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
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,
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
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),
4.Potter, Life and Death,
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,
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
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.
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),
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
33.Ibid., p. 213; Potter,
Life and Deaths, p. 85.
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.,
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,
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,
42.Farrell, et al., Between
Two Oceans, p. 175.
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
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
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.