Chapter 14: Naked Island
The situation facing General Wavell, as he saw it at the beginning of February, was that Ambon Island had fallen to the enemy on 31st January; there was still a convoy at Balikpapan which might at any time move south on Macassar or Bandjermasin; and a third force, reported to be in the South China Sea, might be heading for Singapore or Sumatra. Rangoon was endangered by the enemy advance in Burma, and the British forces had been driven from the mainland of Malaya. In Wavell’s view much depended on the ability of the forces on Singapore Island to make a prolonged resistance. He considered that an active defence should enable the island to be held for some time – perhaps for some months – while the forces at his command were being strengthened.
Mr Churchill’s thoughts had turned, while he was concluding his talks in Washington, to the possibility of a withdrawal to Singapore Island such as had now occurred. “How many troops would be needed to defend this area?” he had asked in a message to General Wavell on 15th January. “What means are there of stopping landings [such] as were made in Hong Kong? What are defences and obstructions on landward side? Are you sure you can dominate with fortress cannon any attempt to plant siege batteries? Is everything being prepared, and what has been done about the useless mouths?”1
These questions, which but for his preoccupation with more immediate issues he might well have asked much earlier, brought a disconcerting reply. On what Wavell told him, Churchill reflected: “So there were no permanent fortifications covering the landward side of the naval base and the city! Moreover, even more astounding, no measures worth speaking of had been taken by any of the commanders since the war began, and more especially since the Japanese had established themselves in Indo-China, to construct field defences. They had not even mentioned the fact that they did not exist.” He added that he had put his faith in the Japanese “being compelled to use artillery on a very large scale in order to pulverise our strong points at Singapore, and in the almost prohibitive difficulties and long delays which would impede such an artillery concentration and the gathering of ammunition along Malayan communications. Now, suddenly, all this vanished away, and I saw before me the hideous spectacle of the almost naked island and of the wearied, if not exhausted, troops retreating upon it.”2
In a message to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in London on 19th January Churchill ordered that a plan be made at once to do the best
possible while the battle of Johore was going forward, and went into extensive detail of what he considered the plan should comprise. Among his stipulations were that:–
The entire male population should be employed upon constructing defence works. The most rigorous compulsion is to be used, up to the limit where picks and shovels are available.
Not only must the defence of Singapore Island be maintained by every means, but the whole island must be fought for until every single unit and every single strong point has been separately destroyed.
Finally, the city3 of Singapore must be converted into a citadel and defended to the death. No surrender can be contemplated.
Having thus outlined what an unfettered military governor might have done, but not a Percival fettered by all the complications of civil and military administration in Malaya and of relations with the London authorities, Churchill cabled to Wavell on the 20th:–
I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy, and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.4
Obviously Mr Churchill was in fine mental fighting trim; but he did not explain what the hundreds of thousands of unarmed and untrained civilian men, women, and children, few with protection from bombs and shells or with prospect of escape from Singapore Island, were to do while all this was going on. Meanwhile Wavell had dispatched to him a message, previously mentioned, which in effect emphasised how far the author of these ringing demands was from the realities at the scene of action. Schemes were being prepared for defence of the northern part of the island, said Wavell, but “I doubt whether island can be held for long once Johore is lost. ...”
On this, Mr Churchill swiftly readjusted his perspective, turning his thoughts to Burma and of the reinforcements then on the way to Singapore which might be diverted to Rangoon.
What (he asked in a message to his Chiefs of Staff on 21st January) is the value of Singapore (to the enemy] above the many harbours in the south-west Pacific if all naval and military demolitions are thoroughly carried out? On the other hand, the loss of Burma would be very grievous. It would cut us off from the Chinese, whose troops have been the most successful of those yet engaged against the Japanese. We may, by muddling things and hesitating to take an ugly decision, lose both Singapore and the Burma Road. Obviously the decision depends upon how long the defence of Singapore Island can be maintained. If it is only for a few weeks, it is certainly not worth losing all our reinforcements and aircraft. [Moreover] one must consider that the fall of Singapore, accompanied as it will be by the fall of Corregidor, will be a tremendous shock to India, which only the arrival of powerful forces and successful action on the Burma front can sustain.5
But both Mr Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff did hesitate to take the “ugly decision”; and while they did so the Australian War Cabinet received from Sir Earle Page warning that the issue was being weighed. On this, and reports of the situation at the time in Malaya, the War Cabinet decided at an emergency meeting on 23rd January that strong representations be made to Mr Churchill. Mr Curtin thereupon sent a cable in language hardly less forthright than Britain’s Prime Minister had been using about Singapore. In this he referred to the substance of the reports, and continued:–
After all the assurances we have been given the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal. Singapore is a central fortress in the system of the Empire and local defence ... we understood that it was to be made impregnable, and in any event it was to be capable of holding out for a prolonged period until the arrival of the main fleet.
Even in an emergency diversion of reinforcements should be to the Netherlands East Indies and not to Burma. Anything else would be deeply resented, and might force the Netherlands East Indies to make a separate peace.
On the faith of the proposed flow of reinforcements, we have acted and carried out our part of the bargain. We expect you not to frustrate the whole purpose by evacuation.
As against the concern which Mr Churchill had expressed about Burma and India, Mr Curtin went on to say that the heavy scale of the Japanese attack on Rabaul, and the probability of its occupation, if this had not already occurred (it was on the 23rd that Rabaul fell), presaged an early attack on Port Moresby.6 After making a wide sweep of problems and proposals for defence in the Pacific arising from the dangers with which Australia was faced, and an urgent plea for additional aircraft, he added:
The trend of the situation in Malaya and the attack on Rabaul are giving rise to a public feeling of grave uneasiness at Allied impotence to do anything to stem the Japanese advance. The Government, in realising its responsibility to prepare the public for the intense resisting of an aggressor, also has a duty and obligation to explain why it may not have been possible to prevent the enemy reaching our shores. It is therefore in duty bound to exhaust all the possibilities of the situation, the more so since the Australian people, having volunteered for service overseas in large numbers, find it difficult to understand why they must wait so long for an improvement in the situation when irreparable damage may have been done to their power to resist, the prestige of the Empire, and the solidarity of the Allied cause.
Evidently the Australian War Cabinet – and the Advisory War Council, which subsequently endorsed the cable – still hoped that Singapore could be held, at least for a period which would repay the cost in men and material of doing so; but to leave Australia’s 8th Division on the island, and to agree to the diversion to a front so distant from Australia as Burma of forces then going to its aid, might well have exposed the Australian Government to a tidal wave of protest.
Australia’s attitude offered Mr Churchill an opportunity to throw responsibility on Australia for the consequences of the subsequent landing on
the island of the remainder of the 18th British Division; but to do so would have been to abdicate the responsibility for conduct of Britain’s part in the war in both the east and the west to which he firmly held. “It is not true,” he wrote in retrospect, “to say that Mr Curtin’s message decided the issue. ... I was conscious ... of a hardening of opinion against the abandonment of this renowned key point in the Far East. The effect that would be produced all over the world, especially in the United States, of a British ‘scuttle’ while the Americans fought on so stubbornly at Corregidor was terrible to imagine.” Reflecting that there was no doubt what a purely military decision should have been, he related that “by general agreement or acquiescence, however, all efforts were made to reinforce Singapore and to sustain its defence. The 18th Division, part of which had already landed, went forward on its way.”7 In other words, the decision was made despite the irreconcilability of the political with the military factors; but Percival’s success or failure in defending the island would depend on the latter. The 18th Division would provide him with more men and weapons; but not with means of overcoming the Japanese supremacy at sea and in the air. Defending an island in these circumstances, divided from the enemy by only a strip of water narrower than that between England and the Isle of Wight, was an unenviable task. How unenviable it was may be gauged by imagining what might have happened had the German forces established themselves as close to the English shoreline in the Battle for Britain, and had there been no effective resistance by the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy.
While the fate of Singapore Island was being thus debated, increasingly powerful and numerous Japanese air attacks on the town and other parts of the island were contradicting the comforting assurances about its future to which its inhabitants had become accustomed. Six hundred civilians were killed during January, and 1,512 injured. Facing the realities of death and destruction, the civilians speedily responded in such ways as were open to them. An Australian war correspondent, Douglas Wilkie, wrote in a dispatch late in January:–
Europeans here have given up talking about “white” and “coloured” races – those Europeans are proud to be trying to help Asiatics show the world that Singapore can take it. ... Singapore Island’s three-quarter million Asiatics can take it. They have taken it with a smile when the Japanese dropped bombs indiscriminately on the outlying native suburbs and villages, killing innocent civilians whom Tokyo threatens nightly to “liberate”, blasting nothing but precious gimcrack furniture and savings of a coolie’s life-time. ...
The European ARP workers, who braved death alongside Singapore’s splendid body of Asiatic wardens, roof-spotters and fire-fighters, have learnt things not easily forgotten. European women shielding children in the same shelter with Chinese mothers, who have exchanged smiles of relief as a stick of bombs passed a few hundreds of yards away, have discovered many things which will not vanish when Singapore’s ordeal has passed.8
Perhaps the forecast overshot the mark, for feelings made incandescent by danger are apt to cool rapidly after it has passed; but the dispatch breathed the spirit of the time. Much more could have been asked of these people, and would have been given, had the opportunity and the leadership which the occasion demanded been provided. As it was, the cumbrous administrative machinery never reached the necessary momentum; and dynamic leadership was among the many deficiencies which the defence of Malaya continued to suffer.
To the conflict of interests and personalities which resulted in muddle and procrastination in the use of manpower was added the fact that Asian workmen, broadly designated coolies, were apt to disappear from their jobs when air raids were imminent, or were threatened in Japanese broadcasts and leaflets.9 This was not surprising, however, in view of the fact that so little had been done, while there was yet time, to provide civilian shelter.10 A European broadcasting official closely concerned with the day-to-day happenings in Malaya, commented: “It’s easy to criticise the Asiatic workmen who have deserted their posts and cannot be persuaded to return, but what better can be expected from them when their families are in such obvious jeopardy and have no more solid protection than the street-side drains or their own flimsy dwellings?”11
The Australian Government was given, as January drew to a close, less reason to feel hopeful of the outcome of an attempt to hold Singapore. Reporting on the 26th to the Minister for External Affairs, Mr Bowden said he had begun to doubt whether it really was the firm intention to hold the island. After a War Council meeting that day, when a rapid collapse of British defence seemed to him probable, he had asked Rear-Admiral Spooner at what stage he would demolish the naval base. The Admiral replied that he would have to begin as soon as the Japanese reached the Strait of Johore.
I replied (continued Bowden): “My deduction from that is that Singapore will not be held, for with the naval base and all natural resources of Malaya gone, Singapore will have nothing more than sentimental value.”
Bowden recorded that the Rear-Admiral, Malaya, concurred; the General Officer Commanding, Malaya, said nothing; only the Governor naturally maintained that Singapore would be held and said he would cable the Imperial Government for its confirmation of this intention.
From Percival’s remarks at the War Council meeting, said Bowden, it appeared likely that Singapore Island would be in a state of siege within a week. “What I then anticipate,” he continued, “is that the Japanese air force will concentrate on putting our fighter defence out of action by rendering our airfields useless, following which they would concentrate on our land defences, port facilities and essential services and ultimately make a combined attack from land and air and possibly from the sea.” Bowden added that he did not see how the fall of Singapore could be prevented unless provision could be made for substantial and effective reinforcement of fighter aircraft with all necessary ground crews for servicing; concentrated bombing of Japanese airfields on the peninsula; and some powerful form of diversion such as landing in force somewhere up the peninsula to cut the now extended Japanese line of communication. He seriously doubted whether such measures could be put into effect in the time that might be available. It appeared to him that no answer had been found to Japanese infiltration tactics but retreat. Various incidents had suggested lack of decision.
Two and sometimes three raids were made daily during the latter half of January by formations of twenty-seven to fifty-four bombers escorted by fighters, with the island’s four airfields as their main targets. Despite the way anti-aircraft guns spattered the sky with metal, the planes maintained perfect formation, and bombed from heights of more than 20,000 feet with considerable accuracy. As the Japanese troops advanced into Johore, the defending aircraft were forced to operate solely from the island. There the raiders took such heavy toll of them that by the end of the month the whole of the surviving bomber force was withdrawn to bases in southern Sumatra, whence it was intended that they should fly sorties to the aid of Singapore. When General Wavell visited Malaya on 30th January, three of the airfields were about to come within range of the Japanese artillery. His orders for further withdrawals of aircraft left only eight Hurricanes and six Buffaloes on the island.
The main body of the 18th British Division reached Singapore on 29th January, and, with its 53rd Brigade, was taken into command reserve. Its machine-gun and reconnaissance battalions arrived on 5th February. On the island were then concentrated all the troops who had been withdrawn from the Malayan mainland, those who recently had arrived from overseas, and the then garrison of the “fortress” – a total approximating 85,000 men, of whom about 15,000 were engaged in base, administrative, and non-combatant duties. The remaining 70,000 included many in second-line combat units. Operational command was assumed by Percival, but despite the urgency of the situation no overall control of both civil and military affairs was established. The infantry comprised 21 Indian battalions, including four Indian States Forces battalions for airfield defence; 13 of United Kingdom troops; 6 Australian; 2 Malay; and 3 of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force-45 battalions in all. There were also 3
machine-gun battalions – one Australian and two United Kingdom – and a reconnaissance battalion.
These figures do not, in themselves, give a fair indication of fighting strength, for the battalions varied widely in quality, condition, and equipment. Only one of the Indian battalions was up to numerical strength, three (in the 44th Brigade12) had recently arrived in a semi-trained condition, nine had been hastily reorganised with a large intake of raw recruits, and four were being re-formed but were far from being fit for action. Six of the United Kingdom battalions (in the 54th and 55th Brigades of the 18th Division) had only just landed in Malaya, and the other seven battalions were under-manned. Of the Australian battalions, three had drawn heavily upon recently-arrived, practically-untrained recruits. The Malay battalions had not been in action, and the Straits Settlements Volunteers were only sketchily trained. Further, losses on the mainland had resulted in a general shortage of equipment. The experiences of the troops had affected their morale in varying degree. The general effect was bad.
The civilian population of Singapore was now so swollen by refugees from the mainland and Penang Island that the total was about a million.
Percival expected that the Japanese would take at least a week to prepare their attack, but that it would be made as soon as possible to free forces for use elsewhere and to open up the Indian Ocean. He estimated that they could deploy against the island about 60,000 men of the three divisions they had on the mainland (the actual number of infantry battalions was twenty-seven) but thought that with their reserves in Malaya and Indo-China or elsewhere they could bring to bear a total of seven or eight divisions. While it seemed to him likely that the main assault would be on the north-west or north-east of the island, he could not ignore the possibility of seaborne ventures against the south-west or south-east, or that troops would be dropped from the air.
Singapore Island, with a total area of 220 square miles, extends for about 26 miles from east to west, 14 miles from north to south, and has 70 miles of coastline. The main arm of the Johore Strait east of the Causeway is from 1,100 to 5,000 yards wide, but its western arm is only 2,000 yards across at its widest point, and narrows to 600 yards. The naval base was in the northernmost part of the island, east of the Causeway. The most closely populated area of the island was in the south and east. A large part of the remainder, especially the centre and west, was thickly covered by rubber and other plantations, and by secondary jungle,
with relatively few roads. The centre held the heavily-timbered, hilly municipal catchment area and MacRitchie, Peirce, and Seletar reservoirs. The trunk road, in its first nine miles from the Causeway towards the town, ran at the foot of the western slope of the island’s main watershed, which includes the highest points on the island – Bukit Mandai (422 feet) and Bukit Timah (481 feet). East of the road and the main heights was the Pipe-line, augmenting from the mainland the island’s supply of water.13 The Pasir Panjang ridge, about four miles long and rising to 270 feet, lay between the south-western outskirts of the town and the village of Pasir Panjang on the south coast.
The western portion of Singapore Island rises to coastward hills. In the north-west these reach the edge of coastal swamps. The island is almost bisected from north to south by two tidal river systems. Of these, the Sungei Peng Siang and Sungei Tengah, flowing north, join the Sungei Kangkar from the west to form the Sungei Kranji. The Sungei Jurong, rising south of the source of the Peng Siang, flows to the south coast. Between the headwaters of these two rivers lies a neck of land, about 4,000 yards wide, most of it between the Choa Chu Kang and the Jurong roads. These roads, branching from the trunk road at Bukit Panjang and Bukit Timah villages respectively, were the principal ways to and from the island’s western area. At Tengah airfield, about half-way between Bukit Panjang and the west coast, the Lim Chu Kang road ran due north, through Ama Keng village, with branches to north-western coastal areas. The other airfields – Sembawang, Seletar, and the Kallang civil airport – were in the eastern part of the island.
Formidable heavy artillery defences had been installed on the island in the years from 1934 to 1941 to protect the naval base from sea attack – a fact which had been used extensively in building up the legend of Singapore’s impregnability. The fixed defences comprised two fire commands, covering the eastern approach to the base, the approaches to Keppel Harbour, in which lay the commercial port, and the western arm of Johore Strait. Each command had one 15-inch and one 9.2-inch battery, and a number of 6-inch batteries. Some of the guns, however, were incapable because of location, lack of range, or limited traverse of being used against targets in Johore. The heavy guns useable for the purpose had very little high-explosive ammunition, and their armour-piercing shells were relatively ineffective against land targets because the shells were apt to bury themselves deep in the soft ground, which muffled the force of their explosion. Nevertheless, measures were now taken to bring the batteries into use as fully as possible against any Japanese approach from the mainland, while keeping in mind the possibility of assault, perhaps at the same time, from the sea. The 152 anti-aircraft guns available at the beginning of February were sited to cover vital points, such as Keppel
Harbour, and the airfields. Lack of a warning system since the evacuation of the mainland reduced the effectiveness of their fire.
The permanent beach defences, commenced in 1936 when Percival was principal staff officer to General Dobbie,14 did not extend to the coastline of the Western Area despite the appreciation prepared by Percival of the danger of attack down the mainland, for it had been hoped to keep any enemy sufficiently far north to make this unnecessary. The development of air power, and the Japanese occupation of Indo-China in 1940 and 1941, had robbed Singapore Island of much of the security hitherto provided by its seaward defences. On the other hand it emphasised the need to defend the mainland as a means of preventing enemy bases being established within striking distance of the island from the north. Thus little provision had been made against the possibility of a struggle on the island itself. Even when this possibility had become acutely obvious as the Japanese forces swept into Johore, nothing was undertaken which reflected the British Prime Minister’s demand for heroic measures such as employing the entire male population with picks and shovels upon constructing defence works; and endeavours to provide an adequate amount of Asian labour became to a large extent bogged down in administrative and other difficulties. Perhaps the most vital feature in the situation as it developed was the neck of land on Singapore Island which, as previously mentioned, lies between the sources of the Sungei Kranji and the Sungei Jurong. This offered means of switching forces between east and west and of shortening the front and reducing the area to be defended if this became necessary. Yet a partially dug anti-tank ditch west of the headwaters of the rivers was almost the only token of endeavour to provide defensive works in this area. Thus “the wearied, if not exhausted, troops” who had been withdrawn from the mainland to what they expected to be an island stronghold now shared Mr Churchill’s dismay at “the hideous spectacle of the almost naked island”.
In a secret letter to formation commanders on 23rd January giving an outline plan for the defence of the island Percival had said that the northern and western shores were too intersected by creeks and mangroves for any recognised form of beach defence, and that the general plan in each area would include small defended localities to cover known approaches, such as rivers, creeks and roads to the coast or tracks along which vehicles could travel. He added that these localities would be supported by mobile reserves in assembly areas from which they could operate against enemy parties seeking to infiltrate near these communications or in the intervening country.
General Simmons was made responsible for developing the plan, with a special staff on which the Australians were represented by Major Dawkins,
one of General Bennett’s staff officers. As Percival saw the situation, there were two alternatives open to him. These were to endeavour (1) to prevent the enemy from landing or, if the enemy succeeded in doing so, to stop him near the beaches and destroy him or drive him out by counterattack; (2) to hold the coastline thinly and retain large reserves for a battle on the island. Though he considered that the extent of the coastline relative to the forces at his disposal made it impossible to build up a really strong coastal defence, he chose the former alternative, despite the weakness which had resulted from dispersion of forces on the mainland.15
As it finally emerged, the defence plan provided that the defences, other than anti-aircraft, should be organised in three areas. The boundaries of these areas, and the forces allotted to them, were:
Northern Area: From Changi (exclusive) on the eastern tip of Singapore Island to the Pipe-line (exclusive) – III Indian Corps, comprising 11th Indian and 18th British Divisions. Commander, General Heath.
Western Area: From the Pipe-line (inclusive) to the Sungei Jurong (exclusive)-8th Australian Division and 44th Indian Brigade. Commander, General Bennett.
Southern Area: From the Sungei Jurong (inclusive) to Changi (inclusive) – Fixed Defences, 1st and 2nd Malaya Infantry Brigades, Straits Settlement Volunteer Force and Fortress Troops. Commander, General Simmons.
The Southern Area corresponded approximately to the south coast defences already held by the Singapore Fortress troops. It excluded the Pasir Laba Battery, inside the western entrance to Johore Strait, and therefore in the Western Area. Percival would hold a small central reserve – the 12th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Paris) which now comprised only two battalions. Of these the Argylls numbered 400, including 150 marines, and the 4/19th Hyderabad 400, most of the latter semi-trained. Commanders of the Northern and Western Areas were each to hold an infantry battalion at an hour’s notice at night to move to the support of other areas as might be required. Percival arranged to expand rapidly the force of Chinese irregulars (Dalforce16) which had been operating in an auxiliary role on the mainland under Lieut-Colonel J. D. Dailey, of the Federated Malay States Police Force.
The loss of the 22nd Indian Brigade shortly before the withdrawal across the Causeway had left the 9th Indian Division with only one undermanned brigade (the 8th), which was now taken into the 11th Indian
Division; as shown above, Major-General Beckwith-Smith’s17 18th British Division was included in III Indian Corps. Detachments from Dalforce were allotted to area commanders to patrol swamp areas where landings might occur, and act as a nucleus of such fighting patrols as might operate on the mainland. Such craft as the navy could muster, now based on Keppel Harbour, were to patrol the sea approaches and to operate inshore as required by area commanders. The sole remaining air squadron based on the Kallang civil airport, close to the town area, was to cooperate with the ground defences against attacks, and to spot Japanese concentrations. Operational headquarters of Malaya Command and Navy and Air Force headquarters were at Sime road, on the northern outskirts of the city, and Malaya Command administrative headquarters near its centre, at Fort Canning.
Morale, both military and civilian, was now a matter of increasingly serious concern. The feeling of security engendered by the former peace and prosperity of Malaya under British control, and fostered by the publicity policy hitherto pursued, had hardly yet given place to a real sense of urgency on the part of all concerned; but confidence in being able to surmount the enemy’s superior might, and in the control of operations, had been badly shaken by the course of events. Greater credence naturally tended to be given in these circumstances, especially by Singapore’s Asian people, to the assertions pumped out by the Japanese-controlled Penang radio. These were in fact often more revealing than the official communiqués. The long withdrawal and the heavy losses on the mainland could hardly have been otherwise than dispiriting to the troops. The far-famed and fabulously costly naval base had become useless; the air force had practically disappeared. British prestige was rapidly ebbing, Australia as well as the Netherlands East Indies now appeared to lie in the path of the Japanese advance, and as Percival has put it, “it was understandable that some among the troops should begin to think of their own homes overseas which were now being directly threatened”.18
The naval base having come under observed artillery fire and small arms fire, and being within closer range of enemy aircraft to which only limited opposition could be offered, had become unusable for naval purposes; but so strong was the popular legend of the impregnability of the base that one of the greatest shocks suffered by the forces upon their withdrawal to the island was the discovery that it had been abandoned by the navy, and was being demolished. To many, including some senior officers, it seemed that the primary purpose of being in Malaya had disappeared, and further fighting would result in wholesale slaughter and destruction with no corresponding gain. This humanitarian outlook gained strength from the fact that what had been termed an impregnable fortress was under existing conditions not a fortress at all, but a very vulnerable
island with the heavy military liability of a large civilian population. Not only were the civilians exposed to shells and bombs; they faced the all-too-evident likelihood that eventually they would be at the mercy of Japanese soldiery drunk with victory and looted intoxicants. The broader picture from the military viewpoint of the importance of keeping the Japanese forces engaged, and thus gaining time to build up resistance elsewhere, was apt to be clouded by these considerations.
Seeking to counter rumours that Singapore itself was not to be defended – a possibility which as has been shown had been weighed by Mr Churchill – General Percival said in the course of a press statement:–
The battle of Malaya has come to an end and the battle of Singapore has started. ... Our task is to hold this fortress until help can come – as assuredly it will come. This we are determined to do. In carrying out this task we want the help of every man and woman in the fortress. There is work for all to do. Any enemy who sets foot in our fortress must be dealt with immediately. The enemy within our gates must be ruthlessly weeded out. There must be no more loose talk and rumour-mongering. Our duty is clear. With firm resolve and fixed determination we shall win through.
The sentiment was heroic, but circumstances such as those outlined challenged the realism of the statement.
Once again, there appears to have been a discrepancy between orders issued by General Wavell and General Percival’s action. As has been related, Wavell had instructed Percival to place the 18th Division on the front most likely to be attacked, and the 8th Australian Division in the next most dangerous sector. Despite his having then expressed the belief that the Japanese were most likely to attack the north-east, Percival himself recorded that when the dispositions were made he regarded the western sector of the island as the danger area, adding “I had specially selected for it the Australian Imperial Force ... because I thought that, of the troops which had had experience of fighting on the mainland, it was the freshest and most likely to give a good account of itself”.19 This was a notable tribute to the fighting qualities of the Australians by a man who had so recently employed them in action; but as he realised, the western area was a particularly difficult one. It was in fact very questionable whether any troops, no matter how fresh and able they might be, could do more than act as a buffer force in the circumstances in which the Australians were placed. Extended over a front vastly disproportionate to their numbers, how could the two brigades hope to hold such forces as the Japanese could throw in?
In contrast to this assessment of where the main danger lay, by far the greater strength of artillery was allotted to the Northern Area – five field artillery regiments, two anti-tank regiments, and one mountain regiment in addition to its three fixed batteries – whereas the Western Area received eventually only three field artillery regiments and three anti-tank batteries, additional to one fixed battery. The Southern Area had one field regiment
and one anti-tank battery. The allocation to the Western Area meant that less than 5 per cent of its three-brigade frontage could be engaged by the guns at any one time, and only about one-seventh of the front could receive support at one time or another. In retrospect it seems strange that the two Australian brigades should have been divided by the Kranji. Had the Causeway sector been included in the Northern Area, making the Kranji the north-eastern boundary of the Western Area, the 27th Brigade could have been used as the sort of reserve which the area required; and the Australians would have been able to fight as they preferred, in a compact, self-reliant force.
Extensive reorganisation was undertaken to repair as far as possible the effects of the misfortunes suffered on the mainland. Lieut-Colonel Coates,20 principal staff officer of the 9th Indian Division, became commander of the 6th/15th Indian Brigade in place of Brigadier Challen, missing since the brigade was dispersed on the west coast. The brigade now comprised the British Battalion, the Jat Battalion (amalgamated 2/ and 4/Jat) and 3/16th Punjab. Colonel Trott was given command of the 8th Indian Brigade, comprising the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles, 2/10th Baluch, two companies of Bahawalpur Infantry, and the Garhwal Battalion, being formed from survivors and reinforcements of the 2nd and 5th Royal Garhwal Rifles. The two Australian battalions which had fought at Muar had been so depleted that the 2/29th took in 500 reinforcements, and 370 went into the 2/19th. The 2/18th received ninety men to replace its losses on the east coast. Of the 2/29th Battalion’s company commanders at this stage, only one (Captain Bowring21) had survived the Muar action, and nineteen new officers, mostly from reinforcements, had been appointed to the battalion. Commenting on the quality of the reinforcements, Thyer wrote later:–
Of those allotted to the 2/29th Battalion, the great majority had arrived from Australia as late as the 24th of January. ... Some had sailed within a fortnight of enlistment. A large proportion had not qualified at a small arms course, nor been taught bayonet fighting. Naturally they were ignorant of the conditions in Malaya or elsewhere ... some reinforcements to all battalions had never seen a Bren gun and none of them had handled a sub-machine-gun or an anti-tank rifle. Worse still was the fact that there were some who had never handled a rifle. ... There was a serious lack of trained specialists, such as signallers, mortar men and carrier drivers.
The training they needed might have been given in Malaya had there been time for it; but it was too late now. Major Pond, formerly Maxwell’s brigade major, took command on 25th January of the 2/29th, and set about giving it what basic training was possible; but it needed at least a three months’ course before it could be considered fit for battle. Though Anderson had worked hard to prepare the 2/19th for further action after the disaster at Parit Sulong, it also was far from this goal.
The Sungei Kranji, 1,200 yards wide where it reached Johore Strait west of the Causeway, offered a natural boundary in the northern part of the Western Area. The 27th Brigade was placed east of it, in what became known as the Causeway sector, and the 22nd Brigade west of it, on a front extending to the Sungei Berih, about half way down the west coast.22 This gave the 22nd a frontage to the Strait of about 16,000 yards, compared with the 27th’s 4,000 yards, despite the fact that the 22nd Brigade’s frontage was closer to the mainland. However, the 2/29th Battalion, to be retained in the Causeway sector, was to be regarded as a divisional reserve. Its handicap in a role requiring well-controlled mobility was the large proportion of raw reinforcements it contained. The 44th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Ballentine) was allotted to the south-west sector, with an even longer frontage-21,000 yards of coastline from the Berih to the Jurong – but it appeared to be less immediately exposed to attack. Thus the divisional defence plan provided that the brigade might be used as a reserve in the event of attack on the 22nd Australian Brigade.
In detail, the dispositions of infantry and ancillary forces in the Western Area were:
Causeway sector: 27th Australian Brigade, Brigadier Maxwell (2/26th, 2/29th, 2/30th Battalions) with 13th Anti-tank Battery, 2/12th Field Company, “B” Company 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, and 2/9th Field Ambulance under command; 2/10th Field Regiment, less one battery, in support.23
North-west sector: 22nd Australian Brigade, Brigadier Taylor (2/18th, 2/19th, 2/20th Battalions) with 15th Anti-tank Battery, 2/10th Field Company, “D” Company 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, 2/10th Field Ambulance under command; 2/15th Field Regiment, less one battery, in support.
South-west sector: 44th Indian Brigade, Brigadier Ballentine (6/`st, 7/8th, 6/14th Punjab Regiments) with 16th Anti-tank Battery, a field company of Indian Sappers and Miners, “C” Company 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion under command; 19th Battery 2/10th Field Regiment and 65th Battery 2/15th Field Regiment in support.24
Bennett’s headquarters were at Hillview Estate, on Jurong road, about 1,400 yards north-west of Bukit Timah village. Jurong road, branching at the village from the main road between Singapore and the Causeway, led into Ballentine’s sector. Northward, the main road to the Causeway gave access to Maxwell’s sector and to the Choa Chu Kang road into Taylor’s sector. The troops under Bennett’s command quickly set to work wiring, digging, and otherwise preparing to give battle as best they could in the absence of previously prepared defences. In many instances the swampy nature of the ground made it impossible to dig trenches, and breastworks had to be thrown up.
Maxwell was anxious particularly about the southern portion of the five miles from north to south of his sector, fearing enemy penetration towards the rear of his forward troops. He placed the 2/30th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Galleghan) at and near the entrance to the Causeway; the 2/26th (Lieut-Colonel Boyes) to the left of this position, covering the coast and the area near the mouth of the Kranji. Although the 2/29th was in reserve it was given extensive responsibility for rear protection. The 2/26th Battalion’s sector consisted largely of swamp, and its main positions were established on the higher ground, with standing patrols and listening-posts forward. Of the two foremost companies, “B” (Captain Swartz) was north of the Kranji road, which bisected the area between the trunk road (linked by the Causeway with the trunk road on the mainland) and the mouth of the Kranji, and “A” (Captain Beirne25) on “B” Company’s left. The area of the junction of the Kranji road and the railway which ran more or less parallel with the trunk road and a little west of it, was held by “C” Company (Captain Walker26). “D” Company (Captain Tracey27) was in reserve near where the Kranji road met the trunk road (of which the part running through the brigade sector was known as the Woodlands road). Even the relatively high ground was found unsuitable for trenches and weapon pits. Although breastworks were erected, they gave relatively poor protection. A carefully devised plan had been drawn up for coordinated machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire covering the battalion fronts. The 60th Battery was posted about a mile and a half east of Mandai Road village to support the 2/30th Battalion, and the 20th Battery was west of Yew Tee village, to support the 2/26th Battalion. Brigade headquarters were at the Singapore Dairy Farm, east of the trunk road and seven miles back from the Causeway – a long way for effective contact with the battalions, but close to Bennett’s headquarters, and placed there presumably with his concurrence. Positions immediately to the right (east) of the Causeway sector were occupied by the 28th Indian Brigade (Brigadier Selby).
Brigadier Taylor, having discharged his responsibilities as commander of the outer bridgehead during the withdrawal to the island, found himself faced with an even more difficult problem. In keeping with General Percival’s plan of defending the beaches, each of the 22nd Brigade’s battalions had to be given a frontage of about three miles. Taylor placed his 2/20th (Lieut-Colonel Assheton28) with a platoon of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion and a company of Dalforce under command, on the right, with a frontage of 8,000 yards from the Kranji to near the Sungei Sarimbun on the west coast; the 2/18th (Lieut-Colonel Varley) with a machine-gun platoon under command from this point to the Sungei Murai; and the 2/19th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Anderson) with a machine-gun
platoon under command, from the Murai to the Sungei Berth and the Choa Chu Kang road. The brigade was thus left without a reserve battalion, but each battalion was required to hold one company in reserve in its headquarters area. Brigade headquarters were centrally situated a little south of Ama Keng village. The Jind Infantry Regiment, one of the better units of the Indian State Forces, was guarding the near-by Tengah airfield, in the south-eastern portion of the brigade area, and came under Taylor’s command.
Brigadier Ballentine, commander of the 44th Indian Brigade, also placed his three battalions – all Punjabis – in forward positions to guard his front, less two companies held in reserve. The 6/14th Punjab was on the right, the 6/1st in the centre, and the 7/8th on the left, the latter facing south. Thus, as at Muar, an Indian brigade occupied Bennett’s left flank; and the 44th was about as raw as the 45th Brigade had been. The frontage comprised a continuous fringe of mangrove swamps.
During the early days of February the island’s airfields were being constantly attacked by Japanese bombers, making it difficult to operate even the few remaining aircraft from them. From the air, and from observation posts at Johore Bahru, the enemy had an almost unimpeded view of activity on the island during the day, unless it was under cover. It became necessary to work by night in constructing defensive positions in cleared areas, and to camouflage them before dawn. Such recruited labour as was made available was of little value under bombardment from air and land. The Japanese appeared to use a variety of weapons, including 4-inch mortars, light and medium field guns, and light anti-aircraft guns firing on a flat trajectory, but these caused surprisingly few casualties among the Australian infantry. The Australians, however, were at a loss to understand why their own guns first refrained from fire against Johore Bahru, and especially against its public administration building, in view of the obvious use being made of it by Japanese spotters. Restriction of artillery fire generally against the Japanese was the result of a stock-taking of ammunition carried out by Malaya Command. This, in relation to the policy (which persisted despite current circumstances) to plan for a three months’ siege, was described as serious, and a plan to ration ammunition accordingly had been drawn up. The plan provided that, except during attack or defence, 25-pounder guns should be restricted to twelve rounds a day, 18-pounders to 25 rounds, and 4.5-inch howitzers to 29 rounds. On 4th February Malaya Command ruled that allocations of ammunition were not transferable from gun to gun, and not accumulative from day to day.
Because of the superior facilities for observation possessed by the enemy – whose reconnaissance aircraft were flying as low as 400 to 500 feet – artillery action was further restricted by orders that guns at battle positions were to be silent, and that most of the shooting should be by roving sections or troops of guns continually changing their positions. Malaya
Command even issued an instruction that notification must be sent to Command Headquarters before making “warlike noises”, such as those resulting from range practice, on the ground that the civil population must be informed in advance, to avoid panic. Apart from hampering warlike preparations, which at this stage needed to be made with all speed, this instruction was significant of the unrealistic state of mind existing at the time. Endeavours were made, without success, to get the Command to agree to a more liberal use of ammunition.
In such restrictive circumstances Bennett, dealing with a report that the artillery wished to open fire on the Johore administration building as the presence of an enemy observation post in its tower was suspected, ordered that the town was not to be fired on unless there was definite proof of the enemy’s presence. This the Japanese quickly supplied. A further order, that there should be no firing on a defined area along the Sungei Tebrau, was intended to allow men who it was still hoped would come in from the lost 22nd Indian Brigade to move along the edge of the river east of Johore Bahru to the Strait. As they or other survivors from the mainland might seek to cross the Strait in small craft, orders were given also that the forward artillery observation posts and the Pasir Laba fort should not challenge or engage craft less than 100 feet long unless they were in large numbers or engaged in obviously hostile actions. The Australian artillery policy generally, laid down by its commander, Brigadier Callaghan, with Bennett’s approval and within the framework of Malaya Command orders, was that targets should not be engaged except to register zones of fire; for observed shooting on identified enemy targets; for counter-battery fire when enemy guns were actually firing; for defensive fire on request by company or senior commanders, or by pre-arranged signal; or as ordered by Callaghan’s headquarters. The signal for defensive fire was to be a succession of red Very lights.
The Pasir Laba fort, placed under Western Area Headquarters command, was equipped with two 6-inch coastal defence guns, and had two 3.7-inch howitzers, two 18-pounders, and a company of the Malay Regiment, for its local defence. The arcs of fire of the coastal defence guns had been arranged so that they could fire to the south-west, but the commander of the fort was arranging for the arc of the northernmost of these to be increased to enable it to fire to a point opposite the front of the 2/18th Battalion – the centre battalion of Taylor’s brigade. The howitzers and 18-pounders were old, shod with iron tyres, and not equipped for indirect fire.
Taylor sought to have the 2/10th and 2/15th Field Regiments placed under command of his and Maxwell’s brigades respectively, but Bennett concurred in a recommendation by Callaghan that the regiments remain in support, i.e. controlled directly by Callaghan but cooperating with the brigades. Among Callaghan’s reasons were that it might be necessary for the artillery in the Causeway and north-west sectors to fire in support
of either or both the sectors, or to act similarly as regards the north-west and south-west sectors; and that by virtue of the broader perspective of his command, he would be in a better position than a brigade commander to avoid guns being surrounded as a result of enemy outflanking movements. However, the two regiments were ordered on 2nd February to form one extra troop each, equipped with six surplus 4.5-inch howitzers, to be known as “G” Troop, and to comprise such drivers and others as could be spared for the purpose.
Despite the limitations placed on the artillery in the preparatory period, Bennett propounded again, at a conference with his three brigade commanders on 2nd February, his policy of aggressive defence. Anti-aircraft searchlights and beach-lights were to be switched on each night, and their positions altered daily. A request that sufficient transport be held in Taylor’s brigade area for two companies, as the only immediately available reserve of troops, was not granted, on the ground that it would be unwise to hold such transport in unit areas.
With difficulty, beach-lights, supplemented by headlights removed from cars, were obtained to illuminate areas where the Japanese might attempt landings. Barbed wire and telephone cable also were difficult to obtain in sufficient quantity to serve the widely dispersed units. In abandoning the naval base the navy had left large quantities of stores, clothing and foodstuffs behind them. As a result of action by Galleghan and men of the 2/30th Battalion, the 27th Brigade received from it clothing, tinned food, biscuits, tobacco, soft drinks, kitchen utensils, mapping requisites, telephone hand-sets, signal cable, and truckloads of beer. As a large shipment of parcels from Australia arrived at this time, the men were able for the time being to take a light-hearted view of their circumstances. Occasional artillery fire on observed targets in Johore Bahru was now cheering the Australians generally.
Despite the obvious desirability, no arrangements had been made to leave concealed patrols on the mainland equipped with wireless sets with which they could send back information about the enemy. The Strait was patrolled, however, by light naval craft. Bennett ordered that boats be manned by Australians who could act as listening posts, and that Australian patrols should cross the Strait at night and reconnoitre on the mainland for a day or more. Patrols were sent across also from the III Corps area. Two Punjabis who appeared in the 27th Brigade’s sector on 3rd February reported that they had been able to cross the Causeway. They had found that the gap caused by the demolition charges was fordable at low tide, and the above-water obstructions had not stopped the two men. In these circumstances companies and mortar units in the sector were ordered to prepare second and third positions.
Consideration was given at the Australian divisional staff level to the Kranji-Jurong neck of land as offering a means whereby, if a contraction of the widely dispersed forces in the Western Area became necessary,
units west of the Sungei Kranji and the Sungei Jurong could be disposed along 4,000 yards of relatively good country instead of the 40,000 yards of difficult coastline they occupied. Colonel Thyer, who believed that the thin defences along the coast were unlikely to stand against a strong attack, ordered a reconnaissance of the neck, and preparation of a plan for its use if necessary.
Concern at being under-manned was expressed by brigade commanders and senior staff at a conference held by Bennett on 3rd February. “As they left,” Bennett noted, “I realised the unfairness of asking them and their men to fight with such meagre resources.” He thereupon ordered Major Robertson, of the 2/20th Battalion, to form a Special Reserve Battalion from surplus Army Service Corps and ordnance men and 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion reinforcements. Visiting the 2/18th and 2/19th Battalions on 4th February, Bennett found the area thickly covered by trees, with mangroves growing to the water’s edge. The battalion posts were hundreds of yards apart, with small fields of fire, and he became still more concerned about the prospect the Australians faced. The terrain and the circumstances were indeed ideal for the infiltration tactics which the Japanese had consistently employed on the mainland. As an officer of the 2/19th Battalion was to write,29 the unit had found itself after arrival on Singapore Island –
dumped in a scraggy waste of stunted rubber and tangled undergrowth, apparently miles from anywhere, our vision limited to the next rise in the undulating ground and our means of movement confined to a few native foot-tracks winding through the wilderness. ... Maps showed us that we were a mile and a half from the west coast, with ... the 2/18th away to the north in a similar desolation of waste and confusion. ... A mile of single-file track led through the belukar [secondary jungle] eight feet high, where the visibility was no more than a stone’s throw, to Tom Vincent’s headquarters, where “D” Company looked out on the beauties of a mangrove swamp which was under water at high tide. A wooden foot-bridge crossed the swamp to a small hill on the coast occupied by a platoon. On its southern flank lay the broad reaches and monotonous mangrove swamps of the Sungei Berih. ... A long trek through more swamps and belukar brought us to another platoon position, covering a hill on the coast large enough to be held by at least a company, and behind these two coastal positions the remainder of “D” Company was shrouded by the lank undergrowth of the hinterland.
With a rather confused idea of “D” Company’s position, we set off on a long trail to “B” Company, further north across another mangrove swamp and into a sloping wilderness where Dick Keegan nestled among the shrubs and vines which concealed his headquarters. Away to the west a grove of coconut palms lay at the foot of an extensive cleared hill which had the appearance of a pineapple farm.
This in turn was bounded to the north by a small river, the Sungei Murai, the opposite bank of which formed the left boundary of the 2/18th. The coconut grove was a pleasant, low-lying piece of ground on the water’s edge with lush grass in which to rest and enjoy the meat and drink of the coconut. It was also an excellent place for a lap landing. The rest of “B” Company was swallowed up in the ridiculous immensity of its area.
To Australia, Bennett reported on 4th February that he considered the best policy would be a strong counter-offensive as soon as reinforcements of aircraft and quality troops could be arranged.30
At a “depressing” conference with Percival, Heath and Simmons on the same day, civil control, especially of labour, was severely criticised. Under constant bombing, the unloading of ships was slow. Bennett recorded having suggested that a military adviser to the Government be appointed, “who should be the strong man behind the throne, one who would force the civil administration out of its peacetime groove”. Percival “seemed impressed with the idea”, and asked Bennett after the conference if he would undertake the task. Bennett asked for time to consider the proposal. Next day he told Percival that he would prefer to become Military Governor of Singapore (a position which Mr Duff Cooper had contemplated creating if Singapore were invested), but would accept the other position provided the civil governor agreed to act under his instructions in all things. In the upshot no such appointment was made.
Meanwhile the Japanese increased the intensity of their shelling and bombing, and Tengah airfield became so damaged that it was abandoned by the air force. Major Fraser, with Major Shaw31 (8th Division Engineers) and Captain Wyett commenced on 4th February reconnoitring the Kranji-Jurong area, formulating plans, and pegging out positions to take advantage of its features for defensive purposes. Captain McEwin32 and four platoon commanders of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion were subsequently sent to assist in the work. The anti-tank line, which existed mostly as a mark on a map, was a westward curve bisecting the Choa Chu Kang and Jurong roads a little west of Bulim and east of Jurong villages respectively. The roads were not cut, but they were sited for anti-tank mines. Except for swampy ground running into its northern and southern boundaries, the Kranji-Jurong area was undulating and sparsely timbered. In some parts, particularly in the vicinity of West Bukit Timah, which was regarded as a reserve locality, there were open fields of fire running some 200 to 250 yards forward of partially prepared defence works. On a spur in the Bulim village area there were some section posts comprising breastworks of timber and stone. Fraser had instructions to carry his reconnaissance down to section posts, to peg out anti-tank defences and weapon pits, and to await news of Chinese labour being made available for the digging. Machine-gun and artillery cooperation in defending the area was to be arranged. It was proposed to allot initially two battalions, and possibly a third, to the positions, but Fraser soon
concluded that much larger forces were needed for the task of holding them.
On 5th February the Japanese heavily bombarded the 18th Division’s part of the Northern Area allotted to the III Corps, and carried out movements on the mainland opposite it, apparently seeking to give the impression that an attack was impending from this direction. They caused surprise by using a gun with such range that it shelled Government House close to the hub of the city; and their aircraft so damaged the liner Empress of Asia off the south-west coast of the island that she caught fire, and was abandoned in a sinking condition.33 The vessel was one of four ships bringing the remainder of the 18th British Division, some other troops, and transport vehicles. Most of the troops were rescued by the navy, but nearly all their weapons and equipment were lost. Percival and Bennett, from a hill in the 44th Brigade sector, saw the Empress of Asia burning. On their left they saw the position held by a Punjab company, and two miles or more to the right the next company’s position, with mangrove swamp between the two. Percival “again expressed his concern at the thinness of the defence and asked how we could defend the place”, wrote Bennett in his diary. “He agreed with my reply which was, ‘only with more soldiers’.”34
Guns were at last ranged on the Johore administration building, and severely damaged it, to the Australians’ keen satisfaction, but an observation balloon above Johore Bahru withstood all attempts to shoot it down. Callaghan had to go to his rear headquarters, and later to hospital, with an attack of malaria, and Lieut-Colonel McEachern,35 of the 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment, acted as commander of the Australian artillery.
From 5th February onward sounds from the mainland of sawing, hammering, and other activities were heard by the Australians. A series of changes in command took place at this critical stage. Lieut-Colonel Anderson, commanding the 2/19th on Varley’s left, was admitted to hospital, and his place was taken by Major Robertson of the 2/20th Battalion. Command of the Special Reserve Battalion was given to Major Saggers,36 of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. An “X” Battalion, also formed of spare men and reinforcements, was placed under command of Lieut-Colonel Boyes. Major Oakes of the 2/19th Battalion, who had admired and been closely associated with Brigadier Maxwell when Maxwell was the battalion’s commander, was promoted to Lieut-Colonel to command the 2/26th Battalion in Boyes’ stead. Arrangements had been made whereby an extra platoon comprised of men culled from various ancillary
units and reinforcements was added to each rifle company, and to battalion headquarters for defensive purposes.37
Time was needed for the officers and men concerned to become adjusted to the new circumstances. Time was indeed the greatest all-round need in seeking to put Singapore Island into a fit state for defence; but it quickly became all too evident that the Japanese plan of operations did not provide for it.
A stir was caused at Malaya Command Headquarters on 6th February by a report, after an air reconnaissance from Palembang, in Sumatra, that a cruiser, four destroyers, and four merchant ships were anchored off the Anambas Islands north-east of Singapore. To Percival and his staff it seemed that their fears of a seaborne attack on Singapore might be about to materialise, though ABDA Command told Percival on the 7th (correctly as it turned out) that the convoy was aimed at southern Sumatra.
On 7th February the Japanese artillery increased its fire on the 18th Division’s area and extended its range to the outer suburbs of the city. Bombing of targets in the city was on a larger scale than hitherto, and Japanese troops were found to have landed during the night on Ubin Island. On their face value these activities suggested that landings might be expected in the north-east, possibly in conjunction with a sea attack. Concurrently, however, patrols led by Lieutenant Homer,38 of the 2/20th Battalion, and Lieutenant Ottley,39 of the 2/19th, had explored the mainland opposite their battalion sectors. Their reports, received during the night of 7th–8th February, indicated large concentrations of Japanese troops in the area.
As the Japanese were later to disclose, they had taken into account in pre-war planning of their attack on Singapore Island that the mainland opposite its north-west coast offered rivers, roads and concealment well suited to assembling guns, troops .and landing craft, and that it faced the narrowest portion of the Strait of Johore. Further, it seemed likely
to them that the foremost westward defence line on the island would be along the line of the Sungei Kranji and Sungei Jurong, with only outposts west of it; in which case they could expect to land in the area almost unopposed in the first instance.
Detailed planning for the capture of Singapore had been commenced by General Yamashita and his staff as soon as Japanese troops occupied Kuala Lumpur. Opinion among the Japanese command was divided as to how strong resistance would be. Some interpreted the rapid withdrawal down the peninsula as a sign of panic having set in and held that once the British forces reached the island they would do little but surrender or try to escape. Others quoted broadcasts to the effect that the troops had been exhorted by Mr Churchill to fight to the end, and referred to the strength of the island’s fortifications, which in the Japanese reports had been ludicrously exaggerated. Eventually it was decided to employ the entire available fighting strength for the conquest of Singapore, and to assemble 1,000 rounds a gun for the supporting field artillery and 500 a gun for the heavy batteries. Yamashita issued his consequent orders from his command post at Kluang on 31st January. His airmen were to cooperate in the attack with a heavy concentration of planes, and provision was made for intense artillery fire against installations and artillery on the island. The main strength of the army artillery as distinct from the divisional artillery would be on the upper reaches of the Sungei Malayu for counter-battery and support purposes during the period of preparation for landings and the early stages of the invasion, when the divisional artillery would directly cooperate with the front-line troops. A total of 168 guns would be employed.
The 5th and 18th Divisions were concentrated in the area of the Sungei Skudai, north-west of the 22nd Australian Brigade’s front, for the main attack. The Guards Division (with the 14th Tank Regiment attached) assembled in the Tebrau area, opposite what remained of the Naval Base, to execute a feint and then a subsidiary attack. On 4th February commanders received at Skudai orders for these actions, and the artillery bombardment of the island was commenced. Despite the damage which might have been caused by the large array of guns on Singapore Island during this preparatory period, the rationed artillery fire caused little hindrance to the Japanese.
For the main attack, sixteen battalions, with five more in reserve, were allotted for use on the 22nd Australian Brigade’s front, principally in the area between the Sungei Buloh and the Sungei Murai held by only two battalions – the 2/20th and 2/18th Australian. The first objective would be the Tengah airfield, to be reached by the morning of 9th February, and the second a line from Bukit Panjang to Ulu Pandan, on the Jurong road east of the Sungei Jurong. The 18th Division would attack with seven battalions on the Japanese right, and the 5th Division (to which was attached the 1st Tank Regiment) with nine battalions, on the left. The feint by the Guards was to heighten the belief (attributed in Japanese
Intelligence reports to Malaya Command) that the main attack would be against the Naval Base and thereabouts, and so to keep the British forces dispersed as widely as possible. For this purpose also dummy camps were erected east of the Sungei Tebrau, convoys of vehicles were employed to give the impression of eastward movement, and artillery fire was concentrated on the north-east of the island. The slightness of the patrol opposition encountered by the Guards battalion on Ubin Island disturbed the Japanese commanders, for it seemed to them that the feint had failed in its purpose of distracting attention from the north-west area.