In December 1941 Japanese forces landed at Malaya and began a rapid advance southwards towards Singapore. Australians were among the Allied forces fighting to halt the advance. On 15 February 1942 the city fell to the Japanese, and more than 130,000 British and Allied troops were taken prisoner of war, including some 15,000 Australians. More than 1100 other Australians were either confirmed dead or listed as missing in action, and hundreds of others remained unaccounted for. Fully illustrated with photographs and artworks from the Australian War Memorial collection, A Bitter Fate tells the story of this period of Australian wartime history, focusing on the fiercely fought campaign in Malaya and detailing the experiences of some of the men and women who witnessed the Fall of Singapore.
‘If Singapore were made impregnable as a base … Australia would be reasonably safe.’
Report on the Military Defence of Australia by a
Conference of Senior Australian Officers
of the Australian Military Forces, 1920
Singapore sat at the crossroads of the British Empire. Lodged between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, equidistant between the ‘crown jewel’ of India to the west, Australia and New Zealand to the south-east, and Hong Kong to the north, it was ‘undoubtedly the naval key to the Far East’. In the early 1920s, Britain pledged to build a massive naval base at Singapore and to send a strong fleet to the Far East if its interests in the region, including Australia, were threatened. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Singapore had become, in the minds of many Australians, a potent symbol of imperial strength and security. Such was its perceived importance that when Australia sent forces to bolster Singapore’s defences, many Australians felt that their men and women were defending the nation itself.
In the two decades before World War II, Australian defence policy was dominated by the ‘Singapore strategy’. Defence planners readily identified Japan as the ‘only potential and probable enemy’ in the region. It had the world’s third largest navy, after Britain’s Royal Navy and the United States Navy, and in the 1930s its army gained operational experience against Chinese and Russian forces. Under the ‘Singapore strategy’, Australia and New Zealand reaffirmed their commitment to imperial defence and planned, if necessary, to again assist Britain in a time of war by sending forces to Europe or the Middle East; in exchange, Britain vowed to dispatch, if need be, warships from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea to form a Far East Fleet based at Singapore. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was too small to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy unaided but it could contribute warships to this Far East Fleet and have others patrol Australia’s sea lanes.
The British and Australian governments and their navies championed the ‘Singapore strategy’ but senior army officers argued that it was fundamentally flawed. The strategy assumed that the Royal Navy would have warships to spare for a Far East Fleet but, the army officers argued, if war erupted in Europe the Royal Navy would need to focus on protecting Britain’s coast and sea lanes and thus could not divert a strong fleet to a far-flung outpost of the British Empire. In 1930, Colonel JD Lavarack, Director of Military Operations and Intelligence at Army Headquarters in Melbourne, declared: ‘The issue is simple. Command of the Atlantic is of vital importance to the British people, command in the Far East is not’.
Irrespective of the ‘Singapore strategy’s’ merits or shortcomings, the Australian people by and large believed it offered security to Australia. British and Australian politicians painted Singapore as an impregnable fortress and the promised Far East Fleet as a powerful deterrent to Japan. This popular faith in the ‘fortress’ became even more important in the late 1930s when many people feared that Japan was embarking on a path to war. One commentator declared: ‘We can thank our lucky stars that we were all for Britain when she wished to build the Singapore base.’
After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Australians clung to the Singapore ‘fortress’ for the hope it gave of deterring an opportunistic attack by Japan. Military officers, politicians and ordinary citizens feared that, with Britain preoccupied with the war in Europe, it was only a matter of time before Japan launched a southward offensive, and perhaps even an invasion of Australia. Australians continued to hope that the promised Far East Fleet would make up for the weaknesses in Australia’s defences – particularly after the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was raised and the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions were dispatched to the Middle East.
Australian warships and thousands of airmen were also sent overseas to take part in the war against Germany and Italy.
On 28 June 1940, the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Lord Caldecote, conceded that Britain could no longer promise a Far East Fleet. The collapse of France meant that the Royal Navy had to contain the German fleet in the Atlantic and the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean without assistance. However, Caldecote argued that Singapore was still ‘the key point in the Far East’ and it was important to deny the naval base to the Japanese. He then produced an argument for bolstering the air and land defences throughout Singapore and Malaya:
Owing to the increased range of aircraft and the development of aerodromes, particularly in Thailand, [which the Japanese could capture,] we can no longer concentrate on the defence of Singapore Island entirely, but must consider the defence of Malaya as a whole, particularly the security of up-country landing grounds. For this reason, and because we cannot spare a fleet for the Far East at present, it is all the more important that we should do what we can to improve our land and air defences in Malaya.
[Lord Caldecote quoted in Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Canberra, 1957, p. 19]
The Australian War Cabinet, under Prime Minister Robert Menzies, had already agreed to send a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadron of Lockheed Hudson bombers to Singapore to replace a Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron there. On 3 July 1940, after considering Lord Caldecote’s message, the War Cabinet agreed to contribute a further two squadrons.
Later in the year, as concerns over the security of Singapore mounted, pressure to also contribute a ground force built. On 16 November 1940, the Australian Chiefs of Staff produced a report on a defence conference held at Singapore, concluding that ‘the forces and equipment at present available … for the defence of Malaya are totally inadequate to meet a major attack by Japan’. They recommended to the War Cabinet that a brigade of the 8th Division AIF be sent as a temporary measure until the Australian troops could be replaced by Indian garrison troops.
The War Cabinet expressed ‘grave concern’ at ‘the most serious position revealed in regard to the defence of Malaya and Singapore’. In December 1940, it offered the brigade group, which was gratefully accepted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Over the following year, the Australian force deployed in defence of Singapore would more than double.