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Could the fortress have been saved?

by Jeff Kingston

SINGAPORE BURNING: Heroism and Surrender in WWII, by Colin Smith. London: Penguin, 2006, 512pp., £9.99 (paper).

Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore, “The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” This inglorious surrender to Japan on Feb. 15, 1942, came about largely because the British had underestimated Japan’s military prowess and strategic designs. Colin Smith tells this story of capitulation uncommonly well, crafting an unforgettable saga of war’s madness and banality.

In this familiar narrative of lightening advances by bicycling Japanese troops, Smith reminds us that there were many missed opportunities to stem the tide. However, for various reasons carefully explained here, these chances slipped away and British forces retreated down the Malayan peninsula toward their supposedly impregnable redoubt, Fortress Singapore.

Contributing to the growing alarm, the British navy suffered two emblematic losses at sea that effectively gave the Japanese naval superiority. The sinking of the battle cruiser Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales on Dec. 10, 1941, two days after the invasion commenced, heralded the ensuing debacle.

The British faced battle-hardened Japanese troops backed by tanks and a large tactical air force, with green troops, no tanks and obsolete planes. They also suffered stunning lapses in communications that impeded effective responses. And, controversially, Smith says they were let down by Australian troops who bolted in the heat of battle.

Scapegoating the Australians, however, does not obscure or absolve the monumental gaffes of British leaders who were long on promises unfulfilled and masters of dithering. Singapore was a sitting duck because of imperial delusions, complacency and the priority accorded to the European theater.

Smith gives the Japanese their due. They emerge from this magisterial history as the better soldiers. He writes, “What [they] had in abundance was courage, endurance and a discipline that, in their eagerness to see that orders were carried out, did not stifle initiative but encouraged it.”

Allied troops also demonstrated heroism and bravery even in retreat. In crafting this superb history, Smith judiciously mines the archival and secondary sources and draws on many interviews with survivors. He is a master at setting the scene and vividly recounts the battle experiences of specific men and their units.

This engaging text is sprinkled with telling anecdotes and imparts a sense of the desperation, fear and weariness of troops fighting against the odds in inhospitable conditions. We are with the retreating troops, some dying of their wounds, some trying to survive and avoid capture, while sabotaging the enemy’s advance.

Singapore burned because the Japanese targeted the oil storage tanks, fearing that the British would try to use the oil to turn the seas into an inferno that would consume the invaders. As the billowing black clouds dissipated, so did the morale of those under siege.

By early February 1942, it was clear that the game was up. Some Australian troops were still gamely defending a shrinking perimeter, but Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett, their much maligned commander, “knew that a growing number of his disillusioned, belligerent and often drunken infantry were now roaming the streets of Singapore with only one thing in mind and that was a boat home. Bennett, having long decided that he deserved a better war than becoming a prisoner of the Japanese, was thinking along much the same lines.” Eventually he escaped to Sumatra and then to Australia 12 days later, “shedding traveling companions with all the facility of a multistage rocket.”

The British commander, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, is more sympathetically portrayed. Smith asserts that he was unfairly blamed for this ignominious blot on Britain’s martial history. Of the 120,000 troops surrendered under his command to half as many Japanese, some 12,000 died in captivity. In Smith’s view, he was unfairly “punished for losing it too quickly and with too little glory, for being the gangling man in the silly shorts surrendering to the little men in the high boots.”