I have just finished reviewing a book by Augustine Meaher IV, called The Road to Singapore: the Myth of British Betrayal. It is an excellent analysis of how Australian political, social, industrial, and military elites, spend the entire interwar period failing to prepare Australia for what was to come in the Second World War. Its fundamental premise is that nobody should get away with shortchanging their own defences for 20 years, and then claiming that a resulting crisis is somebody else’s fault.
Imperial defence, from as early as 1863, was founded on the idea that Britain would coordinate a central response to any threat, but that each Dominion and associated territory was responsible for their own local defences. Throughout the interwar period Australia, like all other Dominions, had been repeatedly told that Imperial defence required adequate local defences to hold off raids until relief could arrive. The defence strategy of the British Empire and Commonwealth was to hold the mobile military forces, such as the main fleets and expeditionary armies (both of which had been voluntarily reduced due to League of Nations and Washington Naval Treaty commitments), at central nodes from which there dispatched to any area under threat. This could take several months. At a minimum this would be six weeks, and as worldwide threats rose when the Second World War commenced, it was raised to six months. Australia never prepared adequate defences to withstand raids for even six weeks.
The screams of betrayal from the Australian Labor Party in 1942 were an extremely good cover for their own resistance to all military expenditure for the preceding 20 years. Disarmament, pacifism, and appeasement had been the catch cries of all ALP policy right through the 1930s. Realistically the Curtin government had the choice of coming clean on their betrayal of their own people, or of pretending it was possible to blame somebody else.
Ever since poor historians have used selective readings of the source materials to pretend that the idea that the British Empire could defend itself in the Far East was always a fantasy. (Morris, J. Farewell the Trumpets; Bell, Roger. Unequal Allies; Thornton, AP. Imperialism in the 20th Century; Neidpath, J. The Singapore Naval Base in the Defence of Britain’s East Empire; Robertson, J. Australia at War 1939-1945; Johnston, W. Great Britain Great Empire.) In fact some historians went so far as to argue that Britain did not possess the power to hold her colonial territories even if she had not been involved in fighting a major war in Europe. (Beloff M. Wars and Welfare; Bell, Coral. Dependent Ally: Day, David. The Great Betrayal; Kennedy, P. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Ansprenger, F. The Dissolution of the Colonial Empires; Barnett, Corelli. Engage the Enemy More Closely.) It is necessary to play quite fast and loose with the source materials to achieve such results.
At the time of the Japanese attack on Malaya, the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth were engaged in an unparalleled feat of worldwide power projection. Already facing the combined efforts of the entire German and Italian Navy’s, most of the German and Italian air forces, and all of the Italian army - with substantial part of the most modern and powerful elements of the Wehrmacht including crack paratrooper and armoured forces: Britain also had to prepare a large army to defend Turkey and the northern 'Persian' frontiers against a potential German attack if the Soviet Union failed. A further cost was in fighting through a vast quantity of supplies to keep the Soviet Union in the war. (A single months worth of the aircraft and tanks sent to Russia would have saved the entire eastern position.) Aside from those minor details, Britain had to deploy large enough naval, army, and air forces to deter a Japanese attempt to take advantage of such an opportunity. Nonetheless, the forces being lined up for the Far East was staggeringly impressive, if only they could arrive in time.
By April 1942 Britain would have deployed six divisions to Malay, supported by 16 squadrons of aircraft, nine battleships and three aircraft carriers. This was in response to the early 1941 analysis that what was needed was three divisions, 22 squadrons of aircraft, seven battleships and two aircraft carriers (more aircraft equals less troops). Unfortunately the Japanese struck too soon, and there were only 3 ½ divisions, 16 half strength squadrons, four battleships and one aircraft carrier in the eastern forces. (Most textbooks do not even mention that the main British Eastern Fleet was to assemble at Ceylon, and that capital units were already there when the ill-fated Force Z took the gamble of trying to interfere with Japanese invasion fleet’s while the main Japanese fleet was clearly occupied at Pearl Harbor.)
In fact by the time Singapore fell in late January 1942, the reinforcements that had arrived - the British 18th division, another Indian and Australian Brigade, and hundreds of more modern aircraft - would almost certainly have been enough to have made the position secure if they had been there at the start. (Japanese descriptions of the campaign repeatedly emphasise their shoestring logistics and how close they came to failure.)
The British were still conscious that they were fighting a world war. Even as Singapore surrendered, and the Japanese launched an attack into Burma, the Indian Army was sending twice as many troops to face a far more dangerous prospect of a German attack into Persia. Frankly, from the perspective of a world war, the loss of a minor peninsula and naval base was a small price to pay. (Again unnoticed by most history books, is that despite fighting one of the greatest combinations of power in the history of the world until that time, total British territorial losses in World War II amounted to the tiny Channel Isles, and Malaysia and Burma - Australia also lost New Guinea. Territorially, this amounted to a few percent of the territory and population of the Empire.)
The records of the Combined Chiefs of Staff outline what was actually happening. By June 30, 1942, Britain would have 15 divisions in India, Burma, Ceylon, rising to 22 by December; and 17 divisions in the Middle East, rising to 26 by December. This is of course apart from the dozen divisions in Australia, 45 in Britain itself, and eight in the other parts of Africa. Adding in the divisions in Canada and New Zealand, this means that the British Empire was deploying more than 100 divisions in 1942. (Note that the United States reached its maximum of only 88 divisions in 1945.)
The next most ignored the fact by most of these revisionist historians, is that despite everything else that was going on, Britain kept her promise to deploy the main fleet to the Far East within six months of conflict commencing. (Even though this meant temporarily shutting down most operations in the Mediterranean to several months. The side effect of this was Rommel’s last successful attack as far as el-Alamein.) When the Japanese launched another spoiling attack in April 1942, the British Eastern Fleet had already assembled 5 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, 7 cruises, 16 destroyers, and 7 submarines. Additional forces already en route included another 2 battleships and another aircraft carrier plus additional lighter units. In response to the Japanese raid, a further 2 battleships and an aircraft carrier were ordered to the area, with another 2 battleships being suggested as further reinforcements. It is necessary to note here that the original force was already the largest Allied fleet anywhere in the world in 1942. Lifting it to 9 battleships and 5 aircraft carriers would have made it a bigger capital ship force than the entire surviving United States Navy, despite the requirements of the Home fleet, the Atlantic (particularly the dangerous convoys to northern Russia) and the Mediterranean. This is how weak the British Empire was.
The Japanese raid was an attempt to defeat part of this fleet before it could assemble, and simultaneously to affect public opinion, particularly pro-independence agitation in India (which was hosting the Stafford Cripps Mission to discuss postwar settlement). Frankly the Japanese had only one chance to solve the problem of a two-ocean war. The Americans were temporarily in chaos, with their remaining battleships withdrawn to the US west coast, and only three aircraft carriers available to mount minor raids in the Pacific. The situation would not last, and the Japanese needed to break British naval power before American pressures would prevent them from responding to British counter attacks.
There is a suprising agreement amongst many historians, that the British Eastern Fleet was very lucky not to meet the Japanese raiders. The general consensus, is that the superior air power of the five aircraft carrier and four battlecruiser Japanese fleet would give it an immeasurable advantage over the British, who only had two modern aircraft carriers (the third little anti-submarine carrier Hermes hardly counting), and five slower battleships. There is particular concern about the four old Revenge class battleships, which were slow and had a relatively light anti-aircraft armament. Again, this is possibly an oversimplification of the source material.
The Japanese, and Americans, at this stage in the war needed to launch large numbers of aircraft to even find their targets, let alone to get successful attacks. Anybody who studies the Coral Sea or Midway battles, cannot help but be struck by how many aircraft on both sides got lost, attacked the wrong target, or ran out of fuel and crashed. On several occasions, Japanese and American fleets patrolled within a few hundred miles of each other, but failed to connect. By contrast, the British had three years of combat experience with radar, and radar equipped aircraft. The Albacore torpedo bombers on their carriers - which were still biplane models - were strong sturdy reliable aircraft, but not ones suitable to use against enemy fighter opposition in daytime. But they were perfect night strike aircraft, particularly when directed by radar. (Their Swordfish predecessors had achieved spectacular results when only a couple of dozen of them attacked the main Italian fleet base at Taranto night and during wartime. Contrast this with the relatively unsophisticated total effects achieved by a much larger numbers of Japanese planes operating at Pearl Harbor in the day time, when attacking a nation still at peace! The Japs may have sunk twice as many battleships, but the British took out the vital oil tanks and the seaplane base as well.)
Admiral Somerville, whose command of the Ark Royal and other carriers in Force H for the preceding two years made him by far the most experienced fast carrier task force commander at this stage of the war, planned to manoeuvre his fleet to strike the Japanese at night, and to be out of range during the day. His successful experiences using his radar equipped forces in the narrow Mediterranean made him fairly confident that this tactic could be used even more successfully in the vast spaces of the Indian Ocean. Excellent intelligence - as at Midway – meant that his incomplete fleet was waiting in ambush for the Japanese on April 1, 1942. Unfortunately, after a few days manoeuvring, they returned to base, assuming their intelligence had been incorrect. The Japanese arrived on April 5.
The two fleets manoeuvred over the next several days, both trying to achieve their preferred advantage. Neither got within range. Again, the implication by many historians is that even if Somerville had managed a night airstrike that damaged or destroyed some Japanese ships, he would then have been within range for a Japanese airstrike the next day. This assumes of course that Japanese damage control would be considerably better than at Midway. Or that the Japanese would be able to direct their attacks more efficiently than at Coral Sea or Midway. That they would be more efficient at taking on a concentrated fleet’s massed anti-aircraft firepower, than the Luftwaffe was in the Mediterranean. It assumes that the limited numbers of British fighters available would not have been able to be just as effective at breaking up attacks as they had been in the Mediterranean. (Note that the British carriers were using Sea Hurricane and Martlett – the US called them Wildcat - fighters, instead of the appalling Buffalo fighters that had been used at Pearl Harbour and Singapore and would still be used in numbers at Midway.) It assumes that the British practice of radar vectoring fighters out of the sun to attack from the best possible angle would be no more efficient than the American and Japanese approach of attacking the head on. (In 1945 off Japan the British would still need far smaller numbers of combat air patrol to achieve the same results as the Americans.) It assumed that the heavily armoured British carriers that survived every hit by both Luftwaffe and Kamikaze during the entire war, would sink as easily as Japanese or American carriers did in the Pacific. For some writers, it is even suggested that be lightly armoured Japanese Kongo class battle cruisers would have an advantage in attack over the slower British battle line on the defence (though there is no recorded example anywhere at anytime of a battlecruiser surviving a stand-up fight against a battleship).
In effect, it is assumed that everything the far more experienced and battle hardened British had done right in the Mediterranean previously would go wrong here, and everything that went wrong for the still learning Japanese in the Pacific over the next two years would go right here. Dubious.
The raid was a tactical success, and a strategic failure. Much like the battle of Jutland, the attackers went home crowing about how much damage they have done, but failed in their main operational goal. In both cases the British lost more ships, but in both cases they failed to suffer the strategic losses that the attackers needed to achieve to allow themselves a future freedom of action. The British lost two cruisers, and the ancient anti-submarine aircraft carrier Hermes (which did not even have any aircraft on board). The Japanese lost more of their aircraft and skilled pilots - a steadily wasting resource - then they cared to admit. The British fleet retired to await the rest of its reinforcements. (The faster aircraft carrier squadron to Bombay, and the slower defensive battleship squadron to the east coast of Africa, where it could cover the vital Middle East and Indian transport routes.) The Japanese fleet rushed back to try and maintain some momentum in the Pacific. Within months the cumulative effects of tiredness and steady attrition amongst their pilots and carriers would contribute to significant losses at Coral Sea and Midway. No major Japanese force would ever again attempt to push into the Indian Ocean.
The collapse of the Japanese offensive potential over these few months was vital. Their early successes against peace-time fleets, or small squadrons scattered around vast areas, were not repeated when they finally started to come up against larger or better prepared Allied forces. The Indian Ocean raid got good headlines, but failed its strategic goals. They may have claimed Coral Sea as a tactical victory, but the ongoing wastage of planes and pilots and ships at Ceylon and Coral Sea left them greatly weakened at Midway. They had rampaged for four months on a shoestring, and even the raids on the Ceylon ports themselves saw them taking significantly greater casualties, for significantly less effect, that had been achieved in the early months of the war. (RAF counter-attacks at Ceylon were the first time Japanese sailors saw bombs falling towards their carriers. None hit, but it was a sign of things to come.)
None of these exercises demonstrate British weakness. The British Eastern Fleet was quickly diverted to the amphibious invasion of Madagascar to secure lines of communication, and soon after that large elements were sent back to the Mediterranean to knock Italy out of the war. There would be no great need for a large fleet in the Indian Ocean until the time came for major offensives in 1945. Churchill had guaranteed to come to Australia’s defence if it was ever seriously invaded. British troop convoys sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East, always had contingency plans to head towards Australia if necessary. One of the armoured divisions that later served in Eighth Army, was listed for diversion to Australia until the events at Coral Sea and Midway made it clear that the threat of invasion was passed. As it turns out, despite the best efforts of the ALP and other Australian politicians, Australia was too strong for Japan to ever seriously consider invading.
The key thing that most of these historians seem to fail to recognize, is that Britain’s issue was not so much military power as shipping and transport. Britain had planes and tanks (many Canadian or American made), but lacked the ships to supply them to Russia, the Middle East and the Far East simultaneously. Britain did not need 40+ divisions at home, but lacked the troop-lift to be able to toss half a dozen to Singapore or Australia at whim. (Interestingly, the American entry to the war initially made this position far worse. Not only was Britain, for the third year running, trying to prop up a blitzkrieged ally - France, then Russia, then the United States - but the incapacity of the U.S. Navy to provide any convoy protection on its east coast almost lost the allies the Battle of the Atlantic. Even after the British hastily deployed 60 escort vessels to cover the US coast, shipping losses climbed to a level that undermined British ability to feed themselves, keep the Russians in the war, keep the reinforcements flowing to the Middle East and Asia, and pander to a panicked Australian government.)
For most of 1942 the British Empire and Commonwealth held the line, kept back the combined efforts of Germany and Italy and Japan (with fairly minimal imput from the United States compared to her potential power), and kept the Atlantic and Indian oceans open and suppliers flowing to the vital armies in the Middle East and Asia, and to the Soviets. No other empire in the history of the world has been capable of such a sustained multi-continent and multi-ocean operation. (There were financial costs to all this that I will discuss in another post.) Given that the British and Commonwealth taxpayers spent most of the interwar period trying to avoid just such an obligation, and greatly weakened their militaries in the process, this situation is less reflective of weakness than of the vast untapped inherent strength of the organization.
It would be nice if some historians could let their political preconceptions about how they think the world should work at least be susceptible to analyzing the actual evidence.