For Americans, the mere mention of the word Bataan conjures up dark images. Brutal violence, incredible suffering, desperation, disease, and starvation. The four-month battle fought in that Philippine province had all of those things in abundance. And when it ended in May of 1942, along with it came the largest surrender of American forces in our country’s history. Little wonder then that any conversation concerning it is usually sobering.
But the Americans didn’t suffer defeat alone in 1942. Most everyone in southeast Asia and the Pacific during this time felt the edge of the steel and the heat of the fire coming from the Japanese military. It’s army, navy, and air force were unstoppable.
The British equivalent to the Americans’ Bataan was probably Singapore. The small island just off the Malay Peninsula was far more than just “part of the British empire” and a military outpost. It was a vital British commercial center and fortress. Singapore was the hub from which British power was projected throughout all of southeast Asia and the Pacific. And as such it held tremendous symbolic value to the British…and the Japanese.
The outbreak of war on December 7, 1941 (or the 8th, depending on which side of the date line one lived) saw the Japanese begin landing on the Malay Peninsula and moving south. Exactly two months later, Tomoyuki Yamashita’s weary, but undefeated, troops were at Singapore’s door. The British, having long-prepared for an attack from the sea (who would be crazy enough to attack through dense jungle?!?), were now faced with an enemy at its back.
On February 8th, Japanese forces crossed the Johore Strait and landed on Singapore proper. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the invaders were helped by superior artillery fire and complete domination of the skies. At the outbreak of hostilities in December, the British had a strong naval presence there, but subsequent loss of the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales constituted a serious loss of firepower.
A week later, on February 15, 1942, the Japanese broke through the last British defensive line. Faced with deserting troops and dwindling ammunition, General Arthur Percival knew that further fighting was useless. He and his forces laid down their arms and surrendered.
And like Bataan was for the Americans, Singapore was the largest surrender of British-led forces in Britain’s history, as more than 80,000 soldiers ceased fighting. Many of these soldiers faced the same long-term incarceration and brutal treatment that their American counterparts would experience just two months later.
Fortress Singapore had fallen in stunning fashion, taking British projection, power, and pride with it. And for the people of Singapore, the Japanese reprisals were just beginning. We’ll discuss that shortly.