Singapore : The Darkest Days

February this year marked the 80th Anniversary of one of the darkest days in Great Britain's history - the fall of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army on 15th February 1942. Singapore-based writer Liz Coward looks back on an event Winston Churchill described as the " worst capitulation in British history".

15th February is Total Defence Day in Singapore. It’s marked by the wail of 2,000 civil defence sirens reminding Singaporeans of their current collective responsibility to defend their nation against attack.

The date is significant because on 15th February 1942, Lieutenant-General Percival, General Officer Commanding (Malaya), offered the unconditional surrender of Singapore to Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the 25th Japanese Imperial Army.


Lt-Gen Percival and his party carry the Union Jack and white flag on their way to surrender Singapore to the Japanese. 15th February 1942, Singapore.( photo courtesy IWM. IWM HU 2781)

Since 2015, this island-wide alarm has sounded at 6.20pm, the exact time of the surrender. Whilst its execution marked the end of hostilities, it also marked the start of three and a half years of fear, death, deprivation, and humiliation for PoWs and Singaporean residents.

The seeds of Singapore’s surrender were sown in the interwar years. During that period, Britain’s military strategy in the Far East was undermined by lack of funding, attention, and racial stereotyping.

Singapore’s defence lay primarily with the Royal Navy and the RAF, yet both were committed to the Middle Eastern Theatre.

As a commited member of the Allies fighting both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, New Zealand sent the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt but only 400 RNZAF personnel to Malaya to help with aerodrome construction.

 RNZAF fighter squadron (no. 488) was posted to Singapore.  

The Battle of Malaya began at 00.30hrs on 8th December 1941. A Japanese naval bombardment preceded the amphibious attacks at Kota Bharu on the northern coast of Malaya and Pattani and Songkhla in neutral Thailand.

In Malaya, the initial landings were fiercely resisted by the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade Group, British battalions, and the RAAF from Kota Bharu airfield.  

However, by dawn, the Japanese had gained a foothold and the airfield fell later that day. Poor communications hampered an orderly retreat, a pattern oft repeated during the campaign.

The seeds of the interwar indifference bloomed under the Japanese onslaught as exhausted troops were forced to dig their own defences and dithering and disbelief at the highest-level hampered commanders on the ground.

Allied troop morale withered under constant retreats but there were notable successes which demonstrated that when British and Commonwealth troops were well-trained, well-equipped, and well-lead, they were a match for the Japanese.

However, the sparse victories could not halt the rapid advance and by 31st January 1942 Yamashita gained control of Malaya.


Surrendering British soldier is searched by Japanese troops. January 1942, Malaya. (courtesy of IWM. IWM HU 2783)

It had taken 54 days at a cost of nearly 10-15,000 British and Commonwealth troops killed or captured.

By now, Britain had realised that the situation was dire, and reinforcements arrived to defend Singapore itself.

The main attack commenced at 8.30pm on 8th January in the north-west of the island.

Facing the victorious Japanese, were battle-weary Australians and hastily assembled, but determined, local forces.

Japanese landing craft were met with concentrated machine gun fire and short-range mortars. 

The defenders fought furiously, delaying the inevitable breakthrough until midnight. The following day, Tengah Airfield fell and in a controversial act of insubordination, Brigadier Stuart Maxwell withdrew his troops from the causeway creating a critical gap in the island’s defence.

By 10th February, the situation was desperate and when Singapore’s three reservoirs were captured on 12th, the British were left with little choice.

On 15th, against Winston Churchill’s wishes, Percival surrendered. More than 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops, including New Zealanders, were taken prisoner.

The Japanese had won Malaya and Singapore with the loss of 3,506 men but its subsequent treatment of the captured, wounded, and medical corps created a permanent stain on its military reputation.

On 18th February, Singapore was renamed Syonan-To, (Light of the South), the clocks were changed to Nippon time and anti-Japanese elements were targeted.

Many local Chinese supported their countrymen in the conflict between China and Japan. The Japanese military police, (Kempeitei), therefore ordered Chinese males aged 18-50 to report to mass screening centres.

Anti-Japanese sentiment could be implied by a tattoo, pair of glasses, soft hands, education, and knowledge of English.

Those with the stamp, ‘examined,’ escaped. The rest were loaded onto trucks and executed.

It is estimated that between 35-50,000 men died in the Sook Ching, (purge by cleansing).

The Kempeitei continued to terrorise and intimidate the locals who were encouraged to inform on each other. Those arrested suffered torture and frequently death.

Western influences in school and cinemas were banned.  Rationing was introduced, food became scare and inflation rampant.  Some PoWs were ‘lucky’ enough to remain on the island whilst others were condemned to work, and die, as slave labour on the Thai-Burma Railway and in other parts of the Japanese Empire.

Not surprisingly, anniversaries, such as this can elicit strong feelings, which require sensitive handling.

This was recognised this year by Mr Jeya Ayadurai, chairman of the Commemoration Committee, at the dignified and solemn commemoration service at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.

He said, “Anniversaries of victory and defeat …often elicit the remembrance and rehashing of pain and the opening of old wounds… they add yet another layer of acrimony in contemporary relations amongst nations.

Here in South- East Asia, we reflect hope and peace for the future. We show that it is possible for former combatants… to come together to commemorate. While we do not ignore the past, we are not mired in it.”

As such, His Excellency, Mr Yamazaki Jun, the Japanese Ambassador and Principal of the Japanese School sat alongside representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Britain.

Tsuru, traditional Japanese paper cranes, were laid alongside the poppy wreaths to “represent the remembrance of the collective war dead and the fervent wish for reconciliation amongst all former combatants.”

Tsuru, made by students from the Japanese School of Singapore, laid by its principal, Ms Tsutsumi Yuko, and deputy general manager, Mr Yamada Mitsuru, at the 80th anniversary of the surrender of Singapore Commemoration Ceremony. photo/ Singapore History Consultants

Colonel Grant Motley, Defence advisor to the New Zealand High Commission of Singapore, was one of those who honoured the fallen with a reading.  

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well”. (Our Sons)

One of over 28,500 Commonwealth casualties honoured at Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. photo/supplied


Banner Image : RNZAF members Peter Gifford, Jack Burton, Frank Johnstone, Eddie Kuhn and Derek Charters of No. 488 Squadron pictured at an airfield in Malaya prior to the fall of Singapore. photo/ Turnbull Library

- Asia Media Centre