Leadership & Ethics

Leadership in the Malayan campaign

By James Thewlis February 2, 2021

On 15 February 1942, LTGEN Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command, led a small delegation of officers to the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah, on Singapore Island. There to meet them was LTGEN Tomoyuki Yamashita and his staff. As Percival and his staff approached the Japanese delegation under both the Union Flag and a white flag of truce, MAJ Cyril Wilde, who was carrying the latter flag, dropped it in disgust. This was the culmination of nearly two and a half months of the Malayan Campaign.

Just over two weeks previously, Allied forces in Malaya had endured a hellish withdrawal south down the Malay Peninsula. With minor local successes at Gemas and Bakri, the Allied forces were not able to seriously delay the advance of the Japanese 25th Army, who 90 minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbour, in the early hours of 8 December 1941, had landed at Kota Bahru in northern Malaya and two further beaches, Singora and Patani, in the then neutral Thailand. The two pronged Japanese advance down both the eastern and western coasts of the Malay Peninsula was relentless. Singapore Island was seen as the last bastion, the so called “Impregnable Fortress”. By 31 January 1942 the last organised unit, 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, had crossed the narrow causeway linking the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore Island. After the Battalion had been piped across in true Highland style by its pipes and drums the causeway was blown by the Royal Engineers.

One week later the Japanese, who had near exhausted their ammunition, launched a daring night assault across the Straits on the north west of Singapore Island, which was defended by the battered remnants of the Australian 8th Division, under MAJGEN Gordon Bennett. Despite some initial fierce resistance by 22nd Brigade, the Japanese soon gained a foot hold. Morale, both soldier and civilian, began to erode further, there were numerous instances of break downs in discipline, artillery ammunition was beginning to run short and the Allied airforce had all but disintegrated. Furthermore, with the capture of the reservoirs on Singapore Island and the subsequent cutting of the water supply to the city the unthinkable was advocated, surrender.

These events are what brought LTGEN Percival to the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah on the morning of 15 February 1942. What ensued was the largest capitulation in British military history, some 90,000 Allied troops, the majority being Australian, British and Indian, were destined to spend the remainder of World War Two in brutal captivity.

The causes for the disaster that was the Malayan Campaign are numerous; poor intelligence, lack of prioritisation, lack of preparedness in most units, inherent racism and a dismissive attitude towards the military prowess of the Japanese. Also at the strategic level, Malaya and by default Singapore Island, were not given the appropriate level of prioritisation. But the ultimate failure was poor leadership in the highest levels of both the political and military command.

Air Marshal Brook-Popham was appointed Commander-in-Chief Far East in November 1940 at 62 years of age.  Arguably quite old for the post, his assertion to the Australian Government pre-war that the Japanese were not "air minded" (what he meant by that remark was that they were incapable of effectively utilising air assets or prosecuting an aerial campaign) speaks volumes for the blinkered mindset of individuals who had no interest in analysing their profession and it’s developments in other militaries.

As for LTGEN Percival (pictured below on his arrival to Singapore), who took up the post of General Officer Commanding Malaya Command in April 1941, his failures are intriguing. He had served with distinction in WW1 as an infantry officer being awarded the Military Cross, Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Order and rising to temporary command of a brigade.

In 1923 he attended Staff College and interestingly in 1930 the Royal Naval College before he went on to instruct at the Staff College. In 1936 he was promoted to full Colonel and selected to be GSO1 Malaya Command. In 1937 whilst working on the Staff of General Dobbie in Malaya, they had recognised the weakness of the Singapore "fortress" and the considerations for defending the Malay Peninsula. They had wargamed the exact course of action that the Japanese undertook in their invasion four years later, they had picked the beaches and knew that extensive fortification of Johor Bahru on the southern tip of the peninsula was vital to the defence of Singapore.  They also factored in that the Japanese would use tanks and would be capable of conducting amphibious operations during the monsoon period. So why was he so lacklustre when he took command in April 1941? Why was he indifferent to conducting hard jungle training? Why the reluctance to establish significant field fortifications and obstacles? Even as the Japanese were rampaging down the Malay Peninsula, his Chief Royal Engineers (CRE) was pleading with him to begin constructing more robust field obstacles and fortifications in Johore Bahru and the northern coast of Singapore Island. They had the materials and the men to do it, but some elements deemed that it would not bode well for civilian morale (I would imagine the constant bombing of Singapore and the visible lack of Allied air power did not help that cause much either).

Pre-war Malaya was seen very much as a “cushy” posting for British forces. There was a strong social culture, particularly amongst the officers and many of the other ranks were free of the more menial barracks tasks thanks to cheap, local labour. It was established that no work will be conducted during the heat of the day, and many units saw this as an opportunity for a siesta. Training during the wet season was almost unheard of and the likes of LTCOL Stewart, of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (pictured on the left with his RSM and ADJT during a training activity in 1941), were regarded with suspicion due to the fact that he was training his battalion during the heat of the day, during the wet season and deep in the jungle with an emphasis on junior leadership. This was seen by many of his peers and subordinates as “unsporting”. The performance of the Argylls during the campaign itself speaks volumes as to the importance of hard and realistic training and a commander who recognised the need for such training and was willing to go against the established norms of service in pre-war Malaya.

It would seem that many of the senior commanders in Malaya were firmly entrenched in the comfortable pre-war garrison life and were unable to adapt quickly enough when war came in December 1941. LTGEN Percival, and many on his staff seemed almost lethargic. Lazy staff work, indifference to training and an almost criminal lack of foresight doomed thousands of Allied troops, nurses and civilians to a brutal captivity of over three years. These men and women deserved much better and the Malayan Campaign is a prime example of how things can go so terribly wrong through indifferent attention to relevant training and failing to appreciate and adequately analyse the capabilities of your potential adversaries.




James Thewlis


WO2 Thewlis enlisted into the ARA in 2003 and has spent his career to date predominantly in RAA units and training establishments and is currently posted to 20 REGT, RAA. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Add new comment

Cove App


Fast access to The Cove anywhere, anytime. Additional feature of receiving notifications for new content.

Reflective Journal


Record your reflections in a structured way to improve your performance.