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The Collapse of Empires

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In December 1941, it was as if Hachiman, the Japanese god of warriors and protector of Japan, had straddled the home islands, gathered up the armed might of Japan in his hands and with a mighty heave flung the ships, aircraft, and troops south and west over the Pacific Ocean like so many stones thrown into a lake. In rapid-fire succession and across an 8,000-mile arc, a scope so mind-boggling that it seemed only through divine – or demonic – assistance that it could be achieved, large Japanese forces attacked Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Malay Peninsula. With the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor crippled and its senior commanders demoralized, the Netherlands conquered and its government in exile, and Great Britain fighting for its life in the Atlantic and North Africa, Japan was poised to seize the Philippines, sunder the portions of the British and Dutch empires in the region, and incorporate them into its “Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

“As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. . . . Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere [were] weak and naked.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill upon receiving news that the Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk

British naval strategy in the region linked itself to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. With that fleet crippled, the bankruptcy of that strategy became manifest. Based in Singapore – touted as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” – the British Eastern Fleet was responsible for protecting British colonies from Hong Kong to India. Even when reinforced by the modern battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse, its force was laughably inadequate, consisting of about twenty warships and just one light carrier that was assigned anti-German raider patrols in the Indian Ocean. Aircraft assets were equally pitiful. The majority of the fighter force comprised some 60 Brewster Buffalo fighters, which were easy meat for the Japanese Zeroes, and better Hurricane fighters, which arrived too late anyway to affect the outcome, were also outclassed by the faster, more maneuverable Zero. The Dutch Navy in Batavia on Java was little better. It had 24 submarines, but just five cruisers, eight destroyers, and some additional support ships.

HMS Repulse

HMS Repulse follows HMS Prince of Wales out of Singapore harbor. In less than two days, both ships would be 30 fathoms down on the bottom of the South China Sea. Imperial War Museum photo

On the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack (December 8 in Singapore since it was on the other side of the International Date Line), Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita and the Japanese 25th Army landed at three locations on the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore was a naval fortress built at a cost of more than £60 million. But the defenses were designed primarily to repulse attack from the sea. While the British military leadership had recognized the threat of invasion through Malaya, the pleas for the resources to defend against attack from that direction fell on deaf ears. There were no fortifications inland, not even around the reservoir that provided the colony its water. The troops had neither tanks nor anti-tank weapons, and while it is a myth that the casemates protecting the mighty harbor cannons prevented them from being redirected inland, the ammunition was by and large armor-piercing, for use against ships, rather than high explosive, useful against troops. Most of the cannon were able to fire inland during the Japanese attack, but to little effect.

The blow stunned the British. It was the harbinger of worse to come.

When Force Z, consisting of the Prince of Wales and Repulse and an escort of destroyers, steamed north two days later to interdict the Japanese landings on the peninsula, the Japanese air force had all but wiped out the British fighter squadrons. On December 10, Prince of Wales and Repulse became the first warships on the open sea to be sunk by enemy aircraft. The blow stunned the British. It was the harbinger of worse to come.

Repulse and PoW under air attack

HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales under Japanese air attack. Repulse, at bottom, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several others. Churchill, the staunch imperialist, called news of their sinking the most profound shock he experienced during the war. Imperial War Museum photo

On the same day Pearl Harbor and Malaya were attacked, the Japanese Army launched its offensive to capture Hong Kong. British hopes centered on the Gin Drinkers Line, a line of fortifications on the mainland north of Hong Kong Island and nicknamed “the Maginot Line of the Orient.” The defenders believed it strong enough to hold back the Japanese for six months. The line was breached within three days. On December 13, Mark Young, the colony’s governor, received the offer of surrender. Young refused and the siege of Hong Kong commenced.

What the defenders needed were reinforcements, arms, and food.

This month of crises flung open the war chest of eloquence from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt, with the former issuing morale-boosting cables to the defenders of Hong Kong and Singapore and Roosevelt doing the same for American forces in the Philippines. But what the defenders needed were reinforcements, arms, and food.

Surrender of British Forces

The British surrender Hong Kong to the Japanese on Dec. 24, 1941. Imperial War Museum photo

On December 25, Gen. Alan Brooke began his diary entry for the day with the sentence, “Xmas day and my first official day as CIGS [Chief of the Imperial General Staff]!” The paragraph then summarized the minutes of various meetings of the day. The entry closed with the sentence, “News received this evening that Hong Kong had fallen on Xmas Eve.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...