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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2017 > Battlefield: Singapore

Battlefield: Singapore

Winston Churchill called it the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British military history. Julian Humphrys looks at how the Japanese seized Malaya and Singapore

The greatest defeat

HUMILIATION: British senior commanders march off under escort to negotiate the surrender of Singapore
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The four British officers made for an incongruous sight as they walked to the temporary headquarters that the Japanese had set up in the new Ford factory in central Singapore. Escorted by diminutive Japanese soldiers and clad in long baggy shorts, they carried a Union flag and a white flag of surrender. It was 15 February 1942, and their commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, was about to sign the document confirming what Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later call the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British military history.

Malaya’s rubber plantations and its rich reserves of tin made it one of the British Empire’s most valuable possessions, and a key target for the Japanese when they entered World War II in 1941. At its southern tip lay the island of Singapore, which had been acquired by Stamford Raffles for Britain’s East India Company in 1819, and become a full British possession five years later. Britain considered Singapore, which they dubbed ‘the Gibraltar of the East’, a vital strategic base, and in the twenties they constructed a formidable defensive system, including five colossal naval guns, all designed to deter an attack by sea. Little was done to defend the landward side of the island, for the British reasoned that anyone attacking mainland would first have to fight their way through hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle, rubber plantations and swamps.

HUMILIATION: Plumes of smoke rise above a bombed Singapore
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February 2017
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