I know lots of second world war veterans who rather enjoyed their war against the Germans. But I’ve never met one who enjoyed his war against the Japanese. As the Eastern Front was to the Western Front, so the Far Eastern front was to the European/North African front: the fighting was more implacably brutal, the conditions more ferociously grim, the chances of coming out in one piece notably slimmer.
That’s why, in dark times like these, I find it of such great comfort to read a novel like Harold James’s The Scorpion Trap (Janus). It’s a brilliant fictionalised account by a former Gurkha officer of those hideous and terrifying early stages of the war when implacable Japanese overran our colonies. On the Burma retreat alone, our forces lost around 13,000 killed, wounded or missing. But 30,000 of them made it, after a three-and-a-half-month, 1,000-mile retreat to the Indian border — still carrying their arms, still keeping their ranks, still with their dignity intact.
And their reward? Indifference bordering on contempt. When they got to the Indian frontier, there was no decent accommodation to shelter them from the monsoon, nor were there any cooking posts or even mosquito nets, in a region swarming with mosquitoes. Where their brethren returning from Dunkirk had been treated as heroes, these men were made to feel like pariahs. After all, as senior commanders like Wavell knew — and as the press dutifully repeated — the Japanese were short-sighted, buck-toothed and absolutely no match for British troops showing even a modicum of spirit.
The Scorpion Trap is named after a popular Japanese shock tactic, horribly effective against a retreating army. You send small numbers of troops to race ahead on your enemy’s flanks and form roadblocks across his line of retreat.