Battle of Malaya

Battle of Malaya

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Malaya
partof=the Pacific Theatre of World War II

caption=Japanese troops advancing through Kuala Lumpur.
date=8 December 1941January 31 1942
place=British Malaya
result=Japanese Victory, Japanese Occupation of Malaya, Emergence of the MPAJA
combatant1=Malaya Command:
flagicon|India|British Indian III Corps
flagicon|Australia 8th Division
flagicon|Malaysia|1895 Malay Regiment
flagicon|UK 53rd Infantry Brigade
flagicon|Netherlands ML-KNIL
combatant2=Twenty-Fifth Army:
flagicon|Japan|alt Imperial Guards
flagicon|Japan|alt 5th Division
flagicon|Japan|alt 18th Division
flagicon|Japan|alt 3rd Air Division
commander1=flagicon|UK Arthur Percival
commander2=flagicon|Japan|alt Tomoyuki Yamashita
158 aircraft
568 aircraft
200 tanks
casualties1=5,500 killed
5,000 wounded
40,000 PoW [Altogether allied forces lost 7,500 killed, 10,000 wounded and about 120,000 captured for the entire Malayan Campaign]
casualties2=1,793 killed
3,378 wounded [cite book
last = Smith
first = Colin
title = "Singapore Burning"
publisher = Penguin Books
year = 2006
pages = p. 547
isbn = 0-141-01036-3
] |

The Battle of Malaya was a campaign fought by Allied and Japanese forces in Malaya, from December 8 1941 to January 31 1942 during the Second World War. The campaign was dominated by land battles between British Commonwealth army units, and the Imperial Japanese Army. For the British, Indian, Australian and Malayan forces defending the colony, the campaign was a disaster.


Between the wars, Britain's military strategy in the Far East was undermined by a lack of attention and funding. The British government's plans relied primarily on the stationing of a strong fleet at the Singapore Naval Base in the event of any enemy hostility, both to defend Britain's Far Eastern possessions and the route to Australia. However, the expected arrival time of the Royal Navy, should Malaya or Singapore be threatened, was extended from weeks to months, until finally, by the time war broke out in Europe in 1939, it was evident that no fleet was likely to be forthcoming.

Once World War II commenced, Britain, the Middle East and the Soviet Union received higher priorities in the allocation of men and material. The desired Malayan air force strength of 300 to 500 aircraft was never reached. Whereas the Japanese invaded with over two hundred tanks, the British Army in Malaya did not have a single one.

The British had plans for a pre-emptive invasion of southern Thailand, named Operation Matador, to forestall Japanese landings, but decided not to use them.

Japan invades

The Battle of Malaya began when the 25th Army invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941. Japanese troops launched an amphibious assault on the northern coast of Malaya at Kota Bharu and started advancing down the eastern coast of Malaya. This was made in conjunction with landings at Pattani and Songkhla in Thailand, where they then proceeded south overland across the Thailand-Malayan border to attack the western portion of Malaya.

The Japanese had already coerced the Thai government into letting them use Thai military bases to launch attacks into Malaya, after having fought Thai troops for eight hours early in the morning.

At 4:00 a.m, seventeen Imperial Japanese Navy bombers attacked Singapore, the first ever air raid aimed at the colony. It became evident that Japanese aircraft bombers operating in Saigon, were now in range of Singapore.

The Japanese were initially resisted by III Corps of the Indian Army and several British Army battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending the coastline, before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force their surrender.

The Japanese forces held a slight advantage in numbers on the ground in northern Malaya, and were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience, with the Japanese units having fought in China. The Allies had no tanks, which had put them at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, which allowed swift movement of their forces overland through the terrain that was covered with thick tropical rainforest.

A replacement for Operation Matador, named Operation Krohcol, was implemented on December 8, but the Indian troops were easily defeated by the Japanese 5th Division, which had already landed in Pattani Province, Thailand.

The naval Force Z, consisting of the battleships HMS "Prince of Wales" and HMS "Repulse", together with four destroyers, and commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips had arrived right before the outbreak of hostilities. However, Japanese air superiority led to the sinking of the capital ships on December 10 1941, leaving the east coast of Malaya exposed and allowing the Japanese to continue their landings.

Air war

The Allied fighter squadrons in Malaya, equipped with Brewster Buffaloes, were beset with numerous problems, including: poorly-built and ill-equipped planes; [ Squadron Leader W.J. Harper, 1946, "REPORT ON NO. 21 AND NO. 453 RAAF SQUADRONS" (UK Air Ministry)] , p.1 (Source: UK Public Records Office, ref. AIR 20/5578; transcribed by Dan Ford for "Warbird's Forum".) Access date: September 8, 2007] [ "Harper report", p.2] ] inadequate supplies of spare parts; inadequate numbers of support staff;"Harper report", p.1-2] airfields that were difficult to defend against air attack; lack of a clear and coherent command structure; antagonism between RAF and Royal Australian Air Force squadrons and personnel, and; inexperienced pilots lacking appropriate training. They suffered severe losses in the first week of the campaign, resulting in the ongoing merger of squadrons and their gradual evacuation to the Dutch East Indies.

Several pilots of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force (ML-KNIL) stationed in Singapore did see action in Malaya before their withdrawal to Java on 18 January.

The remaining offensive aircraft were obsolete types — Bristol Blenheim, Lockheed Hudson light bombers and Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers — most of these aircraft were quickly destroyed by Japanese fighters in the air and on the ground, and played an insignificant part in the campaign. Nevertheless, one Blenheim pilot, Squadron Leader Arthur Scarf, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for an attack on December 9.

In addition, recent research showed that the Japanese military intelligence service had managed to recruit a British officer, Captain Patrick Heenan, an Air Liaison Officer with the Indian Army. [ Peter Elphick, 2001, "Cover-ups and the Singapore Traitor Affair"] Access date: March 5, 2007.] While the effects of Heenan's actions are disputed, the Japanese were able to destroy almost every Allied aircraft in northern Malaya within three days. Heenan was arrested on December 10 and sent to Singapore. However, the Japanese had already achieved air superiority.

Advance down the Malayan Peninsula

The defeat of Allied troops at Jitra by Japanese forces, supported by tanks moving south from Thailand on December 11, 1941 and the rapid advance of the Japanese inland from their Kota Bharu beachhead on the north-east coast of Malaya overwhelmed the northern defences. Without any real naval presence, the British were unable to challenge Japanese naval operations off the Malayan coast, operations which proved invaluable to the invading army. With virtually no remaining Allied planes, the Japanese also had mastery of the skies, leaving the Allied ground troops and civilian population exposed to air attack.

The Malayan island of Penang was bombed daily by the Japanese and Thais from December 8 and abandoned on December 17. Arms, boats, supplies and a working radio station were left in haste to the Japanese. The evacuation of Europeans from Penang, with local inhabitants being left to the mercy of the Japanese, caused much embarrassment for the British and alienated them from the local population. Several Malayan colonial soldiers stayed behind to join the Thais. On December 23 Major-General David Murray-Lyon of the Indian 11th Infantry Division was removed from command to little effect. By the end of the first week in January, the entire northern region of Malaya had been lost to the Japanese. At the same time, Thailand officially signed a Treaty of Friendship with Imperial Japan, which completed the formation of their loose military alliance. Thailand was then allowed by the Japanese to resume sovereignty over several sultanates in northern Malaya, thus consolidating their occupation. It did not take long for the Japanese army's next objective, the city of Kuala Lumpur, to fall. The Japanese entered and occupied the city unopposed on January 11 1942. Singapore Island was now less than 200 miles away for the invading Japanese army.

The 11th Indian Division managed to delay the Japanese advance at Kampar for a few days, which was followed by the disastrous Slim River battle, in which two Indian brigades were practically annihilated. Another Indian brigade would also suffer close annihilation at Muar.

Defence of Johore

By mid-January the Japanese had reached the southern Malayan state of Johore where, on 14 January, they encountered troops from the Australian 8th Division, commanded by Major-General Gordon Bennett, for the first time in the campaign. During engagements with the Australians, the Japanese experienced their first major tactical setback, due to the stubborn resistance put up by the Australians at Gemas. The battle, centred around the Gemensah Bridge, proved costly for the Japanese, who suffered up to 600 casualties but the bridge itself, which had been demolished during the fighting, was repaired within six hours.

As the Japanese attempted to outflank the Australians to the west of Gemas, one of the bloodiest battles of the campaign began on January 15 on the peninsula's West coast near the Muar River. Bennett allocated the weak 45th Indian Brigade (a new and half trained formation) to defend the river's South bank but the unit was outflanked by Japanese units landing from the sea and the Brigade was effectively destroyed with its commander, Brigadier H. C. Duncan, and all three of his battalion commanders killed.

Led by Australian Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Anderson, the retreating Indian troops, supported by Australians, formed Muar Force and fought a desperate four day withdrawal, to allow remnants of the Commonwealth troops withdrawing from northern Malaya to avoid being cut off and to withdraw past the Japanese to safety. When Muar Force reached the bridge at Parit Sulong and found it to be firmly in enemy hands, Anderson, with mounting numbers of dead and wounded, ordered "every man for himself". Those that could took to the jungles, swamps and rubber plantations in search of their battalion headquarters at Yong Peng. The wounded were left to the mercy of the Japanese and all but two out of 135 were tortured and killed in the Parit Sulong Massacre. Anderson was awarded a Victoria Cross for his fighting withdrawal.

On January 20, further Japanese landings took place at Endau, in spite of an air attack by Vildebeest bombers. The final Commonwealth defensive line in Johore of Batu Pahat-Kluang-Mersing was now being attacked along its full length. Unfortunately Percival had resisted the construction of fixed defences in Johore , as on the North shore of Singapore, dismissing them in the face of repeated requests to start construction from his Chief Engineer, Brigadier Ivan Simson, with the comment "Defences are bad for morale".

On January 27, 1942 Percival received permission from the commander of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, General Archibald Wavell, to order a retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore.

Retreat to Singapore

On January 31 the last organised Allied forces left Malaya, and Allied engineers blew a hole, 70 feet (20 m) wide, in the causeway that linked Johore and Singapore (a few stragglers would wade across over the next few days). Japanese raiders and infiltrators, often disguised as Singaporean civilians, began to cross the Straits of Johor in inflatable boats soon afterwards.

In less than two months, the Battle for Malaya had ended in comprehensive defeat for the Commonwealth forces and their retreat from the Malay Peninsula. Nearly 50,000 Commonwealth troops had been captured or killed during the battle.

By the end of January, Patrick Heenan - British Indian Army Captain convicted of treason, after spying for Japan - had been court-martialled and sentenced to death. On February 13, five days after the invasion of Singapore Island, and with Japanese forces approaching the city centre, Heenan was taken by military police to the waterside and was hastily executed. His body was thrown into the sea.

ee also

* Japanese Invasion of Thailand
* Battle of Singapore
* Greater East Asia War in the Pacific

* Malaya Command
* Operation Matador
* Pacific War



*Dixon, Norman F, "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence", London, 1976
*Bose, Romen, "SECRETS OF THE BATTLEBOX:The Role and history of Britain's Command HQ during the Malayan Campaign", MArshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2005
*cite book
last = Burton
first = John
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2006
chapter =
title = Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor
publisher = US Naval Institute Press
location =
id = ISBN 159114096X

* Seki, Eiji. (2006). [,+Japan,+and+the+Second+World+War&client=firefox-a "Mrs. Ferguson's Tea-Set, Japan and the Second World War: The Global Consequences Following Germany's Sinking of the SS Automedon in 1940."] London: Global Oriental. 10-ISBN 1-905-24628-5; 13- ISBN 978-1-905-24628-1 (cloth) [reprinted by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2007 -- [ previously announced as "Sinking of the SS Automedon and the Role of the Japanese Navy: A New Interpretation"] .]
*Smyth, John George Smyth, "Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore", MacDonald and Company, 1971
*Thompson, Peter, "The Battle for Singapore", London, 2005, ISBN 0-7499-5068-4 (HB)

External links

* [ Campaign in Malaya on The Children (& Families) of the Far East Prisoners of War]
* [ Royal Engineers Museum] Royal Engineers and the Second World War - the Far East
* [ Australia's War 1939-1945: Battle of Malaya]
* [ Animated History of the Fall of Malaya and Singapore]

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