Inside Story

The fall of Singapore

Extract | Signals officer Doug Lush witnessed up close the disastrous impact of a strategic miscalculation

Mark Baker 24 April 2021 2059 words

The fall guy: Lieutenant General Arthur Percival surrenders Singapore to General Tomoyuki Yamashita on 15 February 1942. Saburo Miyamoto/ National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

When the Japanese invasion of the Malayan peninsula reached its denouement at the end of January 1942, the remnants of the Allied forces scrambled to retreat onto Singapore island. The last to leave the mainland were the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had formed an inner bridgehead around the city of Johore Bahru.

The Argylls had been in the thick of some of the heaviest fighting down the peninsula over the preceding weeks, and their number had been reduced to just ninety men. But they departed the mainland in style early on the morning of 1 February, watched by the Scottish journalist and novelist Eric Linklater: “Their pipers played their own regiment out of Malaya. The morning sun was already hot when the still air was broken by ‘A Hundred Pipers’ and ‘Heilan’ Laddie.’” Then, with “steady bearing and their heads high” the Highlanders marched “from a lost campaign into a doomed island.”

The last to make the crossing over the causeway linking the island and the mainland was the Argylls’ commanding officer, Colonel Ian Stewart, with his batman Drummer Hardy and a pet dog on a leash. Accompanying them were Lieutenant Doug Lush and the men from his J Section, who had formed the last Australian Signals Corps unit deployed on the mainland. In the final moments, a wave of twenty-seven Japanese planes swept over the area, dropping about fifty bombs on the retreating troops.

When Colonel Stewart and Lieutenant Lush reached the island side of the causeway, the Japanese shelling intensified and most of the troops dived for cover in slit trenches. To Lush’s astonishment, Stewart stepped forward, ignoring the danger, to be greeted by Brigadier Harold Taylor, commanding officer of the Australian 22nd Brigade. “Colonel Stewart saluted and simply said, ‘Good morning, Brigadier,’” recalled Lush. “The Brigadier returned the salute, both of them standing to attention in the midst of the shelling.”

After the last of the men had crossed, depth charges laid along a twenty-five-metre section of the causeway were detonated. The ferocious explosion sent a column of debris flying into the air and water coursing through the gap. With the severing of the last physical link to the mainland, “Fortress Singapore” was now alone to face its fate. In less than two months the Japanese army had swept aside almost a century and a half of British hegemony in Malaya, driving the combined British, Indian and Australian defending force 800 kilometres down the Malayan peninsula and into a state of siege on Singapore island.

Having installed himself in the sultan’s palace in Johore Bahru, the triumphant General Tomoyuki Yamashita surveyed his trapped quarry from a glass-domed observation tower while plotting their final defeat. The great British naval base “lay beneath one’s eyes,” his intelligence officer, Colonel Tsuji, observed, and Tengah airfield “appeared as if it could be grasped in the hand.”

The fighting had exacted a terrible toll. The Allies had suffered more than 19,000 casualties — killed, wounded or missing in action. The Japanese casualties, at 1793 dead and 2772 wounded, were less than a quarter of that. Many more were to perish on both sides in the days ahead, but Yamashita chose to pause for a week to regroup and refine his plans for the Battle of Singapore. Inexplicably, and to the disgust of many of the Australian troops, no attempt was made to shell him in his palatial redoubt.

During a visit to Singapore on 20 January 1942, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of Allied forces in the southwest Pacific, had been convinced that the Japanese would launch their invasion along the northwest coast of the island. The Johore Strait was narrowest in this sector, and a number of river mouths on the mainland side provided potential cover for launching amphibious landing craft.

Wavell believed this would be the place to deploy the freshest and strongest troops, the British 18th Division, most of whom arrived on 29 January. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Malaya, strongly disagreed. He thought the attack was most likely to come down the Johore River and on the eastern side of the island. In the end, despite Wavell’s growing concern that Percival was not the “really vigorous, ruthless personality” needed to organise the defence of Singapore, Percival prevailed. It would be a fateful decision for the island, and for the men of the Australian 8th Division.

Percival ordered the Australian 22nd and 27th Brigades to deploy along the northwest coast and sent the 18th Division and the best of the remaining Indian troops to the northeast. In the northwestern sector, Brigadier Harold Taylor and his 22nd Brigade troops faced a massive challenge with severely limited resources. Their task was to defend an eight-mile front with just three battalions — half the number of men deployed along an eight-mile section of coastline near Changi on the island’s northeast coast.

The terrain — largely mangrove swamp and mud flats — was an operational nightmare. One officer with the 2/19 Battalion would complain that he and his men had been “dumped in a scraggy waste of stunted rubber and tangled undergrowth, apparently miles from anywhere, our vision limited to the next rise in the undulating ground and our means of movement confined to a few native foot tracks winding through the wilderness.” Lieutenant Frank Gaven of the 2/20th Battalion was appalled at the sight: “I have never felt such a feeling of desperation in all my life. I then realised that forward defence in this situation was an impossible task.”

As Wavell had predicted, the onslaught came from the west. At dawn on 8 February, the Japanese launched a severe bombardment of Singapore and heavy artillery attacks on the areas held by the Australian brigades. At first, the shelling of the western sector was considered to be either a feint or merely part of a general “softening up” operation. But as the attack intensified through the day, the Japanese plan became clear.

It was the Australians’ first experience of heavy shellfire and many were shocked and even traumatised by the ordeal. The 2/18 Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Varley, who had endured the German shelling of Pozières in 1916, said he had never experienced “such concentrated shellfire over such a period” in the four years of the first world war. Major General Gordon Bennett, whose 8th Division headquarters had been targeted during the morning, visited Taylor and found him “somewhat shaken.” Taylor had good reason to be agitated. His desperate efforts to call in artillery support had been rebuffed and his superiors had not assembled reserves behind his men or prepared a reserve line.

The Japanese struck just after 10.30pm. The first men from a force of sixteen battalions boarded a flotilla of motorboats, many of them towing rafts, and raced towards the positions held by the 2/18th and 2/20th battalions. The Australians responded with intense fire from their Vickers machine guns and a barrage of grenades but were soon overwhelmed. The 2/20th alone would lose more than 400 men as the waves of landing Japanese surged over and around them. Throughout the night and through the following day Taylor’s brigade was pushed back as the Japanese captured their initial objective, Tengah airfield.

Around 9am on 9 February a second Japanese force came ashore in the area between the causeway and the Kranji River held by Brigadier Duncan Maxwell’s 27th Brigade. The Japanese fell back after huge oil storage tanks near the causeway were blown up, sending more than nine million litres of burning oil flooding across the strait. But by the morning of 10 February they were comfortably ashore and had most of northwest Singapore under their control.

Throughout the first days of the fighting on the island, Lieutenant Doug Lush had been detached to work as 22nd Brigade Signals Officer, working alongside Brigadier Taylor. Lush was responsible for keeping Taylor in touch with the various units under his brigade command. It was a challenging task. The preliminary bombardment by the Japanese had severed most of the telephone lines running to the companies on the front lines. And the brigade’s wireless sets had only returned from servicing the morning of the Japanese landings, while the smaller and less powerful battalion sets proved to be of little use.

Despite these setbacks, the signallers worked feverishly to maintain communications. As Lieutenant Colonel Roland Oakes would later write, “From the shelter of a slit trench in which I was crouching, I saw a regimental signaller lying in the open nearby, in the middle of a severe shelling bout, transmitting messages on a line phone he had connected up. And this was typical of the whole tribe throughout the campaign.”

On the afternoon of 9 February, the decision was made to relocate Taylor’s headquarters from Bukit Timah to a villa on Holland Road, several miles closer to the centre of the city. A night of hectic activity followed as the signals team packed up the large quantities of stores and equipment. In the early hours of the morning, the Japanese began shelling and bombing the area, and several quartermaster staff who were among the last to leave narrowly escaped being hit. The teams immediately began work laying cable from their new Holland Road office, led by Doug Lush.

The signallers were increasingly being called on to fight as well as to maintain the brigade’s precarious communications. Just before the move to Holland Road, several signallers from Lush’s cable party had been wounded in a desperate effort to silence a menacing Japanese machine gun located nearby. Leading the brigade, Major Rex Beale had ordered several of the signallers to arm themselves with grenades and join him in an attack on the machine gun position. As they made their way forward, one of the signallers, Lance Sergeant Geoff Bingham — who would be awarded the Military Medal for his bravery during the Singapore fighting — was hit in the hip and had to be carried away by Signaller Todd Morgan.

“Major Beale was also hit in the hip,” Lush would recount, “because there was a bit of a contour between our men and this Japanese position, and once they got up over this contour the Jap machine gunners began firing low and, of course, this was hitting our fellows at about waist height, although Bobby Hook, another of the attackers, was only a little chap and this gun got him in the chest. Morgan also picked up Bobby Hook and carried him back to our position.” Hook and Major Beale were later taken to the Alexandria Hospital, and were killed by the Japanese when they captured the hospital. “Bingham had been far luckier,” added Lush, “instead being conveyed to the St Andrew’s Cathedral, which was now being used as a main medical post. He would later recover from his wounds.”

By 12 February the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The 22nd Brigade could muster just 800 men from the three infantry battalions and the machine gun battalion that had started the battle with roughly 3400 men. Two days later, the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anketell, was mortally wounded. After Harold Taylor collapsed from exhaustion and was hospitalised, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Varley was promoted to command the 22nd Brigade.

The Allied troops faced an impossible situation after the Japanese captured the MacRitchie Reservoir and water became desperately scarce for both the civilian population and the many wounded being cared for in various hospitals. Percival was left with no choice. He sent his last telegram to Wavell on 15 February: “Owing to losses from enemy action, water, petrol, food and ammunition practically finished. Unable therefore to continue the fight any longer. All ranks have done their best and are grateful for your help.”

Late that afternoon, Percival drove with a sombre posse of senior officers to the shell-damaged Ford Motor Factory near Bukit Timah village where, after a brief and terse meeting with General Yamashita, he signed the document of surrender at 7.50pm. As historian Mark Clisby would write, “With the signing of these terms of surrender, 100,000 Allied soldiers, including nearly 15,000 Australians, would be led into captivity. After only eight weeks of fighting, the Japanese were the undisputed masters of Singapore and the entire Malayan Peninsula.” •

This is an edited extract from The Emperor’s Grace: Untold Stories of the Australians Enslaved in Japan During World War II (Monash University Publishing).