Categories 1942

British troops final stand begins on Singapore

Thousands of civilians were killed by the relentless Japanese bombing of Singapore.

Once it was known that Japanese troops had succeeded in crossing to the island of Singapore there was the grim realisation that the British were headed towards one of their worst ever defeats. A series of exhortations to put up a stiff resistance were made. From London Winston Churchill cabled to General Sir Archibald Wavell, Allied Supreme Commander:

I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the C.I.G.S. [Chief of Imperial General Staff] that Percival has over 100,000 men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula. . . .

In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they 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.

The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form . With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved.

Wavell, on his final day on the island, then repeated the substance of this message in an Order of the Day to all troops on Singapore:

It is certain that our troops on Singapore Island greatly outnumber any Japanese that have crossed the Straits. We must defeat them. Our whole fighting reputation is at stake and the honour of the British Empire . The Americans have held out in the Bataan Peninsula against far greater odds, the Russians are turning back the picked strength of the Germans, the Chinese with almost complete lack of modern equipment have held the Japanese for 41 years. It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior enemy forces.

There must be no thought of sparing the troops or the civil population and no mercy must be shown to weakness in any shape or form. Commanders and senior officers must lead their troops and if necessary die with them.

There must be no question or thought of surrender . Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy . . . . I look to you and your men to fight to the end to prove that the fighting spirit that won our Empire still exists to enable us to defend it.

Arthur Percival commanded the British forces In Malaya and Singapore. He had earned a distinguished reputation for both bravery and military competence during the First World War. He arrived as Lieutenant General commanding Malaya in the summer of 1941.

The order was sent out with this endorsement by the General Officer Commanding, Arthur Percival:

In some units the troops have not shown the fighting spirit expected of men of the British Empire. … It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters many times inferior in numbers to our men . The spirit of aggression and determination to stick it out must be inculcated in all ranks. There must be no further withdrawals without orders… There are too many fighting men in the back areas. Every available man who is not doing essential work must be used to stop the invader.

The situation was not nearly as favourable to the British as London sought to portray. Japan had complete air superiority and had dominated the seas since the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. On land they had experienced troops and the only tanks in the campaign. A large proportion of British forces were poorly trained Indian troops. Those reinforcements that had arrived in the last few months had had barely time to acclimatise let alone adjust to jungle warfare. It was evident that the British had made mistakes in the defence of Malaya – but it was not a simple case of being ‘out fought’.

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