15 February, 1942 Singapore’s ignominious surrender

On 7th December an article was published in the Caymanian Compass that attempted to establish an honest balance. The myth has always been that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was a surprise when American and British intelligence had given the military in Pearl many warnings. Pearl Harbour was a disaster due to incompetent leadership. US forces in Hawaii, the US Navy in particular, were negligent in the way the majority of the officers on their battleships and cruisers were ashore on the Sunday morning recovering after celebrating the previous night. This was when the Japanese timed their attack. 

It was mentioned at the end of the article that the US forces were not the only ones to have incompetent senior officers. The British, who controlled the great port, dockyard and fortress in Singapore were under attack two months after Pearl Harbour. In just 10 days an enemy army, less than half the strength of the defenders, routed the British, Australians and Indians; 36,000 to 80,000 to be fairly accurate. The British Empire (as it was in 1942) forces considered the Japanese army to be a bunch of ill-disciplined clowns who would never be able to have any measure of success against strong and well-led western soldiers. 

Immediately after Pearl Harbour on 7th December, 1941, the Japanese made an amphibious assault into Northern Malaya. The defenders were primarily from the Indian III Corps. The Japanese were much superior in armour, coordination, tactics and experience as well as close air support. The British forces did not believe it was possible to penetrate through the Malayan jungle in spite of repeated attacks by the enemy from that direction.  

In an attempt to control the Malayan coastline, the Royal Navy sent a battleship and a battle cruiser and four destroyers but these were sunk by Japanese aircraft. The defenders were swiftly learning that the Japanese aircraft, particularly the Mitsubishi Zero, were superior and much more numerous than the number they could muster. The Japanese pilots were also more experienced than the untrained pilots the allies had gathered together, and who were flying obsolete aircraft.  

The Japanese forces advanced relentlessly South, down the Malayan peninsula as they speedily isolated and then surrounded the Indian units defending the coast. By 31st January the last of the Allied forces left mainland Malaya. This was followed by engineers demolishing the causeway that linked it to Singapore.  

By 3rd February the Japanese had consolidated their positions and then commenced shelling and bombing of the island. This continued for five days and badly affected the communication between the allied units and the preparations for the defence of the island.  

Although there was limited return of artillery fire Singapore’s well-known large coastal guns were ineffective. The story went around and was repeated ad nauseam for many years that these 15-inch guns could not be swivelled around to face the enemy, they were pointing in the opposite direction, out to sea. This was misinformation, possibly put out by those who had made the classic mistake of providing only armour piercing shells suitable against ships but useless when fired into relatively soft ground. What was needed, but they did not have, were general high explosive shells that would have caused the Japanese heavy casualties. As it was, the Japanese continued to advance towards the city. 

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put the situation in clear terms. He stated that the allied troops outnumbered the Japanese and therefore in a well-contested battle should destroy them. “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. The whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.” 

It would not have made any difference to the outcome but it would have been more appropriate to state that the loss of Singapore would be a calamity from the military point of view. 

Although it is distasteful to say the least to write an article about the fall of Singapore, it would be unfaithful to those who lost their lives and totally worthless if it did mot include reference to the bestial behaviour by the Japanese troops. It should be born in mind that people across the world are brought up in different cultures than our own. Actions we might consider to be unacceptable could be considered otherwise by someone from across the world. The Japanese Army exhibited atrocious and non-human behaviour a few years earlier in the Rape of Nanking in 1937. Such then was the Japanese army as they moved through to the city of Singapore. 

On 14th February, Japanese troops advanced toward the Alexandra Hospital. A British officer approached the Japanese with a white flag. He was bayoneted and killed. On entering the hospital, the Japanese killed many of the doctors and nurses. Many nurses were raped. The following day, 200 staff and patients were confined in a building in the industrial area. Many died overnight because of the conditions but the rest were dispatched in the morning by bayonet. One survivor from the hospital, the Japanese had thought he was already dead, described how the Japanese did not consider those who were weak, wounded or had surrendered to be worthy of life. 

One group of 22 Australian nurses escaped from the city only to fall into Japanese hands on a Dutch island. As they were driven into the sea they were machine-gunned. The sole survivor relates how their matron Irene Drummond called out, “Chin up girls, I am proud of you and love you all.”  

On the 15th February, the Japanese had broken through all defences. Lt. General Percival consulted his senior commanders. They all agreed a counter-attack would be purposeless and total surrender was the only other alternative. Accordingly, agreement was reached that he should proceed with staff officers to the Ford Motor Factory where General Tomayuki Yamshita would accept the unconditional surrender, on his terms.  

Australian Major General Gordon Bennett caused very considerable disquiet when he handed over command of the Australian division to a brigadier, commandeered a boat and made his own personal escape.  

We sometimes think that since this all occurred in the dim and distant past as we have no contact with anyone who was personally involved.  

Not true. 

In 1937 a young man went to Oxford. When war broke out in 1939 he went to Aldershot, known as the home of the British Army. He was appointed as a lieutenant to an artillery regiment. He sailed to Calcutta, travelled by train across India and eventually found himself on the border of Malaya and Siam (now Thailand). When the Japanese invaded, his unit the 7th Bengal Battery of the 22nd Mountain Artillery of the Indian Army, moved slowly south towards Singapore. The unit had 3.7-inch howitzers that could be dismantled and be readily ported over the mountains; but there were none in Malaya! He says as an artillery unit they were always a safe distance from the front line! 

He was caught up in the surrender of Singapore and says he was sent by the Japanese to work on building the Burma to Siam railway beside the River Kwai. He does not want to remember much more about this part of his life.  

Not knowing if he was still alive in captivity the War Office in London nevertheless promoted him to captain. Survival and freedom came when the Japanese themselves surrendered three and a half years later in 1945. On returning to England he joined the Colonial Service and for his sins came to Cayman as administrator (later called governor) in 1968. Athelstan (Athel) Long still lives in Cayman with his wi
fe Zadie. Over the years he has given of himself to the Cayman Islands Veterans Association. May God Bless him.  

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Repairing the Padang after the Japanese surrender of Singapore. – Photo: File
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