Britain's Pearl Harbor: The Invasion of Malaya

June 26, 2017

While the American naval base at Pearl Harbor was under bombardment by an Imperial Japanese Navy striking force, a British colony was also under attack. December 7,1941 was a devastating day in world history, touching nations around the globe as Japan made its move to further expand in East Asia and the Pacific.

Japanese A6M2s Zeros at Kota Bharu airfield

Over 6,700 miles west of Pearl Harbor, Malaya (today known as Malaysia) was a British colony that, at the same time as the attack on the United States, was also the target of Japanese forces. On December 7 (December 8 in Asia), the Imperial Japanese Navy deployed three transport ships and an escort of cruisers and destroyers to the port of Kota Bharu in Malaya. Less than an hour prior to the first bomb being dropped on Pearl Harbor, Japanese ground forces launched the first invasion of the Malayan Campaign.

Unlike the Japanese attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbor, the British were able to mount counter-strikes against the invading forces. Planes took to the skies to strike back at the transport ships before they could unload the entirety of their troops. Though the British aerial fleet worked quickly to repel the transports, enough Japanese forces reached land to take control of the beach of Kota Bharu.

Japan sought control of the Pacific, and while its initial focus had been the takeover of Chinese territories, the British colony of Malaya offered a strategic point to further assist its expansion in East Asia and the Pacific. Though Japan suffered greater losses than the British, losing 320 soldiers compared to Great Britain’s 105, Japan was able to take Kota Bharu within a day. The invasion of Malaya on December 7, 1941 marked the beginning of the Malayan Campaign.

The Fight for Malaya

Royal Australian Air Force fighters scrambling to defend Allied position

From December 7 to January 31, 1942, the British struggled to keep Malaya from falling under Japanese control. Fierce fighting by both sides led to a staggering death toll of 7,500 British troops and 3,507 Japanese forces. With the loss of Malaya to the Japanese, the British Empire also suffered the capture of 130,000 men.

Over the course of almost two months of fighting, the British kept getting pushed further down the Malaysian peninsula until they were forced to retreat into Singapore, crossing the Straits of Johor. To slow Japanese forces from entering Singapore, British engineers blew a hole in the causeway connecting Singapore to peninsular Malaya, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the invaders for long. Singapore fell the the Japanese forces on February 15, 1942

Often overshadowed by the devastating effects and much higher death toll at Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Malaya on the same morning as the American attack launched an entire campaign fought primarily by the British Empire with contributions from the Netherlands, Australia, and Malayan forces.

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