Afghanistan 2021 and Singapore 1942 Calamities Not to be Forgotten

As things in Kabul limp toward some denouement of the Afghanistan tragedy…at least the race to evacuate as many American citizens, and presumably some percentage of the Afghans who aided in our nation building efforts (or were simply enticed into a Western life style) as possible. The odds that will happen are 50/50 for American citizens as the Taliban seems amenable to the propaganda usefulness of allowing Americans to get to the Airport. For the Afghans, SIVs) the odds are very low . How many of the Afghans departing  were truly on our side or simply tribal or cultural enemies of the Taliban is simply beyond the US ability to determine. At present the Biden administration is simply counting numbers, as if the world will be in awe of our ability to convey masses of people by air.

I heard Kamala Harris was in Singapore, probably to get her away from Washington and  avoid her toxic appearances which add gasoline to the many fires, the Administration has allowed to get out of control, such as our Southern border. I am a book worm, especially on WWII, and the part played by our allies…and the saga of the humiliation inflicted on the British by the Japanese at Singapore, thanks to Kamala, came to mind. Churchill called it the worst capitulation in history of British forces,. It was probably the most bitter defeat Churchill ever had to tell his people about. But unlike Biden he was forthright.

Not to worry. Its under control

Leadership is everything

As he told his people.”I speak to you all under the shadow of a heavy band far reaching military defeat. Singapore as fallen…..this, therefore is one of the moments when the British race and nation can show their quality and genius. This is one of those moments when it can draw from the heart of misfortune the vital  impulses of victory.”

In Less than two months  the Japanese battle harden troops moving through the dense jungle of the Malay Peninsula, a feat the British considered impossible, drove ( biking mostly, one of their primary means of transportation was bicycles) south toward Singapore, considered an impregnable fortress by the British military leadership.,  The British troops  were not prepared for war in the jungle,  were  soft from years of garrison life, quickly demoralized, and most of all, afflicted with deplorable military and civilian leadership. Moreover the defense of Singapore was based on defending against a seaward attack , not from the land.  On 15 Feb 1942,General  Percival, the British Commander, surrendered  16,000 British, 14,000 Australian, and 32,oo0 Indian troops, about half of whom joined the Indian National Army, a Japanese puppet unit. They were of no value of the battlefield but a very important asset to the Japanese in their “Asia for Asian” propaganda campaign. Another 30,000 British and colonial troops had surrendered earlier in the Malay jungle war.

In many ways it was a different situation. The collapse was that of the British army and  not  Western trained Afghans. But the impact was the same. The reverberations  of the disaster spread across the world; the far flung British empire ruling a billion people,  held together by a modicum of troops, principally on the deep rooted belief by both the British and their subject peoples that they were they were superior in every respect. In the book  Forgotten Armies by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, the full horror of the British disaster from Singapore is recounted. The Asians who were as anxious to leave as the Europeans were denied passage on British evacuation ships and had to fend for themselves, much as most Afghans are today. A full chapter of the book his devoted to the perfidy of the leadership and the absolute chaos of the  people of Singapore, most overcome by fear and apathy.

What will be remembered is not that we lost then war but the way we exited the war and the people we betrayed

In The Hinge of Fate, Churchill ultimately took responsibility for the lack of permanent fortifications: “I do not write this in any way to excuse myself. I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked. The reason I had not asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered into my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”

General Percival surrenders his forces, more than twice the size of the invading Japanese forces under General Yamashita.

Churchill continued: “I am aware of the various reasons that have been given for this failure: the preoccupation of the troops in training and in building defence works in Northern Malaya; the shortage of civilian labour; pre-war financial limitations and centralized War Office control; the fact that the Army’s role was to protect the naval base, situated on the north shore of the island, and that it was therefore their duty to fight in front of that shore and not along it. I do not consider these reasons valid. Defences should have been built.”

T o Churchill’s shock, among those taken prisoner were 16,000 British, 14,000 Australian, and 32,000 Indian soldiers. About 30,000 had already surrendered in Malaya from December 1941 to February 1942. Churchill called the shameful fall of Singapore to the Japanese the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history.

He did not whine about it in public,  blame his predecessors, which he could have very easily done….. in  fact many have pointed out the fact that Singapore was doomed decades prior to its capitulation. It was deemed indefensible by later historians.

That day, Churchill broadcast the tragic news about Singapore to the British people and the world. The Prime Minister said in part: “I speak to you all under the shadow of a heavy and far-reaching military defeat. It is a British and Imperial defeat. Singapore has fallen….This, therefore, is one of those moments when the British race and nation can show their quality and their genius. This is one of those moments when it can draw from the heart of misfortune the vital impulses of victory. We must remember that we are no longer alone.”

Churchill went on to urge fortitude: “Here is the moment to display the calm and poise combined with grim determination which not so long ago brought us out of the very jaws of death. Here is another occasion to show—as so often in our long history—that we can meet reverses with dignity and renewed accessions of strength.”1 Yet Churchill was inconsolable about Singapore.

Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, wrote: “The fall of Singapore on February 15 stupefied the Prime Minister.” In particular, the surrender of the British troops bewildered him. “How came 100,000 men (half of them of our own race) to hold up their hands to inferior numbers of Japanese? Though his mind had been gradually prepared for its fall, the surrender of the fortress stunned him,” wrote Moran. “He felt it was a disgrace. It left a scar on his mind. One evening, months later, when he was sitting in his bathroom enveloped in a towel, he stopped drying himself and gloomily surveyed the floor: ‘I cannot get over Singapore,’ he said sadly.”

To me, and many like me, the scar of this disgraceful epoch will last a lifetime.Like Churchill I say there can be no excuse, however adroit the word smithing may be. Perhaps then deeper issue is that probably about 50% of our  population  feel nothing, and continue to live in a bubble of ignorance.

History would consider the capture of the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore among the Japanese Army’s greatest wartime achievements. For Churchill it was among Britain’s worst Far Eastern defeats. Without a doubt, the tragic loss of Singapore in 1942 remained in Churchill’s memory for years to come.

Moreover there can be little doubt that the disgraceful loss of Singapore was the end of the British empire. The lost their nerve, and ability to hold their empire toggle. The Japanese and Asians, and in fact people all over the world, looked upon then British capitulation with distain and contempt, and for many many, a great sadness.  The great white memsahibs had feet of clay.

“There was a sense in which the fall of Singapore , seen as the glittering outpost of European civilization, had challenged  its universality. This sense was shared by those who acquiesced in Japanese rule and also be those who fought against it.” quote from  Forgotten Armies.

The evacuation of Singapore was as chaotic as the one from the Airport in Kabul. Australian army deserters forced their way on to departing ships load with civilians  and of some 90 small ships gathered to evacuate the remaining European civilians of Singapore, most were sunk by the Japanese and the survivors machine-gunned in the water. British nurses who treated land were driven to the beach and murdered by machine-gun fire.

The Japanese were just as barbaric as the Taliban…and in fact far worse because they prided themselves on their great civilization. Beheadings, bayonetting soldiers and civilians, who as recounted by the Japanese , simply sat pathetically waiting to be killed.

I, and many others who look to history for lessons in the future, see the debacle in Kabul as a watershed in the history of the American empire. If we had a Winston Churchill waiting in the wings to take over there might be hope, but with the total lack of leadership so obvious in the U.S. today, not only in politics but in every aspect of our culture, there is precious little reason for hope.

But as someone very prescient once wrote, people get the leadership they deserve.

NOTE: another excellent book with a great chapter on  Singapore is The Inferno; The World at War 1939-1945, by Max Hastings. or Winston Churchill , the Hinge Of Fate Chapter 6, ( part of his World war series.)

 

 

 

 


 

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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