Saturday, June 03, 2006

Post No. 70: Military Myths of Singapore

On 20th May, I spend almost my entire day at NUS for the NUS Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) Open House’2006. With no intention of offense, I would say that, on the whole, there was nothing much special about the Open House. There were the usual talks, exhibits & brochures given by the various departments (16 in all) of the FASS. However, there were 2 events which, to me, were very interesting. One of these 2 events was a semi-informal debate between undergraduates from the Political Science & the Sociology departments (more about this debate in a later post) while the other event was this talk (which grew from a scheduled 15 minutes talk into one that took the better part of 30 minutes) by Associate Professor (AP) Brian Farrell from the History department on the military myths of Singapore.

Obviously, as it can be observed from the title of this post, I would be attempting to share with you all the ideas & information provided by AP Farrell in his talk through reproducing them here (and perhaps expand them somewhat). However, please note that due to my lack of a photographic memory and having not taken down any notes, I will be reproducing the contents of AP Farrell’s talk as best as my memory can. Thus, I may make some mistakes here & there, omit some stuff or misrepresent certain ideas and I apologise & take responsibility for them.

What are myths? They are, in simple terms, stories created & used by people to explain, understand and to recount the world the around them and significant events that have occurred in the past. Myths can be based on one tiny grain of truth or be a complete fabrication of imagination. Also, the more dramatic, traumatic & unexplainable an event is, the more it is likely that a myth (or myths) would be created around that event. That said, we will observe there are myths about wars, revolutions, the founding of cities (e.g. the sighting of a “lion” on Singapore by Sang Nila Utama and the founding of Rome in 753CE by the wolf-suckled twins, Romulus & Remus) & their disappearance (e.g. Atlantis, Sodom & Gomorrah), the creation of the universe (e.g. the Chinese myth of Pan Gu & the Genesis) and scientific discoveries (e.g. Newton’s apple and Archimedes streaking naked through the streets while exclaiming “Eureka!” after making a scientific discovery during his bath). We will also notice that most myths are widespread and are usually uncritically accepted & believed by people, though some of them may not have any foundation of truth to support them.

With all this in mind, we will now move on to look at 3 of the military myths that emerged in Singapore, post-Japanese Occupation.

Myth # 1: The Silent Guns Facing South

Well, I suppose that you all are quite familiar with the story of how the British, thinking that the Japanese would not invade from the north of Singapore since that area was covered with dense vegetation but choose to launch a naval attack from the south of Singapore, built cannons which faced towards the south of Singapore, in preparation for a naval attack from that direction. Also, I suppose you all would be well acquainted with the story of how, when the Japanese army invaded Singapore from the north instead of the south as the British had predicted, these south facing cannons never fired and, being set in stone, could not be turned around to fire at the invading Japanese forces even if the British had wanted to do so.

In addition, I assume that you all would know about the analysis on how this strategic mistake by the British resulted in the downfall of Singapore and on how this strategic mistake was a result of British over-confidence & their underestimation of the Japanese forces. Indeed, this image of large cannons set in stone which could not be turned around to fire coincide nicely with the perception of how the British forces were ponderous and were outmaneuvered by the nimble Japanese invading forces.

However, as pointed out by AP Farrell, while all this is based on a tiny grain of truth, it was nonetheless exaggerated. Yes, all 29 (if I’m not wrong) cannons were facing south but not all of them were set in stone and some did fire. The reality was that these cannons were originally designed to fire at invading naval ships with armour-piercing rounds and when those invading naval ships never came, these cannons ( at least those that could be turned around) were used to fire at the Japanese forces from the north, albeit with limited effect since their rounds were not designed to fire at infantry forces and due to the fear that the bombardments would cause damage to the urban civilian areas. However, though the effect was limited, it still had an effect, as recorded in the journal of a Japanese soldier complaining about the bombardments. Anyway, the presence of the guns was enough to make the Japanese to attack from the north & not the south, though the latter was a more direct way.

If this was the case, then why did people say that the cannons never fired? Well, according to AP Farrell, this was because that some of these cannons which were set in stone and could not be turned around were positioned at locations near to some isolated residential areas. Thus, based on the testimony of these isolated witnesses that lived in these areas who saw the cannons not being fired, a story quickly emerged & spread, through word of mouth, about the silent guns that faced south.

Furthermore, these cannons were not designed to be the keystone in Singapore’s defense. Hopefully, you all would know about how an “Operation Matador”, which was designed to deter a Japanese invasion from the north with placement of British forces at strategic locations in Peninsular Malaysia, was aborted because of the decision by the British government in Great Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, to focus more on the defense of the British homeland form the Germans than on defending British colonies. Also, the naval base built in Singapore also suffered from a lack of modern warships that could deter a Japanese invasion due to this emphasis son defending the British homeland. Even if there were such warships, they would have also lacked the necessary air cover to protect them (remember “The Prince of Wales” and “The Repulse”?).

The reason why people overestimated the capability of the cannons in deterring an invasion was in part due to British wartime propaganda about how Singapore was an “impregnable fortress” and about the capability of the cannons as part of the efforts to inspire calm & confidence in the local populace.

Yet, according to AP Farrell, despite all the evidence showing otherwise, this myth about the silent guns which faced south would most likely continue to haunt the minds of people as it is too romantic & too widespread a story to be dispelled.

Myth # 2: From Germany, With Love?

Besides that of the silent guns that faced south, there was another military myth which emerged following the downfall of Singapore into Japanese hands. And this myth told of how the invading Japanese forces were so successful in their swift invasion of Southeast Asia (SEA) because they had help from their ally, Germany.

According to this myth, the reason why the Japanese forces were able to successfully execute such a swift invasion of SEA was that they had help from the Germans in planning their war tactics, drawing on the German experience of success with their blitzkrieg strategy in Europe. There was even speculation that there was German army officers present together with the Japanese officers during their campaign in SEA to provide them with immediate on-site advice.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? The Japanese tactics were indeed somewhat similar to those used by the Germans in Europe and Japan & Germany (and Italy) were indeed formal allies (having signed a formal alliance treaty in 1940) by the time Japan launched their invasion into SEA. So was this myth true?

Well, no, this myth was not true if we consider seriously the evidence. For one, Japanese officers, who were interrogated by the Allied Forces after the Japanese surrender, strongly denied that they had any help from the Germans. In fact, the Japanese only informed the Germans about their SEA campaign just one day before they actually launched it.

Anyway, even if the Germans wanted to help, they would most likely not be in a position to do so. This was because by the time the Japanese launched their SEA campaign, the Germans themselves were 6 months into their campaign to invade the Soviet Union! As we now know, the Germans were deeply entrenched in this Russian campaign of theirs and were also suffering great losses due to the infamous Russian winter. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Germans were able to offer the Japanese any help even if they wanted to. In fact, it is my opinion that the formal alliance between Japan & Germany was just that: a formal alliance with form but no substance. Perhaps all they ever agreed to was that Germany should have control of Europe while Japan should have control over Asia.

Furthermore, as most of those who have studied SEA History in upper secondary would know, the Japanese trained & prepared for their SEA campaign by training in Taiwan (which was by then colonised by them) and southeastern China (which was then under Japanese control), 2 areas which had similar climate & terrain as that in SEA.

So how did such a myth appear? Well, it was a myth created by the Allied Forces defending Singapore. To them, it was inconceivable that the Japanese could have defeated them. We must remember that at that point in time, there existed still a sense of racial superiority in the Europeans over Asians. Thus, to the Allied Forces (who mainly consisted of Europeans), the reason why the Japanese, being Asians, could have defeated them was that they had help from another European power (i.e. Germany). Well, I guess that those Allied Forces who thought this way must have forgotten what they learnt in their history lessons. For if they didn’t, they would know that Japan defeated Russia, a European power, in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. All in all, it would seems that this myth serves somewhat as a psychological excuse for the Allied Forces to explain their defeat at the hands of the Japanese.

Well, as a result of thorough investigation & changing attitudes, this myth of the Japanese having received help from the Germans in their SEA campaign was quickly dispelled in the years after the war.

Myth # 3: The “Fifth Column”

Yet another myth was that of how the Japanese had the aid of local collaborators (specifically, the Malays and Indians), whom told the invading Japanese forces about the whereabouts of the Allied Forces and also sabotaged the war efforts of the Allied Forces, in their SEA campaign. In other words, the Japanese had a “fifth column” operating behind enemy lines.

This myth of a “fifth column” seemed realistic to the Allied Forces due to a few reasons. One, relative to the treatment received by the local Chinese, the Japanese treated the local Malays and Indians less harshly. Two, the Japanese propaganda about them being on a mission to “liberate” Asia from the hands of the colonial powers could have found favour with nascent Malay nationalists & Indian nationalists (remember that at that time, India was still a British colony and was fighting for its independence). Three, there were cases in which supposedly secret Allied military bases which got bombed by Japanese airplanes and these were attributed to the Japanese being told by their local collaborators about these “secret” military bases.

Needless to say, you all would recognise that this myth of a “fifth column” has no sound foundation whatsoever. You all would know that the reason why the Chinese were treated much more harshly by the Japanese was due to the fervent anti-Japanese sentiments in the local Chinese populace before & during the Japanese invasion and due to the contributions made by the local Chinese towards the war efforts of China resisting against the Japanese invasion. Also, you all need to know that Japanese officers being interrogated after their surrender confessed that though there was some effort put into recruiting local collaborators, they achieved little success.

In addition, though some local Indians did join the India National Army (which was under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, an India nationalist leader) to fight against the British in India, most did not. Furthermore, investigations made after the war found that cases of locations of “secret” bases being divulged to the Japanese by local collaborators were mainly ludicrous and even when they were true, they were very isolated cases.

One ludicrous example was how Japanese airplanes knew about a “secret” Allied military base due to nearby villagers laying out their clothes in the shape of an arrow pointing towards the base. Well, I suppose you all know that it is highly unlikely that a Japanese airplane flying at such a fast speed & at such a high altitude could have seen clothes (arrow-shaped or not) on the ground. The real reason, in this case, why the “secret” military base got bombed was that it had a significant number of military vehicles parked near it (Japanese pilots, contrary to British wartime propaganda, were neither short-sighted nor idiots).

If this myth was really so unfounded, how did it get started in the first place? Well, there were mainly 2 reasons for the emergence of this myth.

One, the misperception by the Allied Forces that Malay & Indian indifference (in other words, “bo chup”), in contrast with the local Chinese’s fervent anti-Japanese sentiments, towards helping the Allied war efforts before the invasion took place was actually a sign of them welcoming the Japanese invasion or having being bought over by the Japanese. Two, we must note that the Allied Forces stationed in Singapore were mostly from places such as Britain, Australia & New Zealand and to make things worse, they were just transferred to Singapore for less than a year. Thus, in such a situation, these soldiers found themselves being foreign soldiers in a foreign land. The language & cultural barrier and the difference in race did not help either. Hence, a sense of distrust & suspicion grew in the minds ^ hearts of these Allied Forces who felt out-of-place.

Anyway, like the myth about the Japanese being aided by the Germans, this myth of a “fifth column” was also quickly dispelled after the war.

In conclusion, I would just like to remind you all (as I have done in my Post No. 6) that when somebody tells you all some story, it is imperative that you all examine this story & see whether it has any valid foundation to support it. Don’t blindly believe everything. Remember: it’s critical to be critical.

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