February 15, 1942. The Rising Sun flag is raised over the city of Singapore, and 85,000 British Commonwealth troops go into Japanese captivity. It is the largest surrender, and the most humiliating defeat, ever suffered by a British army. The fall of Singapore is not just a defeat, though - it is the end of an era, the death knell for European imperialism. The Fall of Singapore is the closing of an age.
When the Japanese decided to go to war with the United States in 1941, the truth is that they didn't really want anything the Americans had to offer. The true goals of the Japanese military - the areas that held their vital resources - were the Dutch East Indies, site of major oil fields, and the rubber production of British Malaya. Without these resources, the Japanese war effort could not last anywhere beyond six months. Attacking the United States was necessary to prevent American interference in the Japanese seizure of southeast Asia.
At the tip of British Malaya, on a well-sited offshore island, was the greatest fortress in Asia, the "Gibraltar of the East" - Singapore. The crown jewel of southeast Asia, it was a major naval base and extremely well-fortified from naval attack. The entire British strategy - hell, the entire Allied strategy - for depending southeast Asia and the Indies revolved around retaining Singapore. To ensure it was held, Singapore had a huge garrison of almost 85,000 soldiers.
Due to the British fight against Nazi Germany, however, the British soldiers in this garrison were gradually stripped out and sent west to North Africa. It also suffered from a lack of tanks, heavy weapons, and aircraft. In December 1941, Singapore was defended mostly by Australian and Indian troops. General Arthur Percival, a decent commander but not a miracle-worker, alerted British high command to the low level of readiness and did the best he could to prepare for war.
The Japanese knew they had to take Singapore. If it fell, the Allies would have no naval base for hundreds of miles and the Japanese fleet could roam the seas at will. The trouble was that Singapore was, indeed, well-defended. To get at it from the sea was next to impossible due to its heavy artillery and strong defenses. The only other way to approach it...was by land.
By land meant conquering the dense and wretched jungles of the Malayan Peninsula. The Japanese war plan against the West called for the quick conquest of Malaya and Singapore, along with the isolation of MacArthur in the Philippines, the conquest of the Dutch East Indies, and quick strikes against the British Fleet at Singapore but most importantly the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. But the Japanese would not be able to continue south into the Dutch East Indies without taking Singapore, which blocked the way.
The High Command selected Tomoyuki Yamashita, a light infantry and training expert, to lead the attack. On December 7, Yamashita launched an amphibious assault on the coast of Malaya, catching the British by surprise as much as the Americans were caught at Pearl. They faced early resistance from Indian troops, who outnumbered them heavily; Yamashita only led 30,000 men. The Japanese were fast, daring, and attacked through seemingly impassable jungle, driving the Commonwealth troops before them. As they streamed down the peninsula in retreat, Yamashita followed, moving with remarkable speed and determination. His light tanks threaded through the dense brush, and his bicycle-mounted infantry constantly appeared where the British thought no man could have been.
As Yamashita closed in from the north, the Royal Air Force's obsolete planes were knocked out of the sky by Japanese air raids, and the invaders quickly gained air supremacy. The British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, the only major ships stationed in Singapore, set out north to disrupt Yamashita's landings but were sunk within 24 hours by Japanese aircraft. As Yamashita bore in, Percival and his troops couldn't help feeling that they were trapped.
Yamashita faced a stiff fight when the Australian troops came up to face the Japanese, but they could only delay the inevitable. By February 3, the Japanese troops had come up against Singapore and soon surrounded it on the landward side. They began bombarding the city with artillery. The British heavy guns of the fortress returned fire, but they had ship-killing armor-piercing ammunition instead of the high explosive that would have been useful against ground forces. As they traded shots, Yamashita planned to attack the island fortress.
Landing under cover of night, Yamashita's troops landed on Sarimbun Beach on February 8, once again gaining surprise. They swiftly cut through and broke up the Australians facing them. Percival and the Allied commanders seemed paralyzed as the Japanese expanded their bridgehead, bringing tanks and artillery across to help with the assault. The speed and timing of Japanese attacks kept the Allies scrambling to respond, and their counterattacks were always too little and too late. By February 14, their cause was lost.
Percival, surrounded and under siege from air, land and sea, surrendered on February 15. With him surrendered about 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers, and the "Gibraltar of the East" was in the hands of the Japanese - who had never numbered more than 36,000 throughout the campaign. The prisoners, of course, would suffer atrociously at the hands of their captors; the residents of Singapore were in for a rude awakening as well, because the Japanese would soon start purging anyone of Chinese origins within the city's limits. It would be a nasty few years for Singapore.
The Japanese had won a stunning victory, and it was summed up by Churchill as "the worst disaster in British military history." For the British, the most important naval base in the east had been lost and its army destroyed by a force less than half its size. The Japanese would hold Singapore until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the British would struggle to strike back at them for years.
In the long term, too, Singapore was hugely important. Large numbers of native residents of the European empires in Asia - Indians, Indonesians, Malays, Burmese, and Vietnamese - saw a Japanese army overrun and defeat a Western army in pitched battle. The spell had been broken. No matter how strong the European empires appeared, they could be beaten by Asians. The huge loss of prestige suffered by European power in Asia would never be recovered, and a dozen independence movements recognized and grasped the possibilities revealed by the fall of Singapore.
As the Rising Sun climbed the flagpole in Singapore, the sun finally began to set on all empires - but especially the British Empire.
The iconic work on the British campaigns in the far east is Christopher Bayly’s and Tim Harper’s Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan (London: Penguin, 2005). For Singapore itself, check Brian P. Farrell, The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940-1942 (Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2005).