Book: “Fighting for the French Foreign Legion”

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Like the 7th Cavalry, the Waffen SS or the Special Air Service the French Foreign Legion is one of those iconic (be that through fame or infamy) military units that most students of military history know something about. This book by Alex Lochrie (its subtitle – “memoirs of a Scottish Legionnaire” – make it clear from the outset his origins!) is not a long read at only one hundred and seventy pages. But it is a fascinating one.

The author had what can only be described as a chequered history before joining the Legion at the grand old age of 38. He was in advertising, joined two separate Scottish police forces (moonlighting at one point as a commercial pilot), became a down and out and attempted suicide! He then journeyed to Paris and joined not just one of world’s best and most well known fighting forces, but went on to become part of an elite within this elite – the 2eme Regiment Etranger Parachutiste (2eme REP); the Legion’s paratroopers! He worked his way up to Caporal Chef and was decorated for bravery.

Over a series of nineteen chapters the author takes us through his early jobs, his joining and induction in the Legion and his training and operational deployments over a decade long career from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. So we have various deployments to Tchad in Africa (as part of France’s military commitments to its ex-colonies); to Saudi Arabia/Iraq as part of the first Gulf War and, in the final (and longest) part of the book, to his 6 months in Sarajevo as part of the UN peace keeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These deployments are interspersed with re-collections of tough commando training (reminiscent of SAS style training), exercises with US forces and a move over to an intelligence gathering role (at a time when digital technology was part of a new frontier in this field of military operations).

As someone who during the early nineties had all the misery of the Balkan tragedy beamed regularly into his house it was the author’s description of his tour in Sarajevo that left the biggest impression on me. For those that have studied this conflict the tale is a familiar one; a seemingly spineless UN, highly restrictive rules of engagement, barbarism by all the main indigenous participants and misery and starvation for those trapped by the fighting. 2eme REP’s mission was to hold the International Airport to allow relief flights. Despite their blue helmets and UN status they were shot at and shelled throughout the tour. However being the Legion they didn’t take this lying down, despite those pesky rules of engagement. Some effective deployment of counter snipers with Tac50 Sniper rifles (“The Big Mac” – delivered in guitar cases so nobody could spot these non-defensive weapons) combined with a highly efficient and innovative way of mapping sniper positions ended the airport’s status as a shooting gallery. Also when shelling by the Serbians became too persistent and too close for comfort the French commander fetched in his 120mm mortars from home base and threatened to reduce the local Serbian HQ to rubble if one more round fell on the airport. The Legion’s reputation built up over months of patient diplomacy backed by the threat that only armed legionnaires can bring meant that the shelling stopped!

The whole book is well observed and very crisply written. As the author says his book is not meant to be an advertisement for the Foreign Legion, but he does a damned good job of making it look like a good life if you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk! On many occasions he compares the attitude and approach of the Legion with other units from the French armed forces and finds the latter wanting on nearly every occasion. The Legion follows the “any idiot principle” (although the author doesn’t call it this). So any idiot can be uncomfortable, too cold, too hot, not have decent cooking or recreation facilities. Whether in the deserts of Tchad or the harsh conditions of a Balkans winter the Legion makes sure that as far as possible its base areas are comfortable, well supplied and well fed. Always through their own efforts and resourcefulness.

The book is something of a historical document covering a period of around twenty five years ago-the Legion has moved on since then – but as a view of a period when the geo-political map of the world was being re-drawn it is a highly insightful one (especially given it is from the narrow perspective of a single military unit).

The book finishes with the end of the author’s career and some of his comments on how the Legion treated ex-Legionnaires in difficulties (which appears to be extremely well), makes one question the treatment of soldiers in the UK on their release from the British Army (I am in no position to comment on other nations) following their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t be giving the game away to say the author’s story ends well; this is no embittered memoir from someone who has been hard done by. This is the tale of a well-motivated soldier from an elite unit who has, overall, had a very good experience of military life.

The book is supported by a number of black and white photographs showing various aspects of the author’s career and interests. This kind of thing is de rigueur for this kind of book and always add something to text.

I am not particularly interested in the Foreign Legion as a subject, regular readers of these occasional reviews will know my military interests lie elsewhere; however, I have to say this was an excellent read and something of a page turner. So if the Legion is your thing then you will love this book. If you are interested in modern day soldiering then I think this will also be for you. There wasn’t a lot here for wargamers in terms of scenarios etc (the author’s career did not involve a great deal of direct kinetic action) but elements of the Sarajevo tour could provide some ideas.

“Fighting for the French Foreign Legion” available now in paperback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £12.99/$19.95 (ISBN 9781783376155)

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Hyksos

Hyksos_warriors_vs_Egyptian - Chosen People - creation of a lesser god - Foundation

Hyksos and Egyptians

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An ancient population that conquered and dominated Egypt between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BCE. Power slipped from the pharaohs of Egypt in the late Middle Kingdom, during the Thirteenth Dynasty (1786-1633 bce), when they were conquered in a relatively easy victory by the Hikau-Khoswet people. The name Hikau-Khoswet originated from the Egyptian phrase meaning “rulers of foreign lands.” An Asiatic group primarily composed of Semites, the Hikau-Khoswet, of Hyksos, reigned over Egypt for well over 100 years, beginning from about 1750-1700 bce, and ending with the establishment of the New Kingdom in 1567 bce. The main catalysts that enabled the Hyksos to conquer the Nile delta so easily were the internal dissent among the Egyptians themselves, a counter revolt of the nobility, and a weakening of the power of the pharaohs.

The Hyksos were said to be well trained and well-armed, and were credited with introducing the horse and chariot to Egypt. The Egyptian forces of the time were exclusively infantry armed with copper weapons. Assuming the Hyksos invaded with cavalry and chariots, scale armor, bronze weapons, and composite bows, the Egyptians would have been completely outclassed. Whether the Hyksos entered Egypt in one major invasion or through a gradual buildup of population (both theories are proposed), it is almost unthinkable that the Egyptians could have given them much serious military opposition. Moreover, if the Hyksos’ forces included Arabs, then camel-borne troops would also have been used, which would have been a complete surprise to the defenders.

During the course of the Hyksos’ invasion, towns and cities were burned, temples were damaged, and the native population was subjected to severe hardships and cruelties. Once the Hyksos gained control, they imposed heavy taxes as well as a strong military dominance on their subjects. Surprisingly, the majority of Egyptians accepted this style of leadership with- out much resistance.

The origin of the Hyksos is the subject of much debate, although they were probably a Canaanite tribe from the east coast of the Mediterranean, possibly Palestine. The third-century Egyptian historian Manetho describes the dynasties of the Hyksos’ occupation as Phoenician (XV Dynasty) and Syrian (XVI Dynasty). Most authorities agree that Canaanite culture introduced the chariot into Egypt. The Hyksos could well have been aided in their invasion, at least indirectly, by the Nubians. The Nubians were in conflict with Upper Egypt in the area of modern Sudan and through the region east of the Nile. It has been speculated that the Hyksos were to some extent allied with them. This may explain why the Hyksos remained concentrated in Lower Egypt, perhaps as the result of an agreement with the Nubians to divide the spoils of their conquests.

The Hyksos were not entirely preoccupied with military goals. According to William Hayes, “The Hyksos kings of the Fifteenth Dynasty brought about the construction of temples, production of statues, reliefs, scarabs, and other works of art and craftsmanship” (Hayes, 1959), some of which are regarded as the best examples of Egyptian literary and technical works of that time. Practical and useful inventions such as the well sweep, the vertical loom, and the composite bow were Hyksos legacies. Egypt until this time was behind other Mediterranean civilizations in technological advancements. Thanks to the Hyksos, they were now able to learn of bronze working, the potter’s wheel, and the use of arsenic copper. The Hyksos also introduced hump-backed cattle and fruit crops, as well as new planting and harvesting skills. Evidence suggests that the Hyksos encouraged exercise through dance and expression through new musical instruments.

On the whole, the Hyksos seem to have been a powerful and influential people, but there were only a few rulers able to take credit for the advances. One of the six Hyksos rulers was Prince Salatis, a name that has been interpreted to mean “Sultan.” During his rise to power, he banned the contemporary Egyptian rulers from the capital city of Memphis and extended his rule over most of Middle Egypt, eventually taking over Upper Egypt and Nubia as well. In the meantime, Hyksos rulers had moved the capital to Avaris, the location of which remains a mystery. Although the Hyksos invaders were eventually overthrown by the Egyptians in the late 1560s bce, they left behind the tools and knowledge that helped build Egypt’s future empire.

References: Baines, J., and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1980); Hayes, W., The Scepter of Egypt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959); Van Seeters, J., The Hyksos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

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STORM OVER TAIERZHUANG: The Samurai Stalingrad 1938

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Japanese troops.

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Chinese Troops.

On January 26, 1938, the Japanese launched their offensive towards Xuzhou and by the evening of March 24, 1938, the Japanese 10th division (with around 25,000 men and around 100 tanks and armored cars) had reached the Taierzhuang area. The Japanese had conquered huge swathes of Northern and Eastern China and were steadily pushing deeper into China. With the conquest of Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing in 1937, Jiang Jie Shi (Chang Kai Shek) had moved his headquarters to Wu Han. The Japanese seeing an opportunity struck to capture the important rail junction of Xuzhou endangering Wu Han and forcing a Chinese capitulation.

The KMT generals also saw an opportunity to lure Japanese forces into a cul-de-sac and then encircle them with numerically superior Chinese forces. The town of Taierzhuang was chosen as the site for this trap as it was an important rail terminus on the way to Xuzhou. What followed is sometimes known as the “Samurai Stalingrad”, as huge amounts of forces fought over a small town. This scenario has been repeated many times hence, at Ponyri Station, July 1943, at Stalingrad 1942, at Hue, 1968, and so on. The Chinese “lure” was fed by Japanese arrogance and bravado in their attitude of their invading army. To them, they were supreme over all others. The Russian volunteers played a key role in their support of providing pilots for the Russian I-15, I-16 aircraft. Ironically, the Chinese forces were armed with and odd mix of German and non-German weapons.

Taierzhuang was a battle of numbers, as no amount of skill or bravado will can win a battle without additional reinforcements. Here, the Chinese had the superiority and no reinforcements were forthcoming to the Japanese 10th Division whose spearhead was in a fragile position. Thus, the stage was set.

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The battle involved a Japanese plan to conquer Xuzhou, a major city in the East. However, the Japanese failed to consider the plans of generals Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi, who planned to encircle the Japanese in the town of Tai’erzhuang. The Japanese operation started on 24 March. Overconfidence led the Japanese commanders to overlook the thousands of inconspicuous “farmers” in the area, who were affiliated with Li Zongren and cut communication lines and supplies, diverted streams, and ruined rail lines. By late March, supplies and fuels were being dropped from airplanes to Japanese troops, but the quantities were insufficient.

On 29 March 1938, a small band of Japanese soldiers tunneled under Tai’erzhuang’s walls in an attempt to take the city from within. They were caught by the Nationalist defenders and killed. Over the next week, both sides claimed to hold parts of the city and surrounding area, and many were killed in small arms battles.

Finally, the Japanese attacked frontally, failing to consider the greater Chinese numbers. A major encirclement on 6 April, with Chinese reinforcements, preceded a major Japanese defeat and retreat, which the Chinese failed to capitalize upon fully through pursuit due to a lack of mobility.

The Chinese captured 719 Japanese soldiers and large quantities of military supplies, including 31 pieces of artillery, 11 armored cars, 8 armored fighting vehicles, 1,000 machine guns and 10,000 rifles.

A “dare to die corps” was effectively used against Japanese units.

Chinese suicide bomber putting on an explosive vest made out of Model 24 hand grenades to use in an attack on Japanese tanks

Due to lack of anti-armor weaponry, Suicide bombing was also used against the Japanese. Chinese troops strapped explosives like grenade packs or dynamite to their bodies and threw themselves under Japanese tanks to blow them up. Dynamite and grenades were strapped on by Chinese troops who rushed at Japanese tanks and blew themselves up. During one incident at Taierzhuang, Chinese suicide bombers obliterated four Japanese tanks with grenade bundles.

Amid the celebrations of the victory in Hankow and other Chinese cities, Japan tried to deny and ridiculed the reports of the battle for days. It was reported in the world’s newspapers, however, and by mid-April had provoked a Cabinet crisis in Tokyo.

The Chinese scored a major victory, the first of the Nationalist alliance in the war. The battle broke the myth of Japanese military invincibility and resulted in an incalculable benefit to Chinese morale.

Wargame

The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse

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HMS Repulse by Jaap Pluimgraaff

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Prince of Wales under Attack

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The Japanese strategists had a single-mindedness that included the assumption that the enemy would respond the way they, themselves would. The blunting of the American battlefleet at Pearl was considered in the plans as protecting the left flank of the overall assault. The right flank was to hold on, if the British fleet threatened the right, until the striking forces from Kido Butai were able to reinforce.

The sinking of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse was as much a pleasant surprise to the Japanese as it was a shock to the British. As far as the strategic plans, it was a bit of opportunism. The drive through the center, into Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea, could now proceed unimpeded.

The newest RN battleships of World War II were the King George V class (King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson, and Howe, not to be confused with the King George V class of 1911–1912). Again, one unit of this class, Prince of Wales, was lost during the war, this time to aerial attack by the Japanese in December 1941. The class was severely criticized for its 14-inch main guns. This retrograde decision (after all, the considerably older Nelson and Rodney boasted 16- inch guns) was made in order to get at least the first two units of the class completed in 1940, by which date conflict with Germany was expected. As it was, only King George V was ready for service in 1940. Like the Nelson class, the King George V class had significant main gun mounting problems. Nonetheless, the Royal Navy generally felt that the class gave good value for the money.

Within days after Pearl Harbor, the Royal Navy suffered a worse disaster with the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse. Admiral Sir Tom Philips, RN commander of the British Pacific Fleet, was convinced (as was Winston Churchill, apparently) that a well-handled battleship could fight off aerial attackers. Admiral Philips learned the hard way how wrong he was. Japanese aerial torpedoes on 10 December sank Prince of Wales, along with Repulse, off the Malay coast in less than two hours. Admiral Philips was not among the survivors.

The loss of these warships was a greater blow to the British than Pearl Harbor was to the Americans. Although the Pearl Harbor united Americans in their resolve to crush the Japanese, the Malayan disaster unnerved the British. They handed over Malaya-Singapore without effective resistance, even though they well outnumbered the Japanese. In the long run, the loss of the Singapore bastion signaled the end of European colonialism in Asia. Anyone could see that Asians had badly beaten Europeans with their own modern weapons.

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Wargame Scenario

The Prince of Wales and Repulse sailed from Singapore in early Dec 1941 looking for the Japanese invasion fleet (heading for Northern Malaya, Southern Thailand).

Seems like an interesting scenario if the British came upon the Japanese either in day or night.

The DD were Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos; this last was detached to refuel at one point.

Japanese Forces

A heavy cruiser, 10 destroyers, and a handful of smaller craft escorted the Japanese transports. The covering force consisted of four cruisers and four destroyers. 12 subs were deployed in the Gulf of Thailand, and a distant covering force of Haruna, Kongo, two CAs and 10 destroyers were in the area also. The British had 13 Buffalo fighters, the Japanese had 39 Zeros and 6 recon planes at Soktran, and 72 Nell bombers, 28 Betty bombers and 12 Claude fighters near Saigon. All the Japanese pilots were very experienced thanks to war service in China.

That’s a total of 157 aircraft, 24 destroyers, 7 cruisers, and two battleships Versus 2 one battleship, one battlecruiser, and three destroyers (one being sent off to get fuel).

Not good odds for the British, any way you look at it. Churchill and the Admiralty knew it too. They had no idea that Force Z had sailed, and as it was being sunk Churchill was meeting with his advisors trying to decide where he should have Repulse and Prince of Wales retreat to so that they would be out of harm’s way. When he found out they had sailed and were sunk, he claimed he was more shaken than at any other time in his life.

Analysis

Masanori Ito quotes 15 torpedoes launched at Prince of Wales, and 34 dropped on Repulse.

He credits the British with rather well aimed, if light, AA fire. He quotes three planes shot down, one crashing on landing, two others heavily damaged but landing safely, and 25 more slightly damaged. Prince of Wales was the more effective of the two throughout the battle, hitting 8 of the planes in the first attack and even after being mortally wounded hitting 5 out of 8 planes of the Takeda Group in the last attack.

The cruisers were Chokai, Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami. Mogami was with the transports, the rest were with the covering force. I-59 was the sub that first spotted force Z.

The Prince of Wales had a Type 281search radar installed in January of 1941, which could detect a battleship-sized object at 10 miles. It could not, however, be used for main gunnery control. Before sailing to Singapore, Type 272 radar was fitted to the two main battery directors and Type 285 fire-control radar was fitted for the 5.25 inch guns. Finally, the four pom-poms were fitted with Type 282 radar. However, the crews were poorly and very briefly trained, and when she was lost many of these sets were not operational. I’m not sure that the British radar would be a decisive factor like it was a North Cape, where Duke of York had newer sets and highly trained crews.

With that said, the Kongos were some of the weakest battleships of the war (second only to the good looking but inadequately armed and protected Italian rebuilds). Prince of Wales’s 14” guns can slice into a Kongo’s vitals at any range under 25000 yards, which is the maximum you are going to hit anything at anyway. Even the best protected part of a rebuild Kongo, the 10″ thick barbettes, offer no protection inside 23000 yards. Repulse’s 15” guns penetrate even better than the 14″ at longer ranges. The Kongos will not last long under fire.

Repulse has no hope of stopping an incoming shell either, but Prince of Wales has a nice immunity zone. Combined with the radar, these factors add up to a victory in a two on two for the British. The Japanese knew it too, that’s why the 2 Kongos were a distant covering force, cruisers and destroyers covered the landing, and aircraft were used for the attack.

The problem is that this is NOT going to be a two on two if the aircraft are removed from the fight. The Allies had no clue that the Long Lance torpedo had the range that it did until well into the war. In the early battles in the Java Sea, Allied crews thought they had stumbled into a minefield when the torpedoes started striking, as they never even imagined a torpedo could have made it that far. The Japanese were not shy about using them either, as they launched them in mass attacks of up to 45 at a time. With 5 heavy cruisers and 14 destroyers carrying dozens of these weapons (plus reloads), the Japanese are going to flood the waters with torpedoes. Repulse has pitiful underwater protection, and Prince of Wales’s did not even hold up to the much smaller air-launched torpedoes, so the British ships will not last long. The British radar might not even detect the launching destroyers and cruisers, so the British will not even know that they are under attack until the Long Lances strike home. One or two should kill Repulse, and 3 should end it for Prince of Wales.

Force Z did not have much of a chance. Churchill was right: the only thing that could have save these two ships was having them fall back to Ceylon.

A Very British Catastrophe

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Illusionary Fortress

December 1941 ‑ February 1942

A Campaign Scenario for the Battlefront Game System

By Ian Trout

It’s coming up to the fiftieth anniversary of this inglorious episode in British military history and, in common with most of Britain’s major disasters in the Second World War, we are still waiting for an honest examination, and explanation, of the events which happened there. The official history paints a picture of an overwhelming Japanese army, enjoying complete air and naval supremacy, crushing a valiant but scattered and inade­quately trained defending force.

A look behind the curtain reveals the facts to be otherwise. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous words; “Never… have so many with so much been beaten by so few with so little!”

What brought on the disaster? How could a 130,000 strong Commonwealth army be defeated by a 80,000 strong Japanese force? Who takes the blame? These questions form the basis for this article.

In addition, given Japanese naval superiority, could Malaya (or Singapore) have been held long enough for real relief to arrive? This is a much tougher question to answer; that’s the nature of what‑ifs. You can decide for yourself. This writer’s opinion will become evident soon enough!

In October of 1940, a conference was convened in Singapore with representatives from England, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands and the United States attending. Its purpose was to consider the defense of the Pacific area in general and the East Indies in particular. There was general agreement that an attack by Japan was inevitable although it was considered unlikely that the United States would be directly provoked. Hong Kong, Burma, Malaya (and Singapore), the Netherlands East Indies and certain islands in the Pacific were probable targets. Australia and New Zealand were too far away to be threatened, at least by the initial offensive.

Hong Kong was considered too isolated to be properly protected. Malaya was the key to the British position in the East Indies. A ground force of three division equivalents (26 infantry battalions, 14 field artillery batteries, 4 anti‑tank batteries and a regiment of light tanks) was considered the minimum necessary to mount a successful defense, provided an air force of 560 modern types was to hand.

It was acknowledged that most of the equipment would have to come from Britain; neither Australia nor New Zealand had the industrial infrastructure to supply the requirements. India might provide the manpower but little else.

There was not much prospect that Britain could supply the aircraft. The Battle of Britain still raged and what little could be spared from Britain’s home defense was dispatched to the Middle East. Nowhere in the plans for the defense of Malaya is it specified where these aircraft were to come from and, more importantly, what could (and should) be done without them. Right up to the Japanese invasion in December 1941, Malaya Command never had a plan for defending itself.

With what it actually had. All plans were drawn up on the expectation that the needed reinforcements would arrive in time to be employed.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil and the most perfunctory study of military history will surely tell you that reinforcements go to active theatres. In 1941, Britain went from crisis to crisis; the debacle in Greece and Crete, the German invasion of Russia and the resurgence of Axis fortunes in the Middle East. There was never a time when there was the slightest likelihood that the air reinforcements needed for Malaya would be forthcoming. Did Malaya Command not read the newspapers! But we’re getting ahead of the story; we’ll get onto the full significance of British military incompetence a little later.

The reliance on the arrival of a British naval squadron to see off Japanese sea power showed the same unwillingness to face reality. Surely the Japanese would launch their offensive at the precise moment when Britain would have the greatest difficulty in finding a fleet for the Far East. Again, no provision was made for conducting a de­fense on the basis of an indefinite delay in the appearance of the Royal Navy. That the Royal Navy, no matter how large a contingent was sent, may not have been equal to the task is another matter.

In the event, we get down to the following. The ground defense plans called for the following de­ployments. A division on the Thai border held in readiness to pre‑empt any Japanese move down the peninsula or an invasion of Southern Thai ports. A second division held in reserve in Johore and Sin­gapore to guard against an end run. A third divi­sion, split up to defend the newly built airstrips on the east coast. A further two brigades made up the theatre reserve.

What of the troops themselves? There were two In­dian divisions, the 9th and the 11th, the 8th Austra­lian division and a collection of local state militia and the Singapore garrison. The official histories, both British and Australian, contain far too many veiled accusations against the Indian and native troops, repeatedly referring to their lack of training and enthusiasm; all this with never a hint of criticism for their predominantly British leadership.

Somehow the impression has been created that the Japanese soldier, through some peculiarly oriental talent, was the master of jungle warfare while Commonwealth troops, and Indian soldiers in particular, were not suited for this kind of fighting. The two Indian divisions had been stationed in Malaya for twelve months or more.

Why were they so ill‑prepared for the impending struggle?

In the two years from the onset of war with Germany until the start of hostilities with Japan, only one training school was set up in Malaya, and that an Officer Training School. This is in direct contrast with the Middle East where there were upwards of a dozen training establishments dealing with every aspect of military endeavour, including those specifically related to desert warfare.

The official histories nowhere offer an explanation for the lack of similar facilities in Malaya. At the very least there was a need for a jungle warfare training facility; where did Malaya Command think its men were going to fight…

The responsibility for these omissions has to go to the top. It was Lt‑General Percival’s job to see his men adequately prepared to engage the enemy and he did no such thing. It didn’t help that there was a dearth of ability and/or initiative among his staff; that’s what usually happens in inactive theatres. Every officer with any drive had already wrangled his way into an active command. The British officers in the Indian divisions who might have been able to help staff these schools were on Indian Army pay scales (considerably higher than British Regular Army pay scales) and one must conclude that their reluctance to accept staff positions in Malaya Command was in some part pecuniary.

There was no attempt to modify the standard infantry doctrine to the densely foliated topography of Malaya. There were no briefings on Japanese infantry doctrine; it is doubtful that any British officer present had ever read the Japanese infantry manual. What is certain is that there was a general belief that any white man, particularly an English gentleman, would be more than a match for a short‑sighted oriental!

Even as late as November when it was obvious to everyone that a Japanese attack was imminent, there was no appreciable change in Malaya Command’s dispositions. The best part of two brigades still garrisoned airfields that were never going to service aircraft; at least not Allied planes!

The Australian division, held back in Johore, was an exception. It was commanded by the ablest soldier in the Australian Army, Major‑General H. Gordon Bennett. His communications with the Australian Government reveal his own sense of unease with Malaya Command’s deployments and the unsuitably of committing its forces in a piecemeal fashion. In his memoirs, every reference to Percival includes the words ‘cautious’, ‘diffident’, ‘unassuming’. It is manifestly clear that Bennett considered the British commander unsuitable, if not downright incompetent, for the position.

There was no attempt to put Japanese amphibious capability into perspective. After the occupation of French Indo‑China in April 1941, the nearest Japanese staging areas for an invasion of Malaya were in the southern Saigon/Cam Ranh Bay vicinity. That’s 400 miles north of Kota Bharu and more than 600 miles north of Singapore! The likelihood of a direct assault on Singapore was minimal; yet Percival persisted in assigning his best British battalions to its defense. The total impracticality of maintaining a line of communications across the open ocean, in the monsoon season, even without enemy air interdiction, when an alternate, land route through Thailand was available, had no impact on Malaya Command’s strategy. It’s as if they expected the Japanese to land everywhere, in strength, and at the same time!

The Japanese did not employ purpose-built amphibious vessels as the United States would do in 1944; they relied on requisitioned merchant ships which had to be returned to their usual duty of transporting raw materials as soon as possible. This was known to Malaya Command. Such craft were not suitable for a contested landing, to say nothing of the economic turmoil which would have resulted from their loss. At Kota Bharu, where the Japanese invasion fleet did meet some air opposition, one transport was lost and two damaged from a total of twenty sorties by obsolete Hudson bombers. Here, and at Singora and Patani, the Japanese were unable to provide more than sporadic air cover. Even with drop tanks, no Japanese fighter had the range to reach south of Kota Bharu.

Malaya Command did not do its sums. A serious invasion south of Kota Bharu was impossible and, of course, the Japanese didn’t try it. On the day the Japanese attacked, over 50% of Commonwealth strength, and arguably the best men in Percival’s army, were 300 miles south of where they should have been. Bennett knew it, but was unable to convince the stultified British General Staff of their error.

In war, the natural condition is to under‑estimate your own strength and to over‑estimate the enemy’s. In this campaign, Malaya Command’s con­tinual over‑estimation of Japanese military potential was never leavened by the events themselves’. In the first two weeks of the war, amphibious landings were made at Singora and Patani in Thailand, at Kota Bharu in Malaya and at Aparri, Vigan and Legaspi in the Philippines as well as various smaller operations in the Pa­cific. There were only so many ships in the Japanese navy!

None of these events could force a change in British strategy. The 8th Australian division continued to lan­guish in Johore while events in the north of Malaya went from bad to worse.

Before examining the course of the campaign, it’s as well to look at the Japanese army, and how well it had been prepared for the coming struggle. The XXV Army, commanded by the very capable General Yamashita, comprised two regular infantry divisions, the 5th and the 18th, two brigade groups from the Guards division, three medium tank regiments, some field artillery and assorted combat support units. A third infantry division, the 56th, remained in reserve in Japan and was not called upon. Army and naval air forces were assigned in support totalling about 700 combat aircraft.

Both infantry divisions were veterans of the long war in China but neither of them had any experience of jungle fighting. The advantages the Japanese army took with them into Malaya were resolute leadership, a fiery fighting spirit, great determination and a stub­born tenaciousness in adversity. They did enjoy air superiority but it was far from the complete ascendancy achieved by Allied air forces later in the war. Japanese air bases were a long way from the front, their fragile bomb­ers capable of delivering only modest pay‑loads and, most significantly, the quality of their maintenance and re­pairs left much to be desired.

Allied air policy in Malaya was not to challenge an enemy. Fighters were assigned to convoy protection duty, at which they did very well; not a single ship was lost to enemy air power until the first week of February. Furthermore, it was coming onto the rainy season and poor weather made air operations futile about one day in three.

They had tanks as well. The Type 95 medium tank mounted a low velocity 57mm gun. The optics were poor and the vehicle under‑powered. It had little off‑road capability. Tank doctrine was aggressive and very much in the Ger­man style; it’s just that the vehicle was not up to the demands placed upon it. On several occasions later in the cam­paign, Australian 2‑pdr anti‑tank bat­teries made mincemeat of them. And there were very few tank models then in service anywhere in the world that a 2‑pdr could dent!

Equally interesting is the list of their disadvantages. A Japanese infantry division was poorly supplied, by any standards, with artillery pieces, there were fewer of them, and of a smaller calibre, than atypical British division. There were fewer machine guns in the division, and no separate machine gun battalion. Radios were scarce and communications were by land line or, more usually, dispatch runners.

Japanese military tradition was such that the nation’s most able men gravi­tated to direct combat roles. Combat support, in particular logistics, intelli­gence and construction services were unreliable with the consequence that the Japanese soldier was often ex­pected to fend for himself and/or go hungry. The Japanese General Staff were aware of the problem but so in­grained was the tradition of Bushido that they could do nothing about it.

Much of the misery later experienced by Allied prisoners‑of‑war throughout South East Asia was due as much to the incompetence and inflexibility of garrison and logistics units as it was to deliberate brutality. Foremost, however, among these disadvantages was Japanese infantry doctrine itself. No other nation went into the Second World War with the same handicap! There was no provi­sion for any kind of retreat or with­drawal, nor was there any variation in the principles of attack. From begin­ning to end of the Malayan Campaign, the Japanese used exactly the same method each time. The front of the Commonwealth position would be pinned while squad/company detachments worked away at the flanks, penetrating well into the rear if they could. Once the infiltration was com­plete and flanking fire started, a frontal assault would dislodge the shaken defenders and another retreat, or rout, would be on. Time and again, Com­monwealth troops were pushed back by an attacking force barely half as numerous as the defenders.

The best response to an attack of this kind is to put in a determined counterattack. The British never really tried this. The Australians did, and scored the only notable successes in the entire Campaign. By then, however, with the Japanese three‑quarters of the way to Singapore was too late.

As the Americans were to demonstrate later in the year on Guadalcanal, the inflexibility of Japanese doctrine was a crucial weakness. If an attack didn’t work the first time, they’d do it again… and again! Resolute commanders with the right tactics could beat off a Japanese attack every time. The Russians, at Nomonhan in 1939, showed that; Viscount Slim showed it in India in 1944.

When the first reports of the Japanese landings reached Malaya Command, there was a half‑hearted attempt to activate Operation Matador, the planned offensive into Thailand to secure, or at least quarantine, the southern ports of Singora and Patani. It didn’t come to anything and defensive position was set up at Jitra. The Japanese began probing the defenses on the 10th and by the 13th they had unhinged the static defenders. This was the first of many retreats, and more orderly than most. Sometimes, as on the Perak and Slim Rivers, wholesale routs occurred and with them the loss of entire artillery batteries, motorised transport parks and huge quantities of supplies.

Malaya Command was a beaten army before it ever began to fight! They were all the time trying to hang onto territory, to hold this line or that; in war you win by beat­ing the other side’s army, by killing their troops. There was never a plan to concen­trate on a part of Yamashita’s army, to mass against it, and try to crush it. The British were short of modern aircraft and they didn’t have as much artillery as they wanted; though they did have more of the latter than the Japanese, and for most of the campaign, much more ammunition. Such short‑comings would not have prevented a determined and resolute attack. The Commonwealth army outnumbered the Japanese throughout the campaign, they had good road and rail communications and the Japanese air force could provide only sporadic interdiction. The means and the men were on hand to force a major battle; only the will was lacking.

The blame for the debacle lies squarely with Percival and his staff. Julius Caesar, de Turenne, Marlborough, Napoleon; they all said it. There are no bad soldiers… only bad generals!

Defeat followed by defeat will break the spirit of even the toughest troops. When soldiers lose confidence in their officers, an army is ruined. Malaya Command’s inability, and unwillingness, to get onto the front foot doomed the defense of Malaya from the very start. The final debacle on Singapore in the middle of February was the inevitable result.

I Live with Cats: Row Well and Live!

I got my start with ancient naval wargaming 30+ years ago when I found a copy of Richard Nelson’s Naval Wargames Rules Fleet Action 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D. at a long, long out of business toy store in Los Gatos, CA. I also got a copy of Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Bireme and Galley, which covers combat between oared warships from the earliest times to the 16th century. C-in-C miniatures had a range of ancient galleys in 1:1200th scale. They came in boxes of five models for the ridiculously cheap price of $3.00 a box and I bought and painted several. Years later I sold everything in a random, senseless act of de-cluttering, but I later reacquired both sets of rules.

When my interest in ancient naval gaming reignited, I looked in vain for the C-in-C ships. C-in-C went through a collapse and recovery some years ago and most of their original range has crept back into production. Not so with the galleys. I contacted C-in-C about six years ago and inquired about the re-release of the ships. Their website still lists the models, but they all show as “out of stock/out of production” when you click for details or to order. For some time the story from C-in-C was, “Soon.” Most recently they finally confessed that, no, they will not be re-introducing the line. Ever. And don’t call again. Ever.

via I Live with Cats: Row Well and Live!.