The Fall of Singapore

In December 1941 after four days in Cape Town troops of the 18th Division heard of the loss of 'Repulse' and the 'Prince of Wales' and were told that their destination had been altered.

On the 29th December the 'Mount Vernon' (carrying the 53rd Brigade) was ordered to leave the convoy and escorted by the 'Emerald' and later 'HMS Exeter', she went first to Mombasa and then onto Singapore, arriving on January 13th 1942. The troops disembarked and spent 2 days on the racecourse and then crossed the causeway and on to Batu-Phat, where they confronted the Japanese for the first time. They were ordered to withdraw as far as Pontis Ketchik, and then got the order "every man for himself" - all in all about 400 or so reached Singapore.

Meanwhile the 54th and 55th Brigades were sent on to Bombay and then to Ahmednager, The bulk of the 18th Division was still in India as at the time a debate was going on in England. Churchill was all for leaving them there, training them up for 'jungle fighting' and then sending them to Burma.

However the final decision was left to General Wavell who then made a fatal decision, even though Singapore was all but lost, he decided to send the 18th Division, who were still in Bombay, to Singapore. The ill fated troops boarded the same vessels which had carried them there - the 'U.S West Point' and the 'U.S Wakefield' and were taken to Singapore (still with their Middle East equipment). They arrived on January 29th 1941 into chaotic conditions reminiscent of the German Blitz on the East End of London. They disembarked, but Senior Officers were told on the dock side that they had arrived much too late to save Singapore. Confusion followed confusion and it was realised that even if the newly arrived troops had arrived in time to halt the invading Japanese, much of their equipment - Lorries, Bren-gun carriers, anti-tank weapons and even rifles were not with them, but had been sent to Java and Sumatra. Infantry men without arms were of little use in defending Singapore.

In the meantime, the Japanese Army were now well into Johor with British, Australian and Indian troops falling back all the time. London had no option but to consider the strongest defence line to protect Singapore - they choose the causeway at Johor, the southern most section of Malaya, overlooking the channel to Singapore Island. As retreating troops streamed back across the concrete causeway into Singapore, they blew up the railway line and the road behind them, but even this was poorly accomplished. At low tide the water was a few feet deep thus enabling the advancing Japanese troops to wade across with little resistance.

Finally on February 8th 1942 the attack reached Singapore itself. The imminent fall of Singapore caused panic among the remaining population who all wanted to get away at the same time only to find that there were not enough ships available. Some got safely away, others boarded ships which were subsequently torpedoed by Japanese Naval Ships resulting in a large number of casualties.

There was a debate between General Percival and senior officers and it was decided that the 18th Division would meet the Japanese onslaught, but where would it come from? Percival had his way and the 18th were deployed around Seletar in the North East but, when the attack came, it came from the North West.

There was no British Intelligence network in Singapore at this time and the liaison between the Army and the civil authorities was almost non-existent. During the first raids over Singapore, the city lights were still full on because no one had discussed the possibility of air attacks and blackout procedures were unheard of. Civilians still refused to believe that the Japanese were 'knocking on their back door'. On the eve of the surrender, it was reported that a British Officer was told he needed permission from the golf club committee before he could mount guns on the golf course.

On the morning of the 15th February, in an underground bunker room at Fort Canning, Percival had to face the most crucial decision of any military commander in modern British history. With him were half a dozen officers all with pale tired faces. Should they fight on or should they surrender? Could they hang on, hoping reinforcements would arrive by sea? However the Japanese now controlled the air, sea and land. Many, many soldiers had given up hope of any relief, were separated from their Regiments and fighting their own way out. They had no leadership, nowhere to go and no hope of any possible victory. There had been too many mistakes, too many excuses, confidence in their superiors had evaporated - the moral situation could not have been worse. Senior officials present on that bleak morning gave Percival their individual reports on petrol, ammunition, water and food, no one had words of comfort.

Even as they discussed their perilous situation, a message was received from General Wavell, urging Percival to fight on. Wavell had left Singapore by ship on 11th February for Java, where a large number of RAF had also gone. Percival decided to seek terms of surrender.

A car was detailed to take three men to the Japanese headquarters outside Bukit Timah. They were Major General Newbiggin, Captain Wilde (later to become Colonel Wilde) and the secretary to the Governor of Malaya, Sir Shenton Thomas. They carried a white flag. A message was sent to the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita: he replied that he accepted their surrender and would meet with them at 18.00 hours.

The officers had hoped that Japanese ambassadors would now arrive to discuss a ceasefire. But Yamashita had other ideas. He was determined to extract the maximum publicity from his victory and inflict the maximum humiliation on the defeated leader, General Percival.

The British had created Singapore from nothing, from a swampland teeming with mosquitoes to one of the world's richest commercial cities and built the world's greatest naval base. Yamashita relished the chance to humiliate the British and make them bow down to a nation who were smaller physically, poorer and fewer in numbers.
Percival was under the impression that Yamashita had five and probably six divisions available for their attack on Singapore. He had calculated that Yamashita must have about 100,000 troops against him - in fact it was only a third of this number. General Yamashita was later to describe the situation thus:

"My attack on Singapore was a bluff - a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered by more than three to one. I knew if I had to fight long for Singapore, then I would be beaten. That was why the surrender had to be arranged at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting. When the message came of the enemy surrender, I was very cautious, I was afraid it was a trick"

Yamashita did not know that Percival's intelligence about the Japanese was so poor it could virtually be discounted.

The Unconditional Surrender of Singapore

The place where General Percival and Yamashita met was the Ford factory at Bukit Timah which had been heavily bombed and was partly in ruins. The light was drawing in by the time the two commanders met face to face, sitting opposite each other at a long table. Each had four or five officers with him. Even in the now shadowed room, Yamashita could see that Percival was very pale and his hands were shaking. Percival wanted to discuss terms for a ceasefire. Yamashita wanted an unconditional surrender, he wanted a straight conclusion - either a Yes or No. An obviously distraught Percival (as captured on film) agreed to the demand for unconditional surrender.

Yamashita later spoke of the surrender meeting:

"I realise now that the British Army had about 100,000 men against my three divisions of 30,000 men. They also had many more bullets and other munitions than I had. I did not know how long we could carry on with our munitions very low. I was preparing for an all-out last attack when their surrender offer came, it was a great surprise. In my heart, I was afraid that they would discover that our forces were much less than theirs and that was why I decided I must use all means to make them surrender without terms"

There is no doubt that General Percival vastly overestimated the size of the enemy opposing him. These estimates clearly reveal his attitude towards an enemy whom he obviously regarded as numerically overwhelming and unbeatable. In reality there were few plans and no preparations at all to thwart landings or block enemy advances or to protect the naval base from landward attack. That surely is the real tragedy of what Churchill considered to be our 'greatest defeat in history', which the loss of the Singapore naval base undoubtedly was.

Singapore was not the unconquerable fortress it was claimed to be, simply because Government officials closed their eyes to the loopholes in the defences and failed to recognise that more protection was needed. When it finally fell, to a Japanese army of lesser numbers, perhaps the loss of face was even greater than the loss of Singapore itself, as the loss of this influential territory and its vast, important Naval base, which took years to build, brought to an end British prestige and reputation throughout the Far East..

There has never been an official enquiry into why Singapore was lost so quickly and so easily. The entire campaign had lasted just 70 days. 70 days to advance down through Malaya and walk in through Singapore's back door with little opposition. No Royal Commission was set up after the war to investigate the greatest disaster that the British Military Forces had ever recorded in its entire history. It was generally considered, in the years following the war, that the reason successive Governments failed to appoint a Commission or to recognise what was considered to be an avoidable tragedy, may stem from the fact that so much of the tragedy was due to the High Command in London, who had not appreciated the danger signs and ultimately failed to supply the much needed aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, tanks and so on, all of which had been requested in the tactical appreciation carried out by local Commanders in the 1940's and agreed by the Chiefs of Staff as necessary.

Brigadier Ivan Simson - formerly Chief Engineer, Malaya Command, wrote an excellent record of events on the spot. He brought to light the lack of morale and leadership and what could have been done with the resources already to hand. Any blame for the badly organised strategic campaign should be laid just as much at the doors of the authorities in London as on the local commanders and civil servants.

The Government pleaded that an attack coming from the north, through the jungles of Malaya, was never considered a possibility, but it is inconceivable that this should be accepted as a valid excuse. The probability of this happening was fully reported and discussed by General Dobbie as far back as 1938 and the tactical appreciation drawn up by the local commanders in 1940 was based on this thesis.

There is yet another burning issue that has never been answered. Who should have been accountable for the fate that befell a whole Division who were sent to the wrong place at the wrong time? The 18th Division had been a pawn the Government used as a last effort to try and rectify the many mistakes they had created - it didn't work. The 18th Division having been diverted to a lost cause were ill equipped for jungle warfare and their presence in Singapore had made no difference to the relentless advancing Japanese Army.

The stark reality is that thousands of men were sacrificed in a last futile attempt by the Government and Army officials to crawl out of the huge blunder they had created. Two weeks after landing on the docks at Singapore, thousands of men from the 18th Division were ordered to surrender, these thousands of men became Prisoners of War and thousands of them died as a result from starvation, barbaric conditions and untreated tropical diseases.

So how is this disastrous chapter in our military records going to be explained in the future pages of our history books. Who was to blame? Who should the finger be pointed at for the incompetence that resulted, not only in the defeat of Singapore, but, ultimately, in the deaths of thousands of British servicemen whose lives were surrendered to a savage, uncivilised, inhuman race?

Who was responsible for the troops having to retreat down through Malaya? Most of the blame has to be laid squarely on the heads of the politicians back in London who refused point blank to supply the necessary funds that would strengthen Malaya's defence. This refusal was boosted by their belief that the Japanese could never come down through Malaya and attack Singapore by the back door. How very wrong they were!

The lack of any official enquiry means that no one was ever found guilty for a series of blunders committed by Government and Army officials. True to form, they buried their heads in the sand and pretended it had nothing to do with them. Their heads have stayed in the sand ever since, refusing to admit, to this day, that they were responsible for a catalogue of disastrous events and, ultimately, for the fate of the men who became the Far East Prisoners of War

General Tomoyuki Yamashita was put on trial in Manila as a war criminal on October 29th 1945, two months after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. He was found guilty of war crimes and executed. Yamashita was hung at 3.27am on the morning of 23rd February 1946 at Manila Luzon Island.

Extracts for the above account of Singapore have been taken from the following books:
'Singapore - The Battle That Changed the World' by James Leasor
'Singapore - Too Little, Too Late' by Ivan Simson
'A Soldier Must Hang' by John Deane Potter
Also the memoirs of Alfred R Robinson 1st Btn Cambridgeshire Regt. (Suffolk Regiment) Father/Grandfather of COFEPOW members Lesley and Sally Sinclair

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