On February 15, 1942, after a week of fighting, Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East”—and a strategic British stronghold in Asia—falls to Japanese forces.
An island city and the capital of the Straits Settlement of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore had been a British colony since the 19th century. In July 1941, when Japanese troops occupied French Indochina, the Japanese telegraphed their intentions to transfer Singapore from the British to its own burgeoning empire. Sure enough, on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, 24,000 Japanese troops were transported from Indochina to the Malay Peninsula, and Japanese fighter pilots attacked Singapore, killing 61 civilians from the air.
The battle between Japanese and British forces on the Malay Peninsula continued throughout December and January, killing hundreds more civilians in the process. The British were forced to abandon and evacuate many of their positions, including Port Swettenham and Kuala Lumpur.
On February 8, 5,000 Japanese troops landed on Singapore Island. Pro-Japanese propaganda leaflets were dropped on the islands, encouraging surrender. On February 13, Singapore’s 15-inch coastal guns–the island’s main defensive weapons–were destroyed. Tactical miscalculations on the part of British Gen. Arthur Percival and poor communication between military and civilian authorities exacerbated the deteriorating British defense. Represented by General Percival and senior Allied officers, Singapore surrendered to Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita in front of Japanese newsreel cameras. Sixty-two thousand Allied soldiers were taken prisoner; more than half eventually died as prisoners of war.
With the surrender of Singapore, Britain lost its foothold in the East. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to prop up morale by urging Brits “to display the calm and poise, combined with grim determination, which not so long ago brought us out of the very jaws of death.”