Incompetence that led to fall of Singapore

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.

ACCUSATIONS OF DESERTIONS, LOOTING AND RAPE

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions