Chapter 8: Invasion of Malaya
By dawn on 8th December, seventeen sorties had been carried out by Hudsons of No. 1 Squadron RAAF against Japanese ships and troops engaged in the landing at Kota Bharu. Continuous heavy rains had created conditions in which the Kota Bharu airfield would normally have been regarded as unserviceable, and a thick blanket of cloud hung low over the sea. However, ground staff and crews sprang to their tasks, and low-level attacks were made on enemy vessels, amid intense anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese. It appeared, when results were reviewed, that one transport had been blown up, one containing tanks and artillery had been set ablaze, and one had disappeared after receiving direct hits.1 Of the squadron’s ten serviceable Hudsons, two, with their crews, had been lost. The captain of one of the latter was Flight Lieutenant Ramshaw,2 who had first located the Japanese convoys. Most of the other Hudsons were damaged, but were made again serviceable after daylight. They, and other aircraft mustered for early daylight operations, then attacked landing craft and Japanese troops ashore.
Air Force headquarters planned an all-out effort against Japanese transports at Kota Bharu at dawn on the 8th, but when the squadrons arrived over the area the ships had withdrawn. At 7.30 a.m. Japanese bombers and fighters began delivering heavy attacks on Malaya’s northern airfields, using light bombs against planes and personnel, and avoiding serious damage to airfield surfaces. They were notably successful in arriving over the airfields while defending craft were descending or taking off. The performance of the enemy aircraft, and the accuracy of the bombing, came “as an unpleasant surprise”3 to Malaya Command, despite Intelligence reports of the performance of the Zero fighters which had been sent to the Far Eastern Air Command headquarters.4 It appeared that the fighters had been given increased range by auxiliary fuel tanks, torpedo-shaped and made of aluminium, which could be jettisoned when their contents had been used. Eight attacks were made in ten hours on Kota Bharu airfield, which was frequently strafed by low-flying aircraft.
On the beaches where the Japanese had landed, the ground forces received little air support, and it soon became apparent that the Japanese had complete mastery of the air in the vicinity. Although the Dogras stuck gamely to their task, a gap made by the enemy remained open.
Brigadier Key,5 commanding the 8th Indian Brigade, decided that if the airfield were to be held this gap must be closed before dusk; but the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles and the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment, ordered forward for the purpose, were delayed by numerous rivers and creeks, and by the nature of the country generally. In the confused situation which resulted, Key received during the afternoon a report that the airfield was already being attacked from the ground.
This report was a repeat of one already dispatched to Air Headquarters at Singapore during the temporary absence from his headquarters of the station commander, Wing Commander Noble.6 On his return, Noble was dismayed to find the station headquarters ablaze and the staff preparing to leave, as Singapore had acted on the report and ordered a withdrawal. Having ordered his staff to remain, Noble joined Key in a reconnaissance of the airfield and discovered from the Indians that the Japanese were not yet about the perimeter defences.
In the meantime the Australians of No. 1 Squadron were working on their Hudsons under periodic air attack. During the afternoon, they detected what they thought to be aimed small-arms fire in their vicinity; a supposition which their commanding officer verified. Faced with the headquarters order to withdraw, Noble began an orderly retreat after Key had agreed to it. When the last of the few serviceable Hudsons had flown off at dusk, the Australian ground staff joined the station headquarters staff and left by truck for Krai, where they were to entrain for Singapore.
In view of this occurrence, the reappearance of Japanese transports off the beach soon after dark, and the prospect of his forward troops becoming isolated and overwhelmed, Key, with higher approval, ordered withdrawal during the night to a position north of Kota Bharu township – a course which he found had been decided upon also by Malaya Command. By midnight, the troops and guns on the airfield had been evacuated, and it was in enemy hands. The purpose for which troops had been stationed in Kelantan had thus disappeared in twenty-four hours.
The fact that the main Japanese landings were at Singora and Patani had been revealed in the course of dawn air reconnaissance on 8th December; and later in the morning many Japanese planes, mostly fighters, were found to be using the Singora airfield. The Japanese had forestalled Operation MATADOR, for which the troops of the 11th Indian Division had been standing by at half an hour’s notice in drenching rain since the afternoon of 6th December. As the division was disposed, with three battalions beside trains, two in camp with their trucks loaded, and one forward near the frontier, they were ill prepared for any other move. There they remained, despite what was happening, and endeavours to obtain authority from Malaya Command for action, until about 1.30 p.m. Then, when vital hours had been lost, orders which had been issued at
11.30 a.m. reached III Indian Corps headquarters requiring it to adopt the alternative plan and occupy selected defensive positions on the Singora and Kroh-Patani roads, and to dispatch a mobile column towards Singora, in an endeavour to obstruct the Japanese advance. The 28th Indian Brigade was allotted to the 11th Division as a reserve force, and entrained at Ipoh at 5 p.m. That such a restricted manoeuvre was all that remained of the dynamic plan to move into Thailand was naturally dispiriting to the troops and their commanders. Even this might be forestalled by the enemy; and the men would be tired and confused before they could give battle.
The main defensive line now to be held, running from east of Jitra to the west coast, was in the State of Kedah, astride the main road and railway from Malaya into Thailand. Its right flank rested on jungle-clad hills which had been considered by the planners of Malaya’s defence system to be militarily impenetrable. Selected for the protection of the airfield at Alor Star and others south of it, the line was the only so-called prepared position of such extent on the Malayan mainland. Its system of communication trenches and line signal communications was, however, incomplete; it had not been wired, and anti-tank mines had not been laid.
In fulfilment of orders, a force known as “Krohcol” (Lieut-Colonel Moorhead7) based on Kroh, and comprising in the first instance 3/16th Punjab, was sent to seize a position known as “The Ledge”, thirty miles beyond the frontier. Another force, “Laycol” (Brigadier Lay8) comprising two companies and the carrier platoon of 1/8th Punjab, with anti-tank guns and engineers, advanced along the Changlun road towards Ban Sadao, eight miles beyond the frontier on the way to Singora. An armoured train, manned by a platoon of the 2/16th Punjab and some engineers, entered Thailand from Padang Besar, in Perlis, northernmost state of Malaya.
The vanguard of Krohcol crossed the frontier in mid-afternoon, and was immediately fired upon by Thai armed constabulary. As a result, it had cleared only three miles of the road past the frontier when it halted for the night. Laycol reached Ban Sadao at dusk, and took up a position north of the village. There, about 9 p.m., a Japanese column of thirty-five vehicles, preceded by tanks, and with headlights blazing, bore down on it. Two of the tanks were knocked out by gun and rifle fire, but the Japanese infantry, who had dismounted at the beginning of the action, were soon engaged in an enveloping movement. Laycol thereupon withdrew, destroying two bridges and partly destroying a third on its way. The train party reached Khlaung Ngae, in Thailand, blew a 200-foot railway bridge on the line to Singora, and also withdrew.
By the end of the day, the initiative was clearly in the hands of the Japanese. Having established themselves in Thailand,9 near the border, they had aircraft within easy striking distance of the whole of northern Malaya; others, making a total of about 530, were operating from southern Indo-China.
Putting this advantage to immediate use, the Japanese were already hammering at their opponents’ offensive and defensive air power. This caused heavy losses, dislocation, and confusion, and from the outset established ascendancy in the air. On land, they had been able to marshal their forces practically without hindrance, and to commence penetration of Malaya. The air forces in Malaya had been unable to inflict upon the enemy the crippling initial blow which it was their role to deliver, and the whole purpose underlying the disposition of ground and air forces in northern Malaya was endangered if not defeated. Of 110 operational aircraft based in the area at the beginning of the day, only 50 remained fit for use.10 Although he was at the time unaware of the full extent of either the enemy air strength or the British losses, Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham telegraphed to the British Chiefs of Staff urging that reinforcements, especially of long-range bombers and night fighters, be sent with all speed.11
An Order of the Day by Brooke-Popham, prepared long before to facilitate its distribution and translation into several languages, showed how ludicrously wide of the mark had been the official thinking or publicity policy from which it had sprung. “We are ready,” it was asserted. “We have had plenty of warning and our preparations are made and tested. ... Our defences are strong and our weapons efficient. ... We see before us a Japan drained for years by the exhausting claims of her wanton onslaught on China. ...”
Could the real situation be retrieved or modified by naval action? To Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, when it appeared likely that Malaya’s land and air forces would be hard pressed as a result of the Japanese landings, it seemed “inacceptable to retain a powerful naval force at Singapore in a state of inaction”.12 He therefore decided that, with fighter protection
if possible, or by avoiding detection during approach, he would endeavour to attack at dawn on the 10th the vessels of the Japanese invasion force. Known as “Z” Force, Prince of Wales, Repulse, and an escort of four destroyers which included the Australian vessel Vampire, sailed from Singapore Base at 5.35 p.m. on 8th December. Their course was eastward of the Anambas Islands, to avoid possible enemy mines near the coast; and then northward.
On the Kota Bharu front, in darkness and heavy rain, Brigadier Key’s troops were with difficulty withdrawn from the forward positions. Contact with some units was lost. Others had to cross a flooded river over which the bridge they hoped to use had collapsed. Some of the men were swept away in the attempt; others were left behind. The brigade was in its new position, however, by dawn on 9th December, with the 4/19th Hyderabad, brought from command reserve, in a supporting position. A dawn attack by the enemy on the right flank of the position was accompanied by heavy fire, and further infiltration followed. European women and children, the Sultan of Kelantan and his household, and others had been evacuated from the town. Having decided that the position was unsuitable for defence, Key ordered a general withdrawal southward. The brigade accordingly pulled back at night through the Hyderabads to Chondong, on the way to the road and rail junction at Kuala Krai, and by the 11th December was occupying positions at Machang. The withdrawal had been accompanied by demolitions along the road and railway, and at the Gong Kedah and Machang airfields, whence airmen and aircraft had been withdrawn.
Meanwhile General Barstow (commanding the 9th Indian Division, of which the 8th Brigade was a part) had submitted to General Heath (commanding the HI Corps) a proposal that the brigade be withdrawn to Kuala Lipis, midway between east and west Malaya, where the railway joined a road running westward across the central range of mountains. In doing so he pointed to the danger of continued reliance upon a single track of railway from Kuala Krai southward as the brigade’s line of communication. The purpose of maintaining troops in Kelantan having now disappeared, they might be lost if they remained there, he declared. On the other hand they might be more useful in the west, where the main threat seemed likely to develop. Heath agreed, but, as General Percival demurred, Heath decided to go to Singapore on the night of 11th–12th December to impress upon him this point of view. Such was the scarcity of aircraft for army communication purposes that he had to travel from his headquarters by train.
The Japanese air offensive had been so successful that within forty-eight hours of the landing at Kota Bharu the equivalent of three bomber squadrons and one fighter squadron had been lost in the air or on the ground. So that the remaining craft should be exposed as little as possible to attack on the ground, squadrons had been withdrawn from Alor Star and Sungei Patani airfields in the north-west, and Kuantan on the east coast, as well as from those in Kelantan. Despite the obvious desirability
of retaliating against Japanese aircraft concentrations across the border, it was decided to abandon bomber attacks by day, on the ground that the necessary fighter escort craft could not be spared from the primary task of protecting the Singapore Base and reinforcement convoys. Such was the effect on the troops forward of Alor Star of the smoke and the sound of explosions resulting from demolitions at that airfield on 10th December – emphasising as they did the reverses suffered at this early stage of the struggle – that orders were given that petrol and oil were to be allowed to run to waste rather than be fired when airfields had to be evacuated. Demolitions by explosives were to be undertaken only by the army. It was thus evident that morale among the troops, a high proportion of whom were entering upon their first experience of war in circumstances suggesting collapse rather than dynamic defence, was already a matter of concern.
Air Headquarters had been asked by Admiral Phillips to make reconnaissances to the northward on behalf of his force, and to give fighter protection off Singora. However, for reasons ascribed principally to the airfield situation and the short range of Buffalo fighters, only a reconnaissance for 100 miles to the north-westward of the force from 8 a.m. on 9th December was definitely promised before the force sailed. In a signal to Phillips at sea late during the night of 8th–9th December, the hope was expressed that a dawn reconnaissance of the coast near Singora could be carried out on the 10th,13 but it was stated that provision of fighter protection was impossible. The Admiral nevertheless decided to persist in his mission, provided his ships were not sighted by enemy aircraft during 9th December.
Frequent rainstorms and low cloud favoured concealment of the force, but on the afternoon of the 9th Japanese naval aircraft were sighted from Prince of Wales. Phillips thereupon decided that as the prospect of catching the Japanese off their guard had been lost, the risk of continuing towards Singora was no longer justified. At 8.40 p.m., therefore, the force turned south-south-east.
Yet when a signal was received, near midnight, that the Japanese were reported to be landing at Kuantan, not far off the return track of “Z” Force, the Admiral again decided to seek the enemy; but Kuantan was found to be all quiet. Then, before resuming the homeward course, it was decided to investigate vessels, seen in the distance before reaching Kuantan, which it was thought might be landing-craft. The destroyer Tenedos, which at 6.35 p.m. on 9th December had been ordered to return to Singapore as her fuel was running low, reported soon after 10 a.m. from a position 140 miles to the south-east that she was being bombed by enemy planes. Phillips thereupon ordered his force to assume first-degree readiness.
Meanwhile, as was revealed in post-war interrogations, a submarine, and apparently not aircraft, had reported the whereabouts of “Z” Force
on the afternoon of 9th December. When the report reached Saigon, long-range planes were about to take off for a further attack on Singapore. Torpedoes were quickly included in their loads, and they were assigned to attack the warships, but failed to find them. Another submarine reported “Z” Force early on 10th December as it was steaming south. While it was still dark reconnaissance planes were dispatched from Saigon to search the area where “Z” Force had been reported, followed just before dawn by a striking force of 27 bombers and 61 torpedo planes, from 21st and 22nd Air Flotillas. The aircraft searched without success until they were near Singapore, then turned north. It seemed as though they would have to report a third failure. Then, about 11 a.m., as they flew despondently back, one of the reconnaissance aircraft sighted the Prince of Wales and Repulse and directed the striking force to its quarry.
Soon after this opportunity presented itself to the enemy, high-level bombers attacked, scoring a direct hit on Repulse. Later, torpedo bombers attacked. The Prince of Wales was hit by two torpedoes and her speed reduced to 15 knots; her steering gear failed, and she became an easy target. Using bombs and torpedoes, the airmen continued their onslaught until nearly 1 p.m. Repulse sank at 12.33 p.m. and Prince of Wales at 1.15 p.m. Although for some unexplained reason Prince of Wales, as the flagship, did not break wireless silence or order Repulse to do so as soon as the attack occurred, Repulse sent a signal about an hour later. When this reached the Operations Room at Air Headquarters, eleven Buffaloes of No. 453 Squadron RAAF were sent from Sembawang. As they arrived over the scene of the battle they saw Prince of Wales go down, and hundreds of men struggling in water heavily covered with oil. The men were being picked up by the destroyers, unmolested by the enemy. They had fought with superb coolness and courage, and of their conduct in the water the officer commanding the Buffaloes14 recorded:
I have seen a show of spirit in this war over Dunkirk during the “Battle of Britain”, and in the London night raids, but never before have I seen anything comparable with what I saw yesterday. ... After an hour, lack of petrol forced me to leave, but during that hour I had seen many men in dire danger waving, cheering, and joking as if they were holiday-makers at Brighton waving at a low-flying craft. It shook me, for here was something above human nature.15
Once again, the Japanese had demonstrated unexpected efficiency in their air arm. It was noticed that the torpedoes, dropped from a height of between three and four hundred feet, appeared to run perfectly straight from the point where they were dropped. Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach16 went down with the flagship, 845 highly trained naval personnel were lost, and the British Navy was shorn of two capital ships dispatched, with great misgivings on the part of the Admiralty, to Far Eastern waters.
With them disappeared all prospect that the Japanese landings in Malaya might be seriously impeded by British naval action. The value of Singapore naval base at this stage, and all that it meant to Australian security and British interests generally in East Asia, had virtually vanished. The general effect of the disaster, with other reverses suffered on land and in the air, was grave in the extreme.
The news reached Mr Churchill in what was the morning of 10th December in England, while he was opening his dispatch boxes before rising for the day. “In all the war,” he was to write, “I never received a more direct shock. ... As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbour. ... Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”17
In a broadcast during the evening, Mr Duff Cooper, who that day had been appointed Resident Minister for Far Eastern Affairs, sought to mitigate the effect upon public confidence of the loss of the ships, implying as it did that with the war less than three days old, Japan had gained command of the seas around East Asia. His terms of reference required that he should relieve the Commanders-in-Chief as far as possible of responsibilities outside their normal sphere; give them broad political guidance; and settle on the spot political questions which might otherwise have to be referred to London. He was to be assisted by a War Council, comprising himself as chairman, the Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner for Malaya (Sir Shenton Thomas), the Commander-in-Chief Far East (Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham), the Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet (Vice-Admiral Layton18), the General Officer Commanding Malaya (Lieut-General Percival), the Air Officer Commanding Far East (Air Vice-Marshal Pulford), and Mr Bowden representing Australia. General Bennett, as commander of the Australian force in Malaya, was at liberty to attend the meetings when he was able to do so.19 The Council held its first meeting also during the evening.
Reviewing the Far Eastern situation on 11th December, the British Chiefs of Staff saw better prospects of sending land and air reinforcements eastward than might have been expected. Contrary to gloomy forecasts of what might happen to the Soviet Union when she was attacked by Germany, Russian victories had countered the danger of a German thrust through the Caucasus to Iraq and Persia, and the situation in the Middle East had been improved by General Auchinleck’s success in Libya. The Chiefs of Staff decided that the 18th British Division and some anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments, on their way to the Middle East, should be placed at the disposal of General Wavell, then Commander-in-Chief,
India. All aircraft which could be spared from Europe would be sent to India, which would become the base for all reinforcements of the Far East. It was decided also that command of Burma would be transferred from Brooke-Popham, now overloaded with responsibility, to Wavell.
Little consolation could, however, be offered to Admiral Layton in response to a request by him for additional naval vessels and aircraft. He was informed on 17th December that one of four old “R” class battleships was being sent to the Far East, and the Chiefs of Staff hoped eventually – perhaps by April 1942 – to reconstitute the Eastern Fleet at a strength of five modern capital ships, with the four “R” class battleships (mentioned above) and three or four aircraft carriers.
The threat to the west of Malaya had speedily developed after the Japanese landings in Thailand. Thai opposition to Krohcol ceased suddenly on the afternoon of 9th December, and the column spent the night at Betong. Next day it became apparent that by means of a forced march the Japanese had forestalled the column in its objective, and were seeking to get behind the 11th Division by thrusting along the road through Kroh. Transported by two sections of the 2/3rd Australian Reserve Motor Transport Company,20 the 3/16th Punjab had got to within about five miles of The Ledge when the leading company, advancing afoot, came under fire. As in the case of Laycol, Japanese tanks then appeared, followed by truck-loads of troops, and then more tanks. One of the Punjab companies was trapped, and another temporarily cut off; but despite the advantage which the tanks gave the enemy, the Indians fought on. The 5/14th Punjab, less a company, and the 10th Mountain Battery, arrived meanwhile at Kroh and took up a supporting position north of Betong.
In north-western Malaya, on rain-sodden soil, forces were hurriedly disposed along and in advance of the Jitra line. The 15th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Garrett21) was assigned to the right sector, extending for 6,000 yards to and including a road branching through Kodiang to the railway line at Kangar, in Perlis; and the 6th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Lay) to the left, an 18,000-yards stretch from this road to the coast. The 28th Brigade (Brigadier Carpendale22) was in reserve. Support was to be given by two batteries of the 155th Field Regiment, a battery of the 22nd
Mountain Regiment, three batteries of the 80th Anti-Tank Regiment, the 137th Field Regiment and an anti-aircraft battery due to arrive later.
The right of the 15th Brigade’s sector was allotted to the 2/9th Jat, in boggy soil covered by padi (rice crop), bisected by a creek with a jungle growth extending up to 50 yards from each bank. Company and platoon posts were so widely dispersed that they gave the young and untried troops a feeling of isolation. On the left of the Jats, and separated from them by 2,000 yards of swamp and trees, were the 1/Leicester, whose position was the stronger of the two.
In the 6th Brigade sector the 2/East Surrey occupied a position from the Kodiang road to the railway, and the 2/16th Punjab the remaining distance to the coast. Between one Punjab company astride the railway and one adjoining the coast were several miles of canal, patrolled by parties from the remainder of the battalion, which was to come into battalion reserve on completion of its covering role. Outposts were placed on both roads running through Jitra to the north and north-west. A detachment of the 1/14th Punjab (the 15th Brigade reserve battalion) was at Asun, on the main (Singora) road, three miles north of the main position. On the Kodiang road, at Kanjong Iman, were two companies of the 1/8th Punjab (the 6th Brigade reserve) and a mountain battery detachment. Between the two outposts were four miles of thick jungle. In front of them were two delaying and demolition detachments.
Confronted by a Japanese advance-guard south of the frontier early on 10th December, one of the detachments, from 1/14th Punjab, gradually withdrew, seeking to delay the enemy as it did so. The divisional commander, General Murray-Lyon, thereupon told Garrett that to gain time for preparation of the main positions he must hold the approach to Jitra till 12th December, and assigned the 2/1st Gurkha Rifles (less a company) from the 28th Brigade to assist him. Garrett sent the Gurkhas to Asun, and concentrated the 1/14th Punjab forward round Changlun. The foremost troops on the Kodiang road were withdrawn to Kodiang, carrying out demolitions along the railway as they went. This move amounted to evacuation of the British forces from Perlis, and was the occasion of a protest by its Sultan that it constituted a violation of Britain’s treaty with the State. Other moves were made that day to strengthen and consolidate the defensive forces.
During the morning of 11th December, the Japanese pressed the 1/14th Punjabs where they had concentrated at Changlun. Two anti-tank guns were lost, and a further withdrawal was ordered to a position about two miles north of Asun. This operation was in progress when, about 4.30 p.m., in heavy rain, Japanese medium tanks, followed by motorised infantry, attacked the rear of the column. Most of the Indians had never before seen a tank, and they presented to them a strange and terrifying apparition in the absence of such a weapon on the British side. Taking advantage of the surprise and confusion, the Japanese broke through, overran two anti-tank and two mountain guns, and approached the bridge in front of the Asun outpost position held by the 2/1st Gurkha. The
bridge demolition charge failed to go off, but the leading tank was stopped by fire from anti-tank rifles, and blocked the road, thus halting the tank advance. Japanese infantry, however, attacked the Gurkhas in front and from the flanks, cleared the road and allowed the tanks to resume their advance. They broke through the outpost position, overwhelmed most of the forward troops and isolated the battalion headquarters. Only small parties succeeded in fighting their way out. Others found their way back to the brigade next day.
By 8.30 p.m. the tanks had overrun a forward patrol of the 1/Leicesters, but once more the leading tanks were disabled, forming a temporary roadblock. However, they continued firing while the Leicesters hastily constructed a further obstacle of tree trunks, wire, and mines On the Kodiang road, withdrawal was continued on 11th December. A premature bridge demolition resulted in the trucks and carriers of the covering and
outpost troops, four mountain guns, and seven anti-tank guns being left behind although there had been no fighting.
In the absence of Garrett, who was missing, the 15th Brigade was placed at this stage under the command of Carpendale; the 2/2nd Gurkhas from the 28th Brigade were ordered to join the 15th Brigade, replacing the 1/14th Punjab as brigade reserve. The remaining battalion (the 2/9th Gurkhas) having been disposed for the protection of the Alor Star-Sungei Patani area, Murray-Lyon was left without a divisional reserve. On the main road before dawn on 12th December the Japanese succeeded in reaching the right forward company of the Leicesters. Exaggerated reports were received of enemy action against the Jats during the night. During three hours of sharp fighting, the Leicesters held the Japanese at bay in this area, but the enemy managed to penetrate some distance between the two battalions. Meanwhile Carpendale had asked for and obtained from Lay, without reference to Murray-Lyon, successive reinforcements. Thus when the divisional commander visited the 15th Brigade headquarters at 9 a.m. he found that four companies of the 6th Brigade had arrived in Carpendale’s sector.
As this situation developed on the Jitra front, the Japanese increased their pressure towards Kroh. Successive attacks in strength during the afternoon of 11th December were repulsed by the 3/16th Punjab in their position near The Ledge, but at the cost of heavy casualties, and outflanking movements were threatening the position. Colonel Moorhead, who correctly estimated that his force was opposed by three battalions (the Japanese 42nd Infantry Regiment) was given permission to retire if necessary. Consequently he arranged for the 3/16th to withdraw through the 5/14th Punjab early on 12th December. Murray-Lyon, concerned at the speed at which the threat to his line of communication from this quarter was developing, at what seemed to him to be a serious threat to his right flank at Jitra, and the fact that his reserve had been committed and his men were tired, now decided to ask for permission to withdraw his division from Jitra to Gurun, 30 miles southward.
Whatever General Heath might have done about this request, the fact is that as he was at the time on his way by train to Singapore to confer with Percival about the Kelantan front, Percival received it in his stead. As he saw the situation such a withdrawal would have a most demoralising effect upon both the troops and the civil population, and would also immediately prejudice chances of denying west coast airfields to the enemy. Accordingly, with the endorsement of the War Council, he ordered that pending further instructions the battle for north-west Malaya should be fought out in the Jitra position.
As it later transpired, the commander of the Japanese 9th Infantry Brigade (Major-General Kawamura), who had gone forward at noon on 12th December, ordered the 41st Infantry Regiment to take over the task of advance-guard, and at night to attack the eastern side of the main road near Jitra while 11th Infantry Regiment attacked the western side.
The advance-guard,23 however, had again attacked in battalion strength east of the road, before the orders could be put into effect. Under the impetus of the attack, the left forward company of the Jats was overwhelmed, and a wedge was driven between the Jat and the Leicester battalions. Soon the Japanese battalion was in contact with 2/2nd Gurkhas holding the south bank of the Sungei Bata east of the main road bridge, and was attacking the Leicesters’ right flank. At this stage the Japanese were repulsed by the carrier platoon (sixteen Bren guns in tracked vehicles) of the 2/East Surrey who had been sent from 6th Brigade, and the Gurkhas and Leicesters stood their ground. Parties which had been cut off in earlier fighting (among them Brigadier Garrett) were now coming in, and being used as reinforcements.
However, with the enemy now pressing on this flank, a gap of about one mile and a half which separated the Leicesters and the Gurkhas had become a serious danger. Deciding to concentrate upon defence of the vital bridge over the Bata, Murray-Lyon gave orders that the Leicesters should be moved to close the gap, and that the Jats should be withdrawn. In the event, these orders were misconstrued, and did not reach the right forward company of the Jats. Attacked while they were at a disadvantage in taking up new positions, the Leicesters lost heavily, and movement became badly confused. The situation in the Jat sector rapidly deteriorated, and soon troops and transport were streaming in disorder southward over the bridge. Exaggerated reports made the outlook seem even worse than it really was. Murray-Lyon ordered withdrawals from the 6th Brigade sector, sought to restore order, and at 7.30 p.m. again asked for permission to withdraw to Gurun.
Having now arrived at Singapore, Heath, after consultation with Percival, replied that the task of the 11th Division was to fight for the security of north Kedah; that he estimated it was opposed by one Japanese division at most; and that the best solution seemed to be to halt the advance of the enemy tanks on a good obstacle and dispose the forces of the 11th Division so as to obtain considerable depth, and scope for its artillery. Murray-Lyon was accordingly given discretionary power to withdraw. He was informed that Krohcol – far distant, and a distraction which had complicated his task – would cease to be under his control from midnight.
A difficult, disorganised, and costly withdrawal from Jitra followed. Murray-Lyon’s plan was that the division should move to Gurun in two stages, the first of which would be a position on the south bank of the Sungei Kedah, at Alor Star. No transport was available for the troops, so they had to march fifteen miles. The Bata bridge was destroyed at 2 a.m. on the 13th after a Japanese attempt to rush it had been frustrated by 2/2nd Gurkhas, and they withdrew through a rearguard of the 2/9th Gurkhas. However, owing to darkness, breakdowns of communications, and the generally tangled situation, withdrawal orders failed to reach several units, who were thus left stranded in their positions. Parties from
these units eventually made their way back as best they could by land, river, and sea. Some were ambushed and dispersed; some reached the coast and boarded native craft – sampans, tongkans, and junks – in which they paddled, sailed, and drifted to various points. Some Leicesters were shipwrecked, and others reached Penang, before rejoining their battalion at Ipoh. Two British officers, with a few Gurkhas and a Jat, landed in Sumatra, eleven days after the withdrawal had been ordered.
The 15th Brigade emerged from the battle barely 600 strong, and the 1/Leicester alone of its units had any carriers or mortars left. The 6th fared less badly, but had suffered serious losses in men and equipment. The 2/1st Gurkha had been reduced to one company, and other units of the 28th Brigade had suffered substantial casualties. Two commanding officers and twenty-five other officers had been killed or lost. Losses of guns, vehicles, and signalling equipment were heavy, and particularly serious in some instances owing to lack of sufficient reserves in Malaya from which to replace them. Many of the men who remained with or later rejoined the division were badly affected by their experiences and unfit for further action in the near future.
The fact, established in post-war investigation, that merely an advance-guard of the Japanese 5th Division had dislodged the 11th Division from Jitra, emphasises the advantage gained by the hitherto underrated enemy from his swift, dynamic development of the offensive in contrast to a hesitant deployment of the defending forces. Adequate air reconnaissance could have corrected the misleading impression which Murray-Lyon obtained of the immediate danger to the position. Even a few tanks, and adequate employment of anti-tank guns, might have countered the disastrous physical and psychological effect which the enemy tanks achieved. The long Jitra line had been manned at the expense of defence in depth on the road, which obviously, as they were advancing with tanks and mechanical transport, the Japanese would use. Their troops were thus able to exploit this weakness, and the inexperience in battle of most of those who opposed them. Having been poised for Operation MATADOR, cancelled only after fatal delay, the 11th Division was caught on the wrong foot in its hastily assumed static defence role while the Japanese imposed a war of movement. Being in Singapore when the unforeseen crisis occurred, Heath had not been able to exercise on the spot at Jitra his authority and perspective as corps commander in the direction of the battle. Premature use of reserve units robbed Murray-Lyon of means of influencing it at the critical stage.
The Japanese losses at Jitra, according to their records, were 27 killed and 83 wounded. Hastening from Patani towards Kroh was a Japanese column later revealed to be the Japanese 42nd Infantry Regiment with two companies of light tanks and a battery of field artillery. Both the Japanese mechanised columns, confined to the roads, would have been vulnerable to air attack had British aircraft been employed for the purpose; but almost in a matter of hours the Japanese had gained command of
the air. Now, too, they had command of the seas, enabling them to land troops at will in front, on the flanks, or to the rear of the British land forces; and of the three divisions deployed for the defence of the mainland, one had already been dislodged and largely disintegrated.
Although the facts were muffled in official communiqués, sufficient became known of the outcome of the first five days’ fighting to shock seriously the confidence of troops and civilians alike in the defences of Malaya. No prospect existed of substantial reinforcement from overseas until at least the following month. Consequently the policy adopted was to resist the enemy as fully as circumstances permitted, but as far as possible to avoid forces being cut off and destroyed in detail.
Fears which had been entertained that the Asian population of Singapore would panic under bombing attacks proved, however, to have little justification. “One of the most pleasing features of the past three days,” declared the Straits Times on 10th December, “has been the behaviour of Asiatic members of the passive defence services, particularly those engaged in ARP work. ... They have proved to be full of courage, completely amenable to discipline, and have shown pride in the uniforms they wear.”
As well as sending aircraft and naval vessels to Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies quickly mobilised forces to defend their own soil. Their Commander-in-Chief, General ter Poorten, had broadcast an exhortation in which he declared that it was better “to die standing rather than live on our knees”.