Fortress Singapore Falls
|Japanese troops celebrate victory in Malaya, 31 January 1942. (Robert Hunt Library).|
|In Singapore, British troops surrender to the Japanese, 15 February 1942 (Daily Mail).|
Prelude to the Battle of SingaporeThe British acquired Singapore from the Johor Sultanate in 1824 after a series of deals initiated by governor Stamford Raffles. They made it the regional capital in 1836 and vastly increased the population from about a thousand people under the Sultanate to over 80,000 by 1860. The majority of the population was ethnic Chinese who arrived to work on pepper, rubber, and gambier plantations. The island was considered easily defended from land attack due to its location at the extreme end of the long Malay Peninsula and the dense jungles which hindered land movements. Thus, the Royal Navy concentrated its efforts on defending the island from sea attack, though there weren't any particularly dangerous naval powers in the area, either.
|Singapore. Some of the city buildings with smoke rising from fires caused by bombing in Japanese air attacks, only days before the Japanese landed on the island. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/01).|
|Singapore. Smoke haze over the city after bomb attacks by Japanese. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/07).|
|"Singapore. Soldiers and civilians co-operate in rescuing wounded from damaged buildings after bombing in Japanese air attacks." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/18).|
|"HMS 'Prince of Wales', flagship of Force Z, approaching her berth at the Singapore naval base, 2 December 1941." The Prince of Wales was the victor in the North Atlantic against the Bismarck, and the Admiralty has sent it to Singapore along with cruiser Repulse in a show of force. This is Task Force Z under the command of Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips. © IWM (FE 485).|
|A Japanese Navy photograph (extensively highlighted for propaganda effect) showing HMS Prince of Wales at upper left and Repulse beside it slightly close to the camera. An unidentified destroyer is at lower right (© IWM (HU 2762)).|
The British Naval CatastropheThe entire British premise for the defense of Singapore was that it would and could be defended at sea. This proved to be completely erroneous, and it led to one of the greatest naval disasters the Royal Navy ever suffered. Moving Force Z there, though, really was not intended to even accomplish this objective of defending Singapore. In reality, a few ships, no matter how large, could not stop an entire country bent on conquest like Japan. Instead, it was more of a propaganda move, designed to demonstrate the British commitment to its Far East possessions and try to keep the Japanese from doing anything rash. Whatever the intent was - it failed.
|"Japanese Forces: Japanese cruiser CHOKAI whose seaplane sighted the British ships, HMS PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE, on 9 December 1941. The next morning they were attacked by Japanese aircraft and both were sunk off the coast of Malaya. The majority of the crews were rescued. The sinkings were an appalling blow to British prestige." © IWM (MH 6207).|
|"A Japanese aerial photograph showing HMS PRINCE OF WALES (top) and HMS REPULSE during the early stages of the attack in which they were sunk. HMS REPULSE had just been hit for the first time (12.20 hours)." © IWM (HU 2763).|
|Sailors abandon HMS Prince of Wales as it increasingly lists. Falling off the rope would mean almost certain death as you got caught between the two ships (AP Photo).|
|Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore (Daily Mail).|
Catastrophes on LandBritish Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, based in Singapore, was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya. Like Phillips, Percival was a staff officer with little active command experience. Bravely requesting an active command after the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, Percival spent the next year supervising the construction of beach defenses along the British coast. In April 1941, Percival became GOC Malaya despite knowing little of the region. Due to Axis advances in the Middle East, his flight from England took two weeks aboard a Sunderland flying boat.
|"Singapore. Black smoke billows into the air from a timber yard ablaze after a Japanese air attack." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/29).|
|"Singapore. Neither the cattle nor their attendant seem in the least perturbed by smoke billowing from a nearby blaze, the result of a Japanese air raid." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/30).|
|Singapore. Singapore firefighters quelling a fire with their water hoses after a bombing raid by the Japanese. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/27).|
|Hong Kong News, 31 January 1942.|
|"OHORE, MALAYA. 1942-01-31. JAPANESE TROOPS CROUCH LOW IN THE STREET DURING THE FINAL STAGES OF THEIR INVASION OF THE MALAYAN PENINSULA WHICH CULMINATED IN THE SURRENDER OF ALL BRITISH FORCES, AND THE OCCUPATION OF THE BRITISH NAVAL BASE ON SINGAPORE ISLAND." Australian War Memorial 127900.|
The Attack on SingaporeThe defense of Singapore itself began with the British demolition of the causeway to Johore, the only land connection, at 08:00 on 31 January 1942. The British had about 85,000 defenders on Singapore, outnumbering the Japanese force of about 40,000 men. However, many of the British personnel were either tired veterans of the lost Malayan Campaign or new arrivals without experience or adequate weapons. Many were service troops or bureaucrats who were of no help in a crisis. The Japanese troops quickly closed up to the shoreline, and the two sides faced each other across the Straits of Johor. Japanese bombers mounted daily raids on the island, particularly the port area. The day of reckoning had arrived.
|"Singapore. Smoke rises from a demolished building on Rochor Canal Road (note the fallen signpost) after the air attack by the Japanese. A burnt-out vehicle lies on its side in front of the ruins of the wrecked building." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/31).|
|The 1 February 1942 Sunday News in New York shows the situation in Singapore, which has captured world attention.|
|"Kepper Harbour, Singapore. 2 February 1942. Men of HMAS Hobart returning electric sewing machines in wooden crates that they had found in a godown (storage shed where incoming merchant goods were stored after unloading), just before the fall of Singapore. Approximately fifty sailors were placed under guard on the quarterdeck by the gunnery officer before Captain H. Howden returned to the ship from the dockyard and ordered the sailors to return the machines to the godown. However, some machines were brought back to the ship with a lot of other selected material. The Captain returned to the ship with a car and the dockyard crest, both of which were shipped back to Australia. (Donor M. Williams)" Australian War Memorial P02497.026.|
|"Singapore. Two women sit on the street among rubble and debris wailing and crying, showing their grief for the small child whose dead body lies nearby in front of a damaged rickshaw after a Japanese air attack." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/22).|
|The Evening Leader of 4 February 1942 almost gets it right - but the reality is that Japanese guns are shelling British troops in Singapore, too.|
|Empress of Asia on fire and sinking, port view, 5 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial P01604.001).|
|General Tomoyuki Yamashita.|
6 February 1942. Yamashita summoned his officers to his headquarters in the palace and gave them the plan of attack. He planned a feint in the northeast on the night of 7 February, when he would have the ceremonial Imperial Guards Division take Palau Ubin Island opposite Chang in the northeast of Singapore. The real attack would begin on February 8th, when the 5th and 18th Divisions would mount the main invasion in northwest Singapore. The more perceptive British strategists in Singapore, such as British chief engineer Brigadier Ivan Simson, anticipated this plan and warned General Percival that the danger lay in the northwest. Percival, however, remained convinced that the attack would occur in the east because it provided a more direct route to the heart of Singapore.
|Japanese troops crossing the Singapore Strait to invade Singapore ca. 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial 129751).|
|The Battle for Singapore began on 8 February 1942, when the Japanese landed on the shores of Sarimbun Beach, Singapore.|
8 February 1942 and then commenced the invasion of the northwest section of Singapore Island. This took place at Lim Chu Kang beginning at 20:30. The Japanese troops of the 5th and 18th Divisions landed at Sarimbun Beach, which was defended by just three battalions the Australian 22nd Brigade. The Japanese gradually expanded their foothold after dark, eventually landing 4000 troops. By midnight, the Japanese invaders had total local ascendancy. The overwhelmed Australian units, separated by the rivers and swamps, already had lost communication with each other and were in full retreat.
9 February 1942. This forced the defending Australian soldiers of the 22nd Brigade back into the interior of the island. The three Australian battalions that had been defending this sector in northwest Singapore were overwhelmed as the Japanese continue pouring troops across the Strait. The Japanese quickly advanced out of their bridgehead and pursued the retreating Australians through several large estates. A fierce battle erupted around the abandoned Tengah Airfield, with the defending Australian troops losing hundreds of men killed and hundreds more wounded. After dark, the British sent three British Fairmile B motor launches on a dangerous raid through the Straits of Johor to disrupt the Japanese communications to the troops at Sarim. This small-scale attack succeeded beyond all expectations, destroying some landing craft and returning intact to base. However, the Japanese already had a firm grip on the northwest shore of Singapore Island.
|The 9 February 1942 Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal correctly and quickly reports that the Japanese have invaded Singapore Island.|
|Japanese troops during the Battle of Bukit Timah, 10 February 1942. That is a Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank.|
|The Koneo Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army under lieutenant-general Nishimura crossing the Johor Causeway into Singapore after completing repairs, February 1942. (Image from National Archives of Singapore).|
I think you ought to realize the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the CIGS [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 [sic] 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 honor 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. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.While Churchill somewhat overstated the number of Allied troops in Singapore, he was generally correct that the British outnumbered the Japanese. However, the Japanese troops were battle-hardened, disciplined troops who could reflect upon a record of victories down the length of the Malay Peninsula. A large proportion of the British were service troops, bureaucrats, and unarmed troops (thanks to Japanese sinkings of supply ships). They also, of course, were victims of poor leadership and an extremely difficult defensive posture with many areas of vulnerability and little air support.
11 February 1942, things on the ground were only going from bad to worse for the Allies. The British command was confused and its troops overwhelmed as the Japanese advanced further into the center of Singapore Island. At 03:00, the Japanese 18th Division destroyed the Australian "X" battalion west of Bukit Timah and continued through the village. The Japanese 5th Division also took Bukit Panjang. The Australian 22nd Brigade, which has been fighting a harrowing rearguard action all the way from the beaches, now was virtually out of action due to massive losses.
|Overall map of fighting on Singapore during 11 February 1942. The fighting around Bukhit Timah is in the lower center.|
|The San Bernardino, California, Daily Sun correctly predicts the future, 11 February 1942.|
|Indian troops arriving in Singapore, November 1941. Many of these troops would fight gallantly in defense of Singapore, and some would later defect to the Japanese. © IWM (FE 218).|
|The Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel-News, 13 February 1942, puts "Singapore Holds" as its main headline.|
|The Malay Regiment at bayonet practice, October 1941. They are a key part of British defenses around the city of Singapore on 13 February 1942. © IWM (FE 414).|
|Japanese bicycle troops advancing toward Singapore.|
|The effects of a Japanese air raid on Singapore, 17 February 1942.Australian War Memorial 011601.|
|Children being evacuated from Singapore.|
|Japanese soldiers in Singapore after its fall.|
[It is] wrong to enforce needless slaughter... I give you discretion to cease resistance...Whatever happens, I thank you for gallant efforts of the last few days.Regardless of what Percival wanted to do, his hands were effectively tied by the fact that the Japanese had captured the city's reservoirs. Brigadier Ivan Simson reported that the city only had enough water left for 48 hours. Percival bravely responded, "While there's water, we fight on." However, the end now was in sight.
|General Percival (right) leads the surrender parley on 15 February 1942 (Daily Mail).|
The British Surrender SingaporeAt about 19:00 local time on 15 February 1942, the British in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese 25th Army. The two sides agreed to suspend hostilities at 20:30. General Arthur Percival justified the surrender based on shortages of water, food, oil, and ammunition. According to contemporaneous estimates in London, approximately 55,000-60,000 British and Imperial Troops (including many Indian and Australian formations) went into captivity (more recent estimates are higher, at about 85,000). Many small ships remained in port and were lost to the Japanese, including 296-ton Siushan, 65-ton Mersing, and a requisitioned yacht, Silvia. The Japanese also came into possession of several larger ships, including 254-ton freighter Rhu. This began a long and oppressive Japanese occupation of Singapore.
|Putting a brave face on events in Singapore, the media notes the "desperate attempt to break the stern spirit of the defenders." The People, Sunday 15 February 1942.|
|General Yamashita at the surrender of the British garrison of Singapore on 15 February 1942.|
|The British surrender Singapore on 15 February 1942. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival the British commander, is the tall figure just behind the white flag surrounded by Japanese soldiers.|
|Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tanks parading through Singapore, February 1942.|
Sunday afternoon the news of Singapore's capitulation came to a great many people as a tremendous shock. I had talked with the President and he said resignedly that, of course, we had expected it, but I know a great many people did not. Perhaps it is good for us to have to face disaster, because we have been so optimistic and almost arrogant in our expectation of constant success. Now we shall have to find within us the courage to meet defeat and fight right on to victory.At this point, the Japanese appeared unstoppable. This encouraged some of their less disciplined troops to engage in predatory actions. The Japanese occupation of Singapore led to mass liquidations of local Chinese citizens by the Japanese in the Sook Ching Massacre. These massacres had repercussions for decades and their effect lingers on. The fall of Singapore may not have been the nadir of Allied military fortunes during World War II, but it was the emotional low point.
|The interior of the Selarang Prisoner-of-War (POW) Camp, taken by an Australian POW, dating 1942. (Image from National Archives of Singapore).|
ConclusionSingapore was never as strong of a military bastion as British propaganda made it out to be. Instead, Singapore was a military backwater and treated as such. Second-rate commanders were sent to defend an inadequately fortified naval base which resembled a fortress only in the wistful dreams of slogan-writers. Unknown numbers of people perished both during the battle, as they attempted to flee, and afterward in mass executions because of faulty military planning and execution. The major lesson of the fall of Singapore in 1942 is that if you are going to call something a fortress, you had better actually make it a fortress or you will regret it.