Employing innovative military tactics, Yamashita led Japanese forces to one of the most decisive and shocking victories of the Second World War. But the excesses committed by his troops were to cost him his life.
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Yamashita was born in the village of Osugi in southern Japan in 1885. The second son of a village doctor, he was not deemed intelligent enough to follow his father’s trade and was instead sent to the School of the Southern Sea to begin training for a military career.
He graduated from the Central Military Academy in Tokyo aged 20 and fought in the 1914 campaign against German possessions in eastern China. Though he had difficulty passing the entrance exam for the Tokyo War College, he graduated from there in 1916.
Between 1918 and 1936 he spent several years in military attaché posts in Switzerland, Germany and Austria as well as on the Japanese Army staff, culminating in the post of Chief of Military Affairs in the Army. When young officers wanting faster military modernisation attempted a coup against more conservative high-command elements in 1936, he convinced the Emperor to order both factions to return to barracks, avoiding civil war but putting Yamashita into temporary imperial disfavour.
He was soon posted to the minor theatre of Korea for 18 months, but afterwards rose to command a division in China. In 1940 he was appointed Inspector-General of Japan’s air force and sent back to Europe to observe German and Italian military strategy and technology.
On his return from Europe, Yamashita urged his staff officers to ‘never suggest… that Japan should declare war on Great Britain and the United States’. Even so, on 6 November 1941 he was put in command of the three divisions of Japan’s 25th Army, which was already preparing to invade Britain’s colony in Malaya and capture Singapore. He trained his troops in living off the land and travelling fast by foot or bicycle – a tropical version of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics that Germany had used in France in 1940. His force landed on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941) and its rapid advance left the British thinking they were facing a far larger force.
However, by the time Yamashita’s troops entered Singapore’s outskirts they had outrun their own supply lines and were short of food, shells and ammunition. Already outnumbered four to one and fearful of a long siege, Yamashita wished to cut the campaign short before British reinforcements could arrive. He therefore ordered a short, but extremely heavy barrage, correctly assuming that this would finally break the British will to fight on – in his diary he called this ‘a bluff that worked’.
Yamashita then demanded that the British commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival simply answer ‘Yes or No’ to his surrender proposal - on 15 February 1942 Percival accepted and 130,000 British, Indian and Commonwealth troops marched into captivity. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill viewed the fall of Singapore as ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.
His successes in Malaya and Singapore earned Yamashita the nickname ‘the Tiger of Malaya’ and he immediately began planning similar landings against Australia. However, only five months after Singapore’s surrender, other envious Japanese generals got him posted to China, by then a minor theatre of the war. He only returned to frontline service over two years later, when he was put in command of the Japanese force on the Philippines on 10 October 1944.
One American historian called Yamashita’s campaign there ‘one of the most effective delaying actions in the whole history of warfare’, but multiple American landings forced him to pull out of the Philippine capital Manila. Another Japanese force then moved into the city and instigated a month’s bloody urban warfare despite Yamashita’s direct orders not to do so.
On 2 September 1945 Yamashita surrendered in person to a reception committee that included his former enemy Percival. Yamashita then became the first Japanese general to be the subject of a war crimes trial and the first enemy general to be tried not for actively carrying out war crimes, but for failing to prevent them being carried out by his subordinate officers. Much of the defence evidence was suppressed and the military tribunal soon reached a guilty verdict on 7 December 1945, the fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbour and the invasion of Malaya. On 23 February 1946, he made a final statement, thanked his American defence counsel and was then hanged at the prison camp at Los Banos on the Philippines.
NARA - Ref: 292615
"My attack on Singapore was a bluff - a bluff that worked. I had 30,000 men and was outnumbered more than three to one. I knew that if I had to fight for long for Singapore, I would be beaten. That is why the surrender had to be at once."
General Tomoyuki Yamashita, cited in B. P. Farrell, 'The Defence and Fall of Singapore' (2006)
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