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1819-1942 British Military Involvement

In the years preceding the founding of Singapore in 1819, neither the British government nor the British East India Company was eager to risk the establishment of new settlements in Southeast Asia. From 1803 to 1815, London was preoccupied with war with France and, after Napoleon's abdication in October 1815, with establishing a stable peace in Europe. Britain administered the Dutch colonies in Malaya and Indonesia from 1795 to 1815 when the Netherlands was under French occupation. The British government returned control of these territories to the Dutch in 1816 over the objections of a small minority of British East India Company officials, including Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Raffles, in London from 1816 to 1818, failed to convince the directors of the British East India Company to support a plan to challenge Dutch supremacy in the Malay Archipelago and Malaya. Enroute from London to Malaya, however, Raffles stopped in India and gained the support of Lord Hastings, the British East India Company's governor general of India, for a less ambitious plan. They agreed to establish a trading post south of Britain's settlement in Penang, Malaya.

From 1819 to 1867, when Singapore was administered by the British East India Company, Britain relied on its navy to protect its interests there and in Malaya. The Netherlands was the only European country to challenge the establishment of Singapore. In 1824, however, the Dutch ceded Malacca on the Malay Peninsula to Britain and recognized the former's claim to Singapore in exchange for British recognition of Amsterdam's sovereignty over territories south of the Singapore Strait. Two years later, the British East India Company united Singapore with Malacca and Penang to form the Presidency of the Straits Settlements. With no threat to its interests, the British employed the policy of allowing Singapore to assume responsibility for its own defense, although British naval vessels called in Singapore to show the flag and to protect shipping in the Singapore Strait. By the mid-nineteenth century, London was recognized as the supreme naval power in the region, despite the fact that it deployed only about twenty-four warships to patrol an area extending east from Singapore as far as Hong Kong and west from Singapore as far as India.

Between 1867 and 1914, London contributed little to the establishment of permanent armed forces in Singapore. Units of the British Army's Fifth Light Infantry Regiment, which included infantry units brought from India, were stationed on the island. More often than not, however, these forces were deployed in the Malay states to protect British citizens there during periods of domestic violence. In 1867 when the strategic value of Singapore influenced London's decision to make the Straits Settlements a crown colony, the local governments were required to pay 90 percent of their own defense expenditures. The issue of collecting taxes from the residents of Singapore for defense remained controversial until 1933, when the Colonial Office finally agreed that the city should not be required to pay more than 20 percent of its revenue for defense costs.

Following World War I (1914-18), London attempted to integrate Singapore into a unified defense plan for all of the Straits Settlements and Malay states under British control. London had replaced the Indian elements of the Fifth Light Infantry Regiment with regular British Army units following the mutiny of Singapore's Indian troops in February 1915.

The British began building a naval base at Singapore in 1923, partly in response to Japan's increasing naval power. A costly and unpopular project, construction of the base proceeded slowly until the early 1930s when Japan began moving into Manchuria and northern China. A major component of the base was completed in March 1938, when the King George VI Graving Dock was opened; more than 300 meters in length, it was the largest dry dock in the world at the time. The base, completed in 1941 and defended by artillery, searchlights, and the newly built nearby Tengah Airfield, caused Singapore to be ballyhooed in the press as the "Gibralter of the East." The floating dock, 275 meters long, was the third largest in the world and could hold 60,000 workers. The base also contained dry docks, giant cranes, machine shops; and underground storage for water, fuel, and ammunition. A self-contained town on the base was built to house 12,000 Asian workers, with cinemas, hospitals, churches, and seventeen soccer fields. Above-ground tanks held enough fuel for the entire British navy for six months. The only thing the giant naval fortress lacked was ships.

As late as 1937, London had not deployed more than a few hundred British army regulars in the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States. As there was no overt threat from neighboring countries or Britain's European rivals, the War Office believed that these units, aided by local militias trained by the British army, could adequately protect British interests on the Malay Peninsula. Singapore's militia, known as the Volunteer Rifle Corps, comprised infantry, artillery, and support units with a total personnel strength of about 1,000. The Volunteer Rifle Corps was integrated into the newly established Straits Settlements Volunteer Force in 1922. London believed that in the unlikely event that the Straits Settlements were attacked, regular and militia forces could hold out until reinforcements arrived from Hong Kong, India, and other British outposts in Asia.

In June 1937, Britain began to prepare for the possibility of war with Japan. Three British army battalions stationed in Singapore, one Indian battalion at Penang, and one Malay regiment at Port Dickson in the Malayan state of Negri Sembilan were the only regular forces available at the time for the defense of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Although the British military leaders had warned London in 1937 that the defense of Singapore was tied to the defense of Malaya and that any Japanese attack on the island would likely be made from the Malay Peninsula, their assessment was rejected by the British War Office, which was convinced that the impenetrable rain forests of the peninsula would discourage any landward invasion. Air bases were established in northern Malaya but were never adequately fortified. A new naval base was constructed on the northern coast of the island, but few ships were deployed there. Military strategists in London believed that the Singapore garrison could defend the island for about two months, or the time it would take for a relief naval force to arrive from Britain.

In December 1941, British and Commonwealth forces committed to the defense of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore comprised four army divisions supported by small numbers of aircraft and naval vessels that had been sent from other war zones to provide token support to the ground forces. Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival, commander of these forces, deployed most units in the northern Malayan states of Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, and Terengganu. Fortified defensive positions were established to protect cities and the main roads leading south to Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, and Singapore. The British had no armor and very little artillery, however, and air bases that had been constructed in the Malayan states of Kelantan, Pahang, and Johore and in Singapore at Tengah, Sembawang, and Seletar were not well fortified. The attention of the War Office was focused on the fighting in Europe, and appeals to London for more aircraft went largely unanswered.

A small fleet, comprising the battleship Prince of Wales [nicknamed HMS Unsinkable], the battle cruiser Repulse, and four destroyers, represented the only naval force deployed to Singapore before the outbreak of war in the Pacific. Their Aircraft Carrier HMS Indomitable had run aground outside Kingston Harbour a short time before sailing to join and had to proceed to the USA for repairs to her hull, leaving the fleet without any air protection.

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