Fall of Singapore
By 31 January 1942, all British Empire forces had withdrawn from the Malay peninsula onto Singapore Island. On 8 February, the Japanese landed in the north-west of the island and within six days they were on the outskirts of Singapore city, which was also now under constant air attack.
Many of the troops had been shocked at the apparent lack of defences on the island. The men were battle-weary and the Australians had lost nearly 700 men fighting in Malaya since 14 January, with hundreds of others sick or wounded. Only one trained reinforcement unit, the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, arrived from Australia. Other last-minute reinforcements sent were untrained and ill-equipped for battle.
The Japanese had prepared for the invasion of Singapore with a heavy bombardment. They began their amphibious landings on the north-west of the island, where the Strait of Johore is narrowest. This area was held by the Australian 22nd Infantry Brigade but late on the night of 8 February the Japanese made their way through undefended sections. Twenty-four hours later a second Japanese landing force struck between the Causeway and the mouth of the Kranji River, an area held by the Australian 27th Infantry Brigade. By the morning of 10 February there were Japanese troops on most of north-west Singapore.
The Australian, British and Indian troops tried to hold the Japanese at various defensive lines but after two days many of their dreadfully depleted battalions had to be reorganised into composite units. A counter-attack on 10-11 February failed and on 12 February General H Gordon Bennett, the Australian commander, began moving his near-exhausted 8th Division AIF units into a perimeter just a few kilometres out of the city. By the next day the Japanese were within five kilometres of the Singapore waterfront. The entire city was now within range of Japanese artillery.
Official evacuations from Singapore had begun in late January and continued until almost the last moment. RAAF squadrons had been evacuated before the Japanese invaded the island and the remaining RAN warships were ordered to leave. Some merchant ships also got away carrying evacuees from the path of the Japanese. The warships' main operational tasks were escort duties, and the fleet based in Singapore included the destroyer HMAS Vampire and the sloop HMAS Yarra, which arrived late in January, along with several corvettes. The corvettes in the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla swept the sea lanes and conducted anti-submarine patrols. HMA Ships Toowoomba, Wollongong and Ballarat reinforced the original four corvettes, HMA Ships Bendigo, Burnie, Goulburn and Maryborough. The last 65 Australian Army nurses stationed in Singapore were ordered to board the Vyner Brooke, which sailed on 12 February. Their colleagues, who had sailed in the Empire Star the previous day, reached Australia, but only 24 of the nurses who sailed in the Vyner Brooke survived to return to Australia in 1945 after the war had ended.
By 14 February the Japanese had captured Singapore's reservoirs and pumping stations. The bombing, fighting and heavy shelling continued; many of the troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals were crowded and overflowing. Some troops were deserting and others had become separated from their units. Hard fighting continued but on 15 February Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore, called for a ceasefire and made the difficult decision to surrender. He signed the surrender document that evening at the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road. After days of desperate fighting, all British Empire troops were to lay down their arms at 8.30 that night. More than 100,000 troops became prisoners of war together with hundreds of European civilians who were interned.
Despite his instruction to Australian troops to stay at their posts, General Bennett and two of his staff officers escaped, controversially, from Singapore on the night of the surrender and eventually reached Australia.