author of disaster
says Correlli Barnett, former Keeper of the
|Operation Matador, the
book by Dr Ong, reveals new findings on
THE former Keeper of the Churchill
archives has supported the interpretation by
Singaporean military historian Dr Ong Chit Chung that
British wartime leader Winston Churchill alone was
responsible for the fall of Singapore to the Japanese
during World War II.
Dr Ong published this and other ground-breaking
findings on the fall of Singapore in a
recently-released book, Operation Matador.
The former Keeper of the Churchill archives, Mr
Correlli Barnett, told The Straits Times: "I
have no doubt at all that the author of this complete
disaster was Winston."
Mr Barnett, whose histories of World War II have
won worldwide acclaim, is accepted as the authority
on Churchill. He has written extensively about the
fall of Singapore. His book, Engage The Enemy More
Closely, is a definitive work.
Commenting on Churchill's mistake, he said:
"Churchill failed to take into account that the
defence of Singapore depended on Operation Matador --
which called for the pre-emptive occupation of
southern Thailand and its airfields -- to enable
North Malaya to be held.
"A sea-borne invasion was most unlikely,
because of the big naval guns which were, of course,
perfectly correctly sited to defend the naval
He said: "No, the key to everything was the
airfields in southern Thailand, and Britain failed to
equip them with modern aircraft."
Why was Churchill so obdurate?
Mr Barnett explained: "To Churchill,
Singapore was a fortress, a great naval stronghold.
But what was the point of holding on to a naval base
when the only two British capital ships in the
region, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, had been
sunk by Japanese aircraft?
"It was the airfields that were crucial. We
failed to hold them, and from then on the whole thing
was done for." What would Mr Barnett, with a
historian's hindsight, have done when it was clear
that the battle was lost?
"We should have been retreating to Singapore
and evacuated the forces. We should have done what we
did at Dunkirk," he said.
"But Churchill did the very opposite. The
thing about Winston was that he was a romantic,
seized by heroic words and symbols. He was not an
analytical thinker. He had this lunatic idea that
Singapore was a fortress and therefore it had to be
defended to the end.
"But it wasn't a fortress at all, just a
well-defended naval base that had no ships.
He said it was "rubbish" for people to
argue later that Churchill had not been told the full
Commented Mr Barnett: "He had taken it for
granted that it would be a fight to the finish, and
he diverted two troopships when it was too late, and
they all went into the Japanese bag. Ironically,
those two divisions would have been invaluable in
Burma later in the war."
The historian accepted that Churchill's basic
concern had been correct: That, at that stage of the
war, the security of Britain was paramount.
"If Britain went, everything went - the lot,
including Singapore," he said.
"But if the campaign in Africa had not been
given greater priority than the Far East, aircraft
and weapons could have been found to hold the
airfields in Malaya."
When General Percival arrived to take command, he
found he had already lost, said Mr Barnett.
"Percival was a sound and intelligent
soldier," he said. "He assessed the
situation correctly, for it was cut-and-dried. He had
no choice but to surrender. He had to, to save untold
lives and suffering. The casualties would have been
enormous, especially among the people of Singapore,
and he could not accept that."
A fight to the finish would have needed Orde
Wingate, Britain's charismatic "jungle
general" in Burma, said Mr Barnett.
Later, Churchill described the fall of Singapore
as "the worst disaster" and "the
largest capitulation in British history".
On this, Mr Barnett commented: "Winston had a
remarkable capacity for distancing himself from
mistakes and disasters that had his name all over
This article was first published in The Straits
Times on April 5, 1997.
Fall of Singapore:
Churchill take the rap?
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