In 1918 the Japanese approached the Royal Navy with interest to obtain information regarding the new British aircraft carriers. At the time Japan was close allies of Britain, however the Admiralty refused – they wanted to keep their plans for this new technology secret. Unfortunately for the Admiralty the Air Ministry and the Foreign Office thought otherwise, they believed if help was given there was a potential for money to be made.
William Forbes-Sempill was sent to Japan in 1920 to front a civilian mission to assist the Japanese with their aircraft carrier projects. When the Mission was over Sempill returned to Britain, the mission was a huge success for Japan, who now had a potential worldwide reach. This alarmed the USA, who voiced their concerns at the Washington Conference of 1922; this led to the Anglo-Japanese alliance being terminated.
Now Japan needed somebody to train their pilots on their new carrier. Luckily for them Frederick Joseph Rutland made himself available. Rutland had risen through the ranks to become squadron leader of the Eagle – he was one of the best carrier pilots Britain had – he was even awarded the Albert Medal. But, as recorded in a MI5 statement two decades later Rutland believed there would be no more wars, so he left the service and moved to Japan where he started working for the Japanese government designing planes and training pilots.
When Sempill returned to Britain he didn’t stop communicating with his contacts in Japan. Sempill tried to gain information from British carrier designer Sir Tennyson d’Eyncourt and Air vice Marshall Sir Charles Vyvan with little effect, unknown to Sempill MI5 were already onto him. MI5 had carefully been monitoring Sempill by tapping his phone and intercepting letters he had been sending to Teijirō Toyoda, who the MI5 believed to be Sempill’s handler, MI5 also believed Sempill was getting paid by the Japanese. Sempill was questioned by MI5 in May 1926, and with Sempill not admitting to the evidence MI5 had covertly gained it left MI5 in a tricky position, luckily for them they had information from a witness that revealed Sempill had spoken openly about a secret project named the Iris, therefore breaking the Official Secrets Act – despite all this it was decided not to prosecute Sempill.
Thanks to help from Sempill and Rutland Japan made developments in naval aviation they could have only wished for, they now had a carrier fleet equal to the Royal Navy, Japan made plans for their future invasion of British Malaya by planting spies from Penang to Singapore to gather intelligence.
In 1931 Japan’s war begun – they invaded Chinese Manchuria, Britain’s response to this worrying movement in the Pacific was to spend £50 million on turning Singapore into the largest and most fortified naval base in the world, in today’s money costing £2.5 billion. Unfortunately for the British it was discovered a year later that one of the Japanese spies operating in the area brought plans of the new base off a British serviceman named Roberts.
By 1936 British strategists believed any attack on Singapore would come by sea, however British Army Intelligence Officer Joe Vinden believed otherwise, he thought if Singapore were to be invaded, a land invasion via Malaya would be more logical, he even predicted a landing place – Korta Bharu. But his advice to the British government that money should be spent on new planes instead of the on-going fortification of Singapore was ignored.
In 1934 Sempill inherited the family title as the 19th Lord Sempill and took his seat in the House of Lords as a conservative. He was also President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and when war broke out in 1939 he joined Winston Churchill as a member of the Admiralty. Although Sempill said he would stop discussing secret matters with the Japanese, his actions suggested otherwise when Satoru Makahara – the manager of Mitsubishi was arrested in London in 1941 for spying Sempill assisted in the release of him.
In 1941 the Placentia Bay Meeting took place as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met face to face for the first time with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board HMS Prince of Wales. It was in Churchill’s interest to influence Roosevelt to join the war.
Shortly after, a document that was classified for 60 years reveals that code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted a message from the Japanese Embassy in London which was sent to Tokyo with a detailed account of the meet, It was sent straight to Churchill’s desk – Churchill commented “pretty accurate stuff” on the paper, to this day the spy is unknown. MI5 came up with two names – one was Commander McGrath and the other was Sempill. It was decided that Sempill was to leave his job, it was only when Churchill heard this, then he decided to keep Sempill within the Royal Admiralty.
On the 7th December 1941 two Japanese fleets headed in different directions, one headed towards Pearl Harbour, the other headed for British Malaya. Like Joe Vinden suggested the Japanese fleet landed at Korta Bharu, Churchill believed if Allied troops could hold off the Japanese temporarily, American reinforcements from Pearl harbour would arrive soon. Two hours later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Britain sent what few ships they had stop the invasion force, but as they had no air support, the Japanese air force bombed the fleet sinking HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. The same day Sempill was caught on the telephone to the Japan Embassy! His office was searched and Admiralty files which he was not supposed to have were found, despite all this he was not charged.
Singapore fell on the 15th February 1942. 100,000 troops were taken prisoner. Back in the House of Commons, during a secret session MPs demanded an enquiry to explain how this happened. Churchill refused. Rutland was eventually deported to Britain, where he ended up killing himself. Simpill ended up in Scotland still working for the Royal Admiralty. He died in 1965. Despite everything he was never charged.
Source – BBC – The Fall of Singapore: The Great Betrayal link