General Arthur Percival: Military Failure or Convenient Scapegoat?

General Arthur Percival: Military Failure or Convenient Scapegoat?

Blamed for the British defeat at Singapore, General Arthur Percival endured harsh criticism.

Here's What You Need to Know: On February 15, 1942, the island fortress of Singapore surrendered with 130,000 men, thus ending the defense of Malaya as one of the largest military disasters in the history of British arms since Cornwallis’s capitulation to Franco-American forces at Yorktown in 1781 during America’s Revolutionary War. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival’s surrender to the invading Japanese Army permanently destroyed Britain’s military and colonial prestige in the Far East. Since Percival sought out the best terms with the Japanese, thereby refusing to participate in any “last stand” heroics, he failed to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s standard as a military commander.

Although Percival was humiliated in both the surrender ceremony and as a prisoner of war, analysis of his prewar assessment and plans for the defense of Singapore demonstrates that he was not entirely culpable for the Singapore garrison’s defeat. Poor planning of the defensive aspects of the island coupled with an underequipped garrison to fight a modern battle with tanks and suitable aircraft ultimately may have been more causally related to the surrender than Army leadership. One must wonder whether Percival was a convenient scapegoat for a wider failure of British leadership and responsibility.

Receiving Command in Malaya

Arthur Percival was born on December 26, 1887, in Hertfordshire, England. After schooling at Rugby, he became a clerk for an iron mercantile company. When World War I erupted, Percival enlisted as a private but was quickly promoted to second lieutenant. Within three months he was again promoted to captain. Wounded during the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded the Military Cross. Further promotions ensued along with a Croix de Guerre and a Distinguished Service Order. He was described in his confidential report as very efficient, beloved by his men, and a brave soldier, and he was recommended for the Staff College.

After the Great War, Percival served with the Archangel Command of the British Military Mission in 1919 in north Russia during the Russian Civil War. This was followed by a posting brutally fighting the Irish Republican Army as an intelligence officer in 1920-1921. It was during this service combating the IRA that he was brought to the attention of Winston Churchill, then a cabinet minister, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Percival was selected as a student for the Staff College, Camberley, from 1923 to 1924, upon a recommendation of Lloyd George. Thereafter, he served as a major for four years in the Royal West African Frontier Force as a staff officer, culminating in a promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1929. After studying at the Royal Naval College in 1930, he became an instructor at the Staff College in 1931-1932. With the assistance of his mentor, General Sir John Dill, Percival was given command of a battalion of the Cheshire Regiment from 1932 to 1936, becoming a full colonel in 1936.

Dill regarded Percival as an outstanding instructor and staff officer and wrote in his confidential report of 1932, “He has not altogether an impressive presence and one may therefore fail, at first meeting him, to appreciate his sterling worth.” Dill recommended that Percival should attend the Imperial Defense College in 1935. In 1936, his mentor again helped Colonel Percival become the GSO I Malaya Command, serving as chief of staff to General William G.S. Dobbie, the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya.

In 1937, Percival returned home as a brigadier on the General Staff, Aldershot Command. However, it was during his posting with Dobbie that Percival made important observations about the defense of Singapore and conducted a detailed analysis of Singapore’s vulnerabilities not from the sea but rather from the Malay Peninsula. Again, however, critics would cite that Percival had a “gift for turning out neatly phrased, crisp memoranda on any subject…. He was excellent in any job which did not involve contact with troops.”

From 1937 to 1940, Dill enabled Percival to maneuver through a variety of staff and command positions, the latter including the 43rd (Wessex) Division and 44th Division. Then, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Dill appointed Percival GOC Malaya with the rank of lieutenant general, promoted over the heads of many senior and more experienced officers. Dill’s support of Percival was based on his evaluation of his protégé as an intelligent, efficient, tireless, and professional staff officer.

Concern over Singapore’s Defenses

Critics of Arthur Percival have claimed that he was a colorless character, more a staff officer than a commander and certainly not a natural leader. Furthermore, it was asserted that he played everything by the rules, however ludicrous these might be, and if he did not lack urgency, he certainly lacked passion. He was not a man for a crisis and certainly not a man for a desperate campaign.

Ironically, when General Sir Alan Brooke was appointed CIGS, he reflected on such appointments that “officers were being promoted to high command because they were proficient in staff work—which was quite wrong—and urged that fewer mistakes of this nature should be made in the future.”

As an example of Brooke’s concern about the future, it had also helped Percival that in 1937 he had written an appreciation of the defense of Malaya and Singapore. As CIGS, General Dill wanted more troops sent to the Malaya command; however, Churchill would not acquiesce to this request.

For over two decades, the combined British military establishment pondered how to best defend Malaya and the Singapore naval base. Unfortunately, there was interservice rivalry, and often the Royal Air Force (RAF) disdained to consult the Army in regard to the placement of airfields along the Malay Peninsula.

In 1937, Maj. Gen. Dobbie, along with Percival as his chief of staff, looked at the problem of defense using the Japanese viewpoint as a new perspective. Percival and Dobbie had as an operational tenet that a British fleet could not arrive in fewer than 70 days to carry out relief. The pair began conducting exercises with troops in October 1937 and reported that, contrary to the orthodox view, landings by the Japanese on the eastern seaboard of the peninsula were possible during the northeast monsoon from October to March, and this period was particularly dangerous because bad visibility would limit air reconnaissance.

Both Dobbie and Percival warned that, as a precursor to their attack, the Japanese would probably establish advanced airfields in Thailand and might also carry out landings along the coast of that country. If the evaluation composed by Percival, under Dobbie’s oversight, was accepted, large reinforcements would be sent without delay. Percival’s evaluation was ignored.

Furthermore, in July 1938, when Japanese intentions were more obvious, Dobbie warned that the jungle in Johore (i.e., southern Malaya) was not impassable to infantry, but again he was ignored. By 1939, all Dobbie and Percival were able to wring out of the government was the sum of 60,000 pounds, most of which was spent on building machine-gun emplacements along the southern shore of Singapore island and in Johore. The prewar defense of northern Malaya was, incredibly, left in the hands of the Federated Malay States Volunteers.

“Let England have the Super-Spitfires and Hyper-Hurricanes”

A newly arrived Indian brigade was held as a reserve for the defense of Johore. Singapore island was entrusted to five regular battalions, two volunteer battalions, two coastal artillery regiments, three antiaircraft regiments, and four engineer fortress companies. The six air force squadrons had a total of 58 aircraft. There were no tanks. It is no surprise that when Arthur Percival took up his new appointment he had little enthusiasm or confidence. He wrote after the war, “In going to Malaya I realized that there was the double danger either of being left in an inactive command for some years if war did not break out in the East or, if it did, of finding myself involved in a pretty sticky business with the inadequate forces.”

Upon his arrival, Percival discovered that the northern airstrips on the Malay Peninsula had not been situated in defensible positions, nor did they have sufficient men or planes to occupy them. Many of his troops, in fact, were dispersed to guard the RAF’s exposed airfields in northern Malaya. Construction of defense installations was stalled because of bureaucratic issues. There was not a single tank in the entire theater of operations. Apart from a few regular British and Australian army battalions, the remaining troops were of mediocre or low quality, undertrained and indifferently led.

The reinforcements still on the way were no better, and none had any idea of operating in the jungle. In fact, Dobbie’s recommendations of 1937 were still a plan rather than a realized defensive framework to fend off a Japanese Army attack from the north. Some of the other service chiefs had held erroneous beliefs that their meager resources and near-obsolete equipment would be sufficient to combat a battle-hardened Japanese war machine which was honed to a sharp edge after nearly a decade of conflict on the Chinese mainland.

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commander in chief Far East, remarked incredulously, “We can get on alright with (Brewster) Buffaloes out here…. Let England have the Super-Spitfires and Hyper-Hurricanes.”