Singapore was promoted as a fortress, an icon of British influence and prestige in the far east, and a point from which the empire could exercise power over its dominions in the Pacific.
The reality of Singapore was quite different. Far from being an icon of British power and prestige, it typified an empire that was faltering economically and militarily. In war as in peace, Singapore was a victim of economic pragmatism, conflicting strategic views, and a naivety of the changing balance of power in the Pacific and around the world.
Singapore was not a fortress that would stand against the Japanese tide washing across the pacific. Rather, it was a mirage that could at best forestall what was an inevitable outcome given the circumstances in 1941-42.
Why did Singapore fall?
Successive administrations failed to adequately plan for and equip Singapore to defend against the type of attack waged upon it by Japan in 1941-42, despite such a strategy being foreseen. This was the product of economic and political considerations and a naivety by planners of the changing balance of power in the region and around the world. Closely related to this is the overly optimistic view of Singapore’s strength and the failure to update plans as strategic realities changed. Finally, once the Japanese intent to attack Malaya became evident and as it progressed, commanders made flawed decisions. Though commanders were resigned to the fact that their resources could only stall an enemy advance towards Singapore, their decisions did little to slow them.
The Battle for Singapore
Transports, escorted by cruisers and destroyers carried men of General Yamashita’s 25th Army, initially south towards Saigon to deceive any surveillance, before turning north towards the Gulf of Thailand. On December 6th, an Australian Hudson aircraft from Kota Bharu in Malaya sighted the Japanese fleet and reported it.
The news prompted forces in Malaya to be put on readiness to implement Operation called Matador, a plan to prevent enemy forces gaining a foothold via Thailand. Despite generous warning, this plan would not be proceed. The next day, a British Catalina aircraft also sighted the Japanese fleet, though it was unable to communicate this news before Japanese fighters destroyed it.
The threat now posed north of Singapore should now have been clear, yet commanders were paralysed with doubt and confusion, some even believing Operation Matador had already being initiated. On December 8th, less than three hours before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Japanese forces landed at various points in Malaya and Thailand. Where resistance was met it was ineffective, with 12,000 men, with tanks and vehicles landing despite heavy shelling. At locations including Singora and Patani, the Japanese found no resistance at all.
Japanese progress was swift, capturing 3 airfields in the first week, including one at Victoria Point. The outmoded aircraft of the RAF in Malaya provided some assistance initially, damaging a transport and killing 60 Japanese troops. The Japanese advance though continued, with British forces establishing a defensive line at Jitra. A division was meant to hold Jitra for three months, yet the Japanese with only a few hundred soldiers and handful of tanks, broke through in mere hours.
As the Japanese advanced, British forces were hampered by panic. A bridge at Jitra was prematurely blown up leaving armored vehicles and artillery on the wrong side of a river. Field guns, machine guns, and over 300 armored cars were abandoned by British forces along with months worth of provisions, all of which the Japanese could use. Another attempt to stop the Japanese, this time at Gurun, stood a chance of success so long as already fatigued soldiers could establish defences in time. This too failed, and the British withdrew to Kampar where two weeks of fighting followed.
Meanwhile, a small contingent of Royal Navy vessels led by the destroyers Prince of Wales and Repulse searched for the Japanese fleet. On December 10, both vessels faced a fleet that included 80 aircraft. Both destroyers were lost.
The Japanese broke through defences at Kampar, with orders now for a final siege of Singapore. The Japanese advanced swiftly through Malaya, the population of Singapore had swollen from 550,000 to over a million with the influx of refugees. To defend it were 85,000 troops, though most of these were fatigued or undertrained. Told to prepare for a 12 month siege, the causeway linking Singapore with the mainland was destroyed on the morning of January 31, 1942. This would prove no obstacle for the Japanese who either swam or used boats to cross the distance no greater than a mile. Japanese artillery quickly destroyed the last usable airfields on Singapore, with remaining RAF fighters withdrawing.
As Singapore became untenable, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued advice on January 14, as he began to focus less on victory and more on the pride of the empire. He advocated that there be no surrender, that the soldiers there had a chance to make history by fighting to the bitter end. “Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops,” he wrote. Despite Churchill’s pleas to British honour and sacrifice, forces in Singapore surrendered a day later.
Why Singapore Fell
By the early 1920s, Singapore was a prosperous trading hub and key port along the shortest passage from Southampton in England, to the British colonies in the Pacific. Its defences at this time were minor, consisting of a small garrison, and several 9.2 inch guns on nearby islands to defend Keppel Harbor, with a range far shorter than that of modern naval vessels. Economic difficulties following the First World War and limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, tipped the balance of naval power in the Pacific. Britain was unable to sustain a permanent fleet presence in the East.
Realising the inferiority of Singapore’s defences, particularly against the growing naval might of Japan; British military planners augmented the island’s defences throughout the 1920s and 30s. Their aim was to create a base, ready to receive British vessels from European waters when the need arose, and to maintain a defence until those vessels arrived. Singapore was to be a stone frigate, where once a fleet of actual frigates once ruled the waves.
Improving weapons systems were installed, with twenty-nine new naval guns, controlled via a complex network of fire control stations, ranging platforms, and automation. Though the bulk of Singapore’s armament remained largely outdated, using 6 inch and 9.2 inch guns intended for close range defence, the batteries of 15 inch guns were to be Singapore’s greatest asset. With a range of over 3 kilometres, these weapons rivalled the range of contemporary ship mounted weapons. The base itself was therefore placed towards the north of the island; almost 2 kilometres behind the batteries.
The virtue of this design was a strong defence against sea threats, but the design also had a vulnerability. Little firepower could be projected behind the island to the North, against an enemy advancing from southern Malaya. Singapore’s smaller guns lacked the range, while the larger guns, with their cumbersome hardware and complex fire control, could not easily fire north. Even if modified to do so, by the time fighting reached Singapore, they lacked the shells to attack land targets.
Military planners responsible for strengthening Singapore, foresaw the risk of attack from the north. A proposal to design the guns to operate towards land and equip them with the appropriate ammunition in 1924 however was ignored. This limitation of the other wise formidable batteries at Singapore deprived British forces of a powerful weapon with which to hold back the Japanese from the island in 1942.
Though Singapore would come to be called a fortress by Britain’s military, it had few of the fortifications one would associate with such a title. There were no real impediments to a force that either defeated or bypassed the battery of naval guns. History would prove the “fortress” to be as much a mirage as France’s Maginot Line, come the outbreak of war.
Intended as a staging post for fleet operations, with any defence required only until the fleet arrived from Britain, Singapore was not intended to be self reliant for defence for an extended period. The period in which it did have to provide an effective defence was the “period before relief”, the time it would take British vessels to arrive, originally projected as 42 days when plans were created in the 1920s. By early 1939, this period had increased to 72 days.
As Europe plunged deeper into war and France capitulated to Germany, the admiralty’s projections only worsened, increasing to 180 days by September 1939. These response times did not adequately take into account the British fleet being devoted to engagements in Europe and the Middle East, as was the case during the Second World War.
Singapore had long being marketed as a fortress, not least by the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the British fleet despite reductions, was still considered a formidable force. In a cabinet paper from September 1940, Churchill promoted the fleet as Singapore’s best defence, stating that no foe would dare risk engaging in a battle knowing a superior fleet could intervene. This faith in Britain’s traditionally strong navy therefore held back planners from embracing alternatives.
The best alternative to the Navy for Singapore’s defence was air power. Dating back to the earliest plans for strengthening Singapore in the 1920s, the still young Royal Air Force had promoted itself as a more versatile option over the more traditional naval guns ultimately installed by the admiralty.
The reasoning of the Navy in that era was not unreasonable. Naval guns would be a permanent and proven deterrent, where as aircraft were still unproven against capital ships. Though initially seen as insignificant, greater acceptance of the need for air power developed in the 1930s. Airfields were established throughout Singapore and Malaya, though the lack of modern radar and anti-aircraft guns, and their dispersement of resources, proved ineffective later. With those in command still favoring naval power despite having few resources in the Pacific, the strength of air resources tasked to Malaya and Singapore was inadequate. The initial 88 aircraft were deemed insufficient by commanders in 1940 as fears grew over Singapore’s security.
A request from Singapore for over 586 aircraft was downgraded in London, to 336. Churchill personally overruled even this reduced allocation, instead ordering 158 aircraft. Churchill favored resources going towards active theatres, rather than the still placid Singapore region. Not only was this number far less than the 600 deployed by Japan in 1941, but the aircraft deployed were technically inferior to Japanese models. Japan was able to achieve air superiority, and with no air cover for Britain’s naval vessels, achieve control of the sea around Singapore. The sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were a direct consequence of this.
In planning their defence of Singapore, the British failed to appreciate the changing strategic balance in the Pacific, and Japan’s greater ability to project military power throughout the Pacific.
In 1922, General Lord Ismay of the Quetta Staff College posed a hypothetical scenario regarding an attack on Singapore. In this scenario, the sea would be used only to blockade supply to the island, while the main attack would come via Malaya or Thailand. The solutions to this scenario focused too heavily on defending the island itself rather than defending the broader area an enemy would approach it from.
Furthermore, the idea of an invasion was dismissed at the time by reason of Britain’s fleet responding well before the end of the projected four-month siege Singapore could survive. The realities had changed over time. Japan’s naval forces grew significantly as did their air power. They established forward bases of operations and channels of intelligence in Thailand and Malaya. The British navy was not the impediment it once may have been by the late 1930s.
A minor attempt to strengthen defences beyond Singapore came with Operation Matador. This plan, aiming to prevent an enemy using Thai ports, was fraught with obstacles. It was under resourced, relying entirely on the Indian 11th Division. It required at least 24 hours notice for it to be successful, with some estimates suggesting up to 72 hours was more realistic. The plan called for the use of unprepared positions and the breach of Thai sovereignty, both of which caused commanders to hesitate activating the plan.
Once the conflict in Malaya and Singapore had began, errors of judgment and strategy hastened Japan’s advance and eventual success in taking Singapore. The British knew that with the resources available, a total defence of Malaya would be impossible. The strategy was therefore to stall Japan with a staged, fighting retreat culminating in a final siege in Southern Malaya. Such a strategy was hampered from the outset by a lack of tanks and anti-tank artillery. This strategy also did little for the morale of soldiers and resulted in significant resources falling into enemy hands. Planning a siege of Singapore was also a defective strategy given the close distance to southern Malaya and lack of physical fortifications.
With the benefit of hindsight that history gives us, the fall of Singapore was inevitable given the resources available. Poor decisions and planning since the 1920s and a failure to appreciate changing strategic realities, meant Singapore was poorly positioned and poorly equipped to defence against an attack from land.
For Australia, the fall of Singapore proved a watershed moment in our history. We had invested in the idea that Singapore and the British fleet would project British power into our region and protect us. As war waged in Europe, our first great and powerful friend faltered. And as Singapore fell, and the ships of the Royal Navy sank in its defence, so sank our faith in the empire being able to protect us in perilous times.
1789 Australians were lost in the defence of Malaya and Singapore. 130,000 allied soldiers were captured when Singapore fell, including 15,000 Australians. Over 7000 of these PoWs would never return home. As Australia reeled from this loss, Britain threatened to send more Australia soldiers to foreign lands, as the defence of Australia itself appeared more precarious in the face of Japanese advances.
We looked to a new powerful friend, Prime Minister John Curtin moving to align us with the United States, who within hours of the Japanese landing in Malaya, had also suffered an attack, at Pearl Harbour.
While Curtin’s words announcing the realignment earned cringes from British and US leaders alike, it none the less formed a foundation for a strategic partnership that would last for better or worse, to the present. A partnership that as we again enter uncertain times, must be assessed critically, lest we again invest our future unwisely in the safe ideas of old.