Sir Robert Brooke Popham By mya kordic

Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke Popham, or Robert Brooke-Popham as he was known, was an Air Chief Marshal with many different distinguished military roles in his long, eventful career. He was a British military man, with roles representing his country ranging from a commanding officer to the Governor of Kenya. His diverse career and experience led him to be chosen to become the Commander in Chief in the defence of Singapore which then disastrously fell in 1942.

Family Life and Education

Life began for Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham on the 18th of September 1878, in the Suffolk village of Mendlesham, England. His family name was Brooke but he added the ‘Popham’ on the 6th of May in 1904 by royal warrant in memory of an admired ancestor. Robert’s father Henry Brooke, was a country gentlemen of Wetheringsett Manor in Suffolk. His mother Dulcibella, was the daughter of Robert Moore, a clergyman, or a priest.

His education was a nonconforming method of a man entering the British Officer Class. Robert’s school years were spent at Haileybury College, then on to officer training at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst where he was commissioned into the British Army in 1898.

Robert went on to marry Opal Mary in January of 1926, later they welcomed a son and a daughter.

Early Military Career

After Robert’s graduation in May of 1898, he was gazetted to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in the rank of Second Lieutenant and the following year was promoted to Lieutenant on the 24th of November in 1899. As a subaltern, an officer in the British Army below the rank of Captain, he saw active service in the Second Boer War during 1899 and 1900. He was then seconded for further duty in South Africa. During his duty in South Africa he served in the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony and Cape Colony. On the 9th of November in 1904 he was promoted Captain. Robert had returned to Great Britain by 1910, and from the 22nd of January attended the Army Staff College at Camberley.

Timeline of Military Career Before The Fall of Singapore:

  • 1st April 1912 - Pilot, Air Battalion
  • April 1912 - Officer Commanding, Aeroplane Company Air Battalion
  • 13 May 1912 - Seconded for duty with the RFC
  • 20 May 1912 - Officer Commanding , Aeroplane Company Air Battalion
  • 25 Aug 1914 - Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master - General HQ RFC
  • 20 Nov 1914 - Officer Commanding, No 3 Sqn RFC
  • 26 May 1915 - Chief Staff Officer, HQ RFC in France
  • 12 Mar 1916 - Deputy Adjutant and Quatermaster - General HQ RFC in France
  • 9 Oct 1917 - Deputy Quartermaster - General HQ RFC in France
  • 1 April 1918 - Deputy Quatermaster - General HQ RAF in the Field
  • April 1918 - Controller of Aircraft Production
  • 1919 - Director of Research
  • 1 Aug 1919 - Awarded permanent commission as a Colonel (gazetted 22 Aug 1919)
  • 14 Nov 1921- Supernumerary, HQ Inland Area (tasked with formation of RAF Staff College)
  • 1 April 1922 - Commandant RAF Staff College
  • 20 May 1926- AOC, Fighting Area - ADGB
  • 1 Nov 1928 - AOC Iraq Command
  • 18 Oct 1930 - Super Numerary RAF Depot
  • 19 Jan 1931 - Commandant, Imperial Defence College
  • 30 Mar 1933 - AOC in C Air Defence of Great Britain
  • 1 Dec 1933 - Appointed Principal ADC to the King
  • 1 Aug 1935 - Inspector General of the RAF
  • 1935 - AOC in C RAF Middle East
  • 1937 - Governor and C in C Kenya
  • 1939 - Head of RAF Training Mission - Canada
  • 1940 - Head of RAF Training Mission - South Africa

Role During the Fall of Singapore

On the 17th of October Air Chief Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham was called out of retirement by gaining the role of Commander in Chief in the Far East Command. Some agree that his appointment indicated how much influence the war in Europe unfolding took its toll on the British Military’s plans and left them only able to improvise when making arrangements for the Far East.

On the other hand, another reason for his recruitment was said to be his dedicated service as Governor of Kenya which earned him the reputation of having traits that consisted of patience and an individual who was placate and peacemaking. These qualities Robert carried were just as important as his military resume when it came to being the Commander In Chief, they needed someone who could make good decisions and be in control, but also be calm and collected when entering high pressure situations.

When given the role Robert was made responsible for training and operations of ground and air forces from Burma to Hong Kong and coordinating plans.

(L to R) Air Force Marshall Conway Pullford, Major Gen. Arthur E. Percival, Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton discussing manuevers in late 1941

Even though he was given the nickname of “Old Pop-Off”, by fellow colleagues during his time as Commander In Chief for his age and the fact he was prone to fall asleep during meetings, he was known to be “hard and methodical” in the field.

He was said to be “at the bottom of everyone’s priority list” as he received little, as in experienced and well-trained troops or modern equipment, which led to him being unable to be fully prepared to provide adequate defence of Malaya against Japanese troops invasion.

Another factor of the equation that resulted in the Fall of Singapore was Robert’s tainted relationship with Duff Cooper who arrived in Singapore with Cabinet Status, the disagreements between these two men of high stature would not have helped any issues that were already occurring during a disastrous operation.

Robert issued a communique, or statement, that began; “We are ready. We have had plenty of warning and our preparations are made and tested” This message intended to place a reassuring effect on the public , presumably everyone in Singapore believed it.

These words were taken from an order of the day of Sir Robert Brooke-Popham whose “...dithering and complacency contributed significantly to the shambles which Churchill (Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England), later described as ‘the worst disaster and capitulation in British history’.

While this conflict in Singapore was valiantly defended by the Anzacs as well as the British, no matter how hard they fought, they were no match to the equipment and numbers the Japanese had. When the Britain’s Military signed Robert for the occupation, they knew there would not be as many resources for him to use, as they were using them for what they believed was more necessary, European conflict.

Much like other notable military figures, Robert’s rich career, full of memorable, distinguished titles was overlooked by many after he was said to be responsible for failing to defend Singapore leading to the infamous Fall of the Nation, one of the worst defeats in British Military History. I admire his efforts in trying to defend Singapore with the little he had, I believe he was in a very unfortunate situation where his needs were left at the bottom of the British Defence’s list with their focus on the conflict in Europe.

Much like the crumpling relationship between the British and Singapore, Robert Brooke-Popham’s tarnished relationship with his own team perhaps led to Singapore falling so exceedingly fast and tragically.


  • The Pacific War Online Encyclopaedia - Robert Brooke-Popham
  • Australian Army Campaigns Series - Malaysia Book

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