In December 1941 Imperial Japan launched a devastating attack on American, British, Commonwealth and Dutch territories throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Focused on the war against Germany, Allied forces in the region were under strength, under-equipped and ill prepared to meet the Japanese onslaught.
Japan had been at war with China since 1937, drawing condemnation from the League of Nations and trade restrictions from the United States, including an oil export ban in 1941. Japan relied heavily on oil imports for its navy and industry and looked to secure the Western-controlled oil fields and other natural resources of Southeast Asia.
While the world watched German and Russian forces battle at the gates of Moscow and Rommel’s Panzers fight Commonwealth forces in North Africa, Japan struck. On 7 December 1941, without declaring war, Japan launched simultaneous attacks against the Western powers. A Japanese naval force attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor , Hawaii, while other forces invaded Thailand, the British colonies of Hong Kong and Malaya, the American Philippines, Guam and Wake Island in the Pacific. Within weeks attacks were launched against British and Dutch territories in Borneo, British Burma, the Dutch East Indies and the island of New Guinea.
Malaya & Singapore
The first Commonwealth casualties of the conflict are believed to be the crew of a Catalina flying boat of No. 205 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF). On 7 December, while patrolling off the coast of Malaya, they spotted a Japanese invasion force heading for the British colony. Before they could radio a warning to Singapore, they were shot down by Japanese fighters.
Piloting the Catalina was Flying Officer Patrick Bedell, an enthusiastic amateur flyer before the war and member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. In 1936, Patrick had married Sheila Turney Edmett. They held their reception at Kuala Lumpur Aero Club. Their first child was born on 1 December 1941, six days before Patrick and his seven crewmates were shot down. They have no known grave and are commemorated on the CWGC Singapore Memorial.
Two months later, Sheila and her baby escaped the fall of Singapore and made it to India, but Patrick’s mother Edith, sister Jean and nephew Robert were not so lucky. Their refugee ship from Singapore was intercepted by the Japanese and they were interned on Sumatra. Edith died there in Muntok Camp in January 1945. She is commemorated on the CWGC’s Civilian Roll of Honour. Jean’s husband, Serjeant James Paterson, also died in captivity. Taken prisoner when Singapore fell, he was used as forced labour in Thailand and is buried there in CWGC Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
On 8 December 1941 - the morning after Patrick’s ill-fated patrol - a Japanese force invaded Thailand, which quickly surrendered, later allying with the Japanese. Another force attacked Hong Kong. The force Patrick had seen landed in northern Malaya.
Commonwealth troops resisted the Malaya landings but were driven back by their scale and ferocity. On hearing news of the invasion, the British dispatched the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battlecruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers from Singapore to intercept the Japanese naval force. On 10 December both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers with the loss of some 840 servicemen. More would have been lost had the destroyers not remained in harm’s way to rescue the survivors, some 1,200 men.
The Japanese swept down the Malay peninsula towards Singapore, the keystone of British defence in Southeast Asia. Commonwealth forces -- Australian, British, Indian and locally raised troops -- struggled to combat the speed and strength of the Japanese assault, lacking tanks to meet the Japanese armour, outgunned and outnumbered in the skies above. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, was captured on 11 January 1942, and by month’s end Commonwealth forces had abandoned the mainland and retreated across the straits to the ‘fortress’ of Singapore.
The most isolated of Britain’s possessions in Southeast Asia was the colony of Hong Kong. Situated on China’s southern coast, the surrounding territory had been occupied by Japan during the Sino-Japanese war. Garrisoning the colony were some 12,000 British, Canadian, Indian and locally raised troops of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.
At 08:00 on 8 December, Japanese infantry attacked across the frontier, while Japanese aircraft bombed Kai Tak airfield, quickly destroying Hong Kong’s limited air defences. Commonwealth troops tried to hold a line on the mainland but on 10 December a determined Japanese assault broke through. Forced to retreat, by 12 December all remaining Commonwealth troops had crossed Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island.
Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the island until launching an amphibious infantry assault on the night of 18 December. A fierce battle raged over the following days and nights through the streets and wooded hillsides of Hong Kong.
On the morning of 19 December, the Winnipeg Grenadiers of the Canadian Infantry battled for control of Mount Butler. Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn led a bayonet charge to capture the hill but was driven back. John and a small group covered the withdrawal and when their turn came to fall back, John single-handedly engaged the enemy while the remainder withdrew, before braving enemy fire to collect stragglers along the way to re-joining his men.
SUMATRA & JAVA
On 13 February, with Singapore all but captured, Japanese paratroopers spearheaded the invasion of Dutch Sumatra, forcing the small Commonwealth force there to withdraw to Java. Dutch forces fought on but surrendered on 28 March. A second invasion force approached Java but was intercepted by Allied vessels in the Java Sea on 27 February. Fourteen American, Australian, British and Dutch warships engaged 18 Japanese vessels. During the eight-hour battle the British cruiser HMS Exeter was badly damaged, while destroyers HMS Electra and HMS Jupiter were sunk, along with two Dutch cruisers and a destroyer. The Japanese ships suffered minimal damage.
The badly damaged Exeter limped to port. Fourteen of her crew had been killed. A Japanese shell had penetrated one of the ship's gun mounts, killing 30 year old Marine Harry Cox - a cab driver’s son from Torquay, Devon - and two other marines, before detonating in the aft boiler room killing 11 more sailors, including 20 year old Engine Room Artificer 5th Class Ronald Beasley, a tool maker’s son from Birmingham. They were buried in the local cemetery and after the war brought to Jakarta War Cemetery. On 1 March Exeter was sunk during the Second Battle of the Java Sea. Some 40 of her crew were killed; the remaining 800 men became prisoners of war.
Under cover of darkness on 28 February, Japanese forces made amphibious landings around Java. The island was defended by 25,000 Dutch, 8,500 British and Australian servicemen, including men who had escaped from Singapore and Sumatra, and a single 750-strong American regiment. They could not stop the Japanese advance, which was supported by tanks and aircraft. By 12 March the last Allied troops on Java had surrendered.
The largest yet least defended British territory in Southeast Asia was on the island of Borneo. The island, which was divided into Dutch and British possessions, was invaded on 16 December. Defended by a single battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment, along with attached support and locally raised security units, there was no hope of defending the vast territory. Instead, Commonwealth forces demolished the oilfields and prepared to defend the strategically important airfield at Kuching, Sarawak. On 24 December Japanese forces landed at Kuching. Commonwealth defenders inflicted heavy casualties before destroying the airfield and retreating along the mountainous jungle tracks leading across the border into Dutch Borneo. On 29 December they reached Singkawang II airfield, held by Dutch troops. They joined forces and two days later supplies were flown in from Singapore by the RAF.
On 14 December Japanese troops advancing from Thailand occupied Victoria Point on Burma’s southernmost coast. Further successful attacks were launched against the airfields at Tavoy and Mergui, which were supporting Commonwealth forces fighting in Malaya, placing the capital Rangoon in range of Japanese aircraft.
Only two weak divisions guarded Burma, with the expectation that Thailand protected its eastern border. Nevertheless, the main Japanese attack came westward from Thailand across the Kawkareik Pass. Commonwealth forces of the 17th Division were forced to retreat, and Moulmein fell on 31 January.
Commonwealth troops pulled back across the Sittang river. On 22 February Japanese forces attacked the bridgehead on the eastern bank. They were held off all day, but the following morning the bridge was destroyed with two thirds of 17th Division’s men and heavy equipment trapped on the wrong bank of the river. Fortunately, most of the men were able to cross the river when the Japanese withdrew to find another crossing.