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The Malaya Campaign 1941 42 History Essay

5144 words (21 pages) Essay in History

5/12/16 History Reference this

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Analyse at the operational level General Yamashita’s defeat of numerically superior British and Dominion forces in the campaign in Malaya in 1941-42, and identify the enduring lessons for the contemporary environment.


The Malaya Campaign which took place from 8th December 1941 was fought by the British led ‘allied’ [1] against the Japanese Imperial Forces. The campaign to defend the colony was a tragedy to the allies, described by the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “… the fall of Singapore… was the worst disaster and largest capitulation of British history”. It was also recorded as the blackest day in the British military history. The landings of the Japanese Forces on Kota Bharu, Singora and Patani marked the beginning of the campaign led by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita Commander of the 25th Imperial Japanese Army. The campaign that lasted for 70 days of struggle without respite was also the only war that took place in Malaya. On 15th February 1942, Singapore, the fortress of the British Empire in the Far East, had finally fallen to the Japanese. As a result, Lieutenant General A E Percival commander of the British Forces defending Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. Fifty thousand Indian, twenty seven thousand British and eighteen thousand Australian soldiers became the prisoners of war. [2] Within five months from the outbreak of war in the Far East, Japan had conquered not only Malaya and Singapore but most of the South East Asia, half of New Guinea, the Marshall and Solomon groups, all the minor isles of the Dutch East Indies and the Andaman. The British and American navies had been defeated in the naval battles off Malaya and Pearl Harbour. Japan took controlled over the strategic islands of Hong Kong, Wake and Guam and was even in a position to directly threaten Australia and India. What stopped them from doing so was the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, otherwise the Japanese might have extended their invasion towards Australia and West Asia. These were brilliant achievements on the part of Japan and on the contrary heavy losses for Britain, America and Holland. The Malaya Campaign therefore makes it a thought provoking study in terms of strategies, operational and tactics adopted. It could be argued that the Japanese great success in this campaign was principally due to their remarkably proficiency in operational planning, development of the operational idea and excellent application of the operational art especially in the joint operation setting. Even though the circumstance of the occurring war is different and the strategic conditions of the same year in Malaya Campaign are not likely to take place in the future, a deeper analysis of the Malaya Campaign especially at the operational level would be a great benefit. These are the areas where lessons can be drawn from every war and the Malaya Campaign is no exception.

The operational level is defined as the level at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted and sustained to achieve strategic objectives. It is at this level of warfare that Joint Force Commander constructs the campaign plan as to bridge between the military activities at the tactical level with its rationale established at strategic level. [3] Joint operations are complex military operations that involve two or more services. The contemporary environment is the overall operational environment that exists today and in the near future. Additionally, it is defined by the United States Department of Defence as “a composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of military forces and bear on the decisions of the commander”. [4] It is within this context that this essay will approach its analysis.

This essay will attempt to analyse Malaya Campaign in 1941-1942 at the operational level with the purpose to identify and highlights the lessons that can be drawn relative to the contemporary environment. It will first look at the operational objectives to analyse the campaign setting in relation to its political and strategic objectives, it will then look specifically at the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to analyse the operational capabilities and forces available to conduct the campaign in a joint operations setting. Finally it will look at the leadership aspect as to analyse the important of morale and physical courage at the operational level. Where appropriate, certain lessons would be draw through the elements of the principles of war. As operational art lies at the core of the operational level, the analysis of this essay will mainly be derived from its features. The key deductions during these campaigns will then be identified as the relevant lessons learnt that are applicable for the contemporary environment thus achieving the essay’s purpose.

The Japanese Operational Plan

Prior to World War II, Japan produced only ten percent of her oils requirements and the embargoes on Japanese trade imposed by the United States following the movement of the Japanese Forces into Indo-China had cut off three-quarters of her overseas trade and 90 percent of her oil imports. These conditions had created the situation as the strategic imperative where Japan need to look for alternatives and secure essential raw materials in the Far East. The Japanese Military Headquarters General Staff on the other hand decided that it was necessary for them to go to war against the United States and Britain. Furthermore, the Japanese Army had also stood for a course of expansion. When they gained predominant position in the political life of the nation in 1936, they began to prepare for war [5] . In an effort to surprise and confuse the Allies from their initial objectives, the Japanese carry out a strategy which was to conduct multiple operations simultaneously throughout the region. Once they had secured and achieved the objectives, they would begin consolidating and strengthening to create an impenetrable strategic defence intended to fend off the counterattack by Allied forces. It was assumed by the Japanese that the Allies could not sustain their defence on the long supply lines and without any forward bases, ultimately relenting to the Japanese in its quest for hegemony in the Far East under the guise of the Japanese “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere [6] “.

The Japanese began the campaign with the destruction of the American fleet in Pearl Harbour. It was simply because it represented the most serious threat to their operations in the region. At the same time, they launched an attacks and campaigns throughout the Southern Region to include a two-prong thrust against the Philippines and Malaya. The ultimate goal of the Malaya campaign was the seizure of Singapore ultimately ensuring an unhindered movement of oil from the Dutch East Indies to Japan, while eliminating what had been to that point the symbol of British power in the Far East. The Japanese overall campaign plan was finalised by the end of October 1941. The three phrases operation was divided as follows:

Phase 1 would begin with the attack on Pearl Harbour to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet, followed almost immediately by landings on the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand and in Northern Malaya in preparation for an offensive on Singapore. Also in Phase 1 were to be the invasion of Hong Kong; air attacks on Guam, Wake and Luzon to cut off U.S. communications, followed by the invasions of Mindanao and Luzon, and subsequently the seizure of Borneo’s oilfields. All of these were scheduled for completion by D+50 [fifty days] [7] . Phase 2 consisted of the annexation of the Bismarck Archipelago, the capture of the entire Malayan peninsula and the naval base in Singapore, the occupation of the South Burmese airfields, and moves into the Malacca Passage and Straits of Macassar in preparation for an invasion into the Netherlands East Indies. This phase was to be accomplished by D+100 [one hundred days] [8] . The final portion was Phase 3, which included the capture of Sumatra and Java and the occupation of Burma, scheduled for completion by D+150 [one hundred and fifty days] [9] .

Clearly, the Japanese Forces took just over 70 days to capture the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore; it was two third ahead of initial plan.

It could be argue that Japan’s ultimate success in this campaign was directly attributable to its anticipation of the political and military requirements necessary to accomplish its strategic and operational objectives. They were aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and they worked hard to understand those of the British. Strategically, they realised they could not win a war against a combination of all the major powers in the Far East [10] . They had to find a way to eliminate the ability of one or more of these powers to join a war against them in the Pacific. They eliminated the Soviet Union from any coalition against them through a neutrality treaty in April 1941 [11] . That treaty allowed the Japanese to focus on the Southern Region without worrying the threat of the Soviets opening a second front against them in Manchuria or Korea. They had also anticipated earlier that the United States might join a coalition of colonial powers to defeat them in the Pacific, therefore they precisely considered the U.S. naval and naval-based air power in the Pacific as a vital threat hence conducted the surprised attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour [12] .

The Japanese achieved their victory despite having to project power from sea to land, and then being on the attack, with an outnumbered ground force, against a defending enemy, over difficult terrain, in a demanding tropical climate. The victory was achieved because they effectively integrated the combined capabilities of their air, land, and naval forces. As military historian, John Keegan noted: “The perimeter strategy was rooted deeply in the psyche and history of the Japanese who, as an island people, had long been accustomed to using land and sea forces in concert to preserve the security of the archipelago they inhabit and extend national power into adjoining regions [13] “.

The British Preparation and Campaign Plan

The defence of Singapore was entirely based on the geographical terrain of Malaya given the restricting narrow jungle roads, thick jungles and highly mountainous areas in the northern part of the peninsular and hence would be impregnable to attacks from the north. Therefore, the British assumed that should the attack be launched from the north, it would be impossible for the Japanese to generate sufficient combat forces and the British Army would be able to halt any such advance. The British defence planners further deduced that the greatest threat to Singapore was from sea borne invasion, in the form of a surprise attack by a coup-de-main force on Singapore or a landing in southern Malaya [14] . These assumptions have led to the fortification of naval base in Singapore and in the event of a conflict, a British squadron of capital ships would sail to Singapore immediately to impede and destroy the enemy. The main immediate objective was then to defend Singapore and the naval bases, until the arrival of such a fleet. However, the British were heavily committed with the war in Europe and most of its resources were deployed in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Given that resource constraint, the defence of Malaya and Singapore would have to rely on air power. This strategy entails the use of aircrafts to repulse the landing force whilst at sea in order to disrupt any attempts at landings and subsequently attacking enemy forces that manage to get ashore [15] . To achieve the defence through air power, an estimated 582 first line modern combat aircrafts were required [16] . The strategy of massive deployment of air power was essentially derived from the British experience in Europe. The strategy further entailed that if ground offensive is avoidable, the army would be tasked to protect airfields throughout Malaya and not in the defence of a ground attack on the mainland.

Australia had committed the 8th division whose troops were mostly untrained and ill equipped to the defend Malaya and Singapore. The equipping and training of the troops was expected to take place in Malaya as the Australians acclimatised to the tropics [17] . The Australians played a significant role in slowing the speedy advance of the Japanese down the Malayan Peninsula in December 1941 and early 1942, even though they had little time for training. There was however a general breakdown among the remaining British forces in Malaya, who retreated back to Singapore [18] .

The plan for the defence of Malaya was codenamed ‘Plan Matador’. The plan was for the Allied troops to seize the port and the aerodromes at Singora and Patani in order to engage the Japanese when they conduct an amphibious landing in the area. This plan calls for an offensive strike into Thailand. However, although Plan Matador appeared logical it was far from ideal as the line of communication was too extensive for the Allied forces and it was further compounded by the bureaucracy and additional conditions insisted upon by the administrator in London. The restriction from London was however lifted on 5th December 1941. Nevertheless, due to London’s policy of avoiding war with Japan, the operation remains only on paper till the day of the invasion.

Having analysed both the Japanese and the British political, strategic as well as operational objectives and their operational plan in the Malaya Campaign moreover how the forces were organised, there were a big different in terms of prioritising and the ways they conduct the operation. In the contemporary operational environment, it is crucial for a Joint Force Commander to understand thoroughly the strategic objectives of the particular operations. In order to do the evaluation on the situation to come up with a sensible and achievable operational plan, the ability to foresee how at the tactical level, the operations is going to be carry out is moreover vital. As the operational art involves the ability to synchronise all the resources and capability to achieve the effect required, the Japanese were able to superbly demonstrate it in this campaign. The efficiency of a commander today and in future to be able to identify correctly a strategic objectives and consequently designs, plan and sequences at the same time sustains its campaign within the designated area of operation would certainly achieve a coherent and successful campaign. It would be important to the coalition forces against terror in Afghanistan to review their the political, strategic and operational objectives as the situation in Afghanistan depicted that the objectives might not seems to be align in order for the campaign to be successful.

Underestimating the strength of Japanese was what the British and US had to pay in turn. They ignored the fact that Japan had been on a total war footing from 1937.The acquisition of Manchuria had greatly helped the expansion of Japanese industries. The growing industries and increasing population made it essential for Japan to possess secure markets for her goods and sources of raw materials to feed her industries. The requirement of petrol, tin and rubber meant that the Japanese had to look for it in Burma, Malaya and Borneo. The Japanese Army were composed of conscript and were fanatics. They believed that the highest honour Japanese could get was to die for his Emperor. The Western mind finds it difficult to believe in the existence of such a mentality. The Japanese air strength was also being greatly underestimated. It was also believed that Japanese planes would be far inferior to the British. The Japanese had secretly designed new planes and also borrowed designs from the Luftwaffe. In Malaya, the Japanese used over 600 planes. The British had none to counteract the Japanese.

It could be argue that one of the main causes of the British disaster in the Far East was the lack of air superiority. From the first minute of the outbreak of hostilities, Japan established undisputed air superiority. The British maintained a very small air force in Malaya. This small force was outnumbered and out manoeuvred by the Japanese from the outbreak of the war. The fate of any campaign in the Far East must necessarily depend on sea and air superiority. Communications in this area must be sea-communications, because islands and peninsulas must be supplied with men, munitions and material by sea. The Japanese attacks on Malaya were an amphibious in nature. The devastation at Pearl Harbour meant that Japanese naval superiority was established from Burma to the Solomon. This would also enabled the Japanese to launched its operations freely and use the sea line of communication without interruption from the Allied.

When we relate the event that took place just before the out brake of the campaign in Malaya with the contemporary environment, it is suffice to say that the integration of land, air and naval forces are crucial in order for the operational plan to be smoothly carry out.

British’s Weaknesses and Execution of Strategy

Despite convincing intelligence of the Japanese movements prior to the invasion, it was nevertheless wrongly assumed that Japan would not chance a war with Britain, Holland or the US, and that Russia would still be the Japan’s target [19] . This assumption has led to complacency in the Allied Forces readiness to confront the Japanese. In this regard, the British truly underestimated the Japanese commitment in the campaign. However, as a form of deterrence, Churchill dispatched the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse and an aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable to the Far East. Unfortunately, the Indomitable had been damaged and was rendered unserviceable and hence the fleet had sailed without adequate air cover. The fate of this task force, code named ‘Z Force’ was determined on 10th December 1941. The Allied forces had no armour, inadequate anti-armour weapons and very limited supplies of artillery ammunition. In the air, facing numerical superiority, the lumbering Brewster Buffaloes were no match for the Japanese Zeros. These weaknesses were due to lack of the strategic commitments by the British Higher Command.

It can be deduced from the above that the planning for the defence of Malaya was a fallacy leading to poor strategy employed in the campaign. The decision to defend the Peninsula using the protection of air and limited naval power and a thinly spread disposition of forces as a result of an extended Line of Communication proved to be a disaster and were no match against the Japanese Forces. The chaotic British withdrawals and lack of fighting spirit to counter Japanese tactics was further exasperated by a profound lack of defences along the coast of Singapore Island clearly reflected the strategic failure of in the higher command.

The interwar training and doctrine of the British Army were old-fashioned, dormant and lacked focus. The development of new strategies to confront new scenarios in the battlefield was left to the imagination and initiatives of lower echelons of brigades and battalions. Tactics employed therefore remained primarily by the book rather than the realities. Although Plan Matador appears logical, it was far from being practical and failed to make any impact due to political and strategic constraints as mentioned earlier. While the European experience acknowledged the need for air superiority for a decisive battle, British Higher Command did not adequately address it. There was also conflict of interest and lack of mutual understanding between the military and the civilian planners in the administration of Malaya during the period leading to the campaign. The military considered defence requirements and procurement as first priority whereas the civil authorities were more concerned with political and economic aspects. Therefore, inadequate funding was allocated to the military. The Allied forces had failed to make efficient use of limited assets to obstruct Japanese advance and the army was not given enough training in jungle warfare.

The failure by the Allies to use the locals especially the Malay because the British believed that the Malays were not a martial race and the Chinese for fear of arming the Chinese Communist had indeed added to the reasons for the failure of the British in the campaign.

British were engaged not only with the Malayan campaign but also with other theatres of war.  This naturally put a heavy strain and drains on her manpower and resources.  Although the British troops outnumbered the Japanese, they were ill equipped for the war.   There was also a lack of adequate air support as illustrated by the sinking of the “Prince of Whales” and the “Repulse” off Kuantan which had left Singapore in the hope of intercepting the invading Japanese forces, but without air cover, proved easy target for the Japanese bombers.   In the case of Singapore, the British had expected an amphibious invasion and were not prepared for the Japanese conquest through the northern shore of Singapore. The British underestimated Japanese air power while overestimating the RAF in the wake of the Battle of Britain: a combination of intelligence failures, over-confidence and racism. The Singapore strategy was born out of British reluctance to accept second-power status after the First World War.

In relation to the contemporary environment, …….

Operational art lies at the core of the operational level of war. It provides the linkages between tactical and strategic objectives. It requires the ability to anticipate response, visualise the effect and how it can be managed. Most of the activities are within the campaign design that involves analysis and planning. [20] The process of analysis in this context is underpinned by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to gain the understanding of the opponent capabilities. In order to ensure an accurate and reliable intelligence collection in preparation for the Malaya Campaign, the Japanese created the Doro Nawa Unit, known as the “Taiwan Army Research Section.” The 30-member team was tasked to collect all conceivable data connected with tropical warfare in the six months before the commencement of the attack [21] . It was mentioned that the area of responsibility for the intelligent gathering was the entire Pacific war region [22] . The Doro Nawa received open source information from the Southward Association [23] , who had been collecting information about countries in the tropics to effect better trade. Information was also gained from sea captains, mining companies, banking officials, university professors, and private individuals. Open source collection included a secret chart of Indonesia from a captain of a merchant ship who made many voyages to the South Pacific. In another example, a Japanese resident of Malaya gave Doro Nawa aerial photos of Singapore [24] . Thus, these actions had allowed the Japanese to accomplish preliminary actions that set the conditions for success, and enabled them to consistently remain one step ahead of the Allied Forces.

Leadership Roles as the element of combat power

In any campaign, the leadership role is significant in determining the eventual outcome. It forms part of the fighting power which consists of conceptual component, moral component and physical component [25] The Malayan Campaign is no different in that the personalities of the military commanders from both warring parties had indeed influenced the strategy and the morale of the troops significantly. The British Commander, Lieutenant General A.E. Percival was appointed to command the equivalent of an army in Singapore. When Japanese army marched all the way down from the north, Lieutenant General Percival was supposed to hold the invasion for as long as he could until the arrival of British reinforcement. His conduct of the campaign was such that he failed to take the only two actions that might have given him the time he required to hold back the invasion. First, he failed to concentrate his ground forces in vital areas to meet the main enemy thrust as his forces were at the outbreak of the war, scattered all over Malaya in the defence of airfields. Second, he failed to make every effort to construct field and anti-tank defence at bottlenecks on the north-south lines of communication and to ensure that adequate defences covered the three approaches to Johore Bahru. In addition, Major General H.G. Bennet, the commander of 8th Australian Division, did not adequately support him.

On the other hand, the Japanese Leadership, Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita was a curious and complex man yet highly strung, and immensely talented but often misguided, ruthless and ambitious. Most importantly, he was shackled to the past of the samurai myth, which explained his psyche. [26] Yamashita was an able strategist and tactician and was responsible for training the Imperial Army in the arcane arts of jungle warfare and helped to conceive the invasion of Malaya in December 1941. As a strategist and tactician, Yamashita had a good foresight and this was proven in his effective appreciation of the campaign plan for the invasion of Malaya. He anticipated the importance of engineer assets in view of the large number of bridges along the roads linking north and south Malaya. Yamashita ensured that each of his three divisions was supported by their own engineer units and that they were thoroughly trained in bridge building. He effectively made full use of his experience of the campaign fought in China and chose to use only three divisions instead of the five that were offered. This later was to be proven prudent when logistic supplies were running low as the campaign dragged on. Certainly he was regarded both by the Japanese public and by most of the Japanese military as the country’s most gifted commander.

The boldness and relentless commitment of Yamashita are eternal virtues that are also relevant not only in today but also in future wars. Yamashita displayed good foresight and sound tactics by taking every opportunity to make full use of the existing conditions to prevail. As a professional soldier, the overall mission must take precedence over personal grudges and rivalry as evidenced by Yamashita’s conduct during the Malayan Campaign. These virtues enabled Yamashita to succeed in his mission and similarly are applicable today and future wars.

The weakness of Major General Bennett should be taken as an example that ought not to be repeated. First, being part of the Allied forces under the command of Lieutenant General Percival, Bennett should have given his fullest co-operation but instead adopt a confrontational attitude. After all, it is the overall mission of the Allied forces that was central to determine the success of the defence of Malaya. Second, Bennett’s lack of charisma and tact in dealing with his subordinates and staff marked his failure in commanding effectively the Australian 8th Division. Thirdly and possibly the most vital aspect was Bennett’s inability to correctly appreciate the Japanese capabilities and tactics that led to his defeat in Muar, where his defence was helplessly outflanked.


Based on the strength and weaknesses of the warring parties in the Malayan Campaign and their applicability in the contemporary environment, it can be conclude that good intelligence work was one of the chief causes of Japanese success in the initial stage of the war in the Far East. The tentacle of the Japanese secret service began to spread all over the East from the time of the Washington Conference. The Japanese are an intensely patriotic people. Every Japanese businessman was an agent of the Japanese Government. Japan knew the British strength in Malaya. She knew all troop movements in Malaya. She knew all about the military camps. She knew the British supply, ammunition and petrol dumps. The smooth success of Japanese armies in the Far East clearly shows that all the campaigns in the Far East had been carefully planned. The Japanese General Staff had paid attention to the smallest details of the different campaigns. They paid special attention to jungle warfare. The Japanese tactics of infiltration found full scope in the Malayan jungles. As the British do not have planes, they could know very little about the Japanese troop movement. The Japanese on the other hand, knew their disposition. They then sent their troops through the jungle to infilter through the British lines. The Japanese soldiers were specially trained for jungle warfare and were soon adapting themselves to the jungle conditions and turned the jungle into their best ally. After the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, the Japanese were undisputed masters in Malayan waters. They exploited this mastery to the fullest. After the fall of Penang the Japanese began to land troops on the coast behind the British lines and threatene

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