FALL OF SINGAPORE: General Percival's Choice

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It fell to an unfortunate young major named Wilde to carry the white flag toward Japanese headquarters. He reached Lieut. General Tomoyuki Yamashita at 2:30 p.m. and asked for conditions of surrender.

General Yamashita had the conditions written out. At 4:15 Major Wilde left for the British lines. He promised to be back with an answer by 5:30.

And so, what with the comings & goings, Major Wilde's commander, Lieut. General Arthur Ernest Percival, had less than an hour in which to make his decision.

In less than 60 minutes he had to decide what to do with one of the four great bastions of the British Empire; he had to dispose of Britain's fate in the Far East. In less than an hour he had to make up his mind to do something that no sizable British Army had done since Major General Sir Charles Townshend capitulated at Kut-el-Amara in Mesopotamia in 1916, and, before that, since Cornwallis gave up at Yorktown in 1781. He had a matter of minutes in which to decide whether to shake Winston Churchill's Cabinet, to depress all of Britain, to undermine the Allies' faith in British fighting men.

That was not much time in which to decide whether or not he would live up to the words which A. P. Correspondent Yates McDaniel had expressed just five days before: "For the defenders, this was the test of tests. Alternatives were simple and unqualified: death or victory."

And yet, for such a civilized man, the decision was inevitable. Not death, not victory; something worse than death. There was no other solution, because the Japanese had done their job so very well.

They had captured Singapore's reason for existence, the Naval Base. They had captured its means of subsistence, the Peirce and MacRitchie Reservoirs. They had flanked the city and destroyed or seized the airfields. They had cut off its rear by knocking out so many evacuating ships. They claimed to have sunk a light and an auxiliary cruiser, a submarine, two gunboats, a "special vessel" and eight transports, including one of 30,000 tons; to have damaged a light cruiser, a destroyer, two "special vessels," one torpedo boat and ten transports; to have forced the beaching of a Dutch cruiser, a minelayer, a transport.

Victory was no longer the question. The opposite choice, death, would have meant the useless slaughter of civilians. And so General Percival made the hard, the humiliating choice. He went, as directed, to a Ford Motor plant at the foot of Bukit Timah, a hill where, earlier that day, there had been bloody fighting. There, at 7 p.m., after some palaver, he signed away large pieces of the land, the power and the pride of the British Empire.