13 FEBRUARY 1982, Page 11

Shoving the little men off

Murray Sayle

This weekend we might easily have had enthusiastic crowds feeding the pigeons in Tokyo's historic Singapore Square, with incense rising, Nikons snapping and Emperor Hirohito waving benignly from his balcony. In the end, things went the other way, and only a handful of greying Japanese privately recall the 40th anniver- sary of the most dazzling of all Japan's vic- tories. On the other side, fewer survive to Mourn the greatest disaster ever to befall British arms. The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 certainly ranks as a date to remember, like the loss of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The cosmopolitan hub of a rich and powerful empire overrun by barbarians, as both seemed at the time; a long decline suddenly made manifest, an old order swept away for ever, as we can see now. Either way, another great turning Point to torment schoolboys yet unborn.

Britain and Japan, once the best of allies, tell out in the Thirties over trade, the stickiest issue being the best way to pick the bones of China. Britain favoured the `open door' policy, meaning a fair ring of the cash register for everybody, which unfortunately included the Japanese. Japan, having the Military means to do it, inclined more towards the closed door policy, with themselves inside the door and all non- Asiatics outside. In July 1937 Japan went to undeclared war with China, and the follow- ing month a Japanese fighter (a forerunner of the promising new Zero) shot up the car of the British ambassador, Sir Hugh Knatchbull-Hugessen, outside Shanghai, using the large Union Jack painted on his roof as a convenient aiming point.

With Hitler's star rising in the West, Bri- tain was in no position to make war either in or over China. A deal seemed indicated, raising the age-old, ever-new problem of who is in charge in Tokyo. 'I only wonder whether it would be possible to get in touch with the forces that in fact direct Japanese policy', the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, wrote to his ambassador in Tokyo in September 1937. 'It is conceivable that statesmen in Tokyo may have moderate and long-sighted views, but have they any in- fluence on events, and with the passage of time are they more likely to regain ascen- dancy?'

When the search for moderate Japanese Are they casual enough for you, sir?' statesmen failed, Britain's fall-back posi- tion in the Far East was the great naval base at Singapore. Begun in earnest in 1933, the base was intended to support a fleet of bat- tleships, the ultimate weapon of the trading and seafaring nation which had carried through the first industrial revolution. But the Japanese are ambitious islanders, too. At first they bought British, then started building their own warships. By the early Forties the Japanese fleet included super- battleships of the Yamato class, 64,170 tons, nine 18-inch guns, nearly twice the size of any comparable British ship, bigger than anything the Americans could bring through the Panama Canal. With this ultimate weapon the Japanese navy planned a super-Trafalgar, to be followed by their turn at a world empire.

Singapore was bluff, even from the beginning. The dry docks, the oil storage tanks, the workshops and the shore bat- teries of 15-inch guns cost £60 million but they protected nothing, not even them- selves, without a fleet of capital ships. The fleet was to be sent from Malta, from Alex- andria and from Britain to deal with 'an emergency in the Far East', meaning war with Japan. But sanctions against Italy over Abyssinia, followed by the outbreak of Hitler's war in Europe and the fall of France, meant that no big ships could be spared. Then in the summer of 1941 the American government applied long- threatened sanctions against Japan, cutting off oil supplies until the Japanese gave up their war in China — a move described as putting the Japanese in 'quarantine'.

With great misgivings Britain was per- suaded to join in. 'What does he mean by "putting them in quarantine"?' Neville Chamberlain wrote cautiously to his sister Hilda, when President Roosevelt first pro- posed the scheme. 'Seeing that patients suf- fering from epidemic diseases do not usual- ly go about fully armed, is there not a dif- ference here, and something lacking in his analogy?'

At the Foreign Office Charles Orde, himsplf no great admirer of the Chinese ('such inveterate wrigglers and self- deceivers'), nevertheless advised a strong line with the fractious Japanese: 'When they have a case and have learned to state it properly and reasonably, we will, I do not doubt, be prepared to listen to them with respect and magnanimity. But meanwhile we shall have to let them see we are not to be intimidated'. 'Of course', Orde added, presciently, 'there is a point at which they may go off their heads, and sanctions may be that point.'

They were. The carrier force which was to attack Pearl Harbour sailed secretly from • Japan on 25 November 1941. The Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions and the Imperial Guards Division, fresh from the war in China, were already assembled in Saigon and ports in southern Indochina, practising with landing-barges. Some 700 front-line aircraft had arrived from Japan. Opposing them in Malaya was a scratch collection of British, Australian and Indian troops, plus

the Malayan volunteers, two and a half divisions in all, and 336 aircraft — Buf- faloes, Sharks, Swordfish, Wildebeestes, an aeronautical salon des refuses of obsolete types and designers' mistakes — all that could be spared from the war in Europe.

On 2 December the long-prepared-for British ships arrived in Singapore. The new battleship Prince of Wales and the battle- cruiser Repulse, a veteran of the first world war, were intended to'overawe' a Japanese battle fleet eight times their size. 'Thus', said Winston Churchill, 'we stretch out the long arm of brotherhood and motherhood to the Australian and New Zealand peoples' — who were, indeed, getting distinctly uneasy about Japanese intentions. The air- craft carrier Indomitable, also intended for Singapore, had run aground off Jamaica and was being repaired.

At 1.15 on the morning of 8 December a, telephone call from General Arthur Percival, GOC; Malaya, woke Sir Shenton Thomas, Governor of the Straits Settle- ments, in his bedroom at Government House in Singapore. The Japanese, the general reported, were coming ashore at Kota Bahru, the northernmost port on the east coast of Malaya. 'Well', said Sir Shen- ton, 'I suppose you'll shove the little men off!' (Governor and general were both tall, thin men.) Two hours later the first Japanese air raid hit Singapore, killing 61 people and wrecking Robinson's new air- conditioned restaurant in Raffles Place. At dawn GHQ in Singapore issued its first communique, reporting that the Japanese had met stern resistance. 'The few troops left on the beach are being heavily machine- gunned . . . and all surface craft are retir- ing at high speed', said the communique as indeed they were, to fetch more Japanese from the transports lying offshore.

The same afternoon Rear-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips set out from Singapore with Prince of Wales, Repulse, four destroyers and no air cover in the hope of getting among the transports. He missed them, and early on 10 December a Japanese aircraft spotted the British ships. Three hours later both had been sunk by Japanese army bom- bers from Saigon. Phillips went down with

his command, although most of the ships' companies were picked up by the destroyers, the Japanese not interfering.

At this point Singapore lost whatever in- fluence it may have had on the outcome of the war. Nevertheless reinforcements British, Indian and Australian — continued to pour in, jostling with rubber planters and their families going the other way. The Japanese High Command allowed 100 days for the capture of Singapore. In fact it took them 70 — a melancholy story of strong points by-passed, lines of resistance pierced and isolated units outflanked and envel- oped by roads not blocked and bridges never blown.

Against any determined opponent who controls both sea and air the loss of a long, thin peninsula, especially one leading from nowhere to nowhere, can only be a matter of time. The Japanese arrived with bicycles, split-toed rubber shoes and nippy, Honda- sized tanks, weighing only ten tons and nar-• row enough to slip between rows of rubber trees. The Japanese troops were well prac- tised from their days in China where, fighting stubborn guerrillas, they became thoroughly brutalised as well. Numerous well-attested massacres of wounded and prisoners took place, mostly the work of the highly politicised guards division whose junior officers were among the keenest ex- ponents of the Japanese variety of fascism.

On 20 January Churchill sent a stern message from London: 'I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy, and no question of surrender to be entertained un- til after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore city.'

On 30 January the last troops in Penin- sula Malaya withdrew into Singapore and the causeway spanning the half-mile bet- ween the island and the mainland was blown, leaving a gap barely four feet deep at low tide. There were nearly a million civilians inside the city, whose Chinese shopkeepers, not liking the look of things, had suspended the age-old chit system and were now demanding cash for every pur- chase. Singapore did not have its own water supply, and for that matter, still does not —

which is why the present republic of Singapore to this day maintains an Israeli- trained armoured force with the mission of nipping up the main road and seizing the reservoirs on the mainland in the event of another 'emergency in the Far East'. In February 1942 the available water would last the besieged city, bloated with refugees and under constant air and artillery bom- bardment, no more than two weeks.

The first Japanese came ashore in rubber boats on the night of 8 February. On 14 February the Municipal Engineer reported that only 24 hours' water remained. Next morning General Percival asked the Japanese for terms. The parley, held in the boardroom of the Ford car factory, was brief, an exception to the normal Japanese fondness for interminable conferences. 'Do you accept our terms of immediate un- conditional surrender, yes or no?' barked the bullet-headed, bemedalled General Tokoyuki Yamashita. Percival, thin and drawn, had little option. Wearily he signed, surrendering the city and garrison of 85,000 men to an attacking forCe of 30,000. The Japanese lost less than 10,000 killed and wounded in the campaign. After the war the reason for Yamashita's brusque manner emerged: he was almost out of ammuni- tion, and a sortie from Singapore might have delayed the end a week or two. The Japanese general was later hanged by the Americans in the Philippines for his ac- tivities there, when the Japanese in their turn were fighting a hopeless defence.

The survivors of Singapore had scarcelY been marched off to a brutal captivity before the search for guilty men began- Recriminations have, in general come under three broad headings: (1) Whisky-soaked planters. It is true that this class of Malayan resident drank heavi- ly, as civilians behind the lines in wartime generally do if the stuff is available, on the gather-ye-rosebuds principle. Singapore under siege was a kind of giant Harrods with the Goths at the front entrance, and drinking was one way of denying it to the enemy. As it was, one and a half million bottles of spirits and 60,000 gallons of home-made Chinese gin were destroyed to dissuade the Japanese from staging another, drunken rape of Nanking. The planters boozing could, however, hardly have decid- ed the outcome.

(2) The guns pointed the wrong way. This, the best-known of all Singapore theories, appears to have originated With Winston Churchill himself. One of tile, more opulent passages of The Second World War expresses the Prime Minister's shock/horror on hearing that the guns of the naval base pointed out to sea and asks, 'What is the use of having an island for 3 fortress if it is not to be made into 3 citadel?' What, indeed. But this simply con- tinues the myth of the Thirties, that Singapore city and Singapore island were the fortresses, not just the overpopulated neighbours of the empty naval base. Even the most amateur strategist would reject 3

teeming tropical town as a suitable site for a 'citadel'.

What, then, was the Former Naval Per- son on about? He was, of course, also a Practising politician, indeed an arch- imperialist, unable to the end of his days to accept what Singapore demonstrated so clearly — namely that Britain no longer had the resources to protect her Empire against all corners. On this harsh truth his entire world view foundered; hence the need to blame the unknown idiot who sited the guns, especially as he had done so under a Previous government.

(3) Hopeless generalship. General Per- cival and his Australian second-in- command, Major-General H. Gordon Ben- nett, were certainly not Napoleon and Ney,

Or even Haig and Robertson. Indeed, the

losers at Singapore get a section to themselves in Norman Dixon's penetrating

Work, On the Psychology of Military In- competence. A former Royal Engineer turned scientist, Dixon advances the view

that the military profession positively at- tracts persons who, probably because of unloved childhoods and overstrict toilet training, are psychologically unfitted for high command.

These people are not, however, the heads Of oak of popular view, specially selected for dimness by military promotion boards. On the contrary, although suspiciously fond of 'bull', spit and polish, they are usually highly intelligent and eager to Please, and hence rise rapidly in the service. They lack, however, any penetration into

their own self-deceptions, and are unable to Modify their plans with the changing circumstances inescapable in war.

So, Dixon argues, when Percival forbade his engineers to build fixed defences with civilian labour the length of the Malayan

Peninsula on the ground that this would be bad for civilian morale, it was actually con-

ern for his own morale that he was

rationalising. 'In the case of Percival and Gordon Bennett, to erect defences would

have been to admit to themselves the danger

in which they stood', writes Dixon, describ- ing this reaction as 'helpless resignation in the face of same-species aggression.

Whereas the brown rat, that most ferocious of fighters, will turn and attack any large

Predator, it makes no such attempt to de- fend itself against a concerted attack by fellow rats. At a human level such behaviour could well be part and parcel of appeasement tendencies.'

We may well have here at least a partial explanation of why generals of great in- tellectual distinction sometimes fail, and boneheads often win. Certainly General Percival impressed everyone he met with his intelligence, and in 1937 he even wrote a brilliant staff paper predicting with con- siderable accuracy the direction from which

the Japanese would come, and the unor-

thodox methods they would use. As to the controversial General Bennett, who wore a neat moustache, he certainly seems to have Had a well developed sense of self- Preservation, not necessarily a bad thing in

a soldier. After ordering his command, the Australian Eighth Division, to hold fast Bennett and his staff escaped by boat to Australia, where the chief of staff of the Australian forces was frostily unimpressed by the argument that his experiences at the hands of the Japanese were of unique value. Bennett never got another active command.

Another view expands the love of ritual and disinclination to face the facts to the entire direction of the empire. No serious preparations, it is argued, were made to de- fend Malaya in case the preparations themselves might attract attack. Without the callous warrior spirit, on this view, em- pires cannot be long maintained. Percival would therefore emerge both as a faithful reflection of his times and a decent man of

considerable moral courage, at least, in sur- rendering his command to avoid useless loss of life, despite the voices from afar urging him to hold on.

Suppose, in the end, things had gone the other way? Both Germany and Japan were developing nuclear weapons, both were convinced that they were the master race, and neither was averse to intra-species con- flict. Their joint victory would, no doubt, have been followed by a cold war, and with Germany ruling Russia and Japan India they would be colliding about now in the vicinity of Afghanistan. Both Singapore Square and Stalingradplatz would have giant fallout shelters. In Japan's case, at least, there have been considerable practical advantages to being on the losing end.