The Next Few Weeks in the Far East
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 5 Feb 1942, p. 250-264
Woodside, Willson, Speaker
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Standing now at one of the great crises of the war. The Pacific War, now almost two months old. Reinforcements now reaching Java and Singapore. The need for an increase in the flow of aid to the Far East. The fate of Java, Singapore, and Rangoon to be decided in the next few weeks. What happens in the next few weeks and the possibility that it could make a difference of a year or two in the length of the war with Japan. A broad picture of the strategy of the Japanese war up to the present. A consideration of Japan's chances for the next few weeks. The position of India and China with regard to Burma. The chances of holding Singapore. The Malayan campaign. Opposing the invasion of Banka and Billiton. The isolation of Java. An examination of strategy on both sides. Our counter-offensive. Bases in Australia, India, and China from which to move in and crush the Japanese in the China Sea area. An Australian base for the Americans; an Indian base for the British. The Chinese effort. Russia and Russian policy. Reinforcements. McArthur's stand in the Philippines. Opposing Japan.
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5 Feb 1942
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, February 5, 1942

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: For over 100 years the English language has had four Estates: the King, the Lords, the Commons, and the Press. Thomas Carlyle quoted Burke as having said there were three Estates in Parliament, but that there was a fourth Estate in the Press Gallery which was greater than them all. During the hundred or more years that have passed since then the Press has proved all important in our modern life. Today we have perhaps a fifth Estate-the radio news commentator.

The same qualities that go to make a brilliant journalist go also to make a brilliant news commentator. That capacity for shrewd analysis; that ability for following the main thread in a tangle; that gift for seeing the picture as a whole; and then the combination of all those in being able to redraw that picture so that we too can see it.

Our speaker today, Willson Woodside, is a member of both these honourable companies, being widely known both as a press-man and a news commentator, and we have the privileged opportunity of listening to him in person whilst he talks to us about a problem which is perplexing every one of us: "The Next Few Weeks in the Far East."

Gentlemen, I give you Willson Woodside! (Applause.)

MR. WILLSON WOODSIDE: Mr. President, Guests, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Air Audience: I suppose it is something of a jolt to many of you to see the body that belongs to the voice which you occasionally hear over the. radio at five minutes to nine. But then, of course, I have been here before. Not being of Churchillian character, I have even taken a peek into what I said on those occasions!

I find that seven and a half years ago, when I first spoke here, I spent my time telling of the tens of thousands of young men studying "sport flying" in Germany, and what I had seen and heard of big additions to all the aircraft factories there, and stories of great underground hangars being dug. There were few secrets in Germany then, for there were so many bitter opponents of the Nazi regime that little could be kept secret. But we didn't want to believe the evidence, because we didn't want to make the painful effort to stop Germany, and we certainly did not want to fight another war. So a lot of people thought I was very excited and let it pass at that.

However, four years later, when I next appeared before the Club, we still didn't want to believe that we would have to stop Germany or fight her. It was just after Munich, and the cry "PEACE FOR OUR TIME" was ringing everywhere. I held the view that Britain's position was weaker and war more certain for this Munich appeasement, and said that I thought that only a Churchill Government would see Britain through. I remember after that talk, a former professor of mine stopped his car on University Avenue and shouted at me across the street, "It is guys like you that start wars".

So here we are, three and a half years later, standing at one of the great crises of the war. And I had better quit reminiscing and get down to my subject, which is "The Next Few Weeks in the Far East". You see what happens when you remove the five-minute limit from radio commentators! I can assure you, it is something of a relief to be able to "stretch" a bit, after squeezing one's sentences so hard, night after night. Whether it's such a pleasure to the audience, is another thing.

As to this business of talking from a manuscript, I have never done it in my life before, but war regulations are war regulations.

The Pacific War has been going on almost two months to a day. Reinforcements which Britain and the United States have been able to gather together, find shipping and convoys for, and get under way in the first three weeks--and that would be very quick work--will now be nearing Java and Singapore. In the meantime, perhaps a few shipments which were en route to Egypt have been diverted at the Cape of Good Hope, and have reached the Far Eastern fighting front.

With every week from now on, the flow of aid to the Far East must increase. In the meantime, although Singapore, Java, and Rangoon, the three main objectives of this first phase of the Japanese War, are still holding out, the enemy's breath is hot on their neck. It is plainly going to be a very close call for them. The next few weeks may decide their fate; may decide whether we are to have any advance bases for our counter-offensive, or will have to work out of distant Australia and India; may decide whether we are to lose our entire Far Eastern supply of rubber, or retain the very respectable production of Java and Sumatra-which is not far short of what we have lost in Malaya. The next few weeks, in fact, may make a difference of a year or two in the length of the war with Japan.

Not that I subscribe to a view which you will often hear: that if Japan once gets the Phillipines, Singapore, Rangoon, and the Netherland Indies, she will be established in an "impregnable" position in the South West Pacific. She will be appallingly spread out. She will have immensely long lines of communication from the arms factories in the homeland. She cannot possibly garrison strongly all of her own territories and all of the places she is seizing. For she will still have a war--and a growing war--on her hands in China. And I believe that she will still need to keep her best and biggest army in Manchuria, watching Russia.

There is no reason at all, therefore, why we cannot do exactly as the Japs have done, and come along in force to each of her conquests in turn, picking them off much as Gary Cooper picked off, first the turkeys and then the Germans, in the picture "Sergeant York". It is not a question of being able to retake what we are losing today. It is just that it will be a lot better, and save a lot of time and a lot of destruction of valuable resources, if we can hold our advance bases, and move our counter-offensive forces right into them.

I speak particularly today of RANGOON, SINGAPORE, AND JAVA, for I believe that these are the chief Japanese objectives at this stage of the war. Such projects as the conquest of Australia, I am sure, lie in the next phase. But first, perhaps, we would do well to draw the broad picture of the strategy of the Japanese war up to the present. Their grand strategy has admittedly been brilliant. Consider the first stroke against the main Pacific base of the United States in Hawaii, in order to delay the despatch of air and sea equipment to the Far East from the nation which was free to send them. I don't say any more about the stroke at Pearl Harbour, except that it was surely one of the most successful opening days of any war in history. We shall see how the Japanese feel about it when the closing day comes!

Their isolation of the Philippines was also cleverly carried out. First they broke the chain of air relay stations which could have brought bombers and possibly long range fighters from the big bases in Hawaii-that is if the planes at Hawaii hadn't been smashed. Then they took Hong Kong, on the other side of the Philippines. Then they moved around and took Davao to isolate the Philippines from the Indies. In Indo-China they had already isolated the Philippines from Singapore. Thus one must say there is little prospect of relief reaching that gallant band that are fighting on in Bataan, and will probably be able to fight on still longer in the island fortress of Corregidor.

Next they proceeded to isolate Singapore. Now, if you will follow the map, you will see they are busy isolating Java.

Let us take the, three in turn and consider their chances for the next few weeks, during which their fate will probably be decided.

Probably the most immediately menaced is RANGOON. The Japanese are within eighty miles of this sole supply port of Free China, for arms from Britain and America. Eighty miles would be, according to the standards of the Philippine and Malayan campaigns, a couple of weeks' advance for them. There is only one considerable obstacle between the Japs and Rangoon, the Salween River, and, so far in this war, it has always proven possible for an attacker to cross an extended river line at some point.

The Japs, however, are operating across difficult mountain passes from their bases in Siam. There is a limit to the forces they can maintain in Burma. Rangoon, on the other hand, is only a few hundred miles from India, a couple of days journey for Indian Army units. It ought to be possible for the Indian Army Command, now that its other flank on the Caucasus has been freed for some time to come, to throw a considerable part of its weight to the Burma flank.

In the field of grand strategy, India is faced with a double pincers attack by the "Maniaxis"--the Tans in the Far East, and the Germans in the Middle East-and it is mighty fortunate for her that the enemy timing has failed, and she is able to parry one thrust at a time. We may take it, I think, that the chief obstacle to getting Indian troops into action in Burma is shipping. But already we hear of these splendid fighting men moving up to the front on the Salween River.

No question of shipping hinders the flow of Chinese troops to the Rangoon fighting area. Chiang Kai-Shek, we know, was quick to offer some of his most experienced divisions to help us keep the lower stretches of the Burma Road open. We heard weeks ago that these men had moved into North Burma. The thousands of trucks carrying arms northward from Rangoon to safety in the rugged north-and I understand that they are not attempting to carry these things all the way at the present time but are dumping them down in safety in the north-could carry huge numbers of Chinese troops southward on the return trip.

An official spokesman in Chungking expressed surprise early this week that these Chinese troops had not been thrown against the Japs already, as they had experience in dealing with them, while our men had to learn their tricks from the beginning. It makes one wonder a bit whether our local commanders want to see the Chinese play a large part in saving Burma. I can't forget the opportunity which they passed up to form strong Chinese Home Guard units at Hong Kong, which could have been immensely valuable in guarding the island coast line; or that, in Singapore, the first thousand Chinese Home Guards were organized only last weekend; and that apparently no use was made of the Chinese population of the Malay States, where it amounts to about a third of the whole.

However, this policy apparently is changing. Chinese troops wouldn't have been admitted to Burma if they weren't to be used. Considering the difficult Japanese communications, and the very satisfying performance of the Anglo-American air squadrons around Rangoon, there appears to be a fighting chance of holding that city.

On its docks are said to be piled enough Lend-Lease material to tax the capacity of the Burma Road trucking system for several months. It might be explained, however, that only two fair-sized ship-loads per month can be moved over the Burma Road. Two ship-loads a month-that is what a tenuous supply line China has for arms from the Western world.

But an extension of the Burma Railway has actually been under construction from the present terminus at Lashio as far as Chungking--through appalling country, and under appalling health conditions-which would greatly increase the supply capacity of this "back door" route. Construction has been suspended for some time but could be resumed in a hurry when the Rangoon situation cleared up.

Surveys have been completed for another mountain road, actually a slightly shorter one, from the rail-head of Sadiya in the extreme north-east corner of India, which would be hundreds of miles further removed from the Japanese. This would, of course, be.pushed in all haste as an alternative to the Burma Road, should Rangoon be lost.

Next we come to Singapore, which has, I believe, of all the Far East fighting centres, the strongest pull on our emotions. Most of us, also, are best informed about Singapore, so that I will be able to add little to your knowledge of the situation. You know that the naval base is on the north side of the island and will be no use for the duration of the siege, as it lies directly under the muzzles of Jap guns on the other side of the mile-wide Strait of Johore.

Some of the work-shops, however, were built underground and some of the oil storage tanks, so that these could be saved from destruction. But the main shops and the dock installations can be thoroughly destroyed if the Taps decide to do so. There is the possibility, however, that they are confident they can take Singapore soon--February 11th has been suggested as their scheduled day--and, in this case, they might do their best to take over the naval dockyard in as good shape as possible for their own use. They may, therefore, hold their bomb and shell fire, and try, instead, perhaps with parachute troops, to keep us from sabotaging the dockyard facilities, should we be driven away from the northern part. We, in our turn, would scarcely start that sabotage until we considered the battle for the Island definitely lost.

What are the chances of holding Singapore? Well, I don't know a great deal about it. I warned Mr. Pratt that I had never been there. Shortage of time and money for my trips has always taken me to Europe, where I fell into the habit of visiting Nazi Germany every year, rather as if it were a patient of mine. But I do know that it isn't enough just to stand here in Toronto, where one can do nothing to make good one's word, and say: "We will never give up Singapore!"

That is hardly an adequate appraisal of the situation. I think it must be admitted, that what has gone before in the Malayan campaign, does not encourage any complacent belief that our troops and planes will accomplish the customary miracle--though in our hearts most of us, I think, still believe they will.

Though we were outnumbered in Malaya after the Japs had brought their full strength to bear, we had the advantage at first, as we were on land and the Japs in ships offshore. Yet our command seems to have completely misjudged the nature of jungle fighting and dismissed the areas on either side of roads and railways as virtually "impassable". I understand that this was even printed in British military handbooks, while German military text books of the same date, three years ago, declared the, exact opposite and laid down the method by which the Japs, in the event, conquered Malaya. Our little Nipponese are very quick to learn. How quickly, for instance, they learned from Taranto, and improved on it at Pearl Harbour.

At the beginning of the Malayan campaign, our air power, too, might have been expected to do to the Jap transport fleets approaching the coast something of what the Dutch and Americans did to the big Jap convoy in the Straits of Macassar last week. It is a great mystery, what happened to our Malayan air power, of which we had heard so much. The BBC announced last week that, after seven weeks of fighting, only 87 Japanese planes had been shot down over Malaya, of which only 54 had been brought down by anti-aircraft fire.

Now, at the very beginning of the siege of Singapore, the R.A.F. has had to give up three of its tour main island aerodromes because these are in the north. They are left with the Singapore Municipal Airport on the southern side of the Island, and, I understand, a considerable number of dispersion fields which they had prepared. They will probably have to prepare fields on islands off to the sea-ward side, and be supported by Allied planes operating from more secure bases in Sumatra and even Java.

American Flying Fortresses, recently reported aiding in Malaya, are probably operating from the region of Batavia. It looks as though Singapore is going to take a very heavy pounding, until we can put in fighter forces which can make the sky over the Island too dangerous, and until we can smash up their bombing aerodromes within 50 or 100 miles of Singapore.

We leave Singapore, therefore, with no easy feeling of optimism, but with Wavell's words ringing in our ears, that it must be held, and that help on a large scale is on the way. A despatch which came in a day or two ago spoke of the immense improvement in the spirit of Singapore, which Cecil Brown blamed in an article in "Life" magazine as responsible for the mistakes in the conduct of the Malayan campaign. This new despatch said Singapore had discovered more unity of spirit in the last eight weeks than it had found in the previous eighty years. And our troops, which Mr. Churchill put at 60,000 ten days ago and which have been reinforced since, have only a 40-mile northern front to watch, with a mile-wide anti-tank ditch in front of them, and their rear freed for once from the infiltration tactics which drove them all the way down the peninsula. They may soon be put to the great test, as the Japs can't be expected to wait to make their big assault until after our reinforcements arrive. As a matter of fact, Tokyo was announcing this morning that the big assault was under way and London admitted that this was not impossible.

In any case, and especially if their frontal assault should fail, the Japs would press on with the isolation of Singapore to prevent our convoys from getting in to its relief. They have already closed the Straits of Malacca. More lately they have been bombing the two islands of Banka and Billiton--and, as a rule, you will notice that, when the Japs start bombing a place, their landing forces are not very far behind.

The invasion of Banka and Billiton, which we must oppose at all costs, would also push the isolation of Java still further.

I think we all have a fair idea of the geography of the Netherlands Indies from the maps. Java is the most developed, most-populated, island of the Indies. It has been made the heart of the Dutch defence system. It is an immediate Japanese goal no less than Singapore and Rangoon.

You will see how the Japs have pushed one arm down from Davao in the southern Philippines to Amboina. If they can take Amboina, I think they will try to drive a wedge between Java and Australia, and possibly try to take Darwin, in order to cut the direct route from America. Then they are coming around the western corner of Borneo; they took Pontianak the other day. The big invasion convoy which they started down the Macassar Straits about two weeks ago was, I am sure, intended as a frontal assault on Java.

That provided us with our only big victory in the Far Eastern campaign so far, but a very important victory. It may have staved off the invasion of Java for two, or perhaps three, priceless weeks. I think there is no mistake that that big convoy was headed straight for Surabaya. But, with a good deal of its strength lost or put out of sailing condition, it seems to have pulled up in the neighbourhood of Balikpapan for reorganization. However, it is ominous that the bombing of Surabaya has begun on a big scale. It is the chief naval base between Ceylon and Sydney, an immensely valuable base for our counteroffensive.

Personally, I think the success in the Straits of Macassar showed that an American battle squadron, with a couple of aircraft carriers and submarines, would have as good a chance operating out of Surabaya, as the British had operating out of Alexandria after the Germans moved into Crete. There would, of course, be an outcry if a battleship or two were lost, yet, if they want to save the Indies,--and on a purely material basis they provide an extremely valuable rubber supply, almost as valuable as that of Malaya, that risk must be taken. And I don't think that Washington is beyond taking it.

Java is the best defended island in the Netherland Indies. The Dutch have concentrated their army and mechanized forces there. They always intended to use Borneo and the Celebes as a cushion against the Japanese and do exactly what they have done to make the Straits of Macassar a very dangerous approach for an attack against Java. But the Dutch may not have an army in Java at the present time of more than 100,000 or 150,000. I understand the natives are most loyal and good fighters. But Java has a long coast line with many beaches and is not unassailable, by any means. Yet, I think Java has a better chance of holding out than Rangoon or Singapore, and is, perhaps, on the whole, more important to our counter-offensive.

The American War Department announced this morning that United States Army fighters had gone into action in Java. That attack on the Marshall Islands last Sunday may be an indication that the Americans are pushing their first big convoy down that way towards the Far East, which would mean that it is at the present time about half way to Java or not more than three weeks from its destination.

I have spoken about our counter-offensive from time to time. Of course this battle squadron, if the Americans really are going to send one to Surabaya, would not constitute a "counter-offensive". What we are trying to do at the present is hang on; the real counter-offensive will have to wait a bit. When that comes we really have a wonderful set-up in the Far East. We have great bases such as Australia, India, China, from which to move in and crush the Japanese in the China Sea area. I expect the Americans will make Australia their main base in the Far East. I noticed some weeks ago a despatch from Australia that, in a number of cities, housing quarters had been prepared to receive troops, and also I noticed that American currency had been declared legal tender. They must be expecting a lot of it

Besides, the only alternative dry clock to Singapore, in the Far East, is being built at Sydney. It is intended to accommodate battleships up to 45,000 tons. The Ameri cans are believed to be building battleships up to 57,500 tons. But those which will come into commission during the next year or two will be of 35,000 tons. Two of these are already in service, and I should think most of the others will be in commission a year from today. The New York Times' military correspondent said the other day that probably the Americans would rush materials and technicians out to Sydney to hasten the completion of this dry dock.

While the Americans concentrate on Australia, I would suppose that the British will make India their main counter-offensive base. But not the least factor in the Far East is going to be the Chinese effort. The Chinese have hung on, and how they have hung on! (Applause.) They have shown themselves more than willing to cooperate in every way. They did their best, in the few days they had, to relieve Hong Kong. I think, with a few weeks' grace, they might have done it. When the time comes they will push into Indo-China. They will retake Hainan Island, they will clear out that small enclave around Canton, and they will retake Hong-Kong. Then they will push the Japanese down the Yangtse, and eventually give us bomber bases against Japan in the region of Shanghai--regardless of Russian policy.

That brings us around to Russia and Russian policy. I believe that Russia, when she has freed herself from the terrible menace which she is presently combating in the West, will take a sharp enough attitude towards Japan. Litvinov did speak about our "common enemies", and Pravda came out last week with a blast against Japanese map-makers who included Siberia as far as Lake Baikal in their maps--which is as good as a statement of policy, to me.

We know that, at the present time, the Russians are as busy as any people decently ought to be, defending themselves. I think that, about the time the United States has her big bomber production and her big bomber aircrew training in full swing, and is ready to move across from Alaska into Siberian bases, Russia will probably be ready to open these up. Still, no one wants to be dogmatic in predicting what Russia will do. And there are still a great many "ifs" about Russia's clearing up the German menace in the West. Which reminds me of a pleasant story going the rounds concerning Goering's visit to Petain, when, it is said, Goering demanded the immediate surrender of Napoleon's plan of retreat from Moscow!

We know from various indications that Hitler is mobilizing all available manpower of Germany and demanding a large number of Hungarian troops, who, I believe, have performed very well. He is pushing all the armament factories of Europe to the utmost. And we have to face the possibility that the Russian winter offensive may just have reached its peak and be ready to peter out at the time the Germans are ready to launch their Spring offensive. We have to keep in mind, wonderful as the Russian gains have been, that, just as they have reached the point where they could gather in big strategic successes, the Germans are stiffening their resistance and sending fresh troop's and aviation forces to the Eastern front to prevent the loss of points such as Novgorod, Vyazma. Ore', and Kharkov, which would upset their spring plans.

Still, we have underestimated all along what the Russians could do. For my part, I am going to put my money on the Russians, confident that they will continue to hold out longer, and push farther, than we expect.

At any rate, no matter what Russia does, or does not, it won't affect the outcome of "The Next Few Weeks' Fighting in the Far East".

I have presented the picture as I see it, I confess, from an arm chair in Toronto, and from my maps. The Jans are right on ton of Sim-apore, Tava, and Rangoon, with their Grinning faces. Substantial reinforcements are making their way, at a painfully slow, 10, 12, or 14 knots, across the vast spaces of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is going to be a close call. But McArthur's stand in the Philippines, without any real prospect of relief, is constant encouragement that our forces will hold on, somehow, until the blitz fades out of the Tap blitzkrieg. Then the Japs will find themselves appallingly extended, with many of their warships planes, and troops, us-1 up, and our immense forces gathering against them. (Applause.)

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Mr. Woodside, we are glad that you began by reminding us that it is only two month, since this thing started in the Far East. As we look back on recent weeks it seems almost hard to remember that it is only so recently that this continent has been at war with Japan. In planning and in intention Japan must have been at war with us for a long time.

As you have said, Japan has been quick to learn. We sometimes seem quick to forget. We forget that a generation ago, from being a tenth rate nation, Japan came up almost overnight among the group of first class powers. We ought not to have forgotten how quick she is to learn.

We thank you for this valuable analysis of the situation, this story of the widespread strategy in which Japan has been using armed forces on a checker board, moving them where she could find blank squares or even where she could find a square that was held by a piece that could be taken by a major piece.

But, Sir, whilst you have talked to us about the seriousness of the situation, and whilst you have presented its realities, and whilst you have given us a picture of the present position and the immediate possibilities, nevertheless, you left us with a note of optimism. We are slow to move because we are a democracy and a democracy inevitably moves more slowly than a dictatorship. But that road which you mention, going across from India to China, just like the road that is now being built from one side of Africa to the other in order to supply our forces is an immense undertaking. Such things show the enormous scale of our preparations, which cannot but lead to ultimate victory. In the meantime, as you have said, China has been holding on in the Far East. Today, it is not only China holding on; it is the British Commonwealth, the United States, and Russia, that are holding on along with China.

We thank you for your address which will put in proportion the news as we read it day by day. And we thank you, Sir, for your encouraging note. (Applause.)

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The Next Few Weeks in the Far East

Standing now at one of the great crises of the war. The Pacific War, now almost two months old. Reinforcements now reaching Java and Singapore. The need for an increase in the flow of aid to the Far East. The fate of Java, Singapore, and Rangoon to be decided in the next few weeks. What happens in the next few weeks and the possibility that it could make a difference of a year or two in the length of the war with Japan. A broad picture of the strategy of the Japanese war up to the present. A consideration of Japan's chances for the next few weeks. The position of India and China with regard to Burma. The chances of holding Singapore. The Malayan campaign. Opposing the invasion of Banka and Billiton. The isolation of Java. An examination of strategy on both sides. Our counter-offensive. Bases in Australia, India, and China from which to move in and crush the Japanese in the China Sea area. An Australian base for the Americans; an Indian base for the British. The Chinese effort. Russia and Russian policy. Reinforcements. McArthur's stand in the Philippines. Opposing Japan.