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"Notes on Operations in Malaya" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following notes on operations in Malaya was published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 15, Dec. 31, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


"One of the reasons for our failure in the Malayan Campaign was that we were mentally and physically surprised by actual conditions of jungle fighting." After arriving at this conclusion, British General Headquarters in India issued a long report containing an analysis of the difficulties faced by the British troops in Malaya, suggestions for overcoming them in future campaigns, and, finally, suggestions for specialized training of troops to fight in the jungle.

In this campaign, as in others, bombs and machine-gun fire from enemy aircraft had an unduly detrimental effect on the morale of the troops unless they were allowed to engage them with small-arms fire. The material effect of such firing is relatively unimportant compared with the morale effect, which is enormous.

The jungle growth in Malaya falls into two categories: primary jungle, which is natural vegetation that has not been touched; and secondary jungle, which consists of terrain cleared of primary jungle but subsequently overgrown by very dense underbrush. In the first type, visibility is usually from 20 to 30 yards, and on the tops of hills the foliage is quite thin. Travel through this type of vegetation is not too difficult and requires only a small amount of cutting. Secondary jungle, on the other hand, requires heavy labor to cut through the ferns and brambles; it is found on the sides of roads and the banks of rivers, often giving the impression that the primary jungle beyond it is also impassable.

In Malaya, as in nearly all jungle country, there are a small number of open areas, in this case, the tin mines. However, little use could be made of the effective fields of fire, since these areas were nearly always outflanked.

The British comments emphasize a striking similarity between jungle warfare and night operations, in that both favor the offensive. The extremely limited visibility, the small fields of fire, and the impossibility of securing effective artillery support all hinder the defenders and favor the attackers.

a. Difficulties of Jungle Warfare

One of the most significant features of jungle fighting was found to be the unusual amount of fatigue which troops felt in this type of warfare. Called upon to march long distances without the aid of their motor transport, often isolated from supplies and support, and subjected to the enervating climate and difficult terrain of the jungle, soldiers were much more susceptible to fatigue than usual.

Morale, too, was affected by conditions not encountered in normal types of warfare. Tactical situations often appeared much worse than they were, since control of subordinate units was frequently lost in the dense jungle where communications presented unusual difficulties. It was found that rumors were even more prevalent than usual among groups of soldiers, and this, also, was at least partially due to difficulties with communications. The British believe that greater efforts must be made to maintain communications, not only for command purposes but also to support morale, by keeping all the small groups informed of the local, and so far as possible, the general situation.

b. Japanese Offensive Tactics

The Japanese invariably advanced on as broad a front as possible, making use of all available communications (roads, railways, rivers, and the sea) as well as sending their infantry through the jungle. In attacking, they would nearly always undertake to contain the forward defenses and then make an envelopment. The British stated that nearly every time that light holding attacks were made against their forward positions, they could be sure of an impending encirclement. It was also noted, however, that when the British flanks were effectively secured, the Japanese did not hesitate to make a frontal attack aimed at infiltration and penetration. Such tactics obviously emphasize the necessity for allotting the minimum number of troops to the strategic defense of vital areas and retaining the maximum number for counterattack. They also emphasize the vital necessity of maintaining control of these reserves through proper communications.

It is interesting to note that the Japanese ordinarily launch two encircling attacks in depth, the first to a depth of 1,000 yards, and the second to a depth of about 5 miles. These figures apply to a Japanese regiment. Ordinarily, when contact was made at about 0800, the first encircling attack came almost immediately and the second sometime in the early afternoon. The first, shallow attack was not considered dangerous by the British and in some actions the Japanese omitted this preliminary and concentrated on the larger encirclement. During these attacks, the Japanese employed a holding detachment against the British front lines.

c. Artillery

The jungle did much to limit the effectiveness of artillery, but where it could be employed it caused the Japanese a great deal of trouble. Captured reports nearly always referred to British artillery in terms of the greatest respect. The best type of artillery fire was found to be a rolling barrage laid astride a road on a front of 300 to 400 yards.

d. Tanks

Since the few tanks that were used were confined to the roads, the problems of antitank units were greatly reduced. Often as many as 30 to 50 tanks participated in one attack, but they were usually easily ambushed. Although the fronts were not vulnerable to the 2-pounder, they could nearly always be knocked out by a hit on the side or the rear.

e. Communications

Individual runners were the most satisfactory. Visual signal devices were practically useless, and there was seldom time or material to lay wire. Some use was made, however, of civilian communication facilities. When this was done, the exchanges had to be carefully guarded and supervised by military personnel, since the local operators could not be depended upon. In the few cases where wire was laid, it functioned satisfactorily, and was not so vulnerable to enemy bombing and artillery fire as it would have been in more open terrain. The range of radio was greatly reduced by the jungle, and it seldom worked at night. Small "walkie-talkies" were the most valuable form of radio and lent themselves particularly well to the operations of small groups. Code was almost never used below division headquarters, for runners took less time than coding and decoding.

f. Personnel Vehicles

Tracked carriers and armored cars were effectively used where the road net was satisfactory. The carriers, however, in addition to being vulnerable to armor-piercing ammunition, were also inviting targets for grenades dropped from trees, a favorite Japanese trick. Wire netting over the tops of carriers would have been an effective method of neutralizing this danger. The light machine gun on the carriers had the advantage of height and was almost never removed and used on the ground. The armored car, although even more road-bound than the tracked carrier, had the advantage of operating silently and could, therefore, be used in mobile surprise attacks. It also had heavier and better armor, making it less vulnerable than the carrier. In the withdrawal these armored cars were usually the last to go, for they were particularly suited for ambushing the enemy.

g. British Suggestions for Offensive Tactics

In jungle warfare the advantages accruing to the attackers are so great that the British believe the careful working out of a tactical plan should be subordinated to seizing and maintaining the initiative. This does not mean that thorough grounding in tactics and techniques of small groups, and of the individual soldier should be minimized, but rather that "the essence of the encounter battle (meeting engagement) is that it must be fought automatically by all officers and men according to a battle procedure... constantly practiced and applied to all types of ground."

As a result of these observations this report suggested the following tactics to British troops:

The success of the encircling attack lies in its speed. To attempt this, highly trained jungle troops, capable of quick cross-country movement and well-trained in map reading, are employed to seize a part of the road from the enemy. This initial seizure is simply to establish control before the beginning of the main attack, which will be made against the rear of the enemy defenses. This main attacking force may be divided into 3 detachments: (a) the initial striking force which secures a strip of road (not more than 400 to 600 yards should be necessary for a battalion attack); (b) a second force which attacks the enemy's rear immediately upon seizure of the road; (c) a reserve which may be used either to exploit the action of the second force or to relieve the first if the latter has lost too heavily in its initial encounter.

The success of such an attack is dependent primarily upon supplies and speed, for there can rarely be assistance from supporting arms. Consequently, the point selected for the attack in the enemy's rear should provide good cover for the unsupported infantry.

In the jungle the frontal attack is normally made on a narrow front, astride a road. It is designed to exploit the fact that all control is concentrated along the road, and is executed with a relatively narrow artillery barrage, usually extending about 200 yards on either side of the road. One of its advantages is that it allows for greater use of artillery. The use of tanks will be effective only if the enemy is insufficiently supplied with antitank guns, and if the attacking infantry follows very closely behind the tanks.

To achieve the best results the British believe that this attack should be combined with infiltration on the flanks of the main attack. These infiltrating detachments should he given objectives well to the enemy's rear, such as bridges or ammunition dumps.

h. Defensive Tactics

The defense, as stated, is inevitably hampered in jungle warfare. In the face of greatly superior enemy forces, when it is not possible to seize the initiative at once, the object must be a system of defense which will kill the maximum number of the enemy, but above all which will maintain the defending forces as a unit. Only by maintaining control is there any hope of reducing the enemy's numbers to the point where a counterattack can be launched. The static defense is as worthless in the jungle as in the desert, and the British now believe, for example, that the only way to hold a position for a prearranged number of days is to meet the enemy sufficiently far forward so that the delaying actions will last for the number of days desired. To apply these tactics requires troops of the highest caliber, for their morale will inevitably suffer in a series of even short withdrawals, and the tendency will be for smaller units to withdraw before they are ordered to do so.

Since control of the roads is the objective of both the forces, defense must take the form of a series of zones of resistance located in depth down the road. In successful defensive action in Malaya, battalion depth was about 2 miles and regimental depth up to 6 miles. Above all, the enemy must not be allowed to get completely in the rear of the defensive positions. Company defense areas are about 300 yards in diameter; and within platoons, squad defense areas should be about 100 yards apart. Squads themselves are usually dispersed in 2 or 3 groups, 30 yards from one another.

In order to conduct a defense successfully, normal Japanese tactics must be studied. The Japanese usually make initial contact on a road, with the objective of finding and containing the front line troops, as a preliminary to encirclement. Since this initial contact is made with considerable speed and at the expense of ordinary security measures, their leading formations are particularly vulnerable to ambush. A normal Japanese leading detachment would consist principally of a group of 4 or 5 bicyclists, followed at several hundred yards by another group of 60 or more bicyclists. After the forward group is allowed to pass, a successfully camouflaged ambush should be able to wipe out the large group following. Another type of ambush for these forward Japanese troops might consist of placing fairly strong, well-camouflaged forces on the flanks of a road, some distance in front of the other friendly positions. The Japanese are allowed to make contact, and to bring up their troops for the holding attack and subsequent encirclement; they may then be struck from the rear by the forward troops on the flank.

i. Counterattacks

The Malaya fighting indicated that in the jungle immediate rather than deliberate counterattacks were required. Counterattacks were invariably unsuccessful when ordered by higher command since the situation had nearly always changed, usually for the worse, by the time the attack was launched. On the other hand, immediate counterattacks by reserves of forward units were nearly always successful. One general type of counterattack proposed for the future is as follows:

When the enemy makes contact, the leading defending battalion immediately withdraws. The enemy is then allowed to push forward to a bridge, village, or other vital feature. At this point a surprise frontal attack is made. This method has the advantage of not breaking up the main body to place counterattacking units on a flank.

j. Patrols

The British believe that in the jungle, fighting patrols, rather than mere observation patrols are always desirable. Patrols should aim to kill as many of the enemy as possible, giving information to their commander by "reporting by fire." This is based on the belief that events move so quickly in the jungle that a patrol which waits to report enemy movements on its return will invariably be giving stale and incorrect information. Patrols should also be considered as one of the best means of locating and disorganizing enemy encirclements during the approach march. Finally, the British believed that only small patrols can achieve the requisite mobility, and they recommend a patrol of one leader and two others.


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