Amateur photographers were out in force as some of Japan's most senior commanders arrived at the Municipal Buildings in Singapore on 12 September 1945 to surrender. Camera shutters clicked as they climbed the steps to a ceremony which they would have once regarded as unthinkable.
Afterwards, as Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander in South-east Asia, read a proclamation, servicemen standing just yards away took more pictures. It would be something to show their children and their grandchildren, a piece of history for the family scrapbook. Days later, however, the heavy hand of authority descended and an order issued that any pictures not taken by official photographers were to be handed in with the negatives for destruction. For years only the official version of the war had been allowed and now the fighting was over, officials could not loosen their grip.
Aboard HMS Beachy Head, a maintenance and repair ship, Leonard Harris decided that the photographs he had been given by a fellow sailor were too good to lose. Mr Harris, an electrician who had joined the Royal Navy in 1943, hid them in his toolbox. Years later he told his son Brian, now a photographer with the Independent, how he had defied the authorities and kept the photographs of the surrender of 650,000 Japanese troops throughout South-east Asia. Today we are publishing them for the first time.
The surrender of 130,000 British and Indian troops in Singapore on 15 February 1942 had been the greatest defeat in British military history. Singapore had fallen after just a few days fighting, a great lynchpin of the British Empire made indefensible by a lightning Japanese advance through Malaya. Three and a half years later it was the turn of the Japanese to surrender the city and its crucial naval base. The British had set the scene carefully, decorating the chamber inside the Municipal Buildings with a picture of King George VI which had remained hidden in the local museum throughout the occupation.
Admiral Mountbatten and Lieutenant-General RA Wheeler, his American deputy, were driven to the ceremony by a recently released prisoner of war through streets lined by sailors and marines from the East Indies Fleet. They were met at Municipal Buildings by General Sir William Slim, Admiral Sir Arthur Power and Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, his army, navy and air force commanders. Mountbatten inspected four guards of honour, including one of Australian paratroopers, before all except the Supreme Commander took their places inside.
As the massed bands of the fleet played "Rule Britannia" and the Royal Artillery fired a 17-gun salute, excited servicemen watched from behind the guards lining the steps. They were straining to catch a glimpse of the leaders whose men had once seemed unbeatable, almost supernatural enemies.
General Seishiro Itagaki, commander of the 7th Area Army based in Singapore, arrived with two other army commanders, an air force chief and two admirals. Silently they were escorted up the steps and sat at the table reserved for them inside.
Field Marshal Count Terauchi, Supreme Commander of all the Japanese forces in South-east Asia, was not there, pleading sickness. A suspicious Mountbatten had sent a doctor to examine him before the ceremony who reported that he was indeed recovering from a stroke.
Both sides rose as Mountbatten entered and read the instruments of surrender before he and General Itagaki signed 11 copies for the various Allied governments. The Japanese were escorted away, Slim accompanying them for some of the way as though he wanted to make certain of his final victory.
Mountbatten stood at the top of the steps flanked by Slim and Power on one side and Wheeler and Park on the other and read out an order of the day announcing the surrender which was read simultaneously to all Allied units in South-east Asia.
A Union Jack which had been hidden in Changi jail, Singapore, by British prisoners since 1942 was hoisted at the saluting base in front of the buildings to the strains of the British national anthem. In the streets of Singapore, where so many civilians had been slaughtered by the Japanese, people danced joyfully.
Leonard Harris is now dead, but the pictures he kept in defiance of authority remain as fascinating snapshots of a scene which nobody who was there will ever forget - and as a monument to official bloody-mindedness in the moment of victory.Reuse content