On December 8th, 1941, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor (though marked as different due to time zones), the Japanese launched their Malayan campaign. Their objective was to capture the Malay peninsula from the British, including the fortress of Singapore at its southern tip. This campaign would culminate at the fateful battle of Singapore.
Prior to the attack the British had spent years fortifying Singapore. After World War I, the British recognized the burgeoning power of Japan and announced in 1923 the construction of a naval base. The base took many years to build, though it held the largest dry dock in the world when completed in 1939. Winston Churchill proudly boasted that the naval base at Singapore was the “Gibraltar of the East.”
There was one fatal flaw in the British strategy: Singapore was only defended against a sea-based attack. There were no permanent fortifications against a land based attack. To the north of Singapore island was dense jungle that the British thought impossible to cross in numbers worthwhile of an invasion. What more, the sea based cannons did not have the proper trajectory to serve as counter artillery in a land based attack.
When the Japanese landed on the northern coast of Malaya in December 1941, they rapidly advanced south. The British were completely unprepared for the ferocity and speed which the Japanese fought. Racial biases were partly to blame, as no European power thought any Asian nation to be on equal footing with them.
The Surrender of British Troops at the Battle of Singapore
Nevertheless, the British and their colonial troops were continually forced to give up ground and retreat. Tens of thousands of troops were captured and the Japanese inflicted heavy casualties. It took them just under two months to fight their way through the dense jungles of the Malaya peninsula to arrive on the outskirts of Singapore.
Churchill was stunned upon receiving the news of the Japanese advance and the effectively defenseless Singapore. He ordered that “the city of Singapore must be converted into a citadel and defended to the death”.
The battle of Singapore began on February 8th. The defenders (particularly the Australians) put up an admirable fight, though it quickly became apparent that the British were outclassed. The Japanese commanders outmaneuvered their counterparts and seized critical supply depots and water reservoirs.
Despite specific orders not to, British General Percival officially surrendered to Japanese General Yamashita on February 15th. The fortress of Singapore last just one week to the relentless Japanese.
Nearly ~80,000 allied troops were captured due to the surrender. A dismayed Winston Churchill called this “the worst disaster” and “largest capitulation in British history”.
It’s little known that only ~20,000 of the troops captured with British. The rest were Indian (~45,000) and Australian (~15,000). Famously, many of the captured Indian troops went on the form the Indian National Army – which actively fought alongside the Japanese for the remainder of the war.
Sadly, of the ~15,000 captured Australian troops, only half of them survived the harsh conditions at Japanese prison camps.