Key point: The British were not ready for a fight and were caught off-guard. Indeed, their defenses were against a Naval attack, not a land invasion from the neighboring forests.
On Saturday, December 6, 1941, a Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Hudson bomber on a reconnaissance mission from Khota Bahru on the west coast of Malaya was flying northwest over the China Sea toward the Gulf of Thailand.
At 12:12 pm, near the limit of its range, the Hudson’s crew spotted a Japanese cruiser and three transports steaming in the same direction. Half an hour later a bigger convoy of 18 transports with cruisers and destroyers was spotted south of the first sighting.
Flight Lieutenant John C. Ramshaw took his aircraft down for a closer look. The Japanese did not open fire. The Hudson signaled the sighting back to Khota Bahru.
The reports of the sightings, and that of a second Hudson confirming those of the first, could not have come at a better time for the Commander in Chief Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. He had been appointed to the command in 1940. His charge was to avoid war with Japan, if possible.
The Japanese plan to capture Malaya and Singapore was based on Japan’s wish to prevent any risk to shipments of vital oil supplies from the Netherlands East Indies when, as expected, those islands were seized.
The Japanese also wanted to dent British prestige by capturing Singapore—the naval and commercial symbol of Britain’s empire in the Far East. The 25th Imperial Japanese Army, under General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was given five months to take Singapore and Malaya. He had three divisions under his command: the 5th (Lt. Gen. Takuro Matsui), the 18th (Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi), and the Imperial Guards (Lt. Gen. Takuma Nishimura), for a total of 62,000 men, with 183 guns and 228 tanks.
The 3rd Air Division was attached to 25th Army with 168 fighter aircraft, 180 bombers, and 45 reconnaissance aircraft. The Southern Expeditionary Fleet, with the 22nd Air Flotilla and 158 aircraft, was to protect the convoys.
The plan belonged to the Imperial Navy under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, but the Army and Navy had bitterly argued strategy, with the Army feeling no move south should be made until China had been conquered.
The Navy wanted the Dutch oilfields and the approval of the emperor for its plan. The first task was to capture Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, to secure Japanese lines of communication to Burma and Malaya.
British strategy in the region was based on political considerations rather than sound military thinking. The Army was in Malaya to protect the air bases. The Air Force was there to protect the naval base on Singapore Island. In times of danger, so the theory went, the Royal Navy would provide the power to deter any invasion; they could be there in force in 48 days.
Additionally, the British had not even considered the possibility of a land attack from the thick jungles to the north; their 15-inch coastal defense guns at Singapore pointed out to sea; they could not be rotated to fire at a threat from the north. In 1940, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had gone so far as to smugly declare that any attempt by Japan to capture Singapore would be “a mad enterprise.”
Certainly, by the middle of 1940 British intelligence was well aware of Japan’s military planning through its signals intelligence (Sigint) based on intercepts of Japanese telegraphic messages. Commander Eric Nave from the Royal Australian Navy’s cryptographic unit, and Hugh Foss, a Scot, were the two men principally responsible for breaking Japanese naval codes in the prewar years.
Japanese intelligence was also aware of the poor state of Singapore’s defenses through spies on the ground. In 1940, the Japanese had received documents captured by the Germans from the British cargo ship Automedon, which contained secret British reports and was captured and sunk by the German surface raider Atlantis. One of the captured reports included the minutes of the British War Cabinet meeting of August 15, 1940. It outlined the Far East policy, including the defense of Malaya, and revealed Hong Kong and Borneo to be indefensible while Singapore could not be reinforced. Nor would Britain go to war if Japan attacked Thailand.
However, by 1941, the Royal Navy was heavily engaged in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and had few resources to spare in the event of Japanese aggression in or near Malaya. In 1941, the Admiralty did, however, work on a plan to create Britain’s third fleet—the “Eastern Fleet.” It was to consist of seven battleships, one aircraft carrier, and numerous cruisers and destroyers. However, the capital ships selected were old or slow, including the old battlecruisers Renown and Repulse and the battleships Nelson and Rodney, along with other well-worn ships.
Time was against the Royal Navy; many of the ships needed refitting and the latest radar equipment installed. The biggest drawback was that destroyers were not available, being fully committed in the Home and Mediterranean Fleets or for convoy work. Implementation of the plan was postponed to an optimistic March 1942.
After becoming prime minister, Winston Churchill had made his view clear to the First Sea Lord that a strong force should be sent to the Indian Ocean. “The most economical disposition would be to send Duke of York as soon as she is clear of constructional defects, via Trinidad and Simonstown to the East. She could be joined by Repulse or Renown and one aircraft carrier of high speed. This powerful force might show itself in the triangle Aden-Singapore-Simonstown. It would exert a paralysing effect upon Japanese Naval action.”
It was the new battleship Prince of Wales (commissioned January 1941) that finally sailed for Cape Town. Later she joined the aging battlecruiser Repulse at Ceylon; both ships arrived at Singapore on November 11, 1941. It was planned that the new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable, working in the West Indies, would join the small fleet.
However, on November 3, Indomitable ran aground on a reef off Bermuda and damaged her hull; she was ordered to Norfolk, Virginia, for repairs. The U.S. Navy dockyard worked fast, and she was away in 12 days. But it was all too late by the time she reached the Indian Ocean; the fate of Prince of Wales and Repulse, designated Force Z, was settled. The two warships were sunk by Japanese aircraft on December 10.
The Royal Air Force had 158 aircraft, some of which were obsolete, to defend Singapore and Malaya. It had been estimated that some 550 first-line aircraft were needed for an adequate defense. The Army had III Corps consisting of the 11th and 9th Indian Divisions and the 8th Australian Division with the Singapore Fortress troops and a reserve brigade, for a total of 88,600 men.
The British had planned a preemptive strike, Operation Matador, to meet the Japanese head-on in southern Thailand. It was a good concept. A 24-hour warning of a Japanese landing was all it required for to be effective. Brooke-Popham had the warning, and he was also free now from asking permission from the War Cabinet to order Matador.
On December 1, Britain obtained a pledge of American support in the event of war with Japan. However, it was conditional on a Japanese attack on British territory. “They’ve made you personally responsible for declaring war on Japan,” observed Brooke-Popham’s chief of staff, General Ian S.O. Playfair.
Matador’s plans included the occupation of Singora and Patani in Thailand. However, due to troop shortages, this was not possible. The operation was revised with the main force, the 11th Indian Division based in Kedah, moving as far as Singora, 130 miles north of the Malayan border.
A smaller force from the Penang garrison would drive along the Patani Road from the border town of Krah. Its objective was the Ledge, 35 miles on the Thai side of the frontier. The road here was cut into the sheer side of a hill and could easily be blocked. The plan envisioned the Japanese being resisted at Singora, allowed to land at Patani, and then boxed in at Krah.
There were several beaches in eastern Malaya that the Japanese could use for amphibious landings. The four most likely were Khota Bahru, defended by 8th Indian Brigade, Kuantan, Endau, and Mersing much farther south and defended by the Australians.
At that time of the year, the northeast monsoon could whip up the seas, but even in these conditions landings were possible; only the most severe weather would stop the Japanese. Fixed defenses had been built at Jitra, inland near the Thai border, to defend the airfields but not the border itself. Even those were incomplete.
On December 6, General Arthur Percival, commander of Commonwealth forces in Malaya, flew north to clear up some matters regarding Operation Matador with General Sir Lewis Heath, commander of III Indian Corps, who was not in favor of the operation. That evening Percival returned to Singapore to find that Brooke-Popham had not activated Matador. Even with everything pointing to a Japanese invasion, the commander in chief could not make up his mind.