In 1939, when Winston Churchill, was First Lord of the Admiralty, he told his naval commanders "there could be no question of moving powerful naval forces to the Far East on the mere threat of a Japanese attack", and it was "out of the question" to send seven battleships to Singapore if war did break out. He thought that war with Japan would not involve an attack on Singapore or the white dominions. By the autumn of 1940, the British Far Eastern Empire was virtually defenceless. Malaya and Singapore were "defended" by three brigades and 88 obsolescent aircraft and the fleet in the Far East consisted of three modern and four ancient cruisers together with five old destroyers. The chiefs of staff advised the Cabinet that these forces were "entirely inadequate" for war with Japan. (1)
Churchill always underestimated Japanese power because of his convictions about white superiority. He believed that only if Britain had been beaten by Germany, would they attack our Far East empire. Churchill told Neville Chamberlain: "Consider how vain is the menace that Japan will send a fleet and army to conquer Singapore... It will never commend itself to them until England has been decisively beaten... You may be sure that provided Singapore is fully armed, garrisoned and supplied, there will be no attack in any period which our foresight can measure." (2)
Antony Beevor has claimed: "The appalling complacency of colonial society had produced a self-deception largely based on arrogance. A fatal underestimation of their attackers included the idea that all Japanese soldiers were very short-sighted and inherently inferior to western troops. In fact they were immeasurably tougher and had been brainwashed into believing that there was no greater glory than to give their lives for their Emperor. Their commanders, imbued with a sense of racial superiority and convinced of Japan's right to rule over East Asia, remained impervious to the fundamental contradiction that their war was supposed to free the region from western tyranny." (3)
Malaya was an important part of the British Empire. It supplied nearly half the world's natural rubber, and more than half its tin ore. Throughout 1940, new airfields along the Malayan coast were constantly under construction, although only 150 RAF aircraft could in the end be spared for reinforcement. Apart from this, Malaya's defence rested on 88,000 troops (Malayan, Indian, Australian and British) under General Arthur Percival, most of whom were poorly trained and equipped, and the historic fortress at Singapore, with its new naval base, though lacking a fleet to protect it. (4)
On 7th December, 1941, General Tomoyuki Yamashita and three divisions (5,500 men) invaded Malaya. The Japanese soldiers were supported by over 200 tanks and 500 aircraft. By the end of the first day, the British and Australian squadrons in Malaya were reduced to just fifty aircraft. Percival's deployment of his troops to guard airfields as a first priority proved a grave mistake. General Lewis Heath, to Percival's anger, began a retreat the next day from the north-east. (5)
Churchill had sent the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore in the hope of deterring the Japanese from attacking Malaya. He suggested that they should go "into the ocean wastes and exercise a vague menace". However, on 10th December, they were attacked by 27 bombers of the Japanese Air Force. Twenty minutes later the first torpedo bombers arrived. Without air cover the two ships had little chance of surviving. A total of 840 British sailors were killed in the disaster. This left the Japanese Navy in control of the sea and it was able to provide the Japanese Army with the necessary supplies to win the battle with the Allied forces on Malaya. (6)
The British Army in Malaya did not have any tanks. The Japanese Air Force were also able to carry out a series of air attacks on Allied positions. Unsuccessful attempts were made to halt the advance of General Tomoyuki Yamashita at Perak River, Kampar and the Muar River. On 25th January 1942, General Arthur Percival gave orders for a general retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore. The island was difficult to defend and on 8th February, 13,000 Japanese troops landed on the northwest corner of the island. The next day another 17,000 arrived in the west. Percival, moved his soldiers to the southern tip of the island but on 15th February he admitted defeat and surrendered his 138,000 soldiers to the Japanese. It was Britain's most humiliating defeat of the war. (7)
Well mum before I start I would like to give thanks to God at Church for the mercy he has shown, not only to me but to the whole Battalion, 3 times, have just waited for death but with Gods help I am still here, I have felt all along that with a your prayers God would keep me safe. Will only give you one instance of it: 10 of us were in a trench in a little native village in the Jungle, we were told last man last round, for we were surrounded by Japanese and they were closing in on all sides. Some of the chaps were saying goodbye to each other and was really frightened at the thought of dying but as the minutes dragged on I resigned myself to it, then all of a sudden three aircraft came over, was they ours? Was they be buggered, down came the bombs all around us. All we could do as we crouched there was to wait for one to hit us but that good old trench saved our lives for it swayed and rocked with the impact, about one minute after they flew off believe it or not 4 tanks rumble up the road, and gave our positions hell they flung everything at us; grenades, machine guns, but still we crouched in that little trench, we could not return fire for if we showed our heads over the trench the advancing Japs were machine gunning us. All of a sudden we heard a shout, run for it lads, and we run, but that was the last I saw of the Brave Officer who said it. Shall never forget him, as we ran past him, pistol in hand holding them off while we got away. I haven't seen him since. Thank God I am still here, most of the Battalion reached safety but a lot of poor chaps are still missing some of my friends too.
Malaya was the most economically productive and strategically important territory of the British Far Eastern Empire, it was guarded at its southern tip by the British fortress at Singapore and the new Changi naval base. Supplying nearly half the world's natural rubber, and more than half its tin ore. Throughout 1940, new airfields along the Malayan coast were constantly under construction, although only 150 RAF aircraft could in the end be spared for reinforcement. Apart from this, Malaya's defence rested on 88,000 troops (Malayan, Indian, Australian and British) under General Arthur Percival, most of whom were poorly trained and equipped, and the historic fortress at Singapore, with its new naval base, though lacking a fleet to protect it.