Britain’s “impregnable fortress” surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”; but in July 1942, five months after the fact, WSC said: “I have never made any predictions, except things like saying Singapore would hold out. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say it would fall.” Our 2007 Vancouver conference considered: just how “impregnable” was the “fortress”? Could it have been saved? What did Winston Churchill know, and when did he know it?
1. Hope is Not a Strategy
by Richard M. Torre
Mr. Torre is chairman of Dartmouth Associates, a merchant and investment bank. He assisted in establishing the USS Missouri National Monument, the New Orleans D-Day National Museum, and the World War II Memorial.
They grouped together about their chief
And each looked at his mate
Ashamed to think that Australian men
Should meet such a bitter fate.
And black was the wrath in each hot heart
And savage oaths they swore
As they thought of how they had all been ditched
By “Impregnable” Singapore.
—Dame Mary Gilmore, Australian Poet
When Christopher Hebb snookered, I mean invited, me here this morning, it was to debate Bill Ives, the Centre’s most recent past president. Bill, Chris and I agreed to a “spirited, no holds barred” format, the bloodthirsty Hebb wanting body parts on the floor.
I was temporarily relieved when Bill Ives was compelled to withdraw. Being skewered by a litigator from Chicago is not high on my personal wish list. Relieved, that is, until I read Professor Raymond Callahan’s CV. I was convinced that my only defense would be a sudden case of pneumonia. Hebb got wind of my plot and bribed my wife to force-feed me vitamins. Frankly, it was more effective than anything Britain did in South East Asia between the two world wars. My plot was foiled and I am here.
But I’ve come to see that I have a second line of defense for my position that Singapore had to fall. It can be summarized in five words: Hope is not a strategy.
In the sixty-five years since the fall of Singapore, many excellent works have emerged, several by my opponent. Typewriters were clanging before 1942 was out, espousing theories, reporting facts and concocting fairy tales as to why it took only seventy days for these little yellow men with buck teeth, poor vision and limited understanding of the modern world (the contemporary cartoonist image) to humble mighty Britain and its regional satellites, India and Australia.
Perhaps the best of these was written in 1971 by Gen. S. Woodburn Kirby, official British military historian, in his posthumously published Chain of Disaster. Kirby posited that there was a linking of responsibilities from 1921 until the collapse of Singapore in 1942. It was the political, economic, military and leadership failures, all compounded, which doomed the island fortress in the opening weeks of 1942.
In this and dozens—no hundreds—of works, there is a central theme: the hope that the Royal Navy would steam to the rescue. That is—as long as the Japanese didn’t have the temerity to strike at an inopportune moment, like when Britain’s finite resources were deployed elsewhere, such as the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
Indeed, Professor Callahan will affirm this view. In his outstanding book, The Worst Disaster: The Fall of Singapore, Ray stated: “The basic fact was that Britain after 1918 was no longer able and, perhaps, no longer willing, to defend her world position built up in the Victorian era. Churchill could not alter this. What he did was to see clearly that Britain could fight one war, or lose two.”
So, as you can see there is really no debate at all. The simple answer is “Yes,” Singapore had to fall. Just as its sponsor state, Britain, disintegrated as a world power after three hundred years, its chattel Singapore was equally doomed. From Pax Britannia’s apex in 1900 to a hollowed out shell by 1918 and a fiction by 1942, the jig was up, and all the world could see—especially the Asiatic world.
The disintegration of empires gets very sloppy. Ambiguity abounds. There’s no lack of culpable individuals and incidents that can be blamed.
Singapore was but a single tile in a mosaic, strategically, logistically and tactically indefensible in an age when isolated, fixed fortifications were obsoleted by technology and mobility.
A dozen summarizing points:
1. Singapore was not and could not be an “impregnable fortress” by any definition. This wasn’t the 1800s and this wasn’t Khartoum.
2. If Singapore were so critical to the British Empire, then having the “B” Team of Commander-in-Chief Far East Robert Brooke-Popham (relieved during the Battle for Malaya) and General Arthur E. Percival (British commander at Singapore) in charge was incomprehensible. Neither was Chinese Gordon and both were completely overmatched by Japan’s General Yamashita.
3. For a litany of reasons, many economic, the defenders were ill-equipped. Even the air defense strategy, which succeeded the naval defense, was starved and never approached the presumed requirement of 336 modern aircraft (there being on hand but 180 obsolete Buffalos and Wildebeests).
Never underestimate an opponent, for they will most certainly not do what you expect.
4. Once and for all, the 15-inch guns were not pointing the wrong way. Four of the five had Mark II naval turret mountings and 360-degree traverse if the obstructing cables and gun-stops were removed, as they were. Two of the five 15-inch rifles (two others obstructed by hills), along with all six of the 9.2-inch guns, fired north during the battle. All the 6-inch guns on Tekong Island also fired into Johore. The greater limitation was the lack of high explosive, anti-personnel ammunition, most being armor piercing for ship assault. The latter was ineffective against massed formations, intended for the Japanese fleet that never came. There’s that problem again: “the enemy does what it can, not what you expect it to do.”
5. If you want to lead a coalition, it’s a good thing to have conformity of strategic goals. In the months and weeks prior to the attack on 8 December 1941, there were draining disputes with Australia, in particular, over the Far East/Near North dichotomy.
6. John Curtin, the pacifist of the Thirties who succeeded Robert Menzies as Australian Prime Minister, became the appeaser of 1940, attempting to negotiate with his friend, Ambassador Tatsuo Kawai, for a separate peace with Japan. The prize was the iron ore deposits in Yampi Sound. As these discussions began to fail, Kawai told Curtin straight out on 29 November 1941—ten days prior to the attack—that matters had “gone too far.”
Curtin had become increasingly hawkish from mid-1941. Equipped with this additional knowledge, he became embarrassingly more vocal with his criticisms of London’s policies, demanding that they immediately assume the defensive positions in Southern Thailand known as the Matador Plan. He was unsuccessful, as was Percival, whose dithering scuttled this opportunity;
7. Lest one think Curtin a traitor, one must put his actions within the context of the time. Britain’s Far East policy from 1939 was one of appeasement, a play for time. An odious example was Britain’s being quite willing to starve the Chinese following Japan’s demand to close the Burma Road, reopening it under U.S. pressure in late 1941.
8. Though one prominent turncoat, Capt. Heenan, was executed, Singapore’s failures were not the result of fifth column activity. There was significant Japanese spy infiltration into Thailand and Malaya from 1937. These spies were fully versed on the woeful state of British preparedness.
9. The sinking of Repulse and Prince of Wales was a psychological blow. But these assets were never deployed in any serious military context and had zero effect upon the tactical outcome.
10. The three national forces, the British, Australians and Indians, especially the Indians and the Australian replacements, were conspicuously untrained. The last reinforcements, in January 1942, virtually marched off their transports and into captivity at Changi.
11. The civilian administration under Shelton Thomas was obstructionist and actually forbade military preparations on the basis of not wishing to alarm the population.
12. There are well-substantiated allegations that some of the Indian troops ran under fire, and that others joined the Japanese Army. Lest this suggest some character or racial defect, let the record show that as they jumped into the waters of Keppel Harbour, they landed atop the Aussies who beat them to the docks. And why not? Aussie Gen. Gordon Bennett fled Singapore without permission. Poor leadership in the field is a virus that will sap the will of any army to fight.
So, as you can see, the confluence of a deteriorating fictional empire, limited resources, extraordinary incompetence and unpreparedness doomed Singapore.
The British attempted to lure the U.S. Fleet to the base as a hoped-for deterrent to Japanese aggression. General George Marshall vetoed the plan. It was one more rung in the ladder of hope: We hope we won’t be preoccupied at the instant of a Japanese attack; and, if we are, we hope the U.S. will curtail the Japanese dog.
Unfortunately for Britain, this last bit of wishful thinking found the U.S. preoccupied with its isolationism, unprepared for war and full of its own prejudices as to Japanese capabilities. And so, 65,000 Japanese field troops managed to overcome 138,000 ultimate captives and casualties.
Churchill saved Western Democracy as we know it, but he could not save the echo of the British Raj, and he could not save Singapore. Nobody could.