Point and Counterpoint
3. Richard Torre Replies to Raymond Callahan
No, Winston Churchill’s actions from his ascendancy to Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924 through the fall of Singapore in 1942 were not the sole cause of the disaster. But I believe they gave new meaning to the phrase “Asiatic Theatre of Operations.”
With his grip on England’s purse prior to the Great Depression, he repeatedly vetoed or curtailed expenditures for Singapore’s defense and the naval base. As a private citizen in March 1939, he told Chamberlain that “losses and punishment” in the Far East were to be suffered in preference to weakening the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.
When Bourke-Popham was sent to the Far East Command, Churchill didn’t even meet with him; nor did the General Staff. I recall the canard about success having a thousand fathers and failure being an orphan; in this case it seems it was an expected failure.
And on and on the litany goes, up to and including actions in January 1942 with respect to reinforcements being diverted to Burma before the Australians demanded they stop.
Against these actions is a rhetoric of ambiguity, some say duplicity, with respect to the Pacific Dominions, trading security assurances for troops to be deployed in North Africa and the Middle East.
I believe that attempts to square the theatrical rhetoric with consistent actions over 18 years are so much eyewash. Churchill was the most focused, clear-eyed strategist of his time. He was not a Prime Minister of the world, but of Britain, who recognized his primary duty as its survival. All else was disposable and/or negotiable. How else did a hollowed-out Empire not only gain a seat at the table, but often sit at the head?
He knew the United States was one of two critical keys to victory. Another was bleeding the Germans white on the steppes of Russia. He may have misjudged the timing of U.S. entry into the war, but not the ultimate reality of its doing so. And that wasn’t as evident in 1939 as it is now, nor was depending upon the U.S. as sure a thing.
Sir Robert Vanisttart, Under Secretary for Foreign Relations, stated: “1) The USA will always disappoint; 2) Beware of American suggestions that we should cooperate against Japan in the Far East. The Americans will let us down or stab us in the back; 3) We ought be more preoccupied in keeping Japan friendly than endeavouring to better our existing relations with the U.S. which are as good as that unreliable Country will or can allow them to be.”
Whilst the Dominions might have felt elements of anger and betrayal at Singapore, such feelings were naïve, or at the least misdirected. They were certainly alerted by Lavarek and others from the Thirties with respect to Royal Navy limitations. Churchill used his assets brilliantly, including his Svengaliesque hold over Roosevelt.
Singapore was the melancholy victim of circumstance. Steely genius knew how to measure the odds. The war was an all-out battle for survival, not a Vegas craps table. The war’s outcome, as history has vindicated, never depended upon control of the Straights of Malacca.
Hold the coalition together: that was Churchill’s prime directive. Placate the Aussies, send Force Z…It was lost? “Oh, my.”
To this day there are subscribers to Churchill’s “shock” at learning that Singapore was not an impregnable fortress, and gibberish persists about Victorian definitions of the term. Were Churchill a yokel this might be plausible, but surely not from the shrewdest mind of the war and someone who knew more about the language than most. Not an impregnable fortress? “Oh, my.”
Some saw through the rhetoric and ambiguity as those who referred to SEAC (Southeast Asia Command) as “Save England’s Asiatic Colonies.”
I don’t suggest Churchill was callous—just wise enough to know this was total war, and that the Marquis of Queensbury rules didn’t apply. Even if there was a magic bullet—and there was not—Britain did not have the logistical capability and/or sealift capacity to implement it.
If Churchill failed at Singapore, beyond completely underestimating the Japanese, it was in the hope that he could emerge from the war with an intact British Empire. He was wrong.
Earlier I expressed my view that Churchill saved the western world. I not only don’t deplore his tactics, I applaud them. This intrepid, focused and visionary leader faced the insoluble challenge and found a course to victory.
4. Raymond Callahan Replies to Richard Torre
Richard Torre and I agree on many points. The disaster of February 1942 had roots stretching back to the aftermath of World War I, when Britain faced a new world in which its resources were sharply constrained while its commitments, already global, had grown. The resultant insoluble strategic dilemma was evaded by a strategy that contained a very considerable element of wishful thinking. That strategy became increasingly unreal after the mid-1930s and was a Potemkin village by 1940.
This situation was Churchill’s inheritance. He focused on the war against Germany, where Britain’s existence was at stake, and hoped that Japan would be deterred by the Americans.
Richard and I disagree about the genuineness of Churchill’s surprise at the loss of Force Z (Prince of Wales and Repulse) and, a few weeks later, when he learned that the “Singapore fortress” did not exist. I do not believe that Churchill’s reactions in these cases were feigned.
Winston Churchill was many things, but he was not a great actor. In common with others, he overrated Admiral Tom Phillips and underrated the Japanese. In common with most of Whitehall, he simply wasn’t paying much attention to the true state of affairs in Malaya and Singapore because of the enormous, grinding pressure of the European war, something he later admitted. Even for Winston Churchill, the day had only twenty-four hours. He also knew how history works. Excoriating the great Victorian historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, for his misleading treatment of the First Duke of Marlborough, Churchill wrote that history would pin the label “liar” to Macaulay’s “genteel coat-tails.” Churchill knew well the same thing could happen to him. His account of his reactions seems to me perfectly credible.
Singapore was a Greek tragedy: many victims, few heroes; simply people caught in a situation created by Britain’s past that they were powerless to alter. When that situation brought catastrophe, there was a perhaps quite understandable urge to identify scapegoats—Brooke Popham, Percival, the Australians, and later Churchill. But Churchill (and Whitehall in general) were not the first – and certainly not the last – to face an insoluble problem and turn away from it to the comfort of fanciful beliefs.
And that is the real lesson of Singapore. As Churchill put it in another context: “Facts are better than dreams.”