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Report on a Grimness
Somewhere in eastern Asia, probably at Rangoon, members of the Unified Allied
Supreme Command (see p. 17) met this week to make ready an Allied success. There
a good man reported to his chief on one of the shortest, strangest and grimmest
commands ever held by a British general.
The good man was General Sir Henry Royds Pownall, who only a fortnight
earlier had become Britain's Far Eastern Commander. The shortness was no fault
of his: he was promoted to be Chief of Staff in the Supreme Command. The
grimness was Malaya's: half its tin mines in the hands of the Japs, one-sixth of
its rubber plantations lost, Singapore threatened, all of its strategic and
material riches poised as if under an auctioneer's mallet: going . . . going. .
The Supreme Command's first responsibility to the Allies would be to repair
the Malayan damage and save Singapore. General Pownall's first responsibility to
the Supreme Command was to describe Malaya's peril, with which he had had brief
but concentrated acquaintance, and to recommend steps to be taken. The steps
would have to be taken in haste, for the situation as he described it was
alarming: on the west coast the Japanese were within 270 miles of Singapore, on
the east coast within 175 miles.
Mammal Enemy. One cause of the jam, General Pownall reported, was that the
Japs were as good as animals in the jungle. They came on in polygenetic clothes:
in shorts and sneakers, or Malayan dress, or just their underwear. They forced
natives to lead them through tangled byways. They pushed about with high, merry
tail, like hunting dogs, sniffing out coveys of defenders. With their bare hands
they made rafts of logs and rode down rivers such as the Perak. They stole
bicycles, food and shoes from Malayans and Chinese, went forward faster,
stronger and better shod than before. They grabbed barges at Penang, skimmed the
coast and tried to make landings below British positions. They climbed in the
trees and dropped, like monkeys, on passing patrols. Every hardship which a
hungry animal could tolerate and many an in genuity it could not conceive, they
experienced and used.
Typical of their desperate opportunism were the landings they made below
British lines on the west coast—in waters which ought to have been British right
to the bottom. When they took Penang intact, they gathered all the barges,
junks, launches, yachts and sampans in sight and set off, like a Japanese print
of a Strength Through Joy outing, down the coast. At the mouth of the Perak,
near Telok Anson, they sent a large launch as a kind of decoy into the estuary.
A British patrol boat approached to investigate. The Japanese strung a line of
laundry on the boat, to give the impression of being on a pleasure cruise. When
the British vessel got close by, the Japanese opened fire. Mean while the main
Japanese flotilla proceeded 14 miles farther south, landed safely.
The defenders had been too civilized for this sort of thing. They stuck to
the pillboxes along the highways, defended the airfields, stood at the bridges,
guarded the cities, gallantly did everything the manuals said to do. Many of
them knew how to hunt the fox, shoot grouse, stalk tigers; but none of them had
been hunted by animals before. They were confused by this enemy, and General
Pownall's successor (who was secretly appointed early this week*)
would have the job of unconfusing them, of inventing countermeasures, of
applying them in desperate haste.
Three-Ply Weakness. But most of the causes of Britain's difficulty in Malaya
did not stem from the enemy. They lay, deep as marrow, within Britain's men.
There was, first of all, professional jealousy of a very special sort. Before
the Japanese attack, the British Navy, rightfully proud of (but somewhat
muscle-bound by) its tradition, was unable to see why it should not have supreme
charge of defending Singapore, the greatest naval base in the Far East. Wiser
heads in London knew that the real dangers were by land and sky. They put an
airman, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, in command of all three
services. At once the Army began to needle the R.A.F., the Navy to needle both.
Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham saw the need for scattered airfields all up &
down the Malayan jungle, had them built, ordered their protection. Judging by
the speed with which some of those airfields fell, the Army did not jump to its
task with quite enough eagerness. The Repulse and the Prince of Wales are
monuments, on the floor of the sea, to the Far Eastern Fleet's inability to
comprehend the meaning of the word cooperation.
Shut-Eye Weakness. It is not clear whether Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham
himself understood what it ought to mean. Surprisingly, for an airman, he
represented the old school of the British Army. Although the Singapore custom
was to take an afternoon nap, he began to drop off at odd and inconvenient
hours—in conference, at dinner parties. He was full of a super-Anglo-Saxon
complacency, told the public and his superiors that he was ready for come-Hell.
Air Weakness. The result was that the Japanese quickly got command of the air
over Malaya, and the defenders were now badly in need of air power to help land
power defend sea power. Last week the Japanese bombed, not only the forward
posts of land power, but the base of sea power, Singapore.
In London a British spokesman explained how this shortage was putting a crimp
in Allied naval action: "Without an umbrella of protecting planes from carriers
or land bases, warships would be at the mercy of Japanese aircraft from dozens
of bases. ..."
The City. General Pownall must have reported that his greatest
disappointment, in his brief eye-opener in Malaya, was his discovery of the
Singapore spirit. For what he found was not the old robust, acquisitive East,
but an effete, tired, hypercivilized society.
Cold storage, electricity and the automobile had in recent years made life in
Singapore so pleasant that many British, both officers and men, had become a
little hazy about the threat to their possessions and habits. The officers had
fallen into a routine to which they considered themselves entitled: stengahs or
gin slings at the Raffles, diversions at two cricket clubs, a swimming club, a
yacht club, a golf club, purely social clubs like the exclusive Tanglin, a race
course complete with the most modern of totalisators, leisurely perusals of the
Straits Times, excursions, for mad dogs and Englishmen, into the noonday sun,
naps late in the afternoon, pahit (cocktail) parties, must dress, late nights,
General Pownall had found in the city plenty of monuments in stone and
bronze, but almost none in flesh, to a spirit which would have been more than
equal to Malaya's jam—that of Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of the city. Besides
the great ramshackle Raffles Hotel, Singapore boasts a Raffles Place, a Raffles
Institution, a Raffles Library, a Raffles Museum, a Raffles statue—but not a
Raffles soul. There were not many men in this Singapore who would bother, as
Raffles did, to learn the Malayan language at 25, to undertake the
Governorship of a black, uncharted Java at 30, then to deal fairly with
natives, to write a history of Java, to collect maps, curios, flora, fauna—and
finally, against the opposition of his elders, to snatch an island and found a
city (at the age of 37) dedicated to free trade, vigorous justice, mixed honor
and unceasing labor. This was a pungent man; Britain needed more like him in the
One Man. How pungent General Pownall would prove to be in his new job, no one
could tell last week. Like all men entering on new duties, he was praised. But
the only true test would be his performance—the immediate index of which would
be results in Malaya, the ultimate index results in all eastern Asia.
His main fame is based on his brilliant work before and at Dunkirk. As Lord
Gort's Chief of Staff—the same job in France as this one in Asia-he carried the
entire responsibility for the details of withdrawal. With scarcely any sleep at
all, he moved G.H.Q. eight times in 20 days, took the worst news without
blinking, seldom referred to maps because he carried a large-scale one around in
Besides this record, he has some qualities which though they may not hold
Malaya or take back Hong Kong, suggest that he is a good fighting general. He is
young—54. His superiors think him bright: he first came to public view in 1938
when he jumped 100 seniority places to become Director of Military Operations
and Intelligence. He looks and sounds like a man with the juice of command in
him: short, stocky, broad-shouldered, spruce, calm-voiced, neat, a pipe-smoker.
He is a man of few words—"a most precise fellow," says a colleague—but the words
are peppery and to the point; he once reported a three-hour Imperial war
conference in eight lines.
Specifically fortunate in his present job are two attributes. He knows
something about the Japanese because he spent his childhood in Japan, where his
father built many miles of railway and where Henry learned to speak, read and
write Japanese. And he was first in time and remains first in sentiment an
artillery man—a specialty for which the Supreme Command may be thankful if
Singapore, a regular gun-porcupine of an island, falls under close siege.
He has, on the other hand, some non-Raffles qualities, which may not help him
much. His precision verges on brusqueness: he's the sort, his men say, who keeps
a dog and barks himself. He represents the gent-sport kind of soldier of which
the East has too many. He was the best swimmer of his generation at Woolwich, is
a fine golfer, a keen shot, a good skier (passed his "second class" tests at
40), an enthusiastic horseman (once whip of the Staff College drag), an
experienced salmon-fisherman (in peacetime went all the way to Norway and
Iceland to indulge in this pastime). He has had no jungle experience, although
the War Office hopes his brief experience on the Indian North West Frontier in
1930-31 will help him. Some fear that his expert withdrawing capacity, as
exemplified at Dunkirk, may be just the wrong thing for the Far East, where the
Allies have already done too much withdrawing.
*Australians hoped, with a somewhat bitter hope, that it
would be General Sir Thomas Blamey, or some other Australian (see p. 30).
TIME, Monday, Jan. 12, 1942
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942