Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942

By Jason Lancaster

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the army you want.” – U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

Much like Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments on fighting with the army you have, a navy required in crisis cannot be conjured overnight from thin air, good wishes, and steel. An effective navy requires money to build and maintain, time for construction, and foresight to understand the nature of the next naval war. This is a lesson Britain learned the hard way during World War II, and one that all nations with maritime boundaries should head. War weariness and debt from World War I caused defense cuts. Defense cuts reduced the size of the fleet. No longer would Britain maintain a fleet larger than the next two navies in size.

In the wake of World War I, people hoped the League of Nations could peacefully resolve international disputes. The German High Seas Fleet was seized by the Allies and sank at Scapa Flow. War weary British citizens expected defense cuts. In an effort to reduce the strategic risk of naval cuts, nations came together to agree to limitations on fleet size and armaments at the Washington and London Naval Conferences. Faulty strategic assumptions about friends, enemies, and their naval capabilities meant that Britain’s fleet was too small for imperial defense when called upon.

The Japanese attacked Malaya December 8, 1941, and by February 15, 1942 had captured Malaya and Singapore. In just 55 days, Japanese Infantry marched 1,100 Kilometers, established air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), sank a modern battleship and battle cruiser, and captured 85,000 British and Imperial soldiers.1 February 15, 1942 was a black day for the British Empire, the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese after less than a week under siege. Reputed as the Gibraltar of the Far East, Singapore’s defenses rested primarily on propaganda hype. Singapore was not just another catastrophe in a string of early war catastrophes, but a catastrophe caused by failed assumptions in strategic thought, naval procurement, and operational planning.

The Naval Treaties and the Two-Power Standard

The Royal Navy had operated on a two-power standard since the 19th century. The two-power standard meant that Britain would maintain more capital ships than the next two largest navies in the world. Pacifism and anti-war sentiment in the wake of World War I meant the British government was reluctant to spend the money necessary to maintain the two-power standard navy. Moreover, the next two naval powers were Japan and the United States; Japan was an ally until the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, and the Admiralty did not consider the United States a threatening power.

Disarmament was the rule of the day. The London and Washington Naval Treaties limited the sizes of the world’s navies. The Washington Naval Conference set a ten year 5:5:3 ratio for battleships between Britain, the United States, and Japan. Battleship tonnage was limited to 35,000 tons per ship.2 Heavy cruiser tonnage was limited to 10,000 tons; however, there was no limit to the number of heavy cruisers in the Washington Naval Treaty. The London Naval Conference added limits on heavy cruiser numbers. As a pre-condition to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, the United States made Britain choose an ally, the United States or Japan. Great Britain chose the United States, offending Japan and forcing the British to plan for war against Japan. 

With great budgetary finesse and lack of strategic foresight, Great Britain replaced the two-power standard navy with a one-power standard navy. This change caused great debate in the Britain itself as well as in the Colonies. Australian Army Colonel John Lavarack suggested Japan would wait until Britain was occupied elsewhere and that “the dispatch of the British battle fleet to the Far East for the protection of Imperial (and Australian) interests cannot be counted upon with sufficient certainty.”3 Colonel Lavarack’s statements argued for Australian Army budget increases during the inter-war years.

Meanwhile in Britain, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond stated that the odds of Britain having to fight a two-ocean war were, “a hypothetical situation of improbably nature,” and, “I can imagine no worse way of stampeding a government into a waste of money.”4 However, in 1942, he blamed the loss of Singapore on, “the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be defended by a one-hemisphere navy.”5

The Singapore Strategy

Great Britain lacked the finances and political will to retain the number of ships required to defend Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. In order to defend the British Empire’s far eastern colonies, the Admiralty devised the Singapore Strategy. This plan was continually revised until the war broke out. Controversy surrounds what the Singapore Strategy actually called for. In its simplest form, the Singapore Strategy was divided into three phases:

Phase I: Period before relief, the time Singapore and Malaysia would be vulnerable to an attack or siege 

The length of time Singapore was expected to hold out expanded from initially 75 days in the 1920s to 180 days in the late 1930s.

Phase II: Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI)

Singapore’s dockyards and dry dock were built with supporting the fleet when it arrived to defend Singapore. This phase would enable the fleet to repair and resupply before action.

Phase III: Action, Royal Navy’s advance to isolate Japan6

The misperception is that there was only one plan for a purely naval war against Japan. In reality, these phases applied to multiple offensive and defensive plans that evolved as the Royal Navy contracted and slowly expanded.

The offensive plans called for the bulk of the Royal Navy to be forward deployed to the Far East during a crisis. These plans had two key assumptions. Assumption 1: there would be time to deploy the fleet from Europe. Assumption 2: no European crisis would prevent deploying the fleet. Singapore provided all the major basing facilities for the fleet required, including repair facilities, armories, machine shops, fuel depots, and morale infrastructure such as cinemas and mess halls.

The British battleship HMS NELSON off Spithead for Fleet Review, 1937. Anchored in the background are two Queen Elizabeth Class battleships and two cruisers of the London Class.

From Singapore, the fleet could operate from a forward base closer to the combat zone. Many ports were considered as a forward base. Within the empire, Hong Kong and northern Borneo were considered as potential forward bases. In addition to British ports, Britain considered the American port of Manila and French Camrahn Bay as alternate forward bases.

From the forward base, the fleet would force a major fleet action with the Japanese by conducting an island hopping campaign, seizing bases closer and closer to the Japanese home islands. Even an offensive plan placed great emphasis on the British ability to win a drawn out war of attrition with the Japanese. There was an assumption that Britain would win through economic warfare. Without British exports of rubber, tin, manganese, and oil, Japanese industry would lose efficiency and supplies. British diplomacy would also attempt to further isolate Japan by reducing American and Dutch trade.

This offensive plan required European peace. If European war loomed, the fleet would remain in Europe and offensive plans were moot. Debates over offensive and defensive plans and war games were frequent. With rising European tensions, British naval planners looked for ways to defend the Far East without weakening home waters. A guerre de course plan was also developed, and war games led to the development of the 1939 “flying squadron” theory. Admiral Reginald Drax proposed “a flying squadron composed of two fast battleships, two aircraft carriers, four large cruisers, and nine large destroyers” in the Far East to protect British maritime interests. This squadron would “be mobile enough to hunt down Japanese raiding forces of inferior size… and make the Japanese think twice before venturing too far south.” The expectation was to employ this fleet as a maritime commando, striking Japanese sea lines of communication.7

Admiral Drax’s proposal was a variation of the defensive strategy, which included sending four or five capital ships to Singapore to defend British maritime interests, while the bulk of the Royal Navy dealt with the Italian and German threats in Europe. Despite the originality of the Flying Squadron plan, the idea of a British fleet in being was considered too undignified a path for the Royal Navy. Without favor, all traces of the plan were removed from the War Memorandum. Its recommendation for a larger force that included aircraft carriers notwithstanding, many accused the Drax Plan as the seed of destruction for Force Z.

In 1939, Britain found itself in a situation that previously had been thought impossible. Rather than one opponent, Britain now faced three: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Throughout the 1930s, Germany re-armed, whilst Britain remained limited by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

As in World War I, the British expected French support in the Mediterranean. Britain expected that a combined Anglo-French force would rapidly destroy the Italian fleet and enable British reinforcements from Europe to the Far East. France’s rapid collapse eliminated the French fleet and opened French ports to the German fleet. Britain’s assumption of shared responsibility in the Mediterranean had been obliterated.

The Singapore Strategy’s Phase I assumed Singapore would hold out, initially for 75 days, this was raised to 90 days by the early 1930s, and by 1939, it had been increased to 180 days. The gradual increase in time was a reflection of the government in London’s changing priorities from the defense of the empire to the defense of Great Britain.

The offensive Singapore Strategy was similar to the American War Plan Orange, but smaller in scope. The British plan did not set out to achieve as much as the American plan. In 1928, the American plan initially expected 36,000 troops; and for the second year of a war, the United States expected over 400,000 soldiers and marines in the Pacific.8 Britain would have embarked on a similar campaign as the American island hopping campaign, if she would have had the same resources as America. However, British resources in the 1930s were too constrained for such ambition.

From 1919 until 1941, Britain’s “Singapore Strategy” fluctuated in scale as the resources to support the plan shifted. Very aggressive plans in the early 1920s shifted to incredibly defensive in the late 1930s. The plan reflected British defense priorities in a world rife with danger and more threats than resources.

Budget Maneuvers

The British Government and Press spoke of fortress Singapore, and the British public believed them. Eventually, the government believed their own hype. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was intimately involved in the decisions that hobbled Singapore and the Royal Navy. Churchill should have understood the reality: the propagandized and spirited defense was more of a pathetic whimper. As Singapore was coming under the gun, Churchill realized the error, and said:

“I ought to have known, and I ought to have asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”9

In 1925, Admiral Beatty, Winston Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain debated over fleet size and military construction projects at the new Singapore naval base. Admiral Beatty argued, “Britain vis-à-vis Japan in 1925 was worse off than vis-à-vis Germany in 1914 and Japan could deal a naval blow which they were absolutely powerless to prevent.” Admiral Beatty wanted naval facilities and the new dry dock in the Far East rapidly constructed. There were no suitable facilities to support the fleet east of Gibraltar. Chamberlain responded to the Royal Navy’s sense of urgency by declaring, “War in the Far East a remote prospect.” He could not conceive Japan “single-handedly taking on the British Empire, unless Japan was aided by some new European grouping.”10

In his quest for thrift, Churchill eliminated a garrison in Johore, Malaya, across from Singapore Naval Base. Singapore army commanders had stated that an “attack from that direction was unlikely because of terrain.” British officers did not believe an army could advance through Malaya, and that Singapore only needed defenses from the sea. Admiral Beatty argued that 15” Inch artillery pieces would “provide a complete deterrent and make Singapore absolutely safe.”11

When Churchill became Prime Minister, the improbable event that Chamberlain had described in the 1920s was in progress. Winston Churchill had many difficult decisions to make. Britain had to prioritize its own defense over the empire’s defense. Churchill knew that some places would come under the gun. Churchill believed the cost of Singapore naval base military construction meant Singapore should be the Gibraltar of the Far East and capable to withstand a siege of 180 days before relief.

Force Z and the Fall of Singapore

When France fell in 1940, the Singapore Strategy fell with it. Instead of steel hulls and shells, bluffs and the hope of US intervention would defend the Far East . Churchill’s priorities placed the defense of the Far Eastern colonies below the home islands and the Mediterranean.

The Far East was considered a third-string front and received equipment and untrained units accordingly. In Britain, the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire defeated the Luftwaffe over Britain. In Singapore, the majority of fighter squadrons flew the obsolete Bristol Buffalo against the Mitsubishi Zero. The troops and officers sent to reinforce the garrison in Singapore and Malaya were, according to Churchill, “an inferior troop of military and naval men.” Most of the Imperial Troops had been in the army for less than 90 days, and some of the Australians had enlisted only two weeks prior. Several Indian Brigades bound for training in Egypt were diverted en route to Singapore.12

The Singapore Strategy required the fleet. When the crisis came, the fleet was not available. Britain prioritized defending the Atlantic convoy routes, the Mediterranean, and the home islands. Only two capital ships could be spared to defend Singapore. The modern battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and three destroyers were sent to defend Singapore. Churchill requested an aircraft carrier as well, but none were available. This small fleet could not hope to defend Singapore against a concerted Japanese onslaught.

On December 8th, Force Z sailed from Singapore to search for the Japanese amphibious task force. The Royal Air Force was supposed to provide air cover, but poor weather and lack of inter-service coordination prevented air support for Force Z. Without air support, Force Z was vulnerable to Japanese air attack. Japanese aircraft located Force Z around 1015, and shortly thereafter, three successive waves of land-based Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers and Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers attacked Force Z. By 1300, both Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, December 10, 1941: Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. The battlecruiser Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. The battleship Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. The Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

At the War Office in London, the General Staff knew, “it was almost certain, once the Japanese had established themselves in northern Malaya, that Singapore was doomed.” The War Office never imagined an invasion of Malaya as the enemy course of action. With no recognition of a threat, British Malay had no defenses and ill-trained defenders.

Despite this qualitative disadvantage, Churchill said, “If I had known all about it then, as I know about it now, there were no substantial resources which could have been diverted from home defense, the desert, or from Soviet Russia.” After years of study and contemplation, Churchill said of the matter, “If it had been studied with the intensity with which we had examined the European and African operations, these disasters could not have been prevented, but they might at least have been foreseen.”13

The Far East had been determined to be least important of three important theatres of action, and since the situation there was the worst as well as the most remote, they were not going to receive the equipment they needed for the struggle. Britain’s assumptions for the defense of Malaya and Singapore were flawed. Britain had no tanks in Malaya. Britain had not expected Japan to land in Malaya, much less operate tanks in the jungles. Japanese tanks and bicycled mounted infantry achieved spectacular breakthroughs and rapidly advanced through Malaya.

Prime Minister Churchill’s actions are understandable—finite resources must be used economically—however, between 1919 and 1928, Churchill’s budgetary tactics greatly decreased the capacity of the British to withstand a future onslaught in the East. German rearmament began openly and in earnest in 1933. While Germany rearmed, British naval expansion was constrained by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the economic impacts of the Great Depression.

Conclusion

Actions taken decades before the war amongst the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster determined the outcome of the campaign in Malaya. Decades of government policy placed British forces defending the landing beaches of Singora and Kota Bharu at a major disadvantage. Fleet size had been reduced to save money during the inter-war years. In London, the government created plans and strategies but failed to source the ships, planes, and tanks to fight the battle, and the military infrastructure necessary to support the plan.

The maintenance of the two-power standard might not have saved Singapore, but the action might not have been so rapid and one-sided. Colonel Wilfred Kent Hughes, administrative officer of the 8th Division, summed it up nicely in his mock epic poem, Slaves of the Samurai:

…Perhaps a more important sphere

Had claimed priority in men and gear.

The troops on outpost had to pay the price 

Of wasted years of selfish Avarice.14

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

References

[1] Farrell, Brian and Hunter, Sandy (eds.), Sixty Years On, The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2002, pg 220.

[2] Bell, Christopher M, The Royal Navy, Sea Power and Strategy Between the Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pg 13.

[3] Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter, Sixty Years On, pg 32.

[4] Ibid, pg. 33.

[5] Bell, Christopher M, “How are we going to make war plans: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and Easter Warn Plans,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 1997.

[6] Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Sea power and Strategy Between the Wars, pg 67.

[7] Ibid, pp 86-76.

[8] Ibid, pp 96-97.

[9] Churchill, Winston S, The Second World War volume IV, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Mariner Books, 1985, pg 43.

[10] McIntyre, W. David, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979, pg 46-48.

[11] Ibid, pg 76.

[12] Swinson, Arthur, Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. pp 84-85.

[13] Farrell and Hunter, pp 160-62.

[14] Ibid, pg 293.

Featured image: LTG Percival and his Staff surrendering (Credit: https://www.historicwartours.com.au/blog/lt-gen-arthur-percival)

One thought on “Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942”

  1. A really great new account of this campaign can be found in Richard Frank’s Tower of Skulls (first volume of his trilogy on the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-1945). His comments about what happened with air power are fascinating, also his discussions of Matador (the plan to preemptively seize Singora and the Kra isthmus), and finally British mirror-imaging in their planning. Best, John T. Kuehn, USA Command and General Staff College.

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