The Japanese plan called for an approach to Singapore from the north by land. The British had designed Singapore's defenses primarily to meet a seaborne attack. Although some of the big guns were capable of firing against land targets, they lacked the high-explosive shells for use against attacking troops.
The drive on Singapore began with the Japanese invasion of northern Malaya on 8 December 1941. By 15 January 1942, the British III Corps of the 8th and 11th Indian Divisions had been forced back to the defensive line in Johore, which was held by the 8th Australian Division. By the end of January, the Japanese had driven British forces back across the Straits of Johore into a defensive position on Singapore Island.
The Straits of Johore protected the northern and western shores of Singapore Island. The straits varied in width from 600 to 2,000 yards and were crossed only by a 70-foot-wide causeway that the British cut but could not destroy. Singapore island was largely covered by jungle growth and plantations that sharply limited observation and fields of fire. Save for several towns, the population was concentrated on the southeast coast in Singapore Town, a city of 1 million. The key location around Bukit Timah village in the center of the island contained a large depot of military stores and the three reservoirs for the island's water supply.
Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival commanded 85,000 defending troops. Japanese commander Lieutenant General Yamashita Tomoyuki had only 30,000 men of the Twenty-Fifth Army. Although the attackers were short of ammunition and other supplies, their aircraft dominated the skies. Percival deployed the bulk of his troops too far forward, defending 30 miles of front to make his stand on the island's beaches. Most of the men were poorly trained. In any case they were exhausted and dispirited after weeks of battle and defeat. Moreover, they had been outfought by a battle-hardened enemy skilled in infiltration and tactics suitable for the jungle terrain. The defending force of Indians (now consolidated into the 11th Division) and the 8th Australian Division had been reinforced on 29 January by the 11th British Division and, a few days earlier, by the partially trained 44th Indian Brigade. The only other troops were fortress troops, with two Malayan brigades and volunteers. All but one of the island airfields were within reach of Japanese artillery fire, and the few remaining fighter aircraft were thus redeployed to Sumatra, from which they could provide only limited air support. Yamashita planned to throw the British off balance by feinting east of the causeway and making his major attack to the west of it.
On the morning of 8 February, the Japanese attacked. Two divisions crossed in landing craft against the Australian 22nd Brigade west of the Kranji River. Although the Australians sank many landing craft, they were too thin on the ground to hold the line. By the next morning, the Japanese had taken Ama Keng and were attacking Tengah Airfield. The defenders then withdrew to establish a line on the narrow neck of land between the Kranji and Jurong Rivers. Meanwhile, on the evening of 9 February, the Japanese successfully attacked the 27th Australian Brigade, creating a gap between the brigade and the Kranji-Jurong line. The Japanese soon bypassed that line, which was never properly prepared or occupied by the defenders. A British counterattack attempting to restore the position failed.
By 11 February, the Japanese had seized and repaired the causeway, allowing them to send additional resources, including tanks, onto the island and advance toward Nee Soon village. On 12 February, Percival ordered a withdrawal to a perimeter marked by Bukit Timah road, MacRitchie and Pierce reservoirs, and Paya Lebar-Kallang. Heavy fighting began south of Bukit Timah road on 13 February, where for 48 hours the Australians held, and along Pasir Pajang ridge, where Malayan forces stubbornly repulsed the Japanese. On 14 February, however, the defenders were forced back to what proved to be their final line.
London had ordered Percival to continue the fight and not surrender. However, conditions in the city were shocking, with dead and dying in the streets and loss of the water supply imminent. Reserves of food and ammunition for the troops had been seriously depleted by loss of the depots. Meanwhile, the British evacuated certain key personnel by sea who were essential to the later war effort, and demolitions destroyed heavy guns, aviation fuel, bombs, and other equipment. Many of Percival's troops simply deserted, including the engineers who were to destroy the naval dockyard.
When it was clear that nothing was to be gained by further resistance, on 14 February Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill instructed Field Marshal Archibald P. Wavell, Allied theater commander, to authorize Percival to surrender. Percival also had the welfare of civilians to consider when on 15 February he surrendered his 70,000 troops unconditionally to Yamashita. The Japanese had taken Malaya and Singapore in only 70 days. The loss of Singapore was the greatest defeat of British forces since the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, and it had immense repercussions for British prestige in Asia. Philip L. Bolté
Allen, Lous. Singapore, 1941–1942. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1977.; Barnett, Correlli. Britain and Her Army, 1909–1970: A Military, Political and Social Survey. New York: William Morrow, 1970.; Brooke, Geoffrey. Singapore's Dunkirk. London: Cooper, 1989.; Churchill, Winston L. S. The Second World War. Vol. 4, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.; Day, David. The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia and the Onset of the Pacific War, 1939–42. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.; Farrell, Brian, and Sandy Hunter, eds. Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002.; Warren, Alan. Singapore, 1942: Britain's Greatest Defeat. New York: Hambledon, 2002.
Philip L. Bolté