Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 11)

With hardly a shot fired, General Tomoyuki Yamashita unloaded his main invasion force troops in rough waters off Singora Beach, just north of the Thai border. They had little trouble marching southward into Malaya. Orders from British headquarters in Singapore called for defending the border "to the last man," since "our whole position in the Far East is at stake," but the only force assigned to do so was an ill-trained, ill-equipped Indian division. It had neither tanks nor antitank guns, because the British had declared the jungle "impenetrable." As Japanese tanks pressed southward, the force retreated in disarray, abandoning most of its fuel and ammunition.

To take advantage of all the back roads through the rubber plantations, the Japanese resorted to thousands of bicycles. When the tires went flat, the invading army simply clanked forward on bare rims. That sounded laughable in Singapore, but the Japanese kept advancing. "We now understood," Colonel Tsuji said scornfully, "the fighting capacity of the enemy."

Clinging resolutely to the strategies of the past, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had recently sent to Singapore one of Britain's newest and biggest battleships, the 35,000-ton H.M.S. Prince of Wales, with the battle cruiser Repulse and the new carrier Indomitable. But the Indomitable ran aground off Jamaica, so when Admiral Sir Tom Phillips proudly set forth from Singapore to break up the Japanese invasion to the north, he scoffed at the critical need for air support, following his antiquated conviction that "bombers were no match for battleships."

On the morning of Dec. 10, more than 80 Japanese bombers caught the Prince of Wales on a glassy sea under a cloudless sky, vulnerable as a jeweled dowager surrounded by more than 80 switchblades. The warships zigzagged wildly as they unleashed a barrage of antiaircraft fire, but it was a hopeless mismatch. Two torpedoes tore apart the Prince of Wales' stern, disabling its rudder, filling its engine room with steam. The Repulse dodged nearly 20 torpedoes before four more ripped her open.

After Captain William Tennant gave the order to abandon the Repulse, his officers had to wrestle him into joining the evacuation. Captain John Leach of the Prince of Wales refused to be saved. "Goodbye, thank you, good luck, God bless you," he kept saying as he bade his crew farewell. When the two ships capsized and sank, within three hours after the attack began, the 840 victims included both Leach and Admiral Phillips (some 2,000 were rescued). The loss of the warships, wrote Britain's Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, "means that from Africa eastwards to America, through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, we have lost control of the sea."

On the mainland, Yamashita's bicycle-riding invaders needed only 70 days to pedal and hack their way 600 miles down the Malayan peninsula. All through the night of Jan. 31, British troops marched out of Malaya and across the 1,100- ft.-long causeway to the island fortress of Singapore. The last 90 to leave were Argyll Scots marching to their bagpipers skirling Hielan' ((Highland)) Laddie. The British then blew a 70-ft. gap in the causeway -- but the inrushing waters proved to be only 4 ft. deep at low tide.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11