Military Blunders – 90,000 Troops Lost in Fall of Singapore

 
 
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There are certain matters that must be adhered to if a battle is to be successful. These include a well-trained army and a good military strategy which can be the difference between success and failure. However, even when a military council drafts out an excellent plan, there are no guarantees in war. Things do not always play out the way they are expected to.

In the past, many military engagements have been quite organized. They have followed a conventional chain of events: one force meets the other, and one army wins either due to better positioning, military strategy, advanced weaponry, or the simple fact of numbers. Sometimes the battle ends at a stalemate where there is no victor. In contrast, there are battles which have been total disasters where one army is completely taken apart by the other.

One of the most bewildering to all was the Fall of Singapore in 1942 during the Second World War. The battle is now regarded as one of the greatest military defeats of the British Army, but it did not look poised to take such a humiliating turn when it began.

The British stronghold in Singapore was deemed to be an impregnable fortress. Their air and naval bases commissioned in 1939 and 1941 respectively were impressive and intimidating. The King George VI Graving Dock at the naval base was the largest dry dock in the world, scaling a full 300 meters to show the capacity of the British Malayan Navy.

The British Army in Malaya 1942. A launch returning from an island in Keppel Harbour at Singapore after Royal Engineers had set fire to oil storage tanks there, January 1942.
The British Army in Malaya 1942. A launch returning from an island in Keppel Harbour at Singapore after Royal Engineers had set fire to oil storage tanks there, January 1942.

In March 1941, the British intercepted a message from Adolf Hitler to the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka. In this message, the Nazi leader urged Matsuoka to attack the British stronghold in the Far East. Hitler stated that conquering the British in Malaya would be fundamental to the overthrow of England. There was little doubt as to the importance of Singapore to the British Empire, as their naval base was placed there to protect other Commonwealth assets.

However, the British were undaunted by this discovery and feared little for the British troops stationed at the island. He was confident that the fortress was impenetrable. The island had two major attack areas of concern. The first was the sea, but the British naval base there was more than capable of defending attacks from that direction. The second was miles and miles of jungle terrain which were assumed to be too arduous even to be considered by the Japanese.

A Type 97 Chi Ha Tank of the IJA 1st Tank Regiment During the invasion of Singapore, 1942.
A Type 97 Chi Ha Tank of the IJA 1st Tank Regiment During the invasion of Singapore, 1942.

Newspapers carried news of Churchill’s statement referring to the fortress as the “Gibraltar of the Far East.” There was an air of overconfidence around the British forces. The British considered the Japanese army to be weak, often referring to them as “Little Japs.” However, although the Japanese believed the myth of the British fortress being impregnable, they were nevertheless resolved to take it in their quest to conquer Southeast Asia and the East Indies.

Japan had few mineral resources and, as such, sought to acquire them by force from other regions. Japan had conquered most of China and Manchuria in the 1930s for the rich iron and coal resources which the Japanese then employed in producing steel. They had one important resource left to acquire and that was oil. As such, the East Indies, including Singapore, was a major target for them.

“Dispositions, 22nd Brigade, 10 p.m. 8th February” – the positions of Australian forces around Sarimbun, Singapore, 8 February 1942. The arrows indicate attacks by Japanese forces.
“Dispositions, 22nd Brigade, 10 p.m. 8th February” – the positions of Australian forces around Sarimbun, Singapore, 8 February 1942. The arrows indicate attacks by Japanese forces.

Despite the fortress’s naval capacity, it was seriously lacking in ships. Most of the British fleet had been committed to Europe and the Middle East where the British felt they were more needed. The Singapore campaign kicked off on December 8, 1841, when two Japanese convoys landed at Patani in Southern Thailand, Singora, and northern Malaya. By the end of that day, some 27,000 Japanese soldiers, well-trained in jungle combat and under the command of General Yamashita Tomoyuki, had secured their position in Malaya and captured the British air base at Kota Baharu.

After that, air bombings of Singapore began. Unaware that their air base had been captured, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse sailed for northern Malaya in an attempt to put off any Japanese ships that were yet to land. The ships were sunk on 10th December by Japanese aircraft.

One of Singapore’s 15-inch coastal defense guns elevated for firing.8 December 1941
One of Singapore’s 15-inch coastal defense guns elevated for firing.8 December 1941

The Japanese were very swift, employing bicycles as a means of movement across the jungle terrain. Using a combination of bicycles and collapsible boats, they outflanked and encircled the British army in North Malaya, cutting off their supply lines. The British army in the region was led by Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival who was only promoted to this command position in April, so it was his first time in command of an army corps.

Procession in celebration of “Fall of Singapore” by Keijo(Seoul) citizen.
Procession in celebration of “Fall of Singapore” by Keijo(Seoul) citizen.

On January 31, 1942, the causeway at Johore Baharu which linked Malaya and Singapore was blown up by the Japanese, resulting in a fifty-meter gap. The battle that ended in the surrender of the British took place from 8th to 15th February, by which time half of Singapore was already occupied by the Japanese.

After a week of fighting, Percival was informed that ammunition and water would run out the following day. He thereafter agreed to surrender to the Japanese who insisted that Percival marched with the white flag of truce to negotiate the terms of surrender.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, (right), led by a Japanese officer, walks under a flag of truce to negotiate the capitulation of Allied forces in Singapore, on February 15, 1942. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history.
Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, (right), led by a Japanese officer, walks under a flag of truce to negotiate the capitulation of Allied forces in Singapore, on February 15, 1942. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history.

The 36,000 Japanese troops had done what was thought by many as impossible: gained a decisive victory over the British Malayan Army, with 90 percent of the 90,000 men taken as prisoners of war. This defeat was a crushing blow to the British Empire, and one that signaled the start of the defection of Australia’s foreign policy away from the United Kingdom.

Yamashita (seated, center) thumps the table with his fist to emphasize his terms – unconditional surrender. Percival sits between his officers, his clenched hand to his mouth.
Yamashita (seated, center) thumps the table with his fist to emphasize his terms – unconditional surrender. Percival sits between his officers, his clenched hand to his mouth.

Read another story from us: Royal Concerns: How The King Protected His Children During WWII

After the British surrender, the Australians began to turn to the United States for aid, no longer able to trust the British Army to protect them. Australia had sided with the British during the war and their Prime Minister at the time, John Curtin, told Churchill that Australia would regard the act of surrender as an inexcusable betrayal.

 
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