“A tall, rather spare Englishman, he was unimposing in appearance and with his two protruding front teeth, flushed cheeks and little mustache, he looked rather like a rabbit. More importantly and undesirably, he was also almost entirely lacking in charisma so that he was nearly as unknown to his troops at the end of the war as he was at the beginning.”*
Known for the surrender of Singapore on February 13th, 1942, a most stinging defeat. Percival fought in WW I with distinction – a courageous officer with good organizational talent. Made a brevet Major, he was recommended for Staff College – plum appointment delayed as he went to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Percival gained a reputation for brutality with prisoners; IRA commandant Tom Barry later stated that Percival was “easily the most vicious anti-Irish of all serving British officers”.
After Ireland, Major Percival attended Staff College, spent 1936-1938 in Singapore and was among the first to recognize the possibility of Japanese attack from the jungle; wrote a memo to this effect from which nothing further was heard.“His main claim for the top job was that in 1937 as a staff officer in Malaya, he had prepared an appreciation and a plan of attack on Singapore from the point of view of the Japanese that challenged all the existing strategical assumptions about Malaya.”* “… outlined a form of attack on Malaya which predicted the Japanese seizing airfields in southern Thailand and northern Malaya before capturing Singapore itself. Percival’s conclusion was that the defence of northern Malaya and of Johore was of far greater importance than had been thought until then, and that strong reinforcements were urgently needed.“**
Serving with BEF in France, he was made CO 43rd Wessex Division and received the Order of the Bath in the King’s Birthday Honors. Percival had been given the 44th (Home Counties) Division after requesting an active appointment while on the Imperial General Staff. Percival arrived in Singapore in April 1941 and arrived to find a ‘Fortress’ starved of funds during the 30’s and an untrained Army.” After the July 1941 freezing of Japanese assets by USA, tensions became high. On December Eighth, the Japanese 25th Army under General Tomoyuki Yamashita landed by amphibious assault at Jitra, Singora and Khota Bahru. From the start Percival was unable to counter flexible, aggressive Japanese leadership. and retreated from the start though his troops outnumbered the Japanese. Poorly trained and equipped Indian soldiers fell apart during the war in the jungle, army communications were a shambles and a 100 year old bureaucracy headed by Sir Shenton Thomas, Colonial Governor of Singapore proved obstructive, slow to act and almost uncaring of the army’s needs. Percival refused to construct fortifications in the jungle – bad for morale.
His subordinates were unruly – especially the Australian General Gordon Bennett who viewed Percival thusly : “He does not seem strong, rather the Yes man type. Listens a lot but says little…. My estimate of him was right. Weak and hesitant though brainy.” The RAF never approached the 300 planes Percival wanted. It was a classic stewpot of incompetence.
Arthur Percival surrendered the “Fortress” of Singapore” at 6:10 PM on February 15,1942. He spent the rest of the war at Changi Prison and Manchuria. His reputation has never recovered although later historians have shown some sympathy.
*The Fall of Singapore 1942 (Routledge Library Editions World War II in Asia) P. 36
** IBID P. 37