When a substantial British fleet failed to materialize in the Far East in late 1941, it was inevitable that Singapore would fall to a rampaging Japanese force. The Japanese were acutely aware of the state of Singapore’s defence. Its spies had reported that Britain’s “impregnable” fortress in Singapore was undermanned and under-equipped. This would have undoubtedly encouraged the Japanese to attack Singapore.
What went wrong, who was to blame and what would happen next were questions asked at the time? It is a debate that has continued on through to this day. What we do know is that there was a plan, unfortunately its strategy wasn’t carried out adequately enough. (Some blame must be assigned to the British who let their sea supremacy deteriorate.)
The ‘Singapore strategy’ that was twenty years in the making was suppose to check and deter a Japanese force from controlling the far east from India to Australia. The most critical phase of the Singapore strategy was a viable and strong base or fortress situated at Singapore. It was suppose to serve as a ‘launching pad’ for any war fought against the Japanese. However, as all eyes were clearly focused on the theatre of war in Europe and in North Africa, the Japanese made inroads into the Far East. It is not to say that nobody was paying any attention in the Far East, Britain and colonial allies, the Australians, New Zealanders and Indians all had their forces in Singapore, but nowhere near the sufficient numbers required to pose a real threat to Japanese aggression. They would realise soon enough how badly they had underestimated the strength and cunning of the Japanese campaign in the Far East and the Pacific.
Almost simultaneously, as one Japanese fleet attacked Pearl Harbour, a second advanced for northern Malaya. With relative ease and speed the Japanese swallowed strategic ports and islands at will. Japan also had complete control of the air and the sea by December 1941, when it sunk two British battlecruisers operating around Malaya. The stage was now set for the Battle of Singapore in early February 1942.
Over 130,000 allied soldiers made a tactical retreat from the mainland onto the island and had set up a defensive perimeter in key zones, with the Australians largely in the west of the island near the causeway. From an Australian perspective, 17,000 men largely of the Australian 8th Division and the recently arrived 2/4th Machine-Gun Battalion awaited their fate. A few weeks earlier Australian had lost around 700 men fighting on the mainland and carried back with them the sick and wounded. The island was not the “impregnable fortress” that it was meant to be and many troops were shocked by the apparent lack of defences and overall leadership needed if the situation was to be salvaged. When an Australian night patrol had discovered hidden amphibious assault boats and a large contingent of Japanese troops leading up to the main attack on the 8th, it had reported it to high command requesting that they shell the area to stop or delay the Japanese attack. British Lieutenant-General Percival refused the request, believing that an attack would not be made from the west but the north east of the island. (This was one of many blunders made by Percival during the campaign.)
Sure enough after five consecutive days of bombardment by artillery shells and air raids, the Japanese attacked on the 8th February on Australian positions in the north west of the island.
In the chaos of the late evening of the 8th, the Japanese made their way through undefended sections of the Australian lines. With communication lines cut, the Australians couldn’t signal the British to use their spotlights to aid finding the fast moving, mobile Japanese force. A day later a second Japanese landing force struck between the causeway and the Kranji River and by the morning of the 10th the entire northwest of the island was overrun with Japanese troops.
The Australian, British and Indian troops tried desperately to hold the Japanese. Counter attacks in fierce fighting raged throughout the 10th and 11th did little to help. Thinly spread units including the Australian 22nd Brigade were overrun and the 2/18th Australian Infantry Battalion lost more than half of its troops.
The situation grew grim as the superiority of the Japanese artillery and air war began to take its toll on the allies. The Japanese gamble and bluff to take Singapore was paying off. It is incredible to think that the Japanese were outnumbered three to one, and still managed to drive forward in their attacks and outflank several divisions.
By the 14th and 15th, the allies were forced into a small pocket on the island. About one million civilian also got caught up in the fighting behind the defensive lines of the allies. Ammunition, food and water supplies were also running out. The situation became very dire as the last line of defence was broken through on the morning of the 15th. After some consultation with senior commanders, British Lietenant-General Percival decided to surrender to the Japanese. In the aftermath of the surrender, huge numbers of British and Australian soldiers were taken prisoner and were stationed at Changi prison. (Almost 15,000 of these were Australian troops.) A third of these would die in captivity from disease, starvation and neglect. Many thousands of others were shipped out on transports around Asia, including Japan, to be used as forced labour.
British Lt. Gen. Arthur Pecival is led by a Japanese officer to negotiate the unconditional surrender of allied forces in Singapore on the 15th February 1942.
Japanese soldiers march victorious through Fullerton Square, Singapore.
The Changi prison was intensely overcrowded with Allied POWs. Image above is believed to be Australian prisoners after it was liberated in 1945.
In Australia and New Zealand, after years of reassurances, there was a sense of betrayal. Singapore had fallen in what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. The Fall of Singapore and the Bombing of Darwin four days later would mark the beginning of the end of relations with Great Britain. Australia would look to the United States for help and so began the defence or “The Battle for Australia”. Then Prime Minister, John Curtin would be advised that there was not one single division in the country that could repel a possible Japanese invasion. Immediately, he organized for Australian divisions fighting in the Middle East to come home. Winston Churchill angrily sort to divert the Australian divisions to Burma. However, Curtin to his credit refused and insisted that they come back to Australia. Opinions vary but it is possible to reason that Australia had finally grown up and shaken the grip of its former master. Australia would put its destiny into its own hands and make its own history for the remainder of the Second World War.
The header image shows troops of the ill-fated Australian 8th Division arriving in Singapore on the 15 August 1941.