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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Fall of Singapore and Malaya

8 December 1941 to 15 February 1942

Theatre: Pacific
Area: Singapore and Malaya
Players: Allies: British, Malay, Indian and Australian forces under Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. Japanese: 25th Army under General Tomoyuki Yamashita.
Outcome: The Japanese advanced rapidly through Malaya to Singapore and took both with minimal casualties, capturing thousands of Allied troops and civilians.

'We had to help carry the wounded to the sick bay... most of the men we took down below perished with the ship, their injuries were so severe they were unable to save themselves before it was too late.' - Ordinary Telegraphist Bill Johns, HMS Prince of Wales

A Chinese grandmother mourns her grandchild after a Japanese bombing raid on Singapore
A Chinese grandmother mourns her grandchild after a Japanese bombing raid on Singapore©
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor incapacitated the US Pacific Fleet in December 1941, Japan was able to pursue its other military objectives in the Pacific free of American interference. These objectives included Malaya and Singapore, the regional home of the Royal Navy on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

General Tomoyuki Yamashita had around three divisions in his 25th Army - about 70,000 combat troops - but had sufficient sea transport for only around 17,000 of them. He planned for these troops to seize the airfields in the north of the peninsula, while the rest would advance through Thailand to join the seaborne force before pursuing the advance down the west coast of the peninsula.

The Japanese faced 88,000 Allied troops in Malaya, a combination of British, Australian, Indian and Malay soldiers under Percival. However, the Allied forces were badly trained and equipped while the 25th Army had some of Japan's best soldiers, as well as plenty of tanks and aircraft.

The first Japanese landings took place in the early hours of 8 December 1941 in northern Malaya and southern Thailand. By the morning of 10 December, they had penetrated the Malayan frontier and advanced into Kedah. The same day marked the sinking by Japanese bombers of two British battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, which enabled the Japanese to continue landing their troops and establish air bases in Malaya without Allied interference. Japanese aircraft dealt swiftly with any resistance and eased the Japanese advance down the peninsula to threaten Singapore from the north.

At the beginning of January 1942, the British fell back to the Slim River and the approaches to the southern airfields near Kuala Lumpur. On the night of 7 January, Japanese tanks cut through these positions and advanced another 30km (18 miles), cutting off around 4,000 British troops.

The Allies abandoned central Malaya, hastening the Japanese advance on Singapore before sufficient reinforcements could arrive. Kuala Lumpur was abandoned and the Allied defence moved back to Johore, but this enabled the Japanese to use better roads and so advance two divisions at once, intensifying the attack and accelerating the Allied retreat.

By 30 January, the Allied forces were at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. The rearguards crossed the straits into Singapore the next night. The Japanese had advanced nearly 1,000km to capture Malaya in just 54 days.

On the night of 8 February, two divisions of the Japanese invasion force crossed the straits and landed on Singapore Island. Singapore's defence was ineffective; by morning, around 13,000 Japanese soldiers had landed and the Australian defenders had retreated to inland positions. By the end of the day there were over 30,000 Japanese troops on Singapore and they had established a stronghold on the north western part of the island.

The Japanese advance continued and by 15 February the defenders had been driven back to the suburbs of Singapore city, on the south coast of the island. Food and water supplies were low, and that evening Percival surrendered to the Japanese.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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