Lieutenant-General Percival was General Officer Commanding Malaya in World War Two when the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941. It was Percival who had to sign the surrender document to General Yamashita after Singapore surrendered in February 1942. Some historians view the loss of Singapore, where 136,000 men surrendered to the Japanese, as one of the greatest military disasters in British history.
Arthur Percival was born on December 26th 1887. In 1901 he started at Rugby School where he was an average pupil in terms of academic ability. He left Rugby in 1906. In 1907 he started work as a clerk for an iron ore merchant in London. He stayed in this job until the day World War One started. On the first day of the war on August 4th 1914, Percival joined the Officers Training Corps aged 26. In 1915 he was sent to France and in 1916 fought at the Battle of the Somme. In September 1916, he was badly wounded by shrapnel as he led his men into battle near Thiepval. Percival was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery.
While recovering from his wounds Percival was offered a full time commission. In October 1916, he became a captain in the Essex Regiment and in 1917 was promoted to (temporary) major and then to (temporary) lieutenant colonel. During the 1918 Spring Offensive, Percival saved a French artillery unit from attack and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was given a permanent rank of major and also awarded the DSO for his leadership. When World War One ended, Percival was put forward for Staff College.
Between the wars, Percival went with the British Military Mission to Archangel, Russia and then he served in Ireland. Here he gained a reputation for brutality against republicans and the IRA put a bounty of Ł1000 on his head. There were two unsuccessful attempts on Percival’s life.
Between 1923 and 1924, Percival attended the Staff College at Camberley. Here Percival impressed the teaching staff. He was selected for accelerated promotion. Percival spent four years in West Africa with the Nigeria Regiment and in 1929 was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
After a year at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Percival became a tutor at the Staff College, Camberley from 1931 to 1932. The commandant at the college, General Sir John Dill, thought highly of Percival and referred to his ability as “outstanding”. Dill used his influence to get Percival command of the 2nd Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, a post he held from 1932 to 1936.
Between 1936 and 1938, Percival served in Malaya where he worked as Chief of Staff to GOC Malaya, General Dobbie. In March 1938, he returned to Britain to work with the General Staff at Aldershot with the rank of (temporary) brigadier.
Percival served in the British Expeditionary Force between 1939 and 1940 and after Dunkirk was given the task of commanding 44th (Home Counties) Infantry Division. He was put in charge of defending 60 miles of England’s coastline. In April 1941 he was promoted to lieutenant general and appointed GOC (General Officer Commanding) Malaya.
Percival has gone down in history as the man who surrendered 136,000 men after Singapore surrendered in February 1942. After the war Percival wrote about his command in Malaya and Singapore but many reviewers gave unfavourable reviews to his book. Was this justified? Before taking up his appointment as GOC Malaya, Percival had noted that he could well have been taking up an outpost in Asia in which little of consequence happened and that it could stall his career prospects. Alternately his also knew that places such as Malaya and therefore Singapore had not had as much spent on their defences as he would have liked. While serving under General Dobbie before the war, Percival had made an assessment of the defences in Malaya and Singapore. He concluded that far more needed to be spent to modernise what was there especially in Southern Johore, just to the north of Singapore. Churchill called the surrender “the worst disaster in British history”. But it was Churchill who had ordered all the 350 tanks in Malaya to be moved to the Russian front as a show of faith between the USSR and Britain. Japan had 200 light tanks in the Battle for Malaya while the British had none. Likewise, the request for 566 aircraft to give aerial cover to ground troops was ignored by the War Cabinet who considered that 336 would be sufficient.
As the situation became more and more threatening in the Far East before war broke out in the region, Dobbie had requested more ground troops. In this he was successful but the decision to send more troops from India did not meet with Churchill’s approval. He wrote in January 1941:
“I do not remember to have given my approval to these very large diversions of force. On the contrary, if my minutes are collected they will be seen to have an opposite tendency. The political situation in the Far East does not seem to require, and the strength of our Air Force by no means warrants, the maintenance of such large forces in the Far East at this time.”
However, the 9th Indian Division was sent.
Percival, while GOC Malaya, was also refused permission to put ‘Operation Matador’ into being. This was a plan to capture Singpora in southern Thailand before Japanese forces got to it. Singpora was a port and had a major air base. It seemed obvious that if the Japanese were going to attack both Malaya and Thailand, they would take Singpora. ‘Operation Matador’ would take this option away from the Japanese or the fighting for it would reduce it to such a state that the Japanese could not use it operationally. However, the War Office would not sanction such a move as it was felt that the Japanese might view this as a provocative act, which could stimulate war.
One area where Percival could be criticised was his refusal to build defences along the northern shore of Singapore. He had 6,000 engineers at his disposal and could have done so with some ease. However Percival did believe that “defences are bad for morale”.
After the surrender Percival was held in Changi jail, which acted as a POW camp. In August 1942, he was sent to Manchuria via Taiwan. He stayed here until the end of the war. Percival stood behind General Douglas MacArthur during the surrender ceremony on ‘USS Missouri’ and MacArthur gave him one of the pens used in the ceremony.
Percival returned to Britain in September 1945. He retired from the army in 1946. He wrote his memoirs, ‘The War in Malaya’ but it was not well received by many critics. He was also not awarded a knighthood, which was unusual for a man who had retired from the army with such a high rank.
Arthur Percival died on January 31st 1966.