Sunday 12 March 2023

The Surrender at Singapore

The former Ford Motor Factory at Bukit Timah was the location for the ignominious surrender of British and Commonwealth troops on Sunday 15 February 1942. The British commander was Lt General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (GOC) British troops in Malaya (which included Singapore). The Japanese 25th Army was led by Lt General Tomoyuki Yamashita who became known as the 'Tiger of Malaya'. The surrender was  ignominious because Percival surrendered an army consisting of some 85,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malay troops to a smaller Japanese army of  around 35,000 men. Yamashita's forces had out-manoeuvred and out-fought the British in Malaya. They had moved with great speed through the peninsula towards the all-important goal of Singapore. This was part of the grand plan of the Japanese high command to capture what they called the southern resources area which provided access to rubber, oil and other raw materials in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. The Japanese army crossed the Johor Straits that separated Malaya from Singapore on 8 February and a week later they captured the bastion of British military strength in the Far East. Singapore had been seen as the 'Gibraltar of the East' impregnable fortress.

Winston Churchill described the defeat and subsequent capitulation as 'the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history'. One would have to go back to 1781, to the Battle of Yorktown in the American War of Independence or even to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to find another such calamitous defeat. The loss of Singapore is sometimes described as a national disgrace and Percival is generally blamed by historians for lack of leadership, and for surrendering rather than fighting on. The British and Commonwealth soldiers that were subsequently incarcerated as POWs in South East Asia suffered terribly and many thousands died during their captivity in Japanese prison camps and labour camps. 

...............but has history been fair to Percival ? or could it be, at least in large part, that he was not given the tools to complete the task. The Japanese had both air and sea superiority. Percival had insufficient aircraft many of which were antiquated and obsolete like the Vickers Vildebeest and the Brewster Buffalo. Some Hawker Hurricanes arrived late in the battle but there were not enough. The Imperial War Museum describes how the Japanese had 600 aircraft and the British  had only 158. The Japanese had 200 tanks whereas the British had twenty-three. Percival had asked for more tanks but none were sent. They were needed elsewhere. He had the manpower but insufficient aircraft, warships and armour. The loss of the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse was catastrophic. The two capital ships with their escorting destroyers had no air-cover because the aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable, which should have been part of their task force (Force Z) had run aground in the Caribbean Sea. 

The Former Ford Motor Factory in March 2023

The Ford factory, built in art deco style, was completed and opened in October 1941 just weeks before the war started with Japan on 8 December.  The Japanese used the factory as Battle HQ during the fighting around Bukit Timah, a high point on the island.  Today the factory is a national monument and  home to an excellent museum. 

The factory as it looked at its opening in 1941

The surrender party arrives at the Ford Factory (above) artist rendition (below)

The four British officers were from left to right: Major Cyril Wild, interpreter, bearing the white flag, Deputy Adjutant General, Brigadier Thomas Newbigging, bearing the union flag, Brigadier Kenneth Torrance and Lt General Arthur Percival. The interpreter carrying the white flag (a task no-one wanted) is caught by a Japanese cine camera casting away the white flag with an air of disgust. Brigadier Newbigging appears to admonish him. The surrender formality took place at the factory.

Artist rendition of the surrender negotiation

Signing the surrender at the Ford Factory

Percival had expected an attack on the northeast shoreline rather than the more swampy northwest coast. He put the main component of his defence force in this sector. The Japanese carried out a decoy assault on the NE sector but their main force came ashore and quickly overwhelmed the defenders on the northwest shore. Percival was forced to withdraw his troops and form  a perimeter around the city. When the Japanese captured Bukit Timah, they secured possession of the reservoirs and the water supply. In fact, the Japanese did not turn off the water supply but water shortages were caused by numerous broken water mains resulting from the aerial bombing and artillery bombardment. The moral of some of the defenders was poor. They had been beaten and pushed back through Malaya to Singapore and now their backs were to the sea. The RAF had withdrawn to Sumatra and Java and the Royal Navy had lost its two main surface ships. The Japanese had achieved full control of the skies and the seas. The ammunition for the AA guns and the field guns was close to running out. Moreover the water supply was expected to extinguish within 24 hours. The victorious Japanese  army were at the gates to the city with its large civilian population. Churchill had ordered the Governor and Commander-in-Chief,  Sir Shenton Thomas, and by extension the army commander, Lt General Percival, to fight to the last man. However, Percival realised that there was no longer any useful military advantage to be gained by fighting on. In order to save lives, both civilian and combatants, the time had come to capitulate. He had sought permission from General Archibald Wavell to surrender when he felt the limits of military endurance had been reached. Wavell had encouraged Percival to fight on but on Sunday 15 February he sent a telegram which whilst still exhorting him to continue to resist it gave him the discretion to capitulate once the situation on the ground warranted it.

Ford Factory during the Japanese occupation

Lt General Arthur Percival 

H.E. The Governor Sir Shenton Thomas

Having received Wavell's assent giving Percival the discretion to cease fighting, Percival and his commanders and staff at the Battle Box made the painful decision to surrender the garrison. Percival explained that the choice was either to counter-attack Bukit Timah and recapture the water supplies and food depots - or to capitulate immediately. A successful counter-attack was not deemed feasible. It was clear that the battle had been lost - it boiled down as to whether to surrender now or surrender later.  Later that morning Brigadier Newbigging, a senior staff officer,  Major Cyril Wild as interpreter and Hugh Fraser,  the Colonial Secretary drove out along the Bukit Timah road to Japanese lines to negotiate terms. The Japanese gave the party a large Japanese flag with orders that the flag must be flown from the roof of the Cathay Building, the tallest building in Singapore. The flag should be displayed for at least ten minutes and would signify that Percival had agreed to meet Yamashita that evening at the Ford Factory. The British delegation then returned to Fort Canning with the Japanese demands. 

Percival and the surrender party, drove to the Japanese front line and were then conveyed to Yamashita's HQ at the Ford Factory. They were shown to a meeting room with a conference table. At around 6:45 pm Lt General Yamashita arrived with his staff officers. The Japanese general extended his hand to the British officers. Yamashita opened the negotiation by stating that the Imperial Japanese Army will consider nothing but unconditional surrender. Percival wanted more time to consider and suggested that they respond the following day. Yamashita in a raised voice insisted they accept unconditional surrender there and then and if not the firing would resume that evening. The Japanese General stated that they cannot accept any further British resistance. It must end now.  Percival asked Yamashita not to permit the Japanese Army to enter Singapore city until the following day. He would return to his HQ and give the orders to cease firing and disarm. Yamashita then told Percival that they would need to take into their custody the senior British officers and the Governor as a sign of good faith. Percival appeared shocked. Yamashita continued to berate Percival until at 7:40pm Percival assented to the Japanese demand for unconditional surrender.  He had little choice. He did not know that the Japanese army was smaller than his and that they were over-extended and at the end of their supply line. Had he fought on it would only have delayed the inevitable defeat which had effectively already occurred with the capture of most of Malaya and Singapore and Percival's army pushed back to a defensive ring around the city. It was agreed that the British forces would be notified of the capitulation and all firing would cease by 10 pm. The troops would disarm and a thousand would retain their arms to preserve law and order. Percival  asked only that the Japanese protect the British women, children and civilians caught up in the battle. Yamashita agreed and Percival signed the instrument of surrender.


Percival was imprisoned at Changi until August 1942 when with other senior officers he was moved to Japanese occupied Formosa an later to Manchuria. After release in 1945 he was invited to witness the Japanese surrender in the battleship USS Missouri. He was also invited to attend the surrender of Japanese forces in the Philippines led by Yamashita. Yamashita was tried and found guilty of war crimes. He was sentenced to death by hanging. Percival returned to UK and lived in Hertfordshire with his wife and two children.  He retired from the Army in 1946. He became Lord Lieutenant of the county in 1951. He was President of the Far East POW Association. He died aged seventy-eight in 1966.


  1. Excellent article, Phillip. I lived in Singapore a few years ago and visited the factory. It's hardly changed. I now live in Hong Kong and have (and am still) exploring the wartimes sights and climbed up to 'PB3' at Wong Nai Chung gap yesterday and came across an intact pillbox on Lady Clementi's ride. This pillbox doesn't seem to be identified in anything I've read.

  2. Oh and I've just bought your book!

    1. Thanks so much for buying the book - PB 3 is in pretty good condition. One of my favourites with the long entrance tunnel. Wish you well in your battlefield explorations.