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Victory in Japan – 15 August 1945

A speech by Prime Minister Clement Attlee was broadcast at midnight on the night of the 14 August announcing the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War. “The last of our enemies is laid low.” He read out Japan’s reply to the Allied demands and their acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.

Attlee went on to pay tribute to "… our Fleets, Armies and Air Forces that have fought so well in the campaign against Japan….” and gave thanks to “… all our splendid Allies, above all to the United States…” The thoughts of the nation were with the prisoners of war and those “…upon whom the brunt of the Japanese attack fell.”

The Prime Minister announced that the 15 and 16 August were to be victory holidays.

Celebration and Thanksgiving 

There had been many rumours and speculation that the war was about to end. People had been anticipating Japan’s surrender and when the announcement came at midnight, crowds gathered in the streets to celebrate the end of hostilities. Bonfires were lit, fireworks set off and people were singing and dancing.

During the day more official celebrations were held. People gathered to hear Town Mayors and civic dignitaries read the official announcement of Japan’s surrender. In churches and cathedrals across the country, and in the open air, services were held to remember those who had fallen and to give thanks that the war had ended.

The 15 August was also the state opening of Parliament and despite the rain, huge crowds gathered to cheer King George VI and the Queen as they made their way to the Palace of Westminster. The King made a formal address to the nation from Buckingham Palace later that night.

Street parties were organised and there were more celebrations on the night of the 15 August. Ships in ports around the country were dressed in flags and gave searchlight displays. In Plymouth Sound there were also fireworks while people danced on the Hoe. There was a great sense of relief that the war was finally over and those serving in the Far East would at last be able to come home.

In America President Truman spoke to the cheering crowds outside the White House “…This is a great day. This is the day we have been waiting for since Pearl Harbor...” President Truman called for two days of holiday although he also said that “The proclamation of VJ Day must wait upon the formal signing of the surrender terms by Japan.”

War with Japan 

On the 7 December 1941 Japan had launched an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was a pre-emptive strike intending to remove America as a threat while Japanese forces launched a series of invasions across South East Asia. Japan was an ally of Italy and Germany, but the principal reason Japan entered the war was to gain control over the natural resources of the Far East. Japan wanted to expand what it called the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere and create its own Asian empire.

The United States declared war on Japan on the 8 December. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already pledged to President Roosevelt that should the United States go to war with Japan, Great Britain would also declare war.

Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor Japanese forces bombed Hong Kong and Singapore and made landings in Malaya. Great Britain made a formal declaration of war against Japan on the 8 December.

On the 10 Dec 1941 two of Britain’s largest warships in the Far East, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese aircraft.

Hong Kong surrendered on the 25 December 1941, a day known as ‘Black Christmas’.

Having already captured Malaya, in February 1942 Lieutenant General Arthur Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese after seven days of fighting. Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Around 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers were captured.  

Hong Kong and Singapore would remain under Japanese occupation until the end of the war.

The Burma Campaign

In January 1942 Japanese forces crossed into Burma from Thailand. Rangoon fell to the Japanese in March. The Allied forces made a fighting retreat through the jungle, 1800km north to India, along with several thousand Indian refugees who were attacked by the local Burmese population. In Assam the British reorganised their forces ready to re-take Burma.

An attempt to invade and advance down the Arakan coast, launched at the end of 1942, was a costly failure. The British and Indian troops, many of whom were suffering with malaria, were forced to retreat back to India. Instead the British turned to guerrilla warfare.

Brigadier Orde Wingate's Chindits went deep into enemy territory attempting to destroy the Japanese lines of communication.  They marched hundreds of kilometres over difficult terrain through the jungles of Burma. They frequently ran short of supplies and suffered with malaria, dysentery, malnutrition and exhaustion. The Chindits incurred high casualty rates and the wounded and sick often had to be left behind. Some of these men were killed so that they did not fall into Japanese hands alive.

In 1943 Allied Command was restructured and South East Asia Command was formed. Operations in Burma expanded. Lieutenant General William Slim was placed in command of the 14th Army. Operations in Burma were given greater air support allowing front-line troops to be re-supplied and hold defensive positions. At its peak the 14th Army of British and Commonwealth soldiers had over 1,000,000 men. There were further Chindit operations behind enemy lines in 1944.

In March 1944 the Japanese launched an offensive in northern Burma and crossed the Chindwin River. The Allied bases at Kohima and Imphal were surrounded by Japanese forces but the defenders inside were re-supplied by air. They repulsed wave after wave of Japanese attacks. The Japanese were finally forced to retreat from a lack of supplies, a situation made worse by the onset of the monsoon rains. The Japanese had suffered thousands of casualties, many due to starvation and disease. The invasion of India had failed and the retreating Japanese were pursued by the 14th Army, which now went on the offensive.

American and Chinese forces made advances in the north. The 14th Army captured Mandalay in March 1945. Rangoon was taken by an amphibious assault at the beginning of May. The Japanese were in retreat and they fought their way back towards the border with Thailand. Fighting continued after the 15 August, mainly due to the difficulty of communicating the news to the forces on the ground. The Allies dropped leaflets to tell them that the war was over, but the Japanese soldiers refused to surrender until they had received official instructions from their commanders.

Prisoners of War 

The Japanese military considered it dishonourable to surrender. Japanese soldiers were to avoid being taken prisoner and were encouraged to fight to the death. Allied prisoners of war received brutal treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors.

The Allied prisoners were held in camps where they lived in appalling conditions. They were given few rations and subsisted on a poor diet, mainly of rice, resulting in malnutrition and extreme weight loss. The unsanitary conditions in the camps and the lack of medical care, exacerbated by the lack of food, led to many deaths from illness and disease. The Red Cross were denied access to the camps and their parcels withheld.

Prisoners would be subjected to harsh punishments for even minor breaches of camp rules. Many atrocities were carried out against Allied prisoners of war. Beatings, torture and execution were commonplace and some were used for medical experiments.

Prisoners were also used as forced labour, building roads and airfields. Some were sent to Japan and worked in factories, steel works and on the docks at Nagasaki. Many went to work on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway. Between 1942 and 1945 more than 60,000 British, Commonwealth and Dutch prisoners of war worked on the railway. Around 16,000 of these died. Prisoners were often held near strategic targets and there were casualties from Allied bombing.

Over one quarter of all Allied prisoners of war captured in the Far East died during captivity.

Many of the civilians from Japanese occupied territories were also used as forced labour by the Japanese. Over 100,000 civilians died working on the Burma-Thailand ‘death railway’. Women were rounded up and sent to work in brothels to act as ‘comfort women’ for the Japanese soldiers.

More than 350 internment camps were set up across the Far East to hold Allied civilians who had been captured by the Japanese. Over 130,000 men, women and children were held in these camps. Many were the families of servicemen or officials and employees of European companies. The conditions in the camps varied, but there was widespread overcrowding and a shortage of food, clothing and medical supplies.

Allied prisoners of war were given top priority after the Japanese surrender. There was a fear that the Japanese might kill their prisoners and some were massacred after the surrender was announced.

The Allies were also well aware of the barbaric treatment the prisoners had been subjected to. Supplies and medical personnel were sent into the camps to help the men while they waited for repatriation. More remote camps had food and medicine dropped by air.

Peace 

In his speech before the White House crowds President Truman stated “We are faced with the greatest task in our life - the task of enduring peace.” King George VI at the state opening of Parliament spoke how the British Government would work towards “…a world of freedom, peace and social justice…”  This included ratifying the United Nations Charter, which fifty nations had signed. The destructive power of the newly developed atomic bombs made international co-operation essential to avoid future wars and death “by mutual destruction”.

On the 2 September 1945 on board the USS Missouri, Japan formally signed the instrument of surrender.