The capture of Kuala Lumpur and Tarakan, the Dutch island off the coast of Borneo, mark the second phase in the Japanese encirclement of Singapore. After five weeks of fighting the enemy held four-fifths of Malaya and approached the back door of the great naval base.
With the exception of the fine courage of our troops, fighting against heavy odds, there was little to relieve the lengthening story of Japanese Malayan successes during the second week of the new year.
There was a continuous onslaught of fresh enemy soldiers against tired men deplorably handicapped by a lack of aerial reconnaissance. The Japanese had augmented their forces by new landings at the mouth of the Bernam River on the west coast, further threatening our flank guarding the northern approaches to Kuala Lumpur. Emerging from the forests where they had employed ingenious guerilla tactics, the enemy were now able to make use of the good roads and communications of the rubber estates, and their advance with heavy and light tanks became less difficult.
Kuala Lumpur, a city of 100,000 inhabitants in the centre of the plantations, was now within their grasp from the north-west, but the enemy were also attacking in the north-east corner of Malaya, where our men were forced back on Kuala Lipis, and at Kuantan, half-way down the east coast.
Increasing their tank-power with twelve-ton vehicles, the Japanese crashed through our defences north-west of Kuala Lumpur, releasing hordes of infantry from the lorries following behind. The city's position became more and more critical, and it was decided to abandon it, after the scorched earth policy had been strictly applied. Stocks of food were therefore distributed to the public, and the native population enjoyed a great share-out of free gifts. Food, drink, clothing and many other portable goods were pilled on bicycles, rickshaws, ox-cars, and motor-cars, and hurriedly removed. Immovable things, likely to be of use to the invaders, such as reserves of oil and machinery, were destroyed. Carrying out a skilfully organized withdrawal, our forces took up new positions at Seremban, fifty miles south of Kuala Lumpur, and though the road was a continuous mass of soldiers and transports, and orderly retreat was maintained throughout.
The Gurkhas, who had particularly distinguished themselves in the defence of the city, standing up to tank attacks and dive-bombing with almost superhuman courage, were in no wise dispirited by the grim fortune of war, but marched back to continue the fighting in due course, singing cheerfully as they went. The fall of Kuala Lumpur was confirmed on Jan. 12.
How as it that the Japanese had so quickly been able to overrun so difficult a country as the Malayan Peninsula? The fact is that their successes throughout were due, in the first place, to immense superiority in men and machines, but credit must be given to their cunning methods of infiltration. Where the terrain did not admit of attack by tanks, innumerable small parties of the enemy “trickled” through the jungle. Clad in light garments, and armed with small-calibre weapons, these free-lance infantry were ordered to advance independently and make their way against our forces as best they could. Hiding here, there, and everywhere in the forest, the ubiquitous gunmen in vast numbers crept forward to their objective. The jungle, which was thought to be impenetrable, was no obstacle to these agile fanatics, who had obviously been rehearsed for fighting amid the intolerable tropical heat and tangled vegetation. As the enemy approached nearer Singapore air raids became more frequent, and a formation of 70 aircraft attacked on Jan. 12, causing fifty-five casualties.
Elsewhere in the far-flung area of Asian conflict, the Allies scored a minor success by raiding aerodromes at Bangkok twice within 24 hours, after a flight of 300 miles over jungle and mountains from bases in Burma. The R.A.F. were supported by five aircraft of the American Volunteer Group. At least seven enemy planes were destroyed.
Working to a prepared plan of possessing themselves of the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese on the night of Jan. 10-11 attacked the island of Tarakan (north-east of Borneo), where they met with fierce opposition from the garrison. In this engagement bombers of the Netherlands East Indies Air Force scored two direct hits on enemy transports, and shot down three Japanese planes. An offensive was carried out simultaneously against Minahase (North Celebes), where men of the Netherlands garrison struck back at seaborne troops and parachutists.
Tarakan soon fell into enemy hands, but the Dutch garrison had time to destroy the oil wells, some of the most valuable in the East Indies. The oil from these wells is so pure that it needs no refining, and can be pumped, as fuel, direct into tankers. Part of the Tarakan Dutch garrison escaped to the mainland.
Meanwhile, Gen. MacArthur on the American front in the Philippines had had time to reform his hard-pressed legions. They were now occupying strong positions in the mountains of Luzon, north-west of Manila. The Japanese, however, were daily moving troops into the line and landing fresh reinforcements with the intention of attacking on a large scale.
On Jan. 11 the enemy struck against Gen. MacArthur's right flank in tremendous force, but American and Filipino troops held firm. The Japanese suffered heavy casualties, but made no progress. This battle in the mountains was accompanied by fierce attacks on the fortified island of Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula.
Later news from the Philippine theatre of the war indicated that Gen. MacArthur's army had proved definitely superior in artillery to the Japanese, and columns of mechanized units as well as infantry concentrations had been shattered.