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Posted on May 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The War in the East – Part One

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Land War in Asia

The first major target for Japanese forces on mainland Asia was Malaya, with the island of Singapore, the British center of authority in the Pacific the jewel in the ring. Landing forces began on December 8th from the northern reaches of Malaya and Thailand to head south. British multi-national forces defending the country were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and had no armor. The strength of British defenses was at Singapore and facing outward toward the sea, anticipating a naval invasion. Instead, the Japanese attacked from the opposite end of the country and found an open door for advance with their troops and tanks.

A Steady Allied Retreat

In a series of brilliant maneuvers, the Japanese forces continued to confront, then flank and cut off British defenders, who remained largely road-bound during the entire Malayan campaign. When Singapore fell on February 15th, 1942, with very little fighting, Malaya’s enormous natural wealth in oil, rubber and other vital materials became available to the military and industrial might of Japan. 130,000 British troops were made prisoners of war. It would the greatest military defeat the British Empire had ever suffered in history.

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Surrender at Singapore

Now the way was open to the neighboring country of Burma, another nation rich in the war materials the hungry Japanese military forces needed to keep the impetus of conquest in motion. Capturing Burma would cut off China from desperately needed war supplies that were being funneled through India, Burma and on to the Burma Road.

British General Alexander led the Commonwealth forces defending Burma. One of his top aides was newly appointed General Joseph Stillwell, who commanded the Chinese 5th and 6th Armies. The only major US contribution towards holding back the Japanese advances during that period was a group 3 squadrons of volunteer American airmen fighting with China. They were known as the “Flying Tigers.” From December 1941 to July 1942, they would down over 300 Japanese aircraft in a spectacular show of skill and guts.

But that was the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise grim picture during early 1942. The Allied defenders in Burma suffered from poor communications, lack of equipment and an inability to understand the Japanese offensive tactics. Rangoon, the capital of Burma, was abandoned on March 5th, 1942, and British forces retreated back into India. It was a most painful defeat, another string of losses that plagued the fighting in the Far East. The retreat from Rangoon to the borders of India would become the longest British retreat in its military history.

By early May, what remained of the British forces had reached India. Vinegar Joe Stillwell and his small group of 18 advisors had made the entire trek on foot, arriving at Imphal on May 20th. It was during this time that the last bastion of Freedom, the island of Corregidor, in Manila Bay had surrendered to the Japanese. It was another humiliating defeat for the Allies. The Japanese at this point seemed unstoppable. They had enjoyed six months of victory and had extended their sphere of control over a large portion of Asia and the Pacific Ocean. This was exactly what Admiral Yamamoto had promised his Emperor. The events of the war would begin to change during the latter part of 1942, though progress in Asia would be painfully slow.

With the Burma Road closed, an alternative route of delivery of war goods would be an airlift that would go from India and over the mighty Himalayan mountains. It would become known as “Flying the Hump.” Of course, the good delivered were in no way sufficient to supply the hard pressed Chinese.

The planes did not return empty, however, on their return journey back to India. Instead they began ferrying thousands of Chinese soldiers to bolster the Allied forces as they gathered themselves for the arduous task of recapturing Malaya and opening once again the Burma Road.

General Stillwell worked incessantly in preparing these recently arrived Chinese soldiers for the hard fight that would be ahead. Not only did they face a well discipline enemy, but the country of Burma itself, with the ranging mountains, nearly impenetrable jungles, rushing rivers and scourges of every disease imaginable was to be as deadly as a Japanese bullet to thousands of Allied soldiers. It was as difficult as any island in the Pacific and perhaps more than most.

Author Information

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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