Malayan Tiger – Tomoyuki Yamashita

Tomoyuki Yamashita was an outstanding Japanese military leader who devoted his entire life to the devoted service of the Emperor. His greatest claim to fame was his lightning campaign into Malaya, which culminated in the capture of the British colonial pride known as the „Gibraltar of the East“, the port of Singapore, in February 1942. This unexpectedly swift victory earned him the nickname the Malayan Tiger.


The future successful warrior was born on November 8, 1885 in the small village of Osugi Mura in Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan. Contrary to his parents‘ original intention, he did not follow in the footsteps of his father, a country doctor, but was sent to the Hiroshima Cadet School at the age of fifteen, graduating with honours in 1908. He was subsequently commissioned into the 11th Infantry Regiment. However, this was far from the end of Yamashita’s school years. In the following period he went through the Central Military Academy and the General Staff School in Tokyo. He finished his studies with excellent grades at the rank of captain in 1916.

Rocket Rise

A year after the end of the Great War, Yamashita, now a lieutenant colonel, was sent on a military-diplomatic mission to Switzerland and post-war riot-torn Germany. After two years as a military aide-de-camp, when he fell far short of his superiors‘ expectations, he was called back to his homeland to serve in the Imperial High Command in Tokyo until 1926. At the same time, he also held the post of instructor at the staff academy, whose environment he knew intimately. Between 1926 and 1929, he again served on the European continent, this time making Vienna, the capital on the Danube, his temporary home. In 1930 he was back in Tokyo, where he took command of the 3rd Guards Regiment.

The intricacies of power

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese political scene was convulsed by behind-the-scenes struggles between rival power groups seeking to dominate the future direction of the Land of the Rising Sun. Yamashita was no stranger to intrigue of any kind. As a deeply religious man, concerned with his integrity, impartiality and honour, he viewed such intrigues with obvious disdain.

Through his undisputed authority and mediation, he advocated in the spring of 1936 the most lenient approach to the participants in the so-called „uprising of young officers“, who sought to liberate the armed forces from the influence of the political elite and whose motivation the general understood well. Emperor Hirohito, however, decided to show a firm hand. Eighteen throat punishments were handed down and an unprecedented wave of purges and dismissals swept through the command corps. Disfavor and harsh criticism also descended on Yamashita’s head from a number of rivals, among whom Hideki Tojo, the future prime minister and war minister, stood out. For this reason, too, Yamashita, promoted to lieutenant general in November 1937, was eventually ordered to northern China, where he immediately joined the fight with the 4th Infantry Division.

It is more than typical of Yamashita’s mindset that in the next two years he deliberately exposed himself to extreme danger on the Chinese front and directly sought death on the battlefield. Only in this way could he erase from himself the stain of perceived treachery on his sovereign.

The imperial disfavour did not last forever, however. In the summer of 1940 he was appointed Inspector General of the Japanese Air Force and spent the first half of 1941 as head of the military delegation to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. He thus had the opportunity not only to meet Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in person, but above all to become more familiar with the progressive blitzkrieg tactics practiced by the German Wehrmacht. This invaluable experience was clearly reflected in his operations in Malaya a few months later.

The Malayan campaign and the fall of Singapore

A month before the Japanese strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Yamashita stood at the head of the 25th Army stationed in French Indochina. He came from Manchuria with a mission that would make many knees tremble. The conquest of Malaya, which provided 38% of the world’s rubber production and more than 60% of the world’s tin, raw materials that the Japanese war economy was desperately short of, was by no means an easy task. Especially when one of the main objectives was nothing less than the subjugation of the pride of British colonialism, the seemingly impregnable fortress of Singapore.

The Yamashita could count on some 70,000 troops of the first-string troops, for the most part seasoned veterans of the war in China. His overwhelming air superiority was to be assured by 459 Army and 159 Navy aircraft. Inspired by the German blitzkrieg, the general relied on maximum speed of advance, which was to be aided by relatively strong tank detachments as well as by the 6,000 cavalry rounds assigned to each infantry division.

On December 8, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand and headed south without much delay. On 11-12 December, the Yamashita broke through the British defensive lines at Jitra, on 7 January they crossed the Slim River, and four days later the Imperial troops entered Kuala Lumpur. All the while, the British were completely unable to respond adequately to Yamashita’s repeated handling of battle situations. The Japanese, usually with limited forces at night and supported by light tanks, attacked the enemy’s positions head-on, thus attracting his full attention, and then delivered a decisive blow to his flanks and rear by main force. Commonwealth troops were thus forced to clear out one post after another, with a directly disastrous effect on the rapidly deteriorating morale of both soldiers and officers.

On the night of 30-31 January 1942, Lieutenant General Percival ordered all units to retreat to Singapore Island and take up positions in the fortress defensive perimeter. Nearly 90,000 men were under Percival’s command here. After the Japanese overcame the less than one kilometer wide Strait of Johor separating the island from the mainland on the night of 9 February, the fate of the defenders was sealed. After six more days of desperation, on 15 February, after 6 p.m., Arthur Percival ordered to lay down arms and surrender. In addition to tens of thousands of Allied soldiers, a staggering amount of war materiel fell into the hands of the victors.It was not for nothing that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore „the greatest disaster and the most humiliating surrender in British history.“

Manila Massacre

But Yamashita, enjoying immense popularity after his triumph, soon had to swallow a bitter pill. Hideki Tojo, prime minister since October 1941, let go of years of resentment and, in a fit of jealousy over the achievements of an old rival, had the „Malayan Tiger“ transferred in July 1942 to the First Army, which guarded the border with the Soviet Union in Manchuria. Yamashita remained at this lost gate for more than two years.

Only after the fall of Tojo and in a situation already extremely unfavourable for Japan from a military point of view was Yamashita called back to the main battlefield. In mid-October 1944, he took command of the 14th Army, which was charged with the defense of the Philippines. Faced with overwhelming Allied superiority, he cleared the capital Manila in early 1945 and withdrew into the mountains. However, Admiral Iwabuchi disobeyed a clear order, remained in the city, and with his men unleashed an inferno that killed tens of thousands of defenceless civilians. Yamashita himself, still fighting futilely in the jungle for many months, surrendered to American troops only with the total Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.

A short trial

As part of the postwar settling of scores, Yamashita was brought before a military tribunal in Manila, which charged him with war crimes. The trial, which ran from 29 October to 7 December, set an important precedent. Yamashita was also blamed for atrocities committed by subordinates that he could hardly have prevented. How far the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief extends in such a case is highly debatable. Yamashita, stripped of his rank by order of General MacArthur, only laconically remarked after the sentence was pronounced: „In every war someone must be defeated. In all reality, I am judged to have lost the war…“ The general’s last words, spoken just before the noose was forever clamped around his throat, were, „I pray for the Emperor’s long life and eternal welfare.“ In that one sentence, Tomoyuki Yamashita succinctly summed up his lifelong philosophy.


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