Contents - Hirohito's War
7 Invasion of Malaya: Yamashita’s ‘Bicycle Blitzkrieg’
[December 1941–February 1942]
[Maps: 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, 7.4, 7.5]
General Yamashita and the Plan of Attack (p 215) Complacency and Weakness of British Air Defenses (p 218) Invasion of Thailand and Malaya (p 222) Admiral Phillips and the Naval Reinforcement of the Far East Fleet (p 224) The Naval Battle of Malaya: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales (p 226) Preparations for the Defense of Malaya (p 231) Yamashita’s ‘Bicycle Blitzkrieg’ (p 234) The Battle of Slim River and the Fall of Kuala Lumpur (p 236) The Battle of Muar (p 237) Japanese Infantry: ‘Supermen’ and Brutes (p 240) The Race to the Straits of Johor and the Dwindling Hopes of Saving Singapore (p 241) Explanations for British Defeat in Malaya (p 242)
General Yamashita and the Plan of Attack: [Map: 7.1] The invasion of Malaya was planned as one of the three ‘surprise’ attacks which comprised the opening moves of Japan’s aggressive plan to ‘strike south’; their ultimate aim to capture the rich oil fields of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The invasion of the Philippines was intended to cut off America’s ability to disrupt the supply lines between Japan and their intended supply of oil, while the attack on Pearl Harbor was designed to put the American fleet out of action for long enough to prevent it from either saving the Philippines or preventing Japan from acquiring oil assets. The third leg of Japan’s opening gambit was equally important. A simultaneous attack on Malaya was designed to eviscerate the only other credible military threat in South East Asia, the British and their naval stronghold in Singapore.
In planning for the Malayan Campaign, Japanese high command had benefited from information that had fallen into its hands from the German capture of the passenger and cargo steamer SS Automedon by the surface raider Atlantis on 11 November 1940. The documents, discovered in a chest meant for British Far East Command, were taken to Rear-Admiral Paul Wenneker, the naval attaché, at the German embassy in Tokyo and then handed over to Japan.
The captured documents disclosed that there was no British fleet to help Singapore, and that Britain would not declare war if Thailand was invaded. The virtually helpless state of Britain’s Asian Empire was fully displayed. The same document had also disclosed that Hong Kong was expendable. As Wenneker noted in his diary, “As anticipated, the contents were read with extraordinary interest.”1 Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo was delighted, “Such a significant weakening of the British Empire could not have been identified from outward appearances.”2
Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the commander designated to lead the Japanese attack on British Malaya. Born on 8 November 1885, Yamashita was the son of a village doctor near the city of Kochi on the island of Shikoku (the smallest of Japan’s four main islands). Joining the Army was his father’s idea, “because I was big and healthy”3 as he later recalled. The strongly built Yamashita joined the Army at the age of twenty-one after graduating with some distinction in the eighteenth place in his class at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. Eight years later he served in the action that secured Shantung from the Germans in one of the actions that dismembered the German Empire in Japan’s favor during World War I.