Singapore was the keystone of Britain's military position in the Pacific. Japan took the large well supplied British garison at Singapore with surprising ease. British General Percival has been sharply criticized. The defense of Singapore was bady planned. The Japanese offensive down the Malay Peninsula was briliantly executed. The key factors were that the Japanese were able to achieve aerial and naval mastery that was never anticipated in British defense planning combined with the surprising mobility of Japanese ground forces. Pearl Harbor left the American Pacific Fleet unable to respond to the defense of the Philippines, let alone Singapore. Two of Britain's most powerful ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent without air cover and sunk by Japanese bombers. [Gilbert] Churchill was outraged and Percival's surender. It was Percival's seeming willingness to so quickly surrender that enraged Churchill. The British 8th Division had been rushed to Singapore after it was already too late. The fall of Singapore was a military catastrophy of emense proportions. Japanese forces within 6 months moved through Burma to the border of India in the West and New Guinea in the South. Australian trops had garisoned Singapore, after previously sending forces to North Africa, left the country virtually undefended. Only the intervention of American carriers in the Ciral sea blocked Japanese expansion further south.
The Japanese conquest of Malay also presented the Allies with a critical problem. The world's rubber production was centered on the Malay Peninsula. And rubber was a vital war material. Singapore's fall would have consequences after the War. The prestige of the British Empire has been irreperably damaged.
Singapore is an island located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is separated from the mailand by the Straits of Johor. To the north is what is now the Malaysian state of Johor. At the time of World War II, the British had constructed a causeway and bridge to link Singapore Island with the mainland.
Singapore was the keystone of Britain's military position in the Pacific. Singapore was one of the finest natural anchorages in the Pacific. It was also strategically commanded critical trading sea lanes--the Straits of Malacca.
Singaporre at the time of World war I was a major port, but there was no major base defending the port. The British, largely because of Japan's program of naval exopansion, decided that a modern naval base was needed at Singapore. Construction began (1923). Funds were limited by Britain's financial situation. Military spending was not popular after World war I. Construction thus proceeded slowly. This changed with the Japanese seizure of Chinese Manchuria (1931). Japanese aggression highlighted a need for atrong base at Singapore. Important elements of the base were completed (1938). One of the most important facilities was the the King George VI Graving Dock which was opened (Match 1938). It was over 300 meters long, the largest dry dock in the world when opened. This mean that the largest naval vessels could be serviced at Singapore. The base was finally completed (1941). It was defended by artillery protected by concrete emplacements and the new Tengah Airfield. The base looked impressive indeed. There was also a 275 meter floating dock--the third largest in the world. The base had facilities for old 60,000 workers to man the dry docks, giant cranes, and machine shops. There were protected underground storage for water, fuel, and ammunition. A self-contained town was also built on the base. It could house 12,000 Asian workers and had movie theaters, hospitals, churches, and sports fields. It looked impregnable on paper and the press began billing it as
"Gibralter of the East." The above-ground tanks were designed to hold sufficent fuel to supply the entire Royal Navy for 6 months. The problem was that the British at the time were fighting for their life in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. Very limited naval resources could be spared for the Pacific. Singapore was designed to be the base for aacific fleet, but as war approached in the Oacific was a naval base without a fleet to defend it. The Brtish strategic doctrine was that Singapore was capable of resisting a Japanese seige for at leadst 6 months which would give the Royal Navy time to assemble a relif force.
Authorities in Singapore, bith the British commanders and colonial administration, were convinced that they could withstrand a Japanese assault. Compared to Britain, the British in Singapore were rekatively unaffected by the War. Their major concern was to supply the rubber and tin needed by the British war efoort in Europe and North Africa.
The British assumed that the Japanese assault would come from the sea. The jungles of the Malay Peninsula were seen as inpenitable to a modern mechanized army. Coastal artillery included 15 inch guns to protect the base. Machine-gun bunkers were built along the southern coast. There was a small local defense force consisting of 4 battalions of British Straits Settlements Volunteer Corps and a small civil defense organization which was trained primarily to serve as air raid wardens, fire fighters, medical personnel, and debris removers. Unlike the Amerucans on the Philippines, the British did not recruit Singapore's Asians. The British doubted both their loyalty and capability.
President Roosevelt had moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in the Hawaian Islands, a measure meant to disuade the Japanese from furher agressiin in Asia. It did not. Instead Admiral Tamaoto who did not want war with the United States was ordered to devise a battle plan to confront the Americans. His answer was a daring carrier assault on Pearl Harbor. American naval planners did mot think the Japanese had the capability to launch such a strike. We now know they did. And the stike was devestating. Pearl Harbor left the American Pacific Fleet unable to respond to the defense of the Philippines, let alone Singapore. The battleships od the Pacific fleet were either destroyed or sunk, Actually Yamamoto was not after the battleships. What he wanted was the American carriers. And as luck would have it, they were not at Pearl. It was not, however, just Pearl Harbor. American and British planners had failed to appreciate the great strides that the Japanese had made in air power as well as the quality of the Imperial fleet.
The strike on Pearl Harbor was immediately followed by Japanese landings on the Malay Peninsula. The military targer of courrse was Singapore. Althouth Malaya had the immense strategic importance of being the primary source of natural rubber. Two substantial Japanese convoys carrying ground troops from bases in Hainan and southern Indochina landed at Singora and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Baharu in northern Malaya (December 8). The landings in Thailand were possible because the Japanese buildup in Indochina was used to pressure Thailand and force the country to join the Axis. And their wee Thai Fascists to assist in the process. General Yamashita Tomoyuki commanded the Japanese offensive. The JLogistics was the weak point of the Japanse Army which would eventually undermine the entire Japanese war effort. Gen. Yamashita planned around this weakness by premised his offensive in seizing needed supplies from the British as he advanced. This would be the template for all successful Japanese campaigs against the Allie and would continue until the disaster on the Kokoda Trail over the Owen Stanley Mountains running the spine of New Guinea (July 1942-January 1943). One historian describes Yamashita's preparations for the Malaya Campaign. "In plnning his invasion force, Yamashita had put a premium on lightness and mobility. As he brought more bikes than trucks, he brought more man-portablw mortars than heavy artillery. He save his precious bulky itemn cargo space for his tanks. The British, meanwhile, had plenty of trucks and artillery, but no usable modern tanks [or anti-tank guns]. They did have armored cars and Universals (also called 'Bren') Gun Carriers, lightly arned and armored vhicles that were no match for the Japanese Type 95 light tanks with their 37mm guns." [Yenne] The Japanese with little opposition by the poorly prepard British, easily secured a foothold on the Malay Peninsula. This included the vital British air base at Kota Baharu. Japanese long-range bombers from the air base began raiding Singapore.
For 2 years Singapore wtched the ar unfolding in far away Europe. The Japanese threat escalated as they moved into French Indo-China, especially after the fall of France. The Britisjh in Singapore with the Blitz rahing hardly saw safty in Britain. And the authorities in Singapoer did not plan an evacuation to Australia. Rather they went out of their way to assure the population by issuing optimistic pronouncements about Singapore as a bastion of the British Empire. Singapore newspapers were heavily censored for any expression of the dnger faced from Japan. Journalists' reports abrpad were also censored. Singapore officials even sent optimistic reports to the British War Cabinet (late-1941). Some individual families evacuated/ Some fathers sent their wices and children hime, but because of the censored press, not very many. Incredibly, official evacuations did not beginuntil well after Pearl Harbor (late-January). Theu continued almost until the Japanese entered the city. Some of the evacuation boats were torpepded by the Japnese. RAAF squadrons had been evacuated before the Japanese invaded the island and the remaining RAN warships were ordered to leave. Naval vessels attempted to protect the merchant vessels carrying civilians from Japanese submarines. Australian Army nurses evacuated on the Empire Star (February 11). They reached Australia safely. The last 65 nurses were ordered aboard the Vyner Brooke which which sailed (February 12). Only 24 of these nurses survived to return to Australia in 1945 after the War.
Some merchant ships also got away carrying evacuees from the path of the Japanese. The warships' main operational tasks were escort duties, and the fleet based in Singapore included the destroyer HMAS Vampire and the sloop HMAS Yarra, which arrived late in January, along with several corvettes. The corvettes in the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla swept the sea lanes and conducted anti-submarine patrols. HMA Ships Toowoomba, Wollongong and Ballarat reinforced the original four corvettes, HMA Ships Bendigo, Burnie, Goulburn and Maryborough.
Singapore citizens continued to evacuate the city in the final days. In the finl days they not only faced Japnese submarines, but strafing attcks by Japanese aircraft.
After the Japanese occupied southern Indochina ad the Americans embargoed crude oil, it was clear that Japan which had joined the Axis would attemot to seize the Dutch oil fields in the Dutch East Indies. American and British codebreakers had learned that a Japanese strike was iminent. A Royal Navy task force made up of two of Britain's most powerful ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent without air cover. [Gilbert] The battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse and four escorting destroyers as dispatched to Singapore. The ships reached Singapore (December 2). An accompanying aircraft carrier had run aground while en route. Thus the Brurish force lacked air cover. The importance of air cover was not yet fully appreciated. The Prince of Wales was the most modern battleship in the Royal Navy.
After the Japanese landings, the British ordered the Prince of Wales and Repulse to intercept further Japanese lanfding forces. At the time the Royal Navy commnders were unaware that the Japanese had taken all British airbases in northern Malaya and there would be no air support. Royal Navy commanders still believed that the Japanese could not sink a battleship maneuvering at high speed on the high seas. Japanese bomvers sank both ships (December 10). Until this time American and British naval commanders, and many Japanese commnders (except Yamamoto), were convinced tht the backbone of the fleet was the battleship. These assumptions were overturned by the sinking of the two British ships. American commanf]ders actually had no choice, but to adjust their thinking as the battleships of the Pacific fleet had been sunk or destroyed at Pearl Harbor. The only capital ships availavle were the carriers which had been the actual target of the Japanese attack,
General Yamashita and his staff had very carefully thought-out the Malay campaign. The Japanese to the amazement of the British began to rapidly mive down the Malay Peninsula toward Singapore. The initial lamdings had been along the eastern coast. The Japanese crossed to the western coast where the single north-south road was located. The Japanese force brought with them 18,000 bicycles. This provided considerable mobility, notonly for the soldiers, but light-arms and equipment as well. When the Japanese encountered entrenched British forces, they detoured around them through the jungle. There werevnoroads, but the bycycles could move along jungle trails. They also used
collapsible boats to move down the coast and outflank and encircle the British positions. This allowed them to cut supply linesxand attack from the rear. The Japanse quickly took Penang (December 18). Kuala Lumpur fell (January 11).
Malacca fell four days later (January 15). The Japanese took Johore Baharu (January 31). What was left of the British firce crossed over to Singapore Island. They blew a 50-meter gap in the causeway behind them.
Japanese air raids on Singapore began early in the campaign. They increased in untensity as the the Japanese Army begam moving down the Peninsula. These air raids became almost daily occurances (late January). Civilians suffered terribly because there were few shelters for the general public. Singapore had a population of over 0.5 million. Rfugees fleeing the Japanese had doubled the population.
Britain and Commonwealth countries rushed ships and men to Commonwealth to strengthen the garrison (January). Many were experienced, raw recruits from India and Australia. Some were British troops from the Middle East. Singapore had a largly Chinese population. They were aware of what the Chinese were doing in China. They also had heard rumors (which proved all to true) as to how the Japanese were treating ethnic Chinese as they moved down the Malay Peninsula. Many Singpore Chinese wanted to volunteer to help protect the city. The British colonial administration had not formed a colonial miliia, but as the Japanese advance increasingly threatened the city, they begin to take desperate measures. The Chinese cimmunity included both Nationalist and Communist supporters. While bitterly antagonistic, the Japanese threat beiefly brought them togher to make common cause. Tey offered their services to Governor Shenton Thomas. He responded by authorizing the formation of the Chung Kuo Council (China National Council). Tan Kah Kee was put in charge nd thousands of Singapore Chinese volunteered to build make-shift defensive fortifications as well as to provide a range of essential services. An actual military force was a more difficult decesion for the British, but the colonialadministration with considerable reluctance, agreed to create a Singapore Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Battalion. It became known as Dalforce after its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Federated Malay States police force. Dalley had little time to create a real force. The volunteers were given a very basic, 10-day crash training course. Equipment and arms by this time were scarce. TDailey armed them with what he could find, a collection of small arms, including shotguns, knives, and grenades.
The Japanese had moved all the way down the Malay Peninsula and had reached Singapore (January 31). For about a week the two opposing armies faced each other across the Straits of Johor. The retreating British trips blew the bridge on the causeway cutting Singapore Island off from the mailand. The initial Japanese action was to intensify air attacks. Tghey focused on the airfields, naval base, and harbor area, but many bombs hit commercial and residential sections of the city jamed with refugees. Considerable damge was done. Large numbers of civilians were killed or wounded in the Japanese raids.
By this time the Japanese had complete air control over the entire island. This meant that not only could they bomb the usland at will, but the Brotish had no idea as to the strength of the attacking force or where they were massing to attack.
General Yamashita had only a relatively small force of about 30,000 men and had been unable to stockpile amunition abd equipment for an assault. The British had a garrison force of about 70,000 men, primarily Australian, British, and Indian. The Sinapore garison was commanded by Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival. His overal commander was General Archibald Wavell, the newly appointed commander in chief Far East who at the time was headquartered in Java. Wavell was an experienced commander, having served in the Middle East. Prime minister Winston Churchill ordered Percival to defend Singapore to the death. His orders were, "No surrender can be contemplated .... every inch of ground ... defended, every scrap of material or defences ... blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy ...." Percival ordered his men to begin destroying the naval base which at any rate without a fleet to defend it was useless. He also begun constructing defensive works along the northern coast. The elaborate defenses and heavy guns of Singapore were in fixed defensive works along the southern coast and pointed out to sea. The British had not anticipated a ground asault frim the north.
General Yamashita despite being outnumbered decided not to wait for reinforcements to seize Singapore. A force of Japanese soldiers using collapsible boats crossed the Straits at night and effected a landing along the northwest coast of the Island (February 8). In a carefully planned operation, the Japanese by dawn had two divisions on the islans with light artillery. Australian troops attempted to duslodge them, but failed. The Japanese moved to seize both Tengah Airfield and the causeway (February 9). They immediately set about rebuilding the bridge which was soon operational (February 13). This permitted them to bring in heavy artillery and tanks. The British defense was poorly organized, there were major problems with both communicatiins and corridantion. The garrison fought bravely, including the Commonwealth troops, Dalforce, and Chinese irregulars. Neverthelass, the Japanese took Bukit Timah, the highest point on the island (February 11).
The British forces retreated to a final defensive perimeter around the city itsef. The British position ran rom Pasir Panjang to Kallang. Yamashita offered General Percival tghe opportunity to surrender. Japanese forces broke through the final perimeter at Pasir Panjang (February 13). This brough the entire city within artillery range. Civilian casualties were extensive as the Japanese continued to bombing the city by day and shelling it at night. An estimatred 2,000 civilians were being killed daily abd many more wounded. Governor Thomas cabled London, "... there are now one million people within radius of 3 miles. Many dead lying in the streets and burial impossible. We are faced with total deprivation of water, which must result in pestilence...." General Percival cabled General Wavell asking for permission to surrender (February 13). He wanted to avoid the carnage that would result from a house-to-house battle for the city. Churchill was outraged and Percival's surender. It was Percival's seeming willingness to so quickly surrender that enraged Churchill.Churchill seeing the futility of the military sutiation relented and gave his permission (February 14). Percival at the Japanese military headquarters set up in the the Ford factory at Bukit Timah, General Percival signed away the most important base in Asia, surrendering unconduituinally to General Yamashita. As a result of his stunning victory, Yamashita became known as the Tiger of Malaya.
Terrible attrociities accompanied the Japanrse seizure of Singaore. They displayed the ferrocity with which they fought the War in China. A Lt. Western, a British medical officer, surrendered with a white flag but was bayoneted to death (Feburary 14). When the Japanese soldiers entered the Alexandra Hospital, they killedover 300 doctors, nurses, and patients, mostly by bayonetung them. When Gen. Yamashita heard about the incident, he ordered the soldiers responsible executed at the hospital. This was a rare instance of the Japnee punishing their soldiers or war crimes. It never occured in China. Other reports of atrocities during the campaign included example of unfathomable cruelty such as accounts of Japanese soldiers as they moved south down the Malay Peninsula emasculated captured British soldiers. They then sewed their severed penises to their lips before hanging them in trees where Allied patrols would find them. They hung signs on their necks reading 'He took a long time to die'. Such actions were calculated to demoralize the British soldiers. Attrocities on a much wider scale were directed against Chinese civilans. With Percival's surrender the Japanese were concerned with the large number of Chinese civilians living in the city. The Japanese knew that the Chinese had been providing both moral and monetary support Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist Government. The Japanese response was called Daikensho (the Great Inspection). The Chinese would refere to it as Sook Ching (the Purge). Gen. Yamashita ordered his men to work with Kempeitai on a campaign to eliminate Chinese groups that might undermine the Japanese occupation of the city. This included humanitarian groups such as the China Relief Fund and its supporters. Chinese men with tattoos (believed to be members of secret societies), communists, and politicians, and many others were arrested. This was only the beginning. Soon virtually all Chinese men were arrested. The men arrested were taken to remote locations, including Changi, Punggol, Blakang Mati, and Bedok where they were executed, either by drowning or machine gunning. In Penang, the killing went even further, entire Chinese villages were intrned and and murdered. Yamashita orderd the killing to stop (March 3). There arev n records of the extent of the killing. The Japanese claim only 5,000 people were killed. Singaporean sources estimate some 100,000 civilins were murdered. Historians based on post-War trial reasearches was probably 25,000 and 50,000 people.
The Japanese seizure of Singapore and the surrender of the 120,000 British (British, Australian, and Indian) garison shocked public opinion. Singapore was the principal British base in the Pacific. It was described as inpregnable anf the Gibraltar of the Pacific. The comparative ease with which the Japanese took Singapore was particularly shocking. The American public was still reeling from Pearl Harbor and was focused on the Philippines. Singapore was just one more piece of bad news, anbeit aaticularly shocvking one. It was much more shocking in Britain. The British public believed that Singapre was impregnavle and it was the largest surrender in British Army hidstory. (Until Singapore the obkly British field amies to surrender had been in the American Recolution.) It did not, however, immediately affect Britain which because of the Nattle of Britain and the arrival of American forces was relatively secure. It did directly affect Australia. Singapore and the Royal Navy were the cornerstone of Australia's defense. With the surrender of the Singapore garison. Australia was not only essentially on her own, but largely defensless. Most of the Australian Army was a world away with the British 8th Army in North Africa. Primeminister Curtin described the fisaster at Singapore as ‘Australia’s Dunkirk’ and told the Australian people that it woukd be followed by the ‘battle for Australia’. And the Japanese further unerved Australians 4 days after Singapore fell by launching the first air strik on Darwin (February 19).
Japan took the large well-supplied British garison at Singapore with surprising ease. British General Percival has been sharply criticized. The defense of Singapore was bady planned. Percival did not establish realistic expectations about what could be defended. He also did not adjust tactics as the Japanese moved south down the Malay Peninsula. The Japanese offensive down the Malay Peninsula was briliantly executed. The key factors were that the Japanese were able to achieve aerial and naval mastery that was never anticipated in British defense planning combined with the surprising mobility of Japanese ground forces. The British 8th Division, badly needed in the Middle East, had been rushed to Singapore after it was already too late. The fall of Singapore was a military catastrophy of emense proportions. After the fall of Singapore, Japanese forces within 6 months moved through Burma to the border of India in the West and New Guinea in the South. Australian troops had garisoned Singapore, after previously sending forces to North Africa, this left the country virtually undefended. Only the intervention of American carriers in the Coral sea blocked Japanese expansion further south (May 1942). The Japanese conquest of Malay also presented the Allies with a critical problem. The world's rubber production was centered on the Malay Peninsula. And rubber was a vital war material. Singapore's fall would have consequences after the War. The prestige of the British Empire has been irreperably damaged.
Yenne, Bill. The Imperial Japanese Army: The Invincible Years: 1941-44 (2014), 328p.
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