The Irish Prime Minister and the Fall of Singapore

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins.)

The media informs us of the visit on the 22nd July of Mícheál Martin, Prime Minister of the Irish state, to the concentration camp where his uncle was a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in World War II.

Many Irish fought in the UK and British Commonwealth armies against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

But there is another strong and ironic Irish connection to the fall of Singapore. The Lieut.-General Arthur Percival who surrendered the Singapore fortress to the Japanese Army in 942 had been Intelligence Officer (and torturer) for the Essex Rifles against the IRA in West Cork 1920-’21.

Major (then) Arthur Percival, C/O 1st Company Essex Regiment (later Intelligence Officer) in Ireland with senior officer of the colonial gendarmerie, the Royal Irish Constabulary, c.1920/21. (Image sourced: British Imperial War Museum)

PERCIVAL IN IRELAND

Percival served first as a company commander then as Intelligence Officer of the Essex Rifles in Kinsale, Co. Cork, where he “stood out for his violent, sadistic behaviour towards IRA prisoners, suspects and innocent civilians……

“He also participated in reprisals, burning farms and businesses in response to IRA attacks,” according to a USA historian. General Tom Barry, IRA commander in West Cork, said that Percival was “easily the most vicious anti-Irish of all serving British officers”1.

Two victims in particular were IRA Brigade Commander Tom Hales and Quatermaster Patrick Harte. Both reported being beaten and tortured with pliers to private parts and extraction of nails. Percival got an OBE for their capture; Harte died in a mental hospital in 1925.

Tom Barry recorded that after a number of ignored warnings, the IRA in Cork placed the Essex Rifles on the same status as the Black ‘n Tans and the Auxilliaries – they could depend on no mercy if captured.

Percival was also the man who unconditionally surrendered Singapore to a much smaller invading force of Japanese in 1942, thereby condemning thousands of soldiers and civilians to a terrible fate.

British Army prisoners of the Japanese after the surrender of Singapore (Image sourced: Internet)

LARGEST BRITISH SURRENDER IN HISTORY — AND TO LESSER NUMBERS

Singapore had been a British colonial possession since 18262. At the time of WWII the British considered it a strong fortress, a thick jungle and hills on the landward side and with huge 15” cannon facing out to sea against a possible naval invasion.

The British High Command considered no navy in the world could survive an assault on the island and no army capable of penetrating the thick jungle. Apparently no-one told the Imperial Japanese that for come through the jungle they did, marching or riding on bicycles.

The UK and Commonwealth troops on the landward side fought but were outgunned and badly commanded. After seven days of fighting, Percival decided to surrender unconditionally, with most of the 85,000 troops on the island not yet having engaged the 36,000 of the enemy.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival (right), led by Ichiji Sugita, walks under a flag of truce to negotiate the capitulation of Commonwealth forces in Singapore, on 15 February 1942. It was the largest surrender of British forces in history (Wikipedia).

The surrender of Singapore delivered 80,000 UK and Commonwealth troops, along with a million civilians, into captivity in the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. Three days after the British surrender, the Japanese began the “Sook Ching” purge, killing thousands of civilians3.

The day before the surrender, Japanese soldiers also invaded the Victoria Hospital and murdered over 250 soldiers, doctors, male staff and patients.

Most of the soldiers taken captive had not been given a chance by Percival to even fire a shot at the advancing Japanese Army, to the contempt of their captors, led by officers with a strong military tradition and pride (not to say arrogance).

Whether that fact contributed to the cruel and inhumane treatment of the prisoners by their captors and guards is not certain but it seems to have done. In any case, many who died day by day and month by month building the Burma Railway would no doubt have preferred to die fighting.

Most of the civilians massacred would probably also have preferred to die fighting.

Around 30,000 Allied Prisoners of War of the Japanese died in captivity of cruel treatment including inadequate food, disease and overwork; working from statistics R.J. Rummel estimates a death rate of around 29% for POWs4. Huge numbers of civilians died similarly also.

Australian Russell Braddon, who wrote about his experiences in the Japanese concentration camp at Changi and on the slave-labour construction of the Burma railroad5, was extremely bitter about the surrender and the general Allied High Command management of the war in Malaya.

IN CONCLUSION

I do not, as many Irish Republicans do, criticise the Irish who joined the UK and Commonwealth Armies during WWII (9,100 combat dead perhaps https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/number-of-irish-in-both-wars-unknown-1.1825013).

Many no doubt did so out of a desire to fight fascism — surely an admirable motivation6.

But once the War ended, any Irish remaining in the British armed forces anywhere could not claim to be doing anything else than helping the domination of many nations and millions of people by what was at the time the world’s biggest imperialist power (though soon to be eclipsed by the USA).

Mícheál Martin at Changi concentration camp where his uncle was a POW, now a museum (Photo: RTÉ)

If anti-fascism motivated his uncle and that is what Mícheál Martin appreciates about him, one would wonder why the police of the state which he leads protected fascists in Ireland and attacked antifascists on a number of occasions in recent years.

Of course there may be a more sinister aspect to Martin’s publicised visit. It may be a public expression of the desire among the Irish elite to be part of a western military alliance, either the US-NATO or an EU such, which would in the end amount to much the same thing.

And such an alliance in these times would not be fighting — even in part – against fascism but rather alongside it.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949 and many reprints since) by Tom Barry.

2Singapore became an independent republic on 9 August 1965.

3People from all ethnic groups were massacred but the Chinese most of all. Though the Japanese government years later paid some compensation to relatives of victims, it has never accepted responsibility for the events. Nor has the UK. “Since 1998, Singapore has observed Total Defence Day on 15 February each year, marking the anniversary of the surrender of Singapore. The concept of Total Defence as a national defence strategy was first introduced in 1984, which serves as a significant reminder that only Singaporeans with a stake in the country can effectively defend Singapore from future threats.” (Wikipedia)

4https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP3.HTM

5The Naked Island (1952) sold over a million copies. Russel Braddon (1921-1925) had a breakdown soon after the war and felt suicidal but, once recovered, became a successful writer of novels, articles and TV scripts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Braddon

6I met one of those, curiously enough a Corkman in a lodging house in London. Denis was a decent man, very big, who rarely talked about the war except sometimes when he had drink taken. Strangely, he never had a bad word to say against the Japanese – even the concentration camp guards.

SOURCES

Mícheál Martin’s visit to Changi Jail Museum: https://www.thejournal.ie/martin-singapore-visit-prison-5824033-Jul2022/

Surrender of Singapore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Singapore

https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/prisoners-of-war-of-the-japanese-1939-1945

https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP3.HTM

Arthur Percival: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Percival