The Fall of Singapore

The following article is by Frank Miller who was in the Royal Artillery. He was in Singapore from 1941 until 1945 and became a prisoner of war for three and a half year. Frank lives in Grange Close.

Singapore 8th Dec 1941 to 15 Feb 1942

The fall of Singapore was a military disaster brought about by pacifist attitudes in this country pre-1939 in spite of Germany’s extensive rearmament programme, quietly during the 1920s and blatantly throughout the 1930s after Hitler’s rise to power. In contrast, expenditure on the military in the UK had been at a reduced level for some time when the crisis of 1938, which brought us to the brink of war with Germany, showed our defence capability to be in an appalling state. It wasn’t until 12 months later that war was declared on Germany, even though we were not fully prepared for hostilities.

Singapore at that time was a colonial outpost of Britain, and was wealthy from exporting rubber and tin and, up until 1939, secure in its peaceful setting. This changed with the fall of France in 1940 because ‘French Indo China’, (now known as Vietnam) which was France’s colony on the opposite side of the Gulf of Siam to Malaysia, became a German possession. This enabled Japan, an axis partner of Germany and an emerging military power in the Pacific through their war with China, to occupy it and thus become a threat to Malaya and Singapore as well as the Asian countries and including Australia.

Because of growing Japanese military power in the Pacific and incursions into China in the late 1920s to early 1930s, it became clear that there was a very real possibility that a future threat to Singapore could occur. A base was built on the island for the navy with airfields constructed along the West coast of Malaya. These acted as land based aircraft carriers to give cover for any naval action in the vicinity of the coast but no up to-date ships or aircraft with crews were stationed there. Air defence for the island relied on Brewster Buffaloes as fighters and a mixed assortment of other aircraft, including a squadron of vintage Vildabeest bombers which were bi-planes. These were unfortunately all lost in one daylight action which showed that the Royal Air Force (Singapore) were no match for the Japanese equivalent, who very quickly established air superiority. This caused panic in the newly constructed airfields which led to them being abandoned in haste, thereby endangering the newly built battle ship ‘HMS Prince of Wales’ and cruiser ‘HMS Repulse’. Both of these had arrived a week or so earlier in a blaze of media publicity, alerting the Japanese who arranged their sinking shortly after the war started by sending Torpedo bombers from their Airforce.

To make matters worse Air Chief Marshal Brooke Popham, senior officer in charge of Malaya and Singapore defences, failed his brief in dealing with the hostile landings of the Japanese military forces,

firstly by dithering and then by moving the army from their prepared position to meet the threat too late. This caused them to be caught between two enemy landings in Northern Malaya bordering Thailand, making their extraction very difficult. With no prepared fall-back position, or any defence constructed, the steel tank straps delivered earlier lay at the side of the road unused and the road to Singapore was wide open which led to Brook Popham being sacked with immediate effect. The Indian Army Division, through unrest in India against British rule and infiltration by Japanese propaganda, became unreliable resulting in many desertions, of whole companies in some cases, to the Japanese side though Gurkha troops remained staunchly loyal. This caused many withdrawals in the battle line to repair the breaches in the front line.

Japanese power in the Pacific, with their war against China, became a possible threat to stability in the area which the Government in London took seriously. However, the Singapore Government, under Sir Shelton Thomas, and colonials were more than complacent and looked upon the newly arriving military reinforcements as unnecessary. The regular troops in residence were used to help contain any local unrest and ceremonial functions. They were not willing to accept any intelligence on Japanese intentions which conflicted with their own interpretation, being of white man supremacy and the Japanese of native intellect. Their complacency turned to terror with the bombing of Penang Island. The colonials commandeered all the available transport to evacuate themselves and their families with as many possessions as they could save, leaving the local population to endure the mass blanket bombing that the Japanese subjected the Island to which resulted in tremendous loss of life. With the army bereft of any naval or air support they were desperate to find a suitable defence position but were finding this very difficult as they were under constant air attack. To exacerbate matters, the Japanese army, who travelled light on bicycles, were using captured supplies to facilitate their advance and were hot on the heels of the British as they withdrew. They managed to infiltrate their front line and set up a road block, cutting off a large section of the British force and, in spite of spirited action by the British, this proved impossible to break. As their supplies dwindled, further action was ruled out and in order to escape surrender it was decided to leave the very severely wounded to their fate and the fit and walking wounded were to make their way through the thick jungle,with considerable difficulty, to the West coast of Malaya from where they were eventually rescued and taken to Singapore. Up until that time the Australian contingent were guarding the East coastal flank behind the British line in order to prevent any more enemy landings. At the behest of General Wavel, Supreme Commander S.E. Asia, they took up battle stations in the front line leaving the East coast unguarded. Though they did magnificently in forcing the Japanese to retreat,

they were unable to hold their gains through losses in action. With no reinforcements available and pressure from Japanese attacks they had to retire, leaving their wounded who were treated very badly. In the event, the lack of defences, enemy landings in their rear, lack of air cover and being under constant air bombardment, the Malay mainland had to be abandoned to concentrate the armed forces in defending Singapore. To coin a phrase, too little too late. In the closing stages a convoy bearing half of the eighteen division, who were infantry, arrived in the Island, though lacking most of their stores which had been lost through enemy action. They had no time to acclimatise, disembarking and being thrown straight into action. They borrowed what weaponry they could from the Australians and that they did well is to their credit. It was, however, the lack of aerial support which had been promised and did not materialise, plus the the massacre of medical staff and patients at Princess Alexander Hospital, that put a strain on morale. Though front line units of the British Army remained loyal, there was some panic and desertions in the back areas and these were not confined to the lower ranks. The Australian Army staged a walk out of the front line in protest of lack of aerial support and there were some problems with troops trying to board a ship specially reserved to evacuate women and children.

After a fortnight’s fire fight the Japanese captured the Island’s water supply making surrender inevitable and occurring on Sunday 15 February 1942. The Japanese were notorious in their treatment of captured prisoners but agreed to accept prisoners under surrender terms however it did not mean they intended to keep them alive as future events proved. As far as the captured forced were concerned they were looking at an uncertain future, beginning with being concentrated in Changi Barracks and having to wait several days before any food was issued.

[We hope Frank will provide additional articles in future on his time spent in Singapore]