The British Empire began its collapse 74 years ago this week with the surrender to the Japanese of Singapore, a fortress Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to as the “Gibraltar of the East.”
Eight days earlier on February 8, 1942, Allied engineers rocked the island city when they blew a huge hole the causeway linking Singapore to the Malay Peninsula, in an effort to slow the advance of Imperial Japanese Imperial troops coming down the coastline. As the echo of the blast rumbled throughout the city, 19-year-old university student and future prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was walking across campus. When his British headmaster came passing by and asked what the commotion was, Lee answered, “That is the end of the British Empire.”
The defeat was crushing to the British homeland, because Winston Churchill had claimed that Singapore was an impregnable fortress that guarded the heart and wealth of the British Empire. Japan success symbolized to Asians the European powers were decrepit and became the launch code for liberation movements throughout the region.
Although outnumbered by almost 4 to 1 was by Allied troops in Malaya and Singapore, the Japanese were superior in close air support, armor, coordination, tactics and experience. Despite conventional British military thinking that the Malayan jungles were “impassable”, the Japanese repeatedly crossed jungles to outflank the British defenses.
The 85,000 British, Indian and Australian troops lasted for just 7 days against an invading force of 36,000 Japanese. When the British had suffered 5,000 killed to the Japanese 1,714 deaths.
After their surrender, 30,000 Indian troops defected to the Japanese and only 6,000 of the other 50,000 Singapore defenders would survive the WWII. Churchill called the debacle the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history.
The year of the defeat was monumental, because the British Imperial dominance of Asia was cemented a century in the 1842 during the First Opium War with the defeat of 200,000 Chinese Imperial troops by a combined United Kingdom and British East India Company force of 19,000. The Chinese suffered about 20,000 deaths to the British losses of 69 dead.
With the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, China granted Britain an annual cash indemnity, the right to British Courts for issues in China, plus Shanghai and four other ports. With the ability to trade unlimited amounts of Indian Opium for Chinese silver, silk and porcelain, the United Kingdom quickly became the most-wealthy nation in Europe.
All of Asia would quickly fall to European domination, except Japan, who became a devoted adherent of the British naval model and imperial strategy. Beginning with the Meiji Restoration, Tokyo began establishing its own Pacific empire that would include modern day Taiwan and the Korean peninsula to feed raw materials to its booming industrial sector.
For 100 years, Asia and India made the British Empire profitable. But the defeat in Singapore to an Asian power and the arming and training of 30,000 Indian defectors, set the chess pieces in place for the empire’s collapse.
Historians can argue over the exact date of that the British Empire ended. Was it when India and Pakistan gained independence on the night of August 15 1947? Was it in the fall of 1956, when Britain invaded Suez Canal only to withdraw its forces in humiliation within a week? Was it in April 1980, when Margaret Thatcher teared up in front of a television set in Westminster, watching the transfer of power in Rhodesia? Was it June 1997, when Chris Patten wept on camera as the union flag came down in Hong Kong?
But it is hard to debate that Singapore in 1942 was the beginning of the end for the British Empire.