Was the Battle for Singapore the Day the British Empire Died

By 海人 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59602486

Was the Battle for Singapore the Day the British Empire Died

A shocking defeat.

On January 22, the 44th Indian Brigade arrived with 7,000 raw, untrained men. Two days later, 1,900 Australians arrived in a similar state, but with them was the 2/4 Australian Machine Gun Battalion—a welcome reinforcement. A week later the bulk of the 18th British Division arrived; the 54th and 55th Brigades came ashore from American transport ships.

Unfortunately, the Empress of Asia, carrying 2,235 members of 18th British Division, including the Reconnaissance Battalion, 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, and other elements, was bombed and sunk on February 5, almost within sight of Singapore. Much of the crew and almost all the soldiers were rescued, but all the equipment was lost.

The Australians crossed the Causeway at dawn on January 31, but it was the Argylls that were the last unit to cross—with their pipers playing “Hielan Laddie.”

Major John Wyett asked Lt. Col. Ian Stewart why he did that. “You know, Wyett,” Stewart said, “the trouble with you Australians is that you have no sense of history. When the story of the Argylls is written, you will find they go down in history as the last unit to cross the Causeway—piped across by their pipers.”

The population of Singapore had swollen to nearly a million. To defend it, Percival had 85,000 men—17 Indian battalions, 13 British, six Australian, and two Malay. But numbers are misleading; many units had been battered in the mainland campaign while others were raw from the convoys. Some of those had never even fired a rifle before.

Percival divided the island into four sectors: the City held by the Malaya Brigade and Fortress troops; the Northern area, including the naval base, held by III Corps, reinforced by 18th Division; and the Western area held by the 8th Australian Division; the 12th Indian Brigade formed the reserve and held the water reservoirs.

Percival had parceled out his men to cover all possible shore landings, a recipe for failure. He believed the Japanese would attack east of the Causeway. His main concern was holding the naval base, but that was near useless now. Wavell had told Percival that, in his opinion, the Japanese would attack in the northwest along the route of their main axis of advance down the west coast of Malaya. To move their entire force from west to east to cross at a wider spot made no sense to anyone except Percival.

Although the situation looked grim, many of the British refused to concede. On January 29, 1942, 210 Royal Marine survivors from Prince of Wales and Repulse, under Royal Marine Captain Bob Lang, joined 250 men of Major Angus Rose’s 2nd Argylls to carry out operations using boats to strike from the sea 140 miles behind Japanese lines. As both detachments were from the Marine Plymouth Division, the composite unit, officially called the Marine Argyll Battalion, became known as the Plymouth Argylls after the English soccer club of that name. Roseforce, as they were also known, set ambushes, destroyed vehicles, and killed two senior Japanese staff officers in their cars.

On February 6, Yamashita issued his attack orders to his senior commanders. The assault on Singapore would begin at 8:30 pm, February 8. The 5th and 18th Divisions would land on the west coast, their first objective Tengah airfield. In the second phase, the Imperial Guards would attack the Causeway sector and then isolate British forces in the naval base. Next would be the water reservoirs. When these were taken, Yamashita calculated the British would surrender.

Nishimura was not happy that his Guards were relegated to the second phase, which he viewed as an insult. Yamashita’s chief of staff, General Sosaku Suzuki, tried to smooth things over between the two men but failed.

Churchill expected a battle in the streets and told Wavell, “I expect every inch of ground to be defended … and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.”

On the night of February 8, Japanese artillery opened fire with 440 guns using 200 rounds per gun all along the Johore Strait. At 8:45 pm, the first wave of 4,000 Japanese troops crossed the Johore Strait and gained a foothold on Singapore’s northwestern shore. Meanwhile, the Imperial Guards had been demonstrating in east Jahore, feigning an attack from the northeast. Over the next hour, the whole front from the Buloh River to the righthand company of the 2/19 Battalion was under attack. The Vickers machine guns cut up the invaders, but still they came on, closing in on the 2/19’s weapon pits. The men there held out for only 15 minutes before being overrun.

As the exhausted Australian defenders withdrew, the Plymouth Argylls were ordered on the morning of February 9 to advance northward up the Bukit Timah Road then westward along the Choa Chu Kang Road toward Tengah airfield.

Shortly after arriving, the Royal Marines came under air attack, and some sections became lost in the unfamiliar terrain. Two more days of fighting followed as the Plymouth Argylls engaged the Japanese between Tengah and the dairy farm that lay east of the Upper Bukit Timah Road. Most of the Argylls were cut off when the Japanese brought their tanks down the road and smashed through two roadblocks.

The main body of Royal Marines escaped across the dairy farm and down the “Pipeline” to the golf course. No sooner had they arrived at Tyersall Park than the camp and the neighboring Indian military hospital were destroyed in an air attack. In the confusion that followed and subsequent shelling and mortaring, there was a further dispersal of men, including the wounded.

By late morning on the 9th, both Japanese divisions were ashore along with their artillery. The 44th Indian Brigade hung on, but the 22nd Australian Brigade, which bore the brunt of the attack, was wrecked. Although reinforced by the 6th and 15th Brigades, the Australians were split up by the enemy’s infiltration tactics. That night, Yamashita set up his headquarters in a rubber plantation just north of Tengah airfield.

The next morning, Percival still found it hard to believe that no attack would come in the northeast, so he left all the formations there intact but moved the 12th Indian Brigade to the Bukit Panjang area. This brigade now consisted of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (aka the Plymouth Argylls) and 400 men of the 4/19 Hyderabads.

On the evening of February 9, the Imperial Guards came across the strait near the Causeway. The Japanese wanted to take Singapore by Kigensetsu Day, February 11, the founding day of the Japanese Empire. By dawn on the 11th, they had taken Bukit Timah.

To hasten the British capitulation, a message was dropped by air urging Percival to surrender; he ignored it.

The defenders at the city’s water reservoirs were attacked on February 12, but by now the 5th and 18th Japanese Divisions were exhausted. The Guards were now the main strength, although Yamashita disliked them and their commander. He had to rely on them, but they refused to be hurried.

Repairs to the Causeway were completed, and Japanese forces to the north were streaming onto the island. The Japanese realized their artillery ammunition was running out, while the British gunners were devastating and seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of shells. One Japanese infantry attack was broken up by a furious barrage before it could start.

From London, Churchill demanded, “There must be no thought of sparing the troops or population; commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.”

The demand went unheeded. At 2 pm, February 15, surprising news reached Yamashita that a peace envoy—a brigadier with a white flag—had appeared on the front line. At first the Japanese thought it was a trick. Major Kunitake, one of Yamashita’s staff officers, felt the white flag was a ruse, for the Japanese infantry was dropping with fatigue and beginning to wonder if they might be the ones to surrender. Later in the day Percival came himself to the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah to sue for peace.

In his diary Yamashita wrote of his anxiety during that meeting: “I now realized that the British Army had about 100,000 men against my three divisions of 30,000 men. They also had many more bullets and other munitions than I had. I was afraid … that they would discover that our forces were much less than theirs.”

He adopted a hectoring manner with Percival to hide his anxiety. He emphasized “Yes” or “No” in English several times as to whether Percival was going to surrender. Finally Percival agreed and signed the surrender document, and the two generals shook hands. At 8:30 pm on February 15, 1942, the British troops on the island ceased fire.

The Plymouth Argylls were one of the few units that fought with distinction in the dying days of the Malayan campaign, battling to the end, while many other units deserted or tried to force their way onto ships in the harbor. The surviving Plymouth Argylls went into captivity and spent the next 31/2 years in the atrocious conditions of Japanese prison camps working as slave laborers on the infamous Burma-Thailand “Death Railway.”