Saturday, June 16, 2018

History Lesson: February 15, 1942: The Fall of Singapore and the Collapse of the British Empire

The British Empire died on February 15, 1942 when the Japanese captured Singapore. The British just didn’t know it at the time. India was the Jewel in the Crown. The British did everything they could to protect the Raj by controlling the land and sea routes to India, and by engaging in The Great Game with the expanding Russian Empire until a modus vivendi was reached between the two countries. The British fortified Singapore, calling it “the Gibraltar of Asia,” or so they thought. They placed 12 large 15” cannons on Sentosa Island (the site of the recent Trump-Kim Summit) to ward off any sea invasion., but left the Malayan Peninsula undefended. The British were defeated by a well-trained, well-prepared, experienced army with aerial superiority. The British were defeated by their own arrogance and poor leadership as well as poorly trained, inexperienced soldiers. Many of the units in a military sense could be labeled “raw.” The French never thought the Germans could attack through the Ardennes. They were wrong – twice! The British never thought an attack on Singapore could come by land because the Malayan Peninsula was mostly an impenetrable swamp. They refused to erect defensive fortifications on the Peninsula. The British were wrong. The Japanese attacked the Malay Peninsula one hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor The Japanese 25th Army marched down 640 miles and captured Singapore at the end of a 70-day campaign. The British forces retreated to the Island of Singapore on January 27. The siege of Singapore only lasted a week from February 6 – February 15. The British believed tanks could not proceed down the Peninsula. The Japanese had 200 light tanks for which the British had no defense. The Japanese kept out-flanking the British position through a simple secret weapon – the bicycle! Their advance was not impeded by prisoners. They took none on their advance down the Peninsula. Roughly 138,708 British Empire (English, Australian, Indian, Malaysian, New Zealand) troops were killed or imprisoned by the Japanese. The Japanese 25th army was roughly 30,000 strong. The British Plan for protecting Singapore was to send a fleet and rely on the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Japanese quickly achieved air superiority. Britain’s Force Z taskforce sailed into Singapore on December 2. It consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and four destroyers. Force Z sallied force to attack the Japanese transports. A fleet without air cover is target practice for an enemy. The Japanese discovered the ships and in a very short period Japanese torpedo plans and bombers sank the two large ships on December 10, 1941. The British army now lacked both air and sea support. They lacked leadership on land. The large cannons could pivot to shoot inland, but their trajectory was too high and most of the shells were armor piercing to be used against ships rather than fragmentation shells. The Japanese destroyed many of Singapore's big guns. Many of the units fought bravely, but it was not to be. Fortress Singapore was not much of a fortress. Winston Churchill called the surrender of Singapore “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in the history of the British Empire.” The British were able to successfully defend India after also losing Burma. They regained control of Singapore at the end of World War II. The British though were a spent economic, military, and political force. The population of the United Kingdom was 46 million in 1940. Yet this small island nation’s empire covered almost ¼ of the planet (24%) and ¼ of the population (460 million). India alone had about 378 million people. The only way England could rule such a domain was through the will of the people. The quick fall of Singapore signaled England had lost the aura of invincibility; a white army had been destroyed by a much smaller Asian army. The Jewel in the Crown was gone. England no longer needed, nor could afford, much of the remaining British Empire without India. About 2,500,000 Indian soldiers fought for Great Britain in World War II. Some fought for the Japanese. Others rebelled. They yearned for freedom. England did not have the ability in 1945 to suppress any mass revolt, unlike the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Great Britain had peacefully granted Dominion status (essentially independence) to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State prior to World War II. It was headed that way with India with the 1935 Government of India Act, giving India more autonomy. Further developments were suspended by World War II. England’s response after World War II was to precipitously pull out of India in 1947, giving way to the Bloody Partition. The Empire had died seven years earlier. The only British surrender comparable to that of Singapore was at Yorktown freeing the 13 colonies. The supreme irony of the British surrender is that the Japanese forces were almost out of supplies, especially artillery shells at the time of surrender. ______________________________________________________________________ Why did I write this blog? I’m in Singapore and I love history.

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