Yak yak Churchill to blame for fall of Singapore?

I've no doubt
Winston was
author of disaster

says Correlli Barnett, former Keeper of the Churchill archives.

Operation Matador

Operation Matador, the book by Dr Ong, reveals new findings on Singapore's fall.

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.

A fortress

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 base."

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.

A romantic

"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 facts.

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."

Everything went

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."

No choice

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 them."

This article was first published in The Straits Times on April 5, 1997.

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