The Politics of Defeat

America’s entry into the war had so far, by late January 1942, produced little more concrete assistance to the British than they had provided before Pearl Harbor. In fact, they were complicating matters with their failure to take the U-boat threat seriously off the American East Coast, and the tonnage sunk was rising dramatically. Despite the creation of ABDA Command, American assistance was sparse in the Western Pacific. The Philippines were doomed, and America’s Asiatic Fleet was inexperienced, untrained, undisciplined, and also didn’t take the threats seriously. Their sole contribution should have been an unparalleled victory when four American destroyers surprised a Japanese convoy off of Balikapan in the Dutch East Indies a few days before, but they only sank or damaged four of the 18 un-escorted transports. All of their torpedoes failed to explode, and their gunnery was poor even by American standards. American submarines and B-17 bombers were in theatre, but their support requirements far exceeded their value. The submarines were not doing damage consummate with their numbers, and the B-17s couldn’t actually prove they hit anything, either by damage assessments, photo reconnaissance, or by Japanese intercepts. But the blame for the state of the war couldn’t be put on the Americans. The Russians were facing the bulk of the Wehrmacht, and what adversaries faced the British were victorious much more often than not.

It was these defeats, and their political fallout, that occupied Churchill in the last half of January.

Operation Crusader failed to secure Western Cyrenaica, so Malta was vulnerable indeed, but unless the Germans and Italians invaded the situation was politically manageable. Additionally, Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz was spotted recently in Norway. After the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales to the Japanese, and the loss of the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant to Italian frogmen, and the loss of the carrier Ark Royal to U boats, all in December, the Royal Navy simply did not have the capital ships necessary to deal with another breakout. Commando raids were planned to neutralize the Tirpitz. However, Churchill couldn’t say anything about them, and his Labour party opponents were beginning to grumble that he was again losing the Battle of the Atlantic.
In the Pacific, the Dutch lost Borneo and the Australians were thrown out of the Bismarck Archipelago. The Aussies were beginning to panic, and again threatened to pull all of their troops back to Australia to defend against a Japanese invasion. The British and Commonwealth troops were being run out Burma. Even Kuala Lumpur fell to the Japanese recently, proving that speed doesn’t equate agility as the outnumbered trail bound Japanese consistently out maneuvered the road bound British and Commonwealth forces in Malaya. But Churchill was assured that they would retreat to the island fortress of Singapore which could withstand any Japanese assault. Domestically, all of these were manageable unless Malta or Singapore fell. If one of those disasters occurred, his government would face a no confidence vote in Parliament – one which he would not win.

For months, the Imperial General Staff assured Churchill that Singapore was ready for any attack, whether by land or sea. The reality was much different. Singapore was a naval base with no navy. And it was a poor naval base at that. It had suffered from interwar defense cuts worse than most, and was last in priority for all classes of supply. Its harbor defenses were pointed to sea, and not landward towards Malaya, just one short mile to the north across the Johore Strait. Its water reserves were located on the north coast. The civilian population had not evacuated, and until recently had not even accepted there was anything to worry about. Singapore’s many beautiful and wide beaches were undefended. The RAF on the island nearly ceased to exist and there was no Royal Navy of any great capacity left in the East, and therefore no possible repeat of Dunkirk. Morale was non existent, and most units felt that the Japanese were invincible jungle fighters. It didn’t help that the commander, Lieut Gen Arthur Percival ordered the port facilities manually destroyed over the last few weeks, confirming in many eyes their fears that all was lost. The only reliable units were those that were still arriving, and only continued to do so because Churchill was convinced the island was impregnable.
On 19 January 1942, the Imperial General Staff briefed Churchill on Field Marshal Wavell, the ABDACOM commander’s assessment of the situation. Wavell pulled no punches, and flat out stated he expected Singapore to fall within the month.

Churchill was furious.

He flew into a booze filled rage unlike any that had been seen before. He demanded that the entire city be defended to the death, and that “commanders and staffs should perish at their posts.” He tore into the Imperial Staff all day. But in the end, he knew he was responsible.

On 27 January, 1942, Churchill assembled the Parliament and his ministers for a frank three day long debate and assessment on his conduct of the war. Nothing was held back, except ULTRA intelligence. The discussions during those days were arguably the most polite, open, honest, and vicious parliamentary proceedings in history. At the end of the day on 29 January, Churchill gave an impassioned speech which ended,

“Although I feel the broadening swell of victory and liberation bearing us and all the tortured peoples onwards safely to the final goal, I must confess to feeling the weight of the war upon me even more than in the tremendous summer days of 1940. There are so many fronts which are open, so many vulnerable points to defend, so many inevitable misfortunes, so many shrill voices raised to take advantage, now that we can breathe more freely, of all the turns and twists of war. Therefore, I feel entitled to come to the House of Commons, whose servant I am, and ask them not to press me to act against my conscience and better judgment and make scapegoats in order to improve my own position, not to press me to do the things which may be clamoured for at the moment but which will not help in our war effort, but, on the contrary, to give me their encouragement and to give me their aid. I have never ventured to predict the future. I stand by my original programme, blood, toil, tears and sweat, which is all I have ever offered, to which I added, five months later, “many shortcomings, mistakes and disappointments.” But it is because I see the light gleaming behind the clouds and broadening on our path, that I make so bold now as to demand a declaration of confidence of the House of Commons as an additional weapon in the armoury of the united nations.”

The Motion of Confidence passed 464-1.

On 31 January, the last Commonwealth troops crossed onto Singapore, and blew the causeway behind them. The Japanese arrived several hours later.

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