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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V25 N2 (Apr - Jun 1999) > Yamashita and the Assault on Singapore : Was Yamashita's Success a Bluff that Worked or the Culmination of Calculated Risk Taking?

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Yamashita and the Assault on Singapore : Was Yamashita's Success a Bluff that Worked or the Culmination of Calculated Risk Taking?
by LTA (NS) Toh Boon Ho

 

The Japanese victory in Singapore was unprecedented in its scale and magnitude.  In fact, the victory was so total that Winston Churchill billed it as "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history".1  Yet, Lieutenant-General Yamashita Tomoyuki, who orchestrated his victory, claimed in a post-war admission that his victory was a bluff that worked by the narrowest of margins.2  This notion flew in the face of his opponents, notably the British commander, Lieutenant-General A.E. Percival, who insisted that the Japanese won through sheer numerical superiority on the ground, in the air and on the seas.  Coupled to this view were excellent combat tactics employed by the Japanese with battle-hardened and experienced troops, which made victory a predictable result.2  How do we reconcile these two contrasting and contradictory assessments?  It is the intention of this paper to evaluate the basis of these two conflicting theses and highlight the inadequacies of each as a credible explanation for the Japanese victory in Singapore.  The paper will then argue that the Japanese victory was more that just a bluff that worked, but the result of bold generalship that invariably had to respond to the frictions of war and ultimately depended on calculated risk-taking that paid dividends.

The thesis that Yamashita's victory was a close call that could easily have gone the other way was reflected in the following admission :

My attack on Singapore was a bluff, a bluff that worked.  I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered by more than three to one. I knew that if I had to fight long for Singapore I would be beaten. That is why the surrender had to be at once.  I was very frightened all the time that the British would discover our numerical weakness and lack of supplies and force me into disastrous street fighting.4

This bluff thesis first appeared in J.D Potter's The Life and Death of a Japanese General published in 1962.5  In it, Potter claimed that for the assault on Singapore, Yamashita's forces were short of ammunition that each soldier had only a hundred rounds each.  In addition, his food supply situation was so acute that "in long battle he was almost certain to be defeated, for even his tow-bowls-a-rice troops would be reduced to a near-starvation level."6

The smoking gun was further augmented by the tantalising revelation of Major Kunitake Teruhito's memoirs published in Japanese in 1973 and quoted in Louise Allen's 1977 book, Singapore 1941-42.  In it, Kunitake wrote of "the extreme fatigue of the Japanese troops [on 15 February] and the feeling that the Japanese might be on the brink of surrender."7  This view was reinforced by various post-war scholarly accounts.  C.M. Turnbull in her A History of Singapore 1819-1975 published in 1977, claims that "Percival never realised the close margin between defeat and salvation."8  She then asserted that Wavell made the claim that had Singapore held out for another month than it did, sufficient reinforcements would have arrived to drive back the Japanese.  Turnbull went on to state that "Yamashita and Tsuji considered that if the British had held on for three more days the Japanese would have been forced to call off their attack."9

Furthermore, the critical artillery ammunition was rapidly dwindling.10  Tsuji Masanobu, the Chief of Operations and Planning Staff, 25th Army was of the opinion that "the success or failure in the attack on Singapore depended on the preparations made to get adequate supplies of ammunition to the front line in time for the attack."11 It would seem then that the Japanese decision to totally rely on captured British food supplies12 and their failure to stockpile adequate reserves of artillery ammunition were now manifesting themselves in the possibility of a major Japanese setback, if not possible defeat, in the battle for Singapore.13

The above observations are however misleading and misrepresent the actual events.  A 'bluff' is a deliberate deception intended to create the impression of a stronger position that one actually has.  No doubt Yamashita's critical shortage in artillery ammunition was masked by his decision to keep up the crescendo of artillery bombardment against the British positions in the battle for Singapore, which seemed to indicate the inexhaustible supply of shells available in the Japanese camp.14  Even though artillery support was crucial, the Japanese had proved in their successful infantry assault on Bukit Timah that, armed with speed and surprise, an infantry attack unaided by artillery could very well succeed with acceptable losses.15  At the same time, Yamashita did not intentionally inflate the number of troops under his command.  The inflated figure of Japanese forces attributed by British sources was largely due to the failure of British intelligence to grasp the actual enemy numbers ranged against them. More importantly, it was Percival's continued belief that the Japanese had thrown in five or even six of their most experienced divisions against his overstretched, exhausted and numerically inferior forces.16  The employment of such numbers would also accord with his pre-war appreciation of a Japanese attack on Malaya and Singapore.17  Thus, Percival was conditioned by his perceptions of what the Japanese would do if he himself was in their position, and not what the Japanese were actually doing or assessing Japanese actions on their own merits,  In this manner, Percival was evaluating Japanese actions through mirror imaging, with grave consequences.18

The scale of the stubborn British resistance also surprised the Japanese.19  So did the intensity of their artillery bombardments as the battle dragged on just as the Japanese thought their enemy was at its last gasp.20  Yamashita has expected the British to surrender after losing Malaya.  He then felt certain that Percival would surrender after losing the vital logistic dumps on Bukit Timah.  Hence, his offer of terms to Percival on 11 February.21  Yet, British resistance persisted.  Had the British continued the stubborn resistance displayed in the last two days of fighting by engaging in street fighting for the city, it would have become necessary for Yamashita to await further ammunition supplies and perhaps even request troop reinforcements to launch the final assault on the city itself.22  In addition, contrary to Potter's assertion that Japanese food supplies were dangerously low, this aspect of logistics was well-provided for after the capture of the vital British supply dumps at Bukit Timah on the 10th/11th February.  The real problem was Yamashita's lack of manpower for any possible street fighting in the city and the continued resilience of the British capacity for resistance that far exceeded Japanese expectations.  Thus, the bluff in the context of Yamashita's post-war admission was his ability to exact a British surrender with the forces he possessed without recourse to additional reinforcements to effect such a surrender.23  Had Yamashita required reinforcements and additional supplies, he would most certainly have received them.24  Southern Army had sent its Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Tsukada Osamu to Yamashita's headquarters on 23 January with voluminous notes on how to capture Singapore, which, invariably, infuriated Yamashita.25  But such detailed concern highlighted the importance of Singapore in Japanese plans.  Higher command would certainly not refuse Yamashita's request if he so demanded.  The final capitulation of the British defences were never in doubt at this stage of the fight.  The only contention was the timing of the capitulation.  Therefore, Yamashita's post-war admission had been grossly misrepresented out of  context.

In addressing Percival's failure to exercise the opportunity of salvation by taking advantage of Japanese logistic and manpower shortages26, one must bear in mind the real constraints he faced, and not expect him to do the impossible.  What the aforementioned writer - Potter, turnbull and Kunitake - failed to understand was the very real problem Percival and his senior subordinates faced in exercising any form of control over the defenders.  Malaya Command was literally disintegrating under Percival.  The straggling and desertion problem was becoming too serious to ignore.27  These problems undermined the fighting efficiency of the forces remaining in the line which was barely holding up with the numbers remaining.  Thus, even if the opportunity for salvation availed itself, Percival simply lacked he forces to launch an effective counterattack, especially when he faced problems finding he required numbers to man the defence perimeter.28  In addition, Singapore was totally invested by the 14 February with the commencement of the Japanese assault on Sumatra.  From this point on, no ground, air or sea reinforcement of the beleaguered garrison could possibly get through.29  Thus, the argument that Percival could have reversed his fate given the problems confronting the Japanese simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

The bankruptcy of the "bluff" thesis highlights the need for a better explanation to account for Yamashita's victory in Singapore.  What this paper proposes is the "calculated risks" thesis.30  Throughout the campaign for Malaya and Singapore, Yamashita made conscious decisions based on calculated risks where it mattered most.  These decisions were mostly borne out by their successful outcome.  For the battle of Singapore, this paper proposes four such decisions.

The first decision was the dedication of all rail transport for the carriage of artillery ammunition critically needed for the siege of Singapore.  This decision was taken at the expense of transporting food supplies.31  Yet, this was not a foolhardy decision for Yamashita had taken the calculated risk that he could secure enough supplies from captured enemy rations to feed his entire army.32  The conduct of his opponents had yet to disappoint him since retreating Commonwealth forces had the tendency to abandon large quantities of supplies in their hasty retreat southwards.  It was a well-taken risk for Yamashita had barely enough artillery shells for assaulting the final British defence perimeter on 15 February.33

The next calculated risk was the decision to take Bukit Timah on 10/11 February in an infantry assault without artillery support.34  Rather than wait for the required number of artillery pieces to be floated across while the Causeway was being repaired, Yamashita decided to exploit the momentum of the assault by adopting the maxim of "hit hem hard, hit them fast."  His rationale was to keep the Commonwealth defenders off-balance and deny them any form of respite to re-form and re-organise for the next dig in.  Through this bold calculation, Yamashita gained the crucial Bukit Timah heights and the important British supply dumps, which alleviated his food supply woes.

The third calculated risk was the assessment that Percival would not endanger the civilian population by subjecting them to the horrors of street fighting which would place Yamashita's numerical inferiority at a major disadvantage.35  Percival had exhibited this trait in the Malayan campaign when he successively gave up Penang, Ipoh and more importantly, Kuala Lumpur
without making a stand.  Kuala Lumpur was a major transportation hub that could act as a funnel to canalise the enemy and force it to fight a set-piece battle.  It was also a major base area for III Corps and the Royal Air Force (RAF), housing considerable military stores.  Yet, Percival had decided to give up without a fight after the Slim River disaster.36  In effect, Percival was turning Kuala Lumpur into an 'open' city.  It was hoped that Percival would do the same in Singapore City.  To augment the changes of a British surrender, Yamashita decided to offer surrender terms after the successful capture of Bukit Timah, which dominated the city and where the bulk of the British supply depots were concentrated.37  This occurred on 11 February.  The wording of the terms appealed to Percival's humanitarian nature.  Yamashita advised that

... resistance is futile and merely increases the danger to the million civilian inhabitants without good reason, exposing them to infliction of pain by fire and sword .. If ... you continue resistance ... it will be difficult to bear with patience from a humanitarian point of view, and inevitably we must continue an intense attack against Singapore.38

In other words, Yamashita was warning Percival of a potential sacking39 of Singapore unless resistance ceased immediately.  Yamashita then kept up the pace of bombardment despite his critical shell shortage to impress upon Percival the futility of continued resistance.

While Yamashita held out the hope that Percival would surrender Singapore City without resorting to street fighting, he concurrently prepared plans for the last calculated risks, which constituted an all-out night attack by tanks and infantry scheduled for 15th February.40  This was a gamble to utilise all the last remaining resources in his possession to force a British surrender.  Should this gamble fail and the Commonwealth defenders resort to bitter street fighting, Yamashita would be forced to call up additional ammunition supplies and even reinforcements to extinguish the last remnants of Commonwealth resistance.  Yet, Yamashita was counting on the shock delivered by his tanks and the pulverising artillery bombardment of his last remaining shell supply on the defenders to punch through the defence perimeter and pour right through the breach.  Yamashita was clearly counting on the shock value to so disorganise the defenders that they had no chance to re-form and establish a new defence perimeter with in the city itself.  Yamashita would have placed considerable faith in his infantry to exploit the shock of the attack, infiltrate the defences to get behind the defence perimeter within the city.  In all likelihood, the  attack would have been successful had it taken place.  Major Cyril Wild, GSO II, III Indian Corps, concurred with the view that "had the attack gone in that night it would have broken clean through to the sea, splitting the garrison in tow."41  Thus, Yamashita's bold decisions were borne out by their successful outcomes. 

In conclusion, the notion that Percival could have entirely reversed the situation had he known of the dire logistical and manpower situation of the Japanese through a strong counterattack with his numerical superiority has been disproved. The disintegration of Malaya Command and the abundant support readily available to a determined Yamashita to prosecute the campaign to its final conclusion made surrender the only realistic option available to Pecival.  What mattered most was that Yamashita took calculated risks and won out in the end.  The decisions he took were not reckless gambles.  He evaluated his chances carefully before undertaking them.  Thus, the Japanese victory was a just reward of calculated risk-taking.  Luck, it seemed, had favoured the bold.42

ENDNOTES

1.W. S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (London : Cassell, 1951), p. 81.

2.J.D. Potter, The Life and Death of a Japanese General (New York : Signet Books, 1962), p. 80.

3.A.E. Percival, The War in Malaya (London : Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1949), 99. 294-306.

4.Potter, Life and Death, p. 80.

5.Ibid., pp. 85, 88-89; M. H. Murfett, J.N. Miksic, B.P. Farell & M.S. Chiang, Between Two Oceans : A Military History of Singapore From First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (Singapore : Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 341-342, 360.

6.Potter, Life and Death, p.77.

7.Emphasis mine.  See Louise Allen, Singapore 1941-1942 (London : Davis-Poynter Ltd ., 1977), p.174.

8.C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819-1975 (Kuala Lumpur : Oxford University Press, 1977) , p. 187.

9.Ibid. Regrettably, no references were indicated to show that the views were directly attributed to the three principles concerned.  Both Allen and Turnbull left the above interpretations unchanged in revised editions of their books.  Se Allen, Singapore 1941-1942 (London : Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1993), p. 174 and Turnbull, A History of Singapore 1819-1988, Second Edition (Singapore : Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 183.

10.US Army Center of Military History, Japanese Monograph no. 54, Malaya Operations Record November 1941- March 1942, p. 104; Tsuji Masanobu, Japan's Greatest Victory, Britain's Worst Defeat (Staplehurst : Spellmount Limited, 1997), pp. 212-213; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, pp. 235, 341.

11.Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p. 154.

12.Ibid., p. 153.

13.Potter, Life and Death, pp. 79-80.

14.Ibid. p. 84.

15.Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, pp.203-205.

16.Letter from Percival to General Douglas MacArthur, 1 October 1948, Percival Papers, Box 22, File 43; Percival, War in Malaya, p. 271; Potter, Life and Death, p. 89; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, pp. 218, 228-29.

17.Ong Chit Chung, Operation Matador : Britain's War Plans against the Japanese 1918-1941 (Singapore : Times Academic Press, 1997), pp. 70-71.

18.Farrell et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 343.

19.Ibid., p. 236.

20.Ibid., p. 341.

21.Ibid., p. 216; Allen, Singapore 1941-1942, pp. 187-188.

22.Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 342; Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p. 213.  Stunned by the stubborn resistance, Tsuji was preparing a new contingency plan to engage in possible street fighting for the city's capture.

23.Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 343.

24.Ibid., p. 342.

25.A. Swinsom, Defeat in Malaya : The Fall of Singapore (London : Macdonald & Co., 1970), p. 126.

26.Turnbull, History of Singapore, p. 187.

27.Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, pp. 230,344,359; C. Kinvig, Scapegoat : General Percival of Singapore (London : Brassey's1996), p. 210.

28.Farrell, et., Between Two Oceans, pp. 343,356.

29.S. W. Kirby, The War Against Japan Volume I : The Loss of Singapore (London : HMSO, 1957), P. 468.

30.Farrell, et at., Between Two Oceans, p. 343.

31.Ibid., pp. 214,216; Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, pp. 153-154.

32.Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p.154.

33.Ibid., p. 213; Potter, Life and Deaths, p. 85.

34.Malaya Operations Record, p. 106; Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p. 203; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 232.

35.Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p. 180.

36.Kirby, War Against Japan, p. 289.

37.Tsuji, Japan's Greatest Victory, p. 205.

38.Emphasis mine.  Ibid., pp. 205-206.

39.Major C.H.D. Wild, Note on the Capitulation of Singapore, paragraph 21, 30 November 1945, Health Papers, Box p441, File LMH4; John Smyth, Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore (London : Macdonald & Co. Ltd., 1971), pp. 238-239; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 235; Kinvig, Scapegoat, p. 219.

40.Potter, Life and Death, p. 89; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, pp. 342-343.

41.Wild, Note on the Capitulation of Singapore, paragraph 21, 30 November 1945; Allen, Singapore 1941-1942, p. 184; Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 343.

42.Farrell, et al., Between Two Oceans, p. 175.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.Health Papers, Box P441, File LMH4.

2.Percival Papers, Box 22, File 43.

3.US Army Center of Military History, Japanese Monograph No. 54, Malaya Operations Record November 1941-March 1942.

4.Allen, L. Singapore 1941-1942.  London : Davis-Poynter Ltd., 1977.

5.Churchill, W.S. The Hinge of Fate.  London : Cassell, 1951.

6.Kinvig, C. Scapegoat : General Percival of Singapore.  London : Brassey's 1996.

7.Kirby, S.W. The War Against Japan Volume 1 : The Loss of Singapore.  London : HMSO, 1957.

8.Murfett, M.H., Miksic, J.N., Farrell, B.P., & Chiang, M.S. Between Two Oceans : A Military History of Singapore From First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal.  Singapore : Oxford University Press, 1997.

9.Ong, C.C. Operation Matador : Britain's War Plans against the Japanese 1918-1941.  Singapore : Times Academic Press, 1997.

10.Percival, A.E. The War in Malaya.  London : Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1949.

11.Potter, J.D. The Life and Death of a Japanese General.  New York : Signet Books, 1962.

12.Smyth, J. Percival and the Tragedy of Singapore.  London : Macdonald & Co. Ltd., 1971.

13.Swinson, A. Defeat in Malaya : The Fall of Singapore.  London : Macdonald & co., 1970.

14.Tsuji, M. Japan's Greatest Victory, Britain's Worst Defeat. Staplehurst : Spellmount Limited, 1997.

15.Turnbull, C.M. A History of Singapore 1819-1975.  Kuala Lumpur  : Oxford University Press. 1977.

LTA(NS) TOH BOON HO served as Dy S3 and 2IC of Bronco Combat Team in 46 SAR from 1994 to 1995.  He has recently completed his (B.A)Honours in History at the National University of Singapore.

 
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