|Singapore: When 40,000 Indians Changed Sides||John Bean on John Scrivener's account of a shameful episode in British history|
On February 11th 1942 Britain's General Percival in charge of the defence of Singapore surrendered to Japan's General Yamashita. Ninety thousand British, Australian and Indian troops had been defeated by sixty thousand Japanese. It was the most humiliating defeat in the history of the British Army, and from that day onwards it meant that the end of white rule in India and South East Asia was inevitable.
The reasons for this monumental defeat have been much discussed by historians and politicians over the past sixty years. So you may well ask: "Why rake over it again?" I do so by a chance encounter with the memoirs of a former soldier in the Cambridgeshire Regiment, Jack Scrivener, who spent nearly four years of hell as a prisoner of war of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore.
I had only read a few pages when I realised why his 100 A4 photocopy pages had not received the blessing of an orthodox publisher. Old Jack Scrivener, still alive at 85, was too politically incorrect. Japanese soldiers were "brutal Jap bastards", and Indian soldiers who, without firing a shot, went over to the enemy were "cowardly ratbags". The work needed some editing, but Scrivener's descriptive powers that gave you a full sense of being there, plus his sense of humour that still came through in the most distressing periods, made it a fascinating read.
Importantly, his memoirs gave some further insights to the reasons for the fall of Singapore and on its outcome. These include the complete lack of preparedness by our generals; the indiscipline (though not cowardice) of many Australian troops; the occasional respect shown by the Japanese to those who fought well and also those prisoners who kept their discipline in captivity; and above all the large number of Indian troops who went over to the enemy.
Just two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, a carrier force also attacked Singapore airfield (December 9th 1941) and destroyed nearly all the RAF planes while they were still on the ground.
Subsequently without any air cover, the Royal Navy battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Renown and several destroyers were sunk by Japanese aircraft as they tried to intercept the Japanese invasion forces heading towards the Malayan peninsula.
Back in Singapore, the heavy navy guns were still left immovably pointing out to sea. This was the way the Japanese would come, said the British top brass. "Those little men cannot come 500 miles through the Malayan jungle and mangrove swamps," they insisted. But they did, and mainly on bicycles as their means of transport. Furthermore, they had little artillery, although this was augmented for the final assault on the Singapore Causeway by the guns they had captured (many of them being abandoned) from the British and Australians.
General Percival has, with some justification, been made the scapegoat of the Singapore disaster - certainly by the Australians. Yet the man was not a coward, and had won the MC and DSO in the battlefields of France in the First World War. Perhaps that was his main failing: fighting a mobile battle of the Second World War with the trench-bound mentality of the First. With the Japanese preparing to storm the Causeway linking the island to the Malayan mainland, Percival still left his 90,000 troops scattered in penny packets over Singapore's 70 miles of coast-line.
In the battle with our old soldier
With the Japanese shelling Singapore on February 7th, Jack Scrivener writes: "...while running barbed wire near the main road we saw the RAF abandoning Seletar Aerodrome and lorry-loads of personnel on their way to the docks." All the aircraft had been destroyed, it was said. On the next page Jack says: "Early on the 8th of February we heard that Japanese forces had landed on the island and were making progress against the Australians. We had taken over Seletar Aerodrome when the RAF vacated and were ready for an attack. In the hangars were crates of fighter aircraft waiting to be assembled. These we had to destroy."
A further example of the panic and confusion that had beset the British Army comes on the next page. "We were told to go to a depot nearby and try to repair some Bren gun carriers which some idiot had ordered to be destroyed earlier. Working hard through the day, we managed to get half a dozen in decent shape to go into action with."
Following capture and being held initially in Changi Jail, Jack Scrivener reflects on how the soldiers felt they had been let down. "It was with great bitterness in the days to come that we realised that after 2-1/2 years hard training we had been sacrificed by the powers that be. Politicians and Generals knew Singapore could not be held once Malaya had fallen, and yet we were thrown in to increase the number of British troops to keep Australia happy. It was the only campaign in the whole of World War Two where troops had no tanks, no aircraft or naval support the last few weeks of battle."
Lack of discipline - not courage
In case readers think that Scrivener had some prejudice against Australians, there are several places in his story where he praises their individual courage; and he obviously got on well with them in captivity, particularly sharing their ability to seize the main chance of a "little more grub" to supplement their starvation rations. What he says many Australians were guilty of at Singapore was lack of discipline.
Jack Scrivener arrived in the troopship on 29th January 1942. This was his welcome from some Australians: "As hundreds of lads were lining the rails a truck drove along the quayside and stopped opposite the West Point. Out got a couple of Australian soldiers and, looking up at us, one said: "What have you bastards come here for?" We answered: "We've come to help you mate." He replied: "We don't want no bloody help; we're getting out of here as soon as we can."
On the morning of February 15th the 1st Cambridgeshires had been holding out in non-stop fighting for five days - our old hero had even shot down a Japanese aircraft with one of his retrieved Bren guns. Then he got cut off and joined up with some Royal Artillery soldiers who still had two guns going. He was to protect them from the ditch with his Bren gun. He writes:-
The last bit says it all - the discipline of a regular, properly trained soldier when faced with what looks like inevitable defeat.
'Look at your proud masters now'
Among the many pages describing the ill-treatment, savagery and torture inflicted upon the British, Australian and Dutch prisoners by the Japanese, there are two instances where they show a form of respect for those who fought well and those who still showed their British army discipline while in captivity.
According to Jack Scrivener, the Cambridgeshires were the last to stop fighting on the fateful day of February 15th. He writes that as one of their Majors approached the Japanese lines waving a white flag, "a Jap officer came towards him with sword in hand. Stooping in front of him he said in perfect English: Well Major, we had a good fight, but we should have won tomorrow as we were going to run you over with tanks." It appears that there was no ill treatment of the British prisoners whilst they were in the hands of their immediate captors.
Later, referring to when he and his mates were working on the infamous Burma Railway (where two out of three prisoners died), our old soldier describes an incident when they decided to show the Japanese how to march properly. Emaciated, dressed in rags, many barefooted, they marched for four miles "like bloody Guardsmen," with the guards having to run to keep up with them. The Japanese Colonel in charge was so impressed that he gave them several tins of meat out of the stores and supplied plimsolls for those with no boots.
However, these instances apart, the main Japanese objective was to show the British and the native population that it was they who were now the masters. As the Cambridgeshires were marched up to Changi Jail: "At one point a Jap officer speaking in English shouted to the crowds at the roadside: Look at your proud masters now, and they all burst out laughing and jeering."
At another point he describes the prisoners' need for a toilet break during their rail transit on open wagon trucks up to Thailand. "The Japs made us squat down in between the lines in full view of a lot of people on the opposite platform to do our business. Another chance to humiliate the white masters."
The Japanese victory parade in Singapore has, of course, been well documented. Jack Scrivener was there and describes the humiliation.
Little mention has been made by UK and Australian historians of the treachery of the Indian soldiers - and treachery it was - of joining the Japanese forces en masse and taking up arms with them. It must be said that this contrasts markedly with Indians' performance in the Desert and in Italy, where they were awarded several VCs. Again, Jack Scrivener was on the spot and recorded the instances he saw. The first instance was just after the first Japanese had crossed over the causeway. He relates:-
Just after he had encountered the two Australians heading for the docks, he had observed: "A short while later, some Indian troops came running down the road wild eyed carrying no arms."
This, of course, was not treachery but desertion. Treachery was described in Scrivener's reflections on the downfall during his first few days in Changi:-
He also mentions that Indian troops manned the corner machine guns guarding the prisoners herded into Selerang Barracks.
In March 1944, the fittest of those who had survived the building of the infamous Burma Railway were sent back to Singapore to await shipment to Japan - to work in equally horrendous conditions down the mines. Jack Scrivener, the survivor, observed: "One afternoon low-flying bombers (American) passed overhead, and Indian troops who had gone over to the Japs fired Bofors guns at them."
On the same page there is this interesting comment: "Whilst there we made contact with some Ghurkha prisoners who had stayed on the island since surrender. The Japs dare not take them off Singapore, as they would have lost the lot."
Subhas Chandra Bose is still treated with great admiration in India today - as I know from my own visits. He is looked upon as the militant founder of independence, holding his place in the pantheon with the pacific leaders, Gandhi and Nehru. Although a militant, twice (1937 and 1939) he was elected President of the Indian National Congress.
At the outbreak of war he escaped from British house arrest after forming his Indian National Army and surfaced in Germany. By 1942, he was heading his Indian Army of 40,000 soldiers from Singapore and other eastern regions of Asia. Much of this army marched through Burma and then occupied Coxtown on the Indian Border, hoping that they would then sweep into India with the Japanese. History, enacted through a revitalised British Army ;and loyal Indian Army units decided otherwise. Chandra Bose was in Singapore when Japan surrendered and he died in a plane crash fleeing to Tokyo.
When one considers the noble conduct of most Indian Army units, particularly Sikhs and Rajputs, in other theatres of the Second World War, there can be only one explanation for the treachery at Singapore. There, the British and Australians did not just lose a battle, they lost face and lost respect - for all the reasons given above. It marked the end of Empire.