Once again the ‘Despatches from the Front’ series has delivered an important collection of despatches that has been introduced and sensitively edited. There is the usual crisp illustration for which the series is known. The despatches show what senior commanders were seeing and thinking and as a collection of primary sources, this book will be invaluable as a reference work for enthusiasts, researchers and those who just want to side step the middlemen historians. A very illuminating book on a much under-covered subject. Highly recommended.
NAME: Despatches from the Front, Disaster in the Far East, 1940-1942
AUTHOR: John Grehan, Martin Mace
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Malaya, Singapore, Japan, Netherlands East Indies, WWII, World War Two, Second World War, primary sources, despatches, senior commanders, naval losses
DESCRIPTION: Once again the ‘Despatches from the Front’ series has delivered an important collection of despatches that has been introduced and sensitively edited. There is the usual crisp illustration for which the series is known. The despatches show what senior commanders were seeing and thinking and as a collection of primary sources, this book will be invaluable as a reference work for enthusiasts, researchers and those who just want to side step the middlemen historians. A very illuminating book on a much under-covered subject. Highly recommended.
The whirlwind of defeats and victories, advances and withdrawals of the war in Europe and North Africa meant that the Far East received little coverage during the war and very little after the final victory. What has been written contains as many errors as accurate insights and the soldiers fighting on the ground, the airmen, and the sailors could be forgiven for claiming that theirs was a Forgotten War. The scale of the initial defeats was a major embarrassment and, even after the end of the war, politicians were reluctant to discuss what had happened. Then there was the scramble out of Empire, the disastrous Atlee Government that tried to manage British decline and helped it on the way, with rationing remaining in Britain long after it was necessary. A grey world that had no desire to consider defeats.
All of that was unfair to those who served and those who commanded in what had to be, initially, a backwater of the war. Britain simply lacked the resources and modern equipment to provide equal resources to every theatre. Although Churchill periodically gave in to emotions and sent valuable resources where it was least likely to produce a beneficial result, he generally managed the British fight with realistic consideration and cold hard priority. The defeat of France and evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops meant that Britain was immediately vulnerable to invasion with most of the Army’s heavy equipment lost in France. The re-equipment of the RAF was still a work in process and vital to the defence of Britain. Without air superiority, the Germans dared not risk an invasion of the British Isles. Without a successful cutting of the maritime trade routes, Germany would eventually be defeated as Britain maintained supplies to its people and war production, while Germany was strangled by naval blockade and continuous bombing by the RAF, joined in time by the Americans. Churchill was therefore wise to concentrate effort on the defence of the home islands with only occasional cautious supply of the other theatres, just enough to keep them fighting.
Naturally, the process of defending Britain meant a priority system that reduced progressively, the further from the British Isles. The next priority was to improve resources in North Africa to eject the Italian and German forces there and preserve control of the Suez Canal. By 1942, Britain was able to send the necessary supplies and equipment to North Africa to give it the modern equipment that was already in use in the home islands. Even after the victories in North Africa, the focus continued in Europe and the Far East received much less than was required to begin the defeat of the Japanese.
There have been those advancing the view that the Far East theatre was a total shambles with Col Blimp characters making a string of defeats, holding a wildly inaccurate and optimistic view of their chances against the Japanese, and then surrendering in numbers to numerically inferior Japanese forces. There may have been some truth in that view, but generally there was a British understanding that the best outcome initially would be to slow and eventually halt Japanese expansion.
The Army had inadequate numbers and equipment to fight the scale of war that was to be faced. Singapore was not well equipped with coastal batteries that could cover the entire perimeter and there had been an assumption that the Royal Navy would sail to the rescue if war broke out. In the event, the RN only had a new battleship and an ageing battle cruiser to send. Given adequate air cover, that might have helped to save Singapore, but unfortunately the air force capability was seriously inadequate with obsolete and obsolescent war planes available in numbers well below what was needed.
The despatches in this book show how much was a surprise and how much was anticipated. Inevitably the collapse of defence in Malaya, Singapore and in the Netherlands East Indies was an enormous shock. This is a story that needs to be told and understood and these despatches go a long way to setting out the realities of what happened.