Pearl Harbor. Battleship Arizona engulfed in flames.


The Second World War really became a world war on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and turned vast areas of South-East Asia and the Pacific Ocean into yet another theatre of the war. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, 7:55 to be exact. The American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu (Oahu, Hawaii) was awakening to the duty. Aboard the pride of the US Navy, the battleship Arizona, the chaplain was unfolding the field altar, and the band was playing the national anthem, when the tune was suddenly broken by the roar of motors, and the whole base went aflame. Within minutes Arizona was engulfed by fire; her ammunition magazines exploded killing the entire crew. Her wreck kept burning for several days.

Japan joined European and American powers in their conquest for the world domination relatively late - in the end of the 19th century, but pursued her goals with double their aggressiveness. In the first conquests made in China in 1876-1901 Japan acted as an ally of the powers, but achieved rather moderate gains; the biggest ones being Okinawa and Taiwan (Formosa). Further penetration of China inevitably led to a clash of interests with foreign powers. In 1904-1905 Japan attacked and beat the weakest of them - Russia. The culminating point of that war was the victory over the Russian Far East Squadron in the sea battle of Tsushima. As a result Japan occupied southern Sakhalin, Kuril archipelago, and an important strategic base in Port Arthur (Lushun). She also augmented her penetration of Korea and Manchuria. The conquest of Korea was completed in 1910-1912. In 1914 Japan seized vast German possessions in the Pacific Ocean and established their strategic naval bases in Truk (Caroline Islands), and Rabaul (Bismarck Islands). Since 1917 Japan mounted the aggression against China, which was also aimed at the Soviet Union and Mongolia. Since 1937 Japan had been conducting a regular conquest of China, which was weakly supported by Great Britain and the United States. Eventually the whole Manchuria and vast areas in eastern China found themselves under the Japanese occupation. Britain's engagement in the European war, and the American policy of isolationism encouraged the Japanese leaders to undertake even bolder steps. In July 1941 Tokyo forced the Vichy régime to accept the occupation of the French Indochina - nowadays Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Governments of Great Britain and the United States immediately froze all the Japanese assets in their countries, and renounced trade treaties with Japan. The Dutchmen, who controlled vast areas of the Dutch East Indies (nowadays Indonesia), soon followed their action. It meant an economic blockade, which could spell grave consequences to Japan. The government of Hideki Tojo decided to break it by force. On 20 October 1941 Tojo issued to the American government a note, which was actually provocative, and included clauses impossible to observe. Among others he demanded lifting the ban on exports to Japan of certain materials, especially oil, as well as termination of support to China.

At that time Great Britain was in trouble in North Africa, and suffered from heavy losses in merchant shipping in the Atlantic, mercilessly hunted for by the German submarines. The Soviet Union with the utmost effort struggled with the German invasion, which nearly reached Moscow. And the United States were still in no condition to fight any war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still struggling with the consequences of the great economic crisis, and was afraid that America's engagement in war would cause social unrest. Whereas Texan oil tycoons and Iowa corn farmers could not comprehend the global character of the European conflict and its significance for the future of the United States and the whole America. They had no clue about the nature of the Nazism; it is not a coincidence, that among the sponsors, who helped Adolf Hitler to seize power in Germany, were such American corporations like AT&T, IBM, General Motors, Shell Oil, Dupont, Dunlop and many others. They saw the European war as just a bigger Far West brawl, and were thinking about the profits. Selling arms and supplies to both sides of the conflict earned them quite a buck, but they did not foresee the decisions made eventually in Japan. Even Roosevelt did not expect an attack without a declaration of war, and so Pearl Harbor came as a terrible surprise. On 7 December almost the entire Pacific Fleet was deployed at Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese forces were built around six most modern aircraft carriers; they were escorted by two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and nine destroyers. Japanese forces also included five midget submarines, which however did not play any significant role. The attack was carried out entirely by aircraft. When the Japanese forces were approximately 100 miles from the target they received a coded message: Niitaka-yama nobore! (Climb the Niitaka Mountain!), and 350 bomber planes took off from the decks of their carriers. The first bombs fell on airfields, and completely struck the American air force out of action. Within a quarter of an hour they destroyed 190 planes on the ground; another 150 machines were damaged so heavily, that they could not take off for a combat action. And when the Americans finally came to their senses, they only could scramble 40 fighters for a belated pursuit.

As the first wave of the Japanese attack succeeded, a triumphant report was radioed: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!). It was the coded message to the next waves to attack the port, where about 70 ships, from the biggest to the smallest ones, were anchored in a dense, peacetime row. It was an ideal target. Two most modern battleships, Arizona and Oklahoma, got destroyed. The former one blew up together with 1200 crewmen. The latter one capsized; she too became the grave for her whole crew. Another three battleships were literally demolished and stricken out of service for a few long years. Remaining three battleships were heavily damaged. Also three cruisers and three destroyers sustained damages. A major naval force practically ceased to exist within two hours - this long lasted the attack carried out by three waves of light bombers. The Japanese lost twenty-nine aircraft and five midget submarines. Fortunately three American carriers, one battleship, and six cruisers were not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, and avoided the disaster. But the Japanese possessed ten modern aircraft-carriers and ten modern battleships, and with the grasp of the superiority in the air they remained the masters of the strategic situation in the ocean, and secured operational success in further operations in South-East Asia.

Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor a radar station reported incoming unidentified aircraft, but the report was ignored - American staff commanders did not believe in such "magic" inventions. An hour after the attack local inhabitants still believed that those were some manoeuvres. Three minutes after the eruption of the Japanese volcano the Navy Department in Washington received a dramatic message broadcast from Honolulu: Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not drill. The officers at the Navy Department knew very well that this could not be a drill, but they only stretched their hands helpless. The technical possibility of an enemy sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was practically proved already during the manoeuvres in 1927, but nothing had been done to avert the disaster and nobody knew what to do. For this criminal negligence the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Husband Kimmel, was fired from his office. He was replaced by the skilful and energetic Admiral Chester William Nimitz.

American casualties in Pearl Harbor were bigger than all the losses of the United States in the Spanish-American War and the First World War altogether. But the worst was the easiness, with which the Americans were wiped out of the Pacific Ocean and the superiority the Japanese achieved in the main directions of their offensive - in the Philippines and Indonesia, lands rich in oil and other valuable strategic materials. They undertook that offensive simultaneously with the assault on Hawaii. On 7 December they attacked American airfields in the Philippines and destroyed half of the planes deployed there. Then they carried out seaborne landings unmolested. The Americans possessed only one division in the Philippines; local forces numbered 120,000 men, but those were mostly fresh recruits without proper training and equipment. On 9 December the Japanese landed in Luzon - the main island of the Philippine archipelago - and quickly overcame its defence. On 2 January they marched into the capital of the Philippines, Manila. The remnants of the defence, consolidated around the 31st Infantry Division, for three months held the nearby Bataan Peninsula. Also the garrison of Corregidor, the small island at the entry to the Manila Bay, fought gallantly, but it had to capitulate on 5 May 1942 as the last American stronghold in the Philippines.

The American base on Wake, an island located halfway between the Hawaii and the Philippines, fell earlier. Its 400-men-strong garrison, which possessed barely six guns and twelve planes, managed to hold for sixteen days and sink two enemy destroyers. Also disastrous was the defence of Hongkong, Indonesia, and Malaya with Singapore - the most important fortress guarding British interests in that part of the world and dominating over the sea communications between the Far East, and England and her dominions of Australia and New Zealand. Yet before the outbreak of the hostilities in the Far East the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, decided that one needed to give the Japanese an unequivocal warning. At the price of weakening the British forces in the Atlantic he sent to Singapore the Force Z made of two most modern capital ships - Prince of Wales and Repulse. They arrived there on 2 December escorted by four destroyers. However they did not have an aircraft cover, since the carrier Ark Royal detached for this purpose was sunk in the Mediterranean by a German submarine. And the carrier Indomitable designated to replace her was damaged in an accident. One can say that in 1941 bad luck was haunting the British Force Z just like the Russian Far East Squadron in 1905. Whatever could fly then over Malaya and Singapore happened to be withdrawn to Egypt to reinforce the African front, and in the whole Far East the British possessed less than 150 old junks. Meanwhile already on 8 December the Japanese landed in the Malayan Peninsula some 500km north to Singapore. The commander of the Force Z, Adm. Tom Philips, decided to sail out and attack enemy convoys. His decision was justified by cloudy weather conditions, but when his armoured colossi were already far from their base, the weather suddenly cleared. The Japanese air force had without a trouble sighted the British ships and sent a substantial number of bombers to the area of their operation. On 9 December both formidable ships, the pride of the Royal Navy, met their fate off Kuantan. An eyewitness to those events and later a British naval historian, Ian Morrison, noted the state of minds, which accompanied them:

With what mingled emotions we watched the two ships as they steamed majestically to their anchorage of the Naval Base! Those strange grey shapes on the skyline, they were symbols of our new-found strength, concrete expressions of the confidence with which we faced any emergency that might arise in the Pacific. Singapore's potential naval significance was at last becoming reality. [Morrison I. (1943).]

Those mingled emotions were not to last too long. Soon Morrison noted emotions of completely different nature: I still remember the chill sense of calamity which was caused by the loss of these two ships. It was worse than calamity. It was calamity that had the premonition of further calamity... [Morrison I. (1943).]

The chill sense of calamity did not fail Morrison. Singapore lost its significance; it was now an air and naval base deprived of air and naval forces. Japanese infantry, drilled for fights in extreme conditions and barbarously cruel with the enemy, was making its way across the jungle of the Malay Peninsula with complete disregard to the weak resistance of smallish British units. The Japanese intended to take Singapore from the land - the direction never seriously considered by the British command. The whole concept of the Singapore fortress was built on the assumption that an enemy would come from the sea, from the south. Meanwhile the enemy was coming from the north. The fortress was generously equipped and supplied to stand a year-long siege, but it missed a very important element - a sensible operational command and determination of the troops. The British capitulated on 15 February 1942. It was the greatest British military disaster since the battle of Yorktown in 1781; 70,000 soldiers marched into Japanese captivity. John Frederick Charles Fuller in his Second World War has made a poignant summary of the Malayan campaign:

Unlike the great campaigns fought in the West, in which grand tactics dominated, the Japanese Malayan campaign was a triumph of minor tactics. Excepting aircraft, machines were often an encumbrance rather than an assistance. Thus (...) the primitive two-wheeled carts proved far more accommodating than the British lorries which were road-bound. Tactically, this meant that the British troops had to operate within reach of the roads, for otherwise they could not be supplied, whereas the Japanese were not so restricted. Not only could the Japanese more frequently than not by-pass their enemy, but also they could judge beforehand which would be the lines of advance and retreatment. Further, whereas the Japanese soldier could live on rice alone and generally could subsist upon what he foraged, the far higher standard of living of the British soldier virtually put him out of court. From the point of view of his stomach, he simply could not compete with his antagonist. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

Earlier the British had had to surrender Hongkong being defended by two Canadian infantry regiments. Hongkong capitulated on the very Christmas Day, 25 December 1941. Soon after the Japanese struck against Borneo (Kalimantan) and Celebes (Sulawesi), and finally against Java - the main island of the Dutch East Indies archipelago. In defence of Java the joint American, British, Dutch, and Australian (ABDA) naval forces commanded by the Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman fought on 27 February 1942 in the Java Sea the first big sea battle in the Pacific theatre. It was supposed to prevent the Japanese landing. However the co-operation and communication among the Allies failed. ABDA forces were crushed, and the brave Admiral Doorman perished together with his flagship, cruiser De Ruyter. Fanatics in Tokyo triumphed. They believed that they almost won the war they unleashed. Yet this was all but a pathetic illusion. The attack on Pearl Harbor, and further Japanese advance, did what Roosevelt failed to do. It shook and awoke America. In fact the USA were still reluctant to join the war against the Axis powers, but the matter was settled by Hitler's megalomaniac declaration of war on the United States on 11 December 1941; Benito Mussolini duly followed his master on 14 December. Fanatics in Berlin and Rome hoped that the Japanese would keep the Americans at bay in the Pacific, and would not let them intervene in the European war. Moreover Hitler hoped that the Japanese would open a second front against the Soviet Union in the Far East. But those calculations also proved elusive. American human, military and economic potential greatly contributed to the Allied cause in both theatres of the Second World War. But even American economy needs time to switch from peacetime to wartime production. Meanwhile the Japanese were dealing further blows. Their next goal was Burma.

The occupation of Burma was one of the main strategic objectives of the Japanese offensive. One reason was Burma's minerals and food supplies, as well as its location next to Indies. Another reason was that via Burma ran the only land route, along which the Allies supplied China with war materials. From Calcutta in the Indies equipment and supplies were shipped to Rangoon, the capital and main port of Burma. From there they were transported by railway to the north, to the town of Lashio near the Chinese border. There began the proper Burma Road. Along its 1200km-long serpentines, traversing the mountains and passes, war materials were transported in lorries to Kunming in Yunnan province. The road was built in 1937-1939 during the Japanese invasion of China, and its importance grew as the Japanese gradually occupied almost all the Chinese sea coasts. Burma borders with Indochina in a relatively small sector, and the river Mekong divides those two lands. The Siamese state is located between them. But as early as in December 1941 the government of Siam (Thailand) subordinated itself to the Japanese, who could introduce their troops to the Burmese-Siamese border. From there it was close to Rangoon.

The defence of the areas stretched along 2300km from Rangoon to Lashio was entrusted to two incomplete British divisions and two Chinese armies. But the latter ones were armies only by name. Each was comprised of three so-called divisions of less than 3000 men. According to the British regulations those armies made up to one full division, but worse equipped. Moreover, the commander of those so-called armies was subordinated operationally to the British command in Burma (Gen. Harold Alexander), but he also had to consider orders from the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who resided in the distant Chungking. One can easily imagine what kind of troubles such a situation could pose.

On 21 January 1942 the Japanese overcame weak outposts guarding the Burmese-Siamese border in the mountains, took Moulmein, and started crossing the three Burmese rivers running to the Andaman Sea. The British failed to consolidate their defences along those rivers. They delivered a substantial defence only along the Bilin, but anyway had to abandon that position in five days. The enemy possessed absolute command in the air. Rangoon, ravaged by air raids, had to be abandoned on 7 March. The general retreat northward began. Alexander divided his forces into two columns, which marched along parallel routes. The left one marched along the main Burmese river, Irrawaddy, and the right one - along the Sittang to meet the Chinese troops marching out southward from Mandalay. But the Japanese reached the Irrawaddy on 22 March near the town of Prome. The British left column left the town and made for the oil fields Yenangyaung. There they set the pits afire and destroyed facilities, so they could not serve the invaders. They also took with them a crowd of civilian refugees, who fled as far as from Rangoon from the Japanese barbarity. The word about the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese soldatesque, about the abuse of the population of the occupied areas, raped women, castrated men, murdered oldies and POW's unfortunately were not a gossip so often during many wars spread around in panic. They truly reflected the facts. For example after the taking of Bataan American prisoners were forced to a 130km-long march through the jungle, during which they were given no food or water. Most of the prisoners perished, the remnants reached the destination extremely exhausted. That was the infamous Bataan Death March. The brutal treatment of the POW's was justified by the Bushido - the unwritten code of honour of the Japanese knights, the samurai. According to it a warrior needs to fight till death; once taken prisoner he loses his dignity and is not worth human treatment. In name of that principle the knights of the Bushido committed as many crimes as their comrades in arms under the sign of the Death Head.

Along the Irrawaddy, and then its western tributary Chindwin, the left British column was retreating towards the town of Kalewa, close to the Indian frontier. But the right column at the same time got into no means troubles. On 3 April Mandalay, the main city of central Burma immortalized in Kipling's writings, as well as the main defence position there and the destination of the right column, was literally levelled by heavy bombardments. The defenders still held its ruins, but fresh Japanese forces struck from northern Siam. They caught by surprise one of the Chinese armies, and literally wiped it out so completely that even nowadays its fate remains obscure. On 29 April the Japanese reached the Burma Road and cut it at Hsipaw making further defence of Burma pointless. On 1 May Anglo-Chinese forces left Mandalay leaving behind destroyed bridges across the Irrawaddy at Ava. The Chinese headed north-east, towards their country, while the British headed north-west, after the left column to Kalewa. The retreat was made in worsening conditions and deteriorating possibility of using vehicles. The British reached Kalewa on 15 May. There they had to destroy all the vehicles and heavy equipment and started the march across the jungle using rare mule trails. It was a murderous march, especially for the civilians, and there were as many as 150,000 of them. The army could not handle such a mass of refugees. Epidemics of pox, typhoid and diarrhoea ravaged. British soldiers were not trained for such conditions, for long marches on foot, starvation, permanent vigilance, and psychical stress. The pioneer times of Rudyard Kipling were long gone. Colonial troops, for decades used to the comforts of the garrison life, well-paid and well-fed, and regularly supplied with goods, proved no match to the Japanese ragamuffins, who were fed with a handful of rice, kept in strict and blind subordination to officers, and whose only hope for better was, like in the darkest Middle Ages, the perspective of unlimited murder, rape, and booze.

The Chinese, who retreated from Mandalay, did not make it to their country's frontiers. Then their commander decided to turn westward and also reach the Indies. In the town of Indaw, located between Irrawaddy and Chindwin, they started an exhausting march across the Chin mountain range, and eventually reached the Indian Imphal on 20 May. The British crossed the borders of their colony on 28 May. For the time being they could feel safe: the Japanese could not afford such a long pursuit. This was after all one of the sources of the Japanese defeat. The invaders failed to annihilate Allied troops, whose brave and keen commanders managed to save them from the deadly trap. Once properly re-organized and armed, they again formed an armed force ready to stand and fight. We took a hell of a beating, noted Gen. Joseph Stilwell - at that time the American liaison officer between the British and the Chinese, and one of the commanders of the retreat across the jungle. But it was the beating, which only steeled Allied troops and commands.

The Japanese strategy was based on obsolete experiences of the previous Japanese wars. Wars, which were actually local conflicts like the war with Russia in 1904-1905. As the Japanese built local superiority in one place, they achieved a local success, which resulted in the occupation of a certain territory and gaining certain concessions. The new war, absolutely global and absolutely total, could not end up in such concessions. It could only end up in the total destruction of one of the antagonists. The authors of the Japanese war plans failed to understand it. They assumed, that after the operational success they would seize some territories valuable from the point of view of their economic exploitation, and for decades nobody would bother to take them back. For those conquests they expanded and modernized the Japanese armed forces, and prepared them for a "Great Thrust". They had actually dealt that thrust; what they did not foresee was that after the Great Thrust ought to come long, incessant and ever mounting effort to balance and finally outbalance the enemy's similarly long, incessant and ever mounting effort. Japan simply could not afford such an effort; her economic potential fell way behind the economic potential of the powers she attacked. One has to realise, that at that time Japan was not the world's leading economic power. In 1931 her industrial production placed her on the same level with Poland and Romania. The following years brought significant growth of the industrial indicators, but mostly thanks to the military production. And the wealth was concentrated in the hands of so-called zaibatsu - few family clans, which controlled the Japanese industry and finances. On 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they possessed 2700 modern aircraft. ABDA forces altogether possessed only 1300 aircraft, mostly obsolete. But those unfortunate proportions were bound to change quickly. Similar was the situation in the displacement of the navy fleets.

After the seizure of Burma and Indonesia invaders staged demonstrations along the east coasts of the Indies and Ceylon, bombarding ports, sinking merchant ships and disorganizing sea communications. But the actual war effort was turning towards Australia, where the Japanese already in March had started advance through the jungles of New Guinea. They properly assumed that the Americans would start the recovery of the lost territories right from Australia. They even bombed the northern Australian coasts with the Australian northernmost port Darwin. Yet the Allies were already coming to their senses after defeats. To divert Japanese forces from the communication routes between Hawaii and Australia, the Americans undertook bombings of the islands in the Japanese hands. And on 18 April 16 heavy bombers taking off from the aircraft-carrier Hornet, and commanded by Gen. James Doolittle, bombed Tokyo. Material damages were not significant, but the moral impact was tremendous. The Japanese realised that their islands were not unreachable to the Americans and since then kept substantial air force for defence of the metropolitan Japan. Yet they did not give up the next goal, which was the invasion of Australia.

On the turn of April and May 1942 two big sea convoys set off south-east. One headed towards Port Moresby on New Guinea, which is located vis-á-vis the Australian York peninsula. The other one headed to Tulagi in the Solomons archipelago. The convoys were escorted by an aircraft-carrier and six cruisers. To fight a possible American counter-action, a task force was also formed, which comprised two carriers, four cruisers, six destroyers and several submarines. As the Americans had broken Japanese secret codes, they had time to scramble a strong squadron comprised of two carriers, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers. They met the Japanese in the Coral Sea, between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

On 4 May the Japanese landed in Tulagi and that was their last success. On 7 May American aircraft attacked the Japanese forces and sank one aircraft-carrier. In their turn the Japanese counter-attacked and sank the carrier Lexington. The Americans continued the battle though and damaged the other Japanese carrier so heavily, that she lost the capability to maintain aircraft. Within two days both sides lost some ships, among which were also cruisers. The Americans succeeded in sinking several Japanese transports with landing troops. But the opposing forces did not even once approach close enough to open fire. The battle in the Coral Sea was the first sea battle in the history of human conflicts waged entirely by the air forces. Thanks to stronger anti-aircraft artillery of their ships the Americans sooner exhausted the enemy. The Japanese gave up plans to land in Port Moresby and withdrew from the Coral Sea. In Tokyo nobody supposed yet that the battle in the Coral Sea actually meant the end of the Japanese strategic initiative. The Japanese volcano could not belch deadly lava any more; it could only smoke intensively for a while.