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When we talk about the Second World War, in Europe and more specifically in France, the theater of War of Peaceful is often little known or even ignored. We could explain it by the fact that this war concerned more specifically the Japanese and the Americans, but this would also forget the presence of the European colonies, directly affected by the conflict, as well as the active participation of the English, of course, but also of the French, of these same Europeans.
A Global Vision of the Pacific War
Moreover, it is a shame to ignore a conflict of such magnitude, such impact, with such consequences, such a " world war in world war "! Let us judge instead: millions of combatants, in a theater of operations stretching from Burma to the Hawaiian Islands and from the Aleutians to Australia; titanic battles which sparked revolutions in the art of warfare (especially naval aviation); appalling tragedies (Nanjing, mass suicides and suicide bombers, and obviously atomic bombs), ...
We will therefore try here to give a global vision of this war in the Pacific, by evoking the great movements, the turning points and the key points. Thus, we will not be able to go into the details of this or that great battle, or debate the subjects of controversy (the Japanese crimes, “Did Roosevelt know about Pearl Harbor?”, Or the relevance of the use of Bombs) but we will probably have the opportunity to come back to it ...
We usually start The War in the Pacific with Pearl Harbor; yet this conflict began long before the incredible global offensive of December 7-8, 1941.
We must stress the importance and power of japan in this region since its victory in 1905 against Russia. A power that allows it to have claims, as evidenced by the sending of Japanese troops to Manchuria in 1919 and the quasi-annexation of Korea. On the winning side in 1918, Japan was awarded, following the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, certain German possessions in the Pacific, such as the Mariana, Carolinas and Marshall Islands. A fascination with the European fascist regimes of the 1920s and 1930s begins to win over young Japanese officers, coupled with resentment towards Europeans who carved out empires for themselves in an Asia that Japan increasingly sees as its precinct. The army wields growing power in the country, and it is no coincidence that a major program for a war fleet has been set in motion, a sign of an ever-growing will to power. This is the birth of Japanese imperialism.
The glaring evidence comes in the Manchuria Affair in 1931, where a grim case of railway sabotage served as a pretext for Japan to take over the region, renamed Manchoukuo. The League of Nations may protest, but Japan turned a deaf ear and even left the institution in 1933. This is only the first step in the war on china, which resumed in 1937. The first phase is marked by the terrible massacre of Nanking (250,000 civilians killed, without counting the rapes and mutilations) and stops in 1939, after the conquest of the North of China and the essential from the coast to Canton. Japan is stopped and faced with unexpected resistance, as well as an alliance between yesterday's enemies, Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek. At the same time, he must face the awakening of Russia, now Soviet, and wary of Japanese imperialism on this side of its gigantic territory. The Red Army inflicted two defeats on Japan in 1938 and 1939, and the Japanese government had to negotiate its neutrality, effective in April 1941.
The Japanese agitation does not seem to make Westerners react: Americans are still in their isolationist doctrine, even if from 1940 and the signing of the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, Japan) in September, they began to be seriously worried; and France and England are far too busy with Hitler’s actions in Europe ...
Escalation and "infamy day"
The signature of Tripartite pact confirmed Japan’s desire for escalation, but Westerners still have a hard time reading their intentions, and especially reacting when the war broke out in Europe and France was defeated in June 1940.
The conflict first resumes with China, but at the same time, Japan is negotiating with certain countries in the region such as independent Thailand (Siam), playing on anti-colonial resentment towards the French and the British; the two countries (Siam and Japan) came together in 1938. At the same time, and in connection with Japanese-Thai relations, Japan took over theFrench Indochina, which he considers to be a key to being able to cut off food for this immense China which resists him: the first part of the invasion goes almost without gunfire, the Japanese playing on French weakness to impose an embargo on it! Tonkin came under Japanese control in September 1940, and Japan used its Thai ally and a border dispute between Siam and French Indochina to invade the south of the latter in November 1941. In July of the same year, the France must resolve the obvious: Japan is at home in Indochina following an imposed "common defense" pact ...
The United Kingdom sees with great concern the Japanese armies approaching its own possessions, as was already the case in 1937 with the capture of Canton, directly threatening Hong Kong. However, it is the Dutch who are the first to undergo Japanese pressure. Japan uses the same strategy as with France, imposing economic conditions under the threat of a real invasion but, unlike the French, the Dutch resisted throughout the summer of 1940: Japan withdrew from the negotiations and did not not his threats to execution (yet). Burma, too, is watched with avidity by the Japanese, always with a view to finding resources (mainly oil) to wage war in China and increase their sphere of co-prosperity. To save time, the British accept negotiations about the supply of supplies to China, and cut some roads between it and Burma and Hong-Kong ...
Pearl Harbor "/> Finally, the Americans obviously have possessions in the region, with in the first place the Philippines. Washington was not fooled by Japanese maneuvers, and as early as July 1941 war was known to be inevitable. The antagonism between the two Pacific rivals has grown steadily since 1940, American retaliatory measures (freezing of Japanese assets in July 1941) have not helped matters. But in Japan, there is still debate: clash between the war-mongers of Tojo and the moderates of Nomura (Ambassador to the United States). It seems that the invasion of the USSR by Germany surprised Tokyo, in favor of the tough guys, but negotiations continued with the Americans throughout the summer and fall of 1941. Everything accelerated in November when the party de Tojo takes over the moderates: war is now scheduled. It erupted in spectacular fashion on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt's "day of infamy," when the Japanese armada, assembled in great secrecy and trained for several weeks, attacked the headquarters of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.
The Japanese steamroller in the Pacific
The Japanese strategy in the Pacific is impressive in more ways than one. Indeed, the General Staff did not schedule only the destruction of the American fleet, but a generalized attack on the possessions of the United States and Great Britain throughout the region! From December 8, with American battleships still on fire, Japan attacked Hong Kong which surrendered on 26; the same December 8, Malaysia and Singapore also undergo the Japanese assault: the battleship Prince of Wales (which had participated in the hunt for the Bismarck) is sunk on the 10, and it will take a fierce resistance of the British in the fortress of Singapore to that Japan finally won on February 15, 1942 (the rest of Malaysia being under control from the end of 41). But it is not over: a few hours after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese air force bombs the Philippines! On the 10th, the Japanese troops landed: their advance, despite the resistance led by General MacArthur, was inexorable. On January 2, 1942, Manila fell and MacArthur left Corregidor on March 11, 1942.
Nothing seems to be able to stop theJapanese advanced in the Pacific for the six months following Pearl Harbor: they landed in Borneo on December 15, then it was the turn of the islands of Sumatra and Timor to fall in early 42; Australia is now under threat, Java surrenders in March. The Japanese turned quickly, at the end of December 41, to Burma which bothers them so much in their conflict against China. On March 8, Rangoon fell, causing a very painful British retreat, and in June 42 Japanese control was total.
Its incredible success prompted Japan to attempt to attack India, through Ceylon in April 1942; it is a failure, admittedly not very important at the time, but which heralds the first setbacks and some flaws in the Japanese armor and strategy ... Thus, Tokyo was bombed for the first time on April 18, 1942 by planes from Doolitttle.
From the Battle of Midway to Guadalcanal
The successes in the late 41-early 42 pacific were genuinely impressive, but that did not cover the early flaws in Japanese strategy, especially in the long term. Already, the management of these conquered territories poses problems and Japan responds most often with great violence, even if it initially enjoys a certain prestige among populations "liberated" from the Western colonial powers. We are already talking about Pearl Harbor as a "Pyrrhic victory". Faced with the effort that awaits - to resist the American counter-attack, underestimated - Japan will have to practice an economy of scarcity, which will weigh on its population.
For their part, the Americans began to react in the Pacific at the beginning of 1942: their economy became a war economy, with almost unlimited capacity. They sent troops to Australia in February, and reorganized their fleet. Regarding this one, we must note the big lack of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which will weigh for the future: if the Japanese have sunk a few battleships (the majority of which will be refloated), they have not touched a door. planes, none being present at this moment in the harbor… Thus, it is from the Hornet that the planes of Doolittle take off, and from March 42, the American aircraft carriers are able to carry out actions against the fleet Japanese.
Japan must react to prevent the American awakening by removing its support in the South Pacific: the city of Port Moresby in New Guinea, moreover, a possible stepping stone to Australia, becomes the main objective. However, in the Battle of the Coral Sea from May 4 to 8, 1942, the American fleet won despite the loss of the aircraft carrier Lexington, and the Japanese offensive was halted. Admiral Yamamoto still had the initiative, however, and he decided to counter-attack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, attacking Midway, a small, poorly defended island. The great Japanese strategist, at the origin of Pearl Harbor, hopes to trap and destroy the American fleet there; but in this gigantic game of hide and seek, it is the Americans who strike first: four Japanese aircraft carriers are destroyed, against one. The Japanese defeat is terrible in more than one way: the balance of naval forces is restored, and they lose the majority of their best pilots.
The Americans took the initiative: they decided to take advantage of it in the weeks that followed by attacking the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal. The battle, both land and naval air, took place from August 1942 to February 1943. The Japanese had to withdraw: they were no longer invincible.
Between war of attrition and frog jumps ...
The year 1943 is a transition year. The Japanese understand too late their mistake in focusing on the South Pacific in this way, and are facing increasingly worrying logistical problems. They resist all the same, thanks to their fortress of Rabaul. But in the North, in the Aleutian Islands, they are experiencing new defeats. Likewise, if they still hold Burma firmly, they cannot expand into the Indian Ocean and thus threaten supplies to China. This one continues its fight, helped by Anglo-American troops, like the famous Flying Tigers, and it manages by a negotiation between Tchang Kaï-Shek and the Allies to see its sovereignty recognized. Japan is still trying to exploit its sphere of co-prosperity: it consolidates its alliances with Thailand and Chinese dissidents, and ensures Russian neutrality.
While in each camp we have reorganized, the offensive resumes on the Allied side. Success in Solomon allow Nimitz and MacArthur to launch their “frog leap” strategy: rather than conquer each islet at the cost of heavy losses, we decide to bypass the biggest points of resistance; this is the case with Rabaul for example.
In China, the differences between communists and nationalists undermine the progress of the Allies, essential since they allow the blocking of more than a million Japanese fighters; in April 1944, a Japanese offensive decimated the nationalist troops; Allied progress will not resume until October of the same year ... Differences also occur between the British and the Americans for the operations in Burma, with as a climax the stormy relations between Stilwell (a sort of Patton in the peaceful theater) and Wavell (responsible for the Rangoon debacle). The Japanese proved to be superior to the Allies in the jungle fights, and it was not until May 1944 that the Allies, thanks to the Chinese, experienced their first success in Burma!
This relative status quo on the Asian continent brings the bulk of the conflict back to the South Pacific. The "frog-leaping" strategy began at the end of 43 with the offensive on the Gilbert Islands, with the terrible fighting at Tarawa; then it’s the Carolinas’s turn, with one of the major Japanese bases: Truk. Japanese troops must retreat to Singapore while the US army and navy base on Marshall in May 1944: the following month, Saipan falls, causing Tojo's fall to the government! The Americans are entering the last phase, and the Philippines is reaching out to them.
The crash and the atomic bombings
General MacArthur had promised to return to Manila. US Marines, supported by an armada of 700 ships, land at Leyte in October 1944. The desperate reaction of the Japanese fleet provokes the greatest naval air battle of all time, but the forces are too disproportionate and the Imperial Navy is annihilated! It is at this moment that the suicide bombers appear, the last resort of an adrift army in an attempt to inflict heavy losses on its enemy ... The Japanese relentlessness continues on earth, and the conquest of the Philippines is long and arduous : they did not fall until May 1945! The first consequence of this was to isolate the Japanese present in Burma and the Dutch East Indies, facilitating Allied operations in these regions.
The populations of countries "liberated" by the Japanese Empire are beginning to revolt, and the sphere of co-prosperity Japan is shrinking like the skin of grief: Indonesia obtains its independence, Burma is evacuated from the first months of 1945, Rangoon surrenders on May 2 ... Only Indochina poses problems for the Allies: the Japanese settle there firmly in January 1945, and General Sabattier's French troops had to flee to China; Laos and Cambodia proclaim their independence with the support of Tokyo. In Cochinchina, this is the moment that Ho Chi Minh chooses to also declare the independence of the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" on September 2, 1945! De Gaulle must send Leclerc to put down the rebellion ...
Americans initiate last act ofcrash of japan. They have already taken advantage of their advance to launch massive bombardments on the main Japanese cities, causing considerable damage and appalling losses; thus, on March 9, 1945, the bombardment of Tokyo using incendiary ammunition caused the death of 185,000 civilians… It is time to blow up the last bolts leading to the heart of the Japanese empire: these are the two murderous battles by Iwo Jima (February-March 1945) and Okinawa (April 1945). American troops are at the gates of Japan, 500 km from Kyushu, and the blockade of the archipelago begins.
However, quickly, the possibility of bringing Japan to the ground by starvation, and even more so by landing, recedes. The Allies fear the Japanese fanaticism, they know that several thousand suicide planes await them, and that civilians are ready to sacrifice themselves, as they have done on the islands, especially in Okinawa. In addition, the USSR also threatens to invade Japan, and the rivalries of the future cold war are already very present ... A radical means is needed to behead Japan for good: Truman then authorizes the use of the new weapon. , the atomic bomb. On August 6, Hiroshima was struck. On August 8, the USSR attacked Japan. On the 9th, it was Nagasaki that suffered nuclear fire ... Emperor Hiro Hito announced the surrender on the radio, and on August 15, Japan laid down its arms.
On September 2, 1945, on the Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay, the unconditional surrender of Japan was signed. They lost 1,140,000 soldiers, 700,000 civilians; the Americans have lost 90,000, the British 227,000, Australia 46,000. The world is entering a new era, that of the atom and the cold war. As for the region, it is already preparing for other wars ...
- P. Souty, The Pacific War 1937-1945, PUL, 1995.
- F. Boy, The Pacific War, Casterman, 1997.
- J. Costello, The Pacific War. Pygmalion, 2010.