In one of the greatest defeats in British military history, Britain’s supposedly impregnable Singapore fortress surrenders to Japanese forces after a weeklong siege. More than 60,000 British, Australian, and Indian soldiers were taken prisoner, joining 70,000 other Allied soldiers captured during Britain’s disastrous defense of the Malay Peninsula.
On December 8, 1941–the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor–the Japanese moved against British-controlled Malay, steamrollering across Thailand and landing in northern Malay. The Japanese made rapid advances against British positions, capturing British airfields and gaining air superiority. British General A.E. Percival was reluctant to leave Malay’s roads and thus was outflanked again and again by the Japanese, who demonstrated an innovative grasp of the logistics of jungle warfare. The Allies could do little more than delay the Japanese and continued to retreat south.
By January, the Allied force was outnumbered and held just the lower half of the peninsula. General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army continued to push forward, and on January 31 the Allies were forced to retreat across the causeway over the Johor Strait to the great British naval base on the island of Singapore, located on the southern tip of the peninsula. The British dynamited the causeway behind them but failed to entirely destroy the bridge.
Singapore, with its big defensive guns, was considered invulnerable to attack. However, the guns, which used armor-piercing shells and the flat trajectories necessary to decimate an enemy fleet, were not designed to defend against a land attack on the unfortified northern end of the island.
On February 5, Yamashita brought up heavy siege guns to the tip of the peninsula and began bombarding Singapore. On February 8, thousands of Japanese troops began streaming across the narrow waterway and established several bridgeheads. Japanese engineers quickly repaired the causeway, and troops, tanks, and artillery began pouring on to Singapore. The Japanese pushed forward to Singapore City, capturing key British positions and splitting the Allied defenders into isolated groups.
On February 15, Percival–lacking a water supply and nearly out of food and ammunition–agreed to surrender. With the loss of Singapore, the British lost control of a highly strategic waterway and opened the Indian Ocean to Japanese invasion. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Many thousands of the 130,000 Allied troops captured died in Japanese captivity.
Later in the war, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia, made plans for the liberation of the Malay Peninsula, but Japan surrendered before they could be carried out.