Yamashita also had a massive aerial technological advantage. The Navy’s Zero and its Army knock-off, the “Oscar,” could fly rings around the British Buffaloes. The Army’s Ki-97 “Sally” bomber carried a 2,200-pound bomb load, twice the punch of the British Blenheim. The Navy’s Mitsubishi “Betty” bombers could carry the same load or the Type 95 Long Lance torpedo, the finest in the world. Unlike their British counterparts, Japanese aviators had extensive experience, having fought in China.
Japan’s war plan depended on surprise, speed, and timing. On December 8, 1941 (December 7 in America), they would attack across the Pacific, hitting Hawaii, Guam, Wake, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya. Japanese troops would march into Thailand and gain that nation’s alliance. The British planned, in the event of an impending invasion of Malaya, to launch Operation Matador, which called for a brigade group called Kroh Column to race from Malaya into Thailand in a preemptive strike and grab Singora and Patani before the Japanese arrived. Nobody on the British side thought this would ever happen.
Even when Yamashita’s transports were sighted in the Gulf of Siam on December 6, and the Straits Times reported “invasion imminent,” Brooke-Popham phoned the newspaper’s editor, Jimmy Glover, and accused him of alarmist reporting. “The situation isn’t half as serious as you make it out,” Brooke-Popham said.
“That’s not fair,” Glover retorted. “This information was passed by the censor. To me the presence of those transports off Cambodia Point means war.” Brooke-Popham had no answer, but he and his staff debated the big issue: whether or not to launch Matador. If Kroh Column and its troops raced into Thailand, the vacillating neutral Thai government might react to this invasion as reason to ally with the Japanese. On the other hand, if British troops got to Singora and Patani ahead of Yamashita’s convoys, they could be stopped on the beaches.
London had delegated this vital decision to Brooke-Popham, and he and his staff debated. Was this a Japanese invasion or a ruse to make the British invade Thailand and put that nation on Japan’s side? Heavy rain prevented further reconnaissance off the coast, but Brooke-Popham’s answer came in a panicky telegram from Sir Josiah Crosby, British Minister in Thailand. He said, “For God’s sake do not allow British forces to occupy one inch of Thai territory unless and until Japan has struck the first blow at Thailand.”
That settled it for Brooke-Popham. He ordered the 11th Indian Division to be ready for Matador, but not to launch it. Kroh Column and the Indian troops moved forward to the border in drenching rain, awaiting orders.
“First Degree of Readiness”
As the weather deteriorated with the monsoon’s onset, the Japanese convoys split up to reach their targets. First was the Kota Bahru force, under Maj. Gen. Takumi, whose main purpose was actually to grab the port and divert British attention from the main landings in Singora and Patani.
Just after midnight on December 8, the Japanese began unloading their transports. Takumi wrote, “There was the dull light of an oval moon from over the sea to the east. A stiff breeze was blowing and I could hear it whistling in the radio aerials. The waves were now up to six feet.”
In the heavy sea and winds, it was difficult to lower the landing craft into the water. They swung in their davits and crashed into the transports’ sides. Any more wind and chaos would result. In the landing craft, Takumi’s men were “not only encumbered with lifejackets, but with rifles, light machine guns, ammunition, and equipment. It was very hard to jump into the landing craft, and even harder to move forward to our places. At intervals a soldier would fall screaming into the sea, and the sappers would fish him out.”
It took an hour for the landing craft to reach the shore, but when they did, they came under heavy machine-gun fire from Brigadier Billy Key’s 8th Indian Brigade.
The landing set off alarms, which rocketed up the chain of command to Fort Canning in Singapore. At 1:15 am Percival phoned Sir Shenton Thomas to inform him of the Japanese attack. Thomas’s reaction was quite casual: “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off!” That accomplished, Thomas awakened his wife and servants, ordered coffee on the large first-floor balcony of his house, and wrote out a proclamation for the “First Degree of Readiness.” Amazingly, it did not call for a blackout.
The Air War Begins
Meanwhile, at Kota Bahru, the war heated up. RAF Blenheim bombers attacked the invasion force, hitting Takumi’s headquarters ship, the Awajisan Maru. Instead of heading for another ship, Takumi headed straight for the shore, ignoring naval pleas to abort the assault. On the beach, his men were pinned down by Indian Bren guns. Takumi ordered his officers to lead the men inland, outflank the British positions, and overrun them. By 4 am, Takumi’s men were off the beach and heading inland.
That word reached Yamashita as his main force landed in Singora. Finding no resistance, Japanese troops came ashore in parade order. Yamashita himself hiked over to the Thai provincial governor’s residence to demand free passage through Thailand.
At the same time, Air Vice Marshal C.W.H. Pulford phoned Sir Shenton Thomas with more bad news: Enemy planes were approaching Singapore, which was not blacked out. Thomas, stunned, alerted the Harbor Board and Air Raid Precautions, but nobody could find the engineer with the keys to the big switches at the power plant. It would not have mattered anyway. Most of the streetlights in Singapore were gas lamps and had to be lit or extinguished by a man with a long pole, one at a time, a process that took hours. When the 22nd Air Flotilla’s “Betty” and “Sally” bombers roared over Singapore at 4:15 am, the whole city, including Fort Canning, was fully lit.
Japanese bombs pasted Singapore. Sixty-one people were killed and 133 injured. One bomb blasted open Robinson’s air-conditioned restaurant on Raffles Place. Japanese bombers rumbled over the city, unimpeded by RAF night fighters. Even though three RAAF Buffaloes were fueled and ready to fly, the RAF command would not let them scramble, afraid they would be shot down by jittery antiaircraft gunners.
By dawn, the air raid was over and Singapore was in the war. So was the entire Pacific Ocean, as the news tickers spit out reports of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor … Wake … Guam … the Philippines … and Hong Kong, all describing a string of Allied disasters.
The Japanese Gain Air Superiority
Muddle continued on the Malaya-Thailand frontier. While Japanese troops unloaded in Singora and Yamashita browbeat Thai officials into providing his men with unimpeded passage (accomplished by 1 pm), the 11th Indian Division soaked in the rain, awaiting orders. Brooke-Popham could not locate Percival all morning, so it was not until 1 pm that Maj. Gen. D.M. Murray-Lyon learned that Matador was off, and he was to withdraw his troops to equally waterlogged trenches at Jitra.
Things were little better at Kota Bahru. The Japanese took 15 percent casualties fighting British troops, who were struggling to defend the airfield against ground and air attack. At 4 pm, a rumor swept the Indian lines that the Japanese had broken through. The airfield’s ground crew blew up their installations and drove off before Key and his staff could countermand the panic. The RAF withdrawal denied Key’s men any form of air cover, so Key was forced to withdraw.
All day long the Japanese Air Force pounded RAF bases whose locations and strength had been provided by Patrick Heenan, the traitor. From his base at Alor Star, Heenan transmitted reports on RAF activity to the Japanese on his radio. When the Japanese had not hit Alor Star by 10 am, an RAF airman asked Heenan, “Why haven’t we been hit? We’re in the front line.”
“Oh, they will do,” Heenan answered cheerfully. “They will do.” At 11 am, shortly after the base’s Blenheim bombers landed to refuel and rearm, 27 Japanese bombers arrived, blasting open nine Blenheims with light fragmentation bombs and killing nine people. One bomb hit the dispensary, exploding the supply of pharmaceuticals.
The timing was perfect. The Japanese had known from Heenan not to attack Alor Star until its bombers were on the ground. Army Private “Bladder” Wells pointed out to his sergeant, “Every time we make a move, Captain Heenan seems to push off somewhere.” Heenan had a neat trick of vanishing just before any action at Alor Star that day. His odd behavior attracted the attention of his commanding officer, Major James Cable France, but France was too busy coping with disaster to investigate Heenan. The RAF team at Alor Star was ordered to pack up during the night to evacuate south to the base at Butterworth.
By the end of the day, the RAF was down from 110 aircraft to about 50. The Japanese had gained complete air superiority.