The introduction of the B-29 Superfortress bomber, one of the most powerful strategic bombers in World War 2, in British India in 1944 finally placed the entire Malay Peninsula and Singapore within the Allied bombing range. Up until then, the British Royal Air Force had been using the lighter B-24 bombers, which had limited range; although the B-24 could reach Singapore, it required the removal of most of its armaments.
Between June 1944 and July 1945, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) launched bombing raids all over Southeast Asia, targeting military infrastructure, transportation nodes, storage facilities, factories and oil fields in the Kingdom of Thailand, Vichy French Indochina, and Japanese-controlled territories of Indonesia and Malaya.
Within Malaya, major urban centres, including George Town, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were targeted. As George Town and Singapore were island port cities, the Allied air forces also targeted the port facilities in both cities in order to deny their use by the Imperial Japanese Navy and degrade Imperial Japanese Navy capabilities.
The first Allied bombing raid on Penang Island was launched on 24 October 1944. Fifteen RAF B-29 bombers, each armed with 60 mines, flew on a round-trip from British India to Penang Island. Their targets were the Imperial Japanese Navy base in George Town and the main shipping lanes around Penang Island.
Although British military intelligence failed to pinpoint the submarine base on Penang Island, which was thought to be at either Swettenham Pier or Gelugor (the submarine base was indeed at Swettenham Pier in the heart of George Town), the mission was a success. All fifteen planes returned safely to their base in British India, meeting no Japanese resistance. Overall, the planes flew 2,190 'track miles', with the slowest plane taking 19.1 hours and using up almost all of its fuel.
Above all, the mission proved that key targets throughout Malaya, including in George Town and Singapore, were by then within range of Allied B-29 bombers.
Subsequent raids on Penang Island by B-29 bombers of both the RAF and USAAF damaged more of Japanese military facilities on the island. A USAAF raid on George Town in November 1944 hit the Port of Penang, including Swettenham Pier. Mines were also dropped on the Port of Penang.
On 11 January 1945, fifteen USAAF B-29 bombers attacked George Town, dropping ten tons of bombs which destroyed several administrative buildings around the vicinity of Light Street and Beach Street, including the Government Offices (today, only the Penang Islamic Council Building remains standing).
On 24 January 1945, RAF B-29 bombers once again bombed and mined the Port of Penang, dropping 16 tons of explosives.
On 1 February 1945, 21 USAAF B-29 bombers attacked Penang Island, damaging buildings around the Port of Penang, including the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, as well as destroying the Penang Secretariat Building and part of Penang Free School. Subsequent looting of the Penang Secretariat Building aggravated the loss of important records concerning Penang Island; over half of its collection of rare books were lost on that day. Some of the pages of these books were next seen as vegetable and fruit wrappers in markets on Penang Island.
The raid on 1 February was the last proper bombing raid on Penang Island. During another raid on 27 February 1945, a lone USAAF B-29 bomber dropped mines onto the Port of Penang.
In addition, on at least one occasion, USAAF B-17 bombers also attacked the airbase in Butterworth, across the Penang Channel on mainland Malay Peninsula.
Ultimately, as the British military was planning an invasion of Malaya in 1945, Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asian Theatre, ordered that no further raids were to take place so that the British had a functioning Port of Penang to return to.
As early as 1943, the Imperial Japanese Navy, having recognised potential new threats from the air, ordered 30 new Type 3 ordnance radars and a minesweeper to remove the mines dropped around Penang Island.
These proved ineffective, however. On three occasions in 1945, the radars in Penang failed to detect approaching Allied B-29 bombers, leading the Japanese to believe that the B-29 bombers employed some sort of anti-radar measures. The high ceiling attitude of the B-29s also made them difficult to intercept; B-29 bombers were capable of cruising at 9,700 metres above sea level, out of reach of most Japanese fighter aircraft.
By May 1945, the Japanese were better able to detect incoming Allied bombers. But with Japanese fighter squadrons in the region being decimated, the Allied bombers continued to reach Malaya unmolested.
The Allied bombing of Penang between 1944 and 1945 achieved significant minor successes. RAF and USAAF B-29 bombers managed to degrade the capabilities of the Japanese garrison in Penang, as well as forcing the Imperial Japanese Navy to withdraw its submarines from its submarine base in George Town. Imperial Japanese Navy personnel also had to relocate into Imperial Japanese Army barracks further inland.
Due to the air raids and British Royal Navy attacks on Imperial Japanese Navy and merchant vessels around Penang Island, the Imperial Japanese Navy found itself increasingly curtailed within the Malacca Straits. These Allied air and naval offensives also led to the sharp drop in Japanese shipping in 1945, as well as the attrition of its logistic supply chain to Burma.
The port facilities in George Town suffered considerable damage, although by the time the British returned to Penang Island in September 1945, the Port of Penang was functioning as usual.
Other than that, the Allied bombardment of Penang served to boost the morale of Penang's civilians, who had been suffering under Japanese Occupation since 19 December 1941. The sight of B-29 bombers flying unchallenged in the skies over Penang, combined with news reports by Western radio stations of more Allied successes elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, raised public hopes for an impending liberation of Penang from Japanese rule. Western radio broadcasts, which were banned under the Japanese military regime but were listened to illegally nonetheless, also warned of an impending British invasion of Malaya.
The Japanese military administrators struggled to contain the ever worsening situation. Japanese-controlled newspapers, such as the Penang Shimbun, attempted to counter rising public expectations of an imminent Allied victory by putting a more positive spin on negative news like the American invasion of Japanese-held Philippines, calling that particular event an 'opportunity to deal crushing blows to the mainstay of the enemy's Pacific forces'.
Needless to say, however, the Allied bombardment also caused significant loss of life, both civilian and military.
The British and American bombs also inflicted damage and destruction on Penang's colonial architecture. Structures like the Government Offices, Penang Secretariat Building, The Cenotaph, the clubhouses at The Esplanade, St. Xavier's Institution and the eastern wing of Penang Free School were destroyed completely, while the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower also suffered some damage.
In addition, the destruction and subsequent looting of the Penang Secretariat Building caused the loss of significant amounts of records concerning Penang Island.
In 1946, a survey of bomb damage by the George Town Municipal Council revealed the greater explosive yield of Allied bombs compared to Japanese ones; the Allied bombardment ruptured more water mains by a factor of about 10.
The Allied bombing of Penang Island indeed turned out to be the prelude to the eventual liberation of Penang from Japanese rule, albeit in a more drastic and haphazard manner. The Empire of Japan surrendered abruptly in August 1945, forestalling the planned British invasion of Malaya. Under Operation Jurist, a Royal Navy fleet quickly sailed to Penang Island to accept the surrender of the Japanese garrison on Penang Island. Royal Marine commandos then retook Penang Island on 3 September 1945.
- Barber, A., 2010. Penang At War : A History of Penang During and Between the First and Second World Wars 1914-1945. AB&A.
- Jenkins. G, 2008. Contested Space: Cultural Heritage and Identity Reconstructions : Conservation Strategies Within a Developing Asian City. LIT Verlag Münster, Germany.
- Cheah J. S., 2013. Penang 500 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet.