Misguided British assessment of Japanese intentions in the Far East

This is an illuminating telegram sent by the British Commander-in-Chief Far East and China on 1 October 1941. It is an assessment of the current situation in regards Japanese military intentions over the coming months. The assessment proved to be rather inaccurate. Within three months Japan had attacked the U.S. fleet at Perl Harbor, sunk the two Royal Navy capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Singapore and the Japanese Army had begun its ultimately successful invasion of Malaya.




From: C. in C. Far East.
To: The War Office.
Repted. [Repeated] British Ambassador Tokyo.

Desp. [Despatched] 1624. 1/10/41.
Recd. [Received] 1940. 1/10/41.

225/5. Cipher. 30/9

Most Secret. For Chiefs of Staff from Commander in Chief Far East and China. Reference our 196/4 August 6th para 2.

Paragraph 1. It must now have become apparent to Japan that war with the United States, Dutch or ourselves probably means war with all three and possibly with Russia as well.

Paragraph 2. Japan is now concentrating her forces against the Russians and cannot suddenly change this into a concentration in South, although she could still despatch a sea-borne expedition from Japanese waters without our knowledge. Nevertheless we reiterate our view that the last thing Japan wants at this juncture is a campaign in south. Consequently she must now be susceptible to pressure. Obviously this should not be so severe as to drive her to rash enterprises which though eventually doomed to failure would involve us in undesirable commitments while they lasted. An opportunity to turn her temporary weakness to good account exists however and should not be lost.

Paragraph 3. Japan’s more recent anxieties include: (A) Military alliance between Great Britain and Russia. (B) Our improved situation in Atlantic and Middle East. (C) Increasing anti-Axis attitude of United States. (D) Virtual certainty of a military understanding between British and Dutch in Far East.

Paragraph 4. Taking also into account: (a) Uncertainty whether or not Germany is going to bring Russia to terms before winter. (b) Even if Russia collapsed the time that would elapse before Japanese could disengage from North. (c) Bad weather in South China Sea area between November and January inclusive, it is highly improbable Japan can be contemplating war in South for some months.

Paragraph 5. It follows that in addition to perfecting our defensive measures we should now do our utmost to improve our strategic position by weakening that of Japan. Her principal asset is her foot [hold in] Indo China which is already a source of anxiety to Thais and may be developed as a spring board from which to attack Thailand and Malaya.

The danger to Malaya and Borneo will be lessened as U.S. increase their bomber strength in Luzon thus enabling them to attack Japanese bases and communications. An increase in their submarine strength would contribute to the same result. But removal of Japanese from French Indo China would instantly reduce danger to Malaya and Borneo very considerably.

Paragraph 6. It is therefore suggests our immediate political object should be to weaken Japan’s strategic position by forcing her to leave French Indo China. Economic concessions may have to be made which Japanese could use for face saving purposes and they might constitute a first step in steering Japan towards allied camp. The necessary preliminary action of loosening Japan’s ties with Axis was taken for us by Germany herself when she attacked Russia.

Paragraph 7. Japan must realise that German promises are worthless and that membership of Axis merely implies privilege of being Germany’s catspaw. She must be doubtful whether Germans will eventually win the war. Meanwhile her internal affairs go from bad to worse and the encirclement she professes to dread is, through her own misguided actions, becoming a reality. It must be hard for her to see any prospect of a successful outcome.

Paragraph 8. To sum up. Our view is that Japan must be anxious to avoid a war in south for next few months. Therefore she is susceptible now (repeat now) to pressure. Our strategic position would be greatly improved by a Japanese withdrawal from French Indo China. Therefore in conjunction with U.S.A. we should apply pressure with object of causing this withdrawal. Such pressure being mainly economic until we have sufficient force to back political pressure. If ultimate political aim to detach [Japan?] from Axis is adopted we must insist that withdrawal of her armed forces from French Indo China shall be an essential prerequisite of any request.

Paragraph 9. In conjunction with economic pressure certain military and subversive preparations must be made which while not calculated to drive Japan to extreme measures will greatly strengthen our power of negotiation and further minimize possibility of active hostile reaction. As these must necessarily take time to implement it is important to obtain a decision on policy as soon as possible.

Paragraph 10. Opportunity of presence in Singapore of Sir Earle Page British Ambassador to Chungking and British Minister Bangkok was taken to have combined meeting with them Duff Cooper and H.E. the Governor to discuss situation in Far East summarized in preceding 1st part. It was regretted that opinion of Sir Robert Craigie was not available.

Paragraph 11.

(a) Emphatic opinion of meeting was that only real deterrent to further Japanese aggression would be a British fleet based on Singapore and in absence of this fleet there is little doubt Japan could strike at her selected moment.

(b) We feel sure that everything is being done to make provision of this requirement as soon as ships can be spared from other theatres which at the moment are active but we would stress propaganda value of even one or two battleships at Singapore.

Paragraph 12. The meeting agreed generally with following additional steps (see paragraph 13 below) which we recommend should be taken forthwith (?but) stressed that:-

(a) In any negotiations with Japan China must not (repeat not) be allowed to feel that a settlement was being frames at his expense.

(b) We must do all we can to prevent Japan impairing pre-eminent sovereignty in French Indo China.

Paragraph 13. Recommendations.

(a) Issue co-ordinated announcement by British, U.S. and Dutch Governments that they have combined plan for action in event of a Japanese move against any of their interests in Far East.

(b) Supply weapons, munitions and equipment to Thais including release of 24 Vulters, ex China, and supply aviation petrol.

(c) Issue of propaganda to emphasize our strength, the increasing weakness of Japan and fact that (?Hitler) has no longer any hope of winning war.

(d) Urging U.S. to reinforce the Philippines especially with submarine and air forces.

(e) Improvement of Burma road (duplicating it as soon as possible) and of organisation for moving war material into China.

(f) Expansion of our organisation for operating our Air Forces from China including a special allotment of bombs.

(g) Expansion of 204 Mission.

(h) Arranging for close liaison with Russian forces in Far East.

(i) Encouraging Chinese to increase pressure on Japanese especially in Shanghai and Canton areas and on French Indo China frontier.

(j) Preparations for subversive activities in French Indo China, Thailand and China. Those in French Indo China would be anti-Japanese not (repeat not) anti-Vichy.

[Source TNA file: HS 1/332]