The fall of Singapore

Winston Churchill
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 SOH reports.

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 utterances.

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 the Japanese.

Codename: Matador

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 Malaya.

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.

the myth

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 Matador.

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 Japanese rule.

The British surrenderThe 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 colonies.

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.

Giant guns were not pointing the wrong way

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 coastline.
  • The concept of forward defence was propounded as early as 1918, even before the idea of the Singapore naval base came up.

    The essence 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 resources.
  • 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 beyond."

"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."

Far East commander Brooke-Popham Lt-Gen A. E. Percival
DESTINED 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 resigning".

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 successfully.

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?

War-torn Singapore
War-torn Singapore

"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."

a blunder

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."


This article was first published in The Straits Times on Mar 16, 1997.



Fall of Singapore:
Should Churchill take the rap?

Moses' start page

Asia1 home
Copyright 1998 Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.