On the 15th February 1942 the British Empire surrendered its most prized Southeast Asian possession to the Japanese 25th Army. Churchill called it the ‘worst capitulation’ in British history.
Colonial Singapore was as strategically significant as it is today. Located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore commands the mouth of the Malaccan Straits, the causeway between the Andaman and the South China Seas and the prime shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Aptly named the ‘Gibraltar of the East’, Singapore was a heavily protected island fortress. The British thought it impenetrable.
With her efforts devoted primarily to keeping the home island safe, Japan’s rapid expansion in Southeast Asia had come as a surprise to the Empire whose greater strength was bogged down in Europe and North Africa. Since Pearl Harbour the Japanese had invaded the Philippines, seized Hong Kong, northern Borneo and, led by the bullish general Tomoyuki Yamashita, steamrolled through the jungles and rubber plantations of British Malaya in a mere 70 days.
The British had vastly underestimated their foes. Dismissed from the war’s onset as bucktoothed savages the Japanese were initially viewed neither as tough nor soldierly by their opponents. Moreover, the colonies had utter faith in Britain’s renowned naval supremacy. The Japanese could not possibly beat them at sea.
Both assumptions proved false.
Defending Malaya was a composite of hastily formed Indian and Australian divisions, mainly 18 year olds who’d never held a gun. The invaders meanwhile, who included the crème de la crème Japanese Imperial Guard, were hardened veterans of the war in China to whom dying for the empire was the highest honour.
Though no less accustomed to the tropics then his Commonwealth foes, the Japanese foot soldier was conditioned for war by a lifetime of nationalist indoctrination and notoriously harsh discipline. Japanese soldiers carried lighter packs than their British counterparts and advanced through Malaya on bicycle, rather than foot.
No time was wasted taking prisoners and resistance was brutally crushed: after the Battle of Muar 200 wounded Australian and Indian troops were doused in petroleum and burned alive. The conquest of Malaya was swift and brutal.
While the British in Malaya were severely demoralised at the velocity of their downfall, the Japanese fought with growing confidence. The popular infallibility of the British navy dissipated instantly with the sinking of battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales on the 10th of December. The siege of Singapore began on the 8th of February the following year. Although Yamashita had only 36,000 men to the British 85,000, Singapore’s defenders were severely battered and demoralised. Moreover they were surrounded on three sides. Facing starvation, heavy bombardment, fierce street to feet fighting and with no chance of reinforcement, the British eventually capitulated on the 15th of February.
A total 130,000 British troops surrendered. 7,000 would go on to form the backbone the pro Japanese ‘Indian National Army’ that fought the British in Burma and India on the promise of creating an independent Indian state. Others would work on the infamous death railway. Never before had British soldiers surrendered on such a scale. After Singapore, the Japanese could swiftly complete their conquest of maritime Southeast Asia – Borneo, the Philippines, Melanesia and the Dutch East Indies followed in rapid succession. Many feared Australia and New Zealand were next.
The Fall of Singapore foreshadowed much. An ascendant Asian power, in remarkable speed, had defeated and humiliated history’s greatest empire. The colonies realised their master was not invincible and, after the war, would quickly assert independence. Despite winning this war, by 1945 Britain, had clearly lost its superpower status, would cede world hegemony to the United States and begin dismantling its empire. The Suez Crisis of 1956 was the nail in the coffin. Britannia would never reach her former glory again.