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The Man who Took the Rap

Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and the Fall of Singapore


Peter Dye

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis USA 2018

Hardcover   448pp  RRP $44.95


Reviewer:   Robert Dixon, December 2018


Sir Robert Brooke-Popham (1878-1953) occupied a number of important posts in the RAF between the wars but is best known for his role in the fall of (Malaya and) Singapore in February 1942. Graduating from Sandhurst in 1898 as an infantry officer he joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. His senior appointments included spells as the first commandant of the RAF Staff College (1922), Air Officer Commanding in Iraq (1928-1930) and Commander-in-Chief of ‘Air Defence Great Britain’ (1933-1935) – this latter organisation encompassed what would later become Fighter and Bomber Commands. Brooke-Popham was put on the Retired List in 1937 and in the same year, was appointed Governor of Kenya. When the Second World War broke out he re-joined the RAF and in October 1940 was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Far East with responsibility for all British land and air forces in Singapore, Malaya, Burma & Hong Kong and for the co-ordination of plans for the defence of those territories. Unfortunately the author is silent on the reasons behind this appointment.

Recognising that it was impossible to adequately defend Singapore Island from an attack on its northern side, British strategy was based on the presumption that the Japanese would initially land troops on the southeast coast of Thailand (and possibly also in northern Malaya) and then move south.  Since it would be desirable to stop the Japanese advance well north of Singapore this could best be done in the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula, either in the north of Malaya or in southern Thailand. The chief strategic decisions to be made were thus: (i) whether Thailand should be invaded in a pre-emptive move, before any Japanese landings took place, or (ii) when to move army and air forces into northern Malaya or even southern Thailand to engage Japanese forces after they had landed. This biography makes the case that given the limited forces available a Japanese attack would ultimately be successful no matter who was C-in-C at the time. 

With the increasing likelihood of a Japanese attack, the British Government in early November 1941 decided that ‘an army officer with more recent experience of fighting’ should replace Brooke-Popham. However, on 8th December 1941 (two weeks before Brooke-Popham’s replacement arrived) the Japanese Army launched an amphibious assault, landing (as anticipated) along the SE coast of Thailand and northern Malaya.  Brooke-Popham was slow to respond both before and after the landing.  When a counter-attack was launched it was possible to slow the Japanese advance but, in the absence of air superiority and sufficient ground forces, the Japanese advance could not be stopped.  By the time Brooke-Popham left for Britain in early January 1942 the Japanese had conquered the whole of Northern Malaya but it would still take them more than a month to occupy Singapore island.

The author, Peter Dye, served in the Royal Air Force for over 35 years and was awarded the OBE for his work in support of the Jaguar Force during the First Gulf War, retiring as an Air Vice-Marshal. The book is well written and clearly reflects the author’s own experience in air warfare and joint air-ground operations. Having said all that, one unfortunate (in my view) feature of the book is the purely gratuitous (but thankfully, only occasional) use of American rank designations (“one-star”, “three-star” etc). Indeed, these terms are sometimes to be found in the same paragraph as the more usual ‘British’ rank designations (“Air Commodore”, “Air Marshall”, etc)!

The book has 16 pages of B&W photographs, three very useful maps, 88 pages of (easy to find) footnotes together with a 26-page bibliography and an index.  One photo that appears in the book is especially fascinating. It has the caption ‘A B.E.2 aircraft parades in front of General Horace Smith-Dorrien, Salisbury Plain, June 1914’. The photograph is taken from behind a group of high-ranking army officers all seated on horses watching a biplane flying (parading) at a very low-level from left to right in front of them. This one remarkable photograph captures very well the meeting of the past and the future of warfare immediately prior to the First World War.

The RUSI VIC would like to thank the publishers  for their kindness in providing a review copy.