At the beginning of 1940’s, Japan was already determined to strike south, with a strategic objective to control the oil reserves in Dutch colonies on Borneo and Sumatra. The key to their success was Singapore – a fortress island, from where the British were controlling both neighboring Borneo and Sumatra, as well as the Malaca strait that was giving access to Burma and India.
The British were well aware of the deficiencies in their preparation for war in Asia and weaknesses in the Singapore defense plans – several reports were produced about it in late 1930’s. One of these top secret reports unfortunately found its way to the hands of the Japanese: This was when a German cruiser Atlantis seized a British transport ship Automedon that carried 15 post bags onboard, including secret military plans and reports. From these, the Japanese learnt that the British airforce in Malaya is much weaker than it appeared, as well as that in case of an attack on Singapore, no major fleet would come to its rescue (because there is no major fleet that the British could spare). These findings both surprised and encouraged Japanese who, until then, thought that the British positions were significantly stronger in Malaya and Singapore.
Photo: The British transport ship Automedon. The top secret reports about weaknesses in Singapore and Malaya defences that it was carrying fell to the hands of the Germans who passed them onto their Japanese allies in November 1940.
The British propaganda, not surprisingly, was boasting the opposite. Under its influence, the British themselves became complacent and belived that the Japanese are not an enemy to be afraid of. Mr Viktor Kos, one of the Bata employees living in Singapore, wrote in his memoirs:
“As I remember, the risk of war with Japan surfaced about twice in 1940 and 1941. That is, as far as we could have learnt from the newspapers. It however appears that seeing from outside, the situation looked different. I remember that one of our employees got a letter from his US friend who was asking ‘whether the Japanese will leave us alone’. None of us had ever thought about a possibility that Japan could dare to attack England.”
Even the soldiers themselves believed in many bizarre myths, including that “the Japanese with their slanted eyes don’t see well enough to pilot an airplane or operate at night” (during the first days of the fights, as the Japanese air force was beating RAF badly, the British consequently thought that the airplanes must be piloted by Germans). The allies had observed that that the Japanese soldiers could not beat even an inferior Chinese army in four years’ time, and that they suffered a humiliating defeat in a clash with the Mongolese-Soviet soldiers in Nohomhan. Thus they believed that Japanese were no match to their western army. Even Winston Churchill declared in January 1938 that “It is quite certain that Japan cannot possibly compete with the productive energies of either branch of the English speaking peoples.”
This conviction of their own superiority was, along with dangerous ossification, one of the reasons why the British army in Malaya badly underestimated its preparedness – after all, for decades, it was dealing with no bigger challenges than the occasional local mutinies. It did not bother to explore the terrain in the countryside that it was supposed to protect, and all its tactics was based on defending key sections or crossings of the roads that ran through Malaya from north to south.
In contrast with the perception that the British propaganda so successfully created, its airforce in the Far East was very weak. According to their own analysis, the Brits needed a minimum of 336 to 600 aircraft for an effective defence of Malaya. However by December 1941, they only had 150 at hand – most of them hopelessly outdated, including even WW1 biplanes. The best airplane available to RAF was the ponderous Brewster Buffalo.
Photo: The ponderous Brewster Buffalo was the best aircraft available to RAF in Malaya. Source: AWM.
The requests from the Singapore command in 1940 and 1941 to get better and more aircraft were in vain: by that time, the British were desperately needing their best airplanes for their own defense in Europe. And if anything could had been be spared at all, it was sent to the Eastern front as a priority; it was vital to keep the Russians in game and not let their front against the Germans collapse.
On the opposite side, the Japanese allocated 600 modern aircraft for their operation in Malaya. This included the legendary Zero, whose maneuverability outperformed any western airplane of the time. But because the Japanese only introduced it in 1940, the western allies had little idea about its superb abilities – to the contrary, they believed that the Japanese air force only flies second tier machines.
The command of the British and allied armies in Malaya was assumed by general Arthur Percival in May 1941. He had scored some major achievements in WW1, but apparently was not up to this new assignment. Although unlike many others, he did not underestimate the Japanese, he had proven to be weak and indecisive at key critical moments. He was famous for his refusal of building heavy defenses, arguing that they would lead to an unnecessary defeatism and undermine army’s moral. Percival also failed to respond quickly and effectively to the surprising Japanese tactics, neither he managed to exercise sufficient authority over the Australian troops. These were under the command of an infamous egomaniac, general Gordon Bennett, who had frequent clashes with Percival. The mutual animosity and mistrust between the British and Australians was further escalating later, as their armies suffered humiliating defeats during the Malaya invasion. The fact that the Australian Prime Minister, seeing the inability of the British to stop the Japanese in Malaya, lost his faith in the British promise to defend Australia and approached Americans with a request for help, did not help this dynamics either.
Photo: Meeting of general Percival (standing in the front) with the Sultan of Johore (standing on the left). Source: AWM
The task to invade and occupy British Malaya was assigned in November 1941 to a Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was acknowledged as one of the most capable military leaders in Japan, however because he sympathized with the Kodoha faction in the Japanese army that advocated “strike north” (against Russia), following its purge in 1936 he fell to disgrace and was sent off to Korea as a commander of a local brigade. He thought his career was over, but his knowledge of German brought him back to service in 1940, when he went on a secret mission to Berlin to negotiate exchange of military technologies with Hitler. Yamashita deeply believed that the main enemy of his nation was Russia. However in the light of the looming US sanctions and the threat that Japan might have to give up its hardly won achievements in China, he accepted the need of a preventive attack on the allies, seeing it as an act of self-defense. His chief of staff for the Malayan operation was a brilliant tactician and planner, colonel Tsuji, who however also became infamous from China for his cruelty towards the defeated enemy.
Photo: General Yamashita meeting sultans of the Malayan states. This photo was taken in April 1942, two months after Malaya was taken by the Japanese. Notice the change in attire of the Johore sultan compared to the previous picture. Source: GettyImages.
At the beginning of December 1941, the allies noticed an accumulation of large military force on an island of Hainan in the South China Sea, however the Japanese claimed that it was part of their operation in China. Even after a scouting airplane spotted a large convoy heading to Thailand on 6th December, the British did not take any action. This was despite the fact that they actually had a plan for a pre-emptive invasion to neutral Thailand in order to deny its enemy a landing there. Although being prepared for this eventuality, they were hesitating with an action until it was too late.
The launch of the Malayan campaign
Shortly after midnight on 8th December 1941, the local Indian garrison spotted a large number of invasion vessels approaching the beaches in Kota Bharu, at the northeast corner of Malaya. The first invasion wave of 5,000 Japanese soldiers was launched around 1am local time – this was about 40 minutes before the first bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor, which is generally considered as a start of the war between Japan and the Allies.
Photo: One of the beaches at Kota Bharu where the the Japanese invasion to Malaya started on 8th December 1941. Source: AWM.
When general Percival brought the news to the Singapore governor Thomas, he replied calmly “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off!”
The first wave of attack was indeed fended off, but it did not take long for the attackers to break through the relatively weak defense line and by an afternoon of the first day, the defenders were already pushed inland. After securing their foothold and position in the area of Kota Bahru, the Japanese moved southward, along the eastern coast of Malaya. Simultaneously, another part of the Japanese army landed in Thailand and made its way across to the west, from where it invaded the opposite coast Malaya.
In parallel with the amphibious landing attack, Japanese opened a massive air attack targeting the airstrips in Northern Malaya. By the end of the first day, 60 (out of the 150 total) British airplanes were already destroyed – most of them on the ground, not given even a chance to take off. Within a week, the Japanese gained full control of the airspace over Northern Malaya, exposing the British infantry to air raids without any protection.
The launch of the attack on Malaya could not have been missed by the inhabitants of Singapore, because the city was bombed already on the night of 8th December. This is how Viktor Kos captured it:
“In the night from 7th to 8th December, around 4am, I was woken up by some strange sounds and then I heard explosions. We have seen from our window how every explosion was followed by a burst of fire reaching big heights, and we have heard the sounds of airplanes flying above us. Calmly, without any feeling of panic, we have watched a scene that was soon to become so fearful for us on a regular basis. The street lights were on, we could not see the searchlights on the sky, neither any anti-aircraft shooting, the sirens were silent – I could not understand. Only after a long while, when the bombing raid was over, the sirens sounded alarm, but the streetlights were never turned off. Early in the morning, I received a phone call from Mr Jugas, who informed me that these were Japanese airplanes and that some bombs were dropped right into the center of the city. He also said that Ms Cervenkova visited him and demanded the she was relocated, because one of the bombs hit nearby her apartment and she did not want to live there anymore in case there would be more bombing. Unly upon my arrival to office I have learnt that Japan declared war on Britain and on America.”
Air raids on Singapore: “The Japs are here!”
The first bombing raid on Singapore was rather symbolic. But starting from middle of January, after the Japanese took control of the airstrips in southern Malaya, Singapore got within a direct range of their bombers and fighters based there. Ever since, regular bombing raids were taking place twice or three times a day, targeting primarily the naval base and airports. This is how the Batamen experienced it, in the words of Viktor Kos:
“The bombings then continued several times a day, sometimes even during night. I have noticed that many companies moved their offices from the city center to private houses and garden villas in the outskirts, where they assumed they would be safer. There was also a rumor going around that in northern Malaya, the Japanese were dropping leaflets calling on local people, in the interest of their own safety, to move further away from public buildings and institutions that would become a target. Because our Bata office in Singapore was in a vicinity of many such potential targets, and also because the quality of the building was not the best, we did not feel very safe there. Once the bombs were falling to the sea and ships right in front of our building, everything was trembling and we had to run to the basement. I have decided to move the accounting office to my apartment, and all our employees welcomed such decision – everyone was very scared to stay in the city center. Mr Jugas move the sales department to his house nearby, and in this way we had most of the administrative together again.”
Shortly after 8th of December, the Plhon family moved to live with us, because they were afraid to stay at their place and the risk appeared much smaller in our house that was in the middle of a garden quarter. The Martinec family moved to the Jugases who lived in our street, just few houses away. Some families found a shalter at Anicka’s place etc.
In the course of few days, a rush to build shelters arrived. Construction of shelters had been recommended by the government even prior to 8th December, but few people took it seriously. However now, due to the sky rocketing demand, the prices of sand, wood and other building materials were rising, and it was also hard to find experienced building labor. It became compulsory for all companies and employers to construct shelters. This we have built one in the basement of our office building, and everyone was trying to make one at home, too. We have originally thought that it would be enough to share one shelter at Anicka’s house that could serve to both ours and Jugas’ families, but it soon became clear this was not practical. The alarms were sounding frequently also during night, and that would require us to stay and sleep in the shelter the whole night – it was not allowed to move around after the sirens, and Anicka’s house was quite far way. We also had to keep in mind our two children.
The night alarms were taking place so frequently that we slowly became accustomed to them. The Singapore island is quite large, and the airplanes were usually bombing military objects that were remote from the city. But because the target was never know in advance, the alarm was announced everywhere. The first alarm of the day usually came between 8 and 9 in the morning, and they usually continued till 4 o’clock in the afternoon – sometimes with short intervals of silence in between. The alarms were less regular in the nighttime, but also quite frequent. It took one or two hours after the first alarm that the emergency was over.
Also during the night, several alarms happened. However, we were often first woken up by the sound of bombs and explosions, and the alarm only came after that. At first, we used to run to the shelter when alarm sounded – i grabbed our son, Ms Plhonova our daughter, my wife blankets for kids, while Mr Plhon and his son kept observing where the airplanes are heading to. When this was happening repeatedly over a night, we became so tired that we did not feel like going down to the shelter again. Sometimes, when i was carrying my son several times a night, he half-woke up in my arms asking “What’s happening?”, and when I replied “Japs are here!”, he said “Again?” and continued his sleep in the shelter. Therefore, later on, we did not automatically rush to a shelter with each alarm – Plhons were awoke and kept a guard. Only if the airplanes were coming in our direction, they alarmed us and we all went to the shelter. The night air raids were offering a beautiful view in some ways: a lot of airplanes flying high above, many beams of searchlights from all angles trying to “catch” up, and antiaircraft artillery shooting. Regardless, the airplanes continued their majestic flight.
Once we were watching them again from our doorstep, when suddenly three loud explosions came from the street in front of our house (there was a big garden between the street and our house). You can’t imagine how scared we were. But as we weren’t blown away immediately, we slowly realized that the sound is moving upwards – it was a mobile antiaircraft gun shooting to the sky, while being positioned on our street! We were able to hear the shot, then the sound of the shrapnel going up, and eventually seen the light of the explosion high on the sky.”
Sinking of the British fleet
The British however met their biggest blunder that further shattered the morale of the defenders and the confidence of the civilians in the safety of the “Singapore fortress”, not in air or on land, but on sea. Because the government was not able to send to Singapore its main fleet, as the war plans required, it at least sent a mini-fleet of three capital ships, named as “Z-Force”. It was consisting of HMS Prince of Wales, cruiser HMS Repulse and carrier HMS Indomitable. The HMS Prince of Wales had earlier the year, in May 1941, participated in a successful hunt on Bismarck – the most iconic German battleship. It was also on board of HMS Prince of Wales where the legendary August 1940 summit between Roosevelt and Churchill took place.
Photo: The legend and pride of British navy, battleship HMS Prince of Wales, is arriving to Singapore on 2nd December 1941. A week later, it will be sunk by the Japanese on its first mission.
It’s been clear that despite its fame, the Force Z does not constitute any decisive strength, however it was all the British government could afford at the moment. Churchill was even trying to persuade US to send its fleet to Singapore, however his request was also turned down on the grounds that also for Americans, Atlantic and Europe were a critical priority.
The “Force Z” eventually arrived in Singapore incomplete, as HMS Indomitable – despite its name – run ashore and got stuck on its way in the Carribean. Despite this, the arrival of two famous warships caused a lot of celebration and enthusiasm among people in Singapore. Once again, they felt that the Japanese wouldn’t dare to try anything.
It was already on 8th December, the day that Japan attacked Malaya, that Force Z set off for its first Far East mission. It was heading to Kota Bharu with an objective to attack the Japanese transport ships and thus disrupt their invasion. Both warships were accompanied by four destroyers. However, the absence of air cover – which was supposed to come with HMS Indomitable – was soon proven fatal. The ability of the mini-fleet to defend itself against an air attack was further undermined by the fact that the analogue system that was running fire from the anti-aircraft guns on HSM Prince of Wales failed to operate in the hot and humid tropical climate.
When admiral Phillips who was commanding the mini-fleet realized that he won’t be able to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet on time, next evening he ordered to turn around and return to Singapore. Shortly before midnight, however, his ships were spotted by a Japanese submarine who reported its sighting to its command. Next morning, 88 Japanese aircraft were sent from a base near Saigon to intercept and destroy them. After their torpedo attack, both British capital ships were sunk. The Japanese pilots reported their surprise that they did not encounter any enemy airplanes. The Japanese commander-in-chief, Yamamoto, received the news with a big smile: not only that he had wiped out the entire British Pacific fleet at the cost of only three airplanes lost, but given that part of the American fleet was just damaged or sunk in Pearl Harbor (and the other part was rushing back to California for safety), the entire Pacific became an exclusively Japanese domain for the next couple of months.
Photo: Last moments of the sinking HMS Prince of Wales. It went down with admiral Phillips who refused to abandon his ship.
Sinking of the”Force Z” was a crushing blow to the British.
After loosing both its naval and air force, the defence of Malay and Singapore was now fully in the hands of the army. It had 90,000 men in Malaya and 50,000 men in Signapore, cobmined from units of different origin (half were Indians, quarter British, sixth Australians, rest locals), and skills – but most of the soldiers had little or no previous experience and many were just raw recruits quickly brought in.
Against them was a much smaller Japanese army of 70,000 men, half of which was fighting on the front and the other half being a reserve. They were Inferior in numbers, but superior in experience (many of them had few years of experience already from China), motivation and determination. The Japanese commands, unlike the British, also took a good care to prepare them for jungle warfare – every soldier got printed instructions to read and get familiar with during the transit to the south. They also rehearsed their planned landing and tactics several times. Their support included 200 light tanks – an uneven opponent to the British armored cars.
Although the Japanese soldiers were massively outnumbered, they managed to crush the British due to surprise and mastered tactics, as well as efficient coordination among various units. Typically, the roadblocks and defense points on the roads were first bombed by airplanes or artillery, and a frontal fast attack supported by tanks followed. When it was not enough, the Japanese launched a quick flanking move through the jungle, forcing the defenders to withdraw before they would get surrounded. If the flanking of defense positions through jungle was not possible, they used small boats and landed in their back from sea.
The defenders were very frustrated, as they often had to withdraw without fight – it was enough to receive an information that Japanese soldiers were sighted behind them, and they had to pull back. As a result, although the British planned to apply the scorched earth policy, they often left behind ammunition and food stores, as well as weapons, that they have not managed to destroy during their rushed retreat. This was to a great advantage to the fast advancing Japanese troops who otherwise would suffer from long and insufficient supply lines; Japanese soldiers nicknamed these British depots “Churchill shops”.
Map: The whole conquest of Malaya took the Japanese less then two months. They had crossed a distance over 1000 km between 8th December 1941 and 31st January 1942 – advancing 20 km per day on average. Source: Francis Pike
While the Japanese were motivated and encouraged by their overwhelming wins, the morale of the defenders basically collapsed after three weeks of defeats and chaotic retreats. The British soldiers, despite their numerical advantage, began to ascribe the Japanese troops almost supernatural skills. The units moving to the front were encountering terrified retreating solders rushing back – some of them witnessed the Japanese brutality: murdering the wounded and beheading, bayonetting or burning alive their captives. The Japanese thanks to the speed of their advance did not allow the allied troop to regroup and build more robust defense lines.
This is how Viktor Kos remembers the first weeks of the battles:
“Wild news were reaching us from the north of Malaya, and even the newspapers had to acknowledge successful advance of the Japanese army. We could observe it anyway, as new crowds of people were entering Singapore every day as they were fleeing from the Japanese – arriving by cars or by train. Everything alive was rushing to seek safety in the ‘impenetrable fortress’ of Singapore.”
For Yamashita, the quick advance has been a corner stone of his strategy – he did not have supplies nor capacities for a long, protracted war with the British. In order to maximize his mobility, he chose to attack only with three divisions, although the main command was offering him five. The Japanese infantry was using bicycles confiscated during the early days of invasion – it allowed the soldiers to move fast both on the roads as well as through the jungle, and also gave them the capacity to carry more food and ammunition than they would manage to carry on their backs walking.
Another remarkable, sad moment that further eroded both the morale and reputation of the British was their evacuation from the Penang island on 17th December. The evacuation ships were reserved only for the white people, while the Chinese and Malayans crowded on the peers were not allowed to board and were abandoned to face their terrible fate in the hands of the brutal Japanese invaders. This betrayal caused a lot of bitterness and disillusionment among the loyal locals – a number of them then turned against the British and after the war, never accepted their renewed rule.
Also this moment had been shortly captured by Viktor Kos:
“Several days after 10th of December, Mr Zelnicek arrived from Penang along with other escapees. They told us horrible stories about the situation there. There has been no anti-aircraft guns and no airplanes to protect them. The Japanese pilots had a free hand to do whatever they liked: bombing and often machine-gunning people on the streets during low flyovers. The entire Penang police run away and disappeared, with the British officers going first. Chaos, rioting and killing followed.”
On 31st January, less than two months after the Japanese landed in north Malaya, the last of the British troops crossed over the Johore causeway and blew up the bridge behind them. During the battle of Malaya, the allies suffered 50,000 casualties (killed and wounded), while the Japanese only 5,000.
Batamen caught in the middle of the war
Zdenek Plhon – a son of Klement Plhon, who worked for Bata in Singapore and unfortunatelly did not survive the war – later wrote:
“The Batamen during 1939 managed to build a new, quality leather shoe factory in Signapore, expanded the production of the rubber shoes in Klang. In the years 1940-1941, when the Europe was already consumed by the war and all supplied from Zlin were stopped, the Bata company in Singapore prospered well. So did their employees and their families who lived in peace, comfort and hope that here they will wait out the war.”
This dream vanished in 1941.
Already before the invasion, on 1st December 1941, the British mobilized all their forces including the volunteer units. Kos noted that “Several days before 8th December, the government call into duty all the volunteers, which included 7 of our employees and 4 ex-employees”. Given that Kos was a meticulous accountant and that he wrote down his memories while they were still fresh already in 1943, we can take this as a reliable piece of information. In fact, he even lists the eleven names several pages later: R. Kozusnicek, L. Mraz, E. Matus, H. Bohman, S. Jedovnicky, J. Vyhnalek, A. Cepka, S. Nemec, P. Ambroz, R. Janecek and W. Zamara. Given what we have learnt about Silvestr’s clashes with the management of Bata, he might have belonged to the category of “ex-employees” that Kos mentions.
As the British were retreating south through Malaya, the army destroyed the Bata factory in Klang so that it does not fall to the hands of the Japanese as an asset. From the point of view of Viktor Kos, here is the sequence of the events:
“As the battlefront was increasingly getting closer towards Singapore, we started to consider transfer of the goods from our shops in Malaya, so that they do not get lost. However, for such a move, we had to obtain a permit from the government. They did not want to release their permit, arguing that such a move would unnecessarily cause panic among the citizens, because it would suggest that the defense line is weak and won’t hold. Several days later, when the front moved, we finally got the permit for what we requested earlier – however by that time, our assets were already on the occupied territory and it was too late.
One of the decisions we had to take was also about our factory in Klang. The initial opinion was that of course our boys need to stay there, while they can send their wives to us in Singapore. One day, however, they received an order from the local authorities to destroy the factory. That meant that they could not stay there anymore, even if the factory would not be destroyed entirely. They would face revenge of the Japanese who would hate the fact that the factory was damaged and see it as an act of sabotage. In the meantime, we asked the government to at least allow us to take the machinery away from there to Singapore. Again, they refused to give us the permit, insisting that the front will hold […]
One day, Ms Boda and Ms Sokol arrived to Singapore from Klang, I think it was around 10th or 15th of January. They told us that the boys will follow soon, and indeed they did. The Sokols were accommodated with Jugas, Bodas and Mr Hlobil at Anicka’s place, and Dvorak with Koblizek in our house […]
The day that the British troops were to withdraw, they came to Klang and requested our staff to burn it all down. The director of Klang, Mr Sokol, was considering that and eventually he rejected to do it. He said that he is responsible for the factory and he just can’t do it. The soldiers then ordered him to go and destroy another shoe factory in the neighborhood, while the army itself would destroy ours. Thus, both factories were set on fire. Immediatelly after that, they got into cars and drove back to Singapore, as the Japanese were already approaching.”
Photo: Pictures of the destroyed factory in Klang. Source: Bata publication ‘Malaya 1931-1951: 20 Years of Progress’
Another Bata employee in Singapore, Mr Josef Varmuza, noted in his memoirs:
“After Pearl Harbor and the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, we have fully realized the proximity of the enemy, his rapid advance and victory all over the south-east Asia. Singapore was the impenetrable fortress, the most important harbor. Suddenly in December 1941, the Japanese were standing just across the Johore strait, 16 miles from our city [in fact, the Japanese reached the Johroe shoreline on 31st January 1942 – comment by JB]. The bombs kept falling, airplanes were fighting right above our heads. A panic struck everyone – precipitous evacuation of women, children and men-civilians.”
The Japanese were facing Singapore, just 1 kilometer across the water from it, on the other side of the Johore strait. They took a short break to regroup and prepare for the final attack.
Our poor Silvestr had only two weeks of his life left.
Next time, we will focus on the final battle of Singapore and its fall.