Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
Churchill Proceedings – Singapore Reprise / 2.“God Fought for Us”
By Greg Hughes, Emerald, Queensland
“Tom, don’t get out from under your air cover. If you do, you’ve had it.” —Air Marshal Harris to Admiral Tom Phillips, in A.J.P. Taylor, The Second World War: An Illustrated History (1974), 102.
Amongst my countrymen, Churchill often gets a bad rap, which boils down to two irritants: Gallipoli and Singapore. The first really should have been debunked by now. Singapore is a bit more complex, not least because the survival of Australia was perceived to be in question. Again the local commanders were, to put it gently, not of the first rank. Like Gallipoli, the battle was lost at almost precisely the moment that the enemy (in this case Yamashita) ran out of ammunition. As for Churchill’s culpability, only a barking madman would have put his best generals in a zone at peace when there was real fighting to be done elsewhere. Churchill was reprising exactly what Australian Command had done: in 1941, all our best officers were in the Middle East.
To the question of reinforcements, could Churchill have done more than send two capital ships to pose a “vague menace”? Yes, and he did. Your Proceedings articles in FH 138 do not mention that Force Z had three capital ships, but that the brand new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had scraped her bottom near Jamaica, was unable to join the fleet, and Phillips opted to sail without her. In view of this, Harris’s parting words to Phillips are painfully apposite.
One modern aircraft carrier, forty-eight modern fighters: It would be over-reaching to think they would have turned the tide at Singapore, but the enemy was every bit as stretched. Nagumo, with the bulk of the Japanese fleet, was on the other side of the Pacific, having just hit Pearl Harbour with a carbon copy of a “Slapdash,” Admiral Cunningham’s brilliant action at Taranto. There, one carrier and twenty obsolete biplanes shredded the Italian “Force in Being.” Is it legitimate to speculate that the Force Z as originally conceived might have produced a different result?
When Marshal Ney recommended French officers for advancement and sang the praises of their military prowess to his Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte is reported to have replied simply, “Yes, but have they Luck?” Luck was not on our side at Gallipoli, nor at Singapore. Exactly six months later, two flights of American dive bombers terminated Imperial Japan’s ambitions in five short minutes. Midway was a textbook case of how to win a war: superb tactics and leaders, brilliant intelligence, second rate weapons…it had, well, almost everything.
Democracy is chosen by God or the people, or possibly both. No matter which, you’d have to be a mug to fight it, and I am very glad it won. Occasionally one must revert to Shakespeare: “Is it not lawful, an please Your Majesty, to tell how many is killed?”…“Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement, that God fought for us.” —Henry V, act 4, scene 8.
Editor’s note: The only downside to our publishing Proceedings in Finest Hour rather than separate booklets is that the papers appear sooner, but not simultaneously. At Vancouver last year, Professor Barry Gough (see pages 40-47) discussed Prince of Wales, Repulse, and the carrier Indomitable. On the latter, he adds:
“Indomitable was part of the plan as it developed, but the specific composition of the task force was never spelled out, so sailing only when Force Z was ‘complete’ did not arise. I believe Indomitable would have been a liability, and her forty-eight aircraft could not have provided high-altitude protection against the Japanese Navy’s land-based bombers. Admiral Sir James Somerville, C-in-C of the new Eastern Fleet, who had experiences of this sort in the Mediterranean, said that had he been in Phillips’ shoes and lost his carrier, he would have refused to go to Singapore and instead sailed for Darwin, Australia. For these reasons I have chosen not to press the Indomitable analysis too far. My point was, and is, that Admiral Phillips had overabundant faith in AA gunnery. In addition, he could not get the fighter cover needed, partly owing to communications foul-ups, some bad signals, and his own refusal, perhaps inability, to break silence—and yes, bad luck.”