31 December 2011

After Pearl Harbor: Part 4 - The Worst Defeat - Singapore

Lt. Gen. Percival leading the surrender party at Singapore

Part One Part Two Part Three

The British, it is often said, maintain a stiff upper lip in even the worse circumstances. These gentlemen certainly look like they're doing so.

That must have been utterly hard considering what had just happened - and what would happen.
One of the best ways to understand why British Empire had all these outposts in far-flung obscure places is to plot some of them on a map. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Suez, Aden, Diego Garcia, Singapore, Hong Kong. As you can see, they all provide coverage of key trade routes to China and India.

Singapore, today a very prosperous limited democracy, covers a key route between the Indian Ocean to the west and the South China Sea to the east. It's one of the world's busiest ports and its strategic value from a purely geographical point is obvious. Therefore, the British invested large amounts in its naval defences, believing that it would be impenetrable from a seaborne invasion. Nobody, from the lowest ranking officer up to Churchill himself (who said in The Second World War that someone, himself included, should have seen it coming), thought that the Japanese would attack from the north, as surely the Malayan jungle was impenetrable.

Of course it wasn't.

On 1 February 1942, the Japanese reached the shore opposite Singapore after riding their bicycles through the Malayan jungle. The British were again woefully unprepared - they hadn't even implemented rationing - but still had superior numbers.

The first Japanese move was a feint attack by Yamashita's badly depleted forces (he was, in fact, outnumbered three to one) on 5 February against the island of Pulau Ubin to the north-east of Singapore island - a move that led Percival to move his key ammunition stores to the east. The Japanese then attacked from the northwest on 8 February. Australian forces from the 22nd Brigade fought off the initial landing attempts, but eventually succumbed to Japan's superior artillery and air support - the limited Allied fighter force did not last long against greater Imperial Japanese numbers. Percival believed that further landings would came from the north-east and so did not reinforce them - the Brigade were routed on 10 February.

Percival (told by Churchill to fight to the end) also started destroying docks and fuel dumps - while this stopped the Japanese from getting them, the effect on morale was highly negative, but worse was to come. A million people, mostly civilians crowded into the increasingly small area that the Allies controlled and food and water began to run out. Boats trying to leave were strafed by Japanese fighters, who now dominated the sky.

Percival was urged to surrender by his senior officers on the 13th but decided to fight on while he still had water, although he did ask for authority to surrender from London - which he eventually got.

14 February would see the Japanese commit another bloody massacre, killing 321 people in the Alexandra Barracks Hospital, usually by bayoneting them. Only five people were known to have survived. When Yamashita had about this, he had the soldiers responsible executed. This was just one of the atrocities committed.

The following day, Percival's forces were running out of ammunition and only had enough for two more days of fighting - although he didn't know the Japanese weren't much better on this front. At 1400 local time, deciding not to risk any further civilian casualties, he surrendered his forces unconditionally to Yamashita. 80,000 Allied soldiers became POWs, where most would spend four years in horrific conditions - many would never return. Thousands of Indian soldiers would switch sides and fight alongside the Japanese - but most of that army stayed loyal.

It was the biggest capitulation in British history. Part by bluff, part by superior fire power, Singapore had been taken by a numerically smaller force. The Australians were now worried about their own territory and rightly so - the Japanese seemed unstoppable.

But they weren't. As we shall see in the next post, Japan was to suffer two massive reverses in the following months.

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