Part II: South-East Asia Conquered
Chapter 7: Widespread Onslaught
News of an increasingly strong concentration of Japanese sea, land and air forces in southern Indo-China and the South China Sea was received by Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham during November. A telegram from the British War Office gave warning that the Washington negotiations might collapse at any moment, and that Japan might be expected then to attack Thailand, the Netherlands East Indies, or the Philippines. Aircraft, believed to be Japanese, flew over Malaya so fast and so high that they escaped identification.
Because of a report from Saigon that the Japanese intended landing troops in southern Thailand on 1st December, Air Headquarters was warned on 29th November to be ready to support Operation MATADOR at twelve hours’ notice. Additional air forces were moved into north Malaya,1 and daily air reconnaissances were carried out, though with the stipulation that there must be no attack on any convoy thus located.2 Degrees of readiness of the forces generally were stepped up, and relief which had been proposed of the 22nd Australian Brigade in the Mersing area by the 27th Brigade was indefinitely postponed.
Late in November General Percival visited Sarawak. He was impressed by the fact that this part of Borneo was nearly as large as England, and there were large Japanese-owned rubber plantations near the airfield seven miles south of its capital, Kuching; yet the forces comprised only one Indian battalion (the 2/15th Punjab) to supplement partially-trained and poorly-equipped local forces. Obviously there was little hope of holding Sarawak against serious attack; but resistance might make the enemy use a greater force than otherwise would be necessary. Listening to radio news on 29th November, Percival heard that all troops away from barracks
in Singapore had been ordered back to them at once. Returning with all speed aboard a destroyer, he found on arrival on 1st December that Brooke-Popham had ordered the second degree of readiness, and the Volunteers were being mobilised. Soon troops were recalled from leave and other precautions were taken, including the rounding up of Japanese civilians.
Admiral Phillips,3 who had flown from Colombo to Singapore in advance of Prince of Wales and Repulse and taken up duty as Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet (leaving local naval defence to Vice-Admiral Layton4) flew on 4th December to confer at Manila with the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart. The conference was ended abruptly by news that a large Japanese convoy was on its way from Camranh Bay towards the Gulf of Siam. As Phillips was leaving for Singapore because of this situation, Hart told him that he had just ordered four of his destroyers, then at Balikpapan (Borneo), to join Phillips’ force.
Authority to order MATADOR in certain contingencies without reference to the War Office reached Brooke-Popham on 5th December, in consequence of the previously mentioned assurance of American armed support if Britain found it necessary either to forestall a Japanese landing in the Kra Isthmus, or in certain other circumstances. The contingencies specified to Brooke-Popham for instituting operation MATADOR were:–
(a) If he had information that a Japanese expedition was advancing with the apparent intention of landing on the Kra Isthmus; or
(b) If the Japanese violated any other part of Thailand.
It had, however, been impressed on him only a few days before by the British Chiefs of Staff that such an operation, if the Japanese intended to land in southern Thailand, would almost certainly mean war with Japan. He therefore considered it his duty to be scrupulously careful in acting on the telegram.
Also on 5th December, Repulse had left Singapore at slow speed, preceded by three Vildebeeste planes as an anti-submarine patrol, and screened by the destroyers Tenedos and Vampire (the latter a vessel of the Royal Australian Navy which had been refitting at Singapore) for Darwin.5 In Australia that day, Cabinet decided at a special meeting to cancel army leave, and authorised Australian participation in the provisional plans for cooperation with the United States and the Netherlands Indies.
Soon after midday on 6th December6 a Hudson of No. 1 Squadron RAAF, operating from Kota Bharu reported three transports with a
cruiser as escort about 80 miles south of Cape Cambodia, steering northwest. This report was followed by two other sightings, the first considerably farther east, of twenty-two transports with a heavy escort of cruisers and destroyers steering west; and the second, similarly constituted, but slightly south, which might either have been the same convoy or another steering a parallel course. As one of the Hudsons on reconnaissance was chased by an enemy plane, it was apparent that the Japanese knew they had been seen. However, the air force was under orders not to attack owing to Brooke-Popham’s anxiety lest, by holding out a bait, the Japanese might provoke the first blow, and make the British appear the aggressors. Had the main group of Japanese vessels continued its observed course, it would have reached the Kra Isthmus, a narrow neck of land joining Thailand to Malaya. Did this clearly indicate an attack on Thailand – so clearly that Brooke-Popham could set MATADOR in motion – or would the expedition attack Malaya?
In this grave situation, Brooke-Popham consulted Layton and Phillips’ Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral Palliser.7 They concluded that probably the expedition would follow the course of the vessels first observed, and anchor at Koh Rong on the west coast of Indo-China. No word had been received of an actual breakdown of the Washington talks, and this Japanese move might be but another step towards, yet not into, Thailand, in the war of nerves in which Japan was engaged. Brooke-Popham decided that he would not be justified in ordering MATADOR but he gave instructions that all forces bring themselves to the highest degree of readiness, and that air contact with the expedition be maintained. Battle stations were accordingly taken up.
Though time to move forces into Thailand before an enemy could forestall them was the essence of Operation MATADOR, attempts to maintain contact with the Japanese ships had meanwhile failed. One Catalina flying-boat sent to take over the search in the early part of the night returned to Singapore at 8 a.m. on the 7th without having seen anything of the enemy convoys because of bad weather; another, dispatched at 2 a.m. on 7th December, failed either to report contact or return to base.
The reconnaissance plan for 7th December provided for a cover by British, Australian, and Dutch aircraft of the more direct approaches to Singapore and the Mersing-Endau area, and a sweep into the Gulf of Siam. Vildebeestes were dispatched to maintain the anti-submarine patrol ahead of Repulse, which had been recalled from its intended voyage to Australia. Because of bad weather the aircraft which were to make the sweep into the Gulf of Siam did not take off until 6.45 a.m. Two of them, which had encountered rain, low clouds and bad visibility, returned shortly afterwards, and the third sighted nothing. A plane dispatched at 12.20 p.m. to make a reconnaissance of the anchorage at Koh Rong also returned, owing to the bad weather. Admiral Phillips returned that morning from Manila.
Reports to Air Headquarters during the afternoon included the sighting at 3.45 by a Hudson of No. 8 Australian Squadron of a Japanese vessel stated to have a large number of men on deck in khaki A merchant vessel and a cruiser were sighted by another Hudson at 5.50, about 112 miles north of Kota Bharu, and the cruiser fired at it. At 6.48 p.m., through dense cloud, four Japanese vessels were seen off the coast of Thailand about 150 miles from Kota Bharu, steaming south – some thirty hours after the Japanese had first been sighted. Although official accounts vary, Brooke-Popham recorded that this latter report did not reach him until about 9 p.m. Percival held that if the Japanese were headed for Singora, it was unlikely that they could be forestalled by Operation MATADOR. He therefore told Brooke-Popham that he considered the operation would be unsound. At a conference held at the naval base, at which Brooke-Popham, Phillips, and Percival were present, it was decided not to order MATADOR that night, but General Heath, of the III Indian Corps, who was to be responsible for its execution, was ordered to be ready to put it into effect at dawn. Brooke-Popham considered that in view of the bad conditions for reconnaissance, and on the information available, there was no certainty
that the Japanese were about to open hostilities. He recalled warnings that MATADOR would almost certainly mean war with Japan, and that he had no authority to order attack on a Japanese expedition at sea until the Japanese had committed some definite hostile act: Apparently he either did not regard the firing on the Hudson, preceded by the disappearance without signal of the Catalina, in this sense; was not fully informed on these points; or did not think the facts sufficiently established to warrant their acceptance.
Before midnight, Japanese ships anchored off the coast near Kota Bharu. The 8th Indian Brigade’s front in this locality comprised six beaches each about five miles long, and a 10-mile river front. Three airfields – Kota Bharu, Gong Kedah, and Machang, so located that they were roughly at the three points of a triangle, with Kota Bharu at its apex – were guarded by the 1st Hyderabad and the 1st Mysore State Infantry. Beaches north and east of the town were heavily wired, and concrete machine-gun pillboxes were spaced along them at distances of about 1,000 yards. To the south, however, were dummy pill-boxes and stretches of sparsely-wired beach. The principal units in the 8th Brigade were:
3/17th Dogras (beaches north and east of Kota Bharu).
2/10th Baluch (20 miles of beaches south of Dogras).
1/13th Frontier Force Rifles (in reserve).
2/12th Frontier Force Regiment (on loan from 22nd Indian Brigade and in reserve, with one company patrolling towards the frontier with Thailand).
73rd Field Battery; 21st Mountain Battery.
Soon after the ships were sighted, the Japanese began shelling two pill-boxes guarding a small river-mouth between the Sabak and Badang beaches held by the Dogras. Japanese troops landed at this point about 12.30 a.m. on 8th December, and fierce fighting followed.
When the ships were reported to Air Headquarters, a Hudson was ordered to the scene with flares to reconnoitre; but before it took off definite information was received that transports were offshore apparently about to land troops. The Officer Commanding the Kota Bharu airfield thereupon received authority to take offensive action with all No. 1 Squadron’s available Hudsons (ten). Vildebeestes at Gong Kedah and five air squadrons at Kuantan, Sungei Patani, Tengah and Alor Star were ordered to attack shipping in the Kota Bharu area at first light. In a series of sorties from Kota Bharu, the Australian airmen bombed and machine-gunned enemy ships and crowded landing barges, inflicting damage and casualties. Dutch submarines also operated against the enemy.8
The monsoon, which might have been expected to hinder Japanese landings during this season, had in fact facilitated the enemy approach by providing
cloud cover. On the other hand it had badly affected the surfaces of such roads as could be used in moving British ground forces to the point of attack. Arrangements were made for counter-attacks on the beaches after dawn, with the understanding that air support would be given.
Landing of Japanese troops was continuing when soon after 4 a.m. some seventeen Japanese aircraft, from southern Indo-China, came over Singapore Island. Most of the bombs fell at the Seletar and Tengah airfields, causing little damage, but in Raffles Square, close to the harbour, and predominantly Singapore’s European shopping and commercial centre, about 200 casualties resulted among the Asian population. Radar had detected the approaching raiders more than half an hour before their arrival, but the Operations Room of Fighter Control was unable to obtain any response from civil ARP headquarters, Singapore’s street lights remained ablaze throughout the raid, and no effective warning was received by the populace. Many, in fact, thought it was a realistic practice by British planes, and watched from windows, streets, and gardens. The rumble of exploding bombs broke the news to the citizens of Singapore that war had come to Malaya.
While Malaya was being attacked, 7th December9 was dawning at Hawaii, 3,440 miles east of Japan, and 2,010 miles from San Francisco. The periscope of a submarine had been sighted off the entrance buoys to Pearl Harbour, America’s great Pacific naval and air base on Oahu Island, by a mine-sweeper at 3.42 a.m. Hawaiian time. As American submarines had been forbidden to operate submerged in this area, the sighting was reported to the destroyer Ward, on patrol duty, which made a search. It was not, however, until 6.45 a.m. that the Ward located and sank a midget submarine. A report of this action filtered through to the duty officer of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, by 7.12 a.m. However, a number of unconfirmed reports of submarines had been received in the past few days, and despite the critical state of affairs between America and Japan, and the warnings which had accompanied it, immediate precautions were limited to ordering a ready-duty destroyer out to assist Ward, and a stand-by destroyer to get up steam.
Suddenly, at 7.55 a.m. (1.45 a.m. on 8th December in Malaya) a cloud of planes appeared over Oahu. In a series of attacks lasting until 10 a.m. Japanese bombs blasted warships and naval and army aircraft at this vital point of America’s Pacific defence system. So complete was the surprise that the planes were not recognised as hostile until the bombs fell. One of a number of midget submarines succeeded in entering the harbour through the gate in the submarine net. It fired its complement of two torpedoes ineffectively, and was sunk. Another was beached on the coast of Oahu, and captured with its commander next day. All the
midget submarines were lost, but despite attempts to locate the main Japanese force, it escaped without being seen.
When the results of the raid were assessed, it was apparent that America’s naval strength in the Pacific had been struck a crippling blow. Of the eight battleships in Pearl Harbour, four were sunk, one was run aground to prevent sinking, and three were damaged but remained afloat. Two destroyers were so badly damaged as to need complete rebuilding, one had its bow blown off. Three light cruisers were damaged, but left Pearl Harbour late in January 1942. Altogether 19 vessels were hit; about 120 planes destroyed; and service casualties amounted to 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.10
Great as was the destruction thus wrought, there remained of the United States Fleet in the Pacific the surviving vessels, damaged and undamaged, in the harbour;11 and elsewhere a powerful force in the aggregate of one battleship (being overhauled) and three carriers, with heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other craft. Though the fleet’s battleships – its main strength in orthodox terms – were for the time being out of action, the components still serviceable were capable of giving in their turn demonstrations of sea-air power such as had been demonstrated by the Japanese in the raid. The vessels transferred to the Atlantic earlier in the year were of course exempt from the disaster. The heavy cruiser Pensacola, an escorting tender, four transports, and three freighters, were on their way at the time to Manila. Carrying 4,600 soldiers, airmen and naval replacements, and a number of aircraft, the convoy was diverted to Suva, and sailed thence to Brisbane.
As the news of Japan’s offensive on the opening day was put together, it was found that her forces had attacked not only Thailand, Malaya, and Pearl Harbour, but a series of points along a quarter of the world’s circumference which lay between them. These points included Midway, Wake, and Guam Islands – outposts of United States power in the Pacific and knots in a tenuous lifeline between America and the Philippines; the Philippines themselves; Ocean Island; and the British colony of Hong Kong.
Midway Island, 1,140 miles north-west of Oahu, had been officially described in 1938 as second in importance only to Pearl Harbour from a strategical viewpoint. As a landing-point between America and East Asia, it had been visited by Mr Kurusu in November on his way from Japan to the United States to join Admiral Nomura in the critical diplomatic negotiations then in progress.12 Its garrison on 7th December13
was the 6th Defence Battalion of the American Marine Corps. The carrier Lexington was on her way with a marine fighter squadron which it was intended should be flown in to Midway that day. The raid on Pearl Harbour resulted in the Lexington being diverted from this task in an endeavour to locate the attacking force. News of the raid on Pearl Harbour reached Midway while it was in progress, but it was not until 9.30 that night that a radar set indicated the presence of “what seemed to be surface targets”.14 Five minutes later salvos of fire from seaward were pounding its defences. Casualties on Midway in what proved to be another hit-run raid were light, but the enemy surprise tactics had once more been effective in causing extensive damage.
Wake Island, 2,600 miles west of Oahu, and within relatively short range of Guam and clusters of islands held at the time by the Japanese, was towards the end of 1941 being converted into a modern naval air base, primarily for reconnaissance purposes, but also as a stage in trans-Pacific flights. It was in fact used in staging Flying Fortresses to reinforce air strength in the Philippines. Although preparations were being rushed, Wake’s defences were highly vulnerable when, shortly after sunrise on 8th December,15 a message arrived that Pearl Harbour was being attacked. Wake was garrisoned by a detachment of United States Marines, supplemented on 4th December by a Marine fighter squadron with aircraft new to them, and deficient in several important respects. The total combat force amounted to 449 all ranks. Posts were hurriedly manned when the news of Pearl Harbour was received, and air patrols were sent up; but Wake lacked radar equipment. It was not until the officer commanding a battery near the southern tip of the island saw strange aircraft overhead at 11.58 a.m. (local time) that warning of attack was received. The aircraft had been masked by a rain squall and, as the officer jumped to a field telephone, Japanese bombs were falling. When the raid was over, at 12.10, Wake was littered with wreckage.
In the Marianas one lonely island, Guam, was a United States outpost; but its development had been neglected, and, as at Wake, the garrison was small. It consisted of 365 marines and 308 locally-recruited men, equipped with small arms only. News of the attack on Pearl Harbour reached the Governor, Captain George J. McMillan of the United States Navy, at 5.45 a.m. and at 8.27 Japanese aircraft commenced successive bombing raids on the Marine headquarters, and native villages.
All Hong Kong’s troops were at their battle stations by the evening of 7th December. Definite reports were received during the evening of concentrations of Japanese forces in villages bordering the frontier of
the colony, on the mainland. A broadcast warning in code from Tokyo to Japanese nationals that war was imminent was picked up at 4.45 a.m., Hong Kong time, on 8th December, and passed to the authorities concerned. News of the Japanese attack on Malaya arrived at 5 a.m.
Thus when at 8 a.m. Japanese planes dive-bombed Kai Tak airfield on the mainland, Hong Kong’s garrison was standing to arms. It had been recognised that the five air force planes stationed there were hopelessly inadequate to cope with any substantial attack. All of them were soon either destroyed or damaged. Japanese troops simultaneously crossed the frontier, and during the day and succeeding night forced forward units to withdraw to positions near what was known as the Gin Drinkers’ Line,16 where the main body of the brigade assigned to defence of the mainland was stationed.
Before dawn on 8th December in the Philippines General Lewis H. Brereton, MacArthur’s air commander, had been told of the raid on Pearl Harbour and had given instructions that all his air units should be prepared for action; but he received orders not to take the offensive until authorised by MacArthur’s headquarters to do so. His plan was to attack targets in Takao Harbour, Formosa, especially enemy transports and warships, and to reconnoitre airfields on Formosa. At dawn Japanese aircraft attacked a seaplane tender in Davao Gulf, south-east of Mindanao Island, and commenced raids on north Luzon Island. For reasons which remain obscure it was not until about 11 a.m. that Brereton received instructions that “bombing missions” could be executed. Preparations were then made for an air offensive against Formosa at daybreak next day.
In these circumstances, many aircraft were on the ground when fifty-four Japanese bombers made a surprise high-level bombing attack on Clark Field, about 40 miles north-west of Manila. This commenced about 12.15 p.m., and was followed by low-level strafing by thirty-four Zeros. When the attacks ceased at 1.37 p.m., Clark Field was ablaze, there had been heavy loss of life, and almost the entire force of aircraft at the base had been destroyed or put out of commission Iba Field, on the coast north-west of Clark Field, was also attacked, by 104 aircraft, just as a squadron of fighters was returning from a search over the South China Sea. At the end of the day, half the heavy bomber strength of the United States Far East Air Force had been lost, with fifty-six fighters and 25 or 30 other aircraft.
On this first day of the Japanese onslaught a minor attack was made on a Pacific outpost manned by a small Australian garrison. At 11.30 a.m. on the 8th a flying-boat appeared over Ocean Island, circled it and dropped five bombs, which caused no damage. Soon after 1 p.m.
that day a flying-boat (believed to be the same) appeared over Nauru, also garrisoned by Australians,17 circled the island at about 6,000 feet, and disappeared in a north-easterly direction about half an hour later.
Because of the difference between Malayan and Greenwich Mean Time (7 hours 30 minutes as from 1st September 1941), it was during the evening of 7th December in England that the British Government received a report that the Japanese were attempting to land at Kota Bharu. When the Australian War Cabinet met on 8th December, a British Admiralty message had been received indicating that hostilities against Japan should be commenced. It agreed that the situation should be accepted as involving a state of war against Japan. As mentioned, the Australian Government had agreed to hold forces ready at Darwin to reinforce Timor and Ambon. In Cabinet Mr Curtin stated that in response to a request by the Netherlands East Indies authorities he had approved of arrangements being made immediately for dispatch of AIF troops to Koepang in Timor. These arrangements were confirmed. The situation generally was surveyed and various consequent decisions were made. Approval by the Minister for the Army for the dispatch of AIF troops to Ambon was given the same day. Australia and New Zealand formally declared themselves at war with Japan.
The Japanese Ambassador to Washington and Mr Kurusu were in the waiting room of the American Secretary of State’s office, about to present a long reply to America’s note of 26th November, when Mr Cordell Hull received a telephone call from President Roosevelt. The President said he had received an unconfirmed report that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour. Hull already had received a series of decoded intercepts of the Japanese reply. This contained no declaration of war or even notice that diplomatic relations had ended, but said that owing to the attitude of the American Government Japan considered it impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations. As the Pearl Harbour report had not been confirmed, Hull decided to see the Japanese envoys. When they faced him, he was aware that Pearl Harbour had been attacked more than an hour before. After making a pretence of reading the note they presented, Hull eased his feelings.
“I must say,” he declared, “that in all my conversations with you during the last nine months I have never uttered one word of untruth. This is borne out absolutely by the record. In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions ... on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”
At this, Nomura “seemed about to say something. His face was impassive, but I felt he was under great emotional strain. I stopped him with a motion of my hand. I nodded towards the door. The Ambassadors turned without a word and walked out, their heads down.”18
A declaration of war by Japan on America followed; and next day Congress reciprocated.
Japan’s plan of attack was imposing in its breadth and daring. To sustain the huge task she had undertaken would make big demands on Japan’s forces and economy; but it might be expected to place a still heavier strain upon the deficient defensive strength within the threatened area. Like a burglar seeking to rob a householder made complacent by prosperity, Japan could hope to find her victims asleep, or as nearly so as might be in a military sense. In this, largely, she was not disappointed. Indeed, the most ambitious of her leaders could hardly have hoped for such success as the first day’s raids yielded. Not only was surprise achieved in the actual appearance of her forces at several widely-spaced points of attack, but also in the skill of Japanese airmen and the performance of their craft. Mentally as well as materially, the defenders were staggered by the onslaught.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the attack on Pearl Harbour was that it was a surprise. This great naval and air base, like the Singapore Base, represented an enormous investment of public funds. Unlike the Singapore Base, it was occupied by a powerful fleet and air force, and though installation of a radar system had been delayed, mobile sets were in operation for a few hours a day.19 The likelihood of a Japanese surprise attack on the base had been accepted; vital code messages from Tokyo were being intercepted, decoded, and perused; and a series of other indications of the rapid approach of zero hour in relations between Japan and the United States had been noted.20 On the other hand there had been during late 1941 a persistent conviction in Washington, as in Malaya, that Japan would attack the Soviet Union’s Maritime Provinces rather than committing herself elsewhere.
However, in concentrating their attacks upon warships and aircraft, the Japanese had neglected Pearl Harbour’s permanent installations, such as workshops, power plant, and the main fuel storage depot. Thus ships could be, and were, raised; damage repaired; and ships and aircraft reinforced. Japan had disposed of for some while, but not permanently,
the danger of serious interference by the United States Pacific Fleet. As against this temporary advantage, she had united in opposition to her the people of a power with resources far greater than her own.
Japan’s formal decision to go to war against Great Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands on the ground that negotiations with the United States had failed, had been made at an Imperial Conference on 1st December. It was decided that notification to the United States should precede the raid on Pearl Harbour by such a brief period that it would not interfere with the advantage to be gained by surprise.21
An operation order issued by Admiral Yamamoto to the Japanese Combined Fleet on 1st November had announced that Japan intended “to drive Britain and America from Greater East Asia, and to hasten the settlement of the China Incident. ... The vast and far-reaching fundamental principle, the goal of our nation – Hakko Ichiu – will be demonstrated to the world.”
Twenty submarines, comprising an Advance Striking Force, had approached Pearl Harbour independently of the Carrier Force. Clamped to each of five of them was a midget submarine, 41 to 45 feet long, fitted with two small torpedoes, and with two-man crews whose task meant almost certain death to them. The Carrier Force, after a long and hazardous voyage in stormy seas, reached a point 275 miles north of Pearl Harbour about 6 a.m. on the day of the attack, and launched 360 of its aircraft in the series of attacks. Sunday had been deliberately chosen because it was customary for the fleet to be at base over the week-ends. Church bells were ringing as the bombs began to fall. Total Japanese losses in the operation, additional to the five midgets, were 29 aircraft.
Midway was shelled by another force, known as the Midway Neutralisation Unit; Wake Island was bombed by planes from Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands; and Guam by planes from Saipan in the Mariana Islands. Missions against Nauru and Ocean Islands were flown by four-engined flying-boats based, until 13th December, at Majuro (Marshall Islands). Later reference will be made to the forces engaged against Hong Kong. In the Philippines the first-day attacks were mainly by large groups of army and navy aircraft from Formosa, though the attack on the seaplane tender at Davao in Mindanao was by dive bombers from a carrier based on Palau, about 400 miles north of New Guinea. In the main attacks the Japanese, intent on neutralising MacArthur’s air power, succeeded far beyond their hopes. They had feared that delay, caused by bad weather, in taking off from Formosa would result in stiff opposition.
The XXV Japanese Army employed against Malaya22 was commanded by Lieut-General Tomoyuki Yamashita,23 who had headed the Japanese military mission sent to Germany and Italy to study their methods of waging war. Exclusive of its 56th Division, which would stand by in Japan, it comprised 125,400 men (of whom nearly 37,000 were line of communication troops), 7,320 vehicles and 11,516 horses.24 Considerable difficulty had been experienced in getting the widely-dispersed units together in time for the task ahead. The plan for Malaya was that, with sea and air cooperation, the main strength would land near the frontier of Thailand and Malaya and advance to the Sungei Perak, on Malaya’s west coast, in fifteen days. Meanwhile strength would be built up for advance to the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, opposite Singapore Island. Assault on the island, and on Singapore, was to follow. Landings on the south-east coast of the peninsula, in the Kuantan-Mersing area, to assist the main drive were contemplated.
The 5th Japanese Division was to make the main landings at Singora and Patani in Thailand near Malaya. The main body of the 9th Infantry Brigade (11th and 41st Regiments) would then make for west Malaya along the Singora–Alor Star road, and the 42nd Regiment (of the 21st Brigade) along the Patani–Kroh road. The 56th Regiment detached from the 18th Division would make a subsidiary landing at Kota Bharu, and push southward along the Malayan east coast. Additional flights of the
5th Division, including its fourth infantry regiment, would reach Singora during December. The 56th Division would be used for the Kuantan–Mersing landings if they became necessary.25
The 143rd Regiment of the 55th Division (XV Japanese Army) would land, concurrently with the first landings in Malaya, north of Singora, to protect the rear of the 5th Division, secure the railway between Bangkok and the frontier with Malaya, and then capture Victoria Point, on the air reinforcement route to Malaya. The Guards Division, lent to XV Army for the early stages of its invasion of Thailand generally and its advance into Burma, would send a small detachment by sea to Bangkok, capital of Thailand, on the morning of 8th December. There it would await arrival of the rest of the division by land from Indo-China. The Guards would then revert to XXV Army, and, moving overland, follow up the advance of 5th Division. The 18th Division, less the 56th Regiment which would have landed at Kota Bharu and the 124th Regiment which would have invaded British Borneo, would land at Singora and Patani early in January, move into northern Malaya and Penang, and prepare to invade Sumatra.
It was assumed that Singapore could not be captured before early in March. In convoying the attacking land forces, a feint would be made towards Bangkok to disguise the intention of the move. Japanese naval authorities had opposed landing troops without first mastering the sea approaches, but Yamashita, who was prepared to rely largely on air protection, got his way. To overcome the problem presented by British airfields being close to or within range of the landing points, and the fact that Japanese planes operating from the mainland of Indo-China would be able to operate over these points for only a short while, an airfield was hurriedly constructed on Phuquok Island, off the French Indo-China coast, and within 300 miles of Kota Bharu. Even so, single-seater fighters would find it difficult to make the long hop, perhaps engage enemy aircraft, and get back before their tanks ran dry. It was therefore decided that as soon as possible the planes must be enabled to land and refuel in Thailand near Malaya. In the execution of the plan, the 3rd Air Group (612 planes) would protect the convoy and cooperate with naval air units (187 planes) at the landings; then seek to destroy air opposition, and cooperate with the ground forces in their advance into Malaya.
Two slow transports left Samah Harbour, Hainan Island, on 3rd December, and others early on the 4th, under protection of the Southern Force, and carrying the first flight of the 5th Division. The 143rd Regiment sailed from Saigon during the afternoon of 5th December. It had been arranged that the two convoys should hug the coast to avoid detection or conceal as long as possible their real destination; then meet at a point (9°25′ north, 102°20′ east) in the Gulf of Siam on the morning of the 7th. They would then speed direct to their objectives.
After the convoy carrying the 5th Division had rounded Cape Cambodia, an aircraft identified by the Japanese as a Catalina dived at the fighter escort, was attacked, and disintegrated. “If this enemy seaplane had observed our convoy and reported it by wireless, our Malaya landing operation might have been a dismal failure,” related Yamashita’s Chief of Staff, General Susuki, although as has been shown Japanese ships in convoy had in fact been sighted earlier. Fears that the expedition would be frustrated, or at least encounter serious opposition by British sea and air forces, persisted as the Japanese reached their rendezvous. A force of some 5,500 men, commanded by Major-General Takumi, made for Kota Bharu in three ships with a naval escort, and cast anchor at 10.20 p.m. High seas then running caused difficulty in launching the landing craft and maintaining their direction. Confusion occurred about the prearranged landing places, and this was heightened by the British gunfire once the invading force was sighted. Under air attack, one transport, the Awagisan Maru, caught fire and was abandoned; a fire started on another but was put out; and the third was damaged. The units which first landed lost heavily under fierce fire as they sought to penetrate the wire on the beaches. Successive waves of troops “all swarmed together in the one place” according to a Japanese account, and units became mixed with each other. By dawn, however, the survivors were on their way inland.
Rough seas also hampered landing operations at Singora and Patani, and many landing craft overturned, sank, or ran aground, but by 3.30 a.m. the first landings had been made. Although some resistance was offered by Thai military and police forces at Singora, it had been overcome by about midday.26 The troops in the first flights landed numbered approximately 13,500 at Singora, and at Patani 7,550. The total number of troops landed at these places and at Kota Bharu was about 26,640, of whom 17,230 were combat troops. Yamashita, who had travelled on one of the transports, was among the first to land at Singora.
The United States was aghast at the news of the raid on Pearl Harbour in particular; but there was now no doubt about her being in the war against Japan, and that meant that she would be at war with Germany and Italy also. The raid, sneak attack though it was, had been, technically, a brilliant achievement; but there had been shoddy thinking behind Japan’s grand strategy. The United States, with the enormous resources she could mobilise, could quickly recover from the set-back she had received. She was in the war not in consequence of British pleading or intrigue, not of some abstract principle, not merely of a long-range view of her own
interests; she was in the war in response to a smack on the nose.27 Britain’s Prime Minister, after the long strain of not knowing what the outcome of the Battle for Britain would be, and what might result if Japan were to join actively with Britain’s enemies, went to bed that night and “slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”. He was to write:
All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force. The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and now the United States, bound together with every scrap of their life and strength, were, according to my lights, twice or even thrice the force of their antagonists. ... I expected terrible forfeits in the East; but all this would be merely a passing phase ... there was no more doubt about the end.28
In his first waking moments next day, Mr Churchill decided that he would again visit the President of the United States, as quickly as possible. He thereupon sought and obtained from King and Cabinet their assent to his proposal.29
Swallowing the fact that Japan had ignored German urgings to attack the Soviet Union, and instead had enlisted the United States for active service against the Axis, Hitler presented Japan’s Ambassador to Berlin with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the German Eagle in gold. They discussed Pearl Harbour. “You gave the right declaration of war,” he said.30