Part 9. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah
Extract from ch.6, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green
Even before the completion of the conquest of Indochina, the Japanese began increasing the pressure on Bangkok to enter the war. ‘This is a rare opportunity,’ said the Japanese ambassador, ‘to humiliate the arrogance of the enemy, and gain a respected place in the New Order.’ They backed up this talk with numerous armed incursions by land and air.
Phibun’s own preference was to accept this, but almost all Thai opinion was against him. ‘I don’t see this New Order lasting all that long,’ said one diplomat in Washington. His compatriots at home agreed. ‘Phibun proposes to be the Mussolini of Asia,’ said the Regent to one government minister. ‘And look what’s happened to him.’ General Wavell backed this up by commenting on the necessity of Bangkok maintaining a friendly attitude. He was too much the gentleman to note - though he did not need to - that the British now had four divisions and an armoured brigade assembled on Thailand’s borders to south and west, backed by over 300 modern aircraft. The same minister went on to say, ‘The Japanese offers amount to this: that our country become a battlefield, in return for vague promises.’
Phibun’s response to the Japanese overtures was therefore a list of impossible demands, to be fulfilled before a declaration of war. ‘He talks nonsense,’ wrote the Emperor, ‘even though he is the friendliest man we have in Bangkok.’ Tokyo asked General Yamashita if an invasion of Thailand was feasible, but the general disliked the idea. ‘Our formations in Indochina need strong reinforcement to make an invasion worthwhile or even possible,’ he replied in mid-March. ‘All units badly understrength due to casualties and sickness. Very large areas of Indochina, including many major towns, we have not conquered - only bypassed. Many enemy units not destroyed, only dispersed, with their weapons. Experience shows that this paves way for guerilla action on large scale. The job in Indochina is only half done.’ Tokyo was sceptical. ‘Surely we don’t expect much guerilla resistance from Vietnamese?’ asked one Staff officer. But Yamashita was right in this, as events were to prove.
In the same memorandum he noted the effects of attrition on the IJA air power in the theatre. ‘Air units in Indochina report less than 50% serviceable rate. Fuel and spares very short. Now is not the time to take on another large campaign. Value of Thailand to us doubtful.’ There was still a further consideration: ‘some 50,000 enemy troops now in Thai internment for the duration,’ noted Yamashita. ‘If we attack they will immediately become available to strengthen Thai resistance, better for us to keep Thailand neutral under present circumstances.’ This memorandum effectively killed the idea of involving Thailand in the war - as it proved, permanently. However, the fear of the contingencies kept two excellent Allied formations, Indian 5th and British 6th, pinned down in their intimidatory role during March, at a time when they could have been very useful elsewhere…
We must now turn our attention to the central and eastern prongs. With hindsight we can separate them, but decision-makers at the time had to hold several major developments in mind simultaneously.
...‘We have scotched the snake, not killed it,’ said Admiral Cunningham, when asked in early February about likely Japanese intentions around Borneo. Indeed the very next day came news of further Japanese landings in Dutch Borneo and Celebes. ‘Renewed attack on North Borneo only a matter of time,’ Wavell wrote to the Council. ‘We are making all efforts, but our land-based air there only capable of self-defense missions. Enemy have many aircraft based in eastern Borneo - therefore we are already outmatched. Indications are that IJN sending very heavy forces.’
This proved true. The covering force for the second invasion of North Borneo comprised four fleet carriers and four battleships, with three light carriers assigned to a close support of the invasion force itself. By this time, the Allies had fewer search assets available in the South China Sea; most of the US, French and Dutch submarines and aircraft had withdrawn or been destroyed, and the RN’s submarines desperately needed rest. The RAAF Catalina squadron in North Borneo was down to only two serviceable machines. ‘We can feel it coming, but we can’t see it,’ complained one Australian officer. Eastern Fleet would not repeat its exploit of the month before.
On February 7th the blow fell. Two regiments landed in Sabah, and the following day a third reinforced them. The RAF and RAAF Hurricanes in the north fought against heavy odds, but by the end of the second day none were left flying. After that, the Indochina and Philippines story repeated itself, as it was also doing on the eastern side of Borneo. The two brigades of Australian 8th Division that comprised the main defence fought successive defensive actions down the coast, giving time for engineers to demolish the oil wells, though in some cases the demolitions were incomplete. On 24th February the Australians successfully broke contact and retreated south to Kuching, whence the Navy evacuated them over three nights, 28th February to 2nd March. The FAA suffered heavy losses in this operation - out of 120 aircraft aboard the three carriers, over half were lost, along with twenty RAF and RAAF aircraft. ‘One Fulmar squadron wiped out completely,’ noted Cunningham, reporting to the Council. ‘We ask too much of our men. Fulmars cannot serve in front line any longer. We cannot risk carrier operations outside of land-based fighter cover until FAA has better fighter aircraft.’ His precious carriers had escaped serious damage, though a bomb hit on Victorious put her out of action for several weeks. The first Martlet (Grumman F4F) fighters had arrived, but re-equipping the carriers would take time.
‘It came to a choice between getting our men out of Indochina or Borneo,’ wrote Wavell to Curtin. ‘Borneo was much the easier operation, but it still required the full strength of the Fleet. We were very conscious of Australian political sensitivities. Also, with regard to Indochina, there was a humane alternative of internment in Thailand. Nonetheless it was a very painful decision to accept the loss of Indian 4th and British 18th for the duration, together with many splendid French troops.’ Prime Minister Curtin replied, ‘the great efforts of the Navy noted here. We appreciate the enormous difficulties you face and the painful decisions you must take. We have full confidence in your employment of Australian forces.’ The two Australian brigades from Borneo now recuperated in Malaya, while Australian 9th Division went to Java...
By late February the whole of Dutch Borneo and Makassar had also fallen. Wavell was concerned about a possible direct Japanese assault on Malaya from Indochina and Borneo, but the Japanese now considered Malaya too strongly held, and had already decided against this. ‘The enemy now have four divisions there and a large air force,’ noted Admiral Yamamoto. Instead, they opted for an indirect approach. ‘Once Sumatra falls, Malaya must follow, a glance at a map shows this,’ he went on. ‘Therefore our obvious next target is Bali, it has only a weak Dutch garrison.’ Bali was small and had an airfield that, in accordance with the usual Japanese strategy, would provide air cover for their further operations. ‘Once we hold Bali, we can move via Java on Sumatra.’