Everyone from Churchill down to the lowest private expected Singapore to hold out for at least three months. By that time, they believed, enough reinforcements would reach the island to make Singapore too well defended even for Yamashita to overcome.

In November 1941, Yates McDaniel knew that Singapore was not prepared for an invasion. As an American representative of the Associated Press, he was well acquainted with the island’s defenses and their shortcomings. For one thing, he knew that the Royal Air Force’s Brewster Buffalo fighter planes were slow and obsolete—RAF Fighter Command, in fact, had given up on them before the Battle of Britain a year and a half earlier. Yet all of the RAF’s Spitfire units, which were a match for the Japanese and their vaunted Zero fighters, were either allocated against the Germans in North Africa or were in Britain to defend the homeland. But that was not the worst of it.

McDaniel was also aware that the British had no tanks at all in Malaya; that all of Singapore’s renowned coastal artillery pointed out to sea, with no guns defending the landward side of the island; and that none of the British troops in Malaya had any training in jungle warfare. Great Britain was now at war with Japan, but, as McDaniel fully realized, the defenders of British Malaya and its trading capital, Singapore, were totally unprepared.

On the morning of December 8, 1941, at 4 a.m., Japanese aircraft bombed Singapore—the same day the Japanese invaded Hong Kong and the Philippines, and the day they attacked Pearl Harbor (though the date across the international dateline in Hawaii was December 7). Later that day in Singapore, the British commander in chief of the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham, issued a communiqué that began: “We are ready. We have had plenty of warning and our preparations are made and tested.” Although Brooke-Popham’s message had its intended reassuring effect on the public, McDaniel would have none of it.

Presumably, everybody else in Singapore believed it. For years the public had been indoctrinated into trusting that Singapore was Britain’s impregnable fortress in the Far East. It was called “the bastion of the East,” “the key to the Pacific,” and “the Gibraltar of the Orient.” The naval base had taken 20 years to complete, cost £60 million—a fortune in the 1930s—and was protected by 15-inch guns. However, the myth that Singapore was an “island fortress” was based on an unfounded reputation, not on the condition of its defenses.

Japanese planners believed the myth as well. As far as Gen. Hideki Tojo and the Japanese government were concerned, Singapore was an active threat—a heavily defended British base in the middle of territory they intended to annex. They regarded Singapore as a greater menace than Pearl Harbor—at least the American naval base was in the mid-Pacific. If the Japanese were to carry out their planned conquest of the East Indies, Singapore would have to be captured.

The conquest of Southeast Asia and the East Indies was not a new idea in 1941. Japan had almost no natural resources, and its military undertakings were designed to secure new sources of minerals and raw materials. Japanese troops had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and turned it into the puppet state, Manchukuo, the next year because Manchuria had the iron ore and coal that Japan desperately needed to produce steel.

Militarists in Tokyo continued with their war against China after Manchuria had been overrun. Japanese troops took most of northern China by force in the mid-1930s, capturing Peking, Shanghai, and Nanking. By 1938, Japan had enough iron, tin, and other natural resources to keep its industries supplied for several years, but was critically short of the most vital resource of all—oil.

About 80 percent of all the oil Japan imported came from the United States. The Japanese government had been stockpiling oil, and by 1940 had managed to store enough of it for about a year of war. Now, rather than depend on America, which had not been very sympathetic toward Japan in its war against China, Tokyo decided to look elsewhere. The best oil supply in Asia, or at least the most easily obtainable, was on Borneo in the Dutch East Indies.

Responding to Japanese aggression in China, the United States already had banned the sale of weapons and scrap iron to the government in Tokyo. In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets in the United States and stopping all future oil shipments. The New York Times called the embargo “the most dramatic blow short of war.” Britain and the Netherlands soon joined the United States in the embargo.

Roosevelt’s oil embargo and freezing of all assets put Japan in a desperate situation for its future military conquests. Only two options remained open: Stop all military expansion and withdraw from Southeast Asia, or take the initiative and seize the oil fields of the East Indies. But for the Japanese, withdrawing from the conquered territories was out of the question—it would mean loss of status and prestige, if not outright disgrace, for the military planners in Tokyo. Thus senior army and navy officers began making plans for offensives against the East Indies in the late summer of 1941.

Planners in Tokyo realized, however, that this would not be a simple operation, and that there would be a need for more than one invasion. Japan would have to launch attacks not only against the Dutch East Indies but also against Malaya and the Philippines. Tojo, appointed prime minister in October 1941, and his government also knew that the British and Americans would not just sit idly by while Japanese forces overran Southeast Asia. Even after the oil fields had been captured, there still would be the problem of shipping the oil to Japan past the American and British fleets. Japan’s military planners decided their first step would be to land knockout blows against U.S. forces in the Philippines, the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the British base at Singapore.

One area where the Allies thought themselves fully prepared for war was in the field of intelligence. They had broken the Japanese naval code, named JN-25 by U.S. Naval Intelligence, in the autumn of 1940. By the end of 1941, the combat intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor was familiar with the language used by the Japanese navy. But the total text that was actually deciphered from the messages usually revealed only about 15 percent of the Japanese communiqué. The rest had to be pieced together by analysis—the name of a certain captain might suggest the ship usually associated with him, for instance. It was a long and painstaking procedure, as much an art as a science.

At the end of November, radio intercepts from Japan indicated that the Imperial fleet had sailed, and that the main carrier strike force was somewhere in the Pacific. It was clear that Japan was about to launch an attack. The only question was when and where they would strike. Then the key to JN-25 was changed a few days into December, which stopped interpretation of Japanese intercepts for about a week.

The mystery ended for the United States on December 7, and for the British in Singapore the same morning. American bases on Guam and in the Philippines also came under attack. Japan’s war of expansion had taken a new and dramatic turn.

Singapore’s defenders were caught totally unprepared, just as the Americans had been at Pearl Harbor. Even though the attacking Japanese bombers had been detected when they were still 140 miles away from Singapore, no one at Civil Air Raid Headquarters answered the repeated telephone warnings. As a result, no one took shelter against the incoming attack. Throughout the raid, Singapore City remained brilliantly illuminated, which greatly helped the Japanese navigators and bombardiers. The only man with the key to the power building that housed the electrical switches for the entire city could not be found. Sixty-one people were killed in the bombing, and another 133 were injured. After dropping their explosives, the Japanese bombers wheeled off to the northeast and returned to their bases in Indochina.

By that time, Japanese troops had begun landing in Malaya. Three hours before the air raid, at about 1:15 a.m., the first troops came ashore at Kota Bharu, a town about four hundred miles up the east coast of Malaya from Singapore. Most accounts report that the invasion went smoothly, despite six-foot waves. However, two other Japanese landings, across the border in Thailand, bogged down—some of the men carrying heavy machine guns were dragged down by the weight of their weapons and drowned. The only Allied resistance also came during those landings, when Thai soldiers fired on the Japanese. The 30,000 men of the landing force, along with a detachment of tanks, soon consolidated their position and moved off the beaches. By the end of the day, the airfield at Kota Bharu was in Japanese hands.

Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, commanding the Japanese invasion force, was a short, heavyset, pugnacious-looking 57-year-old professional army officer. He had a reputation for being strict and aggressive—among other things, his men called him “the tiger.” During the 1930s, he became an experienced combat officer, spending several years leading troops in China and Manchuria. In 1940 he was sent to Germany to study the success of the Wehrmacht and its blitzkrieg tactics in the opening stages of World War II, and even met Adolf Hitler. Hitler, however, did not impress him—Yamashita thought he looked like a clerk.

However, the general was certainly impressed by the tactics of blitzkrieg—coordinating air, armor, and infantry in a lightning attack against the enemy. When Yamashita returned to Japan in 1941, he was given command of the Twenty-Fifth Army. The unit was considered among the best in the Japanese military, and Yamashita’s job was to prepare it to invade Malaya and capture Singapore. Because taking Singapore was an essential goal of Japan’s offensive in Southeast Asia, only the best troops would be employed in the Malaya campaign. In his drive against Singapore, Yamashita planned to use some of the lessons he had learned in Germany.

The general trained the Twenty-Fifth Army on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, under jungle conditions similar to those the troops would encounter in Malaya. They rehearsed amphibious landings; blew up bridges and then repaired them under combat conditions; and used bicycles instead of horses or motor transport, since bikes were easier to maintain. Everything was done under Yamashita’s direct supervision, and conducted in a jungle environment. The soldiers performed drills over and over again until they knew their roles to perfection.

Yamashita intended to not only defeat the British but also to humiliate them. More than just a military operation, this campaign was designed to show that the Japanese were superior to the British and all Western races. To give his troops a mental edge, as well as a boost to their morale, Yamashita issued each man a pamphlet titled “Read This Alone and the War Can Be Won.” Its main theme was that the British and all Westerners were weak, corrupt, and interested only in pleasure, and that they were far inferior to the Japanese. “The other peoples of the Far East look with envy upon Japan,” it proclaimed. “Our opponents are much more feeble than the Chinese army,” which Japanese troops had been fighting and regularly defeating for the past 10 years, “and their tanks and aircraft are a collection of rattling relics.”

The Japanese soldier and the Japanese race as a whole, they were instructed, were far superior to either the Americans or the Europeans. Soldiers should feel nothing for their Western enemies but contempt. This message was very similar to what the German troops were taught under the Nazis—that Germans were racially superior to all other races, who were second-rate and should not even be looked upon as human.

Training also increased the self-assurance of Yamashita’s men. The troops were taught to feel at home in the dense undergrowth and to use it to their advantage, offering concealment for ambushes and hiding places for snipers. “The jungle is not such a terrible place,” remembered one Japanese soldier. “We can live on rice, salted sesame seeds and salted fish…the jungle did not have the fear for us that it seemed to have for some of the Allied soldiers.”

By December 1941, the Twenty-Fifth Army was well trained and well prepared for its campaign against the British in Malaya. The defending British and Commonwealth troops, however, were neither trained nor prepared. They were inexperienced and undertrained in just about all aspects of fighting—they were completely untrained for the jungle warfare ahead of them. They had no tanks, since planners in London believed that armor was unsuited for jungle warfare and would not send any tank units to Southeast Asia. Many soldiers in the 11th Indian Division, for instance, had never even seen a tank. Troops in and around Singapore had no idea what jungle warfare would entail for them or their equipment, and they had no real idea what to expect from their Japanese opponents. They were just the opposite of Yamashita’s men in training, outlook, and experience.

While Japanese soldiers called Yamashita the tiger, the British commanding general, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, was known as “the rabbit,” because of his buckteeth. Percival was a combat veteran like Yamashita, but he totally lacked the drive and personality of his opponent. He had joined the army as a private during World War I, at the age of 27, and was commissioned within a month. Three years later, in 1917, he was a colonel commanding a battalion on the front lines. With the Armistice in 1918, he elected to remain in the army rather than return to his job as an office clerk.

Between the wars, Percival made a reputation for himself at Camberley Staff College and the Imperial Defence College. When the war broke out in 1939, he was given command of the 43rd Division and was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He was evacuated from Dunkirk and commanded another division defending the Channel coast during the summer of 1940, when Hitler threatened to invade England. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, Percival was sent to command British forces in Malaya.

Percival was an excellent officer with a fine combat record—he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, and the Croix de Guerre. His fighting experience, however, was limited to northern France, where combat had been far different from the style of warfare his men would be facing in Malaya. Percival also tended to be lackluster and colorless—many in his command did not even know what he looked like. The troops stationed in Singapore might have benefited from a dynamic leader, someone who could inspire them with his charisma, as Bernard Montgomery would do in North Africa. Instead they got a general with the manner of a paperwork staff officer and the soul of an office clerk.

The morale of the British soldiers stationed in Malaya was in as sorry a state as their training, and General Percival did nothing to improve it. Most of the British had no idea why they had been sent to Malaya in the first place. As far as they were concerned, the real war was in Europe against the Germans. In the minds of most of the troops, Singapore might have been on the dark side of the moon. “Men might have been resigned or even prepared to die for their homes in Glasgow or Manchester or London,” commented a British writer. “No one wanted to die for Singapore.”

British civilians not only did not want to die for Singapore, they did not even want to defend it. The wife of the commander in chief, Lady Popham, tried to convince an acquaintance to spend two hours per week as an air raid warden. But the woman said that she could not oblige—she had entered a tennis tournament, and volunteering as an air raid warden would interfere with her tennis. Lady Popham was astonished. In London during the Blitz, everyone had tried to do his or her part in civil defense, but in Singapore, no one even seemed interested.

Singapore did have two British warships to help with its defense—the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse. “Force G,” as the two ships and their destroyer escort were called, had been sent to Malaya to buoy morale as much as to bolster the defenses. Originally, Force G was to have included the new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. But in November 1941, fresh from the builders’ yard and on its sea trials, the ship ran aground outside Kingston Harbor in Jamaica, and went into the repair dock instead of to the Far East. Indomitable’s contingent of Seafire fighters—the seagoing version of the Spitfire—might have made a difference in the battle that was to come.

Prince of Wales and Repulse had not been damaged in the bombing attack of December 8. After much thought and with some foreboding, Vice Adm. Tom Phillips, commander of the Far East Fleet, decided to set sail from Singapore and intercept the Japanese fleet. It was worth the risk, he figured, and preferable to being caught in port by Japanese bombers.

For his attack to succeed, Phillips knew that he would need surprise and air support. On the day after the battle force left Singapore, however, the Japanese submarine I-56 spotted Force G. The British didn’t see the submarine, and didn’t know surprise was lost. The prospect of air fighter cover was dashed when Phillips was handed the message, “REGRET FIGHTER PROTECTION IMPOSSIBLE,” indicating that the airfields in northern Malaya had been captured by Japanese troops. Phillips shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, we must go on without it.” Had he known that he had already been spotted by I-56, he might not have been so nonchalant.

Radar aboard Repulse picked up the first Japanese planes at 11:30 a.m. on December 11. The first attack was carried out by 9 twin-engine bombers, followed by 12 torpedo bombers. At noon bombers and torpedo bombers from Indochina made another run at the two ships, followed by a third two-wave attack 20 minutes later.

Although both ships managed to evade several bombs and torpedoes, the outcome was inevitable. Repulsewas the first to go down—after rolling over, she sank stern first at 12:35. Prince of Wales sank at 1:19 after being hit by five torpedoes and at least one bomb. Among those who went down with the ship was Adm. Phillips. Britain had placed a great deal of hope and confidence in the two warships, and Japanese naval commanders viewed their presence in Southeast Asia with anxiety. Now, almost incredibly, both ships were gone.

Winston Churchill was shocked when he heard the news—“Are you sure it’s true?” he asked in astonishment. In their attacks, the Japanese lost only four aircraft to antiaircraft fire.

So far, everything that could have gone wrong for the British in Malaya had, and their luck showed no sign of changing. Shortly after Yamashita’s landing force came ashore at Kota Bharu, a Japanese patrol found a map of Malaya inside an abandoned British armored car. Every defensive position around Jitra, a village about 20 miles south of the Thai border, had been marked in pencil. The “Jitra line” was supposed to stop the Japanese advance before it could gather any momentum, and was also designed to protect the RAF airfield at Alor Star, a few miles to the south. Thanks to the map, Japanese commanders knew exactly where every British gun and defensive position was situated.

Using a tropical version of blitzkrieg tactics he’d learned in Germany, Yamashita coordinated his tanks and infantry. Ten light tanks moved south toward Jitra along a wide asphalt road, accompanied by infantry riding bicycles. Not all the British positions were manned, which made things easier for the attackers.

Some of the defenders fought back. “Voices cried out,” according to one witness, “and groans could be heard sporadically amidst the reports of firearms.” But the British soon began to withdraw, leaving Jitra to the Japanese. They also left behind about 50 artillery pieces, 50 machine guns, about 300 trucks and armored cars, along with a three-month supply of rations and ammunition. Yamashita had been prepared to give up a thousand casualties to take Jitra. He lost only 37 men. A defensive position designed to hold three months lasted only 15 hours.

Taking Jitra had been unbelievably easy, far easier than Yamashita or any of his officers expected. Their next objective was Alor Star and its airfield. The bridges approaching the town had only been partially destroyed, which allowed the attacking Japanese to cross them in about 30 minutes. They found that the airfield had been abandoned, along with all its supplies—including aviation gasoline and bombs.

All four airfields in northern Malaya were captured on that first day, which is why Admiral Phillips had to be informed that no fighter protection was available. The Japanese sarcastically called the four airfields “Churchill aerodromes,” and would use the bombs and the gasoline against British troops.

Even at this early stage of the campaign, a pattern had been set. For the British, it was one of retreat. Whenever the advancing Japanese forces encountered a British defensive position, they sent for their air force to bomb the enemy. The planes did not have to come down from Indochina anymore; the “Churchill aerodromes” allowed the pilots to bomb and strafe British positions after only a short flight from the north. After the air attack, Japanese infantry and tanks would move forward. The troops came on bicycles, and were often on top of the defenders before the British had time to react.

In a state of confusion, sometimes without having the chance to fire a shot, the British troops would withdraw from their position and retreat south. As soon as they were able to establish another line of defense, Japanese aircraft would come down from the north and the cycle would repeat itself.

On top of everything else, even their kit and equipment were working against the British. Japanese troops wore light tropical uniforms and rubber-soled shoes, ideal for the heat and humidity of the Malayan jungle. The British, on the other hand, wore heavy boots, and carried blankets, haversacks, and other heavy gear. All of this would have been fine in northern Europe but was a liability in the jungle.

Eighteenth-century British historian Edward Gibbon summed up a remarkably similar situation when he described the plight of the ancient Roman legions in their many battles against barbarian hordes. “All things became adverse to the Romans,” Gibbon wrote, “their armour heavy, the waters deep; nor could they wield, in that uneasy situation, their weighty javelins. The barbarians, on the other hand, were enured to encounters in the bogs.”

Throughout the month of December, Yamashita kept up the pressure. His bicycle-riding infantry pedaled south, toward Singapore, at a rate of 20 miles or more a day—more like light cavalry than infantry. Each man carried either a rifle or light machine gun over his shoulder as he pedaled along, and slung his ammunition and equipment over the handlebars or in a backpack. When a bicycle broke down, the men would simply take another from one of the villagers, either snatching it outright or looting it for spare parts.

Riding a bicycle miles every day in the tropical sun made short work of tires. When tires burst or wore out, the troops rode on the rims. To the British, already unnerved by both jungle warfare and constant retreating, the clatter of hundreds of steel bicycle rims sounded like tank tracks. Believing that a column of tanks was bearing down on them, British and Commonwealth troops would often abandon their positions and fall back yet again—spooked by men on bicycles.

By January, Yamashita’s troops had moved halfway down the Malay Peninsula and were approaching the capital of Kuala Lumpur. The city was the base for the British administration in Malaya, and also the site of another RAF base. The Slim River was the last natural barrier between Japanese forces and this vital objective. General Percival knew that stopping Yamashita before he moved any closer to Singapore was critical—the 45th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was due to land at Singapore just after New Year’s. If the Japanese could be held at the Slim, those new reinforcements might stop Yamashita’s advance.

Another Indian unit, the 12th Indian Brigade, held the main road and rail line into Kuala Lumpur. Although the men were in poor spirits, they had dug trenches and put up roadblocks to meet the coming attack. The defenses worked. Japanese troops attacked on January 5, 1942, and for the first time were turned back with heavy losses. On the following day, the defenders stopped both tanks and infantry. It looked as though Yamashita had finally been handed a decisive setback.

The reversal, however, turned out to be only temporary. Japanese scouts soon discovered an abandoned and forgotten road, and tanks and infantry used it to go around the British positions. The Japanese simply worked their way around the defenses, crossed the Slim River and, following a fight that was nothing more than a delaying action by the British, marched into Kuala Lumpur. Yamashita was now less than 250 miles from Singapore.

Initially, the blame for what was happening in Malaya fell on Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham, not Percival. At the end of December, Brooke-Popham was replaced by Gen. Archibald Wavell, who had been described by German general Erwin Rommel as having “a touch of genius” for his leadership in the Libyan desert. After his dismissal, Brooke-Popham was called a “nincompoop” in the House of Lords.

London hoped that some of Wavell’s genius might rub off on his officers in Malaya—he was now commander in chief, Far East, in charge of all British, Commonwealth, American, and Dutch forces in Southeast Asia.

Wavell arrived in Malaya the day after Japanese forces crossed the Slim River. The first thing he did was make an inspection tour, and what he found appalled him—the 11th Indian Division had been shattered, and the entire body of British and Commonwealth troops was disorganized and demoralized. He ordered a general retreat—the official phrase was “withdrawal”—to Johore province, the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. Just across the narrow Strait of Johore was the island of Singapore itself.

On Singapore, Wavell found that the situation was even worse. He arrived to inspect the defenses on the north shore, facing Johore, and quickly discovered that there were none. There were not even detailed plans to defend Singapore against an attack from Johore, and the island’s great naval guns could not be turned to fire at attackers from the north.

Sending reports to the chiefs of staff in London, as well as to Churchill, Wavell did not try to sugarcoat the situation. “I must admit to being staggered by Wavell’s telegram of the sixteenth,” said Churchill, who wrote in his memoirs that “the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”

On January 25, General Percival ordered his army across the Strait of Johore and onto Singapore Island. By the 31st, all remaining British and Commonwealth troops withdrew across the 1,100-foot causeway that straddled the strait, leaving Johore to Yamashita and his troops. After crossing it, the retreating British blew a 75-foot gap in the bridge, making it impassable to the advancing enemy.

Everyone from Churchill down to the lowest private expected Singapore to hold out for at least three months. By that time, they believed, enough reinforcements would reach the island to make Singapore too well defended even for Yamashita to overcome.

Yamashita arrived at the southern tip of Johore early in February. For the ensuing week, the two sides prepared for the next—and final—phase of the campaign. The Japanese wheeled every artillery piece they had, all 440 of them, into positions facing Singapore. British forces dug trenches and waited. Percival had 85,000 men on Singapore; about 15,000 were noncombatants. Some were only half-trained, and others were completely untrained. Some of the Australians had been sent to Malaya after only two weeks in training camp, and had never fired their rifles.

During the night of February 8–9, Yamashita sent the first 13,000 of his troops across to Singapore. Another 10,000 landed during the early morning. Some of the men crossed the strait in landing craft; others went in plywood boats powered by outboard motors; still others crossed in boats captured from the British. Many swam across.

Their initial landings were mainly unopposed. The defenders reacted differently in different situations. Australian troops near a mangrove swamp backed into the jungle, threw their rifles away, and ran. Other Australians, however, at the base of the Kranji Peninsula, opposite the city of Johore Bahru, fought the Japanese to a standstill.

The Imperial Guards, Yamashita’s crack troops, were on the receiving end of this stand. The Australians opened oil tanks at the Kranji depot and set the oil afire, incinerating many of the attackers. In retaliation, the Guards beheaded 200 wounded prisoners—an act of vengeance against an enemy that had fought them so determinedly.

At 4:30 a.m. on February 9, resistance abruptly subsided when the defending troops received orders to withdraw. It was a mistake: Brigadier D. S. Maxwell of the 27th Australian Brigade thought that Western Area Headquarters had given the order, and directed the troops to pull back, but headquarters denied that any such order had been issued.

For the defenders, it was a costly blunder. British and Commonwealth troops had dug in along the “Jurong line,” a high ridge on the western side of the island between the Kranji and Jurong rivers. The unwitting evacuation of the Jurong line jeopardized the entire British position on Singapore—as their main line of defense had disappeared.

This was another piece of luck for Yamashita, who was well aware that his attack on Singapore was an audacious bluff. He had 30,000 men, and knew that he was outnumbered by about three to one. His army would never survive a long, drawn-out campaign—he did not have either the men or the supplies for a prolonged effort. He was chronically short of gasoline for his tanks and ammunition for his guns. If the British put up a determined resistance, he would run out of both. His senior supply officer warned him that his attack would probably fail.

Nevertheless, Yamashita would not listen; he had an idea of his own. He ordered his artillery to shell the enemy as though his gunners had an endless supply of ammunition. He wanted General Percival to think that the Japanese troops were being reinforced, and that new supplies of men and ammunition had been sent.

The ruse worked. Percival thought that the Japanese barrage was as fierce as anything he had experienced on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. He had limited his own gunners to 20 rounds per day, and reached the conclusion that Yamashita must have an enormous supply of shells to put up such a bombardment. Actually, Yamashita’s supply of artillery ammunition was as low as Percival’s.

Singapore City also came under attack from Japanese bombers. Civilians were suffering higher casualties than soldiers in the field. Japanese antipersonnel bombs slaughtered city residents—eyewitnesses reported the drains on each side of the narrow city streets flowed with blood. “The roar and crash of cannonade and bursting bombs which are shaking my typewriter and my hands which are wet with the perspiration of fright,” wrote American reporter Yates McDaniel, “told me without the need of official communiqué that the war which started nine weeks ago 400 miles away is now on the outskirts of this shaken bastion of empire.”

Percival likewise did not need an official communiqué to assess his situation. By February 14, Yamashita had ferried his tanks across the strait and had also built a pontoon bridge linking Johore with Singapore Island. Percival began to consider whether he should continue fighting or surrender. He was low on food, supplies, and ammunition, and was not sure how long he could hold on against the attacking Japanese and their seemingly limitless supply of everything he was lacking.

Percival did not know it, but Yamashita was experiencing the same problem. Some of his officers advised him to fall back to the mainland, resupply, and attack again with fresh supplies of men and ammunition had been sent.

The ruse worked. Percival thought that the Japanese barrage was as fierce as anything he had experienced on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. He had limited his own gunners to 20 rounds per day, and reached the conclusion that Yamashita must have an enormous supply of shells to put up such a bombardment. Actually, Yamashita’s supply of artillery ammunition was as low as Percival’s.

Singapore City also came under attack from Japanese bombers. Civilians were suffering higher casualties than soldiers in the field. Japanese antipersonnel bombs slaughtered city residents—eyewitnesses reported the drains on each side of the narrow city streets flowed with blood. “The roar and crash of cannonade and bursting bombs which are shaking my typewriter and my hands which are wet with the perspiration of fright,” wrote American reporter Yates McDaniel, “told me without the need of official communiqué that the war which started nine weeks ago 400 miles away is now on the outskirts of this shaken bastion of empire.”

Percival likewise did not need an official communiqué to assess his situation. By February 14, Yamashita had ferried his tanks across the strait and had also built a pontoon bridge linking Johore with Singapore Island. Percival began to consider whether he should continue fighting or surrender. He was low on food, supplies, and ammunition, and was not sure how long he could hold on against the attacking Japanese and their seemingly limitless supply of everything he was lacking.

Percival did not know it, but Yamashita was experiencing the same problem. Some of his officers advised him to fall back to the mainland, resupply, and attack again with fresh supplies of men and ammunition. Retreating, however, would have meant loss of face. Yamashita pounded on the table and screamed that withdrawing was out of the question. The artillery barrage and the push to the south would continue. He did not want to give the British a chance to recover, and hoped they would not discover how short his supplies were.

Percival was equally aware of how dispirited his army had become and of his opponent’s apparent overwhelming confidence and fighting spirit. To make matters worse, Singapore’s water supply had almost been destroyed by the bombing, and the city faced an epidemic because of the unburied dead that lay in the streets.

On the morning of February 15, Percival received a message from General Wavell, who was in Java. The communiqué urged Percival to continue fighting, but Wavell also said, “When you are finally satisfied that this is no longer possible, I give you discretion to cease resistance.” He went on to advise Percival, “Before doing so, all arms, equipment and transport of value to the enemy must, of course, be rendered useless.”

Percival had already reached the conclusion that further resistance was futile, and sent three of his officers to Japanese headquarters to make arrangements for a surrender. Lieutenant Colonel Ichiji Sugita, who served as Yamashita’s intelligence officer and was fluent in English, met the officers and, after a brief exchange, sent a message back to his headquarters that the British wanted to give up. Yamashita replied that he accepted the surrender and would meet with the British commander at 1800 hours.

Actually, Yamashita was not sure if Percival really wanted to concede defeat or if this were a British trick. He knew that Percival had a much larger army, which included Indians, Australians, and Gurkhas. Offering to surrender might just be a ploy to buy more time—consolidate a stronger defensive position, or possibly arrange for a Dunkirk-style evacuation. That was the sort of thing Yamashita might have done, but not Percival—he did not have the drive or the imagination.

Yamashita chose the Ford Motor Company’s assembly plant as the site for the surrender talks. It was the largest building on the island, with room to accommodate as many Japanese reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen as possible. Percival arrived punctually at 6 o’clock. Yamashita kept him waiting until nearly seven. After a few preliminaries, the two sat down at a long table in the middle of the room.

Yamashita came right to the point—he wanted Percival to surrender immediately and unconditionally. Percival tried to stall, asking if he could give his answer on the following morning or, when that was curtly rejected, at 11:30 that night. But Yamashita was adamant. He did not have enough ammunition to carry out the attack with which he threatened Percival. He told his interpreter, “I want to hear nothing from him except yes or no.” Percival had no choice but to agree. When asked if he accepted unconditional surrender, Percival simply said “Yes.”
Although he showed no emotion, Yamashita must have been not only relieved by Percival’s surrender but also absolutely elated. When the general had visited Germany, he had been told by Hermann Göring that Singapore could hold out for a year and a half, and that it would take five divisions to overwhelm its defenses. Yamashita had accomplished the feat in 70 days with three divisions.

Yamashita had his improbable victory, and he had humiliated the British. Singapore was the worst defeat in British military history, beyond anything that happened during the Napoleonic wars, the American War of Independence, or World War I—and Yamashita wanted the world to know it. He ordered the entire British garrison paraded in front of his conquering army and Japanese news photographers, before marching them off to prison camps. As far as Yamashita was concerned, this was a fitting end to the campaign. The inferior British had been handed the decisive defeat they deserved.

Singapore was only one of a string of easy Japanese triumphs during the early months of the war. Guam was captured from the United States on December 10, only three days after Pearl Harbor, and Wake Island surrendered on December 23. Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day, and Manila surrendered on New Year’s Day. Borneo, with its oil fields, was seized on January 19, and the American garrison on Corregidor surrendered on May 6. It had been a heady six months for the rampaging Japanese.

Listeners to Tokyo radio were told that Japan had won another great naval victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7 and 8, even though the Japanese fleet lost the aircraft carrier Shoho and had been stopped from invading Port Moresby, Australia. To senior Japanese naval officers, however, Coral Sea was another victory; their own propaganda ministry had inflated the number of American carriers and battleships that had been sunk.

The next step was to knock the already weakened American fleet out of the war, and then dictate peace terms in Washington the way Yamashita had done in Singapore. No one in Tokyo saw this as much of a challenge. Rear Adm. Ryunosuke Kusaka, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s chief of staff, said, “We can beat the Yankees hands down with a single blow.”

By mid-1942, the collective Japanese forces—navy, army, and air force—were suffering from “victory disease.” Everything had come so easily for them that they had developed a dangerous overconfidence, as well as complete contempt for the enemy. Even Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the navy’s commander in chief, suffered these symptoms. He could not imagine that the enemy might just have the determination to surprise a superior enemy force and inflict a major setback.

As preparations were made for what would become the Battle of Midway, Japanese senior officers committed many errors of omission that would come back to haunt them. Their main failure was taking only four aircraft carriers to Midway. If Yamamoto had waited until Shokaku and Zuikaku were ready—Shokakuhad been damaged at Coral Sea, and Zuikaku’s air group was decimated in the fighting—he could have increased his strike force by 50 percent. But Yamamoto’s staff was confident that four carriers would be enough.

Another mistake was underestimating enemy intelligence. None of the Japanese admirals even considered that the enemy might have detected their plans. In fact, the codebreakers at Pearl Harbor had uncovered the details of the operation. Through JN-25, the Americans knew when Yamamoto’s fleet was sailing, which ships were involved, and even the names of the captains. This allowed the U.S. fleet to wait in ambush for the Japanese navy north of Midway Atoll.

The Japanese commanders were so overconfident that they ignored their own warning signals. During tabletop war-games in early May, the Red Team, representing the American fleet, caught the Blue Team (Japanese fleet) by surprise and sank two of its carriers. Instead of taking this as a hint of what might happen, the umpires refloated the two carriers. The possibility of the Americans sinking two of their aircraft carriers was dismissed as improbable, even absurd.

On June 4, the American task force surprised the Japanese fleet and sank all four of its carriers. Had Japanese intelligence tried to determine exactly what the Americans knew about their plans, or had Yamamoto waited until the other two carriers were ready, the outcome of the Battle of Midway might have been quite different. But the Japanese had dismissed Americans and all Westerners as their inferiors, not worthy of being taken seriously, and Japan paid the price.

Singapore was a decisive setback for the British and the Allies in the Pacific war. But the easy victory, along with the other Japanese triumphs in December 1941 and early 1942, served to lay the foundation for Japan’s eventual defeat. Yamamoto himself had a premonition of what might happen. “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year,” he said, according to Walter Lord in Incredible Victory, “but I have utterly no confidence in the second and third years of fighting.”

David Alan Johnson has written extensively on World War II topics. His eighth book is Betrayal: The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteurs (Hippocrene, 2006).