Wednesday, 20 June 2012
the one man who sounded a really accurate alarm
Today we quote from
Military Intelligence blunders by Colonel John Hughes-Wilson
Not all Britons were as complacent and confident as the Governor and his herbivorous civil service.
At least two men made sound intelligence predictions of the real threat to Singapore:
Lieutenant-General Percival, when he was a staff officer in 1937, and the one man who sounded a really accurate alarm before the war, C.A. Vlieland. Unfortunately Vlieland was a civilian and a member of Governor Thomas's staff.Appointed Secretary for Defence Malaya in 1938, he was eventually to resign after some curious backstairs political intrigue in 1941 before war broke out.
Before then, however,Vlieland had predicted in great detail and with uncomfortable accuracy the probable route and outcome of any likely Japanese invasion from the north through Siam and Malaya.
Equally accurately, he outlined the need for strong defences in the forests to the north of Singapore and virtually dismissed the notion of any assault from the sea.
He even claimed that "Fortress Singapore" was a complete white elephant and pointless to Malaya's real defence priorities.
This was not a view likely to endear him to the collective mandarins of official British policy or the combined services.
Vlieland's real tragedy was to get caught up in the bureaucratic power play between the Governor, the Army, the RAF and the new Commander-in-Chief, General Bond, when he arrived in August 1939.
Bond, a powerful and opinionated figure, promptly set about regaining control of the defence
strategy of his command from "a bunch of damned civilians".
Bond's particular obsession was with Singapore Island, and he would have no truck with a mere colonial civil servant meddling in matters of defence policy, especially one offering his own intelligence appreciations.
The clash was inevitable, as was the outcome.
Outmanoeuvred by the services and abandoned in committee by his boss - and theoretically the
Commander-in-Chief, the Governor - an embittered Vlieland eventually resigned as Secretary for Defence in early 1941.
Once back in England he was to suffer the worst torture of all: seeing all the bitter predictions of his 1940 military appreciation for the defence of Malaya and Singapore being successfully put into action by the Japanese.
Perhaps this civil-military clash ensured the fall of Malaya more than any other factor, more so than poor intelligence and underestimation of the enemy.
The infighting and lack of a clear command structure meant that no organization, from intelligence operations to civil defence, could survive the endless wrangles over who was in charge.
Given the other weaknesses of British intelligence and Japan's ability to get inside the British operational information flow, it is hard to see how the British could have succeeded, even if Malaya and Singapore had been run as a battle zone and not as a colony right up to the very last days of the siege as the Japanese closed in and finally invaded Singapore Island.
Even as the final convoys of reinforcements poured into Singapore Harbour in late January and early February 1942, it was already too late to save the campaign.
To the Australian government's dismay they found that their final reinforcements for the 8th Australian Division, disembarking in Singapore as late as 24 January 1942, were little more than more
fuel for the fire.
The battle for Malaya was as good as lost.
The discovery that Churchill had been contemplating diverting the British 18th Division on the high seas and sending it to the Middle East instead of embattled Singapore turned out to be the last straw for the Australian Prime Minister.John Curtin had already seen Churchill sacrifice Australian troops twice in 1941 in Greece and Crete, and he was alert for any backsliding or evidence of duplicity from the British.
In January 1942 he cabled Churchill, warning him that any attempt to divert the 18th Division from reinforcing the garrison in Singapore would be in Australian eyes an "inexcusable betrayal".
Churchill backed down and sent the last drafts of the 9th, l l th and 18th Divisions virtually straight
into captivity, to join their Australian comrades in the last days of the doomed colony.
These troops could have been needed elsewhere, as retreat and panic spread throughout the Far East. Subsequent Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942 spread even more dismay and panic as far away as the isolated population of northern Australia.
After the worst raid, when all the ships in the harbour were either hit or sunk, hundreds deserted and joined
the headlong flight south in what became known as the "Great Darwin Handicap" as vital Air Force technicians and their families headed for the safety of the interior. Fortunately for Australia, the Japanese were at the limit of their resources and never did invade. But the events of early 1942 stand as an
inglorious chapter in Australian history. The atmosphere of the time was one of flight, despair and the end of an era.
Two stories sum up the atmosphere of those last days in Singapore more than any other. As a tired British infantry battalion began to dig its fire trenches for the final defence of Singapore on a golf course, "a colonial planter of the worst type" came up quivering with rage and demanded to know what was going on.
On being told by the young officer in charge, he stormed off "apoplectic with rage, shouting that the Golf Club was private property and threatening to tell the Governor to get this nonsense stopped, and full compensation".
The second story is the popular canard that it was really lack of water that finally persuaded Lieutenant-General Percival to capitulate.
When the local civil works engineer said that nothing could be done about Singapore's water supply,
the Army's Commander Royal Engineers countered that, with a few trucks and a work party of a hundred men, he could repair and maintain the reservoirs and pipelines, and guarantee water for as long as it was needed. He never got them: not from the hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians nor from the thousands of drunken, defeated deserters roaming the streets amid the flames and chaos of the doomed island on
that terrible Sunday of 15 February 1942.
Amid the uproar of the last days one grim final act was played out. On "Black Friday", 13 February 1942, the convicted traitor Captain Patrick Heenan of the Punjab Regiment was, officially at least, executed by firing squad. Rumour has it that what really happened amid the smoke and explosions was that he was dragged onto the dockside between two sergeantsduring a Japanese air raid.
An enraged Military Police Sergeant, who had won the right (by cutting cards) to kill the
traitor before the Japanese arrived, then blew Heenan's brains out with a revolver at point-blank range before kicking the body into the dock and melting back into the crowds of deserters, drunks and terrified civilians trying to fight their way on to the last boats out.
It took the victorious Japanese Army to restore order and calm to the imperial garrison. They did so quickly and efficiently in their own brutal way, proving once again that it had been a very serious mistake to underestimate them, even up to the very end.
Perhaps Churchill was wise after all not to have convened a parliamentary inquiry into the blunders and
mismanagement that led to the fall of Singapore, the "impregnable fortress".
Some disasters are so shameful that they are best quietly ignored: but their lessons should not be
More about Charles Archibald Vlieland
His Malayan years
Charles Archibald and bargain hunt