Tag Archives: Australia

The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

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The greatest defeat in British military history – the fall of Singapore 15th January 1942

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the worst defeats in British military history, the fall of Singapore during the Second World War.

Japan in the 1930’s was a country looking to expand its influence in the Far East, and the Allies tried to halt Japanese campaigns in China by imposing sanctions. These actions were effective and oil reserves in the island Empire were soon rapidly depleting. With the situation becoming ever more serious the Japanese felt that they had to do something to secure their vital resources so plans were put in place to attack Great Britain and the United States. These attacks would open up the way for an invasion of the Dutch East Indies which were rich in oil.

singapore

At the southern end of the Malay Peninsula is the island of Singapore. Nicknamed the ‘Gibraltar of the Far East’ it was the key to British defence strategy in the Far East and it was believed that the island was impregnable. Britain’s possessions in Asia would have been vulnerable without a strategic military base to protect them, and this role fell to Singapore where the expensive defences were completed in 1938. Japan was seen as the only country which could possibly be a threat in the area, but the British believed that the Japanese army was inferior to their own and only capable of defeating the backward Chinese.

Japan did not believe that they were any way inferior to the West just because their culture was different. They refused to accept interference in their designs on China and so made almost simultaneous Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and in north Malaya and Thailand which led to Britain declaring war on the Empire on 8th December 1941.

PEARL HARBOR,HAWAII: The USS Shaw exploded after being struck during the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
PEARL HARBOR,HAWAII: The USS Shaw exploded after being struck during the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.

The defences at Singapore were manned and the forces ready to repel an attack by sea so the British were taken completely by surprise when the Japanese attacked overland. The Allies believed that the Malayan jungles were impassable to a military force, but the Japanese were aware of this and so made their way through the jungles and mangrove swamps of the peninsula, taking no prisoners to slow their advance. Japanese aircraft attacked the airfields in Singapore, destroying almost all of the RAF’s frontline planes and leaving the island with no air defences. In an attempt to halt the Japanese, the battleship ‘Prince of Wales’ and the cruiser ‘Repulse’ put to sea from Singapore on the 8th December and headed north to the enemy landing sites. On the 10th both ships were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers, delivering a crushing blow to British forces, and British morale back home. The east coast of Malaya was left exposed and the Japanese were able to continue their landings unopposed. Only the army could stop the invasion now.

hms-prince-of-wales

Lieutenant General Percival led the Allied forces of 90,000 men, the majority of whom had never seen combat. The Japanese forces, on the other hand, were led by General Yamashita; most of the 65,000 men he commanded were much more experienced than the Allies, having fought in Manchuria against the Chinese. Moving swiftly on foot and stolen bicycles the Japanese were ferocious, killing captured and wounded soldiers, torturing and killing Malays who had helped the Allies. The British forces were shocked by the brutality of the enemy and, after the fall of Jitra on 12th December 1941, retreated towards Singapore. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, was captured by the enemy on 11th January 1942; the Allies continued to fight fiercely even though things were looking increasingly bleak for them. One example of the determination of the defenders happened at Bakri where Lieutenant Colonel Anderson fought the Japanese for five days (18th – 22nd January). It was only when his men ran out of ammunition that he was forced to retreat, leaving behind about 150 wounded Australian and Indian soldiers. These men were later all killed by the Japanese. Anderson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in the fighting and withdrawal.

Charles G W Anderson
Charles G W Anderson

The retreat forced the Allies into an ever smaller area of the peninsular until the British and Australian troops finally crossed the causeway which separated Singapore from Malaya and prepared to make their last stand on the island, destroying the causeway behind them. Churchill ordered that a strong defence should be put up and surrender was not to be considered until there had been ‘protracted fighting’ to try to save the city. The British believed that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johor Strait; unsure of just where the attack might come Percival decided to position his men so that they could defend the entire coastline, stretching to some 70 miles. He had overestimated the strength of the enemy and this spread his resources too thinly so that they could not adequately defend any one section of the line. When the attack came on the 8th February 1942 many of the defenders were too far away to influence the battle, and Percival was reluctant to move them closer in case the Japanese attacked on a second front. 23,000 Japanese attacked with surprising speed and ferocity, while the British continued to doggedly defend Singapore. On the evening of 10th February Churchill sent a cable to Wavell, saying: ‘I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula … In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form.’  This was a forceful, no holds barred message which could not be ignored; even though the Allies had lost their food and fuel supplies to the enemy Wavell told Percival that the ground forces were to fight on to the bitter end, and that there should be no general surrender in Singapore.

Japanese troops on bicyclces
Japanese troops on bicycles

On 14th February the Japanese broke through part of the Allied defences and advanced towards the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. The staff there could see no hope of rescue and so decided to surrender, sending a British lieutenant with a white flag to talk to the Japanese; he was bayonetted to death. The Japanese troops then entered the hospital and immediately killed around 50 patients, some of whom were lying on the operating table; doctors and nurses were also murdered. The following day about 200 male staff members and patients (many of them walking wounded), were taken to a nearby industrial area where they were murdered. A small number of the men survived by playing dead and were able to report this atrocity at the end of the war.

By the morning of the 15th the Allies were almost out of food and ammunition. There was a heated conference of the senior commanders who reluctantly agreed that there was no hope of victory and the garrison should capitulate. Percival formally surrendered at 17.15. This was the largest surrender of forces led by the British in history. 100,000 Allied men (British, Australian, and Indian) were taken prisoner when Singapore fell. A number of the prisoners were held in Changi Prison where many of them died, but the vast majority were shipped out to work as forced labour for the Japanese, some in Japan itself, some on the Sandakan airfield, and thousands on the infamous Burma railway (around 9,000, or 9% of those taken prisoner, died on the railway).

Surrender
Surrender

It was not only the Allies who suffered at the hands of the Japanese. A large percentage of the population of Singapore was of Chinese descent and many of these people were massacred by the victorious invaders. No one knows how many civilians were killed, the Chinese of Singapore said it was 50,000 although the Japanese said it was closer to 5,000 (historians believe this estimate to be too low, based on the actions of the Japanese in places like Nanking, and the true figure will never be known).

Japanese atrocities
Japanese atrocities

The shocking surrender of the British forces in Singapore showed the world that, despite expectations, the Japanese army would be a major player during the war. The conflict in the Far East continued after the war in Europe had been won and was only to end with the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. British forces had planned to liberate Singapore in 1945 but the war ended before they could carry out their attack. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally in September 1945 and British, Indian, and Australian forces moved back into Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese commander, General Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes; he was convicted and hanged in the Philippines on 23 February 1946.

Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya," is arraigned before the War Crimes Commission in Manila, pleading not guilty. He will be confined at New Bilibid Prison until his trial, October 29, 1945, in Manila. Here, Major A. S. "Jack" Kenworthy, Military Police prison officer, delivers Gen. Yamashita to the residence of the Philippine High Commissioner, where Yamashita was held for arraignment in the first step of the war-crime trials to be held in the Pacific. The arraignment was open to the public. Yamashita was brought from his cell in New Bilibid Prison in an ambulance for security reasons. The legitimacy of the hasty trial has been called into question by many, as considerable evidence pointed to the fact that Yamashita was either not aware of the atrocities that were committed, or was unable to properly control his soldiers due to communication disruption caused by the U.S. Army during their offensive. One of the atrocities in Manila was even carried out by a unit that disobeyed his orders to retreat. Following the Supreme Court decision, an appeal for clemency was made to President Truman. The President, however, declined to act and thereby left the matter entirely in the hands of the military. In due time, General MacArthur announced that he had confirmed the sentence of the Commission and on February 23, 1946, at Los Banos Prison Camp, 30 miles south of Manila, Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged.
Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya

There are few survivors of the fall of Singapore still alive today, 75 years later, but that doesn’t mean we should forget. Perhaps we can take a few moments today to remember all those who died or suffered life changing experiences either during the battle or in the three years of Japanese ruled which followed.

War memorial in memory of the civilian victims of the Japanese occupation of Singapore
War memorial in memory of the civilian victims of the Japanese occupation of Singapore