In June 2020, I read my first primary source from WW II in a language other than English. This is a Fremde Heere Ferner Osten “Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the basis of the fighting in China since July 1937” published in April 1938. Like many German texts from the National Socialist period, this is preserved in a Russian archive. The Soviets kept everything from caches of printed documents to bundles of soldiers’ letters, and many of these no longer exist in Germany, Hungary, Italy, or Romania. It is a clearly written and well-organized report which shows the high standard of thinking expected of officers in the Imperial German Army. The name of the author is not clear, but he states that he was active in the Great War and able to observe the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1910s. So he grew up and was educated long before the Nazi seisure of power, and had probably avoided the new regime by being stationed in East Asia. At one point he implies that he fought the Italians in the Great War, but he also compares the current state of the Imperial Japanese army to its state “25 years ago, when I had the opportunity to thoroughly study it for four years.” That might mean that he was an honoured prisoner of the Imperial Japanese Army after it occupied Germany’s Pacific possessions in 1914.
The author is in no way impressed by the Japanese armed forces. As far as he is concerned, the Japanese army is in no way up to the standards of a major European power and is achieving successes only because of its overwhelming advantage in war materiel over the Chinese (pp. 6, 8). Some of his complaints will be familiar to students of the Pacific War. He says that Japanese artillery are short-ranged and have trouble suppressing enemy artillery or closing roads and railways behind enemy lines. Japanese military planning is rigid and pedantic, and Japanese armour is effective on a small scale but lacks sufficient armour because local conditions only suit very light tanks weighing 3 to 8 tons. The large and small crimes and atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers have never been properly described in the reports which reach Europe.
Likewise, the tactical leadership is also schematic and not at the peak of modern combat leadership. It may be that it is adapted to the characteristics of the opponent, but I really question whether the Japanese know another kind of combat leadership.
Their tactic here consists in the assembly of all combat material in the smallest possible space and the launching of an almost wedge-like thrust (fast keilartiger Stoß), which by the correct disposition of fire against a deep zone must invariably break through. But after a successful breakthrough a quick exploitation and utilization does not just happen by itself, and begins only after tiresome preparations, at which time they naturally find a completely different situation and fail as a result. (pp. 6, 7)
My understanding is that by December 1941, the Japanese army had become much more active but still relied on concentrating its limited material in a sudden overwhelming barrage followed by a concentrated assault. And when Commonwealth and US forces started to learn to fight the Japanese, they found that if some Japanese units sent a platoon down a ravine an hour after sundown and everyone in it was killed, they would try the same thing the next night, and the next night, and the next night. On the other hand, I am surprised to hear that whole Japanese divisions of older conscripts have thrown down their rifles and run away if they do not have sufficient artillery, air, or armoured support!
It is sad to read this report as it warns how the “politicization” and lawlessness of the Japanese army are rotting it from within. Only three years later, the German army would be fully corrupted in the same way. And the report contains some Prussian arrogance:
The significance of the Japanese armed forces does not lie in their quality; measured by the European standard the Japanese army has not yet become anything close to equal to any European, except (on the basis of my experiences in the Great War) the Italian. It lies much more in the reality that the Japanese armed forces have at present no modernly organized and fully trained opponent in the Far East. I do not want to exaggerate, when I express my conviction, that with just two or three German divisions it would be a simple thing to throw the Japanese out of China in a short time. (p. 8)
Most of the Japanese army of 34 divisions was stationed in China and Manchuria, so to defeat them with two or three divisions would have been quite an achievement! Germany had not fought a war since 1918.
The Chinese Nationalist Army pioneered the use of large numbers of stocked pistols (Kolbenpistole), mostly based on the Mauser C96 “broomhandle” and FN Browning M1900 actions. For some reason, the Japanese did not adopt a similar weapon, even though these weapons would have been very useful in the jungles where they ended up fighting. I was surprised to see that the attached report on equipment in the Sino-Japanese War calls the Mausers “not without flaws” and “very inconvenient” and suggests replacing them with the Luger P08! There were versions of the Luger with a shoulder stock and a 32 round drum magazine, but they were inconvenient and unreliable too.
If we are not specialists in the Second World War, it is easy to forget that the alliance system in January 1942 was unguessable in January 1937. Germany armed and trained the government forces in China in the 1930s. Many German and Italian soldiers did not like each other very much. Germany, Italy, and Japan only became allies with the Pact of Steel in 1939, and the USSR only joined with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact later that year. The United Kingdom came very close to bombing the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1940/1941. So it is a very good idea to read things written from 1937 to 1945 who did not know the outcome.
Two of the 60 original copies of this report are filed as Bestand 500 Findbuch 12451 Akte 231 by the DEUTSCH-RUSSISCHES PROJEKT ZUR DIGITALISIERUNG DEUTSCHER DOKUMENTE IN ARCHIVEN DER RUSSISCHEN FÖDERATION. I thank the anonymous Austrian vlogger of Military History Not Visualized (warning: YouTube) for linking to a different document in the same folder (“Erfahrungen und Betrachtungen aus dem japanisch-chinesischen Feldzeug 1937/1938,” 15. March 1938).
(scheduled 16 June 2021)