I have just finished H. P. Willmott's PhD thesis, published as Grave of a Dozen Schemes. It is a comprehensive analysis of the background to the despatch of the British Pacific Fleet to the final months of the war against Japan.
It is highly researched, very detailed, excellently argued, and completely wrong in it's conclusions.
The interesting question is why is it wrong?
For those who don't know (such as most of the American official historians if you go by their writings), The Royal Navy and it's Commonwealth divisions made a huge contribution to the defeat of Japan despite Admiral King's desperate attempts to keep them out of his private war. The combined orders of battle of the British Eastern Fleet (just finished invading Burma and en-route to invading Malaya), and the British Pacific Fleet (assembling in Australia or fighting off the coast of Japan) at the time of the Japanese surrender was about 700 ships (with more en-route from Europe). This included 6 battleship, 35 aircraft carriers, 23 cruisers, 42 submarines, and over 200 destroyers and escorts. The only reason that it was this low was because the RN was still mostly responsible for major Allied activities in the Atlantic, Arctic Circle, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans. Far more vessels would have been available for the invasion of Japan.
Wilmott's description of the torturous process of getting all the British, Commonwealth and American players to agree on the assembly and dispatch of this force is overwhelmingly detailed. The problems of the repeated failure of the Germans to collapse, and then the suprisingly quick collapse of the Japanese thereafter, is also adequately covered. I have no problems with most of this. What I do have problems with is the conclusions he makes.
Wilmott's main argument is that Britain should not have bothered with this effort, or at least should not have tried to make both the Pacific and Indian Ocean efforts, because it was beyond British power to do so. The factor's he raises are economic exhaustion, lack of ships - particularly fleet train, lack of manpower, and lack of sensible reasons for bothering given that Empire was a thing of the past. He argues all of this with the assumptions of hindsight , and from the safety of a modern academic consensus.
How then is it possible that the Royal Navy had so many ships there at the end, with more on the way? How was it possible that the British successfully invaded Burma, and were preparing to invade Malaya, even while expanding the British fleet operating off the Japanese coast? How could they be doing everything he had assumed was impossible, and succeeding, if it had really been impossible? Why is he arguing so hard against conclusions that his own statistics make evident?
Could it be that he believes what he is saying so strongly, that he is just doing his best to argue around the evidence? Could it be that he is trying to cement his place in academic circles by arguing what is politically correct regardless of the evidence? Or could it be that he knows he is making bad arguments, but also knows he has to do so if he stands any chance of getting a high mark for his PhD from academics who have pre-conceived notions of what they want to hear?
Whatever the reason, the problem is one common to far too many modern academic works. (This was published in 1996 but came out of research originally done in the early 80's.) The author appears to have approached the work with a pre-conceived notion of how things ought to have been viewed, and then forced the facts into that prospective by hook or by crook. (Even if a few slipped out of control in the process.)
The fact is, that the real debate was between Churchill's geo-political preference for British efforts in the Far East to be concentrated on Malaya. the East Indies, Borneo, the China Sea and Hong Kong in the lead up to the invasion of Japan: and the Chief's of Staff Committee's strategic preference to just make a contribution to the naval actions in the Pacific as a cheaper and quicker alternative. (Both considered the efforts wasted on Burma pretty pointless considering that China was never of much value in the war, and both were amused that the eventual speed of Japanese collapse made the Chinese fantasy redundant.) This debate went on for several months.
Wilmott is justified in calling a lot of this debate hot air. He is less justified in claiming that hindsight makes it clear that Churchill's perspective was wrong. He is unconvincing in the argument that everyone should have known that Britain lacked interest in what would happen in Asia in the future. He was, by his own figures, simply wrong to state that Britain lacked the capacity to try.
The debate did take too long, but that might be because things kept changing. Eisenhower's failures in North West Europe, and Germany's surprise survival into a new year, meant that Allied forces could not begin redirection to the east in October 1944 as had been planned. On the other hand Japan's suicidal offensive against India in 1944 opened the opportunity for a faster and cheaper re-conquest of Burma than anyone would have imagined. Similarly Allied plans for offensives through Borneo to Formosa (Taiwan) were initially agreed, then dropped when MacArthur preferred the Philippines, and were then renewed with the Allies agreeing to a British-Australian offensive instead. Only to be dropped again when it became clear that Japan was unexpectedly on it's last legs.
Politically, there is no doubt that had the Allies, or just Britain and Australia, militarily ousted the Japanese from Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Chinese coast: the decades of violence throughout Asia that followed would have been very different. Churchill's plans may not have been better than what we got, but they would certainly have been different.
Similarly there is no eason to accept that Britain was going to withdraw 'East of Suez' soon after the war at the time decisions were being made. In hindsight it is clear that the British voter was sick of the cost of being the world's policeman, and delighted that the Americans seemed dumb enough to want to take it up. But the Allied documents at the time make it clear that no such plans were in the allied 'mind'. Indeed, American plans to go home as soon as the war in Europe was over argued exactly the opposite.
Then there is the issue of 'power'. Britain, and most of her Dominions and colonies, were at the stage of exhaustion in 1944-5 that any state reaches after 6 years of intense war. (The US was lucky to get out in only 4 years, when the cracks in manpower for the army were only starting to rear their heads.) Nonetheless the way that Wilmott argues that Britain lacked the 'power' for such operations is also self-defeating. After dozens of paragraphs over hundreds of pages about the British lack of troop lift shipping available for the Far East, Wilmott notes in a small aside that such ships can't be spared because Britain is responsible for moving 70,000 US troops per month across the Atlantic. The fact that Britain lacked resources in one theatre because she is making up for American lack of resources in another theatre is studiously ignored.
The truth is of course that the Allies - all of them - lacked the resources to do everything they wanted to do at any time. Britain could have sent plenty of resources to the east had she not being transporting the Americans, supplying the Russians, and feeding the Dutch. Similarly Australia had plenty of resources, food and troops for supporting British Commonwealth operations, except they were deployed to feed, house and support American operations. Indeed according to the US Chiefs of Staff in 1943, America lacked the power to invade Japan without a British fleet, Australian troops, and a Russian Army intervening on the mainland in Asia. (The US COS had a brief hubris in late 1944 when they decided they could manage alone, but by mid 1945 they were busy requesting Britain get 50 aircraft carriers assembled to support 120 of theirs for the invasion... and an army corps please... don't forget landing ships... how about some bombers...)
The simple fact of the matter is that had Britain concentrated its Pacific Fleet resources in the Indian Ocean and Australia to follow the 'middle strategy', it would have been little more costly than the immense effort of projecting a fleet through the central Pacific to the Japanese islands. Malaya, the East Indies, Borneo, possibly Thailand, all might have been liberated before the Japanese surrender by the same shipping efforts that put British carriers at Okinawa and Japan.
Wilmott follows the British COS line that a political solution in Asia was less important than a prestige deployment of British units for the invasion of Japan. He quotes American documents suggesting that the lack of such a presence would have been 'unforgivable' to Americans. He claims that it was vital. Again, he is playing hindsight, and again, he is getting it wrong. How much did Admiral King want the RN sticking it's nose in to his private war? How often did the US COS, in their hubris period, say they didn't need help? How much credit do the history books give the British Pacific Fleet? How many American books fail to mention it?
By contrast how much stability might have been achieved had the British Commonwealth effort gone the other way? Would the Malayan Emergency have happened? Would Indonesia have invaded West Papua and East Timor later? How much stability if Japan had surrendered before Russia entered the war? Would China have gone Communist? Would there have been a Korean or Vietnam war? If you really want to go with hindsight, then Churchill's political forward thinking looks considerably more impressive than the limited strategic viewpoint of the British COS.
Hindsight is almost as fun a game as 'what if', but both are dangerous. People have to be judged on the information and realities of the time, not academic theories based on a misinterpretation of hindsight decades later. Books that twist the facts to come to the conclusions that seem most comfortable or acceptable to people with their own barrows to push are always dangerous.
They are also not history books. They are rationalisations.