Page 08 – 09 / 1941 – 42

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Precis of lecture given by Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath

The problem of the defense of MALAYA was not faced up to very seriously in the past. It was thought that at one time it would be possible to defend the PENINSULA from the sea almost entirely with the fleet, and the construction of a naval base was commenced with this in view after the WASHINGTON CONFERENCE in 1922. At the outbreak of war, however, it was found that no fleet could be spared for these waters, which were defended by a few cruisers and small craft normally allotted to the China station.

It then became apparent that the responsibility for the defense of the PENINSULA would devolve upon the air force. Such aerodromes were already on the mainland were not large enough for modern bombers and fighters, and it therefore became necessary to embark on an extensive programme of aerodrome construction. The ROYAL AIR FORCE is an important force and the extent of the co-operation with the Army is largely a question of personalities. Although it was clear that the defence of the aerodromes to be constructed in MALAYA would fall upon the Army, the A.O.C. embarked on this construction programme without consulting the G.O.G. MALAYA with regrettable consequences.

There was already a small landing ground at [unknown], and it was decided to make this into a first class aerodrome, with two further aerodromes in the same spot. Although in all three cases the sites selected were within 20 miles of the coast, rendering the problem of defending them difficult one, in the North-West the ALUR STAR aerodrome was greatly improved, and the new ones were constructed in the same area, including those at SINGAI, PATANI, & BUTTERWORTH. Further aerodromes were modernised or constructed at TAIPING, [unknown], & KUALA LUMPUR, on the west and KUANTAN on the east with a most important line of three more aerodromes running across JOHORE, [unknown], BATU PAHAT, KLUANG, & [unknown], forming a vital part of the defence of SINGAPORE ISLAND. Thus it will be seen that the Army was faced with the task of defending aerodromes ridiculously widely dispersed with a force totally inadequate for the purpose.

In November 1940 it was decided to form a C.H.Q. far east with Sir Robert Brooke-Popham as C-in-C. The Intelligence Staff estimated that, bearing in mind its commitments in CHINA and the ever present threat of RUSSIAN activity in the East, the JAPANESE could not afford to use against the DUTCH EAST INDIES and MALAYA a force of more than four Divisions, two being held back in reserve. To deal with this it was estimated that we would need an AIR FORCE of 570 planes of modern design and performance including torpedo bombers.

Army estimates were at first very modest, but when Gen. PERCIVAL assumed command he decided that for the adequate defence of MALAYA the following troops would be needed;

3 Corps then consisting of 2 Divisions of 2 Brigades each, should be brought up to full strength.
The two brigades of Australians should be brought up to a full Division.
A full Division would needed for G.H.C. reserve and a further Division for the defence of the fortress. A Tank Reg. of 14 ton tanks. The tanks would have to be limited to this size as this is the maximum capacity of many of the bridges on the PENINSULA.

Had this force been made available, and the air estimates met, no doubt the defence of MALAYA would have presented a very different problem from that which had eventually to be faced.

Various talks took place with the interested powers in these waters both DUTCH and AMERICAN, but it became clear that no capital fleet would be available fOR some time. The DUTCH did, however, undertake to send their bombers to our assistance, if that resistance was necessary and they themselves were not attacked.

When the JAPANESE waked into INDO-CHINA during the summer of 1941, the threat to MALAYA assumed a very definite one, resulting in the sending of certain forces to the PENINSULA; but the decision that the needs of RUSSIA and the MIDDLE-EAST should be given priority greatly reduced the programme of defence. MALAYA was thus starved at the expense of other interests. The Army’s estimate of requirements of personal and material was not met, and the AIR FORCE received little more than half of the 370 planes it wanted, while those it did possess such as Swordfish and Wildebeasts were very out of date in design and performance.

In the Autumn of 1941, the JAPANESE sent their representative to Washington and went through the motions of negotiation. It became apparent however, that these talks were not proceeding too well and it was decided that the troops in the PENINSULA should be dispersed at their war stations as follows:

KOTA BHARU & [unknown]: Owing to the aerodrome sites selected in this sector, there were 42 miles of beach and frontier to guard in vulnerable country, to perform this task adequately a full Division would have been barely sufficient, but in effect it had to be entrusted to a Brigade (the 8th Brigade)

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This they exploited successfully during the night and when morning came, they had landed sufficient troops to drive a wedge right into our defences. The 8th Brigade resisted stubbornly, but by the 11th, Dec. they had suffered so many casualties and were so extended that it was decided to evacuate KELANTAN altogether. Although this was a blow to us, the Army never wanted to site defences in this area, and only did so because of their obligations to defend the three aerodromes that had been constructed there.

Meanwhile it became apparent that the Japanese attack was taking the form of three main thrusts food KOTA BHARU, SINGORRAH & PATANI. At first their strength was about two Divisions, but this was soon increased to three.

When the hostile convoys were first sighted the 11th Indian Div. in the KEDAH area prepared to cross the frontier into THAILAND. For political reasons which have already been explained, it was not possible to give them the order to do so immediately but as soon as the information was received that the enemy had concentrated at SINGORRAH a force moved off forward and tried to ambush then. Some hostile TANKS were successfully ambushed, but their advance was not delayed. The Divisional Commander put out a covering force, which was out off, and a similar fate befell a further battalion which had been sent up to try and extricate this covering force. By 11TH Dec. the 11th. Div. had lost the JITRA position – a front of 17 miles, 9 miles open country on the west, and the remainder rubber and jungle country. Fighting had become very confused and communications with many of our forward troops had been destroyed.

A defensive position had been reconnoitered at QURUN, and if time had been given to its construction, it would have been a good position, but it was not to delay the enemy’s advance to any extent. A feature of the whole campaign was the results obtained by the enemy’s engineers. Very little time was lost in crossing rivers whose bridges had been efficiently blown, examples of this occurred during the JAPANESE advance at JITRA to GURUH, where two rivers were crossed within 4 hours of having been evacuated. At GURUH the fighting was fierce, the whole of the 8th Ede. H.Q. being knocked out with the exception of the Commander, and the 11th Div. being reduced to 40% of its original strength, with its fighting efficiency impaired to a still greater extent.

Throughout the campaign the enemy proved again and again how remarkably efficient its 5th Columnist activities were. For several years before hostilities commenced, Japanese had been working all over Malaya as Rubber Planters, shop keepers, and in other capacities. Many of them who must presume were General Staff Officers in disguise, and their knowledge of the locations of our various H.Q.s which received special attention from them. Use was made of the local population, and frequently their advances were preceded by Tamils acting as tappers.

It has been said that the third enemy thrust came from PATANI and was therefore directed against the central sector of the Thai border. For the defence of this area only two battalions could originally be spared. A position had been reconnoitered thirty miles across the frontier on a ledge which commanded the probable line of attack. Accordingly, our column moved forward to occupy that position.

Before their main landing at PATANI the enemy, with characteristic cunning, had ‘planted’ some soldiers in Thailand in civilian clothes, which were indeed commonly used by them in the initial stages of the campaign. These disguised soldiers opposed our advancing column, which eventually arrived at the rear (south) end of the ledge at the same time as the spearhead of the enemy advance. In this area, the enemy was two Brigades strong and despite indifferent roads were supported by tanks. It should be remembered that a Japanese brigade consists of 6 Bns. as against our 3, two Brigades comprising a Japanese Division.

The weak hold on the Southern extremity of the ledge position could not be maintained, and our two Bns. fell back fighting on to KROH, the most important strategic position. 12th Bde (less 1 Bn.), the Command Reserve, was then placed under 3 Corps, but they arrived too late to deny KROH to the enemy, and they were used to form a protective fence on the 11th Div. right flank.

It was soon apparent that the enemy was thrusting down to the PERAK RIVER. 12th. Bde. was accordingly withdrawn, and sent forward to try to delay the enemy’s advance via GRIK; the Bde. fought hard, but every day the hostile progress of seven to ten miles continued.

It became essential for the 11th Indian Div. to withdraw from the KRIAN RIVER, and later to the establishment of strong defensive positions across the PERAK RIVER became a necessity.