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How the “Gibraltar of the East” fell: A Historical Analysis of the Singapore Strategy up to WWII.

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Origins

Singapore was an important British colonial outpost situated at the tip of the Malayan Peninsula. Founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, by 1919 Singapore was a bustling crown colony and a strategic port forming an important cornerstone in British imperial trade routes to the Far East. The strategic value of Singapore was not lost on the major naval powers in the Pacific, particularly the Japanese. Colonel Tsuji of the Imperial Japanese Army described Singapore as “Britain’s pivotal point in the domination of Asia, (…) the eastern gate for the defence of India and the northern gate for the defence of Australia. (Singapore was) a place at least as vital in 1941 for British power in the East, as Malta was for the survival of British power in the Mediterranean”1.

An Imperial Ally

During WWI the British Empire was nominally allied with Imperial Japan against the Central powers. Japan had taken the opportunity of the alliance to seize the Marianas, Carolines and Marshall Islands from Imperial Germany in the Pacific, and by the end of the war she was a great naval power in the Pacific. As a result, the imperial dominions of Australia and New Zealand, who were never pleased nor secure with hedging their security needs on an Anglo-Japanese alliance in the Pacific, sought out repeated and concrete assurances from London that Great Britain will continue to be committed to their imperial defence.

At the end of WWI there had been a widespread assumption in the United Kingdom, Australia as well as New Zealand that British authority in the Pacific would be swiftly reasserted2. Great Britain was eager to counter rumours of the “passing of (British) sea supremacy” as well as mitigate the relatively weak diplomatic position she had in the Pacific when dealing with Imperial Japan through increasing ship deployments in the Pacific3. However by this time British naval power internationally had been severely undermined and under considerable budgetary and international pressure for disarmament; whilst Royal Navy battleships had been prematurely aged by four years of war, across the Atlantic the US Navy was continuously putting new ships to sea in their drive to build, in the words of their Admiral Of The Navy George Dewey, “a navy second to none”, even if this presaged a new international naval arms race4. As a result, in 1920 First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Walter Long was to declare the Royal Navy as only seeking a “one-power standard” in terms of naval balance internationally5, just before the disarmament talks of the 1921 Washington Conference. Such a development alarmed Australian and New Zealander political sentiments, to the point that Great Britain found itself needing a grand gesture or initiative to alleviate feelings of neglect in her imperial dominions. Great Britain was caught between the desires of Australia and New Zealand to maintain the peaceful status quo in the Pacific, even if it was by virtue of the uncomfortable Anglo-Japanese Treaty, as well as Canadian reservations about maintaining her security as the neighbouring country of the United States, which was rapidly being caught up diplomatically in a conflict position with Japan in the Pacific6.

The “Singapore Strategy”

The “Singapore Strategy” for British imperial defence in the Far East can be explained in a long-term context of waning British naval dominance after WWI. The Committee of Imperial Defense (CID) had previously noted in a strategic meeting that the “(…)basis of British Imperial defence against attacks from overseas, whether upon the United Kingdom, Australasia or elsewhere, must be, as it always has been, the maintenance of our sea power”7. The genesis of Singapore acquiring her pivotal position in the imperial defence strategy named after her can be seen in the Admiralty’s official definition of their One-Power Standard as not just the parity of her fleet “equal to any other nation, wherever situated” but also that “arrangements are made from time to time in different parts of the world (…) to enable local forces to maintain the situation against vital and irreparable damage pending arrival of the Main Fleet, and to give the Main Feet on arrival sufficient mobility”8. As early as 1919, Singapore had been earmarked out as a potential naval bastion for the Royal Navy when Viscount Jellicoe was invited by the Australian government to draw up a report on imperial defence in the Pacific. Immediately recognising Imperial Japan as a clear and present challenge to British and dominion interests in the Pacific, Viscount Jellicoe, a former Sea Lord in the Admiralty declared in his report of a need for a fleet of “eight battleships and eight battlecruisers with a full complement of smaller vessels” to be located in the Pacific, under the command of an Admiral ashore at Singapore, which in his words was described as “the naval key to the Far East”9. Without Singapore developed as a vital naval base to be a pivotal role in imperial defence the British Fleet was effectively prevented from operating over half the seas of the world10; there was not a single dry dock East of Malta large enough to accommodate Royal Navy battleships.

Options were considered by Whitehall for the formation of a permanent Pacific Fleet using Royal Navy or dominion-funded naval units as well as the consideration of building a brand new naval base at Singapore to support large fleet operations. Hong Kong was dismissed as being too close to Japan to be reinforced in time, as well as being barred from fortification works under the Washington Treaties of 1921 and 1922. Sydney was unsuitable due to its excessive distance from China and Southeast Asia to be a forward main base for the Royal Navy. Singapore was seen as an ideal site for a naval base to be built on the northern shore of the island due to its commanding position over the British military route to the Far East through the Straits of Malacca, whilst being safe from any potential seaborne invasion from the south or east by keeping as far from the open sea as possible; before 1941 a landward invasion of Malaya and Singapore from the north had been inconceivable, particularly so in the 1920s when the decision was made to build the naval base. With Japan seen as the main potential aggressor to defend against in the Pacific, yet with their nearest base in Formosa 1500 miles away, no aviation technology able to cover the equivalent distance from landward, and Great Britain having no serious naval rivals in Europe, the idea of mustering a fleet to relieve any potential naval siege of Singapore “within 70 days”11 was a viable, if not slightly calculated risky strategy for the Admiralty12.

Failed Assumptions?

However, as history would prove in the 20 years leading up to the outbreak of the Pacific War, Singapore failed miserably in its envisioned pivotal role in British imperial defence strategy for the Far East. Major General S. Woodburn Kirby provided the military and strategic angle towards explaining the reasons leading up to the failure and fall of Fortress Singapore in his classic book “Singapore: The Chain Of Disaster (1971)” by laying the blame squarely on London’s failures in decision-making that stretched all the way back to 1921 regarding the needs of sending the necessary tanks, planes and ships needed for a viable defence of Singapore13. David W. McIntyre also similarly wrote about the under-provision as well as “wasteful, inefficient and ineffective” usage of military resources in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 1919 – 1942”14. Certainly this was a valid charge to be levelled against the ultimately incapable role that Singapore played in her pivotal role of imperial defence for the Far East, as the critical Achilles’ Heel of Singapore Naval base was exposed to be the lack of a British/Imperial Pacific Fleet to sally forth in times of crisis. Singapore’s viability as an imperial bastion in the Pacific rested on several assumptions: the supremacy of the Royal Navy and British command of the sea, the willingness of British colonies and Dominions in the Pacific to contribute in financial and materiel terms to the garrison force and fleet based in Singapore, as well as final cooperation of Imperial forces in the event of a war to fight for a common cause15. Almost all these conditions and assumptions were not met: the Royal Navy was forced to keep the majority of the fleet in home waters to counter Nazi Germany, only being able to dispatch two naval units as Force Z in October 1941 instead of the promised battle fleet the Pacific Dominions expected to turn up in times of crisis; there were no suitable Dominion naval units available for deployment due to interservice bickering, particularly in Australia; and most damning of all, by 1940 there were only 164 obsolete aircraft based in Malaya and Singapore out of a required 542 planes needed for adequate coverage of both Burma and the Malayan Peninsula16, only 31 poorly trained and equipped infantry battalions instead of the required 48, and no tanks at all. Even during 1941 when the threat of war in the Pacific loomed inexorably Britain had sent 676 aircraft and 446 tanks to the Soviet Union instead of using them to boost Singapore’s defence position in the Far East17. Without the bare minimum of defence manpower and materiel Singapore was reduced to being a “bulky, expensive, fixed military tool”18.

HMS Prince of Wales arrives in Singapore, 4 December 1941. Part of ‘Force z’, she and HMS Repulse would be sunk by Japanese bombers just 6 days later.

In a global political sense Singapore acquired her pivotal position in British imperial defence due to uncomfortable political, financial and military realities that Great Britain had to confront after four years of war in 1918. Great Britain was cash-strapped after WWI and the population had no stomach for further triggers to conflict. Surrendering a Two-Power Standard that had maintained British naval supremacy on the global seas to avert a potentially ruinous naval race between her, the United States and Japan was seen as a small price to pay for peace. Great Britain then allowed herself to be held hostage to her imperial pride and future fortune by refusing to acknowledge the realities of her imperial overstretch by virtue of her Treaty-shrunk navy; the Dominions in the Pacific could not be allowed to see Great Britain admit any lack of conviction or uncertainty “about its ability, under all circumstances, to come to the aid of its own colonies and Dominions, particularly when these were the very same territories that had unstintingly provided men and materiel at considerable cost during the Great War”19. Such a perceived weakness was feared by the British as potential playing into the hands of the Americans who were themselves building up a Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour. Financially Singapore would prove to be an almost insurmountable potential financial drain on the Exchequer, and it was seen as a dangerous trigger for government stability in Great Britain, such was the “strength of feeling in the country at large against big defence spending, especially on such a distant place as Singapore”20.

Conclusion

It is thus under the false bravado of Great Britain to be seen to “have a plan” and be accountable by her Australian and New Zealand dominions that Singapore became the equivalent of an imperial prestige project and less of a pivotal defence bastion in the Far East for the 20 years leading to the outbreak of the Pacific War. Without the means to sustain a two-ocean navy Singapore Naval Base was nothing more than a fortress without reach for even defensive operations against any potential naval attacker, and British arrogance in overestimating both their capability to send the main fleet from home waters or the Mediterranean in time to break any siege of Singapore as well as overconfidence in their ships’ capabilities and quality over any potential enemy threat from surface or air would prove to be a near-fatal gamble on which the Pacific dominions hedged their naval defence upon. Singapore was meant to be the ultimate demonstration of British resolve in defending the far-flung corners of her empire, what with the declarations of her defence ranking second in importance only to the defence of the Home Islands as well as the description of “Gibraltar in the East”. In the end, the only pivotal role Singapore played in British imperial defence for the Far East was to put the final nail into any notions of sustaining an Asian empire by any European power, such was the loss of psychological superiority and right to rule by the British in Southeast Asia to an Asian ‘inferior’ power such as Japan.

Andy Wong

Andy Wong is a Joint (Hons) Politics and History graduate from the University of Hull. He specialises in Asia-Pacific history and international geopolitical issues, as well as maritime and naval strategy, with an interest in nuclear warfare. He is currently a freelance defence writer.

Footnotes

  1. K. Hack, K. Blackburn, Did Singapore Have To Fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress (11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE, RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), pp. 12
  2. I. Hamill, The Strategic Illusion; The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand 1919 – 1942 (Kent Ridge, Singapore 0511, Singapore University Press, 1981), pp. 17
  3. ibid.
  4. “Urges Navy Second to None: Admiral Dewey and Associates Say Our Fleet Should Equal the Most Powerful in the World” (New York Times. 22 December 1915)
  5. R. Callahan, “The Illusion of Security: Singapore 1919–42”, Journal of Contemporary History (Sage Publications Ltd, April 1974) 9 (2), pp. 69–92.
  6. J.B. Brebner, “Canada, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the Washington Conference”. Political Science Quarterly (The Academy of Political Science) (March 1935). 50 (1): pp. 45–58
  7. N.H. Gibbs, ‘Naval Disarmament 1919 – 30‘, in J.R.M. Butler (ed.), History Of The Second World War United Kingdom Military Series (London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1976), pp. 11
  8. N.H. Gibbs, ‘Naval Disarmament 1919 – 30‘, in J.R.M. Butler (ed.), History Of The Second World War United Kingdom Military Series (London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1976), pp. 23
  9. I. Hamill, The Strategic Illusion; The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand 1919 – 1942 (Kent Ridge, Singapore 0511, Singapore University Press, 1981), pp. 20
  10. I. Hamill, The Strategic Illusion; The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand 1919 – 1942 (Kent Ridge, Singapore 0511, Singapore University Press, 1981), pp. 31
  11. N.H. Gibbs, ‘Rearmament Programmes 1936 – 39‘, in J.R.M. Butler (ed.), History Of The Second World War United Kingdom Military Series (London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1976), pp. 416
  12. K. Hack, K. Blackburn, Did Singapore Have To Fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress (11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE, RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), pp. 20
  13. S.W. Kirby, Singapore: The Chain Of Disaster (London, Cassel, 1971)
  14. D.W. McIntyre, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base, 1919–1942 (London: MacMillan Press, Cambridge Commonwealth Series, 1979)
  15. P. Dennis, ‘Australia and the Singapore Strategy’, in B. Farrel & S. Hunter (eds.), Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited (Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, 2003), pp. 29
  16. D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 2000369, 1962), accessed on 15/11/15
  17. L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canberra: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 3134219, 1957), accessed on 15/11/15
  18. I. Hamill, The Strategic Illusion; The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand 1919 – 1942 (Kent Ridge, Singapore 0511, Singapore University Press, 1981), pp. 39
  19. M.H. Murfett, ‘Reflections on an Enduring Theme’, in B. Farrel & S. Hunter (eds.), Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited (Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, 2003), pp. 4
  20. I. Hamill, The Strategic Illusion; The Singapore Strategy and the Defence of Australia and New Zealand 1919 – 1942 (Kent Ridge, Singapore 0511, Singapore University Press, 1981), pp. 24

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