70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese

February 13, 2012


15 February 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. It appeared appropriate to review at this time the historical context in which Singapore fell and to recall the greatest threat to Australia's survival as a free nation. Any comments will be welcomed.

James Bowen




Although happy to take all the sailors, soldiers and airmen that Australia was prepared
to place at his disposal for the defence of Britain, Churchill had no concern about Australia's fate
when Japan's conquering armies menaced Australia in 1942. He had already abandoned Australia
to the Japanese at the Arcadia Conference held in Washington in late December 1941. Churchill even
resisted the return of Australian troops from the Middle East to defend their own country; he
wanted to use them In Burma to defend India against the advancing Japanese.

Before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is persuaded to adopt a "Germany First" war strategy
Less than two weeks after he won an unprecedented third term in office in November 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a private briefing from the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark who warned Roosevelt that failure by the United States to aid Britain against Germany would almost certainly lead to Britain's defeat and German domination of the whole of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Stark argued that American aid to Britain should include actual participation in the war in Europe and North Africa by US armed forces. Stark also argued that top priority should be given to defeating Germany regardless of any threat that might arise from Japan.

Admiral Stark's advice that the defeat of Nazi Germany should be the top priority of the United States even in the event of war with Japan was accepted by President Roosevelt, and formally designated as "Plan D". The plan acquired the designation "D" simply because it followed the numbering in Stark's formal memorandum to the President. However, "Plan D" was effectively an implementation of the American strategic war plan bearing the code reference "Rainbow-5". The Rainbow-5 plan was a defensive policy, and it largely superseded the more aggressive "Plan Orange" which had envisaged involvement of the United States Pacific Fleet in active defence of the Philippines against Japanese aggression.

Rainbow-5 stipulated as its premise that the United States was engaged simultaneously in war against the three Axis powers Japan, Germany and Italy  This plan specified that American military power would be deployed against Germany and Italy as a top priority even if Japan had already entered the war as their ally. Until Germany and Italy were defeated, Rainbow-5 required the United States to adopt a defensive posture in the Pacific behind lines linking Hawaii to Alaska and Panama. The Rainbow-5 war plan involved abandoning everything west of Hawaii to the Japanese if they were capable of seizing the Philippines, Australia, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies.

The US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, supported Plan D and President Roosevelt authorized talks between the American and British military chiefs of staff to implement Plan D. In March 1941, the American and British chiefs of staff met secretly and agreed that the Americans would join Britain in pursuing a "Germany First" war strategy if the United States was drawn into World War II as an ally of Britain.

The "Germany First" war strategy was not announced to the American people for a number of reasons. One  compelling reason for secrecy was the fact that the United States was not yet at war with Germany. There would also have been major political risks for Roosevelt in disclosing the proposed war strategy. Apart from attracting the fury of the powerful isolationist and peace lobbies, it would have been an admission that America's army in the Philippines would be abandoned to its fate in the event of a Japanese attack

Fortunately for Australia, the treacherous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its impact on public opinion in the United States forced a significant readjustment of its Pacific Ocean priorities by the American government.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
At 8.00 a.m. on Sunday, 7 December 1941, when the United States and Japan were still at peace, the Japanese launched two carrier-based surprise air attacks on warships of the United States Pacific Fleet lying at anchor at their Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. The two successive attacks on this day were not preceded by a declaration of war, and took place while Japanese diplomats were in Washington discussing American concerns about continuing Japanese military aggression in East Asia. These diplomatic discussions were intended by the Japanese to distract the attention of Americans while Japan secretly positioned a powerful aircraft carrier striking force off the Hawaiian islands.

Of the eight American battleships in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their infamous "sneak attack" on 7 December 1941: Arizona was completely destroyed; Oklahoma capsized and was sold for scrap; California and West Virginia were sunk upright, and were returned to service in 1943 and 1944 respectively; Nevada was returned to  service in 1942; Pennsylvania, Maryland and Tennessee were lightly damaged, and able to be returned to service before the end of 1941. The broken hull of Arizona now rests on the bed of Pearl Harbor and is the site of a national war memorial. In addition to the battleships, two light cruisers were damaged, and three destroyers were badly damaged. About 200 Navy and Army aircraft were destroyed. Including civilian victims, 2,403 Americans died in the two Japanese air attacks and 1,178 were wounded. The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft.

Churchill insists that America adhere to the "Germany First" strategy despite Pearl Harbor
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor both delighted and worried Churchill. He knew that the United States would now be fighting the three Axis powers with Britain, but the treacherous nature of the Japanese attack without a declaration of war, the massive damage to the American Pacific Fleet, and the heavy loss of American lives, had produced a furious public reaction. Churchill was concerned that President Roosevelt would be unable to resist public pressure to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor, and this vengeance might compel diversion of American resources to fighting the Japanese instead of giving total priority to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

In Volume 3 of his history of the Second World War entitled "The Grand Alliance", Churchill recalls his deep concern over this possibility:

"We knew...that the outrage at Pearl Harbor had stirred the people of the United States to their depths. The official reports and the Press summaries we had received gave the impression that the whole fury of the nation would be turned upon Japan. We feared lest the true proportion of the war as a whole might not be understood. We were conscious of a serious danger that the United States might pursue the war against Japan in the Pacific and leave us to fight Germany and Italy in Europe, Africa, and in the Middle East." (page 514).

Churchill and Roosevelt meet at the Arcadia Conference in Washington
Churchill quickly sought a face to face meeting with President Roosevelt in Washington. His purpose was to persuade President Roosevelt to adhere to the secret agreement between the American and British governments to give top priority to defeating Nazi Germany, and not to divert any of America's vast resources to halting Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Churchill appreciated that the "Germany First" war strategy would put Australia, British Malaya, the Philippines, and the rest of South-East Asia at serious risk of Japanese occupation if Japan entered the war on the side of Germany and Italy. However, this prospect does not appear to have greatly concerned Churchill whose top war priorities were the defence of Britain, defending the Suez Canal and Britain's  oil wells in the Middle East, support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, and protecting India. As Churchill saw it  the Philippines, Australia, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies could be recovered from Japanese occupation after Germany had been defeated.

On 14 December 1941, Churchill set off for Washington on board the newly commissioned battleship HMS Duke of York. He was accompanied by his top military chiefs and civilian advisers. The British Prime Minister and his entourage arrived in Washington on 22 December 1941, and an intensive series of secret discussions followed that later became known as the Arcadia Conference.

Churchill was alarmed to find on his arrival in Washington that the American people were calling for an all-out war of vengeance against Japan. The American people were unaware that their President, and his military chiefs, had secretly committed the United States to defeating Germany as its top priority, and that this agreement meant holding a  defensive line between Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. They were also unaware that the  Germany First" plan effectively made everything west of that line expendable including American military forces in the western Pacific and Australia.

The US Navy refuses to accept an agreement that confined it to a purely defensive posture in the Pacific

At a time of great peril, Australia found an unlikely but very powerful ally in the
Commander in Chief of the US Navy, Admiral Ernest J. King.

When Roosevelt and Churchill joined the American military chiefs in conference on 23 December 1941, Admiral Stark had been replaced as chief of the US Navy. The new Commander in Chief of the US Navy was the tough and abrasive Admiral Ernest J. King, and he was strongly opposed to any downgrading of the war against Japan to the status of a secondary theatre of war. Admiral King had found that Admiral Stark had been prepared to sacrifice everything west of the International Dateline to the Japanese, including Australia and the American army in the Philippines. Admiral King rejected Stark's approach. He believed that the United States would need access to Australia, its New Guinea territories, and the British Solomon Islands as major bases for a counter-offensive to recover the Philippines from Japan. He refused to adopt a defensive posture while the United States rebuilt its fleet.

Admiral King agreed in principle with Churchill's "Germany First" war strategy, but he insisted that the vaguely worded Arcadia agreement include words that would permit the United States to defend positions in the Pacific that were deemed necessary "to safeguard vital interests". The words "vital interests" were not defined, and King argued successfully for inclusion in the agreement of words authorizing the seizure of "vantage points" from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed.

The Arcadia Conference  ended with Churchill and the US Army believing that the United States would pursue a war strategy that placed total priority on defeating Germany and relegated the Pacific to a secondary theatre in which the United States would pursue a passive defensive posture until such time as Germany had been defeated. The US Army position was largely motivated by self-interest. The generals knew that there would be little employment for two million under-trained American soldiers in the difficult island fighting that characterized the Pacific War. The only place to deploy an army of two million recruits was on the continent of Europe, and the American generals were determined to send them there.

The US Navy was well satisfied with the final wording of the Arcadia agreement. Churchill may not have realized it, but Admiral King was determined to prevent Australia becoming part of the Japanese empire and determined to secure the lines of communication between Australia and the United States. The Pacific Fleet had been savaged by the treacherous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the four American fleet carriers had survived. Admiral King had been authorized by Arcadia to safeguard vital interests" and seize "vantage points" in the Pacific from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed. King interpreted the wording of the Arcadia agreement as allowing him to go on the offensive against Japan with the limited naval resources available to him, and to
defend Australia and the Solomons.

The Arcadia Conference confirms an Allied "Germany First" war strategy
Although conscious of the political risks for his Democratic Party in adhering to the "Germany First" war strategy so soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was persuaded by Churchill to adhere to this plan and it was confirmed in writing at the Arcadia Conference.

Roosevelt and Churchill maintain the secrecy of the "Germany First" war strategy
Appreciating that the American people and Congress would not tolerate an Allied war strategy that allowed the Japanese to proceed on an unchecked rampage across the Pacific, President Roosevelt decided to keep secret his government's commitment to the "Germany First" war strategy. The secrecy attached to the "Germany First" war strategy obliged Churchill to conceal from leaders such as Australian Prime Minister John Curtin the total priority to be given to defeating Nazi Germany at the expense of countries threatened by Japan in the South-West Pacific region, including Australia and British Malaya.

When Churchill addressed the American Congress on 26 December 1941, he made no mention of his and President Roosevelt's secret commitment to a "Germany First" strategy for the United States military forces. He limited himself to a powerful speech condemning the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and this was warmly received.

The United States establishes a military command in Australia
Despite committing the United States to defeating Nazi Germany as its top priority, Roosevelt appreciated that the inevitability of American defeat in the Philippines made it important for the United States to hold Australia and the string of islands between Australia and Hawaii as bases for an eventual American counter-offensive against Japan. During the Battle of the Philippines, the United States Army established a new command in Australia on 22 December 1941. The new command was based at Brisbane and designated the US Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA).

Churchill deceives Prime Minister John Curtin regarding the defence of Singapore
Although repeatedly assuring Australia's Prime Minister John Curtin of the British government's commitment to the defence of Singapore, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already written off the defence of Singapore as a lost cause when he was giving those assurances. He knew that Singapore was only a "cardboard fortress", whose defenders lacked tanks, artillery, adeqate air defences, and modern fighter aircraft. After Japan entered the war on the side of its Axis partners Germany and Italy, Churchill was only interested in saving Burma and India in the Asia-Pacific region, and he ignored pleas from Curtin for meaningful reinforcement for the defenders of Singapore.

To ease Curtin's deepening concern for Australia's safety, and resist Australia withdrawing its military forces from Britain, North Africa, and the Middle East, Churchill assured Curtin that a British fleet would be dispatched to save Australia if Japan invaded in massive strength. This was a lie. Churchill had no intention of sending a British fleet to save Australia from a Japanese invasion. He had already abandoned Australia to the Japanese at the Arcadia Conference.

[Note: In "The Politics of War" (2003), Australian historian Dr David Day mentions (at page 289) that the terms of the Arcadia agreement were classified "Top Secret" and never disclosed to Prime Minister John Curtin who, had he appreciated the threat to Australia posed by the Arcadia agreement, might have demanded the return of two brigades of the Australian 8th AIF Division from Singapore to defend Australia].

Curtin was becoming convinced during December 1941 that Churchill's assurances of British military support for Australia against Japan were worthless, and he was not prepared to see Australia abandoned by the British to a threatened Japanese invasion. On 26 December 1941, the Australian Prime Minister addressed the nation in a radio address that made it quite clear that Australia was in grave danger from the Japanese and reflected Curtin's
disillusionment with Churchill's assurances that Britain would furnish powerful support if Australia was threatened with Japanese invasion. In the course of this famous speech, which was published in the Melbourne Herald newspaper on 27 December 1942, Curtin said,

"Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom."

The statement caused a sensation. Churchill was furious, and addressed an angry cable to Curtin. President Roosevelt mistakenly believed that Australia was a British colony in 1941, and felt that Curtin's speech smacked of disloyalty. When it was explained to Roosevelt later that Australia was an independent nation, the American President came to respect Curtin's strong leadership and patriotism.

The fall of Singapore
About thirty minutes before Japan's infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and in pursuance of its overall plan to seize British Malaya, British Borneo, the Philippines, and the resource-rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a Japanese invasion force landed at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya in the early hours of 8 December 1941 (Singapore time). On 10 December 1941, the Japanese achieved naval superiority in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans by sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse. Without naval support, and despite courageous resistance, poorly equipped British, Australian and Indian troops were unable to halt the advance of Japanese troops down the Malayan peninsula towards the Singapore naval base that Australia had been repeatedly assured was "impregnable".

By 31 January 1942, the defenders of Singapore had been forced back by the Japanese to the island itself, and they cut the causeway connecting Singapore to the mainland. This also cut off the water supply to Singapore island from the mainland. On the night of 8-9 February, Japanese assault troops crossed the narrow stretch of water between the mainland and the island and secured several beachheads. Britain's so-called "impregnable bastion" was surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. On the following day, Prime Minister John Curtin told Australians that the Battle
for Australia was about to begin.

Two brigades of the 8th Australian Infantry Division were lost with the fall of Singapore, and those Australians would endure cruel captivity under the Japanese. The battalions of the third brigade had been stationed as garrisons of island outposts across the northern approaches to Australia, and were lost when the Japanese captured Rabaul, Ambon and Timor. These Australians would also suffer cruel captivity at the hands of the Japanese. Some would be murdered by the Japanese after they had surrendered.

Australia faces the Threat of a Japanese Invasion
At the end of February 1942, despite courageous resistance against overwhelming odds by British, Australian, American and Dutch forces, the advance of Japanese military forces across South-East Asia towards Australia
appeared unstoppable.

When Prime Minister Curtin sought a response to his pleas for British military assistance to defend Australia against Japanese invasion, and mentioned the extent of the military assistance that Australia had provided to Britain in its struggle with Germany, Winston Churchill made it very clear to Curtin that no British military support would be provided for the defence of Australia.

On 8 March 1942, the Dutch surrendered the capital of the Dutch East Indies to the Japanese. By that time, most of the islands of their vast East Indies colony were already in Japanese hands, although heavily outnumbered
independent Allied forces were still resisting the Japanese on some islands. The capture of British Malaya, the British colonies in northern Borneo, and the Dutch East Indies provided Japan with the vast resources of oil, rubber,
minerals and food that were one of the main reasons for Japan’s aggression.

The Dutch surrender left Australia as the last effective bastion against Japan in the South-West Pacific and exposed to the threat of a Japanese invasion. If the Japanese had immediately landed troops at Port Moresby or Darwin after the Dutch surrender, Australia would have had nothing to throw at them except poorly trained and equipped militia recruits and obsolete aircraft.

Having lost faith in British promises, Prime Minister Curtin appeals to the United States for help to defend Australia

On 14 March 1942, with British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies now occupied by Japanese troops, and the Japanese on Australia's doorstep, Curtin addressed the people of the United States in another famous radio message. The Australian Prime Minister urged Americans to stand with Australia to resist Japanese aggression. Curtin reminded Americans of their own danger when he used these words:

"Australia is the last bastion between the west coast of America and the Japanese. If Australia goes, the Americas are wide open."

Curtin did not need to address these words to the Commander in Chief of the United States Navy, Admiral Ernest J. King, who was already convinced of the importance of Australia to the United States and the compelling need to keep
Australia an American ally and a bastion of freedom. Since his appointment in December 1941, following the Pearl Harbor disaster, Admiral King had been fighting the demands by top United States army generals that South East Asia including Australia, Malaya, and the Philippines, be abandoned to the Japanese so that all military resources,  including those of Australia already under British control, could be directed to the war against Germany.

It was not until the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur in Australia in March 1942 that Curtin received proof that Churchill had betrayed Australia at the Arcadia Conference and had been lying to him when he promised powerful British support to oppose a Japanese invasion of Australia. MacArthur had been deeply shocked to learn while still in
the Philippines that his army had been abandoned by President Roosevelt and Prime MInister Churchill to defeat and capture by the Japanese. An American submarine commander had penetrated the Japanese blockade of the
Philippines and brought the grim news of betrayal at Arcadia to MacArthur.



My thanks for your piece on the fall of Singapore.


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