Friday, 30 August 2013

The 8th December 1941 Japanese invasion of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore

So now I’m going to bore you with the start of the Japanese Far East war, so I’ll revert to green type, meaning ‘if you’re not interested, ignore all green type’ (which is the whole of this entry)! I’ve recently read two books on the subject and done quite a bit of internet reading and it’s all really interesting (or at least I think it is!).The two books are: 'Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore' by Arthur Swinson and 'In the claw of the tiger' by G. Thomson Fraser. Much of my background text and the two black and white photographs has its source in Arthur Swinson's book.

Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita
The Japanese had been building up to a war for a number of years, by steadily invading neighbouring countries. Their first hint to the world of their dreams was in 1915 when they published their ‘Twenty One Demands’ on China (, then in 1929 the prime minister Baron Tanaka, a general in the army published the Tanaka Memorial which stated: ‘Japan’s food supply and raw materials decrease in proportion to her population. If we merely hope to develop trade, we shall eventually be defeated by England and America, who possess unsurpassed capitalistic power. Our best policy lies in the direction of taking positive steps to secure rights and privileges in Manchuria and Mongolia. Having China’s entire resources at our disposal, we shall proceed to conquer India, the Archipelago, Asia Minor, Central Asia and even Europe.’

In the face of protests from the Western powers the Japanese government dismissed the document as a forgery, but subsequent events proved its accuracy. In the 1930’s, after they had invaded Korea, they staged an incident to justify invasion and occupation of Manchuria in China and then the ‘Peking Incident’ that led to war with China and Japanese occupation right down the eastern seaboard. After the fall of France in 1940 to Germany, Japan took the opportunity to invade French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).

Their justification for all this, according to Yamashita, the commander of the twenty fifth army that was to conquer all of Malaya and Singapore, was that it was ‘fundamentally economic. Fifty years ago Japan was more or less self-sufficient, the people could live off the land, but now the population has doubled. Our efforts to buy or import the commodities we need by trading with commodities is prevented for one reason or another by other countries. Our efforts to solve this misunderstanding by peaceful means were thwarted or negated and so Japan felt it necessary to engage in open warfare’. This was the justification that if Japan required territory for economic reasons then it’s perfectly OK to grab that territory by force!

The USA and the British Empire being strongly opposed to all this imposed sanctions, but the thing that tipped Japan into declaring war was when America stopped supplying oil. 80% of Japan’s oil requirements came from America, so they were faced with withdrawing from China, Korea and French Indochina completely (as insisted by America and Britain), or fighting. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) were a rich source of oil, Burma and Malaya a rich source of rubber, so Japan conspired to invade and take over British Malaya, Burma (and eventually India), the Dutch East Indies, the USA controlled Philippines and eventually Australia and New Zealand, so ridding the Far East of European colonisation that they loathed, as well as securing the oil reserves they desperately needed.

The Japanese landings
While all this was going on, the British made only the slightest effort to build and reinforce the naval base at Singapore, with defences only facing the sea, since they believed an attack over land through Malaya would be impossible due to the dense jungle!

The plan was put into action of 8th December 1941 (7th December 1941 Hawaiian time, due to it being the other side of the International Date Line). 

Japan sent the declaration of war to America and Britain and launched air strikes on Pearl Harbour in the early hours of 7th December, having already placed two aircraft carriers in position As is well known, the declaration of war was not received in America before the attack on Pearl Harbour, so it was viewed as completely unprovoked and instigated President Roosevelt’s famous ‘Day of Infamy’ speech

At 0905 hours on 7th December (local time) the Japanese invasion fleet, including Yamashita’s twenty fifth army had positioned themselves in the Gulf of Thailand and, on the night of 7th dispersed to landing crafts ready to land in 5 locations in Siam (Thailand) and one location (Khota Bharu) in Malaya in the early hours of 8th December, after war had been declared. The landings in Thailand were at Prachuap Khiri Khan, where we are, Chumphon, where we are going tomorrow, Bandon, where we hope to go, Singora and Patani, which are both too far south in Thailand for us to safely go.

They decided to have the main force landing in Thailand as they correctly assumed the British would not enter the country, which at the time was neutral. In fact the British had a plan to enter Thailand and meet the Japanese forces once Thailand had been violated. This was called ‘Operation Matador’, but the speed with which the Japanese attack took place in both Siam and Malaya surprised the British and although ‘Operation Matador’ was put into action it was in complete disarray and deflected from the defence of Malaya, a scene that was repeated time and time again during the campaign.

The Japanese had come prepared with surprise, tanks and aircraft cover from bases in French Indochina. The British had no tanks, about twenty aircraft for the whole country and only two battleships in the area. An aircraft carrier that Winston Churchill ordered to the area ran aground in Jamaica and never made it, while the two British battleships were sunk in the Gulf of Thailand on 11th December by a massive Japanese air raid.

The subsequent campaign was very one sided and with the air and sea commanded by the Japanese the outcome was pretty much of a foregone conclusion. Also on the 8th December, Japanese invasion forces landed on the Philippines and the USA was to be humiliated in a similar way to the British in Malaya.

The Japanese landing site. Above the pier is Khao Lummuak hill and the flat land immediately to the right is the airfield and landing site
It was against this background that we visited the landing site of the Japanese at Prachuap khiri Khan yesterday. Prachuap Khiri Khan is a laid back peaceful fishing town today in a sandy bay with rocky headlands at both ends opening into the Gulf of Thailand. It was at the southern end of the bay, by the Khao Lommuak hill that today is the reserve for the Spectacled Langur monkey and has the ‘Wings 5’ military airbase that the Japanese first landed just over 71 years ago.

Another view of the bay. Khao Lommuak hill is on the right
To get there we had to travel into the military airbase, get permission from the military guards and sign the visitor book. The road went through the base and across the airfield, that was coned off to show the road (do not drive up and down the runway the guard said!) and back round past the end of the runway and finished by the hill. There was a beautiful sandy beach and expansive views of the bay back to the town of Prachuap Khiri Khan and out to the ‘temple on the hill’ and cave temple beyond. Around us was what looked like military accommodation and, ahead were several historical monuments and a visitor centre that is only open at weekends (it was Thursday!).

The landing place
What is known is that Thailand initially resisted the Japanese invasion, but then capitulated and sided with Japan, declaring war on America. The Thai ambassador in Washington, however, refused to deliver the declaration, so Thailand was never officially at war with America. The USA today regards Thailand as an occupied neutral country.

This side depicts the signing of the armistice agreement
There are several historical monuments in the area, dominated by a huge sandstone sculpture that depicts, on one side the Japanese landing in amphibious craft and fierce fighting and, on the other side the signing of the armistice agreement. The plaque in front in Thai, English and (presumably) Japanese reads: ‘A sandstone inscription is made of a 60 tons green sandstone. It is a memorial to the Thai heroes fought against the Japanese troops on 8 December 1941. In the front inscription presents the picture of a fighting against amphibious landing between the Thai soldiers and Japanese troops and the back shows a signing of armistice agreement picture.

This side the battle in progress
Front view of the monument
A second monument has four flags of Thailand on the left side of a tree and four flags of Japan on the right. In the middle a plaque reads: ‘An armistice agreement area on 9 December 1941, after a 33 hours fighting between Thai soldiers and the Japanese troops concluded, the two sides were in a row and exchanged bayonets and Samurai swords. Afterwards they signed an armistice of agreement here in Wing 5.’

The armistice signing area
Yamashita, who actually landed further south at Singora reported ‘there was no opposition and the troops disembarked in parade order.’ He himself went ashore at 0520 hours and his diary records ‘0800 hours. Entered the Governor’s residence and ordered the police to be disarmed. 1300 hours. Succeeded in reaching a compromise agreement with the Thailand government. 2300 hours. Formalities completed allowing us to pass through Thailand.’

Thailand of course had no choice but to meekly submit to their demands or see their country destroyed, but it set in motion the chain of events that lead to the total occupation of Malaya, Singapore by 15th February 1942 and the Philippines over the coming months, followed swiftly by Burma and the Dutch East Indies in February and March of 1942, with horrific consequences not only for the colonial powers but the native and Chinese people, who were treated in a sometimes despicable manner, in one instance thousands of Chinese being forced to dig their own graves before being machined gunned down.

We shall be travelling down through Malaysia and back into Singapore and I hope to be able to visit some of the battle sites that were formative points in the campaign along the way. You will be bored (or informed) more in subsequent blogs dear reader!

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