The Fall of Singapore

Within four days of each other in February 1942, two events shook Australia to its core.

Those events were the Fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 and the Bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942.

Several lesser, but equally important events also rocked the nation.

They included the capture of Rabaul, Ambon and Timor by the Japanese.

At the three latter events, small Australian Units fought and died defending the islands against an overwhelming number of enemy troops.

They were to experience further horrors as prisoners of war with over 1000 of those captured at Rabaul being killed when the Japanese ship transporting them to Japan was sunk by an American submarine.

Of those who surrendered at Ambon, over 300 were murdered by the Japanese soon after their capture.

As Michael Madigan writing for the Courier Mail said; It would be fair to say that no other event in Australia’s history as much as the Fall of Singapore shattered our faith in the British Empire.

It left Australia open to invasion and condemned over 22,000 men and women to slavery and starvation as prisoners of the Japanese.

In this day and age it is impossible to adequately recapture the absolute horror which swept Australia at the news of the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.

The Fall of Singapore was probably the single most important geopolitical event in our history.

It changed the dynamic of the Second World War for Australia and resulted in Australia commencing the process of loosening the ties to the United Kingdom and increasing ties to the United States.

These ties not only included military support but included influences on fashion, music and the way we lived our daily lives.

The Japanese landed on the Malaya peninsula on December 8, 1941 (the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, on the other side of the International Date Line).

They engaged British and Indian troops and it wasn’t until mid-January 1942 that the Australians, who were based in the southern Malayan province of Johor, first encountered the Japanese.

The Australians had some initial success and were able to briefly halt the Japanese advance.

But Japanese forces were mobile, they had air support, controlled the sea and they aggressively attacked and pushed through the ill-prepared line of defenders, often outflanking them.

This caused panic and confusion among senior commanders, and resulted in a series of withdrawals down the peninsula.

The last British Empire troops were evacuated across the causeway from Malaya to Singapore on January 31.

The battle for Singapore commenced on the night of February 8/9 when the Japanese landed on the northwest of the island.

The fighting was fierce, but by February 15, the Allied forces had lost control of the island’s reservoirs.

That day Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, Commander of the British Empire forces in Malaya, accepted the Japanese demand for unconditional surrender.

In a twist to the story; General Gordon Bennett (the Australian Commander), despite his instruction to Australian troops to stay at their posts, he and two of his staff officers escaped, controversially, from Singapore on the night of the surrender and eventually reached Australia.

His escape would be mired in controversy for many years.

Within a seven-week period, 22,000 Australians (including 71 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service) had the misfortune to become prisoners of war across the region. In addition, 1500 Australian civilians – men, women and children – were captured or interned across the region.

It was a time of great anxiety and suffering, not only for the prisoners but also for loved ones at home, who would have little, if any, knowledge of the fate – or even the whereabouts – of the missing troops until after the war ended.

The significance of the prisoner-of-war experience to Australia’s Second World War story can be measured by the profound loss of life.

One third of those captured did not survive their captivity.

These losses made up half of all the combat-related deaths suffered by Australian servicemen and servicewomen during the Pacific war, and the suffering of the survivors continued long after their return home.




7 December 1941

Japan attacks Malaya and Pearl Harbour


8 December 1941

Australia declares war on Japan


10 December 1941

Japanese sink the British ships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse


25 December 1941

Hong Kong surrenders to Japanese


11 January 1942

Japanese invade Dutch East Indies and Dutch Borneo (now Indonesia)


14 January 1942

Australian troops briefly halt Japanese advance in Malaya


23 January 1942

Japanese capture Rabaul


31 January 1942

British and C’wealth troops in Malaya withdraw to Singapore


3 February 1942

Japanese capture Ambon


8 February 1942

Japanese land on Singapore


14 February 1942

Japanese troops massacre 50 patients and staff at a military hospital


15 February 1942

Singapore surrenders to Japanese


19 February 1942

Darwin bombed for the first time by Japanese


23 February 1942

Australian ‘Sparrow Force’ surrenders on Timor