On Wednesday in Ballarat, Minister Tehan will attend a national service in Ballarat to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore (15 February 1942) and all Australian prisoners of war. This should be an occasion also to take some new perspectives on what happened all those years ago. The Melbourne Age editorial of 17 February 1942 hints at feelings at the time on the home front:
After the desperate but unavailing struggle to hold Singapore, and the gallant efforts to get as many of the defenders as possible away by sea, Australia awaits patiently and anxiously to learn the fate of our own troops and comrades who strove their hardest to stem the Japanese onslaught. All whose sons, brothers, husbands, relatives and friends were called upon to endure this pitiless ordeal are assured of deep sympathy in their suspense.
A lot has been written about Singapore but the few references here are for the non-specialist wanting a rapid survey from a few different sources. The Wikipedia entry on ‘the Battle of Singapore’ is comprehensive and based on many standard sources. At the other end of the scale, an Australian government website gives some basic facts about the rapid defeat of the defenders of Singapore. Chris Coulthard-Clark of the Australian War Memorial gave a talk in 2002 (60 years on) which says a little more about the Australian role. There is more on the Kokoda Historical site. The National Museum of Australia classes the Fall of Singapore as an Australian ‘Defining Moment’ and has Thomas Keneally talking about it.
Action at Parit Sulong, January 1942 (AWM ART24477/Murray Griffin)
Minister Tehan’s media release summarises what are often seen in Australia as the key aspects of the short war in Malaya and Singapore: 1800 Australians killed or missing in action before Singapore fell, 15 000 Australian prisoners of war (many dying on the Burma Railway, or in prison camps in Changi or Japan), 1300 wounded. Within this broader story, though, there are other, smaller ones. On 22 January, 163 Australian and Indian wounded were massacred at Parit Sulong. (This article has a useful reference list.) Lynette Silver, the historian of the massacre, spoke on ABC radio. Lieutenant Ben Hackney was one of the only three survivors of the massacre.
Then, a handful of Australians and British were separated from their comrades after the Battle of Muar in January and hid in the jungle for months – in one case, three years – afterwards. One of them was the present writer’s uncle, Private Hec Stephens of the 2/29th battalion, whose story is told here. Hec’s brother, Bill, wrote a poem in 1945 about his missing brother. At that time, Hec’s family knew only that he had died around the end of May 1943. It was 50 years before more details became known. The poem is reprinted here with the kind permission of Bill’s daughter, Susan Jenkinson.
MISSING MEN IN SINGAPORE
From every hand the hell hounds came
With screaming bomb and searing flame,
Till human heart could stand no more –
The Tragedy of Singapore.
The shroud of Nippon’s curtain fell
Upon Malaya’s tragic hell –
No news of hope has reached our shore
Of those still lost in Singapore.
Long years of silence – hope deferred;
Long nights of sorrow – not a word;
Posted “Missing” – nothing more –
Lost Legionnaires of Singapore!
“Lest we forget”, the silent tears
Of mothers, wives – their hopes, their fears.
“Most Gracious God”, their prayers implore,
“Stretch forth Thy hand to Singapore.”
“Be with our men, on land, in air, on sea
As they move on to set their brothers free –
Determined now to square the score,
And tear the veil from Singapore.”
God raised His hand – there came the Peace:
New hope, new life – relief, release:
But some found Peace for evermore –
My brother sleeps on Singapore.
A man of Peace, who in this life
Sought not for fame or fuss or strife
Showed “Greater Love” which shall endure
While memory lasts – of Singapore
July 25th – November 1945
George William Stephens in memory of his brother Hec
Another alternative perspective relates to the command of the Allied forces at Singapore. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival has often been blamed for poor command decisions. Bill Edgar, a historian in Western Australia, wonders whether history has been fair to Percival. This piece is from Bill’s self-published book, The Primitive Shadow: Power, Uses and Abuses through the Ages, and is made available with his permission. It brings out some of the tensions between Percival and the Australian general, Gordon Bennett.
Finally, we have not always been sympathetic to prisoners of war. This collection has more on that and on other aspects of Australian POWs in both major wars of the 20th century.
13 February 2017
Colenso family, Kingsford NSW: two sons killed at Singapore, February 1942; two prisoners of war, returned to Australia, 1945 (AWM P09222.002)