On 23 September an exciting new exhibition opened at the National Museum of Singapore called Witness to War: Remembering 1942. Ten objects from Te Papa were sent to Singapore to be featured in the exhibition.
History curator Katie Cooper shares some of the stories from the exhibition and discusses the significance of the Fall of Singapore for New Zealand.
The Singapore Strategy
On 7 December 1941, Japan launched a series of attacks on British and American territories in Asia and the Pacific. The attacks shocked the world, although fears about Japan’s imperialist aims had in fact been growing for decades.
New Zealand’s interwar security plan centred on the Main Fleet to Singapore strategy, which specified that if aggressions developed in the Pacific the main British naval fleet would be transferred to Singapore and sustained by a major naval base there. Between 1928 and 1936 the Dominion Government contributed £1 million to the construction of the base, and it was finally completed in 1938.
New Zealanders in Singapore
When, in September of 1939, war broke out on a different front, New Zealand committed its expeditionary force to fighting in the Middle East, although individuals served the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in all theatres of war. For example, a small number of yachtsmen were sent to Singapore in 1940 to man a naval craft, 400 RNZAF personnel were dispatched to Malaya in 1941 to work on aerodrome construction, and a fighter squadron – RNZAF No. 488 Squadron – was stationed at Kallang from early October 1941.
Cecil Franks was an equipment officer in No. 488 Squadron and his photograph album, held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, is displayed in Witness to War. In the album Franks describes the squadron’s first two months of relative peace in Singapore, during which they enjoyed sports and competitions at the ANZAC club and discovered the ‘novelties of the Orient.’
All that came to an end on 7 December 1941, however, when Japan launched a wave of attacks on Pearl Harbour, Malaya, Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand.
A city under siege
Just six days earlier Force Z – the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and destroyers – had arrived in Singapore to great fanfare.
Following the attacks on 7 December, Force Z set out to fight the enemy on Malaya’s east coast, but were intercepted by more than 80 Japanese bombers. Within hours, both of the capital ships had been destroyed. Approximately 800 men lost their lives, and the rapid demise of the fleet ‘cast a pall over the whole Commonwealth.’ (McGibbon in Hutchings, 30)
Gradually the fighting crept closer and closer to Singapore and by the end of January 1942 the city was under siege. No. 488 Squadron had some major successes against the Japanese Zeros, but in early February, unable to put any planes in the air, the pilots withdrew. Ground crew stayed to assist other squadrons, and were amongst the last to leave Singapore before it fell.
Cecil Franks later wrote: ‘On Wednesday afternoon, February 11, 1942, with the invading Japanese only a few hundred yards away, all aerial defence gone, great fires raging on the skyline, the sun obscured with dense black smoke from huge oil dumps ablaze, and the sky filled with enemy bombers, we made our escape from Singapore.’
More than 130,000 troops laid down their arms when the Allies surrendered in Singapore on 15 February, 1942, and Winston Churchill later described it as ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.’
New Zealand will not wince nor tremble
The Fall of Singapore sent shockwaves around the Empire. These propaganda posters, produced in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand from 1942, identify the Japanese as the enemy and demand vigilance and perseverance in the fight against them. Although they are quite different in tone they share the same basic message: that the Rising Sun must set.
In a speech given on 16 February, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser conceded that ‘it would be idle and wrong’ to pretend that the Fall of Singapore had not brought danger nearer to our shores. Certainly, it had done so.
However, he stressed that there was ‘no room for foolish or frantic panic’ and asserted that New Zealand would ‘neither wince nor tremble’, it would face courageously whatever situation developed.
Fear of invasion
Although many civilians faced the prospect of invasion with stoic acceptance, responses did vary. June Fleming of Christchurch remembered her mother explaining to her that if the Japanese landed in New Zealand the doctor was going to give them each a suicide pill, but more common responses were to build bomb shelters, bury valuables, and keep stocks of water and provisions on hand. (Parr, 100)
The threat of invasion, it has since been determined, was probably more perceived than real, but that wasn’t evident at the time and as historian Ian McGibbon notes, a ‘great fear gripped the public’ for much of 1942. (McGibbon, 99)
This puzzle, produced by J.W. Ltd in 1944, reflected these fears. The cover of the box features a caricature of Hideki Tojo, a general of the Imperial Japanese Army and Prime Minister of Japan from 1941-44.
Five white planes circle in the sky above him, while on the side of the box an amphibious beach landing is depicted, bordered by the flags of six Allied nations. This imagery reiterates the message communicated by the posters: that the Allied forces will fight on land, at sea, and in the sky, pursuing the war against Japan to the very end.
Legacy of the Fall of Singapore
According to military historian Roberto Rabel, the Second World War laid bare Britain’s inability to defend its Pacific dominions and colonies, symbolised most graphically by the fall to Japan in 1942 of the supposedly impregnable Singapore naval base and by subsequent reliance on the power of the USA to secure the defeat of Japan.’ (Rabel, 260)
Although in the aftermath of the war New Zealand stayed loyal to Britain and attempted to remain within a ‘British-centred universe,’ the war had extended the limits of that universe to include the United States and Australia as part of a broad Anglo-American alliance structure. The Fall of Singapore therefore marked a turning point in our international relations.
These stories and more are explored in Witness to War: Remembering 1942, so if you are travelling to Singapore over the next few months do take time to go and see it. The exhibition is open until 25 March, 2018.
- Clayton, Graham. Last Stand in Singapore: The Story of 488 Squadron RNZAF. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2008.
- McGibbon, Ian. New Zealand and the Second World War: The people, the battles and the legacy. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2004.
- McGibbon, Ian. ‘Battling the Rising Sun: New Zealanders in the Pacific War.’ In Against the Rising Sun: New Zealanders Remember the Pacific War, edited by Megan Hutching, 22-50. Auckland: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
- Palenski, Ron. How We Saw the War: 1939-45 Through New Zealand Eyes. Auckland: Hodder Moa, 2009.
- Parr, Alison. Home: Civilian New Zealanders Remember the Second World War. Auckland: Penguin, 2010.
- Rabel, Roberto. ‘New Zealand’s Wars.’ In The New Oxford History of New Zealand, edited by Giselle Byrnes, 245-267. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, 2009.
- Wright, Matthew. Pacific War: New Zealand and Japan 1941-45. Auckland: Reed, 2003.