On February 15, 1942, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese forces led by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The fall of Singapore was one of the worst military disasters in modern history and heralded the demise of the British Empire. It came at the end of a 55 day long campaign in which Japanese forces swept down the Malayan peninsula, brushing aside or massacring the opposing British, Indian and Australian forces.
The Japanese onslaught through the Malay Peninsula took the British forces by surprise. It was the first time they had come up against a full-scale attack by General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s battle hardened Japanese troops. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival had 90,000 men there – British, Indian and Australian troops – and many had never seen combat. As a result they had no answer against the coordinated air strikes by bombers and fighters. Nor had they counted on meeting Japanese tanks in the Malayan jungle. And any remaining thoughts of the Japanese fighting a conventional form of war were shattered when defensive positions were outflanked by Japanese troops on bicycles…
By January 31, all surviving Allied troops had retreated onto the island of Singapore and a single section of the connecting causeway had been blown up. When they reached Singapore, many of the troops were shocked at the apparent lack of defences on the island. The men were battle-weary and the Australians had lost nearly 700 men fighting in Malaya since 14 January, with hundreds of others sick or wounded. Last-minute reinforcements were untrained and ill-equipped for battle.
Still thinking in traditional war concepts, the British had confidently predicted that the Japanese would attack Singapore from the sea and had prepared their defences accordingly. It was inconceivable to British military planners that the island could be attacked any other way – least of all, through the jungle and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula. But this was exactly the route the Japanese took.
Despite all indications that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johore Strait, Percival overestimated the strength of the Japanese and spread his men across a 70 mile line – the entire coastline of the island. A fatal mistake as this tactic spread his men far too thinly in case of an attack.
On February 8th, 1942, the Japanese attacked Singapore from the north-west, across the Johore Strait. This area was held by the Australian 22nd Infantry Brigade but late on the night of 8 February the Japanese made their way through undefended sections. Twenty-four hours later a second Japanese landing force struck between the Causeway and the mouth of the Kranji River, an area held by the Australian 27th Infantry Brigade. By the morning of 10 February there were Japanese troops on most of north-west Singapore.. They advanced with speed and ferocity. At the Alexandra Military Hospital, Japanese soldiers murdered the patients they found there and a day later bayoneted the medical staff and any survivors of the previous day
The Australian, British and Indian troops tried to hold the Japanese at various defensive lines but after two days many of their dreadfully depleted battalions had to be reorganised into composite units. A counter-attack on 10-11 February failed and on 12 February General H Gordon Bennett, the Australian commander, began moving his near-exhausted 8th Division AIF units into a perimeter just a few kilometres out of the city. By the next day the Japanese were within five kilometres of the Singapore waterfront. The entire city was now within range of Japanese artillery.
By 14 February the Japanese had captured Singapore’s reservoirs and pumping stations. The bombing, fighting and heavy shelling continued; many of the troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals were crowded and overflowing. Some troops were deserting and others had become separated from their units. Hard fighting continued but on 15 February Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore, called for a ceasefire and made the difficult decision to surrender. He signed the surrender document that evening at the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road.
The Japanese took 100,000 men prisoner in Singapore. Many had just arrived and had not fired a bullet in anger. 9,000 of these men died building the Burma-Thailand railway. The people of Singapore fared worse. Many were of Chinese origin and were slaughtered by the Japanese. After the war, Japan admitted that 5000 had been murdered, but the Chinese population in Singapore put the figure at nearer 50,000.
General Tomoyuki Yamashita, (nicknamed “The Tiger of Malaya” by the Japanese and “The Beast of Bataan” by the Americans) was arrested after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and tried for war-crimes, such as the massacre at the Alexandra Military Hospital.
During his interrogations he repeteadly insisted his attack on Singapore had been pure bluff. He had barely 30.000 troops available and most of them were exhausted. His supplies were down to three days ammunition and food when General Percival decided to surrender. A concentrated counter attack (as was discussed early in the morning of February 15) would have thrown him and his troops back…
Yamashita was executed by hanging on 23 February 1946, at Los Baños Laguna Prison Camp, south of Manila, Philippines.