Picture: 123RF/Yulia Grogoryeva
Picture: 123RF/Yulia Grogoryeva

“The loss of the island fortress of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 was a disaster of quite monumental strategic and economic consequences,” says Saul David in his book Military Blunders.

“At a stroke, Britain forfeited its strongest foothold in the Far East.”

David writes: “Such a catastrophe could only be the result of a catalogue of political and military blunders. Nevertheless, one man stands supremely responsible: the British commander in Malaya and Singapore, Lieutenant-General AE Percival.”

Disagreement by the three armed forces – the army, the navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) – over the best way to protect the base dated back to 1925. Davis says the senior services – the army and navy – got their way. “The unfortunate consequence was that Singapore was left undefended on its northern – landward – side, the point at which it was linked to the mainland by a causeway.”

He writes that matters started to look ominous in the summer of 1941 with “Winston Churchill’s decision to pour all available reinforcements into the struggle for North Africa”. This was contrary to an earlier decision that “the defence of Singapore should be the main priority after the defence of Britain itself”.

With the trade embargo imposed on Japan by the US, cutting it off from raw materials, “Japan’s only recourse was to extend her conquest of South-East Asia”.

Percival, 53, was charged with the defence of Malaya and Singapore.

Davis says that of the 88,000 that made up his command “many were underequipped and poorly trained”. Percival did little to improve this as he did not expect to meet the Japanese in the field.  He did not believe that the Japanese army would be able to advance through the Malay peninsula’s impenetrable jungle – “and certainly not with tanks”.

But, David writes, “by December 10 [1941] the Japanese 5th Division, having landed further up, had crossed to the west coast of the peninsula and had penetrated into Malaya on two fronts”.

David points out that on that same day the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers. “The officer in command, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, who went down with his ship, had been warned that the RAF could not provide air cover but he sailed on regardless.” Apparently he believed “that capital ships could not be sunk by aircraft”.

David says that from that date, the Commonwealth and Imperial forces were in almost constant retreat and were frequently surprised by the appearance of Japanese tanks and artillery “that had manoeuvred through well-spaced rows of rubber trees, and infantry that had marched through the bordering jungle”.

By the beginning of January the British had been pushed to a line just north of the Slim River, he writes.

General Sir Archibald Wavell took up the new emergency post of supreme commander of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific. David says he decided “to accelerate Percival’s gradual withdrawal and base a new defence line on the southern city of Johore”. Kuala Lumpur was abandoned on January 11 1942.

“The retreat was far quicker and more disorganised than had been intended. By the 30th, all British, Commonwealth and Imperial forces had been driven back into the southern tip of  the peninsula …  It had taken just 54 days for the Japanese to conquer Malaya.”

David writes that Churchill appealed “for the battle to be ‘fought to the bitter end’ and for commanders ‘to die with their troops’ for ‘the honour of the British Empire’.” But most decided captivity was preferable to death.

The end came on the evening of February 15, David writes, after the Japanese had entered the suburbs of Singapore city. General Percival went out under a white flag and surrendered in person.