The Fall of Singapore

“15 February 1942.

To: Lieut. Gen. Arthur Percival, GOC (General Officer Commanding) Malaya.

From: General Sir Archibald Wavell, Supreme Commander Far East.

So long as you are in position to inflict losses to enemy and your troops are physically capable of doing so you must fight on. Time gained and damage to enemy of vital importance at this crisis.

When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance…”

That was all the gaunt and gloomy Percival needed. He thought that his command was forsaken in the face of overwhelming Japanese military might, and he just wanted the chaos to end. On 8 February, the island of Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East” was invaded along its entire north coast, and it seemed his troops did nothing about it. His big 15” naval guns, placed and designed to protect against an attack from the sea, were turned against the Japanese landward but their armor piercing shells were ineffective against infantry formations. At every point they attempted to defend, the Japanese appeared behind them. The newly arrived 18th Division had barely gotten into the fight, and were already cut off. Even worse, he received reports that entire Australian companies refused to fight anymore, and that thousands of Australian and Malayan soldiers were drunk and rioting in the city. The entire island’s civilian population was crammed into a small area around the harbor and order there broke down. The mass of humanity made a perfect target for air attack.

The Japanese planes ruled skies and bombed and strafed both military and civilian targets at will. On the 14th, the Japanese Army captured the last reservoir, and quickly water became scarce for his 80,000 troops and one million civilians. And now there was a mass exodus. Down in the harbor, chaos reigned as hundreds of ships of all sizes and packed with people tried to escape. Japanese planes made a sport of strafing and bombing them as they exited the harbor. Percival had heard nothing from his commander for days (Wavell fell off of a wall and was unconscious for four days) and one of his first communiques after being incommunicado was this message referencing surrender. Percival contacted Gen Yamashita immediately.

Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita was already being referred to as “The Tiger of Malaya” by his men, peers, and superiors, but Percival’s request for a cease fire and surrender was most welcome. He only had 30,000 men on Singapore, and they were exhausted. His men were extremely low on supplies. That he could invade Singapore at all was a wonder to him: the week’s worth of preparations at the beginning of the month was in full view of British observers and Australian patrols and grossly exposed to any artillery fire at all. Had Percival’s large coastal defense cannons had any high explosive rounds, he would have had to retreat out of range farther up the peninsula and await reinforcements. His “invasion fleet” was composed of captured civilian coastal and river craft, and it had taken three days to ferry his army across the narrow Johore Straits.

On the beaches he found no defenses, and that the British didn’t seriously counterattack his meagre beachheads baffled him. And later British counterattacks were piecemeal and halfhearted, when they came at all. His tanks ran roughshod over the Allies, but were beginning to break down and run out of ammunition. The British in the east fought off the feint by the Imperial Guards Division but that was expected: they were good for ceremonial duties in Tokyo, but made poor soldiers in the field. The only troops that put up any serious resistance were ethnic Chinese irregulars and the Australians in the west, and they had seemingly melted away (The Australians compromised 14% of Percival’s force, and took 77% of the casualties so far in the Malaya campaign. They assumed they were being sacrificed to save British units, and were no longer willing to fight for someone who wouldn’t fight for themselves. On the 14th, the Australian commander with his staff commandeered a junk in the harbor and sailed home.)

And now Yamashita was receiving reports of Australians in the city. His greatest fear was a protracted house to house fight for Singapore. He simply did not have enough men and supplies for such a costly operation, even with Japanese control of the air. It would be untrue to say that Yamashita himself had control of the air: the Japanese pilots did, and he had no influence over their operations. If the British discerned the true Japanese situation on the island, there was no doubt they would fight on.

Yamashita accepted Percival’s surrender as soon as it was offered.

“Yamashita’s Bluff” was one of the greatest deceptions in history, if only because the only witting and unwitting actors were well led, well trained, and enthusiastic soldiers that made themselves seem eight times their actual number targeted against lethargic and out of touch commanders of poorly equipped and demoralized troops. On 16 February 1942, 80,000 British, Australian, Malayan, and Indian troops marched off to captivity, some having been in theatre for less than three weeks. In context of the recent Russian defense of Moscow and American and Filipino defense of Bataan, it was the largest and most humiliating surrender in British history.

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