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Singapore Reprise


1. The Imperial Imperative


Professor Kimball is Robert Treat Professor of History at Rutgers University, author of several books on Roosevelt, Churchill and World War II, and editor of Roosevelt and Churchill: The Complete Correspondence (Princeton, 1984).

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 concept 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



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.


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.



2. “God Fought for Us”

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.



Mr. Hughes is a member of The Churchill Centre Australia from Emerald, Queensland.


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.”


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