In 1941, Britain was an imperial power with colonies across south and south-east Asia. In December 1941, Japan attacked British territories in Hong Kong, Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore and Burma (now also known as Myanmar).
These objects, photographs and artwork from IWM’s collections tell stories from Britain’s bitter and brutal war against Japan.
The fall of Malaya
Japanese forces invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941. Their commander, General Yamashita, launched an aggressive offensive that quickly demoralised and defeated Malaya’s garrison of British, Indian and Australian troops. In this photograph, taken in January 1942, Japanese troops are seen clearing pockets of resistance in the streets of Kuala Lumpur after occupying the city.
Surrender at Singapore
By February 1942, Japanese forces had occupied Malaya. They then launched a new attack against the strategic island of Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. On 15 February 1942, British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. This flag was carried by Brigadier Thomas Newbigging, as he walked with other officers as part of the surrender party. Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later call the surrender ‘the worst disaster…in British history’.
Flight from Burma
Japan’s invasion of Burma prompted many from Burma’s Indian, Anglo-Indian and British communities to flee to the safety of India. While some, particularly wealthier people, were able to leave by air or sea, hundreds of thousands were forced to make their way on foot across Burma’s mountainous border with India. Thousands died along the way from disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, or through drowning while trying to cross Burma’s many rivers. This photograph shows Indian refugees on the Prome Road from Rangoon in January 1942.
By June 1942 the Japanese had driven British, Indian and Chinese forces out of Burma. In February 1943 3,000 British and Nepalese Gurkha troops mounted a long distance raid behind Japanese lines. These troops, known as ‘Chindits’, were commanded by the deeply eccentric Brigadier Orde Wingate.
This is a ‘blood chit’ carried by the Chindits in case they became separated from their unit and needed assistance from local people. It is made of rayon and carries a printed message in seventeen languages, including Burmese, Karen, East and West Shan, Thai, Chinese, Tamil, Vietnamese, Bengali, French and English. This message identifies the bearer as an Allied soldier and encourages locals to offer help.
The 'Death Railway'
After the surrender of Singapore, thousands of Allied servicemen became prisoners of the Japanese. They were subjected to a brutal regime of violence, callous neglect and forced labour. From 1942 prisoners were forced to build the Burma-Thailand railway, which became known as the ‘Death Railway’ for its high mortality rate, among both prisoners of war and civilian forced labourers.
This golden nail was used during a Japanese ceremony to mark the completion of the railway. The inscription carries the date 25 October in ‘Showa 18’ (1943), the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Showa, also known as Hirohito.
The menace of tropical diseases
British troops fighting the Japanese were threatened by deadly and unfamiliar tropical diseases. In 1943, for every soldier evacuated due to battle wounds, 120 soldiers were evacuated due to sickness. Malaria was a key problem, but other diseases included dysentery, skin conditions and typhus. This 1943 poster by graphic artist Ashton was designed for use by the Royal Air Force in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It warns airmen against trusting in unofficial remedies or protections against malaria.
Fighting the elements
British troops in Burma had to contend with unfamiliar weather conditions. These could include high temperatures and high humidity, as well as monsoon winds and thunderstorms. This 1945 painting by British war artist Leslie Cole, titled Burma - 14th Army: The Battle of the Sittang Bend, gives a vivid impression of the impact of monsoon weather. A patrol of British soldiers from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment wade through a flooded paddy field, looking for the enemy. Overhead the sky is black with rain clouds.
In spring 1944 Japan launched an invasion of India. It aimed to capture Imphal, a garrison town in the Indian border province of Manipur, and so prevent a British return to Burma. In order to isolate Imphal from a large supply base at Dimapur, Japanese troops attacked the small village of Kohima, which became the scene of ferocious fighting.
This brass hunting horn belonged to Captain John Smyth of 1st Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey). During the Battle of Kohima, Smyth used this horn to rally his troops. Smyth was killed in action on 7 May 1944, aged 22. As he has no known grave, Smyth is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.
The Fourteenth Army - Slim's Sword
In 1943 the Fourteenth Army was formed in India. Under the command of Lieutenant-General Bill Slim, the Army’s task was to retake Burma from the Japanese. Slim’s generalship combined effective defensive tactics with imaginative and daring offensives. He was immensely popular with the Indian, Gurkha and British troops under his command.
This is the badge of the Fourteenth Army, which was designed by General Slim. He planned to invade Burma from the north, and so the sword points downward. The crossguard of the sword forms an ‘S’, standing for Slim.
The Empire strikes back
The war in Burma drew in troops from across the British Empire. These are two examples of unit insignia. The first is the insignia of 81st West African Division. It depicts the spider Ananse, a character from West African mythology. The division recruited from British colonies including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia, and fought mostly in the coastal Arakan region of southern Burma during 1944 and 1945.
The second (INS 7395) is the ‘Black Cat’ of 17th Indian Division. Made up of troops from the Indian North-West Frontier and the Punjab, as well as Gurkhas from Nepal and British soldiers from northern England, the division fought throughout the Burma campaign from 1942 to 1945.
Confronting the 'divine wind'
While land forces were fighting the Japanese in Burma, the Royal Navy’s British Pacific Fleet took part in naval operations in the Pacific Ocean.
On 6 April 1945, the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was taking part in operations to support American landings on the Japanese island of Okinawa when a Japanese kamikaze (meaning ‘divine wind’) pilot attacked, aiming to ram his aircraft into the ship. Hit by anti-aircraft fire the aircraft missed Illustrious, crashed into the sea and exploded a few metres from the ship. Among the wreckage found on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck was this rubber dinghy.
From the summer of 1944 American heavy bomber aircraft, based on captured Pacific islands, had been able to strike Japanese cities. By summer 1945 these raids had destroyed large areas of Japan's major cities and caused enormous casualties.
On 6 August 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was hit by an atomic bomb known as 'Little Boy'. The bomb's blast, fire and radiation effects would ultimately kill more than 100,000 people. This glass bottle was found in Hiroshima. It has been deformed by the effects of the bomb blast.
In the days following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and later of Nagasaki, the Japanese government debated whether to surrender. American aircraft could destroy Japanese cities at will, the Soviet Union had invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, and the Japanese home islands were also threatened with invasion. On 15 August, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender.
On 2 September 1945, a surrender document was signed aboard an American battleship moored in Tokyo Bay. A series of further surrender ceremonies followed in areas still occupied by the Japanese. This pen was used by Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, to countersign the Japanese surrender at Singapore on 12 September.
The fighting didn’t end in 1945
This ink drawing, titled Indian Troops attacking Positions in Surabaya, Java, 1945, is by Australian war artist Tony Rafty. It shows Indian troops in action in Surabaya on the island of Java, Indonesia, in December 1945.
Though the war between Japan and the Allies ended in August 1945, other conflicts in Asia and the Pacific continued. Days after Japan’s surrender, Indonesian nationalists declared independence from the Netherlands. In September, British troops arrived in Java to take the surrender of Japanese forces and to recover prisoners of war and internees. Relations between British and Indonesian forces soon broke down, with a major battle erupting in Surabaya.