The first officer to have his despatch on operations in the Far East published was Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brook-Popham. He took up his post in Singapore on 18 November 1940, with his area of command encompassing Burma, Hong Kong as well as Malaya, and included the Far East Air Command. The Indian, Chinese and the East Indies commands remained outside his authority.
Brook-Popham was directed to avoid war with Japan and was reminded of this fact in March 1941, being informed that, “Avoidance of war with Japan is basis of Far East policy and provocation must be rigidly avoided“. This message was reinforced again in September of that year, this time it being stated that “Our policy in the Far East is still to avoid war with Japan“.
Brook-Popham was also told that the defence of the United Kingdom, the Battle of the Atlantic and the fighting in North Africa had priority over the Far East. He would simply have to make do with whatever he was given in terms of men and machines. It is interesting to note that Brook-Popham recorded that when he was pushing to bring his forces up to what he described as an irreducible minimum, he was cautioned against over-estimate of the Japanese forces.
Brook-Popham sought to give the impression that the British and Commonwealth forces were so strong that the Japanese would not dare to attack them. As the Japanese showed no fear in attacking the United States, it is evident that, however great a show of force Brook-Popham displayed, it would not have deterred them.
In writing his despatch, Brook-Popham compiled a very thorough explanation of the reasons for the success of the Japanese in the weeks before he relinquished responsibility for the Far East Command. This included an analysis of Japanese tactics and equipment and their use of psychological warfare: “Chinese crackers [were used] and strange cries at night; these tricks, though laughable when one knew about them, had a certain amount of moral effect, especially on young Indian troops.”
Another factor which had some effect on morale generally, Brook-Popham explained, was that, strategically, the British forces were on the defensive. All the troops were aware that it was the intention to avoid war with Japan, which meant that the initiative and especially the choice of the moment for opening hostilities rested with the enemy.
That moment came at 01.30 hours on Monday, 8 December 1941, when the Japanese started to land from ships at Kota Bharu on the eastern coast of Malaya. Two large Japanese convoys escorted by warships had been picked up by aerial reconnaissance as early as 14.00 hours on the 6th. Though it seemed fairly obvious that this was the start of the Japanese offensive, because Brook-Popham had been told not to take any provocative action (this had been re-stated as recently as 29 November, just a week before the Japanese attack) he had to wait for the Japanese to open hostilities.
Ridiculous as it may sound, Brook-Popham had to prepare in advance an Order of the Day to communicate to his troops that war had broken out. This had to be written in all the various languages of the people under his command. This also had to be distributed across the thousands of miles which comprised his command so that they could be released on the day war broke out. In order to be able to accomplish this, they had to be sent out the day before the fighting began. So the situation was that Brook-Popham had to issue orders to his troops that war had begun whilst not being permitted to take any action against the enemy.
Thus robbed of the opportunity to attack the Japanese whilst they were still at sea, Brook-Popham had to wait for the enemy to attack wherever and whenever they chose. Little wonder that the Japanese were able to overrun the British lines so rapidly.
Whilst Malaya and Singapore were the main territories Brook-Popham had to defend, he also bore responsibility for Hong Kong and he provided a report on its fall which, given the resources available for its defence, was inevitable. Initially Burma also formed part of the Far East Command but on 15 December this was handed over to the Commander-in-Chief, India. Brook-Popham also reports on the Japanese attack upon Borneo. Allied troops were still fighting in Borneo when, on 27 December 1941, Brook-Popham was relieved by Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall.
A more detailed report on the Japanese attack on Hong Kong is provided in the second despatch reproduced in this volume. It was written by Major General Christopher Maltby, who, like Brook-Popham, was hampered by the reluctance of the British authorities to commit to defensive preparations which might be seen by the Japanese as provocative.
“That war was inevitable seemed clear to me,” Maltby declared, “but it was hard to make that definite statement on the information available”. As a result he was restrained by his instructions and by the civil authorities of Hong Kong from being able to implement all the defensive measures he believed were essential.
Maltby listed the reasons for this entirely unsatisfactory state of affairs as:
(a) The general doubt that Japan would declare war against the Allied powers.
(b) The weakness of our intelligence system.
(c) The belief that Japan was bluffing and would continue to bluff to the last.
Coupled with this, as Maltby makes very clear, was the absence of modern aircraft, the limited amount of naval support, the absence of radar, and the “paucity” of antiaircraft guns.
Nevertheless, despite the obvious disadvantages which the British forces had to operate under, they put up a valiant defence. This is presented as a ‘War Narrative’ which was maintained by Fortress HQ throughout the fighting and probably represents the most comprehensive account of the battle of Hong Kong ever published. Maltby was, of course, taken prisoner when Hong Kong fell, and we are fortunate that the War Narrative survived.
The man who compiled the third despatch was also imprisoned by the Japanese but unlike the information available to Maltby, many documents that would have been of value to Lieutenant General Arthur Percival were lost or destroyed following the fall of Singapore.
Even so, Percival wrote more than 100,000 words and, whilst he obviously sought to justify his decision to surrender to the Japanese, it does provide us with a careful analysis of the British Army’s worst ever defeat.
The main reason that Singapore fell so swiftly he attributes to the completely inadequate air defence of the region. He points out that as long ago as 1937 a report was made by the commanding officer at Singapore indicating the problems of aerial defence that Malaya faced should the Japanese attack. This situation was made incalculably more dangerous when, following the fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent occupation of French Indo-China, Japanese air forces were stationed just 400 miles from the Malayan border and 700 miles from Singapore itself. “In the event,” Percival wrote, “the Army had to bear practically the whole weight of the Japanese attack with little air or naval support. This was the main cause of defeat.”
With regards to his decision to surrender, Percival cites the message he received from the Supreme Commander South-West Pacific on the morning of 15 February 1942: “So long as you are in a position to inflict losses and damage to enemy and your troops are physically capable of doing so you must fight on. Time gained and damage to enemy are of vital importance at this juncture. When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance … Inform me of intentions. Whatever happens I thank you and all your troops for your gallant efforts of last few days.”
Whether or not Percival surrendered too early, when in the opinion of many his troops were still capable of fighting on and inflicting loss and damage to the enemy, is one of continued debate.
The subject of the air defence of Malaya and Singapore is dealt with in the final despatch in this book. Air Vice-Marshal Sir Paul Maltby (the brother of Major General Christopher Maltby), was assistant AOC Far East Command until 10 February 1942, when he was switched by Churchill to take over command of the air forces in Java from where he was expected to continue the fight.
It is surprising to read that Maltby was informed that in the absence of strong naval forces in the region, the primary defence of Singapore and Malaya was in the hands of the air force when, according to Percival, it was the lack of air defence that was the primary reason for the Japanese victory. The simple fact is that Maltby’s chief, Air Vice-Marshal C.W. Pulford, was not provided with the means to adequately defend British interests in the Far East.
The tragic defeat in the Far East is neatly summed up by Paul Maltby, and we can do no better that to quote his words: “We lost the first round there because we, as an Empire, were not prepared for war on the scale necessary for the purpose. When war broke out in Europe it absorbed the Empire’s resources to such an extent that only a fraction of the strength could be deployed which had been calculated to be necessary for withstanding Japanese aggression in Malaya – navy, army, air force and civil organisation alike being much below the required mark. When Japan attacked she proved to be even more formidable than had been expected, the result being that she swamped our underdeveloped defences before they could be supported.“
The objective of this book is to reproduce the despatches of Percival, Brooke-Popham and the two Maltby brothers as they first appeared to the general public some seventy years ago. They have not been modified or edited in any way and are therefore the original and unique words of the commanding officers as they saw things at the time. The only change is the manner in which the footnotes are presented, in that they are shown at the end of each despatch rather than at the bottom of the relevant page as they appear in the original despatch. Any grammatical or spelling errors have been left uncorrected to retain the authenticity of the documents.