Singapore, which means Lion City, was a byword for strength. An emerald pendant at the tip of the Malayan peninsula, it had been acquired by Sir Stamford Raffles because of its strategic position. About the size of the Isle of Wight or Martha’s Vineyard, it guarded the Malacca Strait, the main route from the Indian Ocean to the China Sea. By the inter-war period it had become the fifth largest port in the world, supporting a business community of more than half a million people. Chinese, the women in cheongsams but the men quick to adopt western dress, outnumbered native Malays, in their sarongs, bajus (blouses) and songkok caps, by three to one. But the city, its skyline of spires, domes, minarets and towers dominating the southern shore, pullulated with alien nationalities. Indians, Ceylonese, Javanese, Japanese, Armenians, Persians, Jews and Arabs filled the streets with a cacophony of accents and a medley of colours. Wearing blue cotton pyjamas and conical straw hats, barefoot coolies pulled rickshaws under bamboo poles hung with washing and between the bicycles and bullock carts of Orchard Road to Asian markets smelling of squid and garlic. Turbaned Sikhs in yellow Ford taxis dodged green trolleys along Serangoon Road, its pavements splashed crimson with betel juice, en route to Indian bazaars scented with coriander, cumin and turmeric. In slums foul with poverty, malnutrition and disease, rickety children in rags scoured the gutters for cabbage leaves and fish heads. British officials in dinner jackets drove their Buicks from rustic bungalows wreathed in jasmine to the cream-walled, red-roofed Raffles Hotel, standing among palm trees near the waterfront “like an iced cake.” Here they were greeted by a head waiter with the “manners of a grand duke.” Here they dined and danced amid whirling fans and rustling ferns. Here they called repeatedly, “Boy…Tiga whisky ayer.” European tuans besar (big bosses) wore their confidence like a cuirass. They had some reason to do so. For in Singapore they possessed an “impregnable fortress,” newspapers reiterated, the greatest naval base in the southern hemisphere. They were masters of the “Gibraltar of the East…the gateway of the Orient…the bastion of British might.”
Since ending the alliance with Japan in 1922, governments in London had spent over £60 million on reinforcing Singapore. Admittedly the cash had come in dribs and drabs. This was because of the post-war disarmament, the pre-war Depression and what the cabinet secretary, Maurice Hankey, called the inter-war “orgy of extravagance on social reform.” Hankey asserted what became the conventional wisdom: the loss of Singapore would be “a calamity of the first magnitude. We might well lose India and the faith in us of Australia and New Zealand would be shattered.” If Britain ceded mastery in the East to Japan, General Smuts warned the Dominions Office in 1934, she would “go the way the Roman Empire had gone.” But by 1939 it seemed that the immense naval station constructed on the north-eastern side of the island, facing the Johore Strait which provided twenty-two square miles of deep-sea anchorage, could counteract the local superiority of the Japanese fleet.
To build it a major river had been diverted. Mangrove forest enmeshed in dense foliage was cleared. Millions of tons of earth were moved and thirty-four miles of concrete and iron piles were driven though mephitic swamp to meet bedrock at a depth of one hundred feet. Inside the base, which was ringed by high walls, iron gates and barbed wire, were barracks, offices, stores, workshops, boiler-rooms, refrigeration plants, canteens, churches, cinemas, a yacht club, an airfield and seventeen football pitches. There were huge furnaces, vast crucibles and troughs for molten metal, enormous hammers, lathes and hydraulic presses, massive underground fuel tanks, a crane capable of lifting a gun turret out of a battleship, and a floating dock large enough to accommodate the Queen Mary. This arsenal of democracy was bursting with ammunition, gun barrels, propellers, hawsers, radios, sandbags, aeronautical equipment, steel loopholes for pillboxes and spare parts of every kind. Some thirty batteries protected the position, the most powerful of which were five 15-inch guns capable of blowing Japan’s heaviest warships out of the water. Contrary to myth, these guns could be swivelled to face the land (though their shells, armour-piercing rather than high explosive, were ineffective against troops). But the jungles of Malaya were supposed to be impenetrable. Almost everyone expected that an assault on Singapore would be seaborne and thus easily repelled. In the thirteen-storey Cathay Building, known as “Propaganda House,” British broadcasters, who were encouraged by the Ministry of Information at home to play up the potency of Singapore, fostered popular contempt for the Japanese. If they arrived it would be in sampans and junks. Their aircraft were made of bamboo shoots and rice paper. Their soldiers were bandy-legged dwarfs too myopic to shoot straight. All told, the sons of Nippon were mimetic products of a counterfeit civilisation.
Further confirmation of the island’s invulnerability was the British government’s pledge to dispatch a fleet there in the event of hostilities with Japan. When Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939 he emphasised that Singapore was a “stepping-stone” to Australia and New Zealand. It was also the linchpin between the Antipodean dominions and India. As the war threatened to encompass the world, General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, said that Singapore was “the most important strategic point in the British Empire.” So although Churchill was by now giving priority to the Middle East, he overruled the Admiralty and dispatched two capital ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, accompanied by four destroyers, to the Far East. This flotilla, code-named “Z Force,” arrived in Singapore on 2 December 1941. Its task was to deter the potential foe and it seemed to those on the quayside “a symbol of absolute security.” The powerful new battleship Prince of Wales, which had been damaged in action against the Bismarck, was known as HMS Unsinkable. The advent of Z Force encouraged the Commander-in-Chief in the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, to announce that Japan did not know which way to turn and that “Tojo is scratching his head.” But the Japanese Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, had already made his fatal decision. On 7 December aircraft from carriers in Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet bombed Pearl Harbor and the first troops of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army landed on the north-eastern shores of the Malay peninsula. The following day, stating that Britain was at war with Japan, the London Times printed an article headlined “Singapore Prepared.” The island’s garrison consisted of soldiers from many parts of the Empire. There were “sturdy British infantrymen, Scottish Highlanders, bronzed young giants from Australia, tall, bearded Sikhs, Moslem riflemen fresh from service on the North-West Frontier, tough little Gurkhas, Malays from the Malay Regiment.” The uniforms in the streets, the persistent drone of aeroplanes overhead, the wail of sirens to signal air raid drills, the nocturnal spectacle of searchlights playing over the water, the overwhelming presence of the Royal Navy—all proclaimed that Singapore was “the core of British strength in the Far East.”
It soon became apparent that the core was rotten. This was partly because the British community in Singapore had been softened by imperial self-indulgence. They dwelt in a world of servants, curry tiffins requiring two-hour siestas, lazy afternoons of golf, cricket or sailing, cocktail parties and fancy-dress balls. Despite its nickname, “Sin-galore,” the city was not as much given to vice as Shanghai. Brothels were illegal and cinemas were far more popular than opium dens. Luxury was preferred to profligacy. Singapore was a place of “high living and low thinking,” where the idea of rationing was to serve game on meatless days. It was a “cloud-cuckoo island” in which it seemed perfectly natural for a woman to refuse to assist with war work because she had entered a tennis tournament. It was an enclave of smug inertia, summed up in the Malayan term ti’d-apa (why worry). The prevailing torpor was often attributed to the overwhelming humidity—Kipling had said that even the plants perspired and the tree ferns “sweated audibly.” But Duff Cooper, whom Churchill sent to Singapore as Resident Minister in 1941, attributed its malaise more to illusion than to accidie. He reported that
the civil population appears to have been asleep in a comfortable dream that the Japanese will not dare to attack and have been lulled into a sense of false security by misleading reports of their impregnable fortress from the effete and ineffective Military Intelligence.
In fact, Duff Cooper himself was hardly aware of the imminent peril hanging over the island and, frustrated by his relative powerlessness, he entertained dinner parties with ribald imitations of its bickering leaders. However, he was not far wrong about Brooke-Popham (“Old Pop-Off”), whom he thought “damned near gaga.” The Air Chief Marshal, supposedly the first man to fire a gun from an aeroplane (in 1913), was “pretty tired”—General Pownall’s euphemism—and “quite out of business from dinner-time onwards.” Duff Cooper was equally disparaging about the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas, who was “the mouthpiece of the last person he speaks to.” Again this was a fair verdict. Others thought that the convivial Thomas, “sanguine to the verge of complacency,” was best suited to be the headmaster of a preparatory school. Having insisted that proper authorisation must be obtained for taking air raid precautions, so as not to cause unnecessary alarm, Thomas ensured that no sirens sounded and no blackout occurred when the first Japanese bombers struck Singapore on the night of 8 December. Duff Cooper experienced another enemy bombardment a few weeks later, just as he was about to fly home. In what seemed a suitable ending to his mission in Singapore, he was hustled into “an air-raid shelter made entirely of glass.”
The Prince of Wales and the Repulse might just as well have been made of porcelain, for they sailed to intercept Japanese transports without fighter protection against dive-bombers and torpedo bombers. Z Force’s commander, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, was a diminutive and pugnacious sailor whom Winston Churchill nicknamed “the Cocksparrow.” He had so little sea experience that a fellow admiral, Andrew Cunningham, said that he hardly knew one end of a ship from the other. Moreover, Phillips took the traditional naval view (shared by Churchill himself) that armoured leviathans were more than a match for mechanical harpies. On 10 December 1941 that belief cost him his life—having called for his best hat, he went down with his ship—as well as the lives of over eight hundred seamen. Undaunted by the radar-controlled pom-poms, known as “Chicago pianos,” Japanese aircraft sank both his great vessels. Their loss gave Churchill the greatest single shock of the war and filled Singapore with a “sense of utter calamity.” This was “a catastrophe of gargantuan proportions,” wrote an English serviceman, and “we felt completely exposed.” Morale fell further when it became clear that the fast, agile Mitsubishi Zero could make mincemeat of the RAF’s menagerie of Buffaloes, Wildebeestes and Walruses. Aptly known as “flying coffins,” these cumbersome and obsolete aeroplanes quickly ceded control of Malaya’s skies to Japan.
So, less than a week after the outbreak of war in the East, the British were reduced to defending the peninsula with a single service. Their army was ill-trained and poorly equipped for the purpose. Unlike Yamashita’s three divisions, which had acquired the art of swift manoeuvre when fighting the Chinese, it had little experience of combat. Many of the green Indian troops had never seen a tank until they encountered those of Nippon, which were arrayed against Rolls-Royce armoured cars of Great War vintage, real “museum pieces.” In fact the British had plenty of other motor transport, but this kept them glued to the roads that ran through the rubber estates, banana plantations and palm groves beside Malaya’s jungle-clad mountain spine. The Japanese travelled light, riding bicycles (on the rims when the tyres punctured) and wearing canvas shoes (which did not harden like English boots when drenched by the monsoon). Thus they constantly outflanked their scattered foes, who fell back in disarray. As one officer supervising the retreat quipped, his business was a running concern. Apart from the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had done bush exercises, British and imperial units simply could not stem the advance. Compared to the Japanese veterans, said one Australian gunner, “we were babies.”