South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 435
May 2012

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Bill Brady 031 561 5542
Society's web site address:

The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture ('DDH") was presented by chairman Bill Brady entitled "The Fall of Singapore".
The Battle for Singapore commenced when Japan invaded Malaya on the 8th December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbour. Improvements to the defences of Singapore had only just been completed at great cost. Singapore was considered a strategically vital military base, and thought to be an impregnable fortress; frequently referred to as "The Gibraltar of the East" and "Bastion of the Empire."

The fall of Singapore was the greatest humiliating defeat in the history of British arms. 130 000 Commonwealth troops surrendered to 30 000 Japanese. Winston Churchill called it the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British history. Commonwealth forces, mainly comprising of British, Australian, and Indian troops were inadequately trained and inappropriately deployed; mistakenly believing that the Malay jungle was impassable. Therefore, the Japanese onslaught when it came through the Malay Peninsula took the British Command by complete surprise. The British military command in Singapore did anticipate an attack from the sea and were confident it would be easily repulsed. This explains why all the guns at Singapore pointed out to sea. Commonwealth troops were told that the Japanese were poor fighters and not a threat to the mighty British Empire. They had become victims of their own propaganda. An air of complacency and lack of preparation was evident. Social life was considered more important in Singapore. The Raffles Hotel and Singapore Club were often frequented by officers. To the British, war was still fought by the 'rule book. However, this was soon shattered. The Japanese had no intention of fighting a conventional form of war. With speed and savagery, using bicycles and light tanks for swift movement, they never allowed time for defenders to re-group. They were ordered not to take prisoners as this would slow down the advance. Some captured troops were doused with petrol and burned to death. Locals who had helped the British were tortured and murdered. The brutality of the Japanese soldiers was horrific.

Britain's naval presence stationed at Singapore consisted of a squadron of warships named force Z; led by the modern battleship "Prince of Wales" plus the battle cruiser "Repulse." This force under the command of an Admiral resolutely disbelieving in air power was meant to be a deterrent to the Japanese. On December 8th 1941, the squadron put out to sea and headed north up the Malay coast to where the Japanese were reported to be landing. On December 10th, both ships were sunk by air attacks from Japanese land based bombers and torpedo bombers; thus, making history by being the first capital ships to be sunk in open seas from the air. The loss of both capital ships had a devastating impact on morale in Britain. Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs: "In all the war I never received a more direct shock". The Japanese were led by General Yamashita, known to his troops as "the tiger of Malaya." The Commonwealth troops were led by General Percival, nicknamed "the rabbit" by his troops. Both men were probably appropriately named. Many of the Japanese troops had fought in the Chinese campaign and were battle hardened; whereas many of Percival's men had never seen combat

Due to an inadequate early warning system, Singapore city was subjected to intense aerial bombing. The bombers struck the city centre as well as the naval base and air fields, causing many civilian casualties. By the morning of 15 February, the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence where troops were running out of food and ammunition. At 9:30 a.m., Percival held a conference with his senior commanders. He proposed two options. Either launch an immediate counter-attack to regain the reservoirs and the military food depots or capitulate. All present agreed that no counter-attack was possible. Percival opted for surrender

The main talk was presented by guest speaker Pam McFadden entitled "Impressions of Battlefields".
Pam shared with the audience her experiences of the past few years in travels to many countries with particular emphasis and interest in history, military history, architecture and various peoples and their cultures. Many power point slides were used to good effect commencing with the visit to the Black sea and the Crimea and then up the Dnieper River to Kiev, the ancient capital of Russia. The major battlefield site visited was Sevastopol and Balaclava to see the Valley of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Germans besieged, bombed and destroyed most of Sevastopol during the WWII. The Russians built a memorial to the defence of Sevastopol, the regiments involved and the eternal flame. Much of Sevastopol was totally destroyed and this included anything that may have remained from the Crimean war. The Russian memorials dominate the landscape. One of the main causes of the Crimean war was the threat to the British and French was Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles. The first British attack silenced most of the Russian guns leaving a gap in the city's defences. However, they did not follow this up with an infantry assault and a possible early end to the siege was missed. The cascabel (the large ball at the rear of old muzzle-loaded guns) of several cannons captured during the siege were used to make the Victoria Cross.

The previous year Pam spent a couple weeks in Turkey and one of the must see places was Gallipoli.
The intention of this campaign was to relieve pressure on the Western front in Europe. An attack on the Turks, who were seen as weak would force Germany to move troops from the Europe to assist their ally. On 25 April, 1915, British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops landed on Gallipoli at what is now known as ANZAC Cove. After nine months of ferocious and futile battle, the Allied forces were withdrawn in January 1916. Nearly 400 000 men died in this campaign. In Switzerland Pam was amazed to come across this block house from the Second World War in a mountain pass in the Jura Mountains. Switzerland has always been a neutral county so why a block house? The country is ringed with blockhouses built to defend their neutrality against a possible invasion by Germany in WWII.

Then on to Belgium and the Somme battlefields in France. Ypres occupied a strategic position during the First world War because it stood in the path of Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium, called for in the Schlieffen Plan . By October 1914, the much battered Belgian Army broke the dykes on the Yser River to the north of the City to keep the western tip of Belgium out of German hands. Ypres, being the centre of a road network, anchored one end of this defensive feature and was also essential for the Germans if they wanted to take the Channel Ports through which British support was flooding into France. For the Allies, Ypres was also important because it eventually became the last major Belgian town that was not under German control. Following the opening of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude to those who had given their lives for Belgium's freedom. Every evening at 20:00, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road which passes under the Memorial and sound the Last Post. This ceremony has been carried on uninterrupted since 2 July 1928 except for the occupation by the Germans in WWII when the daily ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey in England,. On the evening of the liberation Ypres in the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town. The Memorial gate is large but is in a very narrow street so cannot be seen from a distance. It is also one of the main roads in and out of the town and it is amazing that every evening the road would be closed to the traffic for the memorial service. Wreaths are constantly being laid here. Then to Langemark, the German cemetery. In 1984 the total number of identified dead buried in the cemetery totalled 19,378.

The remains of 24,916 unidentified German soldiers had been brought into the cemetery following battlefield clearances and had been interred in the newly created Kameraden Grab ("Comrades Grave"). Since 1984 their identified names have been inscribed on bronze tablets surrounding the Kameraden Grab.

One of the places that had the most profound effect was Die Dodengang at Diksmuide along the Yser canal. (this is slightly north west of Ypres). 220m of these original trenches remain along the canal. The Germans had erected an observation post which commanded the area. In an attempt to remove this obstacle the Belgians began this trench system in May 1915, slowly pushing it northwards. What the Belgians hadn't realised was that the Germans were doing exactly the same southwards. Eventually the two sides found themselves only a matter of metres apart and began fortifying their positions. The casualty rate soon gave the trench system its nickname and with justification as the Germans not only bombarded the system incessantly, but constantly tried to take it by raids. Pam then described her tour to Britain and visits to Bosworth Field and Culloden.

Following a lively question and answer debate the vote of thanks was presented by Roy Bowman who congratulated both speakers on their research and presentations.

Thursday 10th May 2012 - 19h00 for 19h30.
Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture
will be- My experiences as a NSM Gunner in Op. Savannah, 1976 by Jeremy Day.

The Main Talk will be presented by Donald Davies on Tunnels from the Frontier Forts.

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: June - August 2012

14th June
DDH - Heritage and Environmental Assessments by Jean Beater.
Main - Maj Gen Sir Charles Warren in Northern Natal by Prof Philip Everitt.

12th July
DDH - The lonely Boer graves of St. Helena by Jayne Moir.
Main - Nazis on Ice by Colin Dean.

9th August
DDH - Arthur Martin-Leak, VC and Bar by Robin Smith
Main - 1941 - 1945; The Naval War in the Pacific by Capt. Brian Hoffmann.

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