It is difficult to grasp how the world turned upside down for the populations of Asia at the end of 1941 and the first three months of 1942, during Japan’s conquest of Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. Within 100 days, the Imperial Japanese Army had humiliated the “white man,” who hitherto was seen as invincible.
Before the Japanese assault, the white man “East of Suez” was seen as a godlike and unfailing figure. After it, he was associated with incompetence, defeat, and humiliation. The (military) prestige upon which his rule of Asia rested and which he had built up over hundreds of years evaporated within days in the drizzling heat of the jungles of Malaya and Burma, and the burning streets of Hong Kong and Singapore.
How did this happen?
After the Imperial Navy’s success at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army turned towards Southeast Asia to secure the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies and to protect the flanks of the burgeoning Japanese Empire and its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
“Once their resources were secure, they envisaged themselves advancing to a line running from the India-Burma border through the Indian Ocean, skirting the East Indies, to New Guinea and the Solomons, up to the Gilbert Islands and on, by way of the Marshalls and Wake Island, to the Aleutians,” Meirion and Susie Harries write in Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army.
The first strike to the Europeans’ prestige would come in December 1941 in Malaya, which the British had dominated since the 18th century. As I laid out in a previous piece (See: “The Fall of Singapore and Railway of Death”), the British high command was suffering from strategic delusions amplified by a vehement belief in their own racial superiority. They underestimated Tomoyuki Yamashita and his crack 25th Army that included the Imperial Guards Division, the ferocious 18th Division made up of coal miners from Kyushu, and the battle-hardened 5th Division just recently dispatched from Shanghai.
In what would be characteristic of Japan’s 100-day Southeast Asian Blitzkrieg, Yamashita and his 36,000 men attacked first, surprised the 85,00 strong enemy and drove the British troops in front of their invasion force all the way down the Malayan peninsular to Singapore. There, in true Clausewitzean fashion, Yamashita strove for one decisive victory in order to avoid a long and drawn out siege and relentlessly attacked the city until it capitulated on February 15, 1942, with 80,000 allied prisoners marched off into captivity. The loss of Singapore constituted the worst defeat in the British Army’s history until now.
However, this is not where it ended.
The same day the Japanese invaded British Malaya (December 8) an amphibious assault force consisting of 52,000 men attacked the prized British colony of Hong Kong. Taken by surprise – Japan had not declared war against the British Empire – the 14,000 British imperial troops had little chance to stop the Japanese onslaught. As George Orwell noted in his essay “In Front of Your Nose”:
For years before the war everyone with knowledge of Far Eastern conditions knew that our position in Hong Kong was untenable and that we should lose it as soon as a major war started. This knowledge, however, was intolerable, and government after government continued to cling to Hong Kong instead of giving it back to the Chinese. Fresh troops were even pushed into it, with the certainty that they would be uselessly taken prisoner, a few weeks before the Japanese attack began. The war came, and Hong Kong promptly fell — as everyone had known all along that it would do.
The garrison capitulated on Christmas Day 1941, and 10,000 allied troops went into Japanese captivity.
After the unexpectedly quick victory at Singapore, the invasion of the Dutch East Indies — modern Indonesia, the principal objective of Japan’s push South — was moved forward by a month. Similar to the Malayan peninsular campaign, the Japanese managed to occupy most of the British and Dutch possessions without larger difficulties within three months after launching their assaults in the middle of December 1941. The short-lived American-British-Dutch-Australian Command suffered its worst naval defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942, which led to the occupation of the entire Netherlands East Indies, including Java, and resulted in the additional capture of 60,000 allied troops by the Japanese.
Farther north, the newly formed 15th Army, commanded by General Shojiro Iida , consisting of the 33rd and 55th divisions, was tasked with capturing British Burma, in part to take control of the country’s natural resources, but also to cut off the Burma Road – a route used by the allied powers to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government with much needed supplies to resist the Japanese onslaught in China – and to protect the flanks of the Japanese forces engaged on the Malayan peninsular.
The invasion began on January 20, 1942 and despite limited supplies and terrain favoring the defense, the 35,000 men of the 15th Army managed to outfight Chinese and British forces, eventually taking Rangoon on March 8 and cutting off the Burma Road – China’s only lifeline to the allies. The British military commander, General William Slim admitted: “Our ignorance of Japanese movements was profound.” The entire First Burma Corps only had one intelligence officer who could read and speak Japanese reasonably well, according to Slim.
The campaign ended in May 1942 with a shameful 900-mile retreat of British, Burmese, Chinese, Indian, and Gurkha troops back to India, “an undisciplined mob of fugitives intent only on escape,” in the words of Slim. Over 13,000 troops died during the trek, along with up to 80,000 civilians. Japanese losses during the campaign were estimated to be around 7,000. The Japanese 33rd division alone had fought 34 battles in just 127 days and carried home many battle honors.
Facing the Americans in region, the 14th Army under the command of General Masaharu Homma, an Anglophile, was tasked with conquering the Philippines and commenced its assault on December 8, 1941. The invaders encountered ill-trained auxiliary Filipino forces and the “old” U.S. Army on the islands, which according to a commentator quoted in Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army, was “an army of polo ponies and long golf games, of cheap domestic help, and shopping trips to Shanghai and Hong Kong.”
Again, the Japanese, after destroying most of U.S. airpower in an attack on Clark Field, acted fast and quickly closed in on Manila, with U.S. forces and their allies retreating to the Bataan peninsula where they were exposed to uninterrupted artillery barrages and bombings. Although the Japanese had sustained nearly three times the number of American casualties, they kept up relentless pressure on the American forces, which had set up a new defensive perimeter along the U.S. Army Coast artillery position of Corregidor. Eventually, the Corregidor garrison along with other American forces in the Philippines would capitulate on May 8, 1942. Around 100,000 Filipino and U.S. troops would be marched off into captivity, of which up to 11,000 died in the infamous Bataan Death March alone.
The White Man’s defeat “East of Suez” had been total.
No one in May 1942 knew that Japanese military power had already reached its high-water mark by that time and that the first cracks in the performance of the Imperial Japanese Army had already begun to appear (for example, the occupation of the Philippines took a lot longer than expected due to clashes of personality and differing priorities within the Imperial Japanese Army’s High Command). In fact, many allied troops were suffering from an “inferiority complex” after the initial defeats and were afraid of the Japanese “superbogeymen of the jungle,” according to General Slim.
“In truth, in those early weeks the Allies had been their own worst enemies, defeated by their own weaknesses as much as by Japanese strengths. Japan’s principal assets were surprise, brilliantly exploited, and a far greater degree of readiness,” note Meirion and Susie Harries. As a consequence, the Japanese began overestimating their martial prowess, whereas the Americans, British and Dutch had to reexamine their smug assumptions of military superiority in which “whatever happens, we have the Maxim gun, and they have not.”
Indeed, the sudden collapse of Western military prestige in Southeast Asia after over 150 years of military domination of Asia caused by the 100-day campaign of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941-42 constituted an unprecedented event in military history up to that point. The Imperial Powers’ traditional justification for their presence in Asia, the social contract between ruler and ruled that the white man would provide security, sanctuary, and the rule of law in exchange for natural resources and territory was exposed as the hollow shell it has always been.
Japan’s 100 day campaign spelled the end of the European colonial enterprise in Asia — although it would take reactionary forces in France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands several years after the end of the Second World War to realize as much — and buried the idea of the “White Man’s Burden” and his racial superiority over the inhabitants of other parts of the world for good.