After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese formulated a two-phase strategy for their conquest of South-East Asia. Hong Kong, Guam and Wake Island were to be captured immediately while troops were landing on the American Philippines and in British Malaya. Then, once the capacity of the Philippines and Malaya to interdict further operations had been neutralized, the Dutch East Indies and Burma would be occupied. Between December 1941 and April 1942, the six aircraft carriers of the First Air Fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor went on to attack Rabaul, Darwin, Colombo and Trincomalee, covering one third of the circumference of the globe and without losing a single ship.
The Japanese launching of war in East Asia was designed to secure control of the resources of Southeast Asia as rapidly as possible. The major objective was a rapid seizure of the Philippines and Malaya as a preparatory step for the conquest of the Dutch East Indies. Combined with an occupation of Burma and the seizure of added portions of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, this new empire would ensure that Japan could both control the resource-producing lands she coveted and have a perimeter of bases from which to defend that empire against any who might try to wrest it from her.
Simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Wake Island, an atoll without natural food or water. Their initial assault was flung back by the American defenders, but a second larger one could not be, and the island was overwhelmed. By the time Wake island had fallen, the Gilbert Islands and Guam had also fallen.
Hours after Pearl Harbor, the British Crown colony of Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese. Forced back to Hong Kong Island, the 15,000 Australian, Indian, Canadian and British defenders held out until Christmas Day. After the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, the invaders launched an orgy of rape and massacre which included nuns and nurses as targets, and saw hospital patients bayoneted in their beds.
Japanese forces violated Thailand’s neutrality and occupied Bangkok, prior to using that country as a springboard to assaulting Burma in phase two of their conquest.
In this period the greatest maritime disaster of the war for the Royal Navy also took place, when both the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse were sunk, with the loss of 840 lives. Sailing southwards along the Malayan coast in the South China Sea without air cover, or even aerial reconnaissance, Z Force came under attack from eighty-eight Japanese planes from southern Indo-China. Less than two hours later the only two effective Allied battleships left in the Pacific were at the bottom. ‘The Prince of Wales is barely distinguishable in smoke and flame,’ recalled a survivor, ‘I can see one plane release a torpedo… It explodes against her bows. A couple of seconds later another explodes amidships and astern.’
The Japanese began landing on the island of Borneo, important both for its location and its great oil resources. Divided between the British and Dutch, the island could not be defended seriously by either, as both had to concentrate what forces they had available on other assignments: the British, on the defense of Singapore; the Dutch, on the protection of the island of Java.
The British controlled certain portions including the island of Singapore as a crown colony, and had worked out a complicated system for directing the affairs of the federated and the non-federated Malay States which made up the rest of the area. Defense arrangements were fully in British hands but were afflicted by a series of contradictions and complications which, but for their tragic implications, would have been considered too far-fetched for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
The Japanese wanted to conquer Malaya for several reasons. It produced rubber and tin which they preferred to control themselves rather than purchase from others; it offered a fine naval base at Singapore; and it opened a route into the Dutch East Indies and into the Indian Ocean. The occupation of southern French Indo-China in the summer of 1941 had provided them with the naval and air bases for this operation as well as the staging ground for the units that were to carry out the invasion of Malaya; in fact, that had been one of Japan's primary reasons for occupying South Indo-China.
The Japanese Twenty-fifth Army, comprising three divisions and a tank group under Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, also landed at the northern tip of Malaya and the Kra Isthmus of southern Thailand. Yamashita’s target was nothing less than the island fortress of Singapore, known as the Gibraltar of the East. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. The Japanese seized the initiative from the moment they landed amphibiously at Kota Bharu near the north-west tip of Malaya and marched south. The British were never able to wrest it back from them.
Because the jungle impeded lateral movement and visibility along a defended front, it made it easy for front-line units to be cut off, and thus favored the offensive over the defensive. All too often the Commonwealth units found themselves outmaneuvered and surrounded, almost before they knew it. It turned out that tanks – of which Percival had almost none – could indeed move through the jungle and rubber plantations. The British found themselves woefully short of anti-tank weaponry. Only six weeks after landing, the Japanese had arrived within sight of Singapore island.
Yamashita’s forces began landing on Singapore Island in darkness, employing a makeshift armada of 150 boats which carried 4,000 men in the first wave, two divisions in all. The British mounted no searchlights, and their artillery scarcely troubled the assault troops. Shellfire quickly severed most phone communications in forward areas, and heavy rain left sodden defenders huddled in their trenches. The Japanese pushed rapidly forward, while demoralised Australian units fell back. The commanding officer of an Australian unit spoke of fugitives from the forward positions who were ‘quite out of control and stated they had had enough’.
Almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight, Singapore was a Royal Navy dockyard, barracks and communications center that had been heavily fortified in the 1920s. In a detailed War Office examination of what went wrong, compiled later that same year, and in subsequent historical estimations, it was judged that Singapore fell because the Commonwealth leaders had underestimated the enemy, displayed lackluster leadership, trained their troops badly, split divisions in battle, used reinforcements in a piecemeal manner, had a divided command structure, showed poor strategic grasp, had heavy commitments in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and had insufficient air cover.
Large numbers of reinforcements continued to be landed in Singapore harbor, almost right up to the surrender. They went straight into captivity, instead of being deployed where they were desperately needed to defend India, Burma and Australia. Most of their stores and equipment was also captured before it could be destroyed. The 130,000 men who surrendered included many local recruits and refugees from the north who had lost the will to fight.
The fall of Singapore was a terrible shock to the British public, and a humiliating defeat for the British Army, even though the British had committed only modest forces for the defense of Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese celebrated their victory, showing nothing but contempt for the British soldiers who had fought so weakly. Java and Sumatra, the largest islands of the Dutch East Indies, were easily overrun after the fall of Singapore. For the moment the British, as well as the Americans, were concentrating on the Germans, but a reckoning with Japan would come.
The Japanese army in its new conquests sustained the tradition of savagery it had established in China, a perversion of virility and warrior spirit which was the more shocking for being institutionalised. Soldiers of all nations, in all wars, are sometimes guilty of atrocities. An important distinction can be made, however, between armies in which acts of barbarism represent a break with regulations and the norm, and those in which they are indulged or even incited by commanders. The Japanese were prominent among the latter.
The Japanese landed forces on the larger islands of the Dutch East Indies: Sumatra, Celebes, and Amboina. To isolate the Allied troops on Java, and to provide a springboard towards Australia, the Japanese also landed on Timor. Since parts of this last island were Portuguese, there was great concern in the German government that Japanese action there could lead Portugal to offer facilities to the Allies on the Portuguese Azores, with very bad results for the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic; but this issue ended up having no significant impact on events. Neither did the lengthy holding out of a small Australian force on the island.
With Malaya and the Philippines now closed down as bases for Allied counterattack, the Japanese could embark on the second phase of their strategy. Sumatra and oil-rich Borneo were captured by mid-February, and Timor fell by the end of the month. Java was protected by a large Allied flotilla under the overall command of the Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman in his flagship RNNS De Ruyter. In the seven-hour battle of the Java Sea – the largest surface naval battle since Jutland in 1916 – and then in subsequent running fights over the next two days, the Allies were comprehensively defeated, with all their cruisers sunk and the enemy landings postponed by only one day.
Java Sea was to be the last significant Japanese naval victory of the Second World War, but since no one knew that at the time, the Dutch, British, Americans and Australians on Java surrendered on the same day that the Japanese landed on the north-east coast of New Guinea, and Rangoon in Burma fell. Two days earlier Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) fell without much resistance and nearly 100,000 Dutch were marched off into a vicious captivity.
Events in the Philippines, Malaya and elsewhere did nothing to damage the new myth about the superhuman Japanese soldier, even though General Douglas MacArthur’s 130,000-strong force in the Philippines fought much better and for much longer than Percival’s had. The colonial powers – American, British, Dutch, Portuguese and Australian – were woefully under-equipped to fight a modern war against a nearby major industrial power like Japan, which already had ten years’ combat experience.
Meeting in Washington in December 1941 and January 1942, US President Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the policy of Germany First sketched out by them would be adhered to. Japan would be allowed breathing-space, but her time would undoubtedly come. When the United States entered the war, she had the world’s seventeenth largest army, smaller than that of Romania. She could put only five properly armed, full-strength divisions into the field, at a time when Germany wielded 180. Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor led to a massive extension of all types of military production. The long-term results were nothing less than war-winning, especially considering the amount shipped to Britain, Russia, China and elsewhere.