It’s said that pride comes before a fall, and the efficiency with which Japanese forces overwhelmed ‘impregnable’ Singapore in February 1942 certainly dealt a crushing blow to British military pride. The island fortress off Malaya’s tip was nicknamed ‘Gibraltar of the East ’ and served as a vital power base from which British tentacles uncoiled into Southeast Asia.
Japanese forces invaded Malaya in December 1941 – a move coordinated with the attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. Numerically superior British and Indian army battalions hurried north, even as a sustained campaign of air raids on Singapore began. But their opponents were battle-hardened veterans and, when the Japanese gained air superiority, disastrous defeat was assured.
The catastrophe began unfolding when – two days after the invasion – the British capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by torpedo bombers while attempting to shell Japanese landing sites. Light tanks and bicycle infantry allowed invading troops to make a swift advance, arriving at the gates of Singapore on January 31 1942. British sappers blew up the causeway linking Singapore to the mainland, but merely postponed the inevitable.
An intense air and artillery bombardment began and on February 8 a Japanese assault hit Sarimbun beach in the northwest. Once the last of Singapore’s Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft were neutralized, further tank landings soon outflanked defenders who were driven back into a small pocket in the southeast. Despite Winston Churchill’s rousing ‘fight to the last man’ instruction, surrender seemed the only option. On January 15 the Japanese Rising Sun flag was hoisted atop the Cathay Building, Singapore’s tallest, and what Churchill bitterly called ‘the largest capitulation in British history’ was complete. His anger was righteous. The Japanese commander later admitted that he would have lost the battle had the British fought on.
When: February 15 1942
Death toll: During the Malayan campaign Allied forces suffered 50,000 casualties (with 130,000 taken prisoner). The Japanese lost 9,600 men.
You should know: The supremely complacent British attitude before the crushing defeat at Singapore could be judged by gung-ho talk among young army officers who repeatedly expressed disappointment that potential attackers would be frightened off by Singapore’s impressive defenses, thereby denying the Brits a sure-fire opportunity to inflict a huge defeat on ‘inferior’ Japanese forces.