Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Fall of Singapore, Part I

I spoke last week of the fall of Britain's mighty fortress in the East, Singapore. In a two-part blog entry, I will now attempt to paint a picture of how it came to pass, quoting Colin Smith's historico-journalistic account of the disaster in his book Singapore Burning (he seems a bit harsh on the Australians throughout the book). Before I continue, though, allow me to quote from the Guardian review (yes, he's also a writer for the paper) about this book:
It's true that the defenders were plagued by terrible mistakes and bad luck. These nourish fantasies that the outcome could have been different. If the British had entered southern Thailand, instead of dithering until it was too late, couldn't they have slaughtered the invaders on the beaches? If Admiral Phillips had set off earlier to attack the invasion fleet, or turned back as soon as he knew his warships had been spotted, couldn't the Japanese troopships have been scattered?

If the ship with more anti-tank guns hadn't been sunk; if the RAF had possessed Hurricanes at the start instead of the old Brewster Buffalos; if the Australian artillery had received the signals that the Japanese assault landing on Singapore island had begun ...

But none of these possibilities was the case. Even if they had been, Smith's book suggests that the attack would have still prevailed. The defenders, often heroically brave, were simply not up to it. Symptomatic is their shocking failure to communicate. The radios did not work, the field-telephone cables broke, the signals routines were chaotic. When the first landings began at Kota Baharu, all communications with Singapore jammed so that it was 90 minutes before local aircraft were ordered to bomb the beaches.

It was also true that the Japanese were better soldiers. Smith points out that they were neither suicidal fanatics nor trained jungle fighters. Their personal weapons were slightly inferior. 'What [they] had in abundance was courage, endurance and a discipline that, in their eagerness to see that orders were carried out, did not stifle initiative but encouraged it.'

Let us now relive how the British leadership viewed with alarm the possibility of the island's fall. Wavell, the general in charge of British defenses in Asia, sent this telegram to Churchill:
"Preparatory measures for the defence of the island being made with limited resources available. Success will depend on numbers and state of troops withdrawn from Johore, arrival of reinforcements and ability of air force to maintain fighters on the island. If all goes well, hope prolonged defence possible."
Churchill was clearly unsatisfied with that message, and this was his reply:
"I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting in the ruins of Singapore city."
Churchill apparently modified his tone when it was put to him by Percival that if they burned everything, it would shatter local morale and the willingness of the men to fight it out. Churchill did insist, however, on the destruction of the naval base. Smith now turns to one of the most famous legends about the Fall of Singapore - that the guns were pointed in the wrong direction:
It was now quite clear that even Churchill was reconciled to something Brooke, his senior soldier, and probably Wavell had come to terms with ever since the Japanese had sunk the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and gained a foothold in northern Malaya. Barring a miracle, the fall of Singapore was almost inevitable. All that could be done was to hold out for as long as possible and buy time to reinforce the Dutch East Indies where Australian, perhaps even American, reinforcements were expected.

Ever since it had been accepted that the island's big guns meant that an overland attack down the Malayan Peninsula was much more likely than seaborne assault, it had always been assumed that the nearest front line Singapore could tolerate was northern Johore. Any closer and the enemy's artillery would be able to neutralize the naval base. Because of this there had never been any attempt to turn 'Fortress Singapore' into a real fortress, with all-round defence like Malta or Gibraltar...

Even at this late stage Churchill was shocked to discover the true state of affairs:

"I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known and...I ought to have asked... the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launced without a bottom. I saw before me the awful spectacle of the almost naked island."

There had been some attempts to rectify this. Not quite three weeks into the campaign, Brigadier Ivan Simson, Malaya Command's Chief Engineer and...the head of civil defence on the island, had pleaded with Percival over two hours of late-night Boxing Day drinks to allow him to begin building defences on Singapore's northern shore. At this point Percival was far from convinced, insisting that such defences would undermine both military and civilan morale by giving the impression that he was contemplating a total withdrawal to Singapore and withstanding a siege...

Not long afterwards Percival changed his mind. Within two weeks of his meeting with Brigadier Simson, the situation in mainland Malaya had deteriorated to the point where he was beginning to fear that the enemy might attempt to land on the island, particularly on the north-western coast which was closest to the mainland, before their conquest of the peninsula was completed. Even so, with the battle for Johore still undecided, Wavell was as convinced as Percival that, for the sake of morale, Singapore's defences should only be improved with the utmost discretion. On 19 January, only twelve days before the Argyll pipers played the last men across the fractured Causeway, the supreme commander sent a telegram reminding him:

"Your preparations must of course be kept entirely secret... troops must not be allowed to look over their shoulders. Under cover of selecting positions for garrison of island to prevent infiltration by small parties you can work out schemes for larger force and undertake some preparation such as obstacles and clearances..."

In any case, there was no way Percival could embark on the kind of major defence works on the north shore that Simson contemplated: clearing fields of fire by tearing out mangrove swamps, laying mines and barbed wire, building pillboxes and digging bunkers and trenches, the latter always difficult in Singapore where the water-table was so near the surface. The manpower, mostly Chinese and Tamil, required to perform these miracles was simply not available.

The British fall in Malaya and Singapore, in retrospect, seems like a stack of dominos, with each defeat and retreat causing the fall of the next. Although numerically superior, the mostly green Australian and Indian army troops were no match for the Japanese force, battle-hardened by several years of war in China. The quick succession of victories for the Japanese meant that the road to Singapore lay within their grasp less than two months after their landings on Kota Bahru.

Tomorrow I shall discuss the final days of fighting on the island. I hope you had a lovely Valentine's Day! Even if you didn't, chances are high yours were better than the one Commonwealth defenders in Singapore experienced on 14th February, 1942.

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