British officers surrender to Japanese troops at Singapore, Feb. 15, 1942.
"I put the telephone down. I was thankful to be alone. In all the war I never received a more direct shock," British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said. He had just received word Japanese naval aircraft had sunk two British warships off the coast of Malaya on December 10, 1941. The prime minister was to receive many more shocks over the next two months, culminating with the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942. He had spoken of "Fortress Singapore," but it had not held out for long. Was Churchill responsible for Singapore’s surrender?
Great Britain recognized Japan as the main threat to Singapore as far back as the end of the First World War and had made plans in the event of war. A strong British fleet would sail to Singapore to seize control of the seas around it, preventing a direct land invasion of the colony or on the Malay Peninsula just to the north.
Churchill gave assurances early in the war to both Australia and New Zealand that defending Singapore would take precedence over British defense of the Mediterranean. But late 1941 found Britain in a fight for its life in a war against both Germany and Italy. Singapore did not receive what was planned or was promised. It got what could be spared, a squadron known as Force Z.
Force Z consisted of the most recently constructed capital ship in the British Navy, the battleship Prince of Wales, accompanied by the battle cruiser Repulse, and four destroyers, all commanded by the 5’2" Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. The aircraft carrier Indomitable was also to be part of the force, but it was undergoing repairs after running aground near Jamaica. With his "fleet" lacking an aircraft carrier, Phillips anticipated air cover from the Royal Air Force flying out of Singapore and sailed from there on December 8th—too late to disrupt Japanese landings on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula that same day.
Air cover for Force Z was not forthcoming, but Phillips sailed on after receiving news of a second Japanese landing near his position. He maintained radio silence, hoping that stealth, maneuver, and anti-aircraft fire would ensure his ships’ survivability, but a Japanese submarine reported their position. On December 10th, over 100 Japanese level bombers and 25 torpedo bombers struck. The Repulse went beneath the waves with a third of her crew; Prince of Wales sank soon after, losing one-fourth of her sailors—the first capital ships ever sunk at sea in wartime by aircraft. Phillips drowned. Force Z, however brave its commander and crews, was simply too small to carry out the naval portion of Britain’s defense strategy for Singapore. Nor would have adding a British aircraft carrier such as HMS Indomitable equipped with only a handful of modern fighters likely have made any difference against such a large aerial force.
British air power might have filled the vacuum left by the lack of a strong fleet. British planners recommended reinforcing Singapore with hundreds of up-to-date aircraft. But Singapore fielded mostly obsolete fighter types such as Brewster Buffaloes. Once again, defending Singapore was less of a priority than defeating Germany, even if defeating Germany meant shipping hundreds of modern Britain fighters to the Soviet Union or retaining them for its own forces in the Middle East.
The third element in British strategy was a quick strike into southern Siam (now Thailand) to seize airfields and landing areas that could be used by the Japanese to invade Malaya. The success of OPERATION MATADOR depended upon fast decisions and timely movement by the British. The Japanese simply got inside their decision cycle and were already ashore before any orders to execute MATADOR were given. All elements of British strategy—command of the sea and air and an occupation of important ground—had failed to occur.
When the Japanese landed in southern Siam and northern Malaya on December 8th, they found themselves hundreds of miles north of Singapore. Allied troops, consisting mostly of Indians, Australians and British, stood between them and Singapore. The Japanese quickly dominated the obsolete Allied aircraft and gained air superiority. With the demise of Z Force, they controlled the sea, with the ability to land troops behind Allied lines. They also had the advantage of possessing nearly 200 tanks, while the Allies had none.
The Japanese initially encountered Indian troops. Fire and maneuver won the day; they simply bested the Indians in combat and outflanked resistance by leaving the roads and infiltrating behind Indian positions. Even without many trucks, the Japanese kept up a steady advance thanks to bicycles. Bicycles abounded in Malaya and Japanese troops took them for their own use. Traveling in groups of 60 to 70 men, they pedaled their way down the peninsula, which gave rise to the campaign’ nickname, the Bicycle Blitzkrieg. The Japanese also conducted just enough landings behind Allied lines to tie up opposing troops. By the end of December, the invaders were halfway to Singapore.
The Japanese retained the initiative in January 1942. The Allies inflicted some casualties through ambushes and fought delaying actions to enable comrades to escape capture, but the Japanese never faced a serious counterattack, let alone a counteroffensive. Additional Allied troops arrived, but not enough to stop the onslaught. The end of the month found the Allies blowing a 20-meter gap in the causeway bridge linking Singapore and Malaya. The battle for Malaya was over; the fight for Singapore proper was on.
Responding to pleas from Australia and New Zealand that Singapore be better defended, Churchill sent reinforcements. These included the 18th British Infantry Division and 44th Indian Brigade—the latter only partially trained—as well as nearly 50 Hurricane fighter planes. But the Japanese paused for only a few days before landing on Singapore on February 8th.
Churchill ordered that Singapore should be defended vigorously and that commanders should die with their troops. The Allies fought to hold on to the high ground at Bukit Timah, the location of their food and gasoline depots, but lost the position on the 11th. With the Japanese threatening Singapore city proper, the Allies pulled back their troops from the eastern section of the island on the 12th, a move that left Singapore’s water reservoirs in Japanese hands.
Low on food, water, and ammunition, the British command ruled out a counterattack. The Allies attempted to withdraw some personnel, but the Japanese sunk most evacuation boats.
Seeing further resistance as futile, on February 14 Churchill reversed himself and authorized the surrender of Singapore. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander of the British and Commonwealth forces at Singapore, sought terms. The Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, told him that any surrender would be unconditional. Percival complied. Reports of the number of troops surrendered to the Japanese range from 60,000 to 100,000 men.
Ironically, Percival surrendered to a force that was much smaller than his own—Yamashita reported his strength as only 30,000 men. Yamashita’s troops were also quite low on ammunition, but Percival could not have known that. The Japanese had advanced over 500 miles in just over 70 days to capture not only their objective, but most of the Allied army as well.
Surrender did not bring an end to the suffering, which simply entered a new phase. The Japanese executed, tortured, and killed thousands of prisoners. Other prisoners of war were worked to death. Civilians fared no better. Any amazement or awe of the Japanese victory over their English colonial masters was quickly forgotten under Japanese rule. Citizens starved as the Japanese shipped food elsewhere. The Japanese tortured or killed others suspected of aiding the Allies. Japan’s post-war estimate of civilian deaths is 5,000, but other sources place it as high as 50,000.
Some revisionist historians blame Churchill for the debacle at Singapore. Churchill did not want to lose Singapore, and he needed to demonstrate to the Australians and New Zealanders that he was trying to defend it; hence, the reinforcement of troops and aircraft in January. Did he make promises to the Australians and New Zealanders that he could not keep? Yes, but Japan shocked the entire world by attacking not only Britain but the United States as well. Could Churchill have ordered a larger fleet to Singapore? Yes, he could have. But the Battle of the Atlantic was raging—it would not reach a climax until 1943—and was a very "near-run thing." Even if Singapore could have been defended with a strong British fleet, would holding it have been worth losing the Battle of the Atlantic? Of course not.
Should Churchill have sacrificed the Mediterranean by sending aircraft and tanks to Singapore as he had promised? No, protecting the Middle Eastern oil fields from German occupation was much more important than Singapore. The same goes for aid to the Soviet Union. With German troops in sight of the Kremlin in December 1941, the Soviet Union needed all the help it could get from Britain in fighting their common enemy.
The blame for the fall of Singapore can be put on Churchill, but that is simply indicative of the fact that he was in charge. Were his decisions faulty or callous? No, rather they were taken as part of the overall war effort. However tragic the fall of Singapore was for its citizens and defenders, however betrayed they and the Pacific Dominions felt, Churchill made the correct decisions.
February 15, 2012, will mark the 70th anniversary of the fall of "impregnable" Singapore to Imperial Japanese forces. In recognition of that anniversary, Armchair General is publishing this article and an accompanying slide show of photographs taken at two Singapore museums that preserve the history of those momentous days in World War II. Click here to see Hans Johnson’s article and images, the Fall of Singapore museums .
About the author
Hans Johnson  is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.