The “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” were among the most influential events of “World War 2.” Despite being significantly outnumbered and confronted by considerable logistical constraints the Japanese forces under Lieutenant General Yamashita won a quick and decisive victory over their British counterparts. Not only did the campaign result in the worst military disaster in British history, it also undermined the myth of white supremacy in the colonial world as Japan, an Asian power, had thoroughly defeated, and discredited, the European system of imperialism. A combination of superior Japanese leadership, training, equipment and boldness allowed the Japanese to defeat a numerically superior enemy who showed no shortage of arrogance, passiveness and indecision.
The “Malayan Campaign” had its roots in the aftermath of “World War 1” when Britain, alarmed by the growing power and expansion of its erstwhile ally Japan, decided in the early 1920s’ to construct a powerful naval base at Singapore to give its massive fleet a base to fight a potential war in the Pacific Ocean, as well as safeguarding the sea lines separating the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Once construction was completed Singapore was seen as one of the most powerful fortresses in the world; on the same level as Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium, the Czech defenses in the Sudetenland and the Maginot line in France. However, Singapore would suffer the same inglorious fate to the Japanese as these other defensive works would suffer to the Germans.
While the fortress at Singapore was supposedly impenetrable there were a few unpleasant realities in late 1941 which limited its effectiveness. Firstly, the initial British plan, made during the 1920s’ when Germany was weak and Japan was seen as more dangerous, was that the lion-share of the Royal Navy would quickly be deployed to Singapore during wartime. However, in the event Singapore had few naval assets in late 1941 as the Royal Navy was stretched to its capacity in the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean fighting the Nazis and Italians. Perhaps worse was the fact that due to such commitments Singapore could not expect adequate reinforcements for several months. There was also a design flaw in the construction of the fortress at Singapore where the emphasis was towards repelling a naval assault, while the possibility of attacking Singapore overland via Malaya was largely discounted; this would have dire consequences towards the end of the campaign. Then there was the fact that none of the Royal Navy’s carriers, few of its capital ships, and a small number of the RAF’s squadrons (including none of the modern Hurricanes and Spitfires) were deployed in Malaya and Singapore and thus the Naval and Aerial advantages were ceded to the Japanese.
There were other disadvantages as well. Not surprising considering the British were busy fighting the Germans in Europe and North Africa was the fact that their troops in Malaya and Singapore were generally less seasoned and well trained. This would be prove to be especially detrimental considering most of the Japanese troops committed to the campaign would be hardened veterans from Japan’s war of conquest in China, which included their Imperial Guards Division. Additionally, the Jungle terrain in Malaya was hardly beneficial to defenders, especially those reliant on roads, as lightly armed forces could easily infiltrate behind them. The Japanese would make considerable use of bicycles, at-least 6000 of them, in Malaya to this effect. Japanese naval supremacy would also give them another bonus as they could simply land troops from the sea behind British forces at will.
Japan also benefited from the use of more than 200 tanks during the campaign whereas the British command had concluded, erroneously, that tanks were unsuited to the terrain in the Malayan peninsula. The French had made a similar calculation about the wooded Ardennes sector in France and during the “Battle of France” German tanks had flooded through the area and unhinged the whole allied defensive line. Incredibly enough the British command in Malaya did not even pass around manuals detailing how enemy tanks could be knocked out without anti-tank weapons, which had been stored at headquarters for months, until the eve of the campaign.
Japan also had the advantage regarding leadership. While much of the case against Lieutenant General Percival (the British commander in Malaya and Singapore) regarding the British conduct of the “Malayan Campaign” can be dismissed as scapegoating there is little doubt that he, and most of his colleagues and subordinates, were out lead and outfought by Lieutenant General Yamashita and his men. Finally, there is no doubt that the British were not helped by their false sense of racial superiority towards the Japanese.
However, the Japanese did not enjoy all the advantages. The British had a considerable numerical advantage in troops, if not in quality, as well as an advantage in artillery. However, from Lieutenant General Percival’s perspective the resources at his disposal were far from adequate to execute his mission. Percival’s predecessor in Malaya had written up a paper in 1940 estimating what resources and forces he would need to hold Malaya and by the time of the Japanese invasion the British were severely short in all categories. Instead of the recommended 600 modern planes the British had less than 200 relatively obsolete ones (which did not satisfy the request that at minimum they needed 330 modern ones). Instead of the 4 recommended divisions they had 3 understrength ones. Instead of two tank regiments and anti-tank guns they had absolutely none.
To be fair though most of the reasons that the British forces were so handicapped during the campaign, and suffered from such poor resources can be explained by the fact they were busy fighting a life and death struggle against Germany in Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In fact, in his war memoirs Churchill bluntly listed what were considered the strategic priorities for Britain’s war effort in 1941. Not surprisingly, the defense of Britain, against both German invasion and the U-Boat menace which was devastating British convoys, was the first priority. After that, the fighting in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to safeguard the vast oilfields and put pressure on the Axis from the southern front, was the second priority. Once Russia was in the war after June 1941, giving as much support to her as possible, mostly in the way of weapons, equipment and supplies, to keep her in the conflict became the third. Resistance to Japan, including the defense of the multiple British colonies in the Far East, not just Malaya and Singapore, was unequivocally the last priority at number four.
This is a consideration that is remarkably absent, or at least downplayed, in many histories regarding the “Malayan Campaign.” While, with hindsight, it is obvious that Percival did not have nearly enough resources to succeed it is foolish to suggest that the defense of Britain, the retention of the oil fields of the Middle East, or the support of Russia (which would ultimately do the vast majority of the fighting against Germany) should all have taken a backseat to Malaya and Singapore, none of whose loss would, or ultimately did, cause the collapse of Britain’s war effort, or give the Japanese a decisive advantage.
In late 1941, Churchill and his generals in Britain, faced with a brutal war in Europe, gambled that economic sanctions, the show of force, and American diplomacy would be enough to deter the Japanese from going to war. Given the significant geopolitical disadvantages in population, resources and industry Japan suffered compared to the allies it was thought by the western leaders that it would be suicidal, as it ultimately was, for Japan to attack them. It was unreasonable for the British, especially without hindsight, to invest significant resources for the defense of the Far East for a war that “might happen” while an active and potentially fatal war was currently being fought against Germany.
Of course there is another view, one that often borders on conspiracy theory, where the British and Americans supposedly deliberately provoked the Japanese to go to war by placing them in an impossible economic situation, and worse were willing to sacrifice 1000s of American and British servicemen from Pearl Harbor to Malaya to accomplish their aim. Much like the 9/11 conspiracy critics have pointed out the fact that American and British intelligence community had advance warning of an impending attack.
However, in the case of the Americans the warning was vague and U.S. intelligence officials were almost unanimous in believing that the Far East was the real target and that Pearl Harbor was not threatened. Additionally, it does not make sense that the Americans would deliberately sacrifice their 8 battleships at Pearl Harbor, which at the time was seen as the main-stay of their forces in the Pacific, to then enter a war at which they would be at a huge initial disadvantage. That would be like saying the Egyptians had deliberately provoked the Israelis in 1967 and had sacrificed their air force (which was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force on the ground) to have an excuse to go to war. It is the same for the British, why would they want to provoke a war, knowing the weakness of their forces, and the likelihood that not only would they lose some of their best colonies, but also their Imperial credibility when the Japanese, a supposedly inferior race, would conquer them.
At best the argument could be made that the Americans had gambled that either Japan would back down or that they would go to war and that in the end the Americans would not only beat Japan, but would also be able to help Britain directly in her fight against Germany. The same applies to the British. While they did not count on war with Japan, they also gambled that either the Japanese would back down, or at-least a Japanese assault across the Pacific would bring the Americans into the war. In his war memoirs Churchill said “I confess that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight… If, on the other hand, Japanese aggression drew in America, I would be content to have it.” It is one thing to suggest that the British and Americans were willing to take a significant risk provoking Japan, it is quite another to suggest that they knowingly sacrificed 10 capital ships (the 8 at Pearl Harbor and the 2 off Malaya), Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines and thousands of their soldiers’ lives to deliberately start a war.
As for the immediate causes of the “Malayan Campaign”, Japan’s aggression in China, her alliance with Germany, her seizure of French-Indochina and the Anglo-American decision to level an embargo on Japan, all propelled Japan, Britain and America to war in the Pacific in late 1941. Japan’s brutal and in-humane war against China both alienated world opinion and showed Japan’s true colors as an expansionist nation trying to change the world order in an exceedingly violent way. Japan’s alliance with Germany obviously placed her on the side of Germany and Italy and potentially set her against Britain and Russia (the former who was fighting with Germany, while the latter had already fought many skirmishes and battles against the Japanese). Meanwhile the opportunistic takeover of Indochina by Japan furthered her status as a pariah nation and convinced Britain and other western powers Japan was bent on conflict with them. Finally, the Anglo-American embargo against Japan especially placed significant pressure on the Japanese.
Not least of all was that the embargo included oil which until then America had been providing Japan with 80% of her supplies. As oil was then, and still is, the driver of industry and war making, the Anglo-American embargo, along with the political demands London and Washington made with it forced upon Japan a simple binary choice: Either abandon Indochina and the war against China or run out of oil. Needless to say Japan took a third option and gambled on war.
Faced with the choice of accepting an ignominious loss of face, or going to war, the Japanese decided on war. Despite Japan being relatively modern and possessing considerable military power she was still weak in several aspects. Above all, she was deficient in natural resources, hence why she had embarked upon a war of conquest against China. She was also deficient in industrial output, especially against America who could out produce her by a factor of 10 to 1. Winston Churchill, in an attempt to forestall war had sent the Japanese a letter in April 1941 listing the relative disadvantages the Japanese would suffer during any potential war, including how the naval dominance of Britain and America would allow them to eventually overwhelm the Japanese in the pacific and how whereas the Americans and the British produced 90 million tons of steel a year the Japanese produced a meager 7 million tons.
However, the Japanese were also fatalistic and believed in their martial skills and staying power. Put simply, they believed their supposedly superior military skill and morale would allow them to inflict enough reverses upon their enemies and then they could either negotiate a settlement from a position of strength, or at least wear down American and western resolve in a long war of attrition and hope the latter would quit. Unfortunately for the Japanese that while such similar sentiments would help the Vietminh triumph during the “Vietnam war,” the opposite occurred during the “Pacific War.”
Yet whatever miscalculations the Japanese made regarding natural resources, industrial potential and morale, they were quite efficient in estimating their military possibilities in late 1941. Although they had always considered the Soviets as enemies, they had rightly dismissed them as a threat due to the deadly pressure the Germans were then putting on them in Europe, and the severe mauling Japanese forces had suffered against Soviet forces in the summer of 1939 did not encourage them to fight the Soviets again so soon. The front in China had also more or less stabilized and Chiang Kai-Chek’s nationalist forces, and Mao’s even weaker communist forces could easily be kept in check. This left the Americans, the Dutch forces in Indonesia, and the British possessions in South East Asia.
Regarding the British and the Dutch, the Japanese were confident they could overwhelm them as they both had few military resources in the area and fewer to send as reinforcements given the fighting in Europe. They also possessed significant strategic and economic territories in the area which would be important for the Japanese war machine. While the Dutch East Indies would be able to supply much needed oil, the occupation of Burma would cut off supplies to the Chinese via the Burma road, the occupation of Malaya would rob the allies of one third of the world’s supply of rubber and one half its supply of tin, and the occupation of Singapore would secure sea communications between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
America posed another problem. While she was far away, and while the conquest of the American occupied Philippines would not give the Japanese any significant economic advantage, America’s navy, the second biggest in the world, and her industrial production which could out produce the Japanese 10-1, posed to Japan perhaps her only significant threat. Of course the small U.S. military presence in the Philippines was negligible, and as of yet the American public was still dominated by isolationist sentiment and not keen on war. However, the Americans had given much military and economic aid to Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Germans as part of “Lend Lease.” Additionally, the Americans had given considerable support to the Chinese and had also inflicted the potentially crippling embargo on Japan which many historians have argued gave the Japanese no choice but to go to war.
Yet it was possible that the Japanese could have attacked the British and Dutch in the Far East and left America alone and that America once again would not involve herself in a foreign war. This was indeed one of Churchill’s gravest fears and between the time he heard about the Japanese landings in Malaya and Pearl Harbor he was worried it was being realized.
However, the Japanese leaders, being keen militarists, looked at the problem from a military point of view and in Clausewitzian fashion looked at their enemies and determined their centre of gravity, the focal point of their military resistance. Realizing the American fleet was the gravest threat to Japanese ambitions, and perhaps taking a note from Alfred Mahan’s works which emphasized the destruction of the enemy fleet, the Japanese decided to launch a brutal surprise attack against the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The idea for the coming war was simple. Cripple, or temporarily neutralize, the U.S. Pacific fleet, seize the necessary strategic, economic or defensive assets in the Far East and the Pacific in a few quick and daring campaigns, fortify these against attack, and then either negotiate a peace treaty from a position of strength, or wage a war of attrition against the west until they gave up. Curiously, the Japanese do not seem to have planned for a long war, or seriously debate what course of action they should take if the Americans and their allies did not give up the struggle. Perhaps this was a product of wishful thinking, perhaps it was due to their belief that America was not willing to wage total war, or perhaps it was because the Japanese believed they were being provoked and could not afford to back down and lose face.
Anyway, despite their optimism there were some in the Japanese camp who knew the odds were ultimately destined to be stacked against them. Admiral Yamamoto, the foremost Japanese strategist and the planner of Pearl Harbor and Midway suggested that in the event of war “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” With considerable bitterness his prediction would prove exceedingly accurate.
As for the planning of the “Malayan Campaign” itself the Japanese benefited greatly from intelligence captured by the Germans about British intentions regarding their defenses for Malaya and Singapore. The story was quite remarkable as the British high command had sent a reply to Percival’s predecessor in Singapore, the same commander who had asked in vain for adequate forces, aboard a merchant vessel called the Autonedan, which was neither well-armed, nor part of a convoy. By an incredible fluke it was found and crippled by a heavily armed German raider. In the ensuing struggle all the British officers were killed and the Germans managed to board and find many confidential papers regarding Singapore and Malaya. The Germans turned the intel over to the Japanese. The British high command’s reply to Percival’s predecessor, which the Japanese now had access to, bluntly told him that his requirements to defend Malaya and Singapore by land, sea and air, could not be met and that Japan would be dealt with via mild appeasement.
Japan also had the advantage of numerous Japanese placed in sensitive positions in Malaya and Singapore and, incredibly enough, several British spies. Countless Japanese tourists prowled the countryside to take photographs of all jungle paths, crossroads and landing sites. Japanese nationals also set up photograph shops where British soldiers could get there photographs taken cheaply, and countless massage parlors, and dance halls employed Japanese women, who said they were of different nationalities.
All of this gave the Japanese an excellent appreciation of British defenses, troop strengths, and topographical details of Malaya and Singapore. Sun Tzu had written centuries ago about the importance of “knowing the enemy.” While Japan had done a thoroughly good job of figuring out the British, the British had done a lousy job of estimating Japan.
Typical assessments of the Japanese smacked of racist sentiment. At one briefing of newspaper correspondents in Singapore a British intelligence officer suggested the Japanese were incapable of flying at night. During the fateful voyage of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales a CBS reporter had overheard a British naval officer say, after hearing that a Japanese Battleship, 3 Cruisers, and several Destroyers were supposedly in the area, “They are Japanese, there is nothing to worry about.” Even when more enlightened sources made more sensible estimations of Japanese capabilities they were usually dismissed. When the British military attaché in Tokyo suggested to British troops that the Japanese forces were well trained, well led and had good morale he was immediate contradicted, incredibly, by the then commander of British troops in Malaya and Singapore, Lieutenant General Lionel Bond who stated “You can take it from me that we have nothing to fear from them.” These views were stated not by inexperienced men drafted to be common foot soldiers, but by an intelligence officer, a naval officer, and the head of British forces in Malaya! Such views and statements were in fact extremely common and it bred in the British forces in Malaya and Singapore an air of complacency and arrogance.
On the night between December 7th and 8th, but before the attack on Pearl Harbor due to the time zone differences, the Japanese began bombarding positions in northern Malaya. In the morning they began to land at Kota Bharu and other positions in nearby Thailand. While the British had considered pre-empting the Japanese by moving into Thailand to cover such landing points they were afraid of the potential hostile American reaction by invading a neutral country. Such occurrences were common during the campaign where the Japanese would be aggressive and imaginative whereas the British conduct would generally be passive and uninspiring.
During the same day, Japanese aircraft bombed British airfields in northern Malaya and damaged and destroyed significant numbers of the R.A.F’s already outnumbered and outclassed contingent in Malaya. The Japanese used bombs that were designed to destroy planes and kill soldiers but would not damage the runways of the airfields. Within four days of the initial attack on Malaya the Japanese had conquered all the airfields in northern Malaya and had effectively neutralized the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya and won air supremacy over Malaya, and the waters around it.
In fact, by December the 11th the R.A.F contingent in Malaya had been so battered that the British decided to husband their Airpower to protect Singapore as well as the convoys of troops and reinforcements that would eventually be arriving. While the British did receive 50 Hurricanes in mid-January after which they tried to stage a comeback, they were soon overrun by the better trained and numerically superior Japanese pilots and fighters.
One of the first notable effects of Japanese air supremacy occurred on December 10th when Japanese bombers found and destroyed the British battleship Prince of Wales as well as the battle cruiser Repulse. The British naval commander at Singapore, Rear Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, had hated keeping his ships at port while the Japanese were landing in Malaya and had decided to use his force of two capital ships and four destroyers to intercept and destroy the Japanese naval convoys in the region. Phillips had requested air cover for his force but the R.A.F. commander could not guarantee support, partly due to the multiple commitments his planes had to fulfill, and partly due to the mauling his airfields and planes had taken.
Thus in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral Philips boldly went forward, despite the risk, hoping cloudy weather and surprise would see his forces through. However bold, it was also foolish. Before his force could find and destroy Japanese ships the weather cleared up and the Japanese sent multiple waves of bombers that ultimately sank both the British capital ships in a series of actions lasting 90 minutes, effectively destroying British naval power in the Far East and giving the Japanese naval, as well as aerial, supremacy. The sinking of both of Britain’s Far East fleet’s Capital ships also inflicted a considerable psychological blow on the British. Even Winston Churchill, the model of British resolve, noted in his memoirs that “In all of the war I never received a more direct shock… Over this vast expanse of water (the Indian and Pacific Oceans) Japan was supreme, and we everywhere weak and naked.” Coupled with the destruction, or at least temporary neutralization, of the 8 American battleships in lieu of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor the British and Americans must have felt very weak and naked indeed.
The Japanese would use their naval power brilliantly during the campaign. As the Japanese advanced in 3 prongs from their initial landing sites in northern Malaya and Thailand their main force advanced via railroad from Indochina to Thailand and then Malaya. While these forces moved down the coasts and interior of Malaya, the Japanese navy allowed the army to bypass any areas of significant resistance by landing behind it. On land, the Japanese also often bypassed British positions by going through the supposedly impenetrable jungle terrain. This coupled with Japanese airpower, tanks, and their superior experience and training, prevented the British from establishing and maintaining an effective defensive line across the Malaya peninsula throughout the campaign.
As for the chronology of the campaign, the battles generally consisted of British holding actions which sometimes inflicted significant casualties, but more often the Japanese either outflanked them through the jungle, or by sea, or broke through with superior airpower and/or tanks. The first significant clash occurred during the Japanese landings at Kota Bharu where a British brigade managed to inflict considerable casualties on the Japanese. Meanwhile two other Japanese landings in southern Thailand were made unopposed. After a few days of fighting around Kota Bharu the Japanese threw back the British, established their beach heads, and seized the airfields in northern Malaya. This would have serious consequences for the campaign ahead as Japanese air power would continuously harass the British and dominate the war zone.
The Japanese advantages in airpower during the campaign included both the numbers, and quality, of their planes and the training of their pilots. Their Nakajima Ki-43 and Zero fighters were more than a match for the obsolete fighters the British had in Malaya. As for numbers, the Japanese had over 500 modern aircraft versus less than 200 obsolete ones for the British. As stated above, the British did fly in 50 Hurricanes during the campaign, but they were significantly outnumbered by the Japanese and the force was quickly worn down and neutralized. Additionally, while the Japanese did not benefit from carriers during this campaign, French bases seized in southern Indochina gave the Japanese the range to attack northern Malaya, and once the Japanese captured British airfields in northern Malaya they were free to attack across the whole peninsula and Singapore. In reality the Japanese maintained the initiative in the air, as everywhere else in the campaign, from day one the British were constantly on the back foot, struggling hard to fight back.
Besides the opposed landing at Kota Bharu during the initial Japanese landing in Malaya, there were two other notable struggles at Kuantan and later Endau on the east coast. However, this was not the focus of the campaign as the railroads, communications, and population of the east coast were not as developed as in the west. Rather the main actions of the campaign occurred on the west coast and the territory just to its the interior where there were better communications, more population centers (like the capital Kuala Lampur) and a better route towards the ultimate objective of Singapore. The most notable events on the western side included Jitra, Penang, Kampar, the Slim River, and at Segamat and Muar.
After the Japanese had successful secured their beachhead at Kota Bharu and conquered the nearby area and airfields some of their troops descended the eastern coast of the Malayan peninsula while the lion-share marched in land towards the west coast. The first British attempt to stop the Japanese advance in the west occurred at Jitra.
Here the defenses were inadequate, partially due to the fact that the original British plan had been to pre-empt the Japanese by occupying part of Thailand instead of falling back, and partially due to the fact that defensive works were generally not encouraged in Malaya. The British also had faulty communications during the battle as many of their cables were lined along watery ground and failed to work. The battle lasted from Dec 11th to the 13th, and eventually the British were swept aside by Japanese tanks supported by their artillery. The British withdrew having suffered the loss of nearly 3 battalions and the chance of defending northern Malaya had effectively been lost. A further blow was suffered when the Japanese overran Alor Star airfield and took it, along with fuel, bombs and significant supplies, intact.
A similar disaster occurred on the island of Penang off the coast of north west Malaya. Once again defenses and precautions were inadequate and Japanese bombers took a dreadful toll on civilians from December 8th until the British abandoned it on December 17th. Unfortunately, just like at Jitra, the British botched the scorched earth policy and the Japanese captured substantial quantities of oil supplies and launches. The loss of the launches was particularly troublesome for the British as the Japanese would use them, and other amphibious assets brought across the Malayan peninsula, to land troops behind the British on the west coast whenever they encountered serious opposition.
The next significant engagement in western Malaya occurred near Kampar. The British attempt to halt the Japanese at the Kampar position from late December to early January was initially successful and provides an example of how the “Malayan Campaign” was not as one-sided as is generally assumed. The terrain at Kampar was hilly and did not allow the Japanese to use tanks or airpower, their main advantages on land, effectively. In fact the terrain was more ideal for the British artillery (one area where the British had the advantage in the campaign) which took a brutal toll on the Japanese during the four day battle. Frustrated by the lack of an early victory the Japanese tried to outflank the Kampar position by the east but were checked by British patrols. The next few days saw the Japanese trying to breakthrough at several points by brute force but all efforts were stopped by the British and their considerable artillery, albeit at a significant cost. Special mention should be made of the Gurkha and Sikh formations which bore much of the heavy fighting and repeatedly drove the Japanese back.
Yet however impressive were the gains by the British forces at Kampar they were ultimately made irrelevant, and not for the last time during the campaign, by Japanese landings behind British positions along the coast. Thanks to the substantial river craft stolen from the British at Penang, thanks to the industrious Japanese methods of transporting amphibious assets across one side of the Malayan coast to the other, and thanks to Japanese aerial supremacy, the Japanese were able to outflank the British by the sea again and again. While the British had not broken and had inflicted significant casualties upon the Japanese they were forced to withdraw by the threat of encirclement and fell back to the Slim River.
The Battle at Slim River from January 6-8th was a more one sided affair. The British forces, who Churchill in an almost pleading tone suggests in his memoirs, had been fighting non stop for 3 weeks were quickly brushed aside by Japanese forces, supported by their tanks. Indeed the terrain here was more ideal for armor, the Japanese attacked during moonlight and quickly broke through and effectively destroyed 2 British brigades, taking 3000 prisoners and considerable supplies. Apparently there was a communications breakdown among the British where their rear forces were not alerted to the Japanese attack. Besides the loss of substantial troops and supplies the fighting at Slim River also convinced the British of the futility of trying to save central Malaya.
In lieu of the defeat, General Wavell, who had been sent to Malaya by Churchill to review the situation, ordered Percival to withdraw his forces to Johore province at the bottom of the Malayan peninsula. This meant giving up the capital of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, which the Japanese occupied on January 11th. The next great engagement, and effectively the last ditch effort to save Malaya occurred at an ad-hoc defensive line including Segamat and Muar running from the mountains in central Malaya to the west coast.
The engagements around Muar and Segamat lasted from January 14th-22nd. Most of the British troops, who were predominantly Australian, were deployed to cover the approaches to Segamat while a smaller force of four British battalions guarded the lower reaches of the Muar River. The battle began well for the British due to two successful ambushes they unleashed on the Japanese; one as they crossed the Gemencheh River bridge, and the other as they approached near Gemas. In the former they allowed nearly 800 Japanese to cross the bridge before detonating it and then from well concealed positions decimated the Japanese who had crossed. In the latter they managed to hold off the Japanese attack and destroy several tanks. Both actions cost the Japanese perhaps 1000 casualties, most of them dead, while only costing the Australians involved perhaps 80 in total. Having successfully executed their ambushes they pulled back to the main defense line. However, despite winning a brilliant tactical victory the Japanese were only temporarily inconvenienced and delayed by these actions.
However, the fighting in the west near Muar did not go nearly as well for the British. Here the 4000 Indian and Australian troops were confronted by the whole Japanese Imperial Guards division. The first Japanese attempt to cross the Muar River was stopped by British forces firing point blank at Japanese small craft. Unfortunately, during the night Japanese used the cover of darkness to land on the south side of the river, inflict significant losses on the British and causing them to do a small withdrawal. Further landings by the Imperial Guards behind the British left flank ultimately convinced Percival that the defensive line could not be held and that Malaya would have to be abandoned. Once again Japan’s ability to outflank the British from the sea proved decisive. Except for some sporadic fighting in Johore the “Malayan Campaign” was effectively over as the priority was now to get as many of the British forces across the causeway linking Malaya to Singapore.
After the remaining British forces had crossed, and then destroyed, the causeway connecting Singapore Island to Malaya, the “Battle of Singapore” began. For the Japanese, the fighting in Malaya had been a great triumph whereas for the British it had been an unequivocal disaster. The British had suffered more than 50,000 casualties, most of them taken prisoner, and while there was still perhaps 85,000 British troops in Singapore their morale was atrocious after the mauling British forces had received in Malaya. The British policy, which in the event of realizing the futility of stopping the Japanese advance had turned into one of slow withdrawals, scorched earth, and wearing down the Japanese in Malaya, had clearly failed.
Additionally, the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya had been effectively destroyed, as well as British naval power due to the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in early December 1941. In sum, the Japanese had the indisputable advantage in morale, airpower and sea power. This should be kept in mind given the subsequent surrender of significantly numerical superior British forces to their Japanese counterparts.
However, there were other considerations to the subsequent disaster as well. Perhaps most important of all was that the northern shore of Singapore Island was pathetically short of defenses to repel an attack from southern Malaya. That the defenses guarding the north shore were inadequate were the result of several factors, none of which gives much credit to the British.
Firstly, was the consideration that the focus of building defenses for Singapore was to repel a naval assault, instead of an attack across the narrow waters separating southern Malaya and Singapore. Secondly, was the assumption that any potential attack from Malaya towards Singapore could be neutralized by the British holding onto Jahore province in southern Malaya. Thirdly, was that the Japanese should theoretically, according to the British plan, have been worn down from the fighting in Malaya and that even if they reached Johore province they would have been severely weakened and that the British would have been adequately reinforced to hold Singapore. Fourthly, was the absurd conviction, perhaps out of naively sparing civilian and military morale, among the British command in Malaya and Singapore that defenses were bad for morale. According to the chief engineer for Malaya and Singapore, Generals Simsons, Percival had refused his efforts to construct defenses across the peninsula in general and the northern shore of Singapore Island in particular by quipping that “defenses of the sort you want to throw up are bad for the morale of troops and civilians.”
Finally, there was the ignorance of officials, including in London, of how poor such defenses were. Churchill himself, when informed of the pitiful state of the defenses, was shocked and characteristically sent a long and detailed memorandum to the commanders on the spot urging them to action and even giving them advice regarding how to layout defenses on the north shore. While with hindsight there were many cases of Churchill interfering with operations to a detrimental effect, in the case of Singapore it would have been well if the commanders had heeded his advice.
Either way, the results of British wishful thinking, neglect, and ignorance meant that when the Japanese reached southern Malaya and looked across at Singapore they were not confronted by an impregnable fortress but a relatively defenseless coastline. While Percival still had a healthy numerical superiority regarding soldiers their morale was shaky and their numbers were spread out thinly having to man the north coast of the shore. While it is true that the British had the ability to redeploy the massive guns that had been pointing south and east to thwart any potential invasion by the sea they had an insufficient amount of high explosive shells necessary to attack infantry as they were mostly supplied with armor piercing ammunition to take down ships.
Perhaps Percival’s deployment of his forces was ultimately the worse factor in the situation. He believed that the main Japanese attack would be made in the east where the terrain was open and had thus stationed the lion-share of his forces there. This was also influenced by deception efforts by Yamashita to convince the British the Japanese would attack there. However, Yamashita decided to launch the main effort in the west where the terrain may have been less favorable (it was considerably swampy), but where there were much fewer British troops. General Wavell told Percival that he expected the Japanese to attack the west side but had ultimately relented to Percival’s judgement in an attempt not to interfere with the man on the spot. While the principle to give initiative to the men closest to the fighting is generally beneficial in wartime, like all supposed rules of war it should depend more upon the circumstances and in this case Wavell was wrong not to insist upon his view.
However, none of this was necessarily doomed to failure if there had been sufficient reserves in place to reinforce either forces in the west or east to give them enough punch to throw the Japanese back into the sea. Unfortunately, out of a force that theoretically numbered 85,000 Percival deployed a single brigade (at best 5000) to act as a reserve. This was simply too weak a force to deploy against the Japanese, who had the advantage in morale and firepower, who were not confronted by adequate defenses, and who would launch more than 30,000 men across the strait in a short time while the British were hopelessly dispersed across the island. In the event, due to confusion, the breaking down of communications, and hesitation this reserve was not used effectively once the Japanese began their assault on the west coast of Singapore Island on February 8, 1942.
Regarding the initial assault, the Japanese, as part of the deception plan, had previously concentrated their bombardment on the eastern shore, then suddenly switched the focus of it towards the western portion to aid the attack. The first attempts at landing were repulsed, but the Japanese sought to find gaps in the British defenses, and given how spread out the British were it did not take long. Once ashore the Japanese sought to encircle the British positions and then bypass them and undermine the whole defensive line. Whatever chance the small reserve Percival had at his disposal to save the situation was wasted due to poor communications, as the Japanese bombardment had severed the line from the front to H.Q, and the fact that Percival, unsure whether or not the Japanese assault in the west was the main attack, hesitated to release the brigade.
Yet despite this success, the Japanese were still dependent upon securing another beachhead near the original causeway linking Malaya and Singapore which had been destroyed a week earlier. They needed to take this area to expand their initial lodgment as well as to rebuild the causeway to move in enough troops and supplies to overcome resistance in Singapore.
This assault occurred by the Kranji Peninsula. Unlike the relatively easy victory on the west of the island this attack nearly resulted in disaster. While the Japanese successfully landed in the area, the Australians decimated them with mortar and machine gun fire. Even worse was that as the British had begun blowing up their oil stocks in Singapore there were considerable oil slicks in the water and the considerable fighting ignited much of these and burnt many of the Japanese alive. The casualties were so bad that the commander of the Japanese Imperial Guards division asked Yamashita to abandon the operation. However, Yamashita refused and told his men to “Do your duty!” In the end, Yamashita’s stubbornness paid off as the British commander at the front, concerned of becoming encircled, and misinterpreting an order from Percival, withdrew and allowed the Japanese to secure this vital beachhead.
From here on, Singapore was doomed. Given that the Japanese had the advantages in firepower and morale it was necessary for the British to defeat the Japanese on the waterline before they were established. Just like later on in 1944 once the allies had a firm beach head in Normandy they had essential won. In fact, Percival knowing his weaknesses, had planned for this, but ironically the positioning of his forces to cover as much of the waterline as possible had defeated this purpose as there were not enough troops in a ready reserve to throw back the Japanese assault once it had been discovered. As Frederick the Great once said “He who defends everything defends nothing.”
In the next few days the British fought a losing battle, first in trying to contain the beach head, and then trying to establish an effective defensive line in front of Singapore city. Yet what inevitably forced the British to surrender was the Japanese conquest of the water reserves. It is no coincidence that Yamashita emphasized the capture of these as they were among the most likely means to force a British capitulation. Coupled to this was the sad state of British forces by this time. Ammunition was about to run out for anti-aircraft, artillery and tanks, the oil supply was low and the morale of British forces was atrocious as significant amounts of British forces succumbed to looting.
However, on the other side the Japanese had vulnerabilities too. The Japanese had used the remainder of their artillery shells in the operations crossing the strait, their supplies were very low and they were still significantly outnumbered by the remaining British forces. Yamashita also did not look forward to a protracted street battle in Singapore, perhaps remembering the toll battles such as Shanghai in 1937 had taken on Japanese forces.
Not surprisingly, Yamashita tried cajoling and bullying Percival into surrendering immediately, urging him to end pointless resistance and spare further suffering for the civilian population in Singapore. The latter point was not so much an attempt by the Japanese to protect civilians, as the well documented brutal atrocities they inflicted on the Chinese and other peoples they conquered provides adequate proof about their conduct towards civilians, but an attempt to guilt the British conscious into surrender. Initially, while Percival was urged by his subordinate commanders to capitulate he was pressured by both Wavell and Churchill to continue the struggle.
Churchill’s plea was especially uncompromising. In a cable to Wavell Churchill wrote that “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.”
Faced with such pressure Percival delayed surrendering until another meeting with his subordinates on February 15th. During the meeting he plainly told them that the only two options were to either launch a counterattack to secure water and food supplies or surrender. When all of his subordinates told him a counterattack was impossible Percival sought out Yamashita, who immediately demanded unconditional surrender.
The capitulation at Singapore was the worst, and arguably the most humiliating, event in British military history. Combined with the losses in Malaya, the British lost approximately 130,000 men, mostly captured, along with the loss of two economically and strategically important colonies. It also severely degraded Britain’s military assets in the Far East and gave Japan a considerable naval base (albeit one that had been significantly demolished by the British before the surrender), as well as the control of the area connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Total Japanese casualties in Malaya and Singapore were roughly 10,000.
The reduction of the British threat from Malaya and Singapore also allowed the Japanese to consolidate their conquest of the oil rich Dutch East Indies, which were vital for Japan’s survival, as well as giving the Japanese the ability to operate in the Indian Ocean. This they did in early 1942, attacking Sir Lanka, and harassing British shipping in the area. The above, in combination with the successful Japanese attack against British held Burma, effectively quashed Britain’s potential as a serious threat against the Japanese, at least for a few years.
However, what the Japanese successes in Malaya and Singapore did not do was to gain them a strong enough position to win the war. Much like the countless German tactical successes in Russia and North Africa, the Japanese military victories in early 1942 never resulted in exploitable strategic successes. While Britain had been thoroughly humiliated, she was not disheartened. In fact, like the Americans after Pearl Harbor she was incensed, angry, and keen on revenge. Japan’s whole strategy for the Pacific war was to win quick, overwhelming victories, against her enemies, and hope that they would be demoralized enough to end the war on Japan’s terms.
Yet the treacherous way Japan had gone to war, and the inhumane way she treated those she conquered, both civilians and western soldiers, enraged the British and Americans and convinced them to do whatever it took to defeat the Japanese. This was unfortunate for the Japanese as the allies, as noted above, had much more population, resources and industry, than the Japanese. The allies, especially the Americans, would ultimately use these advantages to overwhelm Japan; sinking her navy, shooting down her Air Force, fire-bombing her cities, occupying islands across the Pacific to get into a position to invade the Japanese home islands, and finally dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For despite Japan’s incredible victories in 1942 this should have been expected. In 1939 Japan had attacked Russia, the world’s biggest country and lost, but had always planned on fighting Russia again. From 1937-45 Japan fought China, the world’s most populous country, and despite winning many victories never effectively beat the Chinese. Then in late 1941, Japan had attacked Britain and America, the former who had the world’s greatest empire, the latter who had the world’s greatest industrial capabilities. In the span of a few years Japan, a small island nation, with little resources and limited population and industry had attacked the world’s biggest country, the world’s most populous country, the world’s biggest empire, and the world’s greatest industrial power. For a country that supposedly embraced militarism and studied Clausewitz and Sun Tzu extensively Japan displayed considerable ignorance regarding both warfare and common sense.
The end result being that instead of becoming the foremost power in Asia, Japan was, by late 1945, impoverished, starving, bombed out and occupied by American forces. However, the American occupation was an enlightened one and the Japanese, now focused on commerce and economics instead of war, and ultimately became one of the top economic powerhouses in the world. In the 1920’s the Japanese had the choice of whether or not to invest in imperialism or in commerce and free trade. Unfortunately for both Japan and Asia she had invested in the former instead of the latter.
As for the British, perhaps the biggest loss regarding the disasters in Malaya and Singapore was not in military or economic terms, but in prestige. The British, like other European imperialists, had justified their empires, along with all the brutal ends and means to maintain them, upon the supposed theory of the superiority of the white races versus the colored ones.
In the 10 weeks from Pearl Harbor to Singapore this myth had been irrevocably quashed. The British Empire, supposedly the most powerful and influential power in the world, had been humbled by numerically inferior forces of Asian descent. The path ushered in from Russia’s defeat during the “Russo-Japanese War” had reached its crescendo. While Britain’s failure at Singapore convinced most that european colonialism based on racial superiority was false it would still take the French defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, as well as their later defeat in Algeria in the early 1960s’ to finally bury the outdated and discredited ideas of racial dominance and imperialism, at least in their most direct and blatant forms.
Regarding the respective commanders in Malaya and Singapore, Yamashita and Percival, neither of them enjoyed a particularly good end. Despite gaining perhaps the most impressive victory Japan won during “World War 2” Yamashita was sent to a distant post in Manchuria by jealous superiors where he would see no fighting for several years. He was recalled in 1944 to direct the doomed Japanese defense of the Philippines and was later tried, and executed, for war crimes committed under his command in Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines. Percival surrendered with his men and spent the next four years in captivity. After the war he was generally disparaged by the British, perhaps unfairly given the inadequate resources he was given, as the man who lost Singapore and who presided over Britain’s worst military defeat in history. While modern scholarship is more sympathetic to Percival, and while no one can question his courage (given the many decorations he received in World War 1), the case can be made that he was neither ruthless, nor decisive, enough to be a successful military commander. Comparing Yamashita’s execution to Percival’s unenviable place in military history it is difficult to know which one had the worst fate.
Japanese boldness, Yamashita’s decisive leadership, and Japan’s superior air and naval power in the Far East allowed her to triumph over British led forces in Malaya and Singapore which, despite being numerically superior, were poorly led, poorly equipped, yet also remarkable complacent and arrogant. The Japanese victory at Singapore was both the greatest military defeat suffered by the British Empire as well as perhaps the most significant catalyst towards the ending of european imperialism. However, at the end of the war Japan had lost the war and her independence. Meanwhile Britain had lost her credibility, her paramount position in the world, and would soon lose her empire. While the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” provides a great case study of how one nation used boldness and innovation to defeat one that suffered from arrogance and complacency, it is also a case study about how the Japanese and British, the former due to their excessive militarism, the latter due to their paternalistic racism, both ultimately failed to accomplish their self-serving goals of dominating the Far East.
Barber, Noel. Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore. London: Cassell, 1968.
Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: The Grand Alliance. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.
Churchill, Winston. The Second World War: The Hinge of Fate. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.
Deighton, Len. Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War 2. New York: Castle Books, 1999.
Horner, David. The Second World War: The Pacific. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.
Keegan, John. Churchill’s Generals. London: Abacus, 1999.
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Warner, Philip. World War 2: The Untold Story. London: Cassell, 2002.
Wragg, David. Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: 20th Century Military Blunders. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
Article from “Britain At War”: Chronology of Malaya and Singapore by Ron Taylor. http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/body_chronology_of_malaya.htm 
Article from “Britain at War”: Chronology of Singapore by Ron Taylor. http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/Malaya_and_Singapore/html/chronology_of_singapore.htm 
Wikipedia article on the “Malayan Campaign”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayan_Campaign [March, 2014]
Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Singapore”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Singapore [March, 2014]
Documentary on the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Battle of Singapore:” Nicholas Rowe, Alistair Irwin (21 September 2009). Generals At War. National Geographic Channel.