Futile pursuit

The Second World War in the East

H P Willmott <em>Cassell, 224pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0304352470

While the turn of the century brought a saturation of words and images from the second world war, the conflict's Far Eastern theatre has attracted little public interest in this country, despite the quality of its coverage. This is understandable given that the Pacific campaign was not just a sideshow, but was in many areas conducted exclusively by the Americans. Despite the best efforts of Hollywood, Britons who can tell a Hurricane from a Spitfire are still apt to assume that a P51 Mustang is something they give to unemployed ranch hands. When we do think of America's defeat of Japan, we tend to imagine that the victory was achieved on beaches and in jungles, whereas prior to the atomic bombings it was nearly lost at sea and in the air. The course of events was somewhat different, and in H P Willmott's fine addition to Cassell's History of Warfare series, the campaign is largely cast as an extended naval engagement, in greater detail than is usual for an abridged text of an illustrated account.

By the end of 1941, Japan had contrived to pit itself against a range of enemies that included the world's most populous country, its largest empire and its most powerful single nation. Willmott points out that states as mismatched in terms of area, population size, resources and military strength as Japan and the United States seldom fight one another. Yet there are so many departures from this rule that Japan cannot be the exception that proves it. He is right to assert, however, that "even more rarely" do they fight wars initiated by the weaker side. The outcome of Japan's early victories could never be in any doubt. The Japanese were victorious in limited war, but were defeated by total war.

If it is in the nature of books such as this to simplify, then this example shows that summary can be a fruitful approach. The Far Eastern campaigns showed that though war is a contest of physical and moral forces, no degree of the latter - in total war at least - can offset too severe a material deficit. While the Japanese were sending out converted tankers and liners as aircraft carriers, American industry was turning out an aircraft every 294 seconds at the peak of production in 1944. Logistics became cornucopian when the American assault force bound for Iwo Jima carried enough cigarettes to supply every man on board with 20 a day, every day, for eight months. One of the divisions committed to this battle went ashore with enough food to supply the city of Columbus, Ohio, for 30 days. The imperial navy, meanwhile, had relieved its merchant fleet of a month's supply of fuel at a time when starvation was as grave a threat to the mainland as enemy action.

The futile pursuit of the "decisive battle" led the Japanese to the largest single naval battle in history, the battle of Leyte Gulf, which effectively reduced the navy to coastguard status. When all is lost from the outset, one looks for the symbolic rather than the decisive element in proceedings. Willmott points to the sortie of the Japanese flagship, the Yamato, which was famously sent into battle with only enough fuel for a one-way trip. Less well known, as the book points out, is the reasoning behind the act. The imperial navy considered it dishonourable for the ship that bore the ancient name of Japan to survive the surrender of her country. Yet given the huge fuel shortages, the sacrifice hit the impoverished and starving nation twice over.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul