Chapter 6: Awaiting the First Blow
The thunder of Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union had rolled round the world on 22nd June 1941. That Japan had not been told it was pending was a blow to her pride; and the violation of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 1939 did nothing to inspire confidence in German pledges. Despite his having urged so recently upon Matsuoka that Japan should attack Singapore, Ribbentrop cabled on 10th July to General Ott, German Ambassador in Tokyo, asking him to “employ all available means in further insisting upon Japan’s entry into the war against Russia at the soonest possible date”. Ribbentrop added “the natural objective still remains that we and Japan join hands on the Trans-Siberian railroad before winter starts”.1
Earlier, Japan might have been glad of opportunity to gain control of Vladivostok and Russia’s maritime provinces; but now she had no intention of abandoning her southward advance. Matsuoka was replaced as Foreign Minister by Admiral Toyoda. On 2nd July an Imperial Conference in Tokyo decided to continue efforts to settle the “China Incident” (the euphemism by which the Japanese referred to their military failure in China), secure all Indo-China, and proceed with preparations for war with Britain and the United States. On 14th July, Japan demanded the right to occupy bases in southern Indo-China, which would become a joint protectorate of Japan and France; and on the 21st the Vichy French Government yielded. Three days later Japanese troops began moving into southern Indo-China. In this momentous advance they secured the use of a naval base at Camranh Bay, 750 miles from Singapore, and airfields within 300 miles of Kota Bharu, nearest point in Malaya. Having reached Indo-China’s western frontier, they directly menaced Thailand, whose Prime Minister had unsuccessfully sought a declaration by the United States and Britain that in attacking Thailand Japan would automatically be at war with them. That the Thais lacked such assurance, and means of successfully resisting Japanese pressure unaided, heightened the danger to Malaya.
In Washington, where talks between the Japanese Ambassador, Admiral Nomura, and the American Secretary of State, Mr Cordell Hull, were now in their fifth month, with no formula for peace in sight, the reaction to the Japanese march into Indo-China was drastic. On 26th July President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States, thus virtually ending all trade between the two countries; similar action was taken by Britain, and, within a few days, by the Netherlands Indies. On the same day Roosevelt appointed General Douglas MacArthur, hitherto military adviser to the Philippine Commonwealth under American tutelage, to be commander
of the United States Army Forces in the Far East; and ordered that the Philippine Army be embodied in the American Army.
In 1934 the United States had made an agreement with the “Commonwealth of the Philippines” whereby the Commonwealth would become an autonomous republic in July 1946. In 1935 General MacArthur was appointed military adviser to President Quezon (who in 1936 made him a field marshal2). He borrowed two American officers, Majors Dwight D. Eisenhower (subsequently President of the United States of America) and James B. Ord (accidentally killed in 1938) for his general staff. Eisenhower and Ord drafted a plan whereby a Filipino army of 200,000, including trained reserves, was to be formed by 1946. Service was to be compulsory; six months’ continuous training for privates, one year for NCOs and eighteen months for reserve officers. Professional officers were to be trained at a military academy modelled on America’s West Point. The annual quota was to rise from 20,000 in 1937 to 35,000 in 1941. The force was to be organised in small divisions 7,500 strong.
A nucleus for the new army was drawn from the Philippine Constabulary, and some twenty Filipino officers were lent from the Philippine Scouts, a locally-enlisted corps which was and would remain a part of the United States Army. From 1938 onwards potential officers were selected from the ranks also, given six months’ training, and commissioned pending the arrival of subalterns from the military academy.3
General MacArthur was an eminent soldier who had been Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1930 to 1935. He had served briefly in France in 1918, first as senior staff officer of a division and, from August to November, as a brigade commander; and in the Far East as a young officer from 1903 to 1906, again from 1922 to 1925, and in 1928.
For many years the American staffs had accepted a plan whereby, in a war with Japan, only the Manila Bay area in the Philippines would be strongly defended, it being considered impossible to hold the whole archipelago. In February 1941, however, General MacArthur, as a retired American Army officer employed by the Philippine Government, wrote to the United States Chief of Staff in Washington, explaining that late in 1941 there would be a Philippine Army of some 125,000 men and he was contemplating full-scale defence of all Luzon and the Visayan Archipelago, blocking the straits leading to its inland sea. He asked for 32 artillery guns to assist this project. General George Grunert, then commanding the American garrison in the Philippines, supported the project, but underlined the lack of equipment and the poor condition of the Philippine Army, and the facts that the Philippine Navy consisted of two torpedo boats and the air force had only 45 machines. After his appointment in July 1941 to command all American army forces in the Far East, MacArthur again pressed his proposal, and from August onwards the American forces in the Philippines were gradually reinforced.
As part of this plan for reinforcing the Philippines, the Australian Government, in September 1941, agreed to an American proposal whereby bases suitable for the new American heavy bombers would be constructed at Rabaul, Port Moresby, Townsville and Darwin, thus establishing a friendly air route from Hawaii to the Philippines; and in November B-17s (Flying Fortresses) were flown over this route. Between September and December two tank battalions, some artillery and 35 Flying Fortresses reached the Philippines. By December MacArthur’s troops included about 100,000 men of the partially-trained Philippine Army.4
The American troops and the Philippine Scouts were well-trained regulars but short of equipment; for example the tanks had armour-piercing but no explosive shells for their 37-mm guns. The artillery pieces were
75’s and 155’s of 1918 vintage; the Philippine Army lacked equipment and bad received little training. (The 31st Division had begun to mobilise on the 1st September; all three of its infantry regiments were not assembled until 25th November, and the mobilisation of the two artillery battalions was not completed until 8th December. On an average the infantrymen had then had between three and four weeks’ training; the gunners had not fired a practise shot; no division possessed an anti-tank battalion.)
The American Asiatic Fleet, based on Manila Bay, included a strong flotilla of submarines, a flotilla of destroyers, but only two cruisers, Houston and Marblehead.
On 25th November MacArthur appointed Major-General Jonathan Wainwright, hitherto commanding the Philippine Division, to North Luzon, where he was to deploy a force of four Filipino divisions (11th, 21st, 31st, 71st) and prepare to meet a Japanese attack in that quarter. MacArthur considered that Wainwright would have until April to make those preparations, as the Japanese would not attack before then.
Thus there were parallels between American problems and policy in the Philippines and British problems and policy in Malaya, the American decisions following the comparable British ones, but a year or so later. In both areas an initial policy of holding only the naval base area had been replaced by a policy of holding a wider area. At length a Commander-in-Chief had been appointed in both areas. The naval forces in both areas were inadequate, and the policy was to rely largely on air defence; but too few aircraft were available. Both commanders possessed a relatively small force of well-trained troops and a larger body of less well-trained ones. Both commanders were excessively optimistic; and both were gravely short of equipment.
The danger that the economic restraints imposed by Britain and the United States upon Japan might precipitate war was evident in an intercepted message from the Japanese Foreign Minister, Admiral Toyoda, on 31st July 1941 to the Ambassador in Berlin, General Oshima, telling him to explain why Japan was moving south instead of against Russia.5 Commercial and economic relations between Japan and other countries, led by England and the United States, were becoming, he said, “so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer”. Japan “must take immediate steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance of and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep”. Thus the United States had gained by its interception
and decoding system the valuable warning that from now on, at any moment, the storm might break.
The fact that Germany’s strength was now being used largely against the Soviet Union gave relief to Britain in some important respects; but to help the Soviet to withstand the German assault, large quantities of weapons and supplies needed elsewhere were diverted to her. “In order to make this immense diversion and to forego the growing flood of American aid without crippling our campaign in the Western Desert,” Mr Churchill wrote later, “we had to cramp all preparations which prudence urged for the defence of the Malay Peninsula and our Eastern Empire and possessions against the ever-growing menace of Japan.”6
In these critical circumstances, and in response to an invitation from President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill set off on 4th August aboard Britain’s newest battleship, Prince of Wales, to see the American President. They met in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, on 10th August. The principal news released after the meeting was that they had agreed on an Anglo-American declaration of principles, to become known as the Atlantic Charter, based on a draft by Churchill. In private conference, however, Roosevelt indicated to Churchill that because he was uncertain that he could carry Congress with him in a declaration of war, and because more time was needed to strengthen America’s forces, he must seek to delay a break with Japan. He nevertheless agreed to issue a warning, also on the lines of a Churchill draft, that any further Japanese encroachment in the south-west Pacific would produce a situation in which the United States would be compelled to take counter-measures, even though these might lead to war.7 Though Churchill had hoped for more, he was well pleased, for the Japanese menace lay in his mind in “a sinister twilight” compared with other demands; and he believed that eventual entry of the United States into the war would “overwhelm all evils put together”.8
Mr Duff Cooper,9 who had been Minister for Information in the United Kingdom, arrived in Singapore in September. He was commissioned as a Minister of State to investigate the situation in the Far East, and to inquire into the feasibility of setting up an authority to deal on the spot with political questions which were then being referred to the British Cabinet for decision.10 Australia’s desire for a voice in the conduct of affairs at Far Eastern key points was evident in the appointment of Mr Bowden,11 Australian Government Commissioner in China, as Australian
Government Representative in Singapore, and of Sir Frederic Eggleston12 as Australia’s first Minister to China. Sir Frederic combined eminence as a scholar and a legal authority with political sagacity. Bowden brought to his new task the experience he had gained not only in more than 25 years in China and Japan, but in service with the British Army in France from 1915 to 1919. Divergence in the viewpoint of the Australian and the British Governments and military authorities about the extent and urgency of the need for reinforcements in the Far East had resulted in Sir Earle Page, Australian Minister for Commerce, being given a mission to emphasise Australia’s viewpoint in London.
In London in August and September the sending of a battle fleet to Singapore had been under sharp discussion. The Admiralty had recommended that four battleships of the “R” class (completed in 1916-17) should be sent to the Indian Ocean and should be reinforced early in 1942 with two more slow battleships, a battle cruiser and, in an emergency, an aircraft carrier. When he returned from the Atlantic Conference Mr Churchill opposed this plan. Instead of the old, relatively slow battleships, he wished to send to the Indian Ocean the recently-completed battleship, Duke of York, an old but fast battle cruiser, and an aircraft carrier. These, he said, would have “a paralyzing effect upon Japanese naval action”. The Admiralty held that none of the three new battleships could be spared while there was a possibility of the new German battleship Tirpitz making a foray into the Atlantic; that a British fleet smaller than that which Japan was likely to employ (and Japan possessed 10 battleships) would not deter the Japanese from advancing into the Indian Ocean. This difference of opinion continued, but Churchill had his way. At length, late in October, the Admiralty agreed to send the Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse and the aircraft carrier Indomitable to Singapore.13 On 3rd November, however, the Indomitable ran aground in Jamaica during a training cruise, and no other carrier could be spared.
Meanwhile discussion of future land and air policy in Malaya was being continued. Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham and his subordinate commanders decided that they should anticipate a Japanese seizure of Singora, the only port of any size on the east coast of the Kra Isthmus. The proposed operation was given the code-name MATADOR. They estimated that British forces established round Singora would be liable to attack by one division advancing overland from Bangkok and a maximum of two landed from the sea; and decided that a force of three brigade groups supported by six air force squadrons would be needed to take and hold the Singora area. British officers in plain clothes reconnoitred the area; they met Japanese officers, also in plain clothes, doing the same thing.
On 2nd August General Percival had asked the War Office for reinforcements, insisting that he needed as a minimum a total of 48 battalions. One division was wanted to defend the Perlis-Kedah area; one for Kelantan–Trengganu–Pahang; one, with a tank regiment, for a reserve to III Indian Corps in northern Malaya; one for the defence of Johore; one and a tank regiment for Singapore Island. The Chiefs of Staff accepted this appreciation, but said that they could not provide the reinforcements required. In the event, the only substantial reinforcement to reach Singapore between August and December was the 28th Indian Brigade. which arrived in September, poorly trained and incompletely equipped. The Chiefs of Staff later informed Brooke-Popham that they also could not afford the reinforcements he sought for MATADOR, and pointed out that there must be no advance into Thailand before the Japanese invaded it. In reply to an inquiry by the Chiefs of Staff, Brooke-Popham said that he would need 36 hours’ notice before undertaking MATADOR.
In such circumstances, there obviously was little chance that the operation would be successful. Further unreality was given to the situation by a conference at Singapore on 29th September over which Mr Duff Cooper presided. The conference was attended by Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham; the naval Commander-in-Chief, China, Vice-Admiral Layton; the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas; Sir Earle Page (on his way to London via America), the British Ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr; and the British Minister to Thailand, Sir Josiah Crosby. It decided that the Japanese were concentrating against Russia; must be aware of the danger of going to war against the United States, the British Commonwealth and the Netherlands Indies; and, in any event, were unlikely to attempt a landing in Malaya during the northeast monsoon, due to begin in October.14 The conference emphasised, however, the propaganda value of even one or two battleships at Singapore, the need for an announcement by the British, American and Dutch Governments that a coordinated plan of action existed, and the need for closer liaison with the Russians in the Far East.
Page discussed with Duff Cooper a proposal to establish a central governmental authority coordinating all British Far Eastern and Pacific interests, with either a United Kingdom or Australian Minister presiding.15 Page reported to Australia that he thought an officer of the necessary calibre working in liaison with the Foreign Office would do the job better. Page was in Malaya for ten days, and saw a good deal of General Bennett and the AIF.
It was not only at Singapore that Page heard optimistic estimates. On his way through Manila he was assured by General MacArthur that after five years of intermittent war in China, Japan had become over-extended,
and needed a long period of recuperation before she could undertake another major struggle. She had gone to the limit of her southward expansion if she wished to avoid it, and under present conditions further expansion could be successfully resisted. Page learned in Washington that despite the American attitude at the Washington staff talks and the April Singapore conference, the Philippines were being strengthened. He was assured by General Marshall that by early 1942 the American forces would “constitute such a serious menace to Japan that she would be forced out of the Axis”.
Twenty-three days before this conference at Singapore, the Japanese leaders had made the crucial decision. At an Imperial Conference on 6th September it was decided that preparations for war must be complete by the end of October; that the diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement must continue, but that if they had not succeeded by the early part of October the decision to get ready for war would then be made. On 2nd October the Nomura-Hull negotiations at Washington reached a deadlock. On the 16th Konoye, who had continued to strive against the group in his Cabinet which was intent on war, resigned. On the 17th General Tojo became Prime Minister. He was also Minister for War and Minister for Home Affairs (and thus in charge of the police). On the 5th November another Japanese Imperial Conference was held. It decided that unless America agreed by 25th November to the Japanese terms – no more aid to China, no increase in British and American forces in the Far East, no interference in Indo-China, and American cooperation with Japan in obtaining raw materials – Japan would go to war.16
Mr Kurusu was sent to Washington to join Admiral Nomura in the now hopeless negotiations. Tojo said later that Kurusu knew of the
Japanese military leaders’ program. The American leaders knew through intercepted signals that 25th November was the deadline.
In November and early December 1941 trickles of reinforcements continued to arrive at British and American bases in the Far East. The decision not to reinforce Hong Kong had been reversed, and in October the Canadian Government agreed to send a brigade headquarters and two battalions there. These disembarked on 16th November, bringing the number of battalions in the garrison to six. The newcomers were the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. The Grenadiers had been mobilised since 1st September 1939 and the Rifles since 8th July 1940; but 448 new volunteers had recently been drafted to the battalions, including 120 who had received less than the sixteen weeks’ training normally given to Canadian troops before they were sent overseas.
In September, as has been mentioned, the 28th Indian Brigade reached Singapore; in November and December the lamentable shortage of artillery in Malaya was partly remedied by the arrival of two field regiments and one anti-tank regiment from the United Kingdom, and one field regiment from India. In common with other Indian units, the 28th Brigade, comprising three Gurkha battalions, had lost a proportion of its officers and trained men to form cadres for new units being trained in India as part of the expansion of the Indian forces.
The share Malaya had been given of the available forces is broadly indicated by the disposition of British divisions among the major theatres at the beginning of December 1941:–
|United Kingdom||Middle East||Persia–Iraq||Far East (Malaya)|
|Armoured divisions (U.K.)||6||3||–||–|
|Infantry divisions (U.K.)||
|Dominion infantry divisions||2||6||–||1|
|Indian infantry divisions||–||2||3||2|
The deficiencies in Malaya extended to the provision of military training schools. In the Middle East there was a wide range of well-staffed army schools. To these schools the Australian and other contingents which trained in that theatre owed much of their swiftly-acquired efficiency; and the AIF there had now established a full range of schools of its own. When Brigadier Rowell,18 formerly General Blamey’s chief of staff in the Middle East, passed through Malaya late in August 1941 on his way home to Australia he found Malaya “badly served for schools”. The relatively small Australian force there was unable to provide them out of
its own resources, and he proposed that candidates from the 8th Division be sent to Australian schools in the Middle East. Events were to show that it was then too late for such a policy to produce effective results. Malaya Command had, however, established an officer training school at Changi, and had given a fair proportion of the vacancies to the AIF. In the course of 1941 the candidates from British and Indian units had dwindled and those from the AIF increased; in August, 30 Australian and 9 British cadets graduated.
The poorly-trained reinforcements sent to Malaya, as to the Middle East, by inefficient training depots in Australia presented a more difficult problem to the small force in Malaya than to the large force in the Middle East, which had long before set up its own big and first-class reinforcement depot to re-train men arriving there. When a large batch of reinforcements reached Malaya in October, the best any unit could say about them was that their training had been bad, and the men were not well disciplined.19
Incidents had occurred in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in August between Australians on leave and British military police. Bennett, having received a report that his men were being provoked, thereupon arranged with Percival and Heath that AIF discipline be maintained only by Australian military police. Nevertheless, trouble between some Australian and British troops on leave occurred from time to time. When dissimilarities in dress, discipline and rations were suggested as principal causes of ill-feeling, Bennett proposed an exchange system whereby selected British officers and other ranks might serve with AIF units, and selected Australians with British units. This system, which was readily agreed to by Percival, began in November. Although the cost of living in the British messes severely limited the extent to which the Australians were able to avail themselves of the system, it was a thoughtful and practical step towards dissipating animosities – often the outcome of misunderstanding – which flourish in static garrison conditions. On the other hand, when General Percival, seeking to remove one bone of contention, wrote to Bennett asking that a War Office edict be applied to the AIF restricting the use of motor vehicles for recreational purposes to a once-monthly basis for which troops should pay a nominal mileage rate, Bennett rightly refused to agree. He explained that it was the “policy of the AIF to maintain health and morale at Government expense”.20 With General Bennett’s concurrence General Percival arranged that British units should wear Australian felt hats. This, however, led to unfortunate results, for misconduct among felt-hatted soldiers in Singapore was apt to be attributed to Australians, whether or not this was so.
From the point of view of the British regular officer, Malaya in 1940 and 1941 was a backwater. There was a tendency for the most enterprising
officers to seek appointments in more active theatres; in addition the expansion of both British and Indian armies caused the ratio of fully-experienced leaders to become smaller and smaller. In these circumstances, and having regard for the need for the closest possible liaison, it now seems to have been unfortunate that a substantial number of Australians was not absorbed into Malaya Command, where they might not only have had an invigorating effect, but have enabled the point of view of their large contingent to be seen more clearly. It was equally unfortunate that differences in rates of pay and allowances as between the United Kingdom and Indian forces also prevented adequate Indian Army representation on Malaya Command headquarters. “In 1941 there were scores of highly trained Indian Army staff officers in Malaya,” wrote one of them,21 “but none, with a few junior exceptions, on the staff of Malaya Command, for the simple reason that a regimental Indian Army officer, from a monetary point of view, lost considerably, even if it meant one or even two steps up in rank, in taking a staff appointment on Malaya Command headquarters.” This situation restricted the range of choice in appointments to that command; and the already-mentioned obstacle to participation by Australians in the system of exchanges with British units hampered movement between each of the forces such as might have led to better mutual understanding and cohesion, and greater drive and enthusiasm.
In matters of Australian policy, as when in May General Bennett had refused to permit Australian troops to be used to suppress strikes of plantation workers for higher pay, he exercised his powers as the commander of an independent force responsible to his own Government – just as General Blamey was doing in the Middle East. Nevertheless, in discussions with General Percival on the status of the AIF, he emphasised his willingness to cooperate with British units and to accept orders, especially in an emergency, without hesitation; except where departures from Australian policy were involved. This was of course a strictly correct attitude, not necessarily implying a cordial relationship between the two commanders. Indeed, General Sturdee, Chief of the General Staff, cabled to Blamey early in August asking him to consider Bennett as a possible substitute for General Sir Iven Mackay in command of the Australian Home Forces. Sturdee gave as his reason that Bennett was “very senior”, and an “energetic junior commander” would fit in better with Malaya Command requirements. He added that he could if necessary find a successor to Bennett from the 8th Division. Although the move was not made, the suggestion indicated Sturdee’s concern about the situation as he assessed it at that stage.
By the end of August, after the arrival of the 27th Brigade, the 8th Australian Division in Malaya had been released from Command Reserve and given a definite area of responsibility such as Bennett sought for it. The task of the III Indian Corps being the defence of northern Malaya,
General Percival ordered that the division take over the defence of Malacca and Johore. The east coast of Johore, the southernmost state on the Malayan Peninsula, offered obviously tempting means, from an enemy point of view, of landing within easy striking distance of Singapore Island rather than perhaps encountering resistance in Thailand and fighting all the way down the peninsula from the border to gain similar advantage. If success could be gained swiftly enough, the lines of communication upon which the III Indian Corps depended might be cut, and it might be isolated in the north. The responsibility entrusted to the two-brigade Australian division was thus a vital one, and particularly onerous in view of the weight of attack which could be expected in these circumstances.
General Bennett established his headquarters at Johore Bahru on 29th August, and on that day also the 22nd Brigade replaced the 12th Indian Brigade in the Mersing-Endau area, where it was anticipated that any such attack would be made. The 27th Brigade, which had remained on Singapore Island since its arrival, was to deployed mainly in north-western Johore, but with battle stations which would make it available for support of 22nd Brigade and counter-attack.
Among General Percival’s reasons for agreeing to move the Australians was that he was anxious to give them a more responsible role; and that, under the new arrangement, there was a greater probability that the division would be able to operate as a formation under its own commander instead of being split up. Bennett had left Percival in no doubt of his feelings about the prospect, if the force remained in reserve and war began, of its being sooner or later sent forward piecemeal to relieve Indian units; and he had not failed to emphasise that it would be contrary to AIF policy for the division to be dispersed in this way. The 12th Indian Brigade now became Percival’s reserve.
In anticipation of the move, General Bennett had called on the Sultan of Johore and quickly established such friendly relations that the Sultan thenceforward granted all Bennett’s requests for the use of buildings, camp sites and the like; and volunteered other help, such as the use of a polo ground for sports. The new role allotted to the Australians strengthened Bennett’s case for obtaining other units of his division still in Australia; but, in the course of discussions during his visit to Malaya, Brigadier Rowell had told Bennett that recruits were coming forward so slowly in Australia that Bennett was unlikely to get even the machine-gun battalion and pioneer battalion for which he had been asking since March.
Defence of Singapore Island against attack through the Mersing area was considered to hinge upon possession of the junction, at Jemaluang, of the road from Endau and Mersing westward to Kluang with one in the east from Singapore through Kota Tinggi to Jemaluang. Capture of Jemaluang by the enemy would give him the choice of thrusting toward the trunk road and railway which served the whole of the defending forces in the northern part of Malaya, or of advancing south toward Johore Bahru, separated from the Naval Base and Singapore Island generally only by a narrow strait. The Sungei Endau, reaching the sea at Endau,
some 20 miles north of Mersing, was regarded as offering waterway approach to Kahang, on the east-west road and near the Kahang airfield. By capturing Kahang an enemy might cut this road and also gain access through Kluang, on the main railway line, to the western road system.
Thus the first line of defence was to be the 22nd Brigade. Bennett planned that it should hold the beaches at Mersing with the 2/18th and 2/20th Battalions,22 and have the 2/19th in reserve at Jemaluang. A company of the 2/20th under Captain Carter23 was posted at Endau, and one of the 2/18th and subsequently of the 2/19th at a boom across the Sedili Besar. In the event of war, the 27th Brigade would share responsibility for the area. Its 2/26th Battalion would take over the boom and protect the road from Sedili Besar north to the 2/19th Battalion. The 2/30th was to be a mobile unit, stationed a mile and a half west of the Jemaluang road junction, under the direct orders of General Bennett; and the 2/29th would be responsible for the Bukit Langkap iron mine area and the airfields at Kahang and Kluang.
The 22nd Brigade went to work promptly and energetically to strengthen and extend the rather sketchy defences which existed in its area. In the course of the next three months it built what was practically a new defensive system, and although this took much of its time and effort, it
underwent extensive and persistent local training.24 The 2/30th Battalion set about cutting tracks through dense vegetation to assist it in fulfilling its role in the event of the main road becoming impassable. The most important of these was one from the east-west road west of Jemaluang, skirting a height known as Gibraltar Hill in the Nithsdale Estate (a defensive position for the battalion’s forward company), bypassing Jemaluang junction, and joining the road to Mersing north of Jemaluang.
“We can expect them to be bold,” wrote Brigadier Taylor of the Japanese, in assessing the 22nd Brigade’s role. “They greatly admire German methods and will develop the maximum strength in the minimum of time. Japanese infantry can maintain themselves for several days without transport in difficult terrain.” He saw the brigade’s task as being to destroy any enemy landing on the beaches between Jemaluang and Mersing and to harass them elsewhere as much as possible.
A major issue generally in Malaya, while defensive preparations were being made in 1941, had been whether or not to attempt to hold the beaches in the event of enemy assault, or to place forces back from the beaches in defence of roads leading into the interior. It was argued against holding the beaches that this would string out the available forces and leave insufficient available for counter-attack. Brooke-Popham had ordered that the first line of defence must be the beaches, on the principle that the enemy would be most vulnerable to land, air and (if naval vessels were available) sea attack when disembarking. He regarded the system adopted by the Australian command as a satisfactory way of meeting the problem, in that the 22nd Brigade had perimeter defence for units mutually supporting each other and primarily defending the beaches, with the 27th Brigade available for counter-attack.25
The decision to defend the beaches seems to have been influenced by the current estimate of the damage which could be inflicted from the air on a landing force. General Heath recorded later that, before the opening of the campaign, the Royal Air Force was always confident of its power to stop any invasion of Malaya, and estimated that it would be able to inflict upon any enemy convoy as high a loss as 40 per cent. Assessment of the striking capacity of the air force, to which the leading role was assigned, was of course fundamental to the strategy for the defence of Malaya.
By late September, the 27th Brigade had settled down to somewhat dispersed locations in its new area – the headquarters of the 27th Brigade and the 2/29th Battalion in the Segamat area, through which the trunk road and railway from Singapore passed over the north-western border of Johore; the 2/26th Battalion at Jasin; the 2/30th at Batu Pahat, a
port on the west coast of Johore; and the 2/15th Field Regiment at Tampin, on the northern border of Malacca. These localities offered good training areas, and the troops had soon become acclimatised and settled down to solid training. Having been a battalion commander in the 22nd Brigade, Brigadier Maxwell was able to pass on the local experience he had gained in that role. His commanders sought to improve wherever possible upon what the 22nd Brigade had achieved in preparing itself for action under Malayan conditions.
Bennett naturally continued to take a keen interest in the units of his division which were still in Australia. When 10 per cent of the men of those units were taken away and sent as reinforcements to the Middle East he protested strongly. Late in October he decided to visit the brigade in Darwin. He was informed, however, that the Australian War Cabinet had decided that he might visit the Middle East but that a visit to Darwin was unnecessary in view of a new decision to remove the units of the 8th Division in Australia from his control. Thenceforward the 8th Division comprised two brigades, and such divisional units as were allotted to it. The 23rd Brigade and the remaining divisional troops, including at this stage the machine-gun and the pioneer battalions, became detached forces with roles in the Northern Territory, New Britain and the Indies.
Brigadier Rowell, however, had been a sympathetic advocate of the 8th Division’s needs when he arrived in Melbourne. At Bennett’s request he recommended to General Sturdee that the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion be sent to Malaya, particularly because of its value in beach defence; that efforts be made to rearm the Australian artillery regiments in Malaya (one of which had old 18-pounders and 4.5-inch howitzers and the other 3-inch mortars) with 25-pounders; that an additional anti-tank battery, and corps signals be sent; and that an AIF administrative headquarters separate from the divisional headquarters be formed in Malaya (both under Bennett’s command) thus freeing the divisional staff for its proper role.
The establishment of the administrative headquarters was agreed to, and it began to operate in October, from the same building in Johore Bahru as that occupied by divisional headquarters. Kent Hughes was promoted to Lieut-colonel and placed in charge of the administrative staff, which moved in November to a camp at Tampoi Hill near the AIF General Base Depot. There were now 15,000 Australian troops in Malaya, including an increasing number of base units. Thus the establishment of such a headquarters was overdue.
The new arrangements gave General Bennett roles similar to those played by General Blamey in the Middle East. Blamey had the right to report directly to the Minister for the Army and Bennett, assuming a similar right, had sent on 31st March to the Minister, Mr Spender, a report on the events to that date. On 18th April he had received a cable from the Military Board instructing him not to communicate directly with the Minister. Later he was informed that, although Blamey was not
responsible to the Military Board, he (Bennett) was. There the matter rested until September, when Sturdee cabled that Spender had suggested that Bennett should have the right to communicate directly with the Minister. A few days later Bennett received a letter from Spender stating that he had the right. Next, on 30th October 1941, Bennett was formally appointed “GOC, AIF, Malaya”.
On 6th November General Blamey arrived at Singapore on his way to Australia to confer with the Ministers. In particular (as he informed Bennett), he sought firstly to try to persuade them to reverse a decision that would necessitate breaking up one of the divisions in the Middle East; secondly to press that the 8th Division be sent to the Middle East.26 Blamey was still in Australia when, on 18th November, Bennett left Malaya by air to visit the AIF in the Middle East. Bennett’s subsequent comments suggest that he was not impressed by what he saw there. He wrote that the offensive in the Western Desert at the time, “lacked drive, punch and coordination”, that the “elephantine” headquarters of the army in Egypt “had grown usually at the expense of the number of men available to fight”; and that “too many officers were so far removed from the battles that were being fought that they lost touch with reality. Departments became watertight and out of touch with other departments. Perfect cooperation was extremely difficult.”27
On 3rd December Bennett noted in his diary “Indo-China has been well prepared as a springboard from which to make the dive into Thailand, Malaya and Netherlands East Indies. I fear that the move may start before my return, so I have decided to push off at once.” On 8th December, at Mergui (Burma), on his return flight, he learned how well-founded his fears had been.
The numbers of fighting units in Malaya on 7th December 1941, exclusive of engineers, mechanical transport, signals and ancillary units, the local volunteers and Indian and Malayan State forces, were:–
31 infantry battalions (the infantry strength of about 3½ divisions)
7 field regiments (5 of 24 guns; 2 of 16 guns)
1 mountain regiment (24 guns)
2 anti-tank regiments (1 of 48 guns; 1 of 36 guns)
2 anti-tank batteries (1 of 8 Breda guns; 1 of six 2-pounders).
A large proportion of these units was poorly trained and equipped. There were also ten battalions of volunteers, only sketchily trained and equipped; five battalions from Indian States for airfield defence; a battalion maintained by the Sultan of Johore, with some light artillery; and small forces, ranging up to a weak battalion, maintained by other of the Unfederated States. The total strength of regular and volunteer forces was nearly 88,600, of whom 19,600 were British, 15,200 Australian, and the greater number Asian (Indian 37,000, locally enlisted 16,800).
The army’s strength was thus far short – to the extent principally of 17 infantry battalions, 4 light anti-aircraft regiments and 2 tank regiments – of what it had been agreed was required. There were no tanks, though these had been asked for as early as 1937; few armoured cars; insufficient anti-tank rifles in the infantry units; and a serious shortage of mobile anti-aircraft weapons.
The arrival at Singapore on 2nd December of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse caused a wave of relief and even of elation to sweep over Malaya in particular. Though they were without the intended aircraft carrier, their presence seemed to many onlookers to have ended the critical period. Britain had shown that she “meant business”, it was said among the crowds who watched these great vessels. Japan had stuck her neck out too far, and now she would have to pull it in again. The toast was to the British Navy. But, based at Singapore on 8th December, in addition to these vessels, were only three small and out-dated cruisers, seven destroyers (four of them small and obsolete), three gunboats, and a cluster of minor craft ranging from auxiliary antisubmarine vessels to motor-launches.28
Thus in Malaya, hub of Far Eastern defence, the ragged edge of want still ran throughout the Services. Broadly speaking, they had got what was left over after demands with higher priority – especially those of the Middle East – had been met. The drain on British resources included dispatch to Russia during 1941 of 676 aircraft and 446 tanks – enough to satisfy fully Malaya’s needs for these weapons; but Russia, actually engaged in war, was given priority. In Malaya there were not only shortages of equipment, but defects in quality and efficiency. A severe shortage existed of experienced officers to administer the forces, train them, and provide dependable leadership in battle; and of experienced men to leaven the rank and file.29 This was especially serious in the III Indian Corps, Percival’s largest fighting formation.
The size of the Indian Army generally at this time was misleading without consideration of its quality. It had been so stinted of funds that a committee under the chairmanship of Major-General Auchinleck30 found in 1938 that it was “showing a tendency to fall behind the forces of such minor states as Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. Judged by modern standards the army in India is relatively immobile and under-armed and unfit to take the field against land or air forces equipped with up-to-date weapons”. At the outbreak of war in Europe the shortage of modern weapons and vehicles was acute, and a huge expansion scheme was commenced. India’s Congress Party had called for assurances that India, who had not been consulted about participation in the war, would be treated as a free
nation. In the absence of satisfying response, it had adopted a policy of passive resistance to British rule; but, despite this, the main difficulties lay not in recruiting men, but in training large numbers in little time, and in providing them with suitable officers.
Of the Indian Army’s officers in July 1939, 2,978 were British and 528 Indian. To meet the needs of the expansion, “Indianisation” (officering of Indian units by Indians) which had been proceeding at a snail’s pace since 1918, had suddenly to be accelerated. Meanwhile officers of existing units had to be distributed widely over new ones, and many additional British officers found. The whole tempo of thought and action needed to be adjusted to the urgent demands of the times. Yet, drawn from a largely illiterate population in which existed a multiplicity of races, castes, creeds and languages, the Indian recruit needed a much greater period of training than recruits from more advanced and less diversified communities; and as the Indian Army tended to curb rather than to stimulate the national aspirations of Indians, his loyalty was apt to attach to leaders who by experience and force of character could win his respect rather than to the cause in which he was enlisted. To transferred officers, and especially to the many new officers required, some of them even unable to speak more than a few halting words of Urdu, the language in which they had to make themselves understood by their men, this was a lengthy and sometimes impossible task. Under expansion many Indian officers had far less experience and other qualifications than those previously held necessary; and this applied to non-commissioned officers also. In turn, the training and leadership of the men suffered.
Expansion, therefore, had been accompanied by a substantial lowering of the traditional standards of the Indian Army. It affected those Indian units sent to Malaya after the 12th Brigade went there in 1939 to a progressive extent as the expansion took its course.31 Thus, in Malaya, where 18 out of the 31 battalions (excluding the Volunteers) were Indian, it was likely that those Indian battalions would fall far below 1939 standards of efficiency.
It had been a general practice to include two Indian battalions and one British regular battalion in an Indian infantry brigade but, as a result of the expansion of the Indian Army, this was no longer always possible. Of the six Indian brigades in Malaya in December only three-6th, 12th and 15th – contained a British battalion. It seems strange, therefore, that three British regular battalions – 2/Loyals, 2/Gordon and 1/Manchester (a machine-gun battalion) – were all relegated to the Singapore Fortress, a direct attack on the island being the least probable course of action.
In Malaya Command, on 7th December, General Heath’s III Indian Corps was responsible for defence of Malaya north of Johore and Malacca, including the island of Penang. Of the corps’ two divisions, each of two brigades, the 11th, as noted earlier, was in the north-west and the 9th in the north-east (with its 8th Brigade in the Kota Bharu area, near the border with Thailand, and its 22nd at Kuantan, about half-way down the eastern coast). The 28th Brigade was Heath’s reserve. The 8th Australian Division (two brigades) had the task of defending the States of Johore and Malacca, with the Johore State forces under its command. Defence of Singapore and the adjoining islands was the responsibility of the Singapore Fortress troops, under Major-General Simmons. The 12th Indian Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier Paris32), General Percival’s reserve, was in the Port Dickson area. Anti-aircraft regiments (Brigadier Wildey33) were allotted the defence, in cooperation with other arms, of selected targets in the Singapore area against air attack. An independent company with a strength of 300 British and Indians was formed early in 1941 for amphibious and special operations in enemy territory, but had not completed its training in December 1941. Detachments of troops in Borneo, a small volunteer force in British North Borneo, and a Coast Artillery detachment at Christmas Island (in the Indian Ocean, south of Sumatra) for protection of phosphate deposits, were also under Malaya Command. Percival had endeavoured to ensure that in view of the wide area covered by the command, and because operations might develop simultaneously in various parts of the area, responsibility for control of operations should be decentralised as much as possible.34
A large well-led labour corps would have been of great value to the defending force in Malaya, but all efforts to form such a force had failed. General Bond had foreseen this need in 1940 and succeeded in obtaining two Indian labour companies. In April 1941 Malaya Command obtained permission from the War Office to raise six companies locally, but the Malayan Government advised against this on the grounds that it would interfere with rubber production and in any event local labourers might be difficult to recruit. Since the rate of pay fixed by the War Office was only a fraction of the ruling rate, recruiting proved not merely difficult but impossible. General Percival then asked for more Indian companies, but without success. He next tried, also without success, to obtain labourers from Hong Kong. On the 18th November, the Treasury having fixed a higher rate of pay than the original War Office figure, Percival informed the War Office that he proposed to begin recruiting labourers in Malaya on the 24th. The rate proved to be still too low to attract labourers; and the only labour companies available in December were the two Indian companies obtained in 1940.
The dispositions for the defence of Malaya were fundamentally unsound in December 1941. Although they were based on the assumption that Malaya would contain an air force strong enough to inflict crippling losses on an invading convoy, such an air force was not present; yet the army was deployed over a wide area largely to protect outlying airfields. It was realised that the enemy might land on the Kra Isthmus and advance down the west coast, or at Kota Bharu and capture the three airfields there, or at Kuantan where there was another airfield, or in the Mersing area with the object of taking Singapore from the north, or on the island itself. The army was dispersed so as to meet every one of these possible attacks. In a force including ten brigades only one was retained in Force reserve. Thus it was practically inevitable that wherever the enemy made his initial attack he would be in superior strength as soon as he had put his main force ashore; and that, if he gained a success in the early stages, the defender’s reserves would be drawn into the battle, but only gradually, because of poor communications, and the enemy would be given an opportunity of defeating the defending army piecemeal.
Elsewhere in Brooke-Popham’s command the two principal responsibilities were Burma and Hong Kong. Of these Hong Kong was of course in the more exposed position and the less likely to survive determined assault. Despite Mr Churchill’s earlier reluctance, for this reason, to reinforce the outpost, two Canadian battalions had arrived there in mid-November, as mentioned earlier, bringing the infantry strength to five battalions (two Canadian, two Indian, one Scottish), with a machine-gun battalion (English), two regiments of coastal artillery, a medium artillery regiment, a local Volunteer Defence Corps about 2,000 strong, and a Chinese machine-gun battalion in course of formation. The total strength of mobilised personnel, including auxiliary units, was about 14,500. Hong Kong could put into the air four craft – two Walrus amphibians and
two Vildebeestes. The naval forces comprised one destroyer (two others left under orders for Singapore on 8th December), eight torpedo motorboats, four gunboats, and some armed patrol vessels.
Burma presented more vital considerations. Lying across the eastern land approach to India, it was also a back-door to China, Malaya and Thailand; and it afforded landing grounds – principally at Tavoy, Mergui and Victoria Point on the Tenasserim coast – for overland movement of planes to and from Malaya. The forces in Burma comprised sixteen battalions of regular infantry, mostly Burmese and Indian; three Indian mountain batteries; a Burma Auxiliary Force field battery; and two air squadrons with a total of four Blenheim I bombers,35 sixteen Buffaloes, and a reserve of sixteen Buffaloes.36 An American Volunteer Group, comprising three fighter squadrons equipped with Tomahawk planes, had commenced training in Burma in August 1941 and it was understood that if Burma were attacked part or the whole of the group would remain for its defence. The Governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith,37 presided over a war committee inclusive of Burmese ministers, two British counsellors and the General Officer Commanding.38
In Washington on 25th November 1941, President Roosevelt had conferred with his advisers. Mr Stimson, Secretary for War, noted in his diary that at the conference the President, speculating on the possibility of United States forces being attacked without warning, perhaps as early as 1st December, said the question was “how we should manoeuvre them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”.39 Hull handed to Nomura next day “with the forlorn hope that even at this ultimate minute a little common sense might filter into the military minds in Tokyo”,40 comprehensive proposals which in effect upheld the principles of the United States’ stand.41 On the 27th Stark and Marshall presented a memorandum to Roosevelt in which, while still seeking time, they recommended action substantially on the lines which had emerged from the Singapore conferences. Warnings were sent to the commanders of United States forces, including General MacArthur and Admiral Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour, to be on the alert for any attack. A message from Togo, Japan’s Foreign Minister, to Nomura was intercepted which stated that the negotiations
would be ruptured. “I do not wish you to give the impression that the negotiations are broken off,” said Togo. “Merely say to them that you are awaiting instructions and that, although the opinions of your government are not yet clear to you, to your own way of thinking the Imperial Government has always made just claims and has borne great sacrifices for the sake of peace in the Pacific.”42
Clearly, common sense had not “filtered into the military minds in Tokyo”; and on 5th December the Dominions received from the United Kingdom Government information that it had received assurance of armed support from the United States (a) if Britain found it necessary either to forestall a Japanese landing in the Kra Isthmus or to occupy part of the isthmus as a counter to Japanese violation of any other part of Thailand; (b) if Japan attacked the Netherlands East Indies and Britain at once went to their support; (c) if Japan attacked British territory. The message continued that Brooke-Popham had been instructed to move into the Kra Isthmus if it were established that escorted Japanese ships were approaching it, or if the Japanese violated any other part of Thailand; and to act on plans agreed to by the Dutch for implementation if the Japanese attacked the Netherlands East Indies.
Roosevelt made a final conciliatory gesture by sending the Japanese Emperor on 6th December (7th December in Australia) a message in which he declared that both he and the Emperor had “a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world”. China, still unsubdued, and therefore limiting the extent of the forces which Japan might use elsewhere, saw hope that at last powerful allies might help to shorten her ordeal. The leader of a Chinese mission which visited Malaya in November had declared that “China makes a pledge to conclude no separate peace and to continue fighting to the limit of her strength until all the aggressor nations are defeated and humbled”.
Behind a barrier of secrecy Japan had been preparing a daring and far-flung offensive. Though, as has been shown, the barrier had been perforated by the American success in intercepting and deciphering Japanese code messages, it was only by post-war investigation that the full extent of the Japanese preparations, and their background, became known to those against whom they were aimed.
By the end of July 1941 the Japanese Planning Board43 had prepared a study called “Requirements for the Mobilisation of Commodities for the Prosecution of War”. Such a war, the board said, must be regarded as fundamentally a war of resources. The board asserted that if Japan were to continue her course of relying for her requirements on Britain and America, she “would undoubtedly collapse and be unable to rise again”.
She must therefore make a final decision promptly. If she decided upon war, she must capture the rich natural resources of the southern area at the outset. Unless command of the air and sea was immediately secured, the minimum requirements of the mobilisation of supplies could not be fulfilled
On this basis, the supreme commands of the Japanese Army and Navy studied four alternative proposals:
1. To capture the Netherlands East Indies first and then attack Malaya and the Philippines.
2. To carry out operations against the Philippines, Borneo, Java, Sumatra and Malaya in that order.
3. To carry out operations in the order Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo, Java and the Philippines to delay for as long as possible the entry into the war of the United States.
4. To start operations against the Philippines and Malaya simultaneously and proceed southward promptly and at length assault Java from both east and west.
The Army favoured the third course, which insofar as it might delay America’s entry into the war fitted in with German wishes. It would, however, involve serious risk to the Japanese lines of communication, over which the Americans might in time exert a stranglehold if they could muster sufficient strength in the Philippines. The second course appealed to the Navy, as offering an easy concentration of military strength and a secure line of communications; but to this the objection was raised that it might allow sufficient time for Sumatra and Malaya to be so strengthened as to be impregnable. By the middle of August the fourth plan had been adopted, provisionally upon sufficient military strength being available; and the preparation of detailed operational plans was commenced. Under the supervision of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, a “table-top” exercise was carried out in September which provided for (a) a naval operation to gain command of the sea in the western Pacific, leading to capture of American, British and Dutch areas in the southern region, (b) a surprise assault against Hawaii. The utmost secrecy surrounded study and exercise for the latter, which had been under consideration since the previous January, and was intended primarily to hamstring American retaliation for attack on the Philippines. Although some officers favoured landing a force to seize the island of Oahu, in which Pearl Harbour is situated, it was decided that there would not be enough transports for this purpose as well as for the southward move. Further discussions with the army followed, and drafting of the Combined Fleet’s operation orders was then commenced.
An order for mobilisation of a “Southern Army” was issued on 6th November. This army, commanded by Count Terauchi, would include the XIV, XV, XVI and XXV “Armies” – each the equivalent of a British corps.44
Divisions and independent brigades included in the four armies and their areas of operation, were:–
XIV (Philippines), 16th, 48th Divisions, 65th Brigade, 56th Regiment;
XV (Thailand and Burma), 33rd, 55th Divisions;
XXV (Malaya, Northern Sumatra), Guards, 5th, 18th, 56th Divisions;
XVI (Borneo, Celebes, Ambon, Timor, Java), 2nd, 38th, 48th Divisions, 56th Regiment, naval landing detachments;
The 21st Division (from January onwards) and the 21st Brigade were in reserve.
Thus the Japanese rated the army in Malaya more highly than any of the four main forces they had to overcome, allotting four divisions including the Guards to the task. The 48th Division and 56th Regiment were to join the XVI Army after completing their task in the Philippines, and the 38th Division after the capture of Hong Kong.
The main force of the Southern Army, with the cooperation of the navy, was to assemble in southern China, Indo-China and various islands and if attacked by American, British or Dutch troops was to act in self-defence. Then, if negotiations with the United States fell through, it would carry out its offensive in three principal phases: in the first the main objectives would be Malaya and northern Sumatra, the Philippines, British Borneo, Hong Kong, Guam and Wake Islands; in the second it would advance to Rabaul, Ambon, Timor, and southern Sumatra; in the third capture Java and invade central Burma. Finally a defensive perimeter would be established running from the Kuriles to Wake Island, the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, New Guinea, Timor, Java, Malaya and the Burma-India border. It was hoped that the capture of Java, the culmination of the southward drive, would be completed within 150 days.
In the Philippines the XIV Army was to be supported by the Third Fleet and air forces. In Malaya the XXV Army was to be supported by the Second Fleet and air forces. Guam and Wake Islands and later New Britain and New Ireland were to be taken by the Fourth Fleet, using forces of marines, plus the 144th Infantry Regiment, the whole force being about 5,000 strong in combat troops and supported by the 24th Air Flotilla and, for New Britain, by the Carrier Fleet.
This fleet, commanded by Admiral Nagumo, and comprising six aircraft carriers and a supporting force including two battleships and two heavy cruisers, was allotted to an attack on Pearl Harbour. By 22nd November it had concentrated in a bay in the Kurile Islands, and on 3rd December was at a stand-by point about half-way to Hawaii. After the attack on Pearl Harbour the Carrier Fleet was to refit and refuel, then to support the landing at Rabaul; and landings on Ambon and Timor islands (principally, in respect of Timor, by striking at Darwin). Admiral Yamamoto kept his main battleship force, the First Fleet, in reserve.
A total of 500 ships, amounting in all to 1,450,000 tons, was allotted to transport the military forces. Southern air operations were to commence from bases in Formosa and French Indo-China, and new bases being established on islands off the coast of French Indo-China. Concentration
and deployment of the land forces was hampered by bad weather, the long distances to be covered, difficulty in assembling materials and fuel shortage at some points. By 5th December, however, Count Terauchi had reached Saigon from Tokyo via Formosa and was making preparations for the moment when his forces would be unleashed. What was the quality of these forces, and what were their characteristics?
Before 1941 the Japanese Army had twice overcome a European adversary – the Russians in Manchuria and Korea in 1905, and, in 1914, the little German garrison of Tsingtao in China. European military observers had closely and admiringly observed that army in the Russo-Japanese War, and, in the period between the two world wars, European officers who studied the Japanese Army had defined most of the characteristics which were to be displayed in December 1941 and January and February 1942. Their observations, however, had not sunk very deeply into the consciousness of European officer corps accustomed to regard Asian military leaders generally as deficient in first-rate organising and technical ability, and the rank and file as lacking the fibre and initiative of their own men.
Japanese social conventions conferred upon the Japanese Army certain qualities of substantial military value. In the Japanese citizen was implanted an ever-present conviction of obligation to the divine Emperor, to the Japanese community, and to its individual members. Distinctions of rank were so rigidly drawn that these obligations and the code of behaviour by which they were expressed could be precisely defined, and were fully understood by the Japanese people, but by few others. The greatest honour a soldier could attain was to die for the Emperor. A soldier who was taken prisoner was regarded as an outcast. A commander whose force suffered defeat should and often did commit suicide. In the ranks the subordination of one grade to another was extreme. Officers and NCOs sometimes slapped the faces of their juniors if they misbehaved. Senior privates slapped new recruits.
As in most large European conscript armies, the officers belonged to three main groups. All senior appointments and, in peace, most of the junior ones were occupied by regular officers who had been trained at the military academy. Secondly, there were the reserve officers selected from among the better-educated conscripts and, after service in the ranks, trained at reserve officer schools; after commissioning they usually were transferred into the reserve ready to be employed in the expansion of the army in war. Thirdly, there were officers who had been promoted from the ranks after long service as senior non-commissioned officers.
In peace the conscripts, about 80 per cent of whom were peasants and labourers, were trained for two years and then passed into the reserve, but in 1941 Japan had been fighting China for four years, and many veteran reservists had been recalled for a second tour of duty. The peacetime training of the Japanese soldier was probably more exacting than in any other army, particularly in hardening him to endure extremes of heat
and cold, fatigue and hunger. In the ‘thirties, for example, a skilled English observer recorded operations in Manchuria in which the troops went entirely without food for three days in weather so cold that the water froze in their flasks. By 1941 most of the formations had been further seasoned by arduous and recent active service.
Components of the XXV Army provided instances of this. The 18th Division had fought round Canton in 1938; in 1939 it advanced into Kwangsi Province and took Nanning. In 1940 and 1941 it was on duty in the Canton area, with units active at Hainan and Foochow. Thus when this division embarked for operations against Malaya it had been more or less continuously on active service for four years. The 5th Division also had been continuously on active service in China from 1937 until late 1941, when it went to Hainan. The Guards Division had served in south China in 1940; in 1941 it had been either in Hainan training for the Malayan campaign, or taking part in the occupation of Indo-China.
In December 1941 the Japanese Army included 51 divisions. Ten (not including the division in Indo-China) were allotted to the new Southern Army which was to carry out the drive to the south.45 Of the remainder 21 were in China, 14 in Manchuria and Korea, and 5 in Japan. In addition to these divisions Japan possessed 10 depot divisions, used to train reinforcements for units overseas; 22 independent brigades of infantry; and 37 other formations of approximately brigade size; also she was reorganising her divisions on a nine-battalion instead of a twelve-battalion basis. Thus she possessed the means of forming a number of additional divisions without raising new units.
The Japanese Navy, like the British and American, possessed its own infantry. In Japan these were the “Special Naval Landing Forces”, flexible organisations but usually consisting basically of the equivalent of a British “battalion group” of about 1,200 to 1,500 men, including a rifle battalion, a heavy weapons company, and a few light tanks or armoured cars. Two or three such units might be combined to form a force equivalent to a British brigade group. The S.N.L.F’s were named after the naval bases where they were recruited, thus the “6th Kure S.N.L.F.” was the 6th force, or battalion, from Kure.
Since Japan had broken away from naval limitation plans she had made her navy more powerful than the combined strength of other naval forces in the Pacific. Its main components were 11 battleships, 10 aircraft carriers, 18 heavy cruisers, 21 light cruisers, 100 destroyers and 63 submarines; these were divided administratively into six fleets, from which task forces were drawn. The two principal task forces were the fast carrier
force assigned to attack Pearl Harbour, and a “Southern Force” to be used against the Philippines, Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies.
As with their American opponents, the Japanese Army and Navy each possessed its own air force, and, in the army air force, there was emphasis on giving close support to ground troops. The combined strength of the air forces was about 5,000 first-line aircraft, with adequate reserves for immediate requirements.
As mentioned, the Japanese Army of 1941 was re-forming its standard infantry division so that it would contain three instead of four infantry regiments. In the operations to be described, some divisions contained four regiments grouped in twos to form two brigades, and some three regiments. Other reorganisation and re-equipment was in progress. The following summary, therefore, aims at providing only a generally accurate account of the Japanese Army as it was in December 1941.
The Japanese triangular infantry division fairly closely resembled a British division in organisation and basic equipment, a main difference being that the Japanese division possessed relatively few field and antitank guns; probably a reflection of its long war in China against a lightly-armed enemy.
The word “regiment” is used in a variety of meanings in a British army. In this account of the structure of the Japanese Army it is used in its European sense, to indicate a group of (usually) three units. (Thus the Japanese “artillery regiment” was the equivalent of the British “divisional artillery”.) In 1941 a Japanese artillery regiment was armed with 36 75-mm field guns, or field guns and 150-mm howitzers. This weakness – 36 weapons compared with 72 in a fully-equipped British divisional artillery – was offset somewhat by the fact that the infantry regiments had an infantry gun company likely to be equipped with six 70-mm howitzers firing an 8-pound shell, or light guns of other models. Each infantry regiment was equipped also with 12 mortars and more than 80 grenade dischargers.
The Japanese infantry division did not include a machine-gun battalion, but each regiment possessed 24 medium (“Juki”) machine-guns in addition to 84 light machine-guns. The reconnaissance regiment of the division had 12 light tanks, a 9-ton vehicle armed with a 37-mm gun and two machine-guns. The Japanese medium tank was of 15 tons with a 57-mm gun and two machine-guns.
The organisations described as Japanese “armies” consisted basically of two to four divisions and perhaps some smaller formations. A Japanese “Area Army” (e.g. the Southern Army) included two or more such “armies” and thus was the equivalent of a British army.
The mystical Japanese approach to warfare, and their eagerness to fling themselves furiously into battle, seems to have led to a neglect of important branches of staff work such as Supply and, particularly, Intelligence. They collected information assiduously but failed adequately to carry out the more important part of Intelligence work – collation, interpretation,
and circulation – or to pay sufficient heed to it. The geographical information with which their armies were provided was inadequate; for example, the post-war report of the operations of the XXV Japanese Army in Malaya states that the best maps of Malaya distributed to that army were on a scale of 1:300,000 until just before Japan struck, when some on a scale of 1:100,000 were provided. The United States official historian of the operations in the Philippines concludes that, until they captured American maps in Manila, the Japanese “probably used a road map of the Philippines and hydrographic charts of their own”.46 The strength of the Australian force in Malaya was greatly over-estimated despite the ease with which information from Singapore was available.
“Japanese training manuals state that the chief aim in battle is to develop an enveloping attack on the enemy and destroy him on the field of battle,” set out a booklet on the Japanese Army issued by Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in January 1942 (too late to reach Malaya before the fighting began). “Envelopment therefore is normally used in operations. In this connection it should be noted that the Japanese troops are very hardy. ... Owing to their ability to exist on a small ration and without material comforts, their radius of action is not limited by transport requirements to the extent to which British troops are limited.” Elsewhere the same booklet said:–
General tactics appear to consist of a vigorous advance using the roads until contact is gained; a direct frontal attack is avoided. Small parties carry out attacks on flanks and rear by an outflanking movement through the jungle, river and sea. These tactics show considerable initiative and usually cause a general withdrawal. Japanese infiltration methods exert considerable moral effect on troops who may be attacked in the rear.
In China the Japanese engineers had demonstrated notable speed and efficiency in construction or reconstruction of roads and river crossings – skills likely to be developed in operations against an enemy fighting guerrilla-fashion and relying largely on demolition to fend off their attackers. Japanese signal equipment was of fair quality but, in general, somewhat out of date by European standards of 1941. Japanese signallers placed most emphasis on wire communication, but employed wireless where wire could not be used.
By December 1941 the Japanese Army possessed an experience of landing operations far greater than that of any other force. It had developed several types of partly-armoured, flap-fronted, shallow-draught landing craft, each able to carry up to 100 men and to travel at from 8 to 12 knots. In addition it had employed in operations the sampans commonly used in large numbers by the Japanese for fishing, ferrying and cargo-carrying. The Japanese forces were adept at a variety of ruses such as employing pyrotechnics to simulate weapon fire, calling out to the enemy in his own language, setting booby traps, and shaking bushes
by means of ropes in order to draw fire. Japan was not a large-scale producer of motor vehicles, but was one of the largest manufacturers of bicycles. The availability of bicycles, either on issue or where they could be commandeered, and their usefulness on low-grade Asian roads and jungle tracks caused the Japanese to employ them on an increasing scale in military operations.
Except for their siege operations against the German garrison at Tsingtao in 1914, and a 24-days’ conflict with the Russians in Manchuria in 1939, the Japanese Army had not fought a fully-equipped enemy since 1905. The tactics and equipment, the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese Army of 1941 were products largely of the long war in China against stubborn soldiers lightly-armed and generally ill-led, but cunning guerrillas fighting in terrain which presented immense difficulties to the movement of mechanised forces. Hence, largely, came the Japanese skill in landing operations and road-making and bridging; their changing organisation and tendency towards forming ad hoc forces; their relatively light equipment and reliance on mortars and small guns rather than on the standard field gun, and on light tanks; their emphasis on envelopment tactics; partly also their development of a large and grimly-efficient corps of military police (Kempei Tai) possessing wide powers and trained to employ those powers ruthlessly.