Monday, June 29, 2009

Controversy surrounding the AIF - The Deserters

Most books written about the campaign have referred to there being deserters in Singapore, and most authors have agreed that the majority of them were from the AIF. The British War Correspondent, O D Gallagher, was one of the first to touch on this subject. Writing in 1942, and therefore still subject to censorship regulations, he only hinted at the problem when he said, "The end came quickly. The behaviour of a large number of Australian troops were peculiar." Gallagher, who was in Singapore but escaped before the end, was an eyewitness to much that went on. Major Colin Ingles, a Malayan Public Works Department officer serving with the Indian Engineers, wrote much more openly in his diary which was privately published in 1945. For Friday 13th February 1942 he wrote, after commenting that no one could understand why the Japanese were being so successful on the island, ". . . The Australians may have something to do with it, as more and more of them seem to be roaming about town, armed with loaded Tommy-guns and rifles, very drunk for the most part, and with neither officers nor discipline." A Chinese Singapore resident writing in 1946 went even further. His account was based on interviews with local citizens, and included reports of rape:

It was alleged that even before the entry of the Japanese troops, rape had already been committed by stray patrols of retreating Australian and Indian soldiers. They were somehow separated from the main bodies, being temporarily isolated by the sudden forced retreats . . . Bewildered, confused, and without proper leadership, discipline among them went to pieces. Unfortunate women here and there fell victims to these disorganised troops, who at the time of the outrages were soaked with strong drink.

Dr Cecily Williams, a much-loved and respected long-time resident of Singapore who worked at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has been quoted in many accounts. She had this to say:

During the last week everything became more and more harassing and disintegrated. When I drove about, the town was full of evacuating and deserting soldiers, most of them Australians looking utterly disorganised and defeated. They had mostly thrown off their equipment, they were looting the shops or sitting in rows with their boots off down near the quays; they were pushing women and children out of the way to get behind buildings when bombs were falling nearby; they were crowding females and children off the boats that were getting away. Many of them must have been killed by the Japanese on the islands off Singapore. It was a terrible show.

All the above references are from non-Australian sources, but there are also several Australian witnesses. After commenting that the Australians had too few men guarding too much frontage, Captain David James of Australian Military Intelligence recorded:

By 0800 hours 9th February, hundreds of bedraggled Aussies were streaming down Bukit Timah Road on the way to the city. The Military Police (UK and AIF) attempted to check them but they were in no mood for homilies from "Red Caps". Some paused long enough to accept a cigarette, light it and say, "Chum, to hell with Malaya and Singapore. Navy let us down, air force let us down. If the bungs (natives) won't fight for their bloody country, why pick on me?"

Another Australian, T Hall, writing in 1985, quotes an officer of the Royal Australian Navy who was in Singapore on special duty. The officer recalled the lack of discipline, the looting, the defeatism that was everywhere apparent:

And the Australians were always the worst. The best when they were good, the worst when they were bad. There was one group of Australians that had been getting a terrible pasting and the Japanese were coming across everyday and machine-gunning them from the air. One day they just threw down their weapons and said they were not going to fight any more...[their] senior officer...almost pleading with them...but to no avail. I reported what had happened, but I think the whole thing was hushed up afterwards.

That episode was indeed hushed up; and for over sixty years so was the much wider situation of which that episode was but a small part.

More info:

Wavell Report - This report, Elphick states that "for the fall of Singapore itself, the Australians are held responsible". (PDF Format)

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