70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese
February 13, 2012
BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY NEWSLETTER - FEBRUARY 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.
THE FALL OF SINGAPORE WAS NO REAL SURPRISE TO BRITISH PRIME MINISTER WINSTON CHURCHILL
WINSTON CHURCHILL - NO FRIEND TO AUSTRALIA IN 1942
Although happy to take all the sailors, soldiers and airmen that Australia was prepared
Before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is persuaded to adopt a "Germany First" war strategy
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 The Rainbow-5 plan was a defensive policy, and it largely superseded the more aggressive "Plan Orange" which had envisaged involvement of the United States Pacific Fleet in active defence of the Philippines against Japanese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
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
In Volume 3 of his history of the Second World War entitled "The Grand Alliance", Churchill recalls his deep concern over this possibility:
Churchill and Roosevelt meet at the Arcadia Conference in Washington
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
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
The Arcadia Conference confirms an Allied "Germany First" war strategy
Roosevelt and Churchill maintain the secrecy of the "Germany First" war strategy
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
Churchill deceives Prime Minister John Curtin regarding the defence 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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
My thanks for your piece on the fall of Singapore.