The War Illustrated No. 226, Vol. 9, February 15th 1946

The inquiry into t h c circum­stances of the escape of Lieutenant- General G o r don Bennett, C.B., D.S.O., C.-in-C. of the Australian Forces, from Singapore in Feb­ruary 1942 revives memories of what, at the time, to many seemed an incomprehensible and humiliating disaster. Incidentally, the evidence given at the inquiry brings out how bitterly the troops felt the inevitability of surrender. There can belittle doubt that if any good purpose would have been served and they had been called onto do so they would willingly have fought to the last man. Units, exhausted and depleted in along fighting retreat, continued to resist stubbornly when the situation had become hopeless. The Australians who met the initial landing in the mangrove swamps at the north-west corner of the island though compelled to fallback never lost their cohesion. Despite continuous air attack the conduct of the troops in the final stages was in generals a tis factory and discipline was weil main­tained. There can be no doubt that it was not through fear that the troops would crack B y MAJ .-GENERAL SIR CHARLES GWYNN K .C.B .S.O.,D .It was known that what for peacetime were very large -sums had been expended on it, but I am afraid very few concerned themselves to inquire what they had received for their money. It has frequently been explained that it was never intended nor practicable to create a fortress in the full sense but only a first-class, strongly armed naval base. Actually, we learned in the course of the War that no fortress can be made impregnable when subjected to attack by the full power of modern weapons. The fall of Singapore should mainly be attributed to the inability of the Royal Navy and our field army in Malaya to prevent the enemy closing onto it and not to the lack of fortifications on the land side. However strong those defences might have been made MEMORIAL SERVICE for officers and men of the 2nd Battalion the Gordon Highlanders who fell in Malaya and Singapore, 1941-42, was conducted by the Rt. Rev. L.R. Wilson, Bishop of Singapore, on September 26,1945. The service was held at the grave of three British soldiers who lost their lives in a slit trench—now dedicated to the dead of the 2nd Battalion. Photo, lin ia h Official that Lieutenant-General E.A. Percival, C.B., D.S.O., M.C., G.O.C. Malaya, decided to surrender, but rather to avoid what had evidently become useless bloodshed, and inconsideration for the desperate plight of the civil population owing to water shortage. C'URRENDER of the Fortress Came ^as Desperate Shock to the Nation That recriminations and criticisms, some probably justified, should have been provoked by the surrender of so important a place and of so many men was to be expected. But now that we have recovered from the shock, sympathy for the commander who had to make the decision and for the troops whose efforts had proved in vain is surely more fitting. Perhaps those who most deserve sympathy are the troops who were landed as reinforcements at the last moment, only to find themselves committed to the miseries of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps without hav­ing had an opportunity to prove their metal Whether these last-minute reinforcements should have been landed when the situation had become so hopeless maybe open to question. Landed after along sea voyage into totally strange surroundings they could in any case have been of little immediate value. Possibly the need to release shipping in which to evacuate women and children was llic reason for a measure which only toadded the scale of the disaster. The sur­render camc as a desperate shock to the nation all the more because it was popularly believed that Singapore had been made into impregnable fortress. T thad therefore to be assumed that in times of crisis a large part of the Fleet would be dispatched to the East, arriving therein about 56 days. During that period the Japanese, in temporary command of the sea, might attempt to destroy the installations of the base by bombardment or by raiding-partics landed on the island. Powerful coast artillery guns were therefore mounted to keep hostile ships at a distance, and a small infantry garrison was maintained to deal with raids. A small R.A.F. detachment also was stationed at the base. It was realized that during the 56-day period the enemy might also land a force on the main­land of the peninsula, but owing to the lime factor it was assumed that the landing would not be in great strength or be cficcted at any great distance from the base. WHY Japan Was Able to Exploit Fully Her Superior Air Power they would have served only to delay and not to avert the final disaster in the strategic conditions that had arisen as a consequence of the war with Germany. In view of those conditions it is very doubtful whether from the outset of the war with Japan it would have been practicable to avert the disaster unless Japan had displayed an ineptitude and weak­ness which we had no right to expect. As misapprehensions still prevail it maybe worthwhile to review, with special reference to Singapore, the strategic aspects of our imperial defence problems. Obviously our resources in peace, and even when our armed forces arc expanded in war, arc insufficient permanently to provide adequate forces for the defence of our outlying possessions and interests. We depend primarily on the Royal Navy re­taining control of sea communications to, admit of the reinforcement of threatened points, and secondly on reserves held at suitable points for reinforcement. \X firn the rise of Japan as a powerful and potentially hostile naval power equili­brium in Eastern waters demanded the presence of a powerful British fleet. aBut modern powerful fleet cannot operate or be maintained without a first-class base, hence the Singapore base. But the main British fleet had for a number of reasons to be stationed in the West, and for financial and political reasons was not maintained at sufficient strength to provide, a dctachmcnt of really adequate size permanently in the Far East. PAGE 644 It was, however, essential to prevent such a force advancing to within artillery range of the naval dockyard or establishing air­fields from which it could be bombed. For this, a mobile field force was required to be formed from reinforcements provided by India. To have constructed an elaborate defence works on the landward side of the island would have given no protection to the dockyard, and a Maginot onLine the main­land at a sufficient distance would have not only been very costly but would have tied a large force to immobile defence. Moreover, it would not have eliminated air attack. Such were the premises on which the defence scheme of Singapore was based, and they were falsified by the collapse of France. The main Fleet could not leave western waters, and the belated dispatch of H.M.S. Prince of Wales and the Repulse was probably only intended to abe deterrent measure, taking account of the strained relations between the U.S.A. and Japan. After the Pearl Harbour disaster their strategic value was immensely reduced. Rein­forcements were sent from India and Aus­tralia, but since both these countries had already sent contingents to the Middle East they could not contribute a force strong enough to meet the new situation. For Japan, having established herself in Indo-China and Siam, could now invade Malaya by land and sea. With no prospcct of a British fleet arriving she was not hampered by the time factor, and she could fully txploit her superior air power. T n these circumstances the newly-formed British field army had to be deployed on the Siamese frontier and to cover a probable landing. Numerically, the force available was too small for the task and the troops were not trained in jungle fighting, nor was their equipment up to required standards. Manoeuvred out of one position after another, tactically in jungle fighting and strategically by landings in their rear, retreat was unavoidable. How serious the situation was from the outset may not have been fully realized, for it had been expected that the jungle would favour defence. The general public, buoyed up by belief in the impregnability of Singapore, and perhaps misled by over-sanguine communiques, had certainly little warning of the approaching catastrophe which neither the most forceful leadership nor the strongest defences on the island could have for long averted. Mr. Churchill at the time wisely refused to setup a Commission of Inquiry into the Singapore disaster but his speech delivered in secret session of Parliament nine weeks after the event had unmistakable implications. Its publication would seem to demand an inquiry now, not to search for scapegoats but injustice to many brave men and for public enlightenment in strategic ratters.
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