on 24 August 2005
Colin Smith has produced an excellent, extremely readable account of what Churchill described as ' the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British History'. Always interesting, beautifully written, with, at its core, a compelling narrative based on individual, first-hand accounts of the impact on 'ordinary' (though many are most extra-ordinary) people, this book is hard to put down.
As regards the behaviour of the Japanese, once again we are left struggling to understand how an enemy, often courageous in the extreme, could also display such heartless cruelty towards those captured. In the Author's own words, 'perhaps even the Japanese do not know the answer to this'.
Although the book does contain a significant amount of 'behind the scenes' detail related both to contemporary political machinations and to military strategy, the account is never boring, and is always enlivened by frequent reference to the relevance of such data to subsequent events in Singapore. This is, in essence, the compelling story of a unique period in our Colonial history, and of the individual men and women involved. The tale is all the more remarkable when one considers that these events took place a mere 63 years ago. A superb read.
on 18 June 2012
Sometime during 1962/63 I, as 12/13 yr old, was sat at the humble kitchen-diner meal table with my maternal grandfather [he was also my adoptive father and died in 1986 age 76yrs] and I spontaneously asked him this question on the almost never mentioned subject of his WW2 experiences as a 88th Field Regiment gunner and death railway pow, "Did you kill anybody in the war?". He replied with his accustomed humility, "I think I might have shot down a Jap plane with a Bren gun, son" ... end of conversation.
I've spent recent years researching his war, including reading 'Singapore Burning'. Imagine my delight on reading pages 306-307 of the report of 88th Field bringing down a Jap spotter-plane with Brens at Kampar!
I believe that each battery only had one Bren, so Colin Smith's book may have immortalised my relative's action in published print.
Singapore Burning is unique in the way that it constantly keeps an understanding of the 'big picture' of the progress of the battle for singapore in the reader's view; whilst soulfully bringing him, or her, close in touch with the human experiences of those living in the 'here and now' of events and actions. Not only thus, does this book break out from the herd to become the undisputed leader but also for two other reasons; (i) because the author's labour-of-love commitment to it glows from every page and, as I progressed through it, I sensed this book becoming as if friend that I could consult for the most reliable truths and likely causes and (ii) beause it is comprehensive and not limited to mostly focusing on one or two regiments.
Not least, Singapore Burning consigns to the bin once and for all any remaining question as to whether the british boots-on-the-ground had simply not tried hard enough!
Frankly, I am extremely grateful for this book's existence for all of the above reasons.
on 24 July 2005
This is so much more than military history. Smith has established a style of bringing individual players to life - brave and cowardly, brilliant and incompetent, or just plain ordinary - while driving forward his plot remorselessly. You know how it is going to end, but you are desperate to know what is going to happen to the individuals whom Smith has brought to life so vividly. Some of these people are fascinating: the Australian sheep-farmers who turned their weekend soldiering into military competence and bravery; the Indian professionals who had their loyalty so severely tested by the Japanese; the Japanese officers at the pinnacle of their careers; the dour Scottish sergeant-major who led his soldiers out of danger; several women who show their courage in different ways - and so on.
Smith takes an analytical and challenging look at the sheer awfulness of what happened, and it makes sobering reading. Our strategic assumptions were wrong, and we assembled the wrong force, giving them the wrong orders. A bad hand can be played well, yet, with some honourable exceptions, we failed to do even that. You read with equal fascination the story of the officer who stems the tide with his inspired leadership and the story of the officer who made the culpable decision to withdraw when there was no need to.
It is an achievement to turn a well-documented defeat into a page-turner, and Smith has achieved this in spades.
on 26 April 2011
I grew up in Singapore. The history of the campaign has been largely misunderstood by many there, largely due to post-war myths, bias, perhaps even apathy. Yet, for history buffs, this part of World War II history cannot and should not be relegated to the sidelines. Mr Smith does a remarkable job of removing the fiction from fact, while recreating the tapestry of Colonial times in order to set the backdrop. Very readable; this book details both the amazing yet tragic defense of Singapore, as well as the tenacity of the Japanese invaders. This is a must read not only for history buffs, but also for Singaporeans - especially students - lest their history be forgotten.
on 24 February 2011
I found the book immensely captivating from the first paragraph. Colin Smith combines a high level of scholaraship with an equally high level of writing. He presents the material in a coherent and inviting order, where organization of a complex socio-historical subject is at a premium. Vacillating between the day-to-day components of the fall of Singapore and the macro-context of the event in world history and its relationship to the European theatre is masterfully handled.
My interest in the fall of Singapore is both personal and professional. My Dad was a Prisoner of War captured in Singapore and I am now studying the period as a background to a novel that forms part of a doctoral thesis. The book has been a great help to me both in understanding some of the horrific things that my Dad experienced as well as giving me historical objectivity with relation to the military disaster.
on 12 July 2010
I went to Singapore as a 9 year old with my parents (Father with 25 Company RASC). Both father and mother were keen amateur historians and set about tracing the lines of fighting on the islands and later, down Malaya from Kuala Lumpur south. There was still plenty of evidence to see. So the names I learned, from Muar to Parit Sulong and the barbarity dished out were reinforced by Colin Smiths book.
A brilliant read and I'm reading it again, just to take it all in!
on 8 February 2015
As a military history, this account is probably one of the best. Smith integrates personal stories with the military campaigns to "bring it to life." Smith is a great writer with a special talent for chapter opening and closing sentences, but this book suffers greatly from "too much information" and only other historians or perhaps those with a personal connection will find it a "good read." I usually like WWII history and I usually go into them with lower expectations for narrative quality as compared to other classes of literature. But Smith's narrative quality is excellent: the problem is that the story seems to get lost in the details - too many trees obscure the forest. Indeed, I started relying on internet sources such as Wikipedia to provide a clear overview of the Malaya/Singapore campaign. Since Smith is such a capable writer, I would love to see him publish an abridged version of this book without so much detail and with more focus on the fascinating story itself.
on 7 February 2011
The fall of Singapore, that bastion of the far east, represented a massive defeat for the British. The author has done a superb job in blending together the aerial, naval and land battles of 1941/42 Malaya into a thoroughly readable account of the Malayan campaign. After setting the scene of pre-invasion Malaya (and not ignoring the lack of preparation and willpower in making Malaya as defensible as possible with the British emphasis on Europe and Africa theatres of operations), the focus initially is on the unenviable aircraft of the RAF and their initial skirmishes with the Japanese, and then shifts to Force Z as Admiral Phillip's battleships steam northwards from Singapore to their eventual sinking at the hands of Japanese torpedo bombers. Following the failure of the RAF and the Royal Navy in bringing the Japanese to account, the responsibility falls upon the soldiers to defend Malaya. Of course, events (and politics) conspire against the Allies, and the army has to withdraw down Malaya and into Singapore before the final humiliation of surrender.
What sets "Singapore Burning" apart from many other narratives of the Malayan campaign is the number of personal reminiscences of the campaign from the rank and file. This is not a top heavy strategic analysis of the campaign, but a muddy, sweaty and downright dangerous account of often squad or platoon level forays with the Japanese. The author interviewed many veterans, and consulted many sources both English and Japanese, in compiling the stories of the pilots, the sailors and the soldiers. Heroic and some not so heroic endeavours of combat, and sheer survival in many cases, from both sides are recounted. Of course, where necessary, the author steps back to provide the reader with the commander's perspective so the reader may have an appreciation of the larger scheme of things.
It is also noteworthy that effort is not spared in dealing with the Indian Army units, of which there were many participating in Malaya. Given the sheer number of nationalities involved (British, Indian, Malayan, Australian, Dutch and New Zealanders among others), the author would be forgiven for focusing on the British and Australian units which would provide the overwhelming majority of sources for the campaign. However, the stories of the Indian and Gurkha soldiers and their brave contributions are not overlooked. Additionally, Japanese viewpoints and heroics (and their atrocities) are integrally part of the overall discussion.
"Singapore Burning" includes a number of maps in the beginning pages of the book, which helps provide context for the campaign, particularly the land battles. There are also three inserts of black and white photography, which supplement the majority of the text nicely. "Singapore Burning" is thoroughly recommended for both serious and casual readers of military history.
on 17 September 2009
Quite simply the best all-round account of the Malayan campaign I have read.
I have been interested in this subject for about 20 years, ever since I first visited the area, and have read widely on it, but this book still told me much that I didn't know. For example, I wasn't aware that the floating dock at Singapore's naval base was booty taken from Germany in 1918, nor that dozens of modifications had to be made to the RAF's Buffalo fighter aeroplanes to get them working at all.
The battle appears to have been largely unwinnable from Britain's point of view. Pre-war estimates were that nearly 350 aircraft would be needed to defend Malaya, and that was assuming the Japanese were operating from airfields no nearer than French IndoChina. The RAF actually had about a third of that number, the Japanese air units were operating out of Thailand, and the Royal Navy's relief fleet turned up without its crucial aircraft carrier because the latter had run aground en route. Percival never had a secure flank from the get-go until he reached Singapore, a city quite unsuited to a siege.
Fascinating, well written, much recommended.
on 21 March 2014
Colin Smith has written a blockbuster of a book about a sadly neglected part of the Pacific War - The Singapore Malayan Campaign. In 90 days the Japanese defeated an army almost twice its size and inflicted the greatest defeat ever sufferred by the British Empire.
Smith gives good overview to the historical background to the colony, and surprisingly clear and cogent analysis of the percieved Japanese strategic situation preceding the invasion. Smith has good attention to detail with good unit actions in small parts of the country, such as the small unit actions on the Southern East Coast and the intial operations of both the Japanese and British in Thailand.
The collapse at Jitra is chronicled well, as well as the stiff unit actions some excellent (Argyll and Sunderland Highland Regiment, and Indian regiments), some not so good (the performance of the Australians was so poor that many of the documents relating to this period have only recently been declassified).
No book can be everything, and from a personal preference, I thought the air war was described well from a strategic perspective, but there was little tactical flavour about the air war over Malaya and the esuing flight to Sumatra (Brian Cull's wonderful, "Bloody Shambles" deals exclusively with this air war). In addition was looking forward to a more detailed description of the final days of fighing on the island once the Jurong Line on Singapore Island was breeched. Maybe it is precisely because of the desperate troubled fighting that clear and accurage descriptions are lacking?
Smith to his credit calls all to account. Bennett, the Australian Commander and his unauthorised flight from Singapore is well-known, the conduct of the troops in the final days - ill disciplined allied troops commandeering steamer evacuating wounded and civilians makes for depressing reading. There is also the depressing paranoia of some British who saw Japanese spies all around and shot some who were undoubtedly innocent, with depressing regularity, even one British Soldier of Irish descent was executed for supposedly working for the enemy (this story being recently declassified).The Japanese side is also well told. Tomoyuki Yamashita emerges as a clear, and rare man of honour mostly in Smith's writing. The handling of surrendered allied troops was in the main, horrible, but Japanese actions were mainly capricious and not calculated. Smith recounts how one person surrenderred to be only bayoneted and escape, then recounts how he again surrendered and was drafted into being the orderly for a Japanese officer who treated him humanely and even insisted on paying him for his services when it came time to turn him over as a prisoner of war.
It is this honesty that also marks Colin Smith as a superior narrative historian of the first order.
Smith also details the superior actions of the Malayan regiments in their last ditch attempts to defend the city, and the suffering of the Chinese population, in many cases rounded up and massacred for their support of China in her war against Japan.
The books moves quickly and interestingly... at almost 600 pages I did not read it in a night... but I could imagine myself doing so under conditions where the call of kids and Doctor Suess books were not also vying for my attention. A full-on first-rate tale of this campaign.