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History 101: Japanese Fascinating Tactical War in Malaya & Singapore 1941

Singapore Burning Japanese World War 2 Colin Smith Tactics Books

If one wants to read about the Japanese attack on Malaya and subsequently British stronghold in the Far East, Singapore and how they won the battle, this book titled “Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II” by Colin Smith is a great read.

The 620++ pages analyses in the detail the British High Command’s decisions and blunders that caused the fall of Singapore causing almost 85,000 Allied soldiers to be captured as prisoners of war.

Read These First:-

Japanese World War 2 Malaya Surrender Singapore Arthur Ernest Percival

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival (right), led by a Japanese officer, walks under a flag of truce to negotiate the capitulation of Allied forces in Singapore, on 15 February 1942. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. Text & Image source: Wikipedia

Salient Points From the Book

South-East Asia was a prime target for the war resource-hungry Japan so an invasion of the South East Asia countries was long anticipated but the British for their part was confident of their military forces, namely the might of their navy being able to divert Japanese attacks.

Churchill held to the common and understandable belief that Japan would never risk an Asian war with Britain unless most of the Royal Navy was engaged elsewhere, as it had been when Japan filled the breach in 1914–18. In 1925, with the names of almost a million dead on its memorials, the idea of the British Empire allowing itself to be sucked into another European war was unthinkable. In any case, who was there left to fight?

The Germans and the French were equally exhausted. Nonetheless, a mere seven years after the end of that conflict and eight years before Hitler came to power, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government reluctantly overrode Churchill’s objections, and in August 1926 agreed to build the secure Far Eastern base the Admiralty craved.

The only dissenting voice was Jan Smuts, the clever South African premier and former Boer guerrilla who had become a firm believer in the benefits of the British Empire and served in the Imperial War Cabinet. Smuts argued that either way, a Singapore base Japanese would not attack unless there was a war in northern waters, and in the event of such a war the Royal Navy would not be able to send a credible deterrent to Singapore. But it was not Smuts’ decision, and to leave a valuable colony defenceless was surely to invite an attack?

(Excerpt from Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II)

The Japanese on the other hand started to make preparations:-

With Malayan beaches in mind, amphibious exercises were staged.

The first was on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands. The next was on Hainan, some 600 miles south of Taiwan in Indo-China’s Gulf of Tongkin and about as tropical as they could get and still be discreet.

As the troops waded ashore, Tsuji and his team were waiting for them, notebooks in hand, to ask questions about everything from whether they had felt sea-sick to the difficulties of transferring their fully laden selves, plus their weapons and equipment, from their mother- ship to a landing craft bobbing in rough sea.

Then they had to work out how to disembark men and machines on open beaches, ‘with due regards for dangerous coral or hidden and sunken rocks’.

(Excerpt from Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II)

Japanese Malaya World War 2 Brewster Buffalo

A photo of Brewster Buffalo fighters over Malaya coasts. It did not stand a chance against the newer, modern Japanese fighters. Its top speed was 517 km/h against Zero’s top speed of 533 km/h. It was reported to be unstable and unreliable too. Its rate of climb was lower than the Zeros. Image source: Wikimedia

The British, relying much on the might of the Royal Navy, also had the unfortunate case of having outdated fighter planes to provide sufficient air cover for the Navy and potential land battles.

Sometimes known as the ‘flying barrel’, the Brewster Buffalo was the first reasonably modern fighter to be earmarked for the Far East. It was a squat, tubby little aircraft, built by the Brewster Aeronautical Company of Long Island, New York, as a carrier-borne fighter for the US Navy.

It was not quite 26 feet long, had a wingspan of 35 feet, a maximum speed of about 300 mph, and was armed with four 50-calibre Colt-Browning machine guns, two mounted on the wings and two fired through the arc of the propeller.

The first Buffaloes arrived in England towards the climax of the Battle of Britain. They were never used in combat and trials soon revealed that, in this case, appearances were not deceptive. The ‘flying barrels’ were simply not in the same league as the Spitfires and Hurricanes, which were just about holding their own against Goering’s Messerschmitt 109s.

In the circumstances, it was thought that they would be best used in the Far East where there was a desperate shortage of aircraft and they would serve as a stopgap until something better could be spared.

It had now been decided that part of the military package designed to deter Japan from entering the war would be 336 front-line aircraft – fighters, bombers and the all-important reconnaissance aircraft required to patrol the South China Sea.

(Excerpt from Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II)

Other interesting points from the same book:-

Though outnumbered by the British defenders, the Japanese concentrated their forces and utilized combined arms skills learned in earlier campaigns to repeatedly flank and drive back the enemy. Utilizing light tanks and bicycles, the Japanese swiftly moved through the jungles.

To defend Singapore, Percival deployed three brigades of Major General Gordon Bennett’s 8th Australian division to hold the western part of the island. Advancing to Johore, Yamashita established his headquarters at the Sultan of Johore’s palace.

Though a prominent target, he correctly anticipated that the British would not attack it for fear of angering the sultan. Utilizing aerial reconnaissance and intelligence gathered from agents that infiltrated the island; he began to form a clear picture of Percival’s defensive positions.

Being aware of the deteriorating situation, but knowing that the defenders outnumbered the attackers, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, India, decided that Singapore was to hold out at all costs and should not surrender. This message was forwarded to Percival with orders that the latter should fight to the end.

On February 11, Japanese forces captured the area around Bukit Timah as well as much of Percival’s ammunition and fuel reserves. The area also gave Yamashita control of the bulk of the island’s water supply.

Though his campaign had been successful to date, the Japanese commander desperately short of supplies and sought to bluff Percival into ending “this meaningless and desperate resistance.

Informed by his senior officers that no counterattack was possible, Percival saw little choice other than surrender. Dispatching a messenger to Yamashita, Percival met with the Japanese commander at the Ford Motor Factory later that day to discuss terms. The formal surrender was completed shortly after that evening.

While some of the British and Australian prisoners were kept in Singapore, thousands more were shipped to Southeast Asia for use as forced labour on projects such as the Siam—Burma Death Railway and Sandakan airfield inNorth Borneo.

Singapore would remain under Japanese occupation for the remainder of the war. During this period, the Japanese massacred elements of the city’s Chinese population as well as others who opposed their rule.

Immediately after the surrender, Bennett turned over command of the 8th Division and escaped to Sumatra with several of his staff officers. Successfully reaching Australia, he was initially regarded as a hero but was later criticized for leaving his men.

Though blamed for the disaster at Singapore, Percival’s command was badly under-equipped for the duration of the campaign and lacked both tanks and sufficient aircraft to achieve victory on the Malay Peninsula.

That being said, his dispositions prior to the battle, his unwillingness to fortify Johore or the north shore of Singapore, and command errors during the fighting accelerated the British defeat.


HMS Prince of Wales Repulse Japanese World War 2 Navy Malaya

The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress far enough to engage attackers due to the list. Text & Image source: Wikipedia

Video on Japanese Malayan War Tactics

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Between the 2 battleships, the HMS Prince of Wales was the newest battleship which was completed in March 1941 and had about 32 pom-pom AA guns (quick-firing 2 pounders). HMS Prince of Wales was also involved in the operations against Germany’s famed battleship, Bismarck.

HMS Repulse on the other hand was an old battlecruiser from World War 1 (completed in January 1916). It only had two single 3 inch AA guns which were not enough for massive attacks from the air. The sinking of these British’s warships in December 1941 clearly shows a lack of naval intelligence, overconfidence in the naval powers alone, a lack of modern ships and an underestimate

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The invasion of Malaya started in December 1941 soon before the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in the same month. Malaya was defended by troops from Australia and India as well. Japan has been assisting Thailand with modern aircraft & weapons in their border wars with Cambodia and Laos. Thailand’s Prime Minister Pibul Songgram understandably supported Japan and thus allowed Japanese troops to attack Malaya from Thailand.

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The Battle of Jitra was the main battle in the series of stop-gap battles in the Japanese Malayan Campaign which the defeat caused the British military commanders to start the planned retreat to Singapore although some counter-attacks against the Japanese was made.

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Here is another excellent analysis of the Malayan Campaign by the Japanese and how the British High Command arranged their defences until they had no choice but to surrender in Singapore.

morib beach plaque history world war 2 indian army japanese

The British forces also comprised of soldiers from Australia,  New Zealand and India. This World War 2 plaque in the centre of the Morib beach states the 46th Indian Beach Group landed in Morib on 9 Sept 1945 and handled 42,651 personnel, 3,968 vehicles and 11,224 tons of stores. It was reported that it took four days for them to reach Kuala Lumpur as there was fierce resistance from the Japanese Army.

Final Say

Technology and war tactics are always evolving and one should not make the same mistakes as in the past. There was a clear lack of planning and intelligence in regards to the Japanese strength and tactics. It is not surprising for the British High Command to treat the Far East defences as a secondary priority considering the biggest risk to the British was the invasion by Nazi Germany.

In the book Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II, Colin Smith has some paragraphs on the Sultan of Johore at that time, Sultan Ibrahim who was very close to the British to a point, he even paid for some of the big guns that the British have installed for the defence of Singapore. He however got pissed off when the Japanese forces arrived and the British simply fled which may explain why he allowed the Japanese to occupy his palaces:-

…Sultan Ibrahim, abandoned in his palace with his portraits of the House of Windsor, awaiting the arrival of the conquerors. At a final lunch with Bennet, he had deplored the way the British heads of Johore government departments and even hospital staff had left without a word of farewell…

(Excerpt from Singapore Burning: Heroism And Surrender In World War II)

One should not be accepting just one version of the history as it is often written from the viewpoint of the victor. But then again, we have options – there is plenty of books, video analysis and thesis done on the historical affairs that one can read and watch in Youtube.

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