Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the worst defeats in British military history, the fall of Singapore during the Second World War.
Japan in the 1930’s was a country looking to expand its influence in the Far East, and the Allies tried to halt Japanese campaigns in China by imposing sanctions. These actions were effective and oil reserves in the island Empire were soon rapidly depleting. With the situation becoming ever more serious the Japanese felt that they had to do something to secure their vital resources so plans were put in place to attack Great Britain and the United States. These attacks would open up the way for an invasion of the Dutch East Indies which were rich in oil.
At the southern end of the Malay Peninsula is the island of Singapore. Nicknamed the ‘Gibraltar of the Far East’ it was the key to British defence strategy in the Far East and it was believed that the island was impregnable. Britain’s possessions in Asia would have been vulnerable without a strategic military base to protect them, and this role fell to Singapore where the expensive defences were completed in 1938. Japan was seen as the only country which could possibly be a threat in the area, but the British believed that the Japanese army was inferior to their own and only capable of defeating the backward Chinese.
Japan did not believe that they were any way inferior to the West just because their culture was different. They refused to accept interference in their designs on China and so made almost simultaneous Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and in north Malaya and Thailand which led to Britain declaring war on the Empire on 8th December 1941.
The defences at Singapore were manned and the forces ready to repel an attack by sea so the British were taken completely by surprise when the Japanese attacked overland. The Allies believed that the Malayan jungles were impassable to a military force, but the Japanese were aware of this and so made their way through the jungles and mangrove swamps of the peninsula, taking no prisoners to slow their advance. Japanese aircraft attacked the airfields in Singapore, destroying almost all of the RAF’s frontline planes and leaving the island with no air defences. In an attempt to halt the Japanese, the battleship ‘Prince of Wales’ and the cruiser ‘Repulse’ put to sea from Singapore on the 8th December and headed north to the enemy landing sites. On the 10th both ships were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers, delivering a crushing blow to British forces, and British morale back home. The east coast of Malaya was left exposed and the Japanese were able to continue their landings unopposed. Only the army could stop the invasion now.
Lieutenant General Percival led the Allied forces of 90,000 men, the majority of whom had never seen combat. The Japanese forces, on the other hand, were led by General Yamashita; most of the 65,000 men he commanded were much more experienced than the Allies, having fought in Manchuria against the Chinese. Moving swiftly on foot and stolen bicycles the Japanese were ferocious, killing captured and wounded soldiers, torturing and killing Malays who had helped the Allies. The British forces were shocked by the brutality of the enemy and, after the fall of Jitra on 12th December 1941, retreated towards Singapore. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, was captured by the enemy on 11th January 1942; the Allies continued to fight fiercely even though things were looking increasingly bleak for them. One example of the determination of the defenders happened at Bakri where Lieutenant Colonel Anderson fought the Japanese for five days (18th – 22nd January). It was only when his men ran out of ammunition that he was forced to retreat, leaving behind about 150 wounded Australian and Indian soldiers. These men were later all killed by the Japanese. Anderson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in the fighting and withdrawal.
The retreat forced the Allies into an ever smaller area of the peninsular until the British and Australian troops finally crossed the causeway which separated Singapore from Malaya and prepared to make their last stand on the island, destroying the causeway behind them. Churchill ordered that a strong defence should be put up and surrender was not to be considered until there had been ‘protracted fighting’ to try to save the city. The British believed that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johor Strait; unsure of just where the attack might come Percival decided to position his men so that they could defend the entire coastline, stretching to some 70 miles. He had overestimated the strength of the enemy and this spread his resources too thinly so that they could not adequately defend any one section of the line. When the attack came on the 8th February 1942 many of the defenders were too far away to influence the battle, and Percival was reluctant to move them closer in case the Japanese attacked on a second front. 23,000 Japanese attacked with surprising speed and ferocity, while the British continued to doggedly defend Singapore. On the evening of 10th February Churchill sent a cable to Wavell, saying: ‘I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula … In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form.’ This was a forceful, no holds barred message which could not be ignored; even though the Allies had lost their food and fuel supplies to the enemy Wavell told Percival that the ground forces were to fight on to the bitter end, and that there should be no general surrender in Singapore.
On 14th February the Japanese broke through part of the Allied defences and advanced towards the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. The staff there could see no hope of rescue and so decided to surrender, sending a British lieutenant with a white flag to talk to the Japanese; he was bayonetted to death. The Japanese troops then entered the hospital and immediately killed around 50 patients, some of whom were lying on the operating table; doctors and nurses were also murdered. The following day about 200 male staff members and patients (many of them walking wounded), were taken to a nearby industrial area where they were murdered. A small number of the men survived by playing dead and were able to report this atrocity at the end of the war.
By the morning of the 15th the Allies were almost out of food and ammunition. There was a heated conference of the senior commanders who reluctantly agreed that there was no hope of victory and the garrison should capitulate. Percival formally surrendered at 17.15. This was the largest surrender of forces led by the British in history. 100,000 Allied men (British, Australian, and Indian) were taken prisoner when Singapore fell. A number of the prisoners were held in Changi Prison where many of them died, but the vast majority were shipped out to work as forced labour for the Japanese, some in Japan itself, some on the Sandakan airfield, and thousands on the infamous Burma railway (around 9,000, or 9% of those taken prisoner, died on the railway).
It was not only the Allies who suffered at the hands of the Japanese. A large percentage of the population of Singapore was of Chinese descent and many of these people were massacred by the victorious invaders. No one knows how many civilians were killed, the Chinese of Singapore said it was 50,000 although the Japanese said it was closer to 5,000 (historians believe this estimate to be too low, based on the actions of the Japanese in places like Nanking, and the true figure will never be known).
The shocking surrender of the British forces in Singapore showed the world that, despite expectations, the Japanese army would be a major player during the war. The conflict in the Far East continued after the war in Europe had been won and was only to end with the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. British forces had planned to liberate Singapore in 1945 but the war ended before they could carry out their attack. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally in September 1945 and British, Indian, and Australian forces moved back into Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese commander, General Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes; he was convicted and hanged in the Philippines on 23 February 1946.
There are few survivors of the fall of Singapore still alive today, 75 years later, but that doesn’t mean we should forget. Perhaps we can take a few moments today to remember all those who died or suffered life changing experiences either during the battle or in the three years of Japanese ruled which followed.