On This Day: WWII came to Singapore 80 years ago with first Japanese air raid

A large column of smoke seen in Singapore following a Japanese air raid on the city on 8 December 1941. (SCREENSHOT: British Pathe/YouTube)
A large column of smoke seen in Singapore following a Japanese air raid on the city on 8 December 1941. (SCREENSHOT: British Pathe/YouTube)

SINGAPORE — Eighty years ago today, World War II (WWII) came to Singapore when Japan bombed several key targets across the island, in a stunning air raid that heralded the darkest chapter in the city’s history.

Just hours earlier, aircraft from the Japanese Imperial Navy had attacked Pearl Harbor in a pre-emptive move to prevent US naval forces from interfering in Japan's invasion of the territories of the US, the UK and the Netherlands. Over the next few hours, apart from Singapore, Japan launched multi-pronged attacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, and Hong Kong.

About an hour before the raid on 8 December 1941, the British detected radar signals of aircraft flying towards Singapore, prompting their army, air force, navy and anti-aircraft guns to be on standby.

At 4.30am, 17 Japanese naval bombers arrived over Singapore skies after flying from southern Indochina, and began attacking the Seletar and Tengah airfields, and the Sembawang Naval Base. Another 48 Japanese bombers had abandoned their attack due to bad weather.

Just minutes later, the bombers hit targets including Chinatown, Raffles Place and Keppel Harbour.

The civil defence in Singapore was woefully unprepared for the raid, made worse by the moon illuminating the city.

The military response was just as haphazard. An experienced British pilot’s request to intercept the incoming Japanese bombers was rejected by his commanders over concerns of friendly fire from anti-aircraft guns. While Singapore had about 40 heavy anti-aircraft guns, they were ineffective in stopping the Japanese air attack on the day and in subsequent raids.

The raid stunned Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, commander of the Commonwealth forces during the Malayan campaign and the Battle of Singapore, and his officers, as they did not expect the Japanese to have long-range aircraft capable of flying almost 1,000 km from Indochina to Singapore.

Among the residents who were woken up by the raid was the future prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who was sleeping at Raffles College, according to the book “The Fall of Singapore 90 Days: November 1941-February 1942” by Justin Corfield and Robin Corfield.

There was widespread bewilderment in the population when the attack took place. A number of residents who had alerted the local authorities were told that the raid was only a practice.

A significant number of people were killed in the city centre where the bombers had dropped many of their bombs. In total, 61 people were killed in the raid on the day when Singapore experienced the start of WWII. Among them was Corporal Raymond Lee Kim Teck, a soldier from the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force who was in a trench with another soldier. Lee had run out in panic during the attack and was killed instantly, according to the book by the Corfields.

The USS Arizona burns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.    U.S. National Archives/via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
The USS Arizona burns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. (PHOTO: US National Archives via Reuters)

Global war after Pearl Harbor attack

Elsewhere in the world on the same day, several momentous events of the war were taking place. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his historic “Infamy Speech” to a joint session of Congress, and a while later, the US declared war on Japan. In response to the attacks on Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, the UK declared war on Japan. In Tokyo, Japan also announced that its war against the US and the UK had begun.

Three days later, Nazi Germany and Italy declared war on the US, in solidarity with their Axis Powers partner Japan.

A war that was largely confined to the European theatre at its start on 1 September 1939 had become global with the flurry of declarations issued between the belligerents. Dragged into the conflagration due mainly to its strategic importance, Singapore was to suffer further Japanese air raids on 16/17 December 1941, January and February 1942.

On 8 February 1942, the Battle of Sarimbun Beach began in the northwest of Singapore as Japanese forces crossed over from Malaya – the land assault had begun. A week later, on 15 February 1942, Singapore experienced the start of the horrific Japanese Occupation when the British and Commonwealth forces surrendered to Japan.

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