The Malayan Campaign 1941 – 1942. Part One Singapore 1941

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

On 15th February 1942, a British and Commonwealth Army that had consisted of 140,000 troops, 253 aircraft, 250 armoured fighting vehicles and 864 artillery pieces, surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore. The Japanese force numbered 70,000 troops, 568 aircraft, 440 artillery pieces and 200 armoured fighting vehicles. The campaign to capture Malaya and the prize of Singapore had taken just over two months.

We British have a tendency to delude ourselves and make military disasters sound like victories. The “Dunkirk Spirit.” The death of Sir John More at Corunna who died just as his army was being booted out of Spain after a disastrous campaign, and the Charge of the Light Brigade, which epitomises heroic disasters. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie. There is nothing magnifique about being blown apart by Russian grape shot. The historian James Leasor in his book Singapore The Battle that Changed the World made the following, perhaps not very popular point:

The surrender marked the end of the white man’s inherent supremacy over the coloured man – the Western Rulers, the Eastern ruled – a legend virtually unchallenged before.

With the fall of Singapore came the recriminations and the media whipped up a storm of rhetoric in Parliament. Very little has changed in the Labour Party and in 1942 the Labour MP for South Ayrshire, Alexander Sloan attacked the capitalist system and what he saw as the rapacity of expatriate businessmen in the Far East

…these ornaments of British capitalism have done more to degrade Britain in the eyes of the East than any scoundrels since our depredations in Africa. These tin, rubber and oil companies have exploited the bodies and souls of the Natives of the Far East. He referred to Malaya as …the greatest stink of corruption in the world.

The sheer scale of the catastrophe was stunning even by today’s standards. Not only did it involve the capture of a huge British army, but the RAF, much lauded for its recent victory over the Luftwaffe, was swept from skies over Malaya by an air force many had considered to be a joke. The Royal Navy lost the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse to a bunch of supposedly myopic nonentities flying in torpedo bombers. And more importantly for the war effort, Britain lost an enormous supply of vital war goods such as oil and rubber.

The British in Malaya

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
19th Century Map of Singapore and Southern Malaya

The first colonisers of the Far East were the Portuguese who arrived in Malacca in 1509, with cannon and Christianity. As well as saving souls with Jesuit zeal, there were spices to be had. The first incursion of Malacca was beaten off by the natives, but two years later a large Portuguese fleet arrived, butchered the natives and set about building churches and defences. Francis Xavier who founded the Jesuit order arrived at Malacca in 1546 and while there were fortunes to be made, it was becoming obvious that the Portuguese Empire was in decline.

At the beginning of the 17th Century new arrivals began to appear, the English and the Dutch. Early attempts by the English to gain a foothold in the area were unsuccessful and the garrison at Amboyna was massacred by the Dutch. For the time being, the English concentrated on India and after a lengthy siege, the Dutch captured Malacca. But as all empires fare, the Dutch themselves were in decline due to corruption and were constantly warring with the local natives and pirates. The powerful British East India Company looked once more to the spice trade and a suitable port for its shipping in the area.

In 1772 a Captain Light arrived in Kedah and received from the local sultan, received the gift of the swampy island of Penang in turn for the Company’s protection. The island was firs named Prince of Wales Island in honour of the future King George IV. The future of the island was by no means certain, but the population and trade rose steadily. In 1805 it was upgraded to a Presidency and the post of Assistant Secretary was offered to a certain Thomas Stamford Raffles. He looked for a base that was better strategically placed than Penang and found another uninhabited, swampy island that was called by the natives the Lion Gate. Raffles did a deal with the Sultan of Johore, leasing the island for an annual payment. It was ideally positioned and within a week’s sail of China, dominating the straits, close to Siam and within the heart of the Malay Empire. Its size, population and trade rocketed. The British turned their attention to the hinterland and by 1858, the Government of India took over British interests in Malaya, making deals with local warlords, sultans and tribal leaders. By 1909 the entirety of Malaya was under British protection and the Lion Gate was now Singapore.

Raffles ordered the construction of an earthen battery to protect the shoreline and the harbour. The work was unpopular with the merchant community as it was situated near warehouses and the merchants feared it would draw fire from the sea. This was the beginning of what would become a regular theme for Singapore, the business community putting profit before the interests of defence. Throughout the 19th century more defences and forts were built, concentrating on protection of the city and the port from attack from the sea. Fort Canning was the garrison headquarters and various self-defence forces were set up. They tended to function as exclusive clubs for the white, male residents until general mobilisation was introduced in 1940.

A Half-Garrisoned Half-Fortress

A large naval base was built in the north of Singapore Island in the belief that any attack would come from the sea. The gun batteries all faced to defend from a seaborne attack and in any case, Singapore could never be called a fortress in any proper sense as it was never designed to guard from attack from any direction. When the Japanese did attack from the north, the coastal guns were turned to fire inland, but they were armed with the wrong type of ammunition, armour-piercing for use against ships instead of high explosives against land targets. In 1925 General Sir Ian Hamilton stated: we have built a half-fortress and we are proposing to half-garrison it.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map of Singapore Island showing Gun Batteries and RAF Airfields on the Island

Malaya had not been taken by conquest and between the wars, a small British-officered police force kept the peace, backed up by a small garrison based mainly in Singapore. The Royal navy still ruled the waves, although Fort Canning in Singapore was totally outdated as a defensive position. The First World War barely touched Malaya, but the growing strength of the Japanese navy and the country’s belligerence in China was causing concerns. It was obvious to the astute that Japan could cause a problem to Britain’s trading interests in the Far East in years to come. Admiral Jellicoe visited Singapore in 1919 and recommended that a modern naval base be built to secure communications and to base a fleet there. In the 1920s the recommendation was accepted by the British Government.

There then followed the depressing game of political musical chairs and inter-Service rivalry. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 agreed the ratio of capital warships for America, Britain and Japan as 5:5:3. Britain had been impoverished by the First World War and in 1924 the first Labour government decided to abandon the Singapore project. The subsequent Conservative government decided to reinstate it. But it is one thing to build a naval base and another to defend it. The decision taken then was the same as that taken in France with the Maginot Line, that the defence should be heavy naval guns. Admittedly aircraft in the 1920s had very limited capability, but by the 1930s they would become much more powerful.

In a time when it looked like the new Service was under threat, the RAF understood the growing threat of air power to isolated bases like Singapore and lobbied for torpedo bombers to attack any enemy fleet, well before they came in range of shore batteries. Their Airships were wasting their time in the ongoing political climate as the Army and Navy maintained that guns would be sufficient. The second Labour Government added to the indecision and decided that all work on the naval base should be slowed down and that no new work should be undertaken.

In 1930 following the Manchurian “Incident,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted a paper outlining that Japan would be in position to attack British Interests in the Far East. In 1933 Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and a year later repudiated the Treaty of Versailles. The RAF continued to lobby for the use of aircraft for defence, but the Navy was quite reasonably sceptical that aircraft could be easily moved elsewhere, whilst guns couldn’t. The compromise was that guns would be the main defence of Singapore, but with air power to supplement them. The perceived wisdom was that attack from any other direction was unlikely and the main brunt of the any unlikely attack would come from the sea.

But in the Imperial Staff College at Quetta an attack on Singapore was regularly war gamed and all of the syndicates rapidly came to the conclusion that the Japanese would never attack the island from the sea. The final phase of the defence controversy was a tug-of-war between the Army and the RAF. In the 1930s a chain of airfields was built on the west coast of the Malayan Peninsula, to form a strategic chain via India. These were also part of the commercial air route to Australia. The RAF also decided that air reconnaissance over the Gulf of Siam would give advanced warning of hostile intentions. These advanced airfields on the east coast were built at Kota Bharu, Kuantan and Kahang. The idea of these forward airfields was tactically sound, but unfortunately the RAF failed to consult with the Army as to how they would be protected.

The Civilian Population

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Raffles Hotel in the 1930s

Singapore Island is roughly the size of the Isle of White and was connected to the Territory of Johore by a causeway. Malaya itself is about the size in area of England and Wales combined. It consists of vast areas of stifling humid jungle spread across a central mountainous spine. The east coast is the least hospitable and had little in the way of infrastructure or a road network. The coastal plains are fertile and the west coast is comprised of sandy beaches and tangled mangrove thickets. The population was in 1940 five and-a-half million, mainly Chinese and Malays, Tamil Indians and 31,000 Europeans.

Based in the towns were the government officials, called the tuans. They were the bankers, planters and mine officials. European life in Malaya revolved around the clubs, hotels and department stores, a microcosm of 1930s life, sweltering in the heat. The Europeans made lives for themselves because snobbery apart, there was no community of interests between Europeans and Orientals. Life for the expat community was centred on the clubs, the hotels and the department stores, for the women to meet friends, take coffee and tea and do their shopping. Raffles Hotel was extremely popular and it was of course off limits to other ranks of the Armed Forces. Australian Gunner Russell Brannon went to Raffles with a letter of introduction to a family friend. He ignored the out of bounds sign and a woman entered and noticed the waiting soldier.

“Boy!” she called and a drinks waiter came running, “Tell that soldier he is out of bounds and ask him to leave.”

In this community nothing as vulgar as money changed hands and like present day officers’ messes, one signed a chit for everything. It was considered bad form for a white man to be “pencil shy” when it came to signing for drinks in the various clubs. The climate was hard, particularly for the children, many of whom were sent to boarding schools in Britain, often accompanied by the wives. Loneliness was a fact of life for many of the planters and senior administrators in Malaya, and many took solace in the bottle. A hill station was established in the Cameron Highlands which boasted a hotel, golf course and an inn.

There were a large number of Japanese merchants living in Malaya and they owned tin mines and plantations.  The Japanese had a monopoly of barber shops, photographic dealerships and were in constant contact with the troops.  Any photographs taken of the city and up country were developed and in all probability copied by the Japanese photographic technicians.  Most of the fish caught and sold in Singapore came from Japanese boats, which were allowed free access to the straits.  Churchill later wrote in one of his attempts to distance himself from any blame:

“I was repeatedly informed at the time of the Japanese landings that owing to the season of the year, the ground was so waterlogged that there could be no question of an advance southwards until the spring.”

For the time being life went on and many seemed blissfully unaware of the Typhoon of the Rising Sun, that was about to engulf them from the East.

Holmes, R. and Kemp, A., 1982. The Bitter End. 1st ed. London: Anthony Bird Publications.
Wikipedia. 2019. Malayan campaign. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 1 August 2019].

© Blown Periphery 2019

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