10 Facts About the British War in the East in World War Two

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

24 Jun 2019

After learning about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared 7 December 1941 “a date which will live in infamy”. But Japan had not concentrated all its forces solely on Pearl Harbor.

As Japanese aircraft wreaked havoc in Hawaii, Britain’s empire in Southeast Asia found itself subject to several Japanese invasions. What followed was some of the most vicious fighting of World War Two, as Britain and her allies attempted to resist the might of Imperial Japan in this new theatre of war.

Here are 10 facts about the British war in the East in World War Two.

1. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor coincided with strikes against British possessions in Southeast Asia

In the early morning of 8 December 1942 Japanese forces commenced their assault on Hong Kong, began an amphibious invasion of British-controlled Malaya at Kota Bharu, and also bombed Singapore. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the multi-pronged Japanese strike at these British-held territories in Southeast Asia was pre-planned and carried through with brutal efficiency.

228th Infantry Regiment enters Hong Kong in December 1941.

2. The ensuing Malayan Campaign was a disaster for the British…

British and Allied forces lacked the arms and armour to repel the Japanese invasion of the Peninsula. They suffered some 150,000 losses – either killed (c.16,000) or captured (c.130,000).

Australian anti-tank gunners firing on Japanese tanks at the Muar-Parit Sulong Road.

3. …and one of its most infamous moments occurred just before its end

On Saturday 14 February 1942, as Japanese troops were tightening the noose around the island fortress of Singapore, a British lieutenant at the Alexandra Hospital – the main hospital of Singapore – approached Japanese forces with a white flag. He had come to negotiate terms of surrender, but before he could speak a Japanese soldier bayoneted the lieutenant and the attackers entered the hospital, killing soldiers, nurses and doctors alike.

Almost all those captured in the hospital were bayoneted over the next couple of days; those who survived only did so by pretending to be dead.

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4. The Fall of Singapore marks the largest surrender in British military history

Some 60,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were marched into captivity following Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival’s unconditional surrender of the city on Sunday 15 February 1942. Winston Churchill had believed Singapore to be an impregnable fortress, the ‘Gibraltar of the East’. He described Percival’s surrender as:

“the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

Percival is escorted under a flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of Singapore.

5. British POWs helped build the infamous ‘Death Railway’

They worked alongside thousands of other Allied POWs (Australian, Indian, Dutch) and Southeast Asian civilian labourers in appalling conditions to construct the Burma Railway, built to support Japanese military operations in Burma.

Several films evoke the inhumane treatment of the forced labourers who built the ‘Death Railway’, including The Railway Man and the timeless 1957 classic: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943).

6. William Slim’s arrival changed everything

Supreme Allied Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten appointed Bill Slim Commander of the 14th Army in October 1943. He quickly started to improve the Army’s effectiveness in battle, reforming its training and introducing a radical new approach and strategy to combat the relentless Japanese advance.

He began orchestrating the great Allied fightback in Southeast Asia.

William Slim played a vital part in transforming British fortunes in Southeast Asia.

7. Anglo-Indian success at Imphal and Kohima was critical to this fightback

In early 1944 Japanese commander Renya Mutaguchi had ambitious plans to conquer British India with his feared 15th Army. To initiate this plan however, the Japanese first had to capture one key strategic town: Imphal, the gateway to India.

Slim knew Imphal was where his reformed 14th Army had to repel Mutaguchi’s 15th. If they succeeded, Slim knew the British would have a strong base from where they could commence their reconquest of Burma and quell the rise of Japan. If they failed, then the gates to all of British India would be open to the Japanese army.

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8. Some of the fiercest fighting took place on a tennis court

British and Indian units stationed in the garden of the Deputy Commisioner’s Bungalow at Kohima witnessed repeated Japanese attempts to take the position, at the centre of which was a tennis court. Stealthy night attacks by the Japanese forces resulted in regular hand-to-hand fighting, with positions switching hands more than once.

The Commonwealth forces held out, though it was not without cost. Major Boshell, commander of ‘B’ Company of the 1st Royal Berkshires recalled his contingent’s losses:

“My company went into Kohima over 100 strong and came out at about 60.”

The tennis court today, still preserved, at the heart of a Commonwealth War Grave cemetery.

9. The eventual, hard-fought Anglo-Indian victory at Imphal and Kohima proved the turning point in the Burma campaign

The 14th Army’s victory paved the way for the British-led reconquest of Burma and the eventual Allied victory in Southeast Asia. At the beginning of May 1945 the 20th Indian division reoccupied Rangoon, recently abandoned by the Japanese.

Lieutenant General Takehara, commander of the Japanese 49th Division, hands his sword to Major General Arthur W Crowther, DSO, commander of the 17th Indian Division, at Thaton, north of Moulmein, Burma.

The complete reconquest of Burma and subsequent recapture of Malaya from Japanese forces was only prevented by Japan’s unconditional surrender on 2 September 1945.

10. The Royal Navy played a key role in the Allied push towards Japan

In 1945 the British Pacific Fleet – centred around its aircraft carriers – aided the Allied island-hopping campaign towards Japan. The 5th Naval Fighter Wing, in particular, were critical — hammering away at airfields, port installations and anything of strategic importance between March and May 1945.

An image of a British Hellcat from the 5th Naval Fighter Wing in action.