If the heroic lone stand against Hitler in 1940 was Britain’s finest hour, then the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 was definitely it’s lowest point. Known as the “Gibraltar of the east”, the island fortress of Singapore was the keystone of all British strategy in Asia, and was thought to be a formidable stronghold by British Imperial leaders.
With the surrender of its garrison, 80,000 British Indian and Australian troops were handed over to the Japanese – the worst military capitulation in British history.
Despite the belief in London that Singapore was well-defended, the British and Australian commanders who were stationed there were aware that years of complacency had dangerously weakened their capabilities for defending the island.
In December 1940 and January 1941 the Japanese intercepted information about Singapore that was so damning that at first they thought that it was a British trick to encourage them to launch a suicidal attack on the island.
With this new information in mind, Japanese strategy developed in the second half on 1941 concentrated on an invasion of the Malay peninsula, culminating with an assault on Singapore, which lies off its southern tip.
This would be result in large territorial gains, a huge propaganda victory against the western Empires in Asia, and access to the vital oil supplies in the region if it could be pulled off. Luckily for the Japanese, the British weak planning and complacency that dogged them in Singapore extended to the whole region.
Though they theoretically outnumbered the Japanese with large numbers of Indian and Australian troops reinforcing their men, they had very poor aircraft, badly trained and inexperienced men, and almost no vehicles – falsely believing that the thick jungle of the Malay peninsula would render them obsolete.
The Japanese forces, on the other hand, were well-equipped, formidably trained and extremely adept at combining air infantry and armour after years of experience fighting against the Russians and the Chinese. They also knew that with enough skill and determination, they could use their tanks and vehicles in the jungle with devastating effect.
The amphibious invasion of the Malay peninsula was launched almost simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbour on 8 December 1941.
Despite brave resistance from British and Australian troops, Japanese superiority was felt quickly, particularly in the air, where the dreadful old American Brewster Buffalo planes that the British were using were taken apart by Japanese zero fighters.
With the air secured, the invaders were able to sink British ships with ease, and begin bombing Singapore in January. The infantry, meanwhile, pushed the British further and further back until they were forced to regroup on the island.
On 31 January the causeway linking it with the mainland was destroyed by Allied engineers, and the Imperial forces began to prepare their defenses. They were commanded by Arthur Percival, a decent man with a fine military record who had been one of those to be deeply concerned about the state of Singapore’s defenses from as early as 1936.
In his heart of hearts he must have thought already that he might have been fighting a doomed battle.
The doomed battle
His first misjudgment came early on. He had distributed Gordon Bennett’s undermanned Australian brigades to defend the north-western side of the island, believing that the Japanese would attack to the east and that their threatening troop movements in the west were bluffs.
Even when they began to heavily bombard the Australian sectors on 8 February, he refused to reinforce Bennett, resolutely sticking to his belief. As a result, when 23,000 Japanese troops began to make the amphibious crossing that night, they were faced by just 3,000 men without any reserves or proper equipment.
Unsurprisingly, they made a bridgehead quickly, and were then able to pour more men into Singapore after bypassing brave Australian resistance.
To make matters even worse for the Allies, the last of the new and belatedly arrived Hurricane fighters had been forced to evacuate after their airfield was destroyed, meaning that the Japanese could bomb both civilian and military targets with impunity.
On the ground, the increasingly worried Percival failed to reinforce Bennett until the next morning and even then with a small number of Indian troops who made little difference. By the end of that day, all resistance to Japanese landings had ceased, and the Commonwealth forces were once again retreating in disarray.
Assault on Singapore City
With the beaches safe, Japanese heavy artillery and armour began to land for the final assault on the city of Singapore. Their commander, Yamashita, knew that his men would certainly lose in a protracted confrontation, for they were outnumbered and reaching the end of their supply line.
He would have to rely on speed and sheer audacity to force the British to surrender quickly. British Prime Minister Churchill, meanwhile, ordered Percival to do the exact opposite, knowing that a capitulation would seem incredibly feeble alongside determined Russian and American resistance on other fronts.
On the night of 12 February a perimeter was established around Singapore city, and Percival informed his commanders that surrender was out of the question, despite the increasing desperation of their plight.
When the Japanese attacked, they subjected the city – which was still full of civilians – to a terrible bombardment from land and air, and caused many civilian casualties. This was enough to convince many British officers that it was their moral duty to surrender, but for the time being Percival stood firm.
The Japanese approach to war was strikingly different; when they captured a British military hospital they famously massacred all of its inhabitants on 14 February. In the end, resistance was ended by loss of supplies rather than casualties. By 15 February, both civilians and soldiers had almost no access to food, water or ammunition.
Percival called his commanders together and asked whether they should surrender or launch a massive counterattack. In the end, they decided that the latter was out of the question and approached Commander Yamashita bearing a white flag.
Military analysts in the years since, however, have decided that a counter might just have been successful – but the apocalyptic conditions in the city must have had some bearing on Percival’s decision. Yamashita was unequivocal and demanded unconditional surrender – meaning that 80,000 troops – including Percival – were marched into captivity.
They had to endure horrific conditions and forced labour until the end of the war, and only 6,000 would survive until 1945. Percival was set free by American forces that year, and – ironically – was present when Yamashita’s army finally surrendered in September.
Remembering the treatment of his men, he refused to shake the Japanese commander’s hand. The latter was executed for war crimes the following year.