On 15 February 1942, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. More than 60,000 British and other Commonwealth and Empire troops surrendered to an Imperial Army force of around 35,000. Winston Churchill, when he heard the news, called it ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.’ And as Sir Max Hastings says: ‘Singapore, as Churchill recognised at the time, was not merely a defeat, it was a humiliation; the notion of this very large and not that badly equipped British army up against a smaller Japanese army being simply being wiped off the floor.’
How could this happen? How could the British be defeated in this way?
Well, the roots of this military disaster lie to a large extent in British complacency about the Japanese threat – a complacency that was born of racism. ‘The [attitude was that the] British were superior to everyone,’ says Anthony Hewitt, a British officer serving in South East Asia at the time, ‘and it was ridiculous for anyone to say that the Japanese were so good – some little nation like Japan couldn’t possibly be better.’
But Hewitt learnt first hand the inaccuracy of this view when he visited Japan himself in the late 1930s. ‘I saw a Japanese force carrying out an exercise and I realized that, from a military point of view, they were very advanced… They had excellent weapons, their soldiers were very highly trained, and they were really outstanding.’ When he returned to Hong Kong, where he was stationed at the time, he reported this news to his superiors, but received the response that he was ‘probably exaggerating the problem.’
This belief that the Japanese were a third rate military power was also expressed by the commander-in-chief of British forces in the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. ‘I had a good close up, across the barbed wire [of the border],’ he wrote in 1940 to the Chief of the Imperial Defence Staff, ‘of various sub-human specimens dressed in dirty grey uniform, which I was informed were Japanese soldiers. If these represent the average of the Japanese army, the problems of their food and accommodation would be simple, but I cannot believe they would form an intelligent fighting force.’i
It was to prove a devastating misjudgement of Japanese capability. The reality was, as Professor Geoffrey Wawro says: ‘The Japanese military had defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, defeated the Chinese in the first Sino-Japanese War and they’d performed credibly in the First World War when they evicted the Germans from a lot of their colonial concessions and archipelagos. They also invested heavily in the army and the navy during the inter-war period, modeling themselves very much on the old Prussians, having a War Minister who was responsible only to the Emperor with no parliamentary oversight. So they built this heavily funded, efficient, motivated army and navy and it had no shortage of funds and equipment.
‘The army and the navy that they took into action in 1941-42 were quite strong. 51 divisions, 1.7 million troops, well armed, well equipped, there was some element of mechanization, there with a decent airforce. And what happens is that they overwhelm these US or Dutch or French or British contingents wherever they find them as they are relatively demoralised and distracted by events in Europe and have had their numbers and equipment drawn down because of the demands of the war in Europe.’
It is easy to understand why the British military and political leaders underestimated the threat from Japan. The direct threat to immediate British interests – and, indeed, to the territory of Great Britain – came from Nazi Germany. And Japan, after all, was on the other side of the world. As a result, British defences in South East Asia had not received priority during the build up to war. The British plan had always been that a strong naval force would act as the prime deterrent to Japanese aggression, rather than extensive land forces. But here too, British arrogance would prove costly.
The tragic symbol of this refusal of the British to take the Japanese seriously as a military power was the sinking on 10 December of two major battleships - HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. These two ships had been dispatched to Singapore in the autumn of 1941 in order to deter the Japanese. But allowing them to sail in hostile waters without adequate air support was a catastrophic error of military judgement, and they were both destroyed by Japanese warplanes. Typically, one Royal Navy officer on HMS Repulse had said the day before the fatal attack, after being told that the Japanese were in the area, ‘Oh, but they’re Japanese. There’s nothing to worry about.’ii
‘They [the Japanese] had been preparing for war in South East Asia since about 1936,’ says Professor Akira Iriye, ‘and so my understanding is that the naval strategic thinking, even before they thought about going against the United States, had been preparing for a war against the British. They must have further refined that when the European war came, and must have planned for an assault on Singapore and prepared for the attack against the British warships if they should come that way.’
On 8 December 1941 – which, because of the time difference with Hawaii, was actually the same day the Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbour – Japanese troops under the command of Lt General Yamashita attacked Malaya. Japanese forces – including units battle-hardened by years of campaigning in China – managed to push the British army back down the Malay Peninsula, with Penang falling to the Japanese on 11 January. By the end of the month the British had retreated across the narrow stretch of water separating Singapore Island from the Malayan mainland.
But the problem now was that Singapore lacked adequate land defences on the northern shore, opposite Malaya. The British assumption had always been that any attack would most likely come from the south or west, against the sea-facing coast of Singapore.
Faced with this unpleasant new military reality, the British commander, Lt-General Arthur Percival, spread his available defence forces across the whole coastline of Singapore. This meant that though Percival’s soldiers outnumbered the attacking Japanese nearly two to one, the Japanese were stronger at their chosen point of attack. And so it proved, with units of Yamashita’s 25th Japanese Imperial Army landing on the north-west coast of Singapore on the night of 8 February 1941.
Just seven days later, on 15 February, Percival surrendered the island of Singapore, and all the inhabitants, to the Japanese invaders. ‘At Singapore the Japanese had a brilliant general and a terrific army up against one of the most incompetent range of commanders that the British army has ever put in the field,’ says Sir Max Hastings. ‘The truth is, I’ve written somewhere rather brutally, that I think if the British, Indian and Australian soldiers who fought in Malaya had had any inkling of the treatment they would receive in Japanese captivity they might have fought a good deal harder. That sounds a rather brutal thing to say but I think it’s true.’
Hastings also believes that that attitude of British forces in Singapore was not unique in the context of the Second World War: ‘The other thing that seems to me pivotal all through the war is that the British in particular convinced themselves that if the other side had air superiority then they were entitled to expect to lose the ground battle.
‘Well, the Germans and the Japanese didn’t think like that in 1944 and 45. When the Allies had overwhelming air superiority the Germans and the Japanese still fought brilliantly, but to this day you still hear people saying, well, how can you possible expect the British army in Malaya to put up much of a show when the Japanese had all those aeroplanes? Well, what’s changed of course is that it’s not very nice being dive bombed by Japanese Zero, but the fact remained that the British army just put up an unbelievably poor performance against a vastly more determined and skilful Japanese enemy. One fundamental problem all through the war, and even British training manuals dwelt on this by '43-'44, was that British forces had this frightful habit that if they found their flanks turned, whether this was in Italy or in North Africa or in Burma, their instinct was, ‘oh well chaps, we’re surrounded, it’s all over and we’d better surrender’. And its not me making this up, Ian Jacobs of the war cabinet secretariat writing in August 1942 from the desert, said that after talking at length to senior officers in Cairo one has to face the fact that again and again British forces were surrendering to inferior numbers of the enemy who, in Jacob’s words, in the First World War ‘would have stuck it out’ and ‘fought it out’.
‘The British Army was just not very good. I was talking the other day to a very distinguished military historian, who also fought with distinction in Italy, and he said to me ‘when I came back from the war I always promised myself that I would never tell anybody just how bad the British army was.’’
As for the Japanese, they reveled in their victory. A Japanese newsreel shows the humiliation of the British forces captured at Singapore, ordered to pay homage to their conqueror – and in the process, reveals the rampant racism that the Japanese possessed themselves: ‘60,000 prisoners were lined up along the road so they could have the honour of seeing the great commander General Yamashita. The prisoners consisted of soldiers from the British mainland, Malaya, Australia, Scotland and India. A parade of mongrel troops.’iii
Altogether the Japanese would capture around 350,000 Allied prisoners during this war. One in four of them would die in Japanese captivity.
i Quoted in John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, Pantheon Books, 1986, p. 99
ii Ibid., p. 101
iii Horror in the East, Episode 1, 'Turning against the West', Laurence Rees (writer and producer), BBC, 2000
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