Japanese offensives 1941-1942
Japanese conquest of South-East Asia
author Paul Boșcu, January 2019
After Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched a series of attacks against Allied strongholds in South-East Asia and the Pacific. British Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong, Wake Island, the Dutch East-Indies and others were attacked and occupied by Japanese forces.
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.

Many Japanese welcomed the war, which they believed offered their country its only honorable escape from beleaguerment. But it would be mistaken to imagine Japanese society as a monolith. Lt. Gen. Kuribayashi Tadamichi, who had spent two years in the United States, wrote to his wife asserting his strong opposition to challenging so mighty a foe on the battlefield: ‘Its industrial potential is huge, and its people are energetic and versatile. One must never underestimate the Americans’ fighting ability.’

No one except the Japanese Army found much to remember fondly about the major campaigns that conquered Malaya and the Philippines, both hopelessly isolated by Japanese air and naval supremacy.

Japan’s 1941-42 successes against feeble Western resistance caused both sides to overrate the power of Hirohito’s nation. Just as Germany was not strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union, Japan was too weak to sustain its Asian conquests unless the West chose to acquiesce in early defeats. But this, like so much else, is more readily apparent today than it was seventy years ago, in the midst of Japanese triumphs.

The cultural chasm between foes was exposed when British troops surrendered. They expected the mercy customarily offered by European armies, even those of the Nazis; instead, they were stunned to see their captors killing casualties incapable of walking, often also unwounded men and civilians. The teenage daughter of a Chinese teacher who brought food to an Argyll officer in his jungle hiding place in Malaya one day left a note in English for him about the Japanese: ‘They took my father and cut off his head. I will continue to feed you as long as I can.’

Within hours of the Pearl Harbor strike, the Japanese armed forces began six months of conquest that brought them to the gates of India and the sea approaches to Australia and Hawaii. The smaller objectives (measured by both geography and the size of the defense forces) fell quickly: Hong Kong, Guam, New Britain Island with its natural harbor of Rabaul, Bougainville and Buka with coastal plains for airfields in the northern Solomons, and the Gilbert Islands.

After the fall of Singapore, the myth of the British moral right to rule disappeared forever in Asia and Africa. Australia thereafter assumed that only the United States could be counted on to defeat Japan or any other Asian enemy. For the Japanese, it was the most thrilling of many exciting victories in 1942, for Britain had always been the hated and feared father of Japanese modernity.

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.

The detailed military plans to implement this program had been carefully worked out in the fall of 1941, but while they included careful schedules for the offensive operations, they were totally deficient in two critical ways: there was no agreed plan for going forward thereafter if the planned conquest succeeded; and there was no plan to go back if it failed. The Japanese assumed that their war would end when it had reached the perimeter of their newly-won empire. But there was never any prospect of this happening; had there ever been one, they had themselves eliminated it with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The calculation that the Americans would never expend the blood and resources necessary to reconquer for others a whole host of islands and other places most of them had never heard of, and did not care about if they had, was invalidated by the way in which the Japanese had started war with the United States.

The decision to include war with the United States as a part of the move south was related to the belief that it was simply not safe to bypass the Philippines; and since the Japanese did not believe they could wait until the Americans left those islands in 1946, as the latter had already decided to do, those islands had to be invaded. Conquered by Japan, they would themselves provide an excellent base for the invasion of the Dutch East Indies and a fine station along the route into the southern empire.

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.

Wake Island, a key position in the central Pacific, was initially defended, with the Americans successfully beating off the first Japanese landing attempt with heavy losses; but a relief attempt from Hawaii was bungled, and a second Japanese assault succeeded in overwhelming and capturing the island. The other American holdings within reach of the Japanese also fell. Guam, the largest island in the Marianas, was practically undefended and was occupied quickly.

Wake Island was the US naval aviation outpost 2,000 miles west of Hawaii and defended by a marine fighter squadron and part of a defense battalion. The military garrison also received some assistance from a civilian work force of 1,200. Unlike its obfuscation of the Pearl Harbor defeat, the Roosevelt administration stirred public opinion with tales of marine gallantry: ‘Remember Wake Island’ joined ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ as a rallying cry.

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.

The British garrison staged a five-day fighting retreat from the mainland portion of the territory to the island of Victoria, on which the Japanese unleashed a nighttime landing. A week's bitter and bloody fighting followed, and by Christmas the surviving British, Canadian and Indian troops had to surrender. Here, as on Wake and Bataan, a garrison with little hope of relief had fought hard and effectively against an experienced but not very capably led opponent.

Hong Kong provided the staunchest defense of the British possessions during the week of 9-15 December, when almost half the Commonwealth troops became casualties.

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.

The onset of war inflicted as devastating a cultural shock as it did upon Pearl Harbor. Each society around the world which found itself overtaken by the contagion of violence responded with initial disbelief, even when logic had been proclaiming its inevitability from the rooftops.

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.’

In his memoirs Churchill described his feelings when the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, reported the news to him over the telephone: ‘In all the war I never received a more direct shock. The reader of these pages will realize how many efforts, hopes, and plans foundered with these two ships. As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.’

Before the battlecruiser Repulse left Singapore with the battleship Prince of Wales, to seek Japanese amphibious shipping, there was a dance on the great ship’s after-deck. Off eastern Malaya, Captain William Tennant told his crew: ‘We are going to carry out a sweep to the northwards to see what we can pick up and what we can roar up. We must all be on our toes … I know the old ship will give a good account of itself … Life-saving gear is to be worn or carried … not because I think anything is going to happen to the ship – she is much too lucky.’

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.

In two weeks the northwestern British portion of the island with its great resources was taken over; many of the oil installations had been destroyed by the British themselves, but not so effectively as to deny them to the Japanese for long. In January, Japanese forces seized key points in Dutch Borneo and completed the conquest of the island by mid-February. Here, too, the oil installations though damaged were repairable.

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 main defense point was the naval base at Singapore which, it was assumed, would provide — as naval bases generally should — a base for a navy to defend the area. But there was no navy and, until the last moment, none was expected. Since the navy was busy in the waters off Europe, dealing with the Germans, a series of major airfields had been constructed so that the area with its important naval base could be defended by units of the Royal Air Force. But under the pressures of war in Europe and North Africa, the air force had not received the planes to defend and operate from the airports.

The army, in turn, faced the preposterous task of defending airfields and a naval base located at opposite ends of the 3oo-mile-long peninsula with no tanks, practically no anti-tank weapons, and the widely held assumption that the Japanese were inferior and incompetent. In the event, these assumptions would prove to be very wrong.

The major operation planned for the contingency of war under these circumstances was a move called ‘Matador’ into the adjacent portion of Thailand where the Japanese, it was correctly assumed, would land and from which they were expected to mount their major thrust into Malaya. The unit prepared for this operation was never given the order to carry out ‘Matador’, in part because of concern over Thai neutrality and provoking the Japanese, in part because of a level of hesitation and confusion in the headquarters in Singapore at the beginning of the war.

With an unfortunate lack of operational insight, the British senior commanders, Air Chief Marshal Sir H. R. Brooke-Popham of the Royal Air Force and Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, decided to defend everywhere. Their critical weakness was a lack of combat aircraft that could match the Japanese. Instead of holding only Johore and Singapore, the British tried to provide some protection for all of Malaya’s Europeans and their economic assets and, with less commitment, the Malayan and Chinese population.

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.

Detailed plans were worked out for a series of landings in southern Thailand and northern Malaya by the Japanese 25th Army commanded by General Yamashita Tomoyuki, whose three divisions were to carry out the operation. With Japanese naval air forces concentrated on the Hawaii attack, army air forces based on French Indo-China would carry the primary burden of beating down the British air and naval forces, thereafter operating from the British-built airports in north Malaya once the landing army units had seized them.

In planning the Malayan campaign, General Yamashita and his staff counted on air and naval superiority to compensate for the Twenty-Fifth Army’s numerical inferiority, which was exacerbated by a lack of transport shipping and a failure to bring army units to full wartime strength. With his initial assault force reduced to the equivalent of half his four-division army, Yamashita chose to give the Commonwealth forces a death of a thousand cuts, staging multiple landings in northern Malaya, then working his way down the peninsula to Singapore while his army strength increased.

Army and naval aviation squadrons, supplemented by the two navy task forces that included carriers and battleships, would isolate Singapore from reinforcements. Yamashita had confidence that his infantrymen, supported by light tanks and artillery, would demonstrate their physical fitness and training against any sort of Commonwealth force, especially the Indians.

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.

Conventional British military thinking held that Singapore was safe from a northern attack because the 500 miles of dense jungle and rubber plantations of central Malaya were impassable by tanks. The British Governor of Singapore is alleged to have told the British commander in Malaya, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, ‘Well, I suppose you’ll see the little men off.’ Percival also had more artillery and shells and many more troops than Yamashita, and Admiral Sir Tom Phillips’ Force Z, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with destroyer escorts, had all arrived in Singapore harbor.

Churchill had made a brutal and probably inescapable decision to concentrate the best of the Empire’s forces in the Middle East. The air defense of Malaya mustered just 145 aircraft. The obsolescence of most of these aircraft was less significant than the overwhelming superiority of Japanese pilots in experience and proficiency to those of the Allies.

When the Japanese began to land at Kota Bharu, the defenders’ response was limp. It was some hours before local RAF commanders bestirred themselves to launch strikes against the invasion fleet. When they did so, British and Australian planes, along with the shoreline defenders, inflicted over a thousand casualties. Not all the invading troops showed themselves heroes: a Japanese officer described how ‘one section of non-commissioned officers of the Independent Engineers had … become panic-stricken at the enemy’s bombing. Without orders from the troop leader, they boarded the large motor boats … and retreated to the open sea off Saigon.’

Duff Cooper, British resident minister in the Far East, wrote to Churchill about Britain’s military commander in Malaya, Arthur Percival: ‘a nice, good man … calm, clear-headed and even clever. But he cannot take a large view; it is all a field day at Aldershot to him. He knows the rules so well and follows them so closely and is always waiting for the umpire’s whistle to signal ceasefire and hopes that when the moment comes his military dispositions will be such as to receive approval.’

The Japanese could exploit almost absolute command of sea and air. When Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita’s forces met stubborn resistance at Kampar in central Malaya, he simply launched a new amphibious landing to outflank the defenders. The British were confounded by bold Japanese use of tanks, against which the defenders lacked even Molotov cocktails. Yamashita’s three divisions, though heavily outnumbered, displayed an aggression and energy of which their opponents were bereft.

‘The Jitra line was penetrated in about fifteen hours by barely five hundred men,’ Col. Masanobu Tsuji wrote contemptuously. In that action, he reported Japanese casualties of only twenty-seven killed and eighty-three wounded. ‘The enemy retreated leaving behind as souvenirs about fifty field guns, fifty heavy machine-guns, three hundred trucks and armored cars, and provisions for a division for three months. Over 3,000 men surrendered having thrown away their arms in panic and taken refuge in the jungle … The majority of these were Indian soldiers.’

At an early stage, discipline collapsed in parts of Percival’s army, in a fashion evidenced by the looting of Kuala Lumpur by fleeing soldiers. Counterattacks, a vital element of any successful defense, were seldom pressed. Most Indian units were composed of young and poorly-trained soldiers. Whatever else Percival’s subordinates lacked, they displayed considerable courage, reflected in a high loss rate among British officers striving by example to keep Indian troops fighting. In this, they were seldom successful.

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.

The collapse of morale among the defenders ashore was also shattering. Throughout January 1942, the Commonwealth forces retreated steadily, with the Johore Line 25 miles from Singapore. Then this line was also breached. The Straits of Johore were only a mile wide, and the north coast of Singapore island was poorly defended. The remaining Commonwealth troops on the mainland, outfought and exhausted, crossed over to the island and destroyed as much of the causeway link as they could. It was another sign of poor British planning that no preparations had been made for a siege of the island itself.

Some units, notably including a battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, acquitted themselves well. But isolated stands were of little value when Japanese who met resistance repeatedly outflanked the defenders by infiltration through jungle deemed impassable by the British.

In the northern jungle, again and again British units were confounded by fast-moving Japanese. The 1/14th Punjabis were surprised by enemy tanks while sheltering from torrential rain in their vehicles; their accompanying anti-tank guns had no time to unlimber. ‘Suddenly I saw some of my trucks and a carrier screaming down the flooded road and heard the hell of a battle,’ wrote their commander, Lt. Peter Greer. ‘The din was terrific … almost immediately a medium tank roared past me. I dived for cover … within the next two minutes a dozen medium tanks … passed me … They had crashed right through our forward companies … I saw one of my carriers; its tail was on fire and the Number Two was facing back firing his light machine-gun at a tank twenty yards behind me. Poor beggar.’ The Punjabis’ survivors scattered and never reassembled.

The invaders flung themselves into jungle warfare with gusto, and also proved enthusiastic and adept at hand-to-hand fighting. There was no particular reason why the Japanese should have excelled at jungle warfare in the early days; the fighting in China had not taken place in jungles, nor are there any in Japan. Yet they were trained for fighting there in a way the Commonwealth troops were not.

The energetic Japanese forces drove forward, out-flanking British roadblocks and periodically surrounding and destroying such strong points as the defenders clung to. Steadily driven back, the British units also began to lose heart. This situation was not remedied by the reinforcements sent to assist them. In the mistaken belief that parts of Malaya and Singapore might still be held, air reinforcements were sent in only to be used up quickly in battle; in addition, large numbers of army units - British, Indian, and Australian - often made up of barely trained soldiers, poured into the battle through Singapore harbor.

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’.

In a series of short but bloody battles in the second and third weeks of January 1942, the Japanese broke the major British defenses in northern Johore province, the last important line that could protect the fortress. The remaining British forces then retreated to the island, blew up the causeway connecting it to the mainland, and awaited the final Japanese blow. When Japanese infantry assaulted across the straits, they quickly gained footholds which they rapidly expanded.

Captain Norman Thorpe, a Derbyshire Territorial serving in the Sherwood Foresters, described his curious sense of detachment from the catastrophe unfolding around him: ‘I myself only feel mildly excited and hardly feel it concerns me.’ When Thorpe led a counterattack, he found that only a handful of his men followed him forward; the little party’s advance was soon crushed.

As it became plain that Singapore would be lost, the commanding officer of the naval base, Rear-Admiral Jack Spooner, wrote bitterly: ‘The present state of affairs was started by the AIF [Australian Imperial Forces] who just turned tail, became a rabble, and let the Japs walk in unopposed.’ A disconsolate Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett, commanding 8th Australian Division, told one of his officers: ‘I don’t think the men want to fight.’ He himself anyway did not, catching a plane which took him home in twelve days. And if the Australians performed poorly, so did British units, reflecting a collapse of will throughout Percival’s command.

The Japanese were no more merciful to those who quit than to those who resisted. Corporal Tsuchikane described his bewilderment at encountering enemies who hoped to save themselves by mere inertia: ‘Having lost their nerve, some soldiers were simply cowering in terror, squatting down and avoiding hand-to-hand combat in a wait-and-see position. They, too, were bayoneted or shot without mercy.’

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.

Because more than £60 million had been spent on fortifying it in the 1920s, it ‘seemed to double-lock the gateway of the British Empire so that it was useless for an unfriendly rival power, such as Japan, to dream of forcing an entrance’. This was certainly true of the seaward approaches, which were guarded by huge naval guns set in deep bunkers. But these were fixed in concrete and could not be – or at least were not – adapted to face the landward side, from where it soon became clear that the Japanese attack was going to come. The French were not the only ones to adopt a Maginot Line mentality.

Vast numbers of Japanese planes operating at first from southern Indo-China but subsequently from captured airfields in northern Malaya won the all-important air superiority. British intelligence reports proved inaccurate, and the two Indian divisions, one Australian division and smaller British units were ineffectually led. Without a pause, the Japanese assaulted the north of the island in armor-plated barges – a further indication of their excellent Staff work – rebuilt the causeway and sent tanks across it. Counterattacks were broken up by Japanese dive bombing.

‘In some units the troops have not shown the fighting spirit which is to be expected of men of the British Empire,’ read Percival’s covering note to senior officers attached to the Order of the Day for 11 February. ‘It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters many times inferior in numbers to our own.’ The Japanese were not gangsters for using little conventional transport, attacking without large-scale artillery support, and pushing as far and fast ahead as possible, but they were clever. They had learned the central lesson of the war so far: that Blitzkrieg and boldness worked.

Churchill cabled Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Allied forces in the region, to say that since the Singapore garrison outnumbered the Japanese: ‘in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon [in the Philippines], the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.’ Racial honor was one thing, the facts on the ground in Singapore quite another, but it is clear that Hitler was not the only leader of a great power to issue ‘Stand or die’ orders during the Second World War, although this was easily the harshest Churchill ever gave.

‘This retreat seems fantastic,’ wrote the commander of the Australian troops, General Gordon Bennett, on his way back to Singapore. ‘Fancy 550 miles in 55 days – chased by a Jap army on stolen bikes, without artillery. It was a war of patrols. All that happened was that they patrolled outside our resistance [capabilities] and sat on a road behind us. Thinking we were cut off, we retreated… Never felt so sad and upset. Words fail me.’

Morale was wretchedly low, and fell further as engineers began demolitions in the naval dockyard. Belated efforts were made to evacuate dependants to the Dutch East Indies. Over 5,000 people sailed amidst scenes of chaos, panic and sometimes violence at the dockside, as military deserters sought to force a passage. Barely 1,500 of the refugees eventually reached the safety of India or Australia. Almost every ship approaching or leaving Singapore faced the ordeal of Japanese air attack.

A pall of smoke from burning oil tanks hung over the city, while military police used their rifles as clubs to drive back panic-stricken men, often drunk, from the last departing ships. A subsequent British report lambasted the Australians: ‘Their conduct was bestial.’ By that stage, such remarks merely reflected a search for scapegoats. At Wavell’s last meeting with Malaya’s governor before flying out to Batavia, he said again and again, thumping his knee with his fist, ‘It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.’

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 Malays swiftly made their peace with the Japanese, who promised them independence and freedom within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Yet it was not long before the Japanese military police, the notorious Kempeitai, began carrying out executions of Malay Chinese whom they considered untrustworthy.

A sign of how disillusioned the Indians were with the British can be seen in the fact that, of the 55,000 Indians taken prisoner by the Japanese in Singapore, 40,000 volunteered to fight for the India National Army, the pro-Japanese force commanded by Subhas Chandra Bose.

The Japanese suffered only 9,824 casualties during the whole campaign. Percival had lost only 7,500 casualties in the campaign, but when he surrendered to the much smaller force led by Tomoyuki Yamashita he also lost the respect of the Japanese, who thought his soldiers cowards for having given up so easily. A campaign that the Japanese General Staff had started planning as late as January 1941 had laid low an island fortress that had for decades and at immense cost been readied to withstand attack and siege.

The German Staff had estimated that the capture of Singapore would take five and a half divisions and eighteen months; Yamashita had achieved it with two divisions in less than two months. In London, shortly before the surrender, accepting the likelihood of defeat in Singapore, Churchill had told the War Cabinet that Britain was ‘In for a rough time – Smashing blows – [but we shall] not come out bust – No gloom or disheartenment… Screw down rations – Eat into reserves of food – Army at home [must] brace themselves.’ Yet Singapore was not about to become another Leningrad.

At Singapore more than on any other British battlefield, a chasm was revealed between the prime minister’s heroic vision of the Empire at war and the response of its fighting men. Percival’s soldiers had lost confidence in their leaders and in themselves. They lacked any appetite for the fight to the death he wanted. There was a matching unwillingness among their superiors to use extreme measures to enforce discipline.

Some Australian deserters forced their way at gunpoint aboard a refugee ship. When these men were arrested and imprisoned on Batavia, British officers wanted to shoot them. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin signalled Wavell, insisting that any death sentence imposed on his citizens must be authorised by Canberra, as of course it would not be. Even at this dire moment of the Empire’s fortunes, a squeamishness persisted which reflected Western values, but did scant service to the Allied cause.

For Singaporeans, after more than a century of colonial rule, the revelation of its frailty changed everything. Lim Kean Siew, eighteen-year-old son of a Chinese notable, wrote: ‘The heavens had indeed opened for us. From a languid, lazy and lackadaisical world, we were catapulted into a world of somersaults and frenzy from which we would never recover.’ Likewise Lee Kuan Yew, who as an eighteen-year-old student at Raffles College watched the British enter captivity: ‘I saw them tramping along the road in front of my house for three solid days, an endless stream of bewildered men who did not know what had happened, why it had happened or what they were doing here in Singapore in any case.’

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.

Savoring Japanese victory, Maj. Gen Imai, Chief of Staff of the Imperial Guards Division, said to captive Indian Army Maj. Gen. Billy Key: ‘We Japanese have captured Malaya and Singapore. Soon we will have Sumatra, Java and the Philippines. We do not want Australia. I think it is time for your British Empire to compromise. What else can you do?’ Key replied defiantly: ‘We can drive you back. We will eventually occupy your country. This is what we can do.’ The Japanese seemed unconvinced, because the battlefield performance of Britain’s forces in Malaya had been so pitiful. Yamashita and his officers celebrated victory.

Col. Masanobu Tsuji, one of the Japanese army’s foremost and most brutal militarists, gazed with contempt upon British and Australian prisoners, who had so easily allowed themselves to be defeated: ‘Groups of them were squatting on the road smoking, talking and shouting in rather loud voices. Strangely enough, however, there was no sign whatever of hostility in their faces. Rather was there an expression of resignation such as is shown by the losers in fierce sporting contests … The British soldiers looked like men who had finished their work by contract at a suitable salary, and were now taking a rest free from the anxiety of the battlefield.’

MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary that Singapore’s surrender ‘has been a terrific blow to all of us. It is not only the immediate dangers … It is dread that we are only half-hearted in fighting the whole-hearted.’ Churchill agreed.

Churchill was disgusted by the poor British showing in Malaya not merely because defeat was bitter, but because the Japanese won so much at such small cost. In a December 1941 strategy paper for the Anglo-American leaderships, he had asserted: ‘It is of the utmost importance that the enemy should not acquire large gains cheaply; that he should be compelled to nourish his conquests and be kept extended – and kept burning his resources.’ The British forces’ conspicuous failure to fulfil this objective was gall and wormwood to the prime minister.

‘We had cause on many previous occasions to be uneasy about the fighting qualities of our men,’ wrote Gen. Sir John Kennedy, director of military operations at the War Office. ‘They had not fought as toughly as the Germans or Russians, and now they were being outclassed by the Japanese … We were undoubtedly softer, as a nation, than any of our enemies, except the Italians … Modern civilization on the democratic model does not produce a hardy race, and our civilization … was a little further removed from the stage of barbarity than were the civilizations of Germany, Russia and Japan.’

The subsequent analysis of the disaster in Malaya prepared in the British War Office in 1942 suggests that underestimation of the Japanese, lack of aggressive leadership, inadequate armaments, the constant splitting of divisions and even smaller units in battle, and the piecemeal tossing of reinforcements into battle all contributed to defeat.

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.

Masanobu Tsuji, who later wrote several books celebrating the Japanese army’s achievements, was a prime mover in its Malayan atrocities. Neither did General Yamashita have clean hands. It was sometimes asserted that Yamashita’s post-war execution for war crimes was unjustified, but the general was never even indicted for the systematic massacres of Chinese which took place at Singapore under his command. Yamashita once delivered a speech in which he asserted that, while his own people were descended from gods, Europeans were descended from monkeys. Allied racism in South-East Asia was now eclipsed by that of the Japanese.

On Java, Lt. Col. Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, an Australian surgeon, dismissed a parade of his men after they had been inspected and addressed by a certain Lt. Sumiya: ‘I moved to the Nipponese officer, saluting. To my astonishment, he swung a “haymaker” which hit me heavily on the jaw. I narrowly avoided being felled by moving my head back a little … Lt. Sumiya ripped out his sword and lunged at my throat with a deadly tigerish thrust. I avoided the point with a boxer’s reflexes, but the haft hit my larynx with a sickening thud and I could not temporarily breathe or speak. The troops muttered angrily and began moving forward. The guards levelled their rifles and thrust their bayonets menacingly towards them. The scene was tense with the impending massacre. I put my left hand towards my troops, motioning “Don’t move!”, and then turned to the officer, gave a coldly formal bow … I stood to attention too coldly furious to flinch, whilst he swung the sword about my head, fanning my ears and bellowing loudly.’ In the years that followed, Dunlop and his comrades suffered many worse beatings, and thousands died of disease and starvation. The Australian surgeon became an acknowledged hero of the terrible experience of Japanese captivity.

The ordinary people of the Philippines, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and Burma were unlikely to have heard of the horrors of the rape of Nanking when rampaging Japanese soldiers murdered over 200,000 civilians. But they now received visual instruction on their own home territory. The use of military and civilian prisoners for bayonet practice and assorted other cruelties provided the people of Southeast Asia with a dramatic lesson on the new meaning of Bushido, the code of the Japanese warrior.

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.

Vastly more important than the endless diplomatic discussions about Portuguese Timor was the core issue: could the Allies defend the key island of Java against the Japanese? With the Japanese holding air superiority, this was primarily a question of naval power.

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.

Within days of the fall of Singapore, the Japanese struck out for the East Indies and its precious oil, their foremost strategic objective. From the Palau islands, invasion convoys sailed for Sarawak, Borneo and Java, supported by overwhelmingly powerful naval forces. The Allied defenders were weak, demoralised and ill-coordinated.

Doorman’s force of five cruisers and ten destroyers had not worked in tandem and had no tactical doctrine or common communications system, but it nonetheless attacked Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi’s faster, larger, more modern force of four cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The first exchanges did little damage, for both sides’ shooting was poor. The cruiser Exeter suffered serious damage from a shell which struck in its boiler room, and limped towards the safety of Surabaya. At 1800, the American destroyer contingent quit the squadron on its own initiative, having expended all its torpedoes.

The next encounter, after darkness fell, proved disastrous for the Allies: the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java were sunk by torpedoes, and Admiral Doorman perished with many of his sailors. Perth and Houston escaped, only to meet the main Japanese invasion fleet next night in the Sunda Strait, where both were sunk. After two days, Exeter and two escorting destroyers were caught and sunk attempting to make a break for Ceylon, while one Dutch and two more American destroyers were lost on passage to Australia.

Though fighting with incredible stamina, the Allied naval force was simply no match for the larger, more numerous, and in part more modern Japanese naval forces escorting the invasion transports for Java. In the Battle of the Java Sea, the Japanese literally destroyed the Allied fleet in a series of engagements.

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.

The main landings on Java took place on the 1st of March, and after a week the remaining Dutch, British, Australian, and American soldiers on Java had to surrender. By this date, 8 March, the Japanese had also attained a number of other objectives from their initial plan. They had landed on the north and east coast of New Guinea (the towns of Lae and Salamaua were seized) and, striking south from their bases in the Mariana and Caroline Islands, had moved into the Admiralty Islands, the Northern Solomons, and, perhaps most important, into the Bismarck Archipelago which included at the eastern end of the island of New Britain the best harbor and most important base in the area: Rabaul.

With the easy occupation of the Gilbert Islands, this series of barely contested victories gave the Japanese the southern and southeastern anchors of their projected defense perimeter, placed them in an excellent position to threaten Australia, and did so at what looked like very little cost to themselves.

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.

Run for years on prestige, minimal military commitment, small budgets and an element of bluster, the colonial territories of South-East Asia also suffered from poor infrastructure, long lines of communication with the metropolitan centers, plenty of invadable beaches, and nationalist local independence movements. A powerfully aggressive militarist nation of seventy-three million, with bases in Formosa (present-day Taiwan) and Indo-China, was eager to wrest power from them.

The various sections of the new Japanese Empire had very little in common with one another, as was displayed with sublime irony in November 1943 when General Tojo presided over a conference in Tokyo of the prime ministers of all the puppet governments in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The leaders took it in turns to praise the freedom that Japan had promised their countries from the evil Western imperialists, but as there was only one language common to all of them, the proceedings had to be conducted in English.

The strategic imperative that led to serious disagreements between London and Canberra can be summed up in the pre-war phrase of the Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who pointed out that ‘What Great Britain calls the Far East is to us the near north.’ Although not a single Australian politician spoke against the declaration of war on Germany, an increasing number came to resent what looked like Britain’s prioritizing of herself over Australia. New Zealand, which was not attacked by Japan as Australia was, nonetheless had a proportionately higher level of enlistment than any other Allied country except Russia and Britain.

A less tangible thing had come with the rapid Japanese conquests: a sense among the British and Americans that the Japanese seemed to be unbeatable. This new view endowed the Japanese with superhuman endurance and ingenuity. The American and Australian soldiers would get over this new set of ideas as they slugged it out with the Japanese army on Guadalcanal and New Guinea in the second half of 1942; the British and Indian armies did not recover their self-confidence until the bitter battles in India and Burma in 1944.

As for the Japanese, unwilling to recognize that their conquests had been made possible by the earlier victories of Germany and the ongoing conflict in Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean theaters of war, the Japanese not only celebrated their triumphs over the Allies, but assumed that these were due to the inherent superiority of the Japanese over all others, especially over the weak and decadent Europeans. The Japanese could do anything, could conquer in whatever direction they chose to strike, and most assuredly had no need to think about a compromise peace.

If these were the delusions of the victory disease, their prospect of recovering from it by confronting set-backs rather than triumphs was inhibited by a fundamental flaw in the Japanese military command structure. The militarists had literally shot their way into power by assassinating or threatening to assassinate those who stood in their way within Japan. But they had never worked out a central coordinating command structure of their own. If they could not agree, there was no individual Commander-in-Chief who could decide on one course of action and insist on adherence to that course with every expectation that all would fall into line.

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.

The Japanese people were given a taste of what that would involve when in April 1942 sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew 800 miles to hit Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Kobe and Nagoya, earning their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the Congressional Medal of Honor and promotion to Brigadier-General. The amount of damage, at least in comparison to later bombing raids on those cities, was admittedly minimal, and two captured American pilots were beheaded by the Japanese, but it was a potent augur of what was to come.

By the end of the war, the USA had produced 296,000 aircraft at a cost of $44 billion, 351 million metric tons of aircraft bombs, 88,000 landing craft, 12.5 million rifles and 86,333 tanks. Meanwhile, American shipyards had launched 147 aircraft carriers, 952 warships displacing 14 million tons, and no fewer than 5,200 merchant ships totalling 39 million tons. The total munitions budget from May 1940 to July 1945 alone amounted to $180 billion, or twenty times the entire 1940 defence budget.

The United States’ financial and economic commitment to victory, quite apart from the 14.9 million people she mobilized in her Army, Army Air Force and Navy, was immense. In a gross oversimplification of the contributions made by the three leading members of the Grand Alliance in the Second World War, while Britain had provided the time and Russia the blood necessary to defeat the Axis, it was America that produced the weapons.