The British had begun building a naval base at Singapore in 1923, partly in response to Japan's increasing naval power. A costly and unpopular project, construction of the base proceeded slowly until the early 1930s when Japan began moving into Manchuria and northern China. A major component of the base was completed in March 1938, when the King George VI Graving Dock was opened; more than 300 meters in length, it was the largest dry dock in the world at the time. The base, completed in 1941 and defended by artillery, searchlights, and the newly built nearby Tengah Airfield, caused Singapore to be ballyhooed in the press as the "Gibralter of the East." The floating dock, 275 meters long, was the third largest in the world and could hold 60,000 workers. The base also contained dry docks, giant cranes, machine shops; and underground storage for water, fuel, and ammunition.
A self-contained town on the base was built to house 12,000 Asian workers, with cinemas, hospitals, churches, and seventeen soccer fields. Above-ground tanks held enough fuel for the entire British navy for six months. The only thing the giant naval fortress lacked was ships.
The Singapore naval base was built and supplied to sustain a siege long enough to enable Britain's European-based fleet to reach the area. By 1940, however, it was clear that the British fleet and armed forces were fully committed in Europe and the Middle East and could not be spared to deal with a potential threat in Asia. In the first half of 1941, most Singaporeans were unaffected by the war on the other side of the world, as they had been in World War I. The main pressure on the Straits Settlements was the need to produce more rubber and tin for the Allied war effort. Both the colonial government and British military command were for the most part convinced of Singapore's impregnability.
Even by late autumn 1941, most Singaporeans and their leaders remained confident that their island fortress could withstand an attack, which they assumed would come from the south and from the sea. Heavy fifteen-inch guns defended the port and the city, and machine-gun bunkers lined the southern coast. The only local defense forces were the four battalions of Straits Settlements Volunteer Corps and a small civil defense organization with units trained as air raid wardens, fire fighters, medical personnel, and debris removers. Singapore's Asians were not, by and large, recruited into these organizations, mainly because the colonial government doubted their loyalty and capability.
The government also went to great lengths to maintain public calm by making highly optimistic pronouncements and heavily censoring the Singapore newspapers for negative or alarming news. Journalists' reports to the outside world were also carefully censored, and, in late 1941, reports to the British cabinet from colonial officials were still unrealistically optimistic. If Singaporeans were uneasy, they were reassured by the arrival at the naval base of the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle and four destroyers cruiser Repulse, on December 2. The fast and modern Prince of Wales was the pride of the British navy, and the Repulse was a veteran cruiser. Their accompanying aircraft carrier had run aground en route, however, leaving the warships without benefit of air cover (See Historical Development, ch. 5).
The Japanese Malaya Campaign
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese troops of two large convoys, which had sailed from bases in Hainan and southern Indochina, landed at Singora (now Songkhla) and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Baharu in northern Malaya. One of Japan's top generals and some of its best trained and most experienced troops were assigned to the Malaya campaign. By the evening of December 8, 27,000 Japanese troops under the command of General Yamashita Tomoyuki had established a foothold on the peninsula and taken the British air base at Kota Baharu. Meanwhile, Japanese airplanes had begun bombing Singapore. Hoping to intercept any further landings by the Japanese fleet, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse headed north, unaware that all British airbases in northern Malaya were now in Japanese hands. Without air support, the British ships were easy targets for the Japanese air force, which sunk them both on December 10.
The main Japanese force moved quickly to the western side of the peninsula and began sweeping down the single north-south road. The Japanese divisions were equipped with about 18,000 bicycles. Whenever the invaders encountered resistance, they detoured through the forests on bicycles or took to the sea in collapsible boats to outflank the British troops, encircle them, and cut their supply lines. Penang fell on December 18, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, 1942, and Malacca on January 15. The Japanese occupied Johore Baharu on January 31, and the last of the British troops crossed to Singapore, blowing a fifty-meter gap in the causeway behind them.
Singapore faced Japanese air raids almost daily in the latter half of January 1942. Fleeing refugees from the peninsula had doubled the 550,000 population of the beleaguered city. More British and Commonwealth of nations (see Glossary) fleets and armed foces were brought to Singapore during January, but most were poorly trained raw recruits from Australia and India and inexperienced British troops diverted from the war in the Middle East. Singapore's Chinese population, which had heard rumors of the treatment of the Malayan Chinese by the invading Japanese, flocked to volunteer to help repel the impending invasion. Brought together by the common enemy, Guomindang and communist groups banded together to volunteer their services to Governor Shenton Thomas.
The governor authorized the formation of the Chung Kuo Council (China National Council), headed by Tan Kah Kee, under which thousands volunteered to construct defense works and to perform other essential services. The colonial government also reluctantly agreed to the formation of a Singapore Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Battalion, known as Dalforce for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Dalley of the Federated Malay States police force. Dalley put his volunteers through a ten-day crash training course and armed them with basic weapons, including shotguns, knives, and grenades.
From January 1-8, 1942, the two armies faced each other across the Johore Strait. The Japanese stepped up their air raids, bombing the airfields, naval base, and harbor area. Bombs also fell in the commercial and residential sections of the city, causing great destruction and killing and wounding many civilians. With their mastery of the skies, the Japanese could choose the time and place for invasion and maintain an element of surprise. Yamashita, however, had only 30,000 troops and limited ammunition available to launch against a British force of about 70,000 armed personnel. As the General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival commanded the defense of
Singapore under the direction of General Archibald Wavell, the newly appointed commander in chief Far East, who was headquartered in Java. Percival's orders from British prime minister Winston Churchill through Wavell called for defending the city to the death, while executing a scorched-earth policy:
"No surrender can be contemplated . . . . every inch of ground . . . defended, every scrap of material or defences . . . blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy . . . ." Accordingly, the troops set about the task of destroying the naval base, now useless without ships, and building defense works along the northern coast, which lay totally unprotected.
On the night of February 8, using collapsible boats, the Japanese landed under cover of darkness on the northwest coast of Singapore. By dawn, despite determined fighting by Australian troops, they had two divisions with their artillery established on the island. By the next day the Japanese had seized Tengah Airfield and gained control of the causeway, which they repaired in four days. The British forces were plagued by poor communication and coordination, and, despite strong resistance by Commonwealth troops aided by Dalforce and other Chinese irregulars, the Japanese took Bukit Timah - the highest point on the island-on February 11. The British forces fell back to a final perimeter around the city, stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kallang, as Yamashita issued an invitation to the British to surrender. On February 13, the Japanese broke through the final perimeter at Pasir Panjang, putting the whole city within range of their artillery.
As many as 2,000 civilians were killed daily as the Japanese continued to bomb the city by day and shell it at night. Governor Thomas cabled London that "there are now one million people within radius of three miles. Many dead lying in the streets and burial impossible. We are faced with total deprivation of water, which must result in pestilence...." On February 13, Percival cabled Wavell for permission to surrender, hoping to avoid the destruction and carnage that would result from a house-to-house defense of the city. Churchill relented and on February 14 gave permission to surrender. On the evening of February 15, at the Japanese headquarters at the Ford factory in Bukit Timah, Yamashita accepted Percival's unconditional surrender.
The Japanese occupied Singapore from 1942 until 1945. They designated it the capital of Japan's southern region and renamed it Shonan, meaning "Light of the South" in Japanese. All European and Australian prisoners were interned at Changi on the eastern end of the island-the 2,300 civilians at the prison and the more than 15,000 military personnel at nearby Selarang barracks. The 600 Malay and 45,000 Indian troops were assembled by the Japanese and urged to transfer their allegiance to the emperor of Japan. Many refused and were executed, tortured, imprisoned, or sent as forced laborers to Thailand, Sumatra, or New Guinea. Under pressure, about 20,000 Indian troops joined the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army to fight for India's independence from the British.
The Asian civilian population watched with shock as their colonial rulers and supposed protectors were marched off to prison and the Japanese set about establishing their administration and authority. The Chinese were to bear the brunt of the occupation, in retribution for support given by Singapore Chinese to China in its struggle against Japan. All Chinese males from ages eighteen to fifty were required to report to registration camps for screening. The Japanese or military police arrested those alleged to be anti-Japanese, meaning those who were singled out by informers or who were teachers, journalists, intellectuals, or even former servants of the British. Some were imprisoned, but most were executed, and estimates of their number range from 5,000 to 25,000. Many of the leaders of Singapore's anti-Japanese movement had already escaped, however, and the remnants of Dalforce and other Chinese irregular units had fled to the peninsula, where they formed the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army.
The harsh treatment by the Japanese in the early days of the occupation undermined any later efforts to enlist the support of Singaporeans for the Japanese vision of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was to comprise Japan, China, Manchuria, and Southeast Asia. Singapore's prominent Chinese leaders and businessmen were further disaffected when the Japanese military command bullied them into raising a S$10 million "gift" to the Japanese as a symbol of their cooperation and as reparation for their support for the government of China in its war against Japan. The Chinese and English schools were pressured to use Japanese as the medium of instruction. The Malay schools were allowed to use Malay, which was considered the indigenous language. The Japanese-controlled schools concentrated on physical training and teaching Japanese patriotic songs and propaganda. Most parents kept their children at home, and total enrollment for all the schools was never more than 7,000. Although free Japanese language classes were given at night and bonuses and promotions awarded to those who learned the language, efforts to replace English and Chinese with Japanese were generally unsuccessful.
Serious disruption of not only the economy but the whole fabric of society marked the occupation years in Singapore. Food and essential materials were in short supply since the entrepot trade that Singapore depended on to provide most goods was severely curtailed by the war. Chinese businessmen collaborated with corrupt Japanese officials to establish a flourishing black market for most items, which were sold at outrageous prices. Inflation grew even more rampant as Japanese military scrip flooded the economy. Speculation, profiteering, bribery, and corruption were the order of the day, and lawlessness against the occupation government almost a point of honor.
As the war wound down and Japanese fortunes began to fade, life grew even more difficult in Shonan. Military prisoners, who suffered increasing hardship from reduced rations and brutal treatment, were set to work constructing an airfield at Changi, which was completed in May 1945. Not only prisoners of war but also Singapore's unemployed civilians were impressed into work gangs for labor on the Burma-Siam railroad, from which many never returned. As conditions worsened and news of Japanese defeats filtered in, Singaporeans anxiously awaited what they feared would be a bloody and protracted fight to reoccupy the island.
Although Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on August 15,
1945, it was not announced in the Singapore press until a week later. The Japanese military quietly retreated to an internment camp they had prepared at Jurong. On September 5, Commonwealth troops arrived aboard British warships, cheered by wildly enthusiastic Singaporeans, who lined the five-kilometer parade route. A week later, on the steps of the municipal building, the Japanese military command in Singapore surrendered to the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.