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Kamikaze attacks

LAURENCE REES: How should we see the Kamikaze attacks?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: In many respects, from the Japanese view, the whole Kamikaze idea was much more rational than we sometimes care to admit. The first thing to be said is that after the Japanese had suffered a crushing defeat of their Navy in September 1944, in the months that followed their Kamikazes destroyed far more American ships than the Japanese Navy had been able to destroy with all its battleships and carriers and heaven knows what since 1942. So the first thing that has to be said about the Kamikazes is they worked, and they were successful. Secondly, I think we sometimes ignore how narrow the borderline is between the Japanese Kamikaze concept, which we find absolutely repugnant, and the sort of operations which western armies carried out for which we award Victoria Crosses and Medals of Honour.

Churchill delivered some of his most memorable speeches in praise of the heroism of those who died on the beach at Dieppe and the Dam-Busters Raid, and Captain Roope of the destroyer Glowworm who won a posthumous VC for ramming the cruiser Hipper. All these near suicidal actions in which you know it’s far more likely that you’re going to die than to survive; some of this is a bit closer than we sometimes like to recognise to the Kamikaze ideal. Of course, there is still that significant difference where people who are awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses have set forth knowing that they’re not likely to die. The Kamikazes knew with absolute certainty that they were going to die and although there were genuine volunteers in the first wave of Kamikazes they pretty soon ran out of genuine volunteers. After that there were all these tragic young men who were made to do it, and who went very unhappily to death. Yes, they did the training, yes, they did the business, but they were not volunteers who rushed to embrace death happily. Considerable pressure had to be put upon them to do it.

But, in its horrible fashion, only a fool would deny that it was a remarkably effective weapon of a nation in that desperate condition. At that point, what you can say, is that in Japan’s strategic plight, if you launched 100 aircraft against the Americans it was overwhelmingly likely that 80 or 90 of them were going to be shot down anyway by the Americans even if you wanted them to come back. By sending the aeroplanes on a one way trip where they carried much less fuel and much more explosives, you lost pretty much the same number of aeroplanes but you got a result.  Americans, who were in Okinawa for instance, were involved in those terrifying operations in which American Naval losses really got very serious indeed. However, while losses to Kamikazes became very serious there was never a prospect at that stage in the war that the Kamikaze operation could actually change the outcome; the Americans were still going to win. But the Kamikazes imposed an astonishing level of pain, especially on the US Navy, and at that stage a greater level of pain than any other method one can think of could possibly have done.

LAURENCE REES: I suppose what’s still hard for people to understand is this idea that you get into your plane - voluntarily or pseudo-voluntarily - knowing your fate.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: An awful lot of British and American aircrew in World War 2 got into planes knowing that it was more likely that they were going to die than they would come back and very often they were right; the Dam-Busters to name but one.

LAURENCE REES: I also wanted to ask you about Imphal and Kohima, because these twin battles on the Indian border with Burma were very signifcant, but scarecely known.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Imphal and Kohima and General Bill Slim are 3 names associated with World War 2 and Britain that deserve to be vastly better known than they are, but this is the trouble with being quote “secondary theatre”. Whenever you read Churchill’s signals about the Far East he’s always sending signals saying Mountbatten’s doing frightfully well out there in Burma, when actually it wasn’t Mountbatten. Mountbatten was sitting as Supreme Commander in South East Asia, down on Ceylon, and was simply visiting troops and wearing a white uniform and looking smart. The actual fighting was being done by the officer who many of us think was probably the outstanding British General of the war and certainly by far the nicest British General of the war: General Bill Slim. And Slim and Imphal and Kohima, in the spring of 1944 inflicted a decisive defeat on the Japanese Army in Burma. It was one of the toughest and nastiest campaigns of the whole Asian war and it was a terrific British and Indian success.

Bill Slim and his army, the forgotten 14th, deserve vastly more credit than they received. But part of the problem was that Churchill and his government didn’t want to be in that part of the world at all. They had no wish to run a campaign into Burma, and the British public was largely oblivious to what was going on out there. So those men who fought terrifically at Kohima and Imphal in terrible conditions, with the jungle, the weather, the Japanese and tactically some of the toughest battles and some of the heaviest losses that any British units endured in World War 2 get far less credit than they deserved. And after the Japanese recognised that they were beaten and retreated back across the border into Burma, Churchill then wanted, really, to do nothing much more about it. He did not want to go into Burma. What he wanted was to launch an amphibious campaign straight up the coast to Rangoon and then subsequently to Malaya because he saw no point in fighting in I think what he called the ‘dreadful fever ridden jungles’, because he couldn’t see the purpose. But the Americans were only willing to support a campaign in northern Burma because they wanted the land route into China opened. What they wanted, and their key strategic purpose in South East Asia, was to open the route to China because they were absolutely obsessively committed to try and make China a major player in the Second World War, which Churchill correctly judged was not a realistic objective.

Because that land route from India up into China lay through Burma, the Americans would support, above all with aircraft, a British campaign in northern Burma, whereas they would not support the amphibious operation down South which they had no interest in. So the British very,very reluctantly, after Imphal and Kohima, agreed to send this army on from the victorious battlefield across the Chindwin River into Burma to fight a campaign which Bill Slim then conducted brilliantly, which inflicted a major defeat on the Japanese. But which Churchill, all along anticipated, and which Bill Slim knew, was not going to change anything because they all recognised that the Japanese were suffering decisive defeat at the American hands in the pacific, so in the end the Burma campaign was fought and many men died to show willing to the Americans, and to a lesser degree because Churchill was determined that the British and Imperial Forces must be seen to raise the Union Flag once more over Rangoon and Singapore.