By Jon Diamond
On February 15, 1942, the island fortress of Singapore surrendered with 130,000 men, thus ending the defense of Malaya as one of the largest military disasters in the history of British arms since Cornwallis’s capitulation to Franco-American forces at Yorktown in 1781 during America’s Revolutionary War.
Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival’s surrender to the invading Japanese Army permanently destroyed Britain’s military and colonial prestige in the Far East. Since Percival sought out the best terms with the Japanese, thereby refusing to participate in any “last stand” heroics, he failed to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s standard as a military commander.
Although Percival was humiliated in both the surrender ceremony and as a prisoner of war, analysis of his prewar assessment and plans for the defense of Singapore demonstrates that he was not entirely culpable for the Singapore garrison’s defeat. Poor planning of the defensive aspects of the island coupled with an underequipped garrison to fight a modern battle with tanks and suitable aircraft ultimately may have been more causally related to the surrender than Army leadership. One must wonder whether Percival was a convenient scapegoat for a wider failure of British leadership and responsibility.
Receiving Command in Malaya
Arthur Percival was born on December 26, 1887, in Hertfordshire, England. After schooling at Rugby, he became a clerk for an iron mercantile company. When World War I erupted, Percival enlisted as a private but was quickly promoted to second lieutenant. Within three months he was again promoted to captain. Wounded during the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded the Military Cross. Further promotions ensued along with a Croix de Guerre and a Distinguished Service Order. He was described in his confidential report as very efficient, beloved by his men, and a brave soldier, and he was recommended for the Staff College.
After the Great War, Percival served with the Archangel Command of the British Military Mission in 1919 in north Russia during the Russian Civil War. This was followed by a posting brutally fighting the Irish Republican Army as an intelligence officer in 1920-1921. It was during this service combating the IRA that he was brought to the attention of Winston Churchill, then a cabinet minister, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
Percival was selected as a student for the Staff College, Camberley, from 1923 to 1924, upon a recommendation of Lloyd George. Thereafter, he served as a major for four years in the Royal West African Frontier Force as a staff officer, culminating in a promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1929. After studying at the Royal Naval College in 1930, he became an instructor at the Staff College in 1931-1932. With the assistance of his mentor, General Sir John Dill, Percival was given command of a battalion of the Cheshire Regiment from 1932 to 1936, becoming a full colonel in 1936.
Dill regarded Percival as an outstanding instructor and staff officer and wrote in his confidential report of 1932, “He has not altogether an impressive presence and one may therefore fail, at first meeting him, to appreciate his sterling worth.” Dill recommended that Percival should attend the Imperial Defense College in 1935. In 1936, his mentor again helped Colonel Percival become the GSO I Malaya Command, serving as chief of staff to General William G.S. Dobbie, the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya.
In 1937, Percival returned home as a brigadier on the General Staff, Aldershot Command. However, it was during his posting with Dobbie that Percival made important observations about the defense of Singapore and conducted a detailed analysis of Singapore’s vulnerabilities not from the sea but rather from the Malay Peninsula. Again, however, critics would cite that Percival had a “gift for turning out neatly phrased, crisp memoranda on any subject…. He was excellent in any job which did not involve contact with troops.”
From 1937 to 1940, Dill enabled Percival to maneuver through a variety of staff and command positions, the latter including the 43rd (Wessex) Division and 44th Division. Then, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Dill appointed Percival GOC Malaya with the rank of lieutenant general, promoted over the heads of many senior and more experienced officers. Dill’s support of Percival was based on his evaluation of his protégé as an intelligent, efficient, tireless, and professional staff officer.
Concern over Singapore’s Defenses
Critics of Percival have claimed that he was a colorless character, more a staff officer than a commander and certainly not a natural leader. Furthermore, it was asserted that he played everything by the rules, however ludicrous these might be, and if he did not lack urgency, he certainly lacked passion. He was not a man for a crisis and certainly not a man for a desperate campaign.
Ironically, when General Sir Alan Brooke was appointed CIGS, he reflected on such appointments that “officers were being promoted to high command because they were proficient in staff work—which was quite wrong—and urged that fewer mistakes of this nature should be made in the future.”
As an example of Brooke’s concern about the future, it had also helped Percival that in 1937 he had written an appreciation of the defense of Malaya and Singapore. As CIGS, General Dill wanted more troops sent to the Malaya command; however, Churchill would not acquiesce to this request.
For over two decades, the combined British military establishment pondered how to best defend Malaya and the Singapore naval base. Unfortunately, there was interservice rivalry, and often the Royal Air Force (RAF) disdained to consult the Army in regard to the placement of airfields along the Malay Peninsula.
In 1937, Maj. Gen. Dobbie, along with Percival as his chief of staff, looked at the problem of defense using the Japanese viewpoint as a new perspective. Percival and Dobbie had as an operational tenet that a British fleet could not arrive in fewer than 70 days to carry out relief. The pair began conducting exercises with troops in October 1937 and reported that, contrary to the orthodox view, landings by the Japanese on the eastern seaboard of the peninsula were possible during the northeast monsoon from October to March, and this period was particularly dangerous because bad visibility would limit air reconnaissance.
Both Dobbie and Percival warned that, as a precursor to their attack, the Japanese would probably establish advanced airfields in Thailand and might also carry out landings along the coast of that country. If the evaluation composed by Percival, under Dobbie’s oversight, was accepted, large reinforcements would be sent without delay. Percival’s evaluation was ignored.
Furthermore, in July 1938, when Japanese intentions were more obvious, Dobbie warned that the jungle in Johore (i.e., southern Malaya) was not impassable to infantry, but again he was ignored. By 1939, all Dobbie and Percival were able to wring out of the government was the sum of 60,000 pounds, most of which was spent on building machine-gun emplacements along the southern shore of Singapore island and in Johore.The prewar defense of northern Malaya was, incredibly, left in the hands of the Federated Malay States Volunteers.
“Let England have the Super-Spitfires and Hyper-Hurricanes”
A newly arrived Indian brigade was held as a reserve for the defense of Johore. Singapore island was entrusted to five regular battalions, two volunteer battalions, two coastal artillery regiments, three antiaircraft regiments, and four engineer fortress companies. The six air force squadrons had a total of 58 aircraft. There were no tanks. It is no surprise that when Percival took up his new appointment he had little enthusiasm or confidence. He wrote after the war, “In going to Malaya I realized that there was the double danger either of being left in an inactive command for some years if war did not break out in the East or, if it did, of finding myself involved in a pretty sticky business with the inadequate forces.”
Upon his arrival, Percival discovered that the northern airstrips on the Malay Peninsula had not been situated in defensible positions, nor did they have sufficient men or planes to occupy them. Many of his troops, in fact, were dispersed to guard the RAF’s exposed airfields in northern Malaya. Construction of defense installations was stalled because of bureaucratic issues. There was not a single tank in the entire theater of operations. Apart from a few regular British and Australian army battalions, the remaining troops were of mediocre or low quality, undertrained and indifferently led.
The reinforcements still on the way were no better, and none had any idea of operating in the jungle. In fact, Dobbie’s recommendations of 1937 were still a plan rather than a realized defensive framework to fend off a Japanese Army attack from the north. Some of the other service chiefs had held erroneous beliefs that their meager resources and near-obsolete equipment would be sufficient to combat a battle-hardened Japanese war machine which was honed to a sharp edge after nearly a decade of conflict on the Chinese mainland.
Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commander in chief Far East, remarked incredulously, “We can get on alright with (Brewster) Buffaloes out here…. Let England have the Super-Spitfires and Hyper-Hurricanes.”
Percival’s Political Hurdles
In Percival’s defense, he had too many political and logistical obstacles to overcome to make a meaningful contribution to the area’s defense. First, he tried to intensify training among his troops as well as obtain funding from the government to carry out defensive preparations. Second, he tried to construct defensive positions up north near the border with Thailand; however, local British business interests interfered, not wanting troops near their plantations or property.
Finally, when a plan—Operation Matador— was formulated to attack and seize potential Japanese troop staging areas in Thailand, both the detailed logistics and orders for advance were stalled. The government’s policy was to refrain from any act of provocation and bore much similarity to the “Phony War” on the Western Front prior to the Nazi onslaught in May 1940.
This military vacillation continued until December 6, 1941, when it was known that the Japanese army was en route to its staging areas in Thailand. Thus, there was no realistic provision for a British attacking force to seize the Kra isthmus in southern Thailand to prevent a Malay invasion by the Japanese until that country had clearly demonstrated itself to be the aggressor. In fact, it was Brooke-Popham who finally cancelled the plan whereby the 11th Indian Division would have entered Thailand to seize the Kra isthmus.
At the command level, a vacuum of leadership developed at a crucial stage. Air Chief Marshal Brooke-Popham was replaced by Lt. Gen. Henry Pownall in November 1941. Pownall had served as Lord John Gort’s chief of staff with the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and Belgium during the Phony War and amid the disastrous retreat to Dunkirk.
Pownall did not arrive in Singapore until December 27, 1941, and then command was further altered with General Sir Archibald Wavell being appointed to the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, with Pownall becoming his chief of staff. Thus, Percival’s chain of command was initially more illusory than extant. At the subordinate level, Percival had difficulties with Lt. Gen. Lewis Heath, commanding III Indian Corps, and Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett, commanding the 8th Australian Division.
“Weak and Hesitant Though Brainy”
Heath’s relations with Percival were acrimonious from the outset. Heath was senior to Percival and had commanded a victorious division in the Eritrean campaign. After fighting commenced with Japan in northern Malaya, Percival lost confidence in Heath as a corps commander but did not sack him. Bennett was a bitter, outspoken subordinate. As an Australian Army veteran of World War I, he was prejudiced against the British military hierarchy. Furthermore, like all commanding Commonwealth officers, Bennett had the option to discuss orders from Percival with the Australian government if he disagreed with them, thus giving him considerable freedom of action.
Bennett’s view of Percival was: “He does not seem strong, rather the Yes man type. Listens a lot but says little…. My estimate of him was right. Weak and hesitant though brainy.”
Although Percival had the opportunity to sack Bennett as well, he allowed him to continue commanding the Australian contingent. Finally, the relationship between Bennett and Heath was, to say the least, irascible. The recipe for disaster at Percival’s command level was complete.
Churchill Prioritizes Europe
As Percival noted after the war, his evaluation made in 1937 under Dobbie’s auspices did not differ from that adopted by the Japanese when they attacked Malaya in December 1941. Percival also claimed that when he had joined Dill at Aldershot in 1938 he had warned him that Singapore was “far from being impregnable and would be in imminent danger if war broke out in the Far East.”
Some have speculated that after having composed the evaluation about Malaya and Singapore’s defense Percival’s outlook about the likelihood of repelling a Japanese invasion was quite realistic rather than being pessimistic.
Although the Chiefs of Staff in August 1940 recommended reinforcing Malaya and Singapore, Churchill vehemently objected. The prime minister’s overriding concern was combating the Italians in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where he knew it to be the only theater in which he could actively combat Axis forces at that time. It must be remembered that the epic struggle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe was at its height and that the British Isles were bracing for a Nazi invasion just two months after the debacle at Dunkirk.
It may well be that the prime minister was incorrect on a number of different levels. First, Japanese military assets had always been undervalued by the Western democracies. Second, the presence of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse was, by no means, a satisfactory replacement for a large British fleet with aircraft carrier fighter protection, nor could it deter aggressive Japanese movements long enough for additional vessels to arrive. Finally, Churchill had already decided to have the United States guarantee the safety of British garrisons in the Far East; however, America was waiting for Japan to act as the aggressor before taking an active military stance.
Percival’s Moment of Truth
After hostilities commenced, the British strategy was always defensive and lacked any tactical brilliance. The Japanese were always advancing, thereby making Percival’s plans to counter appear sluggish. To compound the operational dysfunction at Percival’s headquarters, Wavell arrived on January 8, 1942, and accepted Bennett’s, and not Percival’s, plan for the defense of Johore. Pownall noted in his diary that Wavell was “not at all happy about Percival, who has the knowledge, but not the personality to carry through a tough fight.”
Clearly, Percival had lost Wavell’s vote of approval for his command style. To further exemplify this, on January 20, 1942, Wavell met with Percival on Singapore to plan for the island’s defense since the outcome of a battle on the mainland appeared to be a foregone conclusion. This meeting was prompted by Percival’s unwillingness to plan for a withdrawal of Commonwealth forces from Johore to Singapore despite communiqués from Wavell.
Once the decision to evacuate to the island fortress was made, there was further disagreement between Percival and Wavell, with the former opting for defense on the northeast coast and the latter acquiescing. Numerically, the defenders had more than enough strength on the island to repel the invasion, particularly as it came where Wavell had expected it.
On February 8, 1942, the Japanese attacked the northwest side of the island. Further tactical errors occurred, and Percival withdrew inland toward the city, but space was running out. After meeting with his commanders on February 15, 1942, Percival decided to surrender despite a personal message from Churchill to Wavell calling for a last stand by the numerically superior Commonwealth forces. For a personally brave man such as Percival, capitulation was a bitter step, but he chose to go himself in the hope of obtaining better treatment for his troops and the population.
Responsibility for Singapore
Duff Cooper, sent by Churchill to coordinate interservice operations as the resident minister in the Far East, confided to the prime minister that Percival was not a natural leader and could not take a large view. Cooper went on, “It was all a field day at Aldershot to him…. He knows the rules as well and follows them so closely and is always waiting for the umpire’s whistle to cease-fire and hopes that when the moment comes his military dispositions will be such as to receive approval.”
To his many critics, Percival also seemed to lack the requisite ruthlessness to prevail during a military crisis. So, was it appropriate to make Percival responsible for the disaster at Singapore? Many argue that ultimate responsibility for the failure to defend Singapore adequately rests with Churchill, who was often focused on the events in the Middle East and diverted important assets to that theater.
Dill once wrote to Churchill, “Egypt is not even second in order of priority, for it has been an accepted principle in our strategy that in the last resort the security of Singapore comes before that of Egypt. Yet the defenses of Singapore are still considerably below standard.”
Even American military and naval experts endorsed the warning and expressed the view that Singapore should be given priority over Egypt. Factually, the desired air force strength of 300 to 500 modern aircraft was never reached in the Malayan theater. The Japanese invaded with over 200 tanks, while the British Army in Malaya did not have a single one. Indeed, Churchill himself had diverted some 350 older-model tanks from Malaya to the Soviet Union following the German invasion, as a show of good faith between the Allies. As these older infantry and cruiser tanks were more than a match for the light and medium Japanese tanks used in the invasion of Malaya, their presence could well have turned the tide of battle.
According to author Ronald Lewin, “Nobody can carp with any justice at an officer who is posted to a position for which he is not suited; the responsibility lies with his superiors or the military secretariat … and it was a cruel fate that put him in charge of Singapore’s defenses.”
According to a very harsh critic, Henry Pownall, “There is no doubt we underestimated the Jap. But suppose we’d made a better show and got the Jap at his true worth, would it have made any real difference? I very much doubt it.”
While other generals who were held captive by the Japanese, such as the American, General Jonathan Wainwright, had become public heroes, Percival found himself disparaged for his leadership in Malaya. Percival’s memoir in 1949, The War in Malaya, like its author, was restrained and did not reverse the criticisms of many others. Unusual for a British lieutenant general, Percival was not knighted for his service to king and country.