Across the sea, corpses in the water,
Across the mountain, corpses heaped upon the field,
I shall die only for the Emperor,
I shall never look back.
‘Umi Yukuba’, the Japanese Army marching song1
At 06.45 hours on Sunday, 7 December 1941, the eagle-eyed Lieutenant William Outerbridge of the destroyer USS Ward spotted what he thought was the tiny conning tower of a midget submarine making its way at about 8 knots towards the mouth of Pearl Harbor, the huge naval base for the US Pacific Fleet on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Ward immediately fired her 4-inch guns at the submarine, laid a pattern of depth charges and then reported the incident to shore headquarters. The news ought to have put the base on to full alert, but nothing happened. Soon afterwards, Privates Joseph Lockard and George Elliott, the operators of a mobile radar unit stationed at Kahuku Point on the northern tip of Oahu, reported to their officer at headquarters, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, that a large number of aircraft had appeared on their screens, headed straight for Pearl Harbor. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ replied Tyler, assuming them to be a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers due in from California later that morning.
In fact Lockard and Elliott had seen a force of forty-nine Japanese bombers, forty torpedo-bombers, fifty-one dive-bombers and forty-three fighters flying at 10,000 feet through thick cloud, led by Lieutenant-Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, a pilot who could already boast more than 3,000 hours’ combat flying time. Fuchida had been personally chosen by Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the commander of Japan’s First Air Fleet, to lead this attack. As his squadron of 183 warplanes reached the northern coast of Oahu, the clouds parted, which both men were to take as an unmistakable sign of divine approval for what was about to happen.2 With virtually no enemy aircraft in the sky to oppose them, next to no anti-aircraft fire directed against them, and a clear view of the eighty-two unprotected enemy vessels in the harbour – including eight battleships, two heavy cruisers, six light cruisers and thirty destroyers – as well as hundreds of planes parked wing-tip to wing-tip on the ground, Fuchida sent Nagumo the prearranged victory signal almost as soon as he had attacked: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!)
Japan’s journey to Pearl Harbor had been set as early as 13 April 1941 when she signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, thereby protecting both countries from a war on two fronts. Japan had been fighting a vicious war of aggression against China ever since September 1931, and the Roosevelt Administration were understandably concerned that she was attempting to dominate the Far East by force. So on 24 July 1941 America and Britain froze Japanese assets in protest at the extension southwards of the occupation of French Indo-China which Japan had begun in September 1940. Roosevelt assumed that Japan would respond rationally to such external stimuli, both positive and negative, whereas in fact her military-dominated, extreme nationalist Establishment and Government were fiercely proud and sensitive and far from logical, and ignored FDR. Days after freezing the assets, therefore, the Administration revoked US export licences for petroleum products, effectively placing an oil embargo on Japan, which at that time bought 75 per cent of her oil from the United States. Far from modifying her behaviour, this had the effect of making Japan seek alternative energy supplies, and look to the colonial empires of South-East Asia, especially the oil-rich Burma and Netherlands East Indies. America was under no legal or moral obligation to sell high-octane aviation fuel and other petroleum products to an empire that she knew would use them for imperialist oppression, any more than the embargo on those sales gave Japan the right to attack the United States. (In fact, the oil embargo was imposed without the President’s knowledge, although he did nothing to revoke the decision once it had been taken.) 3
The United States then adopted a classic carrot-and-stick approach towards Japan: the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, spent more than a hundred hours negotiating with Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura at the State Department, while Roosevelt himself warned publicly on 17 August that further Japanese attempts at Asian hegemony would lead America to take active measures to safeguard her interests in the region.4 To support these warnings, the US Pacific Fleet was transferred from California to Pearl Harbor, aid to the Chinese Kuomintang Nationalists fighting against Japan under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was increased, and thirty-five B-17 bombers were transferred to the Philippines – which had been an American protectorate since the close of the nineteenth century – from where they could bomb the Japanese home islands.
Tragically, the Roosevelt Administration – and Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs Dean Acheson in particular – dangerously underestimated the pride of Showa Dynasty Japan, which mistook these attempted acts of deterrence as unacceptable provocations. Despite the example of over ten years’ campaigning in China, Japan was not taken seriously enough by American policy-makers. It did not help that many senior politicians and soldiers genuinely believed that the slanted eyes of Japanese pilots meant they could not undertake long flights; as one historian has put it, ‘American leaders, harboring all sorts of racist stereotypes about the Japanese, did not think that they were capable of such a feat’ as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which was 3,400 miles from the Japanese homeland.5 ‘Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected blow on our Pacific possessions,’ declared Josephus Daniels, a former secretary of the US Navy, in 1922. ‘Radio makes surprise impossible.’ Nor was this absurd overconfidence confined to Americans: in April 1941 the Chief of the British Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, told the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that he rated the Japanese Air Force as ‘below the Italian one’.6
Hopes for peace faded perceptibly on 17 October when Lieutenant-General Hideki Tojo, nicknamed Razor, came to power in Tokyo, heading a militarist government supported by the Chiefs of the Army and Naval Staffs. Within three weeks the Imperial General Headquarters had finalized plans to attack Pearl Harbor and to invade the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, Burma and the Western Pacific, setting up a perimeter around what it privately called its Southern Resources Area and which was to be publicly dubbed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The second phase of operations would be to protect this area from Allied counter-attack, by making such assaults too costly. The third phase would involve attacking the Allies’ long lines of communication until they were forced to accept the concept of a Japanese-dominated Far East in perpetuity.7 There were also advocates of a strategy that involved invading and subjugating Australia, and another to assault India and link up with Germany in the Middle East. The creation of the Southern Resources Area was part of a plan to seize raw materials that was no less ambitious than Hitler’s plan for Lebensraum, and it similarly depended upon a quick, Blitzkrieg-style victory, starting with a surprise attack that would neutralize the US Pacific Fleet. It was risky, of course, and was nearly ditched by the Naval Staff in August 1941, but in heated arguments Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet – who was against going to war – threatened to resign unless Pearl Harbor were attacked, insisting that the plan was Japan’s best chance for glory. Three days after Tojo came to power in October, it was formally adopted in its entirety.
Yet the plan had severe flaws. The shallow harbour on Oahu meant that the American ships would be grounded rather than sunk, as they would have been in open water, and therefore might eventually be refloated. It was clear from the reports of spies on Oahu that Pearl Harbor did not have the tankers and supply ships necessary for a westward attack on Japan, so this was not an act of self-defence. Nor would a surprise attack allow for an eventual American acceptance of Japanese conquests elsewhere; as one of the planners, Rear-Admiral Onishi Takijiro, pointed out, American pride was such that there could never be a compromise settlement if Japan attacked without a declaration of war.8 The precedents of the sinking of the Maine in 1898 and Lusitania in 1915 should have been enough to underline that. Fearing the loss of Japan’s most prestigious field commander just before war broke out, however, the Naval Staff and Tojo Government embraced Yamamoto’s demands.
The opposing naval forces in the Pacific theatre in December 1941 were so closely balanced except in one area – aircraft carriers – that if the Japanese had succeeded totally at Pearl Harbor they might indeed have bought enough time to consolidate the Southern Resources Area and make it vastly more difficult for America to bring her much larger resources to bear. The Japanese had eleven battleships and battle cruisers against the Allies’ eleven; eighteen heavy (that is, 8-inch-gun) cruisers against the Allies’ thirteen; twenty-three light (6-inch-gun) cruisers against twenty-one; 129 destroyers against 100; and sixty-seven submarines against sixty-nine. American naval planners had therefore balanced everything perfectly in the Pacific, with the vital exception that Japan had eleven aircraft carriers against the Americans’ three.9 (There were four other US carriers – Ranger, Hornet, Wasp and Yorktown – in the Atlantic.) If the Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga, and their supporting heavy cruisers, had been in port at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941, the history of the Second World War might have been very different indeed. Fortunately, Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, had sent the carriers westwards, with additional fighters on board, to support Midway and Wake Islands in the event of hostilities breaking out. It was one of the only correct decisions he had made in the whole sorry affair, but it was the crucial one.
Kimmel had every reason to suppose that war was indeed about to break out, though few reasons to suppose that Pearl Harbor would be the first target. On 24 November, Washington warned him that the ‘chances of [a] favorable outcome of negotiations with Japan [are] very doubtful’ and that ‘a surprise aggressive movement in any direction including attack on Philippines or Guam is a possibility’. Three days later, he received an even more unequivocal cable, stating, ‘This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. An aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days,’ and ordering him to ‘Execute appropriate defensive deployment.’10 There are still those who consider Admiral Husband Kimmel and the Army commander in Hawaii, Lieutenant-General Walter C. Short, who were both dismissed soon after the attack, to have been made political scapegoats to protect the Administration, but in fact they were both culpably negligent and complacent. That said, the attack on Pearl Harbor was minutely and brilliantly planned. Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sailed east from the Kurile island of Etorofu on board his flagship Akagi on 26 November 1941 (or 25 November Washington dateline). His First Air Fleet consisted of six aircraft carriers, two cruisers, two battleships and a destroyer screen and eight support vessels.11 It sailed inside a moving weather front, which served to disguise it, and maintained strict radio silence throughout the voyage. Refuelling was achieved despite heavy seas, and sailing north of the normal trade routes ensured that the large flotilla was not spotted.
Meanwhile, an intricate deception operation lulled Allied suspicions, insofar as there were any, about the Fleet’s whereabouts. On 15 November, Special Ambassador Saburo Kurusu arrived in Washington to discuss American demands for a Japanese withdrawal from French Indo-China and official recognition of Chiang Kai-shek. Radio messages were sent to the ‘phantom’ fleet as if it was stationed in Japanese home waters in the Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku islands, knowing that Allied transmitters would be monitoring the frequency of signal. The luxury liner Tatsuta Maru set out on a twelve-day journey to San Francisco, albeit with orders to turn around and return to Yokohama at midnight on the night before the attack. Although the American Army Signal Corps had broken the Japanese Government cipher – codenamed Purple – in the 1930s, by a process codenamed Magic (the equivalent of the British Ultra), it was no help. Nagumo’s fleet sent out no messages, so there was no indication of where it was. Even before Ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu requested a special audience with Hull timed for the exact moment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans knew from intercepts that they were going to break off negotiations, but since the message from Tokyo mentioned neither war nor Pearl Harbor, Washington was none the wiser.12 The Administration’s expectation was that the blow would initially fall on British and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia, and possibly the American-controlled Philippines, and nothing from the cryptologists could have prepared them for what was about to happen.
When Nagumo’s fleet reached a point 275 miles north of Oahu, the detailed operation masterminded by Commander Minoru Genda, the planner on board Akagi, was put into action. Genda had studied the British use of aircraft carriers as offensive weapons during the raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940, and Japanese spies on Oahu had provided him with a detailed grid-referenced map of the principal American military assets on the island. Torpedoes with specially adapted fins were developed which could be dropped by bombers into shallow water, as well as newly invented armour-piercing shells dropped as bombs.13 (Because Pearl Harbor was not deep, no torpedo nets had been placed in front of the ships for protection.) The plan provided for a first wave of aircraft to attack the ships and planes at Pearl Harbor from the west at 07.55 hours, a second wave from the east at 08.45 with the same targets, and then, as the Americans were reeling from the destruction of their fleet and air force, a third wave would destroy the massive oil installations and ship-repairing facilities on the island, effectively wiping Pearl Harbor off the map as a functioning naval base and forcing the fleet back to California for the foreseeable future.
At 06.00 (Hawaiian time) on 7 December, the first wave set off and Fuchida guided them unerringly to their target. They reached Oahu undetected because Kimmel had chosen to concentrate aerial reconnaissance on the 2,000 miles of the south-western sector, facing the Japanese Marshall Islands, rather than on the northern approaches. There were only three American patrol aircraft aloft that morning, and none covering the north. The Japanese Kate bombers and their Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen fighters (Zeros) therefore found seven American battleships moored in a row alongside Ford Island in the harbour and an eighth – the Pennsylvania – in dry dock. For fear of sabotage, the USAAF planes had been packed close together, which made them easier to guard. It also made it hard for the well-trained, veteran Japanese bomber pilots to miss. The anti-aircraft batteries had no ready ammunition, and the keys to the boxes were held by the duty officer. Only one-quarter of the Navy’s machine guns were manned, and none of the main 5-inch batteries was. One-third of the ships’ captains were ashore.14 It was a Sunday morning, after all.
By 10.00 it was all over. Of the eight American battleships in port, three were sunk (that is, grounded), one – Oklahoma – capsized, and the others were more or less seriously damaged. Three light cruisers, three destroyers and other vessels were also sunk or seriously damaged, but vitally no submarine was affected.15 Only 54 Navy and Marine planes out of 250 either survived intact or were reparable, but 166 out of the 231 USAAF planes also survived. The American death toll amounted to 2,403 servicemen and civilians killed and 1,178 wounded.16 The Japanese lost only twenty-nine planes and a hundred lives, but all five midget submarines, only one of which made it inside the harbour, were sunk. Yet what was an undoubted disaster for America could easily have been a catastrophe. Fearing a counter-attack because the American aircraft carriers were not in harbour, Nagumo did not send in the third wave of bombers to destroy the very installations – oil depots and repair yards – that the Pacific Fleet would need to reconstitute itself. It was one thing for Pearl Harbor to be effectively neutralized for six months, but complete destruction would have been quite another. Even as their men celebrated, Nagumo, Genda (who was to command the Japanese Air Force from 1959 to 1962) and Fuchida (who was to become a Protestant pastor and in 1966 an American citizen) knew they had not achieved what they needed to. As it was, all the ships except two destroyers would be repaired and rejoin the Pacific Fleet. (The Arizona remains a tomb to this day.) Once Yamamoto had realized that the attack on Pearl Harbor had fallen far short of his original plans he dolefully wrote in a letter: ‘A military man can scarcely pride himself on having “smitten a sleeping enemy”; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack…’17
The very completeness of the surprise attack has spawned many conspiracy theories and accusations of cover-ups regarding Pearl Harbor, which allege that the Roosevelt Administration (and sometimes also the Churchill Government) had prior warning of the attack but deliberately failed to warn Kimmel and Short in order to bring the United States into the war. This is nonsense: Roosevelt was keen to provoke Germany into conflict, it is true, but he did not want a war on two fronts, and indeed he would have liked to transfer part of the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic.18 Moreover, FDR loved the US Navy, had been its under-secretary during the Great War, and any such conspiracy would have needed the co-operation of, at the very least, the War Secretary Henry L. Stimson, Navy Secretary Frank Knox, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Harold Stark, all of them honourable and patriotic men. ‘Nor was anything to be gained by allowing the great ships to be destroyed at their moorings if they could have been alerted and at sea,’ states Roosevelt’s biographer, Conrad Black. ‘An ineffective Japanese attack would have been just as good a casus belli.’19 Kimmel’s culpability was all the worse because Churchill had sent Roosevelt the official summary of how the Taranto raid had been carried out; Roosevelt sent it to Stark, who sent it on to Kimmel, who ignored it.
Pearl Harbor certainly was the perfect casus belli, however. Recruitment offices had to stay open throughout the night as Americans volunteered for service; trade union leaders cancelled strikes, and on Monday, 8 December Congress voted 470 to 1 (the pacifist Jeannette Rankin of Montana) for war. This was the opportunity for Roosevelt to rally the nation with the words: ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date that will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’ As well as the fact that ‘very many American lives have been lost,’ he reported attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines and Wake and Midway Islands. ‘No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.’20 The speech to Congress was only twenty-five sentences long, but so often was he interrupted by applause that it took him ten minutes to deliver.
Three days later, in a speech to the Reichstag on the afternoon of 11 December 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States, even though Germany was not obliged to come to Japan’s aid under the terms of the Tripartite Pact of 27 September 1940 if Japan were the aggressor. It seems an unimaginably stupid thing to have done in retrospect, a suicidally hubristic act less than six months after attacking the Soviet Union. America was an uninvadable land mass of gigantic productive capacity and her intervention in 1917–18 had sealed Germany’s fate in the Great War. ‘The Navy and I had no idea that an attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor was planned,’ Admiral Raeder stated at Nuremberg; ‘we learned of this only after the attack had been carried out.’21 This was true, and hardly the way allies should treat each other, giving Hitler the perfect let-out if he had wanted one, but he did not. Instead he exulted in Japan’s ruthlessness, taking it almost as a compliment to himself on the basis of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.
By 1943 the number of aircraft lost at Pearl Harbor represented only two days of American production, and in the calendar year 1944, while the Germans were building 40,000 warplanes, the United States turned out 98,000, underlining Hitler’s catastrophic blunder.22 In his 8 December 1941 speech to Congress, Roosevelt had not mentioned Germany or Italy because he did not have the political support necessary for including Japan’s allies in the request for a declaration of war, especially when faced with the powerful America First movement and other isolationist organizations in the United States. Now, the Führer had solved Roosevelt’s problem at a stroke. Hitler believed he was simply normalizing a state of affairs that had already been in de facto existence for many months, and in such a way that gave German U-boats the right to torpedo American warships that had been attacking them for over a year. Direct American support for Britain and the USSR could now be countered actively, even while the United States had her hands full in the Pacific. Hitler had long considered war with America to be inevitable: he thought it better to have the prestige of instigating it and to help the Japanese by forcing on America a war on two fronts.23 Coming within a week of the checking of his offensive against Moscow, when Russians started taking German prisoners for the first time, it is now easy to see precisely when the seeds of Germany’s defeat were sown.
Frederick Oechsner, the Berlin correspondent of United Press International, noted in the late 1930s that, when he was war minister, Blomberg had ‘presented Hitler with 400 books, pamphlets and monographs on the United States armed forces and he has read many of these’.24 It was the very worst time to have mugged up on the American war machine, as it scarcely existed then, with the United States still in the grip of isolationism. If Hitler divined from these monographs a sense of America’s military weakness – the US Army numbered only 100,000 men in 1939 – he was soon to be sorely disabused: by 1945 General George C. Marshall and Admiral Ernest J. King had managed to put 14.9 million Americans into uniform and the Army Hitler had so despised from his reading of soon-to-be-out-of-date pamphlets would in 1952 – while it was still occupying Germany – blow up his beloved Berghof.25 ‘The entry of the United States into the war is of no consequence at all for Germany,’ Hitler had told Molotov in Berlin on 12 November 1940, ‘the United States will not be a threat to us in decades – not in 1945 but at the earliest in 1970 or 1980.’ It was one of the greatest miscalculations of history.
Hitler also won nothing substantial from the Japanese for his declaration of war on America. The Axis consistently failed to act as close allies during the Second World War, with dire consequences for them all. Had Japan attacked the USSR in the east simultaneously with Barbarossa, it could have forced Stalin into a potentially disastrous two-front war, and taken the rich mineral and oil reserves of Siberia. Similarly, if Japan’s attacks on eastern India and Ceylon had been co-ordinated with a German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq – prior to Operation Barbarossa – the British Empire could have been severely threatened in northern India. Hitler ‘kept the foreign office out of the military’, the Reich’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop told his Nuremberg psychiatrist, when complaining that he had not had more than a day’s warning of the invasion of Norway. ‘The same with the Russian war. I never knew about it until 24 hours before it happened.’26 Their utter inability to trust each other and co-ordinate their efforts left the Axis fighting two entirely separate wars, while the Allies fought on two flanks of the same war.
Hitler’s great error – perhaps the second worst of his many blunders of the war next to invading Russia prematurely – was not to appreciate the potential capacity of American industrial production. This is all the more surprising given the chapters on American capitalism that he had written in his then unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf known as ‘The Second Book’. ‘The size of the internal American market and its wealth of buying power and also raw materials’, he wrote in 1928, ‘guarantee the American automobile industry internal sales figures that alone permit production methods that would simply be impossible in Europe. The result of that is the enormous export capacity of the American automobile industry. At issue is the general motorization of the world – a matter of immeasurable significance.’27 Plenty more along those lines made it plain that Hitler had at least understood the power of American production in 1928, and although the Great Depression had thrown this off course, by 1941 it was far stronger than ever before.
Certainly Hitler’s senior advisers were well aware of the economic dangers posed by the military productive capacity of the United States even before the Führer had declared war. Ernst Udet, the head of the Luftwaffe procurement organization at the Air Ministry, shot himself on 17 November 1941 after his warnings about the Anglo-American air programme had been consistently ignored; General Friedrich Fromm, head of the central administrative office of the Wehrmacht, was talking about the need to make peace in November 1941; General Georg Thomas of the supply side of OKW was deeply defeatist by January 1942; Fritz Todt, the Reich Armaments Minister, told Hitler as early as November 1941 that the war in Russia could not be won; Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, was equally pessimistic, though more diplomatic; the great steel producer Walter ‘Panzer’ Rohland believed, as he told Todt, that ‘the war against Russia cannot be won!’; the Economics Minister Walther Funk spoke at Göring’s birthday party of the ‘misfortune that had broken over the nation’. In the view of the historian of the Nazi economy, ‘the vast majority’ of the Nazi leaders understood ‘the pivotal importance of the United States economy’.28 Yet they did not apprise Hitler of their feelings, or at least not strongly enough to force him to see sense, except Todt, who (probably coincidentally) died in a plane crash less than two months later, and Udet, who at least emphasized his point in an unmistakable manner. The claims of many at Nuremberg to have tried to dissuade Hitler from declaring war on the United States are highly suspect, not least because he seems to have taken few soundings before making the announcement.
The Reich Foreign Minister Ribbentrop claimed in his memoirs that ‘war was declared on the USA despite my advice to the contrary’, but the evidence in fact points the other way. When the Italian Foreign Minister, Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, rang him up in the middle of the night to tell him about Pearl Harbor, Ribbentrop was ‘joyful… He was so happy, in fact, that I congratulated him,’ even though Ciano wasn’t sure quite what for. At his trial, Ribbentrop claimed that Pearl Harbor had come as an unpleasant shock, because ‘We never considered a Japanese attack on the United States to be to our advantage.’29 He had been regularly deriding the power of America, telling Japan’s Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka that American munitions were ‘junk’, Ciano that Roosevelt’s foreign policy was ‘the biggest bluff in world history’, Japan’s Ambassador Hiroshi Oshima that Germany was ‘more than prepared to deal with any American intervention’ and Admiral Darlan that the United States would be deluding herself if she thought she ‘would be able to wage war in Europe’.30 Fancying himself an expert on America because he had lived there for four years in his youth, Ribbentrop assured a delegation of Italians in 1942, ‘I know them; I know their country. A country devoid of culture, devoid of music – above all, a country without soldiers, a people who will never be able to decide the war from the air. When has a Jewified nation like that ever become a race of fighters and flying aces?’31 Ribbentrop had assured Hitler that Britain would not go to war in 1939 – indeed his entire career was built around telling Hitler what he wanted to hear; it is likely that his advice was to declare war on the United States.32 Not that it mattered much: Hitler would not have followed Ribbentrop’s – or anyone’s advice over an issue as important as that.
The speed with which Roosevelt put the United States economy on a war footing rivalled that with which he had installed his New Deal programme after his inauguration in 1933. Authoritarian planning of the mighty American economy was policed by a sea of regulatory authorities known by their acronyms, which managed almost every area of what effectively became a state-capitalist system. If Germans and Japanese doubted the American commitment to defeat them come what may, they needed only to look at the measures adopted by the previously free-market United States. Taxation was used to hold maximum after-tax salaries to $25,000; a freeze was introduced on commercial, farm and commodity prices, which under the Emergency Price Control Act would be fixed by the Office of Price Administration; wages and rents were similarly controlled; widespread rationing was imposed; consumer credit was mercilessly squeezed; war profiteering was aggressively combated; synthetic-rubber production was so increased that by 1945 the United States was making more of it than the entire global pre-1939 production of natural rubber.33
In January 1942, Roosevelt presented a $59 billion budget to Congress, $52 billion of which was devoted to military expenditure, in the same month that the sale of new cars and passenger trucks was banned by the Office of Production Management (which is why there is no such thing as a 1942-model American motor car). The Office of Economic Stabilization, chaired by James F. Byrnes, had immense powers which it had no hesitation in using. A flat 5 per cent ‘Victory’ tax was imposed on all incomes over $12 per week, exemptions were slashed and the number of Americans required to fill in tax returns rose six-fold in one year, from seven million in 1941 to forty-two million in 1942, something that would have been politically impossible to impose under any other circumstances.34 Roosevelt sent the American economy into battle, with results that the German and Japanese production figures could not hope to match. By the end of the war, the USA had provided for her allies 37,000 tanks, 800,000 trucks, two million rifles. With 43,000 planes going abroad to allies, US pilot training had to be curtailed because of aircraft shortages.35
This is not to argue that American armaments were necessarily superior to German and Japanese. The American military historian Victor Davis Hanson has argued eloquently that this was not the case:
Our Wildcat front-line fighters were inferior to the Japanese Zero; obsolete Brewster F2A Buffalos were rightly known as ‘flying coffins’. The Douglas TBD Devastator bomber was a death-trap, its pilots essentially wiped out at the Battle of Midway trying to drop often unreliable torpedoes. American-designed Lee, Grant, and Stuart tanks – and even the much-heralded Shermans (‘Ronson Lighters’) – were intrinsically inferior to most contemporary German models, which had a far better armor and armament. With the exception of the superb M-1 rifle, it is hard to rank any American weapons system as comparable to those used by the Wehrmacht, at least until 1944–45. We never developed guns quite comparable to the fast-firing, lethal German .88 artillery platform. Our anti-tank weapons of all calibers remained substandard. Most of our machine guns and mortars were reliable – but of World War I vintage.36
Yet the sheer quantity of weaponry being produced by America outstripped anything the Axis could match.
Although it was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that brought an Anglo-American military alliance into being for the first time since 1918, with Churchill making good his promise at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon on 10 November to declare war on Japan ‘within the hour’ of a Japanese attack, Hitler’s declaration of war meant that the Western alliance would have teeth. A great deal had already been agreed in secret Staff conversations in Washington about the eventuality of war, and the scene was now set for closer and more direct conversations between Roosevelt and Churchill in that city before the year was out. There was nothing inevitable about the wartime alliance between America and Britain; the Axis brought it into being. There had been much rivalry between Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, exacerbated by ignorant stereotyping on both sides. According to the wartime journals of the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, a Captain Smith asked the former US military attaché to London, Lieutenant-colonel Howard C. Davidson, how the English really felt about the Americans. ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ Davidson replied. ‘The English feel about us just the way we feel about a prosperous nigger.’37
Yet the Anglo-American alliance after 1941 was to be by far the closest of any of the collaborations between the major powers in the war, at sea where they immediately divided up the world’s oceans into patrolling districts, in the air when the USAAF and RAF took it in turns to bomb Germany by day and night respectively, and on the ground where joint operations were undertaken in North Africa by November 1942, and subsequently in Italy, Normandy and finally Germany itself, all under supreme commanders who controlled the forces of both powers. Smarter diplomacy by Hitler might have prevented the creation of an alliance that was to fling his armies out of Africa, the Mediterranean and France over the coming three years.
In his memoirs published in 1950, Churchill was forthright about his emotions when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘No American will think it wrong of me’, he wrote in The Grand Alliance,
if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!… Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.38
Meanwhile, the Roosevelt Administration began to intern virtually the entire Japanese-American community of the United States, a panic measure for which subsequent Administrations have apologized and paid compensation. Nonetheless, this tough act needs to be seen in its proper historical context. Although 69 per cent of the 100,500 Japanese who were interned under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 were US citizens, that still leaves 31 per cent, or 30,500 people, who were not. With the level of danger posed by Imperial Japan in the spring of 1942, when their forces were spreading over vast areas of the Pacific and Far East, no country at that time would have allowed so many non-citizens of the same ethnic background as the prospective invader to reside in the precise areas – Hawaii and California – where the next blows were (rightly or wrongly) expected to fall. The British Government had taken similar measures against the German and Italian minorities, with similar speed and disregard of rights. The simple fact that Japanese-born citizens of Oahu had provided Tokyo, via the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu, with detailed information about the US Pacific Fleet, something that was known to American and British intelligence, was enough to put the loyalty of many thousands of innocent people under a cloud. When released from their barbed-wire desert camps, they were sent off with $25 each, the sum given to prisoners at the end of their sentences. It was not the Roosevelt Administration’s finest hour.
Although in the long term Japan had committed a terrible blunder in provoking the ‘righteous might’ of the American people, in the short term her forces were able to sweep through Asia, capturing one-sixth of the surface of the planet in only six months and dealing the two-centuries-old British Empire what was effectively a lingering death blow. An analogy with Barbarossa is apt, because a massive surprise attack yielded huge ground initially, before other factors – in Russia the weather, size of population and spirit of the ordinary Red Army soldier; in the Far East superior Allied technology and military production – could operate to reverse the early successes. Whereas Stalin had been remiss in not reading his fellow dictator’s mind properly before Barbarossa, the Roosevelt Administration dangerously miscalculated Japanese psychology, intentions and capabilities.
In order to defend their lines of communication, 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 7 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.39
Simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but dated 8 December because it was west of the international dateline, the Japanese attacked Wake Island, an atoll without natural food or water. Their initial assault was flung back heroically by the American defenders but a second, larger one on 11 December could not be and the island was overwhelmed by 23 December, by which time the Gilbert Islands and Guam had also fallen. Hours after Pearl Harbor, the British Crown colony of Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese 38th Division. Forced back to Hong Kong Island on 17 December, the 15,000 Australian, Indian, Canadian and British defenders held out until Christmas Day.
Japanese forces violated Thailand’s neutrality and occupied Bangkok on 8 December, prior to using that country as a springboard to assaulting Burma in phase two. 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 on 8 December. Yamashita’s target was nothing less than the island fortress of Singapore, known as the Gibraltar of the East. Almost twice the size of the Isle of Wight, Singapore was a Royal Navy dockyard, barracks and communications centre, and, 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’.40 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. It was not only the French who had adopted a Maginot Line mentality.
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. ‘Well,’ the British Governor of Singapore is alleged to have told the British commander in Malaya, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, ‘I suppose you’ll see the little men off.’41 Percival also had more artillery and shells and many more troops than Yamashita, and on 2 December Admiral Sir Tom Phillips’ Force Z, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse, with destroyer escorts, had arrived in Singapore harbour. Although aircraft had sunk ships in Norway and Crete, this had not yet happened to a battleship (the Prince of Wales had no fewer than forty automatic anti-aircraft weapons).42 The RAF in Singapore, it was true, had only 180 aircraft, some of them outdated, but on paper Percival ought to have been able to withstand the coming onslaught, at least for a considerable length of time. But almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. ‘Defeat’, as one historian of the campaign has put it, ‘was a team effort.’43 The Japanese seized the initiative from the moment they landed amphibiously at Kota Bharu near the north-west tip of Malaya on 8 December 1941 and marched south, and Percival was never able to wrest it back from them. 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 jungle betrayed the British,’ recorded an historian; ‘the jungle had been their possession for eighty years, whose possibilities for war they had never learned.’44 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 favoured the offensive over the defensive. All too often the Commonwealth units found themselves outmanoeuvred 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, and the British found themselves woefully short of anti-tank weaponry.45 Only six weeks after landing, the Japanese had got to within sight of Singapore island.
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. ‘Defence arrangements were fully in British hands, but affected by a series of contradictions and complications which, but for their tragic implications, could have been considered too far-fetched for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.’46 In a detailed War Office examination of what went wrong, compiled later that same year, and in subsequent historical estimations, Singapore fell because the Commonwealth leaders had underestimated the enemy, displayed lacklustre leadership, trained their troops badly, split divisions in battle, used reinforcements in a piecemeal manner, had a divided command structure, shown poor strategic grasp, had heavy commitments in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and had insufficient air cover. It was this last that caused the greatest maritime disaster of the war for the Royal Navy, when both the 35,000-ton HMS Prince of Wales and the 26,500-ton HMS Repulse were sunk on Wednesday, 10 December 1941, 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.’47 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.48
The collapse of morale among the defenders ashore was also shattering. Through January, the Commonwealth forces retreated steadily, with the Johore Line 25 miles from Singapore breached on the 15th. The Straits of Johore were only a mile wide, and the north coast of Singapore island was poorly defended. On 31 January, 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.
Without a pause, the Japanese assaulted the north of the island in armour-plated barges on the night of 8 February – a further indication of their excellent Staff work – rebuilt the causeway and sent tanks across it. Counter-attacks were broken up by Japanese dive-bombing. Accusations have been made that troops of the Australian 8th Division deserted in significant numbers, drank and looted before returning to try to find boats in the harbour on which to escape. ‘There were individual examples of cowardice,’ concludes an authoritative study, ‘but for the most part this is slander.’49 It was a slander repeated by a large number of British officers, despite the fact that the Japanese lost half their battle dead in the campaign on Singapore island in the final week, when the Australians provided most of the resistance. The official war diary of the 8th Australian Division Provost Company does use the word ‘panic’ to describe the confusion of 9 February and ‘stragglers’ two days later, ‘sullen’ on the 12th, troops ‘very reluctant to return to the line’ on the 13th, ‘All imaginable excuses being made to avoid returning to the line’ on the 14th, and on the 15th ‘Morale shocking. A lot of men hid themselves to prevent and avoid return to the line,’ although this was also true of British and Indian soldiers.50 ‘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.’51 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 learnt the central lesson of the war so far, that Blitzkrieg and boldness worked. Churchill meanwhile on 10 February cabled 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.52
Racial honour 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.
Tragically, large numbers of reinforcements continued to be landed in Singapore harbour, almost 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.53 The 130,000 men who surrendered on 15 February included many local recruits, and refugees from the north who had lost the will to fight. The Malays meanwhile 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 executing on the beaches Malay Chinese 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.54
‘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.’55 The Japanese suffered only 9,824 casualties during the whole campaign. A photograph was beamed around the world of Percival and other senior British officers in their shorts and long socks, flat tin hats and rolled-up sleeves walking beside two Japanese officers to surrender to Yamashita, one Briton with a flagpole over his shoulder from which hung a white flag, another with a limp Union Jack. Indeed everything about the defence had been limp. Percival had been bluffed by Yamashita, who had outrun his supplies and might have buckled before a determined counter-attack from forces twice his size, but such was the demoralization that that was never going to happen. (Had they known the fate that awaited them, however, they would doubtless have tried.) It was not solely the British who had underperformed. ‘Bennett and [Brigadier D. S.] Maxwell were unequivocal failures,’ records an Australian historian. ‘Although Australia and other Dominions were critical of British generalship in the world wars, they themselves had no mechanism for producing an obviously better type of senior commander.’56
Percival had lost only 7,500 casualties in the campaign, but when he surrendered to the much smaller force led by Yamashita he also lost the respect of the Japanese, who thought his soldiers cowards for having given up so easily. They would probably have been just as viciously ill-treated if they had held out for longer, but the lives of one million civilians were in jeopardy on the island, especially with water supplies in a critical state after the Japanese captured the reservoirs. A campaign that the Japanese General Staff had started planning for only in 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 on 10 February, 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.’57 Yet Singapore was not about to become another Leningrad.
From being a bandy-kneed, myopic, oriental midget in Western eyes, the Japanese soldier was suddenly transformed into an invincible, courageous superman. Of course neither racial stereotype was accurate, but events in the Philippines, Malaya and elsewhere did nothing to damage the new myth, 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 had 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 centres, 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. Nonetheless, 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.58
Douglas MacArthur, a charismatic leader and former US Chief of Staff, had only ninety fighter aircraft, thirty-five Flying Fortress B-17 bombers and a hundred tanks to protect the Philippines on 8 December, and his army, though large on paper, was primarily made up of under-trained and under-equipped Filipinos, some of whom disappeared back to their barrios (villages) as soon as the Japanese invaded.59 In trying to pursue his original policy of meeting the invasion on the beaches of northern Luzon and the Lingayen Gulf, MacArthur was stymied by the successful bombing of the Clark Field air base north of Manila. Even though news of Pearl Harbor had been received at Clark at 02.30 hours on 8 December, and other bases in the Philippines had been attacked, and the head of the USAAF General H. H. ‘Hap’ Arnold had telephoned a warning to Major-General Lewis H. Brereton, the commander of US Far East Air Forces, American planes were still stationed unprotected on the ground at 12.15 when 108 twin-engined Japanese bombers and 34 fighters arrived from Formosa. American pilots were queuing for lunch in the mess when they struck. No fewer than eighteen of the B-17s were destroyed, as were fifty-six fighters and other aircraft, at a total cost of seven Japanese planes.60 Inter-service confusion at headquarters was blamed for the disaster, but, whatever caused it, by the eighth day of the campaign MacArthur had only fifty planes left and had therefore lost air superiority, a recurring feature in explaining defeats in the Second World War. The 22,400 US regular troops and many Filipino regulars, however, put up a sturdy resistance, especially once MacArthur had accepted on 23 December that he could not hold Manila, retreating into the jungles, mountains and swamps of the Bataan peninsula and eventually on to the island of Corregidor, fortified in the seventeenth century, which dominated the entrance to Manila Bay. There he faced a Japanese force of around 200,000.
Lacking enough air cover, Admiral Thomas C. Hart therefore withdrew the US Asiatic Fleet to the Java Sea, where it joined powerful units of other allies. The original American plan had been for MacArthur to try to hold out on the Philippines for long enough to be relieved by the US Pacific Fleet. With the battleship part of that force now crippled at Pearl Harbor, the plan was moribund, but no alternative commended itself. Using captured air bases, the Japanese reinforced the initial invasion forces that had landed on 10 and 22 December. Soon outnumbered four to one and now completely blockaded in Bataan and Corregidor by the Japanese Navy, MacArthur was personally ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines, which he managed to do by a hair’s breadth – at one point his motor torpedo boat came ‘in the shadow of a Japanese battleship’ – on 11 March.61 ‘I have come through,’ he said on reaching Australia, ‘and I shall return.’
Bataan surrendered on 9 April, whereupon the Japanese victors took 78,000 starving members of the US and Filipino forces on the notorious 65-mile ‘Bataan Death March’ to prison. Somehow the 2,000 who had made it to Corregidor managed to hold out for a further twenty-seven days, even though only its headquarters and hospital, located in caves, survived the fifty-three air raids directed against it. ‘The last regular US Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.’62 With malaria rife, and only three days’ supply of water left, the garrison finally surrendered on 6 May. The defence of the Philippines had been an American epic – costing 2,000 US servicemen killed and wounded and 11,500 captured, against 4,000 Japanese casualties. Japanese brutality against the Filipinos, who unlike some other peoples had shown loyalty to their colonial masters, was horrific. ‘The use of military and civilian prisoners for bayonet practice and assorted other cruelties’, an historian wrote, ‘provided the people of Southeast Asia with a dramatic lesson on the new meaning of Bushido, the code of the Japanese warrior.’63
With Malaya and the Philippines now closed down as bases for Allied counter-attack, 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. His 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.64 In the seven-hour battle of the Java Sea on the afternoon and evening of 27 February – 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. It 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 8 March, 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.65 Further easy Japanese victories in the Admiralty Islands and Northern Solomons and the capture of the superb Rabaul naval base in the Bismarck Archipelago on 23 January 1942 gave Japan the chance to consolidate her Southern Defence Perimeter and possibly to threaten Australia herself.
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 in September 1939, 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.
The Japanese, who had been fighting against China since 1937, had been planning the invasion of Burma for four years, and it was forced through with the same speed and resolve as elsewhere. As a springboard for the possible invasion of India, a means of keeping long-range enemy aircraft away from Malaya and especially of closing off the Allies’ Burma Road land route to China, thereby finally breaking the Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s land communications with the outside world, the conquest of Burma was a vital military objective for the Staff planners in Tokyo. Part of the British Empire since Winston Churchill’s father Lord Randolph had annexed it when he was secretary for India in 1886, Burma was also rich in oil and minerals, and would be an important staging post for the Allies in any attempted counter-attack.
A two-division detachment of Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida’s Fifteenth Army landed in Burma in the very south, Victoria Point, on 11 December 1941, and advanced northwards. It was not until after their Malayan and Philippines victories that the Japanese poured two more divisions, as well as tank, anti-aircraft, artillery and air units into Burma, overcoming Lieutenant-General Thomas Hutton’s 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division, some British units and the local Burma Defence Force. The Japanese were supported by Burmese nationalists under the command of U Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), who sabotaged British lines of communication in the vain and naive expectation that Burma would receive genuine independence from Tokyo. By the end of January 1942, Iida had driven Hutton’s forces out of Tavoy and Moulmein, and between 18 and 23 February had comprehensively defeated him at the battle of Sittang River, where Hutton lost all his heavy equipment. As in Malaya, the British tended to concentrate on defending roads and cleared areas, and as a result were repeatedly outflanked by the Japanese.
During the battle of Sittang River, Hutton was replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander, one of whose corps commanders was Major-General William Slim. (This was six months before Alexander’s appointment to the Middle East Command.) From a modest background, Slim had fought at Gallipoli, had been wounded fighting with the Gurkhas, had won the MC and had been wounded again in Mesopotamia, ending the Great War as an Indian Army major. A soldier’s soldier, he had none of the vanity and ego of commanders like MacArthur, Montgomery and Patton, yet tactically and strategically he was certainly their equal. Burmese terrain included mountains, plains, jungles, coastal waters and wide rivers; Slim showed the highest qualities of generalship over all of them. Together he and Alexander co-ordinated the long retreat northwards out of Burma. The difficult decision was taken to abandon Rangoon on 6 March, where 100,000 tons of stores were captured by the Japanese two days later. In mid-March the Fifth and Sixth Chinese Armies entered Burma to cover the British retreat and try to protect the Burma Road. Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff, the tough-minded but rebarbative and Anglophobic General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, fought the battle of Yenangyaung between 10 and 19 April, but could not make significant headway, and soon afterwards the Japanese broke into the Shan plateau and forced the Chinese to flee northwards. Of the 95,000 Chinese, only one division managed to escape intact.66 Mandalay fell on 1 May at the same time as Lashio, the southern terminus of the Burma Road.
Of the 42,000 British, Indian and Burmese troops involved in the campaign, no fewer than 29,000 were casualties by the end of May. Nonetheless, Alexander and Slim had managed to get 13,000 unwounded men back to Imphal in Assam province in India, after a 600-mile retreat from Sittang, the longest in British history. ‘They looked like scarecrows,’ Slim said of his troops. ‘But they looked like soldiers, too.’ He also recalled the heart-rending sight of a four-year-old child in Imphal trying to spoon-feed her dead mother from a tin of evaporated milk.
It had been a momentous series of rearguard actions and last-minute escapes, but four-fifths of Burma had fallen to the Japanese, whose casualties numbered only 4,597. This had the effect of further isolating China, which could now be supplied only by the USAAF pilots undertaking most of the 550-mile flights over 16,000-foot Himalayan mountain ranges to Yunnan province, nicknamed the Hump. It was a gruelling mission also known as the Aluminium Trail because of all the planes that had crashed along the way. Nonetheless, by 1945 no fewer than 650,000 tons of supplies had been delivered by that route.
Service in Burma, believed George MacDonald Fraser, who fought in the 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division during the siege of Meiktila and the battle of Pyawbwe, was, with the sole exception of Bomber Command, ‘generally believed to be the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service’.67 Nor was this just because of the nature of the enemy; there were also 15-inch poisonous centipedes, malaria, spiders the size of plates, typhus, jungle sores on wrists and ankles, dysentery and leeches with which to contend. And of course the weather; the 1941–2 Burma Campaign only ended with the monsoon breaking in May. Fraser described a Burmese monsoon in his war memoirs Quartered Safe Out Here:
There are the first huge drops, growing heavier and heavier, and then God opens the sluices and the jets of a million high-pressure hoses are being directed straight down, and the deluge comes with a great roar… after that the earth is under a skin of water which looks as though it’s being churned up by buckshot. Before you know it you are sodden and streaming, the fire’s out, the level in the brew tin is rising visibly, and the whole clearing is a welter of blaspheming men trying to snatch arms and equipment from the streams coursing underfoot.68
Just as the Russians had been saved by the weather outside Moscow in autumn 1941, so were the British by the weather on the Indian–Burmese border the following spring.
‘It’s a horrible World at present,’ Clementine Churchill wrote to her husband on 19 December 1941. ‘Europe over-run by the Nazi hogs, and the Far East by yellow Japanese lice.’69 Once one has discounted the terminology that was typical of her generation, it was true that the Germans and Japanese seemed totally in the ascendant. The Japanese had captured a vast area of approximately 32 million square miles. In six months Japan had acquired 70 per cent of the world’s tin supply and almost all its natural rubber, forcing the Americans to develop synthetic rubber for their vehicles’ tyres.70 Conquest had delivered to the Japanese a higher annual oil production from the Dutch East Indies (7.9 million tonnes) than California and Iran combined; they also took 1.4 million tonnes of coal per annum from Sumatra and Borneo; 1.1 million troy ounces of gold from the Philippines – more than Alaska or any other state except California – as well as manganese and chromium and iron estimated at half a billion tonnes; tin from Thailand, and oil, silver, lead, nickel and copper from Burma, all of which they started exploiting without delay, using slave labour for its extraction. Less tangibly but just as importantly, Japanese morale had soared. The military triumphs since Pearl Harbor had been, in the words of a biographer of MacArthur, ‘as spectacular as any in the history of warfare’.71 But if the Japanese believed, as some in their planning Staff did, that because America had anyway been due to give the Philippines her independence in 1946 she would not strain every nerve to retake them in the meantime, then they had misread the American national character as fundamentally as had Hitler.
Meeting in Washington in December 1941 and January 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that the policy of Germany First sketched out by them in Newfoundland the previous August would be adhered to. Japan would be allowed breathing-space, but her time would undoubtedly come. The Japanese people were given a taste of what that would involve when on 18 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 augury of what was to come.
When the United States entered the war, she had the world’s seventeenth largest army, numbering 269,023, smaller than that of Romania. She could put only five properly armed, full-strength divisions into the field, at a time when Germany wielded 180.72 The Great Depression had taken a physical toll on American manhood; even though the Army would accept just about anyone sane over 5 feet tall, 105 pounds in weight, possessing twelve or more of his own teeth, and free of flat feet, venereal disease and hernias, no fewer than 40 per cent of citizens failed these basic criteria.73 The Roosevelt Administration had begun rearming in 1940 as far as Congress would allow, passing a $9 billion defence budget for the fiscal year. Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor led to a massive extension of all types of military production, and the long-term results were nothing less than war-winning, especially considering the amount shipped to Britain, Russia, China and elsewhere.
By the end of the war, the USA had built 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.74 Such was 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. Grossly to oversimplify the contributions made by the three leading members of the Grand Alliance in the Second World War, if Britain had provided the time and Russia the blood necessary to defeat the Axis, it was America that produced the weapons.