The World War II Battle of Singapore occurred from Jan. 31, 1942, to Feb. 15, 1942, between the British and Japanese forces. On the British side, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival led 85,000 men into battle. On the Japanese side, Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita led just 36,000 men into the conflict.
Yamashita led his regiment into British Malaya by way of Indochina on Dec. 8, 1941. Later, the Japanese also invaded via Thailand. The Japanese forces were outnumbered by more than two to one, but they made up for this shortfall by focusing their attacks carefully and by using their honed fighting skills to force the enemy back. The Japanese succeeded in sinking British battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on Dec. 10, 1941. The Japanese forces also used light tanks and even bicycles to move quickly through the jungles.
Percival was unable to fight back effectively against the Japanese army, and on Jan. 31, the British army moved out of the peninsula, amassing on the island of Singapore. The British forces destroyed the causeway that connected the island and Johore, and they hunkered down to wait for the Japanese to advance. Those watching these events expected the British to rally and hold off the Japanese.
Percival organized three separate brigades of soldiers to stand against the Japanese. On the western side of the island, Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett and his 8th Australian Division stood at the ready. On the northeastern part of the island, Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath and his Indian III Corps arranged a defense against the Japanese. In the south, Maj. Gen. Frank K. Simmons was ready with local troops.
Yamashita created a headquarters for his army at the sultan of Johore’s palace, correctly guessing that the British would avoid attacking the palace to avoid angering the sultan. From this vantage point, Yamashita gathered intelligence and aerial reconnaissance on the British army.
The Battle Begins
The Japanese army began both ground and air attacks on Singapore on Feb. 3, 1941. The British retaliated, but their efforts were inadequate. The Japanese 5th and 18th divisions succeeded in landing on Singapore’s northwest coast on Feb. 8, coming ashore at Sarimbun Beach. Australian troops met the Japanese with force, but within hours, the Japanese forced them back.
Percival guessed wrong about where the Japanese would infiltrate, so he had bolstered troops on the northeast shores of the island. This left the Australian troops on the northwest shore unprepared to hold off the Japanese. Yamashita built on his momentum, and on Feb. 9, more Japanese troops landed on the southwest shores of the island. They successfully drove back the 44th Indian Brigade.
Bennett retreated to the east, making a defensive line on the eastern edge of Tengah airfield. Brig. Duncan Maxwell and his 27th Australian Brigade were ready for the Japanese just to the north, and this unit was able to have an impact on the Japanese forces that were trying to come ashore to the west of the causeway. These developments helped the British hold the Japanese to a small area of the beach.
The End Approaches
Maxwell was cut off from communicating with the Australian 22nd Brigade, and he was worried that his troops would be surrounded by enemy forces. To prevent this from happening, he pulled his troops back from their position. The Japanese immediately came ashore and moved south, surrounding Bennett’s troops and moving onward toward the city. Monitoring these events, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a cable to Gen. Archibald Wavell, who was the commander in chief in India. Churchill instructed the British forces not to surrender for any reason. Churchill’s cable was sent on to Percival. Japanese forces commandeered the land around Bukit Timah on Feb. 11, and they also confiscated British ammunition and fuel reserves. These acquisitions gave the Japanese control of most of the water supply on the island. At this point, Yamashita began to run low on supplies, so he opted to bluff to force an end to the conflict, calling for Britain’s surrender. Percival refused, and the British were able to stabilize themselves and even push the Japanese back on Feb. 12.
By Feb. 13, the Japanese were making ground against the British again. Percival’s senior officers began talking about surrendering, but he quickly quashed these ideas. On Feb. 14, Japanese troops took over a hospital and brutally killed 200 patients and staff. On Feb. 15, the Japanese finally broke through the British lines. After this, Percival agreed to meet with his commanders to discuss their options. The two possibilities discussed were a strike to attempt to regain supplies or surrender. The commanders rejected the idea of another military strike, so Percival saw that surrender was the only option. Percival and Yamashita met later in the day to discuss the terms of the surrender, and it was completed at 5:15 p.m.
The Battle of Singapore and its subsequent fall holds the position of the worst military defeat in Britain’s history. Approximately 7,500 troops were killed, 10,000 were wounded, and 120,000 men were captured. Some prisoners of war were kept in Singapore, but others were shipped out to Southeast Asia in forced labor units. On the Japanese side, 1,713 were killed and 2,772 soldiers were wounded.
Some members of the Indian units joined the pro-Japanese Indian National Army. The Japanese maintained occupation of Singapore for the rest of World War II. Under this control, the Japanese killed many Chinese residents and any other people who did not support them.
After the surrender was finalized, Bennett relinquished his 8th Division and fled to Sumatra. At first, Australians thought him to be a hero, but eventually, people realized that Bennett abandoned his men. Percival has been criticized for glaring errors he made during the battle, including not placing troops in Johore and along the complete northern shore of the island. Percival was largely blamed for Britain’s defeat, but it was clear that his troops lacked the supplies and equipment needed to hold off the Japanese. Percival was a prisoner of war until the end of World War II, but he was at the Japanese surrender in 1945.
- Battle of Singapore: The fall of Singapore was one of the biggest defeats of the British Army.
- World War II: Notable people involved with events of World War II include Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.
- Invasion of Malaya and Singapore: The Japanese wanted to acquire Malaya because of its abundant natural resources, according to this website. Hosting ground troops on the island, Japan conducted research that determined their plan to acquire Singapore.
- World War II Remembered: The Generals and the Admirals: Percival is best-known for his role in the Battle of Singapore.
- Japan Surrenders: Japan surrendered to the Allied powers on Sept. 2, 1945.