In making plans for war, the Japanese coveted the tin and rubber of Malaya. The islands were rich in resources, and nearby Java had badly needed oil. The American embargo had left Japan with enough oil to last through 1944 if consumption was reduced.
Malaya was the victim of inter-service rivalry between the United Kingdom forces assigned to defend it. 15-inch guns and 88,000 men defended the "Gibraltar of the East", but they were undersupplied, only had anti-ship ammunition, and could not turned against the jungle roads. The 158 aircraft of the RAF were based on airstrips that the Army could not defend, and many were obsolete biplanes. The Navy promised that a superior fleet would relieve Singapore, but it was estimated that it would take six months. There was only enough ammunition to fire once every six days if the relief took that long.
This force was attacked the first day of the war, and a landing was made the same day. English Army General Arthur Percival was informed to set up defensive lines, but thought it would be bad for morale. "It would be bad for morale when the Japanese start running all over the island," one of his staff officers replied.
No defense was made to the rear. On December 10, 1941, the Japanese sank the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, The superior fleet sent to be based in Singapore. The superior fleet was sent without air cover, and land based torpedo bombers sank the battleships with 840 dead. Churchill would later write that it was the greatest shock he ever received during the war.
The Japanese had been outnumbered from the start of the campaign. Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army only had 30,000 men, but he had an advantage in aircraft and in quality of his equipment. The Japanese also used superior tactics; they would come from the jungle instead of by sea, as was expected by the British prewar planners.
By January the Japanese were using bicycles to move down the dirt road that connected the rubber plantations. Tanks, which the Army said could not operate in the jungle, started appearing outside Singapore. On February 17, 1942, Percival surrendered. He carried the Union Jack with the white flag of surrender. Unlike Wainwright who expected to return a hated man and returned a hero, Percival was never forgiven by his peers and lived with the stigma of the loss of Singapore for the rest of his life.