Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong I

While some British military officials had doubted that the Japanese were capable of challenging the mighty British Empire, more farsighted leaders realized as soon as full-scale war broke out with Germany in 1940 that Hong Kong could not be defended. But they also stressed the need to hold on to the colony to maintain face and to prevent the harbor from falling into enemy hands. Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided against reducing the local garrison, which would weaken both the prestige of the empire and the morale in China. Yet the Hong Kong government was in a weak position to prepare for an invasion. The huge number of refugees from China drained resources (by early 1941, the colony’s population was well over 1.5 million), while the colony’s status as a free port, coupled with its open border with China, made controlling immigration—not to mention the movement of Japanese agents and sympathizers—impossible.

The colonial government was thus in the unenviable position of preparing to defend a colony that could not be defended, even while maintaining its neutrality. In September 1938 the government reinstated the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1922, which allowed the police to deport anyone not employed; prohibit public meetings and organizations; censor Chinese newspapers, pamphlets, and placards; and call up a special force of constables. They also allowed the government to control food prices, intern Chinese and Japanese soldiers taking refuge in Hong Kong, and prohibit repairing and provisioning Japanese or Chinese vessels involved in the hostilities.

Even as the government was professing Hong Kong’s neutrality, it was preparing to defend the colony against a Japanese invasion. In July 1939, all British male subjects of European origin between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five were made liable for compulsory service in the Defence Reserve. After criticism from the local press and Chinese unofficial members of the Legislative Council, in summer 1940 the government began a program of air-raid tunnels. In 1940, the colonial government evacuated a number of British women and children to Australia. Among the evacuees were Eurasians holding British passports, who because of the Australian government’s White Australia policy were dropped off in Manila. This provoked an outcry from Eurasian and Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. In July 1941, Japanese assets in Hong Kong were frozen (as they were in Britain and the United States), although barter trading continued for a while.

Like all British colonies, Hong Kong became part of the British war effort once Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. Hong Kong had already been part of the Chinese war effort, its formally neutral status notwithstanding, but the fact that both China and Britain were now at war joined the Chinese and the British communities in common cause. In April 1940 the colony contributed to the British war effort through new taxes and several gifts of cash. The South China Morning Post organized a Bomber Fund, while both Chinese and expatriates contributed to campaigns such as the British Prisoners of War Fund, the British War Organization Fund, the Chinese Relief Association, and the Hong Kong and South China Branch of the British Fund for the Relief of Distress in China. Under the Chinese Defence League’s “Bowl of Rice” campaign, donors ordered meals at participating restaurants but ate only a bowl of steamed rice, donating the price of the meal to the Chinese war effort. Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian tycoon, donated a vessel to the Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force.

Despite the Chinese community’s generous contributions to both war efforts, the colonial government doubted that it could rely on the Chinese to help defend the colony. The official view was that because most Chinese considered Hong Kong a temporary home, they were incapable of making any sacrifice for Hong Kong. Yet the government had done little over the previous century to evince the type of loyalty that it now sought from its Chinese subjects. Nor had the government shown that it trusted the Chinese enough to enlist them to defend the colony. Only in May 1938 was a Chinese company added to the Volunteer Defence Corps, founded in 1855 before the Second Opium War. And only after the Chinese members of the Legislative Council had assured the governor of Chinese support were British subjects of Chinese extraction allowed to register for the Defence Reserve. Although the British War Office finally agreed to accept Chinese infantry forces in October 1941, the minimum height and weight restrictions kept many of them out: of the six hundred who applied, only thirty-five were accepted.


On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong time, Japanese bombers attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines. Within as many minutes, five Royal Air Force aircraft at Kai Tak airfield in Kowloon had been destroyed. As Japanese troops moved swiftly across the New Territories and into Kowloon, propaganda leaflets declaring “Asia for the Asians” called on Chinese and Indians in the colony to rise up and drive out their British exploiters. Within seventeen days, the Japanese took Hong Kong Island, occupying the entire colony until August 30, 1945. On Christmas Day, one week after the Japanese launched a three-pronged attack on Hong Kong Island, Governor Mark Young, who had arrived in the colony in September from Barbados, surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant General Sakai Takashi. By February 1942, after the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the sun had set over Britain’s empire in East Asia.

Why did the British resistance fall apart so quickly? A better question might be, given the overwhelming strength of the Japanese forces, why did Hong Kong not fall even earlier? Although critics later complained that the British should have put up a stiffer resistance, both regular troops and volunteers followed Churchill’s orders to fight to the end. When Governor Young finally surrendered, he did so after rejecting three earlier offers of surrender and partly to prevent the Japanese invaders from committing the kind of atrocities they had inflicted on the city of Nanjing in 1938. On the eve of the invasion, the Hong Kong side, led by Major General Christopher Maltby, had approximately ten thousand forces—including two British battalions, the Hong Kong Volunteers, two Indian infantry battalions, and two battalions of infantry offered by the Canadian government—and a small number of airplanes and ships, with no chances of any naval reinforcements. A false announcement by the British military on December 20 that some sixty thousand Chinese troops were on their way may have raised morale, but it could not alter the fact that the Japanese side enjoyed clear superiority at sea, on land, and in the air. The Japanese had more than twenty thousand troops as well as more and better planes and ships and could always count on reinforcements from within China. By the time three of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions arrived in Canton to attack the Japanese forces there, Hong Kong had already fallen. As the title of Tony Banham’s recent study of the invasion suggests, the colony had “not the slightest chance.”

Whereas the British commanders were almost all new to Hong Kong (Maltby had arrived only in August) and the two battalions of Canadian infantry were still being trained, the Japanese had several years of experience fighting in China, and many of their troops had been training together for the assault on Hong Kong. British defense plans changed late in 1941 from defending only Hong Kong Island to holding down the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line—a series of pillboxes running eleven miles from Gin Drinkers’ Bay in western Hong Kong to Port Shelter in the eastern region—and then retreating to defend Hong Kong Island. This did not leave enough time for effective planning and training. The British also failed to use the local Chinese effectively; the some 450 who volunteered were used primarily in service positions. The British, who moved mainly by road, were hamstrung when their military transport system fell apart. Helped by spies along the way, the fit, organized, and well-equipped Japanese moved quickly by foot, often at night.

The British had weak, outdated, and insufficient artillery and ammunition. Their persistently weak intelligence underestimated the size and quality of the Japanese forces. The Japanese had much better intelligence, obtained over several years by placing agents throughout Hong Kong in various civilian positions. (Several Japanese residents suddenly appeared in Japanese military uniforms shortly after the surrender.) Large numbers of Japanese merchants had been in Hong Kong since the 1930s, and almost one hundred Japanese remained in Hong Kong in late 1941. A Japanese intelligence map, now housed in the Harvard University Map Collection, shows just how well the Japanese knew their target. Based on British maps, this meticulously detailed map includes administrative boundaries, railway tracks, roads and paths, telephone and telegraph lines, wireless transmitters and underwater cables, police stations and post offices, telegraph and telephone offices, schools, hospitals, churches, temples, pagodas, cemeteries, wells, orchards, marshes and wetlands, uncultivated and barren areas, and both deciduous and coniferous forests.

The human costs of the invasion are unclear. British sources estimated 2,311 troops killed or missing and around the same number wounded, but a recent study places the number closer to 1,560 dead or missing. Japanese figures are less reliable, ranging from initial reports of only 675 killed or missing and 2,079 wounded to the equally dubious report by Tokyo later of 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded; a more realistic estimate is around 2,000 killed and between 5,000 and 6,000 wounded. As in most wars, it is impossible to tell how many civilians were killed in the invasion. One estimate places the dead at 4,000 and the wounded at 3,000, but the actual numbers were probably much higher.

Rensuke Isogai


Thus began the three years and eight months of “The Captured Territory of Hong Kong,” which although touted as part of Japan’s “Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was little more than Japanese colonialism. Despite their anticolonial rhetoric, the Japanese quickly transformed Hong Kong from a British colony into a Japanese one. Statues of British royalty were removed, while street and place names were replaced with Japanese names (Queen’s Road, for example, became Meiji Road). Even the racehorses at Happy Valley were bestowed with Japanese names. The new rulers also Japanized the landscape with various monuments and a cemetery in Causeway Bay for the Japanese horses killed during the invasion, to which Chinese residents were forced to bow. Replacing the Gregorian calendar with the Japanese calendar (based on the contemporary emperor’s reign), the Japanese introduced their own holidays, such as the emperor’s birthday, the Yasukuni Festival for Japanese war dead, and Empire Day or National Foundation Day. In May 1943, the new authorities established the East Asia Academy to introduce potential government servants, teachers, and businessmen to Japanese morals and customs. As an official Japanese publication explained, since Hong Kong was now a “Hong Kong for the East Asians,” it was time for the “poisonous remains of British cultural leftovers” to be “thoroughly eradicated.”

Although they portrayed their invasion as liberation from colonialism, as elsewhere in their new empire the Japanese in Hong Kong soon showed that they could be far more brutal than the British had ever been. On January 4, 1942, all of Hong Kong’s British, American, and Dutch residents were arrested. The Japanese displayed their victory over the British for Hong Kong’s non-European population to see, parading prisoners of war through the streets and forcing Allied captives to bow to Chinese, pull rickshaws, and clean the streets. Most of the British civilians were imprisoned in Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, while the military prisoners were held at a former British camp at Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. Although most of the Americans were repatriated, the head of the Stanley internment camp, Frank Gimson, who had arrived as colonial secretary the day before the Japanese invasion, insisted that the British civilians remain in Hong Kong as a show of force. Many civilian and military prisoners were executed; others died of disease and malnourishment. But even though Prime Minister Tojo Hideki ordered that the European prisoners have only the barest of rations, the British in Hong Kong had it better than their counterparts in some of the Japanese camps in Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, writes historian Philip Snow, “the keynote of their treatment was humiliation rather than brutality for the sake of it.” Still, the “combined shock of the defeat and internment” undermined the “entire pre-war edifice of British supremacy in Hong Kong.”

Those who suffered the most, both in the invasion and during the occupation, were the same people the Japanese repeatedly insisted were not their enemies: the Chinese. The Japanese authorities tried to reduce Hong Kong’s population by repatriating the refugees who had come from China in the years leading up to the invasion. In early January 1942, they announced that anyone without residence or employment would have to leave. Although the Japanese had a hard time enforcing this policy, within a year Hong Kong’s population had dropped from more than 1.5 million to 1 million. By the end of the occupation in August 1945, it was under six hundred thousand. In three and a half years, at least ten thousand Hong Kong civilians were executed, while many others were tortured, raped, or mutilated. Army officers were even more vicious than their men, but the most systematically brutal were the Kempeitai, the notorious Japanese military police who routinely performed executions by beheading at King’s Park in Kowloon and used Chinese for shooting or bayonet practice. Dorothy Lee, a social worker, recalled how everyone lived “in fear of the ‘midnight knock.’ The Japanese might come to your door at any time to take over your house or flat and, in the early days, they came into rape.” Lee saw one Japanese corporal known as “the killer” personally behead twelve civilians within several minutes.

Although the Japanese created countless atrocities throughout their empire, Hong Kong’s unique situation may have encouraged the scope and intensity of this brutality. As they did in Malaya, Indochina, and Indonesia, many Japanese administrators and soldiers resented the Chinese of Hong Kong for supposedly having served their European overlords so willingly. Unlike the colonies of Southeast Asia, however, Hong Kong lacked the natural resources to make conquest worthwhile. Although the new regime introduced a program for reopening factories to produce goods such as shoes made with rubber from Indochina and Malaya, the Japanese economic record was disastrous. Shortages and price increases were exacerbated by orders from Tokyo to confiscate anything of value and send it to Japan. By late 1942, when the war was going badly for Japan, the governor tried even more vigorously to restrict Hong Kong’s scarce resources for the Japanese troops. In January 1943, the Kempeitai set two German shepherds on a group of Chinese women who had been gathering grass for fuel. Only after the dogs had chewed pieces of flesh out of them were the women released. As the colony’s overseas trade suffered, by mid-1943 the food shortage became even more unbearable. Several hundred corpses—some with parts of their thighs and buttocks removed for food—littered the streets every day, and many residents survived only by eating rats. The weakening of central government control and the expansion of corruption that accompanied Japan’s failing war effort made conditions even worse and “opened the way to an orgy of private greed.” Uncontrolled and free to do as it pleased, the Kempeitai in Hong Kong created an “empire unmatched by the Kempeitai branches in any other Japanese-occupied zone” and “waxed fat on the narcotics trade.”

Despite some provisions under the Japanese for educating Hong Kong’s poor, the education system practically fell apart. Whereas more than one hundred thousand children were enrolled in school before the war, by the end of the war this number had plummeted to around three thousand. Yet any account of the Japanese occupation must also include some of the more positive changes. Snow argues that the Japanese brought more Chinese into the “central administration of the colony than the British had ever done.” The Japanese practice of delegating tasks gave Chinese a larger role than under the British, while the Japanese also created a network of district bureaus, which the British never had. Unlike the British, the Japanese went to great lengths to publicize and explain their policies to the Chinese. The Japanese also made some positive changes in public health and agriculture. With “something close to a mania” for preserving public health—mainly to protect the health of Japanese soldiers—they kept outbreaks of smallpox and cholera minor compared with the prewar years.


Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong II

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure, entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on 30 August 1945.

The document of surrender was signed by Japan on 16 September 1945 in Hong Kong.

Collaboration took different forms and assumed various levels of intensity. As soon as the Japanese flag was raised in Central District on December 27, Japanese flags appeared all over the area, and Hong Kong’s new rulers had no trouble finding recruits for their administration. Some Chinese may have believed in Japan’s rhetoric of “Asia for the Asians,” but most people in Hong Kong, relieved that the invasion was over, collaborated simply to get by. For the Eurasians who were recruited for the same kinds of clerical and secretarial posts that they had held under the British and had nowhere else to go, collaboration must have seemed a rather logical choice. The writers for the Hong Kong News, which had been published before the war by Japanese businessmen and was revived by the occupation authorities, were mainly Eurasians and Indians. Many Eurasians and Portuguese became brokers between the Japanese administration and the Chinese population, running various black or gray markets. The Japanese also tried hard to win over the Indian population, promising to help them drive the British out of India. Some Britons also worked with the Japanese; for example, high-level bankers chose to collaborate to ensure some level of financial stability. Similarly, P. S. Selwyn-Clarke, the former director of medical services, worked with the Japanese for the sake of the Chinese community and the interned Europeans and prisoners of war.

To consolidate their rule, the Japanese tried to recruit the same community leaders who had worked with the British. On January 10, 1942, two weeks after the British surrender, Lieutenant General Sakai invited some 130 of the leading Chinese and Eurasians to a formal luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Sakai insisted that the war in Hong Kong was against Britain, not China, and that the Chinese and Japanese should work together for the prosperity of all the races of Greater East Asia. Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke, who became governor later that month, established two councils consisting of Chinese and Eurasian leaders for managing the Chinese population. On the Chinese Representative Council were Robert Kotewall, the chair; Lau Tit-shing, manager of the Communications Bank and chairman of the Chinese Bankers’ Association; Li Tse-fong, manager of the Bank of East Asia (which had maintained extensive contacts with Japanese firms before the war) and former unofficial member of the Legislative Council; and Chan Lim-pak, who had once been comprador to the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Canton. The Chinese Cooperative Council, whose 22 members were selected by the Chinese Representative Council from the leading professionals, was chaired by Chow Shouson.

Some Chinese leaders were enthusiastic about working with the Japanese. Lau Tit-shing, for example, was president of the Chinese-Japanese Returned-Students Association and, according to sociologist Henry Lethbridge, was “very pro-Japanese,” having been “thoroughly brainwashed by his early education in Japan.” When Lau died in April 1945, he was honored by the Japanese governor. Chan Lim-pak had been arrested by the British during the Japanese invasion on charges of “defeatist talk” and aiding the enemy. He was killed in 1944 by an American bomber while en route to Japan. But most Chinese and Eurasian leaders probably collaborated with the Japanese in the same way the majority of Hong Kong’s population did: “with reluctance and misgiving, and as a matter of physical survival.” Fear and pragmatism were no doubt strong reasons for collaborating, as was preserving their own class interests. And many collaborated with the Japanese to help the local community. Indeed, three colonial officers testified after the war that they had met secretly with Chow Shouson and Robert Kotewall shortly before the fall of Hong Kong and requested that they cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Chinese community. That there was so little Chinese resentment toward the two Chinese councils during the occupation suggests that most Chinese understood that the Chinese and Eurasian leaders had to cooperate.

Just as collaboration during the Japanese occupation took many forms, so did resistance. As they had under the British, many Chinese simply ignored the regulations and proclamations issued by the Japanese authorities. Chinese staff in the governor’s office often failed to show up for their mandatory Japanese classes; clerks at Chinese-run department stores refused to sell goods to Japanese, pretending that they were out of stock; and entire schools moved to unoccupied parts of the mainland rather than comply with the new curriculum. By summer 1943, people in Hong Kong realized that the war no longer favored the Japanese. By 1944, Chinese and Eurasian leaders started to avoid their duties on the two Chinese councils.

Given Hong Kong’s urban nature, most organized resistance occurred in the rural New Territories, especially along the Chinese border. Led by Lindsay Ride, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Volunteer Defence Corps who had escaped from the Sham Shui Po prison camp, and with help from local Chinese such as Paul Tsui, a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) helped European and Chinese residents escape from Hong Kong, gathered intelligence, and rescued Allied airmen shot down by the Japanese. Based in Guilin in southern China, the BAAG was technically a noncombat unit of the Indian Army. By late 1942, the Chinese Nationalists had revived an underground movement, while the Communist guerrillas of the East River Column were active in the New Territories and in the urban areas of Hong Kong. Despite the mutual suspicions among the British, Nationalists, Communists, and their respective agendas, this joint resistance helped to break down racial divisions between Britons and Chinese and to create a “camaraderie unimaginable in the pre-war years.”


British planning for postwar Hong Kong began almost immediately after the fall to Japan, which, compounded by the loss of Singapore and Malaya, was a terrible blow to British morale. As the Colonial Office began to reassess the British failure to defend Hong Kong, one of the conclusions was that the British should have relied more on local Chinese and accepted help from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Some wartime planners argued that the invasion might even be a chance for the British to start afresh in Hong Kong after the war by building a better sense of community between the British and the Chinese, including by opening higher-level government positions to local Chinese. They were especially eager to prevent the type of anticolonial nationalism that had erupted in India and would eventually lead to independence in 1947.

The British plans for recovering Hong Kong, however, faced opposition from both China and the United States. With help from American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose grandfather had been a partner in the American firm of Russell and whose mother had once lived in Hong Kong), in January 1942 Chiang Kai-shek became the supreme allied commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. Chiang hoped to use the war to recover Hong Kong and to end the embarrassing unequal treaties. Supported by the United States, in mid-1942 Chiang’s Nationalists approached Britain to give up Hong Kong, or at least the New Territories. In late 1942, Sino-British negotiations began for abolishing extraterritoriality in China and revising the status of the New Territories after the war. At the Cairo Conference of November 1943, Roosevelt promised to help Chiang recover Hong Kong if he agreed to help the Chinese Communists fight the Japanese.

Even while wartime planners in Britain were committed to restoring Hong Kong to British rule after the war, they also realized that the Chinese Nationalists’ demands would have to be taken seriously and that conditions in postwar Hong Kong would have to be different. Although the Nationalists suddenly aborted their campaign to recover the New Territories—content for the time being with the agreement that China would reserve the right to raise the issue at a later time—some British officials believed that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered for Britain to focus on its other possessions, especially India and Egypt. Realizing that many American officials supported China, some British officials even suggested giving up Hong Kong before the United States applied pressure on Britain to do so. In mid-1942, the Colonial Office conceded that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered after the war. Even in late 1945, George Kitson, head of the China Department at the Foreign Office, suggested that Britain return Hong Kong for both symbolic and practical purposes: as a token of gratitude for China’s help in defeating Japan, as a gesture of friendship in a new postwar world, as proof that British colonialism was entering a new phase, and as a preemptive move to prevent possible confrontation with China over the region.

As the war turned against Japan’s favor, however, by early 1943 the Colonial Office resolved to retain Hong Kong after the war. The Colonial Office became particularly optimistic in February 1944 when Li Shu-fan, a prominent Chinese surgeon who had made his way to London, assured the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office that most members of the Chinese upper classes would prefer British rule to Chinese rule after the war. That summer, the Hong Kong Planning Unit was established under Frank Smith, the former colonial secretary. After 1944 the unit was led by David MacDougall, a Hong Kong cadet who had escaped during the Japanese occupation. By mid-1945, Winston Churchill realized that Chiang Kai-shek could not try to recover Hong Kong without support from the United States, which now considered the continuation of the British Empire vital to its own interests in the postwar world. As victory became imminent, in the summer of 1945 the Hong Kong Planning Unit and the China Association, a powerful lobby representing British business interests in China, began to consider various proposals for constitutional reform, among them giving a greater role to local Chinese. Churchill now declared that Hong Kong would be removed from the British Empire “over my dead body.”

As the British planned for recovering Hong Kong, the problem of what to do with the old business and professional elite arose. The British needed a local support base, but some of the Europeans interned during the war had criticized leaders such as Robert Kotewall and Chow Shouson for being too compliant with the Japanese. Yet the returning colonial government would have great difficulty finding anyone to replace these old leaders. Furthermore, there was the problem of convincing the local Chinese population that Britain, rather than Nationalist China, deserved to rule Hong Kong after the war. This explains both why the British, who could not afford to lose the people they had depended on for so long, decided to keep the old leaders and why these leaders worked so hard to restore British rule. The Colonial Office eventually decided that Chow and Kotewall had been acting in the colony’s best interest.

Just as victory against Japan became certain, a more immediate challenge arose. Japan surrendered on August 14 1945, earlier than most British military planners had predicted. American and Nationalist Chinese troops were making progress in China, getting closer by the day to Canton. Knowing that Roosevelt wanted Chiang Kai-shek to accept the Japanese surrender as supreme commander in almost all of the China Theater, the British feared that Chiang’s troops would try to accept the surrender in Hong Kong. Although Chiang assured them that he would not try to retake Hong Kong after accepting the surrender, the British dispatched Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt from Sydney with a fleet to reach Hong Kong first. When Britain and China asked the United States to help them resolve the matter, Chiang proposed delegating surrender authority to a British official in Hong Kong, but only if Britain agreed not to accept the Japanese surrender until after Chiang had formally accepted the surrender for the China Theater. Britain agreed, and on September 16 Harcourt accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of Britain and China in the presence of a Chinese and an American official.

This arrangement briefly soured Sino-British relations, but it was as pragmatic as it was symbolic. It also helps explain why Hong Kong remained a British colony after the war. Although there were loud calls in China for recovering Hong Kong and although he had almost sixty thousand troops within three hundred miles of Hong Kong when the Japanese surrendered, Chiang realized that Britain would not give up Hong Kong easily and that a failure to recover Hong Kong would discredit him in China. Furthermore, he needed the support of both the United States and Britain to be a major player in the new world order. Preoccupied with recovering northern China and keeping Chinese Communist troops from recapturing Japanese-held territory, he did not want to provoke the Communists into entering the race for Hong Kong, especially since their East River Column was closer to Hong Kong than were his own troops. Concerned about the postwar order, the United States had now softened its stance toward colonialism. Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in April 1945, was less committed than his predecessor to restoring Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, while General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, supported outright the continuation of the British Empire in East Asia. The British realized that they could not prevent Chiang’s troops from recapturing Hong Kong and that the United States, regardless of its new attitudes toward colonialism, would not help the British resist such an attempt. They also realized that such an arrangement would play out better among the Chinese population of Hong Kong, some of whom, proud of China’s new status, thought that this might be a chance to get rid of the British.

Japanese Submarines WWII Missed Opportunities?!

The submarines of the Japanese Navy consisted of some of the most capable in the world at the beginning of World War II. All the submarines built from the outset for operations in the war significantly outranged the submarines of the Allies navies. The range advantage provided the ability to operate at extreme distance from home port or maintain a long on-station time in a given area. Subsequently, the Japanese were able to apply their influence further and longer than other submarine forces. Along with the superior operational reach of the submarines, excellent torpedoes were provided that had a long range and powerful warheads.

The Japanese technological advantage did not wane during the course of the war. It diverged to three different branches: large, small, and fast. The Japanese used their skill to build the largest submarines in the world (Sen Toku Type) as well as some of the most capable small submarines (kaiten and other midgets). Most impressive of all of their designs, however, is the Sen Taka Sho Type medium attack submarine that had an acceptable cruising range coupled with outstanding underwater speed. Had more of these submarines reached operational status earlier, the American forces would have had a unique foe on their hands.

Even with the technological advantages of their designs, the Japanese submarines did suffer from a lack of resources that placed limits on the number of submarines that could be built and on the timeliness of the build process. Also, the Japanese did have a significant delay in developing and installing radar on their submarines. While it was a deficiency, it would not have had significant influence if the focus on operational security had been stronger.

The training of Japanese submarine crews was without equal. The submarines spent long periods of time out at sea constantly practicing elements of the plan for a decisive battle. The intense training periods had such a level of realism that three submarines were lost in prewar training accidents. The training was not without fault however. The overarching focus on the submarine role in the “decisive battle” limited the growth of submarine force capabilities. The overall training gave minimal consideration to key aspects of submarine operations: surveillance, commerce raiding, and sea control (area denial).

Based on the mystique of the German Submarine Force and the results of the American Submarine Force, it would be easy to jump to the idea that had the Japanese Submarine Force strictly applied a strategy of commerce raiding it would have had a greater impact on the war in the Pacific. This argument is too simplistic and discounts the enemy that each respective country was targeting. Japan and Britain, as targets of America and Germany respectively, were island countries dependent on long lines of communication for necessary resources and forces to fight the war. These lines were vulnerable to the focus of intense submarine efforts. Both America (in the Pacific) and Germany were also faced with the lack of a strong surface fleet to conduct offensive operations. The Germans were held in port by a combination of factors, and the American Pacific Fleet was attempting to rebuild after Pearl Harbor. As such, commerce raiding against fragile lines of communication was their only recourse.

The Japanese faced a far different situation at the outset of the war. They had built a large fleet focused on a single strategy. They had a single opponent to be concerned with and that same opponent did not have the immediate ability to attack their nation. The Pacific Ocean provided a strategic safety buffer from American forces. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor reduced the effective combat power of the American Fleet and put them immediately in a defensive posture. The American Navy was not altogether prepared to face the Japanese and an early focus on commerce raiding would have not been able to have an influence similar to that which the American submarines achieved. The Japanese, for all of their superiority in submarine technology, would not have been able to influence the American East Coast. While forces could be moved to act against the West Coast, the force size was too small to carry out effective operations to limit commerce or other operations on the East Coast. Further, there was no method to influence the natural resources available in America proper.

While the focus on a single decisive battle that was unattainable was short-sighted, the understanding that the Japanese Navy needed to focus on American military strength was not improper. The submarine force, as well as the rest of the Navy, was constructed for naval engagement not commerce raiding. The true failure of the force was not to focus its efforts on the opportunities that presented themselves. Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guadalcanal all presented themselves as opportunities for potentially decisive actions. In all three actions, the number of American aircraft carriers available in the Pacific was limited and the ability of the American Navy to conduct continued combat operations was at risk. The Japanese submarine force, based on direction from the Navy Staff, scattered its units to various other theaters away from the major battles, mainly the Aleutians and Indian Ocean.

Had the Japanese submarine force maintained the full cordon around Pearl Harbor after the 7 December attack, they could have effectively maintained ten or more submarines on station continuously when based out of Kwajalein. The size of the Japanese submarine force (capitalizing on significant operational range of the large designs) could have significantly slowed the resupply and rebuilding of Pearl Harbor and denied the American Navy its last key strategic outpost in the Pacific forcing them to extend their lines of communication and operation for any effort against the Japanese a few thousand more miles all the way back to the American West Coast. American operations from the West Coast would have been more vulnerable to the Japanese fleet.

An effective blockade of Pearl Harbor had the potential to expose it to an amphibious invasion which would have further challenged the American ability to recover from the initial attacks and generate offensive initiative.

Had the Japanese submarine force applied the principles of mass and unity of effort to their employment of forces at Midway and Guadalcanal, the operational submarine units in the areas of these battles would have been tripled posing a far greater risk to the American forces. The larger number of units at Midway would have increased the opportunity of early detection of American forces, specifically the aircraft carriers, potentially allowing the Japanese carriers to focus their effort against the American task forces prior to attacking Midway proper. This employment would have more closely met the training that the submarine force underwent during the interwar period potentially raising effectiveness as well.

The Japanese submarine force continued to deny the principle of mass in operations during the American invasion of Guadalcanal. Submarines were still deployed to various marginally important areas rather than the area of Guadalcanal. The small number of submarines assigned to the Guadalcanal area was further diverted from the potential decisive battle by being tasked to conduct supply operations instead of attempting to thwart the invasion and buildup. The respect shown by the American forces for the submarine threat could have been taken advantage of by a larger effort focused on them. Instead, the opportunity to stall the American advance in the South Pacific was given little direct attention while effort was applied to meaningless supply operations and Aleutian and Indian Ocean excursions.

Even as the opportunity for the handful of critical battles passed and the Japanese were placed firmly on the defensive, proper employment of the submarines could have still brought considerable results. The Japanese submarine force consistently showed the ability to complete complicated approaches and attack challenging targets. The sinking of Yorktown at Midway and Wasp at Guadalcanal are proof that the prewar training and exercise experience developed a skilled force that could find success in operations against a determined opponent. Had the Japanese focused their effort against the American offensive, the submarine force had the ability to influence operations. Unfortunate choices to hinder the submarines’ tactical freedom limited their influence as the Americans advanced through the Central and Western Pacific.

The final, and most perplexing, failure of the Japanese submarine force was its inability to learn and adapt to the conduct of the war. From Pearl Harbor through the operations in the Marianas in 1944, Japanese submarines were employed in rigid scouting lines and consistently failed to intercept and report on American fleet movements. Not until the force had suffered the loss of even more submarines in the Marianas did the staff shift their employment to patrol areas where the boats would be able to more freely search for targets. That late in the war, the shift was meaningless. Because the force was so decimated, there were not sufficient boats available to mount a solid defense of the Philippines. The employment of scouting lines failed in every instance that it had been used. The lines were not maintained intact around Pearl Harbor to maintain the cordon.

They were late to take station and then moved without an overriding plan or effect at Midway. They were haphazardly strung around the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas and shifted without operational thought. Only late in the war were submarines released to freely stalk for prey. At this point the force size was too small to have any influence. Submarines were regularly removed from offensive or defensive operations to support grandiose airborne reconnaissance or nuisance strike missions. Submarines were committed en masse to both K Operations as well as reconnaissance and strike flights over Ulithi. The bombings had little effect. The support of reconnaissance missions, by acting as refueling platforms or navigational aids, discounted the ability of the submarines to do the jobs themselves. The submarine force had provided the first photographic intelligence of the results of Pearl Harbor as well as prescient intelligence of preparations at Midway, but the opportunity for later use of submarines as the primary operator in this key role was ignored.

The Japanese submarine force was undoubtedly a technologically superior force at the outset of the war. They were highly trained and well organized to support a distinct form of battle. The training and experience gained in interwar exercises provided a force that was ready to directly face the American Navy. The planning and execution of the war strategy failed to capitalize on the specific skill set of the submarines that were available. Had the submarines been employed as anything more than an adjunct force supporting other efforts, they could have exerted a strong influence and produced costly losses for the American Navy opening the Pacific to further Japanese operations.

The Japanese submarine force was uniquely prepared for operations against enemy combatants and did not need to resort to commerce raiding to have an influence. In fact the early successes of the Japanese Navy made commerce raiding unnecessary. Unfortunately, the Japanese did not capitalize on early successes by maintaining their forces forward and massed for further strikes against American forces. Once the paradigm of the Pacific War changed to a protracted conflict with American forces operating on extended lines of communication, the Japanese failed to adjust their employment strategy and shift to concerted commerce raiding efforts. The failure to learn from the experiences of the German and American submarines as the face of war changed left the Japanese unprepared to have any influence as the war came to an end.
Properly employed, the Japanese submarine force could have been the key to a very different war. Instead, their misemployment only aided in allowing the quick rebuilding of American forces due to their industrial dominance. As such, the actions of Japanese submarines only became footnotes to most major naval battles in the Pacific Ocean.

B7A Ryusei

B7A2 Unit: Kougeki (Attack) 5th Hikotai, 752nd Kokutai Serial: 752-03
Katori Naval Air Base, Chiba prefecture, end of April 1945.

B7A2 Unit: Kougeki (Attack) 5th Hikotai, 752nd Kokutai Serial: 752-53
Kisarazu Naval Air Base, Chiba prefecture, after May 1945.

Aichi’s B7A Ryusei torpedo bomber (‘Grace’) was part of the 16-Shi (1942) programme. It was intended to extend the reach of Japanese carriers and thus to minimise the problem of carrier air defence: if the Japanese fleet could outreach the US fleet, and if its aircraft could penetrate US defences, then it could strike without being struck. The Japanese consistently managed to outrange the US fleet, but the combination of effective fighter control and effective anti-aircraft fire made that outreach useless. The Ryusei was intended to replace both the standard attack aircraft: the B6N torpedo bomber and the D4Y dive bomber. Given enough engine power, an airframe stressed to dive-bomb could lift a torpedo. That was the case with both the US SB2C Helldiver (although it was not used as a torpedo bomber) and the British Barracuda (a torpedo bomber used exclusively as a dive bomber). Manoeuvrability was to be equal to that of a Zero (A6M) fighter, to give the Ryusei reasonable immunity from interception. Normal range was to be 1000nm (maximum 1800nm). The prototype was completed in May 1942. Note that the operational concept considerably predated Midway. Production seems to have been hampered by slow engine development, as it did not begin until April 1944.

In June 1944, IJN Taihō, the only Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier then large enough to operate the B7A Ryusei in its intended role, was sunk during the Battle of the Philippine Sea before enough B7As were even available to embark. Thereafter, the B7A was relegated to operating from land bases, primarily with the Yokosuka and 752nd Air Groups. The Japanese completed only one other carrier capable of operating the B7A, IJN Shinano, but she was sunk by an American submarine.

Aichi B7A1/B7A2 differences

I believe there are some minor differences in the cowling and exhausts because of the difference in the two versions engines.

According to Francillon, just 9 B7A1s were built. I have a picture of one with tail marking “Ko-B7-7”, so this was presumably the 7th built, and it has a retractable tailwheel. I have not found any pictures purporting to be of B7A1s in service, and all in service seem to have had the fixed tailwheel.

The B7A1 was overweight and there were also structural problems in the wings. The wing internal structure was totally redesigned among other things, so there may be differences in panel arrangements.

According to Francillon, the only differences were a slightly improved engine version, and replacement of the rear 7.92mm gun with a 13.0mm.

The same two engine models were used interchangeably in the Ki-84 I (Ha[45]11 and Ha[45]12) with no alteration in outward appearance.

British CAP Interception

The four ‘dusk’ patrol Hellcats from the 1844 NAS detachment embarked in Formidable were airborne at the time, and they were quickly vectored onto a quartet of Aichi B7A ‘Grace’ torpedo-bombers flying at 20,000 ft on a heading for the ships. The Hellcats, flown by Sub Lts Atkinson, Foster, Mackie and Taylor, made short work of the rarely seen B7As, as is described in the official Royal Canadian Navy history;

‘During his attachment to Formidable, Atkinson achieved a rare distinction on the night of 25 July. Four Hellcats were scrambled on a night combat air patrol. These were conventional Hellcat IIs without radar, but their pilots had been trained in night flying. Shortly after assuming patrol, incoming Japan- ese aircraft were detected. Two Hellcats were forced to return to the carrier unserviceable. Sub Lt Atkinson assumed the lead of the remaining two Hellcats and was vectored out on an intercepting course.

‘Under a full moon, Atkinson identified the bandits as big, single-engined “Grace” torpedo-bombers, and took his New Zealand wingman, Sub Lt R F Mackie, into the attack. Atkinson latched onto a pair of “Graces” and shot them both into the water, while Mackie dumped the third. Then, in routing the other bandits, a fourth “Grace” went down and the enemy attack was completely broken up.


An intact and unused cockpit canopy discovered in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, has been confirmed as an Aichi B7A Ryusei (Shooting Star) torpedo/dive- bomber. It is generally believed to be the only known part of the aircraft type, which was also used in kamikaze attacks, to exist in Japan. A spokesman from the local industrial heritage study group, said: “The canopy has historical value as it shows Japan’s aeronautical industry heritage and conveys the tragic reality of war.”

The Ryusei, which served the Imperial Japanese Navy, is sometimes referred to as the ‘last suicide attack plane’ because naval records show that two Ryusei aircraft departed on kamikaze missions on August 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. Ryusei production began in April 1944 and its cockpit canopies were manufactured in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture. Around 110 Ryusei aircraft were completed. The relic is considered a precious historical record because most Japanese wartime equipment was destroyed. The only remaining Ryusei is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Imperial Japanese Army and Navy – Night fighters

J1N1-Sa Gekko Model 11 Kou
Unit: Yokosuka kokutai
Serial: Yo-101
Pilot – Juzo Kuramolo; observer – ensign Shiro Kurotori. Yokosuka (Oppama) AB/Kanagawa, Japan. Early May 1945.

In the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy there was no alternative to visual recognition, because until early 1944 neither service used any avionics apart from communications radio and DF loops. AI radar and IFF were slow to come into Japanese service, though preliminary information on FuG 202 Lichtenstein was sent by submarine from Germany in 1942. But it would be misleading to picture Japan as a land of technology illiterates, able only to copy Western innovations. This image may have comforted the Allies until the first few days after Pearl Harbor, but it was knocked for six by the superior combat performance of the A6M (Zero) fighter, and it never had much basis in fact. In 1928 Okabe in Tokyo had been the first microwave worker to generate enough power for communications in this band of new centimetric wavelengths, and at about the same time Professor Yagi had devised the short-wave directional aerial that bears his name. Comprising a linear array of dipoles, the Yagi aerial is today seen on many millions of rooftops around the world, and it was this type of aerial that was used in the first Japanese AI installation.

Though their development was slow and often troublesome, no fewer than five types of airborne radar were worked on by the Japanese in the Second World War. At first the main effort went into ASV (air-to-surface vessel) sets, which by 1944 were operational in several types of Navy aircraft down to the familiar B5N (‘Kate’) torpedo-bomber. The three types of AI radar for night fighters were less successful. One was an Army copy of FuG 202, and though it was tested in an obsolescent Mitsubishi Ki-21 bomber in 1943 it either never reached combat units or made only an insignificant impact on operations. The much more important Army set was the E-1, operating in the S-band at near 11 cm wavelength, the main carrier of which was the Kawasaki Type 2 heavy fighter, also called Ki-45 Toryu (dragon-killer) and known to the Allies as ‘Nick’. Originally a day long-range fighter, with forward-firing guns, the Ki-45-Kai-C (modification C) version appeared in June 1944 with two 20 mm guns mounted obliquely in the mid-fuselage and, in some aircraft until October 1944, a searchlight in the nose. Gradually the AI radar was fitted and operators trained, but there is no evidence that radar played the central role in the occasional successes scored by these aircraft defending Japan against the B-29. At least the Ki-45 could reach the B-29 attack height of around 31,000 feet, and at full throttle could just overtake the speedy American bombers. Over Japan there was often chaotic radio communication, and no GCI system at all. Night fighters were thus left to their own devices, and the few successful night interceptions that took place were usually on moonlit nights when the B-29 contrails showed up from a considerable distance.

Intercepting a B-29 formation called for great courage. Whereas a Luftwaffe NJG pilot had nothing to fear from 99 per cent of the RAF heavies, the B-29 had no blind spots and carried heavy armament covering every possible direction of attack. Downwards and to the rear a fighter could be seen from three sighting stations and fired upon by six 0.5 in guns and a 20 mm cannon, and as these great bombers held tighter formation than the RAF bomber stream it was probable that, if one bomber opened fire, several others would open up on the same target. Added to the fact that head-on attacks were impractical at night, one is left with a situation in which a single fighter is faced with withering heavy-calibre fire in a stern chase at a closing speed hardly more than walking pace. A few Ki-45 night fighters attempted to get more speed and altitude by fitting only two 12.7 mm (0.5 in) oblique guns, a totally inadequate armament for the task of bringing down a B-29. Typical Ki-45-Kai-C forward-firing armament comprised a single heavy cannon of 37, 50 or 75 mm calibre, but these fired slowly and carried a very limited number of rounds. How eight of these fighters managed to bring down seven of a force of B-29s attacking northern Kyushu on the night of 15 June 1944 remains a mystery: there may have been some deliberate collisions.

The equivalent of the Ki-45 in the Imperial Navy was the Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (moonlight), called ‘Irving’ by the Allies. Planned as an escort fighter in 1940, the original J1N1-C failed to make the grade, but eventually entered service as a reconnaissance aircraft. It first operated in late 1942 in the area of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and though it had inadequate performance for day fighting it was locally judged to be a possible answer to the US Army heavy bombers that were making life a misery at night. The initiative to turn the J1N1-C into a night fighter stemmed from the commander of the 251st Air Corps at Rabaul, Yasuna Kozono, who proposed the same upward-firing armament as was being experimented with by the Luftwaffe. He went further, and suggested two pairs of 20 mm Type 99 Model 2 cannon, one pair firing obliquely up and the other pair obliquely down. Compared with the Luftwaffe Schräge Musik installations the inclination was less steep, a typical angle being 30°.

In March 1943 Kozono received permission for the proposed modification, and two aircraft were returned to Japan for this purpose. At the same time the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Tokyo recognized that the basic aircraft was eminently suitable for use as a night fighter, a category of aircraft then non-existent in the Imperial Navy. Work began on a specialized sub-type, the J1N1-S. Meanwhile the first two night-fighter conversions, designated J1N1-C-Kai, returned to Rabaul in May 1943 and soon proved their worth by shooting down two B-17s, following the next night by a B-24. This was no mean achievement, as the C-Kai had long exhaust stacks discharging above the wing, without flame dampers, and maximum speed not higher than 300 mph. At one time one of them had a trainable searchlight in the nose. They retained a crew of three, the pilot being assisted by a navigator and a gunner, the latter being needed to change ammunition drums.
These successes, the first ever gained by Japanese night fighters, were followed by others until both the original C-Kai conversions had been destroyed. But by August 1943 the definitive J1N1-S Gekko was in production, and most of the 479 of all J1N versions built were of this sub-type. The new Type 99 Model 2 guns had belt feeds, so no gunner was needed, and the previously lumpy rear fuselage was made more streamlined. From December 1944 the Gekko was the chief Navy night fighter, but its success against the B-17 and B-24 could not be repeated against the B-29; it could not climb high enough nor fly fast enough, despite the speed being increased to 315 mph at the best height of about 16,000 feet and 272 mph at 30,000 feet. In the final versions produced in 1945 a Navy-developed AI radar was fitted, again using Yagi-type aerials in a neat quadruple array and being under the control of the observer. There is no record of successful B-29 interceptions, and these aircraft either languished on the ground or were used for Kamikaze attacks.

The Army’s success with the Ki-45 led to a successor, the Ki-96, first flown in September 1943. Much more powerful, it had a speed of 373 mph and carried a 37 mm cannon and two 20 mm guns. The Army could not make up their minds whether it should have one seat or two. Eventually the Ki-96 was redesigned into the Ki-102 two-seater, flown in March 1944. One of its guns had a calibre of 57 mm, and a single shell blew an engine off a B-29 in the course of a prototype test flight with loaded guns. Only a handful of different types of Ki-102 were built, the last two being Ki-102c night fighters with two oblique 20 mm Ho-5 cannon and two forward-firing 30 mm Ho-105s. All these were new guns marking a great improvement on the old patterns used previously. The Ki-102c also carried AI radar, almost certainly E-1, and its crew comprised a pilot and radar observer. The Allied name for all Ki-102 versions was ‘Randy’.

It so happened that the best of all Japanese night fighters was a converted bomber extremely similar to the Ju 88 in character. Though many years later in conception than the German aircraft, the Yokosuka P1Y1 had precisely the same wing span, almost identical weights and engine power, a close-grouped crew of three and very similar flight performance. Like the Ju 88 it was big, tough, durable and could be flung round the sky like a single-seater. So good was it that the Navy instructed the Kawanishi company to redesign it into the P1Y1-s Kyokko (Aurora), known to the Allies as ‘Frances’. The tricky airframe was made simpler to build, the troublesome Homare engines were replaced by robust Kaseis, and the interior was rearranged with the navigator in the nose, the pilot in the centre and the rear gunner in the aft cockpit. The usual armament comprised two oblique 20 mm guns (said to be Type 99 but almost certainly Ho-5s) and a third gun of the same type in the rear cockpit for defence. Radar was fitted, related to that of the J1N1-S but derived from the widely used ASV installation with a completely different dipole aerial array, there being a single large Yagi array in the nose and an axial trio of dipoles along each side of the rear fuselage. About ninety-seven Kyokkos were built, a few having a twin 20 mm dorsal turret. It was perhaps fortunate for the Allies that protracted trials were still going on when the war ended.

There were many other ‘heavy fighter’ programmes in Japan which might have yielded a useful night defender. Among these were the Ki-46-III-Kai version of an established reconnaissance machine, with an oblique 37 mm cannon; the big Mitsubishi Ki-109 with a forward-firing 75 mm gun; the Nakajima J5N-1 Tenrai (heavenly thunder), designed to replace the J1N1-S; the Kawasaki Ki-108 with twin turbocharged engines and a pressure cabin; the Rikugun Ki-93, with two six-blade single-rotation propellers; and the Mitsubishi Ki-83, which was one of the best combat aircraft the Japanese produced in the Second World War. None of these played any part in the war, owing to a combination of muddled administration, severe technical snags, crippling shortages, and the catastrophic effect on Japanese industry of the devastating B-29 raids. Unlike the air battles in the German night sky, those over Japan – if they took place at all, which was very seldom – were one-sided. The general objective of the Japanese was not so much to develop a better fighter that would destroy the B-29 faster, as to develop one that could actually get within firing range. There was quite a difference between a Lancaster cruising at 200 mph at 22,000 feet and a B-29 cruising at 300 mph at 32,000 feet. This must be borne in mind when reflecting on the Japanese lack of success.


B25 returns from Rabaul bombing raid

Isoroku Yamamoto (far left) and Jinichi Kusaka (center left) supervise air operations from Rabaul during Operation I-Go in April 1943

Battle of the Bismark Sea: Japanese ship movements (black) and Allied air attacks (red) during the battle.

Rabaul Captured on 23 January 1942, becoming the cornerstone of Japan’s position in the Southwest Pacific. The action allied one of the best natural harbors in the region with a complex of four major and one minor airfields, supporting 200-300 aircraft and heavy antiaircraft defenses. After Guadalcanal fell to the Allies, Rabaul’s importance increased. Allied planners, however, determined to neutralize the base through aerial bombardment.

General George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force opened the offensive on 12 October 1943. The first attack, by 349 aircraft, was the precursor of a series of raids through 2 November that wrecked many installations, causing the Japanese to excavate replacement underground facilities. The offensive also led Admiral Koga Minechi to reinforce Rabaul with the Combined Fleet’s air groups (175 aircraft), which arrived 1 November, and Vice Admiral Kurita Takeo’s heavy cruiser force.

Koga’s reinforcement prompted a swift reaction. Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s Task Force 38 (Saratoga and Princeton) struck Rabaul on 5 November, heavily damaging four heavy and two light cruisers. Task Force 38, joined by Pacific Fleet carriers Essex, Bunker Hill, and Independence, attacked again on 11 November, damaging most remaining warships. The carriers beat back a Japanese counterattack, inflicting such losses that Koga withdrew his battered carrier air groups from Rabaul.

Air Solomons Command, almost 500 aircraft, constructed new airstrips at Torokina on Bougainville, 210 miles from Rabaul, initially supporting only fighters. Fighters swept over Rabaul on 17 December; heavier raids followed through 28 December, but the Japanese made good their losses. Allied attacks recommenced on 5 January, more effectively once Torokina accommodated bombers from 21 January. Two light and one medium or heavy bomber missions struck Rabaul almost daily, accompanied by strong fighter escorts. Fighter opposition remained strong. Reinforcements were flown in from Truk, but attrition took its toll. Few replacements arrived after 1 February, and surface vessels were barred from the area.

The tempo of Allied operations intensified in February. Close to 3,000 sorties were flown over Rabaul to 19 February, almost equaling the total between October and January. A major assault that day, with almost 200 aircraft in two waves, devastated the harbor and airfields and destroyed a quarter of the defending interceptors. Coming two days after the Pacific Fleet struck Truk, it induced the Japanese to withdraw their remaining serviceable fighters. Unescorted Allied bombers assailed Rabaul daily to 15 May, dropping 7,410 tons of bombs on the town and harbor, airfields, and supply dumps. Rabaul was neutralized, despite its garrison of 100,000 troops.


The Japanese occupied Rabaul on New Britain in January 1942 during the Hundred Days campaign. They quickly built the capital of the Bismarck Archipelago into their major air and naval base in the South Pacific, home to major naval assets and Japanese 11th Air Fleet. General Douglas MacArthur proposed to retake Rabaul in Operation CARTWHEEL (1943), as part of his larger effort to reach the Philippines via New Guinea. The campaign began with raids and “quarantine” via reduction of nearby Japanese bases. The invasion of Bougainville that started on November 1, 1943, was supported by bombing raids by Task Force 58 that suppressed Japanese land-based air power across the eastern Marshall Islands, and did much to neutralize the 100,000 man garrison on Rabaul. Madang Island, located between New Guinea and New Britain, was assaulted in late December. The Arawe peninsula on New Guinea was finally cleared of defenders by January 16, 1944. A month later New Zealanders took the Green Islands, further isolating Rabaul. Once the Admiralty Islands also succumbed, Rabaul was cut-off. It was then decided to bypass Rabaul as part of the new island-hopping strategy. The New Britain campaign was modified to continue to isolate Japanese forces in Rabaul, while avoiding a direct assault on the garrison. Thereafter, Rabaul was intermittently bombed, initially from fast carrier task forces but later from captured or newly built air bases on Bougainville and other islands. The demoralized and undersupplied Japanese left in Rabaul surrendered on September 6, 1945. Allied intelligence thought there were only 32,000 Japanese inside the base. It was a shock to take 53,000 soldiers and 16,000 sailors and Rikusentai into captivity.


The putative aim of the New Guinea fighting in 1943 and 1944 was to reach the great Japanese base at Rabaul. While carrier air made substantial contributions to the advance, the Fifth Air Force with its land-based aircraft was even more important in gaining air superiority and isolating the battlefield. Its commander, Major-General George C. Kenney, proved one of the most adaptive and competent air commanders of the war. He also proved a tough advocate of air power and his command’s interests before MacArthur’s sycophantic staff. On Kenney’s introduction to the theater, MacArthur’s chief of staff, Brigadier-General Richard Sutherland, attempted to lecture him on how best to employ air power. Kenney grabbed a piece of paper off Sutherland’s desk, put a dot in the center with a pencil, and announced that the dot represented what the chief of staff knew about air power, while the surrounding sea of white represented what he (Kenney) knew.

General Hap Arnold had sent Kenney to the theater in August 1942 to clean up a monumental mess in which a badly run command was making little contribution to winning the war, while wasting large amounts of resources. Kenney cleared the field by firing five generals and a host of colonels. The atmosphere in the Fifth Air Force became one of energy and determination; its air crews were now going to kill Japanese in large numbers. So far the Fifth Air Force had stolidly followed pre-war doctrine by bombing Japanese ships from a high altitude, where enemy flak rarely reached. The results were spectacular water spouts, huge numbers of dead fish and little damage to the Japanese. Kenney immediately decreed that even the B-17s would bomb from lower altitudes. He modified his B-25 medium bombers to carry eight machine-guns in their nose and began an intensive program to retrain aircrews to attack from low altitude by ‘skipping’ their bombs directly into enemy ships.

As a retrained and refocused force, Kenney’s aircraft and crews made a decisive showing in the battle of the Bismarck Sea. The Japanese were involved in a major reinforcement to move their 51st Division from Rabaul to New Guinea. Eight transports, supported by eight destroyers, with 100 aircraft flying cover, moved along the New Britain coast out into the Solomon Sea. Alerted by Magic intercepts, Kenney and the Fifth Air Force were ready: Initial attacks by B-17s got two transports, and as Japanese ships moved through the Dampier Strait, their lookouts caught sight of nearly 100 Allied aircraft headed at full speed and at very low level straight toward them. B-25s, A-20s and Australian Beaufighters slashed into the Japanese convoy: By evening Allied aircraft had sunk the transports and half the destroyers; Allied aircrews then strafed the lifeboats to kill survivors. The Japanese 51st Division lost most of its staff, all its equipment and over 3,000 soldiers.

To counter the growth in Allied air effectiveness, Admiral Yamamoto scraped together 300 planes from the army and the carriers to attack Allied airfields throughout the Solomons and New Guinea. The raids inflicted insubstantial damage, but added to the severe attrition of the Japanese air forces. Meanwhile, the Americans were receiving more aircraft and pilots and introducing new and substantially improved models into the fighting. On the army air force side, the P38 ‘Lightning’, with its great range and capacity to loiter at high altitude, was a serious threat to Japanese fighters. On the navy side, the introduction of the F6F Hellcat provided a margin of superiority to naval pilots in the air-to-air arena.

The result was similar to what was happening to the Luftwaffe at this time. Air battles over the Solomons and New Guinea depleted the few remaining experienced Japanese pilots; their replacements received less and less training and consequently died at an increased rate. Having done little to prepare a solid base, the Japanese proved profligate with the lives of their fliers and then desperately had to fill the seats left by the destruction of the highly skilled pilot force with ill-trained and ill-prepared pilots. Saburo Sakai, returning to training with one good eye, records:

I found it hard to believe, when I saw the new trainees staggering along the runway, bumping their way into the air. The navy was frantic for pilots, and the school was expanded every month, with correspondingly lower entrance requirements … everything was urgent! We were told to rush the men through, to forget the fine points. One after the other, singly, in twos or threes, the training planes smashed into the ground, skidded wildly through the air … It was a hopeless task.

The Americans on the other hand made good their losses with new pilots who were given increased flying time and now with superior aircraft they held a double advantage. Symptomatic of the situation was the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto’s aircraft by P-38s in mid April 1943. Alerted by intelligence, the Americans pushed out a killing team of Lightnings, fitted with special drop tanks, to the furthest extent of their range. Off southern Bougainville, the Americans shot the Japanese admiral’s aircraft down.

References Brown, J. David. Carrier Operations in World War II: The Pacific Navies. London: Ian Allan, 1974. Craven, Wesley F., and James L. Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 4: The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942-July 1944. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. Morison, Samuel E. Breaking the Bismarck’s Barrier. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.


Japan and the War of the Meiji Restoration


Japanese ironclad Kōtetsu.

Stonewall-Class (French Ironclads, 1864) A class of two ironclad rams built in France for the Confederate government during the United States Civil War. One of these, the Stonewall, reached Confederate hands. Her sister was unnamed and never completed. Laid down in 1863 under the cover name of Sphinx, the Stonewall was launched in June 1864. Two months earlier French officials had decided that she would not be given to the Confederacy and had arranged for her sale to Denmark instead. Renamed the Staerkodder, she was intended for service in Denmark’s 1864 war with Prussia and Austria. But when the Danes lost the war, Danish officials refused her, and she was returned to France as the Olinde. The French builders were then able to arrange her transfer to the Confederacy, and she was commissioned at sea in January 1865. The Stonewall displaced 1,390 tons and measured 186’9? (oa; 157’6? bp) x 32’6? x 14’3?. She was propelled by two direct-acting engines on two screws and was capable of 10.8 knots. She had a crew of 135 men. Fitted with a pronounced ram bow, she mounted 3 rifled guns: 1 x 11-inch/300-pounder in the bow to fire directly ahead and 2 x 5-inch carried aft in a turret. The Stonewall escaped Ferrol, Spain, in late March 1865 and reached Cuba, where her crew learned that the Civil War was over. Handed over to the United States, she was sold to the shogun of Japan. Seized by forces loyal to the emperor when she arrived at Yokohama in April 1868 and renamed Kōtetsu, she led the assault on the shogun’s stronghold at Hakodate in July 1869. Renamed Adzuma in 1881, she was struck from the active list of the Japanese navy in 1888.


After the Perry expedition of 1853 opened Japan to trade with the United States, other naval powers pressured the Tokugawa shogun with similar exercises in gunboat diplomacy. Countries securing trade treaties in the late 1850s included Britain, France, and Russia, and in 1861, Prussia, the latter after sending its only operational screw corvette and three sailing ships to Tokyo Bay. The shogunate wisely recognized that Japan lacked the technology to resist even a third-rate Western navy, but the concessions to foreigners rankled in a country with a proud warrior tradition. An attempt to return to isolationism in 1863 brought British, French, and American squadrons to Japanese waters, and the British shelling of Kagoshima served notice that the Western powers would use force to maintain their treaty rights. Unable to return to the past, Japan could only move forward.

In 1868, after failing to deal effectively with fifteen years of pressure from foreign powers, the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown by a coalition of feudal domains which established a new government in the name of the Meiji emperor, the so-called “Meiji Restoration.” While the new government would be known in the long run for saving Japan by enlisting foreign experts to help modernize and industrialize the country, earlier in the 1860s both the shogunate and the feudal domains opposing it hired British naval advisors and purchased steampowered warships. As early as 1866 the Ishiwajima navy yard completed the screw gunboat Chiyodogata, the first steam warship built in Japan, but the 140-ton vessel reflected the state of Japanese industry at the time, taking five years to build, with machinery and other components imported from the West. The first Japanese ironclad was the former CSS Stonewall, purchased by the shogun in 1867 from the United States. When the 1,360-ton ironclad ram arrived in Japan the following year, it was taken over by the new imperial government. The Japanese initially called the vessel the Kōtetsu, meaning “iron-covered ship,” before renaming it Adzuma.

After the revolution, or “restoration,” of 1868, supporters of the shogunate fought a brief civil war before conceding defeat. Neither side found it easy to impose this agreement on its followers. In Kyoto, Iwakura, Okubo, and Kido had to work hard to overcome the opposition of loyalists who called for something more severe, with the result that a public announcement of the terms was delayed for several weeks. In Edo, Saigo had to use force against 3,000 Tokugawa retainers protesting the treatment of their lord. Part of the Bakufu fleet, commanded by Enomoto Takeaki, fled to the north, rather than surrender. More serious, an alliance of domains in the northeast, led by Sendai and Aizu, showed a willingness to resist the new regime in an organized way. Arguing that Satsuma and Choshii were “evil advisers” and that the Emperor was being misled, they prepared to defend their feudal rights. But in September Saigo took command of large-scale operations against them, and their main stronghold, Aizu’s castle of Wakamatsu, eventually capitulated at the beginning of November. By the end of the year the northeast was pacified, albeit at considerable cost.

This left only Enomoto, who escaped with eight ships and about 2,000 men-among the senior Bakufu officials Itakura Katsukiyo, Ogasawara Nagamichi, and Nagai Naomune-to Ezo (Hokkaido), which they requested be made a Tokugawa fief. This was more than Kyoto could grant, for all that Enomoto was respected there, so in 1869 a strong force was sent to suppress the “rebels” as soon as spring made fighting possible. Hakodate fell on June 29, thus restoring peace to the whole of Japan. Appropriately, Enomoto signaled the event by sending the notes on navigation he had made as a student in Holland to the commander of the force that had defeated him. They would, he said, “be of use to the country,” whatever happened to him.

Many standoffs of the civil war came close to blows, but ended with surrender before a local potentate dared attack the imperial banner. Although not every group of rebels surrendered so easily: fighting in several northern towns was fierce. A group called the White Tiger Corps (Byakkotai) achieved lasting fame during the war, not so much for their military prowess as their adherence to samurai ideals. Largely comprising teenage sons of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain, and intended to be held in reserve, a group of the White Tigers mistakenly believed that smoke in the distance was a sign that their castle had fallen, and committed suicide en masse. When the castle did eventually fall, the samurai resistance lost its best foothold in the north of the country, and retreated even further.

The last of the old-school samurai installed themselves at the southern end of Ezo Island, in the vast star-shaped fortress of Goryō kaku (‘The Pentagon’). There, they hoped to salvage some semblance of their dignity by proclaiming themselves to be a samurai nation, the Republic of Ezo, which still proclaimed loyalty to the Emperor, but regarded itself as a state independent from Meiji Japan.

If the last of the samurai had hoped for foreign aid, it proved to be unforthcoming. Foreign ships watched the conflict unfold, and the French military advisers controversially resigned their native commissions in order to lead the Republic of Ezo’s armies, but the Boshin War was a mop-up operation against a dwindling foe.

The Republic of Ezo began with limited resources – a mere handful of ships in its fleet, and whatever supplies could be scraped up in Hakodate, the treaty port close to Goryō kaku. The French mounted a daring operation to the south, where they intended to steal an ironclad warship, the Kōtetsu, newly delivered from America. Ships from the Republic of Ezo, flying the American and Russian flags as camouflage, got near enough to the Kōtetsu to board her, with some of the Shinsengumi forming the suicidally brave raiding party, leaping from the high deck of the Republic’s ship to the low-lying Kōtetsu, directly into the path of the Kōtetsu’s deck-mounted machine guns.

The mission to steal the Kōtetsu was a failure, and before long, the imperial forces had pursued the samurai rebels to Hakodate itself. Hijikata Toshizō led the last remnants of the Shinsengumi in the defence of one of the outlying strongpoints, but was forced to recognize that the Republic of Ezo was doomed, and that its hastily selected president was sure to make a deal with the imperial forces.

The naval battle of Hakodate, May 1869; in the foreground, Kasuga and Kōtetsu of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The conflict featured naval battles off southern Hokkaido and northern Honshu, in every case chaotic melées between ill-trained forces. In June 1869 at the decisive Battle of Hakodate, an imperial squadron led by the Kōtetsu defeated the shogun’s squadron of wooden steamers, destroying the largest of the latter, the 1,450-ton paddle steamer Kwaiten (the former Prussian Danzig). A second ironclad, the 1,430-ton armored broadside corvette Ryujo, did not join the navy in time to participate in the brief war. Originally a speculation ship built in Britain during the American Civil War, it was purchased in 1869 by Prince Hizen, an opponent of the shogun, who subsequently gave it to the emperor as a gift. Following the elimination of internal rivals, the new imperial government proceeded to lay the foundations of Japanese power at sea as well as on land.