7) My Grandpa I never knew: Wretched Invasion

WW2 bicycle infantry

In their desperate last ditch attempt to slowdown the Imperial Japanese Army onslaught, the British Army detonated a few well placed explosives to destroy both the train and road bridges as soon as the last train chugged across the Petani River. Dull thuds of explosions shattered the silent night followed by the loud crashing of both bridges which reverberated ominously throughout the already frightened and bewildered town. The rear guard sappers hastily boarded the last truck avoiding eye contacts with the few local onlookers to hide their shame and fear.

They had their orders; blow up and speed south. The British Army was withdrawing to the next defensive position of Kampar bypassing Penang which had been deemed indefensible without air cover and to be abandoned. Daily aerial bombing by squadrons of Japanese Ki-48 Kawasaki light bombers (codename “Lily”) based out of Saigon with reckless impunity broke the British High Command’s resolve to defend Penang, the Pearl of the Orient.

No sooner had the sappers retreated, Kai Chang was awakened from his restless sleep by the rumble of light tanks, trucks and bicycle infantry, the vanguard of the Imperial Japanese Army had arrived. Their bicycles, confiscated from local populace, had yet to turn rickety as the war was still in its early days. Oddly, they were not smartly uniformed or marching in any disciplined battle formations very unlike the retreating British Army before them. However, their appearance may be deceiving for they were not parade ground soldiers but already veterans of numerous battles in China on a warpath. Odder still, the Imperial Japanese Army was as if in a hurry, eagerly rushing after a funfair, rather than warfare, that had left town without them.

Japanese engineers immediately set to work constructing a makeshift bridge over the river. The British attempt to slowdown the Japanese advance was proven futile for the river neither deep nor wide and could be easily forded. Even the much feared guardian crocodiles had swam away downstream. By mid afternoon, the first bicycle infantry had already crossed the river and forming up on the opposite bank in small mobile units ready to give chase. By the next day, most of the Imperial Army was already charging or cycling south towards Penang. They left behind a few grumbling soldiers, quite reluctant to be left behind, at the Police Station to guard the town until relieved by the military administrators and police.

Hot on the heels of the bicycle infantry, the administrative section and Military Police or dreaded Kempetai moved into Sungai Petani and quickly established themselves at the HSBC Building and the adjacent town’s Administrative centre. The abandoned RAF aerodrome became the base for a squadron of Zero fighters which provided air cover and strafing support for ground actions from Kampar till the capitulation of Singapore.

Many of the non-combatant administrators were rather friendly and spoke mandarin to the local Chinese populace. They would however pretend to turn serious and nasty whenever any Japanese officers were in the vicinity. Kai Chang discovered that they were conscripts from the Island of Formosa or Taiwan, of Chinese descent like himself. They set about registering the local populace and separating suspected sympathisers and anti Japanese elements from the rest for further interrogation by the Kempetai.

The Kempetai on the other hand were violent and ruthless, sadistic maniacs. They were to be dreaded at all time and avoided at all cost. They immediately set out to round up hundreds of Chinese educationists and Kuomintang sympathisers who were then subjected to brutal interrogations and bestial tortures. For the unfortunate ones, some 130 of them were quickly whisked away and summarily executed on the riverbank at Bakar Kapor. Their decapitated bodies were unceremoniously dumped into the river and severed heads impaled on stakes along the riverbank to serve as a harsh reminder of the fate awaiting those who dare to oppose or even suspected of opposing the Imperial Japanese Army. Kai Chang too lost one too many friends to the katana of the damned Kempetai.

The Japanese bicycle infantry proved to be extremely mobile and versatile in deployment. They advanced rapidly down the Peninsula, even after wearing out the rubber tyres they continued relentlessly south on rickety metal rims to link up with the Imperial Army’s left flank by January 1942 for the final push for Singapore. They were not slowed down or plagued by the stretched and limited fuel supply faced by their mechanized counterpart, or needed to traverse over proper roads or bridges. They relentlessly pursued the hastily retreating British cycling over and around strong defensive positions along the Malayan Peninsula all the way to the fortress of Singapore. British positions at Kampar, Slim River, Muar and Gemas fell in quick domino succession.

The Causeway linking Johor and Singapore was blown up on 31 January 1942 in the final ditch attempt to delay and thwart if possible the Japanese conquest. The Imperial Japanese Army set up artillery positions on high grounds along two coastal fronts of Johor facing Singapore and started bombardment of the Island. Two beachheads on the North East & North West coast of Singapore were amphibiously attacked and secured despite heavy losses. Sheer tenacity and ferocity of the defenders was no match for the firepower brought to bear, and they were soon overwhelmed.

A sense of doom and apathy pervaded and descended upon the British High Command when both beachhead defences were overrun. Apart from sporadic pockets of minor engagements or individual heroic, all hope and organized defence just petered out. The guns finally went silent when General Percival surrendered unconditionally to General Yamashita at the Ford factory at Bukit Timah. The conquest of the Island Fortress of Singapore was over in 2 weeks. The Malayan campaign was over in 2 months.

The rapid capitulation of the once mighty and invincible British Army against a rag tag army of bicycle soldiers shorter than their ubiquitous “Arisaka” rifles would continue to be debated by military historians till today. Against Yamashita’s 30,000 Japanese soldiers, Percival had 130,000. Yamashita’s forces were over stretched throughout the Malayan Peninsula while Percival’s were concentrated on the island fortress of Singapore. Whilst it was true that Percival had no aerial support, but the odds were stacked in his favour. Sadly, instead of holding out, stalling and bleeding Yamashita’s attack through battles of attrition, Percival lost his nerve and capitulated. Had he steeled his nerve, Yamashita’s attack into Singapore would go into the annals of history as Yamashita’s Charge of the Light Brigade of the Malayan Campaign. Plainly, Percival just failed to call Yamashita’s bluff.

Overall, occupation by the Imperial Army was rather uneventful. Kai Chang, like the rest of the compliant and frightened civilian population in Sungai Petani, was spared from the atrocities meted out by the dreaded Kempetai. The Kempetai were relatively more subdued in the State of Kedah, along with Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, which were nominally placed under direct Siam Administration as a reward for their cooperation and non-intervention. Reversing the 1909 Treaty of Bangkok, the four states were returned and amalgamated into the Province of Syburi of the Kingdom of Siam.

In Kai Chang’s case, it was also probably due to his aromatic coffee which proved more popular over “ocha” tea amongst Japanese soldiers. Kai Chang would have preferred to brew poison instead, had it not been for the welfare and safety of his family. They took precedence above and over all else regardless. He could only but seethed in silence.

 

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