by Jack Demlow
The Fall of Singapore was a military disaster contemporary with Pearl Harbor, but it led to division and finger-pointing instead of rallying the Allies further against Japan. The Japanese invasion of Malaya (today’s Malaysia) began December 8th, 1941, landing troops on its shores and pushing south through the peninsula.
(continued) The combined British, Indian, and Australian forces under General Arthur Percival’s command had great difficulty stalling the Japanese attack, and in two months the struggle was over: Japan had taken all of Malaya and the surrender of Singapore 130,000 Allied soldiers was being negotiated. This defeat was called “the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history” by British prime minister Winston Churchill, and the British generals that had led the defense were not viewed very graciously. Most of the popular blame for the capture of Singapore would fall on General Percival, though arguably this was unjust given lacking support for fortifying the region and a number of his generals who held him in contempt and inhibited smooth military operation.
Among these belligerents, General Henry Gordon Bennett, commander of the Australian 8th Division, was a notable case. He already had a reputation as a courageous frontline commander in WWI: Bennet had been wounded on his first day of battle, but he escaped the hospital ship as soon as he had a chance (not permission) and went right back to the front lines. This reputation was bolstered on many other battlefields, but it gained some unpleasant dimensions as Bennet was found to be argumentative and had a sensitive ego when working with other officers. Additionally, Bennet was not a full-time soldier in peacetime and had a poor opinion of officers who served in the military full-time, a position he vocalized frequently and even worked into a number of newspaper articles in 1937. This drew enough attention to Bennet for him to face Censure by the Military Board, which doubtless only worsened his relations to other officers.
When WWII began, Bennet was the third-highest ranking officer in the Australian military, but he was passed over for command in the field on three separate occasions. A courageous soldier Bennett may have been, but his touchy ego and dislike of regular officers would have harmed Australian capability to work jointly with British forces that were also operating in the Pacific. The promotion of the commander of the 8th Division, Major General Vernon Sturdee, finally gave Bennet a position to fill in the field. Bennett's performance as a commander against the Japanese advance through Johore was as strong any of his fellow commanders in Malaya, but it was not enough. Aside from a successful ambush at Gemas, his Australian and Indian units were pushed back along with the rest of the defending line. Malaya fell in early February, as did Singapore.
Bennet was known as a brave and enthusiastic soldier, no matter his pettiness with his peers and superiors, but his actions during the surrender of Singapore marred that reputation in the eyes of many. Allegedly having sufficient knowledge of Japanese tactics to provide an advantage later on in the war, Bennet gave up his command to Brigadier C.A. Callaghan and escaped Singapore alongside civilian evacuees. Bennett’s claim to possess valuable intelligence did not save him from rebuke for leaving his troops, and his senior officers kept him out of field command for the rest of the war. Bennett, and extended his defense to include criticism of the other commanders of the Malayan campaign in his book Why Singapore Fell. At the end of the war, Bennett found himself under military investigation for his flight from Singapore after the now-released General Percival accused him of unlawfully vacating his command. The investigation’s conclusion condemned Bennet’s actions as unjustified, no matter his intent or his degree of personal courage. Bennett returned to civilian life with his military reputation tarnished, though not in tatters, and he continues to be a controversial figure in the history of WWII.