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Singapore Burning

    Hardback cover of Singapore Burning
  Hardback cover of
Singapore Burning

Cover notes from the hardback edition.

Churchill called it 'the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.' This description of the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, after Lt-General Arthur Percival's surrender led to over 100,000 British, Australian and Indian troops falling into the hands of the Japanese, was no wartime exaggeration. The Japanese had promised that there would be no Dunkirk in Singapore and that was so - no one was spared and its fall led to incarceration, torture and death for thousands of allied men and women. In this extraordinary book, using much new material from British, Australian, Indian and Japanese sources, Colin Smith has woven together the full and terrifying story of the fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Here, alongside cowardice and incompetence, are forgotten acts of enormous heroism; treachery yet heart-rending loyalty; Japanese compassion as well as brutality from the bravest and most capricious enemy the British ever had to face.

Author’s Introduction.

    Paperback cover of Singapore Burning
  Paperbback cover of
Singapore Burning

It took me over three years to research and write this book and the debts of gratitude incurred stretch from Northumbria to Canberra. During that time the veterans of the campaign in Malaya and Singapore inevitably became fewer. Yet an amazing number of 1942’s twenty to twenty-five-year-olds were still around and willing to tell me about the fighting they did before they were ordered to surrender.

And it is the fighting, the largely untold story of the Malayan campaign, that Singapore Burning is about. For almost half a century, the enduring image of Churchill’s “worst disaster” has been surviving the cruel captivity which followed it and was immortalised, for better or for worse, in David Lean’s 1957 film The Bridge over the River Kwai. But while it is true that almost all of the units who defended Malaya lost more men, starved and worked to death, in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps than they did in action, it is quite wrong to think that General Yamashita’s stunning victory was a push over. The casualty figures speak for themselves : 3,506 Japanese killed and 6,150 wounded compared to 7,500 Imperial British fatalities and 10,000 wounded. This was in eight weeks and we live in age when 2,000 American deaths in Iraq over three years are sometimes portrayed as heavy losses.

British pre-war propaganda promoted the fantasy of “Fortress Singapore”. This was no truer than the even stronger post-war legend that it fell because its heavy coastal guns were “facing the wrong way” and stupid British generals had never expected an attack through the “impenetrable jungle” of the Malayan peninsula to the north. Most of the 15-inch guns could be and were turned to face land targets. (Their effectiveness was curtailed by not having the right ammunition for land warfare, naval armoured-piercing instead of high explosive but this did not make a crucial difference.) More important, in pre-war planning and war games an attack from the north had long been assumed. In the 1930’s Percival himself had written a paper on it.

But guessing your enemy’s intentions and having the wherewithal to stop him was another matter. When in 1926 Stanely Baldwin’s government decided to go ahead and build an expensive naval base in Singapore, one dissenting voice was Jan Smuts, the clever South African premier and former Boer guerrilla. Smut, who during World War One had served on the Imperial War Cabinet, argued that, either way, a Singapore base was pointless. The Japanese, already perceived as the only credible threat, would not dare attack unless there was a major war in northern waters and, if this happened, the Royal Navy would be unable to send a credible deterrent anyway.

As Smuts predicted, by December 1941, two years into its second European war of the century, the British were far too stretched to defend Malaya properly. It was all they could do to maintain their presence around the Mediterranean littoral - in May there had been disastrous losses at Crete - keep open its Atlantic route to North America’s grain and guns, and continue to build up its air defences and the home army in case, as looked likely, having crushed the Soviet Union the bulk of the Wehrmacht returned to the Channel coast. Despite all this, and bolstered by Japan’s 1939 humiliation in Manchuria at the hands of the Soviet Union when a border skirmish flared briefly into full scale conflict, the War Office remained supremely confident that they could deter “the little yellow men” from any adventures in South-East Asia. Then on 8 December 1941 Japan called Britain’s bluff.

Hostilities began with a land and sea invasion of northern Malaya and a night air raid on a surprised and fully lit Singapore. Within a week the Japanese were well on their way to establishing overwhelming air and naval superiority. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse, two valuable battleships despatched with considerable fanfare in a last minute attempt to persuade Tokyo of the foolishness of going to war, were sunk by air strikes with the loss of over 800 sailors. Among the dead was Admiral Sir Tom “Thumb” Phillips, their diminutive commander who had never believed it was possible for aircraft to do this to his big ships which had not succeeded in sinking a single invasion barge.

It was now up to Percival’s soldiers and fast diminishing air crew to delay the progress of the Japanese down the Malayan peninsula until reinforcements from India and the United Kingdom could arrive . In northern Malaya there were three battalions of British infantry with a strong core of regulars. But the majority were half trained and often outrageously young Indian recruits, whose British officers were an obvious target for snipers. Further south there were two brigades of Australians, keen but green volunteers who were as unblooded as the Indians and whose morale would prove to be equally mercurial. More troops, including another three battalions of UK British infantry, garrisoned Singapore island itself.

On paper the defenders easily outnumbered the attackers. In practise this was often not the case because Yamashita could afford to concentrate his forces whereas Percival always had to keep back a reserve to contend with the threat of amphibious landings on his flanks. Furthermore, unlike the British, the Japanese had put their A team into the field. Yamashita’s three infantry divisions were among the best Japan had. Two contained a high proportion of veterans of Japan’s long war with China and the third was an Imperial Guards division that was desperate to prove themselves. Contrary to popular belief, none of them were jungle trained there being little jungle in Japan or China. Probably the only people to have acquired any real skills at bush fighting before the shooting started were the old sweats in a battalion of Argylls and some of the Australians. What the Japanese did have, in addition to air supremacy, were some 200 lights tanks which they used to great effect down the splendid roads the colonial power had built. The British had no tanks whatsoever, though they did have some effective anti-tank guns which the Australians twice used with spectacular results. .

In most conflicts front line soldiers know little of the big picture. For Percival's men this was more true than ever. Fear of being outflanked was paramount and orders from division, brigade or battalion headquarters often led to them relinquishing good defensive positions where they had done well, or thought they would have done if only given the chance. This led to an exhausting cycle of retreat and dig in with sleep rationed to a minimum. Sometimes they were permitted to pause and give their tormentors a bloody nose: the mixed Leicesters and East Surreys at Kampar; the devastating ambush the Australians staged at Gemas. But afterwards there was always another perplexing order to withdraw,

Added to all this was the extraordinary change in which the enemy was perceived. Despite warnings from British military attachés who had served in China, before the Japanese invaded they were almost invariably portrayed as myopic and rather comical figures. Not only could they not see well enough to shoot straight but flying modern aircraft with skill and audacity, let alone sinking one of His Majesty’s Ships, was out of the question. Before the Japanese war started, some Australian officers in Malaya expressed their disappointment that, if it came to the crunch, their men would not be meeting more worthy opponents.

Then they encountered an enemy who not only had the tanks and aircraft the British lacked in Malaya but pursued them with terrier like persistence all the way to Singapore. Here the last of the reinforcements, a Territorial Army machine-gun battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers who thought they had come to save the day, lashed their Vickers guns to the handrails of their ship and fought their way into Keppel Harbour shooting down in the process two of the Japanese aircraft which were trying to sink them . When, eight days later, the Northumbrians were ordered to surrender they, like most of the newly arrived 18th Division who were mostly Territorials, could hardly believe it. They had just butchered some Japanese trying to advance across a golf course and thought they were settling in rather well.


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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