On the 15th of February 1942, Lt General Arthur Percival signed the largest surrender in British history at Singapore. The city was supposed to be a fortress, but his force of 85,000 men had been defeated by just 35,000 Japanese troops.

Little over 2 months earlier Japanese forces had invaded Northern Malaya. Thanks to their advanced tactics and training, the Japanese advanced with incredible speed pushing the unprepared British back to Singapore in a so-called 'bicycle blitzkrieg'. When they crossed the Johore straights and captured the Bukit Timah heights above Singapore itself, Percival was forced to surrender.

So how did the Japanese defeat a numerically superior force? Why wasn’t Singapore an impregnable fortress? And could the British have held out?

Singapore was not a fortress

In this episode of IWM Stories, Stephen Walton explores how 'fortress Singapore' fell to a numerically inferior enemy.

This is Lieutenant General Arthur Percival minutes before signing the largest surrender in British history at Singapore. The city was supposed to be a fortress, but his force of 85,000 men had been defeated by just 35,000 Japanese troops. Barely two months earlier Japanese forces had invaded northern Malaya. Thanks to their advanced tactics and training the Japanese advanced with incredible speed pushing the unprepared British back to Singapore in a so-called bicycle blitzkrieg. When they crossed the Johore straits and captured the Bukit Timah heights above Singapore itself Percival was forced to surrender. So how did the Japanese do it and defeat a numerically superior force? Why wasn't Singapore an impregnable fortress? And could the British have held out? Well to find out we first have to understand what made Singapore so important in the first place.

Archive Footage: "Stronghold, naval base, strategic centre, Singapore is above all one of the ramparts of that freedom for which the British empire stands."

So Singapore was popularly in Britain believed to be a fortress, the symbol of Britain's power and dominance in the region. But in actual fact, the reality fell far short of this extremely grandiose title mainly due to consistent underinvestment in Singapore's defences.

While the British had been underfunding Singapore for years, the Japanese were starting to view it with greater importance. Bogged down in China and having lost access to US, British and Dutch oil, the Japanese decided to capture the raw materials they needed in the Dutch East Indies - what they termed the 'southern resources area'. If you want to find out more about Japan's strategic situation you can watch our video on Pearl Harbor.

So in order to secure the southern resources area, Japan really needed Singapore as a jumping-off point and in fact without the capture of Singapore, her further war aims would have been pretty much impossible.

The capture of Singapore was just a part of a much larger Japanese offensive across East Asia and the Pacific. As Japanese aircraft carriers hit Pearl Harbor, land forces would simultaneously begin the capture of Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and of course British Malaya.

To do that job the Japanese supplied a force of around 60,000 men under the command of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Yamashita had actually been offered four divisions for the job, but he decided that three would be more than enough.

Facing them were some 88,000 British and Commonwealth troops including Australian, Indian and Malay soldiers under the command of Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. He had been protesting about the lack of investment in Singapore for years, but British planners believed his force was strong enough to defend against any attack.

88,000 troops, at least on paper, sounds like a very formidable force. But in reality, they hadn't had very much fighting experience previously. They certainly hadn't had any experience of jungle warfare. The Japanese in fact more than made up for what they lacked in relative manpower in other respects. They had over 200 tanks compared to a poultry 23 on the British and Commonwealth side.

That Japanese superiority continued in the air. They put up over 600 aircraft, many of them state-of-the-art fighters and bombers. In complete contrast, the British had just 158 including aircraft considered unfit for service in Europe like the Vickers Vildebeest and the Brewster Buffalo, both of which were essentially obsolete. The British did have a few things in their favour. One of those was Force Z made up of the brand new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. They were supposed to be joined by an aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable, but she had run aground near Jamaica and never made it to Malaya. Force Z was there to act as a deterrent for any attack, but it could be used to disrupt Japanese amphibious operations if they took place. On land though the British had few fixed defences, instead planners believed that their greatest weapon was the Malayan jungle.

Archive Footage: "In that vast green wilderness a campaign may be fought. This is no country for blitzkrieg. A new fighting science must be devised for jungle warfare."

The British relied on the perception that the Japanese would somehow come to grief in the jungle due to their lack of experience in jungle warfare. Evidently forgetting that their own experience of it was really no much better. So these mistakes were informed also by a widespread racist stereotyping of the Japanese as being both physically and mentally inferior and that these Japanese would be easily repulsed by superior British or British-led forces.

When the Japanese invaded on December 8th, 1941 those conceptions quickly fell apart. Launching from bases in French Indochina the Japanese landed at Kotu Baru in Malaya and Pattani and Songkhla in Thailand. Percival favored a defense-in-depth approach, spreading his troops across the whole peninsula but this meant that the Japanese actually outnumbered the British at the landing grounds. They were able to quickly concentrate their forces and isolate individual British units which were then destroyed.

The early stages of the Japanese invasion were accompanied by systematic Japanese attacks on RAF airfields in northern Malaya which reduced the number of serviceable RAF aircraft there from 110 down to just 50 in a very short space of time. In addition to that, Japanese bombers also attacked Singapore itself very early on the 8th of December. This was a completely unexpected event which severely shocked military and civilian morale in the city.

But the British still had their trump card Force Z which was dispatched to destroy further Japanese invasion convoys in the South China Sea. However, on return from their raid Force Z was spotted by Japanese submarines and spotter aircraft. Without air support, Force Z came under relentless aerial attack from Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers and both were sunk on December 10th.

Meanwhile on land, the Japanese advance was relentless. Japan now had complete control of the skies and were able to move with incredible speed. They used their bicycle infantry and light tanks to outmanoeuvre the British at every turn even through the thickest jungle forcing retreat after retreat. The outnumbered Japanese in just 55 days advanced over 400 miles losing only 4,500 men compared to 25,000 British and Commonwealth casualties.

So the campaign in Malaya was essentially one long fighting retreat by British and Commonwealth forces down the entire length of the peninsula. Their chief strategist in the Malaya campaign Colonel Masanobu Tsuji ascribed what he called 'the phenomenal speed of the onslaught' to the superior equipment and training of the Japanese infantry. In Tsuji's words, 'even the long-legged Englishman could not escape our troops on bicycles'.

Having lost the Malayan peninsula British forces now prepared for their final stand on the island of Singapore. On paper, they appeared to have a chance. The newly arrived 18th Division fresh from the UK brought Percival's fighting strength up to 70,000 men in comparison to just 35,000 Japanese troops. But morale among the British was extremely low.

So we have the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, the removal of the remaining RAF aircraft to Sumatra and then the relentless Japanese advance down the northern part of the Malayan peninsula. So all of these catastrophic reverses had an extremely negative effect on British morale.

On top of that, the lacklustre defences of Singapore were now on full display. The coastal artillery was designed to repel a seaborne attack so there were few high-explosive shells and the few northern defences that did exist were well within range of Japanese artillery and air forces. Percival's first move was to blow up the causeway linking the island to the mainland. In response to that, he expected the Japanese to make an amphibious landing in the northeast, positioning most of his forces there and spreading the remainder throughout the rest of the island. All the while the pressure on him was building.

Despite its popular designation as an impregnable fortress, most senior British military planners accepted in fact that it could not be held if the Malayan mainland was lost. So General Percival was in effect being told to defend the indefensible. His instruction from Churchill was to hold Singapore 'to the last man' in complete defiance of all military logic. This was primarily a political rather than a military strategic imperative the defence of Singapore was first and foremost a matter of British prestige.

After a two-week lull in the fighting, the Japanese offensive finally took place on the 8th of February. It began with a massive artillery barrage on the northwest portion of the Allied line held by the 8th Australian Division. This was followed up by an amphibious landing that same night. Once again despite their overall numerical inferiority, the Japanese were able to concentrate their forces and outnumber the British defenders on the landing grounds, pushing them back.

Diversionary attacks in the northeast kept Percival's attention there and allowed the Japanese to establish a beachhead. By the time he realised that that was the main assault, it was too late, his mobile reserve was too small to stop the Japanese advance. By February 12th he was forced to pull back to his final defensive perimeter around Singapore city. This retreat involved destroying important infrastructure and ceding control of the Bukit Timah heights, the location of the British supply depot and the city's water supply. Without these, they couldn't last much longer.

It should be said at this point that just as British and Commonwealth forces were moving towards surrender, the Japanese were beginning to be seriously concerned about their own ability to continue the battle for very much longer. General Yamashita had basically outrun his supplies and his ammunition was running low. Had the British and Commonwealth forces been in any position to mount an effective counter-attack the Japanese would probably have found themselves in trouble fairly quickly.

On the 15th of February Yamashita and Percival met face-to-face at the Ford Motor Factory to negotiate terms. Yamashita, worried that the British would discover his numerical inferiority, banged his fist on the table. The surrender had to be unconditional. Percival agreed and signed the largest surrender in British history.

Despite the mistakes he had made, Percival was badly let down by his superiors who had underfunded Singapore for years. Malaya had almost no defences and quickly fell to the superior fighting skills of the Japanese. With Malaya gone the loss of Singapore was effectively a matter of time. The island was not the fortress it was claimed to be. Despite Churchill's 'fight to the last man' rhetoric, Percival had little choice but to surrender.

It's important to note that civilians suffered just as much as soldiers did during the battle for Singapore. The city's infrastructure was thrown into chaos by the Japanese bombing and there were huge pools of acrid smoke produced by the destruction of the oil storage installations in the harbour area. City resident Molly Riley recalled how she would wake up at night almost choking on the smoke. On one occasion she remembered when some rain fell 'our house was covered with a black oil film'.

The images of a burning Singapore did little to help Britain's battered global image. The so-called 'Gibraltar of the East' had fallen. Australian politicians who relied on Singapore for their country's defence felt betrayed by the loss and would increasingly turn to the US for leadership in the region. For Japan, Britain's loss was their gain. The Japanese were able to capture the resources they needed and mount further offensives to the gates of India and Australia. But that success was short-lived.

As American military might began to exert itself across the Pacific and Japan was increasingly forced onto the defensive herself, her superpower ambitions rapidly waned. In this wider context, the fall of Singapore would seem to have had a relatively brief impact on the subsequent course of the war itself. The loss of the colony was in many ways the opening and decisive move in the long and painful loss of British prestige and power. Not only across the Asian-Pacific region, but globally too.

For the 85,000 British troops captured at Singapore the surrender was just the beginning of their ordeal. The Japanese viewed their new prisoners with contempt and their treatment was correspondingly brutal. Most of the troops captured in Singapore were confined to the vast Changi POW camp on the island. But some were forced to build the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, while others were recruited into Japanese-controlled independence groups such as the Indian National Army.

For the civilians of Singapore Japanese rule was similarly brutal. There were constant food shortages and mass conscription of civilians into the Japanese war machine but it was Chinese people who suffered the most. The Japanese viewed the Chinese as being racially inferior and millions were killed across Japanese occupied territory. If you want to find out more about life under Axis occupation, including occupied Singapore, you should watch this video next.

Explore the film footage used in this video, and licence it for use here.

Find out more

Japanese troops mopping up in Kuala Lumpur during their advance through Malaya, 11 January 1942.
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