UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


1941-1942 Japanese Invasion

The Singapore naval base was built and supplied to sustain a siege long enough to enable Britain's European-based fleet to reach the area. By 1940, however, it was clear that the British fleet and armed forces were fully committed in Europe and the Middle East and could not be spared to deal with a potential threat in Asia. In the first half of 1941, most Singaporeans were unaffected by the war on the other side of the world, as they had been in World War I. The main pressure on the Straits Settlements was the need to produce more rubber and tin for the Allied war effort. Both the colonial government and British military command were for the most part convinced of Singapore's impregnability.

By the summer of 1941, Japan's relations with the Western powers had deteriorated so much that Japanese leaders saw no point in delaying plans for military operations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Japan's short-term goal was to secure the necessary supplies to complete its conquest of China by occupying the Southeast Asian territories controlled by France, Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands. Japan's long-term plans called for further expansion south to Australia and north from Manchuria into the Soviet Union.

Even by late autumn 1941, most Singaporeans and their leaders remained confident that their island fortress could withstand an attack, which they assumed would come from the south and from the sea. Heavy fifteen-inch guns defended the port and the city, and machine-gun bunkers lined the southern coast. The only local defense forces were the four battalions of Straits Settlements Volunteer Corps and a small civil defense organization with units trained as air raid wardens, fire fighters, medical personnel, and debris removers. Singapore's Asians were not, by and large, recruited into these organizations, mainly because the colonial government doubted their loyalty and capability. The government also went to great lengths to maintain public calm by making highly optimistic pronouncements and heavily censoring the Singapore newspapers for negative or alarming news. Journalists' reports to the outside world were also carefully censored, and, in late 1941, reports to the British cabinet from colonial officials were still unrealistically optimistic.

If Singaporeans were uneasy, they were reassured by the arrival at the naval base of the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle and four destroyers cruiser Repulse, on December 2. The fast and modern Prince of Wales was the pride of the British navy, and the Repulse was a veteran cruiser. Their accompanying aircraft carrier had run aground en route, however, leaving the warships without benefit of air cover.

Japanese air and naval attacks on British and United States bases in Malaya and the Philippines were coordinated with the December 7, 1941, assault on the United States Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan's Southern Army, headquartered in Saigon, quickly moved from bases in southern Indochina and Hainan to attack southern Thailand and northern Malaya on December 8 and the Philippines on December 10. On December 8, 1941, the Japanese troops of two large convoys, which had sailed from bases in Hainan and southern Indochina, landed at Singora (now Songkhla) and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Baharu in northern Malaya. One of Japan's top generals and some of its best trained and most experienced troops were assigned to the Malaya campaign. By the evening of December 8, 27,000 Japanese troops under the command of General Yamashita Tomoyuki had established a foothold on the peninsula and taken the British air base at Kota Baharu. Meanwhile, Japanese airplanes had begun bombing Singapore.

Hoping to intercept any further landings by the Japanese fleet, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse headed north, unaware that all British airbases in northern Malaya were now in Japanese hands. Without air support, the British ships were easy targets for the Japanese air force, which sunk them both on December 10, thereby eliminating the only naval threat to their Malaya campaign.

The Japanese easily captured British air bases in northern Malaya and soon controlled the air and sea-lanes in the South China Sea as far south as the Strait of Malacca. Naval landings were made on the Thai coast at Singora (present-day Songkhla) and Patani and on the Malayan coast at Kota Baharu. The Thai government capitulated to a Japanese ultimatum to allow passage of Japanese troops through Thailand in return for Japanese assurances of respect for Thailand's independence. This agreement enabled the Japanese to establish land lines to supply their forces in Burma and Malaya through Thailand.

The prediction that Japan would conquer the Malay Peninsula before attempting an invasion of Singapore proved to be correct. Lieutenant General Yamashita Tomoyuki was placed in command of the Twenty-fifth Army comprising three of the best Japanese divisions. The Japanese used tactics developed specifically for the operation in northern Malaya. Tanks were deployed in frontal assaults while light infantry forces bypassed British defenses using bicycles or boats, thereby interdicting British efforts to deliver badly needed reinforcements, ammunition, food, and medical supplies. The main Japanese force moved quickly to the western side of the peninsula and began sweeping down the single north-south road. The Japanese divisions were equipped with about 18,000 bicycles. Whenever the invaders encountered resistance, they detoured through the forests on bicycles or took to the sea in collapsible boats to outflank the British troops, encircle them, and cut their supply lines.

Cut off from their supply bases in southern Malaya and Singapore, demoralized by the effectiveness of Japan's jungle warfare, and with no possibility that additional ground or air units would arrive in time to turn the tide of battle, the British withdrew to Singapore and prepared for the final siege. Penang fell on December 18, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942, and Malacca on January 15. The Japanese occupied Johore Baharu on January 31.

Although Singapore was strongly defended in the south, there was no such defensive capability in the north of the island. The original mission of defending the Sembawang Naval Base meant that the enemy had to be prevented from shelling or besieging the base. As such, the British concentrated their defences in the south. Thus according to this thinking, having defences in the north 'would have been folly as this would not have stopped the enemy from bombing or shelling the base'(1). This would negate the strategic benefits of the base. This coupled with the overconfidence of the British meant that defences weren't seriously begun until the Japanese entered Johor in mid-January 1942.

In the battle for Singapore, the British had the larger ground force, with 70,000 Commonwealth forces in Singapore facing 30,000 Japanese. The Japanese controlled the air, however, and intense bombing of military and civilian targets hampered British efforts to establish defensive positions and created chaos in a city whose population had been swollen by more than a million refugees from the Malay Peninsula.

In January 1942, London had provided an additional infantry division and delivered the promised Hurricane fighter aircraft, although the latter arrived in crates and without the personnel to assemble them. More British and Commonwealth of nations fleets and armed foces were brought to Singapore during January, but most were poorly trained raw recruits from Australia and India and inexperienced British troops diverted from the war in the Middle East. The last British forces reached Singapore on January 27, 1942, and on the same day a 50-meter gap was blown in the causeway linking Singapore and Johore.

Singapore faced Japanese air raids almost daily in the latter half of January 1942. Fleeing refugees from the peninsula had doubled the 550,000 population of the beleaguered city. Singapore's Chinese population, which had heard rumors of the treatment of the Malayan Chinese by the invading Japanese, flocked to volunteer to help repel the impending invasion. Brought together by the common enemy, Guomindang and communist groups banded together to volunteer their services to Governor Shenton Thomas. The governor authorized the formation of the Chung Kuo Council (China National Council), headed by Tan Kah Kee, under which thousands volunteered to construct defense works and to perform other essential services. The colonial government also reluctantly agreed to the formation of a Singapore Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Battalion, known as Dalforce for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Federated Malay States police force. Dalley put his volunteers through a ten-day crash training course and armed them with basic weapons, including shotguns, knives, and grenades.

From January 1-8, 1942, the two armies faced each other across the Johore Strait. The Japanese stepped up their air raids, bombing the airfields, naval base, and harbor area. Bombs also fell in the commercial and residential sections of the city, causing great destruction and killing and wounding many civilians. With their mastery of the skies, the Japanese could choose the time and place for invasion and maintain an element of surprise. Yamashita, however, had only 30,000 troops and limited ammunition available to launch against a British force of about 70,000 armed personnel.

As the General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival commanded the defense of Singapore under the direction of General Archibald Wavell, the newly appointed commander in chief Far East, who was headquartered in Java. Percival's orders from British prime minister Winston Churchill through Wavell called for defending the city to the death, while executing a scorched-earth policy: "No surrender can be contemplated . . . . every inch of ground . . . defended, every scrap of material or defences . . . blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy . . . ." Accordingly, the troops set about the task of destroying the naval base, now useless without ships, and building defense works along the northern coast, which lay totally unprotected.

Singapore expected a Japanese landing force coming from the sea; what it got was a Japanese force that landed behind them on the Malay Peninsula and then attacked down a landward route to the rear of the city. Yamashita began the attack on February 8. On the night of February 8, units of the Fifth and Eighteenth Japanese Divisions used collapsible boats to cross the Johore Strait, undetected by the British, to Singapore's northwest coast. By dawn, despite determined fighting by Australian troops, they had two divisions with their artillery established on the island. By the next day the Japanese had seized Tengah Airfield and gained control of the causeway, which they repaired in four days.

The British forces were plagued by poor communication and coordination, and, despite strong resistance by Commonwealth troops aided by Dalforce and other Chinese irregulars, the Japanese took Bukit Timah -- the highest point on the island -- on February 11. The British forces fell back to a final perimeter around the city, stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kallang, as Yamashita issued an invitation to the British to surrender. On February 13, the Japanese broke through the final perimeter at Pasir Panjang, putting the whole city within range of their artillery. At that point, the Japanese controlled all of the island except the heavily populated southeastern sector.

As many as 2,000 civilians were killed daily as the Japanese continued to bomb the city by day and shell it at night. Governor Thomas cabled London that "there are now one million people within radius of three miles. Many dead lying in the streets and burial impossible. We are faced with total deprivation of water, which must result in pestilence...."

General Percival cabled Field Marshall Sir Archibald Wavell, British Supreme Commander in the Far East, informed him that the situation was hopeless. On February 13, Percival cabled Wavell for permission to surrender, hoping to avoid the destruction and carnage that would result from a house-to-house defense of the city. Churchill relented and on February 14 gave permission to surrender. On February 15, one week after the first Japanese troops had crossed the Johore Strait and landed in Singapore, Yamashita accepted Percival's unconditional surrender at the Japanese headquarters at the Ford factory in Bukit Timah. Thirty-five-thousand Japanese attacked 70,000 British and captured 68,000 of them after 12 days, the complete culmination of a surprise attack, and certainly, an operationally successful surprise attack.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list