15 February 1942, The fall of Singapore

Charles Kappe's 'The Malayan Campaign'

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kappe wrote his 200,000-word history 'The Malayan Campaign' as a prisoner of war in Changi and in Thailand between 1942 and 1945. It was the first full history of the Malaya-Singapore campaign to be written by a participant, though its significance has only become apparent on the sixtieth anniversary of the campaign.

Kappe, a regular soldier, had been the 8th Australian Division's chief signals officer. In Changi he was given the task of compiling the Australian war diaries of the campaign which ended with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. His work equipped him with an understanding of the fighting which from mid-1942 enabled him to give lectures to his fellow prisoners of war in which he answered many of their urgent questions about why British Commonwealth forces had been defeated in Malaya and Singapore.

By late 1942 Kappe was committed to producing a substantial history of the campaign. He drew upon Australian and British war diaries and upon the recollections of fellow prisoners of war, including a number of conversations with Japanese officers. He traced and interviewed hundreds of members of Australian and British units, from senior officers to 'other ranks', building up a detailed picture of what had happened, what had gone wrong, and why. He modelled his history on the British style of 'staff' official history, analysing operations without devoting much attention to individuals or their actions. Nor did he usually explain where he found the evidence on which he based his interpretation. Even so, his history remains a substantial achievement, a testimony to the men who fought in Malaya and Singapore and who endured the ordeal of captivity which followed.

The manuscript offers a narrative of the entire campaign and not merely the Australian part in it. It is structured thus:

Part I

  • Chapter I 'A Short Geographical Description of Malaya
  • Chapter II 'The Rise of Japan'
  • Chapter III 'The Preparatory Stage'
  • Chapter IV 'The Outbreak of Hostilities
  • Chapter V 'The Japanese Success in Kedah'/ 'The Battle of Jitra'
  • Chapter VI 'Gurun[;] The Rout of the 11th Indian Division'/ 'The Retreat in Province Wellesley and Perak'
  • Chapter VII 'The Battle of Kampar' [two versions]
  • Chapter VIII 'The Battle of Slim River'
  • Chapter IX 'The Loss of Kuantan and the Fighting in Selangor'

Part II

  • Chapter X 'The Transfer of the 8th Australian Division to Segamat'
  • Chapter XI 'The Battle of Gemas'
  • Chapter XII 'Withdrawal from Segamat'
  • Chapter XIII 'The Battle of Muar'
  • Chapter XIV 'The Threat from the West Coast'
  • Chapter XV 'The Evacuation of the Mainland'
  • Chapter XVI [Missing]
  • Chapter XVII [Missing]

Part III

  • Chapter XVIII 'The Resources available for the Defence'
  • Chapter XIX [Missing]
  • Chapter XX [?] The Defences of Western Area'
  • Chapter XXI 'The Japanese Landings'
  • Chapter XXII 'The Withdrawal to the Kranji-Jurong Line'
  • Chapter XXIII 'The Plan for the General Counter-attack and its Failure'
  • Chapter XXIV 'The Battle of Bukit Timah'
  • Chapter XXV 'Events on the Fronts of the 11th Indian Division and 27th Infantry Brigade'
  • Chapter XXVI 'The Situation on the Southern Flank'
  • Chapter XXVII 'The Formation of the AIF Perimeter'

'The Summing Up'

By the war's end Charles Kappe knew as much about the campaign in Malaya and Singapore as anyone. His knowledge, however, was destined to be disregarded. He did not obtain a position on the Australian official history. Though his manuscript was consulted by the British and Australian official historians in the 1950s the manuscript was never published. Kappe was forbidden from publishing the work while a serving soldier. Though it has been available in the Memorial since 1958 (as MS 1393), and though a condensed popular version appeared immediately after his retirement in newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney in February 1955, the manuscript was never published as a book. Though it has been available in the Memorial's Library and Research Centre for over forty years it does not appear in the bibliographies of any book on the campaign.

Kappe's manuscript was 're-discovered' in the course of research undertaken in preparation for a paper, '"The men who did the fighting are now all busy writing": Australian post-mortems on the Malaya-Singapore campaign, 1942-45', presented at the conference 'Sixty years on: the Fall of Singapore Revisited, held at the National University of Singapore in February 2002.

'The Campaign in Malaya' is a large and complex manuscript. The version in the Memorial's collection is essentially the original, typed on odd pages and on the backs of 'Naval Message' sheets scavenged from Singapore naval base. The text has been heavily amended and revised in pen, pencil and type. Several chapters appear to be missing, though further scrutiny of the manuscript might disclose that they have been disordered or untitled. Indeed, the entire manuscript justifies detailed study to compare Kappe's interpretation of the campaign with those produced by later writers.

Kappe's 'Summing Up' on the campaign - the first section to be digistised on the Memorial's website- illuminates the value of his work as a whole. Writing in Changi in 1945, he surveys the span of history that brought the British and Japanese empires into collision in south-east Asia in 1941 and which resulted in the fall of the supposedly 'impregnable' fortress regarded as the heart of the defence of the European colonies in Asia. He canvasses many of the themes evident in later writings, but with the significant inflection from his perspective as one who has endured captivity under the Japanese. He writes that he hopes that the sacrifices made by Australian and British empire troops in the lost campaign were worthwhile if they delayed or prevented a Japanese attack or invasion of Australia. We now know, of course, that the campaign in Malaya did not unduly delay the Japanese conquest of south-east Asia, nor did it impede a planned invasion, which was never planned. Kappe's manuscript is therefore both a relic of the time and the situation in which it was written, and also a uniquely valuable source on the campaign. It is fitting that in the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the fall of Singapore Charles Kappe's 'The Malayan Campaign' can at last be brought to the attention of those who may be interested in what it has to say.

Dr Peter Stanley
Principal Historian