With the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Britain suffered the worst humiliation in its military history.
The photograph sums it up: General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Malaya, and his fellow officers, walking forlornly towards the Japanese commanders to sign the dismal surrender. With their baggy shorts, knee-length socks and tin helmets, one carries the Union Jack while another holds the white flag of surrender. Escorting them, a number of Japanese soldiers, or ‘little men’ as the British military elite referred to them.
The ‘Gibraltar of the East’
British Malaya had been considered a strategic stronghold within the eastern Empire, and the island of Singapore, 273 square miles, on the southern tip of Malaya, was known as the ‘Gibraltar of the East’. Acquired by Stamford Raffles for Britain’s East India Company in 1819, Singapore became a full British possession five years later, in 1824. Colonial life in early twentieth century Singapore was one of tea, tennis and dancing. Rumours of a Japanese attack were dismissed as nonsense; these ‘Japs’ with their feeble eyes could hardly shoot straight, let alone pose a threat to the might of the Malayan-based British troops and their Commonwealth comrades.
An impressive naval defence system consisting of huge guns had been built at great cost during the 1920s facing south out to sea. To the north of the island, on the mainland, lay hundreds of miles of dense Malayan jungle and rubber plantations considered by the British to be impenetrable. Stationed on the island, almost 100,000 British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and a few local Malay troops.
‘I never received a more direct shock’
The situation seemed even more secure when, on 2 December 1941, two British warships, the HMS’s Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by four destroyers, made their presence felt in Singapore’s harbour. No one seemed too perturbed that the ships lacked air support – the aircraft carrier carrying almost fifty Hurricanes had run aground and needed three weeks of repair.
But things were far from secure. First, on 7 December, at the same time as their comrades were launching their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed on Malaya on the north-eastern coast near the city of Kota Bahru. By the following day they had secured their first foothold on the Malayan peninsula.
Two days later, on 10 December, eighty-eight Japanese planes attacked the Prince of Wales and Repulse and their escorting destroyers. Without the benefit of air support, the British ships were easily torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 840 lives. 1,285 survivors were taken prisoner. The Japanese, in turn, lost only four planes. Years later, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.’
Bad for morale
On Malaya itself, the Japanese advanced south from Kota Bahru with their infantry soldiers on bicycles, and using tanks which the British had thought totally impractical within the dense jungle, and all ably supported by fighter planes. Their aim: to conquer Malaya and capture the island of Singapore on the southern tip of the mainland, 620 miles to the south.
However, the British were not, at this stage, overly concerned, overestimating the defensive nature of the jungle and underestimating the character of the Japanese soldier. Until early January 1942, Percival (pictured) prohibited the building of defences on Singapore’s north coast, believing that to do so would be bad for morale.
But within six weeks of landing in Malaya the Japanese, with total air superiority, were within striking distance of Singapore. Unaware of how numerically inferior the enemy, an impressive bluff perpetuated by the Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the British and Commonwealth troops panicked at the speed of the Japanese advance. On 31 January, Arthur Percival ordered his troops off Malaya to Singapore. Retreating, his troops partially destroyed the causeway over the mile-wide Johore Strait between the mainland and the island.
A contingent of Australian troops, too wounded to move, was left lying within the Malayan jungle, calmly smoking. The Japanese, having rounded them up, decapitated them.
With the loss of only 2,000 of his men, Yamashita (pictured) had conquered Malaya in little more than seven weeks. Now there was just the small matter of Singapore. But Yamashita was worried – his supply lines were stretched, he was lacking ammunition and with only 20,000 men, his forces were outnumbered.
But it was the British resolve that collapsed. Panic set in as the Japanese bombed the island and Singapore city was flattened. Civilians tried all means to escape, fighting one another for the remaining places on the last ships and planes heading out, including accounts of desperate men securing their places by gunpoint.
Meanwhile, on 8 February, the Japanese had repaired the causeway. The way ahead was clear. Two days later, Yamashita sent Percival a letter demanding their surrender.
‘Defeated by an army of clever gangsters’
On 10 February, Churchill ordered: ‘The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs… Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.’
Percival reiterated the Prime Minster’s order the following day: ‘In some units the troops have not shown the fighting spirit expected of men of the British Empire. … It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters many times inferior in numbers to our men.’
The British, although running short of food and water, were well equipped with ammunition, unlike the Japanese who were fast running out. And with 80,000 men at his disposal, Percival’s cause, on paper, seemed favourable. But despite Churchill’s unusually severe missive, British discipline broke, panic set in, and the cause was lost. Those under him urged Percival to surrender to save further loss of life. The last ships had gone – there was no escape as the Japanese rampaged, showing no mercy to either soldier or civilian, bayoneting and killing women, children, hospital patients and all they came across. The worst atrocity occurred at the Alexandra Hospital, where the Japanese first bayoneted to death a British officer carrying a white flag, then proceeded to massacre 320 staff, nurses and patients.
By 12 February, eighty per cent of the island lay in Japanese hands. Percival was not to know that the Japanese were down to the last few hour’s worth of ammunition. Finally, with the situation lost and the prospect of a counterattack impossible, Percival surrendered. It was the 15 February 1942, and the fall of Singapore was, in Churchill’s words, the ‘worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.
The myth of the invincibility of the European soldier was shattered and over 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops were to spend the rest of the war in captivity. Half of them would never return home.
The island endured three and half years of brutal Japanese occupation which included a massacre of its Chinese population, a massacre that was to claim up to 70,000 lives. The island was to remain under occupation until soon after Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
Read Yamashita’s polite but firm letter to Percival.