The Fall of Singapore

To her credit, Prince of Wales still had some fight in her and continued to fire her high angle 5.25 guns at the high-flying bombers, damaging five of them. Phillips finally broke his silence 22 minutes after Captain Tenant had sent his signal and over an hour after the attack had begun. He signalled, “Emergency, have been struck by torpedo on port side, position NYTW0226R06. Repulse hit by torpedoes, send destroyers”. Strangely he still did not ask for air cover. Some further messages were sent, although rather garbled, one message requested that tugs be sent. The ship now began to sink, and it was obvious it could not survive.

The destroyer Express began to rescue the stricken crew. As she came close, a message was sent from the battleship’s bridge asking, “what have you come alongside for?”. The destroyer replied, “it looks like you need assistance”. She managed to take off many of her crew before she was forced to retreat by the capsizing battleship’s keel.

At 01.18 hours, Prince of Wales capsized and sank, leaving many of her crew struggling in the water. Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach both went down with their ships. Of the 1612 of her crew, 327 were lost. The figure for Repulse was 503 lost from a crew of 1309.

It is difficult to understand why Admiral Phillips elected to sail without waiting for the US contingent. In his defence it must be said that, being aware that the British army and the RAF were fighting for their lives in Malaya, he was anxious to help them. His failure to accept the offered air cover from 453 squadron is a little harder to understand as was the decision to maintain radio silence even when the force’s position was discovered and the bombing commenced.

The loss of both ships had a devastating impact on morale on Britain. Sir Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs, “I put the telephone down. I was thankful to be alone. In all the war I never received a more direct shock”.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Malaya continued with the British, Australian, Indian and Malay troops retreating steadily. On December the 11th, they were soundly beaten at the Battle of Jitra having been astounded at the speed and ferocity of the Japanese advance who used bicycles as transport through the thick jungle.

The loss of Jitra was a great blow to the Allies as it guarded a large RAF airbase and several smaller ones. The British withdrew in a hurry, leaving behind large amounts of equipment. Their policy of destroying bridges as they withdrew was negated by the Japanese who had equipped all their infantry regiments with engineer units. The Commander of Australian forces in the area later said, “The whole operation seemed incredible, 550 miles in 50 days, forced back by a small Japanese army of only two Divisions, riding stolen bicycles and without artillery support”.

Captured wounded Allied soldiers were killed where they lay, as were any soldiers surrendering. Some unfortunate Australian troops were doused in petrol and burned to death. Japanese brutality shocked the British, but its effectiveness was proved when they captured the Malayan capital Kuala Lumpur on January 11th, 1942. On the same day, the Japanese launched their first daylight raid on Singapore and continued, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties over the next month.

Withdrawing from Kuala Lumpur, the British established a third defensive line on the Muar River, some 100 miles north of Singapore, but by January the 19th, this line also was broken, and Allied troops began to withdraw into Singapore itself.

The British now braced themselves for a Japanese attack on Singapore itself across the stretch of water known as the Johore Strait. The Far East Commander in Chief, General Wavell was ordered by Churchill not to surrender without a fight, with Churchill stating, “There must be no thought of sparing the troops or population, commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake”. The only course of action now was to destroy the causeway joining the city to the Malayan mainland. This was easier said than done as the causeway was 1,000 metres long and 70 metres wide. but some attempt was made to destroy it.

On January the 31st 1942, the last British and Allied troops withdrew across the causeway that separated the island from Malaya. On the 5th of February, a small force commanded by General Yamashita, of eighteen Japanese tanks, attacked Palau Ubin, a small island off Singapore’s north east coast, short on ammunition and food. The move deceived Percival into thinking this was a major attack and forced him to move his ammunition stores to the east of the island. Wavell had already ordered General Percival to prepare for the invasion, but he was still unsure of the enemy’s intentions.

Percival had upwards of 90,000 men under his command, but of these, some 30,000 had already been captured in Malaya. He decided to spread his remaining forces across a 70 mile line to cover the entire coastline of the island, a fatal mistake. Percival had overestimated the size of the Japanese force and his men were spread to thinly and were too far away to respond when, on February 8th, some 13,000 Japanese crosses the Johor Strait in inflatable boats and overran the Australian troops guarding the area.

They then moved to attack the city. and advanced quickly. The next day, the Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese crossed into Singapore at Kranji, via a repaired causeway. Percival still held men back from converging on the city, fearing that more landings would be made throughout the island.

By the time of the invasion only ten Hurricanes of 232 Squadron were based at RAF Kallang, as those at Tengah, Sembawang and Seletar were now in range of the Japanese artillery at Johor Bahru and had moved to airbases off the island. On the morning of the 8th of February, a series of dogfights took place over Sarimbun Beach and the ten Hurricanes were scrambled to intercept a formation of 84 Japanese aircraft flying from Johor to provide air cover for the invasion. The Hurricanes shot down six and damaged a further 14 for the loss of one of their own. Air battles continued throughout the day and by nightfall it was clear that the few remaining Hurricanes could no longer use Kallang as a base. and were instructed by Percival to withdraw to Sumatra.

The Japanese main objective was the Bukit Tinah area. This was the highest point on the island and also the British petrol, oil and supply base. The Allied soldiers fought well, but the Japanese finally managed to breach the Kranji/Jurong defence line and the Allies were forced to retreat to the final defence perimeter around the city stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kaliang. General Yamashita then established his headquarters in the Ford factory located in the area.

On the 13th of February, the Japanese attacked Pasir Panjang Ridge, a key location leading to the Allies’ main ammunition magazine and the Alexandra Military hospital which was marked with red crosses. Japanese troops charged into the hospital, killing a British officer who had come out to meet them holding a white flag. The troops then entered the main operating theatre and killed the patient on the operating table and the staff tending him.

Another group rampaged through the wards bayoneting the patients indiscriminately. They later gathered some 200 patients and staff, tied them together and locked them up in some tiny rooms for the night. The next morning, they were taken in threes outside and executed. On the 12th, General Yamashita ordered the elimination of all anti Japanese elements from the population, move directly against the Chinese population who had allied themselves with the British to oppose the enemy invasion. The Japanese called the order “Dai Kensho” (The Great Inspection), but the Chinese saw its true meaning as “Soo Ching”, literally meaning “cleansing”.

The Kempeitie, the Japanese military police, scoured the island rounding up Chinese men (and sometimes women and children) for screening. Those who did not pass the screening were bundled into trucks and taken to isolated locations and murdered. The killing and torture went on for some weeks and mass graves were dug to hide the bodies. In Siglap alone, five separate mass graves were dug to hide the bodies. In 1962, these graves were opened, and the bodies reburied. The people called the place “The Valley of Tears”. The Japanese later admitted to some 5,000 deaths during their occupation, but the true figure was over 50,000.

By the 15th of February, the situation had become critical for the Allies. There was only enough water supply for 24 hours and the main reservoirs were held by the Japanese. Furthermore, there was only enough rations to last for three days and the incessant bombing was causing casualties faster than bodies could be collected.

On the morning of that day, Percival and his officers met at the Fort Canning bunker, (known as the Battlebox) and agreed to surrender. Percival himself led the surrender party to meet Yamashita at the Ford factory and officially surrendered.

Despite these momentous events the island’s newspaper, the Sunday Times, was still reporting the Governor of Singapore, Shenton Thomas, demanding that, “Singapore shall stand! It must stand!”. The Japanese took over 70,000 prisoners at the surrender, comprising British, Australian, Malay and Indian troops. Some were sent to Thailand where many later died building the Burma railway. Some were sent to Japan as slave labour and many were crammed into Changi and Selerang Barracks.

Churchill called the loss of Singapore “shameful” and “the worst disaster” and “the largest capitulation in British history”.

The 40,000 Indian soldiers were offered the chance of joining the Indian National Army, a puppet force of the Japanese intended to be used in their plan to conquer British India. Those who joined were taken off the island to bases in Malaya. Those who refused were destined for Japanese concentration camps, first to Batavia (now Djarkata) from where they were sent to New Britain and Bouganville. Their treatment in the camps was cruelty beyond belief. They were worked until they dropped, they were starved and beaten and when they could work no longer, they were taken to a shooting range and used as live targets. Any who were not immediately killed were finished with the bayonet. There is also evidence of cannibalism practised on the unfortunate prisoners. For those wishing to know more of these crimes, the book by G J Douds, entitled “Forgotten Victims” covers the subject in graphic detail.

Life was not much better for the civilian population of Singapore. The Japanese now insisted that Singapore be called Synonan-to, meaning “Light of the South”. They imposed food rationing from the start and introduced their own occupation currency known as the banana note, due to picture of a banana tree on its face. The Japanese printed and issued these notes which became basically worthless due to the massive inflation they caused.

The horror continued throughout the war until the 6th of August 1945, when the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, resulting in Japan’s official surrender on the 2nd of September.

In Singapore, General Itagaki Seishiro signed the first instruments of surrender on the 4th of September while on board HMS Sussex. Eight days later General Seishiro, together with four other Generals and two Admirals, entered the City Hall Chamber to formally surrender Singapore to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia.

After signing the eleven copies of the surrender document, Mounbatten then addressed the crowd from the steps of the building before raising the union flag to symbolise Britain’s return. For the remainder of her colonial rule the 12th of September was celebrated as Victory Day.

The returning British Military Administration assured Singapore that things would return to normal, but there was growing disillusionment among the people and every scar reminded them that the British were not the solid dependable defenders that they had been led to believe. Post war Britain was also set on releasing her colonies and easing them into self government. The next twenty years would see her Far East possessions dwindle as their peoples sought their own destiny.

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.