Far East 1930 - 1947

Malaya - Overview and Higher Formations



Malaya is a country in south east Asia, although it was not a homogeneous state between the two world wars.  It comprised four Straits Settlements, namely Singapore, Malacca, Dinding and Penang. These were territories of the United Kingdom, being established as such on 1 April 1867.  There were four Federated Malay States, Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, which were established by the British government in 1895.  The U.K. government was responsible for foreign affairs and defence of these four states.  There were five unfederated states, namely Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Jahore.  These unfederated states were nominally independent but part of the British protectorate of Malaya.  The country was an important source of rubber and tin for the United Kingdom economy.

Malaya Command was a pre-war formation, with its headquarters at Singapore.  It is believed to have been formed in 1929, reporting direct to the Colonial Office.  The post of General Officer Commanding was a major general’s appointment, usually an officer towards the end of their career.  In 1930, there was one British and one Indian infantry battalion, plus supporting arms, stationed in Malaya.

The policy of the British government in terms of the defence of the Empire in South East Asia was to provide limited garrisons in its possessions, with the intention of reinforcing the Royal Navy presence there in the event of conflict.  This influenced military thinking as a large naval base was constructed at Singapore, with its defences facing the sea.  Some airfields were constructed in northern Malaya, but the R.A.F. presence in the country was small.  In 1938, the GOC Major General DOBBIE ordered a review of the possible threats to Malaya, which was conducted by Colonel PERCIVAL.  This showed that landings in Thailand or northern Malaya were possible, leading to an advance by an enemy down the peninsula to capture Singapore.

By 1937, the garrison had increased to three British infantry battalions based in Singapore, and one Indian infantry battalion which was stationed at Penang.  The British forces slowly grew as the threat of Japanese aggression became greater.  The first formation to arrive in the country was the 12 Indian Infantry Brigade, which arrived in August 1939.  The next formations to arrive in Malaya were the 6 Indian Infantry Brigade and 8 Indian Infantry Brigade which landed in Malaya in October and November 1940.  They came under command of the 11 Indian Infantry Division that formed in Malaya in October 1940.

In March and April 1941, another division was sent from India to Malaya, this formation being the 9 Indian Infantry Division, comprising the 15 and 22 Indian Infantry Brigades.  On arrival in Malaya, the brigades were redistributed between the two divisions.  With two divisions now stationed in Malaya, a corps, headquarters was required, so the III Indian Corps was formed in May 1941.  The 28 Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in August 1941 to act as corps reserve.  The first Australian brigade, the 22 Australian Infantry Brigade had landed in Malaya in February 1941, followed by the 27 Australian Infantry Brigade in August.  They both formed part of the 8 Australian Infantry Division.




No more units arrived before the Japanese invasion of Malaya and southern Thailand on the 8 December 1941. The 9 Indian Infantry Division fought the Japanese on the Malayan beaches, before being forced to withdraw. The 11 Indian Infantry Division was caught by the indecision over whether to invade Thailand or defend northern Malaya (Operation Matador), and then then outflanked by the Japanese.  The main battles were at Jitra (8 – 12 December 1941), Kampar (30 December 1941 – 2 January 1942), Slim River (6 – 8 January 1942) and Gemas and Muar River (14 – 22 January 1942). During the latter battle, some of the recent reinforcements, namely the 44 and 45 Indian Infantry Brigades and British 18 Infantry Division, which arrived during January 1942, were deployed straight into the conflict.  Despite this, the British forces retreated onto Singapore Island.  The colony was invaded on 7 February with the final surrender of British forces on 15 February 1942.

Malaya Command was reformed on the 1 November 1945 by the redesignation of Headquarters, 14 Army.