British Empire Books

Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress

AuthorPeter Elphick
Originally published1995
Original publisherHodder and Stougton
ISBN No.0340649909

"To the people of Singapore, this was the classic beleagured citadel of military history - stoutly defended, Well prepared for siege warfare, and above all surrounded by Churchill's 'splendid moat' across which, given a determined defence, no enemy could hope to force a passage. At first Europeans compared their role in history yet to be written with the embattled defenders of Malta and Moscow, not realising that circumstances were completely different - that Malta was an impregnable fortress honeycombed with rocky shelters, whereas Singapore was a shelterless, swampy island; that Moscow was the heart of a country whose citizens preferred death to dishonour, whereas Singapore was a hotchpotch of many races with hundreds of thousands of people who hardly knew what the struggle was all about" Noel Barber

This book is a readable history of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. And this is despite the fact that it has some rather important flaws. In support of this book, it reads well and the author has obviously researched his subject from a wide cross section of sources. Unfortunately, I think that this wide net approach has led him into a situation where he cannot see the wood for the trees. The author tends to get too involved in the minutaie and detail of events. This happens to such an extent that he finds it difficult to step back and see the wider global and historical perspectives of the events that led to the capitulation of Singapore. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of these shortcomings is the inordinate length to which he tries to attach importance to treachery and subversion. I'm sure he has done his research thoroughly and that he has uncovered some interesting and previously undervalued information concerning British and Japanese intelligence in the period. However, I am of the opinion that history has demonstrated to us time and again that no war or conflict has been won by subversion alone. Certainly, it can have its role to play - but only if there are more powerful influences at work - such as poor morale or the quantity and quality of troops on the ground. The author spends most of his time demonstrating how the British lost the battle rather than how the Japanese won it. For sure, the British and Imperial forces had serious problems that affected their performance; most notably the rather poor command structure and the almost complete lack of modern equipment. But this ignores the fact that the Japanese were well-led, had modern equipment and had an excellent plan which was executed well. It also ignores the fact that Britain was in dire straits in other parts of the world at the time. Had I been the leader of Britain at the time - I am sure that I would have prioritised my forces in exactly the same way as Churchill did. This is always a problem of micro-history. To the historian researching the topic, it seems as if this particular part of the globe was the centre of the world - whereas in actual fact - the world was a much more complex place with differing priorities and extremely fluid perceptions of events. This book is a good example of hindsight being 20:20 vision.

Bombay Bowlers
Another criticism levelled at the British - and one that would seem to stand on firm ground - was the fact that the British seemed to be massively overconfident of their position both before and throughout the campaign. Again, with hindsight this would seem to have been a silly exercise that would have added little to the chances of victory. But if you think about it, the commanders knew perfectly well that they had sub-standard equipment and not exactly a great deal of front line troops. What better way to try and prevent an attack than by bluffing about your capabilities. The Japanese, Germans and Russians employed this tactic on numerous occasions - and often to a successful result. In this case, the bluff was called, and the worst suspicions of the commanders were confirmed. There is an alternative theory and one touched upon by the author which is that Churchill deliberately kept his forces in the area weak in an attempt to force the Americans onto the side of the British. This is a controversial theory and one that may actually have been conducted at a sub-conscious level rather than an actively planned policy. If indeed it were true - it would mean that Churchill was prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war. However, I think that this is giving Churchill a little too much credit for what was a lacklustre campaign from start to finish.

One surprising fact to come from the book was the way in which the Australian government attached such a low priority to what should have been a vital security concern for themselves. They sent their best troops to the Middle East - admittedly at Britain's request. However, constitutionally at least, they were not bound to follow Britain's orders. Even when the situation in Malaya was deteriorating quickly - they sent a contingent of what was basically a raw army to Singapore. These forces were soon to form the front line of defence against the Japanese and provided little resistance to the battle hardened Japanese soldiers. It was also interesting to read the extent to which Britain covered up the rather inglorious performance of the Australian troops. Again, Churchill kept his eye on the bigger picture and could see that there was little to gain, and much to lose, by blaming anybody for this disaster. I only wish that the author of this book were able to keep a similar perspective.

Despite the negative aspects of this history, I did enjoy the book and it taught me a great deal about the campaign and I certainly feel the richer for having read it. For example, I was unaware of the proposed British invasion of Thailand in order to provide resistance against the Japanese landings there. Also, the events that led to the sinkings of H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse make for rivetting, if sad, reading.

My own perceptions are fuelled slightly by the fact that my own grandfather sailed into Singapore to be captured by Japanese soldiers waiting at the dock. Allied mismanagement and waste of resources were indeed significant factors to the loss of Singapore and I can hardly blame any of the survivors of Japanese prisoner of war camps for wanting to know exactly why they had to suffer to such an extent. This book will certainly provide fuel to their fire. I can only warn any readers of this book that it is but one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.

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by Stephen Luscombe