The British created the earliest settlements in the Malay peninsula in 1786. Rich in rubber and tin, Malaya became a British protectorate.

By the start of the Second World War Malaya was supplying half the world's natural rubber and more than half its tin ore and was one of the most important economic and strategic territories in the British Empire. The peninsula was defended by 88,000 troops (Malayan, Indian, Australian and British) under the command of General Arthur Percival.

On Sunday, 7th December, 1941, 105 high-level bombers, 135 dive-bombers and 81 fighter aircraft attacked the the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In their first attack the Japanese sunk the Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia and California. The second attack, launched 45 minutes later, hampered by smoke, created less damage. In two hours 18 warships, 188 aircraft and 2,403 servicemen were lost in the attack.

That night the Japanese Army began arriving at Kota Bharu. This was just a diversionary force and the the main landings in the Malay peninsula did not take place until the next day at Singora and Patani on the north-east coast. Under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese 18th Division, made rapid progress as they forced Allied troops to retreat south.

On 10th December, 1941, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were both sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya. This left the Japanese Navy in control of the sea and it was able to provide the Japanese Army with the necessary supplies to win the battle with the Allied forces on Malaya.

The British Army in Malaya did not have any tanks whereas the Japanese had over two hundred. The Japanese Air Force were also able to carry out a series of air attacks on Allied positions. Unsuccessful attempts were made to halt the advance of General Tomoyuki Yamashita at Perak River, Kampar and the Muar River.

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On 25th January 1942, General Arthur Percival gave orders for a general retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore. The island was difficult to defend and on 8th February, 13,000 Japanese troops landed on the northwest corner of the island. The next day another 17,000 arrived in the west. Percival, moved his soldiers to the southern tip of the island but on 15th February he admitted defeat and surrendered his 138,000 soldiers to the Japanese.

It was Britain's most humiliating defeat of the war. Percival and his troops remained prisoners of the Japanese until just before the end of the Second World War.

Primary Sources

(1) Corporal John Wyatt, letter to parents while serving in Malaya (21st December, 1941)

Well mum before I start I would like to give thanks to God at Church for the mercy he has shown, not only to me but to the whole Battalion, 3 times, have just waited for death but with Gods help I am still here, I have felt all along that with a your prayers God would keep me safe. Will only give you one instance of it: 10 of us were in a trench in a little native village in the Jungle, we were told last man last round, for we were surrounded by Japanese and they were closing in on all sides. Some of the chaps were saying goodbye to each other and was really frightened at the thought of dying but as the minutes dragged on I resigned myself to it, then all of a sudden three aircraft came over, was they ours? Was they be buggered, down came the bombs all around us. All we could do as we crouched there was to wait for one to hit us but that good old trench saved our lives for it swayed and rocked with the impact, about one minute after they flew off believe it or not 4 tanks rumble up the road, and gave our positions hell they flung everything at us; grenades, machine guns, but still we crouched in that little trench, we could not return fire for if we showed our heads over the trench the advancing Japs were machine gunning us. All of a sudden we heard a shout, run for it lads, and we run, but that was the last I saw of the Brave Officer who said it. Shall never forget him, as we ran past him, pistol in hand holding them off while we got away. I haven't seen him since. Thank God I am still here, most of the Battalion reached safety but a lot of poor chaps are still missing some of my friends too.