South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 May 2017 was Captain Peter Rodgers SM MMM S A Navy (Retd), whose topic was The Fall and Rise of Singapore. He explained that his interest in the East Asian war zone during the Second World War was kindled when he was sorting through his late father's papers and came across some photos of a burial party on an unknown tropical island.

He knew that his father had been sent out to the Far East in 1945 but had revealed very little of what he did other than he gave Christian burial to troops killed by the Japanese and was deeply appalled by what he discovered there.

In July 2016 he and his wife visited their daughter who works in Singapore and, as their trip included Bangkok, they decided to visit the site of David Lean's film: "The Bridge on the River Kwai". This led him to research the events on which the film is based.

His talk has its roots in the clash between two Imperial Powers, Great Britain and Imperial Japan, both Island States with few natural resources and dependent on sea-borne trade.

Singapore, as a modern state, was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles who established a trading post on the Island. The Malay Peninsula in time fell into the British sphere of influence and, by 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony and in 1922 Singapore become the main British Naval Base in East Asia.

Following the First World War, the British government devoted significant resources to building a naval base in Singapore, as a deterrent to the increasingly ambitious Japanese Empire. Originally announced in 1923, the construction of the base proceeded slowly until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

When completed in 1939, the base boasted what was then the largest dry dock in the world, the third-largest floating dock, and enough fuel in tanks to support the entire British navy for six months. It was defended by coast artillery batteries as well as a RAF airfield at Tengah. Winston Churchill touted it as the "Gibraltar of the East"

Unfortunately, it was a base without a fleet as the British could not afford to build a second fleet to protect its interests in Asia.

The plan was for the Home Fleet to sail quickly to Singapore in the event of an emergency. However, once war broke out in 1939 the Home Fleet was fully occupied with defending Britain.

The British military strategy in the Far East was undermined by a lack of attention and funding. In 1937, Major-General William Dobbie, the General Officer Commanding, assisted by Col Percival, reviewed Malaya's defences.

They predicted that landings could be made at Songkhla and Pattani in Siam, and Kota Bharu in Malaya and recommended that large reinforcements to be sent immediately. These recommendations were ignored.

By 1940 the army commander in Malaya realised that the defence of Singapore depended on the defence of the whole of the Malayan peninsula as a naval presence alone would not deter a Japanese invasion and that the air defence of Malaya would require 300-500 aircraft. This number was never reached because of the higher priorities in the allocation of men and material for Britain and the Middle East. The aircraft available were all obsolete or obsolescent and only a few ships were available.

The Japanese fear of Russian expansion led to their invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and was the start of an expansionist policy aimed at creating a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

In 1937 Japan attacked China and in the following two years occupied much of northern China and key coastal regions. As a consequence in 1941 the United States imposed an oil and economic embargo on Japan.

In response and as a matter of necessity Japan embarked on a southward expansion to gain critical strategic resources from South East Asia.

On 7 December 1941 the Japanese launched a pre-emptive and surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and at the same time landed forces in Thailand and Malaya.

In his research our speaker found that, despite clear evidence to the contrary, many prominent British Government officials including Sir Winston Churchill had a very condescending and low opinion of the Japanese military capability.

This innate attitude of manifest superiority became a factor in the downfall of Singapore. It would seem that the British made little real effort to really study and truly evaluate the Japanese military capability. As history has so frequently shown, poor intelligence and an underestimation of the enemy will inevitably lead to disaster.

In the 1860s under the Meiji government the army was modernised with the assistance of mainly French and Prussian advisors.

Although the Empire of Japan joined the Entente side during WWI the army was only involved in a minor role.

In the 1920s the army expanded rapidly. Under the Meiji constitution the War Minister was directly accountable to the Emperor. By 1941 it had 1,7 million men, generally well-trained, well led and disciplined although it gained a notorious reputation for fanaticism and brutality.

Following the experience of the Japanese Military Observers in France during WWI the Japanese were quick to realise the advantages of air-power and Japan purchased a large number of surplus military aircraft.

They were soon manufacturing under licence a number of western aircraft and BMW-designed engines. By the 1930s Japan was producing its own technically-advanced designs.

In 1870, an Imperial decree determined that Britain's Royal Navy should be the model for development of the Imperial Japanese Navy and in 1873, a thirty-four-man British naval training mission arrived which in the following years substantially improved the effectiveness of the navy and firmly established British naval customs and procedures.

In 1905 during the Battle of Tsushima the Japanese Combined Fleet decisively defeated the Russian fleet which was almost completely annihilated. An indication of the Japanese Navy's level of development is that it was the first navy to employ wireless telegraphy in combat during this historic naval battle.

In March 1917 following a request by the British the Japanese sent a special force to the Mediterranean. This force, consisting of one armoured cruiser and eight of the Navy's newest destroyers was based in Malta and efficiently protected allied shipping in the Mediterranean until the end of the War.

A memorial at the Kalkara Naval Cemetery in Malta was dedicated to the 72 Japanese sailors who died in action during these Mediterranean convoy patrols.

Developments in modern armaments continued and in 1921 a 30-strong British Mission led by Captain Semphill arrived in Japan to assist the Navy in developing its naval aviation.

They brought plans of the latest British Aircraft Carriers Argus and Hermes which strongly influenced the final stages of the building of the Hosho, the World's first purpose-designed aircraft carrier to be completed.

Recently declassified documents reveal that Semphill who worked as a civilian in the Admiralty during WW2, was passing secret information to the Japanese. Churchill was aware of this but fearing a scandal allowed him to discreetly resign.

Although we are taught that the most important single factor in war is, "The Man", there is no doubt that the opposing General's conduct of operations is a decisive factor.

The commander of the Imperial Japanese Army's 25th Army was Lt-Gen Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was a member of the "Imperial Way" a radical ultra-nationalist faction of the Imperial Army which was formed in the 1920s to cleanse the State of corrupt bureaucrats, opportunistic politicians and greedy capitalists.

As such he became a rival to Hideki Tojo who supported the rival but more conservative and moderate "Control Group" and subsequently became Prime Minister.

In December 1940 he undertook a clandestine military mission to Germany and Italy where he met both Hitler and Mussolini and studied the German army's Blitzkrieg methods.

His opposite number, the General Officer Commanding Malaya, was Lt-Gen Arthur Percival.

As a young Officer, Lt. Percival was badly wounded while leading his men into battle during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Between the wars, Percival served in Ireland where he gained a reputation for brutality against the republicans which led to the IRA putting a bounty on his head. In addition there were two unsuccessful attempts on his life.

In 1936 as Chief of Staff to GOC Malaya he contributed to the assessment of the defences in Malaya and Singapore. He concluded that far more was needed to be spent to modernise the defences, especially in Southern Johore, just to the north of Singapore Island. In April 1941 he was promoted Lieutenant General and appointed General Officer Commanding Malaya.

The British defence strategy for Malaya rested on two basic assumptions: firstly, that there would be sufficient early warning of an attack to allow for reinforcements to be sent out and secondly, that American help would be available in case of attack.

By 1942 it became clear that neither of these assumptions were valid. Further Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that in the event of war breaking out in the East, priority would be given to finishing the war in the West. In late 1941, a weak naval force, Force Z consisting of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the old battle cruiser HMS Repulse, was sent to South East Asia. No aircraft carrier could be supplied.

Japanese forces invaded Thailand and Malaya on 8 December 1941. Pearl Harbour and the Philippines were attacked at the same time.

The British did have a contingency plan in the event Japan invaded Malaya called Operation Matador. This was to attack and destroy the Japanese invasion force before and during the landing.

On 7 December Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commander in chief of the British Forces in the Far East was aware of a Japanese force approaching Malaya, but fearing that the approaching Fleet was an attempt to provoke a British attack so as not to provide an excuse for Japan to declare war, he hesitated to initiate Operation Matador.

Shortly after midnight [7/8 December] Indian soldiers patrolling the beaches at Kota Bharu spotted three large shadows, transport ships carrying approximately 5,200 troops anchoring off the coast.

Within hours the Japanese had complete air superiority thanks in part to a British traitor, Captain Patrick Heenan, who was passing by clandestine radio the visual recognition codes and giving guidance to the approaching Japanese aircraft. Heenan was arrested, court-martialed and shot.

Meanwhile Force Z minus any air-cover was seeking the invasion force off the Malaysian East Coast and on 10 December Japanese aircraft attacked and sank HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse.

Admiral Phillips in command had adhered to the belief that capital ships could not be sunk by aircraft, despite contrary evidence from US Brigadier General Billy Mitchell's 1921 tests and the role of the antiquated Swordfish biplane aircraft in crippling the German Battleship Bismarck in May earlier that year.

Enjoying air superiority the better-led, better-experienced and well-trained Japanese troops utilising their own Blitzkrieg tactics rapidly pushed the British, Indian and Australian troops southward toward Singapore. Their infantry had no vehicles so they used bicycles and made good use of jungle tracks to achieve surprise.

Despite some local tactical successes, the poorly equipped and under-trained Commonwealth forces were no match for the Japanese and could not halt their advance and, by the end of January 1942, they had reached the Johore Straits facing Singapore Island.

On the 8th February the Japanese crossed the Straits and invaded Singapore.

Percival conducted his defensive campaign from the secret "Battlebox" deep beneath Canning Hill. The Battlebox was a reasonably well-equipped command centre serving the whole of the Malaya Command.

Meanwhile the Commonwealth forces were steadily losing ground and the last significant battle was fought at Bukit Chandu between the Malay Regiment's C Company and the advancing Japanese. They were greatly outnumbered and when they ran out of ammunition they fought on in hand-to-hand combat.

Most were killed and the few survivors were massacred including the last officer standing Lt Adnan Bin Saidi who, despite being wounded, continued to fight until he fell. Barely alive, the Japanese tied him to a tree and bayoneted him to death.

An oft-quoted myth is about the coastal artillery in that the batteries faced south towards the sea in expectation of a Japanese seaborne assault. Contrary to popular belief they were trained to fire northwards against the Japanese assault across the Johore Straits. But having only armour-piercing shells intended for use against shipping, they were largely ineffective against infantry targets. However they did sink one Japanese transport ship and were used to demolish the nearby oil storage tanks thus preventing these from falling into Japanese hands.

The decision to surrender Singapore to Japan was made on 15 February 1942 in the Commander Anti-Aircraft Defence's room where Gen Percival had summoned his senior commanders.

He initially proposed a counter-attack to regain the water reservoirs and food depots overrun by the Japanese. Advised that there was now only one day's worth of water and only two days' worth of ammunition remaining and, with the Japanese in control of most of the island, it was unanimously agreed that a counterattack was impractical. Consequently Percival had no choice but to ignore Churchill's admonitions to fight to the last man, and to seek terms with the Japanese Commander. This was arguably the British Empire's greatest disaster of World War 2.

Following the surrender the Commonwealth troops were marched to the Changi prison area at the Eastern end of the island. These included an entire Division that had arrived in Singapore only a short while before the surrender.

Changi was a civilian prison built by the British in 1936. It and its satellite camps became the main internment centres for the Allied Prisoners of War and civilian men, women and children some who remained there for more than three years following the surrender of Singapore.

It became infamous for the cruelty meted out to the POWs by the Japanese guards as well as being the embarkation point for the POWs being transported by rail in metal box cars to Thailand where they were forced to work on the notorious Thai-Burma Death Railway.

Today the Changi museum is dedicated to all who suffered during Singapore's dark years of WW2 and our speaker was deeply moved by the collection of POWs' letters, documents, paintings and sketches. Alongside the museum building is a replica of the Changi Chapel built by the POWs. The original was relocated to Canberra.

This chapel is a place of pilgrimage for veterans and the families of ex-POWs. Our speaker was saddened to find no trace of any acknowledgement of the over 20 South African sailors who died when HMS Cornwall was sunk in April 1942. HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall were Royal Navy heavy cruisers that were involved in the evacuation of Singapore. Both were sunk together by Japanese carrier-based airplanes off Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Likewise they were without aerial protection as were the case with HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse .

Another museum is the Thailand - Burma Railway Centre which is an interactive museum, information and research facility dedicated to presenting the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway - the notorious "Death Railway" - in a respectful, factual and non-partisan way.

The "Death Railway" ran 415 km from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat in Burma, Its purpose was to link Thailand to Burma, thus providing a much-needed means of getting war supplies to Burma for the Japanese build-up for their invasion of India. The alternative was to use the sea-route around the Malay Peninsula with the considerable risk of their ships being torpedoed by US submarines.

The building of the railway was supervised by Japanese army engineers using an estimated 180 000 impressed civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60 000 Allied Prisoners of War. The brutality of the guards, starvation rations, inhumane working conditions, lack of medical facilities and rampant disease led to the deaths of about half of the Romusha labours and over 12 000 POWs. The POWs were treated like slaves but were legally not, as the Japanese paid them a pittance for their labour.

This centre/museum is the work of an Australian, Ron Beattie who has researched the history and construction of the rail line for some years before he opened the centre in 2003 and is probably the most comprehensive exhibition of the subject anywhere in the world, setting out the history of the railway from the initial British survey, Japanese planning for the region, invasion of Burma, construction and use of the railway to the post-war repatriation of the POWs and reburial of the dead.

The museum covers the fate of the Allied POWs and also gives comprehensive coverage of the inhumane conditions endured by the conscripted Asian workers who were forced to work on the railway under even worse conditions than that experienced by the POWs.

Following the dropping of two nuclear bombs and the Soviet Union's declaration of war, Imperial Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, with the formal surrender ceremony held aboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd. The British-Indian Army liberated Singapore and the surviving prisoners could return home.

The two Allied Commanders respectively in Malaya and the Philippines who were forced by circumstance to surrender to the Japanese, thereby creating the "British Army's greatest humiliation" and "the worst military defeat in United States' history", were British Army General Percival and US Army General Wainwright. Both were invited by General Douglas MacArthur to stand right behind him when he accepted the Japanese Surrender aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945.

Later Percival did much to assist the many returning POWs who were struggling to come to terms with their wartime experiences.

Gen Yamashita was tried by an American Military Tribunal for War Crimes against civilians and POWs. He was sentenced to death and hanged on 23 February 1946.

His controversial trial led to a precedent being set by the US Supreme Court which is known as the Yamashita Standard that where "vengeful actions are widespread offenses and there is no effective attempt by a commander to discover and control the criminal acts, such a commander may be held responsible, even criminally liable." One could ask why then was Emperor Hirohito as supreme commander of the Japanese Military, not charged in similar manner?

At the end of WW2 Singapore was in a poor run-down condition with much of its infrastructure destroyed, food shortages, unchecked diseases and rampant crime and violence.

In 1959 it became a self-governing state within the British Commonwealth with Lee Kuan Yew as its first Prime Minister. Under his firm, visionary and decisive leadership the government focused on establishing a manufacturing industry, public housing estates and public education. By 1990 it had grown to become one of the world's most prosperous nations with a strong free market economy and international trade links.

Today, this island city-state of 5.6 million people is modern with eye-catching architecture, law abiding citizens and an efficient transport system consisting of a fully integrated bus and rail network.

It is the only Asian country with a top AAA sovereign rating from all the major credit-rating agencies. The World Bank says it is the "easiest place to do business" and has the second-busiest port in the world after Shanghai and is consistently rated as among the least corrupt countries.

Our speaker showed us a number of recent slides of the modern city. Cdr Bisset thanked our speaker for his well-researched and -illustrated talk, which was the first on this subject ever given at the Cape Town Branch, and presented him with the customary gift.



We welcome Messrs A C Thorndike, D Swanepoel and J J Liebenberg who joined us recently and hope to see them at our meetings in future.




This is the first-hand account of the speaker, who, after finishing school, was conscripted into the SA Defence Force as an infantryman. He volunteered to pass the gruelling selection and training course mandatory in joining the elite band of paratroopers in the SADF, colloquially known as "Parabats". This is his story of his experiences in combat and the scars it left - both physically and psychologically.


The South African War occurred during the middle of the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration (1895 -1922) so it is not surprising that many men took part in both - but what the speaker found interesting when researching the subject was that for many of the important leaders of Antarctic exploration (Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild, Ernest Joyce, John King Davis & Lawrence Oates) the South African War was directly or indirectly responsible for their careers as polar explorers.

In the talk Dr Cullis shall give a brief outline of the History of Antarctic exploration and how the South African War was responsible for the careers of some of the important explorers - and also mention that part that some of the explorers played in the War (including Lawrence Oates about whom Taffy Shearing spoke to the Society about 20 years ago). He was wounded, being shot, just outside Aberdeen in 1901 and 10 years later died when returning from Scott's unsuccessful attempt to be the first at the South Pole.

The lecture will be illustrated.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /