The British Empire Library

Sunset of the Raj - Fall of Singapore 1942

by Cecil Lee

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by James T. Rea (Malayan Chil Service 1931-1958)
This book must be of interest to all those who have or have had any connection with life in the Far East and particularly in Malaya and Singapore. The author arrived in Malaya in the mid-1930s. On 1 December 1941 he was mobilised in the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, became a Prisoner of War and survived the conditions of slavery in the construction of the Burma/Siam Railway in Siam. After this experience he was determined to find out how and why resistance to the Japanese onslaught collapsed so quickly.

Before the Far East War we civilians in Malaya were all busy at our jobs and duties, both greatly intensified by war time regulations since September 1939. In addition, for younger men there was compulsory military training with the Volunteer Forces, for others training in all aspects of civil defence. The arrival of British, Australian and Indian forces had been seen, war planes were continually in the air, the battleship Prince of Wales was on its way. It was naturally assumed by us that the Services were preparing an effective defence. When, on the day of the Japanese attack, the C-in-C Brooke- Popham declared "We are ready .... our preparations are made and tested .... our defences are strong and our weapons efficient" it was naturally believed. What was not known was that a large proportion of the Indian III Corps was only partially trained, that there were no tanks, little artillery and that most of the RAF planes were obsolescent - slow Wildebeeste torpedo bombers, Brewster Buffalo fighters (already rejected by the United States Army). None of these troops had World War II battle experience. As the campaign progressed anodyne news bulletins constantly declared "Troops after fighting were retiring to prepared positions." and that there was "night bombing of airfields". No wonder there could arise accusations of complacency.

In the bounds of a review it is impossible to tell of all that is contained in this book. It is a distillate of Official Despatches and the many authoritative books published up to and including 1992 on the subject of the Malayan campaign. The author discusses the abilities, problems, difficulties, decisions and mistakes with sympathy and understanding of several General Officers in Command and of other Generals. The War Office failed to provide Brigadier Ivan Simson, Chief Engineer, with authoritative written instructions about constructing up-to-date defences in suitable places, especially on the north coast of Singapore island, and consequently, with only verbal instructions, he failed to persuade General Percival to construct them. The role of Duff Cooper, Resident Minister, is discussed and there is a chapter on the origin and fate of the Navy Force Z, Prince of Wales and Repulse, and of Admiral Tom Phillips. Naval writers have criticised Admiral Phillips' wisdom, decisions, and his seamanship under air attack.

The author states that his book is essentially a story of the Army. From the end of the first day of hostilities on 8 December 1941 the Japanese had control of the air - the author was on guard duty on Kuala Lumpur airfield when he saw Brewster Buffaloes being "shot down like flies" by Japanese Zero fighters. On the morning of the third day they secured control of the seas when the Prince o f Wales and Repulse were sunk by air attack.

The author does not mention that towards the end of 1940 the Chiefs of Staff in London had hopefully planned to provide Malaya by the end of 1941 with 336 first line planes, tanks, and field artillery including AA guns. When Churchill saw these proposals he minuted that he had no recollection of agreeing to such forces being sent to the Far East - his mind was fixed on the Middle East - so the RAF had to do the best it could with what it had. There are details of the fighting all down the peninsula particularly at a place known as Slim River where, when it was still dark, Japanese tanks advanced 18 miles along the main road, scattering two brigades, killing nearly all commanding officers, and the 11 th Division ceasing to be a fighting formation. So many times bridges were blown prematurely resulting in the loss of troops, guns and transport, so many times there was failure to demolish bridges, thereby allowing Japanese tanks to rush across. Bad luck seemed to be dogging the Army's footsteps.

The belief that Monsoon weather would hinder the enemy proved false. The clouds hid the invading ships from reconnaissance planes. The rain drenched waiting defending troops and filled their trenches - all very disheartening against an enemy who always had fresh troops to put in the assault. In order to give time for reinforcements to arrive in Singapore and to be effective. General Percival sought to keep the enemy as far north as possible. In so doing he imposed on the 11th Division tasks beyond its power, thereby in fact accelerating rather than delaying the Japanese advance. Requests from General Heath of the 11th Division for assistance from the 9th Division on the East Coast were not agreed. The long retreat down the Peninsula to Johore brought the Australian Infantry Force 8th Division into action. They were fresh and keen and a tribute is paid to their fighting qualities. But in the end after much confused fighting all had to retreat onto Singapore island on 31 January.

In January 1942 reinforcements arrived; 51 crated Hurricanes; 44th Indian Brigade, 7,000 raw Indian troops; an AIF Machine Gun Regiment, plus 1900 troops (many of whom had only been 3 weeks in uniform); and the 18th British Division. All too late for effective use in Johore.

A good deal has been said about the misuse of civilians - especially planters and tin miners who were familiar with the country and who spoke Malay - who should have been trained to act as liaison officers and guides for incoming troops strange to tropical conditions. Instead they were used as foot soldiers in the armed forces. Too late this was realised by the Army Command.

There is an appendix to the book telling of the group of Volunteer POWs in Siam who, after the Japanese capitulation, delayed their immediate repatriation and stayed behind to try to rescue and gather together the surviving Tamil labourers who had been impressed from the rubber estates of Malaya and made to work on the Burma/Siam Railway.

The last order from Churchill via Wavell was to the effect that "Commanders and Senior Officers must lead their troops and if necessary die with them". They did not know that one General, one Brigadier and 17 Battalion and Artillery Regimental Commanders had already been killed doing just that.

For one who was there, or for anyone interested in the history of the war in the Far East, this is one of the most satisfying accounts of what happened to the Army in Malaya and Singapore.

British Empire Book
Cecil Lee
The Pentland Press


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