The Fall of Singapore
The Fall of Singapore was a critical turning point in Australian and British history, in terms of affiliation, alliances and Australia’s independence. According to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War 2, it was the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history. Many underlying facts and events led to the crushing defeat in Singapore, but the biggest problem was the Allies' underestimation of the Japanese war machine. Lack of training in jungle warfare and improper organisation along with many other factors culminated in Allied defeat and repercussions that became much larger than the British expected.
The Advance of the Japanese
On 7 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy along with 350 carrier-based aircraft attacked the American naval base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbour. The Japanese were relentless and efficient, sinking 4 battleships, destroying 188 aircraft, killing 2 335 servicemen and damaging a further 10 ships. The US were caught completely by surprise and didn't have enough time to properly prepare their defences. Unfortunately for the Japanese, none of the US aircraft carriers were present during the attack. Aircraft carriers were probably the most powerful weapon for a navy in the Pacific, as they allowed aircraft to be transported by sea and also have a mobile landing strip, meaning that bombing attacks could be made anywhere. During the same day of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japan invaded Malaya and the Philippines, beginning the Japanese conquest of the East Asian Pacific.
A picture of Pearl Harbour taken by the Japanese during the attack.
Now that the Japanese had temporarily disabled the US navy, they set their gaze on the British naval base in Singapore. “Gibraltar of the East” was the name given to the island and it was often referred to as an impregnable fortress due to its naval defence capabilities. The naval base was placed on the Strait of Johore, the strait separating Malaya from Singapore. The base could only be accessed from the east end of the strait, as the west end was too shallow for ships to pass through, so guns were placed on the east side of the island and the surrounding islands. The placement of guns made it impossible for any enemy ship to enter the strait without being blown apart. Even though Singapore was heavily defended, the base would still rely on British naval and army reinforcements if Singapore was attacked. When the war began in Europe and it grew, the number of reinforcements that Britain could send and the time it would take decreased daily. By the time Japan had taken Malaya, reinforcements had been suspended indefinitely.
Japan invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941 and brought with them 60 000 experienced soldiers, over 200 tanks, 568 advanced aircraft and the full force of the Japanese Navy. To stage the attack, Japan encouraged French Indochina to support the Japanese and allow the construction of airstrips and bases, as France at the time was controlled by Germany. Japan landed on the north-east coast of Malaya at Kota Bahru and sent one division down each coast of the peninsula. Adopting tactics very similar to the German Blitzkrieg, the Japanese moved swiftly through Malaya, capturing British airfields and forts as they moved. It took the Japanese 55 days to completely conquer Malaya. This was extremely fast compared to other armies during the time, as they were covering 15 kilometres per day.
The Japanese advance through Malaya.
The Battle for Singapore
On 31 January 1942, the remaining Allied forces retreated to Singapore and blew a 20-metre hole in the causeway that linked Johore and Singapore, in the hope that it would give Singapore some time to prepare its defence. Percival believed that the Japanese forces would attempt to land on the north-eastern side of Singapore, as the shore was lined with beaches, making it easier for an amphibious assault. Percival pre-emptively placed the well-trained British battalions on the north-east front, as they had the best chance of defeating the Japanese. The biggest disadvantage that the Allies had was not knowing where Japan was going to attack. With all of the British ships and aircraft destroyed, they could not predict where the Japanese were going to strike. This meant that Percival had to station his brigades all around the island, making the defensive line thinner. The Japanese could choose where and when to attack, allowing them to concentrate all of their forces into one spot and quickly overcome any defensive lines.
The Japanese Imperial Army attacked Singapore on 7 February 1942 on the north-western front, as that was where the strait was narrow at the point of crossing. Percival was still convinced that the Japanese would send a second force to the north-eastern, but a second force never came. The Allies had largely overestimated the number of Japanese soldiers which was around 60 000, rather than the estimated 100 000. The Japanese sent wave by wave and by the end of the first day, the Allies had been driven back from the shores of the strait. The Japanese were well trained and experienced in jungle warfare and by concentrating on weak links in Allied defences, they were able to flank the other defending brigades, forcing them to retreat. The Allied troops were not trained to defend against the fast movement of the Japanese forces and became overwhelmed very quickly. The speed of the assault left the Allied commanders confused and stunned, which led to faulty order transmission between ranks and resulted in certain battalions retreating to the wrong positions and leaving the flanks of the neighbouring battalions exposed. The Jurong river was one of the chosen defensive lines as it could stop the advance of the Japanese soldiers and vehicles, but due to order misinterpretation, the Australian forces moved past the river and left it undefended. Mistakes like these gave the advantage to the Japanese and allowed the invasion of Singapore to progress swiftly.
A map of Singapore during the battle.
Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival (holding the British flag) with three of his generals going to surrender Singapore to the Japanese.
One of the problems that the defenders of Singapore faced was the lack of support given by the UK because the British had to defend the domestic front. For years the British Empire had relied on their naval might to control their distant colonies, but with both World Wars significantly draining their funds and the threat of Nazi Germany invading the British home-islands, they could no longer defend their colonies. Singapore was one of these colonies that suffered from this, as the Singapore Strategy relied on the support of British warships being sent from the UK to assist Singapore if it was invaded. Since the war started in Europe in 1939, the time it would take the reinforcements to arrive lengthened. By the time Singapore was invaded, additional support had been suspended indefinitely, except for Force Z, which was comprised of HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales and four other destroyers. The two flagships were selected because both were older designs built during World War 1, as the British couldn’t afford to send away any of their newer ships. The flagships were quickly dispatched by the Japanese Navy on 10 December 1941 in the South China Sea, leaving Singapore with no naval support. Lacking this defence, the Allied forces no longer had eyes on the sea, allowing Japan to move about freely without their knowledge.
Lack of communication and organisation between the Allied commanders and their troops was another critical problem during this period. This was mainly due to the diverse nationalities among the soldiers and many of the brigades lacking sufficient training, as soldiers came from India, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. The resulting language and cultural barriers led to an inefficient chain of command, which is the backbone of a functioning Army. The chain of command is essential to any military force, as the hierarchy of commanders allows for smooth organisation and quick decision-making, but when barriers are placed such as language difficulties, the chain can falter, causing confusion and disorder. This became a challenge for Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, as he had to not only organise an untrained, incoherent Army, he also had to defend against a fully trained, battle-hardened and determined Imperial Japanese Army. Most of the Japanese divisions present at the Battle of Singapore had seen battle in China and Malaya, making them experienced in jungle warfare, which the Allies were not.
The Rise of Two Empires
To understand the Fall of Singapore and its context, attention must be paid to the history of the British and Japanese Empires. The British Empire began to take shape during the 17th century, with the colonisation of North America and the smaller islands of the Caribbean. The expansion of the British Empire continued through the 18th and 19th centuries with the colonisation of multiple countries in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Singapore, Malaya and many more. The colloquial phrase, “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, was quite accurate as Britain had colonies all over the world. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Britain formed many companies such as the East India Company to make trade between the colonies of the Crown easier and to increase the British Empire's influence over the sea. Britain was the first global superpower in the world, with the most powerful navy for around 200 years.
Japan’s rise as an Empire was much more rapid than Britain’s as it only took Japan around 32 years to convert from a traditional feudal shogunate to a fully modern society and government. This began in 1853 when American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed four ships into Tokyo Bay to establish trade between Japan and the modern world. The Commodore forced the current government, the Tokugawa Shogunate, to accept trade deals with America and other Western countries. Due to superior technology, the Japanese had no other choice than to accept American supremacy. This caused a great change in Japan, as the people began to realise that if they wished to keep their independence, they would have to adapt. Before 1868, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, who believed very strongly in Japanese tradition and limiting the extent of trade between Western countries and Japan. This also included the ban of Christianity, as the Tokugawas believed they had to preserve Japan's native religion, Shinto. After the landing of Commodore Perry in 1853, there was a very strong push for modernisation and the restoration of Imperial rule, as the Emperor at the time was only a figurehead, controlled by the shogunate. In 1866, the Meiji Restoration was founded by two reformist leaders of the Satsuma Domain and the Chōshū Domain who supported the current Emperor Kōmei (Meiji’s father). When Emperor Kōmei died in 1867, Meiji ascended to the throne and the Meiji Restoration began. By 1872, all Domains ruled by the samurai lords known as the daimyo were returned to the Emperor's control. After this, a new government was formed with leaders who were mostly reformist supporters of Emperor Meiji.
Emperor Meiji, the founder of the Meiji Restoration.
With the restoration of Imperial rule and the shift towards modernism, Japan began to industrialise extremely quickly. Factories were built, modern education systems were put in place, transport systems were built, and Japan built up its own fully westernised army and navy. Along with the industrialisation came the encouragement of national zeal and spiritual belief in the Emperor, which blended with the traditional ideologies of the samurai. One of the most significant ideologies of the samurai was the dishonour involved with surrender, which Japanese soldiers avoided by committing suicide if they were captured. Japan’s complete modernisation was finished by the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912. It was also during this time that ideas of expansionism and colonialism were formed in Japan. In 1894, Japan declared war against China over the control of Korea, which China claimed as a vassal state. Japan’s decisive victory over China worried many Western powers as China was seen to be more advanced than China before the Meiji Restoration. With Russia also having strong ambitions, Japan declared war against Russia in 1904 over parts of Manchuria and Korea. In 1905 Japan was declared the victor and for the first time in history, an Asian power had defeated a Western power.
World War 1 was a defining period for Japan, as it made a large contribution to Japanese militarism and the military gaining large influence over the Japanese government. Japan sided with the Entente powers they took the opportunity to occupy the German-controlled areas of the Pacific. Although it had little effect on the Japanese economy, the growing ambition for Japan to expand was fuelled.
By the time war had ended and the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated, Japan gained a seat next to the Entente powers in the Paris Peace Conference. Despite Japan’s large contribution to the war, the Western powers denied Japan’s bids for a racial equality clause. This angered Japan and caused them to leave the discussions, causing much resentment towards the Western powers and a rise in Japanese nationalism. Like most countries, Japan experienced prosperity after World War 1, but like most other countries, Japan went through a depression after this period of prosperity called the Shōwa Recession. During this period of hardship, the Japanese people began resorting to more extreme political ideologies, the two of which were extreme nationalism and militarism.
Militarism had always been a part of Japanese history, as most of the leaders during the Meiji Restoration were ex-samurai and held strong militarist values. Many of these samurai leaders supported the introduction of conscription and the growth of the Japanese armies and navies. With the rise of nationalism after the 1927 Shōwa Recession, many nationalists believed that the democratic politicians were “un-Japanese,” which led to several coups and the military taking control of the government. It was during this time that Japan realised if they wanted to expand, they would need the resources for it, which included steel, rubber and most importantly, oil.
Since Japan's occupation of Korea in 1910, the tension between Japanese and Chinese troops escalated into the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, where a Japanese soldier was allegedly captured. Japan was infuriated, so the order was given to invade the rest of China. The invasion was swift, and the Chinese were no match against the organisation and superior technology of the Imperial Japanese Army. By December, Japan had captured the Chinese nationalist government capital, Nanking. The occupation of Nanking led to the massacre and brutalisation of civilians, where 300 000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered. This massacre became known as the “Rape of Nanking” and led to Japan being condemned by the UK, but Japan completely ignored this and left the League of Nations, which the UK had founded.
Even though Japan controlled a lot more land, they still couldn’t supply sufficient amounts of oil, rubber and steel to support the growing Japanese war machine. Japan turned its attention towards East Asia, which was abundant in oil, rubber, steel and coal. It was at this time that the idea of the East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere was created, which involved Japan ruling over East Asia to gain the resources that were needed and free Asia from Western influence. The only problem was that the United States controlled the Philippines, multiple small islands and had their large naval base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbour. Due to Japan’s dwindling supplies and the US placing embargoes on oil exports to Japan, they seemed to have no other option but to attack Pearl Harbour.
The Effect on Australia
The Fall of Singapore had a devastating effect on Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom and was the beginning of Australia developing its own identity. The swift advance of the Japanese was very worrying for Australia because for the first time in Australian history, there was the possibility of invasion. Because Australia had moved most of their Army to North Africa and Europe, they had to rely on Britain and Singapore to defend them. Before the Fall of Singapore, most Australians believed that Singapore would be able to withstand Japanese assault and Australians considered themselves as British subjects. When Singapore fell, Australia’s faith in the British Empire went down with it, as Australia had helped the British many times before but when Australia needed them, they didn’t assist as anticipated.
Four days after the Fall of Singapore, the Japanese attacked Darwin harbour with 188 aircraft. The 18 anti-aircraft guns were not able to keep up with the number of planes and were quickly overrun, leaving the town to be decimated. Over the next 10 months, Japan would carry out a further 100 bombings on the northern coast of Australia. The threat of invasion in Australia was quickly becoming a reality, and Australia would not be able to defend itself.
Due to the lack of support from the United Kingdom and the threat of a full-scale invasion, the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin stated in his New Year’s address that
“Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free from any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”
Prime Minister John Curtin – 27 December 1941
This was a significant point in Australian history, as it began a strong military relationship between Australia and the United States that still exists today, and it can be seen as the beginning of Australia creating its own national identity. Australian people no longer called themselves “British subjects”, but took pride in being Australian. After World War 2, Australia embraced Anzac Day as a national holiday. The foundation values were of independence and – at the core – mateship, endurance, courage and perseverance. Although the Anzac tradition has taken time to develop, the men and women who fought in the war were thanked and remembered for their sacrifices.
Even to this day, Australia’s identity is evolving. With refugees arriving from distant war-torn countries and the movement towards multiculturalism, as well as the beginning of the Asian century, Australia is adapting to these changes with new laws, trade agreements, disputes and reforms. We still remember our roots; the soldiers who fought hard on the countless battlefields, fighting for their families and Australia. The memory of those men and women who have fought for Australia, the Anzacs, are a lasting legacy and even though we continue to change, their memory will live on.
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Fall of Singapore, National Museum of Australia,
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John Curtin, Guide to Archives of Australia’s Prime Ministers, David Black and Lesley Wallace, National Archives of Australia,
The Defence of Singapore, History Learning Site,
The Second Sino-Japanese War, Alpha History,
The Meiji Restoration and Modernisation, 2009 Asia for Educators,
Singapore: The Malayan Campaign, 1942, Australian War Memorial London,
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