Cause of Disaster


A personal view by Alan Matthews.


I feel this chapter has to be written in memory of all the men from force Z who died in the battle in which their ships were lost. I also realise that some historians and certain readers of this book may strongly disagree with my opinions concerning the root cause of this catastrophe, and the eventual fall of Singapore. However, I assure you, I am not conducting a finger-pointing witch-hunt on the man mentioned during the next few pages. Rather I have reached my own conclusions after reading subject matter that is available to anyone wishing to form their own opinions of the opening months of the war against Japan. I also feel that the true reasons behind this totally inadequate force being sent to the Far East are only nowadays coming to light. There is no doubt that hindsight is a powerful weapon, often unfairly used in these circumstances, but I will not venture down this path and shall only concentrate on facts that were available to the men leading our country at that time in our history. It has to be stated from the onset that the person I feel was almost totally responsible for this terrible defeat was our wartime Premier, Winston Churchill. As it was he above all others who rode roughshod over any attempt by the Admiralty to stop the ships from sailing to their destinies; some may feel he was acting in defence of our interests in the Far East. I strongly disagree and using recently declassified information will attempt to prove just how far removed the priorities of Churchill were from those of the War Cabinet. For I believe, once he had been granted his wish, the fate of Force Z and ultimately the colony of Singapore were of no further interest to him.


In 1937 a report was commissioned by the British Government, the purpose of which was to estimate in the event of war with Japan just how long the Island of Singapore would have to hold out before naval reinforcements could arrive from Britain. The actual amount of time involved was a period of 70 days. Bear in mind also this conclusion was reached with the hope that no hostilities existed at the time between Germany and ourselves. The strength of the fleet was estimated to be in the region of 10 battleships and 2 battlecruisers with attendant escorts.


By l939 with war raging against Germany, the length of time needed to gather and despatch a fleet to Singapore had grown to 90 days. It also has to be noted that nowhere near the number of warships required could now be spared, because of the severe crisis on the home front. In August 1940 the Chiefs of Staff drew up a further appraisal of the situation in the Far East on the presumption that a sizeable fleet could never be despatched; this was known as (COS 40-592) Revise.  The COS consulted with the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas, whilst he was on leave in Britain for his opinions on the defence capabilities at present in place on the island. The final report made gloomy reading so much so, that there are no-records showing the reports findings were ever discussed with our allies in Australia and New Zealand. A summary of the COS document was that Britain was, for the foreseeable future incapable of defending Singapore against a concerted attack by Japan and our only route for peace would be one of appeasement. Unfortunately history was to dictate that we were not to have this opportunity with our future foe. And I am certain one of the main reasons Japan showed such scant regard for our presence in the Far East comes from the next point I shall raise.


It was decided that a copy of the report should be sent to the Commander in Chief of the Far East Sir Robert Brookes-Popham, this was transported on a merchant ship named, SS Automedon. Regrettably, en route to Singapore she was attacked and sunk by the German raider (armed merchant ship) Atlantis. Churchill could never deny knowledge of the loss of the Automedon as she sent out a distress call received by other British vessels in the area whilst she was under attack. This message was reported back to Britain. As for the highly secret documents; MI6 agents in Japan reported to having made contact with a Norwegian whose own ship had been sunk previously by the raider. He confirmed that sealed and weighted bags had been taken off the Automedon before her sinking.


Singapore was now doomed, for after being inspected by the Germans, the documents finally ended up with Vice Admiral Kondo of the Japanese Naval staff. The contents of the report had far reaching effects for the whole of the world. Because up to that time the Japanese thought they would have to fight two strong and well-equipped forces in the Southern Hemisphere. From that moment on they knew Britain was powerless and that any show of force from our country in defence of Singapore was basically a bluff. In reality the island was lost before war was declared. Details of the loss eventually surfaced in the National Archives, Washington DC in the 1980's, but that is another story.


No disclosure was made to any of our war time allies of the severity of the loss of the Automedon. This deception allowed Churchill to offer a brave and resolute stand against the Japanese. As on November 10th 1941 he proudly announced at the Lord Mayors Inaugural Luncheon in London, that owing to our recent naval successes we would be sending a strong fleet to the Indian Ocean to safeguard our interests. To our allies this would be seen as a warning to Japan that if she declared war on our country, we would be in a strong position to retaliate. I am certain that statement must have amused the Japanese as they were fully aware just how hopeless our situation was and feel all this act accomplished was to prepare the Japanese for the arrival of the fleet. For as you will already have read Lt Iki's squadron knew as early as November 30, 1941 that they would be attacking Force Z. 


He also chose to take no action whatsoever when Field Marshall Smutts wrote to him after his meeting with the leader of the battlegroup Admiral Tom Philips in Pretoria, whilst Philips was en route to Singapore. The Field Marshall’s message expressed deep concern that if the Japanese acted quickly he could see a recipe for a great disaster (remember his warning to the crew of Repulse in Durban). Sadly, the fate of these ships did not seem to concern Churchill and such was the lax organisation attached to this fleet (for which he cannot be held totally responsible). When the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable (which was due to meet up with the warships) ran aground in the West Indies leaving them without air cover. No thought seems to have been given by him or the Admiralty of making use of another carrier, HMS Hermes. Which had left the port of Simonstown, South Africa just two days before Prince of Wales docked there. It has to be admitted that she was only able to carry a maximum of approximately 15 aircraft, but surely this was better than no air cover at all. But because of either poor or inept communications, Hermes was allowed to go on her way and roam the oceans with no specific duties to perform.


I feel Churchill had no interest in this matter because he had larger fish to fry. His main concern was to antagonise the Japanese with the much-publicised presence of these ships in this part of the world, and he would now use Singapore as the cream to tempt the cat with. For if the Japanese chose to attack our ships and colony; this would obviously springboard America into the war. I will admit that his motives for this action are well founded, as without America, we would never have defeated the Axis powers. In addition, such a bold plan could not have been shared with many of his cabinet for the repercussions would have been crippling to him if his true intentions had been widely known.


On the 7th December 1941, his wish came true; Japan attacked the only power in that part of the world that posed any serious threat to her supremacy. As you will all be aware in one fell swoop the Japanese destroyed nearly all the American fleet in Pearl Harbour; now the most powerful nation in the world would be fighting alongside our beleaguered country. This is where I have my greatest bone of contention with his callous attitude, as from that moment on Repulse and Prince of Wales were now sitting ducks. Why did he not heed the advice of Admiral Somerville and get the fleet out of there to safety. Instead of trying to distance himself from the pending disaster, by leaving the ships and all the troop reinforcements to their fate on an island that he had known for over 12 months beforehand, couldn’t under any circumstances be saved. Astute as he was, he must have been aware that he had put himself in a situation where to allow any sort of withdrawal of men and supplies would make America suspicious of his original actions in sending all the reinforcements to the colony in the first instance.


It is my conclusion that this is the sole reason two fine ships and over 800 men were lost, to make no mention of the countless thousands who died, as the Japanese drove through Malaya and Singapore, all to save this great deception from being uncovered. One more point can put my whole theory into perspective; this event occurred shortly after Pearl Harbour, when the former Australian Prime Minister Sir Earl Page was allowed to attend Churchill’s War Cabinet meetings. By accident he learnt of the Automedon disaster, he duly informed Canberra of the loss of the top-secret papers on the vessel. This enraged the Australian Premier John Curtin, who demanded that no further Australian troops be sent to a colony that he now knew beyond all doubt could never be saved. Eventually Churchill succumbed to his protests and replaced the Australians with further British reinforcements. Most walked straight off the troop ships and onto the bayonets of the Japanese.


Finally, I wish to add, whenever I have attended a meeting of survivors from Force Z, I have heard one phrase being constantly repeated, that is many of them feel they were ‘live bait’. I agree and also have no doubt that they and all the other poor souls caught up in the disaster of Singapore were just a means to an end for our late Premier. Unfortunately for Churchill, his initial plan had consequences so far reaching and damaging to his prestige as a statesman and leader of our country. He savagely and callously, distanced himself from the slaughter and mayhem of the loss of the Repulse and Prince of Wales and the subsequent fall of Singapore. And from the comfort of Whitehall chose to lay blame squarely on the shoulders of all the people who fought and died for the colony, thus walking away from the whole episode with his hands clean.