Japanese occupation of Malaya
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The Japanese Empire commenced the Pacific War with the invasion of Kota Bahru in Kelantan on 8 December 1941 at 00:25, about 90 minutes before the Attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii at 07:48 on 7 December Hawaii time, or 01:48 on 8 December Malayan time. They then invaded the island of Borneo in mid December 1941, landing on the west coast near Miri in Sarawak; invasion was completed by 23 January 1942 when they landed at Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo on the east coast. During the occupation an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
8–18 December 1941
The Imperial Japanese Army landed at Padang Pak Amat beach just after midnight on 8 December 1941, triggering a ferocious battle with the British Indian Army only an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This battle marked the official start of the Pacific War and the history of the landing of the Japanese in Malaya. The Japanese experienced high fatality rates, but wave after wave of attackers storming the beach forced the British to retreat. The Japanese then regathered their forces, before moving on to seize Kota Bharu airport. At the same time, the Japanese attacked Singapore, Hong Kong, and Pearl Harbor by air.
The Japanese succeeded in capturing Sungai Patani, Butterworth, and Alor Star airports on 9 December 1941. On 10 December 1941, the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sailed along the east coast of Malaya towards the area of the Japanese landings in Kuantan. With the British lacking air support, Japanese aircraft were able to repeatedly attack the ships, and succeeded in sinking both. This effectively eliminated the Royal Navy from the battle for the Malayan peninsula.
Japanese soldiers landing at Kota Bharu divided into two separate forces, with one moving down the east coast towards Kuantan, and the other southwards towards the Perak River. On 11 December 1941, the Japanese started bombing Penang. Jitra and then Alor Star fell into Japanese hands on 12 December 1941. The British had to retreat to the south. On 16 December 1941, the British left Penang to the Japanese, who occupied it on the same day.
19 December 1941 – 31 January 1942
The Japanese continued to advance southwards, capturing Ipoh on 26 December. Fierce resistance to Japanese progress in the Battle of Kampar lasted three days and three nights between 30 December 1941 and 2 January 1942, before the British had to retreat once again. On 7 January 1942, two brigades of the 11th Indian Infantry Division were defeated in the Battle of Slim River, giving the Japanese army easy passage to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya. On 9 January, the British position was becoming more desperate and the ABDACOM Supreme Commander, General Wavell, decided to withdraw all the British and Commonwealth forces to north Johor, thus abandoning Kuala Lumpur (which was captured by the Japanese on 13 January).
The British defensive line was established in north Johor, from Muar in the west, through Segamat, and then to Mersing in the east. The 45th Indian Infantry Brigade were placed along the western part of the line between Muar and Segamat. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were concentrated in the middle, from where they advanced north from Segamat, clashing with the advancing Japanese army at Gemas on 14 January.
The 15th Division (forming the main Japanese force) arrived on 15 January, and forced the Australians back to Segamat. The Japanese then proceeded west towards the inexperienced 45th Indian Brigade, easily defeating them. The Allied command directed the Australian 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions to the west; the 2/19th Battalion engaged the Japanese on 17 January 1942 to the south of Muar.
Fighting continued until 18 January, and despite efforts by the 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions, the Johor defensive line collapsed. The Allies had to retreat across the Johor Causeway to Singapore. As 31 January 1942 approached, the whole of Malaya had fallen into Japanese hands.
1–15 February 1942
With the Japanese controlling the airspace, they were able to continually bomb Singapore. Civilians were evacuated; some left on the ship Felix Russell, which sailed on 6 February and berthed at Bombay, British India, on 22 February. Other ships such as the Empress of Asia were not as fortunate, and were sunk en route.
The British 18th Infantry Division and the Indian 11th Infantry Division retreated to Singapore in stages; fighting with the Japanese had severely reduced their numbers. The two divisions were merged with other units, and stationed along the northern coast of Singapore island.
Japanese cannon were hidden in the jungle facing the Johor Strait. Japanese artillery could be quickly transported through new paths constructed through the jungle, and with the maps they had of the defensive positions they could move rapidly to fire on strategic positions. At the same time, aerial bombing caused the continuous burning of the oil facilities, which it was feared would turn the Johor Strait into a sea of fire.
On 7 February 1942, the Japanese began their assault on Singapore, and landed on the small island Pulau Ubin to concentrate heavy fire on Changi. In the northwest, the Australian forces were bombed. On the following day, the Japanese traversed through the northwest, and closely engaged the Allied forces. In the morning of 10 February, the Japanese army succeeded in landing on Singapore island. In the northwest of Singapore, the Malay Regiment (commanded by Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi) fought fiercely despite dwindling supplies, but was overwhelmed with the death of almost all its men. The Japanese then advanced on the next target, the Central airport. During the battle for the airport, a new Japanese assault began from the Kranji estuary onto the Johor Causeway. From the Central airport, Japanese soldiers moved south, attacking Bukit Timah on 10 February and capturing it on the next day.
The Allies were forced to retreat to the city of Singapore, where they were relentlessly bombed by the Japanese. On 15 February, the Japanese army focused on the city. The Allied forces continued to fight with perseverance, but found themselves in an increasingly desperate state. Finally, an order was given for the Allies to unconditionally surrender. At 6.10 pm 15 February 1942, General Arthur Ernest Percival signed the surrender document. He had been forced to surrender when the loss of food, water, petrol and ammunition made it impossible to carry on the struggle.
The 25th Army Headquartered at Singapore provided garrison duty in Malaya until January 1944. It was replaced by the 29th Army under Lieutenant General Teizo Ishiguro, which was Headquartered in Taiping, Perak until the end of the war.
The Second (with the 25th Army) and later the Third (with the 29th Army) Field Kempeitai Units of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group provided military police and maintained public order in the same manner as the German SS. These units were able, at will, to arrest and interrogate, with torture, both military and civilians. The civilian police force was subservient to them. The Commander of the 2nd Field Kempeitai unit was Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki. No 3 Kempeitai was commanded by Major-General Masanori Kojima. By the end of the war there were 758 Kempeitai stationed in Malaya, with more in the Thai occupied Malay states.
During the occupation Penang was used a submarine port by both the Japanese, Italian, and German navies. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s 6th fleet Submarine Squadron 8 was based at Penang. Submarines in the squadron in 1944 were I-8, I-26, I-27, I-29, I-37, I-52, I-165, I-166, and RO-501.
In February 1942 the newly formed Japanese Submarine Squadron 8, under Rear-Admiral Ishizaki Noboru, set up a submarine base at Penang. It was used a refuelling depot for Japanese submarines bound for German occupied Europe and for operations in the Indian Ocean. In early 1943 the first German and Italian submarines began to call at Penang. In April 1943 U-178 under Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Dommes was sent to set up and command the German U-boat base at Penang. This base was the only operational base used by all three navies.
Japanese submarines I-10, I-16 and I-20 from Squadron 8 participated in the Battle of Madagascar on 29 May 1942 attacking shipping in Diego Suarez harbour. Seven BETASOM submarines were adapted to carry critical matériel from the Far East (Bagnolin, Barbarigo, Comandante Cappellini, Giuseppe Finzi, Reginaldo Giuliani, Enrico Tazzoli, and Luigi Torelli) of which two were sunk by the Allies, two were captured at Penang by the Germans after the September 1943 Italian Surrender and used by them, and a fifth was captured in Bordeaux by the Germans, but not used.
Of the first 11 U-boats assigned to the Monsun Gruppe at the base, only U-168, U-183, U-188, and U-532 arrived between October and November 1943. Of the second group sent in late 1943 only U-510 made it through the Allied held oceans. It arrived in April 1944 at a time when the focus had changed from combat missions to transport between Europe and Asia. These cargo missions were to bring much needed war supplies between Germany and Japan.
By March 1944 the base was running short of supplies, was under a growing threat from Allied anti-submarine patrols. It lacked air support and reconnaissance. U-1062 was dispatched from Norway to resupply the base. This was followed by four additional U-boats; U-181, U-196, U-861, and U-862 that arrived in September 1944. U-862 was the only U-boat to operate in the Pacific, sinking an American steamer on 24 December 1944. When Germany surrendered the surviving submarines were taken by the Japanese and the German sailors interned at Changi.
Japanese and Taiwanese civilians headed the Malayan civil service and police during the occupation. The structure remained similar to that of Malaya’s pre-war civil service with many Malays being appointed to more senior positions because of the removal of the British.
The invading Japanese forces used slogans such as “Asia untuk orang Asia” (translation: Asia for Asians) to win support from the local Malays. The Japanese worked hard to convince the local population that they were the actual saviours of Malaya while Britain was portrayed as an imperialist force that wished to exploit Malaya’s resources. However in November 1943, when the Japanese held the Greater East Asia Conference, both Malaya and Indonesia were excluded as the Japanese Military wanted to annex both countries.
In November 1942, the Japanese army set a world record for marching endurance by covering 100 miles down the Malay Peninsula in 72 hours. It was so famous as a Japanese propaganda tool that the American magazine Reader’s Digest happened to come across it, publishing an article about it that same month. One person who read it was Lieutenant Colonel Robert Sink, commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
In response, Easy Company (which became famous in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers) marched from Toccoa, Georgia to Atlanta on 1 December, covering 118 miles in 75 hours. Proud of the company, Colonel Sink told the press, “Not a man fell out, but when they fell, they fell face forward.”
Thai annexation of northern Malay states
In July 1943, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo announced that Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu were to be returned to Thailand as part of the military alliance signed between Thailand and Japan on 21 December 1941. From 18 October 1943 until the surrender of the Japanese at the end of the war. Japanese troops and Kempeitai continued to be station at the aforementioned states.
Once the Japanese had taken Malaya and Singapore from the British their attention turned to consolidating their position. Of primary concern were the ethnic Chinese who were known to financially support both Nationalist and Communist forces in China fighting the Japanese. In December 1941 a list of key elements to eliminate within the Chinese population had been drawn up. On 17 February 1942 Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the 25th Army, ordered anti-Japanese elements within the Chinese be eliminated. The method employed had been used by the occupying divisions; the 5th, 18th, and Imperial Guards in earlier actions in China, whereby suspects were executed without trial. That same day 70 surviving soldiers of the Malay Regiment were taken out of the prisoner of war holding area at Farrer Park, Singapore by the Japanese to the battlefield at Pasir Panjang and shot.
Commencing in February in Singapore and then throughout Malaya a process of rounding up and executing those Chinese perceived as being threats began. This was the start of the Sook Ching massacres in which an estimated 50,000 or more ethnic Chinese were killed, predominantly by the Kempeitai. Specific incidents were Kota Tinggi, Johore (28 February 1942) – 2,000 killed; Gelang Patah, Johore (4 March) – 300 killed; Benut, Johore (6 March) – number unknown; Johor Baru, Senai, Kulai, Sedenak, Pulai, Rengam, Kluang, Yong Peng, Batu Pahat, Senggarang, Parit Bakau, and Muar (February–March) – estimated up to 25,000 Chinese were killed in Johore; Tanjong Kling, Malacca (16 March) – 142 killed; Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembalin (15 March) – 76 killed; Parit Tinggi, Negeri Sembalin (16 March) – more than 100 killed (the entire village); Joo Loong Loong now known as Titi (18 March) – 990 killed (the entire village was eliminated by Major Yokokoji Kyomi and his troops); and Penang (April) – several thousand killed by Major Higashigawa Yoshinura. With increased guerilla activity more massacres occurred including Sungei Lui, a village of 400 in Jempol District, Negeri Sembalin, that was wiped out on 31 July 1942 by troops under a Corporal Hashimoto.
The Japanese were also accused of conducting medical experiments on Malayans.
Malaya’s two other major ethnic groups, the Indians and Malays, generally escaped the worst of this treatment. The Japanese wanted the support of the Indian community to invade and free India from British rule. Indians were also encouraged to assist Japanese war efforts by being labourers, but along with the Chinese, some 73,000 Malayans were thought to have been forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway, with 25,000 dying. The Malays were left to manage their country under Japanese guidance. As the war progressed all three ethnic communities began to suffer deprivations from increasingly severe rationing, hyper-inflation, and a lack of resources. Both the Malay and Indian communities gradually came into more conflict with the occupying Japanese prompting more joining the resistance movement, including Abdul Razak bin Hussein, and Abdul Rahman bin Hajih Tiab. Yeop Mahidin Bin Mohamed Shariff, a former Royal Malay Regiment officer, founded a Malay based resistance group immediately after the fall of Singapore in February 1942.
On 8 December 1941, the Japanese Empire invaded Malaya. The British colonial authorities now accepted the Malayan Communist Party’s (MCP) standing offer of military co-operation and on 15 December, all left-wing political prisoners were released. From 20 December, the British military began to train party members in guerilla warfare at the hastily established 101st Special Training School (101st STS) in Singapore. About 165 MCP members were trained before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. These fighters, scantily armed and equipped by the hard-pressed British, hurriedly dispersed and attempted to harass the occupying army. Just before Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, the party began organize armed resistance in Johor. 4 armed groups, which became known as ‘Regiments’, were formed, with the 101st Special Training School’s (101st STS) trainees serving as nuclei. In March, this force was dubbed the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and began sabotage and ambushes against the Japanese. The Japanese responded with reprisals against Chinese civilians. These reprisals, coupled with increasing economic hardship, caused large numbers of Malayan Chinese to flee the cities. They became squatters at the forest margins, where they became the main source of recruits, food, and other assistance for the MPAJA. The MPAJA consolidated this support by providing protection.
In February 1942, Lai Teck, an alleged British agent who had infiltrated the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was arrested by the Japanese. He became a double agent providing information to the Japanese on the MCP and MPAJA. Acting on information he provided the Japanese attacked a secret conference of more than 100 MCP and MPAJA leaders on 1 September 1942 at the Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur, killing most of them. The loss of personnel forced the MPAJA to abandon its political commissar system, and the military commanders became the heads of the regiments. Following this setback and under the leadership of Lai Teck, the MPAJA avoided engagements and concentrated on consolidation, amassing 4,500 soldiers by early 1943. Lai Teck was not suspected as being a traitor until after the war. He was eventually tracked down and assassinated by Viet Minh operatives. From May onward, British commandos from Force 136 infiltrated Malaya and made contact with the guerrillas. In 1944, an agreement was reached whereby the MPAJA would accept some direction from the Allied South East Asia Command (SEAC), and the Allies would give the MPAJA weapons and supplies. It was not until the spring of 1945, however, that significant amounts of material began to arrive by air drop.
Also operating at the same time as the MPAJA was the Pahang Wataniah, a resistance group formed by Yeop Mahidin. Mahadin had formed the group with consent of the Sultan of Pahang. He set up a training camp at Batu Malim. The unit had an initial strength of 254 men and was assisted by Force 136, which assigned Major Richardson to help train the unit. Mahidin earned him the nickname “Singa Melayu” (Malay Lion) for his bravery and exploits. Between the Japanese surrender announcement and the return of the British the Wataniah provided protection for the Sultan from the MPAJA.
After the war ended the MPAJA was banned due to their communist ideologies and the Pahang Wataniah was reorganised, becoming the Rejimen Askar Wataniah, a territorial army.
Allied action in Malaya during occupation
Allied strategic doctrine
The principles of Allied strategic doctrine in the event of Japan entering the war were established at a secret conference between 29 January 1941 and 27 March 1941. The strategy set forth the principle of Europe first, with the Far East being a defensive war. After the attack on Pearl Harbour the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, met at the First Washington Conference. This conference reaffirmed the doctrine of Europe first. At the third Washington Conference in May 1943 alleviating pressure on China was discussed, in particular through the Burma Campaign. At the Quebec Conferencne in August intensifying the war against Japan was decided and South East Asia Command reorganised. The Second Quebec Conference in September 1944 discussed the involvement of the British Navy against the Japanese.
Action in Malaya and the Straits of Malacca
After the defeat by the Japanese, a number of Allied personnel retreated into the jungle. Some joined the MPAJA and others, such as Freddie Spencer Chapman, were Force 136 operatives who sought to begin a sabotage campaign against the occupying Japanese forces. In August 1943 the Allies set up South East Asia Command to oversea the war in South East Asia, including Malaya. As the war progressed further Allied operatives were landed either from submarine or be parachuted in to provide assistance to the resistance movements.
Allied navy units, particularly submarines, attacked Japanese shipping throughout the occupation. Air action was primarily confined to supplying the resistance with arms and supplies, until late 1944 when B-29’s of the US Twentieth Air Force carried out raids on installations at Penang and Kuala Lumpar. In May 1945 a British task force sank the Japanese cruiser Haguro in the Battle of the Malacca Strait. Tun Ibrahim Ismail landed in Malaya in October 1944 as part of a Force 136 operation to convince the Japanese that the Allies were planning landings on the Isthmus of Kra, 650 miles to the north to retake Malaya under Operation Zipper. In preparation for the landings, a British task force sailed through the Straits of Malacca in July 1945 clearing mines and attacking Japanese facilies. Before the Operation could commence the war ended.
On 15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address to the Empire announcing acceptance the terms for ending the war that the Allies had set down in the Potsdam Declaration. In the period between the Emperor’s announcement and the arrival of Allied forces in Malaya sparodic fighting broke out between the Chinese and Malay communities, particularly in Perak. The MPAJA launched reprisals against collaborators in the Malay police force and the civilian population and began to forcibly raise funds. Many in the rank and file advocated revolution. The cautious approach prevailed among the majority of the leadership at Lai Teck’s instigation, a decision which would later be viewed as a major missed opportunity. A few of the Japanese occupation troops also came under attack from civilians during this period as they withdrew from outlying areas.
Japanese forces in Malaya surrendered to the Allies firstly at Penang on 4 September 1945 aboard HMS Nelson then, after the Singapore surrender, at Kuala Lumpur on 13 September 1945. On 12 September 1945, the British Military Administration (BMA) was installed in Kuala Lumpur. This was followed by the signing of the Malaya surrender document at Kuala Lumpur by Lieutenant-General Teizo Ishiguro, commander of the 29th Army; with Major-General Naoichi Kawahara, Chief of Staff; and Colonel Oguri as witnesses. Later that year, the MPAJA reluctantly agreed to disband. Weapons were handed in at ceremonies where the wartime role of the army was praised.
Japanese troops who remained in Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Burma at the end of the war were transferred to Rempang and Galang Islands from October 1945 on to await repatriation to Japan. Galang was renamed Sakae by the troops. Lieutenant-General Ishiguro was put in charge of the island by the Allies under supervision of five British officers. More than 200,000 Japanese troops passed through the island under Operation Exodus. A newspaper reported that Kempeitai troops were mistreated by their compatriots. The last troops left the islands in July 1946.
Members of the Kempeitai and camp guards were treated as prisoners of war because of their treatment of military and civilians. There were a number of war crimes trials. One held in 1947 found 7 Japanese officers guilty. Two were executed: Lieutenant Colonel Masayuki Oishi, commander of 2 Field Kempeitai and Lieutenant General Saburo Kawamura on 26 June 1947. Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura, one of the five given life sentences, was later found guilty of the Parit Sulong Massacre by an Australian court and executed. Captain Higashikawa, head of the Penang Branch of the Kempeitai, was executed. Higashikawa’s actions were brutal enough for Captain S Hidaka, Penang Chief of Staff for the Imperial Japanese Navy, to raise the matter with Lieutenant-General Ishiguro. Ishiguro had Higashikawa transferred and replaced by Captain Terata.
Sergeant Eiko Yoshimura, the Head of Kempeitai in Ipoh, was sentenced to death by hanging for the torture and abuse of civilians, including Sybil Kathigasu. Malay author Ahmad Murad Nasaruddin wrote a book, Nyawa di-hujong pědang, about her families incarceration.
Others executed were Colonel Watanabe Tsunahiko, commander of the 11th Regiment by firing squad for his part in the Kuala Pilah massacre; and Captain Iwata Mitsugi, Second Lieutenant Goba Itsuto, and Second Lieutenant Hashimoto Tadashi by hanging at Pudu Jail on 3 January 1948.
War graves and memorials
Cemeteries for Malayan and Allied military personnel were created at Kranji War Cemetery in Johor and at Maxwell Hills, Taiping. An expedition was mounted October 1946 by the Number 46 War Graves Unit to recover and rebury all personnel they could locate.
- Battle of Malaya
- Battle of Borneo (1941–42)
- Borneo campaign (1945)
- Battle of North Borneo
- Japanese invasion of Malaya
- Japanese occupation of Singapore
- Japanese occupation of British Borneo
- Sook Ching massacre
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