Operation Q

This was the British plan to destroy the naval base at Singapore and thus prevent its use by the Japanese after their seizure of the Malayan peninsula following the success of their ‘E’ (ii) landing in the north-eastern part of Malaya (February 1942).

Singapore was not, and indeed had never been designed to be, a fortress with any capability to withstand a major siege by any expeditionary force, but was rather a naval base for the replenishment of a battle fleet and for the implementation of all but the most crippling repairs to damaged ships. The naval base was therefore a complex of oil storage tanks, workshops, heavy equipment and a dry dock capable of taking any warship up to the size of a battleship. Despite some assertions to the contrary, the island of Singapore and the city of the same name were sited very poorly, indeed wrongly, to be a fortress area to be defended against short-range assault. Quite apart from its poor siting to resist physical attack, Singapore possessed none of the psychological factors which would have allowed it to withstand a siege: its population was a completely disparate mix of Malays, Indians and Chinese speaking an assortment of languages and with affinity to or affection for the small British colonial and economic leadership.

In the 1920s and early part of the 1930w, the planners of the naval base has assumed that the only danger lay in a long-distance attack by a Japanese fleet before a British fleet could arrive from home waters and the Mediterranean. To guard against this danger, batteries of coast-defence artillery had been sited on each side of the eastern entrance to the Johore Strait between Singapore island and the southern tip of Malaya, and therefore commanding the approach to the naval base, which was situated on the north-eastern tip of Singapore island little more than 1 mile (1.6 km) across the strait from the Malayan province of Johore. These defence comprised three batteries each of two 6-in (152-mm) guns, one battery of three 9.2-in (234-mm) guns and one battery of three 15-in (381-mm) guns. On the southern tip of the island, in a location near the city of Singapore, there were four more batteries each of 6-in (152-mm) guns and one of three 9.2-in (234-mm) guns to defend the seaward approach to, and the entrances of, Keppel Harbour. Another battery of two 6-in (152-mm) guns was sited on the north-western point of the island to command the western entrance to Johore Strait, the entrance farthest from a Japanese fleet’s direct line of approach. Intended for use against warships, these batteries were supplied mostly with armour-piercing shell, and were therefore quite unsuitable for the bombardment of troops in the field.

In May 1937, however, a report by the British chiefs-of-staff had challenged the underlying premise that the main danger to the naval base at Singapore lay in a Japanese seaborne attack. It was possible, the chiefs-of-staff argued, and indeed in the character of the Japanese, for the Japanese to prepare and launch a secret expedition before any declaration of war. In such an attack, therefore, the Japanese might aim to establish air forces to operate from shore bases and to land army forces farther to the north of the Malayan peninsula for an overland advance on Singapore. The Japanese might thus hope, through the combined effect of attrition, air and land attack, to force the British garrison to surrender before a British fleet could arrive to relieve it.

This is exactly what did happen, and although he was well aware of the report of the chiefs-of-staff, Winston Churchill always denied that he knew anything of it and continued to regard Singapore as a fortress with excellent prospects of long-term survival again a siege. What adds greater poignancy to the whole of the Singapore episode is that while it was conceived as a base from which a British fleet could sortie to safeguard British interests in the Far East and Australasia, there were never enough ships to create the fleet would could have operated from Singapore.

The 'Q' denial scheme was of British naval origins, and the Royal Navy planned that the dockyard staff should undertake the demolition work under the command of Rear Admiral E. J. Spooner before their evacuation in the closing stages of an unsuccessful British defence of Singapore island. The naval personnel were evacuated relatively early in the final campaign, however, and the implementation of ‘Q’ was left somewhat imprecisely to Major General B. W. Key’s Indian 11th Division within Lieutenant General Sir Lewis Heath’s Indian III Corps.

The army troops had little knowledge of how to demolish naval facilities and, in combination with the decision to leave the demolitions to the last minute, this meant that much of the naval facility on the Johore Strait fell intact into the hands of the Japanese, though the floating dock was scuttled, the ‘King George V’ graving dock was incapacitated, cranes were destroyed and fuel tanks either fired or holed by 9 February 1942, when General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army (Lieutenant General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division, Lieutenant General Takuro Matsui’s 5th Division and Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 18th Division) crossed the Johore Strait to secure a lodgement in the north-west of the island.

On 31 January the last British-led forces had pulled out of Malaya proper, and engineers then blew up the Causeway linking the city of Johore in Malaya and the island of Singapore. Japanese infiltrators, many of them disguised as Singaporean civilians, crossed the Strait of Johore in inflatable boats soon after this.

During the preceding weeks, the British-led forces had been adversely affected by a spate of disagreements (both open and less obvious) among their more senior commanders. Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, commander of the garrison, had a strength of some 85,000 men, which was the equivalent, on paper, of slightly more than four divisions. This total included about 70,000 first-line troops in 38 infantry battalions (13 British, six Australian, 17 Indian, and two Malay) and three machine gun battalions.

Major General M. Beckwith-Smith’s newly arrived British 18th Division was at full strength but lacked both experience and the training that would have made it effective in South-East Asian conditions. Most of the other formations and units were below their establishment strengths, and a few had been amalgamated as a result of their heavy losses in the mainland campaign. The local battalions had no experience and in some cases no training.

Percival allocated to the two brigades of Major General H. G. Bennett’s Australian 8th Division the responsibility of holding the western half of Singapore island, including the best invasion points in the north-western sector. Most of the Australians’ zone was mangrove swamp and jungle, broken by rivers and creeks, but in the middle of this Western Area was the RAF station at Tengah, Singapore’s largest airfield. Brigadier Harold B. Taylor’s (from 15 February Brigadier Arthur L. Varley’s) Australian 22nd Brigade was assigned a 10-mile (16-km) sector in the west, and Brigadier Duncan S. Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade had responsibility for a 4,000-yard (3650-m) zone just to the west of the Causeway. The infantry positions were reinforced by the recently arrived Australian 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, and also under Bennett’s command was Brigadier G. C. Ballentine’s Indian 44th Brigade, the Jind Infantry Battalion of the Indian States Forces guarding Tengah, and a company from 'Dal' Force, which was a guerrilla militia recruited from Chinese Singaporeans.

Heath’s Indian III Corps, including Key’s Indian 11th Division, Beckwith-Smith’s British 18th Division and Brigadier K. A. Garrett’s Indian 15th Brigade, was assigned the north-eastern sector, known as the Northern Area, which included the naval base at Sembawang.

The Southern Area, including the main urban areas in the south-east, was commanded by Major General F. K. Simmons, who commanded about 18 battalions, including Brigadier G. G. R. Williams’s 1st Malaya Brigade, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force Brigade and Brigadier A. C. M. Paris’s Indian 12th Brigade.

The combination of air reconnaissance, scouts, infiltrators and the use of the high ground across the strait had given the 25th Army’s staff a very good picture of the British positions, which were taken under fire by the Japanese artillery from 3 February. Japanese air attacks on and the artillery bombardment of Singapore were steadily intensified over the next five days, and this severely disrupted communications between commanders and their forces as well as disrupting the continuing preparations of the island’s defence. This defence was based in part on the availability of very heavy coastal artillery, including 15-in (381-mm) weapons in one three- and one two-gun batteries, but these were supplied primarily with armour-piercing shell and only comparatively small numbers of high explosive shell: the former were intended for use against major warships and were therefore largely ineffective against land forces.

It is commonly said that the guns could not fire on the Japanese forces because they had been designed only to face to the south, but this was not so, although the lack of HE ammunition was an error of the same sort and probably the result of British thinking that an attack could not materialise overland from the north. Although emplaced to fire on ships to the south, most of the guns could in fact be traversed to the north, and in he event were used to fire on the Japanese.

As noted above, Yamashita had slightly more than 30,000 men in three divisions, namely Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division, which was supported by a brigade of light tanks, Matsui’s 5th Division and Mutaguchi’s 18th Division.

The destruction of the Causeway delayed the Japanese for a week as they recast their plans on the basis of an amphibious assault. Then at 20.30 on 8 February Australian machine gunners opened fire on vessels carrying a first wave of 4,000 troops from the 5th Division and 18th Division toward Singapore island in the area of Sarimbun Beach, which was held by the Australian 22nd Brigade. Fierce fighting raged all day but eventually the increasing Japanese numbers, combined with their superiority in artillery, aircraft and intelligence knowledge, began to exercise their effect. The Japanese exploited gaps in the thinly spread commonwealth lines such as rivers and creeks.

By 24.00, the two Australian brigades had lost touch with each other and the Australian 22nd Brigade was forced to retreat. At 01.00 more Japanese troops landed and the last Australian reserves were committed. Approaching dawn on 9 February, elements of the Australian 22nd Brigade had been overrun or surrounded, and the Australian 2/18th Battalion, in the centre, had lost more than half of its personnel. The Australian 2/20th Battalion, on the right flank, was also heavily committed. At the same time, the Australian 2/19th Battalion, on the left, was being outflanked, and only its B Company faced the initial landings by the Japanese.

Percival continued to believe that there would be more landings in the north-east and refused to reinforce the 22nd Brigade until Tengah airfield itself had come under threat. Before limited British and Indian infantry reinforcements could arrive, however, the badly battered Australian, Indian and Singaporean units had retreated to positions on the so-called Jurong Line extending south from Bulim village. The Japanese captured Tengah airfield at about 12.00 on 9 February.

Shortly after the fall of night on the same day, three Fairmile motor launches were despatched up the western channel of the Johore Strait, adjoining Sarimbun beach, with the task of attacking Japanese landing craft and communications. These launches came under fire from the Japanese forces on both shores, but pressed on almost as far as the Causeway and sank a few Japanese landing craft before turning back to reach Singapore after sustaining only minimal damage.

Air cover for the defence was limited to 10 Hawker Hurricane fighters of the RAF’s No. 232 Squadron, which was based at Kallang airfield as Tengah, Seletar and Sembawang airfields were all within range of the Japanese artillery at Johore Bahru. Given that Kallang airfield was the only operational airstrip left, the other squadrons had been withdrawn by January to reinforce the Dutch East Indies. The Hurricane force performed comparatively well, but was outnumbered and often outmatched by the Japanese fighters, and suffered severe losses in the air and on the ground during February.

On 8 December 1941 Singapore had been attacked for the first time by Japanese long-range warplanes, such as the Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell’ and G4M ‘Betty’ twin-engined bombers, based in Japanese-occupied Indo-China. After this first raid, the Japanese bombings ceased throughout the rest of December, and resumed only on 1 January 1942.

During December, 51 Hurricane Mk II fighters were sent to Singapore, with 24 pilots as the core of a planned five squadrons. They arrived on 3 January, by which stage the original Brewster Buffalo squadrons had been overwhelmed. No. 232 Squadron was formed and No. 488 Squadron of the RNZAF, a Buffalo squadron, converted to the Hurricane. No. 232 Squadron became operational on 20 January and destroyed three Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters on that day for the loss of three Hurricane fighters.

However, like the Buffalo aircraft before them, the Hurricane fighters began to suffer severe losses in intense dogfights. During the period 27/30 January, another 48 Hurricane Mk IIA fighters arrived with No. 226 Group (four squadrons) on the fleet carrier Indomitable, from which they flew to airfields codenamed P1 and P2, near Palembang on Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies. The staggered arrival of the Hurricane fighters, along with inadequate early warning systems, meant that Japanese air raids were able to destroy a large proportion of the Hurricanes on the ground in Sumatra and Singapore.

During the morning of 8 February a number of dogfights took place over Sarimbun Beach and other western areas. In the first encounter, the last 10 Hurricane fighters were scrambled from Kallang to intercept a Japanese formation of about 84 aircraft flying from Johore to provide air cover for their invasion force. In two sorties the Hurricane fighters shot down six Japanese aircraft for the loss of one of their own: the British fighters flew back to Kallang half way through the battle, refuelled and reamed, and then returned to the fray. Air battles continued over the island for the rest of the day, and by the fall of night it was clear that with the few machines still surviving Kallang could no longer be used as a base. With Percival’s approval the remaining Hurricane fighters were withdrawn to Palembang, with Kallang now used only as an advanced landing ground. No British aircraft were seen again over Singapore.

On the evening of 10 February, General Sir Archibald Wavell, commanding the ABDA forces in South-East Asia, ordered the transfer of all remaining Allied air force personnel to the Netherlands East Indies as Kallang was by now so cratered by bombs that it was no longer usable.

Meanwhile, in the course of 9 February the next Japanese landings took place in the south-west in the sector of the Indian 44th Brigade. The British-led units were forced to retreat farther to the east, and Bennett decided to form the so-called Jurong Line as a second defence line around Bulim to the east of Tengah airfield and just to the north of Jurong.

Maxwell’s Australian 27th Brigade, to the north, did not face Japanese assaults until the Imperial Guards Division landed at 22.00 on 9 February. This operation went very badly for the Japanese, who suffered severe casualties from Australian mortar and machine gun fire, and from the deliberate burning of oil which had been discharged onto the water. A small number of Japanese succeeded in reaching the shore, and and managed to establish and hold small beach-head.

Command and control problems were continuing to cause further problems for the Allied defence. Maxwell was aware that the Australian 22nd Brigade was under increasing pressure, but was unable to contact Taylor and was wary of encirclement. In spite of his brigade’s success, and in contravention of orders from Bennett, Maxwell ordered it to withdraw from Kranji in the north central part of the island. The Allies thereby lost control of the beaches adjoining the western side of the Causeway. The opening at Kranji made it possible for the Imperial Guards Division’s armoured units to land there without opposition. Tanks supported by flotation equipment were towed across the strait and advanced rapidly south along Woodlands Road. This allowed Yamashita to outflank the Australian 22nd Brigade on the Jurong Line, and also to bypass the Indian 11th Division at the naval base. However, the Imperial Guards Division failed to seize an opportunity to advance into the city centre itself.

On the evening of 10 February, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, cabled Wavell that ‘I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 [sic] men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula…In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out…’ Wavell subsequently told Percival that the ground forces were to fight on to the end, and that there should be no general surrender in Singapore.

On 11 February, knowing that the supplies for his divisions were almost exhausted, Yamashita decided to bluff and he called on Percival to ‘give up this meaningless and desperate resistance’. By this time the combat strength of the Australian 22nd Brigade, which had borne the brunt of the Japanese attacks, was only a few hundred men. The Japanese had captured the Bukit Timah area, including most of the British-led forces’ ammunition and fuel, and this also gave them control of the main water supplies. On the following day the British line was stabilised around a small area in the south-eastern part of the island and fought off determined Japanese assaults. Other units, including the 1st Malaya Brigade, were now involved. A Malay platoon, led by Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi, held the Japanese for two days at the Battle of Pasir Panjang. The platoon defended Bukit Chandu, an area which included a major ammunition store, and Adnan was executed by the Japanese after his unit had been overrun.

On 13 February, with the British forces still losing ground, senior officers advised Percival to surrender in the interests of minimising civilian casualties. Percival refused, but unsuccessfully sought from his superiors the authority to surrender. The British forces continued their resistance on the following day, and civilian casualties mounted as 1 million people crowded into the area still in British hands. The Japanese bombing and artillery bombardment intensified, and the civilian authorities began to fear that the water supply would give out.

By the morning of 15 February, the Japanese had broken through the last line of defence and the Allies were running out of food and ammunition. The anti-aircraft guns had also run out of ammunition and were unable to repel any further Japanese air attacks. At 09.30 Percival convened a conference at Fort Canning with his senior commanders. Percival proposed two options: either launch an immediate counterattack to regain the reservoirs and the military food depots in the Bukit Timah region and drive the Japanese artillery off its commanding heights outside the city, or surrender. The consensus was that no counterattack was possible, and Percival opted for surrender.

A deputation selected to go to the Japanese headquarters consisted of a senior staff officer, the colonial secretary and an interpreter. The three men set off in a motor car bearing a Union flag and a white flag of truce toward the Japanese lines, and returned with orders that Percival himself proceed with staff officers to the Ford motor factory, where Yamashita would issue the terms of surrender.

Percival formally surrendered shortly after 17.15. The terms included the unconditional surrender of all military forces in the Singapore area, a cessation of hostilities 20.30 that evening, all troops to remain in position until further orders, all weapons, military equipment, ships, aircraft and secret documents to be handed over intact and, in order to prevent civil disorder and looting, a force of 1,000 British armed men to take control in the city over until relieved by the Japanese. Earlier that day Percival had ordered that all secret and technical equipment, ciphers, codes, secret documents and heavy guns be destroyed before 16.00, and Yamashita accepted Percival’s assurance that there were no ships or aircraft still in Singapore.

The Malayan campaign had cost the British-led forces 9,500 men killed, 5,000 wounded and 120,000 taken prisoner, and the Japanese 1,713 men killed and 2,772 wounded. The figures for the fighting on Singapore island were 5,000 men killed or wounded from a strength of 85,000 among the British-led forces, and 1,713 men killed and 2,772 wounded from a strength of 36,000 among the Japanese forces.

The week which had followed the British loss of the battleship Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser Repulse on 10 December had been marked by the collapse of the British northern Malaya and the collapse of the strategic scenario on which the defence of Singapore had been based in the minds of all but Churchill since 1937. The campaign had then degenerated into a poorly co-ordinated and indifferently led series of attempts to stem the Japanese advance to the souther through the western coastal regions of Malaya. Thus the situation whose possibility the chiefs-of-staff had foreseen in 1937 came to pass. Objective though should now have decided that there was now no longer any purpose in trying to hold Singapore, which was a naval base without any hope of a fleet, for anything but the considerations of imperial prestige. Rational assessment would have appreciated this and ordered the immediate start of an evacuation of British civilians and military ‘useless mouths’, and also of a process of thinning the fighting troops to a rearguard. If nothing else, this would have permitted the strengthening on the British position in Burma, the eastern approach to India, which was now clearly in the sights of Japanese expansionists.

Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, sensibly warned A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty, that should the British continue to deliver reinforcements into Singapore, these would affect the length of time Singapore could be held by only one or two weeks, and that the British would concomitantly have squandered the reinforcements to no good end and at the same time left Burma very weak.

For Churchill, though, Singapore remained a key ‘fortress’ to be defended to the last. At the end of 1941 Churchill had persuaded the Chiefs-of-Staff, the Defence Committee and the cabinet to divert to Singapore significant numbers of additional men (two brigades of the Indian 17th Division previously slated for the defence of India, and the British 18th Division, then at sea on its way to India. Unfit for battle after a two-month troopship voyage, the men of the 18th Division arrived just in time to surrender with the rest of the garrison of the indefensible island of Singapore on 15 February 1942.

Had Malaya and Singapore been evacuated in good time, as had happened in the ‘Demon’ evacuation from Greece and the later extemporised but costly evacuation from Crete, the UK would nonetheless had suffered a major defeat, but by demanding that the defence of Singapore be reinforced and sustained to the last, Churchill had managed to turn a defeat into a catastrophe inasmuch as it effectively spelled the death knell of British imperial prestige.