Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Soldier of Monarchy: General Tomoyuki Yamashita
Yamashita Tomoyuki was born on November 8, 1885 in Osugi village (today Otoyo village) in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku. His father was the town doctor but Yamashita was trained for a military career from early in life, his family sacrificing to send him to military school and finally to the Imperial Japanese Army Academy from which he graduated, a respectable eighteenth place in 1905. Promoted in the following years, Yamashita saw his first combat as a junior officer in World War I in the capture of the German colony in Shantung, China in 1914. Promoted to captain, he graduated from the Army War College, sixth in his class, in 1916. That same year he married the daughter of a veteran, retired general. From World War I and into the following years Yamashita became known as an expert on Germany. He was posted to Switzerland and Germany in those years before returning to Japan in 1922, was promoted to major and served at the Staff College and the Imperial high command. He earned further promotion but his career suffered due to the political intrigues within the Imperial Japanese Army.
Fortunately for Yamashita, his talent continually allowed him to escape from difficult situations brought on by his nationalist political beliefs. In 1930 he was given the very prestigious command of the third infantry regiment of the Imperial Guard. By the summer of 1934 he had achieved the rank of major general. However, on February 26, 1936 a group of young army officers attempted a coup. Part of the plan included the assassination of the prime minister and taking control of the Imperial Palace. They were unsuccessful and Yamashita had no part in it, however, he asked for leniency toward the perpetrators and because of that earned the disapproval of the Emperor who was appalled by such a breakdown of discipline. In the aftermath of this incident, Yamashita changed his politics somewhat and became increasingly alarmed by the belligerency of many of those in power. He opposed expanding the war with China, in fact he favored ending it completely as Yamashita viewed it as a drain on the Japanese army with little to gain from it. He also opposed those in power who advocated a war against the United States and Great Britain. This was not a total break from the past, however, as the Imperial Army in general and the faction Yamashita had been associated with in particular had always focused on the Soviets as the real threat Japan faced while the Imperial Navy tended to favor a focus on southeast Asia which would have meant war with Britain and America.
However, General Yamashita surprised everyone with the speed of his advance, making use of light tanks (British forces in the region had none) and most famously bicycles which allowed his men to move quickly through narrow jungle paths. When necessary the Japanese could also be picked up on the coast and moved by sea around impenetrable areas of the jungle. Troops brought in from India were soon defeated by the more experienced Japanese and as the British retreated, moving European residents to safety, many Malaysians felt themselves abandoned and began to turn against the British. On January 11, 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army marched unopposed into the capitol of Kuala Lumpur. This was blitzkrieg Asian style and observers were astonished by the speed and strength of General Yamashita’s advance. The 11th Indian Division offered stout resistance at Kampar, holding up the Japanese advance for a few days, but with control of the coastal seas, General Yamashita was able to outflank them with an amphibious landing and resume his advance southward. British imperial forces (mostly Indian troops) fell back to the Slim River where General Yamashita launched a daring nighttime attack that utterly devastated two Indian brigades and which prompted the top British commander, General Arthur Percival to replace the Indian Division with Australian troops.
At Johor, the British forces made their ‘last stand’ as it were on the Malaysian peninsula and the defending Australian troops made a ferocious and determined defense which held up the Japanese advance and inflicted heavy casualties. Again, General Yamashita moved to outflank the strong point and, unfortunately for the British, the west coast was defended by an Indian brigade that was inexperienced and poorly trained. The Japanese forces easily defeated them and the supporting Australian units also suffered heavy casualties before being cut off and forced to withdraw. However, their determination had bought time for the bulk of the British colonial forces to retreat. However, there was no real safe place for them to retreat to as General Percival had not allowed the construction of any defensive fortifications on the grounds that these would be bad for morale! Such an attitude, not uncommon amongst American forces at the beginning of the war either, can only be attributed to a (probably racist) over-confidence and underestimation of the military prowess of the Japanese. By January 31, 1942 the last of the British forces had left the Malaysian peninsula and blown up the causeway connecting Johor and Singapore. General Yamashita had conquered Malaysia and done it with greater speed and ease than anyone had thought possible.
General Yamashita became an instant hero in Japan and British morale suffered with Prime Minister Churchill calling the loss of Singapore the worst disaster in British military history. However, Yamashita still had enemies in high places and his success worked against him. Not long after his greatest triumph, General Hideki Tojo had Yamashita reassigned to a relatively unimportant command in the Empire of Manchukuo. He did not return to front-line duty until 1944 when, after Tojo and his government had fallen due to the worsening war situation, he was assigned to the Japanese forces defending The Philippines. Unfortunately for the general, he had little time to organize things as American forces began landing only ten days after his arrival. The fighting was brutal and ugly but General Yamashita performed with his old brilliance. Against impossible odds he maintained a slow, fighting withdrawal that inflicted heavy losses on the Allies. He was still holding out, his army reduced to around 50,000 men, when the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan. Upon learning of this, General Yamashita surrendered his army to Allied forces led by U.S. General Wainwright and British General Percival, the same man who had surrendered Singapore to him.
Just to be clear, not only was General Yamashita not guilty of wrongdoing, he had displayed his honorable and upright attitude as a soldier on many occasions. For example, after the fall of Singapore, a small group of Japanese soldiers massacred most of the staff and patients at Alexandra Hospital. When he learned of this, General Yamashita had the officer in charge executed and he personally apologized to the survivors for what had happened. In the aftermath he had several Japanese soldiers executed for looting and unlawful killings. The larger atrocities for which he was blamed occurred in the Philippines but the truth is that Yamashita had not known of these events, he certainly had not ordered them and he was not even in a position to have stopped them had he known as he was not the senior officer present. It was Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi who had taken command and decided to make a fight in Manila, an operation General Yamashita had opposed as futile and wasteful. However, Admiral Iwabuchi was not available for punishment as he had killed himself with a hand grenade just before Manila fell to the American forces. General Yamashita was made to become a scapegoat and it also helped that he had been responsible for one of the worst defeats the Allies had suffered in World War II.