Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Fall of Singapore, Part II

I shall now finish the account by simply quoting from Colin Smith's very readable account of the fall of Singapore, entitled, Singapore Burning:
On Sunday 15 February, the Straits Times, now reduced to a single sheet, had as its splash: 'STRONG JAP PRESSURE - Defence Stubbornly Maintained'. Next to it was the announcement that Colonel Anderson of the Australian Imperial Forces, the hero of Parit Sulong, had been awarded the Victoria Cross. There was also a brief paragraph urging people to conserve water.

The newspaper still carried under its title the slogan: 'Singapore Must Stand; It SHALL Stand - H. E. Governor'. But Sir Shenton Thomas [the Governor] and his sick wife had been obliged to make one small compromise and move into the Singapore Club in the Fullerton Building after shells had hit his Government House, killing twelve staff and Gurkha guards who were sheltering under the back veranda. Thomas himself had crawled under the wreckage to see if he could do anything to help, only to discover they had all been killed by the blast.

That Sunday the governor did not go to St. Andrew's. For several days now the Australians had been using the cathedral as a hospital for military and civilians alike, and all its pews had been removed to the Padang to make room for stretchers...

Percival, up at 6.30, had attended a Communion Service conducted by an army padre in the Fort Canning bunker. He had already read his telegrams. The most important one came from Wavell and it gave him permission to surrender. 'Time gained and damage to the enemy are of vital importance... When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance... Inform me of your intentions. Whatever happens I thank you and all your troops for your gallant efforts of last few days.'

A commanders' conference was called for 9.30 a.m. The only one who could not make it was Beckwith-Smith, who reported heavy enemy infiltration of his 17,000-yard front the night before. The 4th Suffolks and the Foresters had been pushed back by a tank attack. Carpenter's Cambridgeshires had clung on to their positions but were left in a thumb-shaped salient. The Commander Royal Artillery announced that the Bofors guns, which had been enjoying some success against low-flying aircraft, would run out of ammunition that afternoon, as would supplies of 25-pounder artillery shells. Chief Engineer Brigadier Simson revealed that there was a good chance that most of Singapore city would run out of water by the next day. Bennett and Heath, who still had his pregnant wife with him, had both been urging surrender for several days and apparently saw no reason to change their minds.

The decision to comply with the surrender terms Yamashita had offered four days before was taken unanimously, but when some of the finer points were being discussed Bennett suddenly suggested, 'How about a combined attack to recapture Bukit Timah?' Major Cyril Wild, a former executive on the Rising Sun Petroleum Company (a subsidiary of Shell), who was on Heath's staff and was one of the few British Japanese-speakers left on the island, noted that this was greeeted with silence. 'I formed the impression at the time that it was made not as a serious contribution but as something to quote afterwards.'

At 11.30 a.m., Wild was acting as interpreter when he accompanied Brigadier Terence Newbigging, Percival's senior administrative officer, and Hugh Fraser, the Straits Settlements Colonial Secretary, as they crossed the lines carrying white and Union flags. Both ways, their most dangerous moments occured on the British side. Going, an angry captain in the 5th Suffolks who, like many of the 18th Division, thought they had a lot more fight left in them, shoved a revolver in Newbigging's chest and demanded to see his identity card. Coming back, Wild reported 'an inaccurate burst of pistol fire, delivered at somewhat unsporting range, from a Provost Corporal'.

A Japanese flag flown for ten minutes from the Cathay Building indicated that Percival had agreed to the terms and would meet Yamashita at the Ford factory. They met there at 4.30 p.m. and the negotiations were predictably one-sided. Percival wanted a ceasefuire at 10 p.m. but settled for 8.30. However, Yamashita did agree that for the next twenty-four hours, 1,000 troops could retain their arms to keep law and order, and he allowed only a small number of his men to enter Singapore the next day...

Yamashita took Malaya and Singapore for 3,506 killed and 6,150 wounded. Percival's casualties are estimated at 7,500 killed and 10,000 wounded. About 120,000 prisoners were taken. In his week-long campaign on Singapore Island itself, Yamashita lost almost as many men as he did on the peninsula: 1,713 killed and 2,772 wounded. This works out as 640 casualties a day, which by the end of the twentieth century any western power, let alone Japan which hardly has an army at all, would consider exorbitant.

Afterwards, Yamashita liked to boast that his victory was based on a bluff because he was outnumbered and running out of artillery shells. On paper he did have half the men, but his three first-class homogeneous divisions backed by total air and naval superiority cannot be compared to Percival's heterogeneous, ramshackle command. In the end, there was not much more than the 18th division and a few attachments left. If the British had continued to resist, the wrost that could have happened to Yamashita was that there would have been a humiliating wait for reinforcements. There was no way Percival was ever going to push him off the island.
And so was interrupted the British rule over Singapore, which had lasted 122 years. As with Hong Kong, the British repossession of the city after the end of World War II was under different terms, with British dignity never fully restored after this humiliating defeat.

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