During the mid–nineteenth century, Malaya's economic value grew following the discovery of significant tin deposits there, and after the turn of the century, the rubber industry underwent considerable development. These two resources became critical to upholding the exchange value of sterling, and the peninsula therefore acquired great strategic importance for Britain.
Following World War I, the British government decided to develop Singapore into a large naval base, intended to defend against Japanese expansionism. Construction was slowed by the exigencies of the worldwide depression and was never completed. During the 1930s, the British built a series of airfields on the peninsula in the belief that Singapore and Malaya could best be defended from the air. Malaya's wartime population was about 5.5 million people, of whom only about 2.3 million were indigenous Malay. The remainder were Chinese (2.4 million), Indians (750,000), and other nationalities including the British (100,000).
In October 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Brooke-Popham, who had been called from retirement in 1939, was appointed commander in chief, Far East, with his headquarters in Singapore. Brooke-Popham had never served east of Suez and was unfamiliar with the political and military forces girding for war in Southeast Asia. Below him were Sir Shenton Thomas, governor of the Straits Settlements and high commissioner of the Malay States, and the individual service commanders. The senior of these—the general officer commanding (GOC), Malaya, Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival—arrived in May 1941. London rejected Brooke-Popham's requests for more resources and a preemptive strike in southern Thailand against the mounting Japanese threat.
When the Japanese finally began their invasion of Malaya with landings along the northeastern coast on the night of 7–8 December 1941, the British were caught unprepared. With insufficient ships and aircraft to create a simultaneous presence in all theaters, Britain had been forced to establish priorities, and the theaters receiving most of the naval and air assets were the Atlantic and North Africa. Consequently, the defense of the peninsula was left to the army, which numbered some 88,600 Australian, British, Indian, and Malay troops. The principal ground units were the understrength 9th and 11th Indian Divisions and two brigades of the 8th Australian Division, as well as the 1st and 2nd Malaya Brigades at Singapore. The British had only 158 aircraft, mostly obsolete types, and no tanks. They also suffered a severe blow when Japanese aircraft sank Admiral Sir Tom Phillips's new battleship, the Prince of Wales, and battle cruiser, the Repulse, on 10 December when they attempted to oppose the Japanese landings.
The Japanese had devoted extensive planning to the Malayan operation, and the occupation of southern Indochina earlier in 1941 had formed part of their preparation. Malaya would provide them with tin and rubber resources, a strategic naval base at Singapore, and a jumping-off point for further expansion into the oil-rich Netherlands East Indies and the Indian Ocean.
The invading Japanese forces, commanded by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, went ashore beginning on the night of 7–8 December. Some 60,000 men were centered in three divisions, supported by Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo's Malay Force, 158 naval aircraft, and 459 aircraft of the 3rd Air Division, as well as 80 tanks, 40 armored cars, and several artillery regiments. The Japanese quickly gained air superiority and began a rapid move southward. On 15 December, in a desperate move, Governor Thomas accepted an offer of cooperation from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and lifted the official proscription on both it and the Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT). Many members of these two parties would now be trained in guerrilla warfare and sabotage at the 101st Special Training School, which had been hastily created at Singapore.
In late December, Brooke-Popham was recalled and blamed, unjustly, for the Japanese successes. Kuala Lumpur fell on 11 January. British, Australian, and Indian reinforcements, most of them poorly trained, were sent in through Singapore harbor to the retreating front but could do little to stem the Japanese advance. In a series of short battles in mid-January, the remaining British defenses in southern Malaya were broken, and on 31 January, the defenders blew the causeway linking Singapore with the mainland.
Soon after the invasion had begun in December, General Sir Archibald Wavell, commander of Allied forces in the Far East, had visited Singapore and warned that the island's defenses had to be prepared should mainland units eventually be compelled to withdraw to it. Unfortunately, little serious effort was made to comply with this direction. On 9 February, the Japanese landed on the island's northwest coast. Singapore was now crowded with refugees, its inhabitants demoralized and its facilities stressed.
On 15 February, the British commander, Lieutenant General Percival, surrendered his remaining 70,000 troops. Most of the surviving graduates of the 101st Special Training School took to the jungles to carry on the fight, forming the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) in March 1942.
Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill described the loss of Malaya as the greatest disaster in British military history. The loss clearly demonstrated that the British had grossly underestimated Japanese capabilities. Furthermore, their commanders had done a poor job in handling the ill-trained and inadequately equipped force they had sent to meet the invasion. The larger lesson of Malaya was that for commitments to be realistic, they had to be supported with sufficient resources.
The long-term repercussions were enormous and irreversible. Even though the British would return to Singapore and the Malay Peninsula at war's end, their stay would be temporary. European prestige and the omnipotent image of the white man in Southeast Asia was forever tarnished, stoking the fires of nationalism and hastening decolonization.
George M. Brooke III
Kirby, S. Woodburn. Singapore: The Chain of Disaster. London: Cassell, 1971.; McIntyre, W. David. The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979.; Neidpath, James. The Singapore Naval Base and the Defence of Britain's Far Eastern Empire, 1919–1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.; Smyth, John. Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore. London: Macdonald, 1971.