Blitzkrieg: How Imperial Japan Swooped Into Singapore During World War II

Image: Reuters
March 29, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Fall Of SingaporeImperial JapanWorld War IIBritainPacific Theater.

Blitzkrieg: How Imperial Japan Swooped Into Singapore During World War II

Here's how they did it.

The Royal Navy was not in any better shape. Three outdated light cruisers headed the Singapore squadron. As war came closer, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a task force consisting of two battleships and an aircraft carrier sent to Singapore as a deterrent and morale booster. The ships chosen were the new Prince of Wales, Britain’s latest dreadnought, and the older Repulse, a battlecruiser that had been in service since Jutland, yet had never fired her guns in anger. The carrier, Indomitable, ran aground during work-ups in Jamaica and never made it to Malaya, which would prove fatal for the other two capital ships.

The two battlewagons steamed into Singapore on December 1, 1941, under the command of Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. The big ships drew cheers as they steamed into Singapore harbor, as visible displays of the Royal Navy’s traditions of power and invincibility.

Japanese Intelligence on Malaya

The Japanese, however, were not impressed. They had an extremely clear intelligence picture of Malaya. Japanese agents covered the country, working as dentists, photographers, fishermen, and traders. Even the official photographer of the Singapore Naval Base was a Japanese spy. The Japanese opened consulates in Singora and Patani across the Thai border and filled them with “special attachés,” who were actually spies.

Major Terundo Kunitake, an engineer, had been assigned to the Japanese consulate in Singapore. He spent his time making detailed surveys of Malaya’s roads, bridges, and rivers, creating maps that were more accurate than those used by the British.

The Japanese noted that despite Malaya’s mountains and jungles it was well crisscrossed with concrete roads, including a major trunk highway from Singora down the West Coast to Singapore, perfect for a motorized advance. Japanese spies reported to Tokyo that the British propaganda about Singapore’s impregnability was a bluff.

Japanese spies cultivated fifth columnists and disaffected Indian troops. Japanese agents funded the Indian Independence League, spreading anti-British propaganda. One of the men they subverted was no Indian, though, but a New Zealander, Captain Patrick Heenan, the British Army’s liaison officer to the Royal Air Force. Equipped with a portable radio set in a fake chaplain’s communion set, he provided valuable information to the Japanese on the RAF’s superb Northern Malaya airfields and its lack of defenses right up to the first two days of the war.

Another vital intelligence source landed in Japanese hands on November 11, 1940, when the disguised German merchant raider Atlantis stopped the British freighter Automedon in the Indian Ocean. When the Briton refused to silence his radio, Atlantis hurled 5.9-inch shells into Automedon’s bridge and radio room, killing everyone there.

Lieutenant Ulrich Mohr and his boarding party raced over in Atlantis’s launch and tore open the old ship’s strong room. They found 15 bags of secret mail, including British merchant decoding tables, fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and naval intelligence reports. Next to the shattered radio console Mohr found a bag marked “Highly Confidential … To Be Destroyed.” Inside was a report addressed to “C-in-C Far East … To Be Opened Personally.”

Back on Atlantis, Mohr and his skipper, Captain Bernhard Rogge, broke open the papers. Mohr was a skilled linguist and easily translated the War Cabinet Planning Division’s latest appreciation of the British Empire’s strength in the Far East. He gaped at deployments of RAF units and naval strengths in Malaya, along with vast notes on the Singapore fortifications. The paper even pointed out that it was unlikely Singapore could be held in case of an extended siege. Rogge, who would retire an admiral despite a Jewish background, dispatched the documents to Yokohama aboard the prize Norwegian tanker Ole Jacob.

When the Japanese received the documents, they initially thought they were fakes. But when they compared them with what their spies reported in Malaya, they were amazed. After Singapore fell, Rogge would become one of three Germans (the other two being Hermann Göring and Erwin Rommel) who would receive a jeweled samurai sword from the Emperor of Japan as a gesture of thanks.

The “Taiwan Research Army”

All of this intelligence was useful to the Japanese, as their army had little experience operating in jungles. To overcome this problem, the Japanese created the “Taiwan Army Research Unit” in Formosa in 1941, under Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, an arrogant but brilliant officer. This blandly named unit, consisting of 11 men, was to research and develop every aspect of campaigning in tropical climes. Tsuji and his men worked out tactics and logistics, often going out into Formosa’s jungles to test their theories. The result of their planning was a thick pamphlet issued to every soldier who invaded Malaya, which Tsuji grandiosely entitled, Read This Alone—And the War Can Be Won.

He was nearly right. The booklet provided the Japanese soldier with a dose of propaganda, useful rules to follow during the ocean voyage to Malaya, and procedures for battle, marching, hygiene, and signaling in Malaya’s terrain. It even reminded troops to carry a hand fan on the march to help keep cool. “Officers and men, the eyes of the whole world will be upon you in this campaign, and working together in community of spirit, you must demonstrate to the world the true worth of Japanese manhood,” the book concluded.

Yamashita’s 25th Army

The manhood assigned to the conquest of Malaya was the 25th Army, based on Hainan Island. Their commander was appointed on November 2, 1941. Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita was a burly officer who had served as military attaché in Switzerland and commander of the Kwantung Army in China. Yamashita was very familiar with modern European weapons and techniques. In 1940, he led a military mission to Germany that studied the Nazi war machine in detail. Yamashita had gone all the way to Calais, watching British and German aircraft dogfight over the English Channel. Married to the daughter of a general, Yamashita was a deeply religious man who did not own or drive a car and enjoyed fishing and gardening.

Yamashita had also become mixed up in the bloodthirsty politics of the interwar Japanese Army and was connected to coup attempts and assassinations during the 1930s. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo disliked and distrusted Yamashita. The feeling was mutual.

When Yamashita took command of the 25th Army, six days short of his birthday, he knew very little of the Malayan situation, but absorbed Tsuji’s information rapidly and placed the colonel’s team on his command staff.

Tsuji believed that the best way to take Malaya would be to invade the peninsula from the north, storming ashore at Singora and Patani in Thailand, then driving south down the main highway on the west coast, and taking the fortress from the rear—exactly as British wargamers and Dobbie had believed. Yamashita agreed with his planners.

Offered five divisions to take Malaya, Yamashita said he would need only three. Tokyo planners were astounded by Yamashita’s sang-froid—three divisions against Asia’s greatest fortress—but Yamashita realized that his supply line would be long and thin, and he lacked both sea and land transport. A lean force would accomplish more than a heavy one.

Two of Yamashita’s divisions were outstanding outfits: Maj. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi led the 18th Infantry Division and had served as Yamashita’s chief of staff. Mutaguchi was exceptionally ambitious. The 18th Division deployed 22,206 men, but had only 33 vehicles. A total of 5,707 horses would haul the division’s supplies into battle. General Takuro Matsui led the 5th Infantry Division, which had launched amphibious assaults on China. The 5th was well-supplied with wheeled transport, totaling 1,008 vehicles, to move its 15,342 men. Both divisions were old-style “square” divisions of two brigades and four regiments.

The third outfit, however, General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division, had not fought a battle since 1905. Its men were selected for their height, not fighting ability, and they were used primarily for ceremonial occasions. When Yamashita saw them in maneuvers on Hainan Island, he was enraged at their ineptitude. He ordered Nishimura to lay on realistic combat training, but the snobbish Guardsman refused. When the Imperial Guards loaded their transports for invasion, they were considered one of the worst-trained divisions in the Imperial Japanese Army. A modern “triangular” division with three regiments, it had 12,649 men and 914 vehicles.

Yamashita also had supporting engineer and tank regiments for each of his three divisions, well equipped to replace blown bridges. Although short on transport and logistical units, a typical Japanese failing, 25th Army was one of the toughest armies on earth. Its secret weapon was the bicycle, which enabled Japanese troops to move swiftly and silently down Malayan roads. Including the headquarters guard and paperchasers, it all added up to 88,000 men.

Yamashita also enjoyed strong naval protection, with an ample supply of warships to escort his convoys heading south. His trump cards were the Army’s 3rd Air Division and the Navy’s 22nd Air Flotilla. The Army would bring 146 fighters, 172 bombers, and 36 reconnaissance planes into battle, while the Navy had 36 fighters, 138 bombers, and six reconnaissance machines. With 564 aircraft, Yamashita enjoyed a 5-to-1 numerical advantage over the Allies.