F is for… the Far East campaign

Long before the Second World War, Britain was an imperial power, with colonies across south and south-east Asia. Between December 1941 and August 1945, British Commonwealth troops, along with other Allied personnel, fought a bitter war against the Japanese in Asia. Often known as the ‘Forgotten War,’ with the troops serving there the ‘Forgotten Army,’ this is largely due to the fact that the events of the Far East were too remote for most people on the Allied home front.

Japan first entered the Second World War on 7 December 1941, when Japanese troops attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and later declaring war on Britain and the United States. The following day Japan attacked the British territory of Hong Kong. Demoralised, the garrison of Allied troops was quickly defeated, surrendering just over 2 weeks after the invasion, on 25 December.[1]

Japanese troops were also landed in the Philippines, Borneo, Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore and Burma (now also known as Myanmar), and several other Allied-held islands in the Pacific Ocean, thus bringing many of the Allied colonial territories into the war.[2] On 8 December 1941, along with the landings in Hong Kong, Japanese troops also simultaneously landed in Singora and Batari in Thailand (which immediately signed an armistice), and Kota Bharu in northern Malaya.[3] The purpose of these attacks was twofold; firstly, the campaigns would safeguard the oil, rubber and other raw materials the Japanese needed, and secondly, they would create a fortified perimeter around Japan, intended to be defended until the Allies surrendered.[4] By February 1942, British and Indian defensive positions were broken, and the Japanese forces had occupied Malaya.

Japanese troops mopping up in Kuala Lumpur during their advance through Malaya, January 1942

By 25 January 1942, just before the fall of Malaya, the Japanese had successfully advanced through Malaya far enough to launch a new attack against the island of Singapore. The British units that had managed to regroup after Malaya crossed to Singapore on 31 January, destroyed the causeway and prepared for a siege.[5] Unfortunately, the defences were primarily designed against a sea-borne attack, with the landward defences being far weaker.[6] Despite this, Australian troops fought of the first landing attempts on the north-west of the island, inflicting heavy casualties on the Japanese.[7]

However, the Allied troops were largely outnumbered by the Japanese, and eventually forced into a retreated which allowed the Japanese to gain a foothold on the island.[8] The British troops were trapped in a 28-mile perimeter around the city, with little hope of undertaking a counterattack, so by 15 February 1942 the British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. Around 9,000 British, Indian and Commonwealth troops were killed or wounded in the battle for Singapore, with another 130,000 captured across Malaya and Singapore, later called ‘the worst disaster… in British history’ by Churchill.[9]

After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese then turned their attention to Burma. When the Japanese troops began their invasion of Burma, many of Burma’s Indian, Anglo-Indian and British communities fled to the safety of India.[10] While the wealthy were able to leave by air or sea, hundreds of thousands were forced to make their way on foot across Burma’s mountainous border with India, causing thousands to die along the way from disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and even drowning while trying to cross Burma’s many rivers.[11]

British position in Burma was lost rapidly, and by early March 1942 the capital Rangoon and its vital port had been lost.[12] The British and Commonwealth troops left, along with Chinese army units, carried out a fighting retreat across approximately 1,000 miles of treacherous terrain.[13] The Allied campaign in Burma also ended in defeat, and by June 1942 the Japanese had driven the British, Indian and Chinese forces out of Burma.

While the fighting in Burma raged between the British and Japanese troops, American and Australian troops were also engaging the Japanese in New Guinea. Having landed in January 1942, Japanese troops had quickly secured the Island, along with the neighbouring Solomon Islands, and the island New Britain, establishing a major base at Rabaul.[14] However, the Japanese drive to capture all of New Guinea ended in failure when they failed to capture Port Moresby on the south coast. Soon after this, the American and Australian troops won the Battle of Buna-Gona.

American infantry cross a jungle stream covered by a machine gun, New Guinea, c.1943

A spring offensive was launched by the Japanese troops in 1943 to capture Imphal, a garrison on the Indian border. Thus, the invasion of India began, intended to prevent a British return to Burma. In order to isolate Imphal from a large supply base further away at Dimapur, the Japanese troops attacked the small village of Kohima, which became the scene of a ferocious and bloody fight.[15] By the time Allied relief forces arrived in Kohima, the defensive perimeter had been reduced to a mere 350 meters square.[16] Despite the arrival of relief, the battle continued to rage until 22 June, which the Japanese were forced to withdraw, battered and starving.

American and Australian troops counter-attacked the Solomon Islands and the island of New Britain, securing these towards the end of 1944 and allowing the way for the Americans to return to the Philippines. For the next ten months, American and Philippine forces steadily liberated various Philippine islands until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

After this defensive victory, the British planned a new offensive to clear the Japanese forced from northern Burma and drive them back south towards Mandalay and Meiktila. After fierce fighting, Mandalay and Meiktila were captured in March 1945, a decisive victory that allowed the Allied troops to begin planning new landings in Malaya, along with the recapture of Singapore.[17] However, these plans never came to fruition.

A Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, advancing with Infantry, Burma, 1945

After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the Japanese government finally debated whether to surrender. On 15 August, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of his troops, and by 2 September a surrender document was signed. However, although the war between the Allies and the Japanese concluded in 1945, the conflicts in Asia and the Pacific continued. For example, just days after Japan’s surrender, Indonesian nationalists declared independence from the Netherlands, and when the British troops arrived in Java, Indonesia to take the surrender of the Japanese troops and recover prisoners of war, relations between the British and Indonesian troops quickly broke down, A major battle erupted in Surabaya, proving that for some the war was far from over.


[1] Imperial War Museum (IWM), “Britain’s War in the Far East during the Second World War,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-war-in-the-far-east-during-the-second-world-war

[2] National Army Museum (NAM), “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[3] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[4] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[5] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[6] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[7] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[8] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[9] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign and IWM, “Britain’s War in the Far East during the Second World War,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-war-in-the-far-east-during-the-second-world-war

[10] IWM, “Britain’s War in the Far East during the Second World War,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-war-in-the-far-east-during-the-second-world-war

[11] IWM, “Britain’s War in the Far East during the Second World War,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-war-in-the-far-east-during-the-second-world-war

[12] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[13] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[14] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[15] IWM, “Britain’s War in the Far East during the Second World War,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/britains-war-in-the-far-east-during-the-second-world-war

[16] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[17] NAM, “The Far East Campaign,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/far-east-campaign

[Image 1] IWM, “Japanese troops mopping up in Kuala Lumpur during their advance through Malaya, 11 January 1942.,” HU 2776, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195083

[Image 2] NAM, “Japanese soldiers executing Indian prisoners of war at Singapore, 1942,” NAM. 2009-11-4-25, https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=2009-11-4-25

[Image 3] NAM, “American infantry cross a jungle stream covered by a machine gun, New Guinea, 1943 (c),” NAM. 1985-11-36-412, https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1985-11-36-412

[Image 4] NAM, “A Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, advancing with Infantry, Burma, 1945,” NAM. 1974-09-79-119, https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1974-09-79-119


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