Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
Churchill Proceedings – Singapore Reprise / 1. The Imperial Imperative
By Warren F. Kimball, Rutgers University
The excellent papers published in FH 138 about the fall of Singapore frame the debate nicely. I would add just one all-important perspective.
By the 1920s, probably earlier, Great Britain had become the victim of Imperial over-reach. The Empire was too big, too complex, too full of energy and challenges, to be controlled without being able to discipline the wayward. Yet the tool Britain had used before—the aura of power and strength that was only sparingly, even “surgically” applied—had become hollow. The aura remained, but the power and strength had to be rationed—and what the British called the “Far East” got short rations. Because of those short rations, what I call the Imperial Imperative asserted itself. The concep t was simple: Never address the stark reality that Britain could no longer afford to provide physical protection for its entire Empire. Choices had to be made, but those choices—the Ten-Year Rule, for example—were always disguised as postponements or sensible efficiencies. Rare was the admission that Britain could not perform its dominant role—only play it.
Presciently, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston S. Churchill, writing early in 1922, warned that “if Singapore fell in the first two or three months of a war, the whole of the Pacific would fall under the complete supremacy of Japan, and many years might elapse before either Britain or the United States could re-enter that Ocean in effective strength.”1 A few months later, the necessities of domestic politics prompted him to back away from a strong stand in favor of the Singapore naval base, and he would take the Treasury’s even more critical approach two years later when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. But if Churchill’s comments in 1941 are any indication, he seems never to have lost his faith in the Singapore fortress, even if he underestimated Japanese strength and was willing to postpone construction of the base. In fact, that contradiction—that Singapore was needed, but not right away—was an admission that Britain could not defend its Empire. But the Imperial Imperative either prevented Churchill and other British officials from saying so, or blinded them to the inconsistency of their arguments.
That Imperial Imperative was part and parcel of Churchill’s Singapore strategy after 1942. That strategy, deserving of separate study, called for the “liberation” of Singapore by British regular (i.e., white European) forces. He recognized that the Japanese victory threatened the image of British strength and invincibility, an illusion that was essential to maintaining control over an Empire that was far, far larger than its colonial master. But it was too late. Louis Allen, in his book Singapore, wrote of a Japanese soldier’s diary, picked up on the battlefield at Mawlu in Burma on 18 April 1944. It contains the usual items: war songs, Imperial proclamations, exhortations to a soldier’s duty, maps of East Asia, introductions to the customs of various Asian peoples. But its illustrations show something else. One page has a line drawing of British POWs, head and shoulders; another the triumphant Yamashita facing General Percival across the surrender table; overleaf is a pen drawing of the downcast “defeated general Percival”; overleaf again a painting of British and Australian troops, naked to the waist, sweeping the streets of Singapore—masters of the East performing menial tasks. Allen wrote:
“No purely military or strategic advantage can be compared to what those illustrations represented not only for the Japanese soldier who carried the diary, but also for the peoples of Asia. Clumsily, cruelly, hesitantly, he liberated them from the domination of Great Britain and her European allies. Even when Japan was defeated, she had made it impossible for the Allies to return to Asia on their own terms.”2
Editor’s note: The idea that the British needed above all else to preserve the appearance if not the fact of Imperial ascendancy during WW2 is subject to the consideration that the Dominions had independence, and India was on the way to it, years before the war started; and without them there wasn’t much of an Empire. Indeed, as David Freeman writes (page 17), the war actually impeded the Empire’s end. And Winston Churchill, for all his protestations, probably knew that.
1. As quoted in Ian Hamill, The Strategic Illusion: The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand, 1919-1942 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), 48.
2. Louis Allen, Singapore, 1941-1942 (London: Davis- Poynter, 1977), 263.