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Pacific FrontJanuary 1942

Japanese 1942 defeat of the Allies

How could the Japanese defeat the Allies in 1942?
Starting with their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Japanese embarked on a massive offensive against the Allies in the Pacific and across South East Asia. Why were they so successful so quickly?

Video Transcript

Commentary:  In the early months of 1942, across the jungles and waterways of South East Asia, the Japanese imperial army would achieve something many Westerners had believed was impossible. Often fighting in the most horrendous conditions imaginable they would defeat the Allies in battle. It was an achievement that was based on years of careful preparation. 

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: They invested heavily in the army and the navy during the inter-war period, modelling themselves very much on the old Prussians, having a War Minister who was responsible only to the Emperor. So they built this heavily funded, efficient, motivated army and navy and it had no shortage of funds and equipment. What happens is that they overwhelm these US or Dutch or French or British contingents wherever they find them who are relatively demoralised and distracted by events in Europe and have had their numbers and equipment drawn down because of the demands of the war in Europe. The Japanese meanwhile weigh in at full strength, full readiness and full motivation.


Commentary: The Japanese offensive was bold and ambitious. Starting in December 1941 they simultaneously moved on Hong Kong and attacked the Philippines, Borneo, Thailand and Malaya. Faced with this deluge from the Japanese, Allied forces appeared, by the start of 1942, to be crumbling. 


Sir Max Hastings: 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. 


Commentary: And that was certainly true here in Malaya, where the Japanese made swift progress south towards Singapore, the most important British base in South East Asia. By the middle of February 1942 soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army under the command of Lieutenant General Yamashita had forced the British to surrender.


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.


Commentary: Despite outnumbering the Japanese by two to one, more than 60,000 British, Empire and Commonwealth troops surrendered to General Yamashita at Singapore. But it wasn’t just in Singapore that the Japanese triumphed. A few weeks later they conquered the Philippines and captured tens of thousands of Americans and their allies. And notoriously the Japanese were to treat their prisoners of war with great brutality. 


Professor Akira Iriye: They no longer have the sense that they have to be admired by the West, and coupled with that is the sense that because the Japanese prefer death than to be taken prisoner, they tended to despise those who were taken prisoners.


Commentary: 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were sent to work here, in the jungles of Thailand and Burma, on projects like the Bridge over the River Kwai and the infamous Death Railway. More than one in four of these Allied prisoners of war would die here.


Dr. Rowley Richards: What happened was that after a fairly short period of time everybody and by that I mean literally 99.9% of the troops had malaria, dysentery, beriberi. Malaria, for instance, is characterised by shivering, very high temperature and violent shivering, which is pretty grim. Cholera made dysentery look like constipation in that there would be a motion every ten or fifteen minutes literally. That would go on for hours until the patient died.


Sir Max Hastings: The Japanese treatment, not only of their military prisoners but also civilians, represented this very fundamental aspect of Japanese military culture that far from displaying respect or mercy for the weak, the weak deserved to be treated with contempt. Only strength was valued.


Commentary: By the Summer of 1942 the Japanese had established a vast new empire. But holding onto this empire was going to prove a good deal more difficult for them than gaining it had ever been.