|So says military historian
Dr. Ong Chit Chung.
Winston Churchill called
the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the
'worst disaster' and 'largest capitulation' in
British history". New ground-breaking research
by a Singaporean military historian, in a book to be
released later this week, debunks this and several
other myths surrounding the fall of the island. FELIX
WINSTON Churchill called the ignominious fall of
Singapore to the Japanese the "worst disaster
and largest capitulation in British history".
In the light of new research which concludes that
the blame for one of the greatest debacles of World
War II must rest squarely on the shoulders of
Britain's wartime leader, these are indeed ironic
The findings by a Singaporean military historian,
in a book to be released later this week, show that
British military planners had anticipated an assault
from the rear, that is, down the Malay Peninsula, by
Contrary to what the history books traditionally
purvey, the British military in Malaya and Singapore
were not caught napping by the Japanese.
In fact, they had even drawn up a detailed battle
plan, codenamed Matador, to stop the invaders who
were expected to land along Thailand's eastern
coastline at the Isthmus of Kra and in north-eastern
This was based on several uncannily-accurate
assessments of Japanese war intentions and movements
in the region.
But, in a twist of fate that changed the destinies
of millions of people, Operation Matador was never
launched. It was stalled repeatedly by Churchill, who
wanted the scarce resources of aeroplanes, troops and
other equipment diverted to his other priority areas,
such as the Middle East and Russia.
Yet the history books virtually absolved him for
the humiliating defeat, pinning the blame instead on
British military leaders, accusing them of being
indecisive and unprepared for the Japanese attack.
In the process, historians created the metaphor
for military ineptitude by perpetuating the
oft-quoted myth that the huge naval guns in Singapore
were facing the wrong way.
However, in his book, Operation Matador: Britain's
War Plans Against The Japanese 1918-1941, published
by Times Academic Press, Singaporean military
historian Dr Ong Chit Chung debunks this and several
other myths surrounding the fall of the island.
Besides new insights into why Malaya and Singapore
fell to the Japanese, the book gives the
most-detailed and in-depth account of Operation
The findings are an important contribution to the
historiography of Singapore and Malaysia because the
British surrender to the Japanese was a watershed
event and a dramatic turning point.
The event had repercussions that reverberated
beyond the battlefield and the hellish years under
British surrender punctured the myth of white
invincibility and made a deep impression on the
people of South-east Asia, the colonialists, the
British and Dutch, and on the Japanese.
It signalled the beginning of the end of the
British Empire and the rise of nationalism in the
Now, more than 50 years later, classical views of
the fall of Singapore and other wartime milestones
are being overturned or challenged by a new
generation of scholars who probe and ferret out the
dark secrets of the war without undue concern about
the reputation of peoples or nations.
Said Dr Ong: "Scholars are now also better
able to analyse and interpret the events because
voluminous files and records are released after the
restrictions of 30 years and 50 years are lifted at
British archives and those in other countries."
These records were the primary sources of his
almost four years of research for his doctoral
thesis, on which his new book is based, at the London
School of Economics and Political Science.
In the book, he made the following findings:
- British military planners had anticipated a
Japanese attack on Singapore from the rear,
down the Malay Peninsula.
- They formulated Operation Matador to counter
this threat by entering southern Thailand to
forestall Japanese landings on the eastern
- The concept of forward defence was propounded
as early as 1918, even before the idea of the
Singapore naval base came up.
of the concept was that in order to ensure
the landward security of Singapore, the whole
of the Malayan mainland must be held.
As circumstances changed, the forward
defence line was extended to Thailand.
- Operation Matador was endorsed by Whitehall
in 1941, but the resources for its
implementation -- critical airplanes and
other reinforcements -- were never provided.
- The battle for Malaya and Singapore was lost,
even before the first shot was fired, in the
corridors of power at Whitehall when the
political leadership refused to provide these
- The blame rests entirely on Churchill, who
overestimated the impregnability of the
British fortress of Singapore and
underestimated the Japanese threat and
refused to implement Operation Matador.
- The big guns of Singapore were not pointed
the wrong way. They were installed primarily
for the seaward defence of Singapore and to
protect the naval base.
The fact that there
was no direct naval attack proved that they
were completely successful in their mission
and earned their keep.
- Except for two giant guns of 15-inch calibre,
they had all-round traverse and could - and
did - fire landwards at Japanese targets in
Johor and Singapore.
The reality, says the
book, was that all the guns and
fortifications in the world would not have
ensured the landward defence of Singapore.
The book cited a War Office note sent to Churchill
which stated categorically that "effective
protection from landward attack can only be given by
holding the Peninsula in northern Johor or
"The backdoor to Singapore could only be
bolted by holding the hinterland ... by in-depth
defence of Johor and the Malay Peninsula," said
the book. The author is unequivocal in his criticism
of Churchill's role in the fall of Singapore.
"It was Churchill who placed Malaya below the
Middle East and Russia in terms of priorities,"
he said. "It was Churchill who consistently
underestimated the Japanese threat."
TO DOOM ... Far East commander
Brooke-Popham (left), was refused
reinforcements and replaced by Lt-Gen A. E.
Percival (right), who arrived too late to
save the situation.
He also "changed horses
midstream" by sacking his Commander-in-Chief Far
East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham.
He decided it was time to send a younger commander
to the Far East. In a personal telegram, he told the
63-year-old Brooke-Popham: "In view of
developments in the Far East, the duties of
Commander-in-Chief Far East should be entrusted to an
army officer with up-to-date experience."
The book contended that Brooke-Popham probably
lost his will or ability to act decisively after he
was dismissed on Nov 5, 1941.
He was aware of the deficiencies of British and
Allied forces in Singapore and Malaya and had sent a
stream of telegrams to Whitehall to petition and
plead for air and land reinforcements.
As he told the Australian Advisory War Council, he
had made "all representations short of
The Malayan defences were pathetic. Besides
deficiencies in aircraft, infantry and artillery,
there was a complete absence of armoured units.
What went wrong was not the strategic and tactical
planning but the political decision-making and the
lack of resources.
In the end, Churchill's strong will prevailed over
the tactical wisdom of his military advisers.
Although he himself had approved Operation Matador,
he did not back it in deed.
In fact, in statements just 18 days after he gave
his imprimatur to the Matador plan, he was emphatic
that there should be no further diversion of
resources to Malaya.
The Middle East and Russia absorbed all energies
and resources. The war in the Middle East, which was
the world's oil pipeline and gateway to India, was
not going well. At the same time, Russian
vulnerability added to the complexities of the
situation, said the book.
In 1941, Churchill delivered 440 aircraft to
Russia despite the comment by the Chiefs of Staff
that, on purely military grounds, they would
"pay a better dividend" if sent to the Far
East or the Middle East.
He also diverted an entire division, which was
bound for Singapore, the 7th Australian Division, to
the Middle East, as well as one brigade of the 9th
Indian Division to Iraq to quell a revolt there.
In his estimate, Japan was unlikely to enter the
war unless the Germans had invaded Britain
Said the book: "More than ever, Churchill was
determined that there should be no further
reinforcements to Malaya beyond the modest
arrangements already in train."
Could Matador have stopped the Japanese - and, in
doing so, change the course of history dramatically?
"From the conduct of the campaign, it seems
that Matador would certainly have held up the
Japanese for a while, allowing time for
reinforcements to arrive," the book said.
"It is not possible, however, to speculate on
how much extra time Matador would have given the
British, or whether substantial reinforcements would
arrive in time."
Dr Ong told The Sunday Review that reinforcements
required for Operation Matador to work would have to
be in place one to two years in advance in order for
them to be acclimatised to the tropics and terrain.
"There would be a major battle between the
British and the Japanese. But in the end, the British
would need major American reinforcements."
But why did Churchill commit such a strategic
blunder when he must have realised what a serious
blow the defeat would have inflicted on Britain's
interests and reputation?
One cynical view, not held by Dr Ong, is that
Churchill deliberately allowed the Japanese to win
because he wanted to suck the wavering and reluctant
Americans into the war.
The plain, unvarnished truth is less fanciful. As
Dr Ong put it: "Churchill took a calculated
gamble - and lost."