It is a pleasant thing to recall our victories. Far less pleasant is to be reminded of our defeats. And yet there is something sublime in the recounting of a disaster; provided, of course, one does not have to be on the spot at the time of its unfolding. Catastrophes provide more fertile material for instruction than do successes; and the conscientious historian should make a strenuous effort to discover why they unfolded as they did.
The capture of Singapore in February 1942 by the Japanese Army remains the most terrible defeat of British arms in history. In that month around 130,000 British Commonwealth soldiers were surrendered to a Japanese force of about 35,000 commanded by Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita. The outlines of the story are familiar to students of military history. Is there anything to be gained from recounting the tale yet another time? I believe the answer is yes. As historical memory slips further and further from the consciousness of the modern Westerner, it is absolutely essential for us to be reminded of the dear cost of complacency, unpreparedness, and ineptitude. For if any man is ever in need of a reminder of the price of complacency, he need only look at what happened in Singapore between December 1941 and February 1942.
By the fall of 1941, it had become clear that something was going to happen in East Asia. No one on the Allied side really knew precisely, of course; but it was clear that the Japanese Empire was gearing up for something big. The island of Singapore, situated at the foot of the Malay peninsula, was the most heavily fortified outpost of the British Empire in East Asia. Much has been made of the fact that Singapore’s guns were directed out to sea and not back towards the peninsula; yet this was only one of many problems with the island’s planned defense. Once the clouds of war began to gather, British military planners focused on defending the peninsula on the northern border with Thailand. Nominally neutral, Thailand was actually sympathetic to Japan and hosted some of its air bases.
It is very easy for an observer, writing many decades after the fact, to second-guess the decisions of others. More instructive is it for us to try to understand why such planners thought the way they did. Before December 1941, the British and the Americans entirely discounted the fighting capabilities of the Japanese Army. Although the evidence of Japanese competence was present before their eyes–from its long campaigns in China–the lesson did not take. No one in the West wanted to hear it, and no one was willing to listen. But there were other problems with the British position in Singapore, problems that went even deeper. This was a garrison army, an army that had little field experience and was led by mediocre commanders at best.
Commonwealth forces were composed of British, Indian, and Australian troops; these were good men, but they lacked a commander with the kind of aggressiveness and resourcefulness that the situation called for. They were not ready for the cyclone that was about to hit them; and when it did, they were not psychologically prepared to adapt to the situation. Worse still, the Singapore garrison could count on little direct help from London; Churchill had all he could do just to cope with Germany. Thus the stage was set for a calamity of unprecedented magnitude.
On December 6, 1941, a Japanese convoy carrying Yamashita’s 25th Army was identified in the Gulf of Siam. Once the Japanese hit the Americans at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, all pretenses were dropped, and the gloves finally came off for all concerned. On December 8, Japanese infantry landed in northern Malaya. The British expected that they would be able to keep the Japanese bottled up in northern Malaya, but this did not happen. The speed and ferocity of Yamashita’s advance threw the British into disarray; the general assumption had been that an Asian army would not be capable of outfighting a Western force. And in all fairness, it was an assumption held not just by the British, but by the Dutch, the Americans (who failed miserably in defending the Philippines), and the French (who ceded Indochina with barely a shot). The truth was that no one really knew how good the Japanese were. Within days after Pearl Harbor, they were all over East Asia. They were tough, they were ruthless, and they played for keeps.
Within days, Yamashita had an army of over 26,000 men ashore in Malaya, a feat that no Western army could have matched at the time. He had some artillery and tanks, and some planes based in Thailand, but it was not as much as Allied apologists would have liked to believe. In short order, the British ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom by the Japanese. British aviation in Singapore proved to be just as outmatched as the infantry: the Japanese made short work of the Royal Air Force, and soon enjoyed uncontested control of the skies.
Yamashita steadily worked his way down the peninsula to the prize. Using night fighting infiltration tactics, the Japanese infantry hammered and sliced through its enemy; they were undersupplied and underequipped by Western standards, but they smelled victory and were filled with an iron determination to see the campaign through to the end. On the small unit level, the British were not fighting effectively; communications were bad, unit cohesion was even worse, and morale was approaching rock bottom. Here we must acknowledge a complete lack of imagination on the part of the British commander, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival. He possessed vast numerical superiority, but was entirely ignorant of this fact; he was also unaware that Yamashita’s army was stretched very thin, and was running short on all kinds of logistics and ammunition.
Had he ordered a breakout from Singapore to land behind the Japanese lines in Malaya, he might have changed the entire dynamic of the battle. Perhaps an innovative landing similar to the one made at Inchon in the Korean War in 1950 might have changed the outcome, or at least made it less humiliating. Although resources were scarce, an imaginative commander can always find ways of making things happen.
But this did not happen. Instead, Percival ordered a withdrawal from the Malay Peninsula in late January 1942 to Singapore itself. In less than two months, Yamashita’s men had moved over 500 miles on land, fighting all the way. The end was approaching fast. On the night of February 8, the Japanese came for Singapore itself. Something like a panic began to take hold of the Commonwealth forces; in the face of poor leadership, the man in the foxhole had all he could do to stay alive and keep fighting. The Australians (especially the 27th Brigade) put up a stout resistance in the face of relentless Japanese attacks, but were unable to hold the line; they were flung back by forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Takumo Nishimura and tried to regroup near the River Jurong in the middle of the island.
The men were bitter, frustrated, and uncomprehending as to why no one was coming up with creative solutions to the crisis. In retrospect, we must point out the utter failure of leadership on the part of Percival. He was too quick to cede ground to his enemy, he failed to deploy his forces effectively, and–it must be said–he lacked that killer instinct required to bring out the kind of elemental savagery needed to win battles.
In London, Churchill watched the situation unfold with mounting despair. It is difficult not to feel a measure of sympathy for him, forced to watch from the other side of the globe as the keystone of his position in Asia evaporated in the heat of the rising sun. But Churchill could be ruthless, too, and he made his intentions very clear to Percival: there would be no surrender. Officers and men were to fight to the last bullet. For some reason, these orders were not obeyed. As the Japanese began to bombard the city from the air, Percival chose to throw in the towel, and it was all over. On February 15, he met with Yamashita to parley for a surrender. The Japanese asked for unconditional surrender, and they got it; thus did the Singapore command condemn nearly 130,000 men to three years of brutal, degrading captivity in Japanese hell-holes, where many of them would be starved or worked to death. They would have been better off dying in a stand-up fight to the death, as Churchill had ordered.
It was the single greatest defeat of British arms in history. In London, Churchill was thrown into a deep depression. The old man tried to put a resolute face on the battle, but its reality could not be concealed. Privately, he was justifiably angered that his commanders had let him down. “They gave up too easily,” he confided to an associate at the time. “They should have done a better job.” This was an understatement, to say the least. But what had gone wrong? There were many things. The Commonwealth commanders had been insufficiently supported and supplied. They had completely underestimated their enemy. They had grown lax from staying in garrison for too long. And, quite simply, they had been outclassed and outfought by the Japanese.
The fall of Singapore in 1942 stands for the proposition that leadership in a crisis is everything: Percival had not been up to the task. He might have gone down fighting trying to break out, but he might just as well have succeeded. The Japanese were stretched very thin, and the right hammer-blow could have turned the battle into a long siege. If this had happened, they might have been able to hold out until the Americans could bring their full economic might to bear in the war. Or maybe not; we will never know.
Despite the magnitude of the disaster, the British were able to redeem their honor a few years later during General William Slim’s brilliant campaigns in Burma. Meeting the Japanese on equal terms, Slim ground them down in an adroit series of interconnected campaigns that have not received the attention they deserved from military historians. Slim proved that there was nothing inherently superior about the Japanese, and nothing inherently inferior about the Commonwealth forces; it was simply a matter of vigorous leadership, confidence, and training. When all is said and done, the responsibility for the fall of Singapore in 1942 is to be found in the dismal failure of Commonwealth military leadership.
The lesson of Singapore is one that should–indeed, must–be reflected on today. The West has enjoyed a long period of comfortable military superiority over its adversaries. It is used to control of the skies, control of the seas, and shaping the course of conflicts in ways that suit its purposes. Those advantages will not be enjoyed in future conflicts. A long period of relative peace has caused many to neglect, or forget entirely, the imperatives of preparedness, leadership, and the masculine virtues. We will pay a high price in the future if this forgetfulness and neglect is allowed to become a permanent fixture of our consciousness.
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