World War II: Fall of Singapore
Down and Out
For nearly 150 years, the island of Singapore on the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s vast East Asian Empire. In late 1941 though, the winds of change were in the air. War raged in Europe, virtually all of the Western European nations, apart from Britain and a few neutral countries lay under the Nazi jackboot. Now Hitler had turned his attention eastwards and had already launched his ambitious plan to crush Bolshevism once and for all. In the Far East though, another member of the Axis began to execute a series of plans to build a vast Empire of its own. Japan of course had already began its imperialist expansion in the late 1930’s by launching a brutal and bloody invasion of China, committing deplorable atrocities wherever they went. Now, they sought to expel the white man from Asia, virtually all of their propaganda focused on their hatred of the Anglo-Saxon powers.
At this time, the entire Indian subcontinent and much of East Asia including Burma, Singapore and Malaya lay under British rule. The Dutch ruled over what is now today Indonesia, the French held Vietnam, then known as French Indochina, and the Americans held sway over the Philippines. On the 7th December, Japan launched the Pacific War; squadrons of Mitsubishi fighter bombers caught the American Pacific Fleet off guard at Pearl Harbour, wounding it severely. Just 24 hours later, the Japanese 25th Army led by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita invaded British Malaya from Indochina and Thailand. Although the British held the advantage in numbers, the Japanese concentrated their forces and used their proficiency in jungle warfare and combined arms combat to repeatedly outflank the enemy and drive them back towards the southern tip of the peninsular, towards Singapore.
The Japanese’s modern air force quickly gained air superiority over the rather obsolete fighters of the British and Commonwealth; there were very few spitfires out in the east, compared with back home unfortunately. The rapidly advancing Japanese inflicted two further blows by attacking and successfully sinking two prized British battleships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. It seemed incredible; the British Empire which had ruled over East Asia for more than a century had been bought to its knees, by what was perceived at the time as an army of savages, the Empire was quite literally collapsing like a pack of cards.
Breaking the Link
Defending the Island
The commander of the British and Empire forces Lieutenant General Arthur Percival was confident that the defences already established on the island would be enough to hold back the Japanese wave, but he needed to secure the island. On the 31st January 1942 the last troops withdrew from the peninsula back to the island, prompting Percival to order the blowing up of the narrow crossing way that effectively cut off the island.
Just across the causeway lay the Sultan of Johor’s Palace. The Sultan had elected to side with the Japanese and had allowed Yamashita the use of his palace as a battle headquarters. From the top of the five storey tower he could easily see the displacement of troops on the north of the island. You may think though that shutting himself in a small room at the top of a tower in full range of the British guns would amount to pure suicide. But Yamashita knew he was quite safe, on account of the British being constrained by colonial decorum. Before the war, the colonial government has assured the Sultan that his palace would not be shelled in battle.
Percival, now trapped on the island pinned his hopes largely on 18,000 reinforcements that were due to arrive in Singapore at any moment. However, the disaster of the Malayan campaign had rung alarm bells back in London and Prime Minister Winston Churchill began to view the so called ‘Gibraltar of the East’ as a lost cause; even going so far to threaten to turn the ships around and begin making preparations for evacuating the island. However, his Australian counterpart John Curtin declared that such an act would be regarded as an inexcusable betrayal. The severity of Curtin’s words worked, and Churchill gave up all thoughts of abandoning Singapore, the 18,000 troops arrived and preparations were made to try to construct some suitable defences. Curtin, who so gravelly concerned at the Japanese expansion decided to send an extra 2000 mostly untrained Australian reinforcements to Singapore. They joined up with their fellow commonwealth allies plus a new unit made up of Chinese civilians called Dalforce. The formation of a civilian army was an unprecedented move for the British. It was a move that reversed more than a century of colonial superiority. The British Empire, more than anything was built on prestige and if the authorities were resorting to relying on Chinese help, it raised troubling questions about that famous prestige, but more importantly their ability to protect Singapore. All in all the number of Empire troops amounted to 85,000, the majority of who were fresh and experienced, the rest were the remnants of the army that had retreated from Malaya. Yamashita was vastly outnumbered, with a force of just 36,000, but his men were battle hardened, buoyed by victory and totally single minded.
Britain's Pride and Joy
Sacrificing Lives for Honour
More on the Fall of Singapore
The Battle Begins
On the 3rd February, the Japanese began their assault on Singapore’s defences, their artillery and relentless air attacks obliterated the city. The Brits could do little to stem the attack, as most of their air force had earlier been destroyed during the Malaya campaign. In just a few days, as a result of up to three air raids a day, nearly 1000 civilians were killed. The shocked native civilians watching this horror unfurl before their eyes began to lose faith in the British Empire.
Knowing he couldn’t rely on air support, Percival concentrated on boosting Singapore’s land defences, the Brits pride and joy were the 15 inch naval guns that pointed in intimidating fashion out to sea. But the guns were pointing the wrong away, the Japanese intended to attack from the opposite direction, plus they were filled with ammo designed to inflict damage upon ships, so in fact they would be close to useless against fast moving troops.
Percival had guessed that Yamashita would attack from the east, so moved 12,000 British and Indian troops towards Serangoon to face them. But there were no beach defences whatsoever, the Brits felt that the beach defences might lower morale, because it might be interpreted as contemplating a Japanese landing.
Just in case Yamashita hatched a different plan, Percival asked the commander of Australian forces, Major General Gordon Bennett to send 6000 troops to the other side of the island. The Australians now had to defend a 12 mile stretch of mangrove just to the west of the causeway. Bennett knew that defending the coastline was near impossible, and given his abrasive character would have normally objected to such a plan. But relations between himself and Percival were strained, so he remained silent. Joining the Australians on the beach, were 1000 Chinese of the Dalforce, they’d only completed their training three days later. Now they would receive their baptism of fire in an exposed position against some of the best soldiers in the world.
Yamashita readied his troops to land on Singapore Island; he chose the sparsely defended Australian and Dalforce position where the strait was at its narrowest. He tried to fool Percival into where he would land by directing a lot of sea traffic eastwards towards the main British army. He also elected to bombard British defences on both sides of the island. Some of the soldiers who’d fought in the Great War claimed that some of it was worse than anything that the Germans had thrown against them in the trenches. By now, the situation was becoming desperate and the Commonwealth artillery decided to expel all thoughts of decorum and courtesy and proceeded to shell the Sultan’s palace.
On the 7th February Yamashita launched a diversionary attack to fire across the water near the main Britain position, in an attempt to further fool Percival. Fighting alongside the Japanese were Indian troops who had previously fought alongside British troops in Malaya. They’d deserted and formed a new Indian National Army commanded by anti British nationalist Captain Mohan Singh. The next night, 13,000 Japanese soldiers embarked on the six minute crossing across the strait of Johor. Percival, seemingly oblivious to all that was going on was still convinced that the Japanese would attack the main British army in the North East. Quietly and stealthily, the Japanese closed in on the Australians and Chinese.
The attack started, the gunfire disturbing the calmness of the night, both the Australians and Chinese fought bravely, but they were heavily outnumbered and some of the Chinese Dalforce was only armed with small shotguns and machetes. The pressure soon became too much, they fell back, allowing the Japanese to gain a foothold on Singapore Island. Whatever morale and discipline remained now totally fell away among the Australians, many who probably didn’t want to be there in the first place decided to desert.
For Britain it was one disaster after another, in barely 24 hours, they had lost control of the causeway and the entire western side of the island. The following day, General Yamashita felt confident to cross over the causeway himself and establish a new headquarters on the island. It also gave him the first opportunity to examine the trickle of POW’s arriving into the Japanese camp. For Percival and his staff, it seemed as if the end was inevitable, and the pressure only heightened when they received a message from Winston Churchill himself: ‘There must be at this stage, be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The Battle must be fought till the bitter end, at all costs. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.’ These are strange and disturbing words from a man so revered in history. Remember that less than two years before, he had ordered the successful rescue of 338,000 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk and had seen his home country bravely repel an invasion attempt from Hitler. These words help us gain insight into Churchill’s mind, and indeed the minds of the ruling class. The people of Singapore are not really British, and thus their survival is less important than the integrity of the British Empire.
Percival had left half of his army sitting idle on the North East coast, whilst the Australians and Chinese suffered under the Japanese onslaught. Finally, after three full days, it suddenly dawned upon the commander that he had been tricked and so ordered his men across the island to support the Australians, who were now being firmly driven back.
Remembering a Massacre
The Final Moments
At Bukit Timah, the battered and bruised British Empire army, plagued with desertions and discontent made a determined stand. As the battle wore on into the night, the sheer, wild fanaticism of the Japanese soldiers shocked the Empire troops to the core. The British had no choice to withdraw. By now, it finally seemed to be dawning on the arrogant British that they were fighting an enemy that was at least an equal to them, if not better.
By the 14th February, the Japanese were overlooking the city. One million people were now trapped within a radius of just three miles. The very fabric of Singaporean society was beginning to tear apart. Over half of the city’s water supply was going to waste through broken pipes; the main hospital in the city was the Alexandra Hospital which unfortunately lay directly in the path of the Japanese advance. Originally it had been built to accommodate 550 patients but was crammed with nearly double that amount, most of them being sick or wounded soldiers. At 2:30 pm, retreating Indian troops entered the hospital, using it for cover to fire on the Japanese as they advanced into the city. Shortly afterwards, a Japanese company in full battle gear charged into the hospital looking for the Indians. Finding them gone, they instead rampaged through the wards, killing indiscriminately; even patients on the operating table weren’t safe from their brutality.
As the final moments approached, the Japanese bombardment took its toll on the civilian population, the streets quickly becoming littered with the dead. With their world crumbling around them, the British colonists were desperate to escape; women and children were crowded onto passenger ships. According to some reports, some Australian troops tried to force their way onto the ships, resulting in a tense standoff between themselves and the Royal Marines in charge of guarding the harbour. This hasty evacuation of Singapore revealed damning evidence of the British view of their Asian subjects. In addition to the soldiers who deserted, more than 10,000 women and children were evacuated, around 7000 of them were white. In a sense, the people were saying ‘we don’t belong here; we’ve had our fun, now we’re going home.’ Those that were left stranded on the wharf were left to face the ever advancing Japanese, now banging on the city gates.
The Japanese had captured most of the British’s ammo, fuel and had total control of Singapore’s main water supplies. As nightfall approached, the first Japanese appeared in the outskirts of the city. Now, the fighting came down to its simplest form, hand to hand fighting for every street, the civilian population watched on helplessly. Realising the hopelessness of the situation, General Percival messaged High Command, seeking permission to surrender. Churchill now realised that the time for public bravado was over. The next day, he sent Percival a simple reply permitting him to be the sole judge of the moment.
Did You Know?
Britain's defeat at Singapore was the worst in its history, with more than 80,000 troops surrendering to the Japanese. It surpassed anything that had occurred in World War I and the Napoleonic Wars, and was the biggest loss in terms of colonial territory since the loss of the American colonies in 1776.
A Harsh Regime
The Moment the War Ended
Return of the Empire
Surrender and Aftermath
The next day, Sunday the 15th February 1942 marked the end of over 100 years of continuous British rule in Singapore. General Percival surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese. Back in Japan, the populace was euphoric; this was seen as the vital first step towards expelling the colonial powers from Asia forever. The lightning victory seemed to confirm that Japan was truly the rightful steward of Asia.
While the Japanese began rounding up prisoners, Major General Gordon Bennett, the commander of the Australian forces paid a few hundred pounds to the skipper of a fishing boat and escaped safely to Australia to pass on his supposed expertise in jungle warfare. History condemns Bennett’s actions, although it must be noted that he did tell his units to fight till the bitter end and to make no attempt at escape. It’s just that he failed to uphold his duty as a leader of men; he deserted his men instead of standing by them. It comes as no surprise to learn that he never commanded in battle again.
For those that surrendered in Singapore what lay ahead was three brutal years in captivity. All in all, 30,000 British, 15,000 Australian and 40,000 Indian troops joined the 30,000 POW’S taken in Malaya. Unlike Bennett, Percival stuck by his men, and went with them into the hell of the prison camps. Despite the fact, that he’d led his men to a humiliating defeat, he retained the respect of the men.
Among the native Singaporeans though, what little respect that had for the British was quickly dispelled. The Japanese marched the defeated Commonwealth troops through the centre of Singapore towards Changi prison. With the British gone, many of the locals saw the Japanese as heroic liberators. But under the Japanese occupation, the fate of the three main ethnic groups was very different. The Japanese knew that the Indians wanted the British out of their homeland. So on the 17th February, the Japanese assembled 40,000 Indian soldiers from the Empire forces at Farrer Park Racecourse in Singapore. Mohan Singh the leader of the Indian National army set about persuading his countrymen to join the Japanese and to fight for independence in India. In an extraordinary display of anti colonial zeal, some 20,000 Indians turned their backs on 200 years of history and abandoned their loyalty to the British King.
The Indians who had deserted the British now became the jailors of their former masters at the POW camps. Any expectations that the prisoners of war had that they would be treated humanely was quickly shattered. But it wasn’t just the prisoners that received savage beatings; the Japanese often inflicted them on each other. It may sound strange to us, but for them it was used as a form of corporal punishment, and was quite normal. The philosophy was that the more you get beaten, the more frustrated you got, and eager to fight you were, thus the reason why the prisoners were treated extra cruelly. But the most horrific brutality of the Japanese military system was reserved for the Chinese.
Just three days after the surrender, the Japanese rounded up anyone considered hostile and in scenes recalling the brutal invasion of China proceeded to slaughter them, it’s estimated that during the Japanese occupation, some 50,000 Chinese Singaporeans were murdered by the Japanese.
For 3 more years, the Pacific War raged; at its peak in 1942, the Japanese Empire extended over 20 million square miles and its land conquests amounted to more than a third greater than Germany’s. In Malaya and Singapore, a population of five million Asians was under total Japanese control. The Japanese occupation quickly drove a wedge between the local Chinese and Malay communities. The Japanese had promised the Malay’s independence, but it never came. Instead, they behaved more like some harsh, new colonial power. Their ill treatment and brutality extended to hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war. By mid 1945 most languished in camps, reduced to a pitiful state by enforced labour.
But the war in the Pacific would now end in the most horrific fashion, with the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The casualties from both bombings amounted to more than 200,000. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito had little alternative but to surrender unconditionally. In the Philippines, Lieutenant General Percival, who’d managed to survive the horrors of the prison camp met once more with General Yamashita to accept his surrender. The Japanese general who’d captured Singapore was tried for war crimes and executed.
On the 12th September 1945, the British returned to Singapore and proceeded to march the Japanese through the streets in front of jubilant locals. One by one all of the old European colonial powers returned to reclaim their territories. But for the people of East Asia things had changed, the British themselves had changed; their appetite for Empire was on the wane. By the early 1960’s all of Southeast Asia was independent, although not all transitions from colonial rule to self rule went peacefully, the important thing was that the people of East Asia now had control of their own destiny.
- Battle of Singapore - World War 2 Battle of Singapore
An account of the battle on about.com
- Singapore 1941: Fall of the Gibraltar of the East
A very good detailed article about the fall of Malaya and Singapore.
- Military History Online
Another very detailed account of the battle and subsequent fall of Singapore.
© 2012 James Kenny