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The Guns of Sinagpore

Taken from an article in 'FEPOW FORUM' February - March 1975

On January 7th 1975 a BBC radio programme contained a feature entitled 'The Guns of Singapore'. Those taking part were Brigadier Sir John Smyth, Lt. General Sir William Jackson, Quarter-Master General, Lt. Colonel Denis Russell-Roberts and Peter Hunt.

The programme posed the question - 'The Isle of Wight is roughly the size and shape of Singapore, and roughly has the same physical relationship with the mainland nearby, two sides of the islands being separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of water. How long would the Isle of Wight have held out in 1940 if the Germans had held the mainland, had captured the water supplies near and on the island, with no British aircraft or ships available and with one million civilians to feed and look after?'

A great deal of criticism has been made of the fact that the guns were pointing out to sea, that is pointing the wrong way if the Japanese came overland. Col. Russell-Roberts explained that they were very good guns, deliberately sited in 1922 to fire out to sea, and despite the general uninformed opinion some of the bigger ones had a full circle traverse. The ammunition, however, was armour-piercing with very few high explosive shells, so the guns, although first class, were useless for offensive artillery action.

At the time the guns were positioned it was considered that with the support of the troops and arms of other services and the dockyard facilities, there would be enough to deter any aggressor. A recording existed of the opening ceremony at the dockyard in 1938, which sounded ironic in the light of subsequent events, but, of course, no blame can be laid on Sir Shenton Thomas for the words he used at that time.

Brigadier Smyth pointed out that when in 1935 Japan withdrew from the League of Nations the British Government felt it necessary to increase the defences of Singapore. When finally Japan joined the Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy, her intentions were clearly shown. It was still felt however that any expedition from the Japanese islands could be checked at some time during the long voyage but this became impossible when the Japanese entered Indo-China and Siam (now Thailand).

After the signing of the aggression pact with Germany, General Yamshita of Japan went to Berlin where he learned the German tactics of Blitzkrieg and his plans for the attack on Singapore were perfected.

Brigadier Smyth laid blame on successive British governments and the people of this country for the dithering that went on with regard to Singapore and the pacifism prevalent at that time.

General Percival had guessed the direction of the Japanese attack and had stated that the defence of Singapore would involve the defence of the whole of Malaya. It was never the intention to fortify Singapore but it would be left to the Royal Navy to protect, with swift reinforcements coming in from other areas. It was pointed out that there was some disagreement between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as to whether the defence of the island should be by guns or by aircraft. Squadrons for defence could be stationed elsewhere and moved in when danger threatened. The Royal Navy never came.

Brigadier Smyth defended General Percival who was thought to be a negative character but the Brigadier quoted his First War record which showed that although not an aggressive man he was tough in body and mind.

The difficulties at higher Command level were mentioned and criticism was levelled at the appointments which had been made. The Malayan Command was top heavy. General Percival was under the command of Air Marshal Sir Brook-Popham who for the two previous years had been the Governor of Kenya. His appointment was a surprise but when Brook-Popham was superseded by General Wavell the change was most upsetting. It has been assumed that General Percival had not made clear his full requirements, but he had no direct line of communication to the Chiefs of Staff in London. Even when Brook-Popham made contact with them they had nothing to offer, and when Malaya became priority only 50 aircraft and pilots, inexperienced in tropical flying, were sent out.

Brigadier Smyth then turned to the appointment of General Wavell as C-in-C. At the time of his appointment he had been under considerable strain for some years and needed a long rest after the North African Campaigns. He was a westerner in thought and felt contempt for the Japanese soldier up to the time of the fall of Rangoon. He regarded all Indian troops as being of the same very high standard as the two Indian Divisions he had had with him in the Western Desert. The Viceroy expressed to Churchill his doubts about the appointment of Wavell who was strongly critical of Percival. His Order of the Day of 10th February was very wounding, so much so that the Divisional Commanders refused to pass it on to their officers. Wavell had had an accident to his spine and had refused to go into hospital but there is not doubt that the shock of his injuries had impaired his judgement.

The Brigadier then posed the question: 'Should Percival have defended Singapore and fought to the last?' He had no alternative but to surrender. On 15th February he informed his commanders of the position. The exhausted condition of the troops precluded a counter attack and ammunition was running low as the ammunition dump was in Japanese hands. The water supplies were also in enemy hands and as a result, the water that was in hand would not last 24 hours. Petrol supplies were fast diminishing and food supplies were sufficient only for 7 days. He also had to consider the civilian population, a problem which, since the war, no-one had taken into account in connection with the fall of Singapore. Over 1 million people were looking to the British Government to protect them. As each day went by more and more civilians were dying and according to the speaker, further resistance was senseless. Percival was in a ghastly dilemma as Wavell, pushed by Churchill, was pressing him to fight on. Wavell must have loathed these orders, went on the Brigadier, putting the question, 'What would have happened if the fight had continued to the ultimate end?' Murder and rape would have ensued, as had happened in Hong Kong and was seen in the murders at the Alexandria Hospital.

Lt. General Sir William Jackson, Quarter Master General, said that he spoke without real first hand knowledge of the conditions in Singapore, but looking at the events preceding the catastrophe he felt that Singapore was lost through five understandable misjudgements in the 1920s and 1930s.

1. In the early 1920s in the aftermath of the holocaust of the First World War the Government of the day accepted the principle that there would be no war for the next ten years. This principle was extended annually and Churchill himself had to accept this. Thus, with the cut back in the Fleet at the Disarmament Conference and other cuts in the Services we as a nation reduced our ability to defend ourselves.

2. In the 1930s, which saw the emergence of Hitler and Mussolini and Japan as aggressors, the country embarked on an inadequate programme of re-armaments.

3. In the late 1930s it was decided that Malaya was to be defended by air power. The distances between the airfields and Singapore were too great for the soldiers to properly defend. The Army was responsible for defending the airfields and the Naval Base. The aircraft that were to take part in this defence were never there.

4. After the fall of France all our resources were concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa. The need to aid Greece meant that supplies and troops destined for Singapore were diverted elsewhere.

5. We supported the U.S.A. in their application of sanctions against Japan in the hope that Japan would turn away from their belligerent attitude. This failed as they went to war directly as a result of the action of the U.S.A.

Sir William Jackson said that in his opinion Singapore could never have been held. It was an open city without water. As soon as the Japanese had reached Johore he would have advised evacuation. There were no defences on the north of the island and once the Japanese had taken Johore the Naval Base was untenable.

The broadcast ended with Col. Russell-Roberts giving a brief account of the fate of his wife and the women who were interned in Java. In January 1945 they were moved to the malaria infested island of Banka. There, at Muntok, 70 seventy of them, including his wife, died in 2 months.

Bryn Roberts - Editor of FEPOW FORUM commented :-"This then is the first programme to set out to show the reasons for the "greatest disaster that has befallen British arms". To many of us it is now history, painful in the extreme, but to others it is something that was and should have been swept under the carpet. It has gone some way to explain to the British public why such a disaster happened. The shock must have been so great at the time it happened, that people do not want to think about it even now. The programme took me back to the day after I got back home in 1945. I was getting off a bus in my hometown when a person whom I knew very well got off, dressed in the uniform of the Home Guard, flashes up. His first words, after a greeting, were not of welcome, but "This is the uniform you should have been wearing. We defended our country whilst you were sitting on your backside in a prisoner of war camp in Singapore!". I have never forgotten that episode. We never spoke to each other from that day until he died. I put it down to ignorance and an isolated example but it seems that it wasn't so. However, let us hope that this broadcast has put it right. If it has, our thanks must go out to those who produced it and those who took part in it. May we hope that it will go on the air again at some time in the near future."