The Japanese Were Supreme Jungle Fighters
After Japan joined the war in December 1941, a perception developed among the Western Allies that the Japanese were preternaturally gifted ”jungle fighters“. The British in particular convinced themselves that their foes were “natural” jungle fighters during the Malay Campaign, when the Japanese, invading from the north, advanced the length of the Malay Peninsula, brushing aside or sidestepping all opposition, and captured the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip despite being outnumbered by the British.
However, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle fighting than any other people whose homes lie well north of the Tropics. The Japanese prevailed in the Malay jungles because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill-trained.
The Japanese were also innovative and adaptable, as illustrated by their vanguard’s commandeering of bicycles to speed up the advance, while the British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent. British generals, looking at all the greenery of the Malay Peninsula, assumed it was an impenetrable jungle, and thus never expected an advance on Singapore from that direction. When the Japanese invaded from the north, British generals set up defensive positions to block their advance, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle” on one or both sides.
However, a significant portion of the Malay Peninsula’s foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but on the ground they posed no barrier, comprised as they were of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush, that formed straight leafy boulevards down which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade.
Oblivious British commanders in far-off headquarters set up defensive lines that seemed formidable on their maps, with flanks secured by “jungles”, only to have those defenses outflanked by the Japanese strolling past them via the plantations surrounding British positions. Flabbergasted British commanders convinced themselves that an unnatural talent for jungle fighting lay behind the ease with which their foes outmaneuvered them, giving birth to this myth.