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47 Minutes of Meeting to discuss Defence Questions

Extract 2 WHITEHALL GARDENS, LONDON, 21 June 1937



Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Co-ordination of Defence (in the
Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield, First Sea Lord and Chief of
Naval Staff
Sir Archdale Parkhill, Minister for Defence, Australia
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Edward Ellington, Chief of the
Air Staff Field Marshal Sit Cyril J. Deverell, Chief of the
Imperial General Staff


Sir Edward Harding, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for
Dominion Affairs
N. K. Brodribb, Deputy Controller, Munitions Supply, Australia
F. G. Shedden, First Assistant Secretary and Civil Member of
Defence Committee, Department of Defence, Australia
Vice Admiral Sir Reginald G. H. Hendersen, Third Sea Lord and
Vice Admiral Sir William M. James, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff
Colonel Sir M. P. A. Hankey (Secretary)
Colonel H. L. Ismay (Deputy Secretary)
Major V. Dykes (Assistant Secretary)
Major L. C. Hollis (Assistant Secretary)

The Sub-committee had under consideration a Report by the Chiefs
of Staff on the detailed questions raised by the Australian
Delegation (Paper No. C.O.S. 595) [1] and observations thereon by
the Australian Delegation (Paper No. C.O.S. 598). [2]


SIR THOMAS INSKIP invited the Sub-committee's attention to the
first question raised by the Australian Delegation as set out in
page 1 of Paper No. C.O.S. 598, in which advice was asked as to
the time for which it was estimated the Singapore base would
resist capture at the present stage of its defences and the period
for which it would ultimately be able to hold out when the
Defences were complete. This question originated from paragraph 24
of the Chiefs of Staff Report (Paper No. C.O.S. 595) which read as

'To take a probable situation in the European theatre, our Naval
forces may be operating in strength in the Atlantic, considerably
dispersed. French battle cruisers may be assisting in these
operations while a proportion of our heavy ships may be assisting
with French-African convoys. If in these circumstances we have to
deal with Japan, a very considerable period may elapse before the
progress of our operations against Germany and the redistribution
of our forces permit of a fleet arriving in the Far East.'

It would be noted that the above passage referred to a situation
when we were already engaged in war with Germany before war with
Japan had broken out. The situation implicit in the question (now
put forward) was that Singapore was a beleaguered fortress and
would be called upon to resist prolonged attack without the
prospect of relief by our fleet. This was not the realistic
picture, since while the land communications remained, Singapore
would not be beleaguered. The Committee of Imperial Defence were
now engaged upon the investigation of the reserves of stores which
should be maintained at Singapore. Consequently the answer to the
Australian question depended upon a number of unknown factors
which had not yet been fully assessed. In these circumstances it
was impossible for the Chiefs of Staff to give categorical answers
to the question now put forward by the Australian Delegation.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said that it was to be assumed that the
Japanese would try to render Singapore useless as a base. Could
the Chiefs of Staff estimate the time which the fortress might
hold out in the face of a full scale frontal attack by the
Japanese, 'assuming that the latter aimed at reducing the fortress
in the shortest possible time?
SIR THOMAS INSKIP, said that our policy was to render Singapore
secure from military attack, using the term military in the
broadest sense.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said that it would be a great help in
framing the Australian defence programme if the Chiefs of Staff
could state whether the defences now in course of installation in
the fortress would enable it to hold out for say three or six

SIR CYRIL DEVERELL observed that even if Singapore were entirely
beleaguered, it could hold out for much longer than the actual
period for which reserves of stores were maintained. History had
shown that a besieged fortress was almost invariably able to hold
out longer than had been anticipated.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said that, having in mind the delay which
might occur before the fleet would sail to the East owing to
European implications or other factors, if Australia could be
certain that Singapore would hold out, this would have an
important effect upon the Australian defence policy. If there was
a danger of Singapore falling within 70 days, then Australia might
as well abandon the programme for increasing her navy and
concentrate all her defence resources on her army and air force.

SIR MAURICE HANKEY said that our whole defence policy in the Far
East was directed towards ensuring that Singapore would hold out.

With this object in view a huge scheme of defence was in course of
being carried through, including the provision of 15-inch guns.

The importance of Singapore had been emphasised in the Far East
Appreciation prepared by the Chiefs of Staff, in which the
difficulties attending an attack by the Japanese on Singapore had
been set out in detail. His Majesty's Government in the United
Kingdom were basing the whole of their plans on the assumption
that Singapore would not fall; and it would, he suggested, be
consistent for His Majesty's Government in Australia to proceed
upon the same assumption.

SIR EDWARD ELLINGTON said that it was not possible to make an
accurate forecast of the scale of air attack to which Singapore
might be subjected, or as to the degree of success which such
attack would attain. Heavy and sustained air attacks could not be
maintained on the fortress unless and until shore-bases had been
established within air range. This would entail prolonged

LORD CHATFIELD said that our policy was to make sure, in our own
interests, that Singapore should not fall. The measures we should
take to make the fortress impregnable were a matter for careful
calculation since in addition to the provision of active defences
(e.g. guns, garrison and air forces) it was necessary to assess
other factors such as the reserves of munitions, food stocks to be
maintained and so forth. It would be a reasonably safe assumption
to make that Singapore would not fall before the arrival of the

SIR THOMAS INSKIP remarked that the investigation by the Committee
of Imperial Defence of reserves of stores, to which he had already
referred, presupposed that the defences would be strong enough to
resist any scale of attack which the Japanese could be expected to
launch against them.

SIR MAURICE HANKEY observed that it would always be impossible to
give a precise and comprehensive forecast of everything which
might happen in war.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said that in view of the explanations that
had been given, he felt he could assume that the defences of
Singapore were such that the fortress could resist frontal attack
by the Japanese for a considerable time. While it might be going
too far to say that the fortress was impregnable for an indefinite
period, it would be true to say that it was so strong that it
would be able to resist attack prior to the arrival of the fleet.

If the above assumptions were not tenable, Australia would be left
in the dark as to their defence policy.

LORD CHATFIELD said that the whole basis of our policy for the
last ten years had been to make Singapore so strong that the
Japanese would not risk attacking it and thereby subjecting their
heavy ships to damage by 15-inch gunfire.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL said that his reason for pressing the Chiefs
of Staff on this point was that the section of opinion in
Australia which advocated the concentration of defence expenditure
on the Army and Air Force instead of on the Navy explored two main
arguments: the first was that the British Fleet would not be sent
to the Far East at all; and the second: that even if it were sent
Singapore would not be strong enough to resist capture before its
arrival. The first argument had been disposed of by the Chiefs of
Staff Appreciation, but an assurance was required that the second
argument was also groundless.

SIR THOMAS INSKIP thought that the necessary assurance had, in
fact, already emerged from the discussion.

LORD CHATFIELD added as a further point, that so long as the
British Fleet was in being the Japanese would always have the fear
at the back of their minds that it would arrive in the Far East.

It was therefore unlikely that they would embark on prolonged
operations against Singapore-with the attendant risk of damage to
their capital ships-so long as there was a chance that they might
have to break off these operations, and engage the British Fleet.

If, on the other hand, our fleet had been sunk (e.g. in European
waters) then the Japanese would be in a position to stage
operations to reduce Singapore at their leisure. To sum up,
Singapore could be regarded as a first-class insurance for the
security of Australia. If, however, he were to be asked whether
Singapore was 100 per cent. secure or only 99.1 per cent. it would
be impossible to give a categorical answer.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL enquired whether the fortress could be
regarded as being 75 per cent. secure.

SIR CYRIL DEVERELL said that all our plans were based upon the
fortress holding out, and it would therefore be reasonable to
assume a very much higher percentage of security.

SIR ARCHDALE PARKHILL expressed himself as satisfied with the
assurance given him by the Sub-committee.


SIR THOMAS INSKIP, referring to the question asked at the bottom
of the first page of Paper No. C.O.S. 598, regarding the year in
which it was hoped to complete the defences of Singapore, said
that the answer was to be found in paragraph 314 of the Chiefs of
Staff Review of the Far East (Paper No. C.O.S. 590). [3]

1 Document 42.

2 Document 43.

3 Not printed. The paragraph listed the planned improvements in
the defences at Singapore during 1938, 1939 and 1940. It indicated
that the major part of the coastal defences should have been
completed during 1938 and the program for aerodromes and landing
grounds should have been completed by 1940 (PRO : CAB 53/31).

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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