The 5/2nd Punjabis, one of the most “Indianized” units, was a mess. Newly trained NCOs and officers withdrew in panic. One officer was asked at pistol point why he had withdrawn without orders. Sepoys turned up at aid stations with self-inflicted wounds. It was the result of flinging poorly trained men into battle without support.
Worse, the planned evacuation of Penang also degenerated into panic. The British fled on the 16th, leaving the civilian population behind, along with intact power stations, radio stations, and collections of 24 motorized junks and barges, which the Japanese put to use.
Declining Morale With “Strategic Withdrawals”
At Alor Star, Japanese troops swarmed all over the captured base. Colonel Masanobu Tsuji found “a gift of bombs piled high, and moreover, in one of the buildings hot soup was arranged on a dining room table. Among the surrounding rubber trees 1,000 drums full of high-grade 90 octane petrol were piled high.” Japanese aircraft landed at Alor Star the day their troops seized it, refueled and rearmed with British aviation gas and bombs, and flew off into battle.
In the air, the RAF was hopelessly outmatched. Japanese bombers pounded the RAF almost into nonexistence. Surviving Brewster Buffalo pilots found their mounts unable to handle full-throttle climbs, high altitudes, or Japanese Zeroes. Battered squadrons pulled back to Singapore Island. The Dutch sent bomber and reconnaissance squadrons up from Java; they performed gallantly, but were also overwhelmed.
The Japanese stormed on, not bothering to consolidate or regroup. Despite looking like a badly wrapped parcel in his sloppy uniform, the Japanese soldier was hardy and tough. He could subsist on rice and salt fish for days.
By the 18th, Percival’s porous plans for Malaya’s defense had disintegrated. His air and naval forces were destroyed. His only reserve was the 9th Indian Division, holding the east coast, and the two untested brigades of the 8th Australian Division, which were covering Johore Province and Singapore Island. If he committed them to battle, the Japanese could land in Johore, cutting off Singapore. He had no choice but to keep the 11th Indian Division in the game, despite its disintegration, until the 17th Indian and 18th British Divisions arrived from India to reinforce them.
As the 11th fell back on the Perak River, Percival shuffled his limited deck. On the 17th, he assigned 11th Division the 12th Brigade, while the 15th Brigade absorbed the remnants of 6th Brigade to form a composite formation. Among the ad hoc units formed was the “British Battalion,” made of the 1st Leicesters and 2nd East Surreys, both battered in earlier fighting.
The next day, Duff-Cooper met with the senior commanders at Fort Canning. After hearing their woes, he sent a message to London to say that Malaya needed four fighter and four bomber squadrons and four infantry brigades. The 18th British Division, trained to fight in North Africa, was already being diverted to Malaya. Now a hundred Hawker Hurricane fighters were to be sent in as well.
After the meeting, Duff-Cooper took to the radio to buck up flagging morale. He described the evacuation of Penang in bizarre terms, saying all the Asian civilians had been withdrawn when they had not, which only enraged the leaders of the Chinese, Indian, and Malay communities, who protested to Sir Shenton Thomas.
Duff-Cooper opened his broadcast by saying, “I consider that one of my duties should be to keep in close and constant touch with the people of Singapore by speaking to them on the radio from time to time.” Actually, he never broadcast again.
This was a good thing, too. Morale in Singapore was collapsing. Nobody believed fatuous official communiqués about British troops “falling back to prepared positions” or “strategic withdrawals” that did not give actual place names. Civilians who wanted to know the Japanese pace of advance simply consulted the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank’s advertisements that daily listed branches closed “until further notice.”
A Defense Plagued by Bureaucratic Idiocy
Aside from air raids, the only signs of war in Singapore were the endless trail of wounded men coming off trains from the front who jammed up the hospitals, and official confusion and idiocy. Deputy Municipal Engineer Gilmore was ordered to dig trenches six feet wide and three feet deep on sports grounds to prevent Japanese aircraft and gliders from landing. He rounded up several hundred coolies to do so. When they were half done, another official said the trenches had to be redug—straight trenches would offer no protection in an air raid.
Gilmore ordered his men to redig the trenches, which created vast mounds of earth. Another official told Gilmore to have that carted away so it could not be used by paratroopers as landing grounds. After Gilmore did so, up came the health authorities to warn that the trenches could become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and they had to be filled in. After some argument, they agreed to have them half-filled. Away went the coolies to haul back the earth to fill in the bottom two feet of the trenches.
On the docks, supplies piled up because there was a shortage of labor to unload ships. Nobody could agree on rates of pay for coolies.
The Army ran into official idiocies, too. The secretary of a golf club refused the Army permission to turn it into a strongpoint until he had called a special committee meeting. Another officer was refused permission to cut down a row of trees to improve his field of fire on the outskirts of Singapore until he had produced written authority.
When Brigadier Ivan Simson, the chief engineer, went to see Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett about building antitank obstacles, the peppery Bennett did not want to discuss the subject at all. Bennett said, “I have little time for these obstacles … preferring to destroy tanks with anti-tank weapons.”
Percival tried to restore order. It was not easy. All the brigadiers of 11th Division were casualties, and Lt. Col. H.D. Moorhead took over 15th Brigade while Lt. Col. W.R. Selby gained 28th Brigade. Percival sacked Murray-Lyon and put 12th Brigade’s boss, Brigadier A.C.M. Paris, in charge. Lt. Col. Stewart was promoted from command of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to command of 12th Brigade.
No Entrenchments on Singapore Island
Up front, the British retreat continued. A British officer wrote, “It can’t go on like this. The troops are absolutely dead-beat. The only rest they are getting is that of an uneasy coma as they squat in crowded lorries which jerk their way through the night. When they arrive they tumble out and have to get straight down to work. They are stupid with sleep, and have to be smacked before they can connect with the simplest order. Then they move like automatons or cower down as a Jap aeroplane flies 200 feet above them.”
Japanese snipers infiltrated through British lines to harass their rear areas, wearing rubber shoes to avoid making noise, keeping the defenders exhausted. One British brigadier went without sleep for 36 hours straight.
At Lake Chenderoh Power Station, a group of 5/2nd Punjabis would not go on night patrol, as the Japanese were letting off squibs (firecrackers). Their colonel told their captain, “There was no known case of squibs causing loss of life, go out and stall the Japanese.”
The British defenders had other problems, too. Humidity and rain corroded radio sets and wrecked communications. Equipment lost in the retreats could not be replaced.
In Singapore, leadership squabbles continued. Duff-Cooper had Colonial Secretary Stanley Jones fired. Then he arranged for the replacement of Brooke-Popham with the younger General Sir Henry Pownall, a veteran of Dunkirk and a more able figure. Pownall arrived on December 23 and took over four days later.
Despite this, Duff-Cooper continued to bumble, irritating military commanders and civilians alike. He knew nothing of Malaya, even suggesting that the Army burn down all 300 million gum trees to deny rubber to the invader.
Simson was not allowed to build entrenchments on Singapore Island. He complained to Percival, asking why he could not build breastworks. “I believe that defenses of the sort you want to throw up are bad for the morale of troops and civilians,” Percival answered. Simson was horrified and felt his blood run cold. He answered, “Sir, it’s going to be much worse for morale if the Japanese start running all over the island.” Actually, Percival was just echoing Brooke-Popham’s line. But after Brooke-Popham left, Percival still did not build entrenchments.
Instead, on December 30, Duff-Cooper put Simson in charge of civil defense, wasting the chief engineer’s talents.
“I Don’t Want Them Pushed Back. I Want Them Destroyed.”
Meanwhile, the Japanese continued their advance, heading for the Perak River. The Guards Division entered the fray at last, hooking through thick country east of Kuala Kangsar and across the Perak. Yamashita, relying on his psychological edge, ordered his commanders, “I don’t want them [the enemy] pushed back. I want them destroyed.” Yamashita had another reason to hurry. His lengthening supply line meant that he was running short of artillery ammunition.