Blitzkrieg: How Imperial Japan Swooped Into Singapore During World War II

Image: Reuters
March 29, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Fall Of SingaporeImperial JapanWorld War IIBritainPacific Theater.

Blitzkrieg: How Imperial Japan Swooped Into Singapore During World War II

Here's how they did it.

Percival cabled Wavell, “Consider general situation becoming grave. With our depleted strength it is difficult to withstand enemy ground pressure combined with continuous and practically unopposed air activity. We are fighting all the way but may be driven back into the Island within a week.” A later telegram warned Wavell that Johore could only hold for four more days, and fighter strength was down to nine.

Meanwhile, the exhausted British and stunned Australians tumbled back. The Australians were amazed that their brief and successful appearance on the battlefield had only led to more retreats. Worse, they had not trained in withdrawals, and their retreat became disorganized. Galleghan complained, “One of the mistakes made in our training was that they never let us do withdrawal exercises.”

War correspondent O.D. Gallagher told his Daily Express readers: “Major General Bennett often told war reporters in interviews that his men would never retreat because they did not know how to retreat—they had not been trained to retreat. The spirit was admirable, but the wisdom of the decision doubtful. How could the Australians be expected to make an orderly, fighting withdrawal if such a maneuver had not been included in their training?”

The RAF Leave Singapore

So the retreat continued. On January 24, the tough 5/11th Sikhs showed what could be done when they launched a bayonet charge into the Japanese, killing hundreds. Japanese troops, stunned that their enemy was fighting back, dropped their rifles and fled.

But it was not enough. On January 26, the RAF hurled its remaining Vickers Vildebeestes against another Japanese landing at Endau, with Buffalo and Hurricane fighter escort. The Japanese lost 13 fighters, but the RAF lost 11 Vildebeestes, two Hurricanes, and a Buffalo. Two Japanese transports were hit, but the landing went in anyway. On January 27, the RAF started pulling out of Singapore. Only 21 of the original 51 Hurricanes sent to Singapore were still available. Reconnaissance work was being done by Flt. Lt. Dane, a Malaya resident, and his pals from local flying clubs in Gypsy Moths and other civilian planes.

On the 28th, the Japanese attacked the 27th Australian Brigade. The 2/26th and 2/30th battalions, joined by the British 2nd Gordons, stood off the assault and withdrew at nightfall. Percival met with Heath and his staff. There were too few reserves to fight for Johore. The evacuation to the island would be completed by the morning of January 31.

The next day, the 27th Australian Brigade fell back to Milepost 31. Major General A.E. Barstow, commanding the 9th Indian Division, rode a trolley up to the front to check on the situation, came under close-range Japanese fire, slid down the side of an embankment, and was never seen again. The 22nd Australian Brigade held the four-mile perimeter around Johore Causeway as the 3rd Indian Corps streamed back. When they were gone, the Australians withdrew. The final perimeter of the Johore Causeway was held by the toughest outfit the British had left, the 2nd Argylls, down to 90 men, five officers, and a padre.

Exhausted British forces streamed over the causeway, hoping they would rest in an impregnable fortress until the Royal Navy came to rescue them. They were stunned to find no defenses built and the Malay mentality of apathy still in force.

Yet hopes remained high. Men volunteered to join the Argylls, and it was fattened up to 250 men with returned wounded men, police officers, and Royal Marines from the sunken ships. There was food for six months. Some 9,000 cattle and 125,000 pigs had been brought from Johore. The island’s three reservoirs guaranteed 17 million gallons of water per day.

“A Hundred Pipers”

By 5:30 am on January 31, the last British troops had withdrawn over the 1,100-foot long causeway. Percival gave the order and the 2nd Argylls marched over the causeway, heads high and bearing steady, led by their two surviving bagpipers, playing “A Hundred Pipers” and “Hielan’ Laddie.” The Japanese did not appear to interrupt this defiant display. The last British soldiers to cross the causeway were Colonel Stewart, back as battalion commander, and his batman.

After Stewart crossed onto the island, Royal Engineers punched the buttons and the 70-foot-wide causeway, including its road, rail, and water lines from the mainland, blew up in a pile of smoke. A 70-foot gap opened in the causeway and water flooded through. The siege of Singapore had begun.

On January 31, Percival assumed command of all the troops on Singapore Island. He had 85,000 men at hand, but 15,000 of them were administrative troops or noncombatants. It came to 13 British battalions, six Australian, 17 Indian, and two Malay, along with three machine-gun battalions, one of them Australian. On paper this was a powerful defense force.

On Singapore Island, though, they were a mess. Six of the British battalions had just come off their ships. The Indian battalions had taken appalling losses, and those that had not were untrained troops. Many of the Australians did not know how to handle their Lee-Enfield rifles. Most of the other battalions were understrength and exhausted. Many of the men were poorly trained recruits, and morale was low.

The Entrenchment of Singapore Island

It went lower when the Navy evacuated the massive base on the north side of Singapore Island, the very reason Malaya had been defended. It was a massive facility, which had cost the British taxpayers £60 million and had taken 17 years to build. The base had oil tanks with a capacity of millions of tons, underground ammunition dumps, workshops, graving docks, floating docks, and drydocks that could accommodate battleships. It had 22 square miles of deep-sea anchorage, and a self-sufficient town complete with stores, cinemas, churches, and 17 football pitches. Now it was abandoned. Royal Engineers set fire to the oil tanks to deny fuel to the enemy, and Singapore was covered in black smoke. No announcement was made, but everyone knew what had happened.

A team of British journalists drove to the abandoned naval base to see it for themselves. They found deserted barracks and empty buildings littered with equipment—“everything from shirts and truncheons to gas masks and wooden lockers.” The base’s giant crane, ships’ boilers, lathes, and warehouses full of radio equipment were all intact. The place looked as if it had been abandoned in panic. The mess hall was full of half-finished meals. A football lay by the goalposts of one playing field. Dogs and flies swarmed over piles of rubbish.

Most of the equipment left behind was useless to the Japanese, the wrong sizes for their equipment. The Army sent in 120 trucks, each making three trips a night for a week, to remove everything portable. Weary infantrymen whose uniforms had been worn out in the rainy retreat finally put on fresh t-shirts and underwear.

As Percival prepared his defenses, he believed the Japanese would attack the northeast corner of the island, so there he placed his freshest outfit, the 18th British Division. Wavell believed the Japanese would attack from the northwest and suggested Percival place the 18th Division on that line. Percival demurred. Wavell yielded to the man on the spot.

So the British finally began to entrench. Once again Percival blundered, ordering Simson to move his supply of mines, booby traps, and barbed wire from the northwest portion to the northeast, a process that took days and depressed Australian morale further as they watched their defenses being taken away.

Singapore Invested, Not Besieged

With Singapore besieged, the British authorities would not let correspondents use the word “siege” in their stories, so Singapore was described as “invested.” It was also being bombed and shelled. The Japanese hauled up their siege guns and set up an observation post in the Sultan of Johore’s palace. The whiz and scream of shellfire added to the destruction and the din. Shells rained down on every street, blasting whole sections of Chinatown, shredding the railway station, the warehouses, and the docks. Amazingly, little damage was done to the the Cricket Club, the Singapore Club, and Robinson’s.

Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed Singapore around the clock. The constant noise and destruction took its toll on lives and nerves. Among the frightened people watching the bombing was Captain Patrick Heenan, now under a sentence of death from a court-martial. While his paperwork went through the shuffle of review and appeal, he waited nervously in the Singapore military jail, shaking in terror when he saw Japanese planes swoop in and drop their bombs.

Exhausted troops slept on the floor of the YMCA after a dinner of tea and buns. Other troops from shattered battalions simply deserted and wandered around Singapore in groups, looting liquor from buildings or trying to sneak onto ships leaving the harbor.

Yet some people continued a pretense of normality. Sir Shenton Thomas ignored shellfire and damage to Government House and insisted on collars and ties at dinner. However, dinner jackets in the evening were no longer necessary. RAF Flt. Lt. Arthur Donahue, an American who had flown in the Battle of Britain, took his rare time off from flying his Hurricane by watching Ziegfeld Girl at the Alhambra.