What If Singapore Had Not Fallen?

At the start of World War II, Singapore had symbolized the British Empire’s presence in Southeast Asia for nearly a century. When its garrison surrendered to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it the worst disaster in his country’s military history. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. The British had pre-positioned a grossly inadequate number of aircraft and warships. Japanese bombers had sunk the only two capital ships defending Singapore—the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse—when those vessels tried to contest the Japanese landings along the Thailand-Malaya frontier. The British defense of Malaya was a marvel of incompetence. Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita completely outgeneraled Lieutenant General Arthur Percival. With a force of only 70,000 he managed to kill or capture over 138,000 British, Indian, Australian, and Malayan troops.

Such details imply that with better generalship Singapore could have escaped capture. In fact, most students of the campaign believe that even in the best circumstances, a successful defense was improbable. The naval base that gave Singapore its strategic significance was located on the northern end of Singapore Island, well protected against attack by enemy warships but nearly bereft of protection against a land assault. While it is a myth that the island’s coastal batteries could fire only out to sea, they were supplied mostly with armor-piercing shells of limited use against ground forces.

As early as 1937, the British general staff had concluded that a Japanese land attack was feasible and could capture Singapore in two months’ time. Little was done about this, however. Many of the British, Indian, and Australian forces eventually deployed to block a Japanese advance were inadequately trained. Furthermore, the Royal Air Force constructed air fields in the northernmost part of the colony for the 178 war planes assigned to defend Malaya, which forced the British army to defend them and left it with a long, vulnerable seaward flank.

Nor did the British revisit their naval strategy for Singapore. The naval base held few warships. Instead it was intended to receive and supply a British battle fleet that would be dispatched to Singapore if an emergency arose. With the outbreak of war in Europe, however, the Royal Navy had its hands full in the Atlantic. And with the fall of France, it had to defend the Mediterranean as well. Sending a substantial battle fleet was therefore out of the question. Sending only the Prince of Wales and Repulse was a pathetic bluff.

Logically, the British might have cut their losses by stationing only a token force at Singapore, similar to the 10,000 troops sacrificed at Hong Kong. But Singapore’s status as a jewel of the British Empire, and its mythic characterization as the “Gibraltar of the East,” practically forced Churchill to make a major bid to hold it—not enough, as matters turned out, to do so successfully, but enough to swell the number of forces lost and make the disaster even worse than it would otherwise have been.

It is impossible to imagine a single twist of fate that could have saved Singapore. But what if a combination of events had turned in Britain’s favor? Suppose the British defense had been better conducted. Suppose the carrier Indomitable, which had been assigned to join the Prince of Wales and Repulse, had not run aground. Suppose instead that it had arrived on station and that its aircraft had fended off the swarms of enemy bombers and allowed the two capital ships to contest the Japanese landings.

Suppose that Yamashita, whose audacity earned him the sobriquet the “Tiger of Malaya,” had shown greater caution. Suppose that, when the Japanese finally landed on Singapore Island, Percival had counterattacked (as he planned to do until dissuaded by subordinates)—an attack, we now know, that would likely have defeated Yamashita’s troops, which had badly outstripped their supply lines. And suppose that the Japanese high command then did not reinforce Yamashita enough to make another try.

This is a mighty string of suppositions. But if, by whatever wizardry, Singapore managed to elude capture, what then? Would that have substantially altered the war in the Pacific?

In fact, the principal positive result would have been humanitarian. The Japanese could not have sent most of Singapore’s defenders to labor on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railroad, where 16,000 of them died. Nor could the Japanese have terrorized the population of Singapore and murdered as many as 50,000 of its Chinese residents.

From a strategic standpoint, however, it is unlikely that Britain’s retention of Singapore would have redounded to the Allies’ advantage. The denial of Singapore to the enemy would not have been a serious problem for the Japanese. Although historically the Japanese navy did use Singapore as a port, the need to combat the United States meant that its major bases were the Home Islands, Rabaul, and Truk.

As a naval asset, Singapore was of dubious value. British First Sea Lord Dudley Pound had declared in August 1940, “There is no object in sending a fleet to Singapore unless it is strong enough to fight the Japanese fleet.” Days before the outbreak of the Pacific War, British Admiral Tom Phillips and his American counterpart, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, concurred that Singapore held no potential for offensive operations. Pound considered Trincomalee, Ceylon, superior to Singapore as a base from which to protect the Indian Ocean—and historically Trincomalee proved effective for that mission.

From an army standpoint, Singapore was no better as a springboard for offensive operations. The Japanese could easily block any attempt to move north along the Malayan peninsula. True, heavy bombers based on Singapore could have struck targets across a wide swath of Japanese-occupied territory in Southeast Asia. But, and here is the key problem, any resources dispatched to Singapore, whether aerial, naval, or army, would have come at the expense of theaters where they were more urgently needed.

And yet, even if Great Britain had staved off the 1941–42 invasion attempt, for reasons of imperial prestige it could never have abandoned Singapore. Instead, it would have been condemned to an endless effort to keep the island resupplied and reinforced. The vital Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters would have suffered. Offensives elsewhere might have been delayed or might have failed outright. Even if it remained in British hands, Singapore, the renowned “Jewel of the East,” would have proven only an overpriced bauble.

17 Responses

  1. baldknobber

    Mark: An interesting what-if. I have often wondered – what if the Brits had not shifted forces to Greece, but finished off the Italians in Libya instead. Could this have freed up forces, especially air and armored units, that could have successfully defeated the Japanese on the ground in Malaya? Could a few Matildas and Valentines, supported by some Spitfires and Hurricanes, have bolstered the defense of Malaya?

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  2. P.J. Moore

    I strongly disagree with the premise because it ignores several aspects of that conflict. 1st, if the Brits had held out, it would have cost the Japs in men, materiel, and time, as well as a good port/base. Percival’s relatively quick surrender freed up those resources for the Japanese to deply elsewhere with no trade off for the British. Worse, surrendered British resources were subsequently used against the Allies.
    2nd, the Japanese lost all potential respect for their Western enemies after what they viewed as cowardice on a grand scale by Percival, especially since he significantly outnumbered the Japs. This likely emboldened them to fight harder and hold out longer in subsequent engagements against the Allies, costing more lives.
    3rd, I guarantee that most of the men he surrendered would rather have died fighting than being abused to death slowly and watching their comrades die by the same inhumane hands. I realize that hindsight is 20-20 but the Japs had a pre-existing reputation for ruithlessness and barbarity, so Percival could not reasonably have expected decent treatment for the men he surrendered to Japanese ‘mercies.’ Also, the effect on Allied morale and the propaganda value of these actions are indeed strategic considerations, and not merely “humanitarian” as posed by the author, Mr. Grimsley.

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  3. ac

    white men are cowards, esp when they dont feel a sense of belonging to Spore. History repeats itsself – Vietnam, Afganistan, and now Iraq. Nobody will hold you ground if you dont feel you belong, not when one has to put your life on the line

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    • Charles Xavier

      Ar, your comment is laughable as it is stupid. If White Men are cowards, how was it that they were able to enslave and rule over much of Africa, America and the Far East?

      If you look at history, armies led by White Men have done nothing but dominate non Whites.

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      • percevale

        It’s called “technological advantage” and it happens every time when you play Civilisation sending a Musketman or Rifleman against a spearman or warrior.

    • Boomer

      Really? Actually if you do your history in Vietnam, Afganistan, and now Iraq the military won and is winning the military engagements. Politics is a whole diferent topic.

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  4. Mike H.

    Coming back to the origional topic, even with a few dozen Spitfires, and up-gunned armor; the Brits would not have been able to hold against the Japanese. Yamashita and his troops had been fighting for a long time before the campaign for Malaya & Singapore, against a colonial force that was a parade-ground delight…not a combat-ready one, by any definition. The Spitfire, while a fine fighter in Europe, was no match in dogfighting with the Mitsubishi A6M-5 type “Zero”…Few, if any, could. It was light, fast, nimble, could turn on a dime and give you nine cents change. Weaknesses? No armor, self-sealing fuel tanks…the list goes on, but our side didn’t know that in 1941. Consequently, when Spitfires went up against Zeros, they got shot down…until later, when they changed tactics. but, in 1941, Singapore was doomed from the start.

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    • Boomer

      Actually the Japanese armor was very poor. Even the Brittish tanks that were sub par against German armor could have made a huge difference if deployed in numbers against the Japanese. Combined with a little more air power there could have been a real different out come if they could have slowed the advance and launched a counter attack with armor.

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  5. Bill

    The importance of Singapore was that Britain could use it as a base to deny Japan the oil of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. Without oil, the Japanese war effort was ultimately doomed.

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  6. Stephen Round

    The Zero was a match for the Hurricane using standard RAF 100 octane fuel but it was no match for any mark of Spitfire from the original Mk 1 to the Mk 25.

    The fundamental problem with the Zero was that it could not take advantage of 120 – 150 octane avgas fuel because it was unavailable to Japan while the Spitfire always could. This was due to the original pioneering work of Sir Harry Ricardo the high octane fuel engineering wizard who had worked on the invention and production of high octane fuels for aircraft since before the First World War.

    The same problem was encountered by the Focke Wulf 190 and the Me109 the Axis had no facilities to produce high octane fuel in sufficient quantities The Axis eventually started using water/methanol 50/50 to boost their engine perfomance for short periods during combat conditions.

    The reason why the Aircraft Industries used sleeve valve engines for later aircraft than the 1600 hp Merlin engined Spitfire was that a sleee valve engine could use a higher compression ratio without needing high octane fuels.

    For instance the 24 cylinder water cooled short stroke sleeve valve 5 valves per cylinder Napier Sabre 1V produced 3500 hp while not being much larger or heavier than the Merlin, it’s small size and power to weight ratio was not remotely approached by any other piston engine aircraft engine in the World – not even today! It was producing 5000 hp on the test bed at the wars end.

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  7. Stephen Round

    Who is not a human being …. who thinks he or she is something else and does not belong to our Human Race we can breed with one another and we have been doing so since before the beginning of human history?

    Face it – brothers – there is only one race and that is The Human Race anyone who presumes the very existence of different races is a racist themselves. Whats more anyone who suggests that racism exists mistakes race for the clash of radically different cultures or ideologies. Race was once a word that disguised cultural comflicts now it precipitates them and the cure has become worse than the disease.

    Any physical differences we are presumed upon to imagine to be significant inferiorities or superiorities between ourselves – or between our different cultures – are clearly traceable as being culturally motivated prejudices bourne of socio/economic competition

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  8. Eric C Johnson

    An excellent choice for an “Alternative History” discussion, and in general, an accurate presentation of a consensus among historians regarding the Malaya Campaign. There is a minority view, which if I may present, that takes issue with three key points. The first is: “From a strategic standpoint, however, it is unlikely that Britain’s retention of Singapore would have redounded to the Allies’ advantage” which implies that Singapore was worthy of a token defense at best. This begs the question as to whether the poor generalship and ill-trained troops would have had better success elsewhere, now that the conquest of Malaya has been reduced from seventy days to perhaps two weeks. Would they have successfully defended Java or Burma against an accelerated assault at the end of December 1941? Nor does it take into account conceding the vast mineral wealth of Malaya to Japan without a fight. Holding Singapore is key to denying Japan those resources. In this context, Singapore, the renowned “Jewel of the East,” would hardly have proven only an overpriced bauble.

    The second assumption subject to intellectual challenge is: “In fact, most students of the campaign believe that even in the best circumstances, a successful defense was improbable.” In accelerating his campaign from 100 days to only 70, LTG Yamashita stretched his logistical support past the breaking point. On 15 February 1942, the day he bluffed LTG Percival into surrendering, Yamashita’s forces in contact had less than a single day’s allocation of ammunition – indeed any counterattack or any single 24-hour delay in the previous 70 days – and the initial attack (9-15 February 1942) on Singapore Island would have failed. Additionally, Yamashita’s troops were sustained on captured fuel, rice and other foodstuffs, medical supplies and engineering materials throughout the campaign. Logistically, Yamashita and his staff were utterly reckless, while Percival calculated only sanity would prevail within his enemy’s mind. Denial of captured supplies would have injected a great deal of improbability into the Japanese victory.

    The third statement in question is: “Days before the outbreak of the Pacific War, British Admiral Tom Phillips and his American counterpart, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, concurred that Singapore held no potential for offensive operations.” This is completely truthful in describing ADM Hart’s attitude on 5-6 December 1941 when he met with VA Phillips. But this was not Hart’s attitude the previous August when he struggled in vain to secure approval from Washington to establish joint planning and naval exercises with the British and Dutch Navies. At that time, Singapore was viewed as far better an option than Subic Bay or Cavite as a major repair base for the Asiatic Fleet.

    The problem with a successful defense of Malaya in December 1941 is that by that time the Japanese held the initiative on the strategic, operational and tactical levels. The Japanese would always firmly hold both the strategic initiative (choosing time and manner in which hostilities and major campaigns are initiated); and the operational initiative (fitting Malaya into a larger campaign to conquer Southeast Asia). There were, however, several actions that Far East Command could have exercised that could have wrestled the tactical initiative away from the Japanese, without altering other historical events (such as removing Force Z’s fatal sortie; HMS Indomitable’s grounding in the West Indies; or LTG Yamashita’s intestinal fortitude from calculations). The absence of a RN Battle Fleet and the inadequate RAF commitment led to an increase of the garrison to 90,000 men, a total of 31 maneuver battalions’ worth of troops by November 1941. (The remaining 48,000 troops lost were primarily reinforcements. Not included in these tallies are five battalions of Indian States Forces on static airfield defense duties.) Yet to cover all potential Japanese military options, a total of 48 maneuver battalions were required. In short, while many units were poorly led or ill-trained, a number of British Commonwealth units fought in stellar manner, but were then outflanked by the Japanese who found weak points, unprotected avenues of approach, or conducted amphibious landings.

    The responsibility for this situation rests squarely with alternating moods of inattention, indifference, stupidity, and willful blindness in London. The Japanese seized control of the operational and tactical initiative in July 1941 with the occupation of southern French Indochina. This should have provoked a significant response in London, directing Far East Command to prepare for outbreak of hostilities at short notice, and ordering the local colonial authorities to cooperate. The reason this action was not taken was two-fold. Colonial officials believed defensive military preparations were bad for civilian and native morale. They argued that mobilization of local territorial forces; the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force (FMSVF) and Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (SSVF) would damage the local economy by removing key personnel and skilled labor from civilian activities. This was not a minor consideration – Malaya’s exports to the United States were a rare source of American dollars at a time when Britain was bankrupt and wh

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  9. lapin-rouge

    Hah – 13 minor responses (including some really petty rascism) and then a short novel !

    I’ve been to Sinpapore several times – it feels much bigger on the ground than on a map, simply because one cannot see any distance due to the jungle (urban nowadays). This would have really confused and demoralised unfamiliar officers. Communication with troops dispersed for defence would have been sporadic at best – whereas the Jap attacking forces were concentrated with no comms probs.

    My other concern – which remains unanswered – is that (in the event Singpaore successful defence) would SP have become an allied ‘Verdun’ attacked by the IJP in order to bleed the empire dry? – remember that the japanese had excellent airbases in Vietnamand potential local Naval superiority. Would Churchill have supported another Verdun?

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  10. Eric C Johnson

    Good question about the potential for Singapore as a Pacific Verdun. Unlike the French city, Singapore never was a fortress, except perhaps in terms of expenditure. Mr. XXX ‘s observational skills served him well – Singapore Island is too big to be a fortress, and the naval base is fully exposed, unless defended far enough away to protect it from air and artillery attack. The Japanese possess enough first class airfields, but aircraft is a different question altogether.

    When the decision to go to war was made in August 1941, both the IJAAF and IJNAF made a conscious decision not to lower stringent pilot training standards to replace anticipate combat losses; but instead to rely on a smaller number of truly elite fliers. This decision was not reversed until April 1942. Thus the 3rd IJAAF Division mustered 182 fighter pilots at the start of the war, but never returned to that number again until early 1944. It is doubtful the IJAAF could sustain a “Verdun in the Air”.

    Nor are IJA troops available. The Japanese regarded the Russians as their most formidable threat, the Chinese were second, the British (and ANZACs) were third, the Americans fourth and the Dutch fifth. Indians, Malays and Filipinos were not even taken into consideration. It was not until 1944 that these priorities were revised, and troops shifted from Manchuria and China to fight in the Pacific and Burma. Also, as the superb British historian Ned Willmont pointed out in “Empires in the Balance”, the Sino-Japanese War required just under 9,000,000 tons of shipping per year, but the Japanese merchant marine could provide slightly more than 5,000,000 tons. The Japanese solution to this insurmountable logistical problem was to expand the war throughout Southeast Asia and eastward into the Central and South Pacific. Ultimately, most of the resources seized were never transported to Japan. Moreover, the lack of proper troop transports meant most Japanese soldiers sailed in cargo holds of unsanitary cargo ships. Wastage from disease and exposure was high, and Japanese reinforcements were always too late, too few, and in too poor of physical condition to counter allied counteroffensives.

    Assuming troops from Manchuria and China were made available, the answer to the inquiry as to whether Singapore could become a strategic Verdun rests upon the question of how would they be transported to Malaya when the Japanese Army is short well over 50% of its shipping requirements?

    As a side note, it is often forgotten that the Japanese Navy and Japanese Army fought two wars completely uncoordinated with each other. The Japanese Army devoted only three regiments to fighting the full weight of the American and Australians prior to the Guadalcanal Campaign when a fourth regiment and a divisional headquarters was begrudgingly provided. With the exception of a carrier raid in April 1942, the Japanese Navy was similarly negligent of the Indian Ocean. The interservice rivalry was so intense that the Japanese Army was forced to build its own merchant aircraft carriers to transport army aircraft to Rabaul and Java. This is because the Japanese Navy Minister and the Japanese Army Minister were not subordinate to the Prime Minister. The Emperor was not involved in policy, and there was no single entity able to force a strategic consensus in Japan.

    Hardly a recipe for victory.

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  11. Eric C Johnson

    Sincere apologies to Mr. Lapin-Rouge !!!!!

    I placed Mr. XXX as a place holder as a wrote my comment on a word document and then failed a basic editing task !!!! I feel like an idiot. Just call me Mr. ZZZ in return and we are even !!

    Reply

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