The Japanese Empire commenced the Pacific War with the invasion of Kota Bahru in Kelantan on 8 December 1941 at 00:25, about 90 minutes before the Attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii at 07:48 on 7 December Hawaii time, or 01:48 on 8 December Malayan time. They then invaded the island of Borneo in mid December 1941, landing on the west coast near Miri in Sarawak; invasion was completed by 23 January 1942 when they landed at Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo on the east coast. During the occupation an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
•8–18 December 1941
HMS Prince of Wales sinking after being hit by Japanese bombs and torpedoes on 10 December 1941. The Imperial Japanese Army landed at Padang Pak Amat beach just after midnight on 8 December 1941, triggering a ferocious battle with the British Indian Army only an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This battle marked the official start of the Pacific War and the history of the landing of the Japanese in Malaya. The Japanese experienced high fatality rates, but wave after wave of attackers storming the beach forced the British to retreat. The Japanese then regathered their forces, before moving on to seize Kota Bharu airport. At the same time, the Japanese attacked Singapore, Hong Kong, and Pearl Harbor by air.
The Japanese succeeded in capturing Sungai Patani, Butterworth, and Alor Star airports on 9 December 1941. On 10 December 1941, the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sailed along the east coast of Malaya towards the area of the Japanese landings in Kuantan. With the British lacking air support, Japanese aircraft were able to repeatedly attack the ships, and succeeded in sinking both. This effectively eliminated the Royal Navy from the battle for the Malayan peninsula.
Japanese soldiers landing at Kota Bharu divided into two separate forces, with one moving down the east coast towards Kuantan, and the other southwards towards the Perak River. On 11 December 1941, the Japanese started bombing Penang. Jitra and then Alor Star fell into Japanese hands on 12 December 1941. The British had to retreat to the south. On 16 December 1941, the British left Penang to the Japanese, who occupied it on the same day.
•19 December 1941 – 31 January 1942
Japanese troops take cover behind steam engines at the Johor railway station in the final stages of their advance down the Malayan peninsula which culminated in the surrender of all British forces, and the occupation of the British naval base on Singapore island. The Japanese continued to advance southwards, capturing Ipoh on 26 December. Fierce resistance to Japanese progress in the Battle of Kampar lasted three days and three nights between 30 December 1941 and 2 January 1942, before the British had to retreat once again. On 7 January 1942, two brigades of the 11th Indian Infantry Division were defeated in the Battle of Slim River, giving the Japanese army easy passage to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya. On 9 January, the British position was becoming more desperate and the ABDACOM Supreme Commander, General Wavell, decided to withdraw all the British and Commonwealth forces to north Johor, thus abandoning Kuala Lumpur (which was captured by the Japanese on 13 January).
The British defensive line was established in north Johor, from Muar in the west, through Segamat, and then to Mersing in the east. The 45th Indian Infantry Brigade were placed along the western part of the line between Muar and Segamat. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were concentrated in the middle, from where they advanced north from Segamat, clashing with the advancing Japanese army at Gemas on 14 January.
The 15th Division (forming the main Japanese force) arrived on 15 January, and forced the Australians back to Segamat. The Japanese then proceeded west towards the inexperienced 45th Indian Brigade, easily defeating them. The Allied command directed the Australian 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions to the west; the 2/19th Battalion engaged the Japanese on 17 January 1942 to the south of Muar.
Fighting continued until 18 January, and despite efforts by the 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions, the Johor defensive line collapsed. The Allies had to retreat across the Johor Causeway to Singapore. As 31 January 1942 approached, the whole of Malaya had fallen into Japanese hands.
•1–15 February 1942
With the Japanese controlling the airspace, they were able to continually bomb Singapore. Civilians were evacuated; some left on the ship Felix Russell, which sailed on 6 February and berthed at Bombay (Mumbai), India, on 22 February. Other ships such as the Empress of Asia were not as fortunate, and were sunk en route.
The British 18th Infantry Division and the Indian 11th Infantry Division retreated to Singapore in stages; fighting with the Japanese had severely reduced their numbers. The two divisions were merged with other units, and stationed along the northern coast of Singapore island.
Japanese cannon were hidden in the jungle facing the Johor Strait. Japanese artillery could be quickly transported through new paths constructed through the jungle, and with the maps they had of the defensive positions they could move rapidly to fire on strategic positions. At the same time, aerial bombing caused the continuous burning of the oil facilities, which it was feared would turn the Johor Strait into a sea of fire.
On 7 February 1942, the Japanese began their assault on Singapore, and landed on the small island Pulau Ubin to concentrate heavy fire on Changi. In the northwest, the Australian forces were bombed. On the following day, the Japanese traversed through the northwest, and closely engaged the Allied forces. In the morning of 10 February, the Japanese army succeeded in landing on Singapore Island. In the northwest of Singapore, the Malay Regiment (commanded by Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi) fought fiercely despite dwindling supplies, but was overwhelmed with the death of almost all its men. The Japanese then advanced on the next target, the Central airport. During the battle for the airport, a new Japanese assault began from the Kranji estuary onto the Johor Causeway. From the Central airport, Japanese soldiers moved south, attacking Bukit Timah on 10 February and capturing it on the next day.
The Allies were forced to retreat to the city of Singapore, where they were relentlessly bombed by the Japanese. On 15 February, the Japanese army focused on the city. The Allied forces continued to fight with perseverance, but found themselves in an increasingly desperate state. Finally, an order was given for the Allies to unconditionally surrender. At 6.10 p.m. 15 February 1942, General Arthur Ernest Percival signed the surrender document. He had been forced to surrender when the loss of food, water, petrol and ammunition made it impossible to carry on the struggle.
During the occupation a guerilla resistance force battled the Japanese from the jungles of Malaya. Groups such as the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and Force 136 were involved in the bulk of anti-Japanese resistance during the occupation. Members of these resistance forces were trained by British soldiers. They also received medical and food supplies that were dropped from British airplanes. After the war ended however, MPAJA was banned due to their communist ideologies.
Living conditions under the Japanese were brutal with frequent reprisals against the ethnic Chinese population by both the occupying Japanese army and the secret police (Kempeitai). The ethnic Chinese in Malaya were treated badly since the Japanese wished to undermine the Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupation of China. On the other hand, the Japanese treated the ethnic Indians slightly better since the Japanese wanted their support to invade and free India from British rule.
The invading Japanese forces used slogans such as “Asia untuk orang Asia” (translation: Asia for Asians) to win support from the local Malays. The Japanese worked hard to convince the local population that they were the actual saviors of Malaya while Britain was portrayed as an imperialist force that wished to exploit Malaya’s resources.
In November 1942, the Japanese army set a world record for marching endurance by covering 100 miles down the Malay Peninsula in 72 hours. It was so famous as a Japanese propaganda tool that the American magazine Reader's Digest happened to come across it, publishing an article about it that same month. One person who read it was Lieutenant Colonel Robert Sink, commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
In response, Easy Company (which became famous in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers) marched from Toccoa, Georgia to Atlanta on December 1, covering 118 miles in 75 hours. Proud of the company, Colonel Sink told the press, "Not a man fell out, but when they fell, they fell face forward.