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VJ Day 75:The Rising Sun Legacy of Liberation

In December 1941 Imperial Japan launched a devastating attack on American, British, Commonwealth and Dutch territories throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Focused on the war against Germany, Allied forces in the region were under strength, under-equipped and ill prepared to meet the Japanese onslaught.

Japan had been at war with China since 1937, drawing condemnation from the League of Nations and trade restrictions from the United States, including an oil export ban in 1941. Japan relied heavily on oil imports for its navy and industry and looked to secure the Western-controlled oil fields and other natural resources of Southeast Asia.

Japanese troops in the ruins of Shanghai, China, 1937

While the world watched German and Russian forces battle at the gates of Moscow and Rommel’s Panzers fight Commonwealth forces in North Africa, Japan struck. On 7 December 1941, without declaring war, Japan launched simultaneous attacks against the Western powers. A Japanese naval force attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor , Hawaii, while other forces invaded Thailand, the British colonies of Hong Kong and Malaya, the American Philippines, Guam and Wake Island in the Pacific. Within weeks attacks were launched against British and Dutch territories in Borneo, British Burma, the Dutch East Indies and the island of New Guinea.

Japanese aircraft prepare for take-off to bomb Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. US National Archives 80-G-182259, USS Shaw explodes, Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. US National Archives 520590

Malaya & Singapore

The first Commonwealth casualties of the conflict are believed to be the crew of a Catalina flying boat of No. 205 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF). On 7 December, while patrolling off the coast of Malaya, they spotted a Japanese invasion force heading for the British colony. Before they could radio a warning to Singapore, they were shot down by Japanese fighters.

Piloting the Catalina was Flying Officer Patrick Bedell, an enthusiastic amateur flyer before the war and member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. In 1936, Patrick had married Sheila Turney Edmett. They held their reception at Kuala Lumpur Aero Club. Their first child was born on 1 December 1941, six days before Patrick and his seven crewmates were shot down. They have no known grave and are commemorated on the CWGC Singapore Memorial.

Two months later, Sheila and her baby escaped the fall of Singapore and made it to India, but Patrick’s mother Edith, sister Jean and nephew Robert were not so lucky. Their refugee ship from Singapore was intercepted by the Japanese and they were interned on Sumatra. Edith died there in Muntok Camp in January 1945. She is commemorated on the CWGC’s Civilian Roll of Honour. Jean’s husband, Serjeant James Paterson, also died in captivity. Taken prisoner when Singapore fell, he was used as forced labour in Thailand and is buried there in CWGC Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

The Straits Times, 14 October 1936 & Commonwealth troops on exercise in Malaya in 1941 before war came. IWM KF 378B

On 8 December 1941 - the morning after Patrick’s ill-fated patrol - a Japanese force invaded Thailand, which quickly surrendered, later allying with the Japanese. Another force attacked Hong Kong. The force Patrick had seen landed in northern Malaya.

Commonwealth troops resisted the Malaya landings but were driven back by their scale and ferocity. On hearing news of the invasion, the British dispatched the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battlecruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers from Singapore to intercept the Japanese naval force. On 10 December both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers with the loss of some 840 servicemen. More would have been lost had the destroyers not remained in harm’s way to rescue the survivors, some 1,200 men.

Crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandoning their sinking ship. IWM HU 2675

The Japanese swept down the Malay peninsula towards Singapore, the keystone of British defence in Southeast Asia. Commonwealth forces -- Australian, British, Indian and locally raised troops -- struggled to combat the speed and strength of the Japanese assault, lacking tanks to meet the Japanese armour, outgunned and outnumbered in the skies above. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, was captured on 11 January 1942, and by month’s end Commonwealth forces had abandoned the mainland and retreated across the straits to the ‘fortress’ of Singapore.

Japanese troops advance though Kuala Lumpur, January 1942. IWM HU 2776, Japanese tanks knocked out by Australian anti-tank gunners near Bakri, 18 January 1941. IWM MH 31389

The Japanese swept down the Malay peninsula towards Singapore, the keystone of British defence in Southeast Asia. Commonwealth forces -- Australian, British, Indian and locally raised troops -- struggled to combat the speed and strength of the Japanese assault, lacking tanks to meet the Japanese armour, outgunned and outnumbered in the skies above. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, was captured on 11 January 1942, and by month’s end Commonwealth forces had abandoned the mainland and retreated across the straits to the ‘fortress’ of Singapore.

British command on their way to surrender Singapore, 15 February 1942. IWM HU 2781

The loss of Singapore sent shockwaves across the British Empire and the world. During the campaign some 139,000 Commonwealth service became casualties, of whom more than 130,000 were taken as prisoners of war, many of whom would die in captivity. Today the CWGC commemorates over 33,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women of the Second World War at cemeteries and memorials across Singapore and what is today Malaysia.

Hong Kong

The most isolated of Britain’s possessions in Southeast Asia was the colony of Hong Kong. Situated on China’s southern coast, the surrounding territory had been occupied by Japan during the Sino-Japanese war. Garrisoning the colony were some 12,000 British, Canadian, Indian and locally raised troops of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.

Newly raised troops of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, 1941. IWM KF 114, Canadian Infantry in training on hills of Hong Kong prior to Japanese invasion. IWM KF 189

At 08:00 on 8 December, Japanese infantry attacked across the frontier, while Japanese aircraft bombed Kai Tak airfield, quickly destroying Hong Kong’s limited air defences. Commonwealth troops tried to hold a line on the mainland but on 10 December a determined Japanese assault broke through. Forced to retreat, by 12 December all remaining Commonwealth troops had crossed Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island.

Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the island until launching an amphibious infantry assault on the night of 18 December. A fierce battle raged over the following days and nights through the streets and wooded hillsides of Hong Kong.

On the morning of 19 December, the Winnipeg Grenadiers of the Canadian Infantry battled for control of Mount Butler. Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn led a bayonet charge to capture the hill but was driven back. John and a small group covered the withdrawal and when their turn came to fall back, John single-handedly engaged the enemy while the remainder withdrew, before braving enemy fire to collect stragglers along the way to re-joining his men.

Japanese Infantry landing at Hong Kong, December 1941. IWM HU 2780 & Osborn, Library and Archives Canada PA-37483.

During the afternoon, John’s company was surrounded, and grenades began to land in the slight depression they occupied. Several times John manged to throw back grenades until one landed out of his reach. Osborn threw himself on it. His self-sacrifice saved the lives of many of his comrades. John was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the CWGC Sai Wan Memorial.

Sai Wan War Cemetery looking towards Mount Collinson. CWGC Archive

Exhausted and running low on ammunition and supplies, Commonwealth troops fought on, but with no chance of relief they surrendered on Christmas morning. During the battle, Commonwealth forces suffered some 4,200 wounded, missing or killed, while most of the survivors were taken prisoner.

Sai Wan War Cemetery

Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong. Over 5,800 Commonwealth service personnel are commemorated in Hong Kong, over 1,500 of whom died during the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941.

SUMATRA & JAVA

On 13 February, with Singapore all but captured, Japanese paratroopers spearheaded the invasion of Dutch Sumatra, forcing the small Commonwealth force there to withdraw to Java. Dutch forces fought on but surrendered on 28 March. A second invasion force approached Java but was intercepted by Allied vessels in the Java Sea on 27 February. Fourteen American, Australian, British and Dutch warships engaged 18 Japanese vessels. During the eight-hour battle the British cruiser HMS Exeter was badly damaged, while destroyers HMS Electra and HMS Jupiter were sunk, along with two Dutch cruisers and a destroyer. The Japanese ships suffered minimal damage.

With thanks to E. Beasley, With thanks to George Baker

The badly damaged Exeter limped to port. Fourteen of her crew had been killed. A Japanese shell had penetrated one of the ship's gun mounts, killing 30 year old Marine Harry Cox - a cab driver’s son from Torquay, Devon - and two other marines, before detonating in the aft boiler room killing 11 more sailors, including 20 year old Engine Room Artificer 5th Class Ronald Beasley, a tool maker’s son from Birmingham. They were buried in the local cemetery and after the war brought to Jakarta War Cemetery. On 1 March Exeter was sunk during the Second Battle of the Java Sea. Some 40 of her crew were killed; the remaining 800 men became prisoners of war.

Jakarta War Cemetery

Under cover of darkness on 28 February, Japanese forces made amphibious landings around Java. The island was defended by 25,000 Dutch, 8,500 British and Australian servicemen, including men who had escaped from Singapore and Sumatra, and a single 750-strong American regiment. They could not stop the Japanese advance, which was supported by tanks and aircraft. By 12 March the last Allied troops on Java had surrendered.

Borneo

The largest yet least defended British territory in Southeast Asia was on the island of Borneo. The island, which was divided into Dutch and British possessions, was invaded on 16 December. Defended by a single battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment, along with attached support and locally raised security units, there was no hope of defending the vast territory. Instead, Commonwealth forces demolished the oilfields and prepared to defend the strategically important airfield at Kuching, Sarawak. On 24 December Japanese forces landed at Kuching. Commonwealth defenders inflicted heavy casualties before destroying the airfield and retreating along the mountainous jungle tracks leading across the border into Dutch Borneo. On 29 December they reached Singkawang II airfield, held by Dutch troops. They joined forces and two days later supplies were flown in from Singapore by the RAF.

Japanese forces landing at Labuan, Borneo, Jan 1942. AWM 127907 & Kartar Singh, With thanks to Susan Shaw & Harry Fecitt.

A month later Japanese forces attacked. Leading part of the defence was Subadar Kartar Singh, son of Udham Singh and husband of Chandi, of Khusropore, Jullundur. Kartar Singh, showing complete disregard for his personal safety, was killed while directing the fire of Dutch mortars onto the Japanese positions, driving the enemy from their trenches. He was posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit. His son, serving alongside him, performed his father’s funeral rites during a lull in the fighting.

Subadar Kartar Singh is commemorated by name on the CWGC Singapore Memorial. CWGC Archive

Japanese forces pressed their attack and the Allies were forced to withdraw south across Borneo, apart from two platoons of the Punjabis cut off before they could retreat. They fought until their ammunition ran out, 70 men reportedly inflicting over 400 casualties. Only three Punjabis escaped.

The retreating men reached the southern coast in late February and early March after a gruelling trek through dense jungle and mountainous terrain, only to learn of the surrender of Java. With little hope of escape they surrendered on 3 April.

CWGC Labuan Cremation Memorial

We commemorate 377 servicemen of the 2nd battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment who died during the Second World War, one third during the fighting on Borneo. Most died as prisoners of war. The majority, including Subadar Kartar Singh, are commemorated on the CWGC Singapore Memorial, while 31 are commemorated at Labuan War Cemetery and 31 upon the CWGC Labuan Cremation Memorial.

Burma

On 14 December Japanese troops advancing from Thailand occupied Victoria Point on Burma’s southernmost coast. Further successful attacks were launched against the airfields at Tavoy and Mergui, which were supporting Commonwealth forces fighting in Malaya, placing the capital Rangoon in range of Japanese aircraft.

Only two weak divisions guarded Burma, with the expectation that Thailand protected its eastern border. Nevertheless, the main Japanese attack came westward from Thailand across the Kawkareik Pass. Commonwealth forces of the 17th Division were forced to retreat, and Moulmein fell on 31 January.

Commonwealth troops pulled back across the Sittang river. On 22 February Japanese forces attacked the bridgehead on the eastern bank. They were held off all day, but the following morning the bridge was destroyed with two thirds of 17th Division’s men and heavy equipment trapped on the wrong bank of the river. Fortunately, most of the men were able to cross the river when the Japanese withdrew to find another crossing.

Sergeant Albert Kilburn, Ossett Observer, with thanks to Steve Wilson & Tanks of the 7th Queen's Own Hussars in Burma, 1942. IWM KF 286

Following the chaos of the crossing, 26-year-old Sergeant Albert Kilburn, 2nd Bn., King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), was reported missing. Albert, a miner’s son from Horbury, Yorkshire, had joined the army in 1933, serving in Gibraltar and India before a being posted to Burma in 1935. The KOYLI had been in action since Moulmein and had been hard pressed during the retreat to Sittang. Albert’s family received word he was missing but it wasn’t until after the war that his death was confirmed; his father died without knowing what had happened to his son. Albert is commemorated on the CWGC Rangoon Memorial.

Commonwealth forces were reinforced but as Japanese units encircled Rangoon, British command realised the city could not be held. On 7 March, orders were given to abandon the city and Commonwealth forces attempted to draw back north, only to run into a Japanese roadblock in Taukkyan. Despite repeated infantry and tank attacks, the roadblock remained as darkness fell. The Burma Army finally cleared the obstacle next morning and escaped to the north, just as the last train packed with refugees left Rangoon. Japanese troops marched into the undefended city.

Japanese troops entering Rangoon station, March 1942. IWM HU 2773

The surviving British and Commonwealth troops, together with Chinese Army units, made a fighting retreat across nearly 1,000 miles (1,600km) of terrain. In May 1942, battered and demoralised by defeat and monsoon rains, the weary remnants of the British Burma Army retreated across the Chindwin River towards India.

CWGC Taukkyan War Cemetery and the Rangoon Memorial

From December 1941 to May 1942, over 13,000 Commonwealth service personnel became causalities, with some 1,500 reported as killed and many more missing. The CWGC commemorates in Burma some 3,500 for the same period, of whom 3,400 remain missing, their names inscribed on the CWGC Rangoon Memorial – a small proportion of the 26,800 commemorated there.

Colonnade of the CWGC Rangoon Memorial. CWGC Archive

Aftermath

In just six months, Japan had routed Allied forces in Southeast Asia, conquering an empire stretching from the borders of India to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin on the Australian mainland and raided the island of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean. Over 22,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women had been killed, tens of thousands wounded and over a hundred thousand taken prisoner, while many millions of Commonwealth civilians found themselves under Japanese occupation.

CWGC Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand: almost 7,000 Commonwealth and Dutch servicemen are buried here, all of whom died as prisoners of Imperial Japan.

Nonetheless, Commonwealth forces had escaped from Burma into India, Australian forces still held Port Moresby in New Guinea and on the island of Timor Allied servicemen conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese. In May 1942, a Japanese invasion force bound for Port Moresby was intercepted by an American and Australian naval force at the Battle of the Coral Sea which marked the end of unchecked Japanese expansion. It would take three long years of hard fighting to achieve victory over Japan, during which time many more tens of thousands of Allied and Commonwealth servicemen and women would die as prisoners as a result of brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum.