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Japan Invades Malaya

14 DEC 1941: Japanese forces land at Penang, Malaya. Penang’s military importance lay in the island’s port facilities and its stocks of ammunition and stores. When the allies were unable to stop the Japanese advance on the mainland it became clear that the island would have to be evacuated.

Penang is now a state in Malaysia and the name of its constituent island, located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca. It is bordered by Kedah in the north and east, and Perak in the south.

The Imperial Japanese Armed Forces, which had commenced the invasion of British Malaya on 8 December, were resisted by British and Commonwealth forces.

Before the war, Penang Island had been designated by the British as a fortress; a fortress was indeed built at the southeastern part of Penang Island. The defence of the island also hinged on a Royal Air Force base in Butterworth, across the Penang Strait in Province Wellesley (now Seberang Perai).

However, the ensuing battle for Penang was a total disaster for British and Commonwealth forces. Both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force stationed in Butterworth were wiped out on 9 December, leaving Penang Island defenceless in the air. Japanese warplanes immediately began bombing and strafing George Town.

The British commander for Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, controversially decided to withdraw British and Commonwealth troops from Penang Island, as well as evacuating Penang’s European population. The fortress at the southeastern tip of the island was abandoned and George Town was declared an open city.

The Imperial Japanese Army subsequently began landing on Penang Island between 17 December and 19 December. This marked the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Penang, which lasted until September 1945. The swift collapse of the British also led to the loss of British prestige and sense of invincibility; historians judged that the “the moral collapse of British rule in Southeast Asia came not at Singapore, but at Penang”.

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