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Forgotten War: The British Empire and Commonwealth’s Epic Struggle Against Imperial Japan, 1941-1945

28 May 24

314 pages

Andy Field

Although the title suggests that this book is focused exclusively on the war in the Far East, and according to Casemate, it is “World War II/Naval”, don’t be fooled. Brian Walter, an ex-army officer, has produced something which is so much more, a comprehensive, detailed account, placing the war in the Far East, and the Commonwealth’s contribution to it, in the wider context of the World War. I found it an easy and enjoyable book to read and have no hesitation in recommending it to readers of The Naval Review.

The Introduction, emphasises the Commonwealth contribution to the war against Japan, describing Lieutenant ‘Hammy’ Gray, RCNVR, a pilot assigned to HMS Formidable, and  how he won his posthumous VC in August 1945. Brian Walter then goes on to place the war in Asia in World War 2 in a broader context, first describing the long lead-in, from 1918 up to World War II, followed by a chapter on the war in Europe, which emphasises the impacts of the maritime war in the Atlantic.

He continues, describing Japan’s regional ambitions in Asia, following this with the outbreak of the war in 1941. The reluctance of the Allied powers to develop any joint defence and the seemingly unstoppable Japanese supremacy were key factors in Allied defeat and demoralisation, but as Brian Walters points out, Japan was relying on a short war and victories that would do just this. She took a gamble, relying on swift victories and the surrender of her enemies, and it failed, despite the Allies initial inability to place adequate forces in the region. By the time Burma fell in 1942, there was little cause for Allied optimism. Japan seemed invincible.

This pattern of defeats in 1941-42 was not, as Brian Walter points out, confined to Asia. The 8th Army has been pushed back into Egypt, 526 merchant ships, some 2,831,689 tons, had been sunk in the second, ‘Happy Time’, in the Atlantic, Soviet forces have suffered massive casualties at Kharkiv, and the Arctic convoys were placing an intolerable strain on naval and merchant shipping.

Yet, after only 5 months of war, the Japanese were forced onto the defensive, suffering defeats at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, in the Solomons and New Guinea. In 1943 British and Commonwealth forces went on the offensive, fighting the Arakhan campaign, whilst a 3,000 strong, ‘Chindit’ brigade, conducted a three-month raid into Japanese-held Burma, which both boosted morale and punctured the myth of Japanese pre-eminence in jungle fighting. 1943 became a turning point in the war in Europe, with victories at Stalingrad and in North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, the surrender of Italy, ascendency over the U-boats in the Atlantic and the around-the-clock, strategic bombing of Germany by RAF and USAAF aircraft, all signs of growing Allied power and confidence.

In the Far East, Japanese forces, still formidable, were now on the defensive, but with the policy of ‘Europe First’ focusing materials, manpower and attention in that theatre of war, for the men fighting in Asia, it seemed a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

The defeat of Germany, in May 1945 did nothing to encourage Japan’s surrender and the fighting continued. The British Pacific Fleet was fighting off Okinawa, whilst the XIVth Army in Burma was fighting the retreating Japanese 28th Army, inflicting heavy casualties. In the South West Pacific, Australian and Fijian troops tackled isolated garrisons of Japanese troops. By the time Japan finally surrendered, following the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion. Britain and her Commonwealth forces had faced six years of war, with numerous trials and tribulations, but had faced down, and defeated, the Axis Powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Brian Walter concludes his book with reflections on the war in Asia, highlighting, amongst other points, that Allied forces had been entirely victorious in a global struggle against the Axis, of which Europe was the more critical theatre. As such, the war in the Pacific was subordinate to the war in Europe. 100% of the USSR’s war effort was devoted to the war against Germany, Britain and the Commonwealth devoted between 75%-80% of their combat strength to the European theatre, and whilst the United States devoted the majority of its army to the European war, most of its navy was fighting in the Pacific. It was able to do this because the Royal Navy was the dominant partner in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Although it was the United States that was the primary victor over Japan, British Imperial and Commonwealth forces made a significant contribution, and between them, the Allies significantly outperformed the Japanese. As Brian Walter points out, it was the prowess and determination of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen, whoever they were, wherever they came from, that brought eventual victory. Regardless of their origins, they had fought and overcome numerous challenges, from their enemies, and from the environment they fought in.

The men of the XIVth Army, fighting in Burma, had regarded themselves as ‘The Forgotten Army’, and the war in Asia and the Pacific as the forgotten war. There was, and still is, an element of truth in this, especially as membership of the Burma Star Association inevitably declines. Some Americans still think of the war in the Pacific as an all-American affair. By comparison, Brian Walter acknowledges the Commonwealth’s contribution, when he finishes by reminding readers of the British 2nd Division Memorial in the Kohima War Cemetery: “When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrows, we gave our today”.

A fitting conclusion to an excellent book.