Thursday, June 11, 2015

Zipper and Mailfist

The victory parade in Burma took place in Rangoon on 15 June 1945, although mopping-up operations continued and the formal surrender did not take place until August. While the Americans had ordered that Japanese officers were permitted to retain their swords, Slim insisted that Japanese officers surrendering to or taken prisoner by the British were required to surrender their swords to a British officer of the same or higher rank, for only by doing so could they be made to understand that they had been defeated. 

The one British general that did stand was Slim, who brought back a defeated and demoralized multi-racial army and turned it into a force that not only defeated the Japanese but also defeated them totally. He has had little recognition but future historians may well regard him as the best British general of the war.

For now the next objective for the British was Malaya and Singapore - Operations Zipper and Mailfist - followed by Thailand and the Dutch East Indies, and it was intended to launch Zipper on 1 September 1945. There were 86,000 Japanese troops in Malaya, seasoned combatants, and, as the Malayan terrain was unsuitable for the employment of mass armoured sweeps, the British preponderance of tanks and self-propelled guns would no longer be a major advantage. Slim, backed by Mountbatten and Auchinleck, thought that the minimum force for Zipper was seven divisions, but there were problems. In June the British government intimated that it was intending to reduce even further the length of a Far East tour to three years and four months for British soldiers - the Python scheme - after which they were to be repatriated to the UK. Theoretically, these men would be replaced, albeit by men with no experience of the East and who would require training on arrival, but the main problem was transport and the wherewithal to organize it. If all the British officers and men due to be sent home were to be withdrawn from their units, moved to and accommodated at ports of embarkation, and shipped to the UK, then the rail and transit facilities in India would not be able to cope, and nor would the available shipping. Not only that, but, as Auchinleck pointed out in a letter to the CIGS, there would be no shipping available for the Indian Army units in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, most of whom had been away from home for longer than the British and were long overdue for leave, to say nothing of the 23,000 West African troops in India waiting to be sent home to Africa. While Brooke understood the problem, there was little sympathy from British politicians - there was a general election due and Indians, Gurkhas and West Africans had no votes. The end result was an unhappy compromise: Zipper would be postponed until 9 September 1945, all British soldiers whose three years and four months was up before the end of the year would be withdrawn and repatriated when shipping became available, and Zipper would be mounted with six divisions rather than seven. In the meantime, with Iwo Jima and Okinawa secure, the Americans were planning for the invasion of Japan, with a view to landing on the southern island of Kyushu in November 1945 and then moving on to Honshu in March 1946.

On 2 September 1945, on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the representatives of the Japanese emperor, government and armed forces signed the instrument of surrender. Other ceremonies followed in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, British Borneo, the Dutch East Indies and French Indo-China. The reoccupation of these territories was to take the Allies some considerable time, and in not all of them were they welcomed. In the Dutch East Indies a nationalist movement, some of whose members had cooperated with the Japanese, had no intention of reverting to Dutch rule, and, as the Dutch had no armed forces to retake the islands, the British, or more accurately the Indian, Army had to do it for them. As troops were in short supply, the surrendered Japanese garrisons were rearmed and used to restore law and order. It was commonplace for a young British officer, with a Gurkha orderly and a couple of signallers, to have under command an entire Japanese battalion, with besworded officers bowing and hissing, and obeying orders promptly and efficiently.
The fighting did not, of course, end with the German and Japanese surrender; China's civil war continued and the precipitate Italian surrender left a vacuum in Greece, which had been under Italian occupation, precipitating a communist uprising in December 1944 that then developed into a civil war in which a communist takeover was only prevented by the intervention of British troops and a massive injection of American money, a commitment that lasted until 1949, long after the big war was over. The division of Korea, hitherto a Japanese colony, into an American client state in the south and a Russian, and then a Chinese, one in the north, led to the Korean War of 1950- 53. Neither the communist uprising in Malaya in 1948, not finally put down by the British until 1960, nor its spin-off, the Brunei Revolt and Borneo campaign from 1962 to 1965, would have happened without Chinese communist support, while the collapse of the Dutch empire in the East and the eventual French defeats in Indo-China, which would almost certainly not have occurred had the Japanese not attacked those territories in 1941, led directly to the Vietnam War. 

Indeed, in the Far East the most significant result of the war was the emergence of communist China. Had China not been involved in war with Japan, then Chiang Kai-shek's regime, looked upon kindly by the Americans, could almost certainly have contained the communists, and, while no Chinese dynasty has ever or will ever subordinate national interests to the greater good of the world, a Kuo Min Tang China would have caused a lot less trouble globally than Red China has and does. Britain's own empire in the East had been fatally weakened by the Japanese. The British had long conceded that India would one day be self-governing, but, had it not been for the war, home rule could have been delivered in stages, rather than in the rushed scuttle that did ensue, and both partition and the bloodshed then and Indo-Pakistani enmity now might well have been avoided. As for Japan, a regime founded on militarism and favouring expansion at the expense of others had been toppled, but Great Power politics meant that the country's national polity was retained and the Japanese were never forced to face up to what they had done - indeed, by some calculations they are now the second richest country in the world.

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