The Fall of Singapore
15th February 1942: The British Empire is humiliated in the largest defeat in her history - as Singapore surrenders to the Japanese
Hopes that it might be possible for the British forces to hold out, expressed only days before, had been misplaced. Crucially the Japanese now controlled the water supply to the island of Singapore, together with their overwhelming superiority in the air and by sea, this meant that further resistance on land was only a futile delay of the inevitable.
Early on the 15th Lieutenant General Percival received his final telegram from General Sir Archibald Wavell, Supreme Commander Far East:
So long as you are in position to inflict losses to the enemy and your troops are physically capable of doing so you must fight on. Time gained and damage to enemy of vital importance at this crisis.
When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance.
Realistically Percival had little choice, defeat was inevitable and prolonged fighting could only cause many more deaths to civilians and troops alike.
At around the same time Japanese troops were completing the massacre of wounded men and medics that they had found in the Alexandra Hospital1. On the 14th they had bayoneted doctors, nurses and bed-ridden patients alike, including the staff in the operating theatre and one man lying on the operating table. Some men were detained and held overnight, crammed into small rooms with no standing room and no food or water. On the 15th they were taken a short distance away with the promise that they were to be given water - they were then bayoneted in small batches. Only five men out some two hundred and sixty managed to escape.
The transition to Japanese rule was to be a bloody business.
The surrender did not go smoothly for everyone as Len Baynes2, a soldier engaged in the defence. recalled:
We seemed to wait in our trenches after the arrival of the cease-fire order for a very long time, without anything happening. An hour and a half after we received it, men dug in fifty yards away, in the centre of a lawn, decided to climb out of their trenches - a machine gun opened fire on them, and they all lay still around their position. I ran back to our RAP to try to borrow a Red Cross flag to take out over the lawn, and fetch in any wounded.
Dodging a hail of bullets from that same machine gun, I found our Medical Officer and explained my mission, but was told that since some of our men had fired on Japanese stretcher bearers, they had ceased to respect the Red Cross, and were firing indiscriminately at both stretcher bearers and ambulances. I was told to stay quietly with my men until further instructions were received. Again, it was later that we learned that Indian troops had fired on the Japanese from the windows of Robert’s Hospital, and this was responsible for the retribution.
It later transpired that the Japanese had brought up their veteran troops. As we had defended our ground so well, they thought we were a crack regiment under the direct command of General Wavell. These enemy companies acted more or less independently, and had few lines of communication. Their leaders had therefore not been able to inform them of the cease-fire, and as a result this was our worst period, as, without weapons, we were picked off one by one.
We had been told of soldiers' bodies found with their hands tied together with barbed wire and riddled with bullets, and that they liked torturing their captives before disposing of them. We knew that the Chinese, whom they had been fighting for several years, did treat their prisoners this way. Our comrades out on the lawn had been shot down in cold blood.
We did not discuss these things as we waited in silence, each kept his thoughts to himself.
The Fall of Singapore was a shocking event for many across the British Empire, not least amongst the military high command. Lieutenant General Henry Pownall3, who had just become the Chief of Staff to the new ABDA Command (American British Dutch Australian), summed it up for many in his diary the day before:
Six days ago the Japanese crossed the Jahore strait onto the north-west side of the Island, always the most likely place and we have not been able to hold them. I do not know why for I do not believe they were in greater numbers than ours. I fear that we were frankly out-generalled, outwitted and outfought. It's a great disaster for British arms, one of the worst in history, and a great blow to the honour and prestige of the Army.
From the beginning to the end of this campaign we have been outmatched by better soldiers. A very painful admission, but an inescapable fact. Not even the Australians, for all that they started so cock-a-hoop and critical of others, put up a good showing at the end.