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Jungle Warriors: Unconventional Warfare in the Asia-Pacific Theatre of World War Two

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 11 January 2016

Robert Fleming of the National Army Museum examines how the use of unconventional warfare during the Second World War significantly undermined the Japanese and helped turn the tide in the Far East.


Robert Fleming:

Today we're going to look at what is perhaps one of the less well-known aspects of the Pacific War, which is the use of irregular forces or unconventional warfare in that theatre.

I'm going to also give you a little bit of background and context about how the Pacific Theatre, the Asia-Pacific War, came about, the background of it, and how those forces came to be used. And, finally, how the Allies managed to overrun Japanese aggression in the Asia-Pacific just over 70 years ago.

So, to start with, I'll just take you back to a little bit of context.

At the start of the war this was more or less the map of the Asia-Pacific region. As we can see in the red, in the northern section here, the Empire of Japan already has been an expansionist empire for the preceding couple of decades. We still have a lot of the main European imperial powers, such as the Dutch, the British and the French, and of course American influence in the Pacific as well.

At the end of the First World War Germany's former colonial possessions - which we see here in the blue area - were divided into three main mandates. They'd been conquered by Australia and New Zealand in the south and by the Japanese in the north. And so the islands of the Mariana group, the Caroline and Marshall Islands all became Japanese possessions, and that really changed their power and influence in the Pacific, in particular.

And another key factor was the Japanese occupation of Tsingtao [Qingdao]. In addition to those island groups, Japan took control of the former German colony of Tsingtao, which is in northern China. It's probably most famous now as being the site of the brewery of Tsingtao beer, which everyone loves with their Chinese takeaway. That brewery was established by the Germans, when it was a German colony.

Japan got control of Tsingtao and basically they wanted to keep it. They were supposed to hand it back to the Chinese at the end of the war [First World War]. And actually getting a taste of growing influence and power in China started to make them aggressive and greedy for more. And they issued what were called the 21 Demands. And Japan's 21 Demands were outrageous and one-sided, incredibly unfair, and basically China wasn't in a position to reject them.

But what it did do was it very much upset Britain and France, Britain in particular. And after a 20-odd-year Anglo-Japanese alliance, the British said to the Japanese, 'If you press ahead with these demands, that's the end of our friendship.' 

But in the inter-war years basically Japan continued with that aggressive policy and they started to move into mainland Asia, Manchuria, Jehol and south into China. The first area that they conquered was Manchuria in 1931, and two years later they added Jehol.

By 1937 the Second Sino-Japanese War was underway. With a growing economy and expanding marketplace, and a string of military successes behind them, the Japanese had a thirst for more. They increasingly demanded more and more raw materials, food, and in particular cheap labour to keep their military industrial economy running. So, in July of 1937 they attacked Shanghai.

Now, at the time, Shanghai - or Central Shanghai - had what was called an International Settlement. It had an area which was primarily the foreign base of power in China. There were legations of the French, the British, the Americans, all based there. So when the Japanese attacked Shanghai, they actually ended up directly attacking the Western powers as well. And as we see here in this picture, in the bottom left in particular, actually four British soldiers were killed in that first attack on Shanghai. It very much started to set the ball rolling with a deterioration of relations between Japan and the West.

In the 1930s Britain had already begun assessing Japan's growing imperial aggression as a risk to its own interests in the region, and they'd very much switched their allegiances to China. So in the 1930s - in the mid-1930s - the British actually started to train Republic of China soldiers in India. By 1938 they were also supplying the Chinese along the Burma Road.

So, at the entry of the Western powers into the war in Asia, this was the state in China. You actually had a very divided state between the areas under Japanese dominion, a growing Communist-controlled area, and the areas controlled by the Nationalists.

Flush with their successes against China, and seeing the Allies occupied with the war already underway in Europe, they decided the time was right to try and undermine Western power in the East, and control and influence Asia themselves. On the night of the 7-8 December 1941 Japan attacked British Malaya [now Malaysia and Singapore] and, of course, the famous US base at Pearl Harbour. Without warning they triggered the Asia-Pacific War of World War Two.

Not everyone in the Japanese military thought that this was a good idea. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto famously said of the attack on Pearl Harbour, 'I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.'

Why did Japan do this? The Japanese war aims were what was called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Essentially, they wanted to replace European or Western imperial influence with their own, to control and dominate their neighbouring states. Many knew that that attack on the Western powers was a gamble. Although removing China from the external territories they'd occupied - like Korea and Manchuria - had been relatively easy, occupying the whole of eastern China and taking Europe's Asian colonies as well would be another thing entirely.

To start with, Japan didn't have access to its own raw resources to fuel an elongated war - for example, in particular, oil and raw materials from metals. Therefore, to build a war machine capable of achieving these aims they had to have access to primary resources as a first goal.

There were two obvious options: Siberia, controlled by the powerful Soviet Union; or the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia], which was much more weakly defended. As their main aims were the creation of that East Asian Sphere, the Dutch East Indies already fell within their wider goals.  

So, as we can see here, from this map, essentially you have the central Japanese Empire, what they refer to as their region of supplies, and then a broader region of defence, which was the overall aim.

So, in addition to the British, Canadian and local Chinese forces that defended Hong Kong, they were able to actually raise a second new Hong Kong Chinese Regiment with local Chinese men to help defend the island. However, despite raising that new unit they were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese forces attacking them. And after a two-week-long battle, Hong Kong - probably Britain's second most important colony in South East Asia - actually fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day.

But that support that those local Chinese had provided ended up proving vital in the establishment of a successful underground organisation, and it continued to operate throughout the entire occupation period. It also allowed the creation of what was called the British Army Aid Group [BAAG] under the command of the Australian-born university professor and First World War veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Lindsay Ride.

The BAAG helped prisoners of war [POWs] escape from occupied Hong Kong. It grew to provide logistical support columns for troops in China and for some unconventional units in South East Asia, and became an important intelligence-gathering body throughout the war. These are the formations of some of those irregular or unconventional units that we start seeing operating later in the war.

After the blow of losing Hong Kong, the bad news was compounded. Despite nearly two months of brutal fighting and staunch defending down the length of the Malay Peninsula, by February the Commonwealth forces had been forced to withdraw into 'Fortress Singapore'. They'd suffered over 50,000 casualties. Reports of atrocities and burning of corpses undermined morale. By 7 February they invaded Singapore Island, and within two weeks they'd captured that so-called fortress. Out of the 85,000 men defending the island some 80,000 were taken prisoner, and British power in the Far East had suffered its worst ever defeat.

After their decisive victories in Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan continued to press their advantage. They occupied Vichy France Indochina [now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos], and then independent Thailand, pressing on towards British Burma. They triggered an epic three-year campaign for the defence of Burma and the defence of British India, which was fought in some of the most brutal jungle fighting conditions of the war. British forces were forced to retreat northward into India and into China.

Japan continued their invasion of northern China at the same time as well. And, although Burma had capitulated by May of 1942, a Burma Independence Army started to form and resist their occupation. And it would also be, of course, the location of the famed campaigns of the Chindits, which we'll touch on again later.

But to logistically support that invasion of Burma the Japanese began the construction of a 26-mile-long [around 40km] railway from Thailand to Burma, which became infamously known as the Death Railway. To construct it they illegally - and in breach of the Geneva Convention - used slave labour of POWs, many of which were the men I talked about being captured in Singapore earlier on. More than 180,000 POWs were used in the construction of the Death Railway and as many as 90,000 of them - probably about 50 per cent - perished in the brutal conditions they were forced to endure.

From Singapore the Japanese continued south as well. They pressed into the Dutch East Indies [DEI] with those goals of the raw materials that they could have there. The Dutch East Indies... the Netherlands, of course, before the war had been neutral and the Dutch East Indies was very lightly defended.

The Imperial Japanese navy and army were able to easily overrun the local Dutch forces and by March 1942 controlled many of the islands. The DEI was a vital target because it was one of the world's major suppliers of both oil and rubber. This completely undermined the so-called 'Malay Barrier' - it was vital to Australian defensive policy.

Most of the indigenous peoples initially welcomed the Japanese as liberators from European imperialism, but they quickly came to discover that their new occupiers were even more racist and brutal than anyone from Europe had ever been.

Many of the forces in the Dutch East Indies were forced to withdraw towards Australia. During the fighting the local forces actually enjoyed some successes, particularly in Timor. The Dutch had requested Australian help to defend the island in December of 1941, and although there was little time to organise themselves, an ad hoc unit of Dutch, British and Australians, known as Sparrow Force, was brought together.

Although the weight of the Japanese forces was far superior, they actually managed to briefly put up a stout resistance and hold back the Japanese tide in Timor. When they were forced to finally withdraw, rather than returning to Australia some of those men chose to take to the hills and the jungles and begin a very effective guerrilla-war campaign against the Japanese occupation. This was another early lesson that started to show that irregular warfare in the Asia-Pacific theatre could be effective.

Next, of course, the Japanese pressed again and began attacking directly into Australia. They turned their attention to Darwin, and on 19 February 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft launched one of the biggest air raids of the war so far. They launched a devastating bombing raid on Darwin, killing 236 civilians, destroying 30 military aircraft, sinking eight vessels and disabling a further 25.

At this point Japan seemed unstoppable, and for many in Australia invasion was inevitable. That raid triggered 18 months of constant attack against Australia, particularly northern cities like Broome, Darwin and Townsville. But it wasn't just the north, even Sydney was shelled from the sea and attacked by a mini-sub raid which killed many American sailors on board vessels in the harbour.

Australia's most southerly city - my home town, Hobart - was also over-flown by Japanese recon [reconnaisance] aircraft, with a view to bombing its vital zinc works there - one of the key suppliers of war materiel. This, of course, allowed the Australian government to play upon people's fears and create invasion propaganda with a goal, of course, of encouraging citizens to both enlist and also support the war through whatever methodology they could - through coming to the factories and working, providing whatever support that they could.

Although a plan was actually discussed by Japanese authorities - the Japanese navy in particular favoured an invasion of Australia - the Imperial Japanese Army basically argued that it was logistically impossible. It could never have been carried out and held. And Prime Minister Tojo in the end put a cosh to the end of the whole plan.

I'd mentioned previously the 'Malay Barrier', and here you can see it illustrated down through the chain of islands of Indonesia and New Guinea. That was absolutely vital to Australian defensive policy, so with those capitulations of the Dutch East Indies and South East Asia, the whole defensive policy went out the window.

Before the war Australia had been divided up into six military districts, loosely based on the Australian states. This was now no longer feasible. With the inevitable invasion everyone was talking about being a realistic fear, they put forward a new plan called the Brisbane Line. And had the Japanese invaded, it was decided that they could withdraw inland to Brisbane to defend the key population centres in the south-east - Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne - and fight a guerrilla campaign in the jungles and deserts of the north.

To facilitate such an operation the North Australia Observer Unit, also known as Curtin's Cowboys, was raised. They were essentially loosely based on the light horse units of the First World War. Mounted men, skilled riders and shooters, they also worked alongside Aboriginal trackers and local tribesmen who knew the area very well, knew bush tucker and medicine, and how to survive and live off the land. Some of those units went without logistical supply or support for months on end.

They were designed also to provide a warning system against any kind of threat of early invasion. And they were also trained in commando techniques of sabotage with the aim of hindering and delaying any invasion if it occurred.

So, by the summer of 1942 things weren't looking great. The Asia-Pacific looked like this. The war was still proving difficult for the Allies in both Europe, in North Africa, and of course in Asia. But this would actually prove to be the Japanese Empire at its greatest extent.

The reality was that Japanese expansionist aims and the rapid speed with which they'd expanded into the Pacific and South East Asia meant that they were now very much over their supply lines - they were over extended and unable to consolidate those gains. It was also the case that by the summer of 1942 the American war machine was grumbling up to full power.

The early successes of Japan had demonstrated to the Allies that their pre-war planning had been insufficient. Their complacency had underestimated the threat to their power and their ability to defend it. Therefore, by 1942, it was decided that the military commands needed to be restructured. India Command remained, but its zone borders were shrunk to be more manageable. The vast Far East Command was consolidated at first as Anzac Command and then, as more American units began to enter, as Abda Command.

 Abda Command was subsequently split and redrawn into the South West Pacific and South East Asia Commands, with America taking responsibility for the Central Pacific.

So, this was more or less the area of India Command. Before the war they'd also had responsibility for the Middle East, but a new Middle East Command was created to take over that responsibility.

This was the brief Abda Command area, which was replaced by South West Pacific Command. Now, South West Pacific Command came into full swing under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur. As the Allied campaign was consolidated an additional South East Asia Command, under Lord Louis Mountbatten, was established by 1943.

In Europe, of course, the Commandos had already been enjoying successes in their raids against the Atlantic Wall, such as the St Nazaire raid of 28 March. It was, therefore, apparent to the Allied commanders that similar unconventional approaches might fill the gap whilst regular strengths were brought up in advance of possible major offensives later on.

The Australians began by creating their independent companies under a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood, who set about also forming an Australian version of those British Commandos. By 1942 they were renamed as Commandos and effectively they were light infantry but they were also trained in raiding and irregular warfare. Throughout the rest of the war they conducted regular raids in New Guinea, Bougainville, Borneo and Salamawa.

One of the keys to operations at this point in the war was the Allied Intelligence Bureau [AIB]. With the Japanese now overstretched and the Allied commands being restructured to a manageable way, an opportunity to plan how to take the war back to the Japanese was presenting itself. In June the AIB was formed, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the Special Operations Executive [SOE] in Europe, the Commandos, and existing hold-out units that had been already fighting guerrilla wars in places like Timor - Sparrow Force, etc.

The AOB consisted of four sections, A to D.

Section A was primarily an Australian version of the SOE, also known as the SOA, and their key tool, their key weapon, was known as Z Special Unit. B Section was an Australian branch of MI6, the SIS. C Section grew out of Coastwatchers and linked with Allied intel [intelligence] units of the Dutch and the Philippines, and included an M Special Unit - primarily a recon-based unit. D Section was an increasingly effective psyops [psychological operations] organisation, with disinformation, broadcasts, and also providing radio frequencies in support of guerrilla operations and resistance organisations. They played an effective role in maintaining Allied morale, gaining support for the Allies and undermining the Japanese.

Whilst the Allies rejigged their regular units for an offensive against Japan, the AIB immediately took the war to them through a guerrilla campaign.

I mentioned just now the Coastwatchers. They'd been a regular intelligence unit that could actually date their history back to the foresight of Naval Intelligence Division in 1922. They'd already established a network of small local radio stations using shortwave instead of larger, more obvious medium- or long-range stations that were favoured by Germany and Japan.

Britain and Australia had effectively created an intelligence network across most of the South West Pacific area, mixed of European and islander men who very effectively monitored Axis naval traffic in the area, as well as merchant shipping. They particularly played a key role in some of the South West Pacific islands that were important to the campaign. They were, more or less, primarily a reconnaissance remit. Their intel reports were vital to Allied defences and can be considered a key part in the support of unconventional campaigns.

With most of South East Asia under Japanese dominion, the Allied lines of communication between Australia and America were absolutely vital to being able to hold on to a platform from which a counter-attack could be launched.

Following the fall of Singapore, 25,000 Australian POWs had been captured. Many in Australia began to feel increasingly betrayed by Britain, especially as [Winston] Churchill told the Australian public that the emphasis was on defeating Nazi Germany first. He'd already been remembered in Australia as the orchestrator of Gallipoli and now he claimed that Germany was a priority at the risk of an invasion of the Australian homeland.

With Australia directly threatened, the Second Australian Imperial Force [AIF], on the orders of Prime Minister Curtin, began to withdraw from North Africa, where their heroics had helped blunt Rommel at Tobruk and El Alamein. But increasingly the defensive Australia was turning to a new ally, the Americans.

Despite the wide extent of Japanese territorial control in the Pacific, the sea lane - that important line of communication [LOC] between Hawaii and Brisbane - remained functional. And, of course, it was a key goal of the Japanese to cut that line of communication.

The Japanese navy attempted to use its air and naval forces to consolidate control by launching direct attacks on that LOC. American and Australian shipping was attacked. New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were attempted to be fully controlled in order to cut off that LOC and allow aircraft to directly bomb Queensland coastal cities.

The Americans and the Australians obviously knew this and their navies moved to intercept the Japanese navy in what became known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was the first carrier-versus-carrier war in history. Both sides suffered heavy losses, and although technically a Japanese victory in terms of total losses, the Americans were able to still stop them gaining all of their major aims. Their strategic ability to meet those goals was severely undermined.

At the same time, in Kokoda in New Guinea the Japanese were aiming to reach Port Moresby, an important supply line for the Allies in their war against the Japanese in New Guinea. But the Second AIF, as I mentioned, was still in North Africa... the vast majority of Australia's professional soldiers were fighting in North Africa, not protecting their own country. So, it fell to the Australian part time militia - citizen soldiers, many of which were war-time recruits who'd received less than six weeks' training.

So-called 'Chocos' - or chocolate soldiers, because they were expected to melt in the heat of battle - they marched the New Guinea jungle, up the Owen Stanley Ranges, and met the Imperial Japanese Army, which had had some 15 years of success after success after success. Part-time citizen soldiers sent to meet the prime units of the Imperial Japanese Army.

And between July and November of 1942 they did just that. In those high altitudes of the Owen Stanleys the Australian militia climbed on steep and muddy jungle passes, ably supported by the local 'fuzzy-wuzzies', the New Guinean natives, who worked as stretcher bearers and medics and bearers of food and supplies. They met the Imperial Japanese Army head on, first blunting their advance and then driving them back in the Second Battle of Kokoda. With American and regular Australian forces now arriving to reinforce them, the Japanese offensives in New Guinea were faltering.

So, by the end of 1942 the Allies had reorganised their admin, their command and control, and they were taking the fight back to the Japanese. Although all of the military resources were not yet in place for major offensives - much the same as in North Africa and Europe, where they were blunting the Nazi war instrument - they now at least had organised a system in place from which a war-winning effort could be built.

The Allied effort was to be centred along three main thrusts: the Americans through the Central Pacific; a combined US-Australian effort in the South West; and a British and Indian effort through Burma and China. Additionally, the Americans were also supporting the Chinese in their war in northern China.

This, of course, meant the 'Yanks' coming down under.

Douglas MacArthur established his headquarters in Australia, and with him into Australia came an increasing number of American GIs [troops]. The better-paid Americans were obviously appealing to 'Ozzie' girls, many of whom had been lacking male company as most of the Australian army were overseas, and many actually ended up becoming war brides. The Americans also molested our koalas! 

It was an uneasy alliance, in fact. We were used to our alliance with Britain; this was a new thing. And the presence of tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors on the streets of Australia caused friction. In fact, American and Australian troops engaged in two nights of continuous brawling in the streets of Brisbane on 26 and 27 November 1942, in what became known as the Battle of Brisbane.

But despite these minor frustrations, they actually proved to be easier allies on the front lines, and particularly in New Guinea at first, began to function and effectively repel the Japanese.

I particularly love the look on this guy's face. He knows he's done something wrong!

So, briefly, I mentioned Cent Pac [Central Pacific]. Here we're focusing a little bit more on the Commonwealth war effort, but the Central Pacific was the US navy and marines' responsibility. And in 1942, particularly from August onwards, they began their island-hopping campaign. They were preventing Japanese control of Rabaul, Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, through what was called Operation Cartwheel. In total, the Americans made over 70 amphibious landings. Remarkable.

Meanwhile, back in Burma, the Japanese war effort was slowed by monsoonal rains. The tracks were impassable. And they were also attempting to establish an allied puppet state - an ally to them, a Japanese puppet state, there. Archibald Wavell was planning counter-offensives, even as the British forces were still withdrawing into India.

Despite being unprepared for the difficult terrain, the British and Indian forces began their first tentative forays towards Burma in December of 1942. And it was around this time, of course, that the famous Chindits were created. Early in 1943 they became operational under Brigadier Orde Charles Wingate, pictured here on the right.

Taking carefully selected men from the Indian 77th Brigade, Wingate began forming a guerrilla-warfare and long-range-penetration unit with the aim of disrupting Japanese operations behind enemy lines until major offensives could be mounted directly against them. Although primarily British and Indian, the Chindits actually became a very international body, consisting of British, Indian, Nepalese Gurkha, West African, Burmese, Chinese, and also had attached personnel from Indian Air, RAF [Royal Air Force], RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force], RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] and Royal New Zealand Air Forces, as well as various ad hoc personnel from other formations.

Their emblem - to the top right - was the famous Chinthe... also here, one their statues. And here we see it guarding Burmese temples. The Chinthe was actually a mythical beast from Burmese mythology, known for its protection of those that it stood before. It was very symbolic, very meaningful.

Their first major operation was Longcloth. Numbering 3,000-strong, they marched primarily on foot into the jungles in two main columns - a northern and southern thrust across the Chindwin and then Irrawaddy Rivers. They crossed the Chindwin on the 14th [February] and met the Japanese for the first time two days later.

The terrain itself was difficult enough. The men had to conduct frequent river crossings, they had no transport or logistical supply, and they were trekking through dense jungle. They did have RAF and USAAF [United States Army Air Force] air support to occasionally strafe the enemy and drop supplies, but by 4 March [1943] they'd successfully demolished the Burma Railway in over 70 places. Despite this the railway was only temporarily disabled.

Many of the wounded had to be left behind as there was no way to evacuate them. Reaching the extreme limits of air supply range, they were obliged to withdraw back towards India. By the end of April the majority had re-crossed the Irrawaddy, having marched over 1,000 miles [around 1,600km] on foot through the jungle. Out of the 3,000 men who'd left they lost 818 killed, wounded or taken prisoner - nearly a third of their strength.

Meanwhile in China, British, American and Australian unconventional deep penetration units had been doing what they could to support local Chinese forces to undermine the Japanese. One such group was Mission 204. Primarily Australian and British soldiers, they departed from Burma in February of 1942 and embarked on an epic 2,000-mile [around 3,200km] foot journey, first by truck and then on foot, deep into China, where they helped supply Nationalist forces with tonnes of equipment, including explosives.

Cut-off and unable to return by the Japanese advances behind them, they chose to join the Chinese guerrillas, fighting alongside them for many months. But many of these men succumbed to dysentery, malaria and typhus, and a second Mission 204 was later undertaken in 1943, this time with better support from the USAAF, and enjoyed greater successes, having learned from the failings of the first mission.

Back in Australia, the Australian SOE's Z Special Unit was preparing for their first unconventional attacks. Utilising the experiences learned from British Commandos in their raids in Europe, they planned those attacks against the heart of the Japanese Empire. The first of their total of 81 raids was a bold strike at the centre of Japanese domination of South East Asia, and perhaps a revenge attack for their losses in Singapore.

Utilising a captured Japanese fishing vessel called 'Kofuku Maru', renamed the 'Krait' after a type of Asian sea snake, the plan was for a remarkable long-distance sea crossing - as we can see at this map to the top - after which they'd use kayaks to sneak into Singapore Harbour, plant limpet mines on Japanese vessels and blow them up. Simple!

Operation Jaywick revolved around successfully making that crossing to Singapore. They were met by Japanese patrol vessels many times. They used tea to dye their skin and make themselves look more Asiatic, and various other ruses to avoid being intercepted. And, remarkably, they weren't.

The team of 14 Commandos and sailors arrived in Singapore on 26 September 1943. The 'Krait' moored 30 miles [around 50km] off Singapore Island and the six main key men paddled by kayak, in folding collapsible kayaks, to a forward base on the island near the harbour. They successfully planted limpet mines on seven vessels and all of them were sunk, with the loss of 39,000 tonnes of shipping. The men waited until the commotion died down, paddled back to the 'Krait' and returned to Australia with no losses or casualties.

In February 1944 the Chindits also undertook their second major operation, Operation Thursday. This time they were also supported by Gurkhas and West Africans. Numbering nearly 10,000, they traversed the difficult terrain again, and also utilised gliders and Dakotas to land into clearings behind enemy lines. Ferocious jungle fighting ensued, often descending into hand-to-hand combats with bayonets and kukris [Gurkha fighting knives] against katanas [Japanese swords].

The mission was a partial success with dozens of Japanese aircraft destroyed. But a heavy Japanese counter-attack meant Japan managed to maintain control of their main water supplies, making things difficult for the Chindits.

However, by early March, more gliders were arriving and flown into the already captured landing sites, and with extra reinforcements arriving, Wingate now had three full brigades deep in the Burmese jungle and the operation was considered a success. He even received a direct telegram from [Winston] Churchill to congratulate him.

Z Force, flush with their success of [Operation] Jaywick, decided upon a second raid to be attempted nearly a year later. However, of course, the Japanese were alerted by the success of the first mission and they rumbled the vessel 'Mustika' before it even reached its destination. A heavy gunfight, boat against boat, ensued, but the advantage was lost, despite the fact they managed to escape.

The crew still decided to attempt the raid and managed to sink a further three ships in Singapore Harbour. However, 13 men were killed on that raid and a further 10 captured. They were charged as spies and publicly executed in Japan in July of 1945, just a month before the end of the war.

The original plan for that Rimau raid had been to use motorised submersible canoes. Unfortunately, after the 'Mustika' had been intercepted, they were obliged to be abandoned. But perhaps if they had had these submersibles, those men wouldn't have died.

Z Special Unit continued to carry out further raids throughout Rabaul, New Guinea and Borneo for the remainder of 1944 and 1945.

By March 1944 the India Command was also engaged in irregular warfare. They'd already had a school called STS 101, which had been successfully training resistance fighters and supplying them with weapons, including Malaysian Communists and the Chinese Kuomintang. Yes, those are the same Malaysian Communists we come back to again a few years later.

As the Japanese advances slowed, they began to work those deep penetration units with the aim of supplying resistance groups in the occupied territories and mounting their own clandestine sabotage raids when the opportunities presented themselves. One of their number, a former businessman called Walter Fletcher, also embarked on a rubber smuggling and currency speculation scheme, which managed to profit to the tune of £77 million. That money, however, was reinvested into relief and repatriation operations, so it wasn't like the HSBC guy!

By late 1943 conventional forces were already starting to come up to strength. William Slim was appointed as commander of the 14th [Army] - the so-called 'Forgotten Army'. His primary focus was taking the fight to the Japanese. Using a system of airdrop supplies and what were called 'box defensive formations' he overcame the logistical shortcomings and went on to a second Arakan offensive. A fierce Japanese counter-offensive pressed the 7th Indian Division, who suffered major casualties. But the advantage of air supply began to tell for the Allies.

The Chindits had one other major series of offensives in the spring and summer of 1944. But the heavy toll of fighting, constant jungle marching, and operations and diseases were badly depleting their numbers. An increasing number of regular forces were reducing the need for unconventional raiding. And after nearly two years of taking the fight to the Japanese through guerrilla warfare, the Chindits were withdrawn.

Some 12,000 men in total had served with the Chindits and they suffered heavy casualties. They lost over 1,400 men killed, and a further 2,500 wounded. Even amongst the survivors the rates of disease and illness were very high, and over 50 per cent required hospitalisation and special diets to recover after they'd been withdrawn.

One of the key advantages that Slim had was that the 14th Army also contained the 81st West African Division - the Black Tarantulas. Their divisional sign, from which they took their nickname, referred to the Anansi - a figure from West African folklore who was the keeper of all history and wisdom, but most importantly, always foretold you the true cost of something.

The West Africans were mighty jungle warriors and they bore both their heavy burdens and the long jungle treks without complaint. I once heard an oral history from a Japanese veteran, who recalled his thoughts upon first fighting against them in the jungle: 'No one chose to fight for us. We had to compel them. When I saw even Africans came to help the British, I knew we would lose.'

The Japanese decided upon one last roll of the dice to take British India in the spring of 1944. It was a desperate attempt to break British resolve and break into India. They launched an all-out attack on Imphal-Kohima, in what many have described as one of the fiercest battles of the whole war.

In a battle lasting five months they pressed and pressed, but the largely British and Indian defenders refused to yield. At one point the combatants even faced each other from one side of a tennis court to the other - with heavy gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Although Japanese ground forces maintained their strength, the truth was the Allies had undisputed air superiority and the Japanese knew you couldn't win under those circumstances with the constant threat of Allied fighter bombers.

By early 1945 the British Indian Army was rolling back through Burma. With full air supremacy and increasing numbers of tanks, their strength continued to grow, forcing the Japanese to withdraw. Despite this, they refused to go easily and heavy casualties were suffered all along the way.

In the three years of 1943, 1944 and 1945, the Allies had checked Japan's advances along those three main thrusts - through the Central Pacific, South West and in Burma - and begun driving them back from all their occupied territories. Particularly in South West Pacific and Burma, irregular forces had shown to play key roles in checking those advances.

With Burma now back in British hands, Operation Zipper was put into planning. It was the planned operation to recapture British Malaya. It was to take place in August and September of 1945. Following a successful outcome, Operation Tiderace would retake Singapore.

The 3rd Commando Brigade - pictured on the left - was sent from Europe to the Far East in support of that planned amphibious invasion. And so even in those late stages of the war, irregular units were still considered to be of use.

The US Pacific offensives had also been successful, largely driving the Japanese back from the islands they occupied, including fighting two brutal victories at Iwo Jima and, of course, the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945, in which some 20,000 US and over 100,000 Japanese casualties were lost. There were also 300,000 civilian deaths.

Although Japan had endured nearly three years of reverses, or two and a half years of reverses, they still controlled vast overseas territories - some 6 million square miles [around 15.5 million square kilometres] of territory. They were not yet close to military defeat. By the time of the German surrender on 7 May 1945, they were still in a position to carry on fighting alone.

The Americans began talking about Operation Downfall. It was the proposed invasion of the Japanese islands. And they set things in motion. Set for November of 1945 it would call upon 50 to 55 US divisions and a combined Commonwealth corps of three divisions of British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand forces.

However, Japan still had over 60 divisions of their own on the home islands. And it was anticipated such an invasion could cost anywhere between half a million and a million casualties. The battle was also estimated to potentially take even up to two years to subdue them.

And so, I suppose with much regret, the Americans made the decision to unleash their secret nuclear weapons programme. The US Army Air Force dropped the 'Little Boy' atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, and then three days later 'Fat Man' was dropped on Nagasaki. On 15 August Japan surrendered.

As in Europe, unconventional and irregular forces proved their worth on several occasions in the Asia-Pacific theatre. This has not been an exhaustive coverage of all the unconventional operations or units, but I hope it's given you a broad appreciation of the sorts of different units, the operations undertaken, and the overall war context in which they occurred.

Particularly in the dark days of 1942 and 1943, when the Japanese were at their greatest extent, little conventional power was available and unconventional units took the fight to the Japanese. They proved disruption and sabotage could be just as effective as heavy blows could. And they set a precedent by which now most modern powers maintain special forces for those precision strikes which can be utilised alongside major firepower.

The heroes of those irregular forces of the Second World War seldom get the credit which they deserve. But at the lowest point for the Allies, they were the ones most willing to stand up and take the fight to the enemy. And they maintained that glimmer of hope from which victory was built.

Thank you very much.


Freddy Ramm
25 March 2016, 2.01pm

Sir: I had the pleasure of

I had the pleasure of working for Sergeant Major Edward Lennon, in the U.S. Army during 1971. Since we both had British parents, he was like a father figure to me. CSM Lennon was with the British Commandos during World War II (never transferred over to the American side...I secretly found out why! It's another story.). Often hearing his stories about South East Asia, I remember one. During the siege of Hong Kong the regiment had two jeeps and they both ran in to each other!
Best Regards
Freddy Ramm

Cameron Gill
26 March 2016, 11.27pm

Excellent lecture

Excellent lecture

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