Fall of Singapore

The fall of Singapore to the Japanese Army on February 15th 1942 is considered to be one of the greatest military defeats in the history of the British Empire.


Just like her Axis counterparts Japan launched a Blitzkrieg upon the Pacific making huge territorial gains as she strove to develop The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Singapore, an island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, was considered a vital part of the British Empire and supposedly impregnable as a fortress. The British saw it as the "Gibraltar in the Far East".

The surrender of Singapore demonstrated to the world that the Japanese Army was a force to be reckoned with, though the defeat also ushered in three years of appalling treatment for the Commonwealth POW's who were caught in Singapore.

Improvements to Singapore as a British military base had only been completed at great cost in 1938. Singapore represented what the British Empire was all about a strategically vital military base that protected Britain's other Commonwealth possessions in the Far East.

Once the Japanese expanded throughout the region after Pearl Harbour (December 1941), many in Britain and Australia felt that Singapore would become an obvious target for the Japanese. However, the British military command in Singapore was confident that the power they could call on there would make any Japanese attack useless. One story told about the attitude of the British Army in Singapore was of a young Army officer complaining that the newly completed defences in Singapore might put off the Japanese from landing there.

"I do hope we are not getting too strong in Malaya because if so the Japanese may never attempt a landing."

Commonwealth troops stationed in Singapore were also told that the Japanese troops were poor fighters; alright against soldiers in China who were poor fighters themselves, but of little use against the might of the British Army.

The Japanese onslaught through the Malay Peninsula took everybody by surprise. Speed was of the essence for the Japanese, never allowing the British forces time to re-group. This was the first time British forces had come up against a full-scale attack by the Japanese. Any thoughts of the Japanese fighting a conventional form of war were soon shattered. The British had confidently predicted that the Japanese would attack from the sea. This explained why all the defences on Singapore pointed out to sea. It was inconceivable to British military planners that the island could be attacked any other way - least of all, through the jungle and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula . But this was exactly the route the Japanese took.

As the Japanese attacked through the Peninsula , their troops were ordered to take no prisoners as they would slow up the Japanese advance. A pamphlet issued to all Japanese soldiers stated:

"When you encounter the enemy after landing, think of yourself as an avenger coming face to face at last with his father's murderer. Here is a man whose death will lighten your heart."

Japanese troops capture British soldiers

For the British military command in Singapore, war was still fought by the 'rule book'. Social life was important in Singapore and the Raffles Hotel and Singapore Club were important social centres frequented by officers. An air of complacency had built in regarding how strong Singapore was - especially if it was attacked by the Japanese. When the Japanese did land at Kota Bharu aerodrome, in Malaya, Singapore's governor, Sir Shenton Thomas is alleged to have said "Well, I suppose you'll (the army) shove the little men off."

The attack on Singapore occurred almost at the same time as Pearl Harbour. By December 9th 1941 , the RAF had lost nearly all of its front line aeroplanes after the Japanese had attacked RAF fields in Singapore . Any hope of aerial support for the army was destroyed before the actual attack on Singapore had actually begun.

Britain 's naval presence at Singapore was strong. A squadron of warships was stationed there lead by the modern battleship "Prince of Wales" and the battle cruiser "Repulse".

Prince of Wales (left) and Repulse (right) under attack by Japanese aircraft.

On December 8th 1941 , both put out to sea and headed north up the Malay coast to where the Japanese were landing. On December 10th, both ships were sunk by repeated attacks from Japanese torpedo bombers. The RAF could offer the ships no protection as their planes had already been destroyed by the Japanese. The loss of both ships had a devastating impact on morale in Britain . Sir Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs:

"I put the telephone down. I was thankful to be alone. In all the war I never received a more direct shock."

Sir Winston Churchill

Only the army could stop the Japanese advance on Singapore. The army in the area was led by Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. He had 90,000 men there - British, Indian and Australian troops. The Japanese advanced with 65,000 men lead by General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Many of the Japanese troops had fought in the Manchurian/Chinese campaign and were battle-hardened. Many of Percival's 90,000 men had never seen combat.

At the Battle of Jitra in Malaya (December 11th and 12th 1941), Percival's men were soundly beaten and from this battle were in full retreat. The Japanese attack was based on speed, ferocity and surprise. To speed their advance on Singapore, the Japanese used bicycles as one means of transport. Captured wounded Allied soldiers were killed where they lay. Those who were not injured but had surrendered were also murdered - some captured Australian troops were doused with petrol and burned to death. Locals who had helped the Allies were tortured before being murdered. The brutality of the Japanese soldiers shocked the British. But the effectiveness of the Japanese was shown when they captured the capital of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, on January 11th 1942.

All the indications were that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johor Strait. General Wavell, the British commander in the region, was ordered by Churchill to fight to save Singapore and he was ordered by Churchill not to surrender until there had been "protracted fighting" in an effort to save the city.

On January 31st 1942, the British and Australian forces withdrew across the causeway that separated Singapore from Malaya . It was clear that this would be their final stand. Percival spread his men across a 70 mile line - the entire coastline of the island. This proved a mistake. Percival had overestimated the strength of the Japanese. His tactic spread his men out for too thinly for an attack.

On February 8th, 1942, the Japanese attacked across the Johor Strait . Many Allied soldiers were simply too far away to influence the outcome of the battle. On February 8th, 23,000 Japanese soldiers attacked Singapore. They advanced with speed and ferocity. At the Alexandra Military Hospital, Japanese soldiers murdered the patients they found there. Percival kept many men away from the Japanese attack fearing that more Japanese would attack along the 70 mile coastline. He has been blamed for failing to back up those troops caught up directly with the fighting but it is now generally accepted that this would not have changed the final outcome but it may only have prolonged the fighting.

The Japanese took 100,000 men prisoner in Singapore . Many had just arrived and had not fired a bullet in anger. 9,000 of these men died building the Burma-Thailand railway. The people of Singapore fared worse. Many were of Chinese origin and were slaughtered by the Japanese. After the war, Japan admitted that 5000 had been murdered, but the Chinese population in Singapore put the figure at nearer 50,000. With the evidence of what the Japanese could do to a captured civilian population (as seen at Nanking), 5000 is likely to be an underestimate.

The fall of Singapore was a humiliation for the British government. The Japanese had been portrayed as useless soldiers only capable of fighting the militarily inferior Chinese. This assessment clearly rested uncomfortably with how the British Army had done in the peninsula.

The commander of the Australian forces in Singapore (General Bennett) later said:

"The whole operation seems incredible: 550 miles in 55 days - forced back by a small Japanese army of only two divisions, riding stolen bicycles and without artillery support."

Sir Winston Churchill had stated before the final Japanese attack:

"There must be no thought of sparing the troops or population; commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake."

The Australian Point of View

Many of the Australian troops had been shocked at the apparent lack of defences on the island. The men were battle-weary and had lost nearly 700 men fighting in Malaya since 14 January, with hundreds of others sick or wounded. Only one trained reinforcement unit, the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, arrived from Australia . Other last-minute reinforcements sent were untrained and ill-equipped for battle.

Australian Troops arriving in Singapore (1941)

The Japanese had prepared for the invasion of Singapore with a heavy bombardment. They began their amphibious landings on the north-west of the island, where the Strait of Johore is narrowest. This area was held by the Australian 22nd Infantry Brigade but late on the night of 8 February the Japanese made their way through undefended sections. Twenty-four hours later a second Japanese landing force struck between the Causeway and the mouth of the Kranji River, an area held by the Australian 27th Infantry Brigade. By the morning of 10 February there were Japanese troops on most of north-west Singapore.

The Australian, British and Indian troops tried to hold the Japanese at various defensive lines but after two days many of their dreadfully depleted battalions had to be reorganised into composite units. A counter-attack on 10-11 February failed and on 12 February General H Gordon Bennett, the Australian commander, began moving his near-exhausted 8th Division AIF units into a perimeter just a few kilometres out of the city. By the next day the Japanese were within five kilometres of the Singapore waterfront. The entire city was now within range of Japanese artillery.

Official evacuations from Singapore had begun in late January and continued until almost the last moment. RAAF squadrons had been evacuated before the Japanese invaded the island and the remaining RAN warships were ordered to leave. Some merchant ships also got away carrying evacuees from the path of the Japanese. The warships' main operational tasks were escort duties and the fleet based in Singapore included the destroyer HMAS Vampire and the sloop HMAS Yarra , which arrived late in January, along with several corvettes. The corvettes in the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla swept the sea lanes and conducted anti-submarine patrols. HMA Ships Toowoomba ,Wollongong and Ballarat reinforced the original four corvettes, HMA Ships Bendigo, Burnie, Goulburn and Maryborough.

The last 65 Australian Army nurses stationed in Singapore were ordered to board the Vyner Brooke, which sailed on 12 February. Their colleagues, who had sailed in the Empire Star the previous day, reached Australia , but only 24 of the nurses who sailed in the Vyner Brookesurvived to return to Australia in 1945 after the war had ended.

By 14 February the Japanese had captured Singapore 's reservoirs and pumping stations. The bombing, fighting and heavy shelling continued; many of the troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals were crowded and overflowing. Some troops were deserting and others had become separated from their units. Hard fighting continued but on 15 February General Percival, the British commander in Singapore , called for a ceasefire and made the difficult decision to surrender. He signed the surrender document that evening at the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road . After days of desperate fighting, all British Empire troops were to lay down their arms at 8.30 that night. More than 100,000 troops became prisoners of war together with hundreds of European civilians who were interned.

Lt Gen Bennett

Despite his instruction to Australian troops to stay at their posts, General Bennett and two of his staff officers escaped, controversially, from Singapore on the night of the surrender and eventually reached Australia.

Japanese troops capture British soldiers