The Rise & Fall of Singapore
The man who founded Singapore was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Born in 1781, he was to become a self made man with no aristocratic connections who received very little formal education. At the age of 14 he commenced his working life as a clerk in the offices of the East India Company in London. Ten years later found him working in the company's new administration in Malaya. His career took off as he gradually climbed the ladder of success and in September 1811 he was appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of Java. This post lasted five years, after which he returned to London and in 1817 he was knighted. By 1818, the now Sir Stamford Raffles, had committed himself to finding a new port for British trade which would be free of Dutch control and began a survey and exploration of the area and finally on January 28th 1819 he landed on an almost uninhabited island, just south of Malaya, thirteen miles wide by twenty seven miles long - it was the island of Singapore. He was to write home saying "this place possesses an excellent harbour, it is within a week's sailing of China, close to Siam and at the very seat of Malaya - in fact Singapore is everything we could desire"
Raffles took over the island on behalf of his company from the Sultan of Johore who ruled the most southern state of Malaya. For an annual rent he gained permission to build trading offices and warehouses.
History books will show that Singapore and Raffles are synonymous with each other and it was entirely due to Raffles that the English came into possession of Singapore - the gateway to the East. However, Raffles had suffered ill health for most of his life and when he became the first Governor of Singapore in October 1822, he held the position for just nine months before returning to London in June 1823. His health forced him into retirement during which time he founded a Zoological Society and London Zoo. He died in July 1826 when he was just forty five years old.
Raffles not only discovered an idyllic island, rich in tin and natural resources, but an island that had safe and extensive harbours with every facility for protecting shipping, if necessary, in times of war.
For the next century, Singapore and Malaya, also now under British rule, knew peace and rising prosperity, based on the enormous natural deposits of tin, the local export trade of coffee, sugar, timber and cane, plus the wealth of Malaya's rubber plantations.
The British had come to the East for trade, but in the early 1920s cracks were beginning to show in the perpetual safety in which they had been basking. Singapore had played no part in the First World War, but following the Washington Disarmament Conference in 1921, America and Canada took the opportunity to try and limit Japanese influences, pressurising Britain to join with them. Churchill wrote of his sorrow at having to choose between Japan and America - the latter won. Following the cessation of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1921, Japan felt she had lost face and harboured bitter resentment at this action. The British Government became aware of this veiled hostility emerging from Japan who increasingly resented the West and the white man's domination over much of South East Asia. Up until the time of around the 1920's, the West had no potential enemy in the East.
So in 1921, it was agreed that a protective Naval Base needed to be built in South East Asia from which the Royal Navy could defend Malaya, Borneo and, if necessary, Australia and New Zealand. In 1922, the site selected was on the north east coast of Singapore, about four square miles of marshy ground
It was intended to be a 10 year project, but the political situation in London, with changes from Conservative to Labour to Conservative all attributed to a start, stop, start scenario and resulted in the base taking over seventeen years to complete. Ironically, however, although the base was established to protect others, no defences were ever built to protect the base.
As a result of the rise of Singapore, and the regime laid down by Stamford Raffles over a century earlier, the upper class British revelled in the society life of Colonialism from the mid 1800's onwards. Life was rich and prosperous with the docks serving as a funnel for much of the world's essential supplies of rubber and tin and, with the gigantic Naval Base for protection, the British Government and officials regarded Singapore as the 'Bastion of the Empire' or 'The Impregnable Fortress'.
By the early 1930's these affluent Colonials were living in a superficial form of utopia, unaware, or perhaps disbelieving, that they could be tottering on the edge of war. Their incredible short-sightedness would not allow them to see the web that was being woven to topple Singapore and the white supremacy off its pedestal, or maybe they did see it, but in their self righteousness and self deception they closed their eyes to any possibility that someone, some army, some empire could take away that which they considered was theirs. In their blindness it was inconceivable that they would ever lose Singapore - no one would ever dare challenge their domination and what they believed was their inheritance
The Fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942 to the Japanese Empire, finally put an end to Western domination over East Asia that had stood steadfast for centuries. Years of an unhurried peaceful existence had been enjoyed by the white suited, collar and tie Colonials in this steaming, opulent Eastern city. They brought their conservative English way of life to the Orient, with afternoon tea served at the Cricket Club in fine porcelain china cups as they watched cricket on the green Padang overlooked by the white buildings of their government offices.
The humiliation of the surrender took only a few brief moments in the unlikely surroundings of the assembly plant of the Ford Automobile Works outside Singapore.
This then was the end of the great power and control that the West had wielded in the unshaken belief that this was theirs forever. It dealt a heavy blow to the hard pressed British Empire and set the pattern for the overthrow of Colonialism in the Orient in fated years to come.
How was it all allowed to happen? How did the Japanese infiltrate into the ordinary life of the Colonials and Singaporeans without anyone questioning? Were they so blind they failed to notice what was staring them in the face?
At the end of the First World War, the Japanese were, to some extent, still our allies and they were given certain tracts of land (former German Colonies) and were allowed to build up businesses in parts of the British Empire, especially in Burma, India and Malaya. In Malaya they were allowed to buy up tin mines and rubber plantations, set up photographers and work agencies. However, secretly, from the latter end of the 1920's and still smarting from the humiliation of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, they began preparing for war.
The tin miners and rubber planters, installed by the Japanese, were able to survey the land and through the auspices of the photographers were able to supply the Japanese Authorities with far more up-to-date maps of Malaya than the Allied Authorities ever dreamed of and included jungle tracks which nobody knew existed. Japanese photographers in most Malayan towns also offered discounts to British soldiers for the privilege of developing their photographs, some possibly being of military significance. The work agencies provided Chinese servants (most of whom disappeared in November 1941). They were in fact Japanese. It would appear that the local population couldn't tell the difference in appearance between these two races and neither could the troops. These demure 'Chinese' quietly set themselves up in work locations where people came to relax and talk. They remained discreetly in the background of clubs, restaurants, massage parlours, barber shops and exclusive shops selling fine silks, - the saying 'walls have ears' could never have been more true. These key Japanese nationals slipped quietly back home to Japan in November 1941.Add to this the fact that Senior Government Officers refused to arm the genuine Chinese into any form of Defence Force and the picture begins to form.
The mighty Naval Dockyards were finished and the big guns were installed, although when the crunch came, neither was of any use in defending Singapore.
Back in London successive Prime Ministers, Stanley Baldwin, Ramsey McDonald and Neville Chamberlain considered that Malaya and Singapore were well protected and considered that it was highly unlikely anyone would ever attack such an impregnable fortress. As a result very little else was allocated to the Defence of the Far East.
Then, in September 1939, England declared war on Germany. Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Troops were hastily deployed to Europe and the Royal Navy was stretched to its limits escorting convoys and dealing with U-Boats. Eventually the Navy captured the Enigma Code and it was only then that Churchill had first class information about Japanese intentions.
Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was appointed Commander-in-Chief Far East in October 1940. Once in position he soon realised the crucial role of air power in defending Singapore and equally it was essential to hold the whole of the Malay peninsula. He made it clear to Chiefs of Staff that they had estimated that 336 aircraft would be necessary to protect Singapore, but only 48 had been supplied - none of which were fighters. The Chiefs of Staff assured Brooke-Popham that more would be sent before the end of 1941, but none were ever sent. Churchill had other ideas "The political situation in the Far East does not seem to require, and the strength of our Air Force by no means permits, the maintenance of such a large force in the Far East at this time"
General Percival was appointed General Officer Commanding, Malaya in March 1941. On reaching Singapore and taking up his post, he soon realised that the Government attached little or no importance to the defences in the Far East.
He asked for a minimum requirement of two tank regiments and 48 infantry battalions, plus 556 aircraft. He received no tanks at all, only 33 infantry battalions, a few heavy guns, and 141 aircraft, mostly old and out-dated craft. The infantry he received were mainly fresh, inexperienced, very young troops.
In October 1941 the British Admiralty took the decision to send out the pride of the Royal Navy - the 'Prince of Wales', the 'Repulse', several destroyers and the Aircraft Carrier 'Indomitable' - to strengthen the Far Eastern Fleet as a security measure to protect the Empire's most powerful naval base. However the 'Indomitable' ran aground in the West Indies and was unable to proceed. Admiral Tom Phillips continued with the rest of his force known as Force Z.
Had sufficient air cover from the Royal Air Force been available, these two massive warships might have been enough to protect Singapore from the invading enemy, but with no air protection the outcome was inevitable. Both were sunk by the Japanese in the South China Sea, off Kuantan, on the 10th December 1941.
However what if the decision had been made to send air cover to protect Malaya and Singapore? One has to ask - what would have been the consequences for our own small island if we had been left with insufficient fighters for the 'Battle of Britain'?
A few days before the 'Prince of Wales' and the 'Repulse' were sunk, the Japanese attacked Malaya and landed at Kota Bahru on the 7th December 1941. This was the start of their campaign as they commenced fighting down through the humid jungles of Malaya. In pouring tropical rains the British, Australians and Indians retreated in their path. Once again, they had no air cover, a weak leadership and the adverse weather conditions ruined their radio reception and their ammunition fuses. The Japanese espionage had done its work well, fishermen, barbers, plantation managers and photographers had proved to be good eyes and ears. It is said the official photographer working at the Singapore Naval Base was Japanese!
At this time the 18th Division was in Cape Town (December 1941) and bound for Basra in the Middle East. Included in the convoy, amongst others, were the 'Wakefield', 'West Point',' MountVernon' and the 'Joseph T Dickman'. All the Division's lorries and equipment had been camouflaged to meet desert conditions. There had been no training in jungle fighting and no inoculations against tropical diseases, malaria etc. and the Division was completely unequipped for the Far East.
Nevertheless with the Japanese attacking Malaya on December 8th there were already cries for reinforcements from General Percival and Brook Popham in Singapore.
The Japanese were relentless, nothing could stop them advancing through the steamy jungle - a jungle the British military had called 'unpenetrable'. They captured Penang and took dozens of small craft from the habour, which enabled them to the come down the rivers and coast, landing on unprotected beaches. They cycled down the long straight roads direct for Singapore and then made use of abandoned British trucks to speed their advance. At this time there was a great deal of controversy between Brook- Popham and the Army Command. The Army believed that the RAF had built airfields in places that were impossible to defend. When the heavy bombing of airfields commenced, including Alor Star, the R.A.F withdrew leaving everything behind. The advancing Japanese must have had a field day when they found large stores of bombs, ammunition, food and spirits. As the RAF pulled back so did the Army and the retreat down Malaya began.
Having seized airfields, the Japanese now used them for their own planes. They completely confused their opposition, most of whom had received no training in jungle warfare and had never experienced the humid tropical conditions in which they found themselves. Front line soldiers were equipped with heavy equipment, boots, blankets, ground sheets, greatcoats, all of these being cumbersome in the heat and humidity of the jungle. The Japanese, on the other hand, advanced quickly in lightweight rubber soled shoes and thin tropical uniforms.
Many Allied soldiers were separated from their leaders and regiments in the steamy dripping jungle. At night they became confused, bewildered and frightened. Frightened of being cut off and alone, frightened of not knowing where they were, frightened of the unknown. By day they fought in the heat, sweat and dirt, by night, when sleep should have refreshed, they lay taut, listening to weird and eerie jungle sounds, wracked with nerves.
Their superiors were thrown into an equal chaos, still staggering from the overwhelming force of the invasion. The Japanese had been moving for seven weeks through Malaya, but no fortifications were in place further south. No trenches had been dug. Civilian women and children should have been ordered away well in time, but nobody saw it as their responsibility. After the initial invasion there would have been time to build strong strategic holding points, but nothing was done.
For the Japanese, the victory of Slim River was the greatest victory of the Malaya campaign up to that point, but this was solely due to the utter weariness of the Allied troops who had been fighting both day and night for over a month, without proper rest and with no relief from air or sea cover.
The following extract was taken from the book "Singapore - Too Little, Too Late" written by Ivan Simson.
'In 1951, Japanese Colonel Masanobu Tsuji wrote a book entitled "Singapore, The Japanese Version". In his book he confirms that Malaya had been the target for many years of Japanese resident 'sleeper'agents. These spies, while engaged in ostensible harmless and respectable business pursuits in Singapore and up country, reported every detail of military interest on Singapore Island.
In his book, Colonel Tsuji mentions the help the Japanese troops received from what they called 'Churchill supplies'. These were the large quantities of food and petrol they captured intact in towns.
On airfields they found high octane petrol and bombs, and undamaged cars and trucks. Such supplies were apparently found all the way down the peninsula and used against our troops.The Japanese transport problem thus almost ceased to be one. With the exception of guns and ammunition plus assault boats, required for the attack on Singapore Island, they needed to transport little. No explanation is found in the British story of the disaster, but, presumably, the reason so much material was left behind undamaged or undestroyed was lack of earlier planning for possible evacuation or destruction.
If plans for demolition had not been formulated before the war started, they should certainly have been delegated to an organisation within two weeks or so of the outbreak of hostilities, when it became apparent that the Japanese were advancing quickly and successfully. In fact, I personally reacted strongly when the Royal Engineers were asked by the RAF about December 15th, to 'demolish' certain forward airfields at impossibly short notice, especially as engineers had suggested this be planned much earlier and none of them were now available near the airfields in question.
The RAF had earlier undertaken to demolish their own airfields and equipment before evacuation. I now offered to prepare demolitions and deal with airfields farther back if the RAF could not do this themselves, but this offer was seldom accepted and much useful material was left intact on airfields.'
After four days in Cape Town the troops of the 18th Division heard of the loss of 'Repulse' and the 'Prince of Wales' and were told that their destination had been altered.
On the 29th December the 'Mount Vernon' (carrying the 53rd Brigade) was ordered to leave the convoy and escorted by the 'Emerald' and later 'HMS Exeter', she went first to Mombasa and then onto Singapore, arriving on January 13th 1942. The troops disembarked and spent 2 days on the racecourse and then crossed the causeway and on to Batu-Phat, where they confronted the Japanese for the first time. They were ordered to withdrew as far as Pontis Ketchik, and then got the order "every man for himself" - all in all about 400 or so reached Singapore.
Meanwhile the 54th and 55th Brigades were sent on to Bombay and then to Ahmednager, The bulk of the 18th Division was still in India as at the time a debate was going on in England. Churchill was all for leaving them there, training them up for 'jungle fighting' and then sending them to Burma.
However the final decision was left to General Wavell who knew as early as December 10th 1941 that Singapore was lost when the 'Prince of Wales' and 'Repulse' were sunk He then made a fatal decision, even though Singapore was all but lost, he decided to send the 18th Division, who were still in Bombay, to Singapore. The ill fated troops boarded the same vessels which had carried them there - the 'U.S West Point' and the 'U.S Wakefield' and were taken to Singapore (still with their Middle East equipment). They arrived on January 29th 1941 into chaotic conditions reminiscent of the German Blitz on the East End of London. They disembarked, but Senior Officers were told on the dock side that they had arrived much too late to save Singapore. Confusion followed confusion and it was realised that even if the newly arrived troops had arrived in time to halt the invading Japanese, much of their equipment - lorries, bren-gun carriers, anti-tank weapons and even rifles were not with them, but had been sent to Java and Sumatra. Infantry men without arms were of little use in defending Singapore.
In the meantime, the Japanese Army were now well into Johore with British, Australian and Indian troops falling back all the time. London had no option but to consider the strongest defence line to protect Singapore - they choose the causeway at Johore, the southern most section of Malaya, overlooking the channel to Singapore Island. As retreating troops streamed back across the concrete causeway into Singapore, they blew up the railway line and the road behind them, but even this was poorly accomplished. At low tide the water was a few feet deep thus enabling the advancing Japanese troops to wade across with little resistance.
Finally on February 8th 1942 the attack reached Singapore itself. The imminent fall of Singapore caused panic among the remaining white population who all wanted to get away at the same time only to find that there were not enough ships available.
Some got safely away, others boarded ships which were subsequently torpedoed by Japanese Naval Ships resulting in a large number of casualties.
There was a debate between General Percival and senior officers and it was decided that the 18th Division would meet the Japanese onslaught, but where would it come from? Percival had his way and the 18th were deployed around Seletar in the North East but, when the attack came, it came from the North West.
There was no British Intelligence network in Singapore at this time and the liaison between the Army and the civil authorities was almost non-existent. During the first raids over Singapore, the city lights were still full on because no one had discussed the possibility of air attacks and blackout procedures were unheard of. Civilians still refused to believe that the Japanese were 'knocking on their back door'. On the eve of the surrender, it was reported that a British Officer was told he needed permission from the golf club committee before he could mount guns on the golf course.
On the morning of the 15th February, in an underground bunker room at Fort Canning, Percival had to face the most crucial decision of any military commander in modern British history. With him were half a dozen officers all with pale tired faces. Should they fight on or should they surrender? Could they hang on, hoping reinforcements would arrive by sea? However the Japanese now controlled the air, sea and land. Many, many soldiers had given up hope of any relief, were separated from their Regiments and fighting their own way out. They had no leadership, nowhere to go and no hope of any possible victory. There had been too many mistakes, too many excuses, confidence in their superiors had evaporated - the moral situation could not have been worse. Senior officials present on that bleak morning gave Percival their individual reports on petrol, ammunition, water and food, no one had words of comfort.
Even as they discussed their perilous situation, a message was received from General Wavell, urging Percival to fight on. Then he, Wavell, fled to Java, to which a large number of RAF had also escaped. Percival decided to seek terms of surrender.
A car was detailed to take three men to the Japanese headquarters outside Bukit Timah. They were Major General Newbiggin, Captain Wilde (later to become Colonel Wilde) and the secretary to the Governor of Malaya, Sir Shenton Thomas. They carried a white flag. A message was sent to the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita: he replied that he accepted their surrender and would meet with them at 18.00 hours.
The officers had hoped that Japanese ambassadors would now arrive to discuss a ceasefire. But Yamashita had other ideas. He was determined to extract the maximum publicity from his victory and inflict the maximum humiliation on the defeated leader, General Percival.
The British had created Singapore from nothing, from a swampland teeming with mosquitoes to one of the world's richest commercial cities and built the world's greatest naval base. Yamashita relished the chance to humiliate the British and make them bow down to a nation who were smaller physically, poorer and fewer in numbers.
If only Percival had been aware of the true situation, then the end result would have been vastly different. He was under the impression that Yamashita had five and probably six divisions available for their attack on Singapore. He had calculated that Yamashita must have about 100,000 troops against him - in fact it was only a third of this number. General Yamashita was later to describe the situation thus: "My attack on Singapore was a bluff - a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered by more than three to one. I knew if I had to fight long for Singapore, then I would be beaten. That was why the surrender had to be arranged at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting. When the message came of the enemy surrender, I was very cautious, I was afraid it was a trick"
Yamashita did not know that Percival's intelligence about the Japanese was so poor it could virtually be discounted.
The Unconditional Surrender of Singapore Lt. Gen. A E Percival sitting opposite Gen. Tomoyki Yamashita
The place where General Percival and Yamashita met was the Ford factory at Bukit Timah which had been heavily bombed and was partly in ruins. The light was drawing in by the time the two commanders met face to face, sitting opposite each other at a long table. Each had four or five officers with him. Even in the now shadowed room, Yamashita could see that Percival was very pale and his hands were shaking. Percival wanted to discuss terms for a ceasefire. Yamashita wanted an unconditional surrender, he wanted a straight conclusion - either a Yes or No. An obviously distraught Percival (as captured on film) agreed to the demand for unconditional surrender.
Yamashita later spoke of the surrender meeting: "I realise now that the British Army had about 100,000 men against my three divisions of 30,000 men. They also had many more bullets and other munitions than I had. I did not know how long we could carry on with our munitions very low. I was preparing for an all-out last attack when their surrender offer came, it was a great surprise. In my heart, I was afraid that they would discover that our forces were much less than theirs and that was why I decided I must use all means to make them surrender without terms"
There is no doubt that General Percival vastly overestimated the size of the enemy opposing him. These estimates clearly reveal his attitude towards an enemy whom he obviously regarded as numerically overwhelming and unbeatable. In reality there were few plans and no preparations at all to thwart landings or block enemy advances or to protect the naval base from landward attack. That surely is the real tragedy of what Churchill considered to be our 'greatest defeat in history', which the loss of the Singapore naval base undoubtedly was. However the shattering defeat of Malaya and Singapore was even more crushing and humiliating for the British because their superiority had been smashed by a weaker inferior Asiatic army one third the size of the defending Armed Forces.
Singapore was not the unconquerable fortress it was claimed to be, simply because Government officials closed their eyes to the loopholes in the defences and failed to recognise that more protection was needed . When it finally fell, to a Japanese army of lesser numbers, perhaps the loss of face was even greater than the loss of Singapore itself, as the loss of this influential territory and its vast, important Naval base, which took years to build, brought to an end British prestige and reputation throughout the Far East
There has never been an official enquiry into why Singapore was lost so quickly and so easily. The entire campaign had lasted just 70 days. 70 days to advance down through Malaya and walk in through Singapore's back door with little opposition. No Royal Commission was set up after the war to investigate the greatest disaster that the British Military Forces had ever recorded in its entire history. It was generally considered, in the years following the war, that the reason successive Governments failed to appoint a Commission or to recognise what was considered to be an avoidable tragedy, may stem from the fact that so much of the tragedy was due to the High Command in London,. who had not appreciated the danger signs and ultimately failed to supply the much needed aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, tanks and so on, all of which had been requested in the tactical appreciation carried out by local Commanders in the 1940's and agreed by the Chiefs of Staff as necessary.
Brigadier Ivan Simson - formerly Chief Engineer, Malaya Command, wrote an excellent record of events on the spot. He brought to light the lack of morale and leadership and what could have been done with the resources already to hand. Any blame for the badly organised strategic campaign should be laid just as much at the doors of the authorities in London as on the local commanders and civil servants
The Government pleaded that an attack coming from the north, through the jungles of Malaya, was never considered a possibility, but it is inconceivable that this should be accepted as a valid excuse. The probability of this happening was fully reported and discussed by General Dobbie as far back as 1938 and the tactical appreciation drawn up by the local commanders in 1940 was based on this thesis.
There is yet another burning issue that has never been answered. Who should have been accountable for the fate that befell a whole Division who were sent to the wrong place at the wrong time? The 18th Division had been a pawn the Government used as a last effort to try and rectify the many mistakes they had created - it didn't work. The 18th Division having been diverted to a lost cause were ill equipped for jungle warfare and their presence in Singapore had made no difference to the relentless advancing Japanese Army.
The stark reality is that thousands of men were sacrificed in a last futile attempt by the Government and Army officials to crawl out of the huge blunder they had created. Two weeks after landing on the docks at Singapore, thousands of men from the 18th Division were ordered to surrender, these thousands of men became Prisoners of War and thousands of them died as a result from starvation, barbaric conditions and untreated tropical diseases.
So how is this disastrous chapter in our military records going to be explained in the future pages of our history books. Who was to blame? Who should the finger be pointed at for the incompetence that resulted, not only in the defeat of Singapore, but, ultimately, in the deaths of thousands of British servicemen whose lives were surrendered to a savage, uncivilised, inhuman race?
Who was responsible for the troops having to retreat down through Malaya? Most of the blame has to be laid squarely on the heads of the politicians back in London who refused point blank to supply the necessary funds that would strengthen Malaya's defence. This refusal was boosted by their belief that the Japanese could never come down through Malaya and attack Singapore by the back door. How very wrong they were!
The lack of any official enquiry means that no one was ever found guilty for a series of blunders committed by Government and Army officials. True to form, they buried their heads in the sand and pretended it had nothing to do with them. Their heads have stayed in the sand ever since, refusing to admit, to this day, that they were responsible for a catalogue of disastrous events and, ultimately, for the fate of the men who became the Far East Prisoners of War
N.B.General Tomoyuki Yamashita was put on trial in Manila as a war criminal on October 29th 1945, two months after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. He was found guilty of war crimes and executed. Yamashita was hung at 3.27am on the morning of 23rd February 1946 at Manila Luzon Island.
Extracts for the above account of Singapore have been taken from the following books:
'Singapore - The Battle That Changed the World' by James Leasor'Singapore - Too Little, Too Late' by Ivan Simson'A Soldier Must Hang' by John Deane Potter
Also the memoirs of Alfred R Robinson 1st Btn Cambridgeshire Regt. (Suffolk Regiment)Father/Grandfather of COFEPOW members Lesley and Sally Sinclair