CHURCHILL AND ROOSEVELT’S SECRET MISSION TO SINGAPORE
Finest Hour magazine, Winter-Spring 2007
The Churchill Centre WWW.WINSTONCHURCHILL.ORG
A FRIEND IN NEED
On 11 September 1939, eight days after Churchill returned to government as First Lord of the Admiralty, President Roosevelt began the first in a lengthy stream of correspondence between them. From his first hour as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, Churchill had much to tell. On that day Germany invaded the Low Countries. A week later, General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps was across the Meuse River, racing to occupy Calais, only 21 miles from Dover. On 28 May, with Dunkirk being evacuated and U-boats sinking British ships within sight of the coast, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax floated the notion of learning Germany’s peace terms. His forces cascading into retreat and defeat, Churchill had been in office little more than a fortnight.
Churchill’s first message to FDR as Prime Minister, on 15 May, listed only Britain’s “immediate needs,” but also cataloged necessities that stretched like washing on a line: older destroyers, newer aircraft, steel, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition, a U.S. Navy port call in Ireland. “We shall go on paying dollars as long as we can.” He wrote, “but I would like to feel reasonably sure that when we can pay no more, you will give us the stuff all the same.” He suggested that the U.S. Navy use Britain’s Singapore base “in any way convenient,” hoping to keep “that Japanese dog quiet.” Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt could know how soon Singapore would be entangled with the fates of both nations.
Despite growing unease in Congress, and rancorous public divisions about the war from at least 700 anti-war organizations, Roosevelt sent Britain fifty obsolete destroyers, steel and ammunition. Gallup polls repeatedly confirmed that Americans wanted to stay out of the fight, but solid majorities also approved aid to Britain and France short of war. Revisions to the 1935 Neutrality Act allowed such aid, but also reaffirmed American neutrality. Yet, observing neutrality was impossible at sea, where U-boats were taking a crippling toll. In April, German submarines sank 195 Allied freighters carrying 700,000 tons of crucial war materiel. To prevent a British defeat, FDR had to become aggressively but secretly co-belligerent.
British coastal radar stations began tracking the blinking dots representing a massive German air raid soon after the aircraft formed over their bases in occupied France. Over the English coast at dusk, the Observer Corps plotted Heinkels, Stukas, and escorting ME 109’s headed for London, directed by the new Knickbein radio guidance system. They intersected directly over St. Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by the narrow lanes and Victorian warehouses within the City of London’s storied square mile. The Battle of Britain had been underway since July, but for London tonight, a new strategy of indiscriminate firebombing saw 24,000 incendiaries and 120 tons of bombs, leaving a progression of death and 1,500 fires.
Churchill often viewed the sound and fury of air raids atop Number Ten Annexe, his war headquarters at Clive Steps, reluctantly sheltering on occasion in the underground Cabinet War Rooms, now the Churchill Museum. (see author’s article on this site) Nicked with pinholes, Map Room status boards and floor-to-ceiling maps charted the air war and trans-Atlantic convoys. From here on the 29th, Churchill dictated a hasty message to the London Fire Brigade: “Save St. Paul’s.” It was spared, but on that first night of incendiary terror not even Churchill would envision that the firestorms would continue until May 1941.
That same evening in Berlin, Joseph Goebbels readied a new year’s address to the German people. Even Nazi cohorts questioned the increasing extremes of the undersized, club-footed propaganda minister, whom they mocked as “the poison dwarf.” Goebbel’s boasted of more victories ahead: “Might I ask what Monsieur Reynaud would have done a year ago had he known what 1940 would bring France, or what Mr. Churchill would do now if he knew England’s fate in 1941? We National Socialists seldom make prophecies but we never make false ones. The old year is over. A new one comes. The entire German nation at home and at the front, joins in a warm thanks to the Fuhrer.”
Shortly before 930pm in the White House that Sunday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt coasted into the oval Diplomatic Reception Room on his small wheelchair. Among the twenty invited guests were matinee idol Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lombard. Cordell Hull, the 69-year old Secretary of State, toyed with the ribbon of his pince-nez . Print and broadcast reporters casually smoked. Around polished-wood Philco, RCA, and Emerson radio consoles, millions of American families gathered for another of Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
“Never before has our American civilization been in such danger as now,” the President said. “If Great Britain goes down, all of us in the Americas would be living at the point of a gun…the vast resources and wealth of this American hemisphere constitute the most tempting loot in all of the round world.”
Wiping his broad forehead with a handkerchief, the fire crackling in the white marble fireplace to his right, FDR finished the 37-minute talk with a ringing plea and a call to arms. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” More closely than ever the President had linked the fate of two nations and their peoples.
In Spring 1941, Roosevelt named Admiral Ernest J. King as Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet. The profane, hard-drinking admiral was so salty that even his daughter said, He is the most even-tempered man in the Navy; he’s always in a rage.” Quickly implementing FDR’s earlier promise to give Churchill “all aid short of war,” on 18 April 1941 Admiral King issued Operation Plan 3-41. This was an outgrowth of the ABC-1 (Anglo-American Naval) talks reported to FDR two weeks earlier: the first American commitment to a “Germany – first” policy should the United States go to war with the Axis powers.
OP-PLAN 3-41 broadened the Western Hemisphere’s previous meridians to cover enormous new ocean areas. Clearly referencing the Axis powers, two underscored words authorized the U.S. Navy to change from defensive routine to unambiguous offensive action. “If any such naval vessels or aircraft are encountered …warn them to move twenty-five miles from such territory, and in case of failure to heed such warning, attack them.”
By warning that incursions into the expanded sea frontier meant war, OP-PLAN 3-41 also positioned the Atlantic Fleet near opportunistic German and Italian surface raiders and U-boats. Later orders further lowered the threshold for unrestricted war at sea – but had Axis targets crossed U.S. Navy gun-sights in the Atlantic, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor eight months later might have been averted. Unfortunately, for once Hitler was being cautious; in spite of Roosevelt’s actions, he decided to avoid provoking the Americans in the spring and summer of 1941.
THE GHOST SHIPS OF TASK FORCE 14
Two weeks after their Atlantic meeting, convinced that “those who hitherto had been half blind were now half ready,” Churchill sent Roosevelt the first in a series of “Triple Priority” telegrams. Reinforcements were urgently needed to maintain Britain’s tenuous position in the Middle East. “Would it be possible for you to lend us twelve United States liners and twenty U.S. cargo ships manned by American crews from early October until February? I know from our talks that it will be difficult to do, but there is a great need for more British troops in the Middle East.”The message ended entreatingly: “It is quite true that the loan of these liners would hamper any large dispatch of U. S. forces to Europe or Africa, but as you know I have never asked for this in any period we can reasonably foresee in the near future.”
Following Roosevelt’s approval of this request, a sequence of events was set in train that contributed to the death of many thousands of soldiers in the British 18th Division, and thousands of Australian, Indian and Empire soldiers. They died not fighting Rommel in the desert as trained, but as poorly equipped, disease-ridden bits and pieces in the swamps of Southeast Asia.
In a saga that tends to receive less attention than it deserves, thousands of soldiers secretly voyaged to Singapore aboard six transports, three of which were former passenger liners in the service of the U.S. Navy. The mission began seven weeks before Pearl Harbor, when eighteen U.S. Navy warships and transports received six-page, single-spaced orders that would link British and American forces in a mission spanning nearly the entire globe.
Concocting a diminutive fig leaf to elude the Neutrality Act’s remaining restrictions, Roosevelt proposed to route the Liverpool boarding 18th Division via Halifax instead of the United States, thus avoiding transferring the troops of a belligerent in the port of a neutral country. Churchill replied on 9 October. “If you agree our experts can make a firm programme whereby nine British liners arrive at Halifax with 20,800 men comprising the 18th Division and start trans-shipment to your transports.”
Two months later, the convoy now distantly at sea and its escorts ordered to other duties, news of the Pearl Harbor attack pulsed through the crews on the remaining ships. On 12 December 1941 Churchill reacted to the changed situation by cabling Roosevelt: “We feel it necessary to divert 18th Division round Cape in your transports to Bombay to reinforce army we are forming against Jap invasion of Burma and Malaya.” FDR penciled a note in the margin: “I think OK. Check Army and Navy. Expedite.”
Six of U.S. transports landed their troops at Bombay, but new orders sent three British and three American troop transports to Singapore, the “impregnable fortress” that would soon become the most dangerous place in Southeast Asia for British forces.
On Sunday, 11 January 1942, now almost 18,000 miles from the mission’s beginning in England, British soldiers and American sailors at Divine Service shared the spiritual bonds of the old comforting hymn: Now Thank We All Our God. The USS Mount Vernon (former SS. Washington) and USS West Point (former trans-Atlantic liner SS. America) passed Krakatoa Island, transited the narrow Sunda Straits, saluted Fort Connaught and its useless guns pointing seaward, and disembarked their troops at the new $100 million naval base.
The 18th Division craved a fight, but they had only desert kit, and the Empress of Asia, the ship carrying all of their artillery, ammunition, trucks, automatic weapons, and rations was sunk in the channel by Japanese aircraft. The Japanese were then funneling 85,000 British, Australian, Indians and Asian enemy troops toward the narrow causeway leading to the island of Singapore. In meager opposition, the RAF had only a ragbag of 22 obsolete Hudson’s, Blenheim’s, Buffaloe’s, and open-cockpit Wildebeest’s against 530 first line Japanese warplanes.
Sixteen days later, holding a white flag in one hand and the Union Jack in the other, General Arthur E. Percival surrendered to General Tomoyuki Yamashita the 85,000-man garrison and the “impregnable” fortress. It was Japan’s single major victory of the war, and the greatest defeat ever for British arms.
The reputation of Australia’s troops suffered severely from their role in Singapore’s defeat, wrote Australian historian and Churchill critic David Day. “After denying Singapore its necessary defence equipment for so long, Churchill instructed its commanders on 10 February to… ‘put aside any 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.’
The Singapore mission in 1941 resulted in death for one in three Tommies and vast numbers of Australian, Indian and Empire troops. In a secret session of the House of Commons, Churchill told Parliament that no attempt would be made to fix the blame, and that more “testing, trying, adverse, painful times lie ahead.” With all its heartbreak, the transport of the 18thDivision offered one encouraging facet: the depth of cooperation that had grown between Roosevelt and Churchill long before Pearl Harbor.
To verify the story of the 18th Division, the author located survivors at London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, interviewed American sailors George Ramos and Jack Horrigan, and located orders approving the convoy at the National Archives in College Park, MD. The Roosevelt Library furnished the Churchill/Roosevelt correspondence.
In 1964, the writer and his wife sailed from New York to Southampton on the final trans-Atlantic crossing of the great SS. America, the wartime USS West Point. On a handrail section of the boat deck were carved numerous initials of troops, refugees, repatriated prisoners and other wartime passengers. They offered silent witness to sacrifice and valor.
The author, winner of the 2000 “Author of the Year” from the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History, has also published feature articles in the Chicago Tribune, World War II, British Heritage, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and in other newspapers and magazines.