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.

At teatime, a 250-man company of the Mukaide Detachment (a battalion of infantry on bicycles, supported by tanks, guns, and engineers) came down the road. Just as they passed, the Australians blew the bridge, trapping the Japanese, and opened fire with everything they had, chewing up the Japanese attack. The theory worked. “The charge hurled timber, bicycles and bodies skyward in a deadly blast,” the battalion reported. B Company’s commander said, “The entire 300 yards of the road was thickly covered with dead and dying men—the result of the blast when the bridge was blown up and the deadly fire of our Bren guns.”

The next day, the Japanese answered the ambush by bombing the Australian positions and attacking again. The Australians opened up and set the first tank afire, disabled the second, and forced the third to be towed away. Four more tanks lumbered up, and the Australian mortars and antitank guns hit the first, disabled the second, set the third ablaze, and wrecked the fourth when a mortar bomb entered its narrow turret. The 2/30th suffered 17 killed, nine missing, and 55 wounded, but took a heavy toll of the Japanese before withdrawing.

The RAF made an appearance on the 16th, with 453rd RAAF Squadron’s 12 Buffalo fighters zooming over the Japanese columns, strafing them heavily. The Japanese retaliated by sending 27 bombers to pound the RAAF base at Sembawang. The bombing left the British with 74 bombers and 28 fighters against 250 Japanese bombers and 150 fighters in Malaya.

Matsui, irritated, sent in a full division attack, while Nishimura’s Imperial Guards hit the new 45th Indian Brigade on the Muar River near the coast on the 15th. The Imperial Guards were in luck. When they attacked the 7/6th Rajputana Rifles, they found them, per Bennett’s orders, north of the riverline instead of south of it. The Guards chopped up two Rajput companies and then the 4/9th Jats and 5/8th Garwhals. The 45th Brigade’s Brigadier Duncan personally led a bayonet charge and was killed. The 45th Brigade collapsed.

Bennett put in the 2/29th Battalion at Bakri to hold the line and found Indians racing back from the frontline on foot and in trucks. The Aussies fired at the Indian tires to stop the flight, and the Indians thought they were under Japanese attack, which set off some unfortunate “blue-on-blue” firefights. The newly established Australian position could not hold. Bennett, stunned by the failures, despaired.

The Anderson Column

As the Australians came tumbling back on January 20, Lt. Col. C.G.W. Anderson, commanding the 2/19th Battalion, found himself in command of a collection of Australian and Indian troops, including the bulk of the 45th Indian Brigade, which had been torn apart behind Japanese lines. With considerable calm, Anderson led his mixed group out through enemy lines, under machine-gun and air attack. The “Anderson Column” was trapped five miles behind enemy lines and headed east toward Parit Sulong.

There, Anderson received a Japanese surrender demand. If Anderson gave up, the Japanese would let ambulances with wounded through. Anderson refused the demand. The RAF tried to help, as two Fairey Albacore biplane torpedo-bombers paradropped food and morphia to the column. At 9 am, Anderson found he could not move his vehicles across the Parit Sulong Bridge. He ordered the destruction of his Bren carriers, 25-pounder artillery, and vehicles, and had his men withdraw through the swamps and jungle. He was forced to leave behind 110 wounded Australians and 40 Indians who could not travel. When the Japanese caught them, they stripped the wounded men and subjected them to beatings, while denying them water and medical attention.

When a Japanese camera team appeared, the Japanese guards displayed water bottles and cigarettes, pretending to give them to the POWs while the cameras clicked. As soon as the camera crew was gone, the Japanese threw away the water and resumed bayoneting and shooting as many as 150 POWs. Two of them faked death and were able to escape to British lines, bringing evidence that would ultimately send the Guards Division’s commander, Nishimura, to the gallows.

Anderson and his 900 survivors, exhausted, hungry, and shelled, plodded on until the 23rd, when they reached 2/29th’s lines. Anderson earned a Victoria Cross for his leadership and gallantry. The Japanese had lost a company of tanks and a battalion of men to Anderson’s band, and their account paid tribute to the bespectacled Australian and his men. Anderson later commented, “The well-trained Australian units showed a complete moral ascendancy of the enemy. They outmatched the Japs in bushcraft and fire control … [and inflicted] heavy casualties at small cost to themselves. In hand-to-hand fighting [the Japanese] made a very poor showing against the superior spirit and training of the AIF.”

Planning the Withdrawal of Singapore

On January 19, Wavell warned Churchill that Percival had no plan to withdraw to and defend Singapore Island, and he believed that the island could not be held. Churchill retorted with typical rhetoric, “I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material of defenses to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy, and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.” It was the first use of the word “surrender.” Churchill also ordered the moat to be fortified, using the “entire male population” to create defense works.

However, Maj. Gen. Sir John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, pointed out to the Chiefs of Staff that Singapore Island had never been considered defensible against close attack. The channel was narrow, mangrove swamps impeded defensive fire, and the airbases, water supply, and other vital installations were all within artillery range from the mainland. Kennedy recommended evacuation from Singapore, not defense.

The next day Wavell flew to Singapore. Percival outlined his three-column plan to withdraw to Singapore Island. Percival divided the 20-by-11 mile island into three sectors, the west to be held by the Australians, the north by the 18th British, and the south by the Indian formations. Wavell was furious to see that Singapore’s north shore was still unfortified.

The 44th Indian Brigade arrived on the 24th. They consisted of 7,000 raw recruits, with very few NCOs. Percival held them and the Australian machine-gunners in reserve, writing, “Excellent material they were, but not soldiers as yet. I have no wish to blame the authorities, either in India or Australia, for sending these untrained men. After all they had no better to send.” The rest of the 18th Division arrived on the 29th on American troopships.

In the air, things were getting worse. The 50 Hurricanes had been uncrated at last, but there were only 24 pilots trained on them. The Hurricanes made their debut over Singapore on January 20 and shot down eight Japanese bombers. The Japanese slammed the Hurricanes back the following day, flying rings around the British, splashing five Hurricanes. Japanese bombers pounded Kallang, killing New Zealand Pilot Officer L.R. Farr, an Auckland clerk, when a bomb hurled him into a petrol dump. The 243rd RNZAF Squadron was left with one serviceable Buffalo. Percival asked the RAF to attack the Japanese airbases, but they had little success. Meanwhile, the Japanese continued to blast Singapore, causing up to 2,100 civilian casualties in January alone.

Reality was still not sinking in on Singapore Island. Despite the hospitals jammed with wounded men and the constant bombing, the ruling British talked in their clubs about the tide of war turning in Johore. The Chinese were more realistic. They terminated the chit system, forcing thousands of white men to come up with cash to buy food. That led to a run on food stores. However, authorities were finally beginning to realize the worst. Thousands of European women and children were safely evacuated on the troopships that brought the 18th Division to Singapore.

“They Had Not Been Trained to Retreat”

The Japanese relied on ferocity and ruthlessness to make up for their lack of transport and weak logistics. They commandeered rice and food from villages and drank from streams. They impressed civilians to carry ammunition and stores and left wounded and sick men behind.

The Royal Navy tried to intervene with destroyers HMS Thanet and HMAS Vampire, attacking a Japanese convoy off Endau on the east coast. They ran into three Japanese destroyers, which immobilized and sank Thanet, driving off Vampire. The Japanese unloaded a construction team at Endau, which built a forward fighter base.

On the 23rd, Percival ordered his men to start withdrawing to Singapore, and a shocked Australian Prime Minister John Curtin cabled Churchill: “After all the assurances we have been given, the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal.”

As British forces withdrew, disasters continued. The 22nd Indian Brigade was cut off by Japanese forces and 8th Indian Brigade’s withdrawal. Brigadier Lay, commanding 8th Brigade, blew a bridge that was Brigadier G.W.A. Painter’s 22nd Brigade’s retreat route, trapping them. As the 22nd fell back, they took heavy casualties. Sikhs threw away their rifles and surrendered. By February 1, the 22nd was down to 350 men, without ammunition, and surrounded. Painter had to surrender. Lay was fired.