An Australian reconnaissance aircraft Lockheed Hudson from Malaya airfields had discovered the Japanese convoy had departed from Saigon, French Indochina. The plane commander, Flying Officer Ramshaw, reported at first only three ships sailed, followed shortly by at least another 25 transport ships. They were escorted by a battleship, five cruisers and seven destroyers [Ramshaw had mistaken the heavy cruiser for a battleship]. In his personal opinion, the ships were headed to neutral Thailand, or to Malaya Peninsula. This was no doubt a clear sign to both admirals that war was close. Both admirals reacted immediately. Four American destroyers in Balikpapan received orders to sail to open sea, while Rear-Admiral Arthur E.F. Palliser, Phillip's Commander-in-Chief of Eastern Fleet, received instructions to order HMS Repulse to cancel its trip to Darwin, Australia, and return to Singapore as quickly as possible. More messages about the Japanese convoy followed. The British planes soon received orders to conduct further reconnaisance flights, but luck that day was on the Japanese side as bad, stormy weather prevented the British planes from taking off. At 7 p.m. the Japanese invasion fleet changed course and traveled north into the Gulf of Siam ...
The main Japanese attack force for the invasion of Malaya, Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita's 25th Army, had sailed from Samah Harbour on Hainan Island on December 4, 1941. Additional ships carrying more troops joined the convoy from Saigon, French Indochina. On both the 6th and 7th of December Lockheed Hudson aircraft flown by No.1 Squadron RAAF, Kota Bharu, and No.8 Squadron RAAF, Kuantan, spotted and attempted to shadow these ships.
On December 7th, a flying boat PBY Catalina of No. 205 Squadron RAF, captained by Flying Officer Bedell, was shot down by Japanese aircraft while attempting to monitor the progress of the Japanese fleet. Flying Officer Bedell and his crew became the first Allied casualties of the war with the Empire of Japan. At 10:00 a.m., the Japanese invasion convoy split up to reach their prearranged landing positions. The war in the Pacific was just about to begin.
At 10.30 p.m., a top Malaya Command conference was called in the Naval Base's War Room in Singapore. Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commanding officer of all British forces in the Far East hesitated to launch Operation ''Matador" - the capture of Northern Thailand. He decided to delay the operation, at least for the night. Shortly after midnight on 7th/8th December, a group of Indian guards at Kota Bharu spotted three large shadows, the IJN transport ships: the Awagisan Maru, the Ayatosan Maru and the Sakura Maru, dropping anchor approximately 3 km off the coast of Kota Bharu. The ships were carrying approximately 5,200 troops of the Takumi Detachment, commanded by Major-General Hiroshi Takumi, who was on board IJN transport Awajisan Maru. The majority of them were already war veterans, with several months of harsh jungle training and battles in China. The force consisted of the 56th Infantry Regiment (Colonel Yoshio Nasu, on board IJN transport Sakura Maru), one mountain artillery battery of the 18th Mountain Artillery Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Katsutoshi Takasu), the 12th Engineer Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Ichie Fujii), the 18th Division Signal Unit, one company of the 12th Transport Regiment, one company of the 18th Division Medical Unit and No. 2 Field Hospital of the 18th Division Medical Unit. They were escorted by a powerful escort fleet (Kota Bharu Invasion Force) under the command of Rear-Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto, consisting of a light cruiser Sendai, destroyers Ayanami, Isonami, Shikinami and Uranami, minesweepers No. 2 and No. 3, and subchaser No. 9. Seconds later the guards heard shells passing over their heads. World War II in Pacific had begun, while the Japanese planes from Nagumo's carriers were still flying towards Pearl Harbor. The loading of landing craft began almost as soon as the transports dropped anchor. Rough seas and strong winds hampered the operation and a number of smaller craft capsized. Several Japanese soldiers drowned. Despite these difficulties by 12.45 hours, the first wave of landing craft carrying troops under the command of Colonel Masu were heading for the beach in four lines. Brigadier B.W. Key's 8th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 9th British-Indian Infantry Division were the main defending force at Kota Bharu, supported by the 21st Mountain Battery - four 3.7in howitzers (Major J.B. Soper). The 3/17th Dogras at battalion strength had responsibility for a ten mile stretch of beach Panti Dasar Sabak front which included the Japanese landing site. The troops had mined and wired the beach and built a number of pillboxes. They were supported by the 73rd Field Battery of the 5th Field Regiment, deployed adjacent to the airfield.
The Japanese landing assault at Kota Bharu, December 1941
British artillery immediately began firing along the shore line and out to sea once it became clear the Japanese were coming ashore. Additionally, the Dogra units opened fire on the landing craft once they were illuminated. The defence effort seemed to have been quite stout and the outnumbered Dogras put up a savage resistance. Their MG fortifications on the beach were fiercely firing against the Japanese soldiers landing on the beach. Many Japanese soldiers had fallen, including battalion commander, Major Nakamura, who charged at the enemy position leading his troops. Colonel Masanobu Tsuji recalled in his book about Malaya Campaign: "The enemy pillboxes, which were well prepared reacted violently with such heavy force that our men lying on the beach, half in and half out of the water could not raise their heads". It was not until the Japanese concentrated their attack on the two pillboxes and supporting trenches which dominated the landing area that they began to secure a foothold. In vicious hand to hand fighting the invading troops overcame and wiped out the defenders of these key points. During this action the second wave of attackers were pinned down on the open beach suffering casualties from British artillery fire. However, once the pillboxes had been silenced, these forces were able to move forward and infiltrate the Dogra positions. Despite local counter attacks, the Indian sepoys' position became untenable and the defenders began to fall back.
Having been alerted to the presence of the invasion force just a few miles north of their airfield, the senior airforce officers at Kota Bharu sought permission to launch an attack. Once it became clear the the Japanese were indeed landing, Hudsons of No.1 Squadron began taking off to bomb the transports. The first wave of seven aircraft, led by Flight Lieutenant Lockwood made the initial attack at about 02.10. Flight Lieutenant O.N. Diamond of No. 1 Squadron selected the largest transport which he dive-bombed. From his own account two 250 lb. bombs released in his first attack scored direct hits and on his second run his remaining two bombs also struck the vessel which was then machine-gunned and left on fire. It was the IJN transport Awajisan Maru (9,794 tons) which was the first Japanese ship of any type to be sunk in World War II by enemy action. No.1 Squadron RAAF continued making bombing runs, some 17 sorties being flown, landing, rearming and taking off again until 05.00. Japanese escorts put up a thick cover of AA fire, shooting down at least two Hudsons and badly damaging three others. One crippled aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant Leighton-Jones is reported to have crashed into a fully laiden landing craft. Despite the intensity of the AA fire, the Hudson crews seem to have pressed home their attacks with vigour. All the transports were repeatedly hit with a number of fires being started. Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, a staff officer with Yamashita's Headquarters, described the reports he received from Kota Bharu: "Before long enemy planes in formations of two and three began to attack our transports, which soon became enveloped in flame and smoke". By 04.30 the close escort commander, worried by the damage inflicted by the RAAF, requested permission to withdraw. Major-General Takumi successfully argued that he needed to reinforce his troops ashore and it was not until 06.00 that two transports and the escorts withdrew north. The Awagisan Maru, burning fiercely and destined to be the first Japanese vessel sunk in the war, was too badly damaged to move. About 02:00 hours (on 8 December) Kuantan airfield received a signal of the Japanese attempting landings at Kota Bharu. No. 8 Squadron RAAF formed four flights of three Hudsons with the first airborne at 06.30 hours. The Hudsons attacked the IJN transports, covered in smoke at 08.00, but some were damaged, including A16-43, captained by Flight Lieutenant G. Hitchcock which suffered forty-three bullet holes but returned to Kuantan. Flight Lieutenant "Spud" Spurgeon in A16-41 bombed a ship but crash-landed at Kota Bahru due to damage to the Hudson. Flight Lieutenant Russell Bell had the hydrodraulics made unservicable by bullets in his Hudson A16-81 and flew it to Seletar from Kota Bahru. Of the 12 aircraft in this attack, five were damaged with one crash landing at Kota Bharu. By this time Japanese fighters, who had been covering the main landings in Thailand, began to arrive and a further attack, this time with RAF Blenheims, proved costly. Also by morning it became clear that despite the efforts of No.1 Squadron the Japanese had successfully landed their invasion force. At 10:30 hours the Japanese forces finally reached Kota Bahru.
By morning Major-General H. Takumi had three full infantry battalions ashore. Brigadier Key attempted a counter attack in force and when this failed he began to fall back. As it became clear during the day that the local airfields could not be held, Key, who had been ordered to fight a battle of denial rather than annihilation, asked for and recieved permission to withdraw.
The Japanese, now backed by freshly landed troops, forced the British-Indian troops to retreat to the Kuala Lipis area and advanced south to capture Kota Bahru (township) by 2 p.m. on the 9th.
Both sides sustained substantial casualties during the battle. There are no reliable records of British losses, but they certainly were high. Accounts of Japanese casualties vary wildly. Louis Allen, quoting Japanese sources, put the number at 500. Of these, 150 were suffered by troops still on board the transports and the remaining 350 were inflicted during the short journey to the shores or on the beach. On the other hand, Colonel Tsuji put in his book the Japanese losses at 320 killed in action and 538 wounded and calls Kota Bharu "one the most violent actions of the Malaya Campaign".