There was somber reflection in Singapore this week as elderly survivors remembered the bombings, massacres and hardships that accompanied the Japanese capture of the island – at the time, a British colony – in February 1942, while officials recommitted to “total defense” of their country.
However, the 80th anniversary of the worst – and most humiliating – defeat in British history had rather less traction in the UK.
That may be fitting.
Belief in native martial valor has long been a core component of the British national DNA, buttressed by victorious roles in two World Wars, most particularly the second. And certainly, the cruelty of Japanese forces during their rampage across Asia has granted the UK firm ethical ground, post facto.
But Britain’s rightful pride in its moral combat against 1940s fascism – arguably, the UK’s “finest hour” – is counterbalanced by two points.
One is the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the forces it deployed to defend Singapore against the Japanese. The other, more toweringly, is Britain’s own position, in the 1940s, as an imperial power.
At a time when the sins of the fathers are falling under stark scrutiny across the wider Anglosphere, the inequality, ruthlessness, exploitation, racism and lethality of the British colonial endeavor are being seen in a harsher light than ever before.
When it comes to remembrance and analysis of the Singaporean debacle, there is an irony.
Britain’s empire was ended by a complex combination of factors. They include the decades-long struggles by independence activists in the colonies; shifting attitudes in the metropole, where old-school imperialist Winston Churchill lost the election to the de-colonist Clement Attlee government even before the war had ended; and anti-colonial attitudes in the superpower most buoyed and least damaged by World War II, the United States.
However, a critical and widely overlooked factor at the end of empire in Asia was the unforgettable humiliation of their white colonial masters that Southeast Asians witnessed as Hong Kong, Malaya, most of Burma and Singapore tumbled under the jackboots of a rising Asian power.
The crown jewel of Britain’s empire never fell to Hirohito’s soldiers: the Imperial Japanese Army would face a catastrophic defeat when it attacked India in March 1944. However, the IJA established an anti-British army of more than 60,000 Indians after the fall of Singapore.
On the jungled killing fields of the Burma-India frontier, its members proved ineffectual warriors. But as victims in post-war anti-colonial politics, survivors would be a central cog in winning Indian independence.
And therein lies the historical irony. It was a fellow imperial power – Japan – that doomed imperial Britain.
Japan’s ‘sphere of influence’
Nanshin-ron (“The Southern Expansion Doctrine”), which saw Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands as Tokyo’s sphere of influence, had been central to Japanese strategic thinking even prior to the country’s 19th-century industrialization. This policy, which proceeded with migration and trade in the first half of the 20th century, would take an invasive turn in 1941.
With Japan determined to be pre-eminent in Asia-Pacific at a time when American and European interests were already deeply entrenched there, the eastern theater of World War II had a long gestation period.
In the age of imperialism, Japan, after its hyper-speed industrialization in the Meiji era, chafed to catch up with Western colonial powers. Elbowing aside China and Russia, it had built an empire from the late 19th century through to World War I, when it joined the Allied side.
But a subsequent series of naval treaties suppressed the size of its forces, causing rancor in Japan.
After Japan seized Manchuria and invaded China in the 1930s it was defeated by the USSR at the battle of Nomonhan/Khalkhin Gol on the Manchurian-Mongolian frontier in 1939. However, the Japanese hunger for energy, resources and land was not abated.
Tokyo turned its eyes toward the white colonial empires of the east: The French in Indochina, the British in Burma, Malaya and Singapore, the Dutch in the East Indies and the Americans in the Philippines and the Pacific islands.
In 1940, Tokyo transitioned the “Southern Expansion” concept into the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The Asia-Pacific would become a yen-bloc, free-trade zone free of white colonialist influence: “Asia for the Asiatics!” as the slogan went. Naturally, though, this sphere would be under Japanese imperial leadership.
When war ignited in Europe, Japan took advantage of an enfeebled France to advance into French Indochina. Washington, already deeply at odds with Tokyo over its invasion of China, placed a trade embargo on steel and oil.
War was now virtually inevitable. Yet Japan’s strike, when it happened, achieved shock surprise. And it was a strike of mind-boggling ambition.
On December 7-8, 1941, a multi-pronged offensive – one that has no parallel in the history of warfare for its vastness of scale – unleashed Japanese sea, air and ground forces simultaneously upon Hong Kong, multiple points in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and most famously, Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor.
The different dates – December 7-8 – are due to the different time zones the attack covered, not the actual clock timing of a hugely successful “time-on-target” assault.
Rising sun rampant
British forces held deeply held racist assumptions about Japan’s supposed lack of martial skill. Given Japan’s samurai heritage, its recent combat experiences in China and elsewhere and its modern weaponry, this superiority complex was odd.
It was also mistaken – and rudely disabused once battle commenced.
Japan achieved immediate theater air superiority and bombs started to tumble upon Singapore. In a lightning campaign down the full length of the Malay peninsula, an outnumbered Japanese force under the stocky and aggressive General Tomoyuki Yamashita piled into British, Australian and Indian troops, fighting under the ineffectual command of the gawky and unimpressive General Arthur Percival.
The result was a rout.
While the complacent Brits largely restricted their defenses to towns and roadblocks, the Japanese, who had trained in the jungle, easily compromised them by outflanking through the bush. Australian troops, who, elsewhere in a world at war, were proving themselves tough and skilled fighters, were equally inept at stemming the Japanese surge.
An emblematic victory was won as Japan asserted its naval supremacy. On December 10, the highly regarded “Force Z” – the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse – were destroyed by Japanese carrier aircraft.
A new era had dawned – one in which the big gun warship surrendered its dominance to the carrier. A shiver of shock went through Singapore.
The other great defense of the so-called “Gibraltar of the East” – a heavy naval battery – proved useless. Equipped largley with armor-piercing, rather than high-explosive shells, they were postured to counter seaborne, not ground, threats.
After attacking into northern Malaya on December 8, Japanese forces had taken the peninsula and were poised to launch an amphibious assault upon Singapore over the Johore Strait on February 8.
By now, they had achieved total moral superiority, even though – in defiance of all tactical doctrine – the 36,000 Japanese attackers were outnumbered by the island’s 85,000 defenders.
The island battle was short-lived. On February 15, Percival and his short-trousered staff, hefting a union flag and a white flag, unconditionally surrendered to Yamashita – subsequently dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya.”
A devastated Churchill called it “the largest capitulation” in British history.
Though they had been issued with leaflets that painted their offensive as a war of liberation from white colonial masters, Japan’s victorious soldiers did not behave magnanimously.
Singapore’s wealth had been built on British administration, Chinese sweat and Malayan resources. In Singapore, after ejecting the British, Japanese administrators took over the same offices – often the same desks. Singaporeans found one colonial overlord had been supplanted by another.
The British had been exploitative and arrogant; the Japanese proved exploitative and violent. Japan’s military was deeply imbued with a culture of physical brutality and its troops were deeply prejudiced against Chinese, whom they had fought in mainland China as well as during the recent Malayan combat.
Between 5,000 and 50,000 Chinese Singaporeans – to this day the exact numbers remain in dispute, although Japan paid post-war compensation in 1965 – were murdered in the Sook Ching Massacres.
Subsequently, thousands more would be murdered in Malaya. And about 90,000 Asian laborers including Indians from Singapore and Malaya – as well as some 12,000 Allied prisoners of war – would die building Japan’s Burma-Siam transport link, the “Death Railway.”
Facing the industrial and manpower might of America, the war would turn against Japan in the Pacific. In Burma, Japanese forces captured most of the country, but in their last invasion of World War – the assault upon British India in March 1944 – they suffered their worst land defeat of the war.
An entire Japanese army was ground up by Anglo-India troops, amid hideous conditions, in the Kohima-Imphal campaign.
When the Soviets invaded Manchuria and Korea, and the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaskai, Japan was spent. It surrendered on August 15, 1945.
But newly victorious British troops who returned to accept the Japanese surrender in Singapore the following month found that the island had changed. Britain’s prestige had evaporated.
“It is not overstating the case to say that the battle of Singapore … changed the world,” author Peter Elphick writes in Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress (London, 1995). “In the grand scheme of things, the loss of Singapore was the outstanding one amongst a series of events which caused a sea change in Eastern opinion.” Japan’s early-war victories “…were the death knell of the European empires in the East. They removed from the Asia mind forever the myth of white superiority.”
Perhaps there is no better exemplar of this attitude than one of the great Asians of the post-war period – Lee Kuan-yew, the late founding father of an independent Singapore and, arguably, the author of its post-war prosperity.
Lee would tell an Australian interviewer in 1965 that the Japanese victories “made it very difficult for either the British, the Dutch or the French to drag the [independence] process out over decades. Once you’ve broken the spell it’s very difficult to re-establish your dominance, and three-quarters of the technique of colonial government is the spell you cast over subject peoples.
“You make the slave not only behave like a slave by force, but you are supreme and the slave thinks he is a slave – you know, that he is inferior, that he ought to serve, he ought to find some accommodation under his master’s aegis.”
But it was not simply a case of overthrowing the British and smashing their image. There was another element to the Japanese victory in Singapore that would play an unanticipated role in dooming the centerpiece of Britain’s imperium: India.
Among the tens of thousands of prisoners captured in Singapore were two divisions of Indians. In one of their more far-sighted hybrid war policies, the Japanese used volunteers from this HR pool to fill the ranks of a patriotic, anti-British fighting force, the Indian National Army.
The INA would later be handed over to the command of firebrand Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose – who, like Burmese nationalist leader Aung San, was sponsored by Tokyo.
Alas for the soldiers of the INA, they were looked down upon by their Japanese allies in combat. Despite eventually numbering more than 60,000, they proved largely ineffectual in Burma. Their worth to Indian nationhood would come after the war.
Repatriated to India, some faced trial for treason. The trials were poorly handled by the British – turning the accused into patriotic martyrs and winning them support from the Indian National Congress. Its co-leader, Jahwaharlal Nehru, defended them in court.
Riots occurred and the INA trials were a contributing factor in the mutinies that took place in units of British Indian armed forces, notably the Royal Indian Navy, in 1946.
With the military being the body that underwrote the viability of British rule in India, many historians’ analysis is that the shaky loyalty of Indian troops was a major factor in pressuring British officialdom toward granting independence.
It was not the only one, of course.
During the war, India committed a staggering 2.5 million troops, under British leadership, to the fight against fascism – a force that has been dubbed “the largest volunteer army in history.”
Indian sepoys fought on multiple fronts, winning especial distinction in what both British and Japanese servicemen considered the harshest theater of the war: Burma.
Yet while Indians were doing battle for Britain, a combination of military exigencies, the harshness of nature and – most damningly – British maladministration, resulted in the deaths of between two and three million Indians in the Bengal famine.
This was not a deliberate mass murder, of the kind perpetrated by the Japanese at bayonet point. Yet the scale of deaths far outnumbered those who had died at the hands of the Japanese in Southeast Asia, due either to massacre, malnutrition or overwork.
Today, the Bengal Famine is widely considered the blackest mark against the UK in World War II.
All these factors added mightily to the pressure building for the independence of India.
“The period of Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia led to dramatic changes in people’s ideologies, attitudes and assumptions,” write historians Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper in Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan (2004).
“In India, as almost everyone knew, the war, the Bengal famine and the Indian National Army had made independence almost inevitable.”
Today, the predominant images of Japanese troops in World War II in popular culture tend to be of fanatical bravery – banzai charges, kamikaze attacks and last stands – and of lethal brutality – the Death Railway, the Nanjing Massacre, the biological warfare outfit Unit 731.
But perhaps because Japan, too, was an imperialist power, its role in ending Western colonial rule gets less fanfare amid today’s powerfully anti-imperial vibe.
Singapore’s Lee had no doubt about the dual-edged sword that was the Japanese victory in Singapore.
He narrowly escaped the Sook Ching massacres, suffered from the common IJA slapping of civilians and watched a beggar being hurled around by a judo-wielding Japanese soldier. He would say of the wartime Japanese: “They showed a meanness and viciousness towards their enemies equal to the Huns. Genghis Khan and his hordes could not have been more merciless.”
Yet, of the iron-fisted nature of their governance, “I learned more from the 3 1/2 years of Japanese Occupation than any university could have taught me,” he would later write.
That statement has real force. Lee would go on to earn a double first honors degree from Cambridge University.
As a leader, Lee came to admire the new, post-1945 Japan and was in favor of leaving the war years behind.
“We cannot for the rest of time just allow relations between the two countries to always revolve around these horrendous deeds,” he told Japanese media. However, he warned, that “the Japanese navy could not sail to Southeast Asia … it would cause a global uproar.”
Lee passed away in 2015, In 2016, he earned a posthumous order of merit from Tokyo, and glowing tributes from, among others, Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe – a man seen by some as a revisionist who whitewashes Japan’s wartime crimes.
And in 2017, the last ghosts of 1942 were laid to rest.
The helicopter destroyer Izumo – the largest Japanese warship to set sail since the end of World War II – together with its escort group, docked in Singapore.