Fall of Singapore

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After being imposed a trade embargo due to its invasion of China, Japan began looking for an alternative source of supplies for its war machine. As a result, Japan attacked the British fortress of Singapore.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Admiralty believed Singapore impregnable because the Naval Base protected the city from attack by sea, while to the north of the island, on the mainland, hundreds of miles of dense jungle appeared to be impenetrable. Furthermore, stationed on the island were almost 100,000 British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and Malayan troops.

Japanese invasion

Japan’s 25th Army invaded Malaya coming from Indochina moving northwards towards Thailand. This invasion was done simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor in an effort to try and stop the US Navy from interfering in Southeast Asia. The Japanese government had persuaded the Thai government to let them use Thai military bases for defense against invasion from the southeast by the Allied nations.

The Japanese 25th Army faced resistance in north Malaya from the British officered 3rd Indian Corps. Although the Japanese were outnumbered they consolidated their forces and were far superior in air support and war techniques. The British constantly allowed the Japanese army to outflank them as they believed that the Malayan jungle was impossible to pass. The Japanese made good use of bicycles and light tanks which made it possible for rapid movements in the jungle.

By 31 January 1942, all British Empire forces had withdrawn from the Malay peninsula onto Singapore Island. On 8 February, the Japanese landed in the north-west of the island and within six days they were on the outskirts of Singapore city, which was also now under constant air attack.

The Australian defenders were battle-weary, having lost nearly 700 men fighting in Malaya since 14 January, with hundreds of others wounded or sick.

On 5 February 1942, down to 18 tanks and lacking ammunition and food, a small force commanded by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita attacked the island of Pulau Ubin off Singapore’s northeast coast. This diversion deceived General Percival, commander of the forces in Singapore, who moved his major ammunitions stores to the east. The main Japanese attack came later from the northwest.

On 8 February, the actual attack on Singapore started with the landing of troops on the northwest coast. Australian troops fought well initially, inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders. However, the Australian defenders retreated unnecessarily amidst the confusion of battle, allowing the Japanese to establish a beachhead.[1] Subsequent landings by the Japanese were unopposed. The military situation for the British and Indian defenders under Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival worsened.

Loss of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales

Three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse, attempted to intercept the Japanese amphibious forces off of Malaya. They were located by planes of several Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) air groups off the eastern coast of the peninsula, and subjected to multiple attacks, the third of which left both capital ships sinking. With their demise, the road to Singapore lay open.

Some 508 officers and men went down with HMS Repulse, while a further 327 were killed aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which sank just a few miles away.

Civilian evacuations

European civilian evacuations from Singapore had begun in late January and continued until almost the last moment. Some merchant ships also evacuated civilians from the path of the Japanese. The Australian Royal Navy (RAM) were entrusted with 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 Brooke survived to return to Australia in 1945 after the war had ended.

Singapore falls

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. By midnight, the two Australian brigades had lost communications with each other, and the 22nd Brigade carried out a premature withdrawal according to Professor Brian P. Farrell in the documentary No Prisoners (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Four Corners series, 2002). In the same documentary Major John Wyett, an 8th Division staff officer, claims the commander of the Australian 22nd Brigade, Brigadier Harold Burfield Taylor cracked under the pressure and says, "Taylor was wandering around rather like a man in a sleep walk. He was utterly, utterly, you know, shell-shocked and not able to do very much.",[2] and other witnesses reporting that many other deserters were drunk, raping the local Malay and Chinese women. Clifford Kinvig, a senior lecturer at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, also points the finger of blame at Brigadier Duncan Maxwell, commander of the Australian 27th Brigade for his defeatist attitude and for not properly defending the sector between the Causeway and the Kranji River.

Twenty-four hours later a second Japanese landing force struck between the Causeway and the mouth of the Kranji River, and made rapid progress. By the morning of 10 February there were Japanese troops on most of north-west Singapore.

The British, Indian and Australian troops tried to hold the Japanese at various defensive lines but after two days many of their depleted battalions had to be reorganized into composite units. According to Peter Elphick's book Singapore The Pregnable Fortress, the 2/18th Australian Infantry Battalion had lost more than half of its personnel, killed, wounded, captured or through desertions. A counter-attack on 10–11 February failed and on 12 February General H Gordon Bennett, the Australian commander, began moving his battle weary 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.

By 14 February the Japanese had captured Singapore's reservoirs and pumping stations. The air attacks, fighting and artillery bombardments continued; many of the troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals and bars were crowded and overflowing.[3] Some troops were deserting and others had become separated from their units. Private Duncan Ferguson of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment, claims Australian deserters were pushing women off the gangways to get aboard the departing ships evacuating the European civilians,[4] and other witnesses reporting that many other deserters were drunk, raping the local Malay and Chinese women.[5]

Nevertheless, hard fighting continued but on 15 February Lieutenant-General Arthur 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 Commonwealth troops were to lay down their arms at 8.30 PM. More than 100,000 British, Indian, Australian and Malayan troops became prisoners of war together with thousands of Singaporean Chinese from Dalforce, the local militia.[6] The entire 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles were among the almost 140,000 British Commonwealth prisoners taken in the Japanese invasion.[7] About 40,000 defenders had already surrendered in Malaya in the earlier fighting that took place from December 1941 to February 1942.

Air battle

The Japanese Air Force had more men and was well trained and better equipped than the British Commonwealth pilots who had inferior equipment without any good training. The main Japanese fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero helped the Japanese forces gain an upper hand.

Three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse, attempted to intercept the Japanese amphibious forces off of Malaya. They were located by planes of several IJN air groups off the eastern coast of the peninsula, and subjected to multiple attacks, the third of which left both capital ships sinking. With their demise, the road to Singapore lay open.

On 8 December at 4 AM, Japanese aircraft began bombing Singapore.

The Japanese warplanes managed to sink the British capital ships thus leaving the Malayan peninsula exposed giving room for more Japanese landings.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons had been evacuated before the Japanese invaded the island

Aftermath

Despite his instruction to Australian troops to stay at their posts, Major-General Henry Gordon Bennett and three of his staff officers escaped from Singapore on the night of the surrender and eventually reached Australia. Bennett's justification for leaving Singapore was that he wanted to return to Australia to give first-hand information of Japanese invasion. In all, 20,000 Australian soldiers were reported to have been captured.[8][9][10]

Corporal Walter Ernest Brown from the Australian 2/15th Field Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for his service in World War I and World War II. He went missing soon after the fall of Singapore; he was last sighted walking towards Japanese positions with hand grenades.[11]

According to the book The Great Crusade: A New Complete History of the Second World War (Potomac Books, 2008), tens of thousands of Chinese labourers of the British Army were killed, because the British failed to destroy the files that contained their names and addresses.

The Indian revolutionary leader Rash Behari Bose formed the Indian National Army (INA) with the help of the Japanese, who were highly successful in recruiting 20,000 Indian soldiers taken prisoner.[12]

Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, wrote: "The fall of Singapore on February 15 stupefied the Prime Minister." In particular, the surrender of the British and Australian troops bewildered him. "How come 100,000 men (half of them of our own race) were to hold up their hands to inferior numbers of Japanese?", wrote Moran. Though Churchill had been gradually prepared for its fall, the surrender of the British fortress stunned him, according to Moran. "He felt it was a disgrace. It left a scar on his mind. One evening, months later, when he was sitting in his bathroom enveloped in a towel, he stopped drying himself and gloomily surveyed the floor: ‘I cannot get over Singapore,’ he said sadly."

Military historians consider the capture of the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore among the Japanese Army’s greatest military victories. The capture of the Singapore fortress shocked the British public and changed the view of people in the British colonies that Britain was not invincible, as they previously thought. Hence, calls for independence were made everywhere after the war with the backing of the former British colony, the United States. The fall of Singapore marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Notes

  1. "During the night of 8 February after a fifteen-hour artillery bombardment the Japanese landed on the western shores of Singapore island. The sector was guarded by Australian troops, but most deserted their posts and refused orders to stand firm." The Second World War: Ambitions to Nemesis, Bradley Lightbody, p. 132, Psychology Press, 2004
  2. 4C Special: No Prisoners
  3. "There was a complete breakdown of military discipline, with wild scenes of drunken Allied troops refusing orders, looting shops and bars, stealing boats and fighting their way onto any ship leaving Singapore harbour." The Second World War: Ambitions to Nemesis, Bradley Lightbody, p. 132, Psychology Press, 2004
  4. 4C Special: No Prisoners
  5. "'The greater part of the Australian infantry were undisciplined,' observed Bradell, who say swarms of deserters, many drunk, struggling to get on to the ships that would take them away. Other witnesses reported Australians bullying their way on to boats, looting and raping Malay and Chinese women. These reports were read by Churchill and then withheld from public scrutiny for fifty years, no doubt to satisfy Australian sensibilities. Churchill and Empire, Lawrence James, Hachette, 2013
  6. "Unlike Dunkirk, there was no 'miraculous' evacuation at Singapore and 100,000 British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops were captured when it fell on 15 February 1942, Britain's blackest day of the war. Britain in the Twentieth Century, William B. Hopkins, Page 208, Routledge, 2013
  7. "When Singapore surrendered to a Japanese force inferior only in numbers that February, the entire 2d Battalion of the 2d Gurkhas were among the almost 138,000 British prisoners taken." World War II in the Pacific: An Encyclopedia, Stanley Sandler, p. 365, Routledge, 2003
  8. "The fall of Singapore saw the loss of more than 20,000 highly trained volunteers of the Australian Imperial Force, when most of Australia's 8th Division was taken prisoner of war in Malaya. The Pacific War: The Strategy, Politics, and Players that Won the War, William B. Hopkins, Page 96, Zenith Press, 2009
  9. Return to the Burma Railway
  10. # Return to the Thai-Burma Railway# Jump up ^ 22nd Brigade Headquarters Association
  11. Gunner Walter Ernest 'Wally' Brown
  12. Indian National Army (INA)

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