Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Japan's Greatest Victory, Britain's Worst Defeat (A Book Review)

Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, Japan’s Greatest Victory, Britain’s Worst Defeat, Margaret E. Lake, translator, H. V. Howe, editor (Japan: 1952; New York: Sarpedon, 1993), 271 pages, 24 pages of photos and numerous maps. 

One summer, when I was in Junior High and spending a few weeks with my grandparents, I found myself reading a book that a friend of my grandmother’s had written.  If I remember correctly, she was the librarian in Pinehurst.  She was Dutch, but grew up in Indonesia and was a child when the Japanese invade the country.  Her little book (it was less than a hundred pages) told about her experiences living in a Japanese concentration camp.  It was my first experience of such a camp outside of Hitler’s (I’d later learn we interned Japanese too).  At least the Japanese weren’t gassing the Dutch, but life was brutal as they were worked hard and fed little and punished for any small infraction of the rules.   After reading that book, I read a book about the fall of Singapore and found myself, for the first time, learning about a strange and new part of the world.   Last month, as I was planning for my trip, I started looking for another book that would bring this part of the world back to life and discovered that the staff officer in charge of operations for the Japanese Army’s Malaya campaign had written a book.  So I ordered it and read it on the flight over to Indonesia.

First of all, this is revisionist history at its finest.  The author, writing in the early 1950s, credits the Japanese for having “liberated” much of Asia from its colonial powers.  There is some truth to that, as the colonial world did collapse after the Second World War, but Japan’s intention wasn’t so noble.  The author makes a great deal about Asians being freed by the Japanese, but their freedom didn’t come about until after the fall of Japan. At best, Japan was just another colonizer that happened to be of a similar race.  That said, I found this to be an enlightening book and would recommend it to anyone interested in the war in the South Pacific. 

Colonel Tsuji had read Churchill’s account of the war before he began to write his own account and often, throughout the book, attempts to correct Churchill’s misunderstandings about the Malaya campaign.  He gives the timetable for the planning of the campaign (less than a year from the point they began planning to their having captured Singapore).  Also misunderstood by the British was the Japanese ability to fight in the jungle as most of the units who participated in the Malaya campaign had been fighting in the north of China prior to being deployed south.  He is also openly critical of Japanese shortcomings, especially the jealously between the Army and Navy (although he notes that they worked together well in this campaign, such cooperation caused him and his commander grief from the powers back in Japan).  Furthermore, at times, it seems that Colonel Tsuji saw all the action pivoting around him as he describes times he was in dangerous situations.  While he may have inflated his own importance, I would expect that anyone who’d been in combat would perceive the battle primarily from their own position, which looms in their psyche. 

Tsuji also gives some humorous credit to the British, crediting their good roads and cheap Japanese bikes for the outcome of the campaign.   The bikes allowed the Japanese to out-run the “long-legged” British.  He describes how the Japanese army constantly threatened to move behind the British lines, forcing the British to abandon defensive positions quickly and allowing the Japanese to capture key bridges and transportation systems before they could be destroyed.   The Jitra Line, which the British thought they could hold for a month, while they reinforced Singapore’s defenses, was captured by the Japanese in five hours.  By the time the Japanese army had moved down the peninsula, it was stronger than at the beginning from captured British goods.  The operations portion of the campaign was also critical, as the Japanese worked quickly to rebuild bridges (when they captured sawmills, they’d put them immediately to work sawing bridge timbers).

The Japanese kept their eyes on Singapore.  It was a city with strong defenses along the beaches, but the back of the island wasn’t heavily protected at all.  The Japanese wasted no time pressing their objective, never allowing the British soldiers an opportunity to create a defensive position.  When the battle was over, a much smaller Japanese army defeated a much larger British army.   Tsuji also believes that the tough defenses on the seaward side of Singapore was a part of the reason for the war, along with the United States cutting Japanese oil imports in 1940, leaving the nation without fuel for her military.  

One of the interested things in the book is Tsuji’s belief that discipline is necessary and that Japanese soldiers who broke discipline and raped and pillaged were treated harshly.  I remember in reading the book on the fall of Singapore how the British, knowing what happened in other places where the Japanese army captured a city (such as Hong Kong), had all the alcohol destroyed before they surrendered, fearing  a drunken rampage (which never happened in Singapore).  He is critical of the breakdown of discipline that often occurred within other Japanese armies.   Tsuji also grieves for the lost of friends and colleagues, including a British officer who died in as a POW and asked him to get a message to his wife in Singapore.  He noted his attempt to find her after the capture of Singapore and learned that she’d fled the city on a ship that was sunk by the Japanese and was presumed dead.

The most amazing thing about this campaign is the timing and that it completely caught the Western powers by surprise.  The Malaya campaign, along with the campaigns in the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and the attack on Pearl Harbor, all began within a few hours of each other.  To be able to maintain such secrecy while mobilizing large armies and navies is truly remarkable. 

I will only be occasional posting here this summer as I am using another blog for my travels.  If you didn’t get an email of that URL, drop me a line.  I've been over here (in Indonesia) for ten days now and haven't taken the first Imodium AD!


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book and it goes along with your travels so well.

    I almost asked you about the imodium thing the other day - I'm glad that's not an issue. :)

  2. It is now acknowledged that the forces stationed in southeast Asia prior to the attack by Japan were there to hold against an uprising by the colonial natives. Therefore were scattered in a form designed for occupation making it impossible to draw into an effective fighting force.
    Without a doubt it was a catastrophe in military terms. But Singapore was not Ceylon.

  3. my first real brush with progaganda was reading the WWII memoirs of the Russian generals, like Zhukov. Wow, talk about revisiionist

  4. ha. great on the light...

    it is interesting to get different perspectives, even if it is revisionist....

  5. Sounds like a great book and I find it fascinating to learn of different perspectives and ways of thinking.

  6. I read this many years ago. I concur in the recommendations.