As promised, Episode 37 of the podcast is now available! In the last episode you heard about Japan invading China, occupying French Indochina, and bombing Pearl Harbor. Now this episode covers the 1941 Japanese invasion of Thailand, Malaya, and Singapore. Are you ready?
(Transcript, added 07/26/2020.)
Episode 37: Japan Strikes, The Fall of Malaya and Singapore
Greetings, dear listeners! This episode went online on January 16, 2018, so if you are listening then, happy National Nothing Day! Yes, that is a real holiday, or at least an attempt to make one. Back in the 1970s, nobody could find an event that happened on January 16, so someone suggested celebrating it as the day when nothing happened. It’s the same kind of thinking as that behind the “Unbirthdays” celebrated by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, in “Alice In Wonderland.” Can we give National Nothing Day a hand?
All right, I hope you’re more enthusiastic at this time next year. Anyway, on January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi left Iran, saying he was feeling tired and needed to rest, though everyone knew he was fleeing the revolution that had swept his country. Nobody could talk about National Nothing Day after that, because January 16 was now the anniversary of the date when the Shah of Iran’s reign ended. Three weeks after the last National Nothing Day, Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and Iran has been controlled by a theocracy for the thirty-nine years since then. Now as I record this, it looks like another revolution is spreading like wildfire in Iran, this time led by young people yearning for lower prices, jobs, freedom, and a government that is not corrupt.
But I know you’re not here expecting a talk about what’s happening in the Middle East. Maybe someday I will do a podcast about the Middle East, and since I don’t want to record two podcasts simultaneously, by the time I get done with Southeast Asia, we should know how the current events in Iran turned out.
Now where were we when we last talked about Southeast Asia? Oh yes, last time we started a series of episodes about World War II, by listing the events that motivated Japan to begin the Pacific War. We ended the episode with the battle of Pearl Harbor, and because this podcast has been moving in chronological order from the start, we are now going to chronicle the first battles after December 7, 1941. It is too early to tell how long it will take to cover the war until its end, but I’m sure you will enjoy the trip.
Now I don’t know how bookstores are organized where you live. Here in the United States, whenever I have entered a bookstore, I have found the history books arranged in three groups or shelves: one shelf for American history, one shelf for military history, and one shelf for the history of everything else. So far in this podcast series, if you wanted to find books that had the content I have been giving you, you would find most of it on the third shelf, the “miscellaneous history.” Add to that a little bit from the American history shelf, for Episodes 29 through 31 and Episode 36. But for World War II, and later for the Vietnam War, you will have to go to the military history shelf to read about what I will cover here. No doubt the podcast will now attract some of the military history buffs who browse that shelf in the bookstores, and weren’t interested in this podcast before.
Okay, Japan has crippled the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Now what? To find out, let’s get back into the narrative:
Japan assigned the job of conquering all of Southeast Asia to ten army divisions. If you know anything about World War II, this will sound like a trivial force. On the Russian front, by contrast, both the German and Soviet armies each had more than a hundred divisions, and for the ongoing war in China, Japan committed forty divisions, three of them armored. What’s more, nearly all of the units sent to Southeast Asia were infantry; the jungles and mountains of the region made most of the land unsuitable for tanks.
Nevertheless, this force would be enough for the job, because the Allies were overextended. The French in Indochina and the Dutch in the Indies could not resist any invader, because Germany had conquered their homelands in 1940. And though the British were alive and kicking, as long as the German navy was active in the Atlantic, they could not get enough ships and planes to the Far East to defend their colonies. As for the Americans, their supply lines were simply too long; the Philippines are four times as far away from the US mainland as Hawaii is. Indeed, except for an optimist named Douglas MacArthur, most American generals and admirals thought that if Japan invaded, the Philippines were indefensible. That is why the Americans recruited Filipino soldiers, as soon as they could be trusted; while it showed that the Americans, unlike the other colonial powers, did not have to worry about the native population turning on them, it was mainly done as a cost-cutting measure, because establishing a native defense force was cheaper and less controversial than sending more American servicemen to the archipelago.
Within a few hours of the Pearl Harbor raid, Japanese forces attacked several other targets. They struck Thailand, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island. This is not obvious because the International Date Line runs through the middle of the Pacific. Pearl Harbor and Midway are east of the International Date Line, where it was December 7 at the time, while the other places are west of the line, so it was December 8 there. For example, the first Japanese troops to land in Malaya did so at 1:30 AM on December 8, but in real time that was less than an hour after the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Keep that in mind if you do independent research on the war, besides what you are listening to here.
The attack on Midway was merely a bombardment by two destroyers, which the Americans easily drove off. Japan would not make an effort to capture the Midway atoll until June 1942. The other attacks were all-out invasions. Guam was the first to fall, because the defenders were outnumbered, and because the Japanese already ruled the rest of the Mariana Islands, so here their supply lines were short. The defenders were roughly 700 Marines and native Chamorros, armed with nothing larger than .30-caliber machine guns. Against them the Japanese sent 6,000 troops, and they conquered Guam by December 10. On the same day the British-ruled Gilbert Islands were taken; these islands make up the present-day nation of Kiribati, pronounced Kiri-bas if you live there.
However, on Wake Island, a remote atoll between Guam and Hawaii, 400 US Marines surprised everyone by throwing the first Japanese invasion back into the sea. Morale among the Americans was so high at this point that when Pearl Harbor sent a radio message to Wake Island that asked, quote, “Is there anything we can provide?”, unquote, the beleaguered defenders replied, quote, “Send us more Japs!” Unquote. Pardon my use of a politically incorrect term here. Sure, it’s an ethnic slur that shouldn’t be used today, but while the Pacific War was going on, it is hard to find anything American servicemen said or wrote that did not refer to the Japanese as “Japs.” Anyway, the American success prompted Japan to send two of the aircraft carriers returning from Pearl Harbor, to support a second invasion. On the second try the defenders were overrun; Wake Island surrendered on December 23. Still, 700 Japanese were killed before it was all over; obviously the Japanese had suffered more casualties than the Americans did. Meanwhile on the Asian mainland, Hong Kong surrendered on December 25.
You probably guessed from the title of this episode that we are going to concentrate our attention on the invasion of Malaya, and that is correct. In the last episode we introduced the force sent to do this job, three divisions of the Japanese XXV Army, riding on troop transports. They were commanded by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, an officer we will be hearing from again when the podcast gets to the war in the Philippines. Some cruisers and destroyers escorted the troopships, but no aircraft carriers went with them; instead, fighters and bombers took off from Saigon to give the force air cover. On December 7, Japan sent an ultimatum to Bangkok, demanding that Japanese forces be allowed to pass through Thailand; the Thais were given two hours to respond. No response came before the deadline, so the Japanese began their invasion the next day.
Of the three divisions mentioned, one landed at Kota Baharu, the northernmost port on Malaya’s east coast, while the other two landed at Singora and Patani in southernmost Thailand. Japanese planes staged an air raid on Singapore on the same day, letting the British know they were in a heap of trouble. Meanwhile two divisions of the Japanese XV Army invaded central Thailand from Cambodia, and individual battalions of the XV Army landed at four points on the Kra Isthmus, the very narrow stretch of land in southern Thailand that separates the Gulf of Thailand from the Bay of Bengal. Another battalion landed at the mouth of the Menam River, to be used for a march on Bangkok if the Thais did not give in to Japanese demands. Finally, in an air raid over Bangkok, one bomb was dropped on the main post office, but it did not explode.
In Episode 27 we met the strongman who was running Thailand at this date, Field Marshall Phibun Songgram; we also saw that he admired the Japanese. In the weeks before the invasion, Phibun had been in communication with both the Japanese and the British, but he did not commit Thailand to either side, because it was not clear who could do more for him. Now with the Japanese on their doorstep, the Thais resisted for five hours, and then Phibun surrendered, announcing at the same time that Thailand was joining the Axis. The biggest battle in the Japanese-Thai conflict was in the northernmost part of the Kra Isthmus, where the Japanese attacked the airfield of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Phibun gave up before this battle had a clear winner; after it ended Thailand reported 42 of its soldiers had been killed, and 27 wounded. The Japanese death toll reported was 115, but it really may have been as high as 417. So if you want to believe the Thais won that battle, go ahead.
Thailand’s entry into the war on Japan’s side did not have the expected effect. The king of Thailand, Rama VIII, did not endorse Phibun’s actions, because he was only sixteen years old, and attending school in Switzerland. The regent acting for the king was Phibun’s civilian rival, Pridi Phanomyong, and he declared himself on the side of the Allies, forming an anti-Japanese political party called the Seri Thai, meaning Free Thai. The Thai embassy in Washington recognized the Free Thai as the legitimate government of Thailand. On January 25, 1942, in response to British air raids on Japanese military positions in Thailand, Phibun declared war on both Britain and the United States. However, the Thai ambassador in Washington refused to deliver the war declaration to the Americans, and the Americans likewise ignored the declaration and recognized the Free Thai as the government they would deal with. Thus, the Thai government split in two, with a pro-Axis military government in Bangkok, and a pro-Allied civilian government in exile. Still, the Japanese XV army quickly passed through the country, instead of sticking around in Bangkok, and that was precisely what Phibun wanted. On Thailand’s western border the XV Army assembled, but instead of invading Burma immediately they waited, to see if the army invading Malaya would need reinforcements.
For at least a month before the Japanese invasion the British knew that their colonies were likely to become targets, and a squadron was sent from the Atlantic to defend Singapore if that happened. This squadron, called “Force Z,” was led by the pride of the Royal Navy, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Earlier in 1941 the Prince of Wales had fought Germany’s super-battleship, the Bismarck, and survived despite suffering heavy damage. Then later in the same year Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ridden across the Atlantic on the Prince of Wales, for his first meeting with US President Franklin Roosevelt. The other ships in Force Z were a battle cruiser, the HMS Repulse, and four destroyers. A carrier, the HMS Indomitable, was also supposed to go, but she ran aground on a coral reef near Jamaica, and thus was being repaired when the other ships went on their mission. The decision to leave the Indomitable behind probably decided the battle you will hear about shortly. The commander of Force Z, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, knew that traveling without a carrier was risky, but he was also confident that land-based planes in Malaya could provide air cover in place of the carrier.
Force Z arrived at Singapore on December 2, and they left Singapore on December 8 to intercept the Japanese troopships approaching Malaya. Around this time, the Royal Air Force told Phillips, quote: “Regret fighter protection impossible,” unquote, and Philips remarked to an officer on the bridge, quote, “Well, we must get on without it.” Unquote. The squadron was too slow to intercept the troopships, because as we noted, the Japanese came ashore at Kota Baharu on the same day. By the time Force Z arrived at Kota Baharu, the troopships had withdrawn, and the troops weren’t on the beach anymore. The squadron turned back, and then Phillips heard about another Japanese landing at Kuantan, halfway down Malaya’s east coast, so he decided to stop that. Past experience had taught all Royal Navy officers that capital ships were the key to controlling the sea, and whoever controlled the sea would eventually win on land as well. In his mission to engage the Japanese as soon as possible, Phillips had followed the rules in the book of naval warfare – but the book was out of date.
On the morning of December 10, Force Z reached Kuantan, only to find that no Japanese ships or troops were there; the report of their landing had been false. Japanese planes had spotted the squadron, though, and bombers and torpedo bombers swooped in to attack the ships. The Repulse was sunk after taking bombs for an hour and a half, and another hour of bombing sank the Prince of Wales. Admiral Phillips went down with the flagship; he was the highest ranking Allied officer killed in battle during all of World War II. On the other side, the Japanese only lost three planes. With this battle, a new rule was written for naval warfare:
“Even the mightiest warships are vulnerable to attacks from the air if they do not have planes of their own to protect them.”
Cecil Brown, an American war correspondent for CBS, was on the Repulse during the battle, and gave an account of what he experienced. This is a lengthy quote, but you don’t hear from someone who was in the middle of a naval battle every day, so here goes. Quote:
“Stand by for barrage,” comes over the ship’s communication system. One plane is circling around. It’s now at 300 or 400 yards, approaching us from the port side. It’s coming closer head-on, and I see a torpedo drop. A watcher shouts, “Stand by for torpedo”, and the tin fish is streaking directly for us.
Some one says: “This one’s got us.”
The torpedo struck the side on which I was standing, about twenty yards astern of my position. It felt like the ship had crashed into a well-rooted dock. It threw me four feet across the deck, but I did not fall, and I did not feel any explosion—just this very great jar.
Almost immediately, it seemed, we began to list, and less than a minute later there was another jar of the same kind and same force, except that it was almost precisely the same spot on the starboard.
After the first torpedo, the communications system coolly announced: ‘Blow up your lifebelts.’ I was in this process when the second torpedo struck, and the settling ship and crazy angle were so apparent that I didn’t continue blowing the belt.
The communications system announced: “Prepare to abandon ship. May God be with you.”
By the way, Cecil Brown fared better than the admiral; he was rescued, and lived to report another day. In London, Winston Churchill told Parliament, quote: “In my whole experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful . . .” Unquote.
On land, the two divisions of the Japanese XXV Army that landed in southernmost Thailand made a beeline for Malaya’s west coast, the side facing the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. The British had stationed two Indian divisions to guard Malaya’s northern frontier, but these were conscripts who had very little equipment and training; the Japanese pushed them back and outflanked them easily. Once the Japanese broke through, their speed and success astonished everybody, including themselves. The foot soldiers were given bicycles; this allowed them to carry more equipment and to move quickly on jungle trails, or through rubber tree plantations. In fact, the foot soldiers outran their supplies of food, fuel, and ammunition. Finally, the Japanese learned during the Malayan campaign how to live and fight in the jungle; this experience would help them a lot for the rest of the war.
As they retreated, British combat engineers blew up more than a hundred bridges, but this did little to slow down the Japanese. Often when they fell back, the British found that Japanese troops had moved faster, and were already behind them. As one officer described their attempts to form a defensive line, quote, “It’s like trying to build a wall out of quicksand.” Unquote. The native Malay population were not hostile to the British – we saw in Episode 23 that they did not oppose the British when they set up a federation over their sultanates – but the Japanese invasion made them restless, so they chose to sit out the fighting and see which side would win.
Check out the map I have posted on the podcast’s Facebook page and the Blubrry.com page, so you can see where the places are that I will be mentioning. On December 16 the British abandoned Penang, the offshore island where they had gained their first foothold in Malaya, more than a century and a half earlier. A radio station on Penang was captured intact, and the Japanese used it to broadcast a cruel message to Singapore. Quote: “Hello, Singapore, this is Penang calling. How do you like our bombing?” Unquote. Then came a wave of looting and killing, like what the Japanese had done in Chinese cities. Halfway down the peninsula’s west coast, the Japanese crossed the Slim River at two points, during the first week of 1942. This means that in just a month they had gotten halfway to Singapore.
Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, fell to the Japanese on January 11, and so did Malacca, that once-mighty seaport, on January 15. Of the nine Malay sultanates on the peninsula, the Japanese had captured eight by mid-January, only Johore, the southernmost sultanate, was left. By now the British had received some reinforcements, a British and an Australian division, and these tried to defend Johore by forming a line along the Muar River, while one of the Indian divisions was withdrawn into Johore to rest and regroup. In the third week of January, the Australians staged two ambushes that killed 700 Japanese troops and destroyed 15 Japanese tanks – the only Allied success in this campaign. But when the Japanese crossed the river, it was the Allies’ turn to suffer heavy casualties, and those who survived began the retreat to Singapore. On January 31 the British destroyed part of the causeway linking Singapore to the mainland, leaving the whole Malay peninsula in Japanese hands.
Although the British had done a miserable job defending Malaya, they were confident they could hold Singapore. This island had 15-inch guns facing the sea, and was considered an impregnable fortress; in fact, it was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East.” The nearest part of the mainland was covered with jungle and swamps, and the British thought the Japanese could not get their tanks and artillery through that. General Yamashita began the battle for Singapore on February 5, by attacking Pulau Ubin, a small island just east of Singapore. This fooled the Singapore commander, General Arthur Percival, into thinking that the main attack would come from the east, and he moved his major ammunition stores to the east side of the island. But this was only a feint, and when Japanese troops came across the Strait of Johore to attack Singapore on February 8, they landed on the island’s northwest side. Here the infantry came alone, using mostly inflatable boats; the artillery were left behind, while some tanks were brought across the strait later. A week of street fighting followed. The British realized that they had been attacked from the rear, and their big guns could not be turned around to shoot at the attackers. In addition, the British had no tanks of their own, and while they had 158 planes available, most were obsolete and did not last long when they engaged modern Japanese fighter planes. All this meant that the British were too shocked to put up a determined resistance.
On February 13 the city reservoirs were captured, and civilian suffering became intolerable. The next day saw another brutal atrocity, when Japanese troops captured Alexandra Hospital; they bayoneted the medical officer who surrendered with a white flag, and went on to kill 300 more doctors, nurses, and patients, again mostly by bayonets. This was too much even for General Yamashita; he had the Japanese soldiers responsible for the attack executed at the hospital. On February 15, 1942, Percival gave up. At this point there were 80,000 British soldiers left, and they surrendered to 30,000 Japanese. Add to that another 50,000 Allied soldiers that had been captured in Malaya. Throughout the whole campaign, the Japanese had been outnumbered at least 2 to 1 by the Allies.
The fall of Singapore made it questionable whether the Allies would be able to defend Indonesia and Australia, and they knew the Japanese were going to head in those directions next. And because the Japanese had captured the eastern gate of the Indian Ocean, their navy could now enter that body of water, and threaten India, the Middle East and Africa. Part of the Japanese army in Singapore would now go to Burma as reinforcements for Japan’s invasion of that British colony. Malaya and Singapore would stay under Japanese control for the rest of the war, and many of those captured would endure a brutal captivity, doing forced labor for three and a half years in Indochina. Today most historians consider Percival the worst British general in World War II, and that the fall of Singapore was the worst defeat in British history.
This episode wasn’t as long as the last one, but we are at a good point to break off the narrative for today, so let us do so. Because Japan attacked both Malaya and the Philippines on the same day, in the next episode we will go to the Philippines and chronicle what was happening there, in late 1941 and early 1942. For now, I’ll just tell you that the Japanese will meet an opponent who fights with more determination than the soldiers they defeated and captured in Malaya and Singapore. It will also be a longer campaign, so I may need two episodes to finish it – stay tuned!
If you can’t get enough of this podcast and want to hear more, you can support it by making a secure donation through Paypal. Just click on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s Blubrry.com page. If you cannot see the button, or are otherwise having trouble donating, contact me on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page. And speaking of the Facebook page, “like” it so you won’t miss additional content, like pictures. For example, I posted a map of the Malayan campaign a week ago, as mentioned in the middle of today’s narrative. If you haven’t written a review yet, iTunes is a good place for it, and give the podcast some stars before you’re done. And if technology isn’t your forte, you can still spread the word in the real world. I for one tell people about the podcast almost every day, and I know that work isn’t finished, because there are still more listeners in other states than in the one I call home. As always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!