On the afternoon of December 6, a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat failed to locate the enemy fleet. Another Catalina found the Japanese convoy 80 miles south of Cape Cambodia sailing west toward Thailand. The Catalina was shot down by the convoy’s air cover before it could report the sighting, and Hudson bombers failed to find the convoy due to poor visibility. Thirty crucial hours had passed since the first sightings; Matador waited.
At 5:50 pm, another Hudson spotted the convoy and was shot at but sent a radio signal. The convoy was 70 miles north of Singora, steaming south toward Patani and Khota Bahru.
Brooke-Popham still dithered. He met Percival at 9 pm on the 6th in the War Room at the naval base on Singapore Island. At 10:30 pm, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, commander of Force Z, joined them. At last a decision was made. Matador would be activated at dawn on December 8. That would, however, be too late.
Shortly after midnight on Sunday, December 7, Mutaguchi’s 18th Division began landing at Khota Bahru (where the 3/17 Dogra Regiment was defending the beaches); the 3rd Air Division began bombing and strafing the airfield a mile and a half inland. A few hours later the Japanese had 26,000 men ashore. Meanwhile, the 5th Division landed in Thailand at Singora and Patani.
At dawn on December 7, the Indian troops at Posts 13 and 14 of the 3/17 Dogra Regiment reported they were about to be overrun as Japanese landing craft continued to disgorge their troops. British 18-pounder guns opened fire, and Japanese warships replied. Many in the first wave of assaulting troops were cut down by machine-gun fire. Some of the landing craft came into the creek between the Bandang and Sabak beaches and attacked the defenders from the rear. By 1 pm, after savage hand-to-hand fighting, the beaches were cleared by the Japanese troops.
The Australian Hudsons from Khota Bahru airfield attacked the Japanese transports off the beaches with some success. One burst into flames after being bombed and was abandoned; another was damaged. Japanese soldiers leaped over the sides of the stricken ships or scrambled into landing craft as Hudsons bombed and strafed them. Two Hudsons were shot down by antiaircraft fire.
General Heath could hardly believe his situation. His III Indian Corps would have to stand-to all night awaiting the order to move into Thailand. Shortly after midnight on December 8, he telephoned Singapore, rousing Percival from his bed with the news the Japanese were ashore at Khota Bahru.
Admiral Phillips had not returned from Manila, where he had held talks with American Admiral Thomas C. Hart about joint action with the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. At the War Room meeting he suggested he could take his ships to sea and head north, reasoning that if an invasion was under way he might be able to stop it before the Japanese gained a foothold.
He put his plan to those at the meeting and asked for land-based fighter cover. Air Vice Marshal Conway Pulford indicated the limitations of his fighter pilots and lack of training in the naval support role, although they would try to support Force Z. The meeting was broken up by an air raid warning. At 4:30 am, Japanese bombers hit Singapore.
Phillips signaled the Admiralty at 6 am on December 8 and told them he was taking Force Z to sea toward Khota Bahru: “I rate the chances of getting there no higher than 50-50, but I’m sure it’s the only way in which to halt the invasion and, if it can be halted, they should find it impossible to start again. Surprise is absolutely essential but it is just possible in this thick monsoon weather, given even an average amount of luck. But, if we are spotted, which is bound to happen sooner or later, we shall be attacked.”
At last Percival informed General Heath at his Kuala Lumpur headquarters that the Japanese were already in Singora and Patani and told him to send a mobile force across the border to delay the enemy advance. Then, at 10 am a message arrived at Heath’s headquarters, canceling Matador. After the war, Heath wrote, “I find it impossible to excuse General Percival for permitting Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham not to arrive at a decision on 7 December when everything pointed to the certainty of Japan initiating the war in Malaya.”
It was a terrible mix-up that only benefitted the Japanese. Seventy minutes before the aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, troops of General Yamashita’s 25th Army were pouring ashore on the beaches at Khota Bahru.
All through December 8, about 150 aircraft of the 7th Japanese Air Brigade flying initially from southern Indochina attacked the seven RAF airfields in northern Malaya. Pulford had started the day with 110 aircraft at these bases. By the end he had half that number—40 had been destroyed and 20 damaged—forcing him to withdraw the remaining aircraft south. The Japanese had won air superiority in a single day.
Singora and Patani soon fell to the Japanese 5th Division, which brushed aside token resistance from the Thai Army. The Japanese soon had 60 aircraft operating from Singora airfield and over 100 farther north at Bangkok.
Brigadier Berthold Key, commander of 8th Brigade of the Indian 9th Division, ordered two of his battalions to counterattack the Japanese on the beaches at Khota Bahru. However, the assault quickly broke down in a heavy monsoon downpour, and Key’s men failed to stop Japanese attempts to take the airfield. Although Pulford had ordered the aircraft sent farther south to Kuantan, about midnight the airfield fell after desperate resistance by the Indian troops.
At 7 pm, Japanese ships were back at the beaches landing more troops. Key had no option but to withdraw to Khota Bahru town. In the deluge, his troops struggled to retreat with many getting lost, while others did not receive the order and remained in their trenches to be wiped out.
Brooke-Popham’s hesitation had already severely weakened the 9th and 11th Indian Divisions and the RAF. Pulford’s air force was now largely tasked with the defense of the naval base at Singapore and the protection of convoys bringing supplies and reinforcements.
This highlighted the flawed strategy the British had adopted. The Army had been deployed to protect the airfields, and half of Percival’s infantry battalions in northern Malaya were committed to this role. Instead, they should have been dug in along the main routes south with strong mobile forces in support. With well-trained troops and adequate transport, it might have been possible to transfer troops as needed, but this would prove extremely difficult.
At 5:10 pm on December 8, the Australian destroyer Vampire led Force Z away from Singapore. She was followed by the destroyer Tenedos, then Repulse and Prince of Wales and two more destroyers, Electra and Express. It was a fine evening and, as the ships moved down the Johore Strait, spectators lined the shore to wave them off. The onlookers must have been heartened at the sight.
Some on board the ships were not so confident. Seaman W.S. Searle of Prince of Wales wrote, “We had left Singapore in glorious weather but I had this premonition that the Prince of Wales would never return to Singapore or any other port. I had this feeling that this was the end as far as the ship was concerned.” He was right.
Admiral Phillips was as concerned as Seaman Searle as messages came in from Rear Admiral Arthur Palliser in Singapore. The RAF would provide reconnaissance from 8 am on December 9, but only with one Catalina up to a range of 100 miles northwestward. Even worse, “Fighter protection on Wednesday 10th will not, repeat, not be possible.” And, “Japanese have large bomber forces based southern Indo-China and possibly in Thailand,” and that the military situation at Khota Bahru “does not seem good.”
However, the RAF had not abandoned the Navy altogether, although heavily engaged in the land fighting in northern Malaya. Number 453 Australian Squadron with Brewster Buffalo fighters at Sembawong airfield on Singapore Island were tasked to support Force Z.
At 1:30 pm on December 9, Force Z was spotted by the Japanese submarine I-65. The submarine managed to stay in visual touch until 3:50, when the ships entered a squall and contact was lost. The submarine regained contact about 6 pm but an approaching aircraft forced it to dive. When I-65 surfaced there was no sign of the ships. There had been a two-hour delay from the first sighting and the receiving of the signals from I-65.
The Japanese Navy was convinced the British ships were still in Singapore, so it came as a shock to find them heading toward Khota Bahru. Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa aboard the cruiser Chokai was about 120 miles from the reported position of the British ships and ordered all Japanese warships in the area to search for the British in the remaining hours of daylight. Several of Ozawa’s cruisers launched their seaplanes to aid the search.