Arthur Percival was a British lieutenant general who served as General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya from 1941 to 1942. Until 1942, Percival enjoyed a stellar career in the army. But his reputation suffered irrevocable damage when he surrendered Singapore to the Japanese army in 1942. He spent the rest of the war as a Japanese Prisoner of War.
Born in 1887, Arthur Percival was educated at Rugby School. Before World War One he worked as an iron ore merchant’s clerk in London. On the first day of World War One, 4 August 1914, when Percival was 26, he became part of the Officers Training Corps. Percival fought at the Battle of the Somme after being sent to France in 1915, and was seriously wounded in September 1916 when leading his men into battle near Thiepval. He was presented with the Military Cross award for his distinguished service.
Percival was given the offer of a full time commission during the recovery of his wounds. He was made a captain within the Essex Regiment in October 1916, then promoted to the role of temporary major and temporary lieutenant colonel.
Later in the war he was presented with the Croix de Guerre upon saving a French artillery unit from being attacked during the 1918 Spring Offensive, along with a distinguished Service Order. He was made major permanently and given the DSO award for his leadership. His confidential report describes him as beloved by his men, very efficient, a brave soldier and recommended for staff college.
During the interwar period Percival travelled to Archangel, Russia with the British Military Mission. He then served in Ireland, where he developed a reputation for brutality against republicans. The IRA promised a reward of £1,000 to whoever captured or killed him and he was subject to two failed assassination attempts.
Percival went to the Staff College at Camberley during 1923 to 1924, where he was chosen for accelerated promotion. He was in West Africa with the Nigeria Regiment for four years and had a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1929.
After attending the Royal Naval College in Greenwich for one year, Percival went on to tutor at Camberley’s Staff College for a year between 1931 and 1932. General Sir John Dill, the college commandment, viewed Percival very highly and said he had an ‘outstanding’ ability. Taking advantage of his influence, Dill promoted Percival to command of the 2nd Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, which he held between 1932 to 1936.
From 1936 until 1938 Percival served as Chief of Staff to the GOC Malaya, General Dobbie in Malaya, then in 1938 went back to Britain to work with the Aldershot General Staff with the temporary brigadier rank
At the outbreak of World War Two, Percival served in the British Expeditionary Force in France. After the Dunkirk withdrawal he was given command of the 44th Infantry Division and charged with defending the English coastline for up to 60 miles. He was made lieutenant general in 1941 and made GOC (General Officer Commanding) Malaya.
Percival is notably remembered in history as a man who handed over 136,000 men after the surrender of Singapore in February 1942. He wrote about his Malayan and Singaporean command, although this was met with a lot of unfavourable reviews.
Percival was not overly enthusiastic about his GOC appointment, which he thought could hinder his career prospects. He was also aware that he would need to train an inexperienced force in Malaya and strengthen its defences. During his time in Malaya prior to the war, Percival assessed the Malaysian and Singaporean defences. He came to the conclusion that much more spending was needed to modernise the defences, particularly those in Southern Johore, near northern Singapore. Churchill referred to this as “the worst disaster in British history”, even though he was the one who ordered all of the 350 Malayan tanks to be transferred over to the Russian front as a way of demonstrating faith between Britain and the USSR. The British had no light tanks for the Battle of Malaya but Japan had 200. The requirement for 566 aircraft to provide ground troops with aerial cover was not considered by the War Cabinet as they felt 336 was enough.
Dobbie had asked for an increasing number of ground troops to be brought to the area as the situation showed continuous threat. This succeeded but Churchill did not approve of the choice to send over more Indian troops. The 9th Indian Division was still sent despite this.
On 8 December 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on Malaya. Percival tried to rouse his troops with an emotive Special Order of the day, in which he enjoined his troops to ‘stand fast come what may’ and prove themselves ‘worthy of the great trust’ placed in them’. But this spirited order could not stall the Japanese advance. On 27 January 1942, Percival was forced to retreat across the Johore Strait to the island Singapore; by 8 February Japanese troops were making inroads into the island. Allied troops struggled to stymie the Japanese onslaught and supplies were running low. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival and Lieutenant-General Yamashita Tomoyuki met in the Ford motor plant at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill to sign the surrender documents.
“In this hour of trial the General Officer Commanding calls upon all ranks Malaya Command for a determined and sustained effort to safeguard Malaya and the adjoining British territories. The eyes of the Empire are upon us. Our whole position in the Far East is at stake. The struggle may be long and grim but let us all resolve to stand fast come what may and to prove ourselves worthy of the great trust which has been placed in us.”
Arthur Percival, Special Order of the Day, 10 December 1941, two days after Japanese attack on Malaya
Percival’s surrender was probably premature: the Japanese were running out of artillery shells at the time of his capitulation. Percival’s detractors also point to the fact he refused to use the 6,000 engineers ready at his beck and call and build defences along the northern shore of Singapore. Percival claimed “defences are bad for morale”. However, in terms of resources, Percival had been short-changed by the Allied War Command. He had no tanks at his disposal and a weak air force.
On 15 February Percival decided to surrender his 136,000 men to the Japanese. After this, he was briefly held at the notorious Changi Prisoner of War. He was sent to Manchuria in August 1942 until the war finished. Percival stood behind General Douglas MacArthur during the Japanese surrender ceremony in September 1945; MacArthur gave Percival a pen used in the ceremony.
In September 1945, Percival headed back to Britain and retired from the army the next year. His reputation had suffered irrevocable damage at the surrender of Singapore: he was seen as a faltering and feeble ‘damp squib’. His memoirs The War in Malaya were not received very well, and he was not awarded the customary knighthood given to senior army figures.
Arthur Percival died on 31 January 1966 at the age of 78.
See also: Charles Portal
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