Singapore files reveal bitter power struggle: Newly released papers contain evidence of a damaging personality clash in the colony before the Japanese invasion. Anthony Bevins reports

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Indy Politics
BRITISH incompetence and duplicity in the decline and fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 has been further exposed by the release of three 50-year-old Colonial Office files.

Some military commanders have, controversially, preferred to pin the blame for the largest capitulation in British history on the alleged cowardice of Australian troops, while another attacked the US Navy for steering clear of the conflict. And others have come close to accusing the Japanese of cheating - expressing incredulity that they should have planned their campaign, trained their troops and equipped them for the job.

But one particularly damning No 10 file, released by the Public Record Office last week at the request of the Independent, contained the War Diary of Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, acting Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet, who reached a 'bitter conclusion for national pride to swallow'.

He said: 'Man for man, our men were inferior to the Japanese in training and in the moral qualities of audacity, tenacity, discipline and devotion.' As to the War Cabinet's long-standing refusal to sanction adequate reinforcements, he said it would have required a Napoleon to repulse the Japanese attack.

But three other files from 1941- 42 show a further difficulty inflicted on the colony by Churchill - the arrival of Alfred Duff Cooper, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who was sent to Singapore in August 1941 to report on the preparations for the inevitable attack.

Duff Cooper reported in November and, three days after the Japanese landings in Malaya on 8 December, he was appointed resident Cabinet Minister for Far Eastern Affairs, with the authority to set up a War Council in Singapore.

The latest Colonial Office files to be opened to the public reveal that Duff Cooper then started the most bitter, vicious and debilitating power struggle with Sir Shenton Thomas, Governor of the Straits Settlements.

In a Secret and Personal letter to Churchill on 18 December, Duff Cooper was scathing in his contempt for senior colleagues; he said that Thomas had found it impossible to adjust his mind to war conditions and was 'the mouthpiece of the last person he speaks to'.

Complaining about the lack of preparation for war, he said: 'There are no air-raid shelters, no trenches even, no tin hats or gas masks for the civilian population. . .' But his strongest attack was reserved for the Governor's decision to countermand an order that European women and children should be evacuated from the threatened state of Perak because a previous 'evacuation of white women from Penang has had a bad effect on the Asiatic population of Singapore'.

Duff Cooper commented: 'It was the first time in the history of the British Empire when it had been our policy to evacuate the troops first and leave the women and children to the tender mercies of a particularly cruel Asiatic foe.'

In a 3 January cable to the Colonial Office, the Minister said that Thomas 'appears to have lost his grip of the situation'.

A week later, Duff Cooper received a timely recall to London, and in a valedictory cable to Churchill on 11 January, he urged the replacement of Thomas with a military governor. 'Breakdown on the civil side may well paralyse fighting services,' he warned. 'There exists a widespread and profound lack of confidence in administration.'

Having digested all the Duff Cooper material, Churchill said on 12 January: 'This is a shocking tale, and everybody seems to blame. Why did not Duff Cooper report the lack of preparation. . . These elements of deficiency must have been known to him before war broke out. His reports on Shenton Thomas appears (sic) most damaging and I do not see how he can continue. . .' After the advice had been sought of General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander in Chief, South West Pacific, Thomas was left in post. Just five days before the fall of Singapore, he sent the Colonial Office his own version of the war with Duff Cooper - who, he recalled, had been called a 'petulant little pipsqueak' by Sir Stafford Cripps.

On the row over the evacuation of Europeans, Thomas said: 'I stood for no racial discrimination. He (Duff Cooper) said in council that he considered a European ought to get preference over an Asiatic though he would not say so in public.'

Another battle took place over martial law - which Duff Cooper insisted upon ordering without adequate preparation. 'The result is worth recording,' said Thomas. 'The military court has heard one serious case only, that of flashing a torch at night during a raid. The police thought the evidence sufficient: the court acquitted the man.'

One of Duff Cooper's allies said in a memorandum circulated to the War Cabinet in April: 'What was the good of sending people before us if we were too weak to have them shot out of hand?'

Source files: CO967/77; CO967/78; CO967/79; PREM3/168/3; PREM3/168/4; PREM3/168/7B.

(Photographs omitted)