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.

Tim Hudson enjoyed 24 tins of sardines that cost him $5. Robinson’s offered haircuts and hot coffee. Troops drank freshly brewed Tiger Beer and waited half an hour to get a dance with a rouged taxi dancer or to buy a roll of tickets to keep her at hand until midnight, when the band would play “God Save the King.”

Wavell tried to buck up spirits by issuing an Order of the Day that promised reinforcements, but ordered defenders to ensure nothing was left intact. Percival did not do much better, warning, “The enemy within our gates must be ruthlessly weeded out. There must be no more loose talk and rumor-mongering.”

Preparing For the Assault on Singapore

At last Percival’s men were digging entrenchments, but it was too late. All civilian labor had fled, and the poorly trained and weary troops struggled to dig trenches, which immediately filled with water. The ground on Singapore Island’s north side was rutted by creeks and streams, which made trenches impossible to dig. So Simson ordered breastworks protected by barbed wire and antitank mines. Surplus naval and aviation fuel was wasted by being run into creeks instead of being used to create fire barriers in Johore Strait. Nobody built booby traps.

The Japanese side was not much more efficient. Yamashita’s supply chain was an incredible mess. He was short of artillery shells. He had captured 1,000 rounds for each of his field guns and 500 rounds for each of his heavy guns from British stockpiles and was using 3,000 captured vehicles to bring up his ammunition, but it was not enough.

The Japanese air forces bombed Singapore at will, but ignored Yamashita’s requests for specific air strikes on key targets or for close air support. Terauchi sent Lt. Gen. Osamu Tsukada down from Saigon with massive notes on how to capture Singapore. After lunch Tsukada left without even saying “Thank you.”

An enraged Yamashita tore the notes into scrap and wrote in his diary, “Whenever there are two alternatives, Southern Army always insists on the wrong one.”

Yamashita set up his tactical headquarters in the Sultan of Johore’s Palace, which had a grandstand view of the straits. He assembled 200 collapsible launches with outboard motors and 100 larger landing craft. While bombers and artillery blasted Singapore, Japanese infantry trained hard on embarkation and landing drill. The 4,000 men who would be in the first wave were all veterans of amphibious assaults in China. Dummy camps had been set up to fool the British, and convoys of trucks drove east by daylight and moved back by night as further legerdemain. The Singapore assault would be the largest amphibious operation in Japanese Army history. Ruthless and meticulous, Yamashita left nothing to chance.

Yamashita’s Feint

On February 6, at 11 am, Yamashita briefed his division commanders at the Sultan’s Palace amid whirring fans and muggy heat. The plan was typical Japanese thinking, a feint followed by the main attack. It was similar to Lord Allenby’s movements in Palestine in 1918.

Nishimura’s Imperial Guards would be the feint, landing on Palau Urbin Island opposite Changi on the eastern side of the straits on the evening of the 7th. That would hold British attention while the 5th and 18th Divisions stormed across the northwest corner of the island, starting on the evening of the 8th. Matsui and Mutaguchi were delighted with their tasks, but Nishimura was enraged that the Imperial Guards Division should play a minor role.

Yamashita’s sleight-of-hand worked. Percival ordered Simson to move his mines, booby-traps, and barbed wire from the west side of the causeway to the east on the 5th. That evening, the Australians reported Japanese forces massing across the straits. Simson had to move his supplies back, but it was too late. That evening the Japanese began their heaviest bombardment yet, hurling shells against Singapore Island’s northern airfields, Sembawang, Selehtar, and Tengah. Japanese shells also blasted the naval base and key road junctions, shredding British telephone lines and communications.

For two days, Japanese guns and bombers pasted Singapore Island. The Tribune’s printing plant was shattered, forcing the staff to use an emergency plant at the editor’s home. Bombs fell on an incoming convoy of four ships, sinking the liner Empress of Asia on February 5. The men of the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment staggered ashore from the blazing wreck, but their guns went to the bottom. Amazingly, Empress of Asia was the only convoy ship to Singapore that was sunk. HMAS Yarra took 1,304 troops off the burning transport, and Percival himself met the 125th’s survivors on the quay.

The last surviving Hurricane fighters clawed into the air to face hordes of Japanese Zeros, but to no avail. The Zeros were too strong and numerous. RNZAF 488th Squadron evacuated its last four Hurricanes on February 2. On February 5, Pilot Officer F.S. Johnstone, a theater assistant from Timaru, flew 453rd Squadron’s last Buffalo out from Sembawang amid heavy shellfire to Kallang, from where the squadron was evacuated.

The Japanese Amphibious Landing on Singapore Island

At dawn on February 8, Japanese aircraft came swarming over Singapore Island, strafing and bombing Australian defenses in the western area. At noon the air attacks were replaced by massive artillery bombardment, which lasted five hours. The shelling was hard for the green Australians to withstand. Some of the Australian troops had never been on a small arms course or even handled a rifle. It was rumored that the new men were scrapings from the Sydney docks and included prison convicts offered parole for “volunteering.” Other Australians, more experienced, could tell what was happening. Colonel A.L. Varley, a World War I veteran, wrote that the Japanese shelling was worse than the bombardments he had experienced in Flanders.

Bennett and Percival both believed from their World War I experience that the Japanese would continue the shelling for a few days before actually crossing the straits. Because of that and the shortage of artillery ammunition, Percival forbade counterbattery fire until the Australians were actually attacked.

The attack did not come days later. It came that evening. “The battalions crept out of their shelters to the embarkation points, then the artillery concentration began,” wrote Private Kiyomoto Heida of the 5th Infantry Division. “‘On board’ then ‘Cast off’—the orders came from an officer a few yards away. The artillery had stopped firing now and the sky was bright with stars. The second boat was launched into the channel, then the third. Then the enemy’s artillery opened up.”

At 9:30 pm, Japanese barges moved across the straits. Three depleted battalions of the 22nd Australian Brigade faced 16 Japanese battalions. As the Japanese barges puttered toward the Aussies in the dark, Japanese guns and mortars opened fire on the Australian positions. The Australian defenders could not see their attackers in the gloom and called for their searchlight batteries to illuminate the targets. The lights did not go on. Brigadier H.B. Taylor, commander of the 22nd Brigade, had told the searchlight crews not to illuminate until ordered. Now they could not get the orders because Japanese shellfire had torn up the phone lines. The Australians sent up distress rockets, and that finally brought up the searchlights just as the first Japanese wave came storming ashore.

The Australian 2/4th Machine-Gun Battalion greeted the Japanese with a wall of gunfire from their Vickers machine guns, devastating the first wave. Heaps of Japanese bodies lay strewn on the beaches and boggy soil. The second wave stormed ashore and also took heavy casualties, but the third wave got ashore as the Australians began to run out of machine-gun ammunition.

With compasses strapped to their wrists, Japanese officers led their men inland, charging the Australians with fixed bayonets. The “Diggers” charged back. The Japanese were well trained and experienced, while the Australians were untried and poorly led. The 22nd Brigade began to come apart. Units withdrew without orders. Withdrawals became retreats and retreats became routs. Soon 22nd Brigade was streaming back in the dark.

Australian Kenneth Attiwill described the scene: “Groups of men became separated from their comrades in the bewildering darkness. Others lost their way. Many died. Some straggled back as far as Bukit Timah. Others even reached Singapore City, and long before they could be picked up, reorganized and sent back, the disorganization was complete. The effect of the withdrawal was to dislocate the whole brigade area, and by 10 a.m. on the morning of the 9th—less than 12 hours after the assault had been sighted—the 22nd Australian Brigade, on whose fighting power had rested the defense of the northwestern part of the Island, was no longer a cohesive fighting force.”

It was midnight on the 9th when Percival realized his left flank was caving in. He sent in reserves and ordered his last 10 Hurricanes and four Fairey Swordfish in to attack at dawn. They ran into 84 enemy planes.

The Slighted Imperial Guard

Meanwhile, the Japanese continued to advance, reaching Ama Keng and the approaches to Tengah Airfield. Here the Australians regrouped, dug in, and counterattacked with the usual Digger ferocity, but it was not enough. The Japanese outflanked the Australians and continued to advance, driving on the Jurong Line, an antitank ditch Simson had built that connected the headwaters of the Tengah River in the north to that of the Jurong in the south. The line matched a three-mile long ridge. Although it lacked mines, barbed wire, and obstacles, it could be held by resolute troops for days.