THE fall of Singapore undoubtedly marked a turning point in Far Eastern history. It showed that the position of western Powers in the Far East was no longer secure, and that consequently the whole relationship of eastern and western peoples had entered upon a new phase. What was at stake was the future of all western interests in the Pacific, since the Japanese attack threatened not only colonial territory and trade but also the life of independent states like Australia and New Zealand. It challenged not only the military strength but also the political principles and prestige of occidental peoples.

No doubt it was this aspect of the fall of Singapore, which gave it a far deeper significance than that of a retrievable military disaster, that caused public opinion to shrink from the wider issue and seek an explanation in purely local circumstances. It was perhaps natural that, in the consternation caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, the failure in Malaya should have been ascribed to the shortcomings of its defenders rather than to the general position of inferiority of United Nations forces in the Pacific. Press and public, in the United States and also in Great Britain, charged the military commanders and the civil administration of Malaya with gross incompetence and neglect, while they overlooked the larger framework of world politics and world strategy of which events in Malaya were but a part.

Some of the accusations levelled against the military command can be disposed of out of hand. The most common of these is the statement that British plans for the defense of Singapore did not take into account the possibility of an attack from Thailand down the Malay peninsula. This is plain nonsense.

The strategic conception upon which Singapore was founded was that it was a protected naval base from which a powerful fleet could operate. It was therefore defended against attack from the sea by fixed coastal defenses. To say that "the guns pointed the wrong way" is absurd. The heavy coastal artillery firing both armor-piercing and explosive shells was intended for a specific purpose and was not of the type designed for repelling attacks by land (although in fact some of the guns could be brought to bear upon the mainland, and were actually so used). Mobile artillery and other forms of defense were needed against an enemy approaching from the mainland. All these were provided in fair quantities. Plans for defense along the Malay peninsula were worked out when the base was completed. They were developed and revised as the general strategical position in the Far East changed, and particularly as it became clear that, in the event of a European war, the main strength of the Royal Navy would be required in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Nor was the development of air power overlooked in these plans. Military airfields were constructed at a number of points on the island of Singapore and throughout the peninsula.

New plans for defense against a Japanese attack either from Thailand or from landing points on the Malayan coast were drawn up by the general officer commanding in Singapore in 1940 and revised in the light of new conditions by his successor in 1941. But a plan is one thing, and the force with which to carry it out is another. The plain truth is that, when the Japanese attack was delivered on December 8, 1941, there were not enough men or machines to meet it, because everything which Great Britain could spare had been sent to the Middle East and to Soviet Russia. On that day there were in the whole of Malaya not many more than 100 front-line aircraft, most of which were of an obsolete type -- Brewster-Buffaloes, Wirraways, Wildebeestes, a few Blenheim bombers; no Hurricanes or Spitfires. There were about three divisions (say 50,000 in all) of British troops, in about equal proportions from the United Kingdom, from India, and from Australia. There were a few light cruisers and destroyers but, beyond Prince of Wales and Repulse, no powerful warships; and hardly any small fighting craft of a type which could be used to prevent landings in small force by the enemy for infiltration purposes.

The Japanese, having for the time being eliminated the threat of the American Navy (which they would have had to take into account as a potential menace on their flank even had the United States not been at war with them), and having on December 8 destroyed a great part of the American Far Eastern Air Force in the Philippines, soon had effective command of the sea and the air in the Malayan theater and were secure from attack in their bases in Indo-China and Thailand. According to their own accounts, their initial landings were made by two divisions, one at Singora in Thailand, and one at Kota Bahru, which is on the northeast coast of Malaya, close to the Thai border. The first landed without opposition from the Thais, who indeed appear to have connived at preparations made by the Japanese in the summer and autumn of 1941 for landing on the Kra Isthmus. The second met with instant and vigorous resistance by British forces (a part of one division), which were established in strong positions along the beach, with an elaborate system of pillboxes, trenches, entanglements and under-water obstacles. Neither at Kota Bahru nor at Singapore were the British forces unprepared for the Japanese attack. It has often been alleged that they were taken by surprise, but that is not true. Their fingers were on the trigger. The bombers which attacked Singapore at four o'clock on the morning of Monday, December 8 (December 7 to the east of the international date line) were met with strong antiaircraft fire. The landing craft which at about the same hour left the transports off Kota Bahru and made the assault on the beach were met with intense machine-gun fire and a strong barrage from the beach defense batteries. Some assault troops did nevertheless manage to get ashore.

Japanese reports admit that their casualties were very heavy, and we know that at one moment the Japanese commanders thought that they were near to failure. What saved them was the intense gunfire from their heavy cruisers and destroyers which were concentrating on the destruction of the British artillery and machine-gun positions along the shore. Even then, at sunrise, nine British bombers from the Kota Bahru airfield came in from the east over the Japanese transports, and sank several ships. Unluckily the bombers were too few, and were soon destroyed either by antiaircraft fire or by Japanese aircraft operating from Thailand or from carriers -- in waves of about 50 machines at a time. The British troops in northeastern Malaya were therefore fighting without air support, without air reconnaissance, and in greatly inferior numbers. They counterattacked the landing party at noon and succeeded in halting the Japanese advance that day, thus enabling the main British force by a very skilful night manœuvre to withdraw in good order so as to take up a position further south. The Japanese were unable to follow them, since they were disorganized and exhausted; but they knew that in two days their main forces would arrive. On December 9 several Japanese convoys began to bring to Kota Bahru more infantry divisions, one mechanized division, and other specialized troops. The high command in Singapore was aware of these movements, and decided to take desperate measures.

Admiral Phillips thought that if he could get among the Japanese convoys in a dawn attack with his big ships, he might do such damage as to defeat the Japanese invasion plans. Critics have said that he was blind to the importance of air strength, but this is grossly mistaken. He was aware of the risk which he was taking. His plan was to take advantage of cloudy monsoon weather and, making a wide circuit, to proceed toward the northeast coast unperceived, so as to approach the Japanese transports under cover of darkness, which would diminish the danger of aerial attack and at the same time give him some advantage in combat with the escorting Japanese warships if he should encounter them. Before leaving Singapore he signalled "We are going out to look for trouble, and no doubt we shall find it."

He steamed out of Singapore on December 9 under low clouds and drizzling rain. Throughout the day the Prince of Wales, the Repulse and a small destroyer escort had seemingly been unnoticed. Unluckily toward dusk the weather cleared and through a gap in the clouds they were observed by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. This meant that they could no longer count upon the element of surprise. The transports in the Japanese convoy would have scattered and the enemy would be waiting with warships and aircraft. Admiral Phillips thereupon decided to abandon the operation, and at 9 P.M. he signalled accordingly to his ships. The squadron then turned southeast to get into open sea out of reach of medium bombers which might be expected at dawn.

Next morning early a signal was received from Singapore, saying that a Japanese landing was reported on the east coast about 150 miles north of Singapore. The squadron thereupon stood in toward this area, sending the destroyer Express inshore to search for landing parties. But nothing was found and the voyage back to Singapore was resumed. At 11:15 Japanese aircraft began to attack the two capital ships. There were several waves of high level bombers and later of torpedo bombers in the first attack. One high level attack by nine bombers was repulsed before the torpedo attacks, and two high level attacks (one on each ship) later on. At 11:44 the Prince of Wales was hit astern by a torpedo, and began to list. After the second high-level attack (at 11:58) the Repulse signalled to the flagship to report that so far all torpedoes had been avoided. At 12:20 a second wave of aircraft appeared. Shortly afterward the Prince of Wales was hit by torpedoes three or more times, and began to founder. The Repulse was next hit by three torpedoes, and began to sink at 12:30, all her guns firing incessantly until the final list.

This was the tragic end of a bold, if desperate, undertaking which failed. Had it succeeded -- as well it might -- it would have altered the whole course of the Malayan campaign. Most British naval officers who can be induced to discuss the question consider that the risk, however great, had to be taken. It was in the tradition of the British Navy to make such a venture; and it is pretty certain that, if the British squadron had remained in harbor, it would have been accused, and justly, of skulking behind the guns of Singapore, as a liability and not an asset to the defense of Malaya. As for the suggestion that Admiral Phillips was ignorant of the importance of air cover, it is necessary only to recall that he had lately come from the Naval Staff in London, that he was an extremely able, alert and experienced officer and had certainly not failed to appreciate the danger of torpedo bombing to unprotected warships. It was, after all, British naval bombers which attacked the Italian fleet with torpedoes at Taranto in 1940, when he was in a responsible position at the Admiralty.

The fact is that there were very few fighter aircraft available in Malaya. There was urgent work for them to do on the peninsula, their range was short, and the Admiral, in full knowledge of these facts, had for purposes of concealment maintained strict radio silence until the last possible moment. Fighter cover had been originally arranged for the morning of the 10th, but the loss of the Kota Bahru airfield made this impossible. When later it was clear that the Japanese air attack was developing upon a formidable scale, the Repulse made an emergency radio report to Singapore Air Headquarters at 11:50. Available fighters took off from Sembawang on Singapore Island without delay after the receipt of this message. Unhappily they arrived too late; but for this no blame attaches either to the naval command or to air headquarters. They did their best with the limited resources at their command.

While land and sea fighting was in progress on the east coast, a large-scale Japanese attack was developing on the west coast. This was delivered by a striking force consisting of a mechanized division with tanks and specially trained infantry support, which landed at Singora in Thailand, crossed the Kra Isthmus and entered Malaya along the line of the railroad from Bangkok to Singapore. It was essential for the British command to attack from the air the convoy which was landing this division at Singora. An attack was delivered and several transports were sunk by the British bombers, which, however, were subsequently nearly all shot down by fighter aircraft from a Japanese carrier. All these tasks were a heavy strain upon the very small air force at the disposal of the Malaya command, and it is therefore not to be wondered at that they had difficulty in meeting all needs, including those of the Navy. The Air Officer Commanding had an impossible and thankless task, which he discharged with great ability and courage. It was part of Japanese strategy in this campaign to concentrate upon obtaining air superiority. They bombed airfields day and night continuously, and sacrificed all other objectives to destroying British aircraft on the ground or in the air. This they were able to do by sheer weight of numbers. It is not known how many machines they had at their disposal, but it must have been several hundred front-line aircraft with plenty in reserve. Their daily raids upon Singapore airfields alone were made by massed squadrons of 54 or 108 machines, at a time when bombers and fighters were being used freely in support of their infantry and artillery at many other points in Malaya. They had heavy losses, but toward the end of the campaign, although some reinforcements of Hurricane fighters had reached Singapore, the R.A.F. was not able to put a dozen machines into the air at the same time. The Japanese had almost complete mastery of the air within a week of December 8. They were able to retain that mastery despite the very skilful arrangements made for flying machines into Singapore and for assembling crated planes rapidly after arrival. The R.A.F. could not keep pace with an unavoidable wastage of aircraft caused by the heavy demands upon its planes and the difficulty of assembly and maintenance under constant bombing of airfields and repair establishments.

The Japanese division which landed at Singora and crossed into Malaya was followed immediately by further divisions, so that by the time the mechanized division had reached a point level with Penang, there were (according to some Japanese sources) four more divisions behind them, some being held in reserve at the railhead in Singora.

These Japanese sources of information are not entirely reliable. They are not official sources, but scattered statements appearing in Japanese journals, press accounts of interviews with Japanese officers and men, and similar data. When we piece this material together it appears that the Japanese had as many as nine divisions either engaged in Malaya, or in reserve for the Malayan or other theaters. This figure does not square with the general opinion of the British military authorities, whose picture of the strength of the Japanese forces involved in the capture of Malaya is much more modest. They estimate that the Japanese used in their advance down the Malayan peninsula three full divisions, one tank regiment, and a large number of independent engineer and other units. This would give a total strength of from 80,000 to 100,000 men. On a purely numerical count, there was not very much difference between the total strength of the Japanese forces employed, and of the British forces at their maximum. It must, however, be remembered that the British command was unable to deploy the whole of its forces at any one time. Moreover, it had a very long coastline to watch and the base itself to guard. The British forces were outnumbered at all critical points of the campaign. Taking all factors into account, we are safest in saying that the British forces in Malaya faced a Japanese army consisting of brilliantly trained and seasoned troops, probably the highest quality in the world at that time for the type of warfare in which they were engaged, and numbering not more than 100,000 men.

The superiority in numbers of the Japanese in the earlier engagements in the northern parts of Malaya was probably much greater than is suggested by these figures. It is known that Japanese divisions were used in alternation, so that tired British troops could be faced with fresh Japanese troops.

The continuous retreat of the British forces, from the border until they crossed over onto Singapore island, has been ascribed by critics to the incompetence of their commanders and even to a lack of fighting spirit in the British troops. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the competence of the command, it may be said without any hesitation that the bitterness of the fighting and the strength of the resistance offered are amply proved by the casualties which the British forces suffered. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, over 800 strong, after fighting down the peninsula, crossed over to Singapore with less than 100 effectives. These proud and indomitable veterans had the post of honor protecting the rear when the main body of British troops withdrew to Singapore island. They were the last to cross the causeway, a sad remnant, piped over to the bagpipe strains of "Jenny's Black E'en" by their comrades of the Gordon Highlanders. The Gordon Highlanders suffered on a similar scale. The Leicester Regiment and the East Surrey Regiment were so reduced in numbers that when the two were reformed into one unit it was below strength -- in other words they suffered over 50 percent losses. The Gurkhas were almost cut to pieces. The Indian brigades suffered cruel losses, and so did the Australian forces.

Last, but not least, is the story of the Malay Regiment. It has been said that the authorities of Malaya would not make use of Malayan forces. This is not correct. It is true that the authorities, both civil and military, were against raising large levies of indigenous soldiers, but this was not from any fear of disloyalty but principally because there was in Malaya not sufficient modern equipment with which to arm them. There was one regular Malay regiment officered principally by Englishmen who knew the language and customs of their men and who took great pride in their achievements. Perhaps the following extract from an account by a Dutch planter living in Malaya, who became an officer in this regiment, will show that the Malays were not unwilling to fight with and for the British. He says: "These boys certainly put up a show, especially during the battle for Singapore. We were in the thick of it from the beginning. When we were given the cease fire, there were not 100 alive, including wounded, of the original 846 of our battalion . . . we were fighting at great odds -- had no guns or planes, and the Japs had lots of everything. We were continually dive-bombed and shelled at the rate of 17 a minute on a front of approximately 500 yards."

As to the competence of the military command, there is room for differences of opinion. Probably they were taken unawares by the strength of the Japanese attack, and by certain new tactics and fighting methods which the Japanese had worked out. The Japanese tactic of infiltration behind the lines was certainly an important factor in the defeat of the British forces, and it may be that more imaginative and less orthodox methods would have delayed the Japanese advance. It is, however, extremely doubtful whether they would have done more than this. The most disastrous cases of infiltration were those where Japanese forces were conveyed down the coast by sea in small craft and then landed in estuaries whence they proceeded inland to points well behind the British lines. It was usually impossible to prevent this action because of lack of reconnaissance planes and light-draft armed vessels which could have patrolled the coast.

The geography of Malaya was peculiarly advantageous to the Japanese, since it presented a long coastline parallel with their line of advance, indented by numerous river estuaries up which infiltering forces could proceed. The defense of the Philippine Islands was similarly hampered by a shortage of warships and aircraft suitable for preventing coastwise infiltrations. Even on the Bataan peninsula -- where the terrain, being rough and mountainous, was suitable for defensive lines, and where landings were not possible except at two or three points -- what contributed most in the long run to the collapse of a stubborn and protracted resistance was probably a night landing behind the American front line, which caused the defending force to fall back from the strong point on which their left flank rested. Subsequently the Japanese were able, after bringing up mechanized forces, heavy artillery, and bomber squadrons, slowly but relentlessly to push back the American line across the Bataan peninsula, and to demolish its tenaciously held and strongly protected defensive zones one after another by terrific artillery fire, and constant pounding from the air. Here, as in Malaya, it was command of the air which ultimately broke down a courageous and well-planned defense by the piecemeal destruction of the defenders' artillery.

It should be added that Japanese tactics in Malaya, though skilful and successful, were not original. Similar methods had been employed by General Cunningham in his conquest of Abyssinia, when he used to locate the head of enemy resistance on a road and then send his forces into difficult country on one side or the other to attack the road far back from the enemy's foremost troops. In such tactics in Malaya the advantage was with the Japanese, largely because of their greater adaptability to jungle conditions. They could easily disguise themselves in Malay costume, they could easily live upon Malay food, and they were, moreover, accustomed in their own countryside to moving about lightly clad and shod. The ordinary British soldier was hampered by heavy boots and equipment and too dependent upon his supply wagons. He could not disguise himself as a Malay and could not live on rice. British officers who fought in Malaya say that a soldier without experience of local climate and topography was for about six months a liability rather than an asset, and that even the best troops without special jungle training were of limited value. The Japanese had realized this, possibly through their experience in fighting Chinese guerrillas, and for months before the Malayan campaign they had been giving their already seasoned forces special training.

The original British division, which had to meet the first Japanese attacks, was also well prepared. It had been long enough in Malaya to become acclimatized, and some units in particular had been put through very severe training. The reinforcements which arrived shortly before and just after the Japanese attack had not had time to adapt themselves to new and trying conditions; and even the troops which had been in Malaya through two years or more of debilitating tropical heat were, though seasoned, beginning to feel the strain. Yet, in spite of such handicaps, these latter were able, when occasion offered, to meet the Japanese successfully with their own tactics. The Argylls time after time ambushed Japanese assault companies and wiped them out, the Gurkhas did the same and so did the Australians. The losses which these units suffered were heavily paid for, sometimes tenfold, by the Japanese. There is no warrant whatever for saying that the Japanese established any but a numerical superiority over these British troops in the field.

As the campaign progressed, the less experienced British soldiers began to adjust themselves better, but by then the Japanese had established themselves well down the peninsula and were in occupation of the most important airfields. The British troops were exhausted, as they had fought without respite and without air protection for weeks, whereas the Japanese could always withdraw a tired division and throw a new one into the line.

These soldiers -- English, Scottish, Australian, Indian, Gurkha or Malay -- always outnumbered and often outmanœuvred, were never outfought. It is a curious thing that the full story of their gallantry and endurance has never been told and the Malayan campaign was represented merely as a somewhat inglorious retreat. The public in Britain and the United States learned only of the general course of the fighting, together with such scanty stories as the war correspondents could pick up and get through the censorship. This resulted in an emphasis upon failures and an almost complete silence as to successes. The best known regiments, such as the Australians and the Scottish, sometimes figured in the news, and always deservedly; but the ordinary infantryman from the English county regiments was scarcely ever mentioned. Yet these were always in the thick of things, brave and enduring. All the war correspondents who saw these men in action were full of praise for their courage. The most severe critics of the military and civil authorities never failed to give credit to the fighting men from the British Isles. One such critic (O. D. Gallagher in his book, "Action in the East") said of these troops, "They are seldom commended, often disparaged, but they fight and die and suffer as few other men do."

One common allegation is that there was a large fifth column of Malays who assisted the Japanese troops. It is true that, during the southward advance of the Japanese forces, Malay villagers sometimes gave them help and guidance, but this was usually done under threats of violence from the Japanese. There are few if any proved instances of deliberate and spontaneous fifth column work or sabotage by the Malay population. There are on the other hand many instances of loyal and courageous assistance to the British troops given throughout the campaign by the Malay and Chinese inhabitants of the country. This was the general rule. In the city of Singapore, which was subjected to bombing by day and night throughout the campaign, the conduct of the civil defense groups, the air-raid precaution services, the auxiliary fire fighters, the medical aid units and the volunteer police, in all of which Malays, Chinese, Indians and British worked side by side, was most praiseworthy. One of the most striking sights in Singapore was the stream of people of all races who thronged to the clinics to give their blood for transfusion. All were represented -- white, yellow and brown -- in great numbers. The morale of this mixed population was very high. If toward the end some of them became despondent and bewildered, this was due not to a failure of the administration, but to the overwhelming nature of the calamity which threatened them.

It is worthy of note that the largest and the most effective fifth column activities in Malaya were those of Chinese supporters of Wang Ching-wei, head of the Japanese controlled puppet government at Nanking, who were sent to Malaya with Japanese connivance. The permanent Chinese community domiciled in Malaya was loyal and extremely energetic in resistance to the Japanese, not only in passive defense services but in guerrilla activities, in intelligence work and in many other ways.


By the end of January 1942 the defending forces had been pressed back to the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula and had crossed the causeway from Johore on to Singapore island. The fighting had been severe, and in a number of separate local actions the British troops had got the measure of the Japanese. Time after time desperate attacks by a whole Japanese division were thrown back by smaller British forces, and it is quite likely that the advance of the Japanese down the west coast could have been stemmed, despite their superiority in numbers and fire power, if infiltration from coastal points could have been prevented by the navy and the air force in combination. Thus in one important engagement, for the defense of Kuala Lumpur, the Japanese brought to bear all the artillery of one division, aided by flame-throwing tanks, upon a narrow British front, attacking for three days unceasingly, and using fresh troops every day; but they were unable to penetrate beyond the outpost line and a fresh British column was coming up to counterattack when, owing to a threat on the flank by a new Japanese detachment from a division just landed on the west coast, the British commander decided to fall back to new positions farther south. Here again the British troops were able to stand off assaults and to counterattack, but again their commanders, in view of the threat from the coast, decided to withdraw and to abandon Kuala Lumpur. This was not done until an attempt had been made to prevent further landings on the coast. It was not possible to spare many troops for coastal garrison duty, owing to the heavy frontal attacks which the Japanese were delivering on the line before Kuala Lumpur, but some air reinforcements had by now reached Malaya, and bombers were sent to break up landings. They succeeded in taking the Japanese by surprise, and destroyed a sizeable landing force as it was making for the shore in open boats. Subsequent attempts of this nature were unsuccessful, since the Japanese brought in very strong fighter aircraft protection and also dive bombers to attack the beach defenses. The R.A.F. then sustained heavy losses which they could not make good.

The last stand of the British troops on the mainland came on a line across the southern tip of the peninsula in open country where the Japanese were able to use all their forces together. The defense of Gemas by Australian troops was a very fine performance, and in general the fighting on this line, despite local setbacks, was fierce and bloody. Japanese accounts say that their heaviest losses were suffered in these engagements, and they threw into the fighting here the Imperial Guards, which are the élite of the Japanese army. But again the defense was broken down, partly through lack of aircraft for spotting and bombing Japanese artillery positions or for attacking Japanese bombers, but principally because of landings on the coast. By January 30 the main British forces had withdrawn and crossed over the Johore Straits to Singapore island.

On January 31 the Japanese had secured complete control of the mainland, and were facing the naval base, only a mile away. They could have reduced the island by investment and continuous air and artillery bombardment in a few weeks, since its entire area was within range of their guns, but they were anxious to capture Singapore quickly, on grounds of prestige and because they wished to release forces for fighting in the Indies and the Philippines. They therefore brought up two fresh infantry divisions and a great quantity of siege artillery, including new howitzers. On the British side, reinforcements[i] amounting to nearly one division had arrived late in January and had been thrown at once into the fighting on the peninsula. They had been several weeks at sea, and were not acclimatized. Their feet were soft, and they had no jungle training, so that their fighting value at that time was small. About 50 crated Hurricanes had arrived on January 12, and a batch of these was at once rapidly assembled under bombing attacks. They took the Japanese air force by surprise when they first went up, and did fine execution, but later were gradually reduced in numbers in air combat against superior force or by destruction on the ground. By the time the Japanese had reached the straits of Johore and were facing the island, the Singapore airfields were all but untenable and the defending air force reduced to a handful of Hurricanes, flown by exhausted pilots, and the last two or three Wildebeestes, which were more dangerous to their flyers than to the enemy. Even Puss Moths and similar training machines were brought into service, flown by valiant members of the Malayan Volunteer Air Force for reconnaissance work.

For the first few days of the bombardment the British artillery was able to direct accurate and punishing fire against the Japanese, since all ranges had been plotted in advance. But day by day the British fire grew weaker, as Japanese bombers were able to fly continuously overhead, and their reconnaissance planes could signal the location of every British gun. The most intense artillery attack came on February 7, when it seemed as if all British artillery and machine gun posts must have been destroyed. Late that night enemy landing-barges made the crossing, and the Japanese were surprised to find that their bombardment had left so many men alive. The first wave of landing troops was repulsed, and there were few Japanese survivors; but the few remaining guns on the British side were gradually destroyed, the searchlights shattered, and before dawn on February 9, Japanese assault parties gained a foothold on the northwest shore of the island.

A counterattack was delivered and the landing party pressed back, but Japanese reinforcements were brought across and overwhelmed the defense at this point, establishing a beachhead. Another landing was made on the northeast shore in similar circumstances, and by daylight three or four thousand Japanese troops had secured a foothold. Confused and desperate fighting continued for six more days, during which the British forces were broken up into isolated groups by Japanese columns advancing from several points on the northern shores of the island. One by one these groups were surrounded and their resistance collapsed under incessant bombing and artillery pounding. When the fighting reached the suburbs of Singapore, and the enemy had control of the water reservoirs, the British command had to decide whether to capitulate or to prolong a resistance which was in any event hopeless and would involve the destruction of the city and the death of many of its population of half a million Malays, Indians and Chinese. Small isolated groups of British troops were still fighting in pockets in various parts of the island, but all powerful centers of resistance were now broken up and practically all air strength and artillery had been destroyed. The commanding general therefore decided to surrender, and Singapore passed into Japanese hands on February 15, 1942.

The number of British troops on the island at that time was probably between 70,000 and 80,000 including the unseasoned reinforcements that arrived in the last weeks of the campaign. Of this total, effective front line combat troops were perhaps not more than 45,000, many of whom had to be posted on the foreshore and at vulnerable points along the coastline (which was some 50 miles in length) and also, in readiness for parachute landings, at points inland. At their skilfully chosen points of attack the Japanese appear to have had a local numerical superiority, which they were able to maintain and increase as soon as they secured a foothold; but what was needed on the British side was not so much men as equipment -- more aircraft, more mortars, more anti-tank and antiaircraft guns, even more rifles with which to arm more volunteers.

Charges of vacillation and blundering were freely levelled at the civil administration, and no doubt mistakes were made, just as mistakes were made in peaceful European countries when they were suddenly subjected to the strains and surprises of war.

It is almost impossible for a civil government, whether national or municipal, to plan adequately in advance for all contingencies which may arise in modern warfare. Experience in England, with a homogeneous and politically experienced people, has shown us how difficult it is to do the right thing, to foresee what is essential and what is unimportant, in such matters as food rationing, the best use of civilian personnel, air raid precautions, fire-fighting and auxiliary medical services. These difficulties in Malaya were multiplied by local circumstances -- in particular the racial composition of the population.

The rôle of Malaya had been given to it early in the war. It was to put all its effort into producing rubber and tin for war purposes. The administration had to keep this object in mind, and at the same time to see to preparations against eventual attack. It had to plan in advance for all passive defense services which must be undertaken by civilians, to furnish an armed volunteer force, to control shipping, trade and exchange, to provide emergency stocks and to ration food and other commodities, to accelerate production, and to watch over the interests, sometimes not easily reconcilable, of a mixed population of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans. In the discharge of these difficult tasks, what was surprising was the degree of success, and not the degree of failure, which they attained. When the test came, most of the arrangements worked well. Stories have been spread of "whisky-swilling planters" and "hidebound officials" who would not abandon their habits in the face of emergency. These stories are mostly false. No doubt there were a few deplorable exceptions, for there are self-indulgent and unimaginative people in all communities. But the great majority of civilians in Malaya rose at once to the occasion. The male European population to a man was liable for service up to the age of 55, most of the younger men were in the armed services, and all had their appointed duties in addition to their normal civilian employment, which was governed by the rulings of the Manpower Board. When the whole story of the Malayan crisis comes to be told, it will be found that the planters, the businessmen and their families played a creditable and often an heroic part. Since many of them met their death while they were at their posts of duty it is an unseemly thing for those who had the good fortune to escape to blacken the memory of those who cannot reply.

Most of the criticism of the colonial government centers about Penang. It has to be admitted that the collapse at Penang revealed some weaknesses in local civil administration and military control. Japanese bombers attacked the city on December 11, and took the whole population by surprise in a series of terror raids, during three consecutive days. Casualties were terrible, from both bombing and machine gunning in crowded streets. All essential services broke down and most of the native population fled to the hills. The town was in flames, hundreds of corpses lay unburied in the streets, the native police had mostly disappeared in order to put their families into safety, looters swarmed through the shopping districts, and there was no labor, apart from a few volunteers, to cope with fire fighting, sanitation or the burial of the dead. The place was in utter confusion and panic, so that it is understandable, if not excusable, that hasty and mistaken decisions should have been made. However that may be, there was a precipitate evacuation of the white population of Penang, apparently on orders from the local military command. Certainly the news of this evacuation caused great surprise and consternation to the civil government in Singapore, because its effect upon Asiatic opinion was grave. It was alleged that the white population had fled, leaving Asiatics to their fate. The facts are obscure, but the results were plain.

Stories of Japanese atrocities in China, and of the deliberate humiliation of English men and women in Tientsin, added to the fears of the white people that they would be selected as victims. The local military command presumably felt that, since it was impossible to evacuate the whole population of Penang at one time, they were justified in ordering the white residents to leave first -- the more so as the Japanese were in their propaganda inciting the Asiatics to murder, urging them to "burn up the whites in a blaze of victory." The civil authority could no longer function in a fighting zone under attack, and its officers also withdrew in concert with the military, who had instructions to evacuate the island and join the forces on the mainland. Dr. Evans, the Government Chief Medical Officer, however, remained behind, as did the Rev. Mr. Scott of the Church of England, the Rev. Brother Paul of the Roman Catholic Church, and Adjutant Harvey of the Salvation Army. Had the civil functionaries in any number stayed behind, they might have been able to arrange for an orderly evacuation of Asiatics who stood in particular danger from the Japanese. Many of these did in fact get away, since the Japanese did not resume their attacks for some days after the first bombings; but the damage was done, and the effect of this blunder was deplorable. It did, however, bring home to the officials in other parts of Malaya their special responsibilities; and it must be said in justice to the colonial civil servants that a number of them asked to be allowed to go back to Penang to take care of the native inhabitants, if only as a symbolic act. The lesson of Penang was useful. It showed the nature of the enemy, the need for concerted decisive action in an emergency and the importance of prompt execution of the scorched earth policy which had already been ordered by the home government.

The War Council in Singapore considered questions arising out of the scorched earth policy almost daily throughout the campaign, and sent out most categorical instructions with regard to the destruction of stocks of oil and rubber and other important materials, of mining plant, of machinery, and other objects likely to be of use to the enemy. Their task was not an easy one, since they had to consider the effects of destruction upon the native population. These were hard matters to decide, and there was sometimes disagreement between the civil government, who thought in terms of the welfare of the native peoples under their care, and the army command who thought in terms of military necessity. Military necessity prevailed. Rubber trees were not destroyed because it would have been physically impossible to cut down or burn them.


The fall of Singapore was a great military disaster, but to explain it simply by the incompetence of military commanders and the mistaken policy of colonial administrators is to misunderstand its lessons. Advocates of colonial reform have argued that, had the people of Malaya been given political freedom, they would have fought vigorously on the British side and saved the country from the Japanese. This criticism overlooks the gallant part played by the Malay Regiment as mentioned above and ignores the outstanding exploits of Indian and Gurkha troops not only in the Malaya campaign but in a hundred other campaigns in which they have fought shoulder to shoulder with their British comrades in this and previous wars. The brotherhood in arms of British and Indian soldiers is a tradition in which both take pride. It seems just to recall these facts when noting that in the Philippine Islands Filipino soldiers of the national army fought bravely alongside their American comrades, and played a great part in resisting the Japanese attack. Nobody can deny that men will usually fight more vigorously for their own country and their own institutions than for a cause in which they have no obvious direct political interest, but unfortunately political freedom alone is no guarantee against conquest. It has to be supported by political unity and by great armed strength, not only in manpower but also in modern weapons, as many free countries have learned to their cost. Unity in an independent state of Malaya would have been hard to attain, seeing that its population consisted of two million Malays, two million Chinese, and nearly one million of Indian and other races. It is certain that Malaya, without the protection of a western power, would long ago have fallen into the hands of Japan and been subjected to a tyrannical exploitation alongside of which British colonial rule would appear absurdly benevolent. The Filipinos themselves, despite their national army and the powerful aid of the United States, could not hold out; and it is even possible that they would have fallen earlier than they did, had not the Japanese strategical design called first for the reduction of Singapore. The Japanese themselves have stated that they regarded this as the key to their strategy, and that they planned to use troops and aircraft released from Malaya in the final attacks on the Dutch Indies and then on Bataan.

But in the Philippines, as in Malaya and the Indies, what brought about defeat was not shortage of men but rather lack of machines and munitions and, notably, lack of air and sea power. Political freedom, though it may in favorable circumstances contribute to the effective use of weapons, is not of itself a weapon. We shall be deceiving ourselves if we think that only by furthering the growth of free institutions in Far Eastern countries we shall have gone far toward solving the problem of their security. We may have our individual views about the rights and wrongs of colonial administration; but what was wanting in Malaya, as in the Indies and the Philippines, was not ballot-boxes but bombs and bullets.

The reason that these were not available in sufficient quantities is simple enough. It is that the governments and the peoples of the western democracies hoped against hope that the pen was mightier than the sword, that treaties could take the place of armed strength. The battle of Malaya was perhaps lost in London, Paris and Washington before the Pacific war began.

At any rate, when France fell and England stood alone in 1940, she had to choose where she should use the little armed strength left to her after Dunkirk. At that moment, one of the darkest in her history, the British Government made a bold decision, which subsequent events have justified. They sent an armored division, which they could ill spare from the defense of Britain, to the Middle East for the defense of Egypt, and they had to take the risk of not reinforcing Singapore. The Japanese, taking advantage of the French collapse, moved into Indo-China and threatened Thailand. This move radically altered the whole strategical situation in the Far East. It produced circumstances which had not been taken into account when the Singapore base was planned. It had been assumed that in any conflict with Japan in the Pacific area, Great Britain could rely, if not upon the active support of France, at least upon her neutrality. The fall of France brought an entirely new set of conditions. Not only was France not an ally, she was a potential enemy. French Indo-China was in fact an ally of Japan, providing her with a near base for attacks in the South Seas. At the same time, the defection of the French fleet forced Great Britain to retain all her naval strength in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Subsequently, in 1941, when Germany attacked the U.S.S.R., it was necessary to send all possible aid to Russia. This, and the demands of Egypt, made it practically impossible to furnish further aid to Malaya.

Warships which could have faced the Japanese in the Pacific, bombers which could have destroyed their transports, small armed vessels which could have broken up their landings on the coast of Malaya, fighters and reconnaissance planes, guns and tanks which could have broken their air and artillery attacks -- all these were sent to meet the enemy elsewhere. The choice was made, and Singapore had to suffer. But when the history of the whole war is written, it will surely be seen that this decision, however painful and regrettable, was inevitable and right.

[i] It has often been asked why this division should have been landed when the position in Malaya was hopeless. It was a difficult question for the Commander-in-Chief. What probably governed his decision was the fact that to divert the convoy that brought these troops would have been an extremely dangerous operation in view of the inadequacy of naval forces. The supplies which the ships were bringing were badly needed, and the successful convoying of the transports through the narrow seas into Singapore (in spite of Japanese air superiority and the proximity of Japanese warships and submarines) was a brilliant and hazardous piece of work by the Navy and the Air Force in combination. But to repeat this operation in reverse, by sending out the transports laden with troops, would have been to take a very great risk, in view of the wholly inadequate sea and air forces at his disposal.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SIR GEORGE SANSOM, formerly Counsellor of the British Embassy in Tokyo, now Minister attached to the British Embassy in Washington; author of "Japan: A Short Cultural History" and other works
  • More By George Sansom