Singapore Burning: heroism and surrender in World War II by Colin Smith

You can't build a pillbox in a mangrove swamp
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The Independent Culture

As Colin Smith's new book demonstrates, the defeat was less due to acts of sensational stupidity than a more piecemeal ineptitude. The way in which the enemy achieved air and naval supremacy was the first embarrassment. The Japanese had been thought incapable of manufacturing modern aircraft, and certainly unsuited to piloting them. It was expected that poor eyesight and a susceptibility to altitude sickness would render them a kind of "oriental Italians" who would not put up much of a fight.

The RAF's obsolete Brewster Buffalos, and the Hurricanes that followed, were soon swept from the sky by the then peerless Mitsubishi Zero. A little more thought was given to the sea, and the Royal Navy's newest battleship The Prince of Wales was sent to the theatre as a show of strength. Along with the battlecruiser Repulse, it was sunk by torpedo bombers before it had even engaged an enemy vessel. An unwilling army was left to carry the defence.

While the Japanese assault was spearheaded by 200 tanks and the nation's two finest divisions, Singapore's land forces contained no armour at all and only three British battalions at the outset. Smith remarks that the worst the Japanese could expect was the humiliation of having to wait for reinforcements. There was never a chance that the troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival could push the invaders off the island.

Smith sets the stage for what, if the outcome were not already known, one would expect to be a heroic and successful endeavour. The British preparation seems detailed only because the author's research has been. Yet, as Churchill lamented, they could still have put up a better fight. Too much stock was placed in the Australian contingent, which proved far from indomitable. Their successive withdrawals led the Prime Minister to despair that "Our soldiers are not as good fighters as their fathers were."

The only real superiority the British Empire could claim in the theatre was ethical. This was despite the shameful way in which, to the horror of Governor Sir Shenton Thomas, European women and children in Malaya were allowed to board ferries along with luggage and cars and evacuated to Singapore, while Chinese residents were left to their fate. But as an atrocity of war it hardly compared with the Japanese practice of gang-raping nurses or systematically bayoneting the wounded in their hospital beds. Although the bestial crimes committed in Manchuria were well known, it was thought naïvely that they were unlikely to be visited upon Europeans. Cessations in firing while the stretcher bearers went to work were often taken for chivalrous gestures when in fact the Japanese had merely run out of ammunition.

Charges of incompetence at the highest level usually centre on Percival's refusal to allow the Chief Engineer Brigadier, Ivan Simson, to build defences on Singapore's northern shore. Admittedly, Percival's reasoning - he did not want to damage civilian morale - was faulty, but so were Simson's plans. Aside from a labour shortage, pillboxes and trenches could not be built in mangrove swamps. However, civilian morale was already low. Anyone expecting the bulldog spirit of the Blitz would have had to look hard for it in the Malayan peninsula.

If Singapore was seen in Britain as the Gibraltar of the Far East, its inhabitants viewed it as Nairobi, with a European establishment more concerned with croquet, tennis and extra-marital sex than preparation for war. Churchill's Wagnerian rhetoric, exhorting the defenders to fight to the death, was ignored and many of the 100,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers taken into captivity were to regret laying down their arms: 12,000 died of mistreatment building the Burma Railway alone.

Smith redeems them with a roster of heroic acts that includes individuals taking on tanks with service revolvers and continuing to fight with bayonets through their necks. He cites so many of these events that one suspects that either this much is normal in war or else morale was not as bad as he leads us to think. The battles are recounted bullet by bullet, and though they keep the pages turning they can read like propaganda. The retreats are confusingly swift when it is the successes that are highlighted.

As numerous as the heroes were, they were outnumbered by the deserters, and they were facing an enemy who would rarely be taken alive. On Smith's account, it was not a relentless force that made the defenders break and run time and again. The British lost this corner of their empire much as they had acquired it - through bluff and bluster.