Fortress Singapore to Syonan-to: World War II

The History of Singapore. Editor: Jean E Abshire. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

One of the major debates regarding World War II is whether Singapore had to fall. Although the British largely ignored the island as a major naval station until the 1930s, it then became the basis of the Empire’s defense in Asia, protecting the gateways to India to the west and Australia and New Zealand to the south. Some historians put its defensive importance in the Empire as second only to Britain itself. Despite this central position, however, Singapore fell with dramatic speed just a few weeks after Japan began the offensive against it. Many poor decisions on the part of British military and political figures, from the top to the bottom of the command chain, combined with Japanese strategic brilliance, led to this defeat. The ensuing years of Japanese occupation were ones of great suffering for most of the population. For some, this was due to scarcities that often accompany war, but for many it was the result of deliberately inhumane tactics used by the Japanese. This was a tragic episode in Singapore’s history that still lingers in the collective memory.

The Interwar Years and the Singapore Strategy

Following World War I, “the war to end all wars” as it was known, the British government looked toward international cooperation to prevent future war. The international community created the League of Nations so countries could talk about their disagreements, and a disarmament movement reduced available weaponry to lessen countries’ chances of going to war. In this climate, the British cabinet made several key decisions. First, it adopted the Ten Year Policy, which stated that Britain would not be involved in a major war for 10 years. Second, it developed the Singapore Strategy for the protection of the eastern part of the Empire. The Singapore Strategy was based on the idea that Singapore would be an island fortress and the bulwark against aggression toward any British Commonwealth holdings in the Asia-Pacific region. The Strategy was drafted in three successively weaker and less costly versions. Highly developed fortifications were planned, including a massive naval base, accompanying airfields, and extensive gun and artillery placements. However, the implementation of the Strategy became bogged down and little progress was made throughout the 1920s, largely due to British political issues and a lack of urgency as Britain pursued international cooperation to avoid war. Britain allowed its previous alliance treaty with Japan to lapse, preferring the international approach over narrower alliances. For example, in 1922, Britain, the United States, France, and Japan agreed to a Naval Limitation Treaty to restrict the size of their navies and refrain from building new bases in the Pacific. Singapore, rather than Hong Kong, was an optimal choice for the premier British naval base in East Asia, because Hong Kong was too vulnerable and Singapore was outside of the restricted zone for naval base development. Despite these intentions, the British government funneled little money toward the construction of the defensive apparatus needed in Singapore.

However, early in the 1930s, Japan began to show its hand as an aggressively expansive power. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria; in 1932 it withdrew from the League of Nations; in 1935 it withdrew from the London Disarmament Conference; in 1936 it rescinded its participation in the Washington Naval Agreements (1921), which limited the armaments the US, Britain, and Japan could use in the Pacific; in 1936 Japan also made a pact with Germany against communism, and by extension, the Soviet Union; and in 1937 Japan invaded China. There was little doubt as to the trajectory of Japan’s behavior, so the British ramped up construction in Singapore for a heavy military presence to deter Japan’s possible aggression. The Singapore Strategy called for a strong naval and air force presence in Singapore to protect British interests with an array of guns pointed out to sea to prevent an attack on the island. The idea of an attack coming over land down the Malay Peninsula was long dismissed, because military analysts believed the tropical jungles and difficult terrain would make it too unappealing to an invasion force.

However, by the late 1930s, as construction progressed on the Sembawang Naval Base on the Johor Strait in the north of Singapore and on the associated military installations that extended to Changi on the east coast, Major-General Sir William Dobbie, General Officer Commanding for Malaya Command, issued a reassessment of the assumption that an invasion of Singapore would come by sea. Dobbie concluded that the commanders in London had not taken into account the more extensive road and railroad networks that had been developed down the Malay Peninsula, which provided pathways through jungle and around difficult terrain for invaders. He also questioned the ongoing assumption that the Japanese would avoid any invasion during the monsoon season, which caused high waves and wind. Indeed, the discovery that 5,000 Chinese laborers had been smuggled into the Malay States in the middle of the monsoon season was an evidentiary blow to that assumption.1 In fact, the monsoon-associated cloud cover would help hide an invading force, making a monsoon invasion more attractive. Planners also assumed that Japan would not be able to access airfields that were close enough to offer air support for an invasion, and that superior British intelligence would provide ample warning of a pending invasion. Finally, they believed reinforcements in the form of Britain’s main fleet could be brought to Singapore’s aid in a mere 42 days, should an invasion actually be mounted.

In response to Dobbie’s new risk assessment, military officials revised the plan, calling it Operation Matador. They concluded that an attack via the Malay Peninsula would likely come from far in the north around the Thai border and that the Royal Air Force (RAF) would need to launch air assaults, while the Royal Naval launched assaults on landing forces, before the invaders could become established and move down the Malay Peninsula. In preparation, the military constructed a series of small airbases far in the north of the Peninsula. Matador was the crucial addendum to the Singapore Strategy that was supposed to maintain its viability for defending the Empire in the Asia-Pacific.

However, there remained a problematic disconnect between plan and implementation. Despite the whole strategy hinging on deterrence through naval and air power, the British government became increasingly reluctant to direct resources where they may never be needed, particularly as the political situation in Europe worsened. At a 1937 Imperial Conference on strategies for the protection of the British Commonwealth, there was a discussion about whether waiting until the threat was at hand to send out ships would be adequate defense. The Australians, in particular, doubted Britain’s ability to send enough ships when a war was already going on and the Chiefs of Staff (the top military leadership in London) suggested that a naval base without ships was not much of a deterrent. Still, the government balked at drawing naval resources away from Europe.

In 1938, the King George VI Dry Dock opened at the Sembawang Naval Base to much acclaim. The anti-aircraft and artillery defenses were also in place and Singapore had some of the best defenses in the world. There was much rhetoric about the impregnable “Fortress Singapore.” Unfortunately, while the installations were in place, the shipyard remained empty, as did the air bases, both on Singapore and in northern Malaysia. The rhetoric of Fortress Singapore did not match the reality.

In the ensuing months, the international situation grew worse. The war in Europe that started in September 1939 commanded Britain’s full attention and resources. Singapore and the Malay States were Britain’s “dollar arsenal” and their contribution to the war effort was to keep the funds and the commodities flowing. At the start of the World War II, the Malay Peninsula was the source of 40 percent of the world’s rubber and 60 percent of the world’s tin, most of which was sold to the United States. Singapore ranked second in revenue within the Commonwealth, just behind Canada.2 In the early months in the European war, all did not go well and by June 1940, Britain was forced to reassess its defensive posture. Italy had joined the effort on Germany’s side, and France and the Netherlands had collapsed. Britain would have to rely on the U.S. naval fleet in Hawaii to deter the Japanese, despite the United States having signaled that it would not go out of its way to save the various British, French, and Dutch territories in Asia. In June, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, which freed the Japanese from the possibility of Soviet attack, allowing them to devote their full attention toward advancing their goals elsewhere.

In July, the United States placed economic sanctions on Japan that severely threatened their war effort in China. The Japanese determined that they had a choice: They could give up their war on China or they could secure their own supply of war materials. Japan’s economic interests in Southeast Asia were already considerable. As early as 1922, when the idea of building the Sembawang Naval Base on the Johor Strait was presented to Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, he noted that Japan leased 30,000 acres of state-owned land for rubber plantation in Johor, which was in close proximity to the proposed naval base. The British disregarded the warning. Moreover, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Japan also made extensive investments in the tin mines of the Malay Peninsula. A 1939 report on agricultural interests in the Malay Peninsula expressed concern about Japan’s extensive interests in the region, noting that in 1935, Japan accounted for 7 percent of imports and 12 percent of exports of Singapore, and that, “The mercantile population of Singapore fear that the Japanese will soon dominate the shipping and banking interests of the colony.” With the added factor of economic sanctions from the United States, the Japanese chose to secure their war materials, which made the Malay Peninsula and the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) of great value. Japan signed a treaty of alliance with Germany and Italy; and through Germany’s connection with the Nazi-affiliated Vichy government in France, Japan gained access to French airbases in Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). These airbases put them within much closer striking distance of the Malay Peninsula.

Japan began making plans for an assault on the Malay Peninsula and Singapore in fall 1940, but it was July 1941 when leaders made the final decision to go forward. The Japanese, like the British, determined that the best approach was to invade far in the north, even into Thailand, then move to the western side of the Peninsula where the road network was better, and then proceed to Singapore. The plan hinged on a surprise attack that was a speedy and efficient sweep to overwhelm British and Commonwealth forces before they could mount an effective defense. Knowing that British defensive efforts were lacking for air and sea warfare, the Japanese calculated that it would be a contest of speed to see if the Japanese Imperial Army could take Singapore first or if reinforcements would arrive first and beat them back. The goal was to take Singapore in fewer than 100 days. If they deprived the Anglo-American alliance of their base in the area, then they could divide and conquer, taking the resources they needed from Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Burma to finish the war with China. Lieutenant-Colonel Masanobi Tsuji was put in charge of planning and training, and the actual operation was put under the command of one of Japan’s most esteemed generals, Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Shortly before the invasion, Yamashita was confident; Germany had managed to intercept Britain’s readiness assessment for the Far East, which made it clear how ill-prepared they were for a war in the East and how low on the priority list it was compared to the European theater. Germany passed the document to Japan, giving Yamashita clear evidence of what he and his troops were facing.

Meanwhile, the British were still focused on Singapore and Malaysia being their dollar arsenal and continued to debate their defense strategy should the Japanese attack. The local commanders had repeatedly asked for ships, planes, and soldiers. They received very few planes; in fact, some that could have gone to Singapore were given to the Soviet Union to help its war effort. Troops were sent primarily from India and Australia. Decision-makers in London decided in August of 1940 that the naval base had to be protected at all costs and that the RAF would have to do it by protecting the Malay Peninsula. There was considerable disagreement about whether that defense should occur to the north, where there were the scattered airbases, or whether a more focused defense in Johor should be attempted instead. Unfortunately, the RAF planes could not be sent until the end of 1941 because the British military was overextended. In January 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that since Singapore was such a well-defended fortress, RAF reinforcements were not necessary and a waste of resources that could be used elsewhere. He concluded that the Japanese would not attack such a well-protected fortress unless things were going terribly for the British in Europe. In any case, the United States would respond. In debate after debate, civilian and military decision makers in London concluded that they had time to send needed equipment later and that the Japanese would not attack. The Joint Intelligence Committee determined in spring of 1941 that the Soviet Union would more likely be Japan’s first target. In late September, a meeting of local military officials in Singapore informed London that Japan would not attack any time soon, and certainly not before the end of the monsoon season in February, despite intercepted Japanese intelligence suggesting otherwise, and Japan’s activities in the French holdings of Indochina. Despite his confidence in Fortress Singapore and the certainty that Japan would not attack soon, Churchill decided to send a few ships to Singapore. It was certainly not the main fleet that the Singapore Strategy called for, nor was it a substantial secondary fleet supported by the Chiefs of Staff in London. Instead, it was a minifleet, known as Force Z, of what could be spared from the more critical war efforts closer to home. The most notable of the ships was the brand new HMS Prince of Wales that was the pride of the British navy and nicknamed the “HMS Unsinkable.” This battleship was accompanied by a cruiser and a handful of smaller ships, of which half were in disrepair. An aircraft carrier was dispatched, but it ran aground and never arrived. Thus, Force Z was essentially too small to do any good as a deterrent and too compromised to function as a fighting fleet without the protection of air support. Decision-making in London was fraught with disagreements and poor communication between civilian and military commanders (exacerbated by grossly erroneous underestimations of Japan’s intentions and overestimations of Singapore’s defenses) and ultimately overwhelmed by the war closer to home. A possible war in faraway Asia was far outweighed by the war already at Britain’s door.

The situation on the ground in Singapore was no better. Military officials from the different branches and command centers disagreed on strategy and lacked a centralized command structure to override their differences. They, like officials in London, did not believe Japan would attack in the near future. In the interest of keeping up appearances, they made no efforts at civilian defense. Both military and civilian leaders feared that if they focused too much on building further ground defense installations or initiated programs incorporating civilians into defense, it would weaken the faith of the people in Britain’s strength, cause an unwelcome panic, and potentially undermine Britain’s hold over the colony. Thus, in sharp contrast to Britain where civil defense programs were extensive, in Singapore virtually nothing was done. This was shocking to the Chief Engineer of Malaya Command, Ivan Simson, when he arrived in Singapore in August 1941 from London, where civilian defense program planning and implementation was in full force. He promptly developed a plan for improved local defenses that would have placed anti-tank and gun provisions on main roads, mines on bridges, special defenses in Johor, and defense works on the north shore of Singapore. The general in charge of the army in Singapore-based Malaya Command, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, received the recommendations but did not implement the plan.

On December 1, 1941 a state of emergency was declared. Percival indicated concern but was not overly worried. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of excitement when, on December 2, Force Z, without the aircraft carrier, sailed up the Johor Strait toward the naval base. The admiral in charge was so alarmed by its vulnerability without any air cover that he suggested taking the ships immediately to the Philippines, but they remained in Singapore. On December 3, Percival made a statement over the radio that an attack was not likely and that, while he was hoping more aircraft would arrive, what they had on hand would be adequate if anything did occur.

The Japanese Attack

The Japanese strategy to obtain the resources of Southeast Asia risked war with both the United States and Great Britain. Since speed and surprise were central to the plan, they opted for a first strike. On December 8, 1941 (in the Tokyo time zone), Japan launched a sea-based attack on Kota Bahru on the northern part of the Malay Peninsula at 1:40 a.m.; Japanese forces landed at Singora and Patani in southern Thailand at 3:05 a.m.; they bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, at 3:20 a.m. and bombed Singapore’s Seletar and Tangah airbases and Raffles Place in the city center at 6:10 a.m. At 11:40 a.m. Emperor Hirohito issued an Imperial Order declaring war on the United States and Great Britain. Japan also quickly launched attacks against Hong Kong and the Philippines.

The local commanders in Singapore were paralyzed by indecision. Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief of the Far East (of land and air forces but not naval or civilian), had received authorization from London on December 5 to commence with Operation Matador when he believed an invasion was pending. Matador, the whole basis for the defense of Singapore in case of an assault from the north, could only succeed if it were implemented quickly and decisively. It was essential that British and Commonwealth forces reach the likely landing points in Thailand before the Japanese landed and stop the invader’s advance at several other critical junctures. For example, an area known as The Ledge, a narrow road cut in a cliffside on a main thoroughfare leading south from Thailand, could be blown up to block an advancing army. Likewise, the various airbases in northern Malaysia (that never had adequate numbers of aircraft to help with defense) had to be protected lest they fall into enemy hands and become support for Japanese operations. The thinly scattered troops around the bases in the north would not be able to hold the bases against the full onslaught of an advancing army, which underscored the urgency of stopping the invasion immediately. On December 6, Japanese naval convoys were spotted, but their destination was not yet certain. Thailand was officially neutral, so invading prematurely could have started a conflict, thus Brooke-Popham held off on launching Matador until it was confirmed that the ships were heading for the Malay Peninsula. He did not receive that confirmation until the night of December 7, and by then it was too late to send defending forces to the predicted (with total accuracy) landing sites. Operation Matador was abandoned immediately with no ready back-up plan. The other aspect of the Singapore Strategy, the prompt deployment of reinforcements of naval and air power and human backup, also came to naught. Initially, it was expected that help could arrive in six weeks, although it was revised upwards several times through the years. By 1941, it was calculated that Singapore would have to hold out for six months on its own before help would arrive. That was far too long.

Admiral Tom Phillips set out to sea quickly after the attack began, partly so that his small fleet would not be easy targets for Japanese bombing runs, and partly with the hope of intercepting further landings of Japanese troops on the Malay Peninsula. He departed before learning that the airfield at Kota Bahru was already in Japanese hands. Thus, without his own aircraft carrier, he would not have any air support to protect the ships from above. He attempted to turn back the fleet since the mission was too risky without any air cover; but on December 10, Japanese bombers found them; and within hours the ships were sunk, even the HMS Unsinkable. This was a devastating loss for the British and a boon to morale for the Japanese. Inside two days, the Japanese controlled the seas, and soon the air. Within 24 hours, Japan destroyed more than half of the few planes in the northern parts of the Malay Peninsula and held the inadequately defended airfields. The days that followed revealed a recurrent pattern of poor decisions that did nothing to stop the Japanese drive southward. Heavy reliance on ground forces was never part of the plan to defend Singapore, and Percival refused to take risks that could have potentially altered the outcome. His orders were to protect the Semba-wang Naval Base at all costs. To do that, he tried to follow the general strategy developed as part of Operation Matador and keep the fighting as far away from Singapore as possible. Percival continued to do what he did before the start of the attack: He scattered ground troops around the northern part of Malaysia to defend many different fixed positions (such as airfields and roads) that were valuable to the Japanese war effort, but the troops were dispersed too thinly to mount a successful defense at any of the points of engagement. Worse, with the Japanese controlling air and sea and being highly mobile on the ground, Yamashita was able to move around the fixed Allied positions, threatening to cut them off from behind. Yamashita had considerable resources at hand at the start of the invasion: naval support, more than 200 tanks, 80,000 combat troops, and about 600 aircraft for the campaign. British and Commonwealth troops lacked effective anti-tank weapons and some fighters had barely even seen a tank; their sole advantage was in number of soldiers. Percival’s orders to them were consistent but contradictory: troops were to give their all to defend their position but not lose so many fighters as to become overly weakened as fighting units. By trying to defend so many different points, Percival was giving Yamashita a divide and conquer advantage. It was still a race between the Japanese advance and the arrival of reinforcements, so the defending troops had to retain enough strength to hold on until help could arrive for what Percival considered the main battle.

There continued to be destructive disagreement between local military leaders. Concerned that Percival’s tactic of spreading out the troops left them too dispersed to turn the tide, other commanders argued that troops should be pulled back and concentrated at a point farther south on the Peninsula, even as far as Johor, to make a unified stand. En route, the retreating army could blow up bridges and destroy roads to slow the Japanese advance. This would also have the advantage of lengthening the Japanese supply lines while shortening the Allied supply lines. This debate went on for weeks, with Percival resisting and continuing to try to keep the fighting as far away as possible, as it relentlessly moved closer. The Japanese advance was swift: they took Penang by December 17, Taiping by December 22, crossed the Slim River by January 7, took Kuala Lumpur by January 11, crossed the Muar River just south of Melaka on January 15, and pushed onward into Johor.

In mid-December 1941, Churchill’s reaction was that Singapore needed to hold strong while Britain and the United States developed a coordinated strategy for the war in the Pacific, and he set sail for Washington, D.C. to do that. When reinforcement troops arrived, Percival sent them into action; but due to heavy losses, reinforcements were merely replacements rather than a strengthening of forces that could halt the Japanese advance. Churchill recommended retreat to a defensive line in Johor to protect the island fortress of Singapore, still not understanding that there were no defensive works in Johor to form a line around or that Singapore was in no way a fortress. Percival, with the approval of the Chiefs of Staff, instead opted to continue his strategy of trying to keep the fighting farther north. By Christmas, the Chiefs of Staff felt the urgency of the situation; and a joint American-British-Dutch-Australian Command was developed under General Archibald Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of India. However, they could still not react quickly enough to the pace of events. The loss of an airbase in Burma meant that fighter aircraft from India could not be flown in; all reinforcements, both people and equipment, would have to come by sea.

By mid-January 1942, with the Japanese Imperial Army having advanced past Kuala Lumpur, there was no choice but to retreat to Johor. Churchill finally grasped the nature of Singapore’s problematic defenses, constructed with the expectation of a sea invasion, and that Singapore was in no respect a fortress. He wrote a scathing memo to the Chiefs of Staff,

Seaward batteries and a naval base do not constitute a fortress, which is a completely encircled strong place. Merely to have seaward batteries and no forts or fixed defences to protect their rear is not to be excused on any ground. By such neglect the whole security of the fortress has been placed at the mercy of ten thousand men breaking across the straits in small boats. I warn you this will be one of the greatest possible scandals that could possibly be exposed.

Churchill was nevertheless shocked when he was told just a few days later, on January 21, that Singapore would not hold for long after Johor fell, as it did on January 27. Ongoing communication problems and tactical disagreements between Churchill and the military chiefs, and a large set of false assumptions on Churchill’s behalf led to a devastating lack of coordination.

The Fall of Singapore

In Singapore the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Japanese bombing raids had resumed at the end of December and intensified from the middle of January onward with a frequency of up to a half a dozen each day. In the densely constructed living spaces of Singapore, especially in Chinese areas, the casualty rates were immense with estimates of at least 10,000 people killed and many more injured. Despite the obviously worsening situation, government censors prohibited media reports about how poorly the defense of the Malay Peninsula was progressing. The administration still feared loss of confidence in colonial authority, or worse, mass panic, and made no provisions, such as air raid shelters, to protect the population. Finally on February 7, local officials invited the population to participate in civilian defenses, if they wished but did not convey a sense of urgency. Overall, civilian leadership was weak. The population was willing to help and many volunteers came forward, but the organization or coordination needed to create last-minute civilian defenses was absent. The one exception was the creation of Dalforce, a group of Singaporean Chinese who volunteered to be guerilla fighters. This materialized too late and in the end Dalforce was sent out but with limited weapons and almost no ammunition.

Military leaders prepared for a last stand in Singapore. Troops retreated from the Peninsula and a 60-yard-wide hole was blasted in the causeway that connected Singapore with Johor. Unfortunately, piping on the causeway carried a portion of Singapore’s water supply from Johor, which made the water supply potentially scarce, should a siege develop. The meager defensive preparation in Singapore shocked the retreating troops. There had been discussions of creating defensive installations and some were even marked on maps, but there were fears that suddenly having to erect defenses would be harmful to morale, so leaders left it until the last hour when there was no other choice. Soldiers set to work assembling defensive works, but time was short. More reinforcements came in, but the losses in the preceding weeks were great enough that the reinforcements were, again, replacements rather than added strength. To make matters worse, they were mostly barely trained, new recruits.

Miscalculations still plagued Percival. He assumed the Japanese forces were much larger than they actually were and that they would attack from many different positions. He figured there initially would be a large, concentrated assault on a specific target in Singapore, with additional invasion waves behind it. Thus, following a similar troop dispersal strategy as he had used on the Peninsula, he stationed troops along the coastline around the island rather than concentrating them on the exposed and largely defenseless north shore or in a strategic location like Bukit Timah, the highest point in Singapore (538 feet), and the site of water reservoirs and supply depots. Moreover, the plan was improvised, because the still-disagreeing military leadership in Singapore had not developed a plan while they still had time. Singapore had impressive gun fortifications, but they were designed to defend against a marine invasion, not an invasion from the north. The guns could have been turned, but even then, they were designed to shoot at ships, not at tanks or people, and proved useless in the final defense of the island.

On the Japanese side, Yamashita was concerned about his supply lines. He knew he lacked adequate reserves to stage a protracted siege of Singapore, thus speed remained a strategic priority for him. Once Johor fell, he opted for an invasion across the narrowest part of the Johor Strait on the northwest side of Singapore, just west of the causeway. He had 300 collapsible boats, which, if connected together, could transport not only his soldiers but also artillery, and he had full command of the air. He commenced his invasion of Singapore on February 8, 1942. Yamashita knew the Johor Strait had not been mined, so Japanese forces were able to slip across under the cover of darkness and up creeks and inlets. Australian soldiers stationed on that part of the island were surrounded quickly.

What ensued was a military disaster. Phone and radio communications buckled, leading to confusion. While the military commanders of the mostly British, Indian, and Australian units had the improvised plan, a number of them did not follow it and left gaps in an already weak defense. Percival, falsely certain that Yamashita had many more troops, continued to keep Allied forces scattered along the coast waiting for the secondary invasion that never came. Troops were given a conflicting mission: they were supposed to defend the island (Churchill was still insisting that Singapore could not fall), while at the same time destroying anything that might be of use to the Japanese–oil and rubber supplies, a tin smelting factory, and the naval base that had been the defend-at-all-costs focus of Percival’s orders from London.

The final Japanese assault began on February 11. Military and civilian leadership were still in disarray and indecisive. While some Allied troops put up a strong fight, others did not. Some government leaders and police walked off the job. Civilians simply tried to survive. Some tried to flee to the port and escape in boats. Japanese planes shot them on the piers; and most of those who made it onto boats were caught, and some were killed. In the city center, at least a million people within a three-mile radius of the port suffered the bombing raids. Estimates range as high as 2,000 civilian fatalities per day in the last days of the fighting. The Japanese, their supplies running ever lower, pushed for speed. By February 14, they had repaired the hole in the causeway and were able to bring in heavier guns and tanks, hoping to finish the fight quickly. As illustration of just how bad the defense was, Australian troops found a map showing Japanese plans for February 14 but were told to conserve ammunition since supplies were so low. Even as they received confirmation that the Japanese were moving ahead with the plan on the map, Australian soldiers under the command of Major-General H. Gordon Bennett could see the Japanese advancing and did not shoot. Yamashita was also running low on ammunition, so low that afterwards he and the strategist Tsuji estimated that had fighting gone on for just three more days, they would have been forced to end their attack. However, instead of conserving, he ordered his troops to bluff by firing heavily and leading British commanders to think they had unlimited supplies. On the morning of February 15, Percival met with military leaders at Fort Canning. They were low on ammunition, fuel, food, and were concerned about the water supply. The conditions were grim, and they had no idea of Yamashita’s true situation. If they continued to fight, combat would move into the city center, which would be devastating to civilians; they felt that continuing was futile. While they were meeting, a telegram arrived authorizing Percival to surrender. At 5:30 p.m. that afternoon, Percival went to the Japanese Headquarters carrying a white flag for the largest surrender of troops in British history. It happened in just 70 days, 30 days faster than the Japanese had hoped, and nearly four months before the estimated six months it would have taken the British to bring in adequate reinforcements in the 1941 assessment for the Singapore Strategy. In the race between the Japanese advances versus the arrival of British reinforcements, the Japanese were swifter by far.

How Did It Go Wrong?

Much has been written about why the fight for Singapore was such a disaster for the British. Clearly there were many facets to the failure, both from top levels of civilian and military command in London down to local commanders and troops on the ground. The disaster was not one of short-term making: Many scholars point to the Singapore Strategy as flawed from its inception in the early 1920s, seeing it as something between a gamble and a bluff.

In terms of poor decisions at the highest levels, many critics point to Churchill and the top military leadership who failed to make a realistic and coherent plan once Japan’s aggression and Singapore’s vulnerabilities had been revealed in the mid-1930s. The physical defenses were inadequate and under-resourced; empty naval bases and airfields do not project impressive deterrent power. Squabbling among civilian and military leaders in the years leading up to the war and after it began hindered planning. Rather than hashing out their differences until a conclusion was reached, matters were dropped and ignored until it was too late. This led, in part, to some of Churchill’s lack of understanding about Singapore’s defenses. Funding choices are also a target of criticism. The British government hoped to defend its Asian colonies at minimal cost and was not willing to invest funds in an Eastern Fleet that may have been a genuine deterrent to Japan and, at the very least, could have tipped the scales in favor of Britain. Some scholars argue that all through the 1920s and 1930s, Britain should have been building more ships and aircraft so the resources would have been available when needed. Finally, the choices made about the available resources were poor and sometimes based on political considerations rather than strategic necessity. Some would say that delaying air, naval, and human resources in 1941 was a wrong choice; however, the situation was one of competing demands and the war in Europe, closest to the British home front, received the highest priority. However, it appears to have been very much a political decision over a strategic one when the Soviet Union received aircraft that could have been sent to Singapore, with probably much greater impact than they made added to existing Soviet air power.

In terms of failures at the local level, specific criticisms have been levied against the commanders on the ground and Percival in particular. The decisions, both on the Malay Peninsula and in the Battle of Singapore, to disperse troops to a point where they were too scattered to be effective rather than risk a concentrated stand, was perhaps the poorest strategy. The hesitations in decision-making, such as the delayed implementation of Operation Matador, were also problematic. Some of those poor decisions may have been caused by the fragmented command structure that put no one in the region in control of all aspects of the war effort. The fragmentation almost certainly led to various arguments over strategy and other conflicts among commanders on the ground, to the point of some not following orders at the end. Australian troops have received blame, particularly for their actions at the very end of the battle when they did not fight. The criticisms have been sharp enough that it has become a politically sensitive topic and the Australian government has noted the very significant fight the Australians put up along the Malay Peninsula. Another local failing was the lack of involvement of the civilian population. Had civilians been organized to help with defenses or conscripted to fight as part of the army, perhaps the outcome could have been different. Instead, beyond losing the labor contributions the civilians could have made, the local military and civilian administrations left the civilian population vulnerable simply to hide how poorly the fight was going and to avoid appearing weak. Despite the dense urban dwellings, no air raid shelters were built that could have saved some of the thousands of lives lost in the bombings.

Overarching many of these upper- and lower-level problems in decision-making are an array of false perceptions that harmed the overall effort. Churchill appeared to have believed the myth that Singapore was a genuine fortress, with battlements all around and a moat comprised of the Johor Strait. His concern was how long Singapore could hold out under a siege, not whether Singapore could last long enough for a siege to begin. Churchill also thought the United States would make an effort to save Singapore and indeed expressed relief that Pearl Harbor was bombed simultaneously, assuring the U.S. entry into the war, believing that Singapore would then be saved. Poor intelligence was also a contributing factor, because the British did not have the information they needed and their perceptions were such that they had no idea how poor the intelligence gathered actually was. Thus they did not receive detailed warnings prior to the invasion. Another explanation that has been offered is racism: the British simply could not believe that Japanese/non-Whites could develop a sophisticated strategy with good technology that could completely overwhelm the British Empire, even though they had evidence before them. If they saw the Japanese doing something differently than was the norm in the British military, they assumed it would be an inferior approach, rather than one suited to local conditions.

Finally, imperial overstretch is a common explanation of the British failure. The Empire was simply too large for its available resources to defend. When Britain had to channel so many of its resources to the war in Europe as well as Africa and the Middle East, there was little that could be spared for the relatively late arrival to the war, Southeast Asia. The British Empire spanned too much territory to protect. All that said, and with most explanations clearly focused on British failings, one must not forget the effective strategy and implementation by the Japanese. The Imperial Japanese Army was a strong fighting force that struck hard and fast and pushed past anything the British put in its path. The Japanese strategists accurately assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent prior to attack and the resulting plan was carried out with precision.

While there is no shortage of what-ifs and if-onlys, the reality is that Britain’s failure to defend Singapore was multifaceted. Of course more money could have been spent or funds could have been allocated differently. Decision-making in London and in Singapore could have been different, from the 1920s through the end of the fight. In the end, however, it is important to look at outcomes. The control of the Malay Peninsula allowed the Japanese to conquer significant portions of Indonesia, which together with Malaysia, offered resources such as oil and rubber, which were vital to the Japanese war effort. As a port, Singapore proved unimportant to the Japanese; because world trade, the constant source of revenue for Singapore, was too disrupted to yield much income. Militarily, the port was not needed. Australia and New Zealand were invested in the security of Singapore because they saw it as a bulwark against aggression toward them, but Japan never launched an invasion against either country, so this threat did not materialize. However, while the loss of Singapore may not have proved ultimately disastrous to the overall Allied war effort, it was unquestionably a blow to morale. There were debates about strategy and reinforcements in 1941 and 1942 before Singapore was even lost, and one member of the British Parliament labeled it “the Worst Disaster since Ethelred the Unready,” a reference to the English king who lost most of the country’s territory to Viking invaders in the late 900s.

The Occupation

Japanese forces formally occupied the island on February 16, 1942. People, anxious about what would happen, stayed home rather than opening shops and businesses. They had even made an effort in the last days before the capitulation to dump supplies of liquor so that drunkenness would not add to the feared rampage of rape, murder, and destruction that often follows military conquest. As it was, the takeover was orderly with the military police establishing control in the city center and the army being held back, although there were some instances of conquest violence in the northwest portion of Singapore.

Treatment of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

Japanese authorities immediately took an approach of treating the various ethnic groups differently, which over the years of the occupation reinforced the differences between them. European and British Commonwealth citizens, both soldiers and civilians, were imprisoned. The soldiers, approximately 50,000 in all, were treated as prisoners of war (POWs) and held in barracks at Changi on the southeast part of Singapore. Civilians, about 2,000 initially, although the number eventually grew to 3,500, were interred in Changi Jail. Indian troops (about 45,000) and the few Malay soldiers (about 600) were ordered to appear at Farrer Park on February 17 at which time they were encouraged to switch their loyalties to Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese were clearly anticipating enthusiasm from the local communities for their liberation from colonial control. However, the way the Japanese handled many aspects of the occupation made gratitude impossible. The Indian troops were invited to fight against British colonialism in India with the Indian National Army. With few exceptions, the professional soldiers among the Indians refused to switch loyalties, and some were tortured and killed. About 20,000 of them agreed to join the Indian National Army, but for most that was likely an opportunistic decision to avoid harsh treatment from the Japanese. The rest were treated as POWs. Among the Malays, the officers who refused to switch sides were executed, and then their troops were told they could return home. However, the first hundred or so who were supposedly being given a ride to the train station were executed. The rest returned to their families, many of whom had followed their family members to Singapore during the Japanese advance down the Peninsula. In terms of dealing with the enemy soldiers and swaying them to their cause, the Japanese efforts were not successful.

For most of the POWs and the civilian internees, the experience was mixed. Both groups were able to eke out a fairly comfortable existence in many respects. The POWs had an active social life in the camps with swimming and theatrical entertainments performed by the prisoners. They even made “Changi University” where as many as 2,000 POW students participated in classes offered by fellow prisoners with lectures on topics ranging from physics to law to languages. Among the internees, they formed a democratically elected government within the jail to have representative liaisons with prison officials. They played bridge, had musical events, and even started their own jail newspapers, such as the Changi Guardian. Food rations for both groups were not extensive, but they were consistent throughout the war until the very end when food became scarce and some civilian and military prisoners suffered malnutrition and starvation.

On the downside, both groups were forced into work units, a violation of international standards for the treatment of prisoners in wartime, which dictate that prisoners should not be required to assist with the enemy’s war effort. In Singapore, prisoners tried to strike a balance between working hard enough to avoid being beaten and slowly enough to minimize help to the Japanese. Officials forced prisoners to rebuild the port and roads and, as one of their more noteworthy projects, built the airfield that was the foundation for today’s Changi International Airport, Singapore’s main airport. The worst labor assignment was for those shipped north to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway from October 1942 to October 1943. Sixty thousand prisoners, working under terrible conditions, built the 260-mile rail line at the cost of about 15,000 prisoner lives.

The worst incident for civilian internees happened as a result of what is known as the Double Tenth Event. In October 1943, a small group of Allied special forces rowed canoes into the harbor during the night on a sabotage mission known as Operation Jaywick, and managed to destroy seven ships, including an oil tanker. Japanese authorities could not believe this had been carried out without assistance from people in Singapore and concluded that the internees were the most likely culprits. They were assembled in Changi Jail while their possessions were searched and then dozens were taken away for interrogation and torture by military police. No connection to the sabotage was found and the Japanese finally discovered what had happened a little over a year later when another special forces unit was captured while attempting another raid. Conditions in Changi Jail deteriorated for the internees after the Double Tenth Event. Eventually the internees were moved to a different location, where the situation grew even worse for some of them, especially women who were forced into sexual slavery as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.

Treatment of the Civilian Population

The civilian population, now swollen to 1.4 million people by an influx of refugees from the Malay Peninsula, also suffered greatly. The Japanese generally treated the Indians and Malays more kindly than the 700,000 Singaporean Chinese, who were not trusted by the Japanese because of Singaporean Chinese support for the war effort against the Japanese in China and perhaps a general bias against Chinese people after five years of war. The Japanese planned to make Singapore a permanent colony, so they knew they needed to win over the Chinese population. They first had to purge the Chinese community of any untrustworthy elements, so they launched a brief but brutal program called sook ching or “purging for purification.” On February 18, officials ordered all Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 to report to evaluation centers. The Kempeitai or military police were in charge and were highly trained in interrogation. Auxiliaries with less training were also pulled in from the regular army. Some of the interrogations were systematic and quick; others were arbitrary and lasted for days during which people were without food, water, and shelter. The military police also used informers from the local population who, while wearing hoods to conceal their identities, helped the Japanese look for suspicious characters. The simplest criteria were adequate to raise suspicion and could include certain professions, for example teachers or journalists, which were two professions to which recent immigrants from China had tended to gravitate; in other cases a tattoo might be enough to raise the suspicion of authorities, because that could be an indicator of secret society membership. At some of the evaluation centers all members of the Hainanese community were suspect, because the Hainan region in China was notorious for its support of the Chinese communist movement. Other targets were supporters of the Guomindang movement in China. For some people, writing their name in the Roman alphabet rather than in Chinese or having worked for Europeans was suspicious. Anyone suspected of being in Dalforce was a target. Overall, decisions were quite indiscriminate and inconsistent. Once the sorting was complete, those who were cleared were marked with a symbol and released; those not cleared were otherwise marked, and although some were imprisoned, most were soon executed. They were taken out to sea, tied together and dumped overboard, or taken to the beach, herded out into the sea and shot to death. It is not known how many ethnic Chinese were exterminated in what some scholars (e.g., Murfett et al.) called ethnic cleansing, but estimates are as high as 50,000 or more.

The sook ching was one of several policies implemented in the early days that convinced many people (especially the Chinese community) that avoiding the attention of the authorities was a wise choice for survival. In an attempt to ensure public order and prevent looting, Japanese soldiers sometimes fired into crowds. If individual looters were caught, they may be let free with a warning if they were Indian or Malay, but if they were Chinese, they were often executed and their heads put on public display as a lesson to others. The gruesome evidence of how far the Japanese military went to assure order was perhaps part of the reason no real opposition movement developed in Singapore during the occupation. Even though the sook ching only lasted the first week or so, the military police continued to be a source of enormous fear and intimidation throughout the occupation. If citizens were suspected of opposing the occupation, or made a negative comment about a government action, or complained about food shortages, or were found to have western ties (such as books or music or being English-educated), they could be arrested and interrogated. The interrogations typically involved torture, and many died in custody. With time, the threat of informing on someone to the military police also became a method of settling vendettas and of blackmailing people, because actual guilt or innocence was irrelevant and only one informant was needed to merit arrest. Typically, the only escape from military police custody was bribery. Moreover, being cleared by one military police office did not mean a person was cleared by all; a person could potentially be arrested by a different office and have to repeat the entire process. This sort of treatment made it difficult for the Japanese to evoke positive sentiments from many in the population. Japanese officials made some attempts at benevolent rule, such as mostly leaving people alone in their religious practices and opening a couple of amusement parks, but the attempts did not counter the widespread climate of fear.

A special economic targeting was also enacted toward the Chinese population. As evidence of their loyalty and to raise revenue for the war effort, the administration demanded a “gift” of $50 million from the Chinese population in the Malay States and Singapore, with Singapore’s portion set at $10 million. This amount was approximately a quarter of the currency in circulation, so it was an enormous sum of money to collect, and they only had a matter of weeks to do so. In Singapore, any Chinese citizens with property valued at over $3,000 were required to pay an 8 percent tax toward the gift and businesses had to pay a 5 percent tax on their holdings. The full sum was not collected in time, even with a short extension on the deadline, and so they had to arrange for a loan from a Japanese bank to cover nearly half the amount due, with repayment required within a year.


Once order was established, Japanese authorities set about imprinting Japanese culture on Singapore, a process known as Japanization, to erase Britain’s colonial legacy. The name was immediately changed from Singapore to Syonan-to, meaning Light of the South, reflecting Singapore’s status as the capital of the southern region of Japan’s possessions. The Georgian calendar used by the Europeans was changed to the Imperial Calendar of Japan, which counts years from the traditional date of Japan’s founding in 660 B.C.E., so 1942 became 2602. The time zone was also altered so Singapore would be on the same time as Tokyo. A new currency was introduced; the names of public offices, such as the courts, and newspapers were given Japanese names.

Language was a main focus of the program’s efforts; because officials hoped Japanese would replace English as the language of common use, although they realized this would take some time. There was a public campaign to teach people katakana, a simplified, phonetic Japanese writing system; and there were incentives for people to learn Japanese, including preferences for job hiring. Schools were gradually reopened after a few months of occupation, and a Japanese-oriented curriculum was introduced with hours of language instruction each day.

Authorities also sought to instill in people the “Japanese spirit” that reflected the greatness of the nation. Each day there were flag and anthem ceremonies and compulsory fitness drills set to music from Japanese radio. The Emperor’s birthday became a holiday. School children began each day by facing toward Japan and singing patriotic songs. People were also required to bow to officials from the Imperial administration. To underscore their elite status, there were certain elevators in some office buildings that only Japanese could use and two of Singapore’s main department stores were closed to non-Japanese customers. As a further effort to remove the European stamp from Singapore, western music, film, and theater were prohibited with few exceptions.

Difficulties of Daily Life under Occupation

As is common during wartime, especially in an import-based economy, shortages soon became a reality for most Singaporeans. Families in good standing with the administration received Peace Living Certificates that entitled them to ration cards for items such as rice, meat, sugar, salt, and other essentials. The situation worsened as the tide of war turned against Japan and resources, including food, became scarce. A thriving black market developed, so people were able to supplement their rations in that manner, but that depended on wealth, especially as prices and shortages increased. Creative substitutions were found, for example, tapioca was used to make bread once wheat flour became unavailable. However, not all of these were adequate dietary substitutions; and incidents of malnutrition and related illnesses, such as beriberi caused by B-vitamin deficiency, became more prevalent.

To help overcome shortages, increase Singapore’s self-sufficiency, and reduce the need for imports, the Japanese administration initiated a program in which available green spaces were converted to gardens, which residents were expected to work. The program was promoted through the schools and government-controlled media. However, Singapore’s soil had never been very good for cultivation and little came of the efforts.

The Japanese also took other measures to try to deal with the commodity shortages. Since refugees from the Malay Peninsula had increased the population, the Japanese initially encouraged, and then later ordered, people to return home. They also set up a couple of commune-type villages, one in Johor and one farther north, to which they encouraged people to move and become self-sufficient through farming. There was some incentive to go, because people gained distance from the watchful eye of the Japanese administration and military police; plus the administration promised to provide most of the resources to get started. The settlement in Johor that was populated mostly by ethnic Chinese and received support from the Oversea Chinese Association did well and was able to grow a lot of food. The other, comprised mainly of Christian professionals who did not have good farming skills and had worse land and fewer resources than the Johor settlement, failed to prosper, and a number of the participants died. None of the efforts to reduce Singapore’s population were very successful, and there remained too many mouths to feed from the available food. Food scarcity grew severe toward the end of the war, and people had to stand in long lines to get basic items such as rice.

The food shortages were exacerbated by rampant inflation that resulted from the disorganized approach the Japanese took to introduce the new currency. Its value was not properly supported, and, while the first bills issued had serial numbers, successive printings did not, making them easy to counterfeit. Inflation was a problem from the beginning. The mandated Chinese gift helped take currency out of circulation and helped steady the value for a time, but that was short-lived. The Japanese then introduced a lottery that appealed to many people, helped take still more currency out of circulation, and also helped finance the Japanese war effort. A further attempt was a succession of savings campaigns in which officials encouraged people to save their money. Ultimately, however, the inflation continued to rise. The situation was worse in Singapore than on the Malay Peninsula, where food was one-half to one-third less expensive. Real estate was likewise extremely inflated and a property that cost $5,000 to $6,000 before the war increased to prices ranging from $160,000 to $250,000 by March 1945.

An additional problem was widespread corruption. The low value of money due to inflation led to a cavalier attitude, in which money was easily made and spent. Bribes, extortion, and protection money schemes were commonplace and considered a cost of doing business. It was in the corrupt business of the black market in which much of the economic activity took place. The formal economy was Japanese dominated, with Japanese corporations such as Mitsubishi having taken over the major industries of shipping, rubber, tin, and others. Non-Japanese people needed a special permit to conduct such trade. Some enterprising Singaporeans, in particular some members of the Chinese community who were well-connected from their past roles as intermediate brokers, were able to find new wealth despite this, typically through the black market. For political reasons, there was often a Japanese person as the face of the operation, but that was usually just a front in the survival economy. Black market goods met so many needs that dealing on the black market became a necessity, and the scale of business was large.

Daily life became harder in all aspects as the war drew to its end. Food and other commodities became ever scarcer; Japanese authorities became less predictable and increasingly harsh; the money became ever lower in value. At the same time, the censorship of the press prevented people from receiving accurate news reports about the progress of the war. Short-wave radios that could pick up the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) transmissions had been banned, so very few people had them. However, by July 1945, Allied aircraft were overflying Singapore daily and people realized the end was near. There was also considerable bombing of the port. Civilians and Japanese authorities assumed that there could be a second Battle of Singapore, which led to hoarding of commodities by authorities, aggravating the shortages, and increasing anxiety among civilians. Lacking replacement parts, important aspects of the infrastructure like electricity production also started to fail. The situation had become miserable for most of the population.

The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito officially announced Japan’s surrender, which was broadcast over radio around Japan. It was finally announced in Singapore’s media on August 21. The Japanese began preparing their own internment camp at Jurong as they waited for Allied forces to land. On September 2, British and Commonwealth troops arrived and received a warm welcome from the population. The Singaporeans had a new, humbler view of the British, but British rule had been less brutal than that of the Japanese occupiers, so the British were welcomed. On September 12, Japanese army and navy officials in Singapore officially and publicly surrendered to Lord Louis Mountbattan, the Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia. The Japanese military leaders who controlled Singapore’s fate during the war met different ends. Tsuji, the planner of the invasion, slipped away to China and hid out until the British ended attempts to put him on trial. He made his way back to Japan and was eventually elected to the Japanese parliament. Yamashita, the general who became known as the Tiger of Malaya for his successful sweep down the Peninsula, was stationed in the Philippines at the end of the war and was captured by the Americans. He was the first of the Japanese generals to be tried for war crimes and was executed in February 1946.

The experience of shocking defeat and painful occupation left a lasting mark on Singapore. To the local population, British control was supposed to mean protection, but the British had failed profoundly. The Singapore to which the British returned was not the same Singapore they had left. The people’s trust had been compromised and they were prepared to consider a different future.