Singapore Burning by Colin Smith
Posted 01 August 2019 - 08:43 AM
The problem with reading non-fiction books, especially military history, is you sometimes cannot avoid an unhappy ending.
Take the case of Colin Smith's Singapore Burning. You know before you open the first page that this is not going to end well for the British, the Commonwealth forces, or the people of Malaysia and Singapore.
I actually put off reading this for a long time for that very reason. That, and the 565 pages of detailed text, which made it more than a casual read.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. While well aware of the end result, I'd never really read in detail about the campaign and felt it was time to fill that knowledge gap. That, and the fact that 10 years ago my son had lugged this and a rather large photo history of WWI all the way from the Imperial War Museum book shop back home to Omaha in his luggage somewhat obligated me to get going on it.
Posted 01 August 2019 - 08:56 AM
The author, to be thorough, gives a short history of both British colonialism and the colony city of Singapore. He also discusses the Japanese preparations, years in advance for the campaign. One interesting note was about the lack of experience the Japanese had with jungle warfare and the officer who was assigned to study issue and develop training and manuals on the subject.
One of the themes throughout was despite the war raging in Europe, the citizens and politicians of Singapore seemed to exist in a blissful mindset that allowed them to live unconcerned in their tropical paradise. If anything, the military's presence was minimized to avoid upsetting the domestic tranquility.
War came soon enough, with air raids having the initial impact on the city. Civilians struggled with "Should I stay? Or should I go?", constantly delaying the decision in order to take care of ongoing business issues. Some made the decision to move to safer ground in Australia or India. Others made the unfortunate decision to stick it out.
Posted 01 August 2019 - 09:09 AM
Without repeating the full narrative, here are a few things that stood out:
The Japanese established air superiority early on, both over the land and sea. This swung the tide of battle on many instances.
The British were trying the impossible task of defending the full length of both sides of the Malaysian peninsula. They were further hampered by a lack of roads. This limited the movement of their mechanized equipment, and made them a predictable target for the Japanese.
The British could not establish a defensive line across the peninsula, mostly due to terrain in the central areas. It seemed the Japanese always found a way around them. And even if they were successfully blocked on the roads, the Japanese took to the sea and rivers to outflank them.
The British had precious little armor available. While they did have a number of anti-tank guns, often well deployed, they were not enough to counter the threat in the end.
The British suffered from a lack of unity in their command structure. The Navy failed to coordinate with what was left of the RAF, and Army did not do much better.
The logistical support from England was a nightmare. Ships would take weeks to arrive, and only having risked attacks from the Germans as well as the Japanese. And that was assuming there were resources available to begin with. One detail concerned that when England attempted to bolster the RAF, what was supplied were Hurricanes that had been fitted out to operate in North Africa, complete with sand filters on the intakes.
Posted 01 August 2019 - 09:15 AM
Despite the deficiencies, the soldiers did their best to carry on.
The author relied heavily on personal accounts. Many of these are quite hair raising, made all the sadder in the end to realize the bravery could not prevent the onslaught.
Stories are told of repelling the invaders at the beaches, abandoning airfields that could not be defended, of properly executed withdrawals and evacuations, ambushes executed by both sides, and desperate fighting in the night when the lines between forces were blurred.
Especially compelling was the story of the destruction of Task Force Z with the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. The author had first hand stories from crew members of both ships, and the book is worth reading for these accounts alone.
Posted 01 August 2019 - 09:22 AM
So, with that said, I do have some criticisms of the book.
While the book is heavily detailed in the beginning, the author seems to run out of steam at the end. Granted, the actual siege of Singapore was not as long as the campaign coming down the Malay peninsula, but the author just seems a bit rushed to bring it to a conclusion. There was a last stand shown on his map of the taking of the island of Singapore that as far as I could tell was never explained in the text!
Sometimes in an effort to give background of his characters, the author provides more detail than needed, such as what preparatory school an officer attended. This slows the narrative down, just leaving the reader wishing he would get back to the story. This seems to be a common fault of history writers, and such material would be better suited to an appendix.
The book is also full of English colloquialisms, which are fine for readers in the UK, but which will leave other readers clueless. An example was comparing an action in skirmish to a play in a rugby match.
A good amount of text is devoted to the political squabbles of the elite in Singapore. If you are purely focused on the military history, this can be a distraction. Granted it provides a broader context, but the actions of the civilian government did very little to influence the decisions of the military.
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