This section covers the war with Japan. In summary:
- In 1937 an undeclared war breaks out in China, against the wishes of Chiang Kai-Shek and most elements of the Empire's Army and government. The open war goes badly for the Guomindang, who lose the entire North China Plain and Yangzi Delta. In the course of this Chiang has the dikes of the Yellow River blown to prevent a Guomindang retreat from becoming a rout, halting Japanese operations on the North China Plain for 3 months but causing c.2 million civilians to die from water-borne and starvation-related diseases. The Guomindang finally halts the string of Japanese offenses with an ingenious combination of regular and asymmetric warfare note , the ultimate result being strategic stalemate. Neither Chiang nor Tokyo can agree on peace conditions and the USSR gives massive aidnote to the Guomindang to keep the war going, as Japan being bogged down in a Forever War suits them just fine.
- In 1939, after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Red Army's victory in the Nomonhan/Khalkhin Gol border-battles in Soviet-allied Mongolia, a Soviet-Japanese Non-Aggression Pact is signed and Soviet aid to the Guomindang dries up as Stalin gives full priority to The Red Army's modernisation program (in anticipation of a European War in the next five years with NSDAP Germany). Siberian and Manchurian forces remain facing each other across the border, but Japanese reserves and most freshly-created forces are free to campaign against the Guomindang. Wang Jingwei, leader of the Guomindang's left-wing, can't stomach any more of what he sees as pointless bloodshed and leads a splinter faction of the Guomindang to negotiate with Japan. To his chagrin, his peace-minded contacts in the IJA and Imperial Government are defeated in a bout of internal politicking which sees the rise of General Tojo Hideki to the Prime Ministership. Wang finds himself leading a rubber-stamp government. Meanwhile, the USA starts subsidizing airfield construction across the Pacific with large gifts of money and construction equipment to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to safeguard their supply lines to the Philippines.
- In 1941, the Guomindang is on the verge of total defeat with the (poor, rural, and flooded with tens of millions of refugees that have increased their population by as much as a third) provinces under its control essentially being slowly starved out by the Japanese, its forces' ammunition reserves at critical levels, and inflation mounting. At Stalin's urging the Chinese Communist Party breaks its truce with Japan for a few months to attack Japanese forces bordering the Yan'an Soviet in Shanxi province and Inner (Chinese) Mongolia, but after the People's Liberation Army is routed with heavy casualties Mao's faction uses the defeat to discredit those party leaders loyal to Moscow and thus consolidate his grip over the party. Mao goes on to forbid any action against the Japanese. The Free Guomindang will disintegrate or be torn apart within two years at best, just a few months at worst.
- Japan's Grand Strategy of State-Building for the Wang Jingwei regime and Containment of Chiang's Guomindang is on the verge of success, but the seizure of French Indochina note gives the United States under President Roosevelt a reason to impose sanctions on Japan in the name of bringing her back to the negotiating table with the Guomindang. The embargo is on iron and oil, the latter of which Japan's dysfunctional junta has had neither the time, foresight, nor money to stockpile in large amountsnote . In a spectacular illustration of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, in Decemeber 1941 the junta implements the IJN's Attack Plan South to seize British Malaya and The Dutch East Indies. In a pique of extreme paranoia, they assume that the USA would respond to this by declaring war on them in defence of The Allies, and so attack the USA (without formally declaring war) at the same time so that they can maximise their initial strategic advantage and hopefully negotiate some sort of peace with everyone that involves them keeping China. Or something. The USA's forces in The Pacific are largely unprepared for the conflict, though not 'surprised' per se; US forces were already in the Phillipines and considered that area more likely for an eventual attack, and while the USA recognised an Allied-Japanese conflict as a real possibility they had never considered that the Japanese would attack them as wellnote .
- 1941-2 Attack Plan South succeeds beyond the Navy's wildest dreams, but the IJA's strangehold on the Guomindang is inadvertently lost due to life-saving US loans and the diversion of IJA resources away from actions against the Guomindang. By mid-1942 the new fronts stablise in northern Burma, where Joseph Stilwell commands Guomindang forces loaned to the US Army alongside the British Indian Army, Australian New Guinea, and the mid-Pacific. The loss of Burma means a loss of 10% of the Indian Subcontinent's total grain supply, though the loss hits Bengal hardest - some two million die of starvation-related diseases before Britain overrules the regional governments and imposes a comprehensive program of famine-relief. Likewise, the 'Henan Salient' of Free China suffers its worst famine in a hundred years. The Guomindang has no money or food to spare for relief efforts, and two million or so die of starvation-related diseases. The 'back' of the IJN is broken at the Battle of Midway wherein its biggest aircraft carriers (and best airmen) are destroyed with minimal USN losses. The losses are devastating - Japan could not hope to replace the highly specialised ships and planes she has lost in five years, but the USA produces the same number of both in just one.
- The USN uses small numbersnote of amphibious troops to 'island hop' westwards from Midway Island and cut Japan off from her oil supplies in south-east Asia. Starting on the 20th of October 1944 the media-darling General MacArthur's plan to re-take the Philippines is implemented instead of the US Navy's (easier and less costly, but less popular with the US public, less symbolic, and less prestigious) plan to take Taiwan/Formosa, and in the ensuing Battle of the Leyte Gulf virtually the entire IJN is annihilated with minimal USN losses. The loss of the entire fleet does not escape The IJA and Japan's civilian population, moreover, who both realise that news of another great victory is a whopping great lie and that their defeat is at hand. With the Philippines secured and the IJN gone, Japan's supply of south-east asian raw materials (including food) is cut off and the USA's strategic bombing campaign begins. More specifically, almost none of the Jutenote and grain that the IJA had hoped to export from Vietnam makes it to Japan - a cold comfort for the two million or so Viets who die in the ensuing Gulf Of Tonkin Faminenote . The planned Burma Offensive to restore the land-link to the Guomindangnote is disrupted by the IJA's U-Go offensive against the Sino-British forces in northern Burma and the Guomindang-Warlord forces in General Long Yun's Yunnan.
- In mid-late 1944 the IJA launches Operation Ichi-Go to capture the Chinese airbases the USA is using to bomb Japan and improve its logistical situation across mainland Asia by making an overland supply route available from Korea down to Rangoon. It doesn't work, but it hamstrings the Guomindang and the companion 'U-Go' offensive in Burma delays the Allies' Burma Offensive a little, though the Allies still manage to take Rangoon before the Monsoon arrives in earnest. Meanwhile, Mao's Chinese Communist Party maintains its truce with the IJA and sneaks massive forces past the Japanese lines to crush Guomindang-holdouts and partisan base areas right across the Japanese-'occupied'note North China Plain, replacing them with their own Socialist Communes (Soviets) while the Japanese are busy trying to crush the Guomindang.
- In 1945 the USA's forces are massing on Iwo Jima and the Ryukyus, ready to launch Operation Downfall later in the year (or in 1946). The Japanese economy is at a standstill as famine looms. To avoid the mutual butchery that would be Operation Downfall, the U.S. drops the first of their newly developed atomic bombs on Hiroshima. Not wanting to be left out of the spoils of victory, the Soviet Union launches its Far Eastern Strategic Offensive Operation a week later. The Red Army's veteran and heavily mechanized armored spearheads roll right over the largely hollow Japanese defences, bypassing most of them to reach the southern coast of Manchuria in just two weeks. Starving in various isolated 'pockets', more than a million Japanese soldiers throw down their weapons and surrender en masse when the Red Army's follow-on/mop-up forces threaten them with one-sided slaughter, which is a pretty good indication that the war was all but over, as the IJA had never backed down from one-sided slaughter previously.
- Hoping to forstall the USSR from advancing any further into China or even into Japan propernote the USA uses their fourth atomic bomb on Nagasaki to encourage Japanese surrender, with more on the way.note The junta surrenders on just one condition: the Emperor stays. The USA says "yes" to the surrender on behalf of the rest of the allies (who are now styling themselves the "United Nations") but "no" to any additional conditions (though they do decide to allow the Japanese to keep their emperor later). The Japanese cabinet has no choice but to agree and World War Two is over.
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East Asian Co-prosperity
is going nowhere fast. On paper, the Empire and its puppets control a fifth of China, half her population and almost all her industry. In reality, occupied China teems with bandits and guerrillas, and one only has to travel twenty miles from a railroad or river to find territory beyond Imperial control. On paper, the Republic's troops outnumber those of the Empire and her allies by three to one; in reality, only half of these troops answer to the central government led by the Guomindang (aka the "Kuomintang"
), the Chinese Nationalists led by Jiang Jiesei (aka Chiang Kai-shek
). Only a fifth of those
forces, moreover, can be relied upon to obey him or fight properly.
The superiority of Japanese equipment, training, unit organization, and command structure—not to mention air power
, which is being used to level Chinese towns and cities more or less with impunity (typically by firebombing
)—has counted for nothing in the face of China's vast size and massive population. For instance, the Chinese have virtually no antitank weapons, but the Japanese have virtually no tanks in working order that they can bring to where they are needed, except in the on-and-off meat grinder battles which rage through the hills of southern and central China. In a relatively unmolested, rural, and mountainous province of north-central China, a young Communist official is slowly offing his rivals and building up a power base for himself. He eventually becomes the leader of the socialist commune there, the largest in the country, and uses his clout as a warlord to secure his appointment as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. His name is Mao Zedong
(aka Mao Tse-tung
Though the Guomindang has been working hard to promote the image of stalemate, Japan is winning. Even though the Guomindang managed to relocate all their factories to the mid-Yangtze around Changsha and the upper-Yangtze basin around Chongqing, it just isn't enough. China is an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural economy, and the Guomindang has been trying to fight a modern war (against a modern, industrialised nation-state) for four years now while only holding onto a small part of it. Jiang's control, moreover, is slipping—with his most loyal forces decimated at Shanghai and in the battles for the lower Yangtze, the uneasy balance of power between him and his warlord "allies" at the regional and local levels has changed decisively in their favor. What's more, for four years now Jiang's avowed strategy has been one of "trading space for time"—but there are places that the Guomindang simply cannot afford to lose (like Chongqing, Jiang's wartime capital). Moreover, the Guomindang is still dependent on certain supplies from within China (like grain) and the outside world (like artillery). Accordingly, the Imperial Army's strategy has had two aims: blockading the Guomindang and bleeding them dry. This means placing Japanese garrisons right across the occupied territories and waging decisive battles for places like the central-Yangtze city of Changsha, eventually the site of four
major battles in four separate campaigns over the course of six years.
Although the Guomindang has held on so far, its forces' combat efficiency deteriorates daily. Only a handful of grunts in Jiang's core armies from 1937 are still around, and the Guomindang has exhausted the supply of willing recruits and non-critical people who can be conscripted. The Japanese blockade, too, is almost complete; the "Burma Road" between warlord Long Yun's Yunnan provincenote
and British Burma is the Guomindang's only link with the outside world after the Japanese take the ports of south China in ’38-’40 and bully the Vichy regime into giving them French Indochina.
The internal blockade of Free China from Occupied China has not been going well—Japan just doesn't have the manpower to enforce it outside the cities of the lower Yangtze and coastal China—but this is set to change, as the one-time Guomindang party leader Wang Jingwei (who had been overthrown by Jiang in a military coup) has defected to the Empire. With his help, they have been able to establish their own "independent" Chinese national government based out of Nanjing. The burgeoning Japanese-trained forces of this new regime are freeing up more and more Japanese troops for service further into the interior. In a year, maybe two at the most, the Guomindang will fall.
After the fall of France, Japan took the opportunity to effectively seize the French colony of Indochina—including modern-day Cambodia and Vietnam—as part of their blockade strategy, ostensibly at the "invitation" of the collaborationist Vichy government
. Thailand, fully aware of which way the wind is blowing, voluntarily joins the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" and becomes a Japanese client state. President Franklin D. Roosevelt
, worried about Japanese expansion in Asia, has been looking for an excuse to act against them for a while now. He manages to get the United States to restrict all steel and oil exports to Japan in an embargo in an attempt to bring them to the negotiating table concerning China. Since the U.S. is Japan's #1 supplier of both essential commodities, the Japanese government is between a rock and a hard place: they cannot be seen as backing down to the U.S., but they don't have the strength to take them on and win. With Holland having fallen to the Germans and Britain preoccupied elsewhere, the Imperial Navy again proposes, for the umpteenth time, their plan to strike south to seize the oil supplies and rich natural resources of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and British Malaya.
This time, however, the Cabinet is willing to listen. The fleet's oil supplies will be depleted within a matter of months and it's not like the Navy and its attached ground forces—the Special Naval Landing Forces—have been making a huge contribution to the China theatre anyway. Taking on the Dutch means taking on their ally Britain. However, Britain and the USA have numerous mutual business and territorial interests in China, such as the British-American Tobacco company and the (joint-sovereignty) International Settlement at Shanghai. The Navy and the Cabinet know all too well that an imperial(ist) power like the USA would never
pass up the chance to use Japan's meddling with the USA's affairs, however indirectly, to declare war on them and make them a colony like the Philippines.
However, if they strike first
, they might still be able to salvage the China Incident
. If they can just give Johnny-foreigner a sufficiently impressive taste of cold steel, Japan's junta
convince themselves, then he'll see just how enormously bloody and costly an official War (with a capital W) with Japan would be. After all, to this day the Americans haven't shut up about how many people they lost in WWInote
, or in their Civil War
. Even if it weren't for their lack of "stomach" for real fighting, it's clear that the USA is above all a sensible and opportunistic power—the USA always looks for the maximum effect for the least effort.
A massive war with Japan would be of such limited benefit to them, and could only be won at such great cost
, that they would rather back down than fight it. Even if they do
declare war on Japan, they won't have the stomach to stick it out to the end—Imperial Russia
, which hadn't even been a "mob-rule" democracy like the USA is, had been bested like this in a short war for which they didn't have the stomach
A Way Out: Attack Plan South
After six months of planning and training under the supervision of Naval Marshal General Isoroku Yamamoto, a task force based around six aircraft carriers moves out under complete secrecy. On 7 December 1941, they catch the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet completely off guard and at anchor at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawai‘i. Johnny-foreigner is left reeling from his first taste of cold steel in decades as the Imperial Navy's Most Valiant Air Forces strike a devastating blow against the naval forces of The Most Glorious Empire's New Enemy. note
That said, there isn't much permanent damage. Many of the ships can be—and are—repaired and returned to service within a year or so; only three ships are completely out of commission, and a lot of matériel
is salvaged from them, the blessing in disguise of being attacked at anchor in a shallow, friendly harbor. Ironically, with their battleships out of action, the U.S. Navy is forced to adopt the very same carrier task force concept that the Japanese had just demonstrated so effectively. Though to most not immediately evident, this move changes naval warfare forever. This incident and the later sinkings of the HMS Prince of Wales
and HMS Repulse
by purely air attack without the protection of aircraft carriers' fighters means that the era of the battleship is over - although they will nonetheless see further service in the current conflict.
Though not quite as spectacular at first glance, the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor is not nearly as costly to the Americans as their invasion of the Philippine Islands, which had been a U.S. territory since the Spanish-American War
. The Americans were in the process of reinforcing the island as part of the massive rearmament and expansion of the U.S. military after FDR's reelection in 1940. FDR promised to keep the U.S. out of the wars overseas, but that didn't mean he wouldn't prepare just in case
; however, they are still woefully underequipped for the task. Upon hearing of the attack in Hawai‘i, the Philippine and American forces go on alert, with the Far East Air Force scrambling to meet any Japanese attack that might be aimed at them. But when the Japanese do come they end up overwhelmed, and many of the FEAF planes are caught while refueling on the ground. note
While the FEAF has received some new planes in the form of B-17 Flying Fortresses and P-40 Warhawks, many of the Philippine and American pilots still fly obsolete planes such as the P-26 Peashooters, with their open cockpits and braced wings. Even so, several Japanese planes meet their end at the hands of these outdated planes
, including two Japanese Zeroes, hinting at
their critical defensive flaws.
The jungle conditions in the Philippines prove brutal, and the Japanese troops suffer from heat stroke and diseases. Though they are in no position to capitalize on it, at one point late in the battle this causes American and Philippine forces to outnumber the Japanese two to one. The American forces are pressed back to the Bataan Peninsula, with General Douglas MacArthur
commanding from the island fortress of Corregidor - earning him the unflattering nickname of "Dugout Doug". Roosevelt orders that MacArthur, his family and staff be evacuated to Australia. The general promises "I Shall Return
!" Soon after, the American forces on the Philippines surrender, and MacArthur spends most of the war working to advance towards and retake the islands where he has spent much of his career.
Of greater concern, though less apparent at the time, is the U.S. Navy's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against the Empire of Japan - similar to Germany's submarine campaign against that other island-empire, Britain. It's rather ironic given contemporary U.S. objections to unrestricted submarine warfare on the other side of the world. At first, however, this is a hollow threat—modern submarines are relatively few and far between and overly cautious peacetime skippers and defective torpedoes will limit their effectiveness for months to come. Meanwhile Japanese submariners, who already have effective torpedoes, squander their initial advantage by concentrating on scouting for their fleet and hunting allied warships instead of merchant vessels. The Japanese obsession with a short decisive war means they'd never developed proper doctrine for commerce warfare. Even if they had, their lack of island bases and the vastness of the Pacific effectively prevent a Japanese submarine campaign against Australia and the USA's Western coast to match the German assault against Britain and the US East Coast in the Atlantic.
Tactical success aside, the Navy and the Cabinet soon realize they have made a mistake. This was partly a failure of the Japanese intelligence services, which were weak, but more fundamentally a failure to understand the motivations of their now-enemies
. The USA wasn't at all interested in helping Britain maintain her Empire, or even using the conflict as a pretext for a war with Japan. note In fact, their "preemptive" offensive has generated huge outrage and calls for revenge among the U.S. public, the attack on the fleet in particular being reviled as "A date which will live in infamy". This makes it possible for President Roosevelt, who personally supported U.S. involvement in the the wider war but previously had to contend with a staunchly anti-war public, to declare war on Japan and bring the U.S. into the Allied camp.
He also mandates massively increased investment to make the ridiculously large "Two Ocean Navy" (as laid out in 1940) a reality in just three years, stating his intention to take the war to Japan
. Rational officers
like Admiral Yamamato had understood the nature of the U.S.'s strong isolationist lobby, not to mention its overwhelming
. But these officers were duty-bound
to follow the government's orders anywaynote
Hitler promptly commits one of the greatest strategic blunders of all time by declaring war on the United States in support of his ally, despite the fact that he was under no formal obligation to do so since the Tripartite Pact with Japan stated that Germany would have had to step in only if Japan was attacked first, clearing the way for Roosevelt to have the U.S. join the fight in Europe with complete domestic political support.note
Thus, as 1941 comes to a close, the Germans, who six months before only faced the British Empire and its Commonwealth, are now at war with the three most powerful non-Axis nations on Earth. At this point the defeat of the Axis is inevitable, their poor decision-making having doomed them. note
However, it isn't immediately apparent that Japanese are bound to lose, since they promptly sweep the Allies nearly out of the Pacific.
On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces seize the foreign concessions in China and Guam and launch an amphibious invasion of the American Philippines and British Malaya. Within just a couple of months these are all secured for Japan, and the Japanese sweep outward to take the entire Dutch East Indies and most of Burma. Six months of uninterrupted victories leave Japan the master of East Asia and the Western Pacific.
To raise morale and curb spying, the U.S. promptly herds all its ethnic-Japanese citizens on the west coast into internment camps and expropriates all their assets.note
The U.S. does, however, allow Japanese-Americans to serve with its armed forces - but only in the European theatre, except for some who serve in non-combat roles as translators. Roosevelt is keen to capitalize on the strength of the American people's anti-Japanese hatred, so he gets Chief of Staff George Marshall to assign the U.S. Army to help the Guomindang in their fight against the Imperial Japanese Army. Somewhat cynically, Marshall appoints the newly-promoted General Joseph Stilwell to head up the U.S. Army's Expeditionary Force to China but doesn't actually give him any men. From the USA's standpoint, it makes no sense to give the Guomindang any more support than necessary for their ally to survive in its role as a meatshield. Besides, the nearly insuperable logistics of even getting supplies overland to China when Japan holds nearly their entire coastline makes it difficult even to do that.
This is more or less exactly what they do, giving the Guomindang only a fraction of the aid they give Britain or the Sovietsnote
and turning down Jiang's calls for American troops. Moreover, the Lend-Lease supplies they do
send to Jiang are largely consumed by their own forces. Stilwell's on-loan Guomindang divisions (in India) get most of the army equipment meant for the Guomindang at large, and Claire Chennault's Far Eastern USAAF group gets much of what does make it to China proper.
The U.S. does, however, give the Guomindang enough money in the form of low- (and some no-)interest loans to keep their government ticking over—for a while. After four years of cripplingly expensive total war, the Guomindang has been forced to decentralize its administration and tax-collection to the regional and local level, arbitrarily conscript peasants, and print money in order to survive. The consequences have been mounting governmental corruption and monetary inflation. The loans help stave off the Guomindang's imminent implosion, but it isn't enough to allow them to reform and recentralise. (The huge cash inflow of the loans actually makes the inflation worse.) Consequently, the Guomindang's administrative and fighting efficiency continues slowly but inexorably to deteriorate.
The U.S. also loads 24 land-based medium bombers on a carrier to launch a symbolic strike of their own on Japan itself in April 1942. This is the so-called "Doolittle Raid", named after its commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. Although the damage caused by the bombing is negligible, the Japanese people are spooked to know the Americans can hit them even now, after all the measures that have (supposedly) been taken in the name of the defence of the Japanese nation. This prompts the China Expeditionary Force to go on a new offensive in the hills of the Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, with the aim of capturing or destroying all airbases within strategic-bombing range of Japan. The operation is a success insofar as the airbases are all cut off or destroyed. But, as usual, the Japanese overstretch their supply lines and are again forced to withdraw.
For their part, the Imperial Navy seeks a decisive battle with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, in the hope that its (certain, of course) destruction will buy them a year or two of breathing space (or even, the more optimistic among the Imperial Cabinet hope, a negotiated peace). By this time the U.S. has also committed itself to a "Europe-first" strategy, one that has decided the USA's use of Jiang and the Guomindang—they consider his regime too weak, inefficient and politically unreliable to be trusted with the kind of resources needed to fight Japan on equal terms. The U.S. Navy's argument—that it'd be cheaper simply to prop the Guomindang up with the bare minimum of support necessary and use the Pacific Fleet to "island hop" into a position where they can blockade or even invade the Japanese Home Islands—wins out. For now, however, the U.S. works hard to keep up the appearance of Sino-American solidarity.
The Pacific Tide Turns
The Pacific War is an island war, something the world has never seen before or since. It is a long-distance war, waged largely by air and sea power, but mostly it is a struggle for island bases that have no strategic value other than as stepping stones that can be used to carry the war to the enemy. Most have no useful resources and their tiny native populations are either neutral or indifferent to the titanic clash surrounding them. Only the largest archipelagos like the Philippines and Indonesia have resources worth fighting over and populations with vested interests in the outcome. Unlike a land war, island bases can easily be cut off from their supply lines, effectively making their entire garrisons prisoners of war without an actual fightnote
. In this environment, relatively small battles and conquests can carry huge strategic implications, and the tactical character of the fighting is unrelentingly heavy.
Because the battlefields and numbers of troops are so small and the troop concentrations so uncomfortably high, there just isn't the room or the numbers for there to be "exploitation" or even "breakthrough" phases to the fighting—it's all assault
-type combat until the enemy's resistance shatters completely. Since no reinforcements can be shuttled in for a counterattack or to reinforce the threatened sector - and the defenders can't retreat to regroup and avoid fighting while they're still disorganized (as in a "breakthrough" phase) - the defenders are then massacred in some very
one-sided fighting and the whole battle is over in short order. It's also a form of warfare practically tailor-made for the Americans; with their massive glut of resources (and more efficient management
of said greater resources), they can practically create or capture island bases and airfields faster than the Japanese can destroy them.
The IJN's superiority in carrier, cruiser and destroyer tactics give them a near-unbroken string of naval victories until mid-1942, as Admiral Yamamoto warned would happen
. Then, at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the USN engages two IJN carriers. Although suffering serious losses, the USN forces the IJN to turn back from Port Moresby and removes the threat to Australian-U.S. shipping lanes. This turns out to be more significant than anyone could imagine, as damage to two IJN carriers prevents their inclusion in the coming Battle of Midway.
The "decisive battle" Yamato hoped for involved a complex operation to invade the island of Midway (plus some Alaskan islands the IJN thought to be more strategically significant than they really were) in June 1942, to force the USN to send its carriers to a fight to the death. But unfortunately for the IJN, American codebreakers have managed to crack Japan's primary naval encryption and know their fleets' every move. Midway thus becomes a trap for the IJN; the Japanese carriers arrive at a heavily defended island and aren't even aware of the opposing U.S. carriers until long after the U.S. attack forces have launched. Again, the USN suffers tremendous losses, but American dive bombers just happen to catch the IJN as its next strike force was being refueled and rearmed, meaning the hangars of each ship are covered with fuel, munitions and aircraft
. The U.S. Navy sinks three Japanese carriers in the span of five minutes, and a fourth a few hours later, for the loss of only one of its own
The IJN isn't destroyed per se
, but the blow is a Game Changer
. Now fielding two fleet carriers and five light carriers (only two of which were partiularly suitable for fleet operations against enemy carriers), the IJN suddenly finds its substantial superiority in naval airpower over the USN's carrier force (three in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic) reduced to mere parity. American industrial production made this inevitable, but the IJN hoped to delay this parity for a good 6-12 months more.note
For the next six months, the IJN and the allies fight a brutal land, sea and air battle for the uncompleted Japanese airbase on the island of Guadalcanal. This would expand into the fight for control of the entire Solomon Islands chain, lasting until November 1943. Much of the momentum of the southern offensive is lost due to the unanticipated effect of partisan and guerrilla resistance
, particularly in the Philippines, while the Guadalcanal campaign turns into a six-month meat grinder of horrific foot-slogging battles and fierce nighttime naval engagements that consumes ships, airplanes and men Japan can ill afford to lose and lacks the resources to replace.
The IJN's Mobile Force, now reduced to two large fleet carriers and whatever light/escort carriers and other conversions it could muster after the disastrous Battle of Midway, nonetheless made a good showing at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942, and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, forcing US carriers to flee in the first case and fighting to a draw in the second. By the end of the year, Japan had even succeeded in its objective of neutralizing the US carriers - air and submarine attacks had sunk 4 of the US's 6 large fleet carriers, leaving only the badly-damaged Saratoga
. However, the Japanese were in no condition to exploit this turn of events, as the loss of aircraft (worsened by the low survivability of their fighters and lack of effort in rescuing their own downed pilots) meant a full half of their Pearl Harbor aircrew had already perished. By the end of 1942, with both US and Japanese carrier forces having worn themselves down to nubs, both sides retired to repair and rebuild their carriers and air wings. It would be another 18 months before the US and Japanese carrier fleets engaged each other.note
With the Solomons secured in late 1943, U.S. and Australian forces will go on to liberate the rest of New Guinea together and then part company, the Australians driving west into Indonesia while the U.S. turns north towards the Philippines. note
The vital Japanese naval bases at Rabaul and Truk are attacked by the USN in late 1943 and early 1944, respectively; the Japanese Navy is forced to abandon its southernmost defensive lines and retreat to the Marianas.
The Imperial Army's advances into Burma showcase some serious issues with the tentative Sino-British-American alliance. For one thing, Stilwell immediately overrides his commanders' objectionsnote
. He orders his on-loan Guomindang divisions to drive back the Japanese offensive by way of a counterattack—even though his forces are outnumbered three to one, lack communication equipment, have no air cover, air support, or artillery, and are not supported by their British allies (who think it's a spectacularly stupid idea). It fails, and Jiang goes over Stilwell's head to order his encircled forces to make a breakout and retreat. The Japanese advance soon cuts off the Burma road, China's sole remaining transport link to the rest of the Allies-aligned world. Its loss forces the Americans to fly everything from Bazookas to bandages over "the Hump" of the Himalayas in order to meet their Lend-Lease commitments.
As Guomindang troops and the Sepoys of the British Indian Army bring the offensive to a halt in the Himalayan foothills, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress
declare the start of the Quit India movement—which advocates Britain's immediate withdrawal from India
to make room for Indian independence. Gandhi and the Congress are promptly imprisoned for the duration of the war, and acts of open rebellion and sabotage are quite brutally suppressed. However, Jinnah and the Indian Muslim League declare their loyalty to the British Raj and give the war effort their full support—their proposal of an independent or autonomous Indian-Muslim State (aka the modern nation of Pakistan) is taken seriously as a consequence.
Like the Chinese, the Anglo-Indian army is a bit short on equipment and weaponry (though nowhere near as badly), and this is where the Americans come in again. Jiang keeps Stilwell on as commander of his stranded forces, despite his incompetence. Jiang can hardly ask for his troops back now
, as that would be politically awkward, and besides, Stilwell is useful because he is pretty much the only U.S. commander who demands that Jiang be given any measure of Lend-Lease material and support. Moreover, Jiang doesn't trust the British not to use his troops like they do the Sepoys: in the defense of their Empire rather than China. Thus, Stilwell sees to it that the U.S. Army educates, trains and equips Jiang's forces to its own standards—though the U.S. Army keeps them on the wrong side of the Himalayas. U.S. forces begin to hop in earnest from strategically-important island to island, avoiding fighting non-essential battles and winning each one. However, this comes at what the Americans consider frightful costs in the face of China-veteran garrisons, who fight almost literally to the last man rather than surrender. The war in the eastern Pacific quickly comes to mirror that in the west—the mutual, deep-seated (and oftentimes racial) hatred and animosity on virtually all sides means that quarter is rarely asked or given
Operation Ichigo, aka 'Operation Because'
Meanwhile, the Imperial Army has mobilized just shy of half a million men for a final offensive to crush the Guomindang—Operation Ichigo
. With one bold stroke, they hope to secure Jiang's holdouts in the mid-Yangtze and go on to push upriver and capture the upper-Yangtze Sichuan Basin. If they can take the latter (the last scrap of Jiang's old power base), his tentative hold over his regime will collapse and his warlord allies will abandon him. Even if they don't join Japan's friendly Chinese Nationalist Government, if they have any sense they will at least cease open hostilities rather than be wiped out one by one. With China secured for Japan, up to a million veterans of the seven-year "China Incident" will be freed up for duties elsewhere and the Allies may well sue for peace rather than go to all the trouble of defeating them and their new Chinese allies. The most optimistic outcome would see Japan's Burma force successful as well—it is slated to fight through the Himalayas and into Guomindang-allied Yunnan province, as well as westwards into British India proper.
At least, this is the plan presented to the Emperor; the real plan is far more realistic, which speaks volumes. The Army is confident only in its ability to take the mid-Yangtze, linking up the railways from Beijing down to Guangzhou and capturing or rendering unsafe the forward airbases Chennault's air forces are operating from in the process. Mindful of his forces' deterioration and the inevitability of Allied victory, Jiang had been highly critical of Marshall's decision to give Chennault forces enough to antagonize the Japanese into making a grand offensive—at least, not without giving his troops the weapons, training and equipment needed for them to hold off such an offensive. Chennault actually has half as many planes as the Imperial Army does in China now. This is a serious problem for the Empire given the huge amounts of territory and the number of strategic fire-bombing missions they have to defend. note
The result has been chaos in the occupied territories as Japan has neither sufficient radar installations, antiaircraft artillery, or planes to defend their lines of communication and supply properly. Thus, Operation Ichigo
is the solution.
It's worth noting that even if Ichigo
does succeed beyond High Command's wildest dreams, Japan will still lose the war. It's only a matter of time before the U.S. Navy manages to blockade and perhaps even invade Japan itself. Furthermore, the American air forces are only a couple of islands and a few months away from being able to launch strategic bombing raids on the Home Islands themselves. High Command can hardly claim ignorance of the offensive's futility, as their other big project is wrangling out a defense plan for the Home Islands with the cooperation of the Navy
, but they go ahead with it anyway
seems like a wild success. The Guomindang's Henan salient—which has to be supplied by oxcart, as the Japanese hold the railway network at either end of it—is eliminated in mere months after having held out for seven years. Changsha is captured, again. The Japanese hold onto it this time as they regroup and then concentrate virtually all their artillery and armoured forces to take the Guangzhou-Changsha railroad, fanning out into the mountains to take out the Allied airbases from there. Jiang tries to get his forces recalled from Burma, but Stilwell refuses, as Marshall has told him that Jiang doesn't need them. Stilwell, moreover, has been trying to get Jiang to commit more troops to help out in the Allied offensive in Burma. To do so, he has been withholding Lend-Lease supplies for months, such that even Chennault (with whom he has a very thorny relationship) is short on spare parts and fuel, and complains about Stilwell's conduct to Marshall.
Worse still, when Chennault tries to use his planes to disrupt the Japanese offensive, Marshall tells him to pull his forces back to Chongqing and reduce his operations—though U.S. high command initially didn't realize the scale of the offensive, they soon come to believe that it might mean the end of the Guomindang. Roosevelt soon looks to cut his losses in the runup to the U.S. election of November 1944. Roosevelt's opponent, Thomas Dewey, relentlessly criticizes Roosevelt's conduct of the war and lambastes him for not providing Jiang with enough support. By way of response, Roosevelt allows the publication of a series of previously-censored articles which are highly critical of Jiang, the Guomindang, and their forces. If China loses, Roosevelt says, it will be their own fault—and Marshall will ensure the USA's losses will have been minimal. Jiang, accordingly, is absolutely furious but has to bite his tongue, insisting only on the resumption of Lend-Lease deliveries and the dismissal of Stilwell.
Japan Fights On
is a success, sort of. The Empire has its Seoul-Beijing-Guangzhou rail line, though most of the line south of Wuhan-Changsha is torn up or destroyed. Most of the Allied airfields in China have now been captured or abandoned, for all the good that does them. But the advances into the Chongqing Basin and British India haven't materialised, and the IJA doesn't have the strength or the supplies to do anything but hold its positions. Despite the losses, the offensive has not been an unmitigated disaster for Jiang—Stilwell has been dismissed, he has a reliable supply of Lend-Lease material now and even though his loyal forces have taken a severe mauling, several regional warlord "allies" took critical losses as well, and much of their authority has been sapped or dissipated to warlords at the local level. A lot of this is due to Jiang's politicking—at the same time the USA was holding back Lend-Lease material from Jiang, Jiang himself was refusing to send ammunition or aid to his "allies" on the front lines.
Then a doomed-to-failure offensive directed at capturing Chongqing is launched by a faction of rogue Japanese generals. It not only fails, it goes on to backfire spectacularly as the Guomindang's opportunistic counterattack turns into a counteroffensive
precipitated by success upon success at the tactical level. This actually forces the Japanese to retreat and abandon their precious Wuhan-Guangzhou railroad as the Guomindang re-capture Changsha. Not at all coincidentally, the Burmese front is also moving again after years of stalemate. The long-planned Sino-Anglo-Indian offensive, something Jiang has been pressuring the Americans and British to get around to for years now, gets off to a shaky start as organizational issues come to a head.
But after their resounding victory at Imphal, the Allies' mechanized forces lead a mad dash to capture as many Japanese troops as possible and get to Rangoon before the monsoon season starts and bogs down the offensive for another few months. Racing from just-captured and barely-serviceable airfield to barely-serviceable and barely-secure airfield, getting virtually all
their supplies by airplane because of the god-awful roads, a last-minute amphibious operationnote
takes Rangoon just days before a monsoon hits. Most of Japan's Burma force is out in the open, but the British are unable to follow up on this and push into Japanese-allied Thailand until the monsoon season ends and the floodwaters recede.
In the Pacific, the Americans capture the island of Saipan after a terrible land and sea battle. The Japanese defense plan is desperate and mostly involves shore-based aircraft - the Americans outnumber them three to one in carriers, a sure sign that they're about to be crushed under the weight of U.S. industrial production.note
The sea battle, officially known as the "Battle of the Philippine Sea", is quickly dubbed the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" when U.S. pilots equipped with a new generation of carrier-borne fighters shoot down nearly 500 aircraft with virtually no losses of their own
, effectively exterminating the last of Japan's trained naval aviators. The U.S. Navy in turn loses approximately 100 aircraft (mostly due to running out of fuel) in their own counterstrike, but manage to sink one Japanese carrier and seriously damage three others. Adding further injury, two more Japanese carriers go down at the hands of U.S. submarines, though the loss of their carriers matters little by this point since the Japanese no longer have the pilots to man them. Even the most fanatical Japanese Admirals are forced to admit that their carrier forces were finished.
The land battle is the usual horrific slog against deeply entrenched and fanatical Imperial defenders. However, Saipan is different in that it is the first island taken to contain a significant population of Japanese civilians, most of whom promptly commit suicide
, horrifying all observers. It's even worse for the Japanese, considering that after this defeat, there can be no more hiding from the civilian population that the Allies are advancing relentlessly toward the home islands as part of a Hopeless War
their Army and Navy started to avoid looking bad.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, the U.S. submarine offensive is finally in full swing. The torpedo problems have been all ironed out and the cautious prewar commanders have all been replaced by younger, more aggressive men. Their crews have plenty of combat experience and US shipyards are turning out literally hundreds of new "fleet boats" equipped with the latest technologies to take these better officers and weapons to the enemy. By late 1944 U.S. submarines will regularly achieve monthly sinking rates more than double the best rates the German U-boat fleet ever managed to achieve in the Atlantic… at least until they run out of targets. Japanese seamen soon learn that there is no place safe from American submarines outside of the Inland Sea. Even the Sea of Japan is not safe from their depredations; Tokyo Bay becomes a shooting gallery and Japan's last superbattleship-turned-aircraft carrier Shinano
barely lasts six hours on her first and only voyage.
Saipan (and nearby Tinian, captured soon after) are close enough to allow U.S. bombers to strike the Japanese Home Islands. This is initially of limited effectiveness, as strong winds and the intensely crowded nature of Japanese urban-industrial areas makes precision bombing nigh-impossible. But once someone suggests using incendiary bombs
to set the cities ablaze, the bombing becomes highly effective and the war has in a sense come full circle: the second-most vocal country to decry Japanese "terror bombing" in China—next to the Chinese themselves, obviously—is now deliberately targeting civilians themselves. Like contemporary Chinese construction, most Japanese buildings were then made of cheap but highly flammable materials—wood, bamboo, rattan, rice paper—and arranged in densely packed warrens. The fire-bombing campaign—exemplified by The Great Tokyo Fire Raid
that destroyed a third of Tokyo to the tune of 100,000 civilian deaths—is horrifically
effective, razing entire towns overnight and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Even more devastating from a strategic perspective, the Americans have also launched Operation Starvation
, in which the majority of Japan's ports and waterways are mined from the air, largely crippling the home islands' vital marine logistics.
What's left of the Imperial Navy sallies forth for a last, titanic battle against the American fleet. Despite one portion of the fleet coming very near to its objective, it is promptly annihilated with minimal USN losses in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, history's largest naval engagement. Far more effective is the new Japanese tactic of attacking ships by deliberately crashing airplanes into them. American soldiers return to the Philippines in late 1944, landing amidst much rejoicing and partisan warfare, and after several brutal months of combat they wrest control of most of their former colony from the hundred-thousand strong Japanese force redeployed at the last minute from China to defend it. The fighting on Luzon in particular (the largest island) is incredibly one-sided in favor of the Americans, though their More Dakka
approach causes an awful lot of collateral damage to the (not great, but still) local infrastructure.
By now even the Japanese citizenry, like their German counterparts, begin to suspect that they are losing. The China Incident gets that bit grimmer as Wang Jingwei dies and Japan's "friendly" Chinese Nationalist régime loses the last vestiges of credibility and popular support. They also become harder to control as it grows clear that the Japanese won't be around for much longer. IJA High Command quietly admits to itself that China is lost and begins drawing forces back to the Home Islands while they still can, giving the totally unnecessary
anti-invasion fortification-building program top priority.
Japan Fights On?(!)
In May 1945, Germany surrenders and the war in Europe ends. But to everyone's increasing exasperation, Japan fights on. The Americans continue to island-hop closer to their Home Islands, capturing the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa to aid the strategic bombing campaign and planned invasion. The civilian population of the former island had been evacuated, primarily because survival on Iwo Jima was so tenuous (there is no source of fresh water other than rain) that there weren't many civilians to evacuate. note
General Kuribayashi, recognizing what the fall of Iwo Jima will mean, organizes a battle of attrition to delay it as long as possible and make the Americans rethink their invasion of Japan. For the only time in the war, American casualties (wounded and KIA) outnumber the Japanese, and it begins to dawn on American commanders just how difficult invading Japan will be.
Okinawa, however, is fairly well populated and part of the Home Islands proper note
and the fighting there is marked by more government-sponsored suicides
—supposedly to avoid the kind of treatment that Chinese civilians might expect from Japanese troops. The actual reason is because High Command doesn't want the USA to score a propaganda victory by using well-treated civilians to prove their decency to noncombatants (which could erode their soldiers' will to fight). Okinawa marks the British return to the Pacific, as the end of the war in Europe allows the Royal Navy to send a task force to join the U.S. Pacific fleet. It also marks the effective end of the Imperial Japanese Navy when the doomed and ultimately futile final sortie of the superbattleship Yamato
is obliterated by overwhelming U.S. airpower.
The fighting is savage and horrific, bloody and slow, and sees the first full-scale use of the terrifying Tokko note
or Kamikaze note
attacks first seen in the Phillippines, which amaze and horrify the Allies at just how far the Japanese are willing to go in their country's defense. However, once the shock had passed, the Allies develop effective defenses against these Suicide Attack
pilots. These included establishing radar picket ships at the outskirts of fleets to warn of incoming planes, artillery gunners learning how to target these fanatics at both low and high altitudes and Allied fighter pilots taking maximum advantage of the fact that these expendable pilots are easy target amateurs in old planes. Even trying to knock out these defenses sometimes proved humiliatingly useless such as the concentrated suicide and conventional attack on a mere destroyer, the USS Laffey
, which won the battle with the help of two air waves of The Cavalry
to become "The Ship That Would Not Die."
The sinking of almost all of Japan's food-importing merchant fleet and the impact of air raids on agriculture—it's hard to plow a rice paddy when it's full of shrapnel—is compounded by domestic crop failures
. His Imperial Majesty's subjects are now trying to survive on 1200 calories a day. It's not all bad, though
, as the government publishes a helpful series of articles on how to stave off hunger by padding out one's diet with sawdust, insects and micenote
. Urban depopulation results as people move to the countryside in the hundreds of thousands. By early 1945, Allied air and naval forces roam Japanese shores and skies virtually at will, shooting up or sinking just about everything that dares to move in daylight. Things get even worse in the cities (whose industries are largely spread out with home contractors in predominately wooden constructed homes) when the Americans resort to firebombing with incendiaries as the inhabitants learn to dread smelling napalm in the morning. Even aerial ramming by Japanese pilots is usually futile as a defense as you have to be good at flying to hit a high and fast flying, and well armed bomber plane, which works against the very point of using quickly trained and expendable kamikazes. But the Japanese still refuse to give up.
Even as the Empire crumbles, the government pulls every available boat, plane and tank in the Empire back to the Home Islands, and conscripts as much of the able-bodied population as can be spared into work details and citizen militias
in anticipation of the Allied invasion. Any remaining petrol is issued to the newly-formed Kamikaze
speedboat and human-piloted torpedo flotillas; the air force has long since claimed the last of the aviation fuel for its Kamikaze
squadrons. The Army and Navy continue to squabble over who should get first priority on "lunge-mine" note
production—the Navy wants them for its Kamikaze
scuba divers, the Army for their antitank Kamikaze
troops. On paper, the Volunteer Fighting Corps
is more than capable of fending off the invasion on its own; but in reality, there are few weapons and even less ammunition to go around. The teenaged and elderly recruits are taught how to fight with knives, spears and petrol-free Molotov Cocktails
. Others are simply handed a grenade and told to make their deaths meaningful
Planned for October, there is no attempt to disguise the planned invasion's timing or purpose—not that the Imperial Cabinet has a great track record in accurately anticipating anyone
else's actions thus far. Christened Operation Downfall
, it consists of a two-stage attack. The first stage (Operation Olympic
) aims at capturing about a third of the southern island of Kyushu to use as a staging area for the second stage (Operation Coronet
), a strike at Tokyo with the ultimate goal of capturing the capital and the Emperor. Operation Downfall
will also be a true Allied operation, including a significant contingent of British and Australian forces. It is expected to more than double
the total number of Allied military casualties.note
After the war these estimates become considered optimistic as the Japanese plan of defense (Operation Ketsugō
) is pretty much a worst case scenario for the Allies. It banks on an all-out defense of Kyushu - pretty much predicting exactly where and when the Allies would attempt their landing - and aims to create a defensive system that would make the cost of victory too great and force an armistice instead of an unconditional surrender.
Japanese civilian casualties are expected to surpass Chinese levels, quite a feat considering Japan has only one tenth of China's total population. The Guomindang is on the verge of launching its own offensive downriver to seize Jiang's old power base in the the lower Yangtze, and hopefully up to the Yellow river from there—they fear that the Soviets will turn all the land, weapons and equipment they liberate from the Japanese straight to the Chinese Communists. note
Given the terrible interunit coordination
that Jiang's forces have displayed so far—their offensive actions being limited to counterattacks, and with the Japanese intelligence services knowing virtually their every move—the Japanese doubt that the Nationalist Party forces will get very far despite their own total lack of air cover and chronic supply problems.
In the meantime a new weapon, a bomb of immense explosive force, has been developed to support the landings. In the American state of New Mexico, a multinational team of scientists headed by Robert Oppenheimer have test-detonated the world's first nuclear bomb
. After witnessing the destructive power of the prototype, some dare to hope that the mere threat of its use will be enough to force Japanese surrender. The Allies ask Japan to surrender unconditionally; but, unsurprisingly, they refuse. In response, a nuclear bomb is detonated over the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945
. The combat debut of a nuclear weapon immediately results in 70,000 to 80,000 civilian dead and wounded. At least as many again will succumb to radiation poisoning over the months and years to follow. Another bomb used on the city of Nagasaki on 9 August has much the same effect
—together, those two bombs account for as much as a fifth
of the number of people killed in the whole strategic bombing campaign against Japan.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union honors its promises to the rest of the Allies (who are by now styling themselves the "United Nations") and declares war on Japan in violation of their Non-Aggression Pact of 1941. The two-plus million war-hardened mechanised columns of the Red Army and their Mongolian auxiliaries make short work of Japan's ill-equipped one-and-a-half-million-man Manchurian/North-China Army Group, which has been weakened by years of neglect in favour of first the China Expeditionary Force, the Home Islands Defence Force, and especially the forces sent South to fight the Western Allies. Adroitly using their superior mobility to bypass the relatively static Japanese forces when they can, and their superior firepower to blast straight through when they can't, the Red Army's armored spearhead rolls right over the Japanese. They reach the southern coast of Manchuria in just two weeks and trap more than a million IJA soldiers in isolated pockets. The Western Allies bargain for the southern half of Korea as they tell the Shōwa Emperornote
that there are more such "atom bombs" to come, as if the imminent threat of invasion from two directions at once—the Soviets are themselves poised to invade and have a good chance of taking Hokkaido—weren't enough.
The Emperor himself calls it quits. He gives his support for unconditional surrender on 14 August, effectively commanding his subjects to accept his decision in his first-ever radio broadcast to the whole Empire. Following a failed last-minute coup by some junior officers who wish to continue the war—and a wave of suicides amongst his civil and military servants
—the formal surrender is signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri
in Tokyo Bay on 2 September.