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Extracts of Singapore Burning

From Chapters Seven and Eight:-

The Hudsons were virtually flying circuits and bumps as they took off, bombed, landed and were immediately rearmed in a process that seemed to work with conveyor belt efficiency. There was no need to refuel for so little fuel was used; ground crews could hear the bombs they had just loaded explode. The armourers and fitters, soaked in oil and sweat, worked methodically away, cocking an ear when they had the chance to catch what the air crews were saying. It seemed the Japs were getting a pasting though not without cost. The squadron’s first casualty was an aircraft piloted by Flight-Lieutenant “Spider” Leighton-Jones which had simply failed to return. Nobody had seen Jones, a popular officer with the wiry build of a jockey and a perpetual grin, go down. Later there were unconfirmed Japanese reports of a badly smoking Hudson hardly under control which seemed to seek out a crowded landing craft and dive into it. Several of his friends watched John Ramshaw crash. He was seen to ditch while making his second skip bombing attack, this time on the Sendai which had much better anti-aircraft defences than the transports. The warship’s rudder and perhaps a propeller shaft was damaged and before long the cruiser would limp back to Indo-China’s Cam Ranh Bay for repairs.

Dowie, the co-pilot and ultimately the only survivor from the four man crew, was never certain whether they were bought down by anti-aircraft fire or being too close to the blast of their own bombs. When they hit the sea he and Ramshaw had both been thrown through the perspex roof of the cockpit and for a while, though it was too dark and too rough to see each other, they had been close enough to talk. Then Ramshaw had announced that he didn’t think he was going to make it; shortly afterwards Dowie realised he was on his own. He discovered he had little movement in his arms and legs (he had fractured his spine) and was just about being kept afloat by his half filled mae-west. His mouth was near the tube used to inflate the lifejacket. Dowie decided to risk removing the plug, which he eventually managed with his teeth. Inhaling was painful but he succeeded in blowing enough air into it to fully inflate it. Then somehow he managed to get the cap back on the tube too. The water was warm and he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he heard outboard motors nearby and realised he must be in the path of the small craft ferrying ashore the Japanese troops he had been bombing. Dowie half expected a bullet but no doubt their eyes fixed on the yellow tracer and the flashes that lit up the palm-fringed shoreline ahead.

Afterwards, a Japanese journalist called the Kota Baharu landings, “the Hill 203 of the Ocean”. There could be no higher praise. In 1904, Hill 203 was the Russian held stronghold above China’s Port Arthur (now Lü-shun) where, in the war against the Czar, Count Nogi Maresuke had sacrificed wave after wave of infantry, among them one of his sons, until the Russians tired of killing and the hill was his. (Known as “The Last Samurai”, in 1912 the Count and his wife mourned the Emperor’s death by committing ritual suicide.)

Nogi lost more killed than Takumi’s entire command and the only tactical similarity was that Hill 203 and Kota Baharu were both diversionary attacks. What happened to the first Japanese to step ashore in Malaya had much more in common, though again on a smaller scale, with what the American infantry would suffer some thirty months later on Normandy’s Omaha beach. It was, by any standards, a sanguinary beginning to Japan’s assault on South-East Asia.

For some time, the barbed wire entanglements continued to prove insurmountable and, as they bunched up behind them, so the Japanese losses mounted. Those who tried to get away from the more obvious fixed lines of the Bren guns began to set off the land mines that had been sewn in such profusion. Nearly all the battalion and company commanders were hit though at least two were trying to continue to lead while being carried about on stretchers. Major-General Takumi managed to leave the stricken Awagisan Maru and get ashore with the second wave some time around 3am, arriving with a company whose commander had been killed on deck when one of the Hudsons straffed the ship. Within minutes of getting to the beach the officer who had succeeded him was also killed. Takumi then personally took command of this and another leaderless company and ran and crawled with them towards the wire.

Most contemporary western armies of the day used explosive charges to get through thick barbed wire entanglements. The British, for instance, had developed the Bangalore Torpedo: an alloy pipe about one-and-a-half inches in circumference packed with gun cotton and usually six foot in length though sections could be joined together to clear a way through both entanglements and, it was hoped, mines by detonating those either side of it.

For all their intensive preparation, Takumi’s men do not appear to have had anything like this at their disposal. Instead, using bayonets, helmets and spoons taken from their knapsacks, his soldiers began to burrow their way like turtles into the soft sand under the wire until they were deep enough to crawl beneath it. According to one Japanese account this was done by lines of men lying abreast, “digging the ground frantically and gradually crowding forward”. Behind them the next line of crawling men would deepen the trench the vanguard had excavated beneath wire, gently pulling aside casualties.

Then Sendoi and the other Japanese warships had begun to lay down accurate fire with their heavy guns. Near misses were blowing sand through the loopholes of the pillboxes which, combined with the sweet smelling cordite from the bren guns, made the defenders’ eyes water and stung their faces. Soon the air in these concrete boxes became so bad their defenders started wearing their gas masks. In any case, some of them were already convinced that they were dealing with something more lethal than a cocktail of sand and gunsmoke. “A kind of tear gas,” suspected one of the Dogras’ British officers. Japan had acquired a reputation for occasional chemical warfare in China where neutral observers had accused them of using mustard gas. Whether some of the naval shells that landed on the beaches at Kota Baharu were loaded with gas has never been confirmed. It seems an unlikely tactical risk. The British were not the Chinese. However threadbare their military garrisons east of Suez were, the pre-war obsession with gas attacks was such that perhaps the one thing they were well prepared for was retaliation. Stockpiled in Singapore were almost 12,000 mustard gas shells for 25-pounder field guns plus bombs and cylinders for the RAF to drop or spray like crop dusters.

Gas or no gas, here were men trying to defend pillboxes during a night attack who could now see even less through their thick gas goggles. Nor was this their only setback. Brigadier’s Keys worst fears had come true. Despite the cross fire, armoured landing craft had managed to get between the two spits of sand where a boom might have stopped them but certainly not the Indians’ heaviest weapon, the Boys anti-tank rifle which fired a huge .55 round, kicked like a mule and had acquired a reputation during the German blitzkrieg across France for rarely meeting its trade description.

By daybreak on 8 December, with the war about six hours old, a good many of the Japanese had penetrated the waterways which jigsawed the land behind the beach defences. Japanese walking wounded on their way back to the beach, some of them helped by comrades, were filing past Takuma’s headquarters staff bloody, muddy, soaked to the skin and utterly exhausted.


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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