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New historical literature urges re-examination of the Fall of Singapore in 1942. The debacle marking the eclipse of British power in Asia was caused by the lack of political will and financial parsimony of the British government, and absence of a strong response to the Japanese threat. The human factors are the failure of military commanders to defend Singapore. There exist wide differences in the historical literature over the role of the British commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, with some historians blaming him for the defeat, while others point to errors of omission and commission by the British government.


WHY DID BRITAIN’S LARGEST MILITARY BASE IN ASIA fall so tamely to the Japanese? How did a comparatively smaller Japanese force coming down the Malayan peninsula on bicycles overwhelm a much larger British, Indian, and dominion force within 24 hours? 

The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 marked the biggest capitulation in British military history—the death and surrender of 130,246 troops. The Japanese had humiliated the United States at Pearl Harbor just over two months earlier on 7 December 1941.

This essay studies the event in light of new historical literature that urges re-examination of the topic. It argues that politico-military factors on the one hand, and human factors on the other, were responsible for the debacle that marked the eclipse of British power in Asia. The politico-military factors relate both to a lack of political will and financial parsimony of the British government, as well as an absence of a strong response to the Japanese threat by the Chiefs of Staff in London. The human factors represent the failure of military commanders to defend Singapore to the last man. The fall of Singapore extracted a huge price: it disrupted a supply source of raw materials for the war effort against the Axis powers in Europe. It exposed Australia, New Zealand, Burma and India to Japanese attack. It marked the end of British naval supremacy in Asian waters, and led to the transfer of the task of defending Southeast Asia and East Asia from Britain to the United States.

This article is based on primary documents such as British War Cabinet records, minutes of Chiefs of Staff Committee meetings, and parliamentary correspondence and debates. The secondary sources used are books and journal articles by historians, and retired generals and journalists who served in Southeast Asia.

The fall of Singapore dismayed Prime Minister Winston Churchill who faced increasing pressure to do more from two powerful allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom were rallying against the Axis powers during the Second World War. Historian Raymond Callaghan argues that against their strong performance, the British surrender in Singapore made depressing news as it came on top of British setbacks in the Middle East, and the grinding battle in the Atlantic.[1] Churchill was counting on salvaging something of British pride by saving Singapore. Five days before Singapore fell, at a time when Japanese forces had just entered Singapore, Churchill cabled General Sir Archibald Wavell, the Allied Supreme Commander in Singapore, on 10 February 1942: “The defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits [of Johor], and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs.”[2] Churchill exhorted Wavell that the British 18th Infantry Division had a chance to carve its name in history: “Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form.” The same evening Wavell repeated Churchill’s order to the General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. But Wavell also urged his troops to perform as valiantly as the Allies in other fronts: “Our whole fighting reputation is at stake and the honour of the British Empire.” He appealed: “The Americans have held out in the Bataan Peninsula against far greater odds, the Russians are turning back the picked strength of the Germans, the Chinese with almost complete lack of modern equipment have held the Japanese for 41 years.” And he pleaded: “It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior enemy forces,” and that “there must be no question or thought of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy … I look to you and your men to fight to the end to prove that the fighting spirit that won our Empire still exists to enable us to defend it.”

Far from putting their lives on the line, senior commanders were saving their skins, deaf to prime ministerial rhetoric and to requests to salvage pride. Even before Percival surrendered, Australian Major-General Gordon Bennett had fled, leaving his brigadier to lead his men into Japanese captivity. Bennett’s undignified departure did not diminish the contribution of Australian troops who died fighting for British interests.

On what grounds did Churchill develop the heroic image of the British soldier—that he expected “every inch” of the island defended, and that there must be no question of surrender until after “protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.”[3] This paper argues that Churchill’s need to preserve British pride was a central theme running through his orders to defend Singapore at all costs.

Churchill was shocked and disappointed by the British defeat at Singapore. But he could not have been surprised. He knew all along that budget cuts had adversely affected the deployment of adequate defenses in the island city. So, what was Churchill shocked and disappointed about? He was dismayed by human failure at all levels: the failure of his generals, and of his troops, to defeat the Japanese invaders whom the British outnumbered by two to one. He was counting on the ‘superior’ skills of the British soldier to trounce the militarily ‘inferior’ Japanese invader. His disappointment grew in the months after the fall of Singapore, when he saw the Soviet Red Army led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov defeat the German forces of Lieutenant-General Friedrich von Paulus by bleeding the Germans to death in 1943. Unlike Zhukov’s troops who stood their ground for close to two years, the British forces in Singapore disintegrated in 24 hours.

Lieutenant-General A.E. Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya, during the Japanese attack in December 1941.  Photograph no. K 1261 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, London (IWML).

This essay uses an analogy with Stalingrad not to engage in an extensive comparison of the two battles—for, that is not the purpose of this paper—but rather to put into context Churchill’s shock and disappointment. This essay argues that when Singapore fell, Churchill found himself under pressure from his American and Soviet allies, who would soon perform valiantly in their war with Nazi Germany, whereas the British did not seem to be pulling their weight. By 1943, the Soviet Red Army’s heroism in places such as Stalingrad and Kursk was setting benchmarks for armies defending their cities.

Postmortem analyses have pinned the blame for the Singapore debacle on flawed policies and strategies pursued by individual military commanders and politicians. Major-General S. Woodburn Kirby, who personally knew the commanders who had prepared the defenses for Malaya and Singapore, described the loss of Singapore as “the greatest national humiliation suffered by Britain since Yorktown.” The fall of this symbol of British imperial supremacy was to have been formally investigated by a Royal Commission, but it never saw the light of day. On 17 February 1942, Churchill asked the House of Commons not to indulge in “agitated or excited recriminations,” but a member of parliament, Earl Winterton, demanded that a grand inquest must be held at some point. Churchill told the Chiefs of Staff Committee the following month that he was not disposed to yield to parliament’s demand for a commission of enquiry into the surrender of Singapore, and instead, proposed to send a telegram to Gen. Wavell, the overall in-charge of the Malayan campaign, asking for an account of the events that had led to the capitulation of the garrison.[4] In the absence of an official inquiry into the lapses of the British government, a slew of books have attempted to explain the disaster.

Firefighters battle flames of a Japanese air raid on 8 February 1942. Wikicommons photo in public domain.

Among the chief causes, Kirby lists the failure to prepare Malaya properly against invasion, the poor state of training of troops, and the inexperience of many commanders.[5] Kirby argued that those responsible for the conduct of the land campaign in Malaya committed every conceivable blunder, obliquely blaming Percival who underrated the enemy, paid insufficient attention to the training of their troops, and delayed taking urgent decisions even after the Japanese had landed on Malayan soil.

Percival was no Zhukov. After serving as major-general, commanding the 44th Division in Britain from August 1940 to April 1941, Percival was appointed Temporary Lieutenant-General, GOC Malaya Command from April 1941 to February 1942. He retired from the army at the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General in 1946. Kirby faithfully records that Percival lacked operational command experience, the main reason why he was unable to decide where to concentrate his forces. Had a competent general been in command of the defense of Singapore, it is safe to presume that British forces would have pushed back the Japanese and gained time for significant reinforcements to arrive. Yet, it must be acknowledged that Percival was hobbled by inadequate air support, which meant that he could neither prevent an invasion nor support his troops.[6] Kirby also argues that British field commanders in Malaya—Percival, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, and Air Vice-Marshal C.W.H. Pulford—could not have saved Malaya and Singapore. Kirby extends the blame on the apathy of successive British governments from 1921 to 1941 that delayed the development of the naval base at Singapore.

An illustration of the early setback to the project to build the naval base was the British government’s decision to put construction on ice in March 1924, following representations from the Governor General of South Africa urging the British government to abandon the scheme as it would not be in keeping with the spirit of the Washington disarmament agreements of 1921-1922. The British dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland, however, wanted the base built, arguing that it was consistent with a defensive, not offensive, British policy. New Zealand believed that in the absence of the base, the interests of the British Empire in the Pacific would be threatened. But the British government said it was abandoning the project till such time that it became necessary to defend imperial interests in that region. It told the dominions that the question of building the base would “have to be reconsidered” if world politics made it necessary to “return to attempts to provide Imperial security primarily by armaments.” [7] Yet, the British government argued that world politics had not deteriorated, and it was confident of adhering to the policy of disarmament.

How wrong this assessment would be proved in just eighteen years. The strategy to defend Britain’s Far Eastern interests was framed in London in 1921 by the government and the chiefs of staff. Even at that time defense planners were aware that the entire fleet could not be sent east in case of threats emerging closer to home. A one-hemisphere navy could not defend a two-hemisphere empire.

In their study, Did Singapore Have to Fall, historians Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn have categorised the numerous writings on the Fall of Singapore into at least nine schools of thought. The multiple interpretations offer a better understanding than does a single one. These are the Campaign School, Naval School, Diplomatic School, Grand Strategy School, Churchill Thesis, Controversies School, Intelligence School, journalistic accounts, and Japanese historical works.[8]

The Diplomatic School headlined by historian Ritchie Ovendale’s Appeasement and the English speaking World showed that the British suffered from imperial overstretch.[9] Ovendale’s important study straddles the British dominions and British foreign policy that they adhered to. Among the dominions, Canada was not eager to be forced into the military fortification of Singapore, or to be dragged unwillingly to war on behalf of the empire. The influence of the dominions on British foreign policy in the 1930s remains a controversial issue, although a mild one. Some historians have gestured towards the continuing influence of the empire on British governing elite, and to the psychological, economic, and military importance of the dominions in British perceptions of their national interest. Many British ministers and civil servants, indeed, feared that the alienation of the dominions, or their loss, would mark the end of the British empire and its greatness as a world power.[10] Neville Chamberlain expressed these concerns to an audience in London shortly after becoming prime minister in 1937. The influence of the dominions as a factor in shaping British foreign policy should not, however, be overstated. Ovendale’s work is excellent for its detailed use of documents, but it is obviously thin on analysis. It was, nonetheless, the first exhaustive study of Anglo-dominion relations. He argues that in British calculations the dominions were certainly a factor, though a secondary one because London was determined not to let them dictate policy, although British policymakers were aware that the dominions’ support would be needed in case war broke out. Confronted by powerful Germany and Italy in the 1930s in Europe, the British chiefs of staff appeased Japan in the east, in order to avoid facing all three Axis powers at once. Callaghan articulated the Grand Strategy argument that the British—even under Churchill’s assertive leadership—could fight one war in the West and attempt to win it, or fight two wars, and risk losing both. 

The Naval School and the Grand Strategy School both embraced a strategic approach, but, unlike the naval school, the latter emphasised decisions taken during the Second World War instead of beforehand. The proponents of the Churchill Thesis identified deep flaws in strategies that led to the Singapore debacle, arguing that Churchill could have sent more reinforcements to Singapore, and avoided disaster. Singaporean historian Ong Chit Chung explains in Operation Matador that the defense plan for Malaya in 1941 relied on the use of aircraft and tanks, but Churchill refused to support those proposals.[11] The Intelligence School represented in the works of Aldrich, Best, Elphick, and Ferris demonstrates the fiasco of British intelligence and the failure of the authorities to listen to British intelligence.[12]

The problem was exacerbated by an underlying streak of British racism and their ethnocentric image of Japan that led them to misjudge Japanese capabilities. Western journalists described Japanese troops as “apes in khaki,” and as Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s troops made their lightning move down the jungles of Malaya to capture Singapore, rumours spread that they had accomplished this breathtaking advance by swinging from tree to tree.[13] Before Pearl Harbor, Westerners vastly underestimated Japan’s capabilities, with a senior U.S. military officer describing it as “no better than a class C-nation.”[14] After Pearl Harbor, though, U.S. officers began exaggerating the enemy’s material and psychological strengths. Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham wrote disparagingly in racist terms about Japanese troops in China in his report to London: “I had a good close-up, across the barbed wire, of various sub-human specimens dressed in dirty grey uniform, which I was informed were Japanese soldiers,” adding “I cannot believe they would form an intelligent fighting force.”[15] At the same time the British Chiefs of Staff sent a message to Brooke-Popham that the Japanese “should not be overestimated.” One of Brooke-Popham’s battalion commanders remarked: “I do hope, Sir, we are not getting too strong in Malaya, because if so the Japanese may never attempt a landing.”[16]

Some British intelligence officers warned against such dangerous bravado, but they were ignored. When the British military attaché in Tokyo visited Singapore in April 1941, he told the garrison officers that he considered the Japanese a first-class fighting force, well trained, well officered, and possessing high esprit de corps. At the end of a speech to his officers, the chief of the Malaya Command, Lt. Gen. Lionel Bond declared that any talk of Japanese efficiency was “far from the truth,” and that he had seen confidential Japanese cables confirming his low regard for the Japanese. “I do not think much of them, and you can take it from me that we have nothing to fear from them,” he proclaimed.

The defenders subscribed to the myth of the impregnability of the fortress at Singapore, and lulled themselves into a false sense of security based on the racist denigration of the Japanese combatant as an incompetent fighter.  In his account of the fall of Singapore, Noel Barber says that at 1.15 a.m. on 8 December 1941, Percival picked up the phone at his headquarters in Fort Canning in the heart of Singapore and called the city’s Governor, Shenton Thomas.

Sir Shenton Thomas as Governor of the Straits Settlements. From the Colonial Office photographic collection at The National Archives, London.

A gung-ho Thomas told Percival, “I suppose you’ll soon shove the little men off!”[17] Next, Thomas picked up his green telephone and told the police to begin rounding up all Japanese males in Singapore, and then awakened his wife and the servants and ordered coffee, which he took, as usual, on the first-floor balcony of Government House.

The British authorities were so overconfident of their abilities that the lights of Singapore city were ablaze and the air raid centre was unmanned when the first Japanese bombers arrived at 4 a.m., with one author recalling that the city was lit up like a Christmas tree. The British order of the day proclaimed that the defenders were ready and confident, and it portrayed Japan as a weak and demoralised country “drained for years by the exhausting claims of her wanton onslaught on China.”[18]

Two days later came the worst news since the fall of France. The British fighting ship Prince of Wales, which, as Churchill had told Stalin, could “catch and kill any Japanese ship” was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft, along with the Repulse.

After attack by Japanese fighter planes, the crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and the Express had to withdraw. This is photograph HU 2675 from the collections of the IWML.  

British military authorities discounted the Japanese threat in Burma to the extent that when war broke out British soldiers had no training in jungle warfare. Churchill, instead, thought it tactically appropriate to send the Repulse and the Prince of Wales to Singapore to block the Japanese advance towards the city. Just two days after destroying many U.S. ships in Pearl Harbor, they sank these two British ships in the South China Sea, removing the last of Allied ships from the Pacific that might have deterred Japanese advance.[19]

Japanese attack bomber, the Mitsubishi G3M Nell of Genzan Air Group. Wikicommons photo in the public domain.

A day before their sinking, the flag-desk officer on the Repulse laughed when asked about a report that a Japanese capital ship, three cruisers, and a few destroyers were in the vicinity: “Oh, but they are Japanese. There’s nothing to worry about,” he remarked.[20] A few hours later, some ten to fifteen officers on the Repulse sat listening to BBC radio news on the fighting that had broken out in Malaya. One officer commented: “Those Japs can’t fly. They can’t see at night and they’re not well trained.” Another remarked: “They have rather good ships, but they can’t shoot.”[21] They argued that the Japanese were not much good because “they could not beat China for five years and now look what they are doing out here, jumping all over the map instead of meeting at one or two places,” and that “they cannot be very smart to be doing that.” Both ships were sunk in a series of perfectly executed air attacks launched from Japanese aircraft carriers.

Churchill’s boast of British naval power and Japanese incompetence had been exposed for what it was. Yet, Churchill remained confident that the army under Percival would restore British pride, and that British troops would fight as doggedly as the Soviet Red Army. The historian John Dower argues that the factual trappings of such smug overconfidence are noteworthy as prejudice masqueraded as fact. 

The invincibility motif runs through the conversations, letters, and memoirs of several high-level British officials tasked with defending Singapore. Percival wrote in his war memoirs that the shock of the fall of Singapore was all the greater because the public had been led to believe that Singapore was impregnable. He discussed Singapore with Colonel John Dill, his military superior under whom he had served as a staff officer at Aldershot. Dill asked him whether he thought Singapore was impregnable. “I told him that, in my opinion, far from being impregnable it would be in imminent danger if war broke out in the Far East unless there is an early realization in high places of the complete change in the problem of its defense which was taking place.”[22]

Brewster 339E Buffalo fighters based at Sembawang Airfield, Singapore. Photo no. K 630 from the IWML.

It is easy for Percival to adopt this position in retrospect, but in the decade before the Second World War notions of British superiority and Japanese inferiority were legion. The British Commander-in-Chief of the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, puffed up the performance of his obsolete aircraft: “We can get on all right with the Buffaloes here. They are quite good enough for Malaya.” Norman Dixon, a reader in psychology at University College, London, criticised the remark by Brooke-Popham as “arrogant in its underestimation of an Asiatic fighting force, stupid in the wrong prognosis of its effects on the Singapore civilians, and dishonest in that even a man like Brooke-Popham could hardly have reached the rank of air chief marshal without knowing something about the aircraft under his command.”[23]

Squadron Leader Richard “Rickey” Brooker’s Hawker Hurricane Mark II of No. 232 Squadron, RAF, was shot down on 8 February 1942, crashing on East Coast Road, Singapore. Brooker was uninjured. Note his pennant below the cockpit. The aircraft was abandoned and captured by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF). Wikimedia Commons image in the public domain.

Singapore city officials neglected to order a blackout ahead of the first Japanese air raids. Despite a 30-minute advance warning of approaching hostile aircraft, they did not order a blackout because, it seems, the Japanese had made the ‘mistake’ of attacking at night. It was thought to be a mistake because it was supposed that the Japanese were unable to fly at night. The prevalence of this particular dogma cost Singapore 61 dead and 133 injured.[24]

Japanese military successes between December 1941 and May 1942 stunned Britain and the allies for sheer audaciousness as they were achieved at whirlwind speed and at relatively low cost. Adrian Stewart argues that the Japanese juggernaut shot holes in the British theory that the Japanese were not to be feared. General Wavell, who was the commander-in-chief of India when war broke out, rated the Japanese not much superior to the Italians whom he had defeated in North Africa.[25] James Leasor observes in his book, Singapore: The Battle that Changed the World: “The general impression in Malaya was that the Japanese aircraft were made of rice paper and bamboo shoots.”[26]

The egregiousness of the British Far Eastern Combined Intelligence Bureau sank to new depths of racism and incompetence with its comment that Japan’s airmen suffered from bad eyesight and could not make low-flying attacks. It was believed they could not bomb effectively, and certainly not undertake night operations. When Japanese warplanes began bombing British airfields in Malaya on 8 December 1941, their performance and accuracy of bombing came as “an unpleasant surprise” to Percival.

The Japanese had a fair notion of British imperial hubris. Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, who served as Chief of Operations and Planning Staff with the 25th Japanese Army in the Malaya campaign, wrote: “Styling Singapore the Gibraltar of the Orient and boasting of its impregnability might possibly indicate a show of strength—or bluff. But the absence of rear defenses of the fortress constituted a very grave defect.” He argued: “The strength of its [Singapore’s] position was purposely and extravagantly propagandized without regard for the complacency which would be promoted among the public and even those responsible for its defense.”[27] In his riposte to British self-perceptions of their racial superiority, Tsuji said that the Japanese forces disregarded an axiom of military science that, in an attack on a fortress, the attackers should outnumber the defenders by three to one. Tsuji adds that in the initial assaults on Singapore, the Japanese deployed the same number of troops as the British.

The earliest Japanese perspective came from the architect of the fall of Singapore, Colonel Tsuji in his book, Shingaporu Ummei no tenki [Singapore—the Hinge of Fate], whose subtitle was borrowed from Churchill’s book.[28] He presented the Japanese campaign as a heroic effort, as does Japanese war history, Mare Shinko Sakusen [The Malayan Campaign].[29] Louis Allen’s study, Singapore, 1941-1942, is the only one in English that makes extensive use of Japanese sources. Several important Japanese texts offer more of the Japanese viewpoint as well as details of their campaign planning.[30] The historian of Japan, Henri Frei, offers Japanese viewpoint, as does Yoji Akashi’s work on Lt. Gen. Yamashita, who earned the sobriquet “Tiger of Malaya” for his remarkable success in the campaign, as well as other English language texts by Japanese authors.[31]

One of the best accounts is Brian Farrell’s study of the failures of central imperial defense planning, whose so-called “Singapore strategy” was based on assumptions that became untenable.[32] The political and military will was absent to make essential policy changes at a time when the resources of the empire were insufficient to maintain a military posture in Southeast Asia because Britain was concurrently fighting Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Map of Singapore in early 1942 showing the location of Allied troops in red. The main north-south transport corridor, formed by Woodlands Road and the railway, connecting the city centre (in the south-east) and The Causeway (central north), is the black line running through the centre of the island. Sarimbun is at the north-west corner of the island; Bukit Timah is located close to the centre on the transport corridor; Pasir Panjang is between the city centre and the southwest corner of the island and the "Jurong Line" is the bracket-like shape in red, just west of Woodlands Road. Wikimedia Commons map in the public domain.

Although the Japanese assault force was numerically smaller than that of the defenders, it was mostly composed of highly trained and battle-hardened troops.[33] Colin Smith explains that Malaya was defended by “a strange assortment” of British regulars, inexperienced Australians and Indian army divisions whose men were often half-trained teenagers. The Japanese easily overwhelmed the British as they had brought tanks and a large tactical air force. They quickly attained land, air, and naval supremacy. The defenders had no tanks and very few anti-tank weapons.

Map showing Japanese landings in Singapore on 8 February 1942, with red arrows indicating thrusts by Japanese attacking forces. The blue markings are the locations of the Australian 22nd Brigade. Map from Lionel Wigmore, “Defense of Western Area,” in Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Vol. IV—The Japanese Thrust (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957), 310. Wikimedia Commons image in the public domain.

The Royal Air Force was cut by half in the first 24 hours of the Japanese landing in Malaya as it consisted largely of slow and obsolete machines without modern fighters until the last few days. Japan also achieved control of the seas when their bombs and torpedoes sank the British battle cruiser Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales two days later.

The defenders were demonstrably plagued by appalling mistakes and, as some apologists have suggested, also by bad luck. The invocations to luck, however, feed into the defenders’ fantasies—historians call them counterfactuals—that the outcome may have been different if other factors had played into their favour. Here is a sample of their fanciful counterfactual thinking: If the British forces had swarmed into southern Thailand, instead of dithering until it was too late, couldn’t they have destroyed the invaders on the beaches? If the British Navy had set sail earlier to attack the Japanese fleet, or turned back as soon as they knew British warships had been spotted, couldn’t the Japanese troop-carrying ships have been sunk or scattered?

The “ifs” of history are a device to  find ways by which the British could have won: If a British ship with more anti-tank guns had not been sunk; if the RAF had possessed the faster Hawker Hurricane fighters (that had destroyed more enemy aircraft than any other British weapon in the Battle of Britain in 1940) at the start of the Japanese invasion instead of the obsolete American-made Brewster Buffalo fighters; and, if the Australian artillery had received the signals that the Japanese had begun landing on Singapore.

Not a single one of these options was credibly possible. But even if some of them were achievable, the attack was still unstoppable. To be fair, the defenders were heroically brave but they were incapable of confronting the invaders. Shockingly, the defenders failed to communicate with their units as their radios did not work, and their field-telephone cables snapped. British aircraft in Singapore were 90 minutes late in attacking the Japanese who landed on the beaches of Kota Baru because all communication with Singapore was jammed.

Percival lost 7,500 dead in the ten-week campaign. Then he went with his men into captivity, where more than 12,000 died. Maj.-Gen. Bennett, commander of the 8th Australian Division, fled to Sumatra on a boat. Smith argues that history should be rougher with him than with his soldiers: They asked themselves what they were dying for, and they did not receive a convincing answer.

Books by Smith and Peter Thompson add an important dimension to the literature on the war through the experiences of combatants and non-combatants, and provide a counterpoint to Farrell’s comprehensive analysis.[34] These accounts capture the human drama of the loss of morale among British troops, the disgruntlement of Indian troops who were victims of racism, and the chaos and panic among civilians being evacuated before the rapid Japanese advance. In his study of the initial Japanese assault against the 22nd Australian Brigade led by Brigadier Harold Burfield Taylor, Thompson argues that the Australians did not retreat in haste, and did not desert their posts. Yet Taylor disobeyed orders from his higher commanders for his brigade to hold its position, so that the Malaya Command’s reserves could launch their counterattack. But Taylor feared that the counterattack would not be successful, and he tried to save his brigade by secretly authorising his units to retreat to a safer place further back. His troops were dispersed during retreat, lost in the mangrove swamps in darkness in the path of the advancing Japanese infantry.

Farrell, Smith and Thompson have demonstrated that Percival’s responsibility has been somewhat mitigated by explanations that blame the disaster on the system of planning. Although Percival was an integral part of an imperfect military system, he has shouldered the blame alone for far too long.

The weakness of the Far Eastern policy was apparent in the slow pace of construction of the Singapore base. As it had not been built in the early-1930s, the British could not respond to the crises in Manchuria and Shanghai in 1931-32. A dry dock was opened in Singapore in 1938, but the full naval base would not be completed till 1941. British naval planners warned that the base was essential for Britain to maintain a two-power standard to take on Germany and Japan simultaneously, and if Italy entered the war a three-power standard would be needed.

This line of argument gives the defense of Singapore a political complexion. Churchill claimed he was unaware about the weakness in the defenses until he received a cable from General Wavell on 19 January 1942. In anger, Churchill demanded why he had not been told earlier. Yet, he must surely have known because as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924-29, it was Churchill who had cut expenditure for the base.

Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff could have poured men and material into the defense of Singapore after 1940, but British interests lay instead in defending the British Isles and the Atlantic trade routes. Above all, Churchill held on to the mistaken belief that Singapore was a well-defended fortress capable of withstanding a siege, and while he focused narrowly on Singapore, he failed to understand the need to defend the whole of Malaya. He gambled, moreover, that the United States would provide a shield for Singapore.

The Chiefs of Staff, in turn, failed to correct the erroneous picture Churchill had formed of Singapore’s defenses. After he recovered from the shock of the fall of the city, Churchill said he was taking the “fullest personal responsibility” for giving priority in 1941 to beefing up troop requirements in the Middle East and Russia.[35]

A new book by retired British army Colonel Ronald McCrum, The Men Who Lost Singapore, examines the less-explored role the civilian colonial government played in the build-up to war. The book fills a gap in the literature because most writers have been fascinated by the military or the human aspects while ignoring the colonial government’s role.[36] McCrum argues that the civilian administration under Straits Settlements Governor Shenton Thomas lacked a good working relationship with the British military and it failed to coordinate efforts to confront the Japanese threat. The two sides bickered over how labour should be used, with the armed forces demanding more workers to help construct defences to block a Japanese offensive. Governor Thomas, however, diverted labour to producing more rubber and tin for the war in Europe. They neglected construction of sufficient air-raid shelters, and did not plan for managing the evacuation of civilians.

Percival shrugged off accusations of command failure. In his memoir, The War in Malaya, he voices a sense of betrayal by the lack of air and naval support, without addressing any of the lapses in his own command. He argues that the main cause of defeat was that the army “after the first few days had to bear practically the whole weight of the Japanese attack with little air or naval support.”[37] The enemy’s sea-borne thrusts continually forced the defenders to make detachments to meet them, but they failed to repel them due to the lack of both reserves and quality aircraft.

Sir John Smyth, Percival’s biographer and a close friend from their days as students at Staff College in Camberley, defended his companion in Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore. Bordering on hagiography, Smyth argues that when the promised aircraft never arrived, the defense plan fell apart. This factor, combined with the lack of training and weapons, had a demoralising effect on the troops and a correspondingly exhilarating effect on the Japanese.[38]

Lt.-Gen. Henry Pownall, who served as Commander-in-Chief Far East, admits in his diaries that the principal cause for British defeat at the hands of a smaller force was that the enemy fought better. “I fear that we were frankly out-generaled, outwitted, and outfought. It is a great disaster for the British arms, one of the worst in history, and a great blow to the honor and prestige of the Army,” he wrote.[39] Pownall has displayed remarkable candour in conceding that the main cause of defeat was a failure of generalship. By the same token, a command failure would necessarily indict Pownall himself because of the central role he played on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which was quite ineffective in dealing with the Japanese threat.

Did the British generals concede defeat without giving the Japanese their best shot? W. David McIntyre argues that the Malaya Command should have defeated the Japanese with what resources it had.[40] In further indictment of the quality of generalship, the resources available in Malaya were not properly used due to faulty decisions and tactics, and personal disputes between commanders. There were plenty of mistakes such as the delay to summon air support, lack of defenses on the north shore of Singapore, and the inability to counterattack when the Japanese invasion force commander, Lt.-Gen. Yamashita, was outnumbered and running out of ammunition.

The historian Louis Allen believes that the campaign was a close run thing. Allen wonders whether last-ditch resistance might have succeeded in ousting the Japanese. He quotes a Japanese officer as saying that the appearance of a white flag on 15 February 1942 was greeted with disbelief since the Japanese felt they would be overwhelmed at any moment, and that they might be the ones to surrender. Allen acidly remarks that “the British need never have been defeated” in Singapore. Percival’s failure to summon a do-or-die spirit meant that he actually extracted defeat from the jaws of victory.

Over time, Percival changed his views on the reasons for the Japanese victory. During the battle for Singapore he wired home saying that Japanese success was built on superior training, war experience, discipline, and morale. At the time, Percival did not think Japanese air superiority and use of tanks were enough to defeat the British. By the time Percival got around to writing his war memoir in 1949, the principal factor he identified for his failure to hold Singapore was that he had less than a quarter of the aircraft the Japanese had, which enabled the Japanese to gain air superiority. Percival lists the subsidiary causes of British defeat as the non-availability of a British fleet for Far Eastern operations, and the inexperienced troops under his command. He was particularly critical of the quality of Australian officers, most of whom, he groused, lacked training in the art of war.

Alan Warren, however, argues that instead of pointing a finger at any particular army formation, the defeat should be seen as a team effort.[41] If the Indians fought badly in one sector, they performed well in another; and, while Percival blames Australian commanders, the fact that Australian troops were present on the casualty list surely meant that they went down fighting.

The conflict between Britain and Japan was laced with irony. Twenty years earlier each claimed to be the other’s old and faithful ally, and Japan had fought on the side of the allies in the Great War. The falling out occurred at the Washington Conference on disarmament in 1921 when the battleships and carriers of the major powers were restricted to the proportion: Britain 5, the United States 5, and Japan 3. Japan considered the lower quota an insult. Britain’s decision to terminate the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which Japan had regarded with pride, struck the final blow. Japan felt humiliated and betrayed, and would never trust its former ally again.

What, then, was the British strategy to defend Singapore? Plans for the defense were laid in the 1920s when it was thought that a Japanese ship-borne attack on Singapore over a distance of 2,700 km would be difficult to organise, and at any rate it would lack the element of surprise. The rapid development of airpower in the early-1930s upset those calculations as Singapore was exposed to attacks by carrier-borne aircraft. Percival was critical of British policy which hinged on the main fleet sailing for Singapore in the event of a war, whatever the circumstances might be in Europe. Not until 1939 did the British planners realise that the fleet may not be able to sail to the Far East at all. When the Battle of Britain began, the prospects of dispatching additional aircraft to Singapore grew dim.

As the British position weakened in Singapore, the Axis side was getting stronger. In September 1940, Japan signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy, becoming a formal member of the Axis. At the military level, the pact facilitated cooperation between German and Japanese defense forces. Japanese naval and military missions were sent to Berlin soon afterwards, and German experts were dispatched to Japan to study an attack on Singapore, and to assist Japan in developing an aircraft industry.[42] Lt.-Gen. Yamashita, who later led the attack on Malaya and Singapore, and who is thought to have learned from the Germans the blitz tactics he used in Malaya, led the Japanese mission to Berlin. There is no doubt that the Japanese learned military tactics from the Germans, but this does not explain why a larger and well-entrenched British force would capitulate so tamely.

Percival argues that the Japanese had prepared to attack Malaya single-mindedly, that they had selected the best officers and troops for the invasion, and that the navy and air force supported their operations. This view downplays the overwhelming strength of British forces which outnumbered the Japanese and, despite having aircraft at their disposal, failed to make use of them. At the heart of British troubles was the belief that the Japanese would never advance on Singapore down the Malay Peninsula, and that any attack must come from the sea.[43] As David Day points out, the British made no more than a token response to the huge Japanese challenge, and opted to save their resources for the greater threat posed by Germany and Italy.[44] This was ultimately a political decision and navy commanders held politicians, rather than themselves, responsible for the loss of Singapore primarily because it was the politicians who had allowed the Royal Navy to decline to a level incompatible with Britain’s global interests.[45] 

Churchill’s loss of confidence in his commanders’ ability to defend Singapore, and his growing concern about the Japanese threat to Burma and India, is contained in the minutes of a War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) meeting on 21 January 1942. Churchill is quoted as saying: “If Singapore could only hold out for another three or four weeks, was it not only throwing good money after bad to send more reinforcements there; should not they be sent to Burma?”[46]

Churchill was in favour of sending reinforcements to Singapore if there was a reasonable chance of the fortress holding out. Chief of Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, present at the meeting, said that hopes for saving Singapore had been virtually abandoned. Brooke told the meeting that the defense of Singapore had been reduced to delaying tactics that British forces were using down the length of the Malay Peninsula. The plan was to play for time before the decision to abandon Singapore would be taken.

The British had indeed abandoned their commitments of nine months earlier. The Americans, the Dutch, and the British had an important conversation in April 1941, aimed at coordinating a combined Western military response, and underlining the key goals of the Allies: “Our object is to defeat Germany and her allies, and hence in the Far East to maintain the position of the Associated Powers against Japanese attack in order to sustain a long-term economic pressure against Japan until we are in a position to take the offensive.” The “most important” British interests in the Far East were “(a) The security of sea communications, and (b) The security of Singapore.”[47]

A parallel conversation between the British and Dutch militaries in Singapore in the same month pinpointed Japan’s probable course of action. Officials at the meeting agreed that in conformity with Japan’s traditional step-by-step approach, their main attack was likely to be “delivered on Malaya with the object of securing Singapore.”[48] They agreed that the proposed course of Allied action must be to maintain the security of Singapore, which itself depended largely on the defense of Malaya, and that Britain and the Netherlands would mutually reinforce each other in the event of a Japanese attack on Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. The eleventh hour moves in Malaya were a desperate last-ditch attempt to stop the Japanese through collective European action, as British two-standard policy in the Far East was all but abandoned.

Within eight months from those resolutions and commitments, the British and their allies in the Far East were in crisis-mode. Enemy aircraft bombed Singapore on December 7 and 9, with the War Cabinet voicing concern that the attacks were “being pressed home with fanatical courage in spite of heavy losses.”[49]

It is unfortunate that one of the first casualties in the political debate in London over the defense of Singapore was a prescient report by Major-General Sir William Dobbie who, in 1938, had made three key recommendations—to beef up the air force so that it could defend Singapore, to augment beach defenses with anti-tank weapons, and to prepare defenses extending in an arc with a 33 km radius from the naval base. Dobbie’s plan carried a price tag of British £250,000, and was approved by the War Office, but the Treasury only sanctioned £60,000. The tanks Dobbie asked for were not available, and the best the War Office could muster were seven armoured cars.[50] The defense of Singapore was back to square one. The Chiefs of Staff reverted to the old 1921 policy that was premised on the Japanese making a naval landing on the east coast. As early as 1938, it was no secret that Singapore was wide open to attack.

The politicians agreed with the assessment that Singapore would somehow take care of itself. At a staff conference in London chaired by Churchill on 1 December 1941, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, enquired what effect the loss of the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand would have on the defense of Singapore. The Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Dudley Pound replied that the military chiefs had always taken the view that Japanese aggression in the Isthmus of Kra would not, by itself, constitute an attack on British vital interests.[51] In other words, a part of Thailand falling under Japanese control would not threaten British interests. This line of thinking fostered a complacent attitude, for which the British were to pay dearly.

On the same day in London, the Chiefs of Staff were meeting to assess the situation in the Far East. They distilled the Japanese threat down to three case scenarios:[52]

Case I

No guarantee of American support, but the Japanese invade Siam (not Kra Isthmus).

In this case, Japan has aggressed first and we should carry out Matador [a military operation to advance into Thailand, and engage the Japanese there].

Case II

No American assurance satisfactory to His Majesty’s Government, but a Japanese expedition is sighted making for the Kra Isthmus.

We do not advocate taking anticipatory action unless His Majesty’s Government share General Smut’s view that America would, in the event, give us full support once we became involved in war with Japan. We cannot be certain that the time factor will allow us to forestall the Japanese.

Case III

If His Majesty’s Government are satisfied with an assurance of immediate American support in advance and have knowledge of a Japanese expedition against Kra, we recommend ordering Matador.

The hope of American intervention that Churchill was counting on seemed to brighten at the Washington War Conference from December 1941 to January 1942. Yet, these expressions of support for Britain’s Far Eastern interests came a little too late, and without concrete promises. The conference paid lip service to the British by agreeing that the safeguarding of vital British interests in the eastern theatre included the defense of Singapore.[53] The defenses of the fortress in Singapore were built around four army divisions under Percival’s command.

But who was this angular and professorial general, and how did he get the prized command of Singapore? Percival qualified for Staff College in 1923, and due to his brilliant performance, he caught the eye of the Staff College commandant, Colonel John Dill, who patronised his rapid ascent, and whom Churchill nicknamed “Dilly-Dally.” It was on Dill’s recommendation that Percival was promoted to Colonel and appointed staff officer at the Malaya Command. Again, it was General Dill who, as Chief of Imperial General Staff, appointed Percival as GOC Malaya in April 1941.[54] Dill was impressed by Percival’s past experience in Malaya and the fact that he had written a prescient paper on the defense of Malaya and Singapore, explaining the tactics Japan would use. Percival wrote: “I had studied the attack and defense of Singapore on more than one occasion at the Staff College and at the Imperial Defense College, and was anxious to see what the place was really like.”[55]

The kind of experience Percival had was not enough. In sending him to Singapore, Gen. Dill had thrown into the deep-end an intelligent officer, albeit one who had never commanded troops in a theatre of war. John Keegan does not mince words: “The worst of the eastern generals was, of course, Percival, whom Churchill never forgave for his surrender of Singapore; the photograph of Percival walking under the white flag to negotiate with his Japanese opponent remains perhaps the most humiliating image of British defeat ever to confront the public in the nation’s history.”

Lt.-Gen. Percival led by a Japanese officer, marches under a flag of truce to negotiate the capitulation of Allied forces in Singapore, on 15 February 1942. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. Wikicommons photo in the public domain.

Percival, argues Keegan, “should not have been appointed to high command.”[56] There is broad consensus on Percival’s unsuitability for operational command, and that he owed his appointment to his mentor, Dill. Kirby concludes that Percival “had neither the drive nor the ruthlessness” which was needed by a commander who would be responsible for Singapore.[57] Percival does not hide his relationship with Dill, candidly admitting in his memoir that he knew him well.

Percival’s role in the biggest surrender in British history drew heavy criticism both in the popular press and in scholarly books. In his memoir, Percival attempts to narrow his sphere of responsibility to the defense of the naval base, arguing that the defense of the island of Singapore was not the aim. This single comment ran against the grain of Churchill’s entire Far Eastern policy to defend not just the naval base, but also the city of Singapore, the Government House, and the British-run civil administration under Governor Shenton Thomas. Percival’s statement that the object of defense was “quite definitely the protection of the Naval Base—not the defense of Singapore island,” was antithetical to British policy, and tantamount to a betrayal of Singapore.[58]  Percival, moreover, appeared to have given up the fight even before it began. “When the Japanese started their advance down the Peninsular [sic], it soon became apparent that we might be driven back to Johore or even to Singapore,” he writes in his memoir.

It is thought that Percival deliberately overestimated the number of Japanese troops in order to prepare the ground for a quick British surrender. In his vastly inflated estimate, the Japanese forces consisted of a minimum of 150,000 men, and that by the end of the campaign there were over 100,000 Japanese troops in Singapore and in south Malaya. Louis Allen argues that at no time were there more than three Japanese divisions in the campaign, clearly establishing Percival’s intention to show that he was in a much worse position than he actually was.[59] By any yardstick, the British were not the underdogs. The Japanese 25th Army, consisting of the 5th, 18th, and the Imperial Guards Divisions, backed by the 3rd Tank Group, was minuscule in comparison to the British-led forces. Singapore was guarded by the 18th British Division, the 8th Australian Division, and the 9th and 11th Indian Divisions, backed by elements of the 3rd Indian Corps, and an assortment of four brigades and at least 11 battalions. Major-General E.K.G. Sixsmith clarifies: “In Malaya, the Japanese land forces were never superior to those at Percival’s disposal.”[60]

There is, however, considerable variance in the troop strengths claimed by the British and the Japanese, but even after allowing for discrepancies, these numbers are much closer to reality than the exaggerated figures Percival talked about. According to British official figures quoted by Louis Allen, there were about 80,000 British troops in the Malaya campaign versus about 30,000 Japanese troops. Contrast this with Japanese claims that 60,000 Japanese troops took on 120,000 British-led forces in Singapore.[61] While the British enjoyed superiority in guns and mortars with about 1,000 pieces, the Japanese fielded 400 guns. Against 250 British armoured cars, the Japanese had 120 tanks and armoured cars. In a nutshell, the British had a 2:1 superiority in troops, guns and armoured cars, but the Japanese had a 2:1 edge in aircraft.


One of Singapore’s 15 inch coastal defence guns elevated for firing. Photo no. K 757 from the collections of the IWML.

The numerical superiority of British troops did not make them better fighters than the Japanese. Indicting the lack of toughness in the British soldier, Major-General John Kennedy of the British army commented: “We had cause on many previous occasions to be uneasy about the fighting qualities of our men. They had not fought as toughly as the Germans or the Russians, and now they were being outclassed by the Japanese.”[62] Kennedy identifies two reasons for this lapse—first, that Britain had begun to earnestly form its army only after the Second World War had started, and secondly that the British were undoubtedly softer as a nation than any of their enemies, except the Italians.

Dixon argues that the Singapore debacle was a combined product of human character and human error.[63] People made mistakes right from the time the defense of Singapore was mooted in the early-1920s. The three services differed in their view of how the fortress should be defended. While the army and navy pressed for fixed fortifications and heavy guns, the air force argued for a fleet of aircraft to repel an invasion. The air force did not have its way, and the island was left undefended on its northern side. When Percival arrived on the scene, he would not take the good advice both his subordinate, Brigadier Ivan Simson, who was the chief engineer, and his superior General Wavell had to offer, to put in place the much-needed defenses.

Noel Barber explores Percival’s phobia against erecting defenses during a conversation between Percival and Simson. Japanese air raids on Malaya had started, and a visibly worried Simson visited Percival at Flagstaff House, his residence. There, he pleaded with Percival to throw defenses in the path of the Japanese such as anti-tank and underwater obstacles, fire traps, mines, anchored but floating barbed wire, and illuminating the sea water at night. Percival refused. It was not the first time Simson had pressed him on the issue, and he finally asked in desperation: “Look here, General—I’ve raised this question time after time. You’ve always refused. What’s more, you’ve always refused to give me any reasons. At least tell me one thing—why on earth are you taking this stand?” Finally, Percival gave his answer: “I believe the defenses of the sort you want to throw up are bad for the morale of troops and civilians.”[64] Simson was horrified, and remembered standing in front of Percival and thinking Singapore was as good as lost. It is worth recalling that the only reason the defenses were not built earlier was because the Treasury did not want to make a financial investment on the basis of a vague Japanese threat, but now that the Japanese invasion was imminent, building the defenses was a matter of urgency.

At the beginning of January 1942, when Japanese bombs were falling all over Malaya, Wavell flew to Singapore to inspect the defenses that were supposed to have been erected. He sent for Percival and could not believe that Percival had deliberately ignored the north shore defenses. Percival’s response was the same as what he had told Simson: That building the defenses would adversely affect morale. Wavell retorted that morale would be much worse if the troops on the peninsula were driven back into Singapore island.[65] As Japanese forces advanced down the peninsula, Churchill cabled Wavell inquiring about the defenses on Singapore island. Wavell replied on 19 January 1942, bluntly telling Churchill that “little or nothing was done to construct defenses on the north side of the island to prevent [the Japanese] crossing the Johore Straits.”[66] Barber writes that Churchill was horrified to learn that in place of the legendary fortress in which he had believed, there was “the hideous spectacle of the almost naked island.”

Churchill now ordered Wavell via cable: That he expected “every inch of ground to be defended,” and “every scrap of material or defenses to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy,” and that there was to be no surrender until the last British soldier was standing. The British had adapted the ‘scorched earth’ policy from the valiant Soviet defense against the Nazi Army, the Wehrmacht. The difference was the British forces in Singapore resorted to ‘scorched earth’ tactics—burning and destroying military assets to prevent their falling into Japanese hands—without so much as putting up a credible fight, whereas the Soviet Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht on Russian soil.

Barber puts Percival’s refusal to prepare the defenses down to his “irritating stubbornness.” Percival “would argue endlessly to gain a point (his point) and it is possible that Wavell—clearly anxious to fortify the northern shores—was talked out of his convictions and retired exhausted from the verbal battles,” clarifies Barber.[67] Dixon explains Percival’s bias against defenses in gendered and psychological terms: Defensive responses, as opposed to offensive, rank low in military esteem. “Defensive activity is protective, womanly, one might almost say maternal. In sex…it is the male who penetrates the fortress of the female. For the male to carry out elaborate preparations for his own safety is to some extent effeminate, an admission of weakness,” Barber theorises, adding that: “In the case of Percival…to erect defenses would have been to admit to themselves the danger in which they [the British] stood.”[68] In his memoir, Percival is silent on the damage caused to British interests by his refusal to prepare defenses, and he instead blames his government for its failure to erect the defenses in the pre-war days.[69]

The Japanese were aware of these lacunae. Tsuji provides a different perspective in his book: That the defenses of the sea front were very strong, but those of the land front in the rear of the fortress were not. He knew the defenses were not prepared because it was thought it would make the civilian population uneasy. “Whatever the period, whatever the country, there are always those who perpetrate such blunders!” he argues.[70]

On another point about the defenses, Brigadier Simson, the Chief Engineer, knew that Percival was making a serious mistake by presuming that the Japanese could not land on the east coast of Malaya between November and March because of the monsoon. But there was nothing he could do to change Percival’s mind. Percival has also come under fire for spreading his forces thinly instead of holding a force in reserve to be rushed quickly to engage the Japanese wherever they chose to land.

British diplomats formally acknowledged their fears about a Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia in a cypher telegram from the Foreign Office to the British diplomatic mission in Washington in November 1941. It warned: “There are important indications that Japan is about to attack Thailand, and that this attack will include a sea-borne expedition to seize strategic points in the Kra Isthmus.” It added: “To allow the Japanese to establish themselves so near the Malay frontier would be an obvious threat to Singapore, even though at present season it might not develop at once.” The Foreign Office concluded: “It looks therefore, as though, to ensure the defense of Singapore and for wider reasons, we might have to take proposed action to forestall the Japanese.” [71] The cable urged British diplomats in Washington to “please make communication in the above sense at once to United States Government, and ask for an urgent expression of their views. You will realize how important it is to ensure ourselves of American support in the event of hostilities.”

Over in Malaya, the defenders of Singapore were restrained by the British government’s instructions to not use military force until it had been proven beyond doubt that the Japanese were the aggressors.[72] The policy of excessive caution not only handed the Japanese the initiative, but it was the military equivalent of political appeasement.

The British War Cabinet confronted its worst fears just a month later. The weekly resume of the Chiefs of Staff Committee noted that in northwest Malaya, heavy attacks by Japanese forces, estimated at two divisions, had forced back the 11th Indian Division, with the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade protecting its flank, to the line of the River Muda, 19 km north of Penang. It noted that Japanese attacks were being pressed home with fanatical courage.[73]

In response, a Committee for Far East Strategy was set up in early-January 1942 consisting of military representatives of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, but it was too late.[74] To prevent vital equipment from falling into Japanese hands, demolition was carried out in the Singapore dockyard where a large floating dock was sunk.[75] Surprisingly, the demolitions were conducted well in advance of the surrender, indicating that Percival had already made up his mind not to engage the Japanese and to withdraw his forces into the interior of Singapore and await the capitulation. The inevitable happened.

An air of defeat hung over the War Cabinet as the Japanese struck naval assets and disrupted maritime trade. The cabinet noted with alarm: “Prior to the fall of Singapore on the 15th, heavy bombing attacks were made on shipping on the Singapore-Batavia route.” It added: “HM cruiser Durban, while proceeding to Singapore to assist in evacuation, was bombed on the 11th and 12th and returned to Batavia considerably damaged.”[76] 

Percival retreated into a shell as his relations with most of his military and civilian colleagues were strained. Well before the Japanese invasion, the scholarly commander’s relations with Governor Thomas were troubled for no other reason than relations between civilians and military men tended to be prickly. As a result, Percival found the civil authorities ready to block his initiatives.[77] Thomas’ diary reveals the two men had divergent views on the measures to be taken during the war. For Thomas, Churchill’s order to “defend to the last” meant precisely that, but for Percival it meant “but only to the best of our ability.” It did not help that Percival had his difficulties both with Lieutenant-General Lewis Heath, commander of the 3rd Indian Corps, and with Major-General Bennett, commander of the 8th Australian Division. Soldiering ran in Heath’s blood: He had led the 5th Indian Division to victory in Eritrea. Heath’s relations with Percival, however, were strained from the start as he was Percival’s senior in age and experience, and it was difficult for him to serve as a subordinate. Bennett, too, was a difficult subordinate to Percival because he had been told by the Australian government to function independently of British military authorities.[78] Percival was critical of Bennett not just for lacking in combat experience, a vital attribute he was missing as well, but also for Bennett’s demand to get special treatment for his force, which ran against Percival’s policy to treat all soldiers alike.[79] In case of serious disagreement with Percival, Bennett had the power to refer to the Australian government.[80] The Australians were keen to retain control over their forces primarily because the Japanese advance more directly threatened Australia than Britain .

The saga of Percival’s incompetence in battle began on 8 December 1941 when General Headquarters issued its first war communiqué, stating that the Japanese had failed to land at Kota Baru on the Malayan coast, followed by a second communiqué announcing a rapid Japanese retreat under intense British machinegun fire. Dixon argues that the communiqué was “essentially untrue and deliberately misleading.” For, the Japanese captured Kota Baru soon after landing there. So, how did GHQ jump to the conclusion that the Japanese were in full retreat? Having dropped off their troops on the waterfront, the Japanese naval craft sped back—but GHQ misrepresented their return.[81] Each day brought more gauche responses from Percival’s camp. Percival, ensconced in Singapore, failed to exercise command and control over the battles raging up in northern Malaya.

Besides sending false messages and being at the wrong place, Percival’s overall strategy was based on certain self-serving assumptions. One of these assumptions was that the Japanese would pace their advance according to the deliberately slow tempo of British retreat. But as it turned out, the Japanese set their own pace. It was thought that Heath’s 3rd Indian Corps would wear down the Japanese by inflicting heavy casualties, but they failed to dent the enemy.

One of Percival’s most unforgivable errors was to reject Wavell’s advice on the direction of the Japanese landing. Wavell had correctly calculated that the Japanese would attack the northwestern coast of Singapore and he suggested that the freshest troops be positioned there, but Percival argued that the Japanese would land in the northeast. Percival ordered the immediate shifting of defense stores to the northeast, and when he realised that the Japanese were massing on the northwest, he ordered the stores to be moved back again. Alas, it was too late. Barber points out that Percival delayed using the two divisions guarding the un-attacked northeast because he was convinced that the Japanese would attack right there. The brief window of opportunity to counterattack and contain the enemy to the northwest was lost.

In his memoirs, Churchill argues that the decision to fight the decisive battle in Malaya, instead of fighting on the shores of a well-fortified Singapore, was wrong. In retrospect, he believed that it would have been better to concentrate British strength in defending Singapore, and merely containing the Japanese in Malaya with light forces. Yet, when the battles were fought on Singapore island, British forces remained unused. Percival planned to mount a counterattack on 11 January to recapture the Jurong Line, in the western part of the island. The attack did not materialise. For, just after dark on the 10th, Yamashita attacked, routing the 2/29th Australian Battalion and the 4/19th Hyderabads. When Japanese tanks overran the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the spine of the outer defense was shattered.[82]

Percival’s justification of the performance of his troops sounds like the reasoning of an apologist, not that of a tough general. He rationalises that the “tactical movements at night in thick country” were “too difficult.” The result, he says, was that “groups of men became detached and lost in the close country.”[83] It was odd that the British troops, who ought to have been familiar with the Malayan and Singaporean terrain, should have found the tactical movements difficult, and that it was they who got lost, instead of the Japanese who had no prior exposure to the Malayan terrain.

Percival’s patchy performance left much room for criticism. Adrian Stewart contends that he must accept much of the responsibility, having assumed the Malaya command since the previous May, which gave him ample time to organise defenses and ensure his troops were trained in jungle warfare. Yet, Percival’s preparations were wholly unsatisfactory. Not only were fixed defenses absent, but some of the men, such as the troops of the Indian battalions had never seen a tank, and nothing was done to train them in anti-tank warfare. Leaflets on anti-tank warfare were printed but never distributed to the troops.

Fort Canning, Percival’s headquarters in Singapore, is currently a tourist attraction. Guides showing tourists around the historic colonial building do not fail to mention that Percival was “spineless.” The view among the historians is equally dim. Keith Simpson argues that by the criteria of what makes an effective general, Percival was a failure. Simpson claims that Percival did not look the part as his “most conspicuous characteristics were two protruding rabbit teeth.” Percival’s friend and biographer John Smyth agrees that physical appearance in a commander is important. Little wonder that Lt. Gen.-Pownall thought Percival “had the knowledge but not the personality to carry through a tough fight,” and ended up a thoroughly uninspiring leader. Bennett argues that Percival “wants the army to fight and to stop retreating but he lacks the personality to make it fight or even to remove officers who lack the fighting spirit.” Kirby adds that he lacked the drive and ruthlessness, and Brian Montgomery dismisses him as “too nice” to be a successful military leader in war.[84]

One of the axioms of good generalship in past centuries is that the academic brilliance of military commanders contributed little to their performance on the battlefield. Dixon argues that both Napoleon and Wellington earned low grades in school, while military failures like Percival and Major-General George Pomeroy Colley did exceptionally well in military academies. At the psychological level, Dixon explains Percival’s refusal to prepare defenses as the behaviour of a person who tries to avoid the unpalatable results of failure by not trying. “What Percival shared with other, earlier, military incompetents were passivity and courtesy, rigidity and obstinacy, procrastination, gentleness and dogmatism,” argues Dixon.[85]

Percival’s biographer Smyth tries to whitewash some of his apparent shortcomings, while at the same time acknowledging that he was not a dynamic commander cast in the Auchinleck, Montgomery or MacArthur mould. Smyth’s Percival, however, was “a very true friend” with “great qualities of heart and mind.”[86] These were laudable qualities but not necessarily attributes that, by themselves, translate to good generalship. Brian Montgomery believes that Percival had seen photographic evidence of Japanese troops landing on the Chinese coast in turbulent seas during the monsoon, and yet he held the mistaken belief that the Japanese could not perform a sea-borne landing in Malaya during the rainy season. Montgomery explains: “The trouble was that Percival was not a leader, and altogether lacked the strength of mind and character to command troops in battle.”[87] Montgomery defers to Ronald Lewin’s assessment of Percival. Writing about Percival, Lewin explains: “Nobody can carp with any justice at an officer who is posted to a position for which he is not suited: The responsibility lies with his superiors or the military secretariat.” He argues: “The man himself does what he can, within his limits: Yet when things go wrong it is he who is condemned.”[88] Lt.-Gen. Pownall explains that Wavell was not happy at all about Percival, who had the knowledge but not the personality to carry through a tough fight. Pownall wonders aloud whether he would need to relieve Percival until someone tougher than him can come from elsewhere.[89]

Japanese military historians are equally trenchant in their condemnation. Tsuji notes that “Prime Minister Churchill, from London, indignantly protested to Wavell and rebuked General Percival—which in the circumstances was not unreasonable.”[90] Warren quotes one of Percival’s unnamed subordinates saying: “What we needed there [in Malaya] was a real fighting soldier like Monty who could get right up front and say, ‘come on, no bloody nonsense.’” Warren excoriates Percival for using tactics of First World War vintage that were a misfit in a fast-moving campaign in a dense tropical country. According to Warren: “In essence, Percival’s solution to the crisis in Malaya was to await reinforcement, much as a subordinate general in France and Flanders might have waited for General Headquarters to send a stream of reserve divisions to shore up a threatened section of the line.”[91]      

Percival has refused to take the blame. He wrote: “On the evening of 8 January, General Wavell, on his return from visiting my troops north of Kuala Lumpur, sent for me and dictated his own plan [for the defense]. I can take no responsibility for it.” [92] His biographer, Smyth, argues that the plan ended in disaster, for which Wavell should have taken the blame.

By Friday the 13th, the city of Singapore was burning as files of deserters, stragglers, and looters drifted through its streets. The naval fortress had fallen into Japanese hands, and gusts of oily smoke blew over the island. Japanese tanks rumbled down Bukit Timah Road, just minutes from the city centre, and hand-to-hand fighting was reported in pockets such as the Singapore Golf Club and the Dairy Farm. It was a matter of hours before British agony would formally end. Curiously, Percival still had 80,000 men compared to Yamashita’s 30,000.[93]  Still, his forces were defeated and retreated to a perimeter around the city. Little did Percival know that Yamashita’s soldiers were exhausted, short of ammunition, and feared a British counterattack. It is here that Percival’s character comes in. He did not dare fight the Japanese—despite Churchill’s unambiguous orders to fight till the end—because the Japanese now controlled the city’s water supply. He went to pieces, and was totally loath to engaging in the kind of bloodbath amid the ruins of the city that Churchill advocated. On 14 February, Churchill asked the War Office in London to prepare a telegram to Wavell, authorising him to surrender as soon as he judged further resistance to be futile.[94]

British surrender on 15 February 1952. Lt.-Gen. Yamashita (seated centre) thumps the table with his fist to emphasise his terms—unconditional surrender. Lt.-Gen. Percival sits between his officers, his clenched hand to his mouth. Photograph no. HU 2770 from the collections of the IWML, and the Singapore National Archives.

Percival surrendered in person to Yamashita on 15 February. A visibly exhausted Percival sat blinking under the blinding glare of a Japanese photographer’s flashbulbs, and rubbing his face continuously to stay awake. He signed the document of surrender in the presence of Yamashita, who kept gesticulating harshly. Singapore had fallen and the British Empire had suffered 130,246 casualties, including those killed, missing, and taken prisoner.[95]

Once Singapore had fallen, Churchill faced the disaster with characteristic cast iron determination. He demanded, and won, a vote of confidence in parliament by 464 votes to one. Earlier in January, Churchill had exploded in anger at the Chiefs of Staffs’ failure to ensure preparation of proper defenses in Singapore, and he bellowed: “I warn you this will be one of the greatest scandals that could possibly be exposed.” But by March, after the fall of Singapore, he was resigned to the course of events. At a Chiefs of Staffs Committee meeting, he asked whether any reports had been received from Percival before the surrender, and about the success of British scorched earth tactics. No news would be forthcoming.

For, Percival, Governor Shenton Thomas, and the other generals now lived in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Changi in the suburbs of Singapore. Percival retired in 1946 as an honorary Lieutenant General, and wrote a book about the campaign in which he praised the Japanese. “It must be admitted that the Japanese feat in mounting this attack in the space of about a week was a very fine military performance…In an operation of this sort the Japanese soldier is at his best—quite fearless and filled with determination.”[96] Percival died in January 1966.

The fall of Singapore put under immediate threat the security of British interests across Asia. The Chiefs of Staffs Committee voiced growing fears of a widening Japanese threat on 21 February 1942: “Once Japan has effectively breached the Malayan barrier, she has a clear run into the Indian Ocean, where we are dangerously weak in all respects.” It added: “By attacks on Ceylon and India, Japan could raise overwhelming internal security problems in India and induce instability in Indian forces in all theatres of war.[97]

With Japan’s defeat, the “Tiger of Malaya,” Lt.-Gen. Yamashita surrendered to U.S. forces on 2 September 1945 on Luzon island in the Philippines. An American military tribunal in Manila put him on trial for war crimes that ran from 29 October to 7 December 1945. He was accused of a massacre in Manila and atrocities across the Philippines and Singapore against civilians and prisoners-of-war. He was sentenced to death.

Lt.-Gen. Yamashita and his staff surrender on 2 September 1945. They walk down the trail towards U.S. forces in northern Luzon, Philippines, occupied by U.S. 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division. Photo courtesy: U.S. National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Yamashita denied knowledge of the crimes committed by his soldiers, claiming he would have punished them had he known. He reasoned that he could not possibly have controlled all his soldiers in such a large army.[98]

American lawyer Harry E. Clarke, Sr., a U.S. Army colonel who served as Yamashita’s chief defense counsel, appealed the sentence to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, who upheld the sentence. Clarke, then, appealed to the supreme courts in both the Philippines and the United States, but both declined to review the verdict. Now, an appeal for clemency was made to U.S. President Harry Truman, but Truman declined to intervene and left the issue to the military. General MacArthur confirmed the sentence. U.S. Justice Frank Murphy cast doubt on the legitimacy of the hasty trial, questioning the inclusion of hearsay evidence, and unprofessional conduct by prosecutors.[99] Yamashita was hanged on 23 February 1946, at Los Baño, Laguna Prison Camp, 48 km south of Manila.

The war would have been a close run thing and Singapore might have been saved if Percival had held his ground and organised a series of swift counterattacks while Yamashita’s forces were tired and running low on ammunition. It would have boosted Churchill’s stock vis-à-vis his Soviet and American allies, and kept British military prestige intact. There is, of course, a wide cleavage in the historical literature over the question of Percival’s agency for the disaster at Singapore, with some historians blaming him for the defeat, while others pointing to errors of omission and commission by the British government. The confluence of both factors—Percival’s weak generalship and the British government’s policies—was responsible for the debacle.

Harish C. Mehta holds a PhD (McMaster University, Canada) in the history of American foreign relations and Southeast Asia. Author of three books on Cambodian politics and media, his articles on Vietnamese diplomacy have appeared in the American journals Diplomatic History, Peace and Change, The Historian, and History Compass, and his review articles have appeared in H-Diplo. He has taught history at McMaster, University of Toronto, and Trent University. He is the editor of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs. He studied the history of the World Wars as a graduate student of Professor Martin Horn, and he thanks Dr Horn for encouraging him to write this article.

[1] Raymond Callaghan, The Worst Disaster: The Fall of Singapore (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1977), 18-19.

[2] Callaghan, The Worst Disaster, 18-19.

[3] Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate: The Second World War, Vol. 4 (New York: Rosetta Books), 47.

[4] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) minutes of meeting chaired by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 25 March 1942, Mills Memorial Library (Mills) collection, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

[5] Major-General S. Woodburn Kirby, Singapore: The Chain of Disaster (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 150.

[6] Kirby, Singapore: The Chain of Disaster, 251.

[7] British Parliamentary Papers, “Correspondence with the Self-Governing Dominions and India regarding the development of the Singapore Naval Base,” presented to Parliament on 25 March 1924, Mills.

[8] Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall? Churchill and the Impregnable Fortress (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 2-9. Also see Toh Boon Kwan, “Defeat into Disaster: The Defense and Fall of Singapore,” Pointer 32.1, 2006.

[9] Ritchie Ovendale, “Appeasement” and the English speaking World: Britain, the United States, the Dominions, and the Policy of “Appeasement,” 1937-1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975).

[10] Norman Hillmer, “Review,” Canadian Historical Review 61.3, 1980: 402-403.

[11] Ong Chit Chung, Operation Matador: World War II, Britain’s Attempt to Foil the Japanese Invasion of Malaya and Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2011).

[12] See, Richard J. Aldrich, Intelligence and the War against Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Antony Best, British Intelligence and the Japanese Challenge in Asia, 1914-1941 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Anthony Best, “Constructing an Image: British Intelligence and Whitehall’s Perception of Japan, 1931–1939,” Intelligence and National Security 11.3 (1996): 403–23; Anthony Best, “‘This Probably Over-Valued Military Power’: British Intelligence and Whitehall’s Perception of Japan, 1939–41,” Intelligence and National Security 12. 3 (1997): 67–94; Peter Elphick, Far Eastern File: The Intelligence War in the Far East (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997); John R. Ferris, “Student and Master: The United Kingdom, Japan, Airpower and the Fall of Singapore,” in Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited, ed. Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003); and, John R. Ferris, ‘“Worthy of Some Better Enemy?’ The British Estimate of the Imperial Japanese Army 1919–41, and the Fall of Singapore,” Canadian Journal of History 28 (1993): 223–56.

[13] John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 84.

[14] Ibid, 98-99.

[15] Ibid, 99.

[16] Ibid, 99.

[17] Noel Barber, Sinister Twilight: The Fall and Rise Again of Singapore (London: Readers Union, Collins, 1969), 28; and Dower, 100.

[18] Ibid, 100.

[19] Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 226.

[20] Dower, 101.

[21] Ibid, 101.

[22] Lt.-Gen. A.E. Percival, The War in Malaya (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1949), 23.

[23] Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 134.

[24] Ibid, 137.

[25] Adrian Stewart, The Underrated Enemy: Britain’s War with Japan, December 1941-May 1942 (London: William Kimber, 1987), 11-13.

[26] James Leasor, Singapore: The Battle that Changed the World (Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2001).

[27] Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version (London: Constable, 1962), 8, 38.

[28] Masanobu Tsuji, Singapore 1941-1942: The Japanese Version of the Malayan Campaign in World War Two (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988). (First published in English by Constable and Company in 1962).

[29] Asahi Newspaper Company, Mare Sakusen (The Malayan Operation) (Tokyo: Asahi Newspaper Company, 1942); Iwaichi Fujiwara, Kikan: Japanese Army Intelligence Operations in Southeast Asia during World War II (Hong Kong: Heinemann Asia, 1983); and, Saburo Hayash and Alvin Coox, Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War (Quantico: The Marine Corps Association, 1959).

[30] Bo Ei Cho Bo Ei Kenshujo Senshi Shitsu (Japan Defense Agency, Defense Research Center, Military History Section), Biruma Koryaku Sakusen (The Capture of Burma) (Tokyo: Asagumo Newspaper Company, 1967); Mainichi Newspaper Company, Nippon no Senshi, Dai 7 Kan, Taiheiyo Senso 1 (Japanese Military History, Vol. 7, Pacific War Part 1) (Tokyo: Mainichi Newspaper Company, 1978); Mainichi Newspaper Company, Nippon no Senshi, Dai 8 Kan, Taiheiyo Senso 2 (Japanese Military History, Vol. 8, Pacific War Part 2) (Tokyo: Mainichi Newspaper Company, 1978); and Shunju Morimatsu, Teikoku Rikugun (The Imperial Japanese Army) (Tokyo: Shoei, 1995).

[31] Henry Frei, Guns of February: Ordinary Japanese Soldiers’ Views of the Malayan Campaign & the Fall of Singapore, 1941-1942 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004); Frei, Japan’s Southward Advance and Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1991); Yoji Akashi, “Lai Tek,” Journal of the South Seas Society 49 (1994): 87–95; and Yoji Akashi, “General Yamashita Tomoyuki: Commander of the 25th Army,” in Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited, eds., Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002), 183-207.

[32] Brian P. Farrell, The Defense and Fall of Singapore, 1940-1942 (Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2005).

[33] Colin Smith, Singapore Burning: Heroism and Surrender in World War II (London: Penguin, 2005).

[34] Peter Thompson, The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War II (London: Portrait, 2005).

[35] W. David McIntyre, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 1919-1942 (London: Macmillan, 1979), 210.

[36] Ronald McCrum, The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938-1942 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press), 2017.

[37] Percival, The War in Malaya, 299.

[38] Sir John Smyth, Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore (London: Macdonald, 1971), 245.

[39] Chief of Staff: The Diaries of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, Volume Two 1940-1944, ed. Brian Bond (London: Leo Cooper, 1974), 85.

[40] McIntyre, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 211.

[41] Alan Warren, Singapore 1942: Britain’s Greatest Defeat (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 292.

[42] Percival, The War in Malaya, 47.

[43] Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 132.

[44] David Day, “Anzacs on the Run: The View from Whitehall, 1941-42,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 14. 3 (1986): 187.

[45] Christopher Bell, “‘How Are We Going to Make War?’: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and British Far Eastern War Plans,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 20.3 (1997): 124.

[46] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) minutes of meeting on 21 January 1942, Mills. 

[47] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) Report on the American-Dutch-British Conversations held at Singapore, April 1941, Mills.

[48] Ibid.

[49] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) Weekly Resume, no. 119 on the naval, military and air situation from 0700 on 4 December to 0700 on 11 December 1941, Mills.

[50] McIntyre, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 137-138.

[51] British Staff Conference held on 1 December 1941, Mills.

[52] British Chiefs of Staff Committee, Annex II, Situation in the Far East, Aide Memoire, 1 December 1941, Mills.

[53] British War Cabinet document on the Washington War Conference, December 1941 to January 1942, Mills.

[54] Keith Simpson, “Percival,” Churchill’s Generals, ed. John Keegan (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), 258.

[55] Kirby, Singapore: The Chain of Disaster, 31.

[56] Simpson, “Percival,” in Churchill’s Generals, 259.

[57] Kirby, Singapore: The Chain of Disaster, 129.

[58] Percival, The War in Malaya, 254.

[59] Louis Allen, Singapore 1941-1942 (London: Frank Cass, 1977), 188-189.

[60] Major-General E.K.G. Sixsmith, British Generalship in the Twentieth Century (London: Arms and Armour, 1970), 269.

[61] Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version, 37- 38.

[62] Major-General John Kennedy, The Business of War: The War Narrative of Major-General Sir John Kennedy (London: Hutchinson, 1957), 198. 

[63] Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 131.

[64] Barber, Sinister Twilight, 68-69.

[65] Ibid, 84.

[66] Ibid, 84.

[67] Ibid, 124-125.

[68] Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 141.

[69] Percival, The War in Malaya, 254.

[70] Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version, 186-187.

[71] British cypher telegram no. 6584 from the Foreign Office to Washington (Annex I), dated 29 November 1941, Mills.

[72] Simpson, “Percival,” in Churchill’s Generals, 265.

[73] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee), Weekly Resume, no. 120 on the naval, military and air situation from 0700 on 11 December to 0700 on 18 December 1941, Mills.

[74] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee) document, January 1942, Mills.

[75] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee), Weekly Resume on the naval, military and air situation from 0700 on 29 January to 0700 on 5 February 1942, Mills.

[76] British War Cabinet (Chiefs of Staff Committee), Weekly Resume on the naval, military and air situation from 0700 on 12 February to 0700 on 19 February 1942, Mills.

[77] Simpson, “Percival,” in Churchill’s Generals, 262.

[78] Ibid, 263.

[79] Percival, The War in Malaya, 34-35.

[80] Callaghan, The Worst Disaster, 16.

[81] Simpson, “Percival,” in Churchill’s Generals, 135.

[82] Adrian Stewart, The Underrated Enemy: Britain’s War with Japan, December 1941-May 1942 (London: William Kimber, 1987), 109.

[83] Percival, The War in Malaya, 270.

[84] Brian Montgomery, Shenton of Singapore: Governor and Prisoner of War (London: Leo Cooper, 1984), 94-95.

[85] Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 143-144, 245, 257.

[86] Smyth, Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore, 258.

[87] Montgomery, Shenton of Singapore, 190-191.

[88] Ronald Lewin, The Chief: Field Marshal Lord Wavell, Commander-in-Chief and Viceroy, 1939-1947 (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 165-167.

[89] Chief of Staff: The Diaries of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, Vol 2, 1940-1944, ed. Brian Bond (London: Leo Cooper, 1974), 76.

[90] Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version, 155-156.

[91] Warren, Singapore 1942, 290-291.

[92] Percival’s Private Papers, 1 December 1953.

[93] McIntyre, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 209.

[94] Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide: A History of the War Years based on the Diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial Staff (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 244.

[95] Warren, Singapore 1942, 301.

[96] Percival, The War in Malaya, 271.

[97] Chiefs of Staffs Committee report on the Far East, 21 February 1942, Mills.

[98] Warren, Singapore 1942.

[99] Laurie Barber, “The Yamashita War Crimes Trial Revisited,” University of Waikato Electronic Journal of Military History Sept.1998.