Chapter 1: Japan Strikes
On a bright morning in the early summer of 1925 three men, each of them at the head of his branch of the profession of arms, were sitting in conference in Whitehall Gardens. The subject of their discussion was the defence of an island, about the size of the Isle of Wight, situated more than eight thousand miles from the United Kingdom near the eastern entrance of the Strait of Malacca. Upon its southern shore lay a large, humid, opulent city, upon its northern the beginning of a naval base which in course of years was to be variously described as ‘the Gibraltar of the Far East’, ‘the Greatest Arsenal of Democracy in South Eastern Asia’, and ‘an impregnable fortress’. When completed at a cost of £60,000,000 it was stocked with naval equipment of every kind from a cap-band to a 15-inch shell and off it granite and concrete quays floated a dry-dock, 1,000 feet long and 132 feet wide, able to hold the largest battleship. In February, 1942, the base, the city and the island endured a siege of fifteen days. At the end of it, 70,000 exhausted defenders surrendered to 100,000 Japanese and passed into a captivity, so rigorous and brutal, as to bring about the death of more than half of them. The fall of Singapore was as great a disaster as British arms had ever sustained.
All this was seventeen years in the future when the three men sat at their deliberations that May morning in London. As they proceeded it became evident that they were not in full agreement. The subject of their discussion was how best to provide for the defence of the slowly growing docks and arsenals of the new base. It had been decided in 1921 to remove the main naval base in the Far East from its remote and exposed position at Hong King, and the Committee of Imperial Defence had had under scrutiny for two years the strategic problem provided by the greatly enlarged and continually expanding navy of Japan. Should Great Britain and that country fall to war, a more central and safer spot for the Far Eastern naval base was essential. The Committee thought that they had found it on the island of Singapore and their choice was confirmed by the Imperial island of Singapore and their choice was confirmed by the Imperial Conference of 1932. Two years passed and still the experts debated the best methods of defending it. The First Sea Lord and the Chief
of the Imperial General Staff favoured that form of defence which a heavy fixed armament of 15-inch guns, accompanied by cannon of smaller calibre, could provide. It was well tried. In one form or another it had stood the test of many wars. Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, preferred a more mobile and far-ranging scheme. To the guns, the submarines, the light surface craft, should be added a squadron of fighter aircraft, two of torpedo bombers and a flight of seaplanes. The installation of immovable 15-inch guns in a fortress where they could have no effect beyond their own range and ‘where, in many wars, they would exercise no effect whatsoever’ was, he maintained, a mistake if they were to be the only, or the principal, form of defence. Why not use the air force to strike at the enemy long before he came within their range? Torpedo bombers could do so far out to sea, 150 to 200 miles from Singapore and the great guns.
Such revolutionary notions provoked much discussion. A compromise was eventually adopted, and it was agreed that the first stage of defence should be represented by three 15-inch guns and a complement of ordnance of smaller calibre, and that the second stage should make provision for torpedo aircraft.
For ten years from 1927, the pendulum swing uneasily between guns and aircraft, economy and lavishness. By 1929 the floating dock was in position, and more guns had been added to the defence, and No. 205 Squadron, equipped with Southampton and later with Singapore flying boats, was stationed at Seletar near the still uncompleted naval base. In 1930, when large economies in expenditure on armaments had become necessary, it was reinforced by No. 36 (Torpedo Bomber) Squadron. The completion of the defence scheme as a whole, however, was postponed for five years. Then in 1931 the outbreak of what amounted to war between China and Japan gave rise to apprehensions which two years later led to the despatch of a second Torpedo Bomber Squadron, No. 100, to Singapore, and the leisurely construction of two airfields. At that time the Air Staff was probably alone in believing that Singapore might be assaulted from some other direction than from the sea. The enemy’s fleet—and it was obvious to all that the potential enemy was Japan—was expected to attack the base supported by carrier-borne aircraft. To combat this form of assault reconnaissance squadrons were necessary, backed by squadrons capable of a sustained offensive against shipping. They would be provided.
With Singapore primarily in mind, a dual-purpose torpedo bomber aircraft had been developed capable of employment both in frontier warfare and coastal defence. In time of peace squadrons equipped
with this new type would form the air garrisons of Iraq and the northwest frontier of India, but should danger threaten in the Pacific, they could be transferred at short notice along the great strategic air route linking Baghdad and Singapore.
These then were the plans, drawn up and carried through by a succession of Chiefs of Staff over a period of twenty years, which, it was hoped, would be enough to guarantee the safety and fighting efficiency of this very important base. By the autumn of 1939 a total of three 15-inch (soon to be increased to five), six 9·2-inch and fourteen 6-inch guns were in position to defend the fortress, their arcs of fire covering a wide area of sea to the south-east, south and south-west of the island. To aid them, four bomber squadrons of the Royal Air Force, of which two were torpedo bomber, were ready with two flying boat squadrons to conduct that long range and flexible defence which Trenchard had so long and so strongly urged.
This situation endured through the opening months of the Second World War. In the last week of June, 140, however, the surrender of France caused a violent quickening of the tempo and events moved in a direction very detrimental to Great Britain and the Commonwealth, who found themselves carrying on the war unaided and with resources strained to the uttermost. It was in those melancholy circumstances that the Chiefs of Staff met in July and upon the last day of that month gave it as their considered opinion that the defence of Singapore must, in the absence of a fleet urgently needed elsewhere, depend primarily upon air power.
Germany controlled every European port and naval base from Narvik to Bordeaux. With the entry of Italy into the war, the position in the Mediterranean was precarious and the resources of the Royal Navy, great though they were, had been stretched almost to breaking point. This bastion of the Far East lay many miles outside the immediate area of hostilities and was designed to stand against a foe who had not yet declared his intentions and might, if fortune so will, never do so. Nevertheless, in planning every possibility must be considered, provision made for every contingency. To enable Singapore to be a firm base to be a firm base from which a fleet could operate, aircraft must, if possible, be provided for its defence. The Chiefs of Staff laid the Far East should consist of 336 modern first-line aircraft, supported by adequate reserves and the necessary administrative units. They must be ready to operate from Hong Kong to Calcutta and also from Ceylon. They were to assure the protection of all our interests in the Far East.
This appreciation was considered by the authorities on the spot
and judged by them to be insufficient. On 16th October, 1940, a conference at which all Commands in the Far East were represented, urged that the recommended establishment of 336 aircraft should be increased to 566. This in its view was the minimum first-line strength required to meet our Far Eastern commitments. With an increase in air strength in Malaya, a corresponding increase in the army, largely to provide for the defence of the many new airfields it would be necessary to build, was also needed.
To put down requirements on paper, however, was one thing; to translate them into fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft was another. The translation was never made. By 8th December, 1941, the day on which war with Japan broke out, only 362 aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force had been gathered together. Of these 233 were serviceable.
This weakness in the air, due first and last to the neglect of the Royal Air Force in years of peace, was a reason, perhaps the main reason, why the Japanese were able to achieve complete and overwhelming victory in a campaign which lasted but seventy days. Throughout that brief space of time the squadrons of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force charged with the defence of Malaya were at no moment capable of dealing adequately with those opposed to them or with the naval and military forces of the invader. They had no modern aircraft with which to perform this task. That is the bald truth.
It may seem strange that so vital a bastion of the Empire as Singapore, keystone of our Far Eastern defences, should have been left to defend itself with outmoded weapons in an outmoded manner against the assault of an enemy fully alive to the implications of modern warfare and eager to translate theory into practice. That Singapore was in this lamentable condition was due in the last resort not to any failure in London to appreciate the significance of the air weapon but to the inexorable pressure of events. It had always been understood that, if Singapore were attacked, its defence from the air was to be secured by a prompt use of that most valuable quality of an air force, its flexibility. A chain of airfields, stretching from England to the Far East through the Mediterranean and India had been constructed, so that reinforcements of fighters and bombers could be sent in a matter of days to the fortress. That the chain might be interrupted or that the Royal Air Force might be fully occupied elsewhere had either not been contemplated, or it had been decided, quite rightly, to construct the chain while it was still possible to do so, in the hope that one day enough aircraft to make proper use of it would be forthcoming. When the crisis came, they were not; and
the loss of Singapore was part of the price paid for the incurable habit of the English of allowing their armed forces in times of peace to fall far below the lowest level of safety.
This was clear enough, among others, to Duff Cooper, the energetic Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who had been despatched by the Prime Minister of Singapore and the Far East three months before the war with Japan broke out. His orders were to report on the general situation in those territories of the British and Dutch Empires likely to be attacked, were Japan to join Germany. An extensive tour showed him the inadequacy of the defence and the difficulties facing the commanders on the spot. He did what he could by making strong representations, some of them direct to the Prime Minister, to remedy a state of affairs for which there was, in fact, no remedy.
On 18th November, 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, a veteran of the First World War, took up his duties as Commander-in-Chief, Far East. Placed in operational control of the army and air forces, his instructions were on two points very definite. He was to do all that was possible to prevent war with Japan—‘Avoidance of war with Japan is the basis of Far East policy and provocation must be rigidly avoided’, telegraphed the Chiefs of Staff in March 1941, and repeated this instruction in September—and to rely for the maintenance of the defence of the Empire in the Far East, ‘primarily on air power’.
A brief study of the area covered by his Command, which included Hong Kong, Borneo, Malaya, Burma, Ceylon and the Indian Ocean as far as Durban and Mombasa, convinced Brooke-Popham that the problem was, fundamentally, a naval one. Although the army and air force together might be able to defend many important bases and to repel an enemy, his ultimate defeat could not be brought about unless control of communications by sea was continuous and assured. To achieve this, air superiority over inshore waters was a necessity, and it was here that, knowing the weakness of his air forces, the Commander-in-Chief found himself in so grave a difficulty. Shortage of aircraft, though the principal, was not the only cause of his embarrassment. Problems connected with the attitude of the Services towards each other, with the Intelligence Service, with airfields, with the warning system, with air raid precautions, with co-operation with the Dutch in Sumatra and Java, jostled each other in his office. Compared with these, the fact that the headquarters of the army were five miles distant from those of the air force, that the Governor and other civil authorities were established in Singapore
itself and the Naval Headquarters were thirty-five miles by road from the city, was of minor importance.
Brooke-Popham set himself grimly to his grim task. It took him very little time to discover that relations between the army and the air force were by no means happy; there was mutual jealousy and a mutual determination to avoid co-operation. It was not until the command of both Services had been placed in new hands and their headquarters provided with a Combined Operations Room that these troubles began to disappear. Relations on the other hand between the navy and the air force were goo. The fact was that all three Services had yet to learn, or rather to remember, that success in the conduct of a war, in which all three are involved, depends on co-operation, mutual and unrestrained.
There was, too, an almost entire lack of what is known broadly as Intelligence. In November, 1940, the Far Eastern Combined Bureau, established with the object of supplying information to all three Services, was in the charge of the Navy and located at Naval Headquarters. The information it produced had, not unnaturally, a degree of naval bias.
The most important weapon in the defence of Malaya and Singapore, the Royal Air Force, was in the hands of Air Vice-Marshal C. W. H. Pulford, destined a few months later to die tragically of exhaustion and malaria, a fugitive from a disaster he had been powerless to prevent. His duties were taken over on 11th February, 1942, four days before the end of the siege, by Air Vice-Marshal P. C. Maltby, who had been his assistant for some weeks, and who, together with so many of his officers and men, was to spend the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp. Upon these two men fell the responsibility of conducting the war in the air above the tangled jungles of Malaya and the sultry sea that was her coasts. One had already almost reached breaking point, brought thither by nine months of unremitting labour rendered even more arduous by a severe shortage of trained staff; the other was a newcomer constrained to assume command in the midst of a campaign already lost.
Apart from a grave lack of suitable aircraft, Pulford was continually faced with the difficulty of constructing and maintaining suitable airfields. For this, the topography of Malaya was largely responsible. A rugged, heavily-forested mountain range runs down the centre of the peninsula, dividing the eastern from the western coastal belt and ending at Johore, opposite Singapore Island. The coastal belts themselves are cut up by many broken hills, the plains in between them covered by plantations of rubber or paddy-fields. Rainfall is heavy throughout the year and persistent cloud formations,
clinging to the central range of mountains, are a severe handicap to the flight of aircraft from one side of Malaya to the other. Many airfields had thus to be built on the exposed east coast and several were sited in spots where their defence proved difficult, if not impossible. In particular, the landing grounds at Kota Bharu and Kuantan had been placed next to long and excellent sea beaches, a fact of which the Japanese were to take full advantage.
Despite unceasing efforts the construction of airfields progressed but slowly. There were eleven separate provincial government authorities in Malaya, with all of whom negotiations for the acquisition of land had to be conducted. Only when emergency powers had been invoked, were the delays thus caused brought to an end. Other and even more exasperating obstacles were a shortage of mechanical plant and of operators to drive and maintain a the few machines available, and a great lack of coolies. All labour was voluntary, and though a permanent labour committee existed to check expensive and wasteful competition between the Services and the Government departments, it could exercise no control over civilian firms which paid higher rates and showed little concern with problems of defence and little desire to co-operate. It had been dinned into ears, perhaps not as deaf as they seemed to be, that the production of rubber and tin was of the first and last importance and the inevitable conclusion had been drawn.
With such an attitude it is scarcely surprising that the Royal Air Force should have found the difficulties of airfield construction so numerous and so great. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of war, nine airfields were more or less fit for use in the north-west, three in the north-east, one in eastern, three in central and six in southern Malaya, though most of them still lacked facilities which in any other theatre of war would have been regarded as indispensable. There were in addition four on the island of Singapore itself, of which the most important was Seletar, close to the naval base. That at Tengah was completed on the day war broke out by the united efforts of officers and men stationed there. They laid 400 yards of metal paving in twenty-four hours.
Of the airfields so built, fifteen possessed no concrete runways but were surfaced with grass, a serious matter in a country where tropical rainfalls are frequent and severe; several, such as that at Alor Star, were out-of-date, with congested buildings close to the runway and few facilities for dispersal; very few were camouflaged, so that they ‘stood out stark and bare against the surrounding country’. Ground defences were inadequate or non-existent. The Commander-in-Chief had laid down that each airfield was to be
provided with eight heavy and eight light anti-aircraft guns. When war broke out, not one possessed this number. Only seventeen per cent of the quantity authorised had reached Malaya. The best defended airfield was Seletar, which had eight Bofors; the worse those in central and southern Malaya and a number in the northern districts, which had no anti-aircraft defence at all.
Facilities for the repair and maintenance of aircraft were equally deficient and such as did exist were concentrated in the workshops at Seletar, where No. 151 Maintenance Unit was stationed. These workshops, though equipped only to deal with the requirements of at most two squadrons, were called upon to service the whole air force in Malay. As twenty-seven modifications had to be made in the Brewster Buffalo fighter alone before it could be used in battle, the magnitude of their task is apparent. Of the two additional Maintenance Units authorised—Nos. 152 and 153—the former never progressed beyond the embryo stage whilst the latter though possessed of personnel was lacking in equipment.
Radar units to detect the approach of hostile aircraft and ships were also inadequate. On the east coast of Malaya, where the first landings took place, only two, those at Mersing and Bukit Chunang, were operational. The remaining five were still under construction. On the west coast, one had been completed and two others were approaching completion. Only on Singapore Island itself were all the posts, to the number of three, in working order. With so poor and thin a radar net, adequate warning was out of the question.
As with Radar Units, so with Signals. Teleprinter lines linked Air Headquarters in Singapore with the airfields on the island, but not with those in the Malay Peninsula itself, which were connected with Headquarters by only two telephone lines from north-west Malaya and one from the north-east and east. These had to be shared with the army and the civil administration, they passed through ordinary exchanges, and there were no provisions for secrecy. On one occasion the Commander-in-Chief, in the middle of an important conversation, was informed by the operator that his three minutes were up and was cut off.
Such were some of the administrative difficulties with which Pulford, and behind him Brooke-Popham, had to contend. Their principal preoccupation, however, remained from first to last the shortage of aircraft and the inadequacy of those which were available. Of those, the most modern, or, more accurately, the least out-of-date, were the Blenheims flown by Nos. 27, 34, 60 and 62 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force and the Hudsons of Nos. 1 and 8 Squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force. In addition, there were Nos. 36 and
100 (Torpedo-bomber) Squadrons equipped with Vildebeests. This was the whole bomber and reconnaissance force available, but to them must be added the three Catalina aircraft of No. 205 Squadron based at Seletar, No. 230 (Flying Boat) Squadron having been withdrawn and sent to the Middle East in May 1940. Such a force was woefully inadequate even if used for purely defensive purposes. Nor were the number and quality of the fighter aircraft more satisfactory. No. 243 Squadron, No. 488 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, and Nos. 21 and 453 Squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force constituted the fighter defence of Malaya. They were armed with Brewster Buffalos and could match the Japanese Air Force only in bravery. The Buffalo had ‘a disappointing performance’. It ‘was heavy and under-powered and thus had a slow rate of climb’. Compared with the Japanese Zero fighter it took 6·1 minutes to reach 13,000 feet as against 4·3 minutes. Its speed at 10,000 feet was not more than 270 miles an hour as against the Zero’s 315, and it only approached equality of speed at 20,000 feet. In an effort to increase its speed, ·303 machine-guns were substituted for ·5. Its fighting efficiency was further diminished by its radio instruments which were obsolete and unreliable.
A total of eight-eight reserve aircraft had been collected, of which fifty-two were Buffaloes, twenty-one of them being temporarily out of action. The number of Hudsons available for replacement was seven, of Blenheims fifteen.
To a shortage of aircraft must be added a shortage of pilots, above all of trained pilots. Most of those serving in Malaya had come from Australia and New Zealand straight from Flying Training Schools, and many of them had never flown any aircraft more modern than a Hart and ‘had no experience of retractable undercarriages, variable pitch propellers, or flaps’. The Buffalo Squadrons had been formed only a few months, and half of them had not reached operational efficiency. That it required but little more than four months to bring their pilots and those of the other squadrons to a condition in which they could operate against the enemy, is a tribute at once to their courage and their intelligence, and to the efficiency and drive of the squadron commanders.
Against this inadequately equipped air force, the Japanese had before the opening of hostilities amassed a force of some 300 modern land-based aircraft in Indo-China, not counting those which were carrier-borne. For bombing and reconnaissance they relied on Army Types ‘97’ and ‘99’ twin-engined aircraft. In addition the Navy Type ‘96’ was used as a torpedo-bomber. Fighter aircraft were represented by Army Types ‘1’ and ‘97’ and the Navy Type
‘0’—the Zero. This last aircraft proved the greatest surprise of the campaign. It possessed a top speed estimated at some 350 miles an hour, was armed with two 20-mm. cannons and two 7·7-mm. machine-guns, and was extremely manoeuvrable. Moreover, its range was appreciably increased by the fitting of an additional petrol tank which could be jettisoned when empty. Such a fighter was more than match for a Buffalo and also for the Hurricane Mark II, except at 20,000 feet. The Japanese had made use of the Navy Zero against the Chinese in the spring of 1940. Some details of its performance had been divulged by American newspaper correspondents stationed in Chungking, who had seen it in action at that time, and in the same year more details reached the Air Ministry from other sources in that city. On 2nd September, 1941, this information was duly forwarded to the Far Eastern Combined Bureau for transmission to Air Headquarters. It never arrived there. Moreover, in addition the information on this fighter provided by the Air Ministry, a detailed description of it, written in Chinese, reached Singapore in July and was duly translated. What happened next is a matter for conjecture since all records have been destroyed; but it seems probably that this very important report formed part of the mass of accumulated files with which the makeshift Intelligence Section, set up at Air Headquarters in October 1941, attempted to deal. When war broke out, they had by no means completed their task and the report remained undiscovered. The result was a disastrous surprise causing many casualties to pilots who had been informed that the Buffaloes they were flying were faster and better than any Japanese fighters—not one of which, it was reported, could reach 20,000 feet—and who had in consequence evolved a system of air tactics based on this ill-founded assumption.
The Commander-in-Chief and his Air Officer Commanding strove with might and main to remedy the deficiencies of their air force. On 30th June, 18th August and 20th August, 1941, urgent signals were sent to Whitehall describing the condition of affairs and asking for reinforcements. ‘At present’, said Brooke-Popham, ‘not only is our ability to attack shipping deplorably weak, but we have not the staying power to sustain even what we could do now. As our air effort dwindles ... so will the enemy’s chance of landing increase’. He ended by once more emphasising his main preoccupation. ‘I have no doubt what our first requirement here i. We want to increase out hitting power against ships and our capacity to go on hitting’.
His warnings did not by any means fall upon deaf ears, but the Chiefs of Staff were at that time powerless to aid him. As they pointed out, production of aircraft was disappointing—it had been
intended to replace the out-of-date Vildebeests with Beauforts manufactured in Australia, but they were not forthcoming; the air forces in the Middle East had to be reinforced in certain expectation of a German attack in the spring of 1942; and finally, and perhaps most important of all, Russia, fighting desperately against a heavy and concentrated onslaught, had to be assisted by every means and to the greatest possible extent. At the end of 1941, there was on every front a shortage of everything, from trained men to up-to-date equipment.
Such then was the general position of the air forces in Malaya on the eve of war. They, together with the small Dutch Air Force of twenty-two Glen Martin bombers and nine Buffalo fighters, were to form the air cover and air support for the navy and army. The Navy received a strong reinforcement on 2nd December in the form of the new battleship Prince of Wales and the older battlecruiser Repulse; the army was short of the troops and equipment considered to be the minimum for a successful defence. On 8th December, 1941, the total strength of the troops was just under 87,000 officers and men, very few of them trained in jungle warfare. they were without tanks and possessed only a small number of anti-tank weapons.
Behind the armed forces was the civilian population. Their attitude was of importance, for it inevitably affected the spirit of the fighting men. It must be noted with regret, therefore, that at every turn the efforts of the Commander-in-Chief and his subordinate commanders were, if not positively hampered, at least not actively encouraged by the local population, both European and Asiatic. The first had enjoyed many years of prosperity, not seriously impaired even during the slump of the early 1930s. They had behind them a tradition of wealth, or at least of easy circumstances, more than century old. Yet comparatively few of them regarded Malaya as their home. It was no Kenya nor South Africa nor New Zealand whither a man could go to build his life and raise a family. This was not their own, their native land—this rich, steamy country where a man’s shirt stuck to his back all the year round, and where ‘the showroom of the house was the cold room ... the daily retreat from the humid heat’. No doubt the uncomfortable climate was greatly responsible for their lack of energy and determination. Be that as it may, the help and comfort afforded to the fighting forces by men of the same race whose lives and property they were called upon to defend, was far smaller than it should have been.
While relations between the Services and the civilian communities up-country were good and in many places cordial, the planters doing all they could to help the soldiers and airmen, the reverse was so in
Singapore. In that city ‘the civilian community’, reports the Commander-in-Chief, ‘on the whole seemed to resent the presence of the Services as disturbing their ordered way of living’. The Japanese were to disturb it even more. This habit of ease remained with them to the end. Less than a week before the city surrendered, an observer could not that ‘there were queues outside the cinemas’.
The attitude of the Asiatic population was, for the most part, one of indifference. The largest part of it was Chinese, but even thought their compatriots in China had been fighting for four long years and more against Japan, few recruits from them were forthcoming and it is hard to escape the conclusion that the British administration had not sufficiently explained to them that, were war to break out, Great Britain and China would find themselves allies against a common foe. When this came to pass, the Chinese in Singapore showed themselves, particularly in the Air Raid Precautions organisation, to be calm and steadfast. They never gave way to panic even during the worst raids. The Malays were even more in different than the Chinese. The several thousand Indian labourers, mostly Tamils, had been drawn to Malaya by the prospect of higher wages. Like their British masters, they had no particular love for the country and intended, like them, to return home as soon as they had made sufficient money.
In passive defence against air raids the inhabitants of Singapore and of Malayan towns in general were especially ill-prepared. Everywhere precautions were primitive and for that part ineffectual. To achieve a satisfactory black-out was difficult, for to mask lights was to mask ventilation, and in the climate of Malaya the consequences were disagreeable or worse. A ‘brown-out’ rather than a ‘black-out’ was therefore adopted and proved on the whole unsatisfactory. The provision of air raid shelters, however, was a different matter. In Singapore, where the water level is close the surface, the digging of slit trenches was not only useless but dangerous, because they soon became filled with water and formed breeding places for mosquitoes. The medical authorities were against the construction of surface shelters which they maintained would interfere with the circulation of air and therefore be the cause of epidemics. Such views were doubtless correct in theory, but when the moment came and Singapore found itself subjected to a series of air attacks, which by the standard of 1941 and 1942 must be described as severe, the casualties caused by lack of adequate shelters were unduly high.
Brooke-Popham had not been in command two months before the entry of Japanese forces into Cambodia and Cochin China, often rumoured, became an accomplished fact. At that time, however, and during the months that followed, it was not easy to decide whether
this move was intended to prepare the way for an attack on Siam or on Malaya; but by November, 1941, indications that an attack on one or the other was imminent began to multiply. Four Japanese cruisers and some destroyers were reported in the South China Sea; the 5th Japanese, highly trained in landing operations, had moved into southern Indo-China and the number of Japanese aircraft there had increased from 74 to some 300 in the space of a month. They did not remain inactive upon their newly seized or constructed airfields, but with increasing frequency carried out long-range reconnaissance flights over Malaya. One of their airborne cameras, which had become detached from its mounting, was picked up in Ipoh about this time. The Royal Air Force did their best to do likewise, but the enemy’s main sea base at Kamranh was out of range, and the Commander-in-Chief was unable to persuade General MacArthur, commanding in Manila, to send a Boeing Fortress, which had the necessary range and ceiling, to photograph that harbour. Orders from Washington, said the General, prevented him from carrying out this request. At the time, America, it seemed, was as reluctant as with Great Britain to provoke Japan.
On 28th November, information arrived from Saigon to the effect that it was the intention of the Japanese to land troops in southern Siam on 1st December. The report was not taken very seriously, but as a precaution Air Headquarters were ordered to maintain a daily reconnaissance seawards in an easterly direction; though, in pursuance of the strict injunctions of the Chiefs of Staff, it was made clear that ‘a striking force will not be ordered to attack the convoy, if found’. The aircraft flew daily on their appointed courses, but saw nothing upon the wide spaces of the sea until 3rd December, when two large cargo boats were sighted.
It was at this juncture when a Japanese invasion of Siam appeared to be imminent that Brooke-Popham was faced with a most difficult decision. Was this the moment to launch operation ‘MATADOR’? As a plan it had long been matured and did not lack boldness. An advance was to be made into the Kra Isthmus and a line occupied to the north of Haad Yai junction in the area of Singora. From a military point of view such a position was the easiest to occupy and defend. It would make it possible to attack the enemy when he would be at his most vulnerable, at the moment of landing, and it would add to the number of airfields available and deny them to the Japanese. From the air force point of view this would obviously be a great advantage. The squadrons would be closer to the battlefield and therefore in a better position to support the land forces. They in their turn would be able to protect the air force.
There was, however, a political consideration. The Kra Isthmus is situated not in northern Malaya, but in Siam (Thailand), an ostensibly neutral country. This neutrality would have to be violated, and had not the Commander-in-Chief been directed most firmly to everything he could to avoid war with Japan? Such a violation would almost certainly lead to immediate war and would do grave harm to our cause in America.
Brooke-Popham proceeded with caution. Detailed plans for operation ‘MATADOR’ were drawn up but were kept very secret and for weeks a ban, which could be lifted only by the War Cabinet, was placed on their execution. Two days before the Japanese attack, however, the Commander-in-Chief was informed by Whitehall that he was free to launch the operation if he had reason to believe that the Japanese intended to land on the Kra Isthmus, or if they had already violated any other part of Siamese territory.
To take part in operation ‘MATADOR’, Air Headquarters formed Norgroup, consisting of two Blenheim bomber squadrons, Nos. 62 and 34, one fighter squadron, No. 21 of the Royal Australian Air Force armed with Buffalos, and one night-fighter squadron, No. 27, flying Blenheims, to work in conjunction with the III Indian Corps. When the preliminary order was issued on 22nd November, No. 21 Squadron joined No. 27 Squadron at Sungei Patani; No. 62 was at Alor Star and No. 34 Squadron at Tengah.
With each day that passed it became increasingly obvious that the situation was moving from bad to worse, and moving rapidly. More and more Japanese movements were reported and it presently became plain to the Commander-in-Chief that a decision whether to launch operation ‘MATADOR’ or not could not be further delayed. On 29th November the period of warning was reduced from seventy-two to twelve hours. A week went by and then at two o’clock in the afternoon of 6th December the curtain lifted. Hudsons flown by No. 1 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, based on Kota Bharu, reported sighting, eighty miles east-south-east of the most southern point of Indo-China, two convoys steaming west. One was composed of twenty-two merchant vessels of an average burden of 10,000 tons, escorted by one battleship, probably the Kongo, five cruisers and seven destroyers; the other was made up of twenty-one merchant ships escorted by two cruisers and ten destroyers. Farther to the westward, one Japanese cruiser and three merchant ships were also sighted steering north-west. The achievement of the squadron in finding these ships, more than 300 miles away from the Malayan coast, was a tribute to their training and persistence. The pilots had evidently well digested the first part of the general order issued to the Royal Air Force ‘to find
the enemy at sea as far away from Malaya as possible’. Was the second part, ‘to strike hard and often’, now to be put into operation?
The Commander-in-Chief hesitated, as well he might, for until he was aware that the Japanese were apparently moving by sea against the Kra Isthmus or ‘had violated any other part of Thailand’, he had been forbidden to attack them. He consulted his naval colleagues: Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Layton, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, who had just arrived flying his flag in the Prince of Wales, and Rear Admiral Palliser, his Chief of Staff. These officers were in doubt about the future course of the convoys. Would they continue to sail onwards and thus reach the Kra Isthmus, or would they turn and seek anchorage for the night somewhere on the west coast of Indo-China? The matter was earnestly debated and the conclusion presently reached that the second possibility was the more probable Brooke-Popham and the naval chiefs were inclined to think that the Japanese expeditions would enter Siamese waters in the hope of being attacked and thus of providing a casus belli. In the circumstances, the Air Chief Marshal decided not to launch operation ‘MATADOR’ but to wait until further reconnaissance should put the destination of the convoys beyond reasonable doubt. At this point the weather intervened.
The Hudsons had found the convoys at the extreme limit of their range and had not been able to remain in contact with them. A Catalina flying boat of No. 205 Squadron was despatched to shadow the convoys throughout the night. The hours went by, but no signals were received from it, and a second Catalina sent on the same mission was equally silent. The first eventually returning having seen nothing of the enemy. The second was shot down by the air escort of the Japanese convoy based on Phu Kok off the west coast of Cambodia where an airfield had been constructed in less than a month. As soon as day dawned on the 7th Pulford sent out another reconnaissance of Hudsons with orders to regain contact with the convoys and keep them in view. At the same time all the air forces were brought to ‘No. 1 degree of readiness’, which meant that they were to be prepared for immediate operations against the enemy. But the Hudsons failed to repeat their success of the previous day. Two out of the three despatched returned because of bad weather; the third range the Gulf of Siam, but in the low cloud and rain prevailing, saw nothing. The Air Officer Commanding now relied upon the Catalinas of No. 205 Squadron to regain contact with the convoys. They, too, failed, and the approach of the Japanese towards Singora remained, in consequence, undiscovered. Most of their transports had, in fact, made for that Siamese port, sailing a somewhat devious course to reach it. Only eight and a cruiser ultimately
made for Kota Bharu. It was, perhaps, part of this force which was seen be a Hudson late that afternoon. Fire was opened upon it by an enemy warship.
All this, however, was unknown to Brooke-Popham, and a final decision concerning operation ‘MATADOR’ had still to be taken. To launch it too late would be useless, for the troops must be in position at least twenty-four hours ahead of the Japanese, and this would be impossible if the convoys were making for Singora and had not turned north-west. The Commander-in-Chief was in a position of greatest difficulty. Not to move the troops and the air force behind them into the Kra Isthmus would be to lose all hope of gaining the initiative, if war were to break out. On the other hand, to be the first into Siam would almost certainly provoke war. At this juncture a telegram, in which it is difficult not to detect a note of hysteria, arrived from Sir Josiah Crosby, British Representative in Siam. ‘For God’s sake’, wired the Minister, ‘do not allow British forces to occupy on inch of Thai territory unless and until Japan has struck the first blow at Thailand’. Sir Josiah went on to state that the attack of the Japanese on Thailand had been planned for 3rd December, had then been postponed, but was due to take place in the immediate future. It was in fact taking place at that moment. But at that moment, too, the Commander-in-Chief decided to cancel operation ‘MATADOR’. His reasons, he explained afterwards, were both political and strategic. If the conclusions drawn from an incomplete reconnaissance, not subsequently confirmed, were incorrect, than Britain would be the first to infringe Siamese neutrality, and this was precisely what the Japanese desired. If they were correct and the Japanese were landing at Singora, it would be too late to take up the chosen line.
As that Sunday dragged on, and no news of Japanese aggression arrived—Pearl Harbor was bombed that day but no report of this reached Singapore until the following morning—Brooke-Popham and the other commanders became more and more convinced that the Japanese, by entering the Gulf of Siam, were doing their utmost to provoke an incident which would give them the excuse for war they needed. The final decision to abandon operation ‘MATADOR’ was not taken until nine o’clock that evening, after a report had been received from the pilot of a Hudson that three small Japanese ships had been seen passing Singora, heading south. Four and a half hours later the roar of guns off the coast at Kota Bharu, and an hour and a half after the loud voices of exploding bombs in the streets of Singapore, scattered the clouds of uncertainty once and for all. Japan had struck. War had come to Malaya and the enemy had gained the initiative.