Failure to stop Japanese Twenty-Fifth Army in Malaya did not mean they were undamaged by the campaign. Casualties among the infantry particularly had been considerable, though many of the tanks that had been put out of action had been repaired and returned to units by 8 February. The Japanese lines of communication had stretched beyond capacity despite use of captured vehicles. General Yamashita was forced to pause for a week in Johore to stockpile materials, get engineering equipment to the front and reorganise his units before making an attack.

His plans had to include a role for Guards Division. The division had not acquitted itself especially well in the campaign so far, and Yamashita’s main assault would be conducted by the 5th and 18th Divisions, but the prestige of the Guards Division and the influence of their commanding officer at home obliged Yamashita to put them into the fight, so he decided to use them in an assault on the eastern aspect of the battle as well as the west. The attack was not redundant in that it would help to prevent the Allies from reinforcing the defenders in the Western Area, where the main attack would be pressed, but it would also reduce the availability of landing craft and other resources to support the 5th and 18th Divisions. In total, Yamashita had a force of about 30,000 men. He was heavily outnumbered, short of food and ammunition, and was not absolutely confident about the attitude of the commander of the Guards Division, Major General Nishimura.

A Desperate Situation

At first glance, Percival appears to have been in a relatively strong position. A wide stretch of water lay between him and the enemy, quite a lot of the coast was covered with mangrove swamp which would be virtually impassable to tanks or transport, and each passing day was an opportunity to add to the pillboxes and gun positions around the island, as well as giving a little more time to rest and reorganise his forces. In reality, his position was already desperate. His force of thirty-eight infantry battalions, three machine-gun battalions and nine field artillery regiments was much less than the sum of its parts. Huge amounts of equipment were lost in the campaign – not just materiel destroyed in combat, but large quantities that had been abandoned due to premature blowing of bridges, failures of transport or that had been captured by rapid Japanese advances. One Japanese unit was already using captured British artillery pieces before the attack on Singapore took place.

Many units had lost heavily during the retreat, and although some manpower shortages could be made up by transferring administrative staff, drivers, cooks and others to the rifle companies, the competence of the unit as a whole was undermined. Percival was further hampered by a determined lack of co-operation on the part of Sir Shenton Thomas and conflicting instructions from Wavell and London. On the one hand he was expected to carry on the fight to the last bullet, on the other he was required to prevent the Japanese from acquiring any supplies and equipment if the island should fall. These two objectives were mutually incompatible. If he was going to fight he would need all the arms, ammunition, food and other materiel that he could muster.

He also made a number of poor policy decisions. He put far too much faith in the sparse chain of fortified positions around the coast. There was a failure to use all of the assets available, including eighteen light tanks. The vehicles were lightly armed, poorly armoured and positively obsolete, but if they had been moved around the island extensively before the Japanese landing they might possibly have boosted confidence. His plan was to attempt to defend the island from any angle but still retain a large reserve to repel the invasion. However, he had inadequate plans or transport to bring the reserve into battle quickly or effectively, and he was further impeded by a lack of wireless equipment, much of which had been lost on the mainland and extensive damage had been done to the military and civil telephone lines through Japanese bombing and shelling. He had very real intelligence about the enemy’s intentions and Japanese shelling forced the abandonment of all the airfields in the northern part of the island, though by the time the Japanese landed there were only ten Hurricanes and handful of Buffalo fighters still operational – hardly enough to deter bombing raids, let alone provide any support for the troops on the ground.

First Action

7 February

Japanese troops seize Pulau Ubin and land on Singapore Island.

8 February


Japanese troops land on Singapore Island in considerable numbers.


Japanese landing forces press inland to the village of Ama Keng.


Battle commences in the Sarimbun beach area between Japenese forces and 22nd Brigade.

The first action of the battle for Singapore took place on the night of 7/8 February, when Japanese troops landed on Pulau Ubin, an island about 5 miles long lying in the eastern channel of the Johore Strait. Curiously, although the neighbouring island of Pulau Tekong Besar was garrisoned by 2/17th Dogra Battalion to protect the two coastal batteries there (Sphinx battery with two 6in guns and Tekong Besar battery with three 9.2in guns), Pulau Ubin does not seem to have figured in the general defence plan for Singapore at all. It was unprotected other than by patrols from the 4th Norfolks, which were immediately withdrawn to Changi.

From dawn onward shelling and air attacks increased steadily, with several air strikes being mounted on the positions held by 22nd Australian Brigade in Western Area. By the early afternoon the Japanese artillery bombardments had become more focused on headquarter assets and virtually all communications within the brigade area had been thoroughly disrupted by dusk. Both Bennett and Percival formed the opinion that this was not an indication of an immediate attack, but rather the beginning of a prolonged bombardment that might last for some days before the Japanese attempted a landing. Neither were particularly concerned, believing that there would be opportunities to restore communications and repair defences. On account of this assumption, no special effort was made to disrupt Japanese preparations with artillery. This was not entirely irrational. Ammunition supplies were limited and would be required for infantry support once the battle was joined; furthermore, the lack of verifiable targets would mean that any artillery fire would be highly speculative and probably very wasteful.

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37. Restored 6in gun position at the excellent Siloso Fort Museum, Sentosa, Singapore. (Author’s collection)

Battle commenced in the Sarimbun beach area, when Australian troops of Brigadier Taylor’s 22nd Brigade fired on landing craft and requisitioned civilian boats carrying elements of the Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions sometime after 2200hrs on 8 February. By midnight it had become apparent that the Japanese were attempting to land in considerable strength all along a wide front from Tanjong Murai to Tanjong Buloh. The first wave of over 4,000 infantry landed safely with good artillery support and was able to make decent headway through the gaps between the Australian positions, exploiting many small inlets and river mouths. Brigadier Taylor had issued orders that searchlights were not to be used until such time as the enemy were clearly engaged in a major landing, for fear that the lights would be put out of action almost as soon as they started operating. However, a large proportion of the lights that were available had already been disabled by artillery and mortar fire from Johore and from the Sarimbun beachhead, which the Japanese had secured in the first hour or so of the battle. The few that had survived were never put to use due, among other reasons, to the fact that communications between the searchlight units and the different battalion headquarters had been destroyed during the preliminary bombardment and air strikes.

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Assault on Singapore.

Although fire plans had been made with a landing in mind, the disruption of signals made it impossible for the infantry battalions to call for the artillery support they required if the Japanese were to be slowed down let alone stopped on the beaches, but in fact the available support consisted of only three batteries (29th, 30th and 65th) and was not adequate to the task of delivering bombardments all along the brigade front, a distance of over 5 miles.

At different locations the landing forces suffered heavy casualties and in some places troops were only landed successfully after a fierce struggle, but the front was far too extensive to be held by a single brigade and the Japanese were able to secure the landing areas, infiltrate between the scattered posts along the coast and press inland toward the village of Ama Keng. This would develop a salient that would divide 22nd Brigade in two, with 2/18th Battalion and 2/20th Battalion to the north and 2/19th to the south. It would also threaten the position of the brigade headquarters, just a few hundred yards to the south of Ama Keng, and the position of 29th Battery only a further half mile south.

The Japanese made incredibly quick headway and caused a great deal of confusion, which was amplified by the absence of reliable communications within 22nd Brigade. A little before midnight, Brigadier Taylor was able to make some sense of the tactical picture and communicated his view to General Bennett’s headquarters. His brigade reserve had been committed to the fight and he was convinced that the situation could only be retrieved by a major counter-attack at dawn. To this end, Bennett gave him command of another battalion (2/29th Australian), ordered fire on the Skudai estuary in Johore (which had been identified as a major route for Japanese reinforcements) and asked Percival’s headquarters for all the air support that could be mustered. However, by this stage the RAF’s offensive capacity had been reduced to a mere fourteen aircraft (four Fairey Swordfish and ten Hurricanes) still based on the island.

Bennett had formed a ‘Special Reserve battalion’ of over 400 men from Royal Army Service Corps personnel and others and at 0300hrs he put them and elements of 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion under Taylor’s command. The reserve battalion had been formed over the previous week and had had little time for training or to develop the cohesion that is vital for effective infantry units, but in any case, the forces now at Taylor’s disposal were completely inadequate to the task of mounting a major counter-attack over a front of some miles. Although Taylor’s tactical instinct was probably correct – that an immediate counter-attack would have been the preferable course of action – it was not a realistic proposition under the circumstances. Several units and sub-units of his brigade were at risk of being surrounded, and he did not have sufficient strength to secure their positions.

A Force Divided

9 February


22nd Brigade forced to retreat to the point of not being able to present a united opposition.


All three battalions ordered to retire to pre-planned fall-back positions.


Reinforcements arrive for 22nd Brigade.


2/18th Battalion attacked at Ama Keng.


2/18th Battalion forced back to RAF Tengah.


Firing ceases; first elements of 4th Regiment of the Japanese Guards Division land.

In a matter of a few hours the Japanese managed to sever communications between 22nd and 27th Australian Brigades. 22nd Brigade was forced to retreat and by 0100hrs on 9 February they were unable to present a united opposition to the Japanese advance, now supported by a second wave of troops landing in the north-west. Elements of 22nd Brigade became isolated and were forced to surrender despite Taylor committing such reserves as he had to hand. Fighting was fierce everywhere along the front. Casualties and prisoners reduced Australian 2/18th Battalion to below half numbers. By 0300hrs each of the three battalion commanders had given orders for their units to retire to pre-planned fall-back positions. The actions through the night of 9 February rather encapsulate the story of the whole Malayan campaign: a pattern of Japanese forces infiltrating between Allied units and making daring attacks, obliging Allied units to retire to another position, which in turn forces neighbouring units to conform to a new ‘line’ and supporting units to withdraw in order to make space for new arrivals. During the campaign on the mainland, repeated withdrawals had had the apparent value of allowing units to regroup and sometimes gain a little time to prepare new positions while the Japanese reorganised for a further advance. Now that the battle had been carried on to Singapore itself there was simply no physical space for manoeuvres of that ilk.

Although elements of 2/18th Battalion managed to make their way to their new position at Ama Keng, they were attacked again a short while after sunrise (about 0715hrs). Despite hard fighting and a counter-attack in conjunction with the engineers of 2/10th Field Company, the battalion could not hold their position and by 0930hrs had been forced back to the airfield of RAF Tengah. Meanwhile, most of 2/19th Battalion had become seriously disrupted by near-continual combat through the night. Many of the troops had become detached from the battalion and were turning up as far back as the 8th Division headquarters area at Bukit Timah, some 3 miles or more east of Tengah. The remaining battalion of Taylor’s 22nd Brigade, 2/20th, had been heavily engaged by overwhelming numbers all along its front and had been forced to retire from its positions in the Namazhe estate and then separated from the remainder of the brigade by Japanese troops moving inland along the line of the Sungei Sarimbun. Shortly after dawn, the battalion attempted to rejoin the brigade by moving south toward Ama Keng only to find that their path was blocked by strong Japanese forces. The battalion was now broken up into small parties, some of which moved east to cross Sungei Kranji then headed south. Some elements were able to make their way to the brigade headquarters, now at Bulim, but all of the battalions had sustained heavy losses through a mixture of combat and disruption, and the brigade was no longer an effective force.

Although Bennett had authorised reinforcements for Taylor’s command, the battalion allocated, 2/29th, had not been in a position to move immediately to his aid. Some of the battalion were in a position on the Woodlands Road about halfway between Mandai and Bukit Timah; a considerable portion was engaged in training elsewhere. It took some time to concentrate the battalion and consequently they did not arrive at Tengah until about an hour before dawn on 9 February. Taylor now had three units from outside his own brigade under his command: the Jind Battalion from 44th Indian Brigade, 2/29th from 27th Australian Brigade and the Special Reserve Battalion that Bennett had assembled over the previous week. He deployed the Jinds and 2/29th on a line running from just north of Tengah to the north of Sungei Berih, where one company of 2/19th Battalion was still in position at the village of Choa Chu Kang. Taylor clearly intended to reorganise his own battalions behind these units, but was given the additional task of mounting a counter-attack by 2/29th, with the intention of pushing the enemy back beyond Ama Keng. The proposition that one infantry battalion would be able to throw back the scale of force that had already put an entire brigade out of the battle was clearly unsustainable, but was not put to the test. By mid-morning, well before the time set for the proposed attack, Taylor’s position was threatened by Japanese units that had moved east and then south to compromise his right flank.

Brigadier Paris’ 12th Indian Brigade were brought in to reinforce the Australians, but communications with 8th Division headquarters at Bukit Timah were now non-existent and Taylor had no means of ascertaining General Bennett’s intentions or the condition of neighbouring formations. Thus he and Paris agreed that 12th Brigade should deploy between Bulim and Keat Hong at the northern end of the Jurong Line – a series of half-prepared positions running north from the head of Sungei Jurong. Aware that 22nd Brigade could now be in danger of being cut off either by direct attacks on its own positions around Bulim and Tengah, or if the Japanese were able to dislodge 12th Brigade, Taylor decided to rationalise his line by adopting a position running south from Bulim to the Jurong Road, thus conforming to the Jurong Line. By the time the move was initiated, the Japanese, like the Australians, had been in near-continuous action for more than fifteen hours and were now tired and short of ammunition, and the nature of their attack – infiltrating between the Australian positions – meant that several of their battalions had become scattered and disorganised. Although Taylor’s troops were subjected to several air strikes and some artillery fire, they were able to take up their new positions largely unimpeded and some progress could be made toward regrouping the battalions. Although his actions were unauthorised – and he received a stern warning from Bennett accordingly – Taylor had had little choice but to retire if his brigade was not to be destroyed, but his withdrawal was completely contrary to the orders received from his senior officer and to the general principles on which the battle was supposed to be fought. The only hope for success was to fight a battle of attrition that would inflict so many casualties on the Japanese that they would be forced to withdraw, regroup and make a new attempt. With hindsight it is easy to conclude that the battle for Singapore had already been lost some time before, but Taylor’s decisions ceded ground to the Japanese at no cost at all – and not only within his own sector of responsibility. The neighbouring formation, 44th Indian Brigade under Brigadier Ballentine, would be in danger of becoming isolated if it was not re-deployed to take account of Taylor’s movements.

When General Percival visited Bennett’s headquarters on the afternoon of the 9th they had given some thought to the possibility that 44th Brigade might be concentrated – the troops were dispersed in defensive positions from Jurong to Pasir Laba – and make an attack on the southern flank of the Japanese forces engaged with 22nd Brigade. The idea had been abandoned almost as soon as it was suggested, though it is hard to see why. The positions occupied by 44th Brigade were clearly going to have to be abandoned unless the Japanese could be repelled and there could hardly be a better opportunity. The Japanese were tired, scattered and disorganised from hard fighting; even if the attack made little progress it would allow a bit of breathing space for 22nd Brigade, and 44th Brigade would be able to attack the enemy when they did not have the benefit of armoured support. However, instead of making a bold move that might have a positive outcome, Ballentine was ordered to move his brigade eastward to take up positions on the southern end of the Jurong with 22nd Brigade; 12th Brigade held the northern portion and 15th Brigade was in reserve to their rear, screening the crucial supply dumps around Bukit Timah.

The rapid progress of the Japanese against 22nd Brigade had consequences elsewhere. Of the three battalions of the Australian 27th Brigade (Brigadier Maxwell), one (2/29th) was assigned to support 22nd Brigade, but by dusk the left flank of the remaining battalions (2/26th and 2/30th, deployed around Kranji and the causeway respectively) was under threat. Maxwell wanted to move 2/26th to prevent the Japanese from crossing the Sungei Kranji, but instead was given permission to use two companies to guard the Sungei Peng Siang, a tributary to the Kranji. One of these was the reserve company of the 2/26th, but the other was to be a more ad hoc body drawn from the other companies in the battalion, thus weakening each of them. Throughout the day, the brigade area had been subjected to increasingly heavy artillery fire and air strikes, which, though they inflicted relatively light casualties, damaged or destroyed a good deal of transport and, more importantly, damaged defences and thoroughly disrupted brigade communications. Firing ceased about an hour after dusk, sometime around 2200hrs, as the first elements of the 4th Regiment of the Japanese Guards Division landed.

A Stout Defence

10 February

2/28th and 2/30th Battalions withdraw inland toward Mandai in the early hours.

Tank unit attached to the Japanese Guards Regiment lands in Kranji and deployed on Woodlands Road.

Commonwealth forces lose the Jurong Line.

Wavell visits Singapore for the final time and orders a counter-attack to retake the Jurong Line.

The Japanese regroup most of 5th Division around Tengah Airfield and 18th Division on the Jurong Road.

This time the Japanese did not make the kind of progress to which they had become accustomed through most of the campaign. Several of the assault craft became separated from the main body and a number were sunk. Well-handled machine-gun and mortar fire inflicted considerable casualties on the run-in to the shore, where the attackers then encountered burning oil and petrol that had been prepared for in advance. Although losses had been heavy and the hold on the shore was not extensive, the Guards initially struggled to hang on in the face of a stout Australian defence, but as reinforcements arrived they were able to gain the initiative and after some heavy fighting were able to force 2/26th to a position about a quarter of a mile from the shoreline. This allowed for one of the few genuinely successful attempts at denying the Japanese the material prizes of Singapore to be carried out. Through the night an Australian engineering officer charged with destroying the large supplies in the Woodlands fuel tank area found himself without the necessary explosives, so he simply opened the taps and let the contents flow freely into the strait. Whether by accident or design, the fuel was ignited by small arms fire and as the tide pushed it into the streams and swamps around Kranji the burning fuel caused extensive casualties among Japanese troops.

Maxwell knew that 22nd Brigade had been roughly handled by the Japanese and was concerned that his own brigade would now become isolated. Major Oakes, who had been given command of both 2/28th and 2/30th Battalions to hold back the Japanese and to ensure the destruction of the Woodlands fuel tanks, concluded that his men were now in danger of being overrun and started to withdraw inland, away from the Kranji area and toward Mandai in the early hours of 10 February. This naturally ceded the shoreline to the west of the causeway and passed the tactical initiative to the Japanese at a critical juncture.

Impressed by the tenacity of the Australians, the commander of the Guards Division, General Nishimura, had asked permission from General Yamashita’s headquarters to withdraw his men and make a new landing the following day further to the west. As soon as it became apparent that the Australians were withdrawing, any such plan was abandoned in favour of pursuing the original objectives. Instead of having to either mount a supporting attack to relieve the Guards detachments to the west of the causeway or even withdraw them from their small beachhead, Yamashita could now expand his position on the northern shore of Singapore. Tactically, this restricted the freedom of action of Bennett’s command and threatened the left flank of Heath’s III Corps in the Eastern Area.

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Operations of 10 February 1942.

It also gave Yamashita the opportunity to exploit one of his most important assets. The tank unit attached to the Guards Division was now floated across the Johore Strait, landed in the Kranji area and deployed on to the Woodlands Road. The Guards Division could have seized the moment and made a thrust toward Singapore city, but failed to do so; however, the Allied situation was now positively perilous. Bennett’s Jurong Line had been compromised on its northern flank and the Australian division was now separated from 11th Indian Division in the naval base area. 11th Division headquarters were not made aware of the situation until about an hour before dawn. Realising that there was now a space of more than 2 miles between his own troops and the Australians that was completely unguarded against the Japanese, the divisional commander, General Key, contacted Western Area Command to ask that the situation be stabilised, only to be told that there were no units to be spared. This was the simple truth; all of the units in Western Area had suffered considerable losses, were already engaged, were too far away or, in the case of 15th Brigade, were required to provide support for units in contact with the enemy. Key decided that the only hope of restoring the situation was to secure the high ground overlooking the strait, and thus ordered 8th Indian Brigade to make a counter-attack to the north and west, and asked Brigadier Maxwell to ensure that Mandai village was occupied in order to protect the flank of 8th Brigade as they moved forward.


Throughout the 10th some semblance of order was achieved across the front, which now extended from the high ground to the east of Sungei Mandai, where 8th Indian Brigade had made some progress at heavy cost to Mandai village. Here 27th Brigade held positions overlooking the Woodlands Road, while 8th Indian Brigade progressed to a point between Bulim and Keat Hong, then south to the headwaters of the Sungei Jurong. In just two days of fighting, the Japanese had already taken about one-third of Singapore Island, and now the situation took a marked turn for the worse. The nearest thing to a natural defensive line between the Japanese Army and Singapore city was the Jurong Line, which ran along a really rather minor ridge between the sources of the Kranji and Jurong rivers. The positions were not especially strong, but they were a good deal better than nothing and – in some areas at least – gave the Allied troops reasonable fields of fire for machine guns and anti-tank guns. Additionally, the line was relatively short and strongly manned by 22nd Brigade, 44th Brigade and 12th Brigade.

Concerned that the Japanese would be able to seize the supply dumps around Bukit Timah and the reservoirs, and deprive his command of food, ammunition and water, Percival had drawn up a plan for a strong defensive inner perimeter with zones and tasks allotted to specified formations. Brigadier Maxwell received the instructions and then totally misunderstood them. Rather than seeing them as instructions for a planned withdrawal to the new line at the last possible moment, he and his staff construed Percival’s orders as instructions to retire at the earliest opportunity. Consequently, Maxwell set out to examine the new positions with a view to allotting roles to the units under his command. En route he visited General Bennett’s headquarters to inform his commander of his progress only to be told – in no uncertain terms – that he had utterly misread the situation. Bennett was furious with his subordinate, but, incomprehensibly, did nothing at all to remedy the situation.

By withdrawing his brigade, Maxwell had thoroughly compromised the Jurong Line. Brigadier Paris’ 12th Indian Brigade, severely weakened from action during the retreat to Singapore, now came under sustained pressure from the Japanese. Unable to establish contact with the Australian 27th Brigade on his right flank or with Western Area headquarters, and concerned that a Japanese advance to Bukit Timah would isolate his brigade, Paris decided to pull back to Bukit Panjang village.

Paris’ actions were unavoidable if his units, now including elements of the Australian 2/29th Battalion, were not to be cut off, but his withdrawal left two other brigades, 44th and 15th, vulnerable to attacks on their flanks. By early afternoon a mixture of heavy fire from the Japanese and an unfounded report that a neighbouring British battalion had withdrawn caused various elements of 44th Brigade to make an unauthorised retreat that Brigadier Ballentine was able to bring to a halt, but only at the cost of concentrating his men at Pasir Panjang. At this point he was able to make contact with Southern Area headquarters and was told to take his brigade to a location at the Ulu Pandan, about 1 mile south of Bukit Timah.

The entire Jurong Line plan was now utterly redundant. To the south, 1st Malaya Brigade (Brigadier Williams) was now exposed on its northern flank and was obliged to retire to Pasir Panjang on the south coast, and in the Northern Area, Brigadier Coates’ 15th Brigade was forced to retire to a new position on the Jurong Road, where they were joined by the Australian Special Reserve Battalion. Although the Jurong Line was far from being a thoroughly prepared position, it had been reconnoitred, some fire plans had been made and some defences erected. It was certainly the only feasible defensive line to the west of Singapore city, but it had been effectively abandoned by about 1800hrs on 10 February. After less than two days of fighting, nearly one-third of Singapore Island was in Japanese hands and several of Percival’s brigades – 12th, 15th and 44th Indian and 22nd and 27th Australian – had suffered substantial casualties and were close to exhaustion.

The fighting had taken its toll on the Japanese as well, but they were now firmly established on the island. The nature of the terrain and the infiltration tactics employed had resulted in several units becoming quite scattered, but by the evening of the 10th the Japanese had been able to regroup most of 5th Division and some tanks around Tengah Airfield. At the same time, 18th Division concentrated on the Jurong Road about 3 miles west of Bukit Timah and both formations were ready to renew the fight.

On the afternoon of 10 February, Wavell, making his final visit to Singapore, met Bennett at Western Area headquarters and was informed that the Jurong Line had been taken; though to a great extent it had really been abandoned. Wavell ordered Bennett to mount a counter-attack to recover the Jurong positions at the earliest opportunity. If successful, it would provide a focus for the defence of the rest of the island and a barrier behind which the infantry units could be regrouped, replenished and rotated, and where artillery batteries could be sited. Without the Jurong Line there was no realistic prospect of halting the Japanese and a plan of sorts was formulated in which 22nd Brigade to the south, 15th Brigade in the centre and 12th Brigade to the north, with the support of two regiments of field artillery and with 44th Brigade in reserve, would regain the Jurong Line. The first step of the attack would take place before 1800hrs that day. The problem with the scheme was that none of the formations involved were fit for an advance at all. By chance – and nothing more – they happened to be in relatively convenient locations for the tasks allotted, but losses in men, transport and communications, exhaustion and local shortages of ammunition and water meant that there was no realistic prospect of mounting a successful attack without bringing large numbers of fresh troops into the battle. Additionally, the plan gave precious little thought to the practical difficulties of moving a large proportion of the attacking force through the night and seemingly no consideration at all to what actions the Japanese might have in mind.

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38. Forest and mountain terrain in eastern Malaya. (Author’s collection)

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39. A jungle creek. Although few Japanese soldiers had received any jungle-warfare training, they proved adept at infiltrating Allied positions by following small streams like this one in western Singapore. (Author’s collection)

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40. Gen. Wavell in Singapore inspecting coastal guns, November 1941.


11 February


Japanese troops secure Bukit Timah junction.


18th Division advance toward Bukit Timah.


15th Brigade ordered to counter-attack and break contact with the enemy by going cross country toward 22nd Brigade.


Bennett’s counter-attack to retake Bukit Timah abandoned.

Around 0300hrs on 11 February elements of 18th Division, with a modest amount of armoured support, advanced from the Tengah area toward Bukit Timah along the Jurong Road.

Around 0530hrs Brigadier Coates, aware that 15th Brigade was in danger of being completely surrounded and overwhelmed, gave orders to cancel the counter-attack and to break contact with the enemy. This was easier said than done. Japanese advances meant that much of the Jurong Road was now impassable and Coates ordered his remaining units to strike out cross-country toward the positions of 22nd Brigade.

To the north, troops from 5th Division, with a strong armoured element, had advanced from their concentration area and despite a strong stand by 2/29th, were able to reach Bukit Panjang village and then turn south toward Bukit Timah. At about 2230hrs they encountered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who put up a fierce fight but could not hope to stop a column of fifty or so tanks. By midnight Japanese troops had secured the Bukit Timah junction, cutting communications to 15th Brigade, but did not press on into Singapore city, though there was really precious little to stop them.

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Operations of 11 February 1942.

By this time several units had simply been destroyed and others so badly damaged that they were increasingly being formed into ad hoc units. Breakdown of discipline was also becoming a problem, with considerable numbers of personnel – chiefly British and Australian – roaming around in search of loot or any means of escape.

Now that Bukit Timah was in Japanese hands, they were well positioned to advance westward through the central part of the island toward the Pierce and MacRitchie reservoirs. The defenders had already lost the bulk of their stores when the Bukit Timah supply dumps were overrun, now their very limited water supplies would be under threat as well. Early on the 11th, Bennett had ordered another counter-attack to retake Bukit Timah, but by 1300hrs this attempt had been abandoned as impractical since by this time a large proportion of both 5th and 18th Divisions – with a large number of tanks – had occupied the area. There was intensive fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, but the Japanese were not to be budged.

To the north, in the causeway area, the Japanese Guards Division made rather slower progress than 5th and 18th Divisions in the south and west, but had advanced along the line of the Sungei Mandai toward Mandai Ridge, threatening the southern flank of 8th Brigade and putting pressure on the left flank of 27th Brigade.

The battle was clearly going very badly for the Allies, but Yamashita was faced with serious problems of his own. Ostensibly his tanks had stopped at Bukit Timah because they had reached their objective, but Japanese units had repeatedly exceeded objectives during the peninsula campaign. Although Yamashita had paused for a week in Johore before making his attack, the efforts of the preceding weeks had exhausted his troops and his supplies. To some extent the rations situation could be eased by seizing food from shops and homes, but that was hardly a reliable approach to feeding his army. Other shortages, and especially of tank and small arms ammunition, could only be addressed by bringing materiel to the front (though there was no great stock anywhere in the peninsula) or by bringing the battle to a conclusion. Even so, it was clear from the Allied perspective that the battle could not continue very much longer. Yamashita saw the situation in the same terms and he now called on Percival to give up the fight. Percival forwarded the message to Wavell, saying that although he had no way of communicating with the Japanese commander, he had no intention of surrendering at this juncture. All the same, he issued orders to destroy military installation and materiel to prevent it falling to the enemy. Under the circumstances, this was a perfectly sensible approach, but it further undermined morale among the troops and the civilian population. Denying materiel to the enemy was a clear indication that surrender would be offered in the very near future, so what was the value of continuing the fight at all?

Last Stand

12 February


8th Brigade come under attack by Japanese.

13 February


Perimeter formed by the Allies, but very congested area.


Combat continues throughout the day.


Percival calls a conference at his headquarters to discuss battle prospects.

14 February


1st Malaya Brigade attacked.


1st Malaya Brigade forced back to the Brickworks.

15 February


Percival calls a conference at his headquarters.


Percival sends deputation to make contact with the Japanese to arrange terms of surrender.


Percival signs the capitulation document.

At about 0800hrs on 12 February, 8th Brigade came under attack and for a while the Japanese were close to breaking through toward Nee Soon village and the Sembawang Airfield, only 2 miles from the naval base. The situation was eventually restored by a spirited counter-attack by 2/9th Ghurkhas from the 28th Brigade. Even so, the situation was critical here as well as in the Western Areas and Percival now decided it was time to withdraw all forces from the Northern and Eastern Areas and to form a defensive perimeter around the city. He envisaged a roughly hemispherical, nearly 30-mile long line that would stretch from Pasir Panjang in the west to the race course, then east to Thompson village and Bidadari, then south to Geylang and finally south-west to the coast at the Singapore Swimming Club.

At noon, 11th and 18th Divisions began to move to their allotted positions, which was achieved with little interference from the enemy other than an attack from Japanese tanks at the Nee Soon/Mandai Road junction. Elsewhere, 22nd Brigade – now under the command of Brigadier Varley – had repelled several attacks but was clearly at risk of becoming isolated and withdrew successfully to their perimeter position, which forced 44th Brigade and 1st Malaya Brigade to adjust their own positions or leave their flanks ‘in the air’.

By early morning on the 13th the perimeter had been formed, but the area it described was now dreadfully congested. A steady tide of refugees had increased the population of Singapore city to about 1 million people and the concentration of service personnel and materiel within the perimeter was so great that there was hardly a space that did not constitute a legitimate military target for Japanese artillery and aircraft.

Combat continued throughout the day, including a determined action at Bukit Chandu on Pasir Panjang Ridge in which Lieutenant Adnan Bin Saidi won a posthumous Military Cross for his gallant efforts; however, the Japanese made modest but significant advances in several sectors, forcing the retreat of 44th Indian and 1st Malaya Brigades that night. At a 1030hrs meeting with Sir Shenton Thomas, the colonial governor, Percival made it clear that he still intended to carry on the fight, but the defensive perimeter was already under threat.

At 1430hrs on the 13th Percival called his subordinates to a conference at his headquarters at Fort Canning to discuss the prospects of the battle. Food supplies were now down to about seven days’ worth, but there were still reasonable amounts of ammunition available, though the anti-aircraft batteries were running rather low. None of those present expressed any confidence that a counter-attack was a feasible proposition. Many of the front-line units were exhausted and a number had received little training and – especially 18th Division – no opportunity to adjust to the climate since they had arrived so recently. Although Bennett and Heath were in favour of surrendering, Percival maintained that the situation ‘… though undoubtedly grave, was not hopeless’, and decided to continue the battle. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see what hope Percival thought there might be. The Japanese were on the island in great strength with plenty of tanks, they had total air and sea superiority, their morale was high and they held the tactical initiative in every sector of the front. Percival was well aware that there was no relief force en route to Singapore, and there was no realistic possibility of holding out beyond a couple of days at most. Even if the arrival of a powerful relief force had been imminent, the power of the Japanese at sea and in the air would almost certainly have prevented it being disembarked and brought into action.

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Singapore town.

At 0830hrs on the 14th, 1st Malaya Brigade had come under attack and, though this was repelled, by 1600hrs they had been forced back to the Brickworks only a mile or so west of Mount Faber, which overlooked the western edge of the city. Although there were Australian artillery units in the area which could have provided support, General Bennett had given strict orders that Australian guns were only to fire in support of Australian troops due to the growing ammunition shortage. Clearly this was not going to be of any help if the battle as a whole was lost so it is difficult to see what Bennett could hope to achieve by conserving ammunition.


Although he was inclined to continue the fight, Percival realised that the end was in sight and that there was a limit to the value of further resistance, so he sent a signal to Wavell outlining the situation and asking for permission to seek terms when conditions deteriorated. Wavell’s reply was far from helpful:

You must continue to inflict maximum damage on the enemy for as long as possible by house-to-house fighting if necessary. Your action in tying down enemy and inflicting casualties may have vital influence in other theatres. Fully appreciate your situation but continued action essential.

Major General Woodburn Kirby, The War Against Japan,

HMSO, 1957

Clearly Wavell did not ‘fully appreciate’ the situation at all. Had he done, he would have understood that the campaign was over; that Percival’s troops could achieve nothing by fighting on and that the plight of the civilian population was becoming desperate. Furthermore, fighting to the bitter end would have no appreciable effect on the Japanese in other theatres. Hong Kong had already fallen, the Japanese were making good progress in Burma and the Philippines and the war in China would not be greatly affected bytransferring the relatively small numbers of troops in the Twenty-Fifth Army.

At 0930hrs on the 15th, Percival held another conference with his senior commanders, the Director General of Civil Defence and the Inspector General of Police. He was informed that shelling and bombing had caused extensive damage to the reservoirs and the distribution system, and that water supplies would last for forty-eight hours at best, and more likely only half that. Percival now accepted that there was no value to maintaining a defence since the Japanese were clearly capable of breaking his line at any point and decided that the only options were an immediate counter-attack or to surrender. His commanders’ opinions on a counter-attack had not changed since the previous meeting. Although there were still ample quantities of small arms ammunition, there was little for the field artillery, almost none for the anti-aircraft batteries and a shortage of mortar bombs for the infantry battalions. Additionally, the stamina and the morale of the combat troops was causing concern, as was the now widespread failure of discipline among other personnel. Percival could have chosen to follow Wavell’s orders and pressed his commanders to fight for every street and house. This would unquestionably have led to massive casualties among the residents as well as the combatants, but close combat of that nature tends to benefit the defenders, who have to be driven out of their positions by artillery and costly close attacks. It also demands the expenditure of very large amounts of ordnance, and Yamashita felt that he had neither the men nor the ammunition to conduct such a battle. He described his situation thus:

My Attack on Singapore was a bluff – a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered three to one. I knew that if I had to fight for long for Singapore I would be beaten. That is why the surrender had to be at once. I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.

P. Elphick, Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress, London, 1985

In this respect Yamashita’s analysis of the situation was cautious or even pessimistic. The ground force available to the Allied commander was unquestionably much greater than the Twenty-Fifth Army in number, but most of the troops had been engaged in a long retreat that had caused the loss of a great deal of their equipment and, perhaps more significantly, of any confidence that they were capable of defeating the Japanese on the battlefield. Allied troops could be fairly certain that any aircraft overhead were likely to belong to the enemy and could be utterly confident that if they heard tanks in the distance, they would be hostile ones. Moreover, if Yamashita’s ammunition supply was limited, Percival’s was not really much better. The shells, grenades and bullets may have existed, but there was no means of getting them to where they needed to be.

Percival was also obliged to consider the civilian population. Regardless of Churchill’s cable to Wavell urging him to reject any thought of sparing the civilians, the practical reality was that there was something in the region of a million people concentrated in just a few square miles. If Yamashita was to adopt a policy of shelling and bombing the Allies into surrender the death toll would be horrendous. Percival had no reason to assume that the Japanese were so short of ammunition that this would not be a viable proposition. Even if Yamashita did not choose a policy of bombardment, Percival was all too aware that with the major reservoirs either captured or damaged, there would soon be a drastic shortage of water.

With Percival’s own troops short on supplies of all kinds, increasing evidence of a breakdown in discipline and with no prospect of relief, Churchill and Wavell’s instructions to fight on to the very last were utterly unrealistic. Although there was a still a huge reservoir of men on hand, there was no means of organising them into anything like a viable force. Many had lost or abandoned their rifles; quite a large number of air force and navy personnel had never been issued with a weapon in the first place and many had had little weapons training, let alone tactical training of any kind. Large numbers of men from infantry battalions had become detached from their units – some quite deliberately in the hope of escaping by ship or simply to take cover until the fighting came to an end. Men from the other branches of service had come to the same idea, but even those who had remained with their units were at a loss. A great many of the artillery units had lost some or all of their guns during the retreat and those which had kept their guns had little or nothing in the way of ammunition.

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41. The Japanese victory parade in Fullerton Square, Singapore, 17 February 1942.

With the decision to surrender accepted by all of his senior staff, Percival started the process of capitulation. At about 1130hrs he sent a deputation consisting of a staff officer, an interpreter and the colonial secretary to make contact with the Japanese to arrange terms. They came back with instructions that Percival should make his way to meet Yamashita at the Singapore Ford Factory at Bukit Timah and that the flag of Japan should be raised on the Cathay building, the tallest edifice in the city, to show that the battle was over. Yamashita was not interested in discussing terms; he wanted an immediate and unconditional surrender. The discussions lasted less than an hour and at 1810hrs Percival signed the capitulation document.


What is now called the ‘Old Ford Motor Factory’, but in the past was known simply as ‘The Ford Factory’, was the first Ford assembly plant in Asia. Completed just a few months before the Japanese invasion, it was the scene of Percival’s surrender to Yamashita. During the occupation it was used by Nissan for the assembly of vehicles for the occupation forces. Ford continued to use the building from 1947 to 1980 and since 2006 it has been a museum and archive storage facility for the National Archives of Singapore.

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