Why the Fall-of-Singapore occurred has enduring lessons for Australia's future strategic security. We ignore them at the cost of inflicting further inter-generational inequity on future Australians. Especially by increasing their strategic risk, reducing their contingency warning time and inflicting additional financial catch-up costs when they will least be able to afford them in both the time and expenditure available. We needlessly imperil them by not paying our fair share now of the long-term and sustained investment needed to ensure Australia's strategic security, liberty and sovereign freedom-of-action as a nation-state.
As the son of a 9th Division digger and the father of a 2016 Duntroon graduate (both unfortunately artillerymen) I am honoured to have been invited to give this address marking the 75th anniversary of the Fall-of-Singapore.
I also note this is the 71st annual remembrance service by the 8th Division Association since 1946, and that the surviving veterans have decided it will be your last.
Your efforts in World War II will ultimately move completely from direct memory into Australian history. But you will not be forgotten and your service as the 8th Division will be remembered and honoured.
The 8th Division
The 8th Division of the second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF) was the third of the four AIF infantry divisions raised in World War II. When deployed overseas from February 1941 it chiefly comprised the 22nd, 23rd and 26th Infantry Brigades.
The 22nd and 26th Brigades, together with the divisional headquarters and supporting divisional units, deployed to Malaya. They formed part of the British Commonwealth forces, defending the Singapore naval base from potential attack, if Japan entered the war as the Axis-Pact partner of fellow militarist dictatorships Germany and Italy.
The 23rd Brigade was deployed in three widely dispersed battalion-groups to Ambon (Gull Force) and Timor (Sparrow Force) in the Indonesian archipelago, and to Rabaul (Lark Force) on the island of New Britain (in Australia’s League of Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea).
Having visited many Australian war cemeteries, in 1995 I found Ambon, in eastern Indonesia, the most moving.
It is unique in that the location was first the Australian barracks, then the prisoner-of-war camp, and then their cemetery.
Once outside the town, this hallowed ridge overlooking the superb natural harbour is now surrounded by a city and embraced – in all senses of the word – by the Ambonese people.
The 2/21st Battalion of the 8th Division – deployed largely by itself on Ambon– had the second-highest death rate of any Australian battalion in World War II. The 2/22nd Battalion at Rabaul had the third-highest.
The story of the 8th Division effectively begins back in January 1920 – over twenty years before the division was raised in May 1940 – when the Minister for Defence convened a conference of Australia’s senior generals to advise on Australia’s future defence needs.
One of the tragedies of the 8th Division experience is that inter-war Australian governments largely ignored their recommendations, delivered on 6 February 1920, almost 22 years to the day before Singapore fell.
Subsequent strategic assessments by Army and RAAF chiefs over the following two decades were similarly ignored, largely because their accuracy – borne out by events in 1941-42 – was politically inconvenient throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
As the late Professor Jeffery Grey, one of Australia’s top three military historians, observed:
The  report identified Japan as the only ‘potential and probable enemy’ … Australia should adopt a scheme which would make all its manpower and resources available quickly should a threat develop and, while the first line of defence should be ‘devoted to contributing our share of an adequate Far Eastern Fleet’, Australia should also ‘maintain an Army capable of preventing an enemy from obtaining a decision on shore … and it is essential that the Military Force, like the Naval Force, be the maximum obtainable’.
A few of the many examples underlying the particular difficulties endured by the 8th Division in 1942, and in the three and half years afterward, are worth noting.
First, by as early as 1922, the size of Australia’s predominantly part-time army (the Militia) had instead declined, from 127,000 to 37,000 – a strength it did not regain until 1937 – and half the navy’s ships were decommissioned.
The perennial lack of adequate defence investment in the inter-war years was initially driven by war-weariness. This was strengthened by blind ideological optimism concerning the lifespan of agreements at the 1922 Washington disarmament conference. From the mid 1920s both were supplemented by complacent, even cultish, faith in the British Commonwealth’s “Singapore Strategy” for the defence of its Pacific region members.
Second, several of Australia’s Army chiefs and senior RAAF officers were sacked in the inter-war period for pointing out the strategic vulnerabilities involved with relying on the Imperial Fleet Base in Singapore as the main, and eventually sole de facto, guarantor of Australia’s strategic security. Especially as the fleet intended to use and defend Singapore was mainly based in the Mediterranean, and not readily available, if at all, in a war involving Italy and/or Germany.
A third, and particularly illustrative example of complacent under-funding of defence needs, is that Australia had no tanks at all until four obsolete ones were purchased to assist infantry training in the late 1920s. Not until 1937 were 11 (“Vickers Mark 6”) light tanks obtained, followed in September 1941 by 10 (M3-light “Stuarts”) more.
No modern tank capable of serious combat overseas was fielded by Australia until April 1942 when the first M3-medium (“Grant”) tanks arrived. Subsequently, the Japanese were able to deploy some 200 tanks in the Malayan campaign to great effect without being opposed by a single British or Australian tank.
A fourth telling example is that the Royal Air Force selected the sites for Malayan airbases without consulting the British Army as to their defensibility from land attack. A fatal flaw in the defence of Singapore and Malaya was in-built from the start.
Finally, Singapore and any fleet units operating from it could only be defended successfully with air cover by a large number of modern fighters and bombers. This was never achieved with only eight of the 22 squadrons needed being provided by late 1940, and only four squadrons of modern fighters – Hurricanes – by late 1941 (none of them being Australian squadrons).
The provision by Australia of an infantry division (the 8th) and two RAAF light bomber squadrons to Singapore in early 1941 was partly an interim measure to bolster the known gap in air defence cover. (Two more RAAF fighter squadrons followed).
The Malaya campaign
One of the enduring myths of the Malaya campaign stems from well-known photos of Japanese infantry carrying collapsible bicycles through the jungle to bypass Commonwealth blocking positions on the peninsula’s few arterial roads.
But as the Army History Unit campaign study, and other operational analysis and scholarship has shown, the swift Japanese advance down the peninsula owed much more to the decisive use of tanks. Particularly when supported by air superiority.
One reason why the 2/4th Anti-tank Regiment action at Bakri on 18 January 1942 was so successful – with eight Japanese tanks knocked out by the Australians – was because the Japanese had become so over-confident when facing Commonwealth forces with no tanks at all and limited anti-tank weapons.
The Islands campaign
In the islands, dispersing the 23rd Brigade in three widely-spread, small-island, locations meant their defeat by the Japanese was inevitable and swift.
That elements of Sparrow Force on Timor were able to fight on for so long was principally due to the much larger size of that island, and the support they could and did receive from the Timorese people.
The prisoner-of-war camps campaign
Once the armed combat campaigns ended in Malaya and the islands, the moral combat campaign of mateship, steadfast resistance and survival continued for the three and a half years of brutal Japanese captivity.
The murder of many newly captured diggers by the Japanese, particularly in the 23rd Brigade in the islands – and the indefensible and unlawful Japanese atrocities suffered by the remaining 8th Division prisoners-of-war – compounded the disgraceful situation that Australian peacetime complacency had ended up placing them in.
Perspective through statistics
Statistics provide perspective to the human costs paid by the men of the 8th Division and consequently their families.
In World War II, some 558,000 Australians served overseas from a population of eight and a half million.
In the war against Japan 9,470 were killed-in-action or died-of-wounds.
The 8th Division alone lost almost 2000 killed-in-action during a month of fighting in Malaya and Singapore.
The 23rd Brigade, deployed separately in the islands, suffered 50 per cent casualties. This included deliberate massacres of large numbers of our diggers on capture.
8,031 Australians, mostly from the 8th Division, died while prisoners-of-war of the Japanese – comprising just under one in three of all Australian personnel who died in the war.
By the end of World War II, one-third of the 8th Division were dead.
Many surviving prisoners-of-war have had their health, quality of life and life expectancy blighted by the unlawful deprivations and atrocities they endured in brutal Japanese captivity.
Remembering the experiences of the men of the 8th Division in World War II is not just a case of rightly honouring their valiant and costly service in defence of Australia.
Nor is just a case of honouring the many sacrifices of their families during and since the war.
We all need to acknowledge that the 8th Division ended up being sacrificed to buy Australia enough time to adequately defend itself after two decades of national complacency and neglect.
The experiences of the 8th Division – especially why they happened – therefore have a continuing strategic-security resonance for future decades as well as past ones.
The treatment of 8th Division personnel as prisoners-of-war of the Japanese also reminds us of the current and future problem caused by Japan’s continued inability to objectively examine and admit its World War II atrocities – and genuinely atone for them as Germany has done.
This continues to blight Japan’s relationships, especially with neighbouring countries, and undermines the mutual trust needed for real strategic stability across North, East and South East Asia.
There are surely three enduring strategic-security and moral lessons the 8th Division experience still teaches us today.
First, Australia’s strategic security, sovereign freedom-of-action as a country, and domestic liberty, depend greatly on adequate and sustained long-term investment in our national defence capabilities, especially our defence force.
Not the “she’ll be right” national complacency that ended up so condemning the men of the 8th Division to fight the Japanese so under-strength, penny-packeted, ill-equipped and out-gunned.
Second, Japan properly facing up to its past atrocities is a current and future strategic stability problem in Asia, not just a minor matter of disagreement about interpreting past events.
Indeed the ahistoric and denialist white-washed versions still prevalent in Japanese schools – and the renewed trend to historical revisionism in powerful Japanese political and educational policy circles – only makes this problem worse.
Third, when well-armed countries, led by authoritarian governments, are dissatisfied with their perceived place in the world and a rules-based international system for dispute resolution, the potential for them to resort to armed aggression – or other forms of international coercion – remains a major strategic risk.
This risk hasn’t somehow gone away. Even though the long peace since 1945, from large-scale, great-power wars has led many to believe – incorrectly – that this risk no longer exists or can be averted by ideological or other wishful thinking.
Such a risk remains particularly so for the liberal-democracies of the Indo-Pacific region in an era where, as one of many examples, ballistic missiles easily have the strategic reach that needed aircraft carriers in World War II.
In conclusion, the 8th Division was deployed to Malaya less one of its three brigades.
This brigade was, in turn, spread across widely separated islands in three battalion-groups.
This dispersion of the 23rd Brigade became simply a short-term, under-strength, very costly and eventually impossible delaying measure, not any coherent form of a medium or longer-term defence strategy.
Largely due to desperate government decisions in late 1941 and early 1942 – in denial and later panic– made by a political class heavily responsible for the inter-war complacency that caused most of the problems affecting the dispersed 8th Division in the first place.
When Japan attacked across the Pacific, it initially enjoyed an almost total strategic mobility and manouvre advantage over the 8th and its companion Commonwealth forces.
At the operational level, commensurate Japanese dominance at sea and in the air, around and over the Malayan Peninsula, and the islands defended by the 23rd Brigade, provided their invading ground forces a continual and major advantage.
This was magnified even further by Malaya’s inadequate defensive infrastructure, and the effect of this on operational planning – itself borne of decades of complacency and neglect by successive British and Australian governments.
At the tactical level on land, the Japanese enjoyed significant superiority in intelligence, air, armoured and amphibious support, in combat experience from their decade-long invasion of China, and in being able to field a far more homogeneous and integrated force than the British Commonwealth.
Despite this, however, the under-strength and under-equipped 8th Division fought on bravely in Malaya and on Ambon, New Britain (Rabaul) and Timor.
There are many “what-ifs” about the Malayan campaign, such as having the 23rd Brigade with them, having tanks, retaining the respected and capable Vernon Sturdee as the divisional commander, and having adequate air support. But these all relate to matters entirely outside the division’s control.
In those aspects of the tactical fight where the men of the 8th Division could exercise some degree of control, the division fought hard and well (particularly at platoon and company level).
Noting that the division was held in depth due to having only two brigades, not three, the 8th’s first major encounter with the Japanese was not until Gemas, on the Johore-Malacca border in southern Malaya, on 14 January 1942 – some five weeks after the Japanese landed in northern Malaya and advanced south down the peninsula.
The war crimes and horror that followed in Japanese captivity, and the mateship and resistance to the Japanese among both those murdered, and among those who survived, further burnish the 8th Division’s war record from 1941 to 1945.
To the surviving veterans and their families – on your last formal parade together – I thank you for your service.
I salute your record as soldiers on both combat and moral battlefields, and for your contribution to the post-war Australia that all Australians consequently enjoy.
Lest we forget.
Lieutenant Colonel Neil James has served in the Australian Army since 1973. In 1976 he graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, into the Australian Intelligence Corps and undertook his regimental training as a rifle platoon commander with 1RAR in Australia and Malaysia. His other overseas deployments have included further operational service in Kashmir and Iraq, a regimental exchange posting with the British Army in West Germany, an instructional exchange position in Canada and a staff exchange in New Zealand. He has also served on the teaching staff at the School of Military Intelligence and the Army Command & Staff College, and was foundation director of the Army’s “think-tank”, the Land Warfare Studies Centre. Since transferring to the Army Reserve in 2004 he has served with the Australian Army History Unit as a research historian in order to preclude conflicts of interest with his civil responsibilities as executive director of the Australia Defence Association. His ADA role includes a wide range of public-interest advocacy activities, visits to defence force units throughout Australia, Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions, participation in Australian and international conferences on strategic policy issues, and being a visiting lecturer at several military and civil tertiary institutions.