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WWII & Australia: The Fall of Singapore (1942)

Investigate Australia's role in WWII with these resources

BBC World Service - Witness History, The fall of Singapore

Source: BBC

The Fall of Singapore, also known as the Battle of Singapore, took place in the South–East Asian theatre of the Pacific War. The Empire of Japan captured the British stronghold of Singapore—nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East"—with fighting in Singapore lasting from 8 to 15 February 1942. Singapore was the foremost British military base and economic port in South–East Asia and under the Singapore strategy was important to British interwar defence planning for the region. The capture of Singapore resulted in the largest British surrender in history. Read through the resources below to learn more.

Fall of Singapore (National Museum of Australia, n.d.)

For 150 years Australia relied on the British Empire for its external defence. But Britain’s military and strategic focus on Europe in the early 20th century caused many Australians to worry about a Japanese invasion of our resource-rich continent. In the 1920s Britain, with support from Australia, formulated its Singapore Strategy whereby it would build a huge naval base on the island as a means of protecting its interests in the region. The fall of Singapore in 1942 led the Australian Government to reconsider its alliance with Britain. Read through this website to learn more.

Fall of Singapore (Kokoda Historical, n.d.)

The fall of Singapore to the Japanese Army on February 15th 1942 is considered to be one of the greatest military defeats in the history of the British Empire. Read through this website to learn more.

Fall of Singapore (ANZAC Portal, n.d.)

By 31 January 1942, all British Empire forces had withdrawn from the Malay peninsula onto Singapore Island. On 8 February, the Japanese landed in the north-west of the island and within six days they were on the outskirts of Singapore city, which was also now under constant air attack. Read through this website to learn more about the Fall of Singapore.

Remembering the Fall of Singapore (Australian War Memorial, 2021, February 15)

Since 1923 Singapore had been identified as the keystone of British Empire defence planning in Asia. The so-called ‘Singapore Strategy’ dictated that if a threat developed in Asia, a fleet could be sent from Britain to the new naval base in Singapore within three months. British propagandists proclaimed Singapore an ‘impregnable fortress’, but at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific the military resources required for the defence of the Malay Peninsula had not been adequately provided. Read through this article to learn more.

The Fall of Singapore (Virtual War Memorial Australia, n.d.)

The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 was a geopolitical shattering event that has had a lasting effect on not just the regional power dynamics of the Asia-Pacific but globally. Singapore had been ruled as a British colony since 1819 and had become a major East-Asian trading port. It had also gained a reputation as an impregnable stronghold, in fact it was known as the “Gibraltar of the east”. In 1942, all these assumptions were soon to be tested. Read through this website to learn more.

Fall of Singapore anniversary: How a military defeat changed Australia (ABC, 2017, February 14)

This article looks at the Fall of Singapore and the impact it had not just on the war, but for global politics post-war.

Fall of Singapore 80 years on: lessons transcend time and place (University of Melbourne, 2022, February 17)

The local lessons from the dramatic defeat of British and Commonwealth forces at the hands of the Japanese in 1942 have been well learned and internalised. But as Euan Graham writes, eighty years on, there are still wider lessons to be gleaned that transcend time and place. Read through this article to look at the long term impacts of the Fall of Singapore.

Fall of Singapore (BBC, n.d.)

This website has a collection of memories and accounts form people involved in the Fall of Singapore. It is a great place to go to find primary sources.

The city was a shambles by the time many personnel were evacuated or decided to escape. They had to make their way through bombed-out streets to reach Keppel Harbour, often enduring more air raids along the way. 

Two Chinese women mourn the death of a child killed in a raid. The civilian population of Singapore suffered horrendously during air raids, with little or no hope of escape.

For many escapers, getting off Singapore only delayed their capture. Private Victor Hudson, 22nd Brigade Headquarters, left Singapore one hour before the capitulation on a Chinese junk headed for Sumatra. His escape party missed the organised evacuation of escapees from the south coast of Sumatra, so bought a boat and set sail for India. They were blown off course by a storm and landed in Burma, where they were captured. Hudson was held at Moulmein and Rangoon Gaols. When the Japanese withdrew from Rangoon in early 1945, he escaped from a column of prisoners evacuated by the Japanese and reached British lines on 5 May 1945. He is pictured with his family after his return to Australia in June 1945. 

A lifeboat, crowded with survivors of a Chinese gun-boat, the Shu Kwong, drifts in the South China Sea shortly before their rescue on 14 February 1942. The Shu Kwong had left Singapore the day before carrying official evacuees, including thirty-two AIF technicians. Of the Australians, about twelve survived the sinking and were rescued and taken to Java. They eventually arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, on 10 March 1942.

FALL OF SINGAPORE (1942) newsclip


'Australia's Dunkirk,' Says Mr. Curtin



AFTER a short but heroic defence against vastly superior numbers, which were backed up by overwhelming support from the air, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on Sunday. The Imperial and Australian troops had disputed every inch of ground down the Malayan Peninsula. But it .was the story of Greece and Crete over again — brave men answering every call made on them in the most difficult circumstances, but subject to a never-ending strafing by dive bombers and machine guns.

The heavy artillery of the fortress raked the Japanese forces and rendered good service to the defenders. The latter carried out numerous counterattacks, but the Japs were always able to come back with superior numbers, or else get round the flank by coastal attacks, or by infiltration.

Right up to the last the civilian population believed that the troops defending the city would be able to keep the invaders out. Even on Friday the Singapore Free Press carried on its single sheet the defiant headline — 'Singapore Must Stand. It Shall Stand!'

But all the heroism in the world will not avail against superior numbers and superior equipment. Beside, the invulnerability of Singapore, like that of the Maginot Line, was a delusion and a snare. In the one case the Germans went round the Maginot Line; in the other, the Japanese simply took Singapore from the rear. Millions had been spent on making Singapore a naval base impregnable to attack from the sea; practically nothing had been done to protect it from land attack.


Many Troops Get Away.

A dread of terrible slaughter that would inevitably attend any attempt to evacuate Singapore in the final stages was in practically the minds of everyone, but the losses seem to have been far less than anticipated. Japanese Domei News Agency claims that the defenders of Singapore at the time of surrender consisted of 15,000 British, 32,000 Indians, and 13,000 Australians, a total of 60,000.

They had put up a magnificent fight for the island and the Japanese have officially stated that they fought to the limits of human endurance. It is believed that a considerable number of this force was able to get away. Berlin Radio quoting the Tokyo Asahi says: 'The largest part of the British and Australian forces obviously left Singapore on Friday for Sumatra. More than 30 ships, all over 1000 tons, and also a 10,000 ton cruiser, were anchored at Singapore on Friday night, but all had gone on Saturday morning. Only Chinese and Malays remain at Singapore.

There must have been losses on the trips across to Sumatra, as the convoys were continually bombed and machine-gunned. The Australians are reported to be comfortably quartered. Though showing the effects of their gruelling experiences, they are in high spirits, and paid warm tributes to the speed and efficiency with which the Dutch organised accommodation, transport and catering. It is also reported that Australian nurses have been safely evacuated from Singapore.

A Smashing Blow.

The fall of the city is a smashing blow to British prestige, and, indeed, to that of the white race. Mr. Curtin said that the disaster was 'Australia's Dunkirk,' and that it opened the battle for this continent just as Dunkirk had opened the battle for Britain. Its capture by the Japanese will considerably help them, for it will give them a valuable base from which they can carry out operations in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, the Allies have lost the only base between Durban and Pearl Harbor with, dry docks capable of taking a modern battleship.

The loss of Singapore has stirred the British Press to make renewed demands for the reconstruction of the Government, and this has been accentuated by the escape of the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and the cruiser Prinz Eugen from Brest.


In this connection it is worthwhile quoting the views of Colonel Ohira, Chief of the Imperial Headquarters Press section at Tokyo:

'Japan is in a position to control the fate of India and Australia,' he asserted. 'Moreover. Chungking has been completely cut off from aid from Britain and America.

'In addition to the Japanese military might, British and American smugness and over confidence are responsible for their successive setbacks.'

Churchill's Stirring Appeal.

The official announcement of the fall of Singapore was made by Prime Minister Churchill, who reviewed the motives and manner of Japan entering the war. He said he had nothing to offer except a hard and adverse war of many months.


In the course of his stirring appeal Mr. Churchill said:

'This is one of those momentswhen the British race and nation can show their quality and their genius. This is one of those moments when it can draw from the heart of misfortune the vital impulses of victory.

'Here is the moment to display that calm and poise, combined with grim determination, which not so long ago brought us out of the very jaws of death.

'Here is another occasion to show, as so often we have, that we can meet, reverses with renewed acceptance of strength.

'We must remember that we are no longer alone. We are in the midst of a great company. Three quarters of the human race are now with us.

'The whole future of mankind may depend upon our action and upon our conduct. So far, we have not failed.

'We shall not fail new. Let us move forward . steadfastly together into the storm and through the storm.'

The Heart of the Indies.

The Japanese have lost no time in striking at the principal East Indies islands. Borneo and Celebes are practically in their hands, and on Friday they launched an attack on East Sumatra, using paratroops for the purpose. The Dutch authorities claim that most of these were rounded up and shot, but evidently enough of them remained to render valuable assistance to other troops despatched tothe island. These proceeded up the Musi River, on which Palembang is situated, in all kinds of small craft-sloops, motor boats, sampans and rowing boats, continually harried by low – flying fighters and bombers, which took a heavy toll of the attacking forces. However, like the Germans, it is the objective and the cost that counts with the Japanese.


After fierce fighting Palembang was captured, but not until the Dutch had completely destroyed the vast oil installations and refineries there. The value of these is said to exceed that of the great Dnieper Dam destroyed by the Russians when the Germans were sweeping through the Ukraine.

The destruction of the oilfields will be a severe loss to the Allies, for they derived about 50 per cent, of their oil from them. Other important factors contributing to the importance of Palembang are:

(1) It produces 60 per cent, of all the Indies oil;

(2) it is the site of the only really big oil refineries in the Indies still available to the Allies;

(3) it is a big military and civil airfield;

(4) it is at the head of a river — the Musi — flowing into the Banka Strait;

(5) it provides a base from which Java can easily be bombed several times a day.

Java, with its 70,000,000 inhabit ants and huge resources, is expect ed to be Japan's next objective. It was reported on Monday that Japanese forces, strongly supported by warships, had landed on the Island. General 'Wavell, Supreme Commander in the South West Pacific, has his headquarters in Java.