Japanese on bicycles advancing on Singapore

The attack on Pearl Harbor was preceded by one hour by the Japanese invasion of the Malay peninsula. That operation was the first step in a drive to take Indonesia’s oil fields after the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan. In terms of the number of people involved the Malay offensive was far larger than the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After the surprise victory over the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were unstoppable for about a year. They took Guam and the Wake Islands around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and invaded the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, the Malay peninsula and after a few months captured Manila, Rangoon, Singapore and Jakarta. By early 1942 the Japanese conquered or appeased Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, Timor, the Bismarks, the Gilberts, most of the Solomons, and half of New Guinea. Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines were the only places that American forces held on for several months.

In a few weeks, the Japanese managed to dismantle an empire in Southeast Asia the Europeans took centuries to build. The resulting “Co-Prosperity Sphere” was the closest thing to a unified Asia the world had ever seen. The bold offensive gave Japan control over 20 million square miles of territory in Asia and the Pacific, five times the amount of territory controlled by Nazi Germany at the height of its of its power. At its peak the Japanese empire included the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Malaya, Thailand (as an ally), Burma, northern New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and a number of Pacific islands. By mid 1942, Japan was poised outside Australia and ready to strike.

David Powers of the BBC wrote: “The speed and ease with which the Japanese sank the British warships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, off Singapore just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor - followed by the humiliating capture of Singapore and Hong Kong - transformed their image overnight. From figures of derision, they were turned into supermen - an image that was to endure and harden as the intensity and savagery of fighting increased.” [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Invasion of Hong Kong and Occupation of Indochina

After Japan captured Canton in 1938. Hong Kong became a smuggling route for weapons bound for Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist forces. Anticipating trouble, two thirds of the population of Hong Kong had fled before Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of thousands more Chinese were deported to the mainland by the Japanese who feared a Chinese "fifth column."

On December 8, 1941, a dozen Japanese battalions invaded Hong Kong and captured the colony by Christmas Day 1941, after overpowering a British garrison guarded by British, Canadian and Indian soldiers. Despite pleas from the Hong Kong governor to "Fight on! Hold fast King and Empire" neither the Chinese or the British in the colony put up much of a fight.

After Germany captured Paris in May 1940, the Vichy French government gave the Japanese access to French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), which proved to be an convenient staging area for raids on China. Later is also provided Japanese soldiers with a staging area for their advance on Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma. For the duration of World War II, French Indochina was occupied by the Japanese through an agreement with the Nazi-supported Vichy regime in France.

Invasion of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore

fighting in Malaysia

Singapore was the Japanese goal in Southeast Asia. On December 8, 1941, the day after the raid on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Malaya and began bombing Singapore. The Japanese overran the Malay peninsula in about eight weeks, advancing on bicycles across the Malay peninsula on excellent British-built roads while the British forces in Southeast Asia retreated to Singapore.

On December 8, , the Japanese troops of two large convoys, which had sailed from bases in Hainan and southern Indochina, landed at Singora (now Songkhla) and Patani in southern Thailand and Kota Baharu in northern Malaya. One of Japan's top generals and some of its best trained and most experienced troops were assigned to the Malaya campaign. By the evening of December 8, 27,000 Japanese troops under the command of General Yamashita Tomoyuki had established a foothold on the peninsula and taken the British air base at Kota Baharu. Meanwhile, Japanese airplanes had begun bombing Singapore. Hoping to intercept any further landings by the Japanese fleet, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse headed north, unaware that all British airbases in northern Malaya were now in Japanese hands. Without air support, the British ships were easy targets for the Japanese air force, which sunk them both on December 10. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Capture of Singapore

Capture of Kuala Lumpur

On February 2, 1942, the Japanese entered Singapore, easily driving out the British and capturing the naval base there on February 15. It was Britain's largest defeat ever. The capture of Singapore exposed the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the Indian Ocean to a Japanese advance. When Hitler heard the news he said, “Yes, a relief, an immense relief. But it was a turning point in history. It means the loss of a whole continent, and one might regret it, for it’s the white race which is the loser.”

Describing the first Japanese soldiers he encountered, Lee wrote in Newsweek, "They were outlandish figures, small, squat men carrying long rifles with bayonets. They exuded an awful stink, a smell I will never forget. It was the odor from the great unwashed after two months of fighting along jungle tracks and estate roads from Kota Bahru to Singapore." [Source: "The Singapore Story" by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]

On the looting he witnessed in Singapore, Lee wrote: "I saw Malays carrying furniture and other items out of bigger houses...The Chinese looters went for goods in warehouses, less bulky and more valuable. The Japanese conquerors also went for loot. In the first few days, anyone in the street with a fountain pen or wristwatch was relived of it. Soldiers would go into houses either officially to search, or pretending to do so...appropriating any small items they could keep on their person."

The British in Singapore surrendered on February 15, an event Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Some 130,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were captured. Many Allied soldiers were imprisoned in the infamous Changri Gaol, and then transferred from there to work on the infamous Burma-Thai Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai as prisoners of war. Describing the movement of British, Australian and Indian forces, Lee wrote, "The march started on 17 February 1942, and for two days and one night they tramped past the house and over the red bridge on their way to Changi. I sat on my veranda for hours at a time watching those men, my heart heavy as lead. Many looked dejected and despondent, perplexed that they had been beaten so decisively and easily. The surrendered army was a mournful sight."

Japanese Take Thailand and Burma

In December 1941, after a Japanese assault that lasted only a few hours, the Thais surrendered to the Japanese. During the raid a bomb fell in the main post office but failed to explode. When the Japanese invaded Bangkok they immediately occupied Chinatown (Sampeng) and turned the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce into a command post. The Thais signed a treaty with Japan, allowing the stationing and transit of Japanese troops in exchange for the preservation of Thailand’s sovereignty.

In 1942, the Japanese unexpectedly swept into Burma from Thailand. Some Japanese units entered Burma from the jungles of northwestern Thailand where they had encounters with tigers and elephants. The Japanese won a string of victories against Chinese and British troops and finally captured the key town of Yenangyaunh near the Burmese oil fields, which the British destroyed before withdrawing.

The only seriously resistance against the Japanese in the Indochina campaign was in Burma, where the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, shot down dozens of Japanese planes. The Tigers flew a hundred P-40 fighter planes that were sent to China after the passage of the Lend Lease Act in April, 1941.

Albert John Harris wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “I fought in Burma and Malaya during WW2 and went there in December 1942. I lost some good friends being in the Infantry but looking back it was a fantastic experience especially in Burma. We actually used elephants there and in the jungle you could be 50 yards from a Japanese and not know they were there. When the Japanese attacked Burma their lines of communication were widely stretched. They had attacked so many countries and areas that they never had enough ships. After what had happened in Malaya and Singapore the Japanese thought they could frighten the British to leave India. By 1943/4 we had 1 million Indian troops (5 to 1 British). [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

Describing the fighting at the height of the British retreats from Burma in April 1942, General Sir William Slim wrote: "More Japanese were coming in from the east and were reported on the river. The situation was grave. At half-past four in the afternoon, Scott reported on radio that his men were exhausted from want of water and continuous marching and fighting. He could hold the night, he thought, but if he waited until morning, his men, still without water, would be so weakened they would have little or no offensive power to renew the attack. He asked for permission to destroy his guns and transport and fight his way out that night."

"I thought for a moment...Then I told Scott he must hang on. I had ordered a Chinese attack with all available tanks and artillery for the next morning. If Burma Division attacked then we ought to break through, and save our precious guns and transport." Later he faced his staff and "putting on what I hoped was a confident cheerful expression, 'It might be worse!'...One of the group, in a sepulchral voice, replied in a single word, 'How?'...I could cheerfully have murdered him." The fighting in Burma during the entire war was costly for both sides. About 180,000 of the 305,000 Japanese Imperial Army soldiers stationed in Burma died.

Capture of Indonesia and Attacks on Australia

Japanese in Burma

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Dutch declared war on Japan. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Dutch East Indies on January 1, 1942 under the pretext of creating the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere. During the last week of February 1942, the Japanese defeated American, British and Dutch forces in the Battle of the Java Sea. The victory allowed Japan to break the Allied defensive perimeter (the Malay Barrier) and drive the Allied naval forces out of Southeast Asia, extending Japanese control to what is now Indonesia.

The Japanese took Indonesia from the Dutch colonialists for the most part without a fight. The Dutch didn't have a large military force in the Dutch East Indies (the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans by that time). The Dutch navy in Indonesia was virtually destroyed. The Dutch colonial government abandoned Batavia (Jakarta) and surrendered it to Japanese forces in March 1942. Japanese soldiers marched into Batavia carrying the Indonesian “Red and White” flag along with the Japanese flag. Members of the Royal Dutch Indian Army that remained were taken prisoner and transported to Singapore .

Indonesia was not a major military theater in World War II. No major battles were fought. After two months of heavy fighting the Dutch colonial army surrendered, the Dutch navy was virtually destroyed, and about 65,000 Dutch and Indonesian soldiers were sent to labor camps. Some ended up working in the Burma Railroad in Thailand. Others worked in mines in Japan.

Some scholars have suggested that even before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was determined to go to battle with Japan because the American government feared that the Japanese would restrict their access to the vast resources found in the Dutch East Indies.

Entering Batvia

On February 19, 1942, Japanese began its attack of Australia, with Japanese carrier-based aircraft raiding Darwin. Japanese planes bombed Northern Queensland several times in 1942. Darwin was bombed 64 times and nearly destroyed. "I remember the scare," the journalist Russ Terrill wrote: "My parents spoke darkly of Oriental barbarism, and excitement rose in our town when fishermen sighted a Japanese dingy off the coast."

Worried about a Japanese invasion, American and Australian engineers and soldiers built the 1,000-mile road between Mount Isa and Darwin, linking north and south Australia, in 100 days. A DC-3 that crashed near Bamaga and seven people gallantly lost their lives, a Queensland government employee told National Geographic, delivering a cargo of what turned out to be spam.

Image Sources: YouTube, National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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