Battle of Bukit Timah

Singapore Infopedia

by Soong, Alec


The battle of Bukit Timah (10–12 February 1942) took place during the Japanese invasion of Singapore.1 On the night of 10 February, two divisions of the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Bukit Timah, capturing the area in the early hours of 11 February.2 A subsequent British counterattack to retake Bukit Timah proved unsuccessful,3 leaving the Imperial Japanese Army in control over the strategic Bukit Timah area.4 On 12 February, with the Japanese only 8 km from the city centre, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival ordered a general retreat into the final defensive perimeter around Singapore City.5

Both the British and Japanese commanders understood the strategic importance of Bukit Timah to the defence of Singapore. Lieutenant-General Percival, who was General Officer Commanding in Malaya, recognised Bukit Timah’s significance as an important road junction and the area where his main supply dumps and depots were located.6 Bukit Timah Hill, the highest point on the island, provides a commanding view into Singapore City that could be used to direct artillery fire.7 Most crucial, however, was Bukit Timah’s importance to the local water supply, as both MacRitchie and Pierce reservoirs are located in the area.8 Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the Japanese staff officer who planned the attack on Singapore, noted that the loss of these reservoirs would be fatal to the British.9 For these reasons, Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita felt confident that the capture of Bukit Timah would compel the British to surrender.10

After successful Japanese landings in northwest Singapore on the night of 8 February, the battered Australian 22nd Brigade fell back to the Kranji-Jurong Line, which ran the length of the Kranji River in the north and Jurong River in the south.11 This defensive line was intended to contain the Japanese within the northwest of the island and guard the approaches to Bukit Timah.12 Other units defending the Bukit Timah area included elements of Dalforce, an irregular unit of local Chinese volunteers formed in late December 1941.13

However, the Line’s defences were incomplete when the Japanese attacked.14 The 12th and 6/15th Indian Brigades defending the Line were diminished from fighting in Malaya, while the Australian 22nd Brigade was weakened from the action at Sarimbun, northwest of the island.15

Loss of the Kranji-Jurong line
Crucial to the defence of the Kranji-Jurong Line was the coast between Kranji and the Causeway, held by the Australian 27th Brigade.16 Failure to defend this coastline would allow the Japanese to establish a foothold behind the Kranji-Jurong Line, compromising the defence.17

On the night of 9 February, the Japanese Imperial Guard Division suffered heavy losses during their crossing attempt at Kranji.18 However, because of the unsanctioned withdrawal of the Australian 27th Brigade by Brigadier Maxwell, the Japanese Guards recovered and drove a wedge between the defending troops, leaving the road to Bukit Timah dangerously open.19

To make matters worse, Brigadier Taylor of the Australian 22nd Brigade ordered a premature retreat after misinterpreting an order from Percival.20 Issued after midnight on 10 February, Percival’s order provided for a retreat to a final perimeter only if holding the Kranji-Jurong Line proved impossible.21 This perimeter was to form a semi-circle around Singapore City, including Bukit Timah hill and the reservoirs.22 Taylor misunderstood these orders as being effective immediately, causing a domino effect as neighbouring units withdrew to protect their exposed flanks, effectively abandoning the Kranji-Jurong Line without opposition by mid-afternoon.23 That same day, upon discovery of Taylor’s blunder, Percival immediately planned for a counterattack to retake the lost Kranji-Jurong Line.24

Night attack at Bukit Timah
Unfortunately for Percival, the Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions struck first and attacked simultaneously on the night of 10 February 1942 via the Choa Chu Kang and Jurong Roads respectively.25

Spearheading the 5th Division’s assault along Choa Chu Kang Road was a column of 50 Japanese tanks, which had been rafted across the Johore Straits.26 The Japanese tank column broke through the British and Australian defences, driving through Bukit Timah Village by midnight. The tanks then halted for the Japanese infantry to catch up.27

The Japanese had originally hoped to capture Singapore by 11 February, the commemoration date of the Japanese Jimmu Emperor’s coronation.28 By daybreak on 11 February, the Japanese had captured Bukit Timah hill along with its surrounding features, and were pressing towards the reservoirs.29 As fighting broke out near the joint army-air force operational headquarters at Sime Road, Percival evacuated his staff and headquarters from Sime Road to the Fort Canning Bunker.30

That same morning, a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft airdropped a message from Yamashita into British lines. Yamashita invited Percival to surrender, asking him to send a surrender party up the Bukit Timah Road.31 Percival ignored this message, as he had no means of replying and no intention to surrender.32

The British counterattack
To recapture Bukit Timah Village, a hastily assembled unit known as Tomforce counterattacked at dawn.33 Tomforce was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel L. C. Thomas and comprised three battalions drawn from the 18th Division – namely the 4th Royal Norfolks, 1/5 Sherwood Foresters, 18th Reconnaissance Battalion and one battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment. To support Tomforce, Maxwell’s 27th Brigade was ordered to attack towards Bukit Panjang, hoping to catch the Japanese in a pincer movement.34 However, Maxwell’s attack never materialised because of poor coordination, and the 27th Brigade’s attack order was rescinded before noon.35

 At around 6.30 am, Tomforce began their attack but was stalled at the Bukit Timah Railway embankment in the face of heavy Japanese resistance.36 On the attack’s left flank, the Foresters managed to advance within about 370 metres of Bukit Timah Village, but were driven off by the Japanese at around 10.30 am.37 Tomforce also came under Japanese air attack, including a flight of Japanese medium bombers that were diverted from targets in Keppel Harbour and Singapore City to disrupt the counterattack.38

Tomforce’s attempt at Bukit Timah proved to be the only serious counterattack carried out by British forces during the Battle of Singapore.39 With the bulk of Percival’s forces kept on the eastern side of the island, the counterattack did not stand a good chance of success.40 By the late afternoon, the counterattack was called off, and Tomforce retreated towards the Chinese High School.41

The loss of Bukit Timah was disastrous to the British defence of Singapore, as the remaining depots under British control only had 14 days’ worth of food and very little petrol.42 Because of these shortages, Percival ordered that no further supplies were to be destroyed without permission.43 

With the Japanese holding Bukit Timah, the British were now unable to defend the two reservoirs.44 Percival was forced to cede Pierce Reservoir and the north bank of MacRitchie Reservoir, relying on control of the MacRitchie Reservoir’s southeastern bank and Woodleigh pumping station to ensure the city’s water supply.45 Defending the reservoir and pump station was Massy Force, a mixed unit that comprised the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment, 4th Suffolk Regiment, 5/11th Sikh Regiment and remnants of Tomforce.46 The Massy Force commander, Brigadier Massy Beresford, assumed responsibility for the front from Thomson Road to Bukit Timah Road.47

While the Japanese eventually captured MacRitchie Reservoir on 13 February, they did not prevent the reservoir’s water from flowing through the pumping station.48 However, heavy damage to the water pipes sustained from Japanese shelling of the city caused the loss of more than half the water supply.49 The Woodleigh pumping station would remain operational on 15 February, the day of the British surrender.50

Retreat to final perimeter
On the morning of 12 February, Japanese tanks attacked along Bukit Timah Road towards The Chinese High School.51 While the Japanese attack was stopped by Massy Force around the Adam Road–Farrer Road Stop Line,52 this placed the Japanese within just 8 km from Orchard Road and the city centre.53

Faced with an imminent Japanese breakthrough into Singapore City, Percival decided to form a 45-kilometre closed perimeter surrounding the city.54 British and Indian troops deployed in the north and east of Singapore were withdrawn into this defensive perimeter, which encompassed Kallang Aerodrome, Woodleigh pumping station, Adam Road, Farrer Road, Tanglin Halt, The Gap and Buona Vista Village.55

At around 8.30 pm on 12 February, Percival ordered the demolition of the Changi defences – including the massive 15 inch coastal guns of the Johor Battery, to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands.56 For the past three days, the British coastal gunners of the Connaught and Johor Battery had fired at Japanese targets in Johore, Tengah and Bukit Timah Village.57

This final withdrawal ordered by Percival on 12 February 1942 set the stage for the last, desperate battles at Pasir Panjang Ridge between 13 and 14 February 1942.58

After the fall of Singapore, the Syonan Chureito and British Memorial Cross were erected at Bukit Batok, dedicated to the Japanese and Allied war dead respectively.59 Bukit Batok was chosen for its proximity to Bukit Timah and the Ford Factory, where the climactic battle and surrender occurred.60 The Chureito consisted of a 12-metre tall wooden pylon, with a small hut behind it that housed the ashes of Japanese soldiers who died at the battle of Bukit Timah.61 In 1945, the Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese to prevent desecration by returning Allied soldiers.62 Subsequently, the British demolished the remaining Chureito’s granite base, where only the memorial steps remain today.63

More recent commemorations of the battle include the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in 1995.64 That same year, another plaque was unveiled at the site of the former Syonan Chureito to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.65

Alec Soong

1. Brian P. Farrell, The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940–1942 (Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2015), 400. (Call no. RSING 940.5425957 FAR-[WAR])
2. John Grehan and Martin Mace, comps., Disaster in the Far East 1940–1942: The Defence of Malaya, Japanese Capture of Hong Kong, and the Fall of Singapore (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2015), 300. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 DIS-[WAR])
3. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404; Collin Smith, Singapore Burning: Heroism and Surrender in World War II (London: Viking, 2005), 513. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 SMI-[WAR])
4. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 369.
5. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 301–3; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 423.
6. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 275, 296.
7. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 369.
8. Masanobu Tsuji, Japan’s Greatest Victory, Britain’s Worst Defeat (Staplehurst, Kent: Spellmount, 1997), 181. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 TSU-[WAR]); Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 275; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 403.
9. Tsuji, Japan’s Greatest Victory, 181.
10. Brian Bond and Kyōichi Tachikawa, eds., British and Japanese Military Leadership in the Far Eastern War, 1941–45 (London: Routledge, 2012), 84 (Call no. 940.542591 BRI-[WAR]); Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 369.
11. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 394.
12. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 298.
13. Ju Ern Daniel Chew and Kevin Blackburn, “Dalforce at the Fall of Singapore in 1942: An Overseas Chinese Heroic Legend,” Journal of Chinese Overseas 1, no. 2 (2005): 240, 252. (Call no. RSING 305.8951 JCO)
14. Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall?: Churchill and the Impregnable Fortress (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 76. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 HAC-[WAR]); Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 298
15. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 76; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 298.
16. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 76.
17. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 76.
18. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 398.
19. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 398–99; Peter Thompson, The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War Two (London: Portrait, 2005), 312. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
20. Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957), 337 (Call no. RCLOS 940.5425 WIG); Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 399–400.
21. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 296.
22. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 399–400.
23. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 402. (Call no. RSING 940.5425957 FAR-[WAR]); Romen Bose, Singapore at War: Secrets from the Fall, Liberation & Aftermath of WWII (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2018), 83. (Call no. 940.5425 BOS-[WAR])
24. Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 340–41; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 401.
25. Tsuji, Japan’s Greatest Victory, 203; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 402.
26. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 395; Bose, Singapore at War, 83.
27. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 402.
28. Brian P. Farrell and Sandy Hunter, A Great Betrayal?: The Fall of Singapore Revisited (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2010). (Call no. RSING 940.5425 GRE-[WAR]); Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 135.
29. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 403; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 300.
30. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 403.
31. Thompson, Battle for Singapore, 318; Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall,  77.
32. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 300.
33. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 403; Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 350; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 299
34. Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 354; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404.
35. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404.
36. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 299–300; Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 352.
37. Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 351; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 403.
38. Smith, Singapore Burning, 510.
39. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404.
40. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 77; Smith, Singapore Burning, 513.
41. Smith, Singapore Burning, 513; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 404.
42. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 301–2.
43. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 302.
44. Smith, Singapore Burning, 513.
45. Smith, Singapore Burning, 513; Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 423; Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 353.
46. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 417; Smith, Singapore Burning, 510.
47. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 301; Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 352–53.
48. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 76; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 309.
49. Smith, Singapore Burning, 544; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 308.
50. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 309.
51. Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 359.
52. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 302.
53. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 78.
54. Wigmore, Japanese Thrust, 360; Thompson, Battle for Singapore, 312.
55. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 423; Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 303.
56. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 303.
57. Grehan and Mace, Disaster in the Far East, 301.
58. Farrell, Defence and Fall of Singapore, 419, 423.
59. “Memorial Erected to Fallen Enemy Soldiers,” Syonan Shimbun, 12 September 1942, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 134; “Syonan En Fete on First Anniversary of War,” Syonan Shimbun, 9 December 1942, 2. (From NewspaperSG).
61. “Syonan Memorial to Our Fallen Heroes Unveiled,” Syonan Shimbun, 11 September 1942, 1. (From NewspaperSG).
62. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 136
63. Hack and Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall, 136.
64. “Plaque to Mark WWII Battle for Bukit Timah,” Straits Times, 26 June 1995, 35. (From NewspaperSG).
65. “Memorial Plaque Ensures That War Lessons Are Remembered,” Straits Times (overseas ed), 15 July 1995, 6. (From NewspaperSG).

Further resources
Henry Frei, Guns of February: Ordinary Japanese Soldier’s Views of the Malayan Campaign and the Fall of Singapore, 1941–42 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2004). (Call no. RSING 940.5425 FRE-[WAR])

Hiroshi Fuwa,マレ-进攻作战 (Marē shinkō sakusen) (Tōkyō: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1966). (Call no. 940.542595 BOE)

Mark Stille, Malaya and Singapore 1941–42: The Fall of Britain’s Empire in the East (Oxford: Osprey Publishing 2016). (Call no. RSING 940.54259 STI-[WAR])

National Heritage Board, Singapore In World War II: A Heritage Trail (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2012). (Call no. RSING 940.5425957 SIN)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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