Singapore, February 1942: the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history

Colonel Ronnie McCrum takes a critical look at a battle that was lost before the war began.


The Japanese attack on Malaya was only one in a series of massive and co-ordinated surprise attacks around the Pacific Rim. Simultaneously, Japanese forces assaulted the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Wake Island, and, most infamously, Pearl Harbor – objectives spanning over 3,000 miles.

The date was 8 December 1941 (or 7 December at Pearl Harbor, for Hawaii lies east of the International Date Line): a day which President Roosevelt said ‘would live in infamy’.

Left Japanese soldiers escort a British prisoner through the jungle.
Japanese soldiers escort a British prisoner through the jungle.

Just 70 days after the first Japanese landings in north Malaya, on 15 February 1942, Singapore surrendered. Churchill declared the fall of Singapore to be ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.

It was to have a profound and permanent effect on British prestige and authority, not only in the Far East but throughout the world. Never again would Britain be able to command the respect and display the confidence of a benevolent power. More immediately, at such a critical time in the war, the disaster meant loss of valuable territories rich in minerals and natural resources, essential for the conduct of war.

Mismanagement and procrastination

It is commonly assumed that Singapore was lost because the Japanese assault on the island occurred suddenly and from an unexpected direction. When it came to defence, the fortifications of the ‘impregnable fortress’ – as Singapore was described – were so constructed that they faced the wrong way.

The bald facts, however, are as follows: the general direction of the Japanese attack was correctly anticipated; the very beaches on the north-east coast of the Malay Peninsula on which they landed had been identified; and even the date of the invasion was predicted.

The failure of the defence of Singapore was not a matter of surprise and unpreparedness, but instead a catalogue of civil and military mismanagement and procrastination. Critical military equipment for all three services was lacking. Untrained raw recruits were euphemistically described and deployed as ‘infantry divisions’. Top military and civil leaders were incompetent. Defensive tactics were bereft of both determination and originality.

Above Governor Shenton Thomas and C-in-C Arthur Percival took the view that putting the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore into a defensible state would be bad for civilian morale. An extraordinary imperial hubris seems to have gripped the upper echelons of British leadership in the Far East.
Governor Shenton Thomas and C-in-C Arthur Percival took the view that putting the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Singapore into a defensible state would be bad for civilian morale. An extraordinary imperial hubris seems to have gripped the upper echelons of British leadership in the Far East.

It is, even so, bewildering that the Japanese decided – coldly, deliberately, simultaneously – to attack the formidable Western powers, the USA, the UK, and the Netherlands. They had, of course, serious economic motives for doing so: they needed the rich mineral wealth of South East Asia. But, as later became apparent, their audacious and impressive strategic planning did not extend to post-campaign responsibility and administration in the territories won. Nor do they appear to have considered the prospect of having to defend themselves and their acquisitions against the onslaught of the giant they had aroused.

Warning signs

The indications of Japanese ambition in South East Asia were distressingly obvious. By the middle of 1941, Japan had greatly expanded her territorial possessions, having occupied Hainan, Formosa, and Indo-China (Vietnam), and openly declared her intention of forming a ‘South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ – by force if necessary.

Allied intelligence sources were reporting an increase in Japanese agents in southern Thailand, and a build-up of manpower, resources, and aircraft in southern Indo-China. Moreover, the British Ambassador to Tokyo was cabling his strong belief that the behaviour of the Japanese authorities, supported by other information he had acquired, indicated a pre-emptive strike in South East Asia.

By this time, the Japanese armed forces had been significantly enlarged, the great majority of its men being well equipped and battle-experienced. In addition to its army in China, Japan had bases in southern East Asia, and now stood poised to fulfil its brazenly proclaimed expansionist designs. Malaya, in particular Singapore, was a crucial objective.

As early as 1937, Colonel Arthur Percival, then a general staff officer to the GOC, had – on the general’s instruction – written an appreciation of a possible Japanese attack on Malaya. His conclusions were prescient, in that he identified not only the beaches on which the Japanese actually landed, but also the axes along which they advanced down the Malay Peninsula.

A sentry box without a sentry

When Percival returned to Malaya in May 1940, himself now GOC, he found that while his earlier predictions were the basis of the defensive plan, both the military and the country were in a state of alarming unpreparedness. The naval base in Singapore, whose protection and defence was the very raison d’être for defending Malaya, was almost empty. There was no credible naval force in the region. And with war raging in home waters, there was little likelihood of a deterrent naval force being despatched to assist. Singapore naval base was, as some observed, ‘a sentry box without a sentry’.

Above Map showing the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula and assault on Singapore between 8
Map showing the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula and assault on Singapore between 8

The RAF had been appealing for a sizeable increase in front-line aircraft, because the intended strategy, based on Percival’s findings, was the destruction of an invading force at sea before it could land. The chiefs of staff in London, while agreeing the strategy, haggled over the number of aircraft needed for the task, settling on 336 in place of the 566 requested. But in the event, none of these arrived before the Japanese invaded. Instead, on station in December 1941, there were 158 obsolete and obsolescent aircraft of various categories.

The Army was seriously short of manpower for the large area they were expected to defend, though efforts were underway to increase the size of the garrison. The reinforcements, however, were young recruits from India, some as young as 17 and barely out of training. There were no armoured units and a pitifully small number of artillery pieces. Churchill was aware of the deficiencies, but nevertheless made the decision, quite rightly, that the security of Britain was paramount, followed by the Middle Eastern theatre. Perhaps more questionable was his insistence that matériel support for Russia should take priority over that for the Far East.

Cumbersome command

Percival also found a cumbersome and complex command arrangement in place. There were two C-in-Cs: a recently re-enlisted elderly senior air force officer Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, who was in nominal charge of the Army and the RAF; and Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, given the title C-in-C China Station, who was in charge of the non-existent fleet.

Then there was the Governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, responsible for the governance of Malaya and Singapore. He also chaired the combined civil-military War Committee. The committee was a fractious assembly in which a number of senior civil servants responded irritably to the intrusion of military demands on their administration of the country. On a number of occasions, they rejected military deployment plans, particularly if they conflicted with the Colonial Office directive to prioritise the production of rubber and tin. The Governor, moreover, considered open preparation of defensive positions to be bad for morale.

The Japanese invasion fleet was spotted in the South China Sea off Cape Cambodia on the 6 December 1941 by an RAAF reconnaissance aircraft. It was heading towards southern Thailand. But of course there was no air strike force to attack it.

Left top to bottom 1. A Kate torpedo-bomber the Japanese air force won supremacy in the sky early in the Malaya campaign. 2. Japanese light tanks and infantry at the northern end of the causeway leading to Singapore island. 3. Japanese infantry attack along a street in Singapore. 4. Japanese infantry advancing behind light tanks in the outskirts of Singapore. Right top to bottom 1. A knocked-out Japanese tank with dead crew. 2. Collateral damage: a Singaporean mother grieves over the body of her dead child, killed in a Japanese air raid.
A Kate torpedo-bomber the Japanese air force won supremacy in the sky early in the Malaya campaign.

Alternative contingency plans had been prepared (Operation Matador). A division-sized group was to launch a pre-emptive strike into southern Thailand to occupy likely landing beaches once the approach of an invasion fleet had been confirmed.

Japanese light tanks and infantry at the northern end of the causeway leading to Singapore island.

But Popham now hesitated: he wanted to be certain of the Japanese destination before violating neutral territory. The opportunity was lost, and at midnight on 7/8 December, the Japanese landed unopposed in south-eastern Thailand, close to the Malay border. And at Kohu Bahru, in north-eastern Malaya, they quickly overcame weak British resistance. They had gained the initiative and would never lose it.

The Battle of Jitra

The unsatisfactory strategic plan Percival inherited, and could do little about, compelled him to disperse his forces to protect airfields in the coastal regions on either side of the central jungle-covered massif of the Malay Peninsula.

From coast to coast, road and rail links were few and of low-grade. Additionally, he had to leave in position troops for the defence of the pompously described ‘fortresses’ of Singapore and Penang. His meagre manpower resources were therefore scattered over large distances, with intractable terrain and a primitive transport network between them, effectively precluding any chance of rapid redeployment.

Japanese infantry attack along a street in Singapore.

These restraints forced him to give 11th Indian Division the dual conflicting roles of preparing to execute Operation Matador or, if Matador was not agreed, deploying to Jitra to defend the area around the important airfield at Alor Star in north-eastern Malaya. Faced with this, the division, not surprisingly, failed to prepare properly for either.

The majority of the division was entrained ready to move into Thailand, together with its defensive stores. But these same stores were needed for the preparation of the defensive site at Jitra. When Matador was cancelled, the division barely had barely time to redeploy, and certainly no time to prepare an adequate defensive position, before the Japanese were upon them.

Japanese infantry advancing behind light tanks in the outskirts of Singapore

These exhausted, wet, and raw troops, some of whom had never seen a tank, now confronted a rapidly advancing, battle-hardened Japanese force that was supported by armour. The ensuing battle was swift and brutal. The Jitra position was quickly overrun, with the Japanese employing a tactic which was to be a feature of their remorseless advance down peninsular Malaya: that of attacking the main defensive position frontally, while at the same time sending supporting columns around the flanks to encircle the position, cut the lines of communication and withdrawal routes, and fall upon the defenders from the rear.

Two decisive days

The next two days of the war, following the loss of the Jitra position and the mauling of the 11th Division, sealed the fate of the British forces. The RAF had deployed nearly its full complement of available combat aircraft to the northern airfields, and quickly learnt that its ancient Buffalo Brewsters, Blenheims, and Hudsons were no match for the Japanese Zeros, torpedo-bombers, and sheer numbers of enemy aircraft. By the evening of the 10 December, British aircraft losses were so severe that Allied airpower had been virtually eliminated from the struggle.

On this same black day, two capital ships, pride of the fleet, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser HMS Repulse, sent out hurriedly from Britain at the last moment, were at the bottom of the China Sea. They had attempted – bravely or foolishly – to interpose against the Japanese landings in north-east Malaya without air cover. They were attacked and sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers.

A knocked-out Japanese tank with dead crew.

The Japanese advanced simultaneously on three axes, each a division strong, reinforced by light tanks, supporting units, and air cover. Two divisions traversed, in parallel, the Isthmus of Kra, to the west coast of Malaya, which was to be their main thrust. The third division began its advance down the east coast, from Kota Bahru, following the line of the East Coast Railway, towards Kuantan.

The two west-coast columns converged or separated according to the terrain, the roads, and the rivers along their routes. On both coasts, the Japanese also employed amphibious ‘leap-frogging’ manoeuvres, inserting forces at points along the coast in the rear of the British positions.

The Japanese advance

On the east coast, the Japanese made rapid progress because of the scarcity of forces to resist them. Even so, at various points on both axes, the Japanese momentum was, at times, temporarily checked and heavy fighting took its toll in casualties on both sides. The Japanese, however, were able to replace their losses with fresh, trained manpower; the British had no uncommitted reserves on hand.

Collateral damage: a Singaporean mother grieves over the body of her dead child, killed in a Japanese air raid.

The advancing enemy maintained pressure at every contact. Fighting went on day and night. There was no relaxation. But the Japanese were able to rotate their front-line troops with rested units from the rear. The individual soldiers were determined and courageous, forcing their way through swamp and jungle, and using every means of transport, trucks, buses, carts, horses, and thousands of bicycles. The bicycles allowed a silent approach, and were also used to carry rations and reserves of small-arms ammunition.

The Japanese army, under Lieutenant-General Yamashita, was a highly disciplined and motivated force. It was inspired by the militarist ideology of Japan’s ruling warlord elite – an ideology underwritten by state religion and emperor-worship, and one which demanded levels of self-sacrifice without parallel anywhere in the world at the time.

Lieutenant-General Percival’s army, on the other the hand, comprised an international medley from places as far apart as Britain, Australia, Malaya, Burma, and British India; one that fought under leaders divided by differences of nationality, language, outlook, background, and political allegiance (not to mention dietary differences).

The British force, moreover, was armed and equipped for a campaign in Western Europe or the Western Desert. Its soldiers relied on wheeled transport for supply, which tied them to roads and tracks, and made them dependent on a flow of fuel and oil: a logistical nightmare. The main roads became vital supply-routes, choked with endless columns of slow-moving trucks, obstructed by abandoned equipment and columns of refugees.

The end-game

The end of empire: Britain’s Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival (centre of table, nearside) faces Japan’s Lieutenant-General Yamashita (left arm raised across his chest) at the ceremony that marked the surrender of Singapore.

The British retreat down the Malay Peninsula was relentless. There was no determined, sustained resistance, even on the rare occasion where the terrain favoured defence. The morale of the British forces was shattered by the experience. Often, the retreating soldiers went without food or sleep for days, and they stumbled onwards in a state of exhaustion. Most unit records tell of hurriedly prepared and incomplete defensive positions, hardly occupied before it was time to move on; of finding Japanese behind them as well as to the front; of total lack of air support.

By the end of January 1942, Malaya was in the hands of the Japanese. What remained of the British forces withdrew to the island of Singapore in a state of disorder, exhausted, dispirited, and in many cases without weapons and equipment which had been abandoned in the hurried and harried retreat.

Above Percival leads the surrender party into Japanese lines on 15 February 1942. Churchill was stunned. The world had been turned upside down. An Oriental army had defeated the British Empire. Right Japanese troops celebrate the
Percival leads the surrender party into Japanese lines on 15 February 1942. Churchill was stunned. The world had been turned upside down. An Oriental army had defeated the British Empire.

On the much vaunted island-fortress, the army found no prepared fortifications to offer protection behind which they could recover. Percival, like the governor, had long refused to countenance such preparations on the grounds that ‘building defences in rearward areas was bad for morale of the troops and civilians alike’.

On 8 February, the Imperial Japanese Army launched an amphibious attack across the 1,000-yard Straits of Johore towards the north-west coast of Singapore island, and fell upon the weakened defenders.

With their morale shattered and virtually nothing behind which to mount resistance, the Australians, whose sector faced the main assault, quickly collapsed. These same Australians, on their first encounter with the Japanese in Johore, had performed most creditably, but by the time they reached Singapore, relentlessly pursued, they had become a mere shadow of the confident force of two weeks previously.

Japanese troops celebrate the capture of Singapore in February 1942.

They would now pay the penalty for slack discipline and over-familiarity between officers and men. Orders were not obeyed. Many deserted the front line and became embroiled in drunken orgies in the city. Even their controversial commander, Major-General Gordon Bennett, was accused of abandoning his men before the end, escaping Singapore ahead of final capitulation.

The inevitable end took only eight days to achieve. On 15 February 1942, just two-and-a-half months after their landing in northern Malaya, the Japanese took possession of one of the jewels of the British Empire.

Photos: © Alamy and WIPL images.