Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

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Graham B
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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Graham B » 18 Apr 2011 06:39

Don't misunderstand me here Lightbob. I'm not being anti-British. Far from it, there are heaps of examples of major blunders from all forces in Malaya - including Indian, AIF and British. I did feel your comments above needed some balance to show that the Indians weren't alone in contributing to defeat through their blunders.
To address some of your specific points:
British Strategy and Tactics were forced to change in 1939 with the start of WW2
No they weren't.
The British strategy never changed until after the December 41 landings. Sure, it was obvious (especially by 1941 due to the weak RAF) that the Army would carry almost the full burden of fighting - but this still did not change their strategy of defeating the invaders at sea. Most of the airfields in Malaya (built to support the 'defeat them at sea stragey') were not built until 1940/41 so that alone tells us that the strategy, even at that late stage (well after 1939), had not changed. Even in 1941 Army training was severly interrupted building defences for airfields and major army dispositions were directed around airfield protection. If the strategy was land war then the Air Force would have been organised in support of the Army, not the other war around. Besides, almost any book on the campaign tells you that the strategy, up until commencement of hostilities, was to defeat them at sea.
think you will find that at least 40 to 50% of the Indians had seen action on the Northwest frontier

No they hadn't.
Apart from the two battalions of 12 Indian Brigade (which arrived in 1939), all of the Indian units in Malaya were newly raised. Besides, fighting tribal revolts in the NW Frontier was vastly different to the general warfare of WW2, and, at least according to Christopher Bayly in his Forgotten Armies book, those recruited in the NW frontier fought in north Africa, Italy and Burma.
a British Sapper Sergeant would not be given such a responsibility with out the supervision of an officer ...
I'm afraid that I would much rather believe a Major who was there than even the best of history bloggers (of whom I am sure you are one) making claims some seventy years after the event.
Such an important installation would not be blown without written orders except in a dire emergency
yes, I’d agree it was somewhat of a dire emergency. But the orders may well have been written, Wyett does not say.
a little stoic in their attitude
now that’s what I would call an understatement
Gordon Bennett (GOC of the AIF in malaya) wrote in his 1944 account Why Singapore Fell that in his opinion the single most important reason for failure was a rigid adherence to textbook tactical methods. He explains that those methods were outdated and, by inference, implies a total lack of local initiative. On fifth columnists Bennet says 'it appeared in spots (but) was very feeble ' and that 'the natives ... were more friendly to our side than the enemy'.
Of course Bennet is a contentious character and some disregard his word, but as a senior commander present his account should be given some weight. As an aside, I have read several accounts that claim Bennett blamed the Indians. Well, I have his book in front of me and that certainly is not the case. He describes unit leadership (generally) as poor.
the British had set up a jungle warfare school in 1941

No they had not. I think you might refer to the Special Ops school, a completely separate arrangement.
The British established no training centres in Malaya except for an officer school at Changi. This was despite urgent requests to the War Office in 1939 and in stark contrast to the elaborate training centres they established in the Middle East. To add to the paucity of training, Indian and AIF units were initially trained for desert warfare, believing they were destined for the Middle East. All arms training was nil due to the late arrival (late 1941) of British artillery in Malaya. Training was left to formation commanders who had an impossible task with their units widely dispersed and heavily occupied on labour tasks (defences, building works and the like). Making matters worse, training notes from the UK were written around the static warfare of 1914-18, not Malaya 1942. Yes, the UK training notes were eventually updated but those updates never made it through the (understaffed, inexperienced and generally incompetent) headquarters in Singapore.
Exceptions to the poor training were the AIF brigades and 12th Indian Bde. They were concentrated together (not dispersed) as formations and trained hard. 12 Brigade trained in jungle warfare near Mersing on the east coast. But no, there was no British jungle warfare school in Malaya, and the Australian training centre at Canungra was not established until late 1942. Read Woodburn Kirby, or numerous other accounts, for details of the training in Malaya.
but you already knew much of this Lightbob, as you wrote in the Surprising fall of Singapore thread on this website on 11 Aug 2010 at 0130
Singapore were prepared for with 1918 in mind and not for the modern battles of the forties Malaya as with every colony had been stripped of their best men and equipment. The study of fighting in primary and secondary jungle had not been studied by either side nor the Americans
Who provided the INJ with 18,000 bicycles
Yes - I agree, the Japanese were helped along the way, though that support would wane in time. But no, they did not gift them 18,000 bicycles. Masanobu Tsuji (in Singapore the Japanese Version) devotes a chapter (35) to bicycles, and he makes it quite clear that most came from Japan, but spares were readily available in Malaya (much like Toyota spares today). The engineering feats of the Japanese army in Malaya are highly praised and acknowledged in almost every decent account of the campaign that's been written. No doubt they were helped, but I wouldn't over state it. It paled against the enormous help provided to the Japanese by retreating forces (British, Indian, Australian) in the way of stores and equipment (food, ammunition, vehicles, operating airfields, boats, radio transmitters etc).
Heenan ... is thought by many intelligence circles to have been the cause of the destruction of a large part of the Allied airforce
Yes, but what a ridiculous conclusion by intelligence circles who would have to ignore a very long list of reasons why their air force was destroyed to start putting Heenan at the top of their list. I'm afraid these 'intelligence circles' you refer to sound very much to me as though they are suffering from a long term chronic guilt about their own performance in Malaya and would happily point to Heenan and anyone else with a slightly bad odour as a scapegoat to hide their own most serious of failures.
Most historians disregard Peter Elphick’s evidence against Heenan as circumstantial. (I am assuming you are relying on Elphick's book Odd Man Out as your source here.) There were many factors in the Alor Star raid that contributed to disaster, no early warning and no effective AA being the big two. And as Probert, in his 'The Forgotten Air Force' book, concludes on Heenan ‘little doubt he was a traitor; whether his activities had much effect in relation to all the other intelligence sources used by the Japanese is a very different matter’. Probert's conclusion is the same as most that I've read though not all agree that he was a traitor.
the same British soldiers that Wyatt criticises went on to defeat Rommel
No they didn't. They went on to be prisoners of war, many to be used as slave labour. Wyett, by the way, gives a very fair and balanced account of his experiences and in no way limits his criticisms (and praises) to the British. Circumstances in all of the other theatres you quote here were vastly different to those in Malaya. The Far East was Britain's lowest priority, and that was reflected in nearly every aspect of the campaign.

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Markus Becker
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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 20 Apr 2011 15:32

Who provided the INJ with 18,000 bicycles? Cut and sawn timber always arrived promptly at the site of a blown bridge who provided that or at least showed the INJ engineers were it was available to them. Who provided the follow up parties for the bicyles mounted troops and who provided Jungle Guides for the INJ parties encircling the British positions, The 5th Column no less.
The IJA brought the bicycles with them but they were also available from the local population in large numbers.
Malaya was comparatively well developed, so cut and sawn timber was porobably easy to come by too.
And what did the IJA need jungle guides for? IIRC there was very little actual jungle in Malaya, at least in the areas that saw fighting. Plantations were far more commen.

I have done a fair bit of reading on the matter -Bloody Shambles, The Defence and Fall of Singapore, Forgotten Armies, the Official UK History and so on- and I don´t remember a 5th column. Espionage by Japanese expats, officers and diplomats, yes but that was to be expected. What I do remember much better is information about the inexperience, ineptitude, insufficient numbers and quality of the allied defenders.

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Attrition
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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 20 Apr 2011 16:21

Of course a big reason for the defeat was that Britain was busy elsewhere. I can't imagine the Japanese leadership taking on the British, French, Dutch and US empires with their backs turned on the USSR if the European war wasn't on. Perhaps a question to ask would be "Why did the British do so well, considering?"

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 20 Apr 2011 18:22

Attrition wrote:I can't imagine the Japanese leadership taking on the British, French, Dutch and US empires with their backs turned on the USSR if the European war wasn't on.
Me neither: national warmaking potentials

Of course a big reason for the defeat was that Britain was busy elsewhere.
And another big reason was the serious and inexcusable underestimation of the Japanese. IMO that was at least as much responsible for Malaya´s weakness as the war with Germany and Italy.

Perhaps a question to ask would be "Why did the British do so well, considering?"
No offense but they didn´t do well at all in 1942. With the exception of southern New Guinea the Japanese managed to take everything they had planned to take.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 20 Apr 2011 19:11

I'm questioning the magnitude of the defeat relative to the local difficulty in Europe and the priority given to bolstering Britain's hold on the Middle East. Clearly the loss of Malaya was a heavy economic blow from an imperial point of view but more because the replacement commodities came from the USA. Given the diversion of resources to Britain and the ME is it that the resources available for Malaya were a considerable quantity even though they weren't enough? After all this was the period of the war where smallish well organised armies could still defeat much bigger ones. Was the underestimation of the Japanese general or a propaganda gamble? Pouring money into Singapore in the 20s and 30s doesn't seem complacent.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 20 Apr 2011 19:38

Attrition wrote:I'm questioning the magnitude of the defeat relative to the local difficulty in Europe and the priority given to bolstering Britain's hold on the Middle East.
The situation in Europe was a lot better than a year before. The quality and quantity of UK air- and ground frces had increased, the Blitz was over, Barbarossa ensured the UK would be safe until the summer of 42 no matter how Barbarossa ended. The Med didn´t look good but I read the Far East used to have priority over the Med until Churchill changed that in 1940/41.

Given the diversion of resources to Britain and the ME is it that the resources available for Malaya were a considerable quantity even though they weren't enough?
Hardly! Fighter Command had 70+ squadrons and nothing useful to do with them, Malaya had 4.5, Burma 1 plus the AVG. The resources were there, just not in the right place. And it´s not like much would have been needed. The Japanese deployed ~7 division to take the entire Far East: PI, DEI, Malaya, Thailand, Burma. Their reserves amounted to one division. A similar picture in the air: 115 A6M, 68 Ki-43, ~200 Ki-27 were their entire fighter strenght at the start of the campaign.

After all this was the period of the war where smallish well organised armies could still defeat much bigger ones. Was the underestimation of the Japanese general or a propaganda gamble? Pouring money into Singapore in the 20s and 30s doesn't seem complacent.
The naval base was nice but useless without a fleet and since the Fall of France and Italy´s DoW it was clear the fleet would not be able to come. I was complacent not to increase the strenght of the RAF as planned even before the war.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 20 Apr 2011 22:14

So the Middle East got resources intended for Malaya. Was there an interruption in the reinforcement of the Far East due to greater need in the Med?

I've seen the point about all the metropolitan fighter squadrons but I've never seen an analysis comparing the number of squadrons abroad and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate them and keep them operational. Consider an analogy with the Red Army, busy digging in on the new frontier in 1941 and being caught with half-built defences and overstocked airfields.

I'm no authority on the Far East (obviously) but this thread keeps piquing my interest because of the macroeconomic and strategic effects of the Japanese peril when the war in Europe went wrong in mid-1940. The lack of big ships to base at Singapore and the ill-luck of Indomitable being damaged wouldn't have mattered if the Home Fleet wasn't busy with the European war.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Graham B » 21 Apr 2011 05:00

You ask a good question Attrition
was the underestimation of the Japanese general or a propaganda ganble?
I think the latter.
There was quite a bit of evidence available to British intelligence to show that Japan had a fairly mean fighting machine, coming out of China. But it seems to have been largely ignored. Even intelligence on Japan's expanding aviation industry and on vastly improved aircraft performance was either mis-interpreted or ignored. Some of the reports just got lost in the understaffed intelligence agency in Singapore (FECB).
Some writers (Probert for example) puts this down to racism. There may have been some of that but I can't help but conclude that Britain simply didn't want to believe in a capable Japan. She had enough on her plate and chose to promote a weak threat in the Far East.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 21 Apr 2011 09:06

Considering that the Japanese fought the wars in Manchuria 1904-1905 and against German colonies in 1914-1918 there ought to have been plenty of observers from Britain, not to mention the instructors etc that helped in the creation of a modern navy and compared notes with the Prussians doing the same for the army. As you mention, the example of the wars in China 1931 (on and off) was also available. Coud it have been complacency to close the US supply route to China from Rangoon or was it appeasement? Perhaps there was some underestimation of the Japanese due to racism but again I would have thought that racism was a consequence of strategic policy not the other way round.

How tenable was Malaya anyway? There's been discussion of the quantity and quality of its defences and the distraction of the Euro-war but what about geography? Had Singapore held out for as long as Bataan, the civilian death toll might have rivalled Leningrad. That said, the Japanese on the defensive in Burma (although numerous) weren't that lavishly equipped and they held out for a long time.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 21 Apr 2011 11:28

Attrition wrote:So the Middle East got resources intended for Malaya. Was there an interruption in the reinforcement of the Far East due to greater need in the Med?
The Iraqi rebellion resulted in an Indian division scheduled for Malaya being re-routed. I don´t know about other untis but in the summer of 41 the Brits lost Greece, Crete and the gains from Operation Compass. On the plus side they only defeated the Italians in Ethiopia. That freed three divisions right away and another two at the end of the year. One of the former could have compensated for the division lost to Iraq.

I've seen the point about all the metropolitan fighter squadrons but I've never seen an analysis comparing the number of squadrons abroad and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate them and keep them operational. Consider an analogy with the Red Army, busy digging in on the new frontier in 1941 and being caught with half-built defences and overstocked airfields.
The Air Ministry had been building airfields in Malaya since the mid/late 30´s and in any case there was over a year between the Japanese occupation of northern Indo-China and the outbreak of the war.

How tenable was Malaya anyway? There's been discussion of the quantity and quality of its defences and the distraction of the Euro-war but what about geography? Had Singapore held out for as long as Bataan, the civilian death toll might have rivalled Leningrad. That said, the Japanese on the defensive in Burma (although numerous) weren't that lavishly equipped and they held out for a long time.
You can hold Singapore only if you hold southern Malaya to keep artillery out of range and southern Sumatra to keep the supply line open. With the kind of air power(~550 a/c) the pre-war plans called for this would have been possible.

The Japanese in Burma benefited from poor supply lines from central to eastern India and practically none from eastern India into Burma. Their on supply line ran overland into Thailand and across the sea and was safe until the very end of the war.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 21 Apr 2011 12:11

I don't think that the failure in the western desert after Compass was all that significant these days. The adventure in Greece may have ben hare-brained but Europe was where the war was going to be decided. Sorting out east Africa was strategically important since control of the coasts allowed Roosevelt to change the region's status from that of a war zone. Iran and Iraq perhaps seemed more vulnerable then to invasion from the north if the USSR folded so it seems to me that giving Malaya and Burma the scrag-end was the lesser evil. How much more than was already there to oppose Japan would have been necessary to hold Malaya? Consider also that at the time the well-equipped motorised, mechanised and armoured forces involved in the war were not turning out to be the panacea that their advocates of the 20s and 30s had hoped. Khalkin-Gol doen't seem much of a guide either since the Red Army managed to assemble quantity as well as quality.

Clearly the forces in Malaya performed poorly but against what criterion? Did they achieve their potential, which as it turned out wasn't enough; do surprisingly well considering or did they squander their chance to give Japan a cuffing? At the moment, on what little I know I incline to the view that they achieved par. It's not as if Japan's other enemies did much better (apart from China).

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 21 Apr 2011 15:42

Attrition wrote:It's not as if Japan's other enemies did much better (apart from China).
No surprise, they were just as unprepared as the British Empire´s forces.

Consider also that at the time the well-equipped motorised, mechanised and armoured forces involved in the war were not turning out to be the panacea that their advocates of the 20s and 30s had hoped.
Who needs that? Run-of-the-mill infantry divisions would have sufficed since the IJA was weak in terms of armour, artillery and motorisation.

How much more than was already there to oppose Japan would have been necessary to hold Malaya?
How about one Australian machine gun battalion, one Indian infantry regiment, one light and one heavy AA-regiment, one territorial infantry division and ~100 Hurricanes? Fully trained and on the scene no later than three months before the outbreak of the hostilities. IOTL the units mentioned above were send to Malaya but after the war broke out.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 21 Apr 2011 15:53

If Japan had Malaya cut with spies such increased readiness would surely have been noted and accounted for. If the other countries attacked by Japan did equally poorly then the causes can't have been peculiar to the British Empire.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Markus Becker » 21 Apr 2011 16:00

IIRC the IJA was very reluctant to commit more troops. Their priorities were China and the USSR. And that fact that the USA made the same mistakes doesn´t change the fact and scope of the mistakes the British Empire made -Australia explicitly included.

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Re: Why Was Britain Defeated in Malaya?

Post by Attrition » 21 Apr 2011 18:26

That's my point, if there was a general failure of the British, US and Dutch it can't have been peculiar to the British so it should be easy to decide what it was or perhaps I should say, easy to decide what it wasn't.

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