Britain’s “impregnable fortress” surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”; but in July 1942, five months after the fact, WSC said: “I have never made any predictions, except things like saying Singapore would hold out. What a fool and a knave I should have been to say it would fall.” Our 2007 Vancouver conference considered: just how “impregnable” was the “fortress”? Could it have been saved? What did Winston Churchill know, and when did he know it?
2. “Responsible but Unrepentant”
by Raymond P. Callahan
Dr. Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware. His books include Churchill: Retreat from Empire; Burma, 1942-45; The Worst Disaster: The Fall of Singapore; and most recently Churchill and His Generals.
At the Admiralty during the “twilight war,” discussing his sponsorship of a prototype armored trench digger known as “Cultivator Number One,” Churchill remarked that he was “responsible but unrepentant.” It is not a bad description of the position he took—albeit less forthrightly—about his role in what he called the “worst disaster” in Britain’s military history: the fall of Singapore. We are here today to assess how much of the blame for that debacle he should shoulder before history.
The starting point in this assessment is the fundamental flaw in the “Singapore strategy” devised shortly after World War I: the assumption that, once the Singapore base was built, the Royal Navy would always be free to deploy eastwards to confront Japan. “Main fleet to Singapore” was the slogan describing this strategy. Carefully never answered was a question posed at an early date: What happens if a European threat made such a deployment impossible?
Perhaps, as Geoffrey Best has suggested, the sense after 1918 that this particular problem of imperial defense was essentially insoluble led to a tacit agreement—in London to be sure, but also and less understandably in Canberra as well—not to confront the issue. Churchill was in office first as Colonial Secretary and then as Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Singapore strategy took shape, and so bears some responsibility for it, but surely not more than the other policymakers involved—politicians, admirals and civil servants alike.
The situation Churchill confronted from May 1940 to February 1942 poses, of course, a very different question. Churchill was Prime Minister and
Minister of Defense; his responsibility for a military catastrophe is inescapable. But how much at that point could he really have changed? The answer is, I would suggest, very little. Britain was fighting for its life, and Churchill was not about to risk the loss of the war against Germany by trying to be adequately prepared in the Far East for a war against Japan that might, with luck, never come.
It was crystal clear in May 1940 that neither the main fleet nor any substantial part of it could now go to Singapore. Churchill signed off in August 1940 on a new plan that gave the RAF the lead role in defending the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. But Churchill’s real strategy for the Far East was to depend upon the United States to deter Japan. At the back of his mind lurked the thought, freely albeit privately admitted at the time, that a Japanese attack which brought the United States into the war at Britain’s side would be well worth the resulting (in his mind, temporary) forfeits in the Far East.
Now we come to what, I would suggest, is the key issue: Given Churchill’s strategic framework, could he have done more for the defenders of Malaya and Singapore than he did? Here lies the heart of the case we must answer.
I put it to you that there were three areas where he could have done more—but that even if he had done more, it would have made no perceptible impact on the final result.
The first of these areas is the Byzantine and self-defeating chain of command in the Far East. It certainly could have been restructured—but that alteration would have made little difference unless better personnel, civil and military, were posted there. No organization ever has enough first-class talent, and 1940-41 was not the moment to park some of it in an inactive theater. In any case, many people besides the Prime Minister bear responsibility for the structure and staffing of command in the Far East.
Second, there is the air power strategy put in place in August 1940. There was never agreement on how many aircraft were in fact needed to carry out the strategy. Furthermore, the RAF in the Far East never came within striking distance of even the minimum figure (336 first-line aircraft). The 188 actually available in December 1941 were an assortment of aircraft that were either inappropriate, obsolete, or flat-out museum pieces.
Meanwhile, 699 modern aircraft had been shipped to the Soviet Union between June and December 1941. Would some of them, if diverted to the Far East, have made a difference? Probably not. The RAF fighter squadrons in the United Kingdom were formidable because they were part of an integrated air defense system. There was not the time, resources or personnel to establish such a system in the Far East. Similarly, modern anti-shipping strike aircraft were only just becoming available to the RAF, and few could be spared for the Far East. And, of course, continued Russian resistance was vital to Britain’s survival in a way Singapore was not.
Third, there was the matter of the Singapore “fortress.” Churchill spoke often of it and believed Singapore was a true fortress, capable of all-around defense. This misapprehension of the nature of the great naval base informed much of his thinking on the Far East.
Of course, Singapore was not and could never have been a true fortress. (For one thing, its water was supplied from the mainland.) Churchill here was clearly wrong—but should not the Chief of the Imperial General Staff or Churchill’s own military staff officers have corrected him? We know they did not, and the reason seems to have been that some—rather incredibly—shared his mistaken belief that Singapore was a true fortress.
In any case, all were as focused as he was on the European war. The sad truth is that no one in London wanted to be bothered by a hypothetical Far Eastern war when they were barely holding their own in the all-too-real war on their doorstep. Even if they had been paying more attention, there was little or nothing that they could have done.
The argument I have been advancing is that while, of course, Churchill—along with many others over a twenty-year period—bears responsibility for the 1941-42 disaster in the Far East, his “guilt” is mitigated by the iron constraints in which he found himself. Perhaps he deserves at this point to speak in his own defense: “The major dispositions were right...if I had known all about it then as I know now, there were no substantial resources that could have been diverted....”