British View on Japanese Army


So, what did the British think about the Japanese
Army from around 1919 to 1941? This is of particular interest, since the
British suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese Army in the Malayan Campaign (1941-1942),
which lead to the fall of Singapore (1942). To give you a very brief overview of the importance
of the Malayan campaign, here some crucial numbers:
“The Japanese forces gathered to attack the British Empire in the Far East were not,
by any standard, overwhelmingly strong. […] The Japanese armada that approached
the shores of Siam (modern-day Thailand) and Malaya, contained no more than 26,640 men,
of whom 17,230 were combat troops. By comparison, Lieutenant-General Arthur E.
Percival, who was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya Command in May 1941,
had 88,600 men available in December 1941, including 19,600 British, 15,200 Australians,
37,000 Indians and some 16,800 locally enlisted Asians.” Despite this numerical superiority the British
Forces suffered a string of defeats, whereas the Japanese suffered minor losses and captured
a lot of equipment and supplies intact. “For a cost of 4,500 casualties, the equivalent
of a regiment, the Japanese had taken Malaya along with more than 300 guns, 50 carriers,
large quantities of supplies of all kinds, some 3,600 vehicles, 800 items of rolling
stock and about 35,000 prisoners.” Commonwealth forces were a staggering 138
000 of which more than 130 000 (94 %) were Prisoners of War. Whereas the Japanese had a total of around
12 255 losses of which about 5500 were killed in action. How is this related to the topic of this video,
well the defeated commanders noted that the intelligence about the Imperial Japanese Army
was an issue. Now, generally there were a lot of reports
and assessments produced by the British about Imperial Japanese Army, some were very accurate,
some less so and a few were mostly racist babble. There were three main providers of intelligence
to the Commanders in Asia, namely the Military Intelligence Department of the War Office. Then observers in China, which Ferris calls
“the old China hands”, so basically people that spent a lot of time in China in various
roles and thus be rather familiar with the region or basically observers in China. And then British observers in Japan, which
provided the most accurate assessments. Now, it is very important here to mention
that this is an assessment of the Imperial Japanese Army by British Army standards. This is important, since Armies look at different
aspects that Navies and Air Forces. This becomes more apparent if we factor in
the so called “national character” ascribed to the Japanese at the time:
“For a combination of genetic and environmental factors, Japanese were regarded as lacking
aptitude for machines, an effective sense of balance, and the capacity for innovation;
and yet as having high thresholds of pain, great endurance, and obedience to hierarchy. Air and naval officers prized the first set
of qualities far above the second; hence, these ideas led them to underrate Japanese
pilots and sailors. Army officers respected the qualities in both
categories; hence, these concepts led them both to praise and to bury the I.J.A. – [namely]
to respect its infantry but to criticise its more technical combat arms particularly armour.” Now, there were several important events that
had a major influence on the British view of Imperial Japanese Army, some of them positively
and some of them negatively. Let’s begin with a baseline, namely before
the First World War and the early Interwar years:
“In 1914 the I.J.A. was regarded as a formidable and modern army. Since it missed the military revolution forced
by the First World War, its reputation declined. In 1923 the British embassy reported that
‘the Japanese army to-day [sic!] is in essentials the same as in pre-war days, as regards moral,
discipline, endurance and military qualities generally; on the other hand, tactics are
still out of date.’” Although the Japanese encountered the strength
of defensive machine gun fire in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) it had a less crucial influence
than the experiences of the Western Front of the First World War. As such the Japanese failed to improve their
tactics considerably in comparison to other forces, as such this assessment was spot on:
“[…] between 1919-32 the tactics of the I.J.A. were obsolete even by the standards
of east Asia.” Now what happened in 1932? The first Shanghai incident in which the Japanese
incited disturbances via agent provocateurs. And following the outbreak of violence, the
Imperial Japanese Navy sent in infantry, which was heavily outnumbered by the Chinese and
thus the Japanese called for reinforcements. The Chinese put up some stiff resistance that
was not expected by the Japanese. Further Japanese reinforcements were sent
in, which underestimated the Chinese and took heavy losses, ultimately the Chinese withdrew,
yet the reputation of the IJA was tarnished, except inside of Japan:
“The emotional sensationalism shielded the army from criticism of its incompetence that
had needlessly wasted soldiers’ lives.” Although the public image was not tarnished,
the Japanese learned their lessons from this. And this was also reported by one British
observer. Yet, few shared his view. The Second Sino-Japanese War, which in traditional
historiography started in 1937, further lead to a decline of the British views on the Imperial
Japanese Army: “The bulk of the material emanated from
the IJA’s operations in the Sino-Japanese conflict that began in July 1937, and gave
rise to the conclusion that its fighting spirit was questionable. From the onset of hostilities, British observers
emphasized that because the war was unpopular among the Japanese populace, conscripts were
openly expressing war-weariness and a disapproval of the government’s policies.” Nevertheless, there were reassessments that
indicated that the Japanese learned and improved their capabilities, for instance the observers
in London: “In that year [1938], the M.I.D. [Military Intelligence Department] adopted
a formula which it retained, albiet [sic!] with important and implicit changes in meaning,
until December 1941: ‘The Japanese Army is a formidable fighting machine but probably
has not yet reached the efficiency of the major western armies. It is, however trained for and will probably
only be required to fight in Eastern Asia where it will have inherent advantages over
an opponent.’” Yet, there were others mostly those observers
in China that were very negative about the Japanese Army:
“All other evidence indicates that between 1937-41 the old China hands viewed the I.J.A.
as a third rate army, whose quality was so low that its operational characteristics were
irrelevant – they could never be applied against a western force.” One particular key incident was the Battle
of Shanghai (1937). At which at the Japanese Forces faced off
against some of the Chinese Forces including two division trained and equipped by the Germans. Now, in case you are surprised that the Germans
had trained the Chinese, better watch this video in which I have still hair. But back to the battle of Shanghai:
“That the Chinese managed to hold the line, and indeed counterattack successfully on occasion,
was unexpected, not only to the Western observers in Shanghai, but also to the Japanese.” Now, it is very important to here to note
that the Japanese performance in Second Sino-Japanese War was not bad at all. The problem was that the British had quite
a lot of contempt about the Chinese Armies: “The repetition of the statement that Japan
had fought an extremely weak foe in China and had not contrived to win complete victory,
together with remarks about Japan not being in various respects the equal of a ‘first-class
power,’ bolstered a comforting but erroneous belief that Japan should not constitute too
great a menace to British interests.” Now, there are some general themes in the
assessments that are important to keep in mind. First,
“In general, the better his knowledge of Japan, the higher an officer’s regard for
the I.J.A.” Basically, whenever observation was possible
– and sometimes it was very limited – the views changed, e.g., British officers serving
in China in 1937-38 had a good and correct understanding of Japanese capabilities with
artillery and armor. Ferris notes:
“Experience could wash away stereotype; for the British army in Malaya, unhappily,
experience would not arrive until Japanese tanks smashed its main line of resistance
on the Slim River.” Second, the assessments were often done through
a specific lens, which in some cases could be paper assessments meaning disconnected
from the reality: “British analysts observed the I.J.A. through
the lenses of preconceptions about war, Japan and its army. They assessed it by reference to two standards:
against the actual adversaries and environment of east Asia and against the paper conditions
of ‘first-class’ foe with the scales of equipment and the force-to-space ratios of
Europe.” If one looks at the Japanese, their artillery
was rather lacking in comparison. Yet, in east Asia the logistical situation
and infrastructure is quite different, as such the lack of firepower in artillery is
far less pronounced, because it would be far harder to transport and sustain bigger artillery. This is where theory classes with practice:
“[…] reports which emphasized the IJA’s backwardness demonstrated how the available
intelligence obscured one of its key strengths, namely, the efficiency of its infantry units. Their ability to advance long distances without
relying upon transport or fixed communications, and overcome enemy defences with light weaponry,
proved fatal for Allied forces in Southeast Asia during the opening stages of the war.” Now, the British produced a lot of reports,
assessments and opinions on the Japanese over the years prior to the war from those Ferris
distilled some general threads that we will take a look now:
“From a mixture of empirical observation and this bundle of ideas, all British observers
produced several important generalisations about Japanese ‘national character.’ They almost invariably, for example, regarded
Japanese officers as stupid by nature and narrow professional nurture. They universally praised the staff work and
condemned the lack of initiative of the I.J.A. They believed that the Japanese soul was characterized
by a mixture of repression, tension, and unpredictability which would break under pressure and take
the I.J.A. with it.” Now, these views might seem rather harsh,
yet, they were not completed unfounded, e.g., the Doolittle Raid (1942) where US B-25 Mitchell
Bombers that were launched from US carriers that bombed the Japanese homeland sparked
major reactions within the Japanese military although the material damage was very limited. What is more important here is the fact that
those observations by the British did ignore in some cases their own weaknesses:
“The mistake of British observers was not in finding these characteristics among the
Japanese, but in finding them there alone. An aura of hysteria also overlaid British
reactions to defeat in Asia during 1941-42. Here, as so often, their main error was not
underestimating the enemy but overestimating themselves. While this analysis of Japanese ‘national
character’ possessed some power, Britain was not in a position to exploit any of these
flaws during 1939-41: thus, the emphasis upon them led British analysts and commanders to
underrate their enemy.” Finally, British observers in China underestimated
the Imperial Japanese Army significantly. Whereas Observers in London, saw it as a second-class
Army in comparison to European armies, basically counting it as equal to the Italian Army,
but below the Red Army. “This rating was low but not far so by the
standards of Europe; and it was more accurate than the M.I.D.’s [Military Intelligence
Department] assessment of many European armies. The M.I.D. accurately defined the I.J.A.’s
ranking by Asian standards, although it overrated that of Britain in this theatre. Observers in Japan provided extraordinarily
accurate assessments of this issue.” In terms of combat characteristics all three
groups – the observers in London, China and Japan – had a reasonable to good grasp
on the strength and weaknesses of the Imperial Japanese Army. They mainly underestimated their ability to
conduct retreats and deal with unexpected circumstances. Overall, they had a mostly correct assessment
of operational capability of the Japanese Army, except for two significant oversights:
“None of these groups fully reported on the I.J.A.’s assimilation of firepower into
its style of war. In theory, by 1941 the quality of Japanese
material was below the standard of Europe; but it was above the Anglo-Saxon standard
in Asia. No observer, moreover, ever warned in explicit
detail of the power at the point of a Japanese attack, with its mixture of a razor edge of
infiltration, a stranglehold of envelopment, a brutal smash of artillery and armour, and
ferocious infantry assault.” This was due to the fact that the British
had limited opportunity to observe the Japanese when they were experimenting with these new
techniques. As such Ferris points out:
“These observers could see often contractionary trends but could not define the future of
Japanese tactics because the I.J.A. itself could not do so: that was the cause of the
experimentation. Even between 1941-45, Japanese tactics ranged
from a superb synthesis of firepower and manoeuvre to human wave assaults with the aim of suicide.” As you can see, although the British intelligence
and assessment on the Imperial Japanese Army was not always spot on, it was quite often
of good quality. Ferris notes that the Military Intelligence
Department “Handbook on the Japanese Army” summarized all material and provided information
on the Imperial Japanese Army’s quality that was accurate. Yet, at the same time the British commanders
in Asia adopted “[…] the least accurate and most disparaging
views about the I.J.A. on offer […]” So, why was this the case? Well, one factor was that the intelligence
was likely there, but not really consumed or if it was, it was not properly digested:
“The War Office’s official assessment of the I.J.A. faithfully reflected the views
of the M.I.D. [Military Intelligence Department], but neither
raw reports nor finished assessments circulated widely in the British and Indian armies, most
of whose officers ignored the topic.” Similarly, Fennell in his recent book about
the British Army notes that in that region there was a serious lack of spreading the
available information: “The insights and practices encompassed
in doctrine were, thus, not disseminated evenly throughout the Army. In some cases, it is questionable whether
these pamphlets were read at all. Apart from the Officer Cadet Training unit
at Changi, training centres or schools, where doctrine could be disseminated clearly, […], were
notably ‘marked by their absence’.” He adds that this was in sharp contrast to
the Middle East, where proper training on desert warfare was conducted on new arrivals. Yet, Ford notes that the intelligence staff
might also be to blame, he notes a report which indicated the Japanese Army capabilities
in advancing, river crossings, envelopment and reconnaissance. This report is usually brought up as an example
that the commanders ignored vital intelligence: “However, the report was prefaced with a
disclaimer that Japanese operations were carried out against an inferior opponent, where the
IJA ‘was able to take risks with her communications . . . which would have proved fatal against
a more enterprising enemy’. Thus, the conclusions were to be treated with
reserve.” As so often, there is quite some debate going
on. Another factor was that some commanders just
listened to the wrong guys. This was the case for Hong Kong Command. Here General Officer Commanding adopted tactics
that according to British doctrine should only be used against a third-rate enemy:
“This, in turn, implies that he expected the I.J.A. to act as the old China hands [Observers
in China] predicted – to launch nothing except massed and clumsy infantry attacks,
and only in the daylight. After the war, in effect he admitted as much.” Not for Malaya the situation is according
to Ferris quite complicated, since not much survived the war . Yet, it seems that the
main issue was that the intelligence was not read or ignored. It probably did not help that the intelligence
organization was a bit mess over there: “Thus, the army received assessments about
the I.J.A from an organisation controlled by the navy, through an intervening headquarters
with the most nebulous of function run by an R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] officer.” As an Austrian proverbs notes “wieso einfach,
wenn es kompliziert auch geht“ – roughly translating „why do it the easy way, if
it can be done in a complicated way”. Yet, this is not an excuse, since standard
works like the “Handbook on the Japanese Army” were received. Additionally, in mid-1941 there was a lecture
to senior British officers in Singapore by the military attaché in Tokyo. He made clear that the Imperial Japanese Army
was a real threat. Yet, it was not well-received. Overall, the perception remained totally off:
“The assessments of the I.J.A. accepted within the garrison in Malaya were even less
accurate and more disparaging than the formal reports of the old China hands [Observers
in China] during 1937-38 and its training for war dismally bad.” To conclude, British Intelligence had reasonable
and mostly accurate information on the Imperial Japanese Army throughout the Interwar years
and into 1941. There were some gaps, yet considering that
in some cases even the assessments of European armies were less accurate this is not surprising,
especially considering the language and cultural barrier combined with Japanese secrecy. Yet, as so often, if one does not listen or
is unable to listen, the best information is for nothing. As was clearly demonstrated by the Commanders
in East Asia, who mostly ignored the information or even didn’t bother to read it. Yet, I must add here that depending on the
situation and perspective, one could argue that the British intelligence failed. Since, part of intelligence operations is
the effective dissemination of intelligence, which obviously did not happen. Well, I hope you learned something new. Thank you to Justin for helping me improve
the final script and pointing me at various articles. Note any errors are still my own. Special thanks to Jack, Peter & Anna for sending
books that helped making this video. Also a big thank you to all my supporters
on Patreon. As always sources are linked in the description. I hope you enjoyed this episode, thank you
for watching and see you next time.

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