Christmas is Cancelled Until Further Notice

A museum painting of the Singapore surrender parlay.

A painting of the Singapore surrender parlay on Feb 14, 1942 . It's located in the Old Ford Factory Museum where the meeting was actually held and is a very accurate depiction of the events that day.

It's 0400 on December 8, 1941 and the lights have been on all night in Tokyo. After a decade of target practice on the Asian continent, the Rising Sun war machine is in high gear.  Four thousand miles to the east, on the other side of the International Date Line, the Pearl Harbor raiders are recovering  on board their carriers. By sunset on that glorious day in Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Guam and the Aleutian Islands will be under attack. But Lt. Katsusaku Takahashi doesn't care about any of that right now.  He has his own mission to worry about.  His flight of 17 twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers left Saigon three hours earlier, dead reckoning over 700 miles of water at night to the Malayan peninsula.  Their target is Singapore.**Historical footnote: The Betty bomber had speed and long range but to get them, the design had no armor for the crew or the fuel tanks. American fighter pilots called it the "flying Zippo lighter" because of its tendency to turn into a fireball after a couple of well placed hits.**

Takahashi's aircraft home in on radio beacons from the Japanese invasion fleet that is already landing on the east coast of Thailand and Malaya. Position confirmed, they turn left and head south down the spine of the 300 mile peninsula. Singapore is at the very end of it.  Takahashi is grim.  Way out of fighter range, they are flying unescorted.  Their primary targets are the military airfields at Tengah and Seletar, home to British Hurricane fighters. This won't be like bombing the unsuspecting Americans. The British have been at war for over two years and have turned Singapore into a fortress rivaling Malta and Gibraltar. It bristles with anti-aircraft guns and the Hurricanes will make sushi out of the Bettys. The crews brace for the worst.

As it turns out, they had nothing to worry about. Singapore and its British overseers traditionally celebrated the holidays in grand style and tonight is no exception. When the attackers approach the target area, they find it lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree.  Despite the fact that most of the Pacific basin is under attack and authorities have known about the landings up north for hours, the island city-state is defenseless.  With the exception of a few bored radar operators, nobody knows the Japanese are overhead until the first bombs explode at 0415 local time. The Bettys complete their mission without casualties although they completely miss the airfields. Most of the damage is in Chinatown. 

Downtown Singapore before the war.

Downtown Singapore before the war. Here in the crown jewel of the British Empire, expatriate life was good with all the comforts of home.  Pomp and circumstance, debutante balls, polo, cricket and keeping cool in the tropical heat were priorities - not the war.

War had been raging in Europe for over two years and in Asia for almost ten, but for the residents of Singapore, it might as well have been on another planet.   Dunkirk, U-boats, the hunt for the Bismark and the Battle of Britain  were just items on the BBC.   Even after the bombs fell on December 8, there was no special sense of urgency.  Everyone from Winston Churchill on down was convinced that Singapore was impregnable and that the Japanese wouldn't dare attack it.  Compounding that attitude was a general disdain for the enemy.  When informed of the amphibious landings in Malaya, Governor Sir Shenton Thomas remarked to his army commander, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, "I suppose you will shove the little men off." 

The residents of Singapore had good reason to believe their Asian outpost was impregnable.  After World War I, British planners concluded that the main threat to their Pacific  interests was a resurgent Japanese military attacking from the sea.  To the north lay a 200 mile wall of impenetrable jungle on the Malayan Peninsula and the dark swirling waters of the Straits of Johore served as a moat, giving Singapore all the protection it needed from that direction. Based on that, the British went to work fortifying the city against an amphibious assault from the south.  Twelve massive fixed fortifications were built housing a mix of 15 , 9 and 6 inch guns plus smaller supporting weapons.  The anchor of these defenses was Fort Siloso.  Built of the far western end of Sentosa Island, it guarded the approaches to the inner harbor. Fortress Singapore became practically one word.  Contrary to common belief, these guns had a 360 degree range fan and would later be re-oriented to the north. However, they had little overhead protection from air attack and almost all their ammunition was naval armor piercing rounds for use against ships.  It had limited use against soft targets.

In support of this strategy, the British built a huge naval base, with a million gallon oil reserve, at Sembawang on the northeast coast of Singapore.  Against an attack from the sea, they would have been protected from direct fire and observation.  Unfortunately when they were built, nobody had figured on the possibility of large scale air attacks or a land attack from Malaya.  These crucial facilities were only 1,000 yards from the Malayan coastline, which doomed them in the coming battle.

So the basic defensive plan with all this was to retreat into Fortress Singapore and wait for the Royal Navy. If they had been attacked from the sea ten years earlier, it probably would have worked. The Japanese had other ideas.

15 inch gun elevated into firing position.

The Japanese spent years gathering information on all aspects of Singapore. Priority targets were the huge fortifications built by the British. There were 12 in all, making Singapore one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world. This picture shows a huge 15 inch gun elevated into firing position.

The Japanese Do Their Homework

If the residents of Singapore were surprised that the war had landed on their doorstep, the Japanese were not.  There was never any question among Japan's military planners that the Malayan peninsula was crucial to their war effort. Malaya was the world's largest producer of rubber and a major supplier of tin.  Singapore, an island city-state that formed the very tip of the Malaysian peninsula had one of the world's great natural harbors, modern airfields and shipyards that could build or fix anything.  Air and naval units stationed there could control the sea lanes of the southwest Pacific, particularly the ones to Australia.

The Japanese began gathering intelligence about Singapore in the 1930's and by the end of the decade, Japanese "tourists", "students" and "businessmen" had thoroughly infiltrated Singapore society.  In his book Singapore Through Sunshine and Shadow, author/resident John Bertram von Cuylenburg recounts how on a flight into Singapore in 1938, he watched six Japanese "students" get out binoculars and sketchbooks as they flew over the city.

Japanese nationals dominated two main service industries in pre-war Singapore.  One was photography.  Japanese photographers were the best in town and were in demand for all political and social events.  In addition to providing fodder for the social pages, it enabled them to provide complete dossiers on all prominent citizens and leaders to the Kempeitai, the Japanese Gestapo.  Additionally, their photographs were invaluable for mapping and targeting.

The other industry was brothels. It was commonplace - almost expected in fact - that European men would have mistresses and the Japanese were happy to oblige. Again, they were the best in town and one can only imagine the information that floated across the pillows at night.

In fact, the Japanese could be found anywhere there was information or idle gossip being bandied about.  They were pharmacists, bartenders, cab drivers, barbers - even taxidermists.  One individual named Tsugonori Kadomatsu worked as a waiter at the Officer's Club for six years. After the surrender, he re-appeared in the uniform of a Colonel in army intelligence.

Japanese fishermen were major suppliers of fish to Singapore. They worked the docks for information and took photos of the harbor facilities. They also took soundings, measured tides and mapped the entire coastline.

The Japanese were also busy on the Malay peninsula.  Allied maps of the region showed only main highways and railroads, all of which had been built by the British to support the rubber and tin industries.  The rest of Malaya was colored in as "impenetrable jungle".  The British never seriously considered the possibility of a land attack from the north until the Japanese had done it.

On the other hand, Japanese military leaders became convinced early on that the only way to take Singapore was by an overland attack.    During the 1930's, Japanese intelligence personnel posing as miners, scientists and engineers mapped every goat trail and cart path in Malaya while cataloging all the information they could gather from the natives.  These detailed maps were a key in the rout inflicted upon the overconfident defenders.  Plans proceeded accordingly, with a 100 day timetable from initial landings to occupation. The Battle of Singapore was on.

The Japanese Attack

A battle map of the Malaya campaign.

This map is a visual guide to the major battles of the Malaya campaign. It shows places and dates referenced in the text. ClickThis map is a visual guide to the major battles of the Malaya campaign. Click this link for a larger map. It will open in a new window.

The leader of the Japanese invasion force was Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, an experienced field commander soon to be known as the "Tiger of Malaya". His XXV Army was a genuine combined arms force with abundant quantities of armor, artillery and aircraft along with 60,000 troops in three divisions - the 5th, the 18th and the Imperial Guards.  Unbeknownst to him, he was facing 120,000 defenders. Japanese intelligence had put the number at less than half that.  Even so, the XXV Army had the edge in every other category - weapons, aircraft, ordnance, transportation, mobility, training and extensive combat experience from their battles in China.

Amphibious assaults commenced at 0330 on December 8 in heavy seas and monsoon rains. Landings at Singora (called Songkhla on the map) and Pattani in southern Thailand were unopposed.  Yamashita went ashore with the first wave at Singora. **Historical footnote: Yamashita's invasion force assembled on Hainan Island off the coast of Viet Nam, then part of French Indo-China. His land based aircraft were initially stationed in Saigon. The Japanese coordinated through Nazi Germany and the French Vichy government to clear the way for their use. Yamashita had served as the Japanese attaché to Berlin before the war. That no doubt helped.**

The landing at Kota Bharu on the northeast coast of Malaya was opposed briefly but fiercely by the British-led 8th Indian Brigade.  As with many of the Indian and Malay units which made up half the Allied forces, it consisted of poorly trained recruits, most of whom didn't speak English. Despite that, they inflicted heavy casualties on the initial assault waves. But they were no match for the thousands of screaming China veterans swarming all over them and they were soon running for their lives. It was a scene that would be repeated over and over again in the coming weeks - Allied units making a brief stand, then having to run for it or face annihilation.

When the sun came up on the 8th, Yamashita's army was firmly established ashore.  The Betty bombers which had been flying out of Saigon were already headed for the newly captured bases in north Malaya, bringing their fighter cover with them.  This would cut their mission distances by 2/3 and greatly increase the number of missions.  For the entire campaign, Japanese aircraft ruled the skies unopposed.  The Allies left behind large stocks of fuel, ordnance and aircraft.  All of this was pressed into service by the Japanese, including a number of obsolete Brewster Buffaloes, which soon had rising suns painted on them.  By mid-day, the XXV Army was headed south. **Historical footnote: The Japanese Malaya-Singapore campaign was an all Army show. All aircraft were land-based. There were no carriers or naval aviation in theater.**

The Japanese Type-95 Ha-Go light tank.

The Japanese attack was spearheaded by 200 tanks, most of them the Type-95 Ha-Go light tank. Designed primarily as an infantry support platform, it weighed seven tons, had a top speed of ~30 mph, a range of ~150 miles and a crew of three. It mounted a short barreled 37mm cannon with a range of 500 yards and 2 x 7.7 mm (.303 caliber) machine guns.  Lightly armored with a short range main gun, It was no good for fighting other tanks, which wasn't a problem since the Allies had none. However, Australian crews with their two-pounder anti-tank guns destroyed dozens of the Ha-Go's.

The XXV army's blitzkrieg-style attack was fast and well executed.  Conventional wisdom was that tanks were no good in the jungle, but somebody forgot to tell the Japanese. They brought 200 of them, mostly Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks and were quite resourceful in their employment.   With their detailed maps of the region, Ha-Go's had a nasty habit of showing up at times and places they weren't expected and they wreaked havoc among the unprepared defenders. With their armor bearing down the main roads, the Japanese used amphibious hooks and bicycles on jungle trails to get around and behind the retreating Allies at will. Other soldiers infiltrated the lines at night and climbed trees into shooting positions.  Snipers were everywhere. Japanese bombers and fighters were always overhead, with no sign of the RAF. Allied units often found themselves fighting out of encirclements and taking fire from every direction. 

From Bad to Worse

As Yamashita consolidated his positions on December 8th and prepared to attack south, another equally calamitous and much more immediate event began to unfold for the British. On that same day, Task Force Z, under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips, sortied out of Sembawang Naval Base.  It consisted of the HMS Prince of Wales, the HMS Repulse and four destroyers. Their mission was to find and destroy the Japanese invasion fleet. Comprising 28 troop carriers and two aging battleships, it was turning circles somewhere off the coast of Malaya.  The mission to blast enemy ships out of the water was a dream come true for a battleship skipper and promised to be easy pickings for the Royal Navy.

The fleet had arrived on December 2, sent by Winston Churchill in response to Japanese provocations in the region. The HMS Prince of Wales was the pride of the British Navy, its newest, fastest and most heavily armed warship. Packing 10 x 14 inch guns, she could also fill the sky with flak and put up thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft fire per minute. She entered service in May 1941 and had her baptism of fire one week later when she traded salvos with the Bismark.  During that running fight, she absorbed four hits from German 15 inch rounds - including a direct hit on the bridge - and kept fighting. A personal favorite of Churchill's, she was considered unsinkable. Somebody forgot to tell the Japanese.

The HMS Repulse was a WW1-era heavy cruiser that was completely re-fitted just before the war.  A veteran of Atlantic surface actions in both wars, she was still a capable fighter.

An artist's conception of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales

An unknown Japanese artist's rendering of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales. A Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" bomber is dropping a Type-91 aerial torpedo. Japanese torpedoes were the best in the world and exceptionally lethal. The Type 91 was fast, accurate and packed a 500 pound warhead. The first torpedo hit on the ship was back by the propellers and would have been fatal all by itself. It tore out the port side propeller shaft from its sealed passage into the hull, creating a breach that couldn't be stopped. The ship lost speed and power and developed an immediate list to aft and port. The Japanese continued to pour it on until it disappeared beneath the waves of the South China Sea.

Their timely arrival on the 2nd was a coincidence, but considerably lessened the impact of events on the 8th. British leaders were confident that the task force would deter the Japanese from attacking or make short work of them if they did.

The Japanese knew the moment the ships weighed anchor.  Soon, every air and naval unit in the region was hunting for them. The invasion fleet was withdrawn to Indo-China. The British task force was oblivious to these developments, had no hard intelligence and no air cover. Additionally, all their new electronics, radars and fire control systems started failing in the salty humid air of the tropics as soon as they arrived. None of it had been fixed. They were sailing deaf, dumb and blind. Still, Task Force Z kept searching.  Finally on December 10, they ran into the Japanese but not the ones they were looking for.

Scout planes and a submarine found the task force early in the morning on the 10th about 50 miles out from the Malayan port city of Kuantan.  While they tracked the British ships, every aircraft between Malaya and Saigon scrambled and went after them. The air attacks began around 1100.  Over 90 aircraft took part.  There wasn't enough time or fuel to coordinate strikes so groups attacked on arrival as soon as they found the targets.  The Repulse and the Prince of Wales both took multiple hits from torpedoes and bombs.  The Repulse sank at 1230. The Prince of Wales went a little after 1300. Admiral Phillips and almost 1,000 crew members went with them.  The destroyers were untouched and rescued hundreds out of the water despite the threat of lurking submarines and more air attacks.   The Japanese lost three aircraft and their crews.

This was the first time in military history that major surface combatants were sunk in the open ocean by hostile aircraft alone.  It was a harbinger of what lay ahead. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway were just around the corner and they would change naval warfare forever.  From now on, carriers and their aircraft would take the fight to the enemy with the ships 100 miles apart or more. There would still be surface battles in the years to come, but the heyday of the battleship was over.  

The sinking of two of England's finest warships sent shock waves all the way to London. Churchill later wrote in his memoirs, "...in all the war, I never received a more direct shock."   The losses left the Allies with no capital warships west of Hawaii.  The western Pacific was now a Japanese lake.  Singapore's air and naval forces had been wiped out in two days. Still, things could be worse and they soon would be.

The Allied Retreat

The retreat out of Malaya was brutal.  In the early days, the Allies had little to stop the tanks.  A motley mix of hasty roadblocks, mines and Molotov cocktails supplemented a few Boys .55 Caliber Anti-tank Rifles. They got a few but the tanks kept coming. The Indian, Gurhka and Malay units bore the brunt of this infantry versus tank combat.  They fought hard, often encircled and sometimes to the last man.  Thousands were killed and captured.  At the Battle of Slim River on January 6, two entire Indian brigades were annihilated by an armored night attack which they had no hope of stopping. Their sacrifices traded space for time and allowed reinforcements to rush up from Singapore.  These reinforcements included several thousand Australians and it was the Aussies with their anti-tank guns who would at last start getting some paybacks.

On January 14, Yamashita's juggernaut suffered its first setback of the campaign 140 miles north of Singapore at the Gemencheh Bridge.  Here, the 2/30 Battalion of the Australian 8th Division set up a company-sized ambush at the south end of the bridge with the rest of the battalion in a blocking position further down the road  When the Japanese column marched through the kill zone, the Aussies blew the bridge, isolating Japanese elements.

An Australian 2 pounder anti tank gun in action.

An Australian gun crew and their 2 pounder anti-tank gun engage Ha-Go tanks at point blank range. The lead tank is clearly visible in the top center. Note the smoke coming out of the turret.  That is not a good sign for the tank.  In this particular fight, the Aussies took on three tanks and destroyed them all. You can also see the trees dropped across the road to slow them down in the kill zone.  Taking on tanks frontally is a dicey proposition but with narrow routes and close ranges, you don't have much choice.  The light armor of the Ha-Go made it extremely vulnerable.  Another  vulnerability was slow target acquisition and engagement because the tank commander was also the loader/gunner on the 37mm. If these had been German Tigers, the outcome would have been different.

The ferocious 20 minute ambush was followed by a two day running fight south to the town of Gemas. For the first time, the Japanese had to be careful with their tanks because Australian anti-tank guns and crews proved deadly to the lightly armored Ha-Go's. By the time contact was broken off,  the Japanese suffered 1,000 casualties with a company of tanks destroyed at a cost of 81 Australian casualties. They retreated south to fight another day and offered a glimmer of hope that Singapore could be saved. The glimmer was short lived.  The Japanese repaired the bridge in six hours and were on the move again.

The Aussie success at the Gemencheh Bridge was actually the opening salvo of a continuous eight day battle called the Battle of Muar.  History records it as the biggest, last and most violent action of the Malayan-Singapore Campaign.  At the same time the Aussies were fighting and winning in Gemas, a second Japanese attack column moved down the west coast road to the port city of Muar, which is bisected east-west by the mouth of the Muar River. Their plan was to cross the river in force then move south and east  to meet up with the main column and cut off lines of retreat into Singapore. Here they met stiff resistance from Australian and Indian troops dug in along the south bank with artillery. Initial attempts to force a crossing right into the port were repelled by artillery fire.  Even the RAF showed up and attacked with several lumbering Brewster Buffaloes. 

That success didn't last.  The Japanese did night amphibious landings behind the defenders, who found themselves surrounded and fighting out of an encirclement - the most difficult and dangerous maneuver in ground warfare. They succeeded but at a heavy cost.  The remaining troops were gathered into an ad hoc unit by an Aussie battalion commander - Lt. Col. Charles Anderson.  His Muar Force did a non-stop four day fighting withdrawal trying to get to the main line of retreat and link up with friendly forces.  They headed for what they believed would be a good possibility, the Parit Sulong Bridge 20 miles away astride the main highway and 80 miles north of Singapore. By the time they got there, it was occupied in force by the Japanese.  The rest of the Allied forces had already retreated past this point, aided by the time bought with the force's fighting withdrawal. The Battle of Muar resulted in over 3,000 Allied casualties, but it could have been much worse.  Lt. Col. Anderson received the Victoria Cross for his actions.

A Ha-Go tank destroyed by an Aussie anti-tank gun.

A close up view of one of the aforementioned three dead tanks.  This is the second in the column. The crew was killed by gunfire after escaping from the vehicle. The Aussie guns and their crews were deadly but there simply weren't enough of them.

Out of options, Anderson dispersed his remaining troops.  It was every man for himself to reach friendly lines or the city itself.  They left behind 135 wounded and several medics who volunteered to stay with them. When the Japanese found them, they beat them with punches, kicks, clubs and rifle butts and used them for bayonet practice.  Then they poured gasoline on them and set them on fire.  As if that wasn't enough, they ran over them repeatedly with tanks and trucks to eliminate the evidence. Miraculously, two beaten, gasoline soaked Australian troops survived by crawling away and hiding.  After the war they testified at the war crimes trial of the Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Takuma Nishamura, who was convicted and hanged for his part in the Parit Sulong Massacre.

At this point, resistance crumbled and everybody headed for the only dry way into Singapore - the Johore Causeway across the straits. The last Allied units crossed the Johore Bridge into Singapore on January 31.  Expecting to be pursued, shelled and strafed every step of the way, they crossed the 1100 yard span in broad daylight unopposed. At 1700, a 70 foot gap was blown in the center of the causeway, stranding hundreds, if not thousands of troops in Malaya, their fates unknown. With it went the city's water supply, which was piped in from Johore.  All remaining fresh water was in three reservoirs at the center of the island and the Japanese would soon own those too.**Historical footnote: One wonders why Yamashita didn't interdict the bridge much earlier, why he didn't cut off the water and why he let the Allies cross the bridge unimpeded. It was all very uncharacteristic. Only he knows for sure.**

The XXV Army had moved 400 miles in 55 days against tough resistance.  Even though the Japanese had all the advantages, the Allied soldiers had made a fight of it.  Penang fell on December 16. Malaya's capital city Kuala Lumpur surrendered on January 11. On January 31, 1942, just nine days after the Battle of Muar, Yamashita was standing on the north bank of the Straits of Johore with only 1,000 yards of dirty seawater between his army and their final objective.

Ready or Not, Here We Come

Getting ready to blow up a bridge in Malaya.

British engineers prepare a bridge for demolition. The Allies destroyed over 100 bridges during the retreat from Malaya. It hardly slowed down the Japanese. Blowing up bridges is not the fight stopper that most people think it is, especially if you just drop a span and leave the abutments in place. A well constructed bridge is hard to destroy completely and well-trained armies cross gaps very quickly.  Like any other obstacle, a blown bridge that isn't covered by fire is little more than a nuisance.

When the defenders of Malaya entered their island bastion, they found almost everything  destroyed by the daily air raids. These were soon supplemented by artillery until steel was raining down on Singapore 24 hours a day.  As the harried survivors took up new defensive positions on the north coast, they were stunned to find that no defenses had been built.  Not even a single strand of tactical wire was in place.

Their concern was shared by Brigadier General Ivan Simson, Percival's chief engineer. He recognized in mid-December that the unthinkable was about to happen and developed a plan for a formidable defensive belt on the north coast and further inland.  With six weeks, 6,000 Royal Engineers and a million laborers from the population, he could have accomplished a lot - quite possibly enough to hold off the Japanese until they were spent. Percival rejected it and all other plans.  Now, with the Japanese at their doorstep, Simson begged Percival to let him do something.  So far, Yamashita had spared the oil reserve at Sembawang, hoping to capture it intact.  Simson wanted to use it to set the straits on fire. Percival refused.  After the war, Simson related that in one of their last meetings, Percival told him that building defenses was "...bad for morale".  Simson replied, "It won't help morale to have the Japanese running all over the island".  Following orders, Simson did nothing and spent the next 3½ years in a prison camp.

Meanwhile, the Japanese had problems too, but weak-kneed leadership wasn't one of them.  The XXV Army was close to burnout. They were down to 20,000 effective troops and short of ammunition.  Most of their casualties were from disease, accidents and exhaustion.  Yamashita's staff implored him to wait for reinforcements and resupply but the Tiger of Malaya smelled blood. His greatest fear was that the defenders would fortify the city and make him take it one inch at a time, which he didn't have the combat power to do. He ordered a non-stop attack of maximum violence as soon as possible, betting Singapore would capitulate before he ran out of steam.  Everything and everybody were thrown into it.  He estimated they could sustain four days of all-out effort.**Historical footnote: Yamashita was originally authorized five divisions for his campaign. Based on the faulty intelligence he was working with, he decided to take only three. At this point in the battle, he was probably regretting that decision.**

The palace of the Sultan of Johore.

The minarets at the palace of the Sultan of Johore, which was built in 1866. From these towers, Japanese artillery spotters rained steel on Singapore. Although the palace was well within the range of British guns, it was never fired upon. Malaya was (and is) a predominantly Muslim country. The British didn't want to offend the Sultan and their Muslim friends (sound familiar?), who they would need to pick up the pieces after the war. The Japanese didn't shoot it up either. They couldn't fight the British and jihad at the same time.

The first days of February 1942 were used by both sides for reconnaissance and preparation.  The palace of the Sultan of Johore, which overlooks the straits, became Yamashita's headquarters with artillery spotters in the minarets.  With eyes on their targets, Japanese artillery was deadly accurate. Moving around the island during the day was extremely hazardous.  Almost everything had to be done during darkness under blackout conditions, further hampering the defenders.

The Japanese brought landing craft overland and assembled them several miles up the Skudai River, which is directly across the straits and the closest amphibious attack route to Singapore.  They hoped to hide them from the Australian recce teams that swam the shark-infested straits every night.   The Aussies found them anyway and reported them, along with information on troops and equipment.  This was great, near-real-time intelligence which screamed for artillery or some sort of offensive action. Once again, Percival did nothing and sealed the fate of Singapore. Things went downhill from there.

The Battle of Singapore

On February 4, Japanese prep fires began and continued for four days.  The Sembawang oil reserve was a priority target with Yamashita no longer interested in trying to capture it. The burning petrol encased the entire area in thick, black smoke.

By February 8, the shelling was concentrated on a small section of coastline directly opposite the Skudai River in Malaya.  This section of the coast was manned by two understrength Australian battalions who divided the area in half - 2/18 on the left and 2/20 on the right.  With the center of their line at Sarimbun Beach, they were defending a frontage of 14,000 yards, much of it tidal mud and mangrove swamps. They had only their personal weapons along with two machine gun platoons. Percival was convinced that Yamashita would attack the Sembawang Naval Base area and concentrated most of his forces there.  He left himself no reserves and few options if the attack came at an unexpected time and place, which is exactly what happened.

Prep fires increased in intensity and focus all day on the 8th.  By early evening, the barrage was so intense that individual explosions couldn't be distinguished.  Then at 2230, the shelling stopped. In the suddenly quiet blackness, the dazed defenders heard boat motors before they saw them. The promised searchlights were never turned on and wire communications to the artillery had disintegrated during the bombardment.**Historical footnote: The timing of the assault was no accident. There was a waning half moon that night with 52% lumination. Moonrise was around 2300. So the initial attack was in pitch blackness but after 2300, there was enough light for the Japanese to reinforce and consolidate.**

The first boats materialized out of the darkness and the Aussies opened up with everything they had.  Red machine gun tracers criss-crossed perfect kill zones just inches off the flat water, ripping into boats and men. The straits now lit up by burning boats and muzzle blasts, the scope of the attack became apparent.  As far as the eye could see, there were boatloads of assault troops headed right for 2/20.  This was the main effort.  Yamashita sent 5,000 men to punch a hole in the coastline and establish a foothold.

Allied artillery finally figured out something was going on and began firing blindly.  The rounds hit friendly positions.  The defenders were soon overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  Some managed to evade inland.  Others died in ferocious last stands in knee deep mud.  By 0100, Yamashita had his beachhead. Twelve unimpeded hours later, he had 10,000 troops with tanks ashore and began to move toward the city. 

A map showing the battles on the island of Singapore.

This map is a visual guide to the major battles on the island of Singapore. It shows places and dates referenced in the text. Click this link for a larger version of this map. Here's another map that's in color. Both will open in new windows.

Yamashita launched a three pronged attack.  The Imperial Guards Division went east towards Sembawang naval base. They would continue to circle the east coast of the island, converging on the city from the northeast.

The 18th Division went west.  This was his main effort.  While sweeping through the present-day Jurong area, they encountered the 1st Malayan Regiment dug in on a ridge line waiting for them. The Malays held them up for two days but were wiped out to almost the last man doing it. While pursuing the few surviving Malay troops, the Japanese swept into Alexandra Military Hospital.  There they killed over 600 patients and staff with bayonets and swords, including a British Corporal who was lying anesthetized on the operating table.  When the commanding general of the 18th heard about it, he personally visited the hospital to apologize and assure the survivors of their safety. Then he rounded up the officers and NCO's who had led the massacre and executed them.

The 5th Division attacked the center of the island towards Bukit Timah, the highest ground in Singapore at almost 600 feet above sea level. This high ground held the freshwater reservoirs and controlled access to all parts of the island.  It could have been a strong defensive position.  Instead, it became a gathering point for retreating soldiers trying to throw something together. They never got the chance.  An infantry night attack supported by 40 tanks on February 10 caught the defenders completely off guard and sent them fleeing. Yamashita immediately moved his headquarters to the nearby Ford factory. **Historical footnote: The Ford factory in Singapore manufactured cars for sale in the Asian market. It was built in 1941 and never attained full production status.  After the surrender, the Japanese repaired and re-tooled it to manufacture military vehicles for their army. The company brought in to do that was Nissan. The plant closed in 1980 and is now a museum. It is a must see for us battle  fanatics.**

The next day, Yamashita sent a surrender demand to General Percival, who ignored it.  Taking it as a personal affront, the Japanese stepped up the pressure, throwing their four day maximum effort plan out the window.  Yamashita was going for it no matter what the cost. 

A car is pushed off the pier in Singapore.

A car is pushed off the pier just before the surrender. Anything and everything went into the water to deny use to the Japanese and to foul the anchorages for enemy ships trying to dock.

Everyday, the Japanese seemed to have more guns and planes along with a limitless supply of ammo. The ferocity of the fire reached a crescendo on Friday the 13th, called "Black Friday" by the survivors. Percival received a second surrender demand that day but was obliged to fight on.  Winston Churchill himself had ordered a scorched earth, to-the-last-man defense.

By February 14, Singapore was a dying city. The crown jewel of the empire was now a scene right out of the Apocalypse.  A thick pall of oil smoke and dust turned day into night. Fires raged out of control with no way to fight them. Rubble, wrecked vehicles and bodies clogged the streets. Looters ran amok. Medical facilities were hopelessly overwhelmed. During the worst on Black Friday, bombs and artillery shells crashed into the rapidly collapsing perimeter at the rate of one per second. Reduced to a six mile wide semi-circular perimeter on the southern shore, 100,000 defenders and a million non-combatants looked desperately for a way out. There weren't any. 

Churchill finally rescinded his scorched earth order on the 14th and Percival immediately arranged a parlay with the Japanese. Yamashita demanded that Percival attend, which he had not intended to do, preferring to send a delegation to lay the groundwork for an honorable surrender. The British prepared for the inevitable.  Military stores and documents were destroyed.  Vehicles and debris were dumped pierside to foul the anchorages. The big guns at Siloso Point, which had been turned around 180 degrees to bombard the invaders, had one last mission. They turned back around to their original direction and shelled the huge Standard Oil refinery at Palau Bukum in the outer harbor, which the Japanese hoped to capture intact. Once the refinery was in flames, the crews spiked the guns to prevent their use by the enemy. After all that, there was nothing to do but wait. **Historical footnote: "Spiking guns" comes from the days when muzzle loading cannon had a touch hole to set off the powder. Driving a spike into the touch hole made it impossible to fire the gun. In modern breech loading weapons, spiking the gun means removing the breechblock (the part you open and close) and getting rid of it. The crews at Siloso probably threw them in the ocean.**

Surrender and Occupation

General Percival and his staff walk to the surrender meeting.

February 14, 1942 around 1700. This is probably one of the most iconic photos of WW2. Lt. Gen. Percival, on the right, walks with his staff and a Japanese escort to meet General Yamashita at the Ford factory and surrender Singapore.

At 1715 on Sunday, February 15, 1942, the two opposing commanders sat down across the table from each other in the boardroom of the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah. Staff members from both sides looked on. Several of the Japanese spoke broken English and Percival had a Captain who spoke passable Japanese. Despite language problems, Yamashita, who was built like a bull, had no problem getting his point across. Now the reason he wanted Percival there became apparent.

Percival's interpreter began to read a list of term but was waved off by Yamashita. There would be no terms.  He demanded unconditional surrender right then and there. Percival was stunned and asked to consult with his staff. Pounding the table and rising out of his chair, Yamashita refused and demanded Percival's signature on the surrender document. Thoroughly intimidated and out of options, Percival signed it.  It was - and still is - the largest military defeat in British history. Japan's 100 day campaign had taken just 70.  Yamashita's gambit had worked.

Hostilities ended at 2030 that night. Japanese troops marched in the next morning with bayonets fixed and no hesitation in using them. Japanese flags were run up all over the city. Singapore's name was changed to Syonan-to which means Light of the South.  All clocks were changed to Tokyo time. Survivors in the city had to learn to speak Japanese and were required to bow deeply to any Japanese soldier they encountered.  Failing to do so was a death sentence.

Within days of the occupation, Changi Prison, which was built in 1936 for 600 inmates, had 3,000 prisoners.  Thousands of other POW's and civilian detainees were held in separate camps in Singapore or sent to other camps in China and Japan.  Tens of  thousands more were sent north to work on the 258 mile Burma-Thailand Railroad.  Sixteen thousand died , mostly of disease and starvation.**Historical footnote: When this railway is mentioned. most people immediately think of the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai". For a more accurate and powerful depiction, check out the movie "The Railway Man". It's based on the book written by Eric Lomax, a Singapore and railroad survivor.**

Japanese soldiers bayonet a prisoner

"Sook Ching" in action.

The Kempeitai set up shop in the old Orchard Road YMCA and broke out the dossiers provided by pre-war photographers.  The secret police embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign called "sook ching"against the Chinese population. It means "purge by cleansing". In the month following the surrender, tens of thousands were slaughtered and many more during the entire occupation. It also extended up into Malaya, where the Chinese Communists openly opposed the Japanese occupation. Nobody has ever been able to come up with hard numbers, but there are mass graves all over Singapore and more are still being found to this day.  No resistance movement ever formed in Singapore. The Kempeitai's system of informants, brutal interrogations and summary executions kept that from happening.

The war never returned to Singapore. After a brutal 3½ year occupation, it was liberated without opposition on September 12, 1945, ten days after the official Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.



POW's released at the end of the war

This is what 3½ years as a Japanese POW will get you - if you live. The Japanese took 135,000 men as prisoners of war in the Malaya-Singapore campaign. Over half didn't survive.

The Aftermath

The capture of Singapore was the high water mark of the Japanese empire.  Four months later, their navy was smashed at Midway and they spent the rest of the war on the defensive.  Never again would they operate with the offensive skill and precision demonstrated in the Malayan campaign.

The wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were found after the war, in 183 feet and 223 feet of water respectively.  They are about eight miles apart. The Repulse rests on her keel with a sharp list.  The Prince of Wales is completely upside down and her superstructure is buried in the mud.  In 2007, her ship's bell was removed by British divers to prevent it from being stolen.  It now sits in a maritime museum in Liverpool, England.  Both ships are Crown property however, they are legal to SCUBA dive on and there are dive shops that make the trip regularly.  The Repulse is the better target being much shallower and with a lot more to see.  Both are deep dives and not for beginners.

The old YMCA building on Orchard Road which became the Kempeitai torture chambers burned down in 1958. It was replaced by a more modern and less sullied structure.  The landing area on the north coast where the Japanese and Australians fought it out is a fully developed urban industrial area. The Sembawang Naval Base is still in use with an increasing U.S. presence.  Sentosa Island has become a combination nature preserve, amusement park and beach destination - all of it world class.  Fort Siloso has been re-constructed and contains the Surrender Chambers Museum. It is one of the best places in Singapore to learn about the war. The Ford factory has also been turned into an excellent war museum. Alexandra Military Hospital survived the war and was restored to full functionality, serving as a British military hospital until 1971. It was handed over to the Singapore government and is now part of the University of Singapore Medical School.

There was much post-war political fallout for the British and it changed the map in that area of the world.  They were met with anger, resentment and violence when they tried to resume their lofty pre-war status in Malaya. It led directly to a major Communist insurgency that lasted from 1948 to 1960.  When it was over, the Communists were on the run and Malaya was an independent country.

Singapore was a bit more orderly in their quest for self-rule. Through negotiations and elections, they slowly transitioned from British Protectorate to independent republic in 1965.






Lt. Gen Yamashita

General Yamashita never saw Japan again.  He was never a favorite of the emperor to begin with and spent the early years of the war chasing Chinese bandits in Manchuria.  Within weeks of his victory in Singapore, he was sent back to Manchuria and missed most of the Pacific War.  In October 1944, he was brought out of exile to lead the defense of the Philippines.  Despite the American conquest of the country and their overwhelming combat power, he and his troops never quit fighting.  They defied defeat and bedeviled American troops in the mountains of central Luzon until the Japanese surrender.  Only then did he walk out of the jungle.  The officer he surrendered to was General Arthur Percival, recently released from a POW camp in China and flown in special for the occasion. Yamashita stood trial in Manila for war crimes, including the massacres at  Parit Sulong  and Alexandra Hospital.  Convicted and sentenced to death, he was hanged on February 26, 1946. He was 60 years old and had been in the army for 40 years.  Yamashita talked freely in debriefings after the war. He steadfastly maintained that the whole island battle was a bluff and that two or three more days of stiff resistance would have compelled him to quit the attack. Only he knows for sure.




Lt. Gen Percival

General Percival survived 3½ years in captivity, most of it in a Manchurian POW camp.   Percival was an experienced and decorated officer in WW1.  He demonstrated courage and competence in multiple engagements, including the Battle of the Somme, where he was an infantry company commander. In the 1920's, he served as an intelligence officer in Northern Ireland against the Irish Republican Army.  He was so effective, they put a bounty on him and tried to assassinate him twice. So what happened in Singapore? There can be little doubt that his decision making was disastrous.  His outright refusal to prepare defenses in the face of certain attack must surely rank as one of the most flagrant and inexplicable failures of military leadership in modern times. He turned a winnable fight into a debacle for the ages.  Percival was never officially held accountable for his performance at Singapore. Unofficially, he was haunted by personal demons and carried them to his grave.  Yamashita's post-war comments weighed heavily on him. After the war, he wrote a book called The War in Malaya which gave his version of the campaign. It was panned as self-serving and inaccurate and he became something of a pariah.  Percival spent the rest of his life defending his actions and his reputation.  He retired from the British Army in 1946 after 32 years of service and died in London on January 31,1966 at the age of 78.


Exploring Singapore

The Singapore city skyline.

A view of a small part of the city skyline down at the harbor. The strange looking thing in the middle is a Merlion. With the head of a lion and the body of a mermaid, it is the symbol of Singapore. You'll see them all over the city. Leave the spray paint at home.

Modern Singapore bears none of the scars of war except in museums and exhibits.  When you look around this modern, thriving island city-state, it's hard to believe that only a century ago, it was a small fishing village.  It's even harder to believe that it was leveled during World War 2. Out of the ashes , Singapore has developed into a cultural and economic powerhouse. I was there on an extended consulting job several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.  They seem to do everything well.  Changi Airport is the best in the world. You don't need a car. Public transportation is everywhere, on time and safe. The sights and smells of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian food fill the streets.  Some of the greatest food you'll ever eat is at the outdoor hawker stands (we call them food courts). Parks and museums are everywhere. Hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, exploring, dancing, concerts - Singapore has it all. Last but not least, the island has  plenty of geocaches. 

For an off the beaten path geo-trek, try Palau Ubin.  It's a short ferry ride off the northeast shore.  Rent bikes there and bike the island to hunt for geocaches.  Sentosa Island is another good place.  Just off the harbor docks to the south, it is Singapore's version of Disney World.

There are several dozen munzees in the downtown area and others scattered about the island.  There are also some letterboxes.  Cell phone coverage is excellent, so your smart phone geo-apps should work anywhere. When you're done exploring, it's time to sip on a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel Bar. The world famous drink was first served here in 1915.

If you like to explore underwater, Singapore and Malaysia offer some top notch SCUBA diving. There are a lot of wrecks in the surrounding area including the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. There are many others and dive shops make regular trips, with destinations for divers of all experience and ability levels. The South China Sea is crystal clear and warm as bath water. If you're a diver in Singapore, it's worth checking out.

Some words of caution.  Even though it's an urban area, Singapore is still a jungle.  Be careful where you reach or step, especially in the parks and outlying areas. Pythons, cobras, tigers and wild pigs have been known to visit once in a while.  Thorns, nettles and wait-a-minute vines are part of the charm.  If you get a scratch, don't ignore it. It can fester and get ugly in the tropical environment. Singapore is just north of the equator.  It's very hot, very humid and the sun is relentless all year. Plan accordingly.

Last but certainly not least -  Singapore is a real law and order town.  Mind your manners and don't get into any conflicts with the locals.  Don't get drunk and do stupid stuff.  And do not - I repeat - do not have any involvement with drugs.  Low level offenders do hard time and dealers are executed.

Speaking of drugs, make sure you take prescription and OTC meds in their original bottles.  If you don't, customs could be a real hassle,  but at least you won't get executed.

So on that bright note, I will sign off until next time.  Hope you enjoyed the page.  Any and all feedback is welcome.

Semper Fi and terima kasih (Malay for thanks) ... Alpha6 aka Boris