The Fall of Singapore

The unbelievable complacency of the British Far East High Command when faced with Japanese aggression resulted in the loss of Singapore, the Gibraltar of the East, plus the capture of some 90,000 British and Allied troops. Churchill called the surrender “our greatest shame”.

Singapore, an island off the south coast of Malaya and formerly ruled by the Johore Sultanate, was ceded to Britain under a deal with the Sultan and Sir Stamford Raffles who established a trading post there in 1816. After the First World War, the island was considered a vital strategic military base for the protection of Britain’s other Far East possessions. In 1937, a major rebuilding of the island’s defences and fortifications had just been completed and the island was now considered impregnable, so much so that it was referred to as “The Gibraltar of the East”.

The years of British dominance in the area had led to a mood of complacency among the officers and troops based there and stories of Japanese military might were discounted with the British believing themselves to be superior soldiers. The Japanese success in the Sino/ Japanese wars was dismissed as two second rate armies fighting each other.

The Japanese however, had bigger plans. They had watched the Western powers divide the riches of Asia between themselves and had steadily prepared to take what they considered their share. The rise in militarism and the adoption of the Bushido code was all part of their preparation to become the dominant force in the region. They saw Malaya as a major factor in their plans as she was then producing some 38% of the world’s rubber and 58% of the world’s tin. To take over these resources and to then capture Singapore would give them a valuable military base in the region as well as undermining British authority.

This complacency was epitomised by a remark made by a young British officer at the time who worried that the new fortifications might deter the Japanese from attempting an invasion, stating,” I do hope we are not getting too strong in Malaya and Singapore because if so, the Japs may never attempt a landing”.

He could not have been more wrong. The fast, efficient defeat of Russia in the 1904 war, plus the ruthless and mindless cruelty of the two Sino/Japanese wars should have sent a warning to the British. The invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking and the orgy of rape and murder that followed had resulted in the deaths of up to 300,000 people and should have sent a message to the world of what was to come. The British complacency continued however, right up to the time of the first Japanese landing in Malaya when the British Governor of Singapore is alleged to have said, “Well, I suppose the army will have to shove the little men off”.

In December 1941, the British government responded to Japanese in South East Asia by sending a naval force to strengthen her Pacific fleet and to add to the defences of her colony of Singapore. The British Military High Command in the Far East had asked for a large force to be sent to Singapore to deter any Japanese hostility, but with commitments in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, only a small fleet could be spared.

The force consisted of the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse, plus four destroyers, designated as Task Force Z. The British and American governments had planned that, should hostilities break out with Japan, the US Pacific Fleet based in Pearl Harbour would join with the Royal Navy in Singapore and combine their strength.

The British First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, wanted to send a much larger force to counter the growing strength of the Japanese fleet, but, with the war raging in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, only the ships comprising Force Z could be spared.

To make matters worse, the aircraft carrier Indomitable which was scheduled to join Force Z to provide air cover, was delayed when she ran aground during her working up in the Caribbean and was sent to an American dockyard in Norfolk Virginia for repair. A replacement carrier, HMS Hermes, was ordered to join Force Z and was on passage from Capetown but was not deployed due to her lack of speed.

On December the 1st, it was announced that Sir Thomas Phillips had been promoted to full admiral and appointed Commander in Chief of the British Eastern Fleet. Churchill then sent a warning, meant to deter any Japanese aggression, by publicly announcing that Force Z was being sent to Singapore. In response, and unbeknown to Phillips, the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent 36 Mitsubishi G4M bombers to reinforce the existing Kenoya Air Group and Genzan Air Group, based in Saigon, the capital of French Indo China. The pilots of these groups immediately began training for an attack on the two British capital ships.

Upon arrival, one of Admiral Phillip’s first acts was to fly to Manila to meet senior officers of the US Pacific Fleet to set out plans for joint operations should the Japanese declare war. During the meeting, Admiral Harte of the US Navy and Phillips agreed that, in the event of war, the combined fleets should gather in Manila as a staging post for operations against the Japanese. Meanwhile, reports were coming in regarding sightings of large numbers of Japanese transport ships and escorts heading south in the direction of Malaya. Phillips proposed that, should the convoys attempt top invade Malaya, he would intercept and attack them with Force Z. Admiral Harte agreed to send the US 57th Destroyer Division to Singapore to join Phillips’ fleet, this force comprising USS Whipple, John D Ford, Edsal and Alden.

Further sightings of the convoys were confirmed when a Royal Navy reconnaissance plane managed to send a quick report of their position before being shot down by a group of Japanese KI-27 fighters. This was the first hostile act of the Pacific War.

At 7.55am on the 7th of December, without any declaration of war, the Japanese sent the first two waves of bombers to attack the American fleet at its base in Pearl Harbour. Within two hours, five battleships were sunk, sixteen other warships were badly damaged, 188 aircraft destroyed, plus 159 damaged. 2403 Americans were killed and 1178 injured in this cowardly attack. At that moment the American Pacific Fleet had ceased to exist as a fighting force. The three US battleships, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah were beyond salvaging and lay where they sank. in Pearl Harbour. The wrecks were listed as War Graves and have remained untouched to the present day.

Later on that same December day, the treacherous Japanese formally declared war on America and Great Britain and invaded Hong Kong and the Philippines.

On the same day, but recorded as the 8th of December, due to the International Dateline, 31 GM3 Nell bombers of Milhoro Air Group and 34 from Genzan Air Group of the Japanese Air Force, flying from Thu Dau Mot in southern Indo China, attacked Singapore. Their targets were RAF Tengah, RAF Seletar, Sembawang naval base and Kepple Harbour. Thick clouds, poor visibility and rough winds caused most of the formations to become separated and after several; attempts to regroup, Lieutenant Michi Nakanishi, Wing Commander of the Genzan Air Group ordered them to abort the mission and return to base, thereby reducing the impact of a much heavier raid. Only 17 bombers of the Mihoro Air Group reached Singapore on schedule.

The Japanese formations had been detected by a radar station at Mersing in Malaya almost an hour before they reached Singapore. Brewster Buffalo fighters were on standby at RAF Sembawang, but permission to scramble was denied to the pilots of 453 squadron, by Air Chief Marshall Robert Brooke-Popham because he feared that anti aircraft batteries would fire on friendly fighters! Brooke- Popham and his commanders were still totally unaware of the might that faced them. His Order of the Day stated, “We are ready, our preparations have been made and tested, our defences are strong and our weapons sufficient”.

In Singapore, the streets were still brightly lit despite the air raid sirens going off at 04.00 hours, allowing enemy pilots to locate their targets without difficulty. Air Raid Precaution Headquarters (ARP) were not even manned and there was no blackout as police could not find the employee who held the key to the city’s power supply.

The bombers began their attack at around 04.30 and Allied anti aircraft guns opened fire, together with the guns of the warships offshore. A formation of nine bombers flew over without releasing any bombs so as to draw the searchlights and guns away while a second formation flew in at 4,000 feet to release their load. The raiders succeeded in bombing Seletar and Tengah, causing some damage. Bombs also fell on Raffles Place. 61 people were killed with over 700 wounded. All the bombers returned to base unscathed.

This was the first time that the people of Singapore had experienced war right on their doorstep. An eyewitness wrote, “We heard bombing sounds, we didn’t know they were bombing sounds but we heard some explosions. My father got up and went to the window of the house and I was awakened also, and we looked out and so on. We didn’t know what was happening, why these explosions were taking place. But then suddenly, we heard the air raid sirens. But the sirens were sounding after the Japanese bombers had left. They had already dropped their bombs”.

Another wrote, “Of course we were not too alarmed about the whole thing. Of course, it did give us a fright, I mean, first time experiencing air raids. But we all believed I suppose that Singapore was impregnable, and Singapore would not fall blah blah. So we thought that at least the forces were here and would be able to defend Singapore”.

A third eyewitness relates the shock of the attack. “Well, it wasn’t a very nice feeling to, you know, in those days we thought that the British were so mighty that nothing could touch them. It was a nasty feeling to suddenly see these planes coming in 27, or 9 at a time, sailing through the sky with not a bit of opposition and just dropping bombs as they wanted and going off. That was a nasty feeling and sort of hurt one’s pride that this could be done”.

Singapore was spared further destruction for a time as the Japanese concentrated their bombers on attacking British positions in Malaya. The next raid occurred on the night of December the 11th 1941. This was a raid on RAF Tengah by two Japanese K1-21 bombers. The next and more serious raid on the city was on the night of the 29th of December.

Meanwhile, Britain was doing its best to help the stricken colony and during December sent a total of 51 Hurricane Mk 11 fighters to Singapore, together with 25 pilots to form the base of five squadrons to defend the city and take over from the Brewster Buffalos that were being overwhelmed by superior Japanese fighters. By January 1942, they had been formed into two units, 232 Squadron RAF and 488 Squadron RNZAF. On the 22nd of January 232 Squadron destroyed three Nakajima KI-42 “Oscars”, but in the intense dog fighting the Hurricanes were taking severe losses. During the period 27th to 30th of January, another 48 Hurricanes were flown in from the aircraft HMS Indomitable, some to be operated from Palembang in Sumatra and some to Singapore. Many of the latter were destroyed in the incessant bombing of the island.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.