Sketch by Jack Chalker

Journey up Malaya

25 pounder

25 Pounder Gun

The classic British artillery piece - it had an accurate range of up to seven miles

(Imperial War Museum, Duxford)

Lt Hartley would have supervised the transfer of 501 Battery's 25-pounder guns, ammunition limbers and Morris Quads from ship to train (the FWD Morris Quads were predecessors of the Land Rover). The regiment went by rail up the Malayan peninsula to Kajang, south of Kuala Lumpur, en route to Jitra near the border with Siam (now Thailand).

Morris Quad

FWD Morris Quad

Forerunner of the Land Rover

(Muckleburgh Collection, North Norfolk)

Political background Japan's intention to seize the great British naval base of Singapore and the rubber plantations and tin mines of Malaya had been predicted with uncanny prescience in February 1937 by Maj-Gen Dobbie, then GOC Malaya. Gen Dobbie reckoned that the Japanese would land in neutral Siam at the Kra Isthmus ports of Singora and Pattani, and at Khota Bharu in Malaya. He was right.

Between 1936 and 1939 Gen Dobbie and his ADC Major Percival (destined to lead the ignominious British surrender to the Japanese in 1942) had observed the use of bicycles by the numerous Japanese rubber estates in Malaya. They also noted that the Japanese tin mine tugboat crews seemed surprisingly well educated.

Most significantly, Gen Dobbie obtained intelligence about the formidable performance of the Japanese Navy's torpedo bombers. The British Air Ministry was not impressed: "So far as can be ascertained,  the Japanese aircraft referred to is substantially a copy of a type already superseded in the RAF, and in practice it has been found that Japanese copies of British aircraft rarely reach their performance".

Japan's 1937 invasion of China had resulted in American and British sanctions on exports of oil, tin and rubber. This had infuriated the Japanese. As we now know, British Intelligence was decoding diplomatic communications which clearly indicated that Japan was preparing for war with the Americans and British. Japan was already a member of the fascist Axis and a political ally of Hitler and Mussolini.

We must remember that in December 1941, when Lt Hartley was transporting his guns up Malaya, Churchill was preoccupied with the Home Front, the North Atlantic and North Africa. Since France's collapse in June 1940, and until Hitler's invasion of Soviet Russia in May 1941, the war against fascist Germany and Italy had been fought by the British alone.

The Americans, though helpful with Lend Lease materials and convoy escorts, had not entered the war and indeed President Roosevelt showed no signs of doing so. The RAF had won the Battle of Britain and the Luftwaffe's blitz of London had peaked, but the City was in ruins and much of Europe was under Nazi occupation. U boats and battleship raiders were threatening Britain's Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Sea lifelines. The British Army was being beaten back in North Africa by Rommel, who was almost within reach of Egypt and the Suez Canal -Britain's lifeline to the Far East.

Even so, three months before the Japanese invaded Malaya, Lt Hartley's Territorial Regiment, 137th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, had been ordered to the Far East. A few days after the regiment sailed from Liverpool, Churchill despatched a strong naval force to Singapore (Force Z) to show the Japanese that they would pay a high price for any aggression.

Churchill's plan for the defence of Singapore was called "Operation Matador". His idea was to pre-empt any Japanese landings by taking the Siamese ports. Burt Briggs recalls a lecture on this plan from the Brigade Major. "He was very critical of the War Office, and all chiefs back in London, and feared the worst".

Churchill's proposal to invade neutral territory was politically contentious, and the Americans would not agree to it, strongly as they disapproved of Japan.

This was the sensitive political background to Operation Matador as the regiment landed in Singapore and moved its guns up the Malayan peninsula to Jitra.

Prince_Wales

Prince of Wales

Lt Hartley would not have seen the ill fated HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in Singapore harbour, because the warships did not anchor in the great Royal Navy dockyard until 2nd December, four days after his arrival. But he would have been aware of their arrival, which greatly boosted morale in "Fortress Singapore".

We now know that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto was very concerned about the threat which the British battleships posed to his invasion fleet. His armada was ready to sail from ports in French Indo-China - Saigon (now Ho Chi Minn City), Phucoq and Camranh. Vichy France had made these ports available to the Japanese.

Japan attacks Admiral Yamamoto ordered the Japanese fleet to sea on 5th December. It was spotted on 6 December by an Australian RAAF Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance aircraft operating from the RAF airfield at Kota Bharu in east Malays The Hudson signalled that the fleet comprised 29 troopships escorted by a battleship, five cruisers and seven destroyers- The invasion fleet appeared to be heading for the Kra Isthmus and Siam.

One of the two senior British commanders in Singapore, Vice Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, was away visiting the American admiral in Manila. The other British commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, had to decide whether to launch Matador and deploy Prince of Wales and Repulse.

On 5th December, London had authorised the launching of "Matador", at the discretion of the Far East commanders, Brooke-Popham now knew that the Japanese fleet was heading for Siam, but he did not launch the full Matador plan. On 6th December he ordered small units of the 11th Indian Division based in Jitra to cross the border into Siam. They were too light and too late.

 

Next Chapter

Japanese Invade

 

 

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[2nd Lt. R. Hartley] [Orders to Sail] [Journey up Malaya] [Japanese Invade] [Kajang to Jitra] [Slim River] [Retreat to Tebong] [Aftermath] [Regiment History] [Map of Malaya]

 

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