The Battle of Singapore, also known as the Fall of Singapore, was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of the Second World War when the Empire of Japan invaded the Allied stronghold of Singapore. Singapore was the major British military base in South-East Asia and nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East". The fighting in Singapore lasted from 8–15 February 1942.
It resulted in the capture of Singapore by the Japanese and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British military history. In just seven days, Singapore, the "Impregnable Fortress", had fallen.
Outbreak of war
The Allies had imposed a trade embargo on Japan in response to its continued campaigns in China. Seeking alternative sources of necessary materials for its Pacific War against the Allies, Japan invaded Malaya. Singapore — to the south — was connected to Malaya by the Johor–Singapore Causeway. The Japanese saw it as a port which could be used as a launching pad against other Allied interests in the area, and to consolidate the invaded territory.
Invasion of Malaya
The Japanese 25th Army invaded Malaya from Indochina, moving into northern Malaya and Thailand by amphibious assault on 8 December 1941. This was virtually simultaneous with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was meant to deter the US from intervening in Southeast Asia. Japanese troops in Thailand coerced the Thai government to let the Japanese use their military bases for the invasion of other nations in Southeast Asia and then proceeded overland across the Thai–Malayan border to attack Malaya. At this time, the Japanese began bombing strategic sites in Singapore, and air raids were conducted on Singapore from 29 December onwards.
The Japanese 25th Army was resisted in northern Malaya by III Corps of the British Indian Army. Although the 25th Army was outnumbered by Allied forces in Malaya and Singapore, Japanese commanders concentrated their forces. The Japanese were superior in close air support, armour, coordination, tactics and experience. Moreover, the British forces repeatedly allowed themselves to be outflanked, believing—despite repeated flanking attacks by the Japanese—that the Malayan jungle was impassable. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Force was more numerous, and better trained than the second-hand assortment of untrained pilots and inferior allied equipment remaining in Malaya, Borneo and Singapore. Their superior fighters—especially the Nakajima Ki-43—helped the Japanese to gain air supremacy. The Allies had no tanks and few armoured vehicles, which put them at a severe disadvantage.
The battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers (Force Z) reached Malaya before the Japanese began their air assaults. This force was thought to be a deterrent to the Japanese. Their aircraft, however, sank the capital ships, leaving the east coast of the Malayan peninsula exposed and allowing the Japanese to continue their amphibious landings. Japanese forces quickly isolated, surrounded, and forced the surrender of Indian units defending the coast. They advanced down the Malayan peninsula overwhelming the defences, despite their numerical inferiority. The Japanese forces also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, allowing swift movement through the jungle.
Although more Allied units—including some from the Australian 8th Division—joined the campaign, the Japanese prevented the Allied forces from regrouping, they also overran cities, and advanced toward Singapore. The city was an anchor for the operations of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM), the first Allied joint command of the Second World War. Singapore also controlled the main shipping channel between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. On 31 January, the last Allied forces left Malaya and Allied engineers blew up the causeway linking Johor and Singapore. Japanese infiltrators—many disguised as Singaporean civilians—crossed the Straits of Johor in inflatable boats soon afterwards.
During the weeks preceding the invasion, the Allied force suffered a number of both subdued and openly disruptive disagreements amongst its senior commanders, as well as pressure from the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, commander of the garrison, had 85,000 soldiers, the equivalent, on paper at least, of just over four divisions. There were about 70,000 front-line troops in 38 infantry battalions—13 British, six Australian, 17 Indian, two Malayan—and three machine-gun battalions. The newly arrived British 18th Infantry Division—under Major-General Merton Beckwith-Smith—was at full strength, but lacked experience and appropriate training; most of the other units were under strength, a few having been amalgamated due to heavy casualties, as a result of the mainland campaign. The local battalions had no experience and in some cases no training.
Percival gave Major-General Gordon Bennett's two brigades from the Australian 8th Division responsibility for the western side of Singapore, including the prime invasion points in the northwest of the island. This was mostly mangrove swamp and jungle, broken by rivers and creeks. In the heart of the "Western Area" was RAF Tengah, Singapore's largest airfield at the time. The Australian 22nd Brigade was assigned a 10 mi (16 km) wide sector in the west, and the 27th Brigade had responsibility for a 4,000 yd (3,700 m) zone just west of the Causeway. The infantry positions were reinforced by the recently arrived Australian 2/4th Machine-Gun Battalion. Also under Bennett's command was the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade.
The Indian III Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir Lewis Heath—including the Indian 11th Infantry Division, (Major-General B. W. Key), the British 18th Division and the 15th Indian Infantry Brigade—was assigned the north-eastern sector, known as the "Northern Area". This included the naval base at Sembawang. The "Southern Area"—including the main urban areas in the south-east—was commanded by Major-General Frank Keith Simmons. His forces comprised about 18 battalions, including the Malayan 1st Infantry Brigade, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force Brigade and Indian 12th Infantry Brigade.
From aerial reconnaissance, scouts, infiltrators and high ground across the straits, such as at Istana Bukit Serene, the Sultan of Johor's palace, the Japanese commander—General Tomoyuki Yamashita—and his staff gained excellent knowledge of the Allied positions. Yamashita and his officers stationed themselves at Istana Bukit Serene and the Johor state secretariat building—the Sultan Ibrahim Building—to plan for the invasion of Singapore.
Although advised by his top military personnel that Istana Bukit Serene was an easy target, Yamashita was confident that the British Army would not attack the palace because it was the pride and a possession of the Sultan of Johor. Yamashita's prediction was correct, as the British Army did not dare attack the palace.
From 3 February, the Allies were shelled by Japanese artillery and air attacks on Singapore intensified over the next five days. The artillery and air bombardment strengthened, severely disrupting communications between Allied units and their commanders and affecting preparations for the defence of the island.
It is a commonly repeated misconception that Singapore's famous large-calibre coastal guns were ineffective against the Japanese because they were designed to face south to defend the harbour against naval attack and could not be turned round to face north. In fact, most of the guns could be turned, and were indeed fired at the invaders. However, the guns - which included one battery of three 15 in (380 mm) weapons and one with two 15 in (380 mm) guns — were supplied mostly with armour-piercing (AP) shells and few high explosive (HE) shells. AP shells were designed to penetrate the hulls of heavily armoured warships and were virtually ineffective against personnel. Military analysts later estimated that if the guns had been well supplied with HE shells the Japanese attackers would have suffered heavy casualties, but the invasion would not have been prevented by this means alone.
Yamashita had just over 30,000 men from three divisions: the Imperial Guards Division under Lieutenant-General Takuma Nishimura, the 5th Division under Lieutenant-General Takuro Matsui and the 18th Division under Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi. The elite Imperial Guards units included a light tank brigade.
Percival incorrectly guessed the Japanese would land forces on the North East side of Singapore. This was encouraged by the deliberate movement of enemy troops in this sector to deceive the British. Therefore a large portion of defence equipment and resources was allocated to the North Eastern sector and the Australian sector had no serious fixed defence works or obstacles. A daring Australian night patrol in the days leading up to the Japanese attack discovered hidden naval assault boats and a concentration of troops. The Australians requested the immediate shelling of these positions to disrupt the Japanese preparations but Percival and his senior commanders ignored the request, believing that the real assault would come in the North Eastern sector, not the North West. Like so many other times in this campaign, Percival and his commanders' poor leadership and decision making made the job of his troops almost impossible.
Blowing up the causeway had delayed the Japanese attack for over a week. Prior to the main assault the Australians were subjected to a terrific artillery bombardment that cut telephone lines and effectively isolated forward units from rear areas. Even at this stage, a counter artillery barrage as a response could have been mounted by the British on the coastline opposite the Australians that would have caused casualties and disruption among the Japanese assault troops. But the bombardment of the Australians was not seen as a prelude to imminent attack, despite its ferocity exceeding anything the Allies had experienced thus far in the campaign.
At 20:30 on 8 February, Australian machine gunners opened fire on vessels carrying the first wave of 4,000 troops from the 5th and 18th Divisions toward Singapore island. The Japanese assaulted Sarimbun Beach, in the sector controlled by the Australian 22nd Brigade under Brigadier Harold Taylor. Spotlights had been sited by a British unit on the beaches to enable the Australians to clearly see any attacking forces on the water in front of them. But the British commander of this unit could not be contacted when the communication lines were cut, so the Australians were forced to fire into the darkness at the sound of approaching boats or at their silhouettes from the few burning vessels that had been hit by lucky mortar fire. What was supposed to be an illuminated killing field was instead a difficult, dark area that favoured the attackers more than the defenders. Once the Japanese reached the darkened shorelines, they could easily disperse into the undergrowth and jungle terrain where they would be unseen by the Australians in their static, fixed positions. This allowed the mobile but hidden Japanese to either surround and destroy pockets of Australian resistance or simply bypass them to reach other objectives. As was the case throughout the Malayan and Singapore campaign, the fast moving, mobile Japanese always had the advantage over the static Allied positions, who because of limited visibility caused by the terrain, could rarely tell if they were being attacked by small or large numbers of their concealed enemies.
Fierce fighting raged all day,[lower-alpha 1] but eventually the increasing Japanese numbers—and the superiority of their artillery, aircraft and military intelligence—began to take their toll. In the northwest of the island they exploited gaps in the thinly spread Allied lines such as rivers and creeks. By midnight, the two Australian brigades had lost communications with each other, and the 22nd Brigade was forced to retreat. At 01:00, more Japanese troops were landed in the northwest of the island and the last Australian reserves went in. Near dawn on 9 February, elements of the 22nd Brigade were overrun or surrounded; the 2/18th Australian Infantry Battalion had lost more than half of its personnel.[lower-alpha 2]
Air cover was provided by only ten Hawker Hurricane fighters of RAF No. 232 Squadron, based at Kallang Airfield. This was because Tengah, Seletar and Sembawang were in range of Japanese artillery at Johor Bahru. Kallang Airfield was the only operational airstrip left; the surviving squadrons and aircraft were withdrawn by January to reinforce the Dutch East Indies.
At 04:15 on 8 December 1941, Singapore was subjected to aerial bombing for the first time by long-range Japanese aircraft, such as the Mitsubishi G3M3 "Nell" and the Mitsubishi G4M1 "Betty", based in Japanese-occupied Indochina. The bombers struck the city centre as well as the Sembawang Naval Base and the island's northern airfields. After this first raid, throughout the rest of December, there were a number of false alerts and several infrequent and sporadic hit-and-run attacks on outlying military installations such as the Naval Base, but no actual raids on Singapore City. The situation had become so desperate, it included a British soldier firing a Vickers machine gun from the middle of a road at any aircraft that passed. He could only say: "The bloody bastards will never think of looking for me in the open, and I want to see a bloody plane brought down."
The next recorded raid on the city occurred on the night of 29/30 December, and nightly raids ensued for over a week, only to be accompanied by daylight raids from 12 January 1942 onward. In the days that followed, as the Japanese army drew ever nearer to Singapore Island, these day and night raids increased in frequency and intensity, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties, up to the time of the British surrender.
During December, 51 Hurricane Mk II fighters were sent to Singapore, with 24 pilots, the nuclei of five squadrons. They arrived on 3 January 1942, by which stage the F2A Buffalo squadrons had been overwhelmed. No. 232 Squadron was formed and No. 488 Squadron RNZAF, a Buffalo squadron had converted to Hurricanes. 232 Squadron became operational on 20 January and destroyed three Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscars" that day, for the loss of three Hurricanes. However, like the Buffalos before them, the Hurricanes began to suffer severe losses in intense dogfights.
During the period 27 January–30 January, another 48 Hurricanes (the Mk IIA variant), arrived with No. 226 Group (four squadrons) on the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable, from which they flew to airfields code-named P1 and P2, near Palembang, Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. The staggered arrival of the Hurricanes — along with inadequate early warning systems — meant that Japanese air raids were able to destroy a large proportion of the Hurricanes on the ground in Sumatra and Singapore.
On the morning of 8 February, a number of aerial dogfights took place over Sarimbun Beach and other western areas. In the first encounter, the last ten Hurricanes were scrambled from Kallang Airfield to intercept a Japanese formation of about 84 planes, flying from Johor to provide air cover for their invasion force. In two sorties, the Hurricanes shot down six Japanese planes for the loss of one of their own; they flew back to Kallang halfway through the battle, hurriedly re-fuelled, then returned to it. Air battles went on for the rest of the day, and by nightfall it was clear that with the few machines Percival had left, Kallang could no longer be used as a base. With his assent the remaining eight flyable Hurricanes were withdrawn to Palembang, Sumatra, and Kallang merely became an advanced landing ground. No Allied aircraft were seen again over Singapore, the Japanese had achieved complete air supremacy.
On the evening of 10 February, General Archibald Wavell ordered the transfer of all remaining Allied air force personnel to the Dutch East Indies. By this time, Kallang Airfield was so pitted with bomb craters that it was no longer usable.
Believing that further landings would occur in the northeast, Percival did not reinforce the 22nd Brigade. On 9 February, the Japanese landings shifted to the southwest, where they encountered the 44th Indian Infantry Brigade. Allied units were forced to retreat further east. Bennett decided to form a secondary defensive line, known as the "Jurong Line", around Bulim, east of Tengah Airfield and just north of Jurong.
Brigadier Duncan Maxwell's Australian 27th Brigade, to the north, did not face Japanese assaults until the Imperial Guards landed at 22:00 on 9 February. This operation went very badly for the Japanese, who suffered severe casualties from Australian mortars and machine guns, and from burning oil which had been sluiced into the water. A small number of Guards reached the shore and maintained a tenuous beachhead.
Command and control problems caused further cracks in the Allied defence. Maxwell was aware that the 22nd Brigade was under increasing pressure, but was unable to contact Taylor and was wary of encirclement. In spite of his brigade's success, and in contravention of orders from Bennett, Maxwell ordered it to withdraw from Kranji in the central north. The Allies thereby lost control of the beaches adjoining the west side of the causeway.
The opening at Kranji made it possible for Imperial Guards armoured units to land there unopposed. Tanks with buoyancy aids attached were towed across the strait and advanced rapidly south, along Woodlands Road. This allowed Yamashita to outflank the 22nd Brigade on the Jurong Line, as well as bypassing the 11th Indian Division at the naval base. However, the Imperial Guards failed to seize an opportunity to advance into the city centre itself.
On the evening of 10 February, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, cabled Wavell, saying:
I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 [sic] men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula... In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out ...
Wavell subsequently told Percival that the ground forces were to fight on to the end, and that there should not be a general surrender in Singapore.
On 11 February, knowing that Japanese supplies were running perilously low, Yamashita decided to bluff and he called on Percival to "give up this meaningless and desperate resistance". By this stage, the fighting strength of the 22nd Brigade—which had borne the brunt of the Japanese attacks—had been reduced to a few hundred men. The Japanese had captured the Bukit Timah area, including most of the Allied ammunition and fuel and giving them control of the main water supplies.
The next day, the Allied lines stabilised around a small area in the southeast of the island and fought off determined Japanese assaults. Other units—including the 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade—had joined in. A Malayan platoon—led by 2nd Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi—held the Japanese for two days at the Battle of Pasir Panjang. His unit defended Bukit Chandu, an area which included a major Allied ammunition store. Adnan was executed by the Japanese after his unit was overrun.
On 13 February, with the Allies still losing ground, senior officers advised Percival to surrender in the interests of minimising civilian casualties. Percival refused, but unsuccessfully sought authority to surrender from his superiors.
That same day, military police executed a convicted British traitor, Captain Patrick Heenan, who had been an Air Liaison Officer with the British Indian Army. Japanese military intelligence had recruited Heenan before the war, and he had used a radio to assist them in targeting Allied airfields in northern Malaya. He had been arrested on 10 December and court-martialled in January. Heenan was shot at Keppel Harbour, on the south side of Singapore, his body was thrown into the sea.
The following day, the remaining Allied units fought on; civilian casualties mounted as one million people crowded into the area still held by the Allies, bombing and artillery fire increased. Civilian authorities began to fear that the water supply would give out.
Alexandra Hospital massacre
At about 13:00 on 14 February, Japanese soldiers advanced towards the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. A British lieutenant—acting as an envoy with a white flag—approached the Japanese forces but was killed with a bayonet. After the Japanese troops entered the hospital, a number of patients, including those undergoing surgery at the time, were killed along with doctors and members of nursing staff. The following day about 200 male staff members and patients who had been assembled and bound the previous day, many of them walking wounded, were ordered to walk about 400 m (440 yd) to an industrial area. Anyone who fell on the way was bayoneted. The men were forced into a series of small, badly ventilated rooms where they held overnight without water. Some died during the night as a result of their treatment. The remainder were bayoneted the following morning.
Private Haines of the Wiltshire Regiment—a survivor—had been in the hospital suffering from malaria. He wrote a four-page account of the massacre that was sold by his daughter by private auction in 2008; Haines described how the Japanese did not consider those who were weak, wounded or who had surrendered to be worthy of life. After surrendering, staff were ordered to proceed down a corridor, where Sergeant Rogers was bayoneted twice in the back and another officer, Captain Parkinson, was bayoneted through the throat. Others killed included Captain Heevers and Private Lewis. Captain Smiley and Private Sutton were bayoneted but survived by playing dead. Many who had not been imprisoned in the tiny rooms in the industrial area were systematically taken away in small groups and bayoneted or macheted to death. This continued for 24 hours, leaving 320 men and one woman dead. Those who lost their lives included a corporal from the Loyal Regiment, who was impaled on the operating table, and even a Japanese prisoner who was perhaps mistaken for a Gurkha.
There were only five known survivors, including George Britton (1922–2009) of the East Surrey Regiment, and Private Haines. Also Hugo Hughes, who lost his right leg, and George Wort, who lost an arm, both of the Royal Malay Regiment. There may have been others. Haines' account came to light only after his death. Survivors were so traumatised that they rarely spoke of their ordeal.
After three days with no food or drink, those unable to walk were taken to Changi on wheelbarrows and carts, no motorised vehicles being available.
Fall of Singapore
By the morning of 15 February, the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence; the Allies were running out of food and ammunition. The anti-aircraft guns had also run out of ammunition and were unable to repel any further Japanese air attacks which threatened to cause heavy casualties in the city centre. Looting and desertion by Allied troops further added to the chaos in this area.
At 09:30, Percival held a conference at Fort Canning with his senior commanders. He proposed two options: either launch an immediate counter-attack to regain the reservoirs and the military food depots in the Bukit Timah region and drive the enemy's artillery off its commanding heights outside the town; or capitulate. All present agreed that no counterattack was possible. Percival opted for surrender.
A deputation was selected to go to the Japanese headquarters. It consisted of a senior staff officer, the colonial secretary and an interpreter. They set off in a motor car bearing a Union Jack and a white flag of truce toward the enemy lines to discuss a cessation of hostilities. They returned with orders that Percival himself proceed with staff officers to the Ford Motor Factory, where Yamashita would lay down the terms of surrender. A further requirement was that the Japanese Rising Sun Flag be hoisted over the tallest building in Singapore, as soon as possible to maximise the psychological impact of the official surrender. Percival formally surrendered shortly after 17:15.
The terms of the surrender included:
- The unconditional surrender of all military forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) in Singapore.
- Hostilities to cease at 20:30 that evening.
- All troops to remain in position until further orders.
- All weapons, military equipment, ships, planes and secret documents to be handed over intact.
- To prevent looting, etc., during the temporary withdrawal of all armed forces in Singapore, a force of 1,000 British armed men to take over until relieved by the Japanese.
Earlier that day Percival had issued orders to destroy before 16:00, all secret and technical equipment, ciphers, codes, secret documents and heavy guns. Yamashita accepted his assurance that no ships or planes remained in Singapore. According to Tokyo's Domei News Agency Yamashita also accepted full responsibility for the lives of British and Australian troops, as well as British civilians remaining in Singapore.
Bennett caused controversy when he handed command of the 8th Division to a brigadier and—along with some of his staff officers—commandeered a small boat. They eventually made their way back to Australia.
The Japanese occupation of Singapore started after the British surrender. Japanese newspapers triumphantly declared the victory as deciding the general situation of the war. The city was renamed Syonan-to (Japanese language: 昭南島 Shōnan-tō
- Southern Island gained in the age of Shōwa, or "Light of the South"). The Japanese sought vengeance against the Chinese and to eliminate anyone who held any anti-Japanese sentiments. The Japanese authorities were suspicious of the Chinese because of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and killed many in the Sook Ching massacre. The other ethnic groups of Singapore—such as the Malays and Indians—were not spared either. The residents would suffer great hardships under Japanese rule over the following three and a half years.
Numerous British and Australian soldiers taken prisoner remained in Singapore's Changi Prison. Many would never return home. Thousands of others were shipped out on prisoner transports known as "hell ships" to other parts of Asia, including Japan, to be used as forced labour on projects such as the Siam–Burma Death Railway and Sandakan airfield in North Borneo. Many of those aboard the ships perished.
An Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose formed the Indian National Army with the help of the Japanese, who were highly successful in recruiting Indian soldiers taken prisoner. From a total of about 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore in February 1942, about 30,000 joined the pro-independence Indian National Army, which fought Allied forces in the Burma Campaign as well as in the northeast Indian regions of Kohima and Imphal. Others became POW camp guards at Changi. An unknown number were taken to Japanese-occupied areas in the South Pacific as forced labour. Many of them suffered severe hardships and brutality similar to that experienced by other prisoners of Japan during the war. About 6,000 of them survived until they were liberated by Australian and US forces in 1943–45.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes committed by Japanese personnel in the Philippines earlier that year, but not for crimes committed by his troops in Malaya or Singapore. He was convicted and hanged in the Philippines on 23 February 1946.
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|Library resources about
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- National Heritage Board, Battlefield Singapore
- Bicycle Blitzkrieg – The Japanese Conquest of Malaya and Singapore 1941–1942
- Royal Engineers Museum Royal Engineers and the Second World War – the Far East
- The diary of one British POW, Frederick George Pye of the Royal Engineers. Fred Pye was a POW for 3½ years, including time spent building the Burma Railway. He managed to save, write on and bury scraps of paper, and after the war compiled them into a readable form.
- Animated History of the Fall of Malaya and Singapore
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