11 FEBRUARY 1938, Page 7



[The Singapore Naval Base is to be officially opened by the Governor of the Straits Settlements next Mo•zday] WHEN Sir Stamford Raffles took possession of Singapore Island in 1819 he expected more from its commercial than its strategic potentialities. As a trade centre it is without rival in the eastern hemisphere, standing as it does astride the main navigable channel between two great oceans, each surrounded by areas productive of vast natural riches. Nearly half of the world's supplies of rubber and about one-third of its tin, besides great quantities of copra, palm 311, and fruits pass through its docks, which are visited by some 6,000 ocean-going ships ' each year. Even if the Mediterranean were abandoned by shipping, vessels using the Cape route to the Far East would still call at Singapore. It is the most frequented gateway to the Indian Ocean, the commerce of which can easily be disorganised by a single ' Emden.'

A fleet based on Singapore could protect British possessions over a wide area, from Ceylon to Hong-kong. And although Singapore is 2,000 miles from Darwin, no enemy expeditionary force would dare to set out against Australia if an undefeated British fleet, based, in the last resort, on Singapore, lay on its flank. Moreover, a fleet operating from Singapore could cover not only Malaya and Siam, but also the Dutch, French and Portuguese colonies in the Indies. It could even menace any Power that attempted to invade the distant Philippines. Considerable point is lent to this last possibility by the prospect that all American forces are to be withdrawn from the independent Philippine Republic in 1946, although the question whether America may retain a naval base there is to come up for further discussion.

Lord Roberts once prophesied that the future of world history would be fought out in the neighbourhood of Singapore ; but until recently Britain had no potential enemy there. In the last century our only possible foe in Far Eastern waters was Russia, and for some years before the Russo-Japanese War we kept a battleship force of six ships in those seas, basing them on Hong-kong. When the threat of Russian aggression was eliminated by the victory of the Japanese, aided-by British financial and moral support, we withdrew all but two misfit battleships to the North Sea. From 1906 to 1922 the Anglo-Japanese Alliance constituted a species of insurance policy for British interests in the Far East. But after the. War the situation was radically altered by the growing strength and intransigence of Japan. This coincided with a change in the strategical factors to make the British position most insecure. For the growth in the size of warships meant that we no longer had a base east of Malta which was fit for a battle-fleet in case of a clash in the Far East. The docks at Hong-kong, Sydney and Fremantle were not big enough for the new type of capital ship fitted with anti-torpedo bulges, and the risks involved in sending home a damaged battleship the 8,000 miles from China to Malta were too great. Besides, a damaged ship or enemy action might easily block the Suez Canal and cut off our eastern fleet from hOme supplies. Hong-kong is in too exposed a position to make a good battle-fleet base, even if its further fortification had not been forbidden under the Washington Treaty.

The Singapore base, first proposed at the Imperial Con- ference of 1921, but not officially completed until this week, was the answer to these post-War problems. Covering an area of over four square miles adjoining the Straits of Johore, the naval base contains everything that a great fleet needs, from oil tanks to football fields. Its floating and graving docks are each capable of repairing a capital ship twice as large as any in existence—an -"mteresting indication of how the base has -been designed for the future rather than the present. Nor does the Singapore scheme involve the imperial navies only, for the island of Singapore, which is about the size of the Isle of Wight, containing a military garrison as well as three R.A.F. aerodromes.

Although Singapore is about 3,000 miles from Japan, or as far as Plymouth is from Boston, it is only half that distance from Formosa, which is Japanese territory. Singa- pore is certainly ideally situated as a strategic centre from which to dominate Japan's sea communications and subject her to a distant blockade, for no less than 5o per cent. of her oversea trade passes through Singapore each year. It is therefore only natural that the Japanese are suspicious of the new base. And though Singapore is useless for an attack on Japan, its defensive potentialities undoubtedly represent a checkmate to any Japanese aggression in the south-western Pacific. The steady Japanese " penetration " of the Far East, not only in China, but in Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Dutch Indies, has greatly enhanced the value of the Singapore base since it was first suggested seventeen years ago.

But if the political objections to the base have lost most of their force by now, some of the strategical objections remain disquietingly plausible. If the protection of our trade and shipping is the end desired, would not a cruiser force be sufficient ? If coast defence, would not a submarine, aerial, and torpedo craft force on the Vladivostok model be preferable ? But if a whole battle fleet really is needed there, as the Admiralty obviously thinks, whence are the requisite battleships to come ?

At present Singapore is a base without a fleet. An old 15-inch gun monitor, a minesweeping flotilla, and two old destroyers are stationed there, but otherwise the splendid anchorage remains empty of warships except at times of emergency or on special occasions such as the recent manoeuvres. Our five new battleships will not be ready until 1940-41, and in the meantime there can, in the present state of uncertainty in the Mediterranean, be no question of the Admiralty's sparing any of our existing 15 capital ships for the Far East. Even then the Pacific Fleet of five modernised ' Queen Elizabeths ' which, according to general belief, will be based on Singapore, would be no match for the Japanese battle fleet, which already consists of ten capital ships and will probably number 13 or 14 by that time. So even if the Japanese had to keep a few battleships on guard against a possible raid by the Russians, who have no capital ships in the Far East, they would still have a large margin of superiority over our Pacific Fleet. Indeed the two-hemi- sphere standard that Sir Samuel Hoare announced last March will by 1941 be far from realisation, unless our colossal armaments programme is to be quadrupled, on the lines of Lord Jellicoe's 1919 suggestions. He then recommended, in all seriousness, that we should build, with imperial help, a Pacific battle fleet of sixteen capital ships, with their appropriate quota of cruisers and auxiliaries, which in maintenance alone would have cost izo,000,000 a year.

It may be said that a fleet of five capital ships, combined with the ten cruisers from the China, Australia and New Zealand squadrons, is better than none, even in the face of greatly superior numbers. This may be so, but the fate of the fine Russian fleet at Port Arthur is a bad omen for the defensive use of a fleet-base. There is a real risk of a British fleet being bottled up in Singapore by a much stronger enemy force. It is true that Singapore is heavily fortified with reputed 18-inch guns and strong anti-aircraft defences ; it is supposed to be impregnable. But it is a disastrous national habit of ours to half-garrison our strongest places and, in, Sir Ian Hamilton's words, " make presents of them to the wrong people."

There seems to be only one satisfactory solution to the im- mense local predominance of Japan in Far Eastern waters, a predominance which will be enormously augmented if in ten years' time she has occupied and fortified Hainan and the Americans have abandoned Cavite. This solution is close Anglo-American collaboration, or, better still, the collabora- tion of Britain, U.S.A., France, Holland, and Russia. Although such a coalition is purely hypothetical, and indeed not at present at all probable, either a situation in Europe which would enable Britain to concentrate all her capital ships in the Pacific or a combination with the fleets of those countries seems to be the only hypothesis which can convert the Singapore base from a potential to a real factor in a crisis. In this connexion the presence of a United States naval squadron at the opening ceremony has no little significance. Any agreement that made its facilities available to the United States Fleet (which is already one and a half times as large as the Japanese Navy) would more than double the strategical utility of Singapore. So would similar advantages extended to the French and Dutch navies. The French, anxious for the security of Indo-China, have recently reinforced their Far Eastern squadron with three fine cruisers, and the Dutch force in the Indies, though comparatively small, is highly efficient, and strong in submarines.

But all such suggestions are only hypotheses. The fact remains that the completion of the Singapore project, even if it is only a potential base for a battle fleet, lends new security to the Far Eastern dominions of the white races. Is it too much to hope that the Japanese will take the hint ?