The Fall of Singapore: Britain’s ‘Worst Disaster’ and a Cowardly Australian

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of Singapore, when a rampant Imperial Japanese Army routed an overwhelmed British Commonwealth force to create what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster’ in British military history.

Japanese troops celebrate during the Battle of Singapore
Japanese troops celebrate during the Battle of Singapore

If further proof was needed at the time that Britain’s halcyon days of colonial predominance were at an end, then General Yamashita’s swift advance through the Straits Settlements offered just that.

Much attention in the years after the ‘Fall’ of Singapore has been given to the inept leadership of Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, whose humiliating surrender was famously captured by photographers astonished to find the British Empire at its lowest ebb.

Flag in hand, Percival leads to pathetic surrender march
Flag in hand, Percival leads the pathetic surrender procession

No doubt Percival’s leadership was appalling and his troops clearly did not have the stomach for a fight to the death against the Japanese. Perhaps if they had known the contempt with which the Japanese viewed white-flag wavers they may have thought twice, though few could have imagined the atrocities of the PoW camps.

Put simply, the British forces in Malaya and Singapore lacked the same degree of self-sacrifice that the Japanese troops possessed, probably because of the draconian state in which they lived and the potentially fatal repercussions of defeat encompassed by such a system.

Yet could Churchill really have expected the British troops to fight to the bitter end when he refused to show reciprocal endeavour? By this point, the Battle of Britain had long been won and the Luftwaffe were barely troubling British skies (the exception being that year’s ‘Baedeker Blitz’). Hundreds of fighter aircraft sat idly on British runways yet Churchill refused to relocate them in a bid to save his Far Eastern colonies.

What is more, the performance of the Australian contingent in the Singapore debacle leaves a lot to be desired. It is crucial to note that the majority of the Australian soldiers had received almost no training whatsoever; indeed, many of them had arrived in Singapore never having wielded a rifle in anger.

The grunts are not to blame but their superiors are a different prospect altogether. None of the senior officers ventured up to the front line during the battle and the Australian commander, Major General Gordon Bennett, committed one of the grossest dereliction of duties ever encountered on the battlefield.

Bennett (r) with Chinese General Shang Chen at a rubber plantation in Malaya. Chen was impressed by the Empire's preparations for defending Southeast Asia
Bennett (r) with Chinese General Shang Chen at a rubber plantation in Malaya. Chen was impressed by the Empire’s preparations for defending Southeast Asia

With the Japanese troops advancing, and his inexperienced men being cut to shreds, Bennett inexplicably abandoned ship and fled to Australia. At least Percival stuck it out to see the surrender.

Bennett would never hold high command again but, amazingly, he was never tried for his desertion in Singapore when by all rights he should have faced the firing squad. Despite this notoriously dastardly deed, few in Britain have heard of Bennett and he is not decried in the same way that Percival and Governor Shenton Thomas are for their performances in Singapore.

So this anniversary is not generally one to remember fondly for the British, even if in hindsight it served as a prophetic warning as to what would soon become of the Empire.

Perhaps then it is worth remembering that not every regiment is worthy of condemnation. The Royal Malay Regiment and the Loyals bravely defended the Pasir Panjang Ridge, an area of high ground overlooking the sea, against formidable odds.

NCOs of the Royal Malay Regiment c. 1941
NCOs of the Royal Malay Regiment c. 1941

Had their bravery been replicated across the Commonwealth, then this week would undoubtedly be one to recall each year with a fondness usually reserved for the military successes of the past.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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