The Fatal Fortress
Bill Clements
I asked to read this book because I remembered tales from my parents that Singapore fell in 1942 because the guns were pointing the wrong way. Mr. Clements goes out of his way to describe the build up to the island’s surrender with a comprehensive and fully researched tale of all attempts to prepare for defence of Singapore throughout its history as part of the British Empire.

Mr. Clements has accessed considerable numbers of records and no-one with any experience of the funding of the British Army or MoD procurement will be surprised to read a history of over 100 years of knowledgeable chaps proposing sensible plans for carefully considered gun placements only for them to be turned down, watered down or otherwise rendered useless or delayed by penny pinchers, or high ranking officers based on their own outdated experience, or of the Treasury cutting back because of so-called ‘peace dividends’.

The book sets this in the context of the development of large guns, with rifling, breech-loading and other developments also meaning that as plans were implemented, they became outmoded very quickly. There are informative maps, with descriptions of the gun batteries and other defences in place at various points in the islands history. He has visited the island and there are a lot of photographs of the defences that remain visible today.

I was interested by his description of the changing world political situations, with the Chain of Command and politicians in the UK slow to react to the rise and fall of different powers, and the changing threats that ensued.

The chapters describing the battle for Singapore in 1942 and the preparations made in 1940-41 when it became apparent just how vulnerable the island was make it clear that by then, the bulk of the defence budget was being spent to defend the UK itself and the budget did not necessarily stretch to protecting our Empire. There is a stunning revelation that Brigadier Simpson, who appreciated the threat from the north and proposed bringing defences up to date, specifically against beach landings, tank and air attack, was overruled by General Percival whose view was that ‘Defences are bad for morale – for both troops and civilians’. I need to read more about General Percival, who later gave orders to withdraw to a defensive circle based on Singapore City, without considering that his main food and ammunition stores were outside that circle. Could anybody seriously be that incompetent?

This is an excellent book, easy to read and packed with information. Facts are reported clearly, leaving the reader to consider their own conclusions. For example ‘the vast majority of coastal batteries were sited outside the protection of the Singapore anti-aircraft defences. As the battle developed, a number of coastal batteries were to suffer as a result of air attack.’

I was interested that as the battle developed the gunners took the initiative to modify their weapons to improve effectiveness, such as removing part of the concrete anti-splinter protection to increase traverse. The Captain who ‘just did it’ had some success, but the Captain who asked permission to cut away part of the gun emplacement wall to create a landward arc of fire was informed ‘It is not the policy of the CFD (Commander Fixed Defences) to sanction alteration to construction of War Office Design’.

The story of the battle, poor preparation, armour piercing rather than High Explosive ammunition, bad decisions made, orders misunderstood and brave men left as prisoners, seems to be an object lesson in how not to prepare for and conduct the defence of a strategic asset, but I am applying seventy years of hindsight. I do hope the lessons learned are taught at Sandhurst and elsewhere today, not least because of the dreadful fate visited on those left behind after General Percival surrendered and went home.

The final chapter, ‘Aftermath’ shows how well the weapons and materiel were denied to the Japanese, and describes how in peacetime the decreasing role of the battleship merited another review of Coastal Batteries throughout the Empire, with a change to prioritising anti-aircraft defence. It was nice to see the pictures here, showing that although crowded, the island of Singapore has kept many relics of the battle so as not to forget its military past.

The book concludes with three appendices. The first is a list of forts and batteries which gives an overview of the location of and weapons at each defence point. The second is really for the connoisseur as it lists the type, weight, length, calibre and range of each gun used in Singapore between 1819 and 1956. The third is a history of Fire Control, which I found interesting but may have limited appeal.

This book is very readable although it covers a lot of technical matters. I learned a lot – mostly that the guns were not pointing the wrong way, they were just mismanaged, misplaced, misdirected and misused. Some of that was due to the fog of war, some due to politicians and civil servants, and some to poor command. The jury is out on General Percival!

Four mushroom heads. Recommended to everyone who wants to know more about Singapore!

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