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Monday, 11 February, 2002, 12:23 GMT
The fall of a fortress
Singapore graffic
In 1942 the Japanese embarrassed Britain by capturing the key city of Singapore. Piers Plowright, presenter of the Radio 4 programme Fall of a Fortress, looks at the event and the atrocities which followed.

I first came to Singapore in 1957 as a young national serviceman.

World War II had been over for 12 years and nobody there talked much about it, or the events between December 1941 and February 1942.

In 70 tumultuous days, a Japanese army little more than 30,000 strong defeated an allied force nearly four times as big.

It destroyed its fleet, seized its airfields, put to flight its soldiers and forced and unconditional surrender on its divided and outmanoeuvred leaders.


The loss of Britain's largest overseas naval base was a huge disaster

Piers Plowright
It was one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history and, according to Winston Churchill's private detective, one of only two periods when the great war leader was unable to sleep.

He knew that the loss of Britain's largest overseas naval base was a huge disaster; he may have also sensed that it was a devastating blow to the prestige of a once mighty empire.

The 'little fellows' as Sir Shenton Thomas, Governor of Singapore in those dark days, contemptuously dismissed the Japanese, had shown that a well-disciplined and led Asian power could run rings round the combined forces of the British and Australian High Command.

The city surrendered 60 years ago on 15 February 1942 and the brutal Japanese occupation that followed over the next three and a half years was to change history forever.


Elizabeth Choy survived weeks of torture by the Japanese secret police.

Elizabeth Choy OBE
National hero - Elizabeth Choy OBE
Choy - is a hero in Singapore, after being imprisoned by the infamous Kempeitai military police with her husband.

Her only crime was to be running a canteen in a hospital, which the Japanese thought was an elaborate way of passing messages between the hated Chinese.

Describing her torture, she said: "They made a frame of three sided wood and I was asked to kneel on the frame, they tied my hand behind my back and they tied my legs.

"I couldn't move. Then they brought in my husband who I had not seen for a long time. He was made to kneel beside the frame to watch me being tortured.

Collection centres

"They applied an electric current through my bare body, it was awful. I screamed and I yelled, tears were running down my cheek."

Lee Kuan Yew, who later rose to world prominence as the Prime Minister of Singapore, also recalled the random rounding up of citizens by the Japanese.

He said: "We were told to collect ourselves in certain collection centres - after a few days you go through a gauntlet, as you go through the gauntlet to get out and they have spies or informers to point you out."

Mr Lee was spotted as he left and told to wait in a lorry - but fearing the worst asked to be allowed back in to collect his clothes. He then hid for a few days and tried again. This time he was able to leave without being picked out.

It was a move which saved his life.

"Subsequently I discovered that all those who went onto the lorry were taken to the beaches and machine gunned," he said.

Archive Hour: Fall of a Fortress will be broadcast on Saturday 16 February at 2000GMT on Radio 4

Lee Kuan Yew
'Many were rounded up and machine gunned'
Elizabeth Choy OBE
'They tied me to a frame'
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