Rome, Italy · October 8, 1941

Two months before Great Britain joined the United States in declaring war on Japan, Italian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini chose to use this date in 1941 to blast the Japa­nese for not carrying their weight in the Tri­par­tite Pact, a poli­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, and mili­tary agree­ment that Italy, Ger­many, and Japan had signed the year before. Italy had declared war on Great Brit­ain and France on June 10, 1940, but Japan had not joined its treaty part­ners in declaring war on any of Ger­many’s and Italy’s ene­mies. Mus­so­lini assured Tokyo that the U.S. would not come to Brit­ain’s aid in the event of war between Japan and Brit­ain. If Japan failed to join the con­flict now, the Duce said, no matter which side won, the loss to be sus­tained by Japan “will be great.” The Japa­nese waited two more months before un­leashing a Blitz­krieg-style offen­sive against British and Amer­i­can in­ter­ests in the Asia Pacific region. The first steps they took against the Brit­ish occurred on Decem­ber 8 when they bombed Singa­pore, the hugely impor­tant British base on the tip of the Malay Penin­sula, and sent ground forces from Thai­land (occupied Decem­ber 9) into the British colony of Burma (present-day Myan­mar) to threaten the British defense of India. Between Decem­ber 10 and 13, Japa­nese forces moving south from their ini­tial landings in Thailand secured major air­fields in the north of Malaya. On Decem­ber 16, 1941, the Japa­nese captured Victoria Point (today’s Kawthaung), a vital British air­field half­way up the Malay Penin­sula; in so doing they cut off aerial re­supply of local British forces. From Victoria Point, Japa­nese fighter air­craft were able to escort bombers on raids into south­ern Bur­ma, parti­cu­larly against the Bur­mese capi­tal, Ran­goon (Yan­gon), 500 miles to the north­west. The Malayan capi­tal, Kuala Lum­pur, fell to the Japa­nese on Janu­ary 12, 1942, followed by Singa­pore a little over a month later and Burma’s capi­tal on March 8. By occu­py­ing French Indo­china and the states to the west, the Japa­nese were in a pre­emi­nent posi­tion in South­east Asia. In mid-Janu­ary 1942, Mus­so­lini with­drew his criti­cism of Japan when the three Axis powers re­newed their Tri­par­tite Pact in Ber­lin. The pact divided the globe into areas of opera­tion, and gave Japan com­plete free­dom of action in all areas from the Western Pacific to the western border of India (see map).

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Axis Division of the World into Spheres of Operation and Influence

German/Italian and Japanese spheres of military control, 1942

Above: German/Italian and Japanese spheres of global reach. Arrows show planned move­ments of the three Axis powers, their occu­pied terri­tories, and spheres of in­flu­ence (red and tan) to the agreed demar­cation line at 70°E, which was the western frontier of British India.

Signing Tripartite Pact, Berlin, September 1940Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival negotiating surrender of Singapore, February 1942

Left: On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) grew by one when Japa­nese am­bas­sa­dor Saburō Kurusu (left in photo), Italian foreign minis­ter Count Galeazzo Ciano (to Kurusu’s left), and Ger­man foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop (standing at podium at right) signed the Tri­par­tite Pact. Adolf Hitler (slumping in his chair) wit­nessed the gala pro­ceedings. The treaty recog­nized the right of Ger­many and Italy to estab­lish a “new order” in Europe and Japan to impose a “new order” in Asia (see map above).

Right: Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, led by a Japanese officer, walks under a flag of truce to nego­ti­ate the capit­u­la­tion of Com­mon­wealth forces in Singa­pore, Feb­ru­ary 15, 1942. The siege and the igno­min­i­ous sur­render of Singa­pore, Britain’s “Gibral­tar of the Orient,” to a much smaller Japa­nese force (36,000) was the greatest defeat in British mil­itary history. Over 80,000 Brit­ish, Aus­tra­lian, and Indian troops fell into Japa­nese hands. Im­pri­son­ment, tor­ture, ill­ness, and many, many deaths awaited the captured ones.

Western bankers escorted to Hong Kong detention center, December 1941Japanese troops advance through Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, January 1942

Left: The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began on Decem­ber 25, 1941 (locally known as “Black Christ­mas”), after two-and-one-half weeks of fierce fighting against over­whelming Japa­nese forces that had invaded the British Crown colony. Hong Kong’s sur­render initi­ated almost four years of brutal Japa­nese admin­is­tra­tion. Some 7,000 Brit­ish, Cana­dian, and Indian sol­diers and civil­ians were kept in pri­soner-of-war or intern­ment camps, where famine, mal­nourish­ment, and sick­ness were per­va­sive. In this photo Japa­nese sol­diers escort Brit­ish, Amer­i­can, and Dutch bankers to deten­tion in a small Chi­nese hotel; some bankers were exe­cuted as ene­mies of Japan. The Japa­nese govern­ment sold the Hong Kong dollar to help finance their wartime economy.

Right: Japanese troops advance through the streets of Malaya’s capi­tal, Kuala Lum­pur. The Malayan Cam­paign lasted from Decem­ber 8, 1941, to Janu­ary 31, 1942. For the Brit­ish, Indian, Aus­tra­lian, and Malayan forces defending the colony, the cam­paign was a total dis­aster: 40,000 men were cap­tured, 5,500 killed, and 5,000 wounded. On the last day of January the last orga­nized Allied forces left Malaya for Singa­pore, which the Japa­nese in­vaded on Febru­ary 7, 1942. The Japa­nese com­pleted their conquest of the island on Febru­ary 15, capturing 80,000 more prisoners out of 85,000 Allied defenders.

Japanese Campaigns in Burma and Northeast India, 1941–1945