Japan, by rights, should not have won Singapore on 15th February 1942. Britain had 100,000 troops to Japan’s 30,000 and twice as much artillery, if facing the wrong way – southwards towards the sea, rather than north towards the border with Malaya (now Malaysia). Japan did have 300 tanks to Britain’s none, and far less aircraft, but all the same the Battle for Singapore shouldn’t even have been a fair fight, let alone a walkover by Japan. So what went wrong for Britain? For a start, they had sent a ‘Rabbit’ to deter ‘The Tiger of Malaya’!
The latter was a title given to Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, a favourite of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, after the campaign. Atlas of World War II BY Richard Natkiel describes him as a ‘military marvel’, and so he proved to be. Knowing that, though he could combat some of the weaker nations of the British Empire in South East Asia he couldn’t rival the stronger ones, he had to make up what he lacked in manpower by speed, conviction and a healthy dose of bravado. That being the case, he directed his Twenty-fifth Army with spirit. When they landed at three points on the banks of the South China Sea, two in Siam and one in Malaya, they didn’t hang about. The 5 Division rushed to face 11 Indian Division head on, sweeping through the vital British airfields at Kedah en route and destroying all but 50 British planes, while 18 Division pushed deep inland towards the Headquarters of the British III Corps, where Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the General Officer Commanding in Malaya, was quartered. Meanwhile, 56th Infantry Regiment of 18 Division, the ‘Takumi Force’, hurried down the coastline.
The battle for Malaya was all over in 54 days, as the confidence and speed of the Japanese attack caught the over-confident British troops completely by surprise. On top of that, Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita was comfortable fighting in the jungle. He made great use of elephants crashing through the bushes and guerrilla tactics, anything to make his force seem bigger and stronger than it really was. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival’s British and Australian troops, meanwhile, were not used to the heat and dense undergrowth, and rapidly became tired and demoralised. Worse, they had no real faith in their leader. Percival, who was called ‘Rabbit’ behind his back because of his bad overbite, was not really a bad soldier. He was just unimaginative, and not a strong leader of men. He might have been fine facing another General, but he was no match for the brilliant Yamashita. The British, who knew they would be both better manned and armed in Singapore, drew back into their stronghold, though 4,000 men were left stranded in the centre of the country when their retreat was cut off as a bridge was seized. On 11th January, Kuala Lumpur fell.
In the meantime, British troops to the east were unable to come to Percival’s aid, being under siege themselves, as were the Americans in the Philippines. On 8th December 1941, the same day she invaded Malaya, Japan also mounted an attack on Hong Kong. There were less British defenders in this area, and as Karen Farrington explains in her Witness to World War II, even if they had been more numerous, the country was much closer to the Japanese air bases in Formosa (now Taiwan). Churchill had been warned in August 1940 that it would be impossible to defend Hong Kong from the Japanese, just as it had been impossible to stop the German occupation of the Channel Islands. As with the Channel Islands he duly weakened the country’s defences, but suffered a crisis of confidence in 1941 and strengthened them again, diverting two Canadian battalions to the area. In the event, all he succeeded in doing was providing the Japanese with more Prisoners of War to take.
First the defenders of Hong Kong were driven back behind the Gindrinkers Line bordering the New Territories, then back onto the island itself. On 18th December the Japanese landed in Hong Kong, and by 25th half the defenders surrendered as a wedge was driven between two British forces, while the other half surrendered a day later. For 3,000 men lost, the Japanese took 17,000 men.
The fight for Malaya had resulted in the death or capture of 25,000 Allied troops to the Japanese 4,600. Still, the Japanese remained the under-dogs if Percy had only realised it. On 8th February the Japanese began to cross the Johore Strait towards Singapore. They crossed in small boats or simply swam across, and this would have been an opportune moment to pick them off like the sitting ducks that they were. However, the order to turn on the strong spotlights that swept the Straight was never received, and nobody thought to take it upon themselves simply to turn them on. That being the case, the frustrated Allied troops found themselves firing blindly into the darkness, inflicting little damage on the determined invaders. The bulk of the Japanese troops landed safely, and now the fight was really on… or it would have been, had not a confusing order come to fall back rather than to attack.
It was chaos. The Allied defenders were demoralised, confused and completely unable combat the determined Japanese attack. The black smoke filling the air as the British burned fuel to prevent it falling into Japanese hands didn’t help matters, and the supplies of both food and drink on the island were dwindling. Percy was at his wits’ end when a package was dropped by Japan demanding his surrender, with a message from Yamashita attached. It said simply, according to Witness to World War II: “If you continue resistance, it will be difficult to bear from a humanitarian point of view.” Panicking, Percy forgot Churchill’s order to the end. Bearing both the British and white flags in a show of submission, he duly gave up the fight. 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were rounded up and taken prisoner, fated to live out the war, if they were lucky, in the Japanese POW camps. The Japanese, meanwhile, turned their eyes to the rest of the British Empire.
After the war, Yamashita admitted: “I knew that if I had been made to fight longer for Singapore I would have been beaten. That is why the surrender had to be immediate. I was extremely frightened that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting. But they never did. My bluff worked.” The whole battle so far had been a chess game between the Tiger and the Rabbit, and inevitably, the Tiger had in the end exhibited the stronger will and taken the prize. The British Empire would never be the same again, and when Japan surrendered the region to the Allies on 12th September 1945, the people of Singapore immediately started demanding an end of British-Indian rule.