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Japanese Successes

LAURENCE REES: So to move on to the Japanese involvement in the war. How can we understand the reasons for the immense successes of the Japanese Imperial Army, early in 1942?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: It’s hard to decide who was more deluded by the Japanese successes in early 1942, the western Allies or the Japanese. This terrific Japanese force which swept across the Pacific and South East Asia first of all persuaded the western Allies that the Japanese Army and Navy and Air Force were fantastically strong, and secondly, convinced the Japanese High Command that the Allies were fantastically weak and actually none of this was so. The fundamental truth was that Japan was an industrially relatively weak society with a GNP a small fraction of that of the United States which was absolutely bound to lose a long war. Japan did have very brave soldiers and some quite good ships and some quite good aircraft but which very soon after the war got going, and once the western Allies got into their stride, it found itself being hopelessly out distanced by the Allies in technologies, not to mention quantities and materiel. All the way through the Japanese soldier fought with fantastic courage. There was a British officer who said in Burma that the Japanese solider was a 1st class soldier in a 3rd rate army. And that was just about right.

The Japanese Army, when you look at the rotten quality of their equipment, the almost total lack of artillery or a decent tank; they were not in the same class as the British and the Americans. But it was the fantastically poor quality of the British Army and the British and Indian Army on the eastern border of India through 1942-43 which enabled the Japanese to hold them at bay in Burma for much longer than they should have been able to. In 1942 the British and Indian Armies on the eastern front in India put up a very poor performance indeed, which enabled inferior numbers of Japanese to hold at bay and drive back much larger numbers of British and Indian soldiers. So it was the poor quality of the British performance rather than the terrific quality of the Japanese performance that flattered the Japanese Army yet again. But once you get to 1944 and you get to the Americans and the British finally having this absolutely devastating superiority of men, materiel, ships, aircraft and so on, all the Japanese had left was courage that they displayed all the way through, this absolutely fantastic courage both on land, at sea and in the air. And really that was all that was left.

LAURENCE REES: How is it possible that the Japanese won at Singapore?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: At Singapore the Japanese had a brilliant general and a terrific army up against one of the most incompetent range of commanders that the British Army has ever put in the field. Singapore, as Churchill recognised at the time, was not merely a defeat, it was a humiliation; the notion of this very large and not that badly equipped British Army up against a smaller Japanese Army being simply being wiped off the floor. The truth was, that I’ve written somewhere rather brutally, that I think if the British, Indian and Australian soldiers who fought in Malaya had had any inkling of the treatment they would receive in Japanese captivity, they might have fought a good deal harder. That sounds a rather brutal thing to say, but I think it’s true. The other thing that seems to me pivotal, all through the war, is that the British in particular convinced themselves that if the other side had air superiority then they were entitled to expect to lose the ground battle.

Well, the Germans and the Japanese didn’t think like that in 1944 and 45, and when the Allies had overwhelming air superiority the Germans and the Japanese still fought brilliantly, but to this day you still hear people saying, well, how can you possible expect the British Army in Malaya to put up much of a show when the Japanese had all those aeroplanes. Of course,  it’s not very nice being dive bombed and strafed by Japanese Zeroes but the fact remained that the British Army just put up an unbelievably poor performance against a vastly more determined and skilful Japanese enemy. One fundamental problem all through the war, and even British training manuals dwelt on this by 1943-44, was that British Forces had this frightful habit that if they found their flanks turned, if they found they’d got the enemy behind them, whether this was in Italy or in North Africa or in Burma, their instinct was, oh well chaps, we’re surrounded, it’s all over and we’d better surrender. And its not me making this up, 70 years ago, Ian Jacobs of the War Cabinet Secretariat writing in August 1942 from the desert, said that after talking at length to senior officers in Cairo one has to face the fact that again and again British Forces were surrendering to inferior numbers of the enemy who, in Jacob’s words, in the First World War would have stuck it out and fought it out.

The British Army was just not very good. I was talking the other day to a very distinguished military historian who also fought with distinction in Italy and he said to me, when I came back from the war I always promised myself that I would never tell anybody just how bad the British Army was. He said I never forgot the sight when we landed at Salerno of seeing men of the Durham Light Infantry who had only been in action for 2 days, just cowering in the bottom of their trench and refusing to come out, and we just looked at them and we couldn’t believe that a battalion which had not suffered that many casualties, that had just been shelled and mortared for a couple of days, had just sort of given up. And even today people are reluctant to acknowledge, in a way that knowing soldiers like Field Marshall Lord Carver, whom I used to spend many hours talking to about this, that although bits of the British Army in World War 2 got pretty good towards the end, the British Army as an institution was a disaster in World War 2. It was the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force that earnt most of the laurels.