Remembering 1942: The Fall of Singapore Dr Chris Coulthard-Clark

Originally presented by Dr Chris Coulthard-Clark from the Memorial's Military History Section, on Friday 15 February 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.

Download the talk - 09:18 min (2.2Mb Mp3)


The surrender of Singapore occurred on this day sixty years ago. This event was one of the largest and most dramatic reverses suffered by British forces in the war, or indeed in modern British history, with 130,000 personnel becoming prisoners of the Japanese. Included in this total were 15,000 Australians, so that the impact of the defeat and its consequences for this country were hardly less serious. Understandably, Singapore has become a focus of major historical contention ever since.

It is not my intention to enter into the debate regarding the causes and factors behind the tragedy which Singapore's loss proved to be. My purpose today is primarily to commemorate the efforts of those Australian men and women who were part of this great event - in particular those whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour as having died as a consequence. This can only be done, however, by providing the historical context which allows us to recall and reflect upon what happened.

When Lieut.-General Arthur Percival, the GOC of British forces in Malaya, ordered his troops to lay down their arms and cease resistance at 8.30 p.m. on 15 February 1942, the Pacific War was just ten weeks old. In that time, Japanese forces had steadily driven the British forces defending the Malay peninsula southwards in a relentless but short campaign, before bottling them up in Singapore Island at the peninsula's southern tip by 31 January. Then, in little more than a further two weeks, the island's defences, too, had been forced to capitulate.

The very speed and apparent ease of the Japanese victory was a major factor in the severe impact that this event had, both in Britain and Australia. For Singapore was supposed to have been an impregnable fortress, and had stood for many years as a potent symbol of British power in South-East Asia. Since the construction of a great naval base at Singapore began in the 1920s, Australian governments had been wedded to this (and the strategy of imperial defence that it encapsulated) as the lynchpin of Australian defence policy also.

In the event, Australians discovered too late that the fundamentals of the policy upon which reliance had been placed were unsound. Britain had promised to provide a fleet for the base, whenever needed to deter Japanese aggression, initially within six weeks although this was extended to three months in 1939. When that situation finally arose in November 1941, a matter of weeks before Japan struck at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere around the Asia-Pacific region, Britain was already heavily committed in Europe and had few ships to spare. What arrived early in December was not a great fleet but a small squadron based around just two capital ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse (one very new, the other quite old). Both big ships were quickly disposed of a few days later by the Japanese in the opening hours of their invasion of Malaya.

Singapore thus remained without the fleet that was its primary rationale. Worse than this, planning for the base had called for roughly between 350 and 550 aircraft to defend it from the air. But this requirement had never been met, either in the number of aircraft provided or effective types. Despite the best efforts of Malaya's aerial defenders, including three squadrons from the Royal Australian Air Force, Singapore found itself at the mercy of an enemy that was vastly superior in air power.

To oppose the three divisions which the Japanese deployed in their campaign against Malaya and Singapore, Percival mainly had an Indian corps of two divisions and the Australian 8th Division under Major-General Gordon Bennett. Ordinarily, military doctrine requires that an attacker needs a superiority of several times the strength of the defender for success to be achievable, but in this case such a margin was unnecessary considering the freedom the Japanese enjoyed in deploying forces and manoeuvring them. The Indian troops were outclassed by the Japanese, and although the Australians, once committed to action in Johore on 14 January, achieved the few allied successes of the campaign (at places such as Gemas, Bakri, Jemaluang and Muar River), the 8th Division was understrength with just two brigades and lost heavily over the course of the next fortnight's fighting.

Once pushed back into Singapore Island, the odds did not materially move in favour of the British forces. To defend the island's northern approaches across the Straits of Johore, Percival had mainly depleted units to cover a wide area. Although a fresh formation, the 18th British Division, was on hand, he chose to allocate the most vulnerable north-western sector to Bennett's two brigades, now reduced to half-strength. Spread too thinly over too wide a front, the Australians were unable to prevent Japanese amphibious landings which were launched on 8 February.

In the week of heavy fighting which followed, the defenders were unable to stem the Japanese advance. By 13 February the British perimeter had shrunk to a 40-kilometre line around Singapore city itself. Water supplies were soon critical, a situation which was not without consequence in a city then containing more than a million civilian residents and refugees, and conditions generally were steadily deteriorating under continuous Japanese ground and aerial bombardment.

It has been claimed in a contemporary British report finally released in 1992 that it was acts of indiscipline by Australian troops in these chaotic circumstances which undermined the British defence and directly contributed to the surrender. Acts of indiscipline there almost certainly were, on the part of some personnel - not all of whom would have been Australian. Such behaviour is typical of many such military situations, so there is also nothing especially unusual in that. Considering the underlying weakness in defensive arrangements, however, there can be no doubt as to where the real cause lay for the loss of Singapore.

Despite having fought bravely for the month leading up to the surrender, sustaining nearly three-quarters of all the battle-deaths suffered by British forces during both the retreat through Malaya and the siege, Australians now experienced to the full the bitterness of the defeat. There are many incidents and stories associated with the fall of Singapore which now have become firmly entrenched in our national history, such as the controversial escape by General Bennett back to Australia, and the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and the Banka Island massacre. There are also many popular myths which continue to this day, such as that regarding the fortress guns famously pointed in the wrong direction (when, in fact, nearly all these weapons did engage the Japanese, although there was a shortage of high explosive ammunition).

Perhaps no aspect arising from the loss of Singapore was more galling than the generally monstrous fate experienced by the Australians who became prisoners there. These men, and a small number of Army nurses, were subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of their captors. Those sent on work gangs for the Burma-Thailand Railway especially suffered from overwork, malnutrion, sickness and bashings from guards. Overall, more than a third of their number did not survive the war.

Singapore's fall was not the end or full extent of the grim situation faced by Australia in early 1942. Within four days of the surrender Japanese forces that had pressed on into the Netherlands East Indies would be bombing Darwin, and over succeeding days Australians in Timor and Java would also be fighting for their lives. But today we especially remember the loss of Singapore as, in many ways, the highwater mark in the dangerous situation which our nation faced during 1942, and we reverently pay our respects to the men and women commemorated here on the Roll of Honour.