The Japanese invasion of the British colony of Malaya began almost simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). The invasion by 60,000 highly experienced veterans of the Japanese 25th Army, under General Tomoyuki Yamashita, proceeded down the Malay Peninsula with Singapore as the ultimate target. The British had over 120,000 British and Indian Army troops in Malaya, but they were unbloodied before the fight and badly led during it by General Arthur Percival. They also lacked proper air cover. The British were taken by surprise at the speed of the Japanese assault, which was greatly aided by bicycle troops moving swiftly over roads paved earlier by the British. Percival failed to pull back in time to avoid being partially flanked, then failed to defend well-prepared positions at the Jitna Line. The Japanese broke through the Jitna Line on the third day. The British moved again, harassed and harried by Japanese planes all down the narrow roads to which their retreat religiously stuck. Advance Japanese units overran more British positions in the north, taking many prisoners and half the British motorized transport. In rapid succession the Japanese took Penang, Kuala Lumper, and Jahore. The British lost 25,000 men during the campaign, with most taken prisoner. Many wounded suffered horrendous treatment in Japanese captivity until they died of neglect or were killed. The rest suffered cruel imprisonment for the duration of the war. The Japanese lost 4,500 men in the Malayan campaign. Surviving British forces holed up on the island fortress of Singapore, which thereafter fell with alarming ease. That reflected low British morale, a fact known to Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet but kept secret from the public and Parliament.
From 1943 the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its Australian equivalent supplied a small Malay Peninsula guerilla force that harassed the Japanese occupiers and supported Malays who spied on the Japanese headquarters in Singapore. Opposition arose from the brutality of the occupation and because Japan permitted Thailand to annex four northern Malay provinces. However, some Malays embraced the idea of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and cooperated with the Japanese, who in turn encouraged anti-Western Malay nationalism. Ethnic Malays were mostly spared the harsh treatment meted out to ethnic Chinese, of whom tens of thousands were sent to work and to die as coolie forced laborers on the Burma–Siam railway. British and Commonwealth forces invaded Malaya in September 1945. They were unopposed. However, the seeds of Malay nationalism planted during the Japanese occupation sprouted into an anti-British guerilla war from 1947, led principally by Malay Communists.
MALAYA PEOPLE’S ANTI-JAPANESE ARMY (MPAJA)
A small guerilla force of about 8,000 mostly Communist ethnic Chinese operating in basic survival mode in Malaya after the Japanese conquest. Its attacks were mainly aimed at the coming postwar contest for power, not direct ouster of the Japanese occupation forces.