As Europe celebrated the surrender of German forces on VE Day, thousands of British, Commonwealth and Allied Armed Forces personnel were still involved in bitter fighting in the Far East.
Victory over Japan Day on 15 August marks the surrender of Japan forces, which in effect ended the Second World War. For months after VE Day on 8 May 1945 war continued to wage in the Asia-Pacific region and only came to an end after two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
75 years on we are remembering the contribution of all British, Commonwealth and Allied Forces, without whom victory and the freedoms and way of life we enjoy today would have not been possible.
War in the Pacific
From 1941 to 1945 conflict between Japan, a key ally for Germany, and Britain, the Commonwealth, and its Allies had raged in the Asia-Pacific after Japanese aircraft attacked the US naval base Pearl Harbour.
The scope of the war was vast and encompassed a huge area – an area far larger and more diverse, than those of Europe, North Africa, and the Atlantic theatres of war combined. Fighting took place from Hawaii to the North East borders of India and from Papua New Guinea in the south to Manchuria in northern China on the border of the Soviet Union.
By 1945 across Asia and the Pacific there were 365,000 British and 1.5 million Commonwealth troops were deployed, including the largest volunteer army in history, the pre-partition Indian army of 2.5 million soldiers. The men and women who fought came from all corners of the world, from Ghana to Bangladesh and from Fiji to Zambia. The British and the Commonwealth’s principal fighting force in the region - the Fourteenth Army – was one of the most diverse army’s in history, where it is estimated at least 40 languages were spoken.
The British, pre-partition Indian, Burmese, Nepali and African forces led the fighting in South East Asia, while the Australian, New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders and Canadians under the direction of the US fought their way across the South West and Central Pacific.
The conditions during the Far East campaign were very different from those during the war in Europe. British, Commonwealth and Allied troops fought across oceans, in monsoon drenched jungles, on snow-covered hills, and in scorching tropical heat on remote islands.
But for the British and Commonwealth forces, the war against Japan was marked by extremes. The surrender of Malaya and Singapore constituted arguably the Britain’s worst defeat of the Second World War in 1942, when approximately 9,000 British, pre-partition Indian, and Commonwealth troops were lost and around 130,000 taken prisoners of war. While in 1944 at the battles of Kohima and Imphal, the Fourteenth Army inflicted on the Japanese Army its greatest ever defeat, a battle that was voted by the British public as Britain’s greatest ever battle.
But despite the magnitude of the war in the Far East, many feel that their contribution has been forgotten or deliberately overlooked.
Prisoners of war and forced labour
During the war in the Far East, thousands of soldiers taken as prisoners of war were treated badly by the Japanese because they saw the act of surrender as dishonourable. They believed if captured it was a soldier's duty to take their own life.
The British, Commonwealth and Allied soldiers were shocked and angered by the Japanese treatment as they were expected to treat Allied captured prisoners of war humanely. Held in appalling conditions the prisoners were subjected to brutal treatment, in established jails, mines and in makeshift jungle labour camps throughout South East Asia.
The Japanese viewed the prisoners as expendable labour for their war effort and thousands died building roads, bridges, and working on other Japanese projects. The most notorious project was the Burma-Thailand railway or 'Death Railway'. Opened in October 1943, it covered over 1,250 miles and cost the lives of over 15,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 native labourers.
The conditions, punishing climate, and lack of adequate food and medicine also lead to thousands more deaths from diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and malaria
The end of the war
In May 1945 despite the allied nations celebrating Victory in Europe with Germany’s surrender and Hitler’s suicide, Japan fought on, and both sides suffered thousands of losses fighting inch by inch across Asia and the Pacific.
On 26 July 1945 the US, Britain, and the Allies issued an ultimatum to Japan, demanding the unconditional surrender of Japanese forces or face “prompt and utter destruction”. But the Japanese government ignored the ultimatum and the deadline passed.
Due to Japan's refusal to end the war, and with Allied consent, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. One on Hiroshima – a city of industrial and military significance - on 6 August and one on Nagasaki – a
large seaport - on 9 August. On the same day that the bomb fell on Nagasaki the Soviet Union also launched an attack on Japanese territories in Manchuria, having only declared war on Japan the day before.
Over 200,000 people were killed by the bombs and in the months after succumbing to radiation sickness, the effects of burns and other serious injuries.
Six days after the bombs fell Japan announced its surrender on 15 August 1945.
The surrender was met with relief and celebration that after six long years the Second World War was finally over. 15 August was declared Victory over Japan Day and two days of national holiday were announced in Britain on 15 and 16 August by Prime Minister Clement Atlee.
While millions celebrated with parades and street parties, many others had already felt the war had ended with victory over Germany and the war in the Far East seemed distant and unrelatable to their daily lives.
Despite the relief that war was over, there was also great sadness, the human cost of the Pacific War was enormous and many eagerly awaited the safe return of loved ones.
90,332 British troops were casualties in the war against Japan, of which 29,968 died and 12,433 were held as prisoners of war. Of the Allied forces, the U.S. suffered the greatest losses, with more than 100,000 killed in action. Estimates put Chinese losses both civilian and military, at approximately 20 million, others suggest the figure could be as high as 50 million. Over 2.6 million Japanese people lost their lives including a million civilians killed as a result of military action, disease or starvation.
Many hoped the end of the war would mean they would be able to finally return home after years fighting abroad, but unfortunately, the end of the war did not lead to the immediate reunification of families and friends. For millions of service personnel from Britain and the Commonwealth, it would take months and years to be reunited with loved ones, some whom they hadn’t seen for more than five years.
The legacy of VJ Day continues to this day as so many of Britain’s diverse communities, whether of South Asian or African origin, are descendants of the men and women who sacrificed so much alongside British forces in the war against Japan.
Help us remember the forgotten history of those who served in the Far East
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