The original Operation Zipper had called for coordinated amphibious assaults near Kuala Lumpur, and the subsequent thrusts south to Singapore and north to Penang Island. However, World War 2 came to an abrupt end after the United States atomic bombing of Japan.
As a result, Operation Zipper was modified. Under the newly-introduced Operation Jurist, British Royal Navy's Task Force 11 was sent to Penang Island to test Japanese intentions, while a larger Allied fleet sailed on to Singapore under Operation Tiderance.
A detachment of the Royal Marine commandos landed on George Town the day after the signing of the surrender document, marking the end of the Japanese Occupation of Penang. The State of Penang would be governed under the British Military Administration (BMA) for the next two years.
In 1944, as the Allies were driving the Japanese away from Burma, the British began planning for an eventual invasion of Japanese-held Malaya. Up until then, the only attacks made by the British and the Americans were from the air, as the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force launched bombing raids throughout Southeast Asia, including George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The British felt it necessary to regain the Malay Peninsula, which was a rich source of tin, rubber and petroleum, as well as the important entrepôt of Singapore. There was also the question of regaining British imperial prestige lost between 1941 and 1942.
At the time, Malaya was defended by the Imperial Japanese 7th. Area Army. Formed in 1944 by combining the several Imperial Japanese Army units in Malaya, Borneo, Sumatra and Java, it was tasked with defending these Japanese-occupied territories against any Allied amphibious invasion. Also, the Japanese had over 170 aircraft within Malaya and Sumatra, while the Imperial Japanese Navy had a destroyer, two cruisers and two ex-German U-boats stationed in Singapore.
Under the original Operation Zipper, the Royal Marines and the British Army, supported by the Royal Navy, would launch coordinated amphibious assaults along the western coast of the Malay Peninsula.
First, the British would attack the Thai island of Phuket to capture forward airfields; these forward airfields would enable the Royal Air Force to enter the Malayan theatre.
A larger British force of two divisions and a brigade would subsequently assault two areas along the western coast of central Malay Peninsula, near Kuala Lumpur. The landings would be made at Morib Beach and Port Dickson.
Once the landing forces were reinforced with two more divisions and another brigade, the British ground forces would be split into two. One force, codenamed Mailfist, would thrust south to Singapore. The other, codenamed Broadsword, would thrust north from Kuala Lumpur and recapture Penang Island.
The Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asian Theatre, Lord Mountbatten, estimated that the Mailfist would take until March 1946 to recapture Singapore and even longer if the Imperial Japanese 7th. Area Army stationed a larger garrison to defend Malaya. Indeed, the Japanese were in the midst of bolstering their defences within Malaya between 1944 and 1945.
Nonetheless, preparations for Operation Zipper were underway by 1945. A deception, codenamed Operation Slippery, was launched, in which a small Special Operations Executive team led by Tun Ibrahim Ismail was landed by sea on Malaya. The team convinced the Japanese that the British were planning to land on the Isthmus of Kra to the north of the Malay Peninsula, deep inside Thailand.
In 1945, British and American bombers also began dropping leaflets announcing the abolition of the banana currency used in Japanese-occupied Malaya and sprayed insecticide. To the civilians who had suffered years of hardship under Japanese rule, the ability of the Allied air forces to overfly the Japanese at will was seen as heralding the impending liberation by Allied forces.
Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, as well as the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of the Japanese Empire to the Allies on 15 August 1945. He also ordered the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces stationed elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific to lay down their arms as per General Order No.1 issued by the United States Army General Douglas MacArthur.
According to General Order No.1,
'the senior Japanese commanders and all ground, sea, air and auxiliary forces within the Andamans, Nicobars, Burma, Thailand, French Indo-China south of 16° north latitude, Malaya, Borneo, Netherlands Indies, New Guinea, Bismarcks and the Solomons, shall surrender to the Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia Command.'The announcement of Japan's surrender caught Japanese commanders in Southeast Asia by surprise. General Itagaki, who was in charge of the 7th. Area Army, initially ordered his units to resist when the Allies invaded. However, when Itagaki later conferred with his superior, Field Marshall Count Terauchi of the Imperial Japanese Southern Army Command, Terauchi prevailed over Itagaki, who subsequently signalled Lord Mountbatten that he would abide by his emperor's decision.
As a result, the British-led Southeast Asian Command had to quickly modify its plans for the reconquest of Malaya. The priority now was to reoccupy Singapore as rapidly as possible. Therefore, Operation Zipper was reduced in size and scope.
At that point, Operation Jurist came into the picture. A detachment of Royal Marine commandos was to be landed on Penang Island to probe Japanese intentions, while much of the available British forces were shifted to Operation Tiderance, a dash to directly retake Singapore.
Upon landing on Penang Island, the Royal Marines landing force was ordered not to engage any resistance by the Imperial Japanese Army. They were instructed, upon encountering any opposition, to 'call upon the guns of the fleet to reduce resistance'. In effect, the British tactic was to test Japanese willingness to hold Penang Island and to use the massive firepower of the Royal Navy fleet to blast any opposing force, instead of engaging the enemy on the ground.
British Order of Battle
The Royal Navy's Task Force 11 set sail from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Penang Island on 24 August 1945. Task Force 11 consisted of the following warships.
Battleship : HMS Nelson
Escort aircraft carriers :
- HMS Attacker
- HMS Hunter
Light cruiser : HMS Ceylon
- HMS Volage
- HMS Petard
- HMS Paladin
Task Force 11 also included three infantry landing ships and more than 42,650 troops of the Royal Marines 3rd. Commando Battalion.
Liberation of Penang Island
Task Force 11 arrived off Penang Island on 27 August 1945. On that day, a small wooden vessel was dispatched to the fleet by the Imperial Japanese Navy, carrying a few officers bearing a white flag.
However, the landing of British troops on George Town was delayed until after 0900 hours on 2 September, under orders from General MacArthur; the formal surrender ceremony in Tokyo was also scheduled at 0900 hours Tokyo time and General MacArthur wished to avoid a potential diplomatic mess.
After prevaricating by sending his officers to consecutive meetings with British Royal Navy officers over the next few days, Imperial Japanese Navy Rear Admiral Jisaku Uzumi, accompanied by his officers and the Japanese Governor of Penang, Lieutenant General Shinohara Seiichiro, came aboard the HMS Nelson on the evening of 2 September. Notably, Rear Admiral Uzumi was wearing the Distinguished Service Cross he had earned as Britain's ally during World War 1.
After the Japanese officers were made to climb aboard the flagship using a rope ladder, they were led into a state room inside the flagship, where they took their seats along a long table with the British officers led by Royal Navy Vice Admiral Harold Walker. The surrender document was signed by Vice Admiral Walker, Rear Admiral Uzumi and Lieutenant General Seiichiro.
Shortly afterwards, Rear Admiral Uzumi fainted and was rushed to hospital; the military policemen who escorted him took his sword as a souvenir.
On 3 September at 0800 hours, a detachment of 480 Royal Marine commandos landed at Weld Quay in George Town, where Japanese officers and troops were gathered. The Royal Marine commandos raised the Union Jack and, led by the town band, marched to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, where representatives of the Asian communities on Penang Island were waiting to pass the administration of the island back to the British. Ironically, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel was where the entire British community on Penang Island had been secretly gathered on the night of 16 December 1941 prior to their evacuation, which left ethnic Asians on Penang Island to their fates.
Subsequently, the Royal Marines extended their control westwards to the junction between Northam Road and Transfer Road. Later in the day, the Royal Marine commandos moved to the Penang Club, where an Imperial Japanese Army machine gun position was reported. However, no resistance was encountered by the Royal Marine commandos upon arriving at the Penang Club.
Having secured the heart of George Town, a second batch of Royal Marine commandos was landed to secure important installations, including the waterworks on Penang Hill, the Bayan Lepas airfield and a sea-plane base at Gelugor. In addition, the Royal Marine commandos successfully took over the command of the police force on Penang Island by that evening.
The Royal Marines also took possession of Japanese military vehicles and marched the Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) through the streets of George Town. The Japanese POWs surrendered their weapons at a spot near The Esplanade, before being transported by ferry to mainland Malay Peninsula.
Meanwhile, across Penang Island, hunger riots were also breaking out, as food was in short supply and food prices were exorbitantly high.
HMS Volage was ordered to remain off Penang Island to act as a radio ship until shore facilities were established four weeks later. The rest of Task Force 11 rejoined the main Allied fleet headed to Singapore under Operation Tiderace.
Under Operation Tiderace, British and French warships arrived off Singapore on 4 September 1945. Meeting no Japanese resistance, British troops were landed on Singapore the next day.
On 12 September, the formal surrender of all units of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces stationed in Southeast Asia was held in Singapore.
In George Town, a formal ceremony to signify British repossession of Penang Island was held at Swettenham Pier on 6 September. A victory parade was also held on 8 September, in which 600 officers and men of the British Armed Forces marched through the streets of George Town lined by enthusiastic crowds.
However, behind the celebratory mood on Penang Island, lay the simmering threat of a communist insurgency. Following the Japanese surrender of Penang, communist guerillas of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were infiltrated onto Penang Island from mainland Malay Peninsula. During a grand parade held in George Town, 20,000 copies of the 'Eight Principles' of the Malayan Communist Party were distributed. Days later, the MPAJA's 8th. Regiment arrived at the Wembley amusement park in George Town. Throughout the town, events were held by the communists and pro-communist movies were shown. Appalled by the anarchy in George Town, the British Military Administration that had just began to govern the State of Penang started to round up the pro-communists and banned further processions.
The British Military Administration would govern Penang for the next two years, before reverting to civilian rule. However, from the first days of administration, the British were already suffering from a loss of prestige due to their ignominious defeat by the Japanese, coupled by their white-only withdrawal from Penang Island prior to the landing of the Imperial Japanese Army on Penang Island in December 1941.
Also, the damaged British economy led to the policy of decolonisation. In 1946, the Straits Settlements, under which Penang was governed before the war, were dissolved. These and the growing communist threat throughout Malaya ushered in a period of uncertainty in Penang.
- Bayly, C.A., Harper, T.N., 2007. Forgotten Wars : Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia. Harvard University.
- Barber, A., 2010. Penang At War : A History of Penang During and Between the First and Second World Wars 1914-1945. AB&A.