The fall of Singapore 1942

Posted By on Mar 8, 2023 in Columns |

The British experience colonization for the first time – to themselves.


The surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 is so strange and amazing that I feel DN members might like to hear about it. I was able to tour some of the battle sites during my recent visit. 

I’m not convinced the loss of Singapore was of great military significance. The psychological shock was huge, however. 


It was an episode of piercing irony: For their first time in their history, the British felt what it was like to be themselves colonized, after having spent 300 years colonizing America, Africa, The Carribean, Canada, India, Malaya, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc, etc. 

Above all, the Japanese deprived the British of their self-respect – which is what all colonialists do, surely. The British learned what it was like to be the black, yellow or brown subjects of their own empire. They experienced the same trauma of their self-belief and identity being crushed overnight; of being not able to protect their livelihoods, friends, wives and children; and of losing their status of ‘men’ to become ‘victims’. In Singapore, the British were whipped. 

There is a parallel to the war on the Russian front: just as the Germans viewed the Russians as subhuman, so the Japanese viewed the Allies. This surely explains the massacres of nurses, patients, hospitals, civilians, and POWs the Japanese carried out in the aftermath. 

The story also shows the genius (can there be another word?) of Japan’s incredible transformation in just a few decades. 

For example, building planes is one of the most difficult feats known to man. Yet the Mitsubishi Zero was better than anything the British had, or even the Americans. The Japanese had overtaken a country which had been the first manufacturing superpower. It would be as if China built a better nuclear aircraft carrier or submarine or stealth fighter jet than the US today – technologies which the US could not possibly believe it would lose its edge in. Systems which cost billions and which reflect the absolute best a huge, powerful country can come up with. 

In contrast, the British were still using the arms and tactics of WW1. 

The British also displayed an astonishing incompetence – astonishing at least to anyone who had seen them carve out an empire. The people in charge were lacking. The “elites” failed, both military and civilian. They were petty, allowing themselves to be swayed by personal grudges. They blamed each other. They refused to accept the gravity of the situation. They did not seem to be able to learn under pressure. They were blinded by the belief that the Japanese were stunted, blind and foolish. If they decided to stand on principle over something, it was usually at the worst possible time, when flexibility would have worked better. 

On the military side misjudgements were legion: some officers refused to cooperate with the anti-tank gunners, because they refused to believe that the Japanese had tanks (they had 200 of them, and they frequently broke through the feeble British roadblocks); giving ground too quickly to avoid being outflanked; declining the opportunity to launch commando operations into the vulnerable enemy’s rear; mis-predicting where the Japanese would land on Singapore island, even after the enemy had launched its attack; failing to quickly stop the Japanese as they landed on the coast of Thailand and Malay at the beginning of the invasion.  The leadership even refused to fortify the northern side of Singapore island, for fear of alarming the population and of being “defeatist”. As a result, the Japanese penetrated swiftly. 

Far from being ignorant, British experts (including the man in charge, General Percival) had known for years that the “unpassable” Malaysian jungle was not that dense – the rubber planters had laid down plenty of straight roads, down which the Japanese duly cycled. But this information was neutralized because it wasn’t welcome by the complacent establishment. 

There were some mitigating factors, which one should point out in all fairness. 

Although the British infantry was numerically superior to the attacking Japanese, they had few planes and no ships – the famous naval base was empty. Churchill had to focus on the European theatre, and any spare planes and tanks went straight to USSR, then locked in mortal combat with the Nazis. He had not expected Singapore to fall so fast, but even if he had known, he could not have shifted priorities there. Hence my comment at the beginning that the military impact was not that significant. 

Churchill was a bloodthirsty old war lord.  His predictable call for Singapore to be defended until the last man and the last bullet (in practice, this could have meant to the last dead woman and child) was ignored by the generals on the ground. I find this rather civilized. Hitler issued the same orders to his generals, and they always (apart from in the famous exception of Paris) acquiesced into turning the cities under their command into blood-soaked battle grounds, inflicting terrible losses on the local population. 

The top British leader, General Arthur Perceval, is a mystery. His skinny physique and weak chin are easy to mock,  and he became the main scapegoat. In fact, he was an extraordinarily brave military leader, who won a string of medals in WW1 and fighting the IRA in the 1920s. In Malaya, he seemed unable to dominate either the situation or the quarrelsome men around him, or even to grasp intellectually what was happening.  

Finally, there is the issue of the composition of the imperial army. It was mainly not white British. The dominant group was 40,000 soldiers from the British Indian army, supplemented by 15 thousand Australians. Yet the Indians, were treated shamefully in Singapore, with the officers kept out of the whites-only clubs. No wonder thousands of them joined the Japanese. 

The loss of Singapore reveals a sorry picture of Britain. One is reminded of the comment that the British Empire was just one big bluff all along. But in early 1942, they were out-bluffed by the brilliant general Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaysia. Indeed, he was down to his last few rounds of artillery when the British caved in. A British counterattack might have worked, but in the end it turns out they had met their match.