Cambridge artist Ronald Searle and the fall of Singapore in 1942

How a local artist started off as a satirical sketcher in our local news, before going onto greater things. But not before he and his brothers in arms had faced the crimes against humanity at the hands of Imperial Japan.

I fell down another interwebz whirlpool when I posted a copy of a sketch I’d spotted in the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive. It was about how to make local council meetings more interesting.

Cartoon brighten up CamCitCo meetings 12 Nov 1938

From the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambridgeshire Collection

In the first sketch I’m a little bit sceptical of the number of people heading into the public gallery – especially given how few members of the public come along to council meetings today. Also, the council chamber back then was smaller.

Former Council Chamber Cambridge Graphic 24 Nov 1900

From the Cambridge Graphic in the Cambridgeshire Collection, this image is circa 1900.

It was Labour councillor Bryony Rudkin who pulled me up on the artist concerned – Ronald Searle. The name vaguely rang a bell somewhere, but I found out that he was the author of the St Trinians series.  Which inspired this thumping track that I hope he got to see before he died in 2011.

The above sketch refers to some of the controversy surrounding the construction of the then new guildhall building that now dominates Market Square today. It refers to the old King’s Ditch that now flows under the centre of the city, but many moons ago was part of the town’s defence. This map from 1611 in the Cambridge University Library’s digital collection below, shows a U-shaped black line flowing from Newnham/Mill Pond on the left, to just passed Magdelene Bridge on the right – where it says “Kinge’s Ditch”

OldCambridge TheUL from 1611

See the full map on Cambridge University Library’s digital collection site here.

Searle’s Cambridge

Turns out that Ronald Searle went to the institutions we now know as Parkside, and Anglia Ruskin University. He based his the characters of St Trinian’s on local school girls he met while growing up in Cambridge – as the letter on Page 10 of the history of the Stephen Perse Foundation demonstrates. His neighbourhood was close by to that of Florence Ada Keynes who lived for 75 years on Harvey Road just off Hills Road by Parker’s Piece. That said, his background was working class as this wonderful obituary from 2012 in The Independent describes. Cambridge in those days had wealthy and poor living within walking distance of each other. A 2 minute walk westwards from Florence’s house was one of the big slums of Cambridge – Newtown, where wartime diarist, cobbler/shoe repairer and swimmer Jack Overhill lived. (Jack insisted throughout life that he wanted to be known as a swimmer due to his passion for it).

Before he set to work on St Trinian’s, Searle managed to get a part-time role at the Cambridge Daily News producing weekly satirical sketches every Saturday. Turns out that this paid more than his job at a local parcel packing firm. From the late 1930s until the outbreak of war, he produced a weekly sketch.

From the British Newspaper Archive ( (£), I’ve taken a small sample – click on each one for details. If you subscribe to the BNA in the link above, you can view all of the 1939 cartoons (Just look for the Saturday editions of the Cambridge Daily News from 1939 – though note they are yet to scan further issues from the 1930s & 1940s). Alternatively you can pop into the Cambridge Central Library on the 3rd Floor and ask to see the Cambridge Daily News archives from 1938 & 1939.

War breaks out. Again.

This was how Searle responded in the run up to the declaration of war a week later.

390826 Ronald Searle Keep Calm Carry On

This was the last sketch I can find in the archives by him. What really hits me emotionally is that on submitting this piece, he would have absolutely no idea of the storm that was about to hit him and his comrades in arms as they signed up to the armed forces.

Ronald Searle enlisted to join the Royal Engineers and was assigned to the 287 Field Company as Sapper Ronald Searle. He was stationed in Scotland in the early part of the war, as the Independent’s obituary states – in a town where I once went on holiday as a child (Kirkudbright). In late 1941 Britain was trying to fend off the threats from the Luftwaffe, the submarine threat in the Battle of the Atlantic, provide supplies to the Soviet Union who were reeling from Operation Barbarossa. This involved the invasion of Iran by Britain from the south and the Soviet Union from the north (due to Iran not granting right of passage for the UK to supply the Soviets, and the then leader of Iran, Reza Khan having recruited many hundreds of German technicians that the UK saw as a security threat to their oil supplies that kept the Royal Air Force in the air). This meant that something had to give in terms of priorities. What gave, was the UK’s presence in the far east.

Pearl Harbour and the invasion of European colonies in South East Asia

In the run up to late 1941, Britain’s entire Far East defensive strategy rested with maintaining the island and port city of Singapore as this impregnable fortress. This would form part of the defence of both Australia and New Zealand, and was based on the premise that as soon as an emergency was declared, the British would set sail with a large fleet of ships and re-enforcements to relieve Singapore, arriving within two months.

The problem was that with so many commitments on other fronts, the assumptions that were made in the pre-war plans were simply too strong in the face of realities. Britain simply did not have the spare ships, planes and pilots to send to Singapore while it was fighting for its life at home. But the UK couldn’t just abandon Singapore, not least for reasons of national morale.

The formation of the 18th Infantry Division – and why it matters to Cambridgeshire

The 18th (East Anglian) infantry division was formed in 1939 containing battalions from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. According to the 18th Division’s Wiki-page, it was due to set sail for the Middle East in October. According to one of the soldiers on board – Len Baynes, the division departed before Pearl Harbour was attacked. Hence it was was diverted to Singapore while en route. Remember at this time the fear was that the Axis powers would break through at El-Alamein in North Africa and in the Caucasus in southern Russia, creating the mother of all pincer movements that would have cut off Britain from its oil supplies in the Middle East, and thus grounded not just the RAF but also confined the Royal Navy to port.

Both the first and second battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were part of the 18th Division – the first battalion being raised in Cambridge and was based here too – as Jack Jennings describes in his memoirs. The 2nd Battalion was formed from the villages and towns in North Cambridgeshire. As well as the two Cambridgeshire Battalions, we also note that the 18th East Anglian Infantry Division contained the 287 Field Company of the Royal Engineers – the one Ronald Searle was in.

Arrival at Singapore in the middle of battle

The leading brigade to arrive in Singapore landed on 13 Jan 1942, yet by 15 February just over a month later, General Arthur Percival, commanding British and Allied forces in Singapore surrendered his forces to General Yamashita Tomoyuki. This short video from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation shows the impact the fall of Singapore had in Australia – who had 20,000 soldiers in the 8th Australian Division stationed there.

The fall of Singapore by the ABC.

The top civilian at Singapore was Sir Shenton Thomas, who spent three years in Cambridge at Queen’s College. He was the Governor of Singapore and Malaya (or ‘The Straits’ settlements and the Federated Malay States).

Queens' College Cambridge Football Team 1900-1901

Queen’s College Cambridge Football Team 1900-1901 – with Shenton Thomas second from right in the middle row. (Original file here). Former teacher Stephen Luscombe’s site on the British Empire has this interesting description on the significant leadership problems Sir Shenton Thomas faced in the years leading to the fall of Singapore.  Searle’s sketch of the signing of the surrender document is here.

What of General Arthur Percival?

Ever since I found out about the local connections to the fall of Singapore, I’ve wanted to get behind the reasons of why it fell, and how it was that tens of thousands of soldiers – many of whom had never been in combat before, pretty much disembarked from their transports to walk straight into captivity to face crimes against humanity that many would perish from. This blogpost won’t seek to provide a detailed analysis of why – people far more qualified than me have written accounts far better than I could. I’ve not been able to locate the copy of the terms of surrender put to General Percival. However, via Untourist Singapore I’ve managed to locate General Percival’s summary.

Percival Singapore Surrender Note via UntouristSingapore

The accounts that I am most interested in are those of General Percival and that of Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill’s account can be found here, with keyword searches for ’18th Division’ and ‘Singapore’. What strikes me from Churchill’s account are the multiple catastrophic failures of leadership across so many senior levels.

Percival’s account I discovered last night – and it has been fully digitised here. One thing that is clear from his account of life in captivity in this chapter, is that his captors did not discriminate by rank. All were treated despicably irrespective of rank.

Ronald Searle’s sketches in captivity

The Imperial War Museum has digitised a number of Ronald Searle’s sketches during his three years in hell – you can view them here. I’ll let his work do the talking.

Liberation and justice

Cllr Lewis Herbert summarises in this article the total losses for the Cambridgeshire Regiment.

The formal surrender to Lord Louis Mountbatten is below – and is worth watching in full – if only to hear the reaction from the crowds who endured the brutal occupation.

British Pathe report on the surrender of Singapore to the British in 1945

The trial and conviction of General Tomoyuki Yamashita

The Commander of Imperial Japanese Forces that took the surrender of General Percival, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was tried by the United States of America for war crimes. He was the commander of the forces in The Philippines – which was a huge blow to the United States of America.

Conviction and sentencing of General Tomoyuki Yamashita via the Robert H Jackson Center for Liberty & Law.

Impact of captivity on Ronald Searle

This from The Daily Telegraph’s obituary.

“Much of Searle’s work was profoundly influenced by his experiences during the war. As he himself often explained, his experience of the “horror, the misery, the blackness” of a Japanese prisoner of war camp had “changed the attitude to all things, including humour”.”

I don’t know if anyone has collated all of Searle’s work during his Cambridge Daily News days. Something that the Cambridgeshire Collection could host? This would allow scholars of Searle to compare his pre-war work with his post-war work. One other little-told story is that of the care and support that families gave to traumatised returning service personnel. Furthermore, the newspaper archives tell us that the people of Cambridgeshire raised money to support the families of those who had family members imprisoned in the Far East. There are one or two research studies hidden away in the Cambridgeshire Collection which I will try and dig out at a later date.

Reconciliation – you make peace with your enemies

One of the things that I learnt from my late grandparents was about the importance of reconciliation once wars ended. They came to Cambridge 6 months before I was born, and here they stayed for the rest of their lives having lived all over the world – childhoods and formative years in India (and, during WWII my late grandfather was stationed first on the North Western Frontier where they were expecting the Germans to arrive in late 1941), then in Burma with the First Battalion Wiltshire Regiment. Yet during my childhood in the late 1980s & early 1990s, they regularly hosted German and Japanese academics who were studying in Cambridge. Just outside Trumpington there was a prisoner of war camp – from which Jack Overhill (mentioned earlier) befriended Italian prisoners of war who were not released despite the fall of the Fascist regime there in 1943. As it turns out, the UK was dependent on the labour force of prisoners of war to work in the fields and on reconstruction and building of new homes following the armistice. It wasn’t until after the London 1948 Olympics that the last German prisoners of war finally left.

British Movietone News from 1948

But many prisoners decided to stay on in the UK – this British Movietone newsreel citing a figure of 24,000. Remember that after the Second World War had ended, the eastern borders of Germany were redrawn. Thus more than a few would not have had a ‘Germany’ to return to. And in anycase, the Iron Curtain had come down hard, and the option of returning to the rule of Stalin was not likely to be appealing. So here they stayed.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s