Friday, February 14, 2020

Why Did Singapore Fall So Quickly?

The Guns Failed, But So Did Everything Else

British surrender Singapore 15 February 1942
Japanese soldiers taking British as prisoners in Singapore, 15 February 1942.
Why did Singapore fall so quickly? The Japanese invaded the island on 8 February 1942 and completed its capture only a week later, on 15 February 1942. That Singapore was fortified to repel an assault from the sea rather than from the land (Johore) is true. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about what happened and why Singapore fell. Let’s go through a few top points about the battle for Singapore without getting bogged down in a long essay about it. Anyway, I’ve already written a long essay about the Battle for Singapore here so feel free to go there for a deeper analysis.

Coastal gun firing at Singapore ca. 1941
"One of Singapore's 15-inch coastal defense guns elevated for firing." © IWM (K 757).
First, most of the Singapore batteries were indeed sited to point toward the sea. The British established their base there in the 19th Century when it was felt that the locals on the Malay Peninsula could be “handled.” The British had a lot of experience “handling” the natives in India, China, and elsewhere. This was done by buying off the local rulers and many other tricks. It was a strategy that worked as long as no major powers were nearby - and there weren’t any until Japan became aggressive in the 1930s. The British failed to adapt to this changed circumstance.

Map of invasion of Singapore on 8 February 1942 and subsequent operations
This map of the IJA 25th Army shows the invasion of Singapore on 8 February 1942. The British expected an attack along the causeway, top center. However, the Japanese only made a feint in that area and made the real invasion further west (the lines to the left). Those troops quickly swept across the island to the city, bottom right. The causeway was captured and restored (the British had destroyed it) late in the battle.
Second, there was one battery of large guns (15-inch naval guns) that could fire northeast across the Singapore Strait. These guns were indeed used during the battle - and accomplished nothing. These batteries had been neglected for a long time and given cast-offs from other locations. One gunner remembered that the ammunition was marked “1898,” as in it was over forty years old.

Palace of the Sultan of Johore ca. 1941 across from Singapore
The Palace of the Sultan of Johore ca. 1941. Japanese Lt. General Tomoyuki Yamashita used the palace as his headquarters because it was the tallest building in Johor Bahru and had a commanding view over the Singapore island. The British refused to shell it for fear of angering the local residents.
Third, there were major problems using these naval guns against the Japanese in Johore aside from their siting. The first is the fact that the British had stockpiled armor-piercing ammunition in anticipation of repelling an attack from the sea from a “civilized” opponent. This type of ammunition was ineffective against forces taking cover in the jungle. The shells exploded harmlessly in the trees and on the ground.

practice firing of coastal gun at Singapore ca 1941
Gun practice in Singapore ca. 1941.
The second major problem with the big guns was that the British imposed strict limitations on using them. They had longstanding ties with the locals in Singapore dating back to their acquisition of the island in 1824. They refused to shell the large former Imperial Palace of the Sultan of Johore on the northern side of the causeway in order not to offend the locals. Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita ostentatiously moved into the Palace and did not try to hide at all, running the battle from there. The British still refrained from shelling it.

Japanese Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank during advance on Singapore 10 February 1942
Japanese troops during the Battle of Bukit Timah, Singapore Island, 10 February 1942. That is a Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank. Even as these tanks were crossing the island and approaching the gates of Singapore City itself, the British failed to recognize the threat and felt that the fact that they simply outnumbered the invaders would make them prevail.
Returning to the main list, fourth, the Japanese unexpectedly invaded the northwestern portion of Singapore. None of the guns covered this area, which was marshy and considered unsuitable for landings. Even as the Japanese were overrunning the island, the British persisted in believing that the main attack would come from the northeast, the location of the causeway. Basically, they were only prepared for an attack from the northeast, so that is what they assumed - this was a habit the Germans fell into late in the war when they had inferior forces, too. So, even the naval guns that could be turned around toward land were completely useless against the actual invasion.

Coastal pillbox on Singapore ca 1941
The few completely inadequate coastal fortifications built by the British before the invasion, such as the pillbox shown here ca. 1941, were not in the northwest area where the Japanese landed.
Fifth, because the British never expected an invasion from the north, they built virtually no defensive fortifications there. As noted, there were no major powers to the north, so it was felt that no fortifications were necessary on the north side of the island. Also, the Malay Peninsula had such a dense jungle that nobody thought a modern army could advance through it. The error of this assumption did not dawn upon the British until the Japanese actually began advancing down the peninsula. Only when the Japanese began breaking through the British lines on the Malay Peninsula were frantic orders issued from London to fortify Singapore’s north coast. The local commanders, as usual, simply asked the locals to help out and build some defenses. The locals promptly went on strike for higher wages. Nothing useful was built.

HMS Prince of Wales in Singapore, 2 December 1941
"HMS 'Prince of Wales', the 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).
Sixth, as to who was responsible for the problem, that blame lay in quite a few areas. The British lavished vast sums of money on building up Singapore but still treated it as a backwater. The whole concept of defending Singapore relied upon having large naval forces there. The Royal Navy had nothing useful in Singapore until only a few days before the Pearl Harbor attack and the invasion of the Malay Peninsula when it rather begrudgingly sent a battleship and a cruiser ("Force Z").

Force Z attacked by Japanese planes near Singapore 10 December 1941
The loss of Force Z under Admiral Tom Phillips on 10 December 1941, shown here under attack, was a death blow for the British defense of Singapore even though it happened over two months earlier (Japanese Navy photo).
These invaluable ships were used quite unwisely in a futile sortie up the Malay coast without air cover (an aircraft carrier was supposed to accompany them to Singapore but pulled out at the last minute). When Admiral Tom Phillips - a back-office guy with little command experience - was lost with his fleet in Japanese air attacks, Singapore was left basically defenseless. Weirdly, the Royal Navy did not even consider sending replacements.

British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival
British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command.
There is a strong tendency to blame British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command, for the loss of Singapore. The British basically ostracized him after the war, and he was not granted a knighthood like many other generals It must be noted that the British had a curious penchant for discriminating between their generals regarding the amount of post-war praise they should receive - Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, accused of unnecessary mass bombing raids, also received some snubs such as the decision not to commemorate him with a statue until long after his death. Percival unquestionably made a series of bad (over-confident) decisions and served as a convenient scapegoat, but he was simply doing his duty as he saw it.

Japanese paratroopers 13 February 1942
Japanese aerial dominance in the region allowed their planes to operate with virtual impunity. Here, Japanese paratroopers drop over Sumatra, Dutch East Indies, 13 February 1942, two days before the fall of Singapore (Japanese Navy photo).
Percival followed standard procedure. He sent the inadequate troops that he had to defend against the Japanese on the Malay Peninsula according to the pre-war Matador Plan. Any commanding officer would have done that. They simply got defeated for a variety of reasons outside of Percival’s control. For instance, the Allies never had adequate air cover and the Japanese rained bombs down upon the troops and Singapore. Once the Japanese were on the shoreline looking across at Singapore, the battle was already lost because, as mentioned, Singapore had no defensive fortifications. So Percival bears his share of the blame, but he was simply dealt a losing hand by poor strategic planning over many years by his bosses in London.

British surrender Singapore 15 February 1942
General Percival (far right) surrenders Singapore on 15 February 1942.


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