The Malayan Campaign

The Malayan Campaign consisted of a series of battles fought in Malaya between Allied (mainly British Commonwealth) and Axis (primarily Japanese) forces. The campaign began on 8 December 1941 when Japanese forces landed in Singora and Patani in southern Thailand, and Kota Bharu in northern Malaya. The campaign ended on 31 January 1942 with the Japanese forces gaining control of the Malay Peninsula.

Reasons for campaign
Japan embarked on the Malayan Campaign for various reasons. A key motivation was acquiring the raw materials needed for Japan’s industrial development and its war efforts.1 The need to gain control of the raw materials found in Malaya gained greater urgency after the US placed economic sanctions on Japan in response to Japanese troops moving into Indochina in 1941. The sanctions included the freezing of Japanese funds in the US, the annulment of a commercial treaty, and the prohibition of US petroleum and scrap iron exports to Japan.2 The control of Malaya was also seen by the Japanese as a necessary step towards conquering Singapore, which was then seen as the pivot of British defence in the Asia-Pacific region.3

Preparation for war
The Japanese preparation for the invasion of Malaya and Singapore began in 1941. The Doro Nawa or Taiwan Army Research Department took charge of researching and planning Japanese military strategy in Asia. Masanobu Tsuji was the officer-in-charge of operations and planning in the Malayan sector and the mastermind of the Malayan Campaign. Japanese troops were trained to fight in tropical conditions on Hainan Island in China. They also carried out reconnaissance work in Malaya as part of their preparations.4

Britain had been building up its military defences in Singapore and Malaya since the end of World War I. This exercise included the construction of military installations such as aerodromes in northern Malaya. However, the British had insufficient land or air forces to properly defend these territories.5 The defence of Singapore and Malaya hinged on the Singapore naval base at Sembawang, which became operational in 1938. Boasting the largest dry dock in the world at the time, the plan was for Britain to dispatch capital ships to the naval base whenever Singapore or Malaya was threatened by a foreign invader. It was assumed that the navy would then easily put down the threat. The main objective of the other forces in Malaya and Singapore was thus to protect the naval base.6

First landings
On 8 December 1941, the Japanese launched several military operations simultaneously. The Japanese air force launched bombing attacks on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, as well as Allied bases in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Troops of the Japanese 25th Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, also landed in Singora and Patani in southern Thailand, and Kota Bharu in northern Malaya. At the time, the 25th Army consisted of three experienced and capable divisions: the 5th, 18th and Imperial Guards divisions.7

Sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales
On hearing news of the Japanese landings, the British dispatched Force Z, which comprised the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales, battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse  and four destroyers, to intercept Japanese troopships in the north. The Royal Navy ships had arrived in Singapore on 2 December to great fanfare.8 The decision to send the ships to counter the Japanese landings was a risky one as the fleet had no air protection; the fleet was only shielded by poor weather. The ships were eventually spotted by Japanese submarines and planes, and sunk off the coast of Kuantan, Malaya, on 10 December 1941.9

Northern Malaya
When Japanese troops landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu in Kelantan, northern Malaya, they were met by Allied ground troops and air forces. Although the defenders managed to destroy two Japanese transport ships and bring down the first wave of troops, the overwhelming numbers of Japanese troops forced the Allies to retreat.10

Japanese Zero fighters also began bombing the airfield in Kota Bharu and other airfields in northern Malaya, namely those at Sungei Patani, Butterworth, Penang, Gong Kedah and Machang. The performance and accuracy of the Japanese planes surprised the Allied forces. The air attacks seriously destroyed British installations and weakened the Allied air force.11 At the end of the day, only 50 out of the original 110 British aircraft in northern Malaya survived the attacks. The remaining planes were ordered to retreat to safer airfields in Kuantan.12

The British had anticipated a Japanese landward attack and developed a first-strike plan known as Operation Matador. Under the plan, Allied forces would intercept the Japanese forces just over the Thai border, giving the main forces in Malaya time to gather and attack. However, political considerations held back the activation of the plan until it was too late.13 Allied troops, who were on standby for Operation Matador, were then ordered to Jitra, Kedah, to form a defence line there.14 As a result, the Japanese troops at Singora and Patani crossed the Thai border and entered northwest Malaya with little resistance.

In heavy rain, the Allied forces tried to hold the Japanese at Jitra but were overwhelmed by the invaders. The Japanese pushed through the line using tanks and infantry, forcing the defenders to retreat over two days on 12 and 13 December. The Japanese inflicted heavy losses on the Allied forces at Jitra, capturing large quantities of weapons, vehicles and communications equipment, and taking more than 1,000 prisoners.15

On 11 December, the Japanese started bombing Penang town. On the first day of bombing, about 2,000 people were killed or wounded. Lacking air power, the British were helpless against the attacks and evacuated British civilians on 13 December. On 19 December, the Japanese captured Penang.16

Central Malaya
After the fall of the Jitra line, Allied troops retreated south to Kampar where they held the Japanese for two days before retreating to the Slim River area in Selangor.17 The Allied forces’ Gurkha troops put up a strong fight against the Japanese at Slim River but were eventually overrun by Japanese tanks and troops. The Battle of Slim River on 7 January 1942 was a disaster for the Allies. Of the 5,000 men from the two Indian brigades who fought in the battle, only about 1,173 officers and men survived.18 Losing Slim River also resulted in the loss of central Malaya to the Japanese.

The Japanese continued their relentless advance southward while the Allies retreated to Johor to rest and reorganise. The Japanese were able to make a quick advance down the peninsula because they travelled light and made use of bicycles.19 Thus the Japanese easily captured the Malayan states of Selangor (including the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur, on 11 January 1942),20 Negeri Sembilan and Malacca. The Allied forces retreated to Johor, where they aimed to hold the Japanese until reinforcements arrived.21

In Johor, Australian troops led by Major General Gordon Bennett made a successful first attack on the Japanese at Gemencheh Bridge in Gemas on 14 January 1942. The Australians estimated the number of dead and wounded at around 800. However, this setback did not stop the Japanese advance. The Japanese quickly rebuilt the bridge and brought across truckloads of reinforcements.22

Subsequently, fighting continued in the areas around Muar, Yong Peng and Batu Pahat. The Allied troops put up a strong resistance and were able to hold up the Japanese for a week despite the lack of air and tank support.23 Between 16 and 22 January 1942, the Japanese lost a company of tanks and the equivalent of a battalion of troops.24 The Allied forces also suffered heavy losses in Muar, losing many officers and two companies of men.25 In a battle near the bridge at Parit Sulong, the Allied troops were forced to retreat quickly, leaving behind the wounded who were subsequently massacred by the Japanese. 26

On 27 January 1942, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya Lieutenant General A. E. Percivaldecided that the Allied forces could no longer hold on to Johor and approved the withdrawal of Allied troops into Singapore.27 The Malayan Campaign ended on 31 January 1942 when the last Allied troops crossed the Causeway linking Johor to Singapore. Allied engineers subsequently blew a 70-ft (approximately 21 m) gap in the structure in a bid to slowdown the Japanese advance into Singapore.28

7–8 Dec 1941:
Japanese attack Pearl Harbor; Japanese troops land in Singora, Patani and Kota Bharu.
10 Dec 1941: Japanese sink HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.
12–13 Dec 1941: Fall of Jitra line.
19 Dec 1941: Japanese capture Penang.
7 Jan 1942: Battle of Slim River.
11 Jan 1942:
Japanese capture Kuala Lumpur.
16 Jan 1942: Battle of Muar.
31 Jan 1942: Last Allied troops cross the Causeway into Singapore.