Plummeting British Morale
Disasters continued to accelerate for the British. That evening, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse steamed out to sea without air cover to intercept the Japanese convoys off Singora. On December 10, Japanese bombers caught the two dreadnoughts and sank them. Phillips went down with more than 830 fellow sailors, still radioing Singapore to send tugs instead of fighter aircraft. The British ships never got near the convoys.
The sinkings were catastrophic for British morale. Reporter Ian Morrison wrote, “Blown clean away at one fell swoop was one of the main pillars on which our sense of security rested.” At the Raffles Hotel, the radio announcement stopped the dancing and music, and everyone went straight home.
On the morning of the 9th, the RAF team at Alor Star left. As they set off, Major France was asked to put a chaplain’s communion set in his car. France did so, but he was surprised to see another one in the back of a truck. France knew his chaplain had only one such set in the unit. He took the second case into his office, opened it up, and found Heenan’s radio. Setting a trap, France put both sets in his car and set off for Butterworth. Once there, he and aides watched the parked car to see who would take the fake set.
Heenan opened the car, looked through the sets, and left with the one that contained the radio. France had his man. He notified his superiors, and Chief Inspector Sandy Minns of the Straits Settlement Police came up with a company of armed civilian and RAF police to take Heenan into custody.
The traitor tried to flee in civilian clothes before the cops and Red Caps showed up, but lacked the nerve, so he returned to face the music after notifying the Japanese on his radio of RAF movements at Butterworth. The Japanese pounded the base and knocked out all but one of the Blenheims. By evening Heenan was in a Penang jail cell, awaiting court-martial in Singapore. News of his treachery, wildly inflated, spread through the British forces, damaging battered morale even further.
“Muddle, Confusion, and Stupidity”
British organization did not get much better. Churchill appointed Duff-Cooper as president of the War Council for Malaya, with cabinet rank. The civilian disliked the military commander-in-chief, Brooke-Popham. The dislike was mutual, as Brooke-Popham resented Duff-Cooper’s abrasive personality. The two argued incessantly.
While the British command was a model of discord, Yamashita’s men, some using requisitioned Thai trucks, were moving lickety-split toward Jitra and the airfield at Alor Star. The key to Japanese mobility was their secret weapon, the bicycle, which could be used on Malaya’s many roads and on narrow wooden bridges hastily flung up by engineers. When the tires burst, the Japanese pedaled ahead on the metal rims. The clattering of the bicycle rims sounded to British troops like advancing tanks, which added to the chaos.
Not everything went the Japanese way. While Yamashita and his top brass enjoyed their strong intelligence, frontline Japanese officers had to make do with maps ripped from schoolbook atlases. Supply chains broke down.
On the Jitra line, Murray-Lyon’s 11th Indian Division dug in on a long front with too many gaps. The 15th Brigade’s line was 6,000 yards long, while 6th Brigade’s stretched 18,000 yards. Neither brigade could support the other. Amid pouring rain, Indian troops had only just enough time to string up a few strands of barbed wire and telephone lines before the Japanese arrived.
The Japanese attacked at 8 am on the 11th, forcing the 15th Brigade to withdraw in the pouring rain. The Japanese charged again with tanks, which panicked the Punjabis, most of whom had never even seen one, friendly or enemy. The Punjabis collapsed, leaving the 2/1st Gurkhas to absorb the Japanese attack. The Gurkhas were flanked and torn apart, retreating in small groups back to British lines.
The 6th Brigade did no better. When some of its outpost troops withdrew with seven anti-tank guns and four mountain guns, they reached a stream at Manggoi west of Jitra, whose bridge had been readied for demolition. The officer in charge of the bridge heard the column rumble down and blew the bridge, forcing the column to abandon its guns and trucks on the north bank.
“Seldom in the history of war can there have been such an unbroken skein of muddle, confusion, and stupidity,” wrote historian Arthur Swinson.
The Jitra Disaster
The Japanese drove on, moving by bicycle down paved roads most of the time and through jungle when necessary to ambush the British. On December 12, Percival’s two-day-old Order of the Day reached the rain-soaked and dispirited troops at Jitra: “The eyes of the Empire are upon us. Our whole position in the Far East is at stake. The struggle may be long and grim, but let us resolve to stand fast, come what may, and prove ourselves worthy of the great trust which has been placed in us.”
At noon, the Japanese 5th Infantry Division terrorized the 15th Brigade again. Soon troops and transports were streaming back amid disorder and rumors, and the 11th Division was on the run again, behind a screen of rearguard Gurkhas. The Indian troops, lacking antitank guns and training, as well as proper communications, decent maps, and time to prepare defenses, panicked at the sight of the riveted Japanese monsters.
The 11th Division retreated 15 miles in pouring rain, with units losing equipment and cohesion. The 15th Brigade emerged with only 600 men. Only one of its battalions, the 1st Leicesters, was able to hang onto its Bren carriers and mortars. Indian Sepoys tossed away their rifles as they fled. The 2/1st Gurkhas were down to one company. Japanese casualties were 27 killed and 83 wounded. The 11th Division was a wreck, having lost hundreds of men, as well as guns, equipment, transport, and even a set of maps with all the defensive positions marked. The Japanese took 3,000 prisoners. The attacking Japanese force had consisted of barely two battalions of infantry and a company of tanks.
Many of the Indians defected, becoming the nucleus of the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army, which would guard POWs and fight alongside the Japanese in Burma. This collection of traitors was headed by Mohan Singh, a captain in the British Army, who was vaulted to the rank of INA general by the Japanese, who were delighted with their haul. General Matsui wrote, “The enemy troops have no fighting spirit … they are glad to surrender … they are relieved to be out of the war.”
British historians were harder, calling the Jitra disaster “the biggest disgrace to British/Indian arms since Chillianwala in the Second Sikh War of 1848.”
The Evacuation of Penang
On the 13th, the 11th Indian Division streamed across the Sungei Kedah River near Alor Star. At dawn, Murray-Lyon watched his men retreat across parallel road and rail bridges. When the last Sepoy walked across, Murray-Lyon saw two Japanese motorcyclists headed toward them. Indian machine guns opened fire and killed the Japanese, and Murray-Lyon ordered the bridges blown. Explosives and smoke sullied the air, but when they cleared, the railway bridge was still standing. Before Murray-Lyon could show any rage, a railroad train came down from the north. Everybody relaxed, figuring the train’s weight would complete the job, but it jumped the gap in the rails and rolled on.
Engineers laid more mines and blew the bridge just as more Japanese arrived. They crossed the river and were immediately hurled back by the 2/9th Gurkhas. But Murray-Lyon decided his men were in no shape to fight and ordered a further 20-mile withdrawal to Gurun.
The troops staggered back, dazed and sleepless, to find no defenses. The 2/1st Gurkhas marched 64 miles in four days without rations. They hoped to have time to lay barbed wire and mines and get some sleep. Murray-Lyon figured it would take the Japanese three days to replace the blown bridges. It took the Japanese a day and a half.
By lunchtime on the 14th, three Japanese tanks and 12 truckloads of infantry charged down on the 6th Brigade at Gurun. This time the Indians had deployed their 2-pounder anti-tank guns and blasted the lead tank. The other two retired. Japanese infantry leaped from their trucks and charged the 5/2nd Punjabis. In two hours, they penetrated the exhausted Indians’ positions and sent the Sepoys scattering back. Brigadier W.O. Lay, commanding the 6th Brigade, recognized signs of incipient collapse and personally led a counterattack that stabilized the situation.
The victory, however, was temporary. Percival authorized another retreat that day, 60 miles south to the Perak River, with an evacuation of Penang Island, Britain’s oldest holding in the Far East.
The Japanese did not wait for the British to retreat to the Perak. Just after midnight, they opened up a mortar bombardment, and then bayonet-wielding infantrymen charged straight down the road. They stormed through the Punjabi lines and into the 2nd East Surreys, killing the battalion’s commanding officer and his staff. The Japanese charged on and destroyed 6th Brigade headquarters, leaving a gaping hole in the center of the line. Brigadier Carpendale of 28th Brigade took over, but the 11th Division was mangled further.