The war against Imperial Japan was a truly global undertaking; over the space of three and a half years, fighting took place from India to Alaska and involved men and women from every inhabited continent on Earth. Although the War is popularly understood to have started with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Chinese had been fighting against Japanese expansion since 1931. Whatever the actual start date, the War would claim millions of lives on all sides before it ended with Japan’s surrender following the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The British Army’s part in this war began with the Japanese seizure of Hong Kong in December 1941. The dogged defence of the colony exemplified the international character of the war in the Far East; troops from Canada, Hong Kong, India, and the United Kingdom fought for almost three weeks against overwhelming force, but would surrender on Christmas Day. The Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942 would demonstrate the superiority of both their tactics and their soldiers’ capacity for hardship and lead the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to call the fall of the city, ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.
The British continued to underestimate the military capacity of the Japanese and by the end of 1942 they had been driven out of Burma and onto the borders of India. Over the next year, Britain’s imperial forces would launch a number of ultimately futile offensives with the aim of pushing the Japanese away from India. It was during this period that Major General Orde Wingate’s Chindits began operating in the jungle behind Japanese lines. The actions of the Chindits, although limited, costly, and of disputable value, brought hope to the British and led to a further Chindit operation in 1944.
By the beginning of 1944, the commander of the British forces facing the Japanese in Burma, General Slim, had re-trained and re-supplied the British Army in preparation for a great offensive. An inspired leader, and perhaps the finest British general of the twentieth century, his book ‘From Defeat into Victory’ tells the story of the retreat from Burma, the reforming of the British Army in India and its successful campaign of 1944/45. Before Slim could attack the Japanese launched an invasion of India in March. The British held and ultimately repelled the Japanese at the battles of Imphal and Kohima and, invigorated with Slim’s fighting spirit and holding the initiative, drove them out of Burma by August 1945.
Slim’s 14th Army is often called the ‘Forgotten Army’ largely because, as an international force comprised largely of imperial troops, its activities were somewhat overshadowed in the United Kingdom to the 1945 General Election and efforts to return to normality after almost six years of war. This week, we have the opportunity to show that they, and all who fought for our freedom in the Far East, are not forgotten. In the words of the Kohima Epitaph:
‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today’.