8 December 1941 – 15 February 1942

Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885–1946) is seen here in 1944 while he was commander in the Philippines. Yamashita was the conqueror of Malaya in early 1942 but later paid for his successes with his life when he was executed as a war criminal.

The greatest and most humiliating defeat of British Commonwealth forces during the Second World War came with the loss of Malaya and Singapore in the first weeks of the Japanese Pacific campaign. More than 130,000 men surrendered on 15 February, facing a Japanese army of around 35,000. The odds against the Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, were on paper considerable, but they were overcome in a battle in which the experienced Japanese armed forces exploited their formidable tactical skills to overcome the much larger numbers they confronted.

Singapore was a British island colony at the foot of the Malay Peninsula. It was at the heart of plans to defend the eastern Empire and Australasia against any likely threat. In the 1930s, a new naval base was constructed with formidable guns pointing out at sea. The island, with its population of almost one million Malays and Chinese, was expected to hold out against a siege for at least 180 days. Almost no thought had been given to an attack from the Malayan mainland across the Strait of Johore and the northern coast of the island remained unfortified.

When it became clear in November 1941 that a clash with Japan was likely in the very near future, British plans were to defend Malaya on the northern border with Thailand, or even to cross into Thai territory if necessary. On 2 December 1941, two major warships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, arrived in Singapore Harbour to strengthen the British Empire position. On 6 December, a Japanese convoy was spotted along the coast of the Gulf of Siam. Unlike the American forces at Pearl Harbor on 7 December, the commanders at Singapore expected trouble.

The convoy was carrying Yamashita’s 25th Japanese Army and its supplies. Japanese aircraft were now based in neutral Thailand, within striking distance of Singapore, which was bombed on 8 December. The first Japanese forces landed on the coast of northern Malaya the same day. The Japanese army had a good deal of experience from the four-year war in China, while the British Empire forces, mainly drawn from the Indian army but with large contingents of British and Australian troops, had never fought the Japanese.

The assumption was that they would not fight as effectively as European troops or troops led by white officers. When the governor of Singapore was told the news of invasion he retorted: ‘Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.’ The ‘little men’ numbered at first little more than a division. After several days Yamashita had 26,000 men ashore, supported by a limited amount of artillery and a few tanks. Within days the position in northern Malaya was overrun. The Prince of Wales and Repulse, setting out unwisely from Singapore, were both sunk on 10 December. The RAF in Malaya and Singapore, armed with obsolete aircraft, were shot out of the skies by the more modern ‘Zero’ fighters.

At the start of the campaign, there were more than 80,000 British Empire forces supported by more artillery pieces than the Japanese and with generous supplies of ammunition. Yamashita relied on the battlefield skills of his infantry, who infiltrated at night, surrounded and isolated groups of enemy soldiers, created effective ambushes, and for much of the time took no prisoners. In hostile jungle terrain both sides faced problems, but the Japanese soldiers showed a determination and stamina not matched by the enemy.

By the end of January, the British army commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, had to acknowledge defeat on the Malay Peninsula and ordered a withdrawal on the night of 30–31 January to the island of Singapore. Losses had been heavy, thanks to poor communication and the collapse of British air power. But Yamashita’s forces, with few reinforcements, had travelled 800 kilometres (500 miles) in 55 days, fighting all the way and increasingly short of ammunition. The British Empire garrison, on the other hand, was sent more than 20,000 additional men in January and February. Losses of 19,123 in the fighting in Malaya left a garrison on Singapore island of somewhere around 100,000, supported by artillery and 56 Hurricane fighters brought in by sea.
Yamashita had been so successful that Percival assumed he must have at least 150,000 men and 300 tanks, making the odds appear in his favour and encouraging the climate of demoralization. He estimated that the northeast of the island was the most likely point for a Japanese attack, when in fact

Yamashita chose the northwest. Dummy installations were used to confuse the enemy, while Japanese preparations to throw the 5th and 18th Japanese Divisions across the Strait were concealed as much as possible. Percival put his largest force in the northeast and the smaller Australian 22nd Brigade, already mauled from the long retreat down Malaya, along a wide stretch of coast in the northwest. Here on the night of 8–9 February, shadowy landing craft emerged from the gloom.

Some were hit by machine-gun fire, but the orders to the artillery were not sent because communications had been cut by earlier Japanese shelling. The same tactics were used by Japanese soldiers to cut through and surround isolated enemy units, using bayonets when ammunition ran low. The Australian front broke and scattered units stumbled back to the line of the River Jurong in the centre of the island. Further east the Japanese Imperial Guards Division commanded by Lieutenant General Takumo Nishimura stole ashore and drove back the Australian 27th Brigade.

As resistance on the island crumbled, Winston Churchill sent a telegram to Percival calling for a fight to the death; commanders and officers, he wrote, ‘should die with their troops’. In reality, the mixed Empire force fell back in confusion on the perimeter of Singapore City. Percival co-ordinated operations poorly, communications were rudimentary, and a growing belief that the Japanese were simply unstoppable further contributed to a crisis of morale. On the dockside, deserters struggled to get on the few remaining vessels hurriedly leaving Singapore. Percival’s chief commanders recommended surrender as Japanese aircraft bombarded the civilian population.

Japanese soldiers guard British and Commonwealth prisoners following the fall of the city of Singapore on 15 February 1942. Around 130,000 surrendered to a Japanese force only half that size.

Yamashita’s force was in reality stretched thin and short of supplies of all kinds, but Percival finally accepted that he could not organize a proper defence and in the late afternoon of 15 February he met Yamashita to discuss terms. Bizarrely, the two men shook hands before Yamashita insisted on complete capitulation. The Japanese officers were astonished at what they found. Around 130,000 British Empire troops came into captivity, the largest number in British history. They had been outfought at every level by a force only a fraction of their number. The military ethos that permeated the Japanese army could not brook surrender but, despite Churchill’s exhortation, the British one could.