Battle of Singapore

Singapore Infopedia

by Ho, Stephanie


The Battle of Singapore was fought from 8 to 15 February 1942 between Allied (mainly British Commonwealth) and Japanese forces. The first Japanese troops landed in Singapore via the northwestern coastline on 8 February 1942. After a week of intense fighting, the British Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese forces under the command of Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

Preparation for war
From the end of World War I onwards, Britain had begun to build up its defences in Singapore in light of the growing military threat from Japan. A naval base was constructed in Sembawang and huge guns were emplaced in strategic locations along Singapore’s coastline to fend off possible naval attacks.1 In 1938, Governor Sir Shenton Thomas opened what was then the largest dry dock in the world at the naval base. However, the base did not host any permanent naval fleet. The British strategy was to dispatch a fleet to the base only when a threat was imminent.2

Despite its limited defences, the political leaders and media at the time contributed to the impression that Singapore was secure against any attack. Newspapers referred to Singapore as being a “Gibraltar of the East”, a “fortress” that was “impregnable”, suggesting that the island was virtually impossible to conquer.3

Fall of Malaya
The first attack on Singapore came on 8 December 1941 when Japanese planes dropped the first bombs on the island, killing 61 and injuring 133 people in the process.4 On that same day, the Japanese 25th army landed troops in Singora and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Bharu in northern Malaya.5

Conscious that British defences were focused on the sea, Japan approached Singapore from its back door, Malaya. The British army had anticipated a landward attack and developed a first strike plan code-named “Operation Matador” to stop the Japanese advance in Thailand. However, political reasons prevented Operation Matador from being activated until it was too late.6

The main Japanese force moved swiftly down the western flank of the Malay Peninsula with the help of motor vehicles and bicycles. Poorly trained, lacking in experience and equipment, the Allied troops could not hold their positions and were forced to retreat. In less than two months, the Japanese had eliminated British naval and air capabilities, and captured Malaya. The last Allied troops crossed the Causeway and withdrew to Singapore on 31 January 1942. Allied engineers subsequently blew a 70-ft (approximately 21 m) gap in the structure in a bid to slow down the Japanese advance into Singapore.7

Singapore’s defence strategy
At the start of the Battle of Singapore, the Allied forces numbered around 85,000 men, of which about 70,000 were armed. The Allied forces had a total of 38 infantry battalions as well as artillery regiments, anti-tank regiments and anti-aircraft guns. Despite their superior numbers, many of the soldiers were either weary veterans of the Malayan Campaign or inexperienced new recruits. They were also fast running out of weapons and ammunition.8

Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival, who as General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya was the overall commander of the Allied troops, divided the island into four sectors – northern, western, southern and reserve – and assigned troops to defend the coastline of each sector.9 As far as possible, the Allied troops were ordered to prevent a Japanese landing on the island. As Percival believed that the Japanese would attack east of the Causeway where the naval base was located, he placed his strongest forces there.10

Unfortunately, Percival’s reading of the Japanese invasion plan was mistaken. The Japanese commander Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s actual plan was for the 5th and 18th divisions to enter Singapore via the northwestern coastline. Their aim was to capture Tengah airfield and Bukit Panjang village. Subsequently, the Imperial Guards division would attack the Causeway sector and aim to take Mandai village and Nee Soon.11

Japanese landing
On the night of 8 February 1942, the Japanese began to bombard the northwestern coastline of Singapore. Subsequently, the 5th and 18th divisions of the Japanese army crossed the Johor Straits in collapsible boats and overran the Australian soldiers tasked with guarding the area. It is believed that 13,000 troops crossed into Singapore that night. The next day, the Imperial Guards division crossed into Singapore at Kranji and via a repaired Causeway.12

Bukit Timah
After landing in Singapore, the main objective of the Japanese Imperial Guards division was the Bukit Timah area. Not only was Bukit Timah Hill the highest point on the island, the area was also where the British petrol, oil and supply depots were located.13

The Japanese forces faced stiff resistance from the Allied soldiers but managed to breach the Kranji-Jurong defence line when Allied forces retreated from the area due to a misunderstanding of orders. Japanese forces took Bukit Timah on 11 February and Yamashita established his headquarters at the Ford Factory located in the area.

After the loss of the Bukit Timah area, Allied troops were ordered to withdraw to the final defence perimeter around the city area stretching from Pasir Panjang to Kallang.

Pasir Panjang
On 13 February, the Japanese attacked Pasir Panjang Ridge. The ridge was a key location leading to the Allied forces’ main ammunition magazine, main ordnance depot, the Alexandra Military Hospital and other military installations.14 The Malay Regiment who defended the area put up a strong resistance but was eventually overwhelmed by the superior numbers and weapons of the Japanese in what became known as the Battle of Opium Hill.

Massacre at Alexandra Military Hospital
After gaining full control of Pasir Panjang Ridge on 14 February, Japanese troops moved into the Alexandra area. Despite the fact that the Alexandra Military Hospital was marked by red crosses, Japanese troops charged into the hospital and killed a British officer who had gone out to meet them with a white flag. The Japanese troops then entered an operating theatre and killed the patient on the operating table as well as the staff attending to him.15

Another group of soldiers then entered the wards and bayoneted the patients indiscriminately. Later, the Japanese were said to have gathered about 200 patients and staff outside the hospital, tied them up with a rope and crammed them into three small rooms for the night. The next day they were tied together in threes and executed. It is estimated that around 280 staff and patients were killed over two days.16

The surrender
By 15 February 1942, the situation in Singapore had become difficult for the Allied forces. There was only enough water supply for 24 hours due to breaks in the water mains and pipes. Furthermore, the main reservoirs were all in Japanese hands.17 Casualties from enemy bombing were increasing faster than the rate in which bodies could be collected and there was only three days’ worth of rations.18

On the morning of 15 February, Percival met his commanders at the Fort Canning Bunker (also known as the Battle Box). In light of the circumstances, the decision was made to surrender to the Japanese. Later that day, Percival and his surrender party met Yamashita in the Japanese headquarters located at the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah and officially surrendered Singapore to the Japanese forces.19

8 Dec 1941:
Japanese troops land at Singora, Patani and Kota Bharu; bombing of Singapore begins.

10 Dec 1941: Japanese sink the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse off the coast of Kuantan, Malaya.
31 Jan 1942: Last Allied troops cross the Causeway into Singapore.
8 Feb 1942: First Japanese troops land in Singapore.
11 Feb 1942: Japanese troops capture Bukit Timah.
13–14 Feb 1942: Battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge.
14–15 Feb 1942: Massacre at Alexandra Military Hospital.
15 Feb 1942: British surrender to the Japanese at Ford Factory in Bukit Timah.


Stephanie Ho

1. Ong, C. C. (1988). The landward defence of Singapore (1919–1938). Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies, National University of Singapore, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 355.03355957 ONG)
2. Percival, A. E. (1949). The war in Malaya. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, pp. 36, 43. (Call no.: RRARE 940.53595 PER)
3. Gibraltars in the East. (1939, March 12). The Straits Times, p. 1; World importance of Singapore’s defences. (1940, June 11). The Straits Times. p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, G. B. (2005). Syonan: Singapore under the Japanese 1942–1945. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 18. (Call no.: RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
5. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 165–166. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
6. Ong, C. C. (2011). Operation Matador: World War II – Britain’s attempt to foil the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions. (Call no.: RSING 940.542595 ONG-[WAR])
7. Wigmore, L. (1957). Canberra: Australian War Memorial, p. 283. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 WIG-[WAR])
8. Thompson, P. (2005). The battle for Singapore: The true story of the greatest catastrophe of World War Two. London: Portrait Books, pp. 260–261. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
9. Thompson, P. (2005). The battle for Singapore: The true story of the greatest catastrophe of World War Two. London: Portrait Books, pp. 261–262. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
10. Thompson, P. (2005). The battle for Singapore: The true story of the greatest catastrophe of World War Two. London: Portrait Books, p. 262. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
11. Thompson, P. (2005). The battle for Singapore: The true story of the greatest catastrophe of World War Two. London: Portrait Books, p. 283. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
12. Thompson, P. (2005). The battle for Singapore: The true story of the greatest catastrophe of World War Two. London: Portrait Books, p. 297.(Call no.: RSING 940.5425 THO-[WAR])
13. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 236. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
14. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 253. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
15. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, pp. 261–262. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
16. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 264. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
17. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 244. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
18. Tan, S. T. L., et al. (2011). Battle for Singapore: Fall of the impregnable fortress. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, p. 290. (Call no.: 940.5425957 TAN-[WAR])
19. Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. (2012). The fall of Singapore: 90 days – November 1941–February 1942. Singapore: Talisman Publishing, p. 656. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425957 COR-[WAR])

The information in this article is valid as at 19 July 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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