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The people were massacred without warning and without pity… The Kherrata gorges filled up with corpses. People were thrown dead or alive into deep crevasses.74 The ‘Arab hunt’ went on into June, and left tens of thousands dead.
British and Commonwealth losses in the North Africa Campaign are reckoned at 220
000. German losses are listed as more than 100 000 killed or missing, Italians, 22 000, Americans, around 18 500. Not everyone lost out, though. Tony Cliff wrote at the time that ‘during the war the capitalists and especially the big foreign companies active in the east
made tremendous profits’ – boosted by military spending. Cliff cited these examples:
the big Egyptian sugar company (a French company) ended the year 1941 with 266,000 pounds; 1942 with 1,350,000 pounds. The National Weaving Factories paid 11 per cent dividends in 1938 and 22 per cent in 1942. Misr Weaving Factories in Mahallah paid 7 per cent dividends in 1938 and 28 per cent in 1943. Misr Weaving Factory in the village Dawar paid 12 per cent in 1941 and 20 per cent in 1943. The Marconi Broadcasting Company paid 7 per cent in 1935 and 25 per cent in 1940.
Egyptian Hotel Companies paid 10 per cent in 1938 and 25 per cent in 1941. The number of millionaires in Egypt before the war was fifty, and in 1943, four hundred.75 Chapter Eighteen Collapse of the European Empires in East Asia Between the two world wars, Japan often played host to Pan Asian conferences.
Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen gave a speech in Kobe in 1924 contrasting Asia’s Kingly Way with Europe’s Forceful Way – though he did charge his hosts with following the European Forceful Way, pointing to the claims on China Japan made at the Versailles conference.1 When Japan did send troops into mainland China to face down nationalist protests, the established military power in the region, Britain, was for the most part sympathetic. Leo Amery, who would be Secretary of State for India in the Second World War, said in 1933: ‘I see no reason … why we should go against Japan in this matter’. ‘Japan needs markets’ Amery thought, and asked, stretching the meaning of Christ’s words, ‘who is there among us to cast the first stone and to say that Japan ought not to have acted with the object of creating peace and order in Manchuria and defending herself against the continual aggression of Chinese nationalism?’ Immediately identifying with the goals of imperial domination Amery said ‘Our whole policy in India, our whole policy in Egypt, stand condemned if we condemn Japan.’ At that time Churchill saw the same parallels: ‘China was in the same state that India would fall into if the guiding hand of Britain was withdrawn’, and he certainly was not going to ‘wantonly throw away our old and valued friendship with Japan’ by protesting against the incursion, but rather thought that ‘it was in the interests of the whole world that law and order should be established in the northern part of China’.2 Britain identified with Japanese conquests in China, but it was a different matter when they threatened the British Empire.
In December 1941 and early 1942 the Japanese swept through Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. The Japanese encouraged the formation of youth groups, student groups and other associations – often with a paramilitary flavour. While Dutch and English were banned, Burmese, Malay and Tagalog were encouraged.3 ‘Japanese Inspired Fifth Columns’ Just before the war, Japan sent around a thousand intelligence agents disguised as diplomats, journalists and businessmen all across Southeast Asia, among them Major Fujiwara Iwaichi and Colonel Suzuki Keiji. These two led the intelligence groups ‘Fujiwara Kikan’ (Fujiwara Agency) and Minami Kikan (Southern Agency) respectively. The Fujiwara Kikan brought together nationalists in Thailand and Malaya with the Japanese, while the Minami Kikan did the same in Burma. In the Dutch East Indies, Lieutenant Yanagawa Munenari helped organise the Army of Defenders of the Homeland – Sukarela Tentara Pembela Tanah Air, or Peta, for short. The policy had been developed by Research Bureau of the South Manchuria Railway – one of many political think tanks working between the wars.4 The Imperial General Headquarters Continental Directive of June 1942 instructed the Southern Army: ‘in important parts of the Southern Theatre, in order to facilitate the execution of new duties, we will train necessary armed groups’. British India Command Dispatches referred to ‘JIFs’: Japanese-Inspired Fifth Columns to belittle their native support.5 Burma Kokubu Shōzō an ex-navy man who had lived in Burma for 19 years (he published a two-volume history of the country in 1944) kept up his interest in the navy, as did the South Seas Association of Konishi Takehiko. Another policy group, the National Policy Research Institute’s Nationality Question Committee wrote up a report ‘Measures to be taken towards the people of East Asia – Measures for Burma’, which proposed that ‘the purpose is to free Burma, as part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, from the fetters of British Imperialism as soon as possible’.6 On the 15th of November 1941 the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Army and Navy Ministers and Chiefs of Staff at the Imperial General Headquarters Government Liaison Conference decided that ‘the independence of Burma will be promoted and this will be used to stimulate the independence of India’. Five days later, at the same conference, the same political and military leaders qualified themselves, saying that they needed to ‘lead and encourage the native peoples to have a deep appreciation and trust for the imperial army and to avoid any action that may stimulate unduly or induce an early independence movement’.7 Still, Britain’s promises to Burma were a lot less attractive: ‘At the moment, Burma’s great value to the democratic powers lies in its unequaled position as a base from which to launch a flank attack upon the Japanese in Thailand and Malaysia’, reported the Far Eastern Survey: ‘Moreover, Rangoon has the advantage of ample supplies of aviation petrol refined in the great Syriam works of the Burma Oil Company.’ Burmese Premier U Saw was refused independence, and said ‘discussions with Prime Minister Churchill have not fulfilled the high hopes of my countrymen’. The rules of diplomacy were tossed aside and U Saw was arrested, accused of aiding Japan, and exiled to Uganda for the rest of the war.8 Already, in 1940, the intelligence officer Suzuki had identified Aung San, a leader of the radical nationalist youth movement, the Thakins, or Dobama Asiayone (‘We Burmans Association’). Aung San had been at the Indian National Congress that year and formed his own Burma Revolutionary Party (actually a faction working within the Thakins). Suzuki was worried that the Burmese nationalists would make links with the USSR or China. Suzuki also made secret links with politician Ba Maw who at that time was a part of the British administration. After Suzuki helped him hide from British search parties Aung San agreed to bring fellow Thakins to a Japanese Naval Training Camp at Samah on Hainan Island. ‘The Thirty’ learned military strategy, drill, and to use machine guns, grenades howitzers.9 More recruitment grew the team to 200.
Iida Shōjirō, General in charge of the 25th Army that crossed through Thailand into Burma announced on 22 January 1942 ‘the aim of the Burmese advance of the Japanese Army is to sweep aside British power which has been exploiting you and oppressing you for a hundred years and to liberate all Burmese people and support your aspirations for independence’. Suzuki’s Burmese recruits – reformed as the Burma Independence Army in December 1941 took part in the invasion, going ahead of the Japanese troops, until their numbers were swelled to 12,000 by enthusiastic villagers. It was in fact a revolution against British rule, under the cover of the Japanese invasion. Put to the test the Governor’s rule failed, as the British settlers’ servants fled. Dorman-Smith learned to his amazement that without someone to carry away the shit – ‘that lowest of all human beings, who holds in his hands the difference between health and disease, cleanliness and filth’ – the colonists were helpless. With all authority ebbing away, the Governor looked for help but found that after half a century under British rule ‘there were no representatives of labour I can call into consultation’, ‘there are no responsible trade unions’.10 The Allies further damaged their support amongst Burmese by bringing in a Chinese army from the Kuomintang under US Commander Joe Stilwell – raising fears that China’s historic claim on northern Burma would be revived.
‘The BIA became the effective government away from the Japanese gaze’,11 and provisional committees were set up. Suzuki overstepped his brief by setting up a local Burmese administration led by Tun Oke, who had been one of the Thirty. The BIA continued to grow, till it was 200 000 strong. Thakin rule in the villages was a source of great pride to Burmese, but the Karen and other minorities who had been favoured by the British (to stymie majority rule) were persecuted, less by the Japanese than the BIA.
Clashes between the BIA and the Japanese Kempeitai led the Southern Army HQ to disband the Minami Kikan. A more pliable Ba Maw was made head of the Burmese government, and Aung San was told to disband the BIA in favour of a more regular and slimmed down Burmese Defence Army, which he did early in 1942. The Defence Army was supposed to be just 2-5000, and Japanese trained, but in rivalry with Ba Maw’s administration, Aung San recruited more and more people to the BDA so that it too blossomed and by April 1943 it was 55,000 strong. In 1943 Japan declared independence for Burma and the Philippines – as the Japanese advance was faltering.12 But on the ground, Aung San’s supporters were already bristling at the casual brutality of the Japanese.
Aung San opened secret negotiations with Britain in preparation for a second liberation struggle. Looking back General Iida regretted that ‘Burmese independence was only used as a means for carrying out Japan’s war’, and that Japan had only replaced Britain as the imperial power.13 Meanwhile, the British High Command needed to show that it would soon be back in charge in Burma. To this end the ‘Chindits’ – the 77th Indian Brigade under Brigadier General Orde Wingate launched a series of raids aggrandised as the ‘Chindit War’. Wingate planned to get behind Japanese lines using air drops for supplies. In February 1943 the Chindits pressed into Burma to sabotage two railway lines. One was cut, but it did not take long to repair. Wingate’s forces were scattered and had to make their own way back to India in small bands, the journeys taking many months. By any tactical assessment the raid would be called a failure, but it was lauded in the British presses, desperate for some good news, and to shore up Britain’s standing in the east. A second Chindit expedition to infiltrate with gliders ended when Wingate was killed crashing his into the side of a mountain on 25 March 1944.14
Malaysia and Singapore
Guy Wint, who served with the British forces in Asia, bemoaned the ‘local Malay population, giving a lead to other colonial communities of the empire, regarded it as politic to transfer their loyalties as quickly as possible to the Japanese’. 15 Major Fujiwara Iwaichi made links with the Malay Youth League, and the local leader Tani Yutaka, called Harimau, the son of a Japanese shop keeper. Anti-Chinese campaigns were popular with the Malays, who resented the traders settled among them. Quickly, the Japanese troops passed through the Malaya peninsula down towards the ‘Fortress’ Singapore.
Churchill had already written off Singapore, but committed his forces of occupation to a scorched earth policy of destruction, as he made clear in a telegraph to General Wavell on 20 January 1942:
I want to make it absolutely clear that I expect every inch of ground to be defended, every scrap of material or defences to be blown to pieces to prevent capture by the enemy and no question of surrender to be entertained until after protracted fighting among the ruins of Singapore City.16 Bridges, roads, rubber factories and plantations were burned and blown up ahead of the Japanese advance. London was angry that Dorman-Smith had let so much of Burmese industry fall into Japanese hands.17 In British eyes these were British possessions, though of course they had been built up with native labour, and paid for through native taxation and industry. The scorched earth policy and the war would cause the region hardship for years to come, and in India, it would set off a disaster.
On 10 February 1942 Churchill sent another telegram to Wavell, even more rabid than
There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end and at all costs … Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army was at stake.18 Churchill’s commitment to Singapore was qualified. He had already told Averell Harriman that he would have given up the colony if that was the cost of America’s entry into the war.19 After the attack on Pearl Harbour America’s support was no longer an issue, so Churchill demanded that troops fight to the bitter end, whatever the cost in civilian lives, to save, not Singapore, but the honour of the Empire. However, the speed of the Japanese advance on Singapore unnerved the British commanders, whose resistance collapsed. The Japanese sent pictures of Lieutenant General Arthur Percival’s surrender around the world.