On 12th September 1945, General Itagaki, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Seventh Area Army, signed the official surrender of the Japanese Expeditionary Forces in the Southern Region, at Municipal Hall, Singapore. It was the last major surrender ceremony of World War Two, a conflict which had cost over 60 million lives and led to the emergence of a new world order.
Japan was the last member of the Tripartite Pact to cease hostilities. Italy had negotiated an armistice in 1943 and Germany had been defeated in May 1945. Following her surrender, on July 17th, the Allies met for the last time at Potsdam in Poland where, inter alia, Japan was warned that, ‘the prodigious land, sea and air forces of the United States, the British Empire and China,’ would be directed towards it unless it offered its unconditional surrender.
This was anathema to the Japanese Imperial forces who had been inculcated with the bushido code and a belief that it was better to die than be taken prisoner. The Allies therefore had to decide how best to bring WW2 to a swift conclusion. They took into account Japan’s fanaticism, its use of biological and chemical weapons and the Kamikaze attacks. They decided on a land invasion coupled with the use of the newest addition to its arsenal, the atomic bomb. It was hoped this would shock Japan into submission.
The first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese mainland at Hiroshima on 6th August. Around 100,000 people died instantly. Many more thousands subsequently died from radiation poisoning, burns and shock.
Japan was warned that if it failed to surrender immediately, ‘it may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.’
Two days later, the Soviet Red Army surged into Manchuria and northern China with 1,669,500 men and invaded the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. On 9th August, the Japanese Supreme Council met to consider a surrender. The Imperial General HQ refused. Later that day, a second atomic bomb was dropped at Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito recalled the Supreme Council and said they should offer an unconditional surrender provided the imperial house and its succession was preserved. Again, the military leaders refused so the Allies continued its land offensive. On 14th August, Hirohito insisted that Japan should surrender and he would broadcast a message to that effect to the nation. That night, he was forced to hide in the Imperial palace when it was attacked by officers determined to destroy the recording equipment. They failed and the next day Hirohito announced that, ‘despite the best that has been done by everyone… the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest…this is why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declarations of the powers.’
His announcement was greeted with mixed feelings. Surrender ran contrary to the bushido spirit and the exaltation ‘not to survive in shame as a prisoner.’ Some pilots launched one final ‘glorious’ suicide mission against American forces. They were shot down, but it was clear that a peaceful surrender was far from guaranteed. This was uppermost in the mind of Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander SE Asia Command, (SEAC) within which area Singapore fell.
Singapore was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s south-east Asian colonies, so its rapid invasion was a priority. Following the Japanese surrender, these plans, Operation Tiderace, were converted to re-occupation but before it could commence, Itagaki, commander of Singapore’s garrison of 70,000 men, had to confirm that he intended to obey the Emperor’s orders. Alarmingly, he did not respond to SEAC requests for confirmation, so on 19th August, Captain O’Shanohun, SEAC staff signals officer, parachuted into Singapore to find out. He discovered that the Japanese intended to surrender but their concerns had been well founded. Only the previous day, Itagaki had met Field Marshal Count Terauchi, (Mountbatten’s equivalent), expressing his reluctance to follow the Emperor’s orders. He was told, in no uncertain terms, to obey the Allied commander’s surrender instructions. Itagaki confirmed that he would do so to O’Shanohun. On 22nd August, he informed his generals and senior staff that they would have to obey the Allies and keep the peace until they arrived. That night, 300 Japanese officers committed suicide at the end of a farewell party at Raffles Hotel.
The surrender of Singapore was confirmed in Rangoon on 26th August.
General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wanted to take the first Japanese surrender, so the subsequent Rangoon document was described as a local agreement.
On 2nd September, MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Imperial General HQ, the Japanese armed forces and all the armed forces under Japanese control wherever situated. Shortly afterwards, permission to commence Operation Tiderace was received. Subsequently, on 4th September, detailed operational terms of the Singapore surrender were agreed on HMS Sussex in Keppel Harbour.
The local population was unaware of these momentous events so when 2/1st Punjab came ashore on 5th September there was no-one there to greet them. Upon arrival, they fanned out from the docks to occupy key positions, including the PoW camps. In accordance with the terms of the surrender, the Japanese forces were designated surrendered personnel rather than Prisoners of War.
By midnight, the British and Commonwealth troops were back in charge and 35,000 Japanese troops had been evacuated to prison camps in Johor.
The re-occupation of Singapore had proceeded smoothly, but there was a last-minute hitch to the meticulously planned official surrender ceremony. Terauchi, key signatory of the surrender, was too ill to attend. As supreme commander of the Japanese forces in south-east Asia, his presence was vital to give legitimacy to all the previous and subsequent surrenders. Mountbatten was suspicious of a stalling tactic, but Terauchi had indeed suffered a stroke and Itagaki was appointed to sign on his behalf. Hence on 12th September, it was he who surrendered to Admiral Lord Mountbatten, officially restoring Singapore to the British Empire.*
Thank you for dropping by. I’ll be back on 2nd October with my penultimate guest blog by artist Jennifer Lim.
With love from Singapore.
*(This piece first appeared in Expat Living August 2020)
Beevor A: ‘The Second World War’ (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2014)
Bose R: ‘The End of the War – Singapore’s LIberation and the aftermath of the Second World War’ (Marshall Cavendish 2005)
Holder R.W: ‘Eleven Months in Malaya.’ (Editions Didier Millet 2005)
Special thanks to Mr Jeya Ayadurai, Director of Singapore History Consultants Pte Ltd without whose help this piece would have been impossible.