“The moon like a tray was sinking in the western sea and the deep red sun showed its face to the east. Samah harbor, shimmering with gold and silver waves, was as beautiful as a picture. The men on the convoy looked towards the bows … as the Navy formed in two lines to right and left of the convoy.… This was surely the starting point which would determine the destiny of the nation for the next century. The die was cast.”
So wrote Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, chief planner of Japan’s 25th Army, on the night of December 4, 1941. He was describing the sortie of convoys carrying Japanese forces from Hainan Island to invade Malaya and conquer Britain’s fortress at Singapore. It was described as impregnable. It would fall in 73 days.
The British Military’s Conflicting Defensive Strategies
Singapore and Malaya were the centerpieces of European domination of Southeast Asia. Since its founding in 1821, Singapore had grown to become one of the shining jewels in Britain’s imperial crown. Malaya produced 60 percent of the world’s rubber and 58 percent of the world’s tin. Singapore City was a major port and trading center, filled with Malays, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and Europeans, all trying to get rich amid Malaya’s incredible heat and humidity. By 1941, Malaya’s population was about 4.5 million, half of them Chinese, the rest Indian Tamils, ruled by 20,000 Britons through a complex web of treaties with local sultans, federated states, and crown colonies.
As Japanese imperialism spread across Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, Singapore was also seen as the central bulwark of defense of Britain’s vast Pacific interests, which included Australia and New Zealand. British strategy planned for deployment of a large fleet to Singapore in case of crisis. That required a major naval base, which was constructed in the 1930s. The base in turn required defense against enemy attack, which led to a mighty debate between the Royal Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force over the merits of torpedo planes and heavy guns.
In the end, the gunners won out and Singapore’s defenses included three massive 15-inch guns. Contrary to popular belief, these guns could fire inland as well as out to sea. However, they lacked high-explosive ammunition to use against an attacking ground force. Their ordnance was armor-piercing shell to penetrate warships’ hulls.
Other than the deployment of coastal artillery, Malaya’s defenders agreed on nothing. The Army ignored repeated staff studies and tabletop war games that showed an enemy force could storm through Malaya’s jungles from north to south, and prepared its defenses against seaborne invasion near Singapore. Without consulting the Army, the Royal Air Force set up a string of airfields in Northern Malaya to see if they were defensible against ground attack.
The only person who seemed to realize that the defenses of Singapore and Malaya were bound together was the deeply religious and highly capable General Sir William Dobbie, who commanded Malaya’s defenses in the late 1930s. He reported to London that despite the October-to-March monsoon period an enemy force could land at Northern Malay ports such as Kota Bahru, or southern Thai ports such as Singora and Patani, and drive down the vast network of roads into Singapore. The report was ignored, save for the construction of £60,000 worth of pillboxes on the southern shore of Singapore Island and Johore.
As Japanese troops plunged into China, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, Malaya’s civilian and military leadership ignored the mounting peril, instead keeping busy meeting increasing orders from Britain and America for rubber and tin. In the third quarter of 1941, Malaya shipped 137,331 tons of rubber to the United States alone. In Singapore, white businessmen and officials wore evening dress for dinner, signed chits for whiskey and soda at the air-conditioned restaurant in Robinson’s Department Store, and played tennis and golf at their clubs.
London ordered Malaya to develop the civil defense tools—such as Women’s Voluntary Services and Air Raid Precautions—being used with great success in England, but nobody took them seriously, least of all the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas. He would not let the Army use civilian labor to build entrenchments, saying that industry needed the workers, not the military.
It all seemed pretty academic anyway. Nobody took the Japanese seriously. Everyone believed them to be buck-toothed, imitative incompetents with poor night vision and no mechanical aptitude, unable to defeat the weaker Chinese. Intelligence reports from British officers in China on the ferocity of Japanese troops in battle were ignored. A report on the nimble and deadly Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter was lost.
86,000 Men Under General Percival
On paper, Malaya’s defenses were quite formidable. The boss was Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, a World War I Royal Flying Corps veteran. From his headquarters in Singapore’s Fort Canning, he issued confident communiqués that had little connection to reality and fell asleep during staff meetings.
Below him stood the top Army commander, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival. Buck-toothed, skinny, and colorless, Percival did not carry the image of a commanding general. The troops snickered at Percival, who insisted on going around in a pith helmet straight out of Kipling’s stories. Percival was a good administrator and a decorated combat veteran, but lacked toughness, brilliance, and drive.
Born in 1887, he had joined the British Army as a private in World War I at age 27 and rose to lieutenant colonel, surviving the trenches in France to command a battalion by 1918. He won a Distinguished Service Order and Bar, a Military Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre. After the war, he served in Ireland and graduated from the Staff College, showing a remarkable ability for paperwork, the bane of all armies. With the outbreak of World War II, Percival sought a field command and in March 1941 was appointed General Officer Commanding in Malaya.
Percival commanded a large force. The 3rd Indian Corps, under Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Macclesfield “Piggy” Heath, was responsible for Northern Malaya. It consisted of two divisions, the 9th and 11th Indian (both divisions short of one brigade), as well as the 28th Indian Brigade. In Johore, Percival had the 8th Australian Division, consisting of two brigades, under Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett, a decorated Gallipoli veteran and militia officer. In Singapore, Percival had the 1st and 2nd Malaya Brigades and his command reserve, the 12th Indian Brigade.
Percival’s force totaled around 86,000 men in 31 battalions, including some renowned units such as the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Punjabis, and the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
British Military Deficiencies in Singapore
In reality, it was a hollow force. Most of the Indian battalions had been “milked” of experienced officers and NCOs, who had been sent to train new battalions or fill out battered ones in Libya and East Africa. Often the replacement British officers could not speak the languages of their men, such as Urdu or Hindustani.
The Australians had undergone very little training and seen no action. An Australian officer observed that his men had “enlisted on a Friday and reached Singapore that Monday.” None of Malaya’s defenders had trained to fight tanks. Many had never even seen one. There was not a single tank in the entire Malaya command. Bundles of leaflets on how to build and use antitank defenses sat on shelves in Singapore and did not make it to the frontline troops until the “balloon went up.”
Training itself was hard if not realistic. Officers ignored mangrove swamps and jungles in exercises and planning. The only outfit that trained for jungle warfare was the 2nd Argylls, whose commanding officer, Colonel Ian Stewart, was regarded as eccentric by his superiors because of his harsh regimen.
The Royal Air Force was not much better. Brooke-Popham said, “We can get along all right with Buffaloes out here.… Let England have the Hyper-Hurricanes and Super-Spitfires.” Actually, Brooke-Popham was covering up the unpleasant fact that Britain could not spare any modern fighters for Malaya because of her immense commitments in Europe and the Middle East. Malaya’s air defense required 582 first-line aircraft. There were only 158 planes ready to fly and 88 in reserve instead of the 157 authorized.
Worse, not one of the British, Australian, or New Zealand planes in Malaya was an up-to-date aircraft. The four fighter squadrons (243rd RAF, 21st and 453rd RAAF, and 488th RNZAF) flew a total of 60 American-built F2A Brewster Buffaloes, which were slower than the Japanese Zero and frequently suffered from loss of power due to a drop in oil pressure and overheating. The RAF’s four squadrons of 47 Blenheim bombers looked useful, as did the two squadrons of 24 RAAF Hudson patrol planes, but the 24 Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo bombers sputtered along at less than 90 miles an hour. With their open cockpits and yards of wires, they looked like a throwback to World War I. Most of the Allied pilots had just finished their solo training.
The top brass did not get along well either. Heath was senior to Percival, who had been promoted over Heath’s head for the Malaya job. Sir Shenton Thomas thought military preparations interfered with business. Chief Colonial Secretary Stanley Jones was an obstructionist mandarin who valued regulations over action. Into this mix was flung Sir Alfred Duff-Cooper, a tactless and aggressive cabinet minister who had been sent out from London in December 1941 with executive powers to serve as Resident Cabinet Member for the Far East. He berated Brooke-Popham as the “worst sort of old-school tie” and ridiculed Thomas.