The myth that after the fall of Singapore, Britain abandoned us surfaced on the ACM Facebook page recently. In fact after Singapore, the British fought on against the Japanese, turning back the invasion of India and moving back into Burma.
While he was Prime Minister Paul Keating repeated this canard in the Parliament. This was an extraordinary attack on a close ally. In 2008 we said he should apologise. He has not, but it is still not too late.
We reported in this column of 8 August, 2008, that Paul Keating had once again insisted that our Constitution be changed to become some sort of undefined republic. This is based very much on his hostility to Britain rather than on any wish to improve the Constitution.
…gratuitous attack on ally in Parliament…
The egregious example of this hostility was during Question Time in Parliament on 27 February 1992. From the high office of Prime Minister, Mr. Keating launched an unprecedented and unjustified attack on a friendly power.
He accused Great Britain of abandoning Australia to the Japanese during the Second World War.
He said that Britain was “the country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination.”
How embarrassing it is for an Australian to read such an unjustified, uninformed and bitter accusation from the mouth of an Australian Prime Minister.
There were 38 infantry battalions involved in the defence of Malaya — 17 Indian, 13 British, six Australian and two Malayan, as well as three machine-gun battalions.
In addition, the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse and four destroyers were sent to Malaya just before the Japanese began their air assaults. The battleships were lost.
These were sent by a power almost alone in fighting the might of Germany in Europe, with Russia allied to Hitler and the United States neutral.
And far from abandoning Australia, Singapore was, after Pearl Harbour the seat of the hastily established joint American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, code name ABDACOM, the supreme command for all Allied forces in South East Asia led by British General Sir Archibald Wavell.
Although short lived, ABDACOM was the first of the combined Allied commands established during the war. After Singapore the British turned around the invasion of India, and with Commonwealth troops regained Burma. This was under the SE Asian command headed by Lord Mountbatten.
These were not the acts of a power about to abandon Australia.
….not the first time… This was not the first time that Paul Keating had displayed his apparent ignorance of history. He had previously claimed that the Australian constitution was drafted in and imposed by the British Foreign Office.
But in Parliament in 1992, as Prime Minister, he launched a particularly hostile and baseless attack on Great Britain.Had this been directed at any other power, it would have become a major diplomatic incident.
Reflecting their maturity and sophistication, the British obviously decided not to react.
…considerations in the fall of Singapore…
In the August 2008 issue of The Australian Literary Review, while reviewing “Australia's Empire,” a collection of essays edited by Deryck M. Schreuder and Stuart Ward for Oxford University Press, Professor Geoffrey Blainey said Britain deserves a lot but not all of the blame for pinning such faith in Singapore in the Second World War.
In particular this was in persisting with the strategy that – in the event of an attack by Japan – the British could quickly divert warships from European waters to Southeast Asia.
But, he says, two important facts are missing from this book. (I would add a third.)
The first was the unexpected and dramatic fall of France in June 1940. The pre war British plan had envisaged that the French fleet could operate against Germany in the Mediterranean, thus permitting the British to divert ships to Singapore if this proved necessary.
But the advent of the fascist French Vichy regime and their armistice with Germany put an end to this strategy. The British feared that the French fleet would soon fall under Hitler’s control.
….the British ultimatum to the Vichy French at Mers-el-Kébir…
So they gave the French an ultimatum. The French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir should continue to fight with them, or sail under escort to either a British port or a French port in the West Indies.
When the French did not comply, the British reluctantly launched an attack on the French fleet, and ensured it could not be used against the British and their allies.
Soon after, the Vichy regime granted limited basing and transit rights to the Japanese in French Indo-China. The Japanese used these, but immediately breached the limits.
With French Indo China secured , and a right of transit conceded by Thailand, Japan was free to launch her surprise attacks on British and American territory in December 1941.
To return to Professor Blainey’s review, he says that apart from the fall of France , the book disregards a second fact, one of which Paul Keating seems totally unaware.
…Australia must share the blame in underestimating the enemy…
This is that Australian politicians and Australian public opinion must share the blame for the dramatic loss of Singapore. Successive Australian governments had run down our defences, assuming that the Singapore fortress would always save us.
Professor Blainey asks, which of the allied nations, by 1941, had made the greater sacrifices and diverted the largest share of its own resources and manpower into the coming war in the Pacific?
It was the British, although far away and threatened with imminent invasion. Paul Keating should ask their forgiveness, and the forgiveness of the many British soldiers, soldiers, airmen and nurses who fought with their Australian colleagues and many of whom died in our defence.
Moreover, Professor Blainey says, it was especially in Australia that the view prevailed that the Japanese were a generally inferior people. This may have come from our attachment to the White Australia Policy, strongest in Mr. Keating's party.
In the summer of 1941-42, especially in their powers of organisation, the Japanese proved they were only inferior in their observance of civilised standards.
So why did Singapore prove to be “a cardboard fortress,” asks Geoffrey Blainey?
“I suppose,” he says,” much of the answer is that, prior to 1941, Britain deceived Australia and itself, and that Australia also deceived itself.
“On the other hand, almost nobody could foresee the swift collapse of France in 1940 and the implications of that, flowing throughout the world. “
….General Percival’s misguided attempt to protect the civilian population…
There is one other factor which Professor Blainey does not canvass. An important consideration for Lt. General Percival in surrendering to the Japanese was the welfare of the civilian population.
He was not to know that the Japanese would treat both the civilian population and to the prisoners of war so appallingly. Percival thought he was dealing with gentlemen. He was not.He was dealing with barbarians. This is no reflection on modern Japan and the Japanese. Nor does it justify racism. That does not mean we should try to cover up the facts.
The behaviour of the Japanese occupation forces was uncivilised to a degree which was incomprehensible to the British, the Dutch and the Australians, to say nothing of the civilian populations of the countries unfortunate enough to be conquered by them.
To repeat my argument, the surrender was based on the premise that Percival was dealing with a civilised force. He was not. Had Percival known this, he may not have defied Churchill and surrendered Singapore. His soldiers, and especially the Australians, were ready to fight on.