The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 1 - June 1989


by Charles Cohen

(An edited version of the lecture delivered to the SA Military History Society on 13 August 1987)

'The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history' is Winston Churchill's assessment of the surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942.

The likelihood of this 'worst disaster' occurring was not only predictable but was predicted. General Smuts' comment in 1924 on the proposed construction of the base shortly after the idea was first mooted, stated with accurate foresight that tensions in the Pacific would probably arise only when troubles in Europe would make it well-nigh impossible for the whole or even part of the Royal Navy to be moved to Singapore.

The likely form of attack was even more specifically predicted in 1925 by the then General Officer Commanding Singapore, General Theodore Fraser who foresaw that a landing would take place in Siam (modern Thailand) followed by a landward march down the west side of the Malay Peninsula along the first class road that existed there. This appreciation from the man-on-the-spot was apparently never placed before the Committee of Imperial Defence, which made the recommendation that the base be built.

Why then did those in control ignore these and other warnings to desist? The reasons are, as always, many and complex and can no more be reduced to nonsensical 'explanations' such as that, the 'guns faced the wrong way' than the 'miracle' of Dunkirk to the discerning, disguised the catastrophic, if temporary, defeat of British arms on the continent of Europe.

To begin at the beginning, Britain's world strategy was traditionally based upon the command of the sea, which in turn rested on two factors. Firstly, maintenance of a powerful navy deployed in position to control the seaways in and out of Europe and, secondly, by the preservation of the balance of power on the Continent. Supporting this strategy, however, required allies.

Conditions in the 19th and early 20th centuries fulfilled these requirements. As a result Britain was able to exercise naval command in the Far East prior to the First World War primarily because the only navies then capable of challenging her were located in Europe - a situation that changed dramatically in the aftermath of that war.

Possessed of diminished power in that aftermath, she could realistically exercise the option of protecting her Pacific and Far East interests either by building up her navy and having a Battle Fleet stationed permanently in the area, or else finding an ally with a common cause willing and able to assist in protecting those interests. The question was, could she?

In addition to emerging from the war much weakened, the war itself exposed Britain's inability even at maximum capacity to act effectively in the Far East whilst herself engaged in war in Europe.

The battle of attrition then being waged in Europe, reaching its climax in 1917, required the almost total strength of the Royal Navy concentrated in European waters leaving a paucity of ships available to protect convoys in the Mediterranean and the Indian oceans against the perceived German submarine threat.

This task was delegated to Britain's treaty ally, Japan, who, in addition, was, in the first year of the war, mandated to seize German possessions in the Pacific and on the coast of China.

War-time allies tend almost as a matter of course to afterwards fall out over the spoils. Britain and Japan proved no exception. In executing its seizure mandate, Japan revealed designs against China which were not in accordance with the interests of her British ally. These Japanese manifestations of European-style rapaciousness were taken into account during the deliberations of the Committee of Imperial Defence at its 1921 Conference. At this conference Britain's defence strategy was examined which was based on the assumption made in 1919 that she was unlikely to become involved in any future major war for at least the ten years following.

A number of factors had to be considered with reference to this strategy - the so-called '10 year rule'.

To begin with, the elimination of the German Navy and the concomitant growth of the United States and Japanese navies meant that the centre of gravity of naval power had shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Secondly, Japan's aggressive tendencies towards China threatened to disturb the peace and stability of the Far East. From the British viewpoint this meant that a potential threat from Japan existed to the sea communications between the United Kingdom on the one hand and Australia and New Zealand, as well as Britain's vast commercial interests in the Far East, on the other.

Thirdly, it was considered neither necessary nor economic to maintain a fleet in both the west and the east.

It was decided therefore to hold the British Fleet in a central position in European waters from which the Far East could be reinforced if and when necessary.

The decision contained its own contradiction, a classical text-book case of 'overstretch'. It meant that the fleet could be despatched to the Far Eastern waters only if European navies remained weak, the possessors of more powerful navies remained friendly, and full United States naval co-operation was assured.

As it turned out none of these assumptions held true in the 1930s.

A fourth major consideration at the time (1921) was the great importance attached to the battleship in shaping strategic thinking.

At a stage when air power was still in its infancy it was assumed that a battleship could only be neutralized by another battleship with guns large enough and firing shells with sufficient penetration to sink it. Therefore, naval power had to be exercised primarily through possession of battleships and world-wide bases to serve them.

It is with such considerations in mind that the decision was finally taken, to construct a base to maintain the fleet. Geography ultimately dictated that the site chosen was Singapore.

Since it was believed that the Japanese, should they attack Malaya, would experience the utmost difficulty in transporting and protecting their expeditionary force in the difficult terrain of Jahore, they would perforce be obliged to attack Singapore directly from the sea. An attack overland was therefore considered unlikely. In planning Britain's response to such attack, allowance was made for a lapse of time before the fleet reached Singapore. This was named the 'Period before Relief' and was projected at seventy days.

What had to be ensured was that the means existed to defend the base against a Japanese attack during the period before relief.

Such was the thinking during mid-1939. With war clouds gathering ominously over Europe, the Chiefs of Staff felt obliged to extend the period before relief from seventy to ninety days, which later on in 1940, was further extended to 180 days. When the need arose, and Japan did indeed attack Malaya, all of this became meaningless. What, in the meanwhile, was happening at the base itself?

To revert back slightly, in 1936 the situation there was reassessed by General Sir William Dobbie who assumed command at Singapore in August of that year. By then considerable progress had been made with the fixed defences at the base. The guns were then facing out to sea to repel the anticipated attack from that quarter.

Until Dobbie's assumption of command, it was considered that
(1) the probable form of attack would be a landing on Singapore Island under cover of a naval bombardment;
(2) enemy air attack would be carrier-borne and therefore limited;
(3) the enemy would be unable to land on the east coast of Malaya during the north-east monsoon (October to March); and
(4) the difficulty of the country inland was such as to provide an automatic defence for the base from the north.

Exercises aimed at testing the feasibility of an enemy landing on the east coast were held during the north-east monsoon of 1936/7. These exercises proved that it was not only feasible to land during the monsoon period, but positively advantageous to the attacker. This was by virtue of the fact that bad visibility limited the defender's air reconnaissance and reduced the efficiency of air attack on the enemy fleet and its transports.

Dobbie sent to the War Office his appreciation of the likely methods the invader would use. These were:
(1) the securing of advanced air bases in Siam or Indo-China;
(2) landings at Singora and Patani in southern Siam and at Kota Bharu in Malaya;
(3) possible subsequent landings at Kuantan and Mersing;
(4) an advance down the main road and railway on the western side of Malaya with the object of attacking Singapore Island from the north.

In retrospect, it is almost as though Dobbie scripted the sequence of the Japanese attack in December 1941, which followed precisely his appreciation of what was likely to happen, based on the experience of the British forces during their 1936/7 manoeuvres.

It should not go unnoticed that Dobbie's Chief of Staff during the exercises was Colonel A E Percival destined to serve as General Officer Commanding Malaya when war struck. Ironically, from 1930 onwards, the directing staff and students at the Imperial War College in London carried out war games based on the assumption that Japan would attack British territories in the East with the United States neutral and the situation in Europe requiring the fleet in European waters.

Based on historical precedent, the students concluded too that Japan would strike without a declaration of war. As is the wont of military planners and their political masters, knowledge and appreciation is one thing, application of the knowledge and appreciation, another.

At the very time that the Singapore base was completed in 1938, the assumptions on which its construction and defence were based were proven invalid. Realizing this, Dobbie's successor Major-General L E Bond accepted that the defence of Singapore rested on the defence of Malaya and appropriate preparations in anticipation were begun. But, alas, Malaya was not the only area on Britain's strategic agenda.

Before dealing with the chain of events leading to war between Great Britain and Japan it is appropriate to consider why it was that successive British governments were intent on pursuing defence policies, inter alia, towards Singapore against the advice of highly placed critics and which subsequent events proved to be disastrous.

The answer perhaps lies in a word borrowed from the title of Barbara Tuchman's book The March of Folly. 'Folly' she defines as the pursuit of a policy contrary to the self-interest of the State involved.
To qualify, she suggests four criteria:

(1) The policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time. British foreign policy generally, throughout the inter-war years, was a classic example of this. Not all influential quarters supported the pusillanimous policy of appeasement. Not all influential quarters were blind to the Nazi menace. Dealing specifically with Singapore, there was a strongly argued case for abandoning the construction of the base whatever the difficulties involved.

(2) A feasible alternative course of action must have been available. With this, one cannot, but with respect, agree. There was no inevitability about Britain and Japan going to war with one another and almost to the end, Britain, for her part, although admittedly from a position of strategic and military weakness, attempted to avoid it. From 1902 until the Washington Treaty of 1922, Britain and Japan were bound by treaty to an alliance with one another, an alliance which Britain may have wished to continue, but abandoned in favour of a not wholly rewarding alliance with the United States in the face of Japanese ambitions in China.

(3) The policy in question must be that of a group not an individual ruler. Successive British Governments pursued these policies.

(4) There is a refusal to benefit from experience and situations are assessed in terms of pre-conceived fixed notions. The limits of Britain's naval power exposed in the First World War plus the logic of warnings by Smuts and several others against the entire concept of the Singapore base should have caused successive governments to reassess the position, but did not.

And so the war began. One observation is clear: as the dangers increased so Britain's strategic position weakened.

At the 1937 Imperial Conference it was assumed that Britain's likely enemies in a future war would be, in order of priority, Germany, Japan and Italy.

The significance of Japan being rated second meant that next to the defence of the British Isles, the defence of Singapore was considered the most vital priority. By 1939 Japan had been relegated to third position and with it the strategic priority accorded Singapore. Italy and the Middle East acquired the second spot.

As was argued and proved correct, once war came, Europe was the main theatre. The Royal Navy's presence was required to be there in strength, which meant that unless the United States entered the war, the defence of the Far East would have a low priority for Britain and an even lower capability.

With Japan's invasion of China in 1937, and in particular the subsequent occupation of the island of Hainan which brought Siam and Indo-China within range of Japanese bombers, Britain's strategic position deteriorated markedly.

This process was exacerbated by the fall of France in June 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war as an ally of Germany.

It is worth noting that the massive loss of stores at Dunkirk meant that most of what limited surplus war material existed would be sent to the Middle and not the Far East.

As Britain's own position became more desperate with the collapse of France, so the prospect of sending reinforcements to the Far East receded further and further.

In June 1940 Churchill told the governments of Australia and New Zealand that it would no longer be possible to send British reinforcements to the Far East, 'in the unlikely event of Japan, in spite of the restraining influence of the United States, taking the opportunity to alter the status quo in the Far East.. . We should therefore have to rely on the United States of America to safeguard our interests there'.

What then was Japan's strategic position and why was it thought unlikely that she would 'alter the status quo in the Far East'?

Her situation is summed up by Paul Johnson as follows:

(1) The Japanese were aware of their inability to wage a long war. There was historical precedent for this. Notwithstanding their brilliant early victories during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5, in the war of attrition that followed, they were, in effect, rescued by the Great Powers.

(2) The war with China, begun in 1937, had proved an illusion. Initial victories had not amounted to total victory. The war was stalemated not because of the effectiveness of China's resistance but because of China's unconquerability. 'It was not a case of Japan swallowing China, as the army hotheads had predicted, but of China, in its gigantic, wallowing helplessness, swallowing Japan'.

(3) She could not hope to defeat the United States - and her military leaders were well aware of this. She blundered into one thing that would unite the American people against her - an attack on American territory. The ability of the Japanese Navy to ensure supplies to an empire stretching over the vast expanse of the Pacific was limited as was its ability to prevent the Allies from supplying their bases.

A different viewpoint is expressed by Sir Basil Liddell Hart. He saw the Japanese Navy as qualitatively superior to that of the Allies particularly in the crucial area of aircraft carriers. However Japan's naval weakness lay in the relatively inferior size of her merchant navy.

Whatever argument is advanced the fact remained that in the long run, Japan, because of her inferior industrial capacity compared with that of the United States, was unable to prevent the United States from developing a war-winning strategy. She herself never produced one.

A contrasting viewpoint was expressed by Major General J F C Fuller. He wrote that whatever the outcome of the war in Europe, the United States could not have been crippled permanently. Above all she would never have been willing to accept a face-saving formula for a short war - a consideration that appears to have escaped Japan's strategic planners.

It may be thought strange that Japan resisted the temptation to strike at the colonial Powers at their most vulnerable, after the fall of France in June 1940. Certain factors clearly held her back:
(1) the situation in China was unsatisfactory with little prospect of improvement;
(2) the navy was unwilling to strike south if this were to bring the nation into conflict with the United States;
(3) neither the army nor the navy were then ready for war;
(4) the army was convinced that the Soviet Union might invade Manchuria.

This changed dramatically. With the effluxion of time expansionist and militarist elements gained a greater hold on the Japanese government and with this occurred the change in policy which aimed at gaining control of the Southern Region - if possible without war; and bringing hostilities in China to a successful conclusion without delay. This policy of looking for soft pickings in South-East Asia inevitably increased tensions with the United States ultimately leading to the decision to attack Pearl Harbour. Japan seems never to have considered that the effect of such an attack might not crush the morale of the American people but unite the nation for combat.

As Barbara Tuchman observes, 'This curious vacuum of understanding came from what might be called cultural ignorance, a frequent component of folly'. The same may be said of Hitler's failure to understand Britain's refusal to come to terms with him after the Dunkirk disaster.

If Britain's inter-war policy was 'folly' Japan's policy leading to the decision to go to war in December 1941 was nothing short of national suicide or, as Paul Johnson calls it 'rational hysteria'. By bringing the United States into the war against her she virtually guaranteed her own defeat and that of Germany which gratuitously declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941 although not obliged to do so in terms of the Tripartite Pact. This strange decision coincided with the fact that by December 1941 'Operation Barbarossa' - the German attack on the Soviet Union - had failed, and the military initiative had passed out of Hitler's hands never to return. Therefore, whatever store Japan may have placed on a German victory to strengthen her own position would not be realized.

Surprisingly, no combined strategy for pursuing the war existed between Germany and Japan. Each pursued its own objectives without reference to the other. As a result, the Allies held the initiative as to when, where and how they would deal with each adversary in turn.

So much for the background and overall strategic position. What then was the actual situation in Malaya?

In May 1941 Lieut General A E Percival took over as Officer Commanding, Malaya, and with it a motley collection of 80 000 British, Australian, Indian and Malayan troops.

The figure, although impressive, does not tell the full story. Some of the problems associated with this force included poor quality officers; poor training, especially in jungle warfare; lack of artillery; lack of civilian labour to construct defences and lack of homogeny.

The decision to defend the Singapore base by holding the whole of Malaya meant that in the absence of the fleet the task fell primarily on the RAF.

Because of the key role allotted to the air force it was decided that the primary task of the army was to defend the airfields from which the RAF operated. These airfields had been built without reference to the military but rather to suit civilian requirements. From a military viewpoint they were located too close to the coast and too close to the border of Siam to be effectively defended. For the air force to carry out its task effectively it was estimated that it required a minimum of 336 modern aircraft including a long range striking force. At the outbreak of hostilities it had a mere 158, most of which were obsolescent.

The absurd result, as Liddell Hart asserted, was that ground forces were widely dispersed to guard airfields that contained an inadequate air force and which airfields had been built to cover a naval base containing no fleet! The ultimate irony though is that the Japanese were to be the main beneficiaries from both airfields and naval base!

To forestall the anticipated Japanese invasion the British High Command evolved a plan to seize the Siamese port of Singora ('Operation Matador') and to delay the anticipated Japanese advance from Patani by holding a position called 'The Ledge'. This plan required crossing the international frontier into Siam thus making Britain guilty of violating official Siamese neutrality.

For Operation Matador to succeed, time was of the absolute essence. British forces had to be in Singora before the Japanese landed. However, as Britain attempted to the very end to avoid war with Japan, the military were forbidden to violate Siamese territory until an actual outbreak of war. With such a constraint, and time being of the essence, Operation Matador should have been abandoned. It was not, and with disastrous results.

Incredibly, as late as 29 September 1941, it was still believed by British military and civilian leaders in the Far East that Japan was committed to concentrating forces against the Soviet Union, and it was therefore improbable, so it was argued, that she would at the same time take on Britain, the United States and the Netherlands. By mid-November 1941 the official assessment was that war would not come until March 1942. The Japanese decided otherwise.

On 7 December 1941, a British Hudson reconnaissance aircraft spotted Japanese naval vessels 100 miles [160 km] north-east of Singora with others steaming towards Patani.

Despite this clear act of war by Japan, 'Operation Matador' was not fully launched. Even so, the advance to The Ledge could, and should, have been immediately ordered. This was not done. As a result, an invaluable twenty four hours was lost during which time the Japanese forces landed and the British lost a most valuable opportunity. Had they held The Ledge, the invasion could have been delayed even though the landings could not have been prevented.

On the next day it was reported that Japanese troops were attempting to land at Kota Bharu and at the same time Singapore suffered its first air raid. War had come to Malaya. On 8 December the Japanese attacked the British air bases in Malaya with the devastating result that by the end of the day a mere 50 British aircraft were operational, the rest being destroyed. Those still operational were immediately ordered back to Singapore. Thus, on the first day of the attack Japan obtained total air supremacy over Nothern Malaya.

Two days later, on 10 December, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse, the only Royal Navy capital ships in the Far East, were sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers off Kuantan. By this single stroke Japan gained complete naval command of the South China and Java Seas and a large part of the Indian Ocean. The negative effect of the sinking of the Prince of Wales on British morale throughout the world was serious, with a concomitant boost to Japanese morale.

What of the Army? Although keyed up for it, delays in mobilization meant that the troops did not receive the order to launch 'Operation Matador' effect, and morale suffered. An attempt by British troops to advance to The Ledge fell six miles [9,6 km] short of its objective when on 10 December 1941 Japanese troops overran the leading battalions. Another disaster, and with it any real chance for British troops to delay the Japanese advance until relief came, occurred on 12 December 1941 when the strategically-located and well-prepared Jitra position was abandoned within twenty four hours of being attacked. The intention of the British had been to hold it for approximately three months. Thus, after the twenty years of preparation to avoid such an eventuality, the fate of Malaya, and with it Singapore, was sealed in the first four days of the campaign. In the words of Major General Woodburn Kirby, 'One can sum up by saying that those responsible for the conduct of the land campaign in Malaya committed every conceivable blunder. They underrated the enemy, paid insufficient attention to the training of their troops and delayed taking urgent decisions even after the Japanese had landed on Malayan soil. Singapore and the naval base were lost between 8 and 12 December'.

There followed a non-stop retreat down the Malayan Peninsula almost exactly along the route anticipated by Generals Frazer in 1925 and Dobbie in 1937. And yet, even so, opportunities were lost for delaying the advancing Japanese until reinforcements, predominantly Australians, could be sent to Malaya from the Middle East. Without command of the sea or adequate air cover, Percival had no hope of either stopping the invasion or holding North Malaya. He nevertheless failed to follow two courses of action which may have had positive results; firstly to concentrate his forces in the west of the country instead of scattering them in a futile attempt to hold the airfields; and secondly, to construct field and anti-tank defences at bottlenecks along the north-south lines of communication. Failing to do either resulted in his exhausted troops having no adequately prepared defensive positions to fall back on.

Similarly, the defence of Singapore Island depended on the construction of permanent defences in Jahore, aimed primarily at holding the Japanese outside artillery range of the naval base located on the northern side of the island. These defences would also have protected the vital water supplies to the island. The effect of such a stout defence might well have caused grave problems to the Japanese, who by then were at the end of very long and unreliable lines of communication and thus at a disadvantage. We now know that the Japanese commander General Yamashita was very concerned about his supply problems especially the shortage of ammunition.

However, the premature British withdrawal from Mersing and Jenalaung enabled Yamashita to land essential supplies required for his assault on Singapore Island. The final act in the sad scenario of blunders occurred when Percival, instead of concentrating his forces on the north-west of Singapore Island, the obvious point of assault, and holding some in reserve, dispersed his forces all around the island with none in reserve. It is open to question whether the island could have been successfully defended once Jahore was lost, but in any event it was not, and was surrendered five days after being attacked. The surrender to the Japanese occurred a mere seventy days after they had landed in Malaya. 'Fortress Singapore' proved to be nothing more than a myth.

The effect of this humiliating defeat on Britain was summed up by Liddell Hart in these terms: 'Singapore had been a symbol - the outstanding symbol of Western power in the Far East, because that power had been erected and long maintained on British seapower. So much emphasis had been given since World War I to the creation of a great naval base at Singapore that its symbolical importance had come to surpass even its strategic value. Its easy capture in February 1942, was shattering to British and European prestige in Asia. No belated re-entry could efface this impression. The white man had lost his ascendance with the disproof of his magic. The realization of his vulnerability fostered and encouraged the post-war spread of Asiatic revolt against European domination or intrusion'.

Many men died in the campaign. The survivors, together with the British civilian population suffered well-documented indignities and unspeakable cruelties in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps and civilian internment centres in which tens of thousands died.

The Malayan civilian population suffered greatly. Its tragedy was that, essentially, it had no stake in the struggle between Imperial powers who were using its land to wage war in pursuit of their own interests. As a tribute to this suffering one records the words of Lord Slim spoken in 1946. Although referring specifically to Burma they have a universality applicable to the innocent victims of that greatest of mans' follies - war:


Churchill, W S The Second World War. (London. Cassell. 1948-1954)
Cross, C The Fall of the British Empire. (London. Hodder & Stoughton. 1968)
Dyle, G War (London. The Bodley Head. 1986)
Foot, M R D Six Faces of Courage. (London. Eyre & Methuen. 1978)
Fuller, J F C The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their influence on History. (London. Eyre & Spottiswood. 1954-1956)
Howard, Med. The Theory and Practice of War. (London. Cassell. 1965)
Johnson, P A History of the Modern World. (Cape Town. Jonathan Ball. 1985)
Kirby, S W Singapore, the chain of disaster. (London. Cassell. 1971)
Liddell Hart, B H History of the Second World War. (London. Cassell. c1970)
Tuchman, B W The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam. (London. Abacus. 1985)

Periodical articles
Barclay, G St J 'Singapore Strategy: The role of the United States in Imperial Defence.' Military Affairs. April 1975.
Booth, K 'Singapore 1942: some warnings.' The Army Quarterly. I, II. Oct 1971-July 1972

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