View Full Version : The Singapore Surrender and the Empire Star

02-02-2011, 10:17 PM
I have just finished reading A Gathering Darkness" by Haruo Tohmatsu and H. P. Willmott. It is about the political and economic events which precipitated the Japanese slide into WW II. In one of the last chapters, on pages 126-127, the following passage appears;

"The final debacle [of the Singapore surrender] was far worse than anything that was ever admitted officially. The British government's postwar refusal to conduct a full public inquiry into the disaster was tacit admission of this fact.....all sorts of stories abound of what allegedly happened, and there is no way of fully ascertaining the truth. It has been estimated, for example, that probably three quarters of the Australian division in the line on Singapore had deserted by the time that the Japanese moved across the Strait. Allegedly, British marines and bluejackets from a light cruiser stormed a ship at Batavia that had been seized by Australian deserters at Singapore and forced to sail for Java; the word was that the Australians were afforded summary execution."

On page 139 of the Notes section, the authors supply additional details. The ship allegedly commandeered at Singapore by the Australian deserters was the Empire Star. The light cruiser was the British HMS Durban, Captain Peter Cazalet commanding, and the date on which the Empire Star was stormed was either February 13 or 14 and this took place at Batavia. The author's claim that the ship's logs involved were deliberately falsified (although the Durban's log does note the dispatch of an armed landing party), and that the fate of the deserters is in dispute. There is reference to two books that mention the episode; Singapore's Dunkirk by Geoffrey Brooke (pages 183-184) and Singapore, The Pregnable Fortress by Peter Elphick (pages 455-456).

I have read extensively of the events in the early part of the Pacific war, but have never heard these charges. I note that they are heavily qualified with words like "allegedly" and "probably". Can anyone shed any more light on this incident or even verify that it likely took place? And what was the eventual fate of the deserters?

02-03-2011, 03:23 AM
i found two links,



02-03-2011, 03:29 AM
Court Martial of Temporary Sub Lieutenant A G C Franklin and others at Singapore for deserting posts and acts prejudicial to good order and naval discipline in the vicinity of the enemy

i found it here :


and this :

12,656 Ton - Blue Star, Capt S. Capon. 11 Feb (2,154)
Cast off 17.00 11th February, clearing 06.30 on the morning of the 12th, in Convoy with "Delamore", Jalibar", "Jalikrishna" and "Li Sang" and reported cleared Sunda Straits 16th February, with about 2,000 RAF Ground Crew, Naval Personnel, and some service families - also with 135 A.I.F. deserters who had forced their way aboard - in so doing, they shot and killed the Captain of the Dockyard, Capt. T. K. W. Atkinson, R.N. (These deserters were disarmed in Tandjong Priok.) All passengers, with the exception of some nurses disembarked.

"Empire Star" had cabin accommodation for 16 passengers but carried 2,154 mostly staff from British, Australian & Indian Hospitals.

On 12th February, and four hours out of Singapore attacked by 6 aircraft, in Durian Straits being hit and severely damaged creating 3 fires. Again attacked at dawn and throughout morning without further damage. Reached Batavia 15.2.42 and then, after some bomb damage repairs sailed on the 16th February for Freemantle after re-embarking Women.
(The Red Duster at War ) (The Escape from Singapore and other)


cant find anything about any storming action from the hms durban

Rising Sun*
02-03-2011, 04:32 AM
i found two links,


Elphick's accuracy is debatable on some issues, and perhaps on others.


This has nothing to do with HMS Durban, which I'm not sure was even in Batavia at the relevant time.

I'm short of time but hope to post a bit later, if I can get some other tasks completed.

Rising Sun*
02-03-2011, 06:32 AM
Off the top of the head, supplemented by Google for quick checks.

The British government's postwar refusal to conduct a full public inquiry into the disaster was tacit admission of this fact.

A sound reason for not enquiring is that it would have disproved the bullshit Churchill and others put forward that the loss of Singapore was the fault of the Australians. This conveniently overlooked the facts that (a) the Australians were a minor part of the Malaya force and, (b) like the other nationalities in the force prejudiced in their defence by the failure of Churchill to implement his military adviser's recommendations on, notably but not solely, air forces in Malaya and, (c) the Australians were not responsible for the successive defeats on the Malayan peninsular (indeed, with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders they were the only units to give a really good account of themselves during that retreat, and that was recorded by no less an observer than Masanobu Tsujii) which was a necessary precondition to the attack on Singapore.

It has been estimated

Estimated by whom? On the basis of what data? Which units? Which men? Because it would be interesting to compare that sweeping ‘for example’ with the known dispositions and actions of Australian troops in Singapore’s defence.

for example, that probably three quarters of the Australian division

I hate to upset this grand and patently ill-informed assertion, but at best it couldn’t have been more than about half of the Australian division in Malaya / Singapore ( 8th Division, 2nd AIF). Only about two brigades of the three brigade division went to Malaya. Three quarters of two thirds is about half of the division.

Such statements demonstrate the ignorance of the authors and the sloppiness of their research, assuming they conducted any, or the carelessness of their statements.

in the line

What line? What do they mean by ‘the line’? Troops and units placed to meet the enemy advance across the Strait?

That would be the Australians in the critical north west sector. Here’s the Australian War Memorial’s concise summary of how that turned out.

The defence of Singapore was poorly conceived and conducted. Despite clear indications that the Japanese would concentrate their attack on the island's north west, the British commander Lieutenant General Percival, sought to defend the entire coastline leaving him with little depth and an inadequate reserve. The 8th Australian Division, considerably weakened after the fighting in Malaya, was allocated the vital north-western sector. When the Japanese attacked on the night of 8 February 1942 it was too weak and dispersed to hold them back, initiating a disorganised retreat towards the centre of the island. In succeeding days Percival's reluctance to commit reserves from other parts of the island, and a virtual command breakdown in the 8th Division, lead to the British Commonwealth forces being pushed back into a steadily decreasing perimeter around Singapore city. http://www.awm.gov.au/units/event_221.asp

on Singapore had deserted by the time that the Japanese moved across the Strait.

What utter and offensively stupid bullshit!

If three quarters of the Australians facing the Japanese assault across the Strait had deserted, the Japanese would not have met any resistance from the Australians. And the remaining Australians would have had to be suicidal to attempt to resist them, which hardly conforms with the picture painted by some of Australians deserting in droves because they were cowards.

Nor would, for example (this being a factually based example, unlike the moronic ‘for example’ in the quoted piece) the 2/18th Battalion have suffered about 180 deaths (in addition to 80 in Malaya) and several hundred casualties in the defence of Singapore giving it about a 50% casualty rate. If three quarters of its 1,200 or so members had pissed off, and if every remaining man had been a casualty, it still doesn’t get above a 25% casualty rate = about 400 casualties, which is still well below the documented casualties. The three quarter desertion rate isn't supported by such figures, unless the author of that statement has access to previously unknown and reliable data.

The quoted, and patently idiotic, statement demonstrates in every respect a total lack of factual knowledge and a total lack of understanding by its maker of the collapse of the Singapore defences and the disorganisation, disarray, lack of communiciations, separation of troops from leaders, and separation of units from superiors which arose from skilful Japanese advances, penetrations, and encirclements of the defenders. The fact that troops or units, Australian and others, were not under local or higher command and were acting on their own initiative in falling back or trying to connect with other troops or units is not desertion. It’s just what happens in something close to a rout.

Allegedly, British marines and bluejackets

I think they were the same thing. Wasn’t blue jacket a slang term for Royal Marines well before WWII? During WWII part of a ship’s complement of Royal Marines included band members who, I think, were also known as blue jackets, although both band other marines were used for various duties on the ship and as landing parties.

from a light cruiser stormed a ship at Batavia that had been seized by Australian deserters at Singapore and forced to sail for Java; the word was that the Australians were afforded summary execution."

That sounds like even more ignorance and astounding bullshit.

1. It sounds like a hugely embellished version about a group or groups, variously stated at between 100 and 140 (out of about 2,100 passengers), of armed Australian troops which forced their way aboard the Empire Star shortly before it left Singapore.

They did not commandeer the ship and did not control it, but neither did the ship’s crew or others on board control that group or those groups.

At Batavia a ruse using sailors, possibly from Durban if it was in fact in port, or soldiers dressed as sailors was used to persuade them to disembark, and the ship sailed for Australia without them.

Some or many or most of the deserters are thought to have fallen into Japanese captivity or to have been lost in attempts to reach Australia.

2. The Empire Star wasn’t forced to sail for Java by the alleged deserters who didn’t commandeer it. With the Vyner Brooke and other ships it was ordered to evacuate people from Singapore to Australia and was, as far as was possible in the circumstances, an orderly evacuation.

3. I’d be interested to see the records or other evidence of the execution of 100 to 140 Australian troops by the Royal Marines or whomever. It’s not something that would have been done summarily by the British, particularly as during and from WWI onwards Australia refused to allow the British to impose the death penalty on its troops. If the British had summarily, or even after court-martial, executed 100 to 140 Australian troops it would have been well known and a major issue by now. It isn't.

Rising Sun*
02-03-2011, 07:48 AM
Elphick's accuracy is debatable on some issues, and perhaps on others.

And this is why his accuracy is debatable, and his work has to be viewed as somewhat selective and sensantionalist in his presentation of the history of the fall of Singapore.

Read this link http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/specials/noprisoners/interviews/elphick.htm and work out why he singles out Australians as problems for desertion when, on his own comments, he concedes that the British weren't much better and chooses not to make an issue of Indians going over to the enemy, which the British, Australians and New Zealanders never did.

As for the quality of his research and attention to detail, the following extract from the linked interview with him says it all.

Interviewer: Let's go to some of the detail of of some of the departures. You speak about a Captain Blackwood on the Empire Star. There's no record of Captain Blackwood in the 8th division. What do you make of that?

Elphick: Ah well maybe they got the name wrong. I got that from a Squadron leader Steve Stevens. He was on the Empire Star. The Empire Star, apart from the civilians on board, was basically used as a way of getting members of the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the other air force people away. And many of them didn't make it because of the deserters in fact, but Steve Stevens did make it, and he told me that he heard over the tannoy, the ship's tannoy, several times, will Captain Blackwood of the AIF please report to the bridge. Now he may have got the name wrong, I don't know, I never checked Australian army lists, or I don't whether there was a Blackwood or not.

Interviewer: You've also named a Roy Cornford.

Elphick: Yeah.

Interviewer: You say a deserter by his own admission. This he denies. He gives a good account of of what happened to him, indeed he he joined the frontline again when he was returned to Java. Were you wrong to call him a deserter?

Elphick: No, if I am wrong, then so was the also the book, who ah actually interviewed Roy Cornford, and he said that Roy Cornford on his own admission was a deserter. And I took that verbatim from the book...

Iinterviewer: Did you talk to Roy Cornford?

Elphick: No, I didn't.

Interviwer: But you should've shouldn't you, if you're going to call him a deserter?

Elphick: Ah, well, there… it's a moot point. Ah...I- would it be worth my while to journey out to Australia to interview one man? I don't think so and I was quoting what I thought was a fairly good source. And ah the book said, on his own admission, so I followed that.

Interviewer: He doesn't say that he ever admitted that.

Elphick: Yeah, well he should take that up with the American author of the book then.

Elphick makes S.L.A. Marshall's discredited 'research' methods and conclusions look good.

And his last comment does him no credit, as an author or a man.

Rising Sun*
02-03-2011, 08:02 AM
More from Elphick's self-promoting article:

"The story, researched fully for the first time, is told here not only because it features deserters, but because it is a record of courage and skill on the part of merchant seamen, and of the bravery of a group of Australian nurses, and because taken as a whole it is a microcosm of the horrors of war, showing both the heights to which man's spirit can reach, and the depths to which it can plunge." http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/specials/noprisoners/viewpoints/elphickbook.ht

The opinion of the Australian nurses on board, who didn't need to research the story as they were actually there, is here: http://www.angellpro.com.au/Hamilton.htm

02-03-2011, 01:20 PM
Thanks to everyone who responded to my request for more information and especially those who provided the links.

It appears that Tohmatsu and Willmott repeated some rather salacious rumors without any real research or investigation. That is the reason I was asking; I had not read any such sensational story in all my years of following the Pacific War and it seemed to me that such a story, if true, would have been explored by many other authors. I have learned to take the assertions of British military historians with a rather large grain of salt when reading their descriptions of their allies' performance in WW II.

Re; the issue of Australian deserters, I read in "Buffalos Over Singapore" by Brian Cull, that the morale of all ranks of the defenders of Singapore was universally bad due primarily to the appalling incompetence and abysmally poor leadership of the British officers in charge. Soldiers can hardly be expected to fight and die if their officers are nitwits, and that seems to have been the case right up the chain of command to Churchill. Cull is a British historian, but his book is largely the reminisces (direct quotations) of Australian pilots who were asked to fly these deathtraps with little training or experience. I understand that the deployment of the Australian division by the British staff in defense of the island of Singapore was militarily unsound; much of the division being posted in a cypress swamp where it was impossible for the individual units to mutually support each other or do much to hinder the Japanese attackers.

One last note; The Empire Star was a Blue Star Line large, general cargo, twin-screw motor vessel of 11,093 gross registered tons, completed in 1935. She was configured for 12 first class passengers, and could do 16 knots in service. She was torpedoed and sunk on 10/23/42 by U615 while sailing independently in the Atlantic.

02-10-2011, 04:27 PM
Reports reaching England of the poor performance of (some) Australian troops were suppressed in the interests of Imperial relations, and flat out denied when the Commonwealth government made enquiries about the rumours circulating already in London. The documents, many from Australian officers who could hardly be accused of partiality, were eventually released fifty years later, causing a predictable storm of displeasure in the Australian press.

02-10-2011, 11:03 PM
Reports reaching England of the poor performance of (some) Australian troops were suppressed in the interests of Imperial relations, and flat out denied when the Commonwealth government made enquiries about the rumours circulating already in London. The documents, many from Australian officers who could hardly be accused of partiality, were eventually released fifty years later, causing a predictable storm of displeasure in the Australian press.

Do you have any examples of these reports?

Rising Sun*
02-12-2011, 07:41 AM
Reports reaching England of the poor performance of (some) Australian troops were suppressed in the interests of Imperial relations

Poor performance in what respects?

By which combat units; where; and when?

How did the poor performance of those units exceed in poorness any poor performance by any British and Indian units?

Where did Colonel Tsujii feel moved to say of any British or Indian unit that it had offered the hard resistance which the Japanese first faced from the Australians?

Which British or Indian unit was better led and which performed better than the 2/19th Bn, AIF, which has the unusual distinction of its C.O. being awarded a V.C. ?

Charles Anderson VC
NX 12595 Lieutenant Colonel Charles Groves Wright ANDERSON MC
2/19th Australian Infantry Battalion, A.I.F.
18th to 22nd January 1942 in Malaya

"During operations in Malaya from 18th to 22nd January, 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, in command of a small force, was sent to restore a vital position and to assist a Brigade. His force destroyed ten enemy tanks. When later cut off, he defeated persistent attacks on his position from air and ground forces and forced his way through the enemy line to a depth of fifteen miles. He was again surrounded and subjected to very heavy, frequent attacks, resulting in severe casualties to his force. He personally led an attack with great gallantry on the enemy, who were holding a bridge, and succeeded in destroying four guns. Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, throughout all this fighting, protected his wounded and refused to leave them. He obtained news by wireless of the enemy position and attempted to fight his way back through eight miles of enemy occupied country. This proved to be impossible, and the enemy were holding too strong a position for any attempt to be made to relieve him. On 19th January, Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson was ordered to destroy his equipment and make his way as best he could around the enemy position.

Throughout the fighting, which lasted for four days, he set a magnificent example of brave leadership, determination and outstanding courage. He not only showed fighting qualities of very high order but throughout exposed himself to danger without any regard for his own personal safety". http://www.army.gov.au/1_19RNSWR/ww2.htm

Who suppressed those alleged reports?

Certainly not Churchill, as he never lost an opportunity to exploit Australian military forces for his and England's (as distinct from the Empire's) military and political advantage and to blame them for his own spectacular and pretty much criminally negligent failures, notably Gallipoli; Greece; and Singapore.

The documents, many from Australian officers who could hardly be accused of partiality, were eventually released fifty years later, causing a predictable storm of displeasure in the Australian press.

Very few Australian officers, indeed very few Australian troops, escaped from Singapore.

Most, unlike their commander General Gordon Bennett, went into captivity with their troops.

How did these documents, many from Australian officers necessarily in Japanese captivity, reach London in 1942? Especially when all other communications from Australian troops in Japanese captivity to everyone else were denied by the Japanese?

To whom were these many reports by Australian officers addressed? Certainly not to anyone in London, as any such reports would have had to come up the chain of command to Percival, and then most probably to Wavell. I doubt that any Australian officer had a direct line to London.

Could you provide links to or other evidence of the "predictable storm of displeasure in the Australian press" in 1992? As, despite living in Australia at the material time and well before and long after it and having a strong interest in all relevant history, I missed the storm.

Anyway, what does the performance of Australian or any other troops matter when Churchill told his Chiefs of Staff on 21 January 1942, several weeks before the surrender of Singapore, that he regarded keeping the Burma Road open as more important than holding Singapore and asked them to consider evacuating Singapore rather than surrendering it? (Churchill, Hinge of Fate, pp 49-50, (The Second World War, Vol IV) Cassell, London, 1951)

Yet a few weeks later, on 10 February, Churchill told Wavell that “there must be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form.” ibid, p 87-88

Any troops who allowed their sense of self-preservation to encourage them to desert instead of dying in accordance with Churchill's duplicitous orders were guilty of no greater moral crime than Churchill, and just as entitled to survive and be honoured as he thought he was.

Churchill was a great man and an inspiring war leader, but he was also a dangerous and impulsive strategist with a limited capacity for consistently sound military judgment and dispositions, and an inversely magnificent ability to fail to recognise his own failings and follies.

02-12-2011, 04:40 PM
You'll have to wait some days for my fuller answer based on firmer sources than memory but the interim version; not everyone in Singapore was a hero, or a villain, and they weren't 'nitwits' either, mostly trying to lead to the best of their abilities. Singapore fell, not because the people trying to hold it were idiots but because there was war in the Middle East and there was no war in the Far East, and if the Middle East fell for want of the modern weapons that might be sent to the Far East, then the Far East could be written off as well. Britain and the Empire was never realistically going to be strong enough to beat the combined might of Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously, without Allies which it didn't have until December 7th.

Rising Sun*
02-24-2011, 06:24 AM
You'll have to wait some days for my fuller answer based on firmer sources than memory ...

Any success in locating the sources?

02-24-2011, 05:48 PM
I'm pretty busy working at the moment, but I expect to be able to deal with it shortly.

03-09-2011, 10:49 AM
I´ve opened a new thread on Churchill's blunders and mention Singapore as one of them. Churchill sent 350 tanks from Malaya-Singapore and hundreds fo Hurricanes from Britain to the USSR, so that when the japs invaded with 200 tanks and hundreds of modern planes, the 90,000 British troops with obsolete Brewster Buffaloes could not do much. The Repulse and Prince of Wales were sunk off the Malayan coast by japanese bombers from Indochina, for lack of air cover (the few Buffaloes were defending Singapore) and could have otherwise privided deadly naval artillery support.

10-05-2017, 01:29 PM
It is a pity i didnot see the post a few months ago.
My dad was RAF and was on the Empire star when it left Singapore. He escaped the attack on the ship and he escaped and evaded the japs parashooted into Sumatra. He made his way to be picked up to what was then Indian.
I dont recall him referring to any Aussie deserters.
He left a record of events and i will check it again.
I cannot ask him as he died aged 100 on 11th sept 2017.