"They are the bravest people I have ever met. In any armies, any one of them, nearly every Japanese would have had a Congressional Medal or a Victoria Cross. It is the fashion to dismiss their courage as fanaticism, but that only begs the question. They believed in something and they were willing to die for it. What else is bravery?
They pressed home the attack when no other troops in the world have done so, when all hope of success was gone. ... The Japanese simply came on, using all their skill and rage, until they were stopped by death. In defence, they held their ground with furious tenacity that never faltered. They had to be killed, company by company, squad by squad, man by man, to the last.
... they wrote beautiful little poems in their diaries and practiced bayonet work on their prisoners. Frugal, bestial, barbarous and brave, artistic and brutal."
|Japanese troops from 228th Regiment cross the border into Hong Kong|
|An Australian POW about to be executed with crowd in the background|
|Japanese bayoneting Chinese prisoners with crowd in the background|
|Chinese prisoner used for bayonet practice|
One former Japanese soldier, Shiro Azuma, who committed war crimes in Nanking, wrote a book in 1987 entitled "My Nanking Platoon" in which he told of the atrocities he had witnessed, and had participated in, during the war in China. He was one of the few former Japanese soldiers to admit their participation in such killings. His full diary was published in Japan in 2001 and an English version was published in 2006. He made several trips to China to apologise and to atone in some way. He described how Japanese soldiery looked down on the Chinese as being inferior, and in the same way they felt contempt for European Prisoners of War for having surrendered. This contempt made it easier for them to be inhumane.
"We were taught that we were a superior race since we lived only for the sake of a human god - our Emperor." (Shiro Azuma)Occasionally they saw something to admire in their enemy. In Hong Kong when the Japanese found the body of Brigadier Lawson outside his bunker, they gave him a proper and decent burial. The idea of such a senior officer being killed in action appealed to them. When the Japanese captured the AA Battery at Stanley Gap, Colonel Doi described how two British soldiers held out, by locking themselves into an ammunition locker.
"Despite all our efforts to persuade them to surrender they refused, so we left them there overnight. The next morning, getting no response to our repeated call, we broke down the door and found that the two had killed themselves with their pistols. We buried these brave men with utmost care in hearty tribute to their souls." (Ex-Col. Doi 228th Infantry Regiment)This act would have appealed to the Japanese psyche, it would have been seen as death before dishonour, and killing yourself rather than surrendering was the way of the warrior.
Although war crimes trials were held after the war and many were found guilty of war crimes and subsequently imprisoned or executed; the crimes were too rampant, too commonplace and too deeply ingrained in the culture of the Japanese Army. As a result most perpetrators were never brought to justice. The country as a whole, unlike Germany, never fully atoned, people today are uncomfortable to talk about it, it is considered impolite to raise the subject. The attack on Pearl Harbour and the simultaneous attack on Hong Kong, Philippines and Malaya is still seen by some Japanese as having been a matter of survival. The narrative goes that they were being contained by the western powers, who were applying embargoes on trade and particularly on Japan's oil imports, and insisting they withdraw from Indo-China and from China. Some Japanese attempted to justify the war by saying that their actions helped liberate Asia from European colonialism. They wanted to replace European colonialism with the Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Asia for the Asiatics, but under Japanese leadership and control.
It's all a long time ago now, and as they say the past is a foreign country, but the failure to atone, to admit their actions, and to genuinely apologise, is still a major issue and a sensitive subject for many Asian countries today. When I look at the photographs on the internet, like the ones posted above, and reflect on the widespread atrocities inflicted by the Japanese military, at a time that is still within living memory, I think of that question that I struggled to answer - why did the Japanese behave this way !
German war crimes
With the new Dunkirk film showing in cinemas, I am going to highlight two massacres of surrendered British soldiers which took place in May 1940, during the fighting retreat to Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
|2nd Bn Coldstream Guards - 1st Guards Brigade arriving in Cherbourg in September 1939|
When they were first captured, and whilst Pooley was being searched, and having items stolen from him, A German soldier took offence to his expression and clubbed him in the face with a rifle butt knocking out four of his teeth. The Germans had mounted two heavy machine guns in the field. When all the men were in the field an order was given to fire. O'Callaghan was shot in the arm. Pooley was shot four times with two bullet wounds in one of his legs. The firing stopped, and there was the sound of moaning from wounded and dying men. Pooley heard the sound of bayonets being fixed and then German soldiers went amongst the wounded men administering the coup de grace with bayonets and rifle fire. O' Callaghan feigned death and was passed by. Pooley lay still but a wounded soldier near him moved and shots were fired. Two of the shots hit Pooley in his already wounded leg. After nightfall, O'Callaghan dragged Pooley away from the field. The following day German soldiers forced French villagers to bury the dead. Pooley and O'Callaghan found shelter amongst some war damaged farm buildings. They survived by eating raw potatoes and drinking water from puddles. They were discovered by a French woman, Madame Duquenne-Creton who owned the ruined farm. She cleaned and bandaged their wounds and fed them. In fear of reprisals, the head of the French village informed the Germans of the presence of the two wounded British soldiers. They were well treated by their German captors, from the regular German Army, who took them to a military hospital.
William O'Callaghan was sent to a POW camp in Poland. Albert Pooley remained in hospital in Germany until 1943 at which time he was repatriated to England. On return he told military officials about the massacre at Le Paradis but nobody believed him. They could not accept that the German Army would behave in such a manner. It was not until after the war, when O'Callaghan was repatriated, and confirmed the story given by Pooley that an official investigation began. The Commander of the unit was Lt-Col Fritz Knoechlein.
|Lt-Col Fritz KnoechleinAdd caption|
|O'Callaghan and Pooley at War Crimes Trials in Hamburg|