We start with a examination of the British commanders, which finds fault with just about all of them, in most cases with good reason. The British, Indian and Australian forces posted in Malaya and Singapore emerge as a mixed bag, with some well organised and trained units and others rather less impressive. In contrast all but one of the Japanese commanders emerge as capable, although most were also later convicted of war crimes, including some committed against the Chinese population of Singapore. The Japanese army was smaller than its opponent, better equipped with armour, but generally outgunned. However its main advantage was experience and high morale.
Neither sides plans for the campaign actually look very good when examined in detail. The British were disorganised, their forces isolated, and a large part of the plan based on the idea that it simply wasn’t possible for the Japanese to advance the 400 miles from Thailand to Singapore. On the Japanese side the plan was dangerously over-ambitious, and would have run into serious problems if the British defence had been more efficient, or more determined. In Malaya and Singapore the Japanese got away with an inflexible, overambitious plan based on an assumption of superiority over their opponents, and achieved a stunning triumph. Later in the war the same sort of planning would lead to ever more costly defeats, on land and at sea.
Once the campaign begins it is a constant story of Japanese successes and British failures. At sea the loss of Force Z knocked the Royal Navy out early. In the air the RAF was bold and determined, but also outnumbered and outclassed, and was rarely a major factor. On the ground the story is one of bold Japanese attacks against larger, but poorly located or poorly trained or poorly led British Empire forces, each of which quickly ended with the larger force having to retreat. Their only failure was that most of the British force was able to retreat onto Singapore Island.
Once we reach Singapore Island the British were faced with the problem of how to defend a long coastline against an enemy who can chose when to attack. Percival is often criticized for his defensive plans, but in his defence hardly anyone successfully solved that problem – the vast majority of amphibious assaults of the Second World War ended with victory for the attackers. The Japanese chose to attack at the western end of the straits, and for once had a numerical advantage over the defenders. Once they were securing on the island, any chance of fighting them off was gone.
This is a good clear account of this pivotal campaign, as always well supported by good maps and wide range of illustration. This book leaves you with no doubt that the British could and should have done a better job in Malaya and when the Japanese first attacked Singapore Island. How long they would have been able to hold out after that, with the Japanese rampant all across south-east Asia, is harder to tell.
The Battlefield Today
Author: Mark Stille