Incompetence that led to fall of Singapore

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The Independent Online
NEW EVIDENCE of Whitehall bungling and incompetence leading directly to the fall of Singapore in 1942 has been disclosed for the first time by Whitehall officials.

Papers relating to the wartime defence of Malaya and Singapore were considered so sensitive that they have been withheld from public inspection for 50 years - 20 years beyond the normal release date for official files.

But the newly published government papers confirm that British efforts to scapegoat Australian forces and the Governor of the Straits Settlements for the most humiliating debacle in the history of the Empire could well have been motivated by a wish to deflect attention from Whitehall's far greater dereliction of duty.

In his 'most secret' report, written in New Delhi on 1 June 1942, Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, South West Pacific, said: 'By November 1941, the situation in Malaya already contained many of the elements of disaster.'

A timely warning of that impending disaster had been given by Sir Thomas Shenton, the governor, in a memorandum to the Colonial Office on 25 July 1940 in which he said that the key outpost of the British Empire would fall without considerably enhanced air cover. His plea was ignored.

Commenting on the conclusions of a March meeting of the Cabinet's Overseas and Defence Committee, Sir Shenton said: 'The present policy has been in force for years and is, broadly speaking, that Singapore must hold out until the Fleet can be sent to relieve it. The period before relief, was laid down originally, I think, as only 30 days, but it has been lengthened until it is now 90 days, and not so very long ago six months was suggested.

'Therefore, whereas the time at the disposal of the enemy was originally regarded as limited, it is now very much the reverse. We now know (and so does he) that he would have plenty of time to come through to Singapore from any part of the Malay Peninsula.'

Sir Shenton warned that without improved air support, Singapore would be defenceless.

That view was certainly shared by the military. A month before Sir Shenton wrote his note, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff told the Colonial Office: 'Developments in Europe which have reduced the availability of an adequate British force for the Far East, combined with the deterioration in Japan's attitude towards us, make the security of Singapore a matter of grave anxiety.'

But his response was to suggest that Australia should strip itself of its home defence militia to defend Singapore 'particularly as the security of the naval base at Singapore is a question which both the Government and the Opposition in Australia recognise as of paramount importance for the security of Australia itself'.

By January of 1941, the Chiefs of Staff had agreed with defence chiefs in Singapore that 582 aircraft would be 'ideal' for the defence of the colony - but that 336 should give 'a fair degree of security'. On 7 December that year, there were only 158 aircraft on station - some of them obsolete - and Churchill himself showed so much concern that he asked General Sir Claude Auchinleck to spare four squadrons of Hurricanes (48 aircraft) from his campaign in North Africa for Singapore.

Having been told by Churchill that only air power would keep open the door for reinforcements and that if the door was shut, the Singapore fortress would fall, Auchinleck agreed.

But it was all too late. The Whitehall malaise was superbly illustrated by Sir Cosmo Parkinson, Permanent Secretary at the Colonial Office, who on 22 January 1942 asked what had been done about Sir Shenton's 1940 memo. Was that a belated attempt to protect his own back?

If so, he was not alone. On 2 February, Churchill sent Wavell a 'most secret' cable, in which he said: 'I observe that you have ordered the Hurricanes which had just reached Singapore to Palembang (Sumatra).

'Should be grateful for some explanation of this decision which appears at first sight to indicate despair of defending Singapore.' What the latest batch of Whitehall papers show is that that despair had been around since 1940, and that Churchill knew full-well that it was completely justified.

Official file references: PREM3/168/3, PREM3/168/7B, and CAB21/2625.


Extracts from a letter written by G Seabridge, editor of the Straits Times and a long-standing opponent of Sir Shenton Thomas, the governor, and circulated to the War Cabinet, in April 1942. Mr Seabridge sailed from Singapore on 11 February 1942, three days before its fall.

'MANY stories are current of the bad examples set by some members of the AIF (Australian Infantry Force). These troops, as we all know, have done magnificently in offensive actions in many parts of the world, but the very characteristics which have carried them to success in such operations appear to make them totally unsuitable for fighting on the retreat, where strict discipline is such a vital consideration.

It is with great reluctance that I pursue this question of the behaviour of some members of the AIF, but there is little likelihood that these notes will be helpful if they are not frank. There were desertions. Men seen in Singapore town on Feb 9th and 10th were heard to boast that they had come 'down the line' because they were fed up with being plastered]

When the SS Empire Star arrived at Batavia on Feb 14th, several Australian deserters were taken ashore under armed guard. There have been allegations that men who fought valiantly in North Johore during the daylight hours walked back to a nearby township at night to buy beer] There were cases of looting and rape. Inche Onn bin Jaafar, a member of the Johore State Council, made the accusation openly at a meeting of the council held in Johore Bahru about a week before I left Singapore. He alleged that English and Indian troops were not entirely blameless, but he was particularly scathing in his references to the Australians.

He offered the council 'incontrovertible proof' of his charges and, after Inche Onn's opening remarks, the president arranged that the matter should be discussed in secret at a later stage. One of my reporters was present at this meeting and took a full note of the statements made. He also brought me a message from the Prime Minister of Johore (Ungku Aziz), who is a close personal friend, asking me if I would do my utmost to see that no mention of the matter was made public'.

(Photograph omitted)