Chapter XX – THE BATTLE OF SINGAPORE II

THURSDAY, 12 February, opened with a strong Japanese attack with tanks down the Bukit Timah road. I went up to see what was happening and came to the conclusion that there was a very real danger that the enemy would break through on that front into Singapore Town, for we had very little behind the front with which to stop him if he once effected penetration. It was terribly difficult at this time, as indeed it had been throughout the campaign, to know just how strong our defences were. Units would report their strength as being down to an odd hundred or two, but a little later a company perhaps, which had been detached and lost in the thick country, would turn up again and up would go the fighting strength.

I went to see Heath. We agreed that it was no good leaving troops guarding the northern and eastern shores of the island when there was such imminent danger of losing Singapore Town itself and that the time had come to take up a perimeter defence round the town. Such a perimeter defence must of course include the water supply. So I instructed Heath to withdraw his troops from the northern beaches and to select and occupy a position covering the water supply and linking up on the right with Southern Area which would be holding the Kallang aerodrome. I also instructed Keith Simmons to make arrangements to with-draw from the Changi area and from the beaches east of Kallang as soon as he received orders to do so.

Then I went on to see the Governor. He was still at Government House which was being shelled intermittently. I told him of the situation on the Bukit Timah road and of possible developments. Several important decisions had to be taken. One concerned the Malayan Broadcasting Station which was now less than a mile from the front line. We decided that the time had come to destroy it. Another concerned the stocks of currency notes held by the Treasury. I had always imagined before that you could get rid of them at the last moment by a good bonfire, but it was not as easy as all that. They had to be conveyed to a place where they could be destroyed and lorries were required for that. So, if we were to ensure their destruction, it must be done in good time. On the other hand, we hoped to go on fighting and, if we did so, we should want money. A tricky problem. We decided to destroy some of the notes and to keep the rest—a good old English compromise.

The application of the scorched earth policy in Singapore was undoubtedly detrimental to morale. There is a vast difference between the application of such a policy in defence of a nation’s homeland and its application in a distant land inhabited by Asiatic peoples where the property to be destroyed has been built up laboriously over the years by Government or by private enterprise and where, in many cases, those responsible for the implementation of the policy have themselves in the past been the leaders of progress in their respective spheres. Few people can see their castles knocked down without pangs of remorse.

Heavy fighting developed along the whole front. On the right a determined enemy attempt to capture Nee Soon village was repulsed by units of the 8th and 28th Indian Brigades. This attack was made by the Japanese Imperial Guards supported by tanks. In the Pandan area south of Bukit Timah village the 22nd Australian Brigade Group was still holding its advanced position in spite of repeated attempts by the enemy to dislodge it. It held this position for over forty-eight hours, but it was getting so exhausted and was so isolated that Gordon Bennett withdrew it to the Tanglin area after dark. Farther south the Japanese concentrated their attacks against the 44th Indian Brigade and the 1 st Malaya Brigade. Here the young soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Malay Regiment showed great steadiness in circumstances which might well have affected experienced veterans. On this front the Japanese artillery was assisted by an observation balloon which was moved on to the island. It was maddening to see it sitting up there looking at us when an odd fighter or two could have knocked it down in a few minutes.

At 8.30 p.m. I ordered the demolition of all the Changi defences and the withdrawal during the night of all troops from the Changi area and from the south-east coast to the Singapore defences. That was a hard decision to make. As staff officer and as commander I had seen those defences growing and being brought to their high state of efficiency. I had myself worked on many problems relating to them. I knew well what they meant to the officers and men who manned them. And yet, what was the good of keeping them? If Singapore fell, they would have been exposed to the whole weight of the Japanese attack, both from the air and by land, and could hardly have held out for long. The only hope was to concentrate everything on the defence of Singapore.

The administrative situation now began to cause great anxiety. The military food reserves under our control were sufficient for only about seven days’ consumption, though in addition to this units held reserves of varying quantity and there were also the civil food reserves. We only had one small dump of petrol on the island in addition to what was in vehicle tanks. But the water situation caused most concern. In the Singapore Town area breaks in the mains from bombing and shelling began to gain steadily over repairs with the result that from 12 February pressure failed seriously. Royal Engineer personnel and military transport were called in by the Director-General of Civil Defence to assist the civil staff, and special water-carrying parties were organized. But the high-level reservoir at Pearl’s Hill near the General Hospital was already empty and the Fort Canning reservoir was losing water rapidly.

The superstitious would no doubt look upon Friday, 13 February, as a day of ill-omen, and so it proved to be. It opened with a scare of a Japanese landing on the island of Blakang Mati. Communications were broken and for some time it was difficult to get news but eventually it turned out that it was the landing of some of our own troops who had escaped by sea from the west part of Singapore Island which had given rise to the report. There were so many rumours flying about that it was difficult to know which to believe and which to ignore. In addition to Biakang Mati, there were still also garrisons on Tekong Island and at Pengerang in southern Johore, neither of which places were being attacked. So I made plans to bring the Dogra battalion from Tekong over to Singapore the following night—plans which, as will be seen, had to be abandoned later from lack of any means of transport. So this unfortunate battalion for the third time found itself in an area which was not attacked and in the end never came into action.

The main Japanese offensive during the thirteenth developed along the Pasir Panjang Ridge to the west of Singapore Town. It was a key position on that part of the front, for it not only over-looked the country to the north but also gave direct access to the vitally important Alexandra area where our main ammunition magazine, the main ordnance depot, the military hospital, and other installations were grouped. The attack was made by the Japanese 18th Division and was preceded by a two hours’ artillery, air, and mortar bombardment. The attack fell chiefly on the Malay Regiment which was holding this feature and which fought magnificently. On this and the following day the regiment fully justified the confidence which had been placed in it and showed what esprit de corps and discipline can achieve. Garrisons of posts held their ground and many of them were wiped out almost to a man. It was only when it was weakened by heavy losses that the regiment was forced to give ground. Those who have described the resistance on Singapore Island as half-hearted do scant justice to resistance such as this.

In the Tyersall-Tanglin area, Gordon Bennett had organized an all-round perimeter defence into which most of the units of the A.I.F. had been drawn. I have been surprised to read in his book Why Singapore Fell that he sent a telegram to the Prime Minister of Australia telling him that, in the event of other formations falling back and allowing the enemy to enter the city behind him, it was his intention to surrender to avoid any further needless loss of life. That seems to me a most extraordinary procedure. No doubt he was perfectly entitled to communicate with his own Prime Minister but surely not to inform him of an intention to surrender in certain circumstances when he had not even communicated that intention to his own superior officer.

Farther to the east the 3rd Indian Corps was reorganizing its defences. On the left it had the 18th British Division, in touch with the A.I.F. south of the Bukit Timah road. By the evening of the thirteenth this division was fighting for the first time as a complete division with the 53rd Brigade on the right, the 55th in the centre and the 54th on the left, but there had been much mixing of units as a result of the piecemeal way in which they had been withdrawn from the beach defences. That could not be avoided and it was impossible at that time to sort them out. On the right of the 18th British Division was the nth Indian Division astride the Serangoon road and south of Paya Lebar village. On its right the latter was in touch with the eastern defences of Southern Area which included the Kallang aerodrome.

There were still a number of small ships and sea-going craft lying in Singapore Harbour including some naval patrol vessels. On the morning of the thirteenth Rear-Admiral Spooner decided that it was no longer safe to keep these at Singapore and that they would be of more use for the general prosecution of the war at Java. Accordingly he decided to sail them all for Java that night and to go with them himself. There were in all about fifty of these little ships with accommodation for about 3,000 persons in addition to the crews. It was the last opportunity that could be foreseen for any organized parties to leave Singapore and vacancies were allotted to the Services and to the civil government at a conference held by the rear-admiral. The army was allotted 1,800 vacancies. This was no evacuation comparable to our evacuations from Dunkirk, Greece, Crete, or elsewhere. It was an attempt to get out from Singapore a number of highly trained men and women (staff officers now surplus to our requirements, technicians, business men, etc.), whose knowledge would be of value to the Allies for the further prosecution of the war. There was also the danger that the Japanese might forcibly exploit this knowledge if these people fell into their hands—a danger which subsequent events proved to be well founded. It was more than once suggested to me that arrangements should be made for the evacuation in the last resort of important personages and of as many others as the available transport could take. This I refused to countenance. Our job was to hold Singapore for as long as we could and not to evacuate it, and any suggestion that arrangements for evacuation were being made would have had a most disastrous effect. Moreover, nobody could say what the future held in store for us, and in my view the right place for an officer, and especially a senior officer, is with his men, unless of course he is ordered away, until it is quite certain that he can be of no further service to them. That may mean the ruin of a career and the end of personal ambitions, but one of the corner-stones in our military system is that an officer stands by his men, and that in the end will bring greater happiness.

I have previously referred to Pulau Bukum, the island which lies south-west of Blakang Mati and on which were held large oil fuel reserves by the Asiatic Petroleum Company. These reserves were the responsibility of the navy. Spooner was naturally anxious to dispose of them as our navy could no longer use them and they would be a valuable prize for the Japanese. On the other hand, all Singapore knew of their existence and took not a little pride in them. I feared that the sound of explosions and the sight of billowing black smoke rising from this island would have a most adverse moral effect both on troops and civilians and for that reason I had for some time opposed the destruction of these stocks. But now they were very exposed and the small garrison which was all that I could spare was inadequate to resist a Japanese attack. So I agreed with reluctance to the demolition which took place that afternoon. It was partially, but not entirely, successful.

At 2 p.m. I held a conference at Fort Canning. It was attended by senior commanders down to divisional commanders and by some of my principal staff officers. We discussed the future conduct of the operations and particularly the possibility of staging a counter-attack to relieve the pressure on the defences. All formation commanders were agreed that, owing to the exhaustion of the troops, a counter-attack would have no chance of success at that time. They stressed the fact that the continual day and night operations without possibility of relief were beginning to have their effect on the troops. We also felt that we could not disregard entirely the interests of the vast civil population. We knew too well the Japanese characteristics and what might happen if they broke through into the town. As a result of the views put forward I formed the opinion that the situation was undoubtedly grave but was not hopeless. I felt, however, that, as the situation might develop rapidly at any moment, I ought to have a freer hand to take such action as I thought right than had been given me up to that time. I therefore sent a telegram to the Supreme Commander giving him a picture of the situation as I saw it and asking if he would consider giving me wider discretionary powers. In his reply, while appreciating our situation, he stressed that continued action was essential in the wider interest of the war in the Far East and instructed me to continue to inflict the maximum damage on the enemy for as long as possible.

At the conference we also discussed the allotment of vacancies to formations for evacuation the following night. I decided firstly that all female members of the Military Nursing Service should be sent. This decision was made as a result of a report received from G.H.Q. on the treatment of nurses by the Japanese after the capitulation of Hong Kong. Then I decided that trained staff officers and technicians no longer required could be sent at the discretion of formation commanders. The reason for sending staff officers was that at that time there was a great shortage both in India and in Java where G.H.Q. was forming. Block allotments were made to formations, but it was not incumbent upon them to fill them if they did not wish to do so.

After the conference I went up to Government House to dis-cuss things with the Governor. I found a sentry on the door but the house empty. The sentry told me that a shell had penetrated into one of the shelters under the house and had killed ten or a dozen men; also that the Governor and Lady Thomas had moved to the Singapore Club. Lady Thomas, who later showed remark-able bravery and powers of endurance during the long period of captivity, was unfortunately at this time unwell and had had to take to her bed. As I looked over the town from the grounds of Government House I could hear shooting everywhere, and as I drove back to Fort Canning some shots were fired close to the car. Whether these shots were fired by Japanese infiltrators, or by fifth columnists, or whether they were only looters being shot I do not know. It was all a bit weird and uncanny.

Later in the evening I said good-bye to Pulford. I shall never forget that parting. We had become firm friends since we had been together. He offered to stay with me if I wished it, but I told him he ought to go as there was no more he could do at Singapore. I little knew that I was sending him to his death. He had been very keen on his job and was terribly disappointed at the way things had gone in Malaya. “I suppose you and I will be held responsible for this,” were his last words to me, “but God knows we did our best with what little we had been given.” He left Singapore with Spooner in a fast patrol boat but from the very first things went wrong. The intention had been to move by night and hide in creeks by day, but soon after leaving Singapore the boat ran aground and in getting her off one of the crew damaged his arm. There was no doctor on board so Spooner decided to go straight ahead. North of the Banka Straits they were chased by a Japanese destroyer and had to run their craft aground on a deserted island. The Japanese dismantled the patrol boat’s engines and left them there. Efforts to get the news to Java and efforts made by G.H.Q. in Java to find them all failed. There was little food on the island and one by one the party sickened and died. After three months the survivors of the party, some twenty odd, out of an original muster of over forty, were found and taken off by the Japanese. Among those who died on the island were both Spooner and Pulford—the latter, I think, from a broken heart as much as from anything else. And so passed a very gallant officer.

The experience of this party was typical of what befell the remainder of the flotilla of little ships. During the embarkation at Singapore there was much confusion as a result of enemy bombing and some of those detailed to leave never got on board. There were also some “gate-crashers”, as I suppose is to be expected in such circumstances. On the fourteenth the flotilla encountered the Japanese naval and air forces which were then assembling for the attack on Pelambang in southern Sumatra the following day. Many ships were sunk and some were run aground. Few reached their destination. The loss of life was appalling— and that among some of the best who had stood by Singapore to the last. It took months and years to trace the missing. Some of them probably never will be traced. It was a great tragedy.

The effect of the collapse of civil labour now began to make itself more and more felt. At the docks all civil labour had long since disappeared. In the town area debris from the bombing and shelling remained untouched, the dead remained unburied and water ran to waste from the mains from lack of labour to clear the demolished buildings. Practically all offices, business houses and shops were closed. There were few people on the streets and public services were practically at a standstill. One would see groups of Indians moving from area to area to avoid the shelling. The Chinese for the most part seemed to remain indoors or disperse to the outskirts of the town. All hospitals were working to capacity as there were a large number of casualties every day. They did a wonderful job of work. In the afternoon Japanese troops entered the great military hospital at Alexandra and there another tragedy took place. They claimed that Indian troops had fired from the hospital. Whether they did so or not I cannot say, As a reprisal the Japanese bayonetted some members of the staff and some of the patients, including one poor fellow as he lay on the operating table. Then about 150 of the staff and patients were marched out and incarcerated in a bungalow. There was only room to stand and there they spent the night. The next morning they were taken out and executed. There have been many horrors in this war but for cold-blooded barbarity that surely will rank very high.

It was early on 14 February that the water situation really became serious when the municipal water engineer reported to the Director-General of Civil Defence that he considered a complete failure of the water supply was imminent. At about 10 a.m. I held a conference at the municipal offices at which the chairman of the municipality was present in addition to the above two officials. I was informed that, owing to breaks in the water mains and pipes caused by bombing and shelling, a heavy loss of water was going on, though the two pumping stations at Woodleigh and Mackenzie Road were still working. The municipal water engineer estimated that the water supply would last for forty- eight hours at the outside and that it might only last for twenty- four hours. I promised additional Royal Engineer assistance, but that could not be provided till the afternoon as all available Royal Engineer personnel were at that time fighting as combatant troops.

From there I went to the Singapore Club where I met the Governor. He also was worried about the water situation and stressed the dangers which would result if Singapore with its large population was suddenly deprived of its water supply.

I felt that the water situation was undoubtedly serious but that it had not yet rendered the further defence of Singapore impossible. I still hoped that we could get the situation under control. A curious thing was that by the evening of that day the Japanese were really in a position to turn off the whole supply from the reservoirs if they had wished, and known how, to do so. Why they did not do so I do not know.

I reported the situation to the Supreme Commander who in his reply urged that resistance should be continued and added, “Your gallant stand is serving purpose and must be continued to limit of endurance.” A few words of encouragement in the situation in which we found Ourselves have a wonderful effect. Much more than exhortations to remember the deeds of one’s forefathers, which leave one a little cold.

During the day there had been much fighting along the whole front. The main Japanese thrusts were made in the Alexandra area on our left front and south of the MacRitchie Reservoir. In the former area heavy fighting went on throughout the day, in which the Malay Regiment and the Loyal Regiment specially distinguished themselves. The latter eventually found them-selves defending their own barracks. By the end of the day our troops had been driven back by the weight of the attack to the line Alexandra-Gillman Barracks-Keppel golf-course. The Alexandra ammunition magazine was temporarily out of action owing to fires started by enemy shelling. On the front of the 18th British Division the 1st Cambridgeshires continued to distinguish themselves by holding on to a position west of Adam Road where they had been for three days, but farther north a strong enemy attack supported by tanks late in the afternoon made a deep dent in our position almost as far as Mount Pleasant Road, one of the main residential areas of Singapore. Along the Braddell Road the enemy gained some ground, but on the Serangoon Road front a strong attack was stopped by the nth Indian Division when within a few hundred yards of the vital Woodleigh pumping station. The staff of this station stuck to its work manfully under close range small arms fire and continued pumping to the end. On the eastern front of Southern Area there were some local engagements between the xst Manchester Regiment, a machine-gun battalion withdrawn from the beaches, and enemy detachments. Our light anti-aircraft guns had some wonderful targets on this day as the Japanese aircraft, with no fighters to oppose them, were flying about at low altitudes. Several were brought down, but our reserves of Bofors ammunition were now getting short.

I spent the afternoon visiting the 18th and nth Divisions and then went back again to the municipal offices and on to see the Governor. At the municipal offices I conferred with the same officials as in the morning. The water engineer reported that the situation was very slightly better and I instructed the Director- General of Civil Defence to send me at 7 a.m. the following morning an accurate statement of the situation as it appeared at that time.

I went home feeling rather more hopeful. I thought that with any luck we might be able to master the water difficulty, while at the front, in spite of one or two danger spots, the enemy’s rate of advance was on the whole being slowed down.

At Fort Canning we had taken over one of the adjoining houses and here an improvised mess had been established. The Chinese servants as usual rose to the occasion and ran a wonderful show considering the difficulties and the numbers they had to cater for.

Sunday, 15 February—Black Sunday. The first event of the day was a Communion Service at Fort Canning, but then the bad news started to come in. The water report from the D.G.C.D. showed a serious deterioration. He summed up the situation by saying that he anticipated that the water supply would not last for more than another twenty-four hours. I told him to verify this and to come to a commanders’ conference which had been summoned for 9.30 a.m. Then I received a disturbing report on the administrative situation generally. The military food reserves under our control had been reduced to a few days, though there were still fairly large civil reserves. Deprived of the Alexandra ammunition magazine, where fires were still burning, the 25- pounder field-gun ammunition reserves were getting very short and the reserves of Bofors ammunition were almost exhausted. We had practically no petrol except what was in vehicle tanks.

That was the situation which I had to report when the conference assembled. The D.G.C.D. was asked to report on the water situation in more detail. He confirmed what he had said before and added that, if total failure took place, it would be some days before piped water could be obtained again. Ways and means of overcoming our various difficulties were discussed. None of them were really vital except the water problem. Heath stressed the danger of the water shortage as it affected the Indian troops, while the danger to the civil population was also taken into account. I felt that there was no use in remaining passively on the defensive as we were. There seemed to be only two possible alternatives, i.e. either to counter-attack to regain control of the reservoirs and of the military food depots and to drive back the enemy’s artillery with a view to reducing the damage to the water supply system, or to capitulate. I put these alternatives to the commanders. They were unanimously of the opinion that in the existing circumstances a counter-attack was impracticable. Some of them also doubted our ability to resist another determined attack and pointed out the consequences that might result to the crowded population in the town. It was in these circumstances that I decided to capitulate.

While this conference was taking place, Beckwith Smith, all communications having broken down, had arrived at head-quarters 3rd Indian Corps to report widespread infiltration on his front during the night and that he thought the situation very critical, as he no longer had any reserves with which to eject the enemy. On the left of our front also the Japanese had renewed their attacks and, in spite of some bitter fighting by the Loyals, had driven our troops back to the east end of the Alexandra depots area and of the Keppel golf-course area.
The only thing to cheer our gloom was a telegram received from the Supreme Commander that morning, from which the following is an extract:

So long as you are in a position to inflict losses and damage to enemy and your troops are physically capable of doing so you must fight on. Time gained and damage to enemy are of vital importance at this juncture. When you are fully satisfied that this is no longer possible I give you discretion to cease resistance. . . . Inform me of intentions. Whatever happens I thank you and all your troops for your gallant efforts of last few days.

I feel sure that my readers will not wish me to recount in any detail the painful events which took place during the remainder of that day. The meeting with the Japanese commander, Lt.- Gen. Yamashita, took place in the Ford factory near Bukit Timah village in the evening. There was not much chance of bargaining, but I did what I could to ensure the safety of both troops and civilians. In this connection it should be recorded that General Yamashita never allowed the main body of his troops to enter Singapore Town. He received more placidly than I had expected my statement that there were no ships or aeroplanes in the Singapore area and that the heavier types of weapons and some of the military equipment and all secret documents had already been destroyed under my orders.

Little did I think at that time that later in the war I should myself be present at General Yamashita’s capitulation—but so it was to be.

Hostilities finally ceased at 8.30 p.m. on 15 February 1942, British time.

The general line of our foremost positions then ran from right to left approximately as under:

The Kallang aerodrome (civil airport)—the junction of the Serangoon and Braddell roads—the junction of Braddell and Thomson roads—the Broadcasting Station—Adam road— Raffles College area—Tyersall area—Tanglin area—Mount Echo—the biscuit factory—the Alexandra ammunition magazine—Mount Washington—the eastern end of the Keppel golf links.

We also held Blakang Mati, Pulau Brani, Tekong, and the Pengerang area.

Japanese troops entered Singapore Town on the morning of 16 February; 175 medium and light tanks took part in a military demonstration.

After the cessation of hostilities it was five and a half days, with engineers and water parties working at full pressure, before water again reached the lower levels of Singapore Town which had been deprived of it. It was ten days before water again reached the General Hospital and many other buildings on the higher levels.

And so after seventy days of great and continuous effort, fighting and marching day and night with little or no rest, the army of Malaya passed into captivity.

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