Back to Fortress Singapore: A First-Hand Account

14 July 2017

Our latest resource Foreign Office Files for Japan, Japanese Imperialism and the War in the Pacific 1931-1945, released this week, documents a turbulent time in Anglo-Japanese diplomatic relations.

Singapore, the epitome of British colonial rule with its grand government buildings and famous hotels, was also the British military stronghold in the East. Established as a defensive Naval base following WW1 it was bolstered at great expense as a reaction to Japanese expansion during the 1930s, and was believed to be impenetrable. However, when in 1942 the Japanese took the British by surprise, advancing down the Malay peninsula with speed and ferocity, it led to one of the greatest military defeats in British history. Singapore was occupied by the Japanese and would not be back in British hands until the war was over.


Britain surrender to the Japanese, February 1942. Image in the public domain.

This report from 1945 written by Esler Dening, Chief Political Adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander, details his trip to Singapore, just eight days after the formal surrender of Japan. The document paints a picture of the conditions in Singapore and offers interesting insights into how it was viewed by a member of the British government.

Arriving in Singapore on the 10th September, two days before the official surrender ceremony was to be held on the 12th, he describes cruising along the coast of Sumatra, still in Japanese hands, and coming ashore in “a boat paddled by wooden boards.”

Extract of Dening's report. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

In the streets he describes seeing Japanese troops levelling the roads, supervised by British and Indians, whilst natives of Singapore watched on “obviously enjoying the Japanese being the underdogs”.

He paints a vivid picture of the surrender ceremony, recounting “a brave showing of the Royal Navy and Marine band’, the Supreme Commander arriving to cheers and the menacing noise heralding the arrival of the Japanese.

Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten signs the surrender for Great Britain. 12 September 1945. Image in the public domain. 


Copy of the instrument of surrender, included in file FO 371/46415. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Of the rife starvation and destruction on the island, he notes after an exchange with a starving Chinese family, “I think we were wrong in suppressing Japanese currency from the word go when we were not yet employing any numbers and our own currency had not yet got into circulation”.

Describing his trip to Changi Jail, he revealed “I came away feeling it was almost unbelievable that men (and women) had endured so much and preserved such a marvellous spirit” although, in a telling show of prevailing colonial attitude he also notes “We were shown the cell … Before the war it was for one European only. Later five men were put into it.”

Extract of Dening's report. Â© Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK


Despite this perseverance of spirit and the cheers for the Supreme Commander, that Britain had let Singapore fall had left its authority in Singapore and other occupied colonial territories shaken: a fact that would play some part in the decline of the empire over the following decades.



This report will be open access for 30 days. Read it here.

Japanese Imperialism and the War in the Pacific, 1931-1945
, the first section of Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952 is out now. Read more here. This resource is part of Archives Direct, sources taken from The National Archives, UK.


About the Author

Rosie Perry

Rosie Perry

Since joining Adam Matthew in April 2014 I have worked on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and American History 1493-1945. Previous to this I completed a degree in Art History and particularly enjoy exploring and discovering the rich visual content of our resources.