Singapore Island, British Malaya February 8, 1942

On this night and the next day in 1942 in British Malaya (today’s Malay­sia) Japa­nese forces surged over and soon pushed the British-led de­fenders back to the edges of the 220-sq-mile island of Singa­pore (the “Gibral­tar of the East”), nearly 600 miles from the ini­tial Japa­nese landing sites. Singa­pore’s air­fields fell—they were diffi­cult to defend against attack—thereby per­mitting the quick resupply of the Japa­nese in­vaders. Issued an air-dropped ulti­ma­tum for the island’s sur­render on Febru­ary 11, Lt. Gen. Arthur Perci­val, land com­mander of Com­mon­wealth forces (Indian, British, Aus­tra­lian, and Malay bri­gades) that were holed up in the southern sector of the island, surrendered his garrison on February 15.

Percival’s 85,000 troops, nearly three times the strength of their attackers and recently rein­forced, were low on ammu­ni­tion and drinking water. Many were tired from their retreat down the Malay Penin­sula, and many were raw and untrained such as the 7,000 men of the 44th Indian Brigade, and most cer­tainly under­equipped. For instance, the British had zero tanks to the Japa­nese two hundred. Perci­val, who had only been in the British colony six months, com­plained later that war mate­rial which might have saved Singa­pore was instead sent to the Soviet Union and the Middle East, places where Great Britain was also heavily engaged.

During the course of the Japanese con­quest of Mala­ya and Singa­pore the invaders took some 130,000 Brit­ish, Austra­lian, and Indian prisoners into a bru­tal capti­vity; some stayed in Singa­pore at the infa­mous Changi Pri­son, but many were trans­ported in so-called “hell ships” to other parts of Asia, including Japan, to be used as slave labor. Some 60,000 Allied POWs were forced into building the infamous Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” between Bang­kok and Ran­goon (Yangon) in sup­port of the Japa­nese cam­paign in Bur­ma (Myan­mar). Over 10,000 never returned. Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Winston Churchill was appalled by Singa­pore’s sur­render, calling it “the worst dis­aster and largest capit­u­la­tion in Brit­ish history.” Earlier, from London Chur­chill demanded that Per­ci­val dismiss any thoughts of sparing troops or popu­la­tion defending Britain’s stra­te­gic South­east Asian out­post. “Com­manders and senior offi­cers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.” (A dis­aster on a sim­i­lar scale was taking place next door in the American Philippines.)

Singapore’s surrender late in the after­noon of Febru­ary 15, 1942, just ten weeks into the Pacific War, per­ma­nently under­mined Britain’s pres­tige as an im­peri­al power in the Far East. It also gave Japan control of the Straits of Malacca—the chief sea route between the British-held Indian sub­con­ti­nent and the min­eral and agri­cul­tural riches of South­east Asia. Perci­val sur­vived his cap­tivity in China and was on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay during the Japa­nese sur­render cere­mo­nies in Septem­ber 1945. He also was wit­ness to the Japa­nese sur­render cere­mo­nies in the recon­quered Philip­pines with none other than Gen. Tomo­yuki Ya­mashita, reversing the role Percival had played nearly four years earlier in Singapore.

Scenes from the Battle of Singapore, February 1942

Tengah Airfield, Singapore, 1941Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival negotiating Singapore’s surrender, February 15, 1942

Left: RAF Bristol Blenheim bombers lined up at Tengah Airfield, Singa­pore, Febru­ary 8, 1941. The major air­field was impos­sible to defend, lying close to Japa­nese artil­lery across the Jahore Straits, the 1,100 yards that sepa­rated the port city from the main­land. What is more, the British had less than half the 600 faster and more deadly planes the Japa­nese had. The enemy quickly domi­nated the skies, demol­ished air­fields, and destroyed the British and Austra­lian air forces. Few British 15‑in artil­lery pieces faced land­ward; the mass of Singa­pore’s defenses were set up to oppose a seaborne invasion that never came.

Right: Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, escorted by a Japa­nese offi­cer through enemy lines, walks beside the Union Flag under a white flag of truce to nego­ti­ate the capit­u­la­tion of Common­wealth forces in Singa­pore, Febru­ary 15, 1942. Photo­graphs of the defeat went around a stunned world. It was the largest and most humil­i­ating sur­render of British-led forces in his­tory and led directly to the im­pri­son­ment, tor­ture, and death for thou­sands of British and Common­wealth men and women, sol­diers and civil­ians alike. For many Singa­poreans, Malays, Chi­nese, and Indi­ans there was a strong feeling that Britain had left them to the mercy of a brutal Japa­nese occu­pa­tion. Across Asia, the defeat was viewed as an Imperial dis­grace. In India, British pres­tige was shattered. Resentment simmered in Australia for decades.

Suffolk Regiment surrendering, Singapore, February 15, 1942Lt. Gens. Tomoyuki Yamashita and Arthur Percival during surrender talks, Singapore, February 15, 1942

Left: Surrendering troops of the Suffolk Regi­ment held at gun­point by Japa­nese infan­try in the battle of Singa­pore. Men from the regi­ment suffered great hard­ship as pri­soners of war and only a few survived their captivity.

Right: Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita (seated, center), the short, heavy-set, pudgy-face com­mander of the Japa­nese Twenty-Fifth Army, pounds the table to empha­size his terms—uncon­di­tional surrender. Percival sits between his officers, clenched hand to mouth, looking weak and puny at the nego­ti­a­ting table. In Decem­ber 1945 an Ameri­can mili­tary tribunal in Manila con­victed Yamashita of war crimes relating to the many Japa­nese atro­cities in the Philip­pines (Yamashita’s last command) and Malaya and Singa­pore (his first) against wounded soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war (tens of thou­sands were slaughtered). The “Tiger of Malaya,” as Yama­shita was known, was ordered hanged in February 1946.

Victorious Japanese infantry march through downtown Singapore, February 1942Massacre of Indian POWs

Left: Elements of the Japanese Twenty-Fifth Army march through Fuller­ton Square in the center of Singa­pore, Febru­ary 1942. The Twenty-Fifth Army served pri­marily as a garri­son force for the occu­pied terri­tories. The Fuller­ton Building at 1 Fuller­ton Square seen here on the left became the head­quarters of the Japa­nese Mili­tary Admin­is­tration in Singa­pore. It was here that Lt. Gen. Yamashita received a check for $50 mil­lion from the Singa­pore and Malay Chi­nese commu­nity as recom­pense for their alleged crimes against the Japanese. Today the building is a Singa­pore national monument and houses the posh Fullerton Hotel.

Right: Japanese soldiers shoot Indian (Sikh) POWs, captured Common­wealth sol­diers who sit blind­folded in a rough semi-circle about 20 yards away. (Indian divi­sions were the back­bone of British forces in Singa­pore.) This photo­graph was one of four found among Japa­nese records when British troops reentered Singa­pore in 1945. Japa­nese sol­diers also sought ven­geance against huge num­bers of Chi­nese civil­ians who had settled in Singapore, executing between 50,000 and 100,000 young Chinese men, most infa­mously in the Sook Ching mas­sacre, which took place between Febru­ary 18 and March 4, 1942, at various places in Singapore and Malaya. Malays were not spared either.

Fall of Singapore, December 1941 to February 1942

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