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Cover notes from the hardback edition.
Churchill called it 'the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British
history.' This description of the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, after
Lt-General Arthur Percival's surrender led to over 100,000 British, Australian
and Indian troops falling into the hands of the Japanese, was no wartime exaggeration.
The Japanese had promised that there would be no Dunkirk in Singapore and that
was so - no one was spared and its fall led to incarceration, torture and death
for thousands of allied men and women. In this extraordinary book, using much
new material from British, Australian, Indian and Japanese sources, Colin Smith
has woven together the full and terrifying story of the fall of Singapore and
its aftermath. Here, alongside cowardice and incompetence, are forgotten acts
of enormous heroism; treachery yet heart-rending loyalty; Japanese compassion
as well as brutality from the bravest and most capricious enemy the British ever
had to face.
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It took me over three years to research and write this book and
the debts of gratitude incurred stretch from Northumbria to Canberra.
During that time
the veterans of the campaign in Malaya and Singapore inevitably became fewer.
Yet an amazing number of 1942s twenty to twenty-five-year-olds were still
around and willing to tell me about the fighting they did before they were
ordered to surrender.
And it is the fighting, the largely untold story of the Malayan campaign, that Singapore
Burning is about. For almost half a century, the enduring image of Churchills worst
disaster has been surviving the cruel captivity which followed it and
was immortalised, for better or for worse, in David Leans 1957 film The
Bridge over the River Kwai. But while it is true that almost all of the
units who defended Malaya lost more men, starved and worked to death, in Japanese
camps than they did in action, it is quite wrong to think that General Yamashitas
stunning victory was a push over. The casualty figures speak for themselves
: 3,506 Japanese killed and 6,150 wounded compared to 7,500 Imperial British
and 10,000 wounded. This was in eight weeks and we live in age when 2,000 American
deaths in Iraq over three years are sometimes portrayed as heavy losses.
British pre-war propaganda promoted the fantasy of Fortress Singapore.
This was no truer than the even stronger post-war legend that it fell because
its heavy coastal guns were facing the wrong way and stupid British
generals had never expected an attack through the impenetrable jungle of
the Malayan peninsula to the north. Most of the 15-inch guns could be and were
turned to face land targets. (Their effectiveness was curtailed by not having
the right ammunition for land warfare, naval armoured-piercing instead of high
explosive but this did not make a crucial difference.) More important, in pre-war
planning and war games an attack from the north had long been assumed. In the
1930s Percival himself had written a paper on it.
But guessing your enemys intentions and having the wherewithal to stop
him was another matter. When in 1926 Stanely Baldwins government decided
to go ahead and build an expensive naval base in Singapore, one dissenting
voice was Jan Smuts, the clever South African premier and former Boer guerrilla.
who during World War One had served on the Imperial War Cabinet, argued that,
either way, a Singapore base was pointless. The Japanese, already perceived
as the only credible threat, would not dare attack unless there was a major
in northern waters and, if this happened, the Royal Navy would be unable to
send a credible deterrent anyway.
As Smuts predicted, by December 1941, two years into its second European war
of the century, the British were far too stretched to defend Malaya properly.
It was all they could do to maintain their presence around the Mediterranean
littoral - in May there had been disastrous losses at Crete - keep open its
Atlantic route to North Americas grain and guns, and continue to build
up its air defences and the home army in case, as looked likely, having crushed
the Soviet Union
the bulk of the Wehrmacht returned to the Channel coast. Despite all this,
and bolstered by Japans 1939 humiliation in Manchuria at the hands of
the Soviet Union when a border skirmish flared briefly into full scale conflict,
the War Office
remained supremely confident that they could deter the little yellow
any adventures in South-East Asia. Then on 8 December 1941 Japan called Britains
Hostilities began with a land and sea invasion of northern Malaya and a night
air raid on a surprised and fully lit Singapore. Within a week the Japanese were
well on their way to establishing overwhelming air and naval superiority. The Prince
of Wales and the Repulse, two valuable battleships despatched with
considerable fanfare in a last minute attempt to persuade Tokyo of the foolishness
of going to war, were sunk by air strikes with the loss of over 800 sailors.
Among the dead was Admiral Sir Tom Thumb Phillips, their diminutive
commander who had never believed it was possible for aircraft to do this to
his big ships which had not succeeded in sinking a single invasion barge.
It was now up to Percivals soldiers and fast diminishing air crew to
delay the progress of the Japanese down the Malayan peninsula until reinforcements
from India and the United Kingdom could arrive . In northern Malaya there were
three battalions of British infantry with a strong core of regulars. But the
majority were half trained and often outrageously young Indian recruits, whose
British officers were an obvious target for snipers. Further south there were
two brigades of Australians, keen but green volunteers who were as unblooded
as the Indians and whose morale would prove to be equally mercurial. More troops,
including another three battalions of UK British infantry, garrisoned Singapore
On paper the defenders easily outnumbered the attackers. In practise this was
often not the case because Yamashita could afford to concentrate his forces
whereas Percival always had to keep back a reserve to contend with the threat
landings on his flanks. Furthermore, unlike the British, the Japanese had put
their A team into the field. Yamashitas three infantry divisions were among
the best Japan had. Two contained a high proportion of veterans of Japans
long war with China and the third was an Imperial Guards division that was
desperate to prove themselves. Contrary to popular belief, none of them were
there being little jungle in Japan or China. Probably the only people to have
acquired any real skills at bush fighting before the shooting started were
the old sweats in a battalion of Argylls and some of the Australians. What
did have, in addition to air supremacy, were some 200 lights tanks which they
used to great effect down the splendid roads the colonial power had built.
The British had no tanks whatsoever, though they did have some effective anti-tank
guns which the Australians twice used with spectacular results. .
In most conflicts front line soldiers know little of the big picture. For Percival's
men this was more true than ever. Fear of being outflanked was paramount and
orders from division, brigade or battalion headquarters often led to them relinquishing
good defensive positions where they had done well, or thought they would have
done if only given the chance. This led to an exhausting cycle of retreat and
dig in with sleep rationed to a minimum. Sometimes they were permitted to pause
and give their tormentors a bloody nose: the mixed Leicesters and East Surreys
at Kampar; the devastating ambush the Australians staged at Gemas. But afterwards
there was always another perplexing order to withdraw,
Added to all this was the extraordinary change in which the enemy was perceived.
Despite warnings from British military attachés who had served in China,
before the Japanese invaded they were almost invariably portrayed as myopic and
rather comical figures. Not only could they not see well enough to shoot straight
but flying modern aircraft with skill and audacity, let alone sinking one of
His Majestys Ships, was out of the question. Before the Japanese war
started, some Australian officers in Malaya expressed their disappointment
that, if it
came to the crunch, their men would not be meeting more worthy opponents.
Then they encountered an enemy who not only had the tanks and aircraft the
British lacked in Malaya but pursued them with terrier like persistence all
the way to
Singapore. Here the last of the reinforcements, a Territorial Army machine-gun
battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers who thought they had come to save
the day, lashed their Vickers guns to the handrails of their ship and fought
way into Keppel Harbour shooting down in the process two of the Japanese aircraft
which were trying to sink them . When, eight days later, the Northumbrians
were ordered to surrender they, like most of the newly arrived 18th Division
were mostly Territorials, could hardly believe it. They had just butchered
trying to advance across a golf course and thought they were settling in rather