled with the sheer overwhelming numbers of Japanese aircraft, meant that there was little the Allies could do to prevent them from attacking. Although considerable damage was done to harbour facilities in Singapore, the chief purpose of the raids was to disrupt communications and demoralise the military and civilian population, a process which became more and more successful as it became apparent that the Allies could do nothing to prevent the attacks.

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28. The rescue of Force Z survivors, 10 December 1941.


With a top speed of about 250mph and a weapon payload of over ¾ ton, the ‘Betty’ – or Mitsubishi G4M – was comparable to other twin-engined bombers of her class, but was very vulnerable. To keep overall weight down – and consequently achieve a better speed – there was virtually no protection for the crew and the lack of self-sealing fuel tanks made the ‘Betty’ very vulnerable in combat. A number of ‘Bettys’ were used in the torpedo-bomber role against the Prince of Wales and the Repulse.

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29. An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ bomber.

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