Fall of Singapore: In Their Own Words

Singapore was part of the British Empire before the Second World War. The British built military installations there to protect their interests in the region. Australian troops went to Singapore and Malaya in February 1941. They were to prepare for a possible attack by Japanese forces. The Japanese landed troops in Thailand and Malaya on 8 December 1941. Those forces advanced down the Malayan peninsula and soon threatened Singapore itself. Australians fought alongside troops from Britain and other parts of the British Empire.

The Allied forces were surprised by the speed of the Japanese advance. The Allies withdrew to the island of Singapore. They were soon overwhelmed by the Japanese. The surviving Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Singapore was once considered an impregnable fortress. It had now fallen to the Japanese. Thousands of Australian, British and other Allied troops became prisoners of war. Many of them would not survive being captives of the Japanese.

Three men dressed in army uniforms and tin helmets operate a field artillery gun near a hut by the water and look towards piers and a town across the other side of the water where there is a plume of dark smoke.

Australian Imperial Force gunners in Singapore operate an anti-tank gun during fighting at the Johor Causeway. Photographed by Clifford Bottomley, Singapore, 2 January 1942. You can see a film camera set up on the left to record the action. AWM 012449

Desperate defence

The swift Japanese advance down the Malayan peninsula pushed back many Australian units. Japanese forces arrived at the southern tip of Malaya by the end of January 1942. Retreating Allied troops had to get to the Jahor Causeway connecting Malaya to the island of Singapore.

Veteran Leslie Glover helped to round up Australian soldiers trying to get back to Singapore. He became a prisoner of war when the Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese.

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Answer the questions:

  1. Leslie refers to taking soldiers to the Base Depot, where they were reissued clothing and arms (weapons). What does that tell you about the way the fighting was going for the Australian troops?
  2. Leslie and other troops were tasked with defending a large water reservoir against a takeover by Japanese forces. Why was it important to defend the reservoir?
  3. Leslie says 'we considered we could hold them off' when the Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese. What does that tell you about the difference between the way the Australian troops saw the battle and the way the senior Allied officers saw it?

Discover more about the invasion of Malaya.

Bombs and guns

Japanese forces landed on the island of Singapore on 8 February 1942. Within 6 days, they were on the outskirts of Singapore city. Japanese bomber aircraft were frequently attacking the city.

Veteran Norm Dillon endured the heavy bombing of Singapore by the Japanese. He saw how the bombing raids were largely unchallenged by Allied aircraft. Gunners on Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships fired at the Japanese bombers. The naval ships didn't have enough anti-aircraft guns to help repel the Japanese bombing raids.

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Answer the questions:

  1. Norm refers to the massive guns of the Singapore fortress as 'useless'. What might have prompted him to say that?
  2. Imagine you were with Norm as he watched the few Allied fighter planes left in Singapore being shot down by the Japanese. How would you have felt at the time? What might you have said to Norm?
  3. Norm says the Japanese 'bombed Singapore fairly heavily'. Why were the Japanese forces bombing the island so much? What would they have been trying to achieve?

Discover more about the RAAF in Malaya.

Evasion and tragedy

Allied personnel and civilians began evacuating from Singapore in late January 1942. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships escorted the transport ships carrying evacuees. The evacuation was dangerous due to the relentless Japanese air attacks.

Veteran Roy Cornford was involved in the fighting as the Japanese came close to Singapore. He and his mates evaded capture and were later picked up by a transport ship. The ship was then attacked by Japanese bomber aircraft.

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Answer the questions:

  1. Roy's unit came into contact with Japanese troops. The Japanese didn't realise that Roy's unit was Australian – they thought they were also Japanese. How could the Japanese soldiers have made that mistake?
  2. Roy and his mates had to retreat because they were outnumbered by the Japanese. During their retreat, they came across British soldiers camped in the jungle. The British gave Roy's group some food but wouldn't let the Australians join them when they prepared to leave the camp. Why do you think the British soldiers made that decision?
  3. Roy and one of his mates helped an officer on the transport ship in dealing with the human remains of those killed by the Japanese bombing of the ship. The officer told them both to throw the remains overboard because there was no use keeping them for funerals. How might Roy and his mate have felt doing that gruesome task?

Discover more about the evacuation of the nurses.

Young and in battle

Many Australian troops who served in Singapore were quite young. They were new to combat and not sure of what to expect. The ferocity of the Japanese attacks shocked them and many of the more experienced Allied troops.

Veteran Maurie Deed was in Singapore when the Japanese began their bombing raids on the island. He soon had to adapt to the frequent raids and their effects.

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Answer the questions:

  1. Maurie refers to being just 18 when the Japanese started bombing Singapore. Why would he point out his age when talking about his experiences?
  2. Maurie and his mates had to take cover in slit trenches each time the Japanese bombing raids began. Why were slit trenches used instead of bomb shelters?
  3. Maurie drove an obsolete truck as a 'crash tender' for the airfield. Why was the truck being used in that role? How might Maurie have felt when he was driving the truck?

Discover more about the Japanese advance from December 1941 to March 1942.

Australians in captivity

The Allied forces in Singapore eventually surrendered to the Japanese. Thousands of Australian troops became prisoners of war. This short film shares the experiences of 8 Australians who served in Singapore and were captured. They tell stories about life as prisoners of war and the toll it took on them and their comrades.

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Created to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, this film includes reflections from 8 veterans who served in the Malaya and Singapore. Some were taken prisoner and were allocated to work parties in Japan or on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Others served aboard naval ships in the region and were fortunate enough to escape capture. Their stories provide an emotional and compelling insight into a significant moment in Australian wartime history from a deeply personal perspective.

Hours before the raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese forces landed in Thailand and northern Malaya. Their rapid advance forced British and dominion troops down the Malaya peninsula. After more than a month of fighting, they encountered Australian troops in southern Malaya but could not be stopped. By the beginning of February 1942, Allied forces had withdrawn to Singapore. 2 weeks later, on 15 February, they surrendered to the Japanese. Tens of thousands of Allied troops became prisoners of war (POWs). Others were taken prisoner elsewhere in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including members of 'Blackforce', who were taken prisoner in Java.

Answer the questions:

  1. What are the common themes in the stories told by the soldiers who fought the Japanese forces as they approached Singapore?
  2. How did the Australians try to maintain their morale during their captivity?
  3. Why were some of the Australian prisoners sceptical of the news that the Japanese had surrendered and the war in the Pacific was over?

Discover more about the unconditional Allied surrender.

Curriculum notes for teachers

These videos and activities align with the Australian Curriculum Year 10 History, Strand: Knowledge and understanding; Sub-strand World War II:

  • The places where Australians fought, and their perspectives and experiences during World War II, such as the fall of Singapore, prisoners of war (POWs), the Battle of Britain and Kokoda (AC9HH10K02)
  • The significant events and turning points of World War II, including the Holocaust and use of the atomic bomb (AC9HH10K03)
  • the commemoration of World War II, including different historical interpretations and debates (AC9HH10K06)
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