74 years and several hours ago, Lieutenant General A.E. Percival and his staff, exhausted, spent and broken, conceded Singapore to the forceful and brilliant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, after a breathtaking campaign that was supposed to have lasted 100 days, but took only 70.
The “impregnable fortress” is a rather ripe term for the British to use, methinks, because this “Gibraltar of the East” was impregnated pretty fast, in the end.
There are, of course, other, less polite words to describe the act of impregnation, but one cannot deny that this particular fellow called Yamashita was a pretty brilliant campaigner.
Faced with apparently overwhelming odds (at least on paper), Yamashita waged a stunning lightning war, that overwhelmed and outmatched the confused, poorly-trained and haphazard British forces, hastily put together at the last minute after months of indecision.
Confronted by the monstrous guns that protected Singapore’s southern backside, Yamashita was forced to fight through the whole length of the Malayan peninsula to get at this bright prize, the juicy nipple on an elongated breast. But boy, did he chase the Britishers down.
And the battle came down to one final confrontation, at the negotiating table at the Old Ford Factory. Running out of supplies (because this overachiever had totally [and quite literally] pwned all of the British, and had nothing left to shell the white man with), and secretly terrified that Percival was stalling for time, Yamashita stared Percival down, intimidating the stricken and shivering Percival into a bleating surrender.
This is the flag Percival carried to that surrender. I happened to walk into it at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Strangely enough the Britishers are studiedly quiet on how they got their little (impregnated) fortress, Civilising MIssion, and asses handed to them in the Far East. The description only says how this flag was “preserved” to “raise the morale of the men in the eventual event of a British victory”.
I wonder what it must have been like for those soldiers on the ground, 74 years ago, to be told that the fighting was over. They had lost. They had lost it all.
I wonder if the Indian soldier, the ANZAC reservist, conscripted to fight in a land he had probably never heard of until the troop ship came within sight of the Singaporean shore, felt relieved, panicked or indifferent. I wonder how Yamashita felt, having pulled off the most elaborate and audacious gamble of his life.
I wonder what Percival was thinking at 11pm on 15 February 1942, having signed that surrender: the immense strain of all the past months finally over, the battle lost, his forces routed. I wonder if he could even guess at what the next 7 decades of History would remember of him. What was his last dinner as commander of British Singapore, did he even have dinner?
It was Total Defence Day yesterday. But those are just sounds. I think it’s worth sitting and contemplating the little stories that make up the bigger ones.