Percival’s general policy was unsuitable and unworkable in the circumstances of late 1941, and was not especially consistent. His initial troop commitments were not particularly rational and became increasingly irrelevant as the campaign developed. The prize – at least in the British view – was the great Singapore naval base, which could only be protected if there was adequate air power available, and the air power could only be maintained and adequately deployed if there were enough airfields to support the aircraft, but defending the airfields meant a heavy commitment of army resources. The necessary aircraft were not available, so protection of the fields was, essentially, redundant from the very beginning of the campaign. In addition to airfield protection, Percival also had to find the means of repelling an invasion wherever a force might land.

Percival did not develop a consistent policy for the campaign, but also failed to adjust his thinking to the situation, often endeavouring to make the circumstances fit the plan rather than the other way around. He alternated between plans to develop a strong defensive line, which would force the Japanese to concentrate their forces where his own troops would be able to take advantage of the superior British artillery, and a policy of slowing the Japanese advance while preparing for what he called ‘the main battle’ further south. Neither policy was really valid since neither gave any real consideration to what the enemy intended to do or how he intended to achieve his aims. Some of the ‘wishful thinking’ among the British command generally – not just Percival – was the product of unrealistic assessments of both the Allied and Japanese capabilities – the belief that the Japanese advance could be stopped in its tracks by artillery being a case in point. The British and Commonwealth forces did have a considerable quantity of high-quality artillery, but had not developed the necessary integration within divisional structures to make it effective.

Equally, the policy of a gradual withdrawal while preparing for a ‘main battle’ would have been a challenge for a highly trained and well-articulated army with confidence in itself and its leaders. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the troops of Malaya Command, but it was not a trained and cohesive force. Poor leadership, bad decisions and unworkable policies, combined with a complete absence of armour, inefficient communications and totally inadequate air cover made Malaya Command formations extremely vulnerable to the daring and well-coordinated manoeuvres of the Japanese Army.

Whether the campaign would be a matter of forcing the Japanese to attack a strong defensive line and bring about static warfare, or of forcing them to take heavy casualties en route to a concentrated battle in southern Malaya was really not a decision that Percival could make; General Yamashita would not allow him that luxury. His policy was based on what Japanese commanders called a ‘driving charge’. His troops were to force battle on the enemy at every opportunity and to pursue him relentlessly, specifically to prevent him regrouping either to build a defensive line or concentrate for a major battle.

In order to achieve and maintain the tempo necessary for such a policy, Yamashita’s army needed to focus their attack along the excellent road system. This was not lost on British commanders, who tried repeatedly to deny passage to enemy forces. Theseattempts were sometimes relatively successful in the short term, but were never really effective. In part this was due to the Japanese superiority in armour. The Allied anti-tank weapons were not ineffective, but they lacked the mobility of tanks. When the Japanese encountered serious resistance they simply moved infantry off the road and searched for flanks of the defenders. Once they had located the limits of the Allied deployment, they ‘hooked’ back on to the road behind the defenders and encircled them, preventing communications and reinforcements, or at least forcing a withdrawal. This quickly led to a culture of retreat. At a tactical level, battalion and brigade commanders were reluctant to risk the destruction of their command in actions that were, ostensibly, peripheral to the ‘main battle’ planned for the near future; in fact, they were repeatedly advised not to risk heavy casualties. At a more personal level it bred a degree of reluctance among the troops. If the Japanese could not be stopped, why should a soldier risk his life if his unit was going to be withdrawn in the near future anyway?

Tomoyuki Yamashita

Born in 1885 in the Kochi prefecture, Shikoku, Tomoyuki Yamashita joined the army in 1905 and first saw active service against the Germans in Shantung, China, in 1914. He graduated from the Imperial Army War College in 1916 and was a military attaché at Berne from 1919–22. He was an advocate of a political movement known as the ‘Imperial way’, which put him at odds with several of his contemporaries and superiors. Yamashita served as Japan’s military attaché in Vienna, Austria, in 1928, but had retired to Japan to command an infantry regiment by the end of 1930. His view that Japan should extricate herself from the war in China and avoid war with Britain and the United States made him unpopular, and for some time he was relegated to a backwater post in the Kwantung Army.

He was appointed to the command of the Twenty-Fifth Army only a month before the invasion and became known as the ‘Tiger of Malaya’ on account of his remarkable success. He fell out of favour again in 1942 for referring to the people of Singapore as ‘citizens of the Empire of Japan’, which was contrary to the general policy that people in occupied territories should be subjects with duties and obligations, not citizens with rights. Yamashita spent the next two years in Manchuria, far from the main theatres of the war. Recalled to service in 1944, Yamashita fought with skill and tenacity. His attempt to prevent Manila from becoming a battlefield by withdrawing all Japanese forces without a fight was foiled by Admiral Iwabuchi, who seized the city with a large force of Imperial Navy infantry and military police units.

After a very questionable trial in which the prosecution accepted hearsay evidence and anonymous witnesses, Yamashita was sentenced to death and hanged. What are claimed to be the steps to the scaffold are preserved in the Penang War Museum.

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30. Yamashita and Percival discussing surrender, 15 February 1942.

Within a matter of days, the pattern for the whole campaign had been set – the Japanese pushed forward as quickly as they could and the Allied commanders tried to maintain the integrity of their formations as they retreated. To some extent this was not unwise; if there was to be a ‘main battle’ in southern Malaya, the army had to be preserved as an effective force. The two problems being that the army as a whole was not an effective force in the first place and that the failure to impose much in the way of delay on the Japanese meant that the formations could not be properly rested, replenished and re-equipped to take a useful role as the campaign progressed.

Inadequate communications, incompetent staff work and a rapidly developing disposition toward retreat made the situation worse than it needed to be. On the occasions where Allied troops inflicted a local defeat on the Japanese they were often withdrawn because they were in danger of becoming isolated, but sometimes they were pulled out of action through sheer incompetence. On a number of occasions, the Japanese were able to make an advance simply because there was nobody to delay them. On others, they were able to make breakthroughs that took them well into the Allied lines of communication and to destroy or capture great quantities of men and materiel, simply because there were no supporting Allied troops in place when a front-line unit was overrun or forced to abandon the road and take cover in the countryside. Naturally, news of such incidents travelled quickly among other units in the area and lost nothing in the telling, thus encouraging the belief that the Allied forces were incapable of standing up to the Japanese. Given the huge propaganda effort that had gone into convincing Allied troops in general – and British troops in particular – that the Japanese were racially inferior and that their equipment was poor, it is hardly surprising that Malaya Command as a whole was in something of a state of shock well before the end of January 1942. The morale of the troops had been badly undermined by constant retreating and the fact that the skies were dominated by the Japanese, as well as the loss of the only two major warships in the theatre.

Things were no better at the top of the command structure. Wavell was not really in tune with the battle at any point and was unable to instil a sense of purpose in Percival and also did not have the authority to force Shenton Thomas to make any kind of positive contribution to the war effort, which helped to undermine Percival’s authority and confidence. Percival’s policy was to inflict as much damage as possible during a slow retreat, but he was not prepared to make units fight to the last while others withdrew to more favourable positions. General Heath had always favoured a general withdrawal so that the Japanese could be engaged from a position of greater strength in northern Johore, rather than wearing the troops out with continual actions that seemed to do little or nothing to impede the Japanese advance. General Bennett was utterly dismissive of all soldiers except the Australians and cheerfully undermined all of his colleagues and most of his subordinates.

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Withdrawal to Singapore, 24–31 January 1942.

The plan to engage the Japanese in a ‘main battle’ in Johore gained general acceptance among the commanders; the problem lay in the fact that the Japanese advance was too rapid to allow the Allies to concentrate their forces. Air superiority made movement by day dangerous and poor communications made movement by night very difficult. In fact, the Japanese were not able to make the best use of their air power because their ground forces had very little communication with the air arm. Once the RAF had been defeated, Japanese pilots were mostly limited to seeking targets of opportunity. With better integration between aircraft and troops the campaign would have been even shorter. With precious few aircraft at all, the Allies were unable to make any impression on the fragile Japanese lines of communication. A small number of modest raids were staged from the sea, but little was achieved.

The main battle in Johore never really materialised and the Allies staged a withdrawal to Singapore in the last days of January 1942. Percival believed that the island could withstand a siege – it was, after all, described as a ‘fortress’. The term was, however, misleading. In British military parlance ‘fortress’ was an administrative term used to describe an area with a large concentration of troops. It did not imply that there were extensive fortifications, but understandably this was a distinction that meant nothing to almost everybody concerned.

The coastal batteries had not been designed to provide fire plans to deter a crossing of the Johore Strait and the defensive positions on the northern shore were too far apart to support one another or to provide a continuous line of strongholds. The installations were vulnerable to isolation and to a great extent the Japanese knew where they were. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Japan had mounted a major intelligence operation in Singapore. Agents working as bar girls, photographers, barbers and in a host of other occupations had provided a steady stream of information relating to military works and developments of all kinds. Even before the battle for Singapore had started, morale had become a serious problem. Troops were losing confidence in the commanders and in the prospects for relief. Large numbers of deserters could be seen in downtown Singapore or in the harbour areas trying to board ships for Australia, India or the Dutch East Indies.

Events on the mainland, the swift, relentless Japanese advance, forced Percival to order the withdrawal to the island rather earlier than he had planned, to avoid his forces there being overrun and defeated in detail.

The situation was actually even more precarious than Percival realised. Although he was not aware of it, the Japanese were making very good progress and believed that there was a real possibility that the entirety of Heath’s III Corps could be cut off from the rest of Malaya Command and be forced to surrender, which would greatly reduce the strength available to protect the island once the withdrawal was complete. Percival held a conference at Heath’s headquarters and a programme for evacuation was agreed which would see the last troops cross the causeway to Singapore on 31 January.

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31. Coastal gun emplacement, Sentosa, Singapore. (Author’s collection)

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32. British optical range finder as issued to coastal artillery positions for identifying hostile ships, but for when the threat would come overland rather than from the sea. (Author’s collection)

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33. A 15in coastal gun on Singapore.

The remaining searchlight and anti-aircraft assets on the mainland were promptly removed to the causeway area to give as much protection as possible to the withdrawing troops. An outer perimeter was also set up in and around Johore Bahru to ensure the security of the north end of the causeway and, hopefully, to gather stragglers heading away from the battle to the supposed relative safety of Singapore. In one of the few examples of a successful operation by Malaya Command, most of the troops in Johore were able to make their way to the causeway without being snarled up in traffic jams – no mean feat given the large numbers of men and vehicles involved, and the fact that so many had become detached from their units. By good fortune – and because the exhausted Japanese were in no condition to follow up as quickly as the Allies could retreat – the operation was completed by about 0600hrs on the 31st and the outer ring of the perimeter, consisting of 22nd Australian Brigade and the Gordon Highlanders, was able to withdraw through a final defensive line around the causeway held by the Argylls, now reduced to less than 300 all ranks. Shortly after 0800hrs the Argylls were played across by their last two pipers and the causeway was blown as soon as the last man had crossed over to Singapore.

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34. Japanese infantry storm into Johore Bahru.

Planning for the defence of Singapore followed the same general pattern as the policy that had already failed in Malaya. In an effort to provide some strength everywhere, the troops were spread thinly all around the island. Singapore was divided into three coastal sectors and a reserve area.

The Western Area Command under General Bennett extended from a point just west of the mouth of Sungei Jurong on the south coast to a point half a mile east of the causeway then due south from there to Bukit Timah. Bennett’s command included his own 8th Division, including three field artillery regiments, three anti-tank regiments and nearly 2,000 newly arrived reinforcements from Australia. The latter had only been in Singapore for a little over a week and were far from being battle ready. The same applied to 44th Indian Brigade, now assigned to Bennett’s command. They had arrived on 22 January, only partially trained, unaccustomed to the climate and less than fully fit after a lengthy voyage.

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Singapore Island dispositions, February 1942.

Heath’s III Corps took responsibility for the Northern Area with the addition of the British 18th Division, most of which had only arrived on 29 December and without most of their vehicles, equipment and ammunition, which had been lost in a ship sunk by the Japanese. Southern Area, stretching eastwards along the coast from Sungei Jurong to a point 5 miles west of Changi at the eastern tip of the island, was entrusted to Major General Keith Simmons with a force made up of 1st and 2nd Malaya Brigades and Straits Settlements Volunteers. The 12th and 15th Indian Brigades were held as the command reserve in the Reserve Area, which stretched from Bukit Timah to Paya Lebar and included the vital Pierce and MacRitchie reservoirs.

The general state of confusion and disintegrating morale prevented any concerted effort to organise defences properly. It was now virtually impossible to find civilian labour at any price and most fortifications were being constructed by the troops who would be fighting in them. The work was hard, but not always effective since much of the terrain was not suitable for trenches and a lot of the positions that were erected consisted of breastworks with barbed wire, when it could be made available. Breastworks, if well made, can be effective against small arms fire but are of limited value against artillery and bombing, and are often vulnerable to attacks in the flanks or the rear. Much of the work that did continue had to be conducted at night, as did any major troop movements, for fear of Japanese air attacks; a great deal of the northern part of the island was now under direct observation from high ground and tall buildings in Johore, including the sultan’s palace.

Air raids had diminished for a period after the start of the campaign as the Japanese concentrated on targets on the mainland, but started again in earnest on the night of 29/30 January. A force of fifty-one Hurricane fighters had arrived in January with a complement of twenty-four pilots, but however determined their efforts – and those of the few surviving Buffalo fighters’ pilots who now had to struggle to familiarise themselves with a new aircraft – there was little they could do to prevent attacks. A second group of Hurricanes were dispatched from the carrier HMS Indomitablebetween 27 and 29 January and were dispersed to operate from airfields in Sumatra, but several of these were destroyed on the ground by Japanese bombing raids and others in engagements with Japanese fighters in the first couple of days after their arrival. From 12 January onward, the Japanese could mount bombing raids by day at little risk.

Although the mainland had been evacuated on 31 January, General Yamashita did not press on with an attack immediately. His troops had been fighting continuously for eight weeks and were exhausted. Men had become scattered from their units so had to be located and returned; ammunition stacks had to be replenished and assault craft had to be brought in before he could mount an operation. Although their ammunition supply was low, Yamashita was determined to allow the Allied troops no respite. As such, sporadic and relatively minor artillery bombardments started on 1 February, directed from observation posts on high ground and at least one observation balloon. Such balloons were rather anachronistic by 1942 but the Japanese had virtually complete control of the air so there was little threat of the balloon being shot down.

The Allied artillery was not silent, and sections (two guns) of various regiments were moved around the island (in the hope that the Japanese would not be able to identify their positions quickly enough to arrange counter-battery fire) to deliver harassing fire. They were, however, limited to no more than twenty rounds per day. This restriction had been imposed to preserve ammunition stocks for the main battle since Percival was planning for a struggle of three months, in the hope that a major relief operation could be mounted in that period. With stocks of 25-pounder and anti-aircraft ammunition already running low, Percival felt that he needed to retain as much of an ammunition reserve as possible as there was little prospect of replenishment for several weeks at least. The order would have unfortunate unintended consequences, for it was construed as a general policy for the entire battle rather than a temporary restriction to be observed until the Japanese attempted a landing. The absence of British air support and the firing restrictions allowed the Japanese to regroup and prepare their forces almost with impunity.

Remarkably, no effort had been made to arrange for observers to be left in Johore who could report on Japanese movements by wireless, and there was no realistic possibility of garnering such intelligence from local sources since the telephone lines to the island had been cut. Even if this had not been the case, it is not at all certain that any information provided by local people would have been taken seriously, nor that it would have been acted on. Deprived of aerial reconnaissance as well as any other form of intelligence material, the Allies were forced to rely on patrols crossing the strait to Johore by night in small boats. There seems to have been no sorties across the strait from the Western Area before 6 February, but there were a number from the Eastern Area, none of which reported any extensive movements of infantry or artillery concentrations. It was not until the night of the 6th that Bennett’s Western Area headquarters was instructed to send patrols across the strait to investigate activity to the west of Johore.

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35. Typical pre-war ‘atap’ house of the kind found in kampongs (villages) the length and breadth of Malaya and Singapore. (Author’s collection)

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36. Typical pre-war shop-houses of the kind found throughout Malaya and Singapore. (Author’s collection)

On the night of 7/8th, patrols from 22nd Australian Brigade had managed to cross the strait and reconnoitred about 5 miles of coastline between Sungei Malayu and Sungei Pendas. They had identified a considerable concentration of Japanese infantry units, but little in the way of artillery and no landing craft at all; however, they had not been able to move much more than a mile inland and had been unable to penetrate as far north as Sungei Skudai. The landing craft were certainly being prepared for the assault, but not in the areas to which the patrols could penetrate.

By the morning of 8 February Malaya Command intelligence was confident that a major Japanese attack on the north-western coast between Sungei Berih and Kranji was imminent, but their conclusions were not shared with Bennett’s headquarters until sometime after 1500hrs. Bennett made an immediate and urgent request for an aerial reconnaissance of what he assumed – rightly – to be the Japanese forming-up area, but there were simply no aircraft to be had, and even if there had been there was very little chance that a reconnaissance mission would have been successful in the face of Japanese air superiority. The best that could be done was to fire a number of speculative concentrations based on the information obtained by the patrols and reasonable deductions. None of this had any discernible impact on Japanese preparations.

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