Japanese Forces Invade Malaya

Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commanding officer of the British Forces in the Far East, fearing that the Japanese Fleet was trying to provoke a British attack and thus provide an excuse to go to war, hesitated to launch Operation Matador on 7 December. Matador was the British plan to destroy the invasion force before or during the landing. He decided to delay the operation, at least for the night. Shortly after midnight on December 7 / 8 December, Indian soldiers patrolling the beaches at Kota Bharu spotted three large shadows: the transport ships IJN Awazisan Maru, IJN Ayatosan Maru, and IJN Sakura Maru, dropping anchor approximately 3 km off the coast. The ships were carrying approximately 5,200 troops of the Takumi Detachment (Major-General Hiroshi Takumi, aboard IJN Awazisan Maru). Most of these troops were veterans of the war in China.

The Japanese invasion force consisted of units from the 18th Division, the assault troops came from the 56th Infantry Regiment (Colonel Yoshio Nasu, aboard Sakura Maru), supported by one mountain artillery battery of the 18th Mountain Artillery Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Katsutoshi Takasu), the 12th Engineer Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Ichie Fujii), the 18th Division Signal Unit, one company of the 12th Transport Regiment, one company of the 18th Division Medical Unit and No. 2 Field Hospital of the 18th Division Medical Unit. They were escorted by a powerful escort fleet (Kota Bharu Invasion Force) under the command of Rear-Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto, consisting of light cruiser Sendai, destroyers Ayanami, Isonami, Shikinami, and Uranami, minesweepers No. 2 and No. 3, and Subchaser No. 9..

The invasion began with a bombardment at around 12:30 a.m. local time on 8 December. (The Japanese carrier planes flying towards Pearl Harbor were about 20 minutes away; the attack there started at 02:48 a.m. local time, although it is usually referred to as the 7 December attack as it occurred in the morning of 7 December US time). The loading of landing craft began almost as soon as the transports dropped anchor. Rough seas and strong winds hampered the operation and a number of smaller craft capsized. Several Japanese soldiers drowned. Despite these difficulties, by 12:45 AM the first wave of landing craft was heading for the beach in four lines.

The defending force was the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier B. W. Key) of Indian 9th Infantry Division (Major General A. E. Barstow), supported by four 3.7 inch Mountain Howitzers of the 21st Mountain Battery (IA) (Major J. B. Soper). The 3/17th Bn, Dogra Regiment, under the command of Lt.Col.G.A.Preston, had responsibility for the 10 miles (16 km) stretch of coast which was the chosen landing site. The British fortified the narrow beaches and islands with land mines, barbed wire, and pillboxes. They were supported by the 73rd Field Battery of the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, deployed adjacent to the nearby airfield. The area defended by the 3/17th Dogras consisted of the narrow beaches of Badang and Sabak at Kota Bharu. The beaches were split by two estuarys that led to the mouth of the Pengkalan Chapa River through a maze of creeks, lagoons and swampy islands, behind which was the Kota Bharu airfield and the main road inland.

The Dogras immediately opened intense fire on the invasion force with artillery and machine guns. By midnight the first waves of Japanese troops were heading toward the beach front in landing craft. Colonel Masanobu Tsuji wrote in his book about the Malaya Campaign:

“The enemy pillboxes, which were well prepared, reacted violently with such heavy force that our men lying on the beach, half in and half out of the water could not raise their heads.”

The first and second waves of Japanese soldiers were pinned down by the intense fire from the Dogra's pillboxes and trenches but after vicious hand to hand fighting a breach was made in the defences on the south bank of the estuary. On the northern bank the Japanese were pinned down on an island where dawn found them trapped in the open. Allied aircraft from the nearby airfields began attacking the invasion fleet and the soldiers trapped on the island. Japanese casualties in the first and second waves were heavy. The Japanese managed to get off the beach only after the two pill box positions and supporting trenches were destroyed. Despite their heavy resistance the Dogras were forced to retreat to their defences in front of the airfield. Brigadier Key brought forward his reserves; the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment and the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles to support the Dogras. At 10.30am Key ordered an attempt to retake the lost beaches with the 2/12th Frontier Force Regiment attacking from the south and the 1/13th Frontier Force Rifles attacking from the north. The fighting on the beaches was heavy with both sides suffering more casualties. The British forces made some progress but were unable to close the breach. In the afternoon a second attack went in but failed again to close the breach.

The airfield at Kota Bharu had been evacuated and by dusk on 8 December, with very low visibility, and Japanese troops now able to infiltrate between the British units and with possible threats of landings further south, Brigadier Key asked for permission from Major-General Barstow (9th Division commander) and Lieutenant General Heath (III Corps commander) to withdraw if it became necessary.

With the threat of Germany, the bulk of the British Royal Navy were recalled to defend the English Channel, Northern Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. When it came to the defense of British interests in the Pacific, the duty fell squarely on the shoulders of three capital ships (with a support cast of smaller ships, of course). The battle cruiser Repulse was commanded by Captain W. G. Tennant, an older design but sported six 15" guns. The second ship was the battleship Prince of Wales, a ship practically fresh out of the docks (she was commissioned in March 1941), sporting ten 14" modern guns and good anti-aircraft defenses, but her total tonnage was limited by the treaty. The Prince of Wales was commanded by Captain J. C. Leach of the Royal Navy. The last large ship was the Indomitable, a 23,000-ton aircraft carrier with a compliment of 45 fighters. This force was designated "Force G" and sent underway to rendezvous in Singapore.