The Ship Which Doomed A Colony

 (All document reference numbers in this article, refer to the Public Records Office Kew, unless otherwise stated.)

 In 1937, a report was issued by the British Chiefs of Staff, one of the purposes of which, was to estimate the size of fleet required to safeguard the colony of Singapore in the event of war being declared by Japan against Britain. The size of the force was determined at 10 battleships, 2 battlecruisers, with attendant escorts i.e. cruisers and destroyers. In addition, the length of time required for gathering and sending the fleet was in the region of 70 days. Further reports were issued in 1938 and 39, and they painted a progressively gloomier picture; in fact the 1939 report stated, without the active involvement of America, the colony was doomed.  (1).

Returning briefly to 1937; it is an accepted fact, that our Service Chiefs and War Cabinet were allegedly taken by surprise, with the Japanese landward attack on Singapore. The accepted doctrine had been that any such attack would be sea orientated. No acknowledgement appears to have been given to the findings in 1937 by General Dobbie, GOC Malaya (2). Who was asked to offer his appraisal of the defence situation in Malaya and Singapore through the eyes of Japanese aggressors, in light of Britain being unable to despatch a fleet within 70 days of commencement of hostilities. He concluded that even in the height of monsoon season, land attack was perfectly feasible. In fact the inclement weather would aid any invasion force, by hindering air reconnaissance.

More alarmingly, he predicted that any move by the Japanese to capture Sovereign territory would be preceded by the construction of airfields in Siam and his opinions on the coastal areas where landings would take place,  were almost pin-point in their accuracy. He felt that Singora, Patani, in Siam, and Kota Bhuru would be the main areas of initial invasion.  Concluding that the only hope of saving the colony would be the large deployment of troops at key points throughout Malaya before the onset of outright conflict. His final warning came in 1938, when stating; contrary to popular belief, the jungles of southern Malaya were not impregnable to infantry. History was to prove this most able of officers correct. However, his warnings were greeted with complete apathy by successive powers that be, including our wartime Premier.

By the time Churchill came to power, Australia and New Zealand were applying ever-increasing pressure on Britain for a strong naval presence to be held permanently on station at Singapore. However, this was impracticable, because our navy was at full stretch in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres of conflict. In light of their concerns Churchill asked the Chiefs of Staff to reavaluate the situation in the Far East. It was the final full report to be issued before commencement of hostilities with our one time ally. The C O S asked the Governor of the Straits Settlements in Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas whilst he was on leave in Britain,  for his opinions on the defence situation of the island. His views and suggestions were considered by the C O S whilst reaching their own evaluations of the whole situation in the Far East.

On the day of the largest and most ferocious air attack by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, the Chiefs of Staff issued their amended report.  One of the most worrying aspects of its contents was our inability to muster a fleet to defend Singapore, as our navy was locked in bitter struggle against their German and Italian foes.  In light of this and other relevant factors, the Chiefs of Staff stated that. “Our general policy must be to play for time, cede nothing until we must, and build up our defences as soon as we can”. This report is supported by further documentation,  the contents of which stated, the sending of a fleet to the Far East would be unsound. In a nutshell, both the colony and Malaya could never survive a concerted attack by Japan.

It would appear the reports findings may have been withheld from our colonial allies, for fear of causing alarm in Australia and New Zealand. As despite numerous requests from their respective Prime Ministers to view the Far Eastern evaluation, all that was forthcoming was an assurance from Churchill despatched on August 11, 1941. Which was meant to reassure them that if, Japan turned her attention to the conquest of their countries, we would cut our losses in the Mediterranean and come to their aid. With this in mind, what was the point of having the report drafted?

Lord Newall sent a copy of the report to the Commander in Chief of the Far East (CinC) which was soon to be, Sir Robert Brookes Popham.

For some undisclosed reason it was sent on a merchant ship named Automedon, a vessel of the Blue Funnel Line based in Liverpool . This mode of transport for the highly sensitive documents appears unusual to say the least. The papers could easily have been sent by seaplane or warship; either method would have been far safer than a merchant ship travelling through axis infested waters. Furthermore, if one of the aforementioned and accepted ‘safe modes’ of transport had been used, the following tragedy could never have unfolded. 

On November 11 1940, whilst steaming in the Indian Ocean, Automedon was attacked by the German raider, Atlantis. Initially she sent out the distress call (RRR – Automedon – 0416N) the first three letters of which was the recognised code of “under attack by armed raider”. Two British merchant ships, the Matara and Helenus intercepted this call, and immediately sent details of the distress message onto Singapore, who in turn forwarded the decrypt to London. Because of the signal’s incomplete nature (Atlantis quickly destroyed Automedons radio mast by gunfire) it was not possible to get an exact location of the vessel, and subsequently after a short ferocious battle, Automedon was dead in the water.

The Germans soon boarded the prize, quickly making their way to the bridge. In the words of First Lieutenant Ulrich Mohr, (leader of the boarding party) offered to A.V Sellwood in 1955, for the publication ‘Atlantis’ he states. “We got to work on the strong room, finding fifteen bags of secret mail, including one hundredweight of decoding tables, Fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and (so-called) Naval Intelligence reports. After spending a fruitless hour gaining entry into the ships safe, to discover nothing more than “a few shillings in cash” a search of the Chart Room, brought far greater rewards.  Mohr continues. “Our prize was just a long narrow envelope enclosed in a green bag equipped with brass eyelets to let water in, to facilitate its sinking should it prove necessary to dispose of it.

The bag was marked ‘Highly Confidential…To be destroyed’ The envelope was addressed to The C, Far East…To Be Opened Personally”. The documents had been drawn up by no less an authority than the Planning Division of the War Cabinet and contained the latest appreciation of the Military strength of the Empire in the Far East. There were details of Royal Air Force Units; there were details of naval strength; there was an assessment of the role of Australia and New Zealand; and most piquant of all, a long paragraph regarding the possibility of Japan entering the war, plus a paragraph accompanied by copious notes on the fortifications of Singapore.

What the devil were the British about, sending such material by a slow old tub like Automedon. Surely a warship would have been a worthier repository? Few could  understand it”. Mohr’s skipper Captain Rogge, (who was fully conversant in English), soon realised the importance of this intelligence windfall, and curtailed his raiding mission. Shortly afterwards the secret documents were transferred to the Norwegian prize ship Ole Jacob, subsequently arriving a few weeks later in Kobe, Japan (7).

There has never been any official papers available to the public, with reference to discussions at any level of British Government, concerning the loss of the ships top secret cargo.

This is most peculiar, especially in light of the statement in page 264 of the book  "Betrayal at Pearl Harbor" by James Rushbridger, covering the amazing story of the Automedons 4th Engineer, Samuel Harper. After being taken prisoner, Harper and the rest of the crew were later transferred to the German vessel Storsad, arriving at Bordeaux in January 1941. Whilst being taken by train to a Prisoner of War camp, Harper managed to escape. Then through a series of adventures, mixed with strokes of good fortune he crossed the Pyreenes.  From where he travelled through Spain and with assistance from the British Embassy’s arrived in Gibraltar on May 31 1941. Is it safe to assume that at some point during his stay in ‘Gib’ relevant authorities would have debriefed him? They would then have been fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the sinking?

Furthermore, the same authorities would then have to assume the COS report had been in the possession of Japans Tripartite ally for over 6 months? Rusbridger states this did in fact happen and Harper allegedly recalled in his account that M16 agents interviewed him at ‘Gib’. However my copy (of which I am about to mention) curtails immediately on his reaching the safe-haven? Rusbridger also stated this account is in the Common Services Record Centre Liverpool; however, all my enquiries over the Centre’s existence, met with no success. Eventually I contacted the Imperial War Museum and after much searching they confirmed the existence of a document by Samuel Harper, referring to the sinking of Automedon and his subsequent escape from German captors. On receiving a copy of his account; much to my amazement, also enclosed was a statement from the skipper of the merchant ship ‘Helenus’. In which he describes the intercepted distress call and also his assurances that he made all necessary authorities aware of the attack on reaching Durban a matter of days later.

Continuing with the fate of the COS papers; on reading the reports highly detailed and top secret contents, Vice Admiral Wenneker (German Naval Attaché to Japan) offered the following evaluation.

    “Churchill’s Cabinet had decided the British were unable to send a fleet to the Far East, and so must avoid ‘open clash’ with Japan, until Military co-operation with the United States was assured. The British would not go to war even if Japan attacked Thailand or Indo China itself. Instead efforts would be made to buy off Tokyo with general concessions – including abandoning Singapore and making a deal over Malaya”.

The documents were then despatched to Berlin with all possible haste.

Once the report was safely in the hands of the relevant German authorities a copy was sent to Hitler; after close examination he insisted it be sent to the Japanese Naval Attaché in Berlin, Captain Yokoi. Subsequently, on December 12 1940, Yokoi sent a message to the Chief of the Third Section, Naval Staff, Tokyo, which reads.

    “I have received from the German Navy, minutes of a meeting of the British War Cabinet, held on 15 August this year dealing with operations against Japan. It outlines the main points of the British War Cabinet’s decision that day, that Britain was not in a position to resort to war if Japan attacked French Indo China or Siam. That Hong Kong would be abandoned because the existing situation would not allow Britain to send her fleet to the Far East.”

That same evening in Tokyo, Admiral Wenneker had permission from Berlin to hand the original copy of the report to Japans, Vice Admiral Kondo; who was initially sceptical of its findings believing it to be a ploy by the British to lull them into a false sense of security. However, once informed of the circumstances surrounding its capture, he decided to take all the findings as being legitimate. In effect this meant that more than twelve months before outbreak of war with our one time ally, Japan knew we couldn’t defend our colony.

An entry in his war diary from 1800hrs on December 12, 1941 recalls.

    “Kondo repeatedly expressed to me how valuable the information contained in the British War Cabinet memorandum was for his navy. Such a significant weakening of the British Empire could not have been identified from outward appearances.”

 Historians quite often state that Churchill was bluffing with Singapore to attempt a frightening tactic against the Japanese. In contrast to their opinions, I have to state that our Premier must have been aware of the distinct possibility that the report was now in Japanese hands. With this in mind; how can you conduct a bluff, when your opponent has already seen your hand?

Perhaps the answer is, you look elsewhere for salvation?


    Chiefs of Staff (COS) –CAB 53-50.

    General Dobbie went on to earn great distinction during the wartime defence of Malta.

    COS (40) 592 Revise. August 15, 1940.

    COS (40) 605. August 8, 1940.

    It is a matter of pure conjecture as to why Lord Newall despatched the highly secret papers to Singapore, as he discussed their contents with Brooke Popham prior to his leaving Britain to take up the post as CinC Far East. Popham actually left for Singapore on October 28, 1940; however, Automedon sailed from Liverpool on September 28, 1940. Furthermore, Senior Government and Armed Service Officials on the colony had also received copies of the document by cable before the merchant ship began her ill-fated voyage. This resulted in the offering of their own evaluation on the situation facing the colony in the absence of a fleet which was compiled in October 1940 (a matter of weeks before the doomed report was due to arrive there). Adding mystery to the whole episode is that by either some quirk of fate, or intelligence bungle, it is alleged that an Italian ‘Sigint’ Listening Station based on the East African coast informed the raider of the presence of Automedon. The final piece of intrigue is that to that in July 1948, (see appendix) our Government informed Brooke Popham that the ‘Blue Funnel’ steamer was sunk by U Boat. Adding that they never knew of the documents capture until Germany’s surrender in 1945 when a copy of the report was found in their Naval HQ. It was subsequently returned to Britain, however since that date it has never come to light.

    Naval Intelligence Singapore: - November 14, 1940. Australian Archives – MP 1049/5, 2021/5/552.

    The sinking of Automedon was the culmination of a highly successful foray for the raider Atlantis; on November 8, 1940 she captured the Norwegian tanker ‘Teddy’. Two days later a further Norwegian prize ship fell foul of the Germans, this time it was the ‘Ole Jacob’. Approximately two days after the sinking of Automedon, the raider rendezvoused with the captured vessels. Captain Rogge then ordered Lieutenant Commander Paul Kamenz, and six of his crew to take charge of the Ole Jacob, along with 64 Norwegians off the stricken vessels. Once under way they received fresh orders from Berlin, and headed for a Japanese Mandated island, known as ‘Y’ (this in fact was Lamotrek in the Carolines; originally Rogge, after signalling Berlin, telling of his haul, told them to sail for Kobe). Enroute to the Carolines, Kamenz became concerned that the secrecy of ‘Y’ would be severely compromised if he landed with 64 neutral Norwegians onboard. Therefore in contradiction of his orders he, once again, set sail for Kobe, arriving on December 4, 1940. This caused the German Attaché, Admiral Wenneker, severe problems as the arrival of the Ole Jacob (now flying the German flag) was a cause of some unrest with the Japanese, as they did not wish to be openly seen as aiding their Tripartite ally. Eventually the ever-resourceful Wenneker managed to manipulate the Japanese, and Ole Jacob was allowed to dock. After viewing the captured documents he sent a four-part cipher telegram to OKM (Naval H/Q) Berlin, summarising the report (209/40-212/40 gKdos, OKM signal N/A. December 7, 1940). Kamenz took the documents onto Germany, rejoining his ship some months later when the raider rendezvoused with a ‘U’ Boat. However, after more than 18 months at sea, on November 22 1941, Atlantis was intercepted by the British cruiser Devonshire. Following a brief one-sided battle the German raider was sunk, 350 miles N/W of the Ascension islands.

    8- SRNA 0020 RG 457. SRDJ-Series. N/A. Berlin-Tokyo. December 12, 1940.     


Deterrent or Appeasement?

An alternative theory on the build up to conflict with Japan, with particular emphasis on the deployment of Repulse and Prince of Wales

From October 1940, through to the mid-late period of 1941, a series of American, British & Dutch naval staff talks known as ADB’s were held. These concerned the implementation of joint acts of aggression against Japan, should she attack all the above countries. Initially, America was fully supportive to the alliance, going so far as to offer a pledge at the February 1941 conference that the, “Asiatic fleet was ready to serve under British leadership in a unified command structure” . However over the following months this assurance gradually declined, purely because of our? (Churchill’s documented) insistence that we would not actively reinforce Singapore. Matters finally came to a head on October 12, 1941 when the US pulled out of any joint commitments contained within the ADB pact, solely because of the aforementioned reason; effectively Britain was now on her own.

This was immediately followed by a statement from the Admiralty to the effect of they were willing to send a fleet to Manila . This changing of attitude allowed Admiral Harwood to offer the following comment on October 29, 1941. “I quite agree that our Eastern fleet when it is established should look upon Manila as its advance base and probably operate from there. The questions have been discussed during the past few weeks particularly with the CinC Eastern fleet. We have been into various anchorages that might be suitable. Very briefly, since we put up ADB1 & ADB2, we have completely changed our outlook and come to the American viewpoint, ie to operate our ships north of the Malay Barrier.

In light of this British offer I wish to draw your attention to the declaration by Admiral Stark on November 3, 1941 at a meeting of the American Joint Board of Staff. “In the case of a Japanese attack against British or Dutch possessions, the United States should resist the attack”. Was the Admiral not acting outside physical constraints within the ADB policies? If so, was he reprimanded for offering this pledge, or made to withdraw it? Is this also not a sign that the comments by Admiral Harwood had the desired effect? If so, is it feasible to consider that the true reason why the ships sailed to their destinies was to reconcile our defence strategies with the US. Does this explanation offer a more realistic assumption of their deployment than those offered by many present day Academics, which are they were sent by Churchill, to both allay Australia’s worries concerning the ever-growing threat to their country from Japan? And also to strike fear into the hearts of the Japanese Military by having two powerful warships acting as a fleeting menace to their shipping?

Further assurances of our alleged revised Far Eastern strategy were offered to America with Churchill’s speech at the Lord Mayors Inaugural Luncheon on November 10, 1941, that “we were sending a powerful fleet to the Indian Ocean to safeguard our interests in the region”. The choice of ships was solely down to our Premier, as the Admiralty were of the opinion that the fleet would eventually comprise of, 6 Battleships and 2 Aircraft Carriers. However, Churchill issued a stern refusal to their plans, when informing Dudley Pound. ”This major fleet movement has not yet been approved by me or the Defence Committee” It never was . Why was he so hesitant in deploying a fleet approaching the minimum requirements estimated by earlier Chiefs of Staff reports, if  (as he claimed), the safety of Singapore was always paramount in his thoughts? In contrast, a matter of weeks later and by his express orders Repulse and Prince of Wales reached Singapore to be faced with the task of defending the indefensible. Two ships sent to a colony, which quite possibly may have to face the entire might of the Japanese navy in the coming months, was nothing less than an act of suicide .

I feel a person best qualified to give opinions on the deterrent effect of this totally unbalanced fleet is the man who received the Automedon papers 12-months previously namely, Vice Admiral Kondo. He did in fact do this when interviewed by Professor Arthur Marder, in 1976 offering the following observations. “They ‘Japanese Navy’ were not concerned by the size of fleet stationed at Singapore on December 2 1941 (with reference to Repulse and Prince of Wales). However if the fleet grew in size that would be another matter” . He was not alone on these thoughts as the future leader of Force Z Admiral Philips, was of the opinion that the fleet made available by the Admiralty in October 41, was more in keeping with the needs of the colony.

It is recorded that Churchill rode roughshod over every objection to his plans, single-mindedly demanding the ships sailed to Singapore. Could it be he had absolutely no-intentions of attempting a defence of the colony; rather the deployment of this small force could serve two purposes. Firstly to put Anglo-American relations back on an even keel, though more importantly if the Japanese attacked our warships, could this fulfil his burning ambition of direct American involvement?

To fully understand the previous statement, certain issues have to be considered; these are as follows.

Japans acquired knowledge of Britain’s acceptance to relinquish her hold on Singapore to avoid outright conflict, with their nation, documented in the August 1940 COS report. Admittedly, they also realised that any attack on the colony could bring America into the war. But the captured report must surely have enabled them to realise they only had to nullify one real threat in the Far East and Pacific in connection with their expansionist policies; this being America.

Churchill and the War Cabinet’s undoubted awareness that from, as early as November 14, 1940 (Australian Secret Service decrypt, covering distress call from Automedon) there was a distinct possibility that the COS report had fallen into Axis hands. This is further reinforced by the fact that on January 1, 1941, the latest merchant shipping codes (a copy of which was onboard Automedon) were changed. The sole reason for this was that many merchant sailors, whose ships had succumbed to German raiders during the period mid-November – late December 1940 had been informing relevant authorities that the Germans had read their latest signal codes, prior to sinking them, . If the leaders of our country accepted that the shipping codes had been captured from Automedon, as Professor Ian Nish stated in a London School of Economics Debate in 1986. Surely it is ludicrous to attach any credibility to his other claim that “She (Britain) was not aware that the vital document had been captured”.  In this type of situation would it not be necessary to assume the worst scenario? This being the Chiefs of Staff report had also fallen into enemy hands? 

The alleged pact formed between Roosevelt and Churchill (further details below) of mutual aggression against Japan, should she attack Sovereign territories. It has to be remembered that America was never aware that the COS report had been captured; although representatives from that country were offered copies of it during a visit to Britain in late summer 1940. Would knowledge of this disastrous incident have made them less willing to establish the ADB agreement?

The promise of direct American involvement so-craved for by Churchill, I feel originated from the aforementioned ADB meetings. However, Rear Admiral Layton USN states more definite assurances emanate from the meeting between our Premier and Roosevelt, onboard the Prince of Wales at Platencia Bay Newfoundland in August 1941  commonly known as the Atlantic Charter Agreement. His opinions are that Roosevelt exceeded his executive powers by giving assurances to the effect of; if Japan attacked any British colonies, America would immediately intervene and declare war on them. This claim is certainly reinforced, by the fact that in 1945 there was a Congressional hearing on the undemocratic assurances offered by Roosevelt to Churchill of his countries immediate entry into conflict if Sovereign territory was invaded . The hearing concluded that although there were many serious implications clearly apparent, insufficient evidence was presented to warrant further investigation. Apparently, the main reason for this lack of evidence was that several high-ranking American officers present at Platencia Bay refused to offer information to the Board of Inquiry.

In addition, Admiral Layton in his book entitled ‘And I Was There’ maintained, from as early as February 1941, Churchill was attempting to drag America into the war. On that occasion it was in his ‘Drifting Straws’ message to Roosevelt . Which implied that the Japanese were about to attack Australia. However, I can find no such evidence in any written documentation covering that period, substantiating his alleged fears. Furthermore, Churchill appeared, at that point in time, to be extremely concerned over the safety of Australia. This is surely in stark contrast to the fact that he never informed them or any other colonial allies as to the loss of the secret documents. Is it correct to state that the loss of the Far Eastern Appreciation could have had catastrophic consequences for both Australia and New Zealand, if the Japanese had turned their attentions to these unguarded territories? 

Furthermore, the following statement made by Churchill on April 28, 1941, particularly in light of ‘Drifting Straws’ could be seen as a clear contradiction; one that must warrant much explanation. “There is no need at the present time to make any further dispositions for the defence of Malaya and Singapore, beyond those modest arrangements which are in progress until or unless the conditions set out (above) are modified”  In difference to this comment the Australian Military Intelligence, Far Eastern weekly report of w/e April 29, 1941 sent to them by the listening station at Singapore, states “ Japan: Internal political situation likely to be unstable for next few weeks. Soviet-Japanese pact will encourage protagonists of Southward expansion.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of all concerns events of December 5 1941, if Churchill is only guilty of underestimating the Japanese threat, why was so hesitant in implementing “Operation Matador”. How can it be reasonable to accept that he was worried over the implications of invading Thailand with this pre-emptive move, whilst at same time attaching any credence to his claim that he was not unduly worried by the might of Japan? Is it reasonable to assume that our country would not have concerned themselves with any protestations from Thailand if we had ventured to the Isthmus of Kra? If this point is accepted or at the very least noted why did he waste valuable time at a crucial point in the build up to conflict with Japan solely to gain permission from Roosevelt before taking action to prevent the invasion of Malaya? Do you feel America would have sought a similar assurance from our country before defending their territories? Even though Churchill had already offered such a pledge, should they be attacked, the Americans never requested it. In light of this factual information, does Churchill’s later claim of underestimating the Japanese still appear feasible?

With regards to the contents of the captured COS report; it stated we would not attempt to hold Hong Kong because the Japanese foothold in China, made the colony indefensible. Why then, did Churchill allow on September 19 1941, the despatching of two Battalions of Canadian troops to the soon to be toppled outpost? It is on record that he reassured the Canadian Governments fears of the indefensibility of Hong Kong by stating that the colony was no-longer to be treated as a dispensable outpost. Brooke Popham (C in C Far East), on hearing of the Canadians deployment, wrote to the Chiefs of Staff asking had there been a reversal in our policy with regards to Hong Kong. They replied; “there had not, the colony was still to be regarded as an outpost”. The end result of this was that in late December 1941, Japanese forces easily overpowered the untrained Canadian detachments. Those not killed, suffered years of deprivation from their captors; many never returned to their homeland.

Returning to the fate of the warships given the unenviable task of defending Singapore. Whilst Repulse was docked in Durban, (enroute to rendezvousing with the Prince of Wales) the Premier of South Africa, Field Marshall Smutts, addressed the crew. His speech was a profound evaluation of future events, when stating in so many words, the following prediction. ‘As l look out across this fine warship and its young crew I have to say that many of you will not return from this mission” . It was a prophecy all men from the battlecruiser have never forgotten. He also sent a message to Churchill after his meeting with the leader of the battlegroup Admiral Tom Philips some 2 weeks later in Pretoria. This stated “If the Japanese are really nippy, I can see a recipe for a great disaster” . It is a fact that Churchill took no-action whatsoever with regards to this mans worries for the safety of the two warships.

On November 28 1941, their fate and eventually that of Singapore were sealed; Admiral Yamamoto was informed the warships were steaming for the colony. He reacted by sending several squadrons of modern bombers to airfields in Indo China; they were to prepare to attack the ships . On December 10 1941, these planes made history; being the first warplanes to sink Capital ships whilst they had the freedom of the ocean to manoeuvre in. It was also to be the greatest naval loss Britain sustained throughout the entire Second World War (the loss of two Capital ships in one action) and was the death knell of battleships. Shortly after that fateful day the mantle of Capital Ship would pass to the aircraft carrier and for the remainder of WW11, these immense men ‘o’ war would (except for a few exceptions) play a supporting role to the carrier.


    9-   Minute from ADB Meeting – Ref FO 371/27775. Also Hart Papers – April 12, 1941.

    10- ADM 116/4877 – Prem 3/163/2.

    11- Minute by Harwood: Oct 29, 1941. ADM 116/4877.

    12- NA/RG – 225.

    13- Roskill-Churchill And The Admirals. P-198.

    14- Prem 3/156/1.

    15- Old Friends-New Enemies: Professor Arthur Marder.

    16- Attached notes from Price of Admiralty Vol 11 &111. Professor JWM Chapman.

    17-At the time, Britain was aware that Germany was constantly pressurising her Tripartite ally to enter into conflict in the Far East. Furthermore, the reports conclusions made allowance for Japanese infiltration into Southern Indo-China which would result in no-actions being taken by our country to nullify the obvious threat to Singapore and Malaya. From the beginning of 1941, Japan began moving large detachments of men and munitions into this area. We were fully aware of this (Australian Archives: MP1049/5 2021/5//552), and it was an extremely bold move on the part of the Japanese. Could the reason for their apparent lack of concern, regarding reprisals from our country to their territorial gains, be that they had all the necessary assurances in the captured COS report? In addition, the Australian decrypts (mentioned earlier) leave no-doubts that our cryptographers would have been fully aware of Japanese troop movements in Indo-China? Is it feasible to assume that once informed, the War Cabinet and Churchill, would have interpreted these actions, as a strong indication that Japan was in possession of the report and need not worry over our intervention in their expansionist moves?

    18- Rear Admiral Layton US Navy, was an expert on the Japanese language and served in radio communications during WW11. Until his dying days he seethed with rage at the cover-ups orchestrated by his Government in connection with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He also fully understood the severity of the loss of the COS report.

    19- Pearl Harbor Hearings (PHH) 10/5083 – 10/4802.

    20- Kimball WSC/FDR. C-60X. 

    21- In contrast to Churchill’s ‘Drifting Straws’ warning to Roosevelt of February 1941; our Premier offered the following written observation to the British Chiefs of Staff on January 13, 1941. With reference to their plans to reinforce the colony. “I do not remember to have given my approval to these very large diversions of forces. On the contrary, if my minutes are collected they will be seen to have an opposite tendency. The political situation in the Far East does not seem to require, and the strength of the Air Force by no means permits, the maintenance of such large forces”. If he did not feel the need to reinforce the island, why in February 1941, did he allow elements of the Australian 8th Division to land at Singapore, under command of Major General Gordon Bennett? Particularly, if he had intelligence reports that their country was about to be invaded? Is it safe to assume that he never informed Australia of his Drifting Straws worries? Perhaps Australia was never really under threat and this was just another ploy to push America closer to conflict?

    22- W/O 1062620-April 28, 1941.

    23- MP 1049/5 – 2021/5/552. Australian Archives.

    24- Someone Had Blundered – The loss of Repulse and the Prince of Wales. Bernard Ash.

    25- Smutts to Churchill. November 18, 1941.

    26- Interview conducted by author with Haruki Iki of ‘Kanoya Air Corps’ who attacked and sunk Repulse and Prince of Wales - May 1997.


Those Who Paid The Price.

If Churchill’s initial plan was to lure America into conflict by using Singapore and Malaya as tempting bait for Japan; callous as it may seem, his actions, at that desperate period in history would have greatly increased Britain’s chances of survival. Because without direct America military involvement, there can be no question that as an island race we would have ceased to exist. However, the real tragedy of this debacle, and one that is often overlooked is that it was only after December 7, 1941 that he began to actively reinforce the colony. When considering the aforementioned point, along with the terrible fate awaiting the vast majority of service personnel soon to be captured in Singapore, and in view of my evidence on the lead up to conflict (of which Churchill was fully aware at the time). Is it not necessary to re-evaluate the reasons why so many troops were sent to certain disaster? I am aware of the general consensus of opinion in the Academic world on this issue, this being, Churchill underestimated the Japanese, however, as I have produced documented and also conflicting evidence to our Premier’s claim. I therefore wish to offer an alternative reason as to why a disaster that at most should have resulted in the loss of a colony and perhaps the capturing of possibly 30-40,000 servicemen turned into the most horrific bloodbath in the 20th Century history of our country.

Is it not feasible to assume that for Churchill to be seen as only guilty of underestimating the Japanese threat he would, (post-Dec7), have to rapidly deploy large forces to the colony in a much-publicised attempt to stop the Japanese advance? Would this not have been a way of admitting that although his original estimations were misjudged, he had realised his error and was now acting resolutely in defence of a colony, which for so-long, had been denuded of much needed reinforcements? Would this also not protect him from the full wrath of both the British public and our colonial Governments, with regards to his earlier boasts and assurances of the invulnerability of Singapore? And once the colony finally succumbed, could the only charge levied against him be that he misjudged the Japanese threat? Did this not in fact happen? (26

It is also incorrect to state that he kept knowledge of Singapore’s dire predicament, solely for the ears of close members of his cabinet. One only has to read the following message, dated December 7, 1940 (some 4-weeks after the loss of the COS report); the contents of which show that even before America entered the war, Roosevelt was better served with information on this issue that our colonial allies.

 “It seems clear that Japan is thrusting southward through Indo-China to Saigon and other naval and air bases, thus bringing them within a comparatively short distance of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies… We have today no forces in the Far East capable of dealing with the situation should it develop” .

Subsequently, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, our colonies could not fall back on American support; they faced the might of Japan, unaided and alone. Therefore the dye was cast, he must have known it was only a matter of time before we suffered our greatest ever defeat. However, once again, documented evidence can possibly cast doubt on his sincerity regarding the fate of Singapore. This time it concerns his alleged alarm on reading a telegram from General Wavell in early 42, that “Singapore was so badly defended; surrender was inevitable” .

In addition, after the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales no further Capital ships were despatched to safeguard the colony. How can you defend an island base without a naval deterrent? We also had pitifully few warplanes in Malaya and Singapore, and those stationed there, were obsolete. To quote figures, the COS report of August 1940, estimated having 330 first-line aircraft in situ on mainland Malaya by mid-1941; in reality the airforce could only muster approximately 158, mainly obsolete planes, (I have included a full breakdown of their dispositions and models in the appendix).

He knew all these facts, so why express surprise at Wavell’s warning? Could it be this course of action enabled him to exonerate himself from the coming storm? In support of this statement, he also commented on numerous occasions, during the fighting for Singapore, as to being totally disgusted with the manner in which all persons trapped on the fortress were fighting in its defence, by conceding ground to the Japanese in every battle that took place. It also appears that the number of Japanese troops involved in the battle was incorrectly stated. Official figures of the time quote 130,000 allied troops succumbed to a mere 30,000 Japanese; this figure nowadays is shown to be far from the truth. In reality, the opposing sides were very closely matched; numerically that is. As it has to be remembered the vast majority of our troops had the most basic of training and were ill-prepared for tropical warfare. They clashed with a battle hardened enemy that had fought for several years beforehand on Mainland China, who also had the benefit of tanks and most importantly full and unhindered air support.

With respect to these previous comments; one message issued by Churchill in February 1942, to the troops of the 18th Division perhaps verges on the unbelievable. “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake” .

Also worthy of note is that on December 8 (Singapore time) the island was bombed, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The reaction from Churchill and his cabinet was one of total apathy towards the future deployment of the warships. In fact, the ships (now known as Force ‘Z’) left Singapore on the orders of Admiral Philips who felt they had to show willing and seek out our new enemy, as the War Cabinet could not reach a decision over what purpose the fleet should fulfil. After the disastrous loss of the ships, Churchill stated that  “the actions of Admiral Philips were not ones, which l would have approved of’”. Adding, the warships (which he insisted on sending to defend the beleaguered colony) should have sailed from Singapore and hidden amongst the vast Eastern Archipelago.

If that was his plan, why demand the ships went there in the first instance? If at the first signs of trouble, they where to sail from the colony and hide in the islands? He knew what was needed to realistically defend the colony and that we could never provide such military might, because of other commitments closer to home. Furthermore, was Admiral Philips informed of this contingency plan before leaving Britain, or Churchill’s other idea, that the ships should sail to Pearl Harbor and join the decimated American Fleet? Can these undisclosed alternatives be seen as a ‘get out’ for him and the War Cabinet, leaving Philips to carry the full responsibility for the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales (which in fact did happen)? In conclusion, if Force ‘Z’ had taken one of these alternative courses of action; surely they would have been seen to be deserting the colony? In addition, does this mean a force of warships sailed to defend a colony with no preordained defence strategy?

Churchill was always admired by the British public for his apparent ‘Bull Dog’ spirit; in contrast to his popular media display of tenacity. One letter written to his wife whilst enroute to America, onboard the battleship Duke of York, to attend a meeting of his calling with President Roosevelt, (he sailed 3 days after the devastating loss of the Repulse and Prince of Wales). Can possibly be construed as showing an unusually pessimistic outlook from him with reference to the battle for Malaya and Singapore, which had yet to reach its climax. I quote directly from page 19 of  ‘The Road to Victory’ by Martin Gilbert; “We must expect to suffer heavily in this war with Japan, and it is no use the critics saying ‘Why were we not prepared’ when everything we had was already fully engaged. The entry of United States into the war is worth all the losses sustained in the East many times over. Still these losses are very hard to repair”. With this in mind could it be that the active reinforcing of Singapore and Malaya (post Dec 8, 1941) was a political gesture, designed to appease the Americans, whilst they fought for their existence in the Philippines?

Over the years, I have viewed countless documentaries and read many Government documents covering the war in the Far East. Not one has ever mentioned the significance of the cargo captured by the Germans on the Automedon. They have (without exception) stated, Churchill made a blunder over the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales, and that Singapore was a disaster borne from colonial complacency. There is a certain element of truth in the latter statement, however as for the loss of the warships and the vast majority of deaths on the colony, the blame for this must surely fall squarely on the shoulders of Churchill.

Could it therefore be said, it wasn’t a series of blunders; rather the root cause of this disaster was of his making in a bold plan that basically backfired. And also that the horrendous loss of life incurred could, to a considerable degree, have been averted, if he had so-wished. Would it then be possible to state that after December 7, 1941 his only concern appeared to have been in portioning blame for the debacle of Singapore with every person who fought on the island. In conclusion to this statement, compare my version of events regarding our crushing defeat in Singapore and Malaya, with the relevant chapters in his memoirs. I guarantee he makes no-mention of the captured COS report, or his foreknowledge of Singapore’s indefensibility.

In contrast, many historians feel Churchill did in fact assume we could hold Singapore. In reply to their opinions, I have to say that documented and damning evidence emanating from the period 1940-41, is openly available, which steadfastly refutes their claims. Furthermore he must have agreed with the Chiefs of Staff and their pessimistic report (COS 40-592 Revise), otherwise why allow a copy to be sent to Singapore? If by 1941, he felt we could now implement a strong and vigorous defence of the colony, what had changed in other theatres of conflict for this sudden wave of optimism? One example of increasing anxiety was merchant shipping losses in the Atlantic (due to the marauding ‘U’ Boats) were mounting by the month. In addition, if he felt we could hold the colony why, for almost 12-months beforehand, ask for American assistance in this area, when at the same time, refuse to strengthen our own forces in Malaya and Singapore? I put it to you that in light of this evidence the excuse of underestimating the Japanese threat does not ring true.

If, however my theory of the de-facto pact is taken into consideration matters are shown in a different light. Particularly when considering a ‘Most Secret’ directive issued by Churchill on April 28, 1941 . In which he implies that “Japan was unlikely to come into the war unless Germany invades Britain, and even a major disaster like the loss of the Middle East would possibly not make her come in”. Most importantly adding “Finally it may be taken as almost certain that the entry of Japan into the war would be followed by the immediate entry of United States on our side”

In addition, he was fully aware of America’s worries over Japan’s expansionist moves in the Far East, he also knew they were closely monitoring the situation. Is it not feasible to assume that Roosevelt would view any Japanese territorial gains as a direct threat to his own countries possessions in the Pacific? Furthermore, it is known that Churchill played to America’s fears over the aforementioned threat. Can it be considered that this is the main reason why Roosevelt may have pledged the joint aggression pact against Japan?

Peter Elphick in his work “Singapore The Pregnable Fortress” implies that the same ‘Most Secret’ directive can be seen as a clear indication that Churchill underestimated the Japanese threat. Could it be that the threat was never underestimated, to the contrary, it was exploited. Is it reasonable to assume it would be in our country’s interest to tempt Japan into attacking Singapore? If they took the bait and invaded our territories, would this not have the desired effect of bringing America into the war? Admittedly, Pearl Harbor would have changed matters dramatically, by scuppering Churchill’s original plan. Although is it worthy of consideration that all that was then required to cover his previous duplicity would be to continue with an outwardly confident attitude regarding the safety of Singapore to his fellow countrymen and colonial allies? And continue reinforcing the island almost to the bitter end? Did this in fact not happen when two troopships destined for the Middle East were diverted to Singapore? Did they not land a matter of weeks before the surrender?

One statement issued by Churchill on January 21, 1942 possibly helps to substantiate my theory on the reasons why he continued to reinforce the colony. The following sentence possibly indicates that at the time he considered abandoning Singapore. “If it is only for a few weeks (referring to the defence of Singapore) it is certainly not worth losing all our reinforcements and aircraft” .

 A copy of this minute was inadvertently shown to Australia’s representative on the War Cabinet, Earl Page. Incensed by the implications, he contacted his Premier, John Curtin, who on January 24, telegraphed Churchill, stating: “the evacuation of Malaya and Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal” .

On January 26, Churchill assured Earl Page that the decision of the Defence Committee on January 21 had been “that the battle of Johore and the defence of Singapore Island should be given the highest priority”. Pointing to Wavell’s instructions that “the battle should be fought out, if need be, in the ruins of Singapore”. Perhaps it can be said that to save this duplicity from being uncovered, the slaughter was to continue.

As from the period, 3-1-1942 till 5-2-1942, a total of 45 troop ships arrived in Singapore, some men would never fire a shot in anger, and in reality they travelled halfway across the world to surrender .

Finishing my synopsis with Japans entry into the war; I am in full agreement with the opinions of Professor John Chapman in the acknowledgements to his work ‘The Price of Admiralty’ concerning the significance of the captured documents on Automedon: I quote directly.

Perhaps the most important evidence of German influence over the Combined Fleet can be demonstrated in the handing over in December 1940 of top-level British Cabinet papers captured off Singapore by the raider ‘Atlantis’. This fact enabled the Japanese Combined Fleets to concentrate single-mindedly on the attack on Pearl Harbor in the certain knowledge that Britain could not provide strong enough forces to compel the Japanese to divide the Combined Fleet more evenly between the Anglo-American Fleets. It also accounts for one of the reasons for the British authorities, who had the original War Diary (Wenneker’s) in their possession since 1945, being reluctant to reveal fuller details of the incident and its background. This knowledge is quite indispensable for an understanding of the reasons why the European War was transformed into a global conflict”.

In conclusion, can it be said, that the capture of one solitary report on a British merchant ship in November 1940, was the catalyst for three and a half years of bitter conflict, culminating in the nuclear age.


    26- That Roosevelt did provide Churchill with what amounted to a potentially unconstitutional assurance of alliance became public knowledge six months later. To the consternation of presidential aide Harry Hopkins, on 17 January 1942, the prime minister felt obliged to allude to the agreement in defending himself against a censure motion in the House of Commons. To the charge that Britain ’s colonies in the Far East had been inadequately guarded, Churchill asserted he had taken care that Britain “should not be exposed single-handed to the Japanese onslaught”. Choosing his words with caution lest he let the cat out of the bag and embarrass the president, he insisted there had been no neglect because of “the probability since the Atlantic conference at which I discussed these matters with President Roosevelt, that the United States, even if not attacked herself, would come into a war in the Far East” His “expectation”- as he put it was -“reinforced as time went on” and “one had greater assurance that if Japan ran amok in the Pacific we should not fight alone”. Nor, as Churchill told his detractors had his confidence in the United States been “falsified by events”. From page 135 of “And I Was There”: (Prime Ministers quotes derived from Hansard 27 January 1941).

    27- Churchill: Their Finest Hour – P562.

    28- Churchill Papers. 20/67.

    29- A copy of this message is on display at the Cabinet War Rooms London.

    30- In the publication by the late Professor Arthur Marder, ‘Old Friends-New Enemies’ a detailed account is given on the meeting between Admiral Philips and other relevant officials stationed on Singapore, including Captain’s, Tennant of Repulse and Leech of Prince of Wales, in the early hours of Dec 8 1941. During discussions of the options available to Force Z, no mention is made of Churchill’s later claims that he felt the fleet should leave Singapore at the first signs of Japanese aggression. In contrast, one Admiralty signal (1229Z/7) pours scorn on the War Cabinets and Churchill’s possible face-saving attempts at distancing themselves from the disaster. Surely this signal can only be interpreted as an invitation for Admiral Philips to seek conflict with the rapidly invading Japanese, (he received it on the evening of Dec 7, Singapore time)? It reads:

     “No decision has yet been taken by HM Government, but on the assumption that it may be decided that if a Japanese expedition is located in the South China Sea in such a position that its course indicates that it is proceeding towards Thailand, Malaya, Borneo or Netherlands East Indies, report what action would be possible to take with Naval or Air Forces. In addition on December 2 1941, the day Repulse and Prince of Wales arrived at Singapore, intelligence reports stated “Aircraft, French Indo-China, North 120, South-180 (including 90 heavy Bombers). Majority of second fleet comprising of 12 modern cruisers, 28 destroyers, now in Formosa-South China area, 9 submarines sighted 100 miles North of Camranh Bay 2nd December, course South. (Australian Archives: 2021/5/552). It is not known if Admiral Philips was made aware of this daunting force gathering before him. Further messages, in particular COS (41) 44th Mtg.  (0), CAB 79/55, (PREM 3/158/6 and Principal War Telegram Pt. i. 5) cast very strong doubts on both the War Cabinet and Churchill’s post disaster statements with regards to their apparent disapproval of Admiral Philips future actions with Force Z.

    31- WO 106/2620.

    32- PM’s personal minutes. D62-Churchill Papers 20/67.

    33- Mr Curtin to PM. Jochu No 21- Jan 24, 1942. Churchill Papers 20/69.

    34- Reinforcement Convoys Singapore – ADM 199/1185.


Final Word.

“No Americans will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States on our side was to be the greatest joy…England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no-man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long island history we would emerge… safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out…Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”. (Winston Churchill – The Second World War, vol 3,page 539).

Arthur Lane