Term Paper

True, but the tanks they did have generally served them very well in the advance phase of their war, as in Malaya / Singapore where they had no armoured opposition.

Light tanks were ideally suited to the jungle / related terrain country in which the Japanese used them, with great effect against Commonwealth infantry.

Then again, those tanks were not unstoppable, even in Malaya.


A two pounder Anti-Tank Gun of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, 8th Australian Division, AIF, directed by VX38874 Sergeant (Sgt) Charles James Parsons, of Moonee Ponds, Vic, in action at a road block at Bakri on the Muar-Parit Sulong Road. In the background is a destroyed Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go Medium Tank. The Anti-Tank Gun was known as the rear gun because of its position in the defence layout of the area. Sgt Parsons was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his and his crew’s part in destroying six of the nine Japanese tanks during this engagement.

Six of nine tanks was quite a tally and that gun was worth it weight in gold. RS*, were the Commonwealth forces in Malaya under-served with antitank weapons as well as almost completely devoid of armor?

I did read about the Australian and Indian Divisions have very little to no AT capability even being devoid of most of the allocation of Boys Rifles (which would probably have worked quite well against the weak Japanese armour. British Divisions I have not read much about equipment wise but the allocated armour never made it with only a few light tanks being received.

Quite a few units seem to have been partially trained and equipped with the usual (even today) of ‘you will get the rest of your kit in theatre and plenty of time for training’ (as you unload under fire just about).

Lack of ammunition (same as in France when AT guns only had training rounds when they were engaged by the Germans) was a problem for the smaller calibre AA weapons, wonder if the same could be true for the AT guns.

In the Middle East Commonwealth forces were issued Italian 47mm AT and Field guns as well as old 18pdrs as AT weapons (as well as german 50mm AT guns, not seen any mention of the 37mm though) during this period due to a lack of suitable guns and they were in action not just under threat.

Edited to add

Officially the Australians had 10 Boys rifles per Infantry Battalion in late 1941 (6 in AA platoon and 4 in Carrier Platoon), in the North Africa they got 2pdrs in an AT platoon in mid 1942…

Don’t know about the level of anti-tank weapons in the Commonwealth forces.

Leccy is much better informed than me on what the Australians should have had but, as he notes, that may not be the same as what they did have.

That is further complicated by the fact that what is commonly called the 8th Division, 2nd AIF (2nd Australian Imperial Force, the first being the AIF in WWI with both being all volunteer expeditionary forces) in Malaya / Singapore was only two of the three brigades of that Division. When a formation is split up like that it doesn’t necessarily follow that every unit in it has what it’s supposed to have, even if it was available to issue to it. For example, the remaining brigade of the 8th Division was split up among various islands closer to Australia while its headquarters remained in Australia which could mean that HQ elements didn’t go into the field with the rest of the brigade. I don’t know what a 2nd AIF brigade would have had at the time as HQ elements, but building on what a company and battalion HQ would have as HQ platoon and company respectively it could be that a significant element didn’t go into the field.

As for tanks, we formed our 1st Armoured Division in 1941 with the intention of sending it to North Africa, where it would have had no impact if sent when formed as all it had was about half a dozen light Vickers tanks, and perhaps not much more effect in Malaya if sent there. But it wasn’t as it was held in Australia and built up to meet the feared Japanese invasion.

The advantage of Japanese tanks in Malaya was in getting among the Commonwealth infantry to aid the Japanese infantry’s infiltration and envelopment tactics and in bursting through road blocks or other infantry choke points. Commonwealth tanks might have stalled this in tank to tank engagements, but they probably would have been of more use in supporting Commonwealth troops against Japanese infantry as mobile pill boxes. Assuming the Japanese infantry weren’t well equipped with effective anti-tank weapons, which I doubt as their intelligence before the invasion should have told them that there was no Commonwealth armour opposing them, although if they lacked specific anti-tank weapons they probably had artillery which, as with the Australians in my last post, could be employed against tanks.

But as we couldn’t muster more than about half a dozen light tanks for our first armoured division, the absence of Australian armour in Malaya was probably inevitable. As for British armour, that’s a separate question, but I doubt that diverting scarce British armour from North Africa would have been a wise or useful move in the total scheme of things as that undoubtedly fairly meagre armour almost certainly would not have affected the result in Malaya.

The real issue is the lack of British air cover, which if put in in the degree recommended by senior British military planners was the only thing which might, but by no means certainly would have, changed the result of the Malayan campaign.

While dozens of squadrons of Spitfires were sitting on British airfields, being squandered on pointless cross-channel
excursions of -ve military value…

Really, were they.

Britain had a desperate need for aircraft in the Med it was not until 1942 that the Desert Airforce started getting parity with the Axis, the cross channel sweeps were an attempt to push German fighter cover back from the coast so meaning they had even less time over the UK as well as to interdict German forces.

Look at the paucity of aircraft available for Malta, Greece, Crete, West Africa, North Africa especially modern types and these were active campaigns not threatened areas.

Until June 1941 Britain was still trying to build up her home defences for a possible German Invasion then with the Axis attack on the Soviet Union the UK diverted several Squadrons to the Soviet Union of Hurricanes (still a frontline fighter) and Spitfires.

So, a sop to an ungrateful Stalin was reckoned to be of more value than a viable defence of Malaya?
& leaving hundreds of Spitfires still buggerising around in bloody Blighty?

Only 2 probable reasons… incompetence &/or political expediency…

And yet again failing to answer my counters, Britain did not have hundreds of Spitfires doing nothing, they did not have enough for the actual areas being fought over (Europe and Africa), Malaya and Singapore like Burma were huge areas and were vaguely threatened by Japan, its so easy to say they should have done this or that but come up with an actual plan of how it could be done.

Stalin may have been ungrateful but he still asked and since he was fighting the Axis (who were literally next door and not thousands of miles away) and so diverting Axis forces from threatening the UK Britain would do all it could, maybe sending all those tanks was bad as well and they should have been sent to North Africa or the Far East (although there would be a shortage of crews), they were enough to help keep the Soviets in the war at a crucial time.

You are using benefit of hindsight coupled with wishful decision making.

British Fighter Command strength from AIR 22 - ‘Air Ministry: Periodical Returns, Intelligence Summaries and Bulletins’

RAF Strength-M.E.and Med Command,1941-45-AIR 22 (14/3/41 and 2/5/41

RAF Stength-Far East Command,1942-5- AIR 22 (3/1/42 india)

Commonwealth Middle East Air Strength Nov.41 (Combat planes only) Operation Crusader Nov-Dec 1941

Those sort of cover the allocation of planes and what they were doing prior to the Japanese declaration of war, Britain was fighting in Africa and Europe at the time, the Far East was not under attack so tended to be left as a back water getting barely enough for internal security.

Sept 1941 Fighter Command strength including how many AA guns were available for home defence.

Jan 1st 1942 Fighter Command strength just for completeness

Apart from nuisance Jabo raids, the Germans hadn’t spent much time over Britain since attacking the East…

The RAF wasted hundreds of Spitfires [& their pilots] in a pointless cross-channel campaign against a couple of crack Jagdwaffe units…

Your thoughtfully provided data does list 600+ Spitfires still operationally on hand in Sept `41, though…

It did seem to take quite a few ‘bloody shambles’ situations for the poor old Brits to pick up on hard learned lessons…

At least that was the assessment from both their Allies & Hitler…

& Is it true, that as a dedicated ‘White Supremacist’ Hitler was even prepared to take on the Japanese militarily to save ‘White’ face in Malaya, since the Brits were so busy cocking it up… as usual?

When did Spitfires arrive in the Med’/Africa or Australia/Burma? Not in `41…

Those Spitfires were spread over the whole of the UK and Ireland, the Hurricane was being retired as a frontline Fighter in Europe, as usual the British had more airframes than pilots and a portion of those Spitfires were older types and in training or conversion units as well as recce units.

You also notice Blenheim and Defiants still listed as active fighters in the UK (Blenheims were used as day fighters in Greece due to lack of anything else).

The cross channel raids had a purpose and to an extent achieved it, the Blitz on Britain lasted until May 1941 then Germany attacked the USSR, Britain diverted aircraft sorely needed in the Middle East, Med and Africa to help the Soviets.

The Far East was deemed threatened but it was not being fought over so was left pretty much on its own, more critically were shortages of equipment and training of the troops in the Far East, limited AT and AA weapons, shortages of ammunition for them (especially AA). Lack of armour and artillery.

But then all those items were also in short supply in active theatres, hindsight is easy to look at and say - they should have done this - but in 1941 Britain was short of everything and fighting hard in many places, it did not know what was going to happen, if the Luftwaffe was going to return in force especially as the Axis seemed to be ripping the Soviets apart and the British Commonwealth had suffered losses in the Western Desert, Africa, Crete, Greece of men and equipment.

True, but if Churchill hadn’t gone into Greece in a campaign which at least one Commonwealth commander knew was doomed from the outset, and which like Malaya Churchill insisted on going into without the air support his military advisers considered necessary, there would have been significantly:

  1. More aircraft.
  2. More troops.
  3. More ships.
    available for other enterprises.

It’s interesting that the Greek campaign was in part a “maintain faith” exercise between Churchill and Greece which involved an Australian division largely wasted while a few months later he refused to maintain faith with Australia by delivering any of the promised resources to defend Australia from the Japanese advance resulting from his incompetent assessment of Singapore as a barrier to Japanese advancement.

I have always been of the opinion Churchill’s motives were political

a. Bring Greece in on the Allied side
b. Show the world that Britain (and the Commonwealth) would assist anyone fighting the Axis and provide safe haven otherwise.
c. Keep Turkey out (along with the payments and material supplied to Turkey by the British and US).
d. Slim chance of success but showing the US that the British Commonwealth will fight on regardless.

Crete although another loss I can sort of understand with the at the time unknown consequence of gutting the Fallshirmjaeger and the slightly rebuilt German transport aircraft fleet so convincing the Germans that airborne assaults were too costly or useless.

This may have saved Malta and Gibraltar from Axis attention.

One thing to remember - Greece had a very large merchant shipping fleet, which we got as a result of going in to help them. Would we have still got it if we hadn’t helped them and instead they had signed a Vichy-style armistice?

I did read about that and was going to add it but could not find my source so left the Greek merchant fleet out.

As a kiddie I read about the Greek and Crete campaigns and what disasters they were, reading now though my early impressions of all British Commonwealth forces being killed or captured was wrong, the majority of troops escaped it seems although as at the French ports minus the majority of their heavy equipment and large amounts of supplies.

The big disaster was the missed opportunity in North Africa to kick the Italians out before the Afrika Corps could become established. Unfortunately, nobody realised what an opportunity we had missed until it had long gone - Rommel seems to have been the only person who thought what he went on to do was even possible! The Greece and Crete campaigns didn’t actually lead to terribly big losses in either men or equipment, although the Navy did lose a fair number of ships in the evacuations.

Having read the supply and logistics situation in the Middle East the Commonwealth forces were at full stretch, they only got as far as they did with captured Italian Vehicles and stores. Not really sure if they could have done it now, but trying may have been a better idea in hindsight

The common theme for the fighting was the units had outrun the logistics capability,

At the moment I am reading Alan Morehead’s ‘The Desert War’ trilogy

Pretty unbiased mostly and equally praises and berates the Italians, it does though point out just how stretched the Commonwealth forces were even if a correspondants view. It does express the opinions of the Greek and Crete excursions and how they were not favoured by Middle East Command.

Agreed they’d gone as far as they could have gone in one bound. Not so sure that given a little time to resupply (and the forces/shipping diverted to Greece) they couldn’t have restarted the offensive much sooner than they did - and under much more unfavourable conditions for the Afrika Corps.

Even after the Axis had been squeezed out of Africa in `43, bloody Churchill then insisted on a repeat cock-up
‘adventure’ into the Greek Islands, sans air-support, against the advice of his[& Allied] professional military men
with entirely predictable, wasteful & embarrassing results…

Minor race to try and forestall the Germans after the Italians had surrendered, as much a failure on the Italian part as anything the British forces did, the allies did not know that the armistice was so secret that no Italian field forces had been told about it and it came as a shock to the units occupying Greece and Yugoslavia.

The Allies were already fighting in Italy, Churchill at this time was already looking at forestalling communist expansion (which was rampant and the partisans arguably more effective in the Balkans than the rest), it was a gamble and race with what could be scraped together and sent. It should have had more planning and or air support but it was an ad-hoc spur of the moment race.

Britain ended up sending more troops in 1944/45 to fight the communists in Greece in the civil war that erupted (starting in 1943 properly).

The main reason the Australian 6th Div got out in decent numbers was because their commander, Gen Blamey, knew it was a doomed campaign before it started. One of his first actions on landing in Greece was to identify evacuation points in the south, which duly assisted a moderately orderly evacuation of the defeated Australians.

Blamey’s forward planning on this aspect has often been overshadowed by criticism of his conduct in taking his only surviving son, a relatively low ranking officer, out of Greece on a plane evacuating Blamey and senior staff officers.

Blamey wasn’t a defeatist in doing a recce on evacuation points before the campaign began, but he was a realist in knowing his force had little chance of resisting the Germans. He made sound preparations accordingly.

Blamey was a complex character http://www.awm.gov.au/journal/j34/bridgerev.asp but, whatever his many faults, he was also a strong character who generally did well as a commander, but not necessarily a field commander when he tried to combine that function in Greece and Papua / New Guinea with his office as a higher commander, when serious threats to his personal advancement weren’t in issue.

He could also be a very fair and loyal subordinate at senior levels. From memory, he was the only senior officer to see Wavell off at the airport when Wavell left the Middle East after being removed by Churchill, although Wavell and Blamey had often had a somewhat difficult relationship.