The Japanese estimate was that shore defences, behind barbed wire, were well sited but `little more formidable than ordinary field entrenchments’ and easy to neutralise `with field guns lighter than 15 centimetres’. On the west coast of Singapore, their artillery barrage was so effective that it cut communications to the beaches, leaving the defenders isolated at critical moments.
Clearly, more beach lights, communication systems, minefields, underwater obstacles and the like might have been prepared on Singapore’s northern shores, if not in Johore as well, and on 19 January Churchill cabled ten specific measures he wanted taken. These included using the coastal guns to fire northward and acquiring for them high explosive ammunition, and using if necessary `rigorous compulsion’ to marshal the entire male population on works.
His urgency reflected the fact that relatively little had been done by mid-January, despite calls from some quarters for more urgency. As far back as August 1941, the new Chief Engineer, Brigadier Ivan Simson, had come to similar conclusions. Indeed, there must be some suspicion that Simson’s views influenced Churchill’s later writing.
After two years helping with defences in Britain, Simson had arrived in Malaya with instructions to modernise defences. He almost immediately urged anti-tank defences be constructed in depth along Malaya’s north-south road system, with obstacles and works on the flanks to channel attackers into killing grounds. He even saw Percival in mid- October 1941, outlining how effective defences had been previously against Japanese attack, at Port Arthur. Like Singapore, Port Arthur was a fortifted naval base. The Japanese isolated it in 1904 by a surprise attack on the Russian fleet, but were prevented from seizing the base itself by fortifications to its landward side. These works had allowed the defenders to hold out for five months and inflict heavy casualties on the Japanese before Port Arthur fell.
Simson now advised Percival that field fortifications in south Johore be improved, and stressed that it was vital to construct such works before war started and labour became scarce. At first, he was ignored, and by October 1941 defence works planned included little more than the Jitra line, and additional work on Singapore’s south coast, where the coast guns made direct attack less likely anyway. Simson’s appeal to develop the island’s northern shores went ignored. He called for
field and permanent defences in depth consisting of mutually supporting wired trenches, switch lines, pillboxes and various underwater obstacles, mines, petrol fire traps, anchored but floating barbed wire, and methods of illuminating the water at night’ so that `the water surface and shore line should always be the main killing ground’.
Other ideas included preparing detonation chambers for bridges, something that might have reduced the number of failed demolitions due to wet charges in 1942. As with Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart’s ideas for jungle training, and for holding the road by fighting the battle for the road off the road, overall command failed to harness the best and most vigorous ideas. According to Simson he saw Percival again on 27 December. Then he had a request by Lieutenant-General Heath, commanding the forces retreating on the peninsula, to prepare defences in Johore before his battle-worn troops reached it. Percival later did order some work in Johore, but too little, too late. For Singapore the story was even less inspiring.
Simson later claimed to have worked on Percival for over two hours on 27 December, telling him `that time was rapidly running out for the construction of permanent and field defences on the north shore of Singapore Island; because once any area came under enemy fire civilian labour would vanish’. Now, he said, was the time to marshal both civilian labour, and the 6,500 Commonwealth Engineers, to do what could be done. The answer from Percival, and the Fortress Commander, Major-General Keith Simmons was supposedly that defences were bad for civilian and military morale.
Orders to develop northern defences were finally given in early January, after Wavell expressed horror at seeing the largely unfortified landward side of Singapore. But even then they were too timid. Anyway, War Office payscales for civilian labour still remained below those obtainable on plantations, and became yet more inadequate as wartime inflation pushed up costs. By the time they were increased bombing meant it was too late.
There was also debate about just how to defend a mangrove-fringed northern and western coast. On 23 January Percival emphasised that
The northern and western shores of the island are too intersected with creeks and mangroves for any recognised form of beach defences,’ recommending instead `small defended localities to cover known approaches, such as rivers, creeks and roads to the coast…supported by mobile reserves in suitable assembly areas’.
This was a fine theory, except that British communications broke down as Japanese bombardment damaged surface lines and neither troops nor commanders were geared to rapid and decisive counter-attack. Besides, more mines, oil traps and underwater obstacles would still have helped soften an enemy up, even if beach defence was not the main plan. Instead, there was confusion to the last.
Simson, meanwhile, reconnoitred the coast of Johore and decided the swamps to the east of the Causeway would make a poor jumping off point for an attack on Singapore, compared to west Johore, where there was good road access to the coast. At the same time, the Japanese concluded British defensive positions would be stronger east of the Causeway because of the Naval Base.
So Simson had mines, booby traps, Lyon lights, petrol drums for setting alight the water, barbed wire and obstacles dumped along Singapore’s northwest coast, ready for use. Unfortunately Percival read the situation differently, so Simson was ordered to move these stocks to the west, completing the task by 5 February. Whereupon the sighting of Japanese in west Johore prompted orders by 6 February to switch some of the supplies back. Again, it was all far too late.
Tragically, the material needed for defence works had been present in Singapore all along, even if the willpower and organisation to use it effectively was not. The War Office had sent large quantities of the supplies necessary to build defences to ports such as Aden and Singapore as early as 1938 to 1939. This had specifically been intended to ensure the stockpiles were there before wartime conditions placed a premium on shipping space.
The real tragedy of Singapore may be that Churchill failed to force a decisive debate on these differences at any stage from late 1940 to mid-January 1942. A debate whereby he would accept plans for all-Malayan defence and provide the necessary reinforcements, or the Chiefs of Staff would enforce a more limited defence based mainly on Johore, and a more thorough fortification of Singapore as security against the worst.
Churchill and his commanders clung to very different visions of the defence of Singapore, right down to the bitter end. Churchill had one conception of strategy, of Singapore and Johore as a fortress, defensible as a hedgehog, and to be retired to relatively quickly. From his perspective, it turned out that Singapore was never properly fortified, not because his commanders were surprised by a northern attack, but precisely because they concentrated too much energy on meeting that attack in the north. Indeed, the impetus of planning to meet an attack from the north, slowly building up from Dobbie’s reports in the mid-1930s, may have made it difficult for the military to make a paradigm shift when they found the resources for Matador lacking. Only very briefly, in early 1940, did a local commander (General Bond as GOC Malaya) seem to realise that all-Malayan defence, while theoretically ideal, might prove disastrous with the limited resources available.
From the perspective of Churchill’s commanders, Etonian and then Matador remained vital, even if the aircraft were not there. For them, fortifications seem to have been viewed as a distraction, excepting perhaps those at Jitra in the far north, and on Singapore’s seaward coast in the far south. To them fortifications seem to have been regarded almost as bookends, something desirable only to support the northern and southern extremities of their defensive area.