Churchill cover-up over war defeat

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WINSTON CHURCHILL tried to suppress a 'most secret' report containing allegations that the cowardice of Australian troops was to blame for the fall of Singapore in 1942.

The Prime Minister knew that Singapore had been left at the mercy of superior Japanese forces and made every effort to keep the report away from the Australians - denying them the chance to defend themselves against charges of cowardice, desertion, rape and robbery.

But after a 50-year cover-up, Whitehall last week released official files on the debacle, in which the Australian infantry, commanded by Major-General Gordon Bennett, were relentlessly blamed for the humiliating surrender on 14 February.

The acrimonious charges are summed up in the report, sent by General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, South West Pacific, to Churchill and the War Cabinet from New Delhi in the summer.

The document, based on interviews with about 50 servicemen, officials and civilians, said: 'For the fall of Singapore itself, the Australians are held responsible, while their presence in the town in disproportionately large numbers during the last days, with the escape of large numbers on ships and in boats, has aroused great indignation.'

In a three-page appendix Maj-Gen Bennett was also, in effect, accused of refusing to obey orders and lying over Australian casualties.

But the report pointed out that the Australians had displayed 'a refreshingly offensive spirit at a period when this was sorely needed to counter the effects on morale of constant withdrawal and defeat'.

It was only after they had been badly mauled in the face of Japanese 'superiority in numbers, and his ability to outflank by landings on the west coast . . . (that) a rapid decline must have set in, because signs of a break in morale were noticeable even before the Japanese landing in their sector.

'Large numbers of AIF stragglers were seen in the town; many undoubtedly took the opportunity to desert in boats to Sumatra. Finally, the events of the night 8th/9th February seem to have destroyed almost completely their discipline and morale.'

The report ended with an even stronger defence: 'In justice, however, it must be recorded that they were subjected on that night to a bombardment which, judged by the standard of any theatre of war, can only be described as very heavy; in addition, they had been under only a slightly less heavy pounding for at least 24-hours.'

Publication is bound to provoke controversy - which is why Churchill wanted the 'dirty linen' suppressed. He was concerned that if it was circulated to ministers, Stanley Bruce, the Australian representative on the War Cabinet, would pass it back to his Government. But Sir Edward Bridges, Cabinet Secretary, said it would be even more damaging if the Australians found out that they had been attacked with no 'opportunity to rebut the allegations'.

The Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who last year accused Britain of abandoning Australia to the Japanese in 1942, is on holiday and would not comment on the documents.

But Brigadier Alf Garland, president of the Returned Services League of Australia, said: 'Wavell was sitting in comfort in India regurgitating what other people told him - people who had escaped from Singapore. You'd have to ask how and why they escaped. The people who were making these reports were doing so to cover their own backsides.' Brigadier Garland said that Australia made an outstanding contribution to the Second World War: a country of seven million people put one million of them into uniform.

Incompetence led to fall, page 3