Saturday, April 10, 2010

Failures of democracy: the loss of Singapore in 1942.

I am reading an interesting book called ‘The Generals - from defeat to victory, Leadership in Asia 1941-1945’, by Robert Lyman. It provides a fascinating insight into some of the characters who populated by first masters degree, and I will review it in more detail later. To start with though, it gives me a good opportunity to consider how the fault in many failed military operations does not really lie with the generals or the troops.

The outline of the loss of Singapore in 1942 is simple and well known. The Imperial Japanese Empire attacked Dutch, British and American colonial possessions on the seventh and eighth of December 1941, with the first attacks on Malaya going in only hours before the those in the Philippines. From the beaches of neutral Thailand, General Yamashita’s 25th Army performed an amazing 70 day advance the length of the Malayan peninsula to capture Singapore. Fewer than 60,000 men eventually defeated twice their number. This operation compares favorably to the blitzkrieg’s in Poland 1939, France 1940, North Africa 1941, and Russia 1941. The sheer elegance of the speed and opportunism of the advancing forces is a textbook example of achieving unlikely results with minimal force.

So naturally there has to be a scapegoat. Traditionally, that has been General Percival the GOC (general officer commanding) Malaya, and to a lesser extent his subordinate generals from the Indian and Australian Army. Some historians have gone further to blame the governments who gave them inadequate forces (or at least the British government, because the Australian government has always denied that it had any share of the blame in a traditional game of ‘pass the buck’). The truth is of course, much more complex.

The idea behind the naval base Singapore strategy, was that it would provide a location for deployment of the main British fleet should war break out in the far east and Pacific, thus allowing the Empire and Dominions – like Australia - to skimp on their land force alternatives. This was a theoretically sensible thing, in that the Royal Navy had been the international peacekeeping force for the last century or more.

Unfortunately, a wave of anti-war feelings in the post Great War era made a mockery of this. First, the Americans, through motives that must be described as racism, demanded that the British give up their military alliance with Japan (which had served all the Allies so well during the Great War). The Japanese knew perfectly well what was being done, and why it was being done, and (unsurprisingly) wanted revenge later. The second point, was that in return the Japanese insisted on no British or American fortifications in their part of the world, except for Luzon bay and Singapore. Third, the Americans and Japanese insisted that the Royal Navy be reduced to equivalent size with the American navy, with only a 40% margin over the Japanese navy. Given that the British had a century or more of policing of the world’s free trade, where the Americans and Japanese had pretty much limited themselves in to some Pacific concerns, the combination of these three things was effectively a statement that no one would be responsible for free trade security in the future. So ‘naval base’ Singapore was constructed to do a job that was apparently no longer a priority, and for which there would be inadequate resources anyway.

This was not of course, seen as a cunning plan by the Royal Navy. It was however, seen as a cunning plan by the British politicianst, who used it to confuse the British voter into thinking that something was being done for almost nothing. Being politicians, they then renamed ‘naval base’ Singapore as Fortress Singapore, which meant precisely nothing. It sounded good for politicians to repeat though, and did allow both British and Australian governments to avoid a lot of expenditure on defence for 20 years.

So when General Percival faced a Japanese attack, he did so with an army well short of the number of battalions considered necessary. (The correct number would be available within six months, but immediately needed units had already been rushed to help open communications through Iran and Iraq with the Soviets who were in desperate straights.) In addition, he was defending a naval base that had no landward fortifications, and was not expecting a fleet for up to six months. (Another myth is that it never came. This too is incorrect. Within four months the largest allied battle-fleet in the world was the five battleships and three aircraft carriers – with three more battleships and two more aircraft carriers en-route – deployed as the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean, where it had one unsuccessful brush with the Japanese navy in April 1942. But before it was fully deployed as the Battle of Midway made it unnecessary, and the main units were moved back to invade North Africa and Italy instead.)

While waiting for the fleet, the theory had been that the Royal Air Force would be able to delay potential invaders, which meant that several airfields had been built in northern Malaya. Given that there were not enough modern aircraft to operate from those in fields, General Percival found himself responsible for defending yet more bases which served no real purpose (except of course that they would be extremely useful to the Japanese if they could be captured). So the army he did have needed to be deployed to defend empty naval and air bases scattered across hundreds of miles of coastline. Again, it was probably not surprised that such deployments, forced on him by the inadequacies of government and voters, put him at a serious disadvantage. (Note – aircraft may well have been available in time, if 3,000 Hurricane fighters had not been diverted to help Soviet Russia. Ten percent of them would probably have been enough!)

Percival also suffered from having commanders assigned by other governments. General Lewis Heath, known as ‘Piggy’ Heath, worked for the Indian Army and government. A brave foot slogging soldier who had done well in minor campaigns like East Africa: he had avoided any staff school training in his career, and had not a clue about the strategic or political problems faced by his superiors. General Gordon Bennett worked for the Australian army and government, and goes down in history as the greatest stain on the reputation of Australian generals. He had a chip on his shoulder that insured that his commanding officer in Malaya, his Australian superiors, and anybody who he saw as competition, was a far greater enemy than those actually shooting at him. The last minute appointment of General Wavell, exhausted from his over-extended tour in the Middle East, to supervise the ABDA command just made it worse. With no knowledge or understanding of the situation Wavell fell for Bennett’s bombast, and ordered a reluctant Percival to let him supervise a critical defence position. Inevitably that lead to failure.

With that said, General Yamashita, the commander of the invading Japanese army, had problems of his own. His government could not provide enough logistics to support the three divisions assigned. He would have to mount the attack with two divisions, and hope that there was a capacity to land and supply the third division in time for the final assault on Singapore. Through out the campaign he would be operating on a shoestring, and realistically it was only the capture of British supplies and transport that allowed the advance to continue. Even during the final assault, his men were so short of munitions and other supplies, that he desperately pressured Percival into surrender.

The key element here is of course that both men were being asked to do the impossible by their governments and their people’s. The difference is that General Yamashita managed to succeed.

The reason for Percival’s failure to do likewise are many and varied, but all relate as much to the system as to the man himself. He knew what naval forces were needed, but did not have them available after 20 years of parsimonious defence spending. He knew what air forces were needed to make up the gaps, but could not compete with the political importance of supplying a new ally (the Soviet Union) with 10 times those resources in the months leading up to the Japanese attack. He knew what he needed his land force subordinates to do, but they were lacking in ability and had divided loyalties. He knew what he needed the troops to do, but the provider governments had sent inadequately trained troops, with officers incapable of improving their training. He had inherited an excellent plan to shortstop the Japanese invasion into southern Thailand by crossing the border to meet them on the beaches, but he lacked the political support to carry it out in time. At every stage he was aware what the problems were, and what needed to be done to fix them, but he lacked the military or political resources to carry out his plans.

Of course a really good general, like Yamashita, was able to overcome the obstacles his government had put in his way. Which leads us to the real person who needs to be blamed for the failure of the British defences, the 1941 CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) General John Dill, who assigned Percival to the job in the first place. Knowing that his government was not willing to send the necessary resources, he hoped it would be enough to dispatch a first-class staff officer to try and organize things. As his successor (just days before the Japanese attack) General Alan Brooke noted in his diary: there is nothing more stupid than assigning a staff officer to a vital leadership position.

It has always been fascinating to imagine who Brooke would has assigned had he been appointed CIGS a few months earlier. He would have searched for a brilliant leader and trainer with experience in of the Indian Army (from where most of the troops would come), who he trusted to cope with impossible circumstances at the end of an inadequate supply line. Only three names in his diary can close to this description. General Claude Auchinlek, who Brook had reservations about, and who Churchill had just assigned to replace Wavell in the Middle East; General Harold Alexander, who was certainly reliable, but not Brooks first choice for a complex role; and General Bernard Montgomery, who throughout the war was Brooks’ fireman. Montgomery had served at the Quetta staff College in India, and had always worked well with troops of all nationalities. He was clearly Alexander’s superior as a tactician, and in dealing with lack of supplies. (During the retreat through Belgium in 1940, while other divisions were short of food, Brook was impressed by the ‘ever provident’ Montgomery’s appropriation of a herd of cows.) Montgomery was the one man who Brook always trusted to overcome the odds.

Visualising Montgomery in Malaya is highly amusing. Judging by all his previous and future actions, he would have exploded onto the scene and completely reversed the vast majority of practices and preparations. He would undoubtedly have insisted that he had no time to deal with Burma, and that it should be returned to India command (which may well have saved it, by contrast to the last minute change several months later). He would have called for a first-class staff officer to play deputy at Singapore while he concentrated on the field army (again, getting General Pownall far earlier, when it might have had an impact). He would have followed previous practices by insisting that the theatre be treated as a war zone, and that wives must be sent home. (This last would have caused a rupture with Piggy Heath, who had a very pretty new young wife, and would probably have led to his replacement by the next officer in line for core command in the Indian Army, an impressive fellow called William Slim. Many have claimed that Slim was the best allied general of the war.) He certainly would have accepted the suggestion of the visiting Australian Chief of Staff that Bennett should be replaced by someone with modern combat experience. (The next Australian in line to divisional command was the iconoclastic George Vasey, whose favorite greeting for superior officers was “How are you, you old bastard?”. Adored by his men, he had successfully led troops in North Africa, Greece, and Syria, and was to be even more successful in New Guinea.)

The arrival of Slim and Vasey alone would have had profound affects, even without the personal impact of Montgomery - one of the best trainers and leaders in all the Allied armies during the Second World War. But the idea that troops would not have been infinitely better prepared when the Japanese arrived is laughable. The concept that Montgomery and these assistants would continually and confusedly reply to Yamashita’s tactics by simply retreating is inconceivable. Simply the removal of Heath and Bennett would have been a vast improvement, even without replacements of this quality.

The idea that Montgomery would have waited for the political hand wringers when granted the opportunity to pre-emptively attack the Japanese beaches is also laughable. (When the BEF advanced into Belgium in 1940, other divisional commanders had had trouble with local Belgian generals, but not Montgomery. He told Brook that he had put himself unreservedly under the local Belgian commander, but that if the Germans did attack he would simply arrest him and get him out of the way so that he could do his job.) It is interesting to consider how the Japanese would have coped with an Anzio or D-Day style combat on the beaches given that their attack at Khotu Baru suffered significant casualties from much lighter defences. Certainly their logistics were not up to the sort of efforts it took the Allies to fight their way forward in Italy and France.

I do not doubt for a second that Montgomery would have been able to create the resistance necessary to keep his troops in better heart. Even if Japanese superiority in the air and sea had made retreat inevitable, it would certainly have been much slower and much more painful for the Japanese. Considering that their occupation of Singapore was on what Yamashita himself considered to be it’s last gasp, this could have been a telling point. The British 18th division and another Indian brigade, along with 2500 Australian reinforcements, arrived only days before the surrender and had no time to recover from their journey, to train, or to take up their places effectively in the line. This would not have been the case had Montgomery been in charge. Even more significantly, General Lavarack, the Australian corps commander from Libya and Syria, had already run a reconnaissance to deploy the battle hardened Sixth and Seventh Australian divisions within a few weeks. These troops would not have been as inexperienced, badly trained, or defeatist, as the Indian Corps (that would have been withdrawn to Java to recuperate and to take up defences there).

Consider acounter attack by the battle hardened Australian Corps, supported by the battle hardened 7th Armoured Brigade (which was only diverted to Burma after easy success in Malaya allowed the Japanese to start the Burma attack early). Consider that although the Japanese held air superiority, newly arrived units in Burma were turning that around until ordered to withdraw due to Japanese land advances. Consider that the Royal Navy escorted many convoys into the besieged Singapore without losing a single ship to the Japanese.

Possibly the result would have been the same in the end, but a careful reading of Yamashita’s perspective does not suggest that anything was inevitable.

Yet despite my playing with the idea that leadership would have made an enormous difference, the real cause of the problem at Singapore remains what it has always been for liberal western states in the last couple of centuries. Democracy.

During peace time politicians and voters put off expenditure on defence until it is too late. During peacetime the profession of arms is so poorly thought of that most of the better offices escape to higher paid positions elsewhere, leaving far too high a percentage of second rate alternatives pretending to be useful generals when war begins. During wartime the second rate alternatives in higher command often deploy these second rate generals to the front through lack of imagination, or lack of alternatives. During wartime, the politicians who have spent the last 20 years arguing against defence expenditure, feel justified in blaming the military commanders for all the resulting failures. During wartime, the voters get the inevitable results of the interwar voting habits. But they, like the politicians, then get the opportunity to poke scorn at the dead and defeated soldiers who have paid the price of the voters parsimony.

Democracies traditionally go into wars ill prepared, and with a poorly paid and poorly trained military. Democracies traditionally then welcome pompous historians writing lots of books about how hopeless their military classes are - see the Lions led by Donkeys explanation of the Great War - failing to note that this itself discourages the recruitment or retention of good candidates for the military during peacetime! Democracies in fact get the militaries they deserve in peace, and then pay the penalties their voting habits have made inevitable in war.

As a result I can affirm that in most wars by liberal western states of the last three centuries there have been inevitable examples of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’. But my preferred candidate for the title of ‘Donkeys’ are not necessarily the generals, or even the politicians: but the voting public themselves.


  1. do we laugh now?

  2. Hi, is this thread still going?

    I'm intrigued you attribute the motive of 'racism' to the Americans against the Japanese.

    I uncovered a little known facet of history doing some family research (I had missionary ancestors in China).

    There was this American doctor in China (he was a medical missionary) who became a friend of Truman, and he was convinced the Japanese were up to no good in China. That they wanted Manchuria (which was the case).

    In the 1920s the policy was to consider the Japanese allies. Therefore they were allowed to get away with things in China to the detriment of the Chinese.

    This guy became convinced that this was the wrong policy, and that it would only alienate the Chinese. The Chinese were in a mess in the 1920s and 1930s but this guy quite rightly saw that they were way more important for American interests globally than the Japanese.

    Anyway, he became so convinced of this he came back from China and started doing these lecture tours in the US in the 1930s trying to convince Americans that they should re-think their Japanese policy in favour of a pro-China policy. He thought the nationalists needed support (Chang Kai Shek) and if they didn't, the communists would get in.

    Later on in the 1930s he became a Congressman and was influential in persuading Truman to set up the UN and World Health Organisation.

    Sorry, will have to look up the name (it has escaped me).

    1. Interesting, but I think he was too sanguine about the Nationalists as well. Sun Yat Sen may, potentially, have been a George Washington, but Chiang Kai Shek was more of a Mussolini (and Mao just a Stalin).