The Japanese strike force advancing to the Indian Ocean. Ships shown from left to right are: Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, Hiei, Kirishima, Haruna, and Kongo.
Churchill was very nearly right in his own panicky assessment of Japanese intentions and capabilities. As historians H. P. Willmott and Hans-Joachim Krug and his team have demonstrated, the warlords of Tokyo were experiencing a prolonged crisis of victory. Pearl Harbor had seemed a smashing success, and their timetable for the conquest of all Southeast Asia and much of the Southwest Pacific region was proceeding on or ahead of schedule (only the American-Filipino garrisons at Bataan and Corregidor would heroically disrupt Japanese plans, but without measurable impact). The wide-ranging Kido Butai had ravaged Western air- and naval power from Hawaii to northern Australia, the Dutch East Indies, and Ceylon without the loss of a single ship and only a handful of aircraft and pilots.
Should Japan slacken its offensive pace, consolidate its gains, and wait for an eventual and inevitable counterattack from the Anglo-Americans? Or should it maintain the pressure of a constant offensive, and if so, where? Key elements in the navy led by Yamamoto and his chief of staff, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, strongly advocated a prolonged thrust west into the Indian Ocean once the conquest of Southeast Asia was completed. These politically astute officers realized that India itself was a hotbed of discontent under native leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. (The latter would be invited to Tokyo in November 1943 to participate in the Greater East Asia Conference as head of the “Provisional Government of Free India.” He went on a German U-boat.) An invasion of Ceylon could tip the scales decisively against the small British garrison on the subcontinent. The implications were enormous: “India was the anchor of the British war effort in both the Middle and Far East, yet given the state of nationalist opinion within India and the British loss of Malaya and Singapore and her [subsequent] defeats [at the hands of the Japanese] in southern Burma, there was every chance that further British reverses [such as the loss of Ceylon] might well result in the collapse of her authority on the subcontinent.” With India either neutralized or even conquered by Japanese forces, and with the Imperial Navy operating westward from Ceylon, the entire tier of flimsily held British colonies from the Persian Gulf to East Africa might well tumble and Japan would gain oil reserves to last it for generations. Indeed, a Japanese thrust toward India and the Middle East had even greater implications: it could link up with a German offensive out of the North African desert toward and beyond Suez. On February 18, 1942,
the German naval attaché in Tokyo reported back to his superiors that the Japanese had sounded him out on the matter of a joint German-Japanese move to secure Madagascar, after German pressure on [the puppet French government at] Vichy had made the French amenable to the ‘suggestion.’ This report came one day after the General Operations Division of the German navy had passed on to the Japanese all the information it had about possible landing sites on Ceylon.
Three weeks later, Raeder reported to Hitler:
The Japanese have recognized the great strategic importance of Madagascar for naval warfare. According to reports submitted, they are planning to establish bases on Madagascar in addition to Ceylon, in order to be able to cripple sea traffic in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. From there they could likewise successfully attack shipping around the Cape. Before establishing these bases Japan will have to get German consent. For military purposes such consent ought to be granted.
A month later the Axis situation seemed even more promising. Erwin Rommel was about to launch his last great offensive against Cairo and Suez. To support his attack, German naval officials insisted to the Japanese members of the “Tripartite Military Commission” in Berlin that “a strong fleet be sent to the [western] Indian Ocean from the Japanese side.” The “operational focus” of immediate Axis activity “had to be Egypt.” This was all fine, Admiral Nomura responded. Tokyo, too, seemed to agree that the moment to break the British Empire—and the Allied cause—had arrived. But Tokyo’s interest was India. Foreign Minister Tōgō Shigenobu had already begged German ambassador Eugen Ott “to make a joint declaration” supporting native uprisings for independence on the subcontinent and in adjacent Burma. Hitler had demurred, instructing his diplomats to issue a “cautious and passive” reply. Undeterred, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo declared before the Diet in mid-February Japan’s “steadfast” support of the Burmese people to “build a nation of their own” and thereafter to “march” with Japan “as comrades-in-arms toward Great East Asian co-prosperity,” adding that his government was similarly prepared to help India. But as Captain Hans-Joachim Krug has observed, “Japan could not take on India alone,” despite the strident demands from Gandhi that Britain quit the subcontinent. The fact was that although both Berlin and Tokyo wanted to bring down Britain, German attention was fixed on Suez while Japanese attention was focused five hundred miles to the east. That five hundred miles proved just too far for Japanese and German arms to stretch. When the moment came for joint action, neither Hitler nor his Japanese opposites could summon the requisite resources. Thus, Admiral Nomura “decried” to his hosts in Berlin “the lack of progress toward a simultaneous offensive and emphasized the necessity for a simultaneous attack on the British Middle East position, with Germany and Italy coming from the Mediterranean and the Caucasus and Japan from the Indian Ocean.” Japan seemed poised to dispatch at least some submarines and armed merchant cruisers into the Red and Arabian Seas to attack “British supply traffic.” But the Japanese high command cabled their nominal allies at the other end of the Eurasian landmass that they, in turn, must be prepared to launch simultaneous land offensives not only against Egypt but deep into southern Russia as well.
Alas, such demands proved mere empty gestures. Berlin and Tokyo had signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 (along with Rome) to forestall a massive Soviet assault against their respective positions in Europe and East Asia. Neither was interested in or capable of any coordinated action beyond that point. On April 7, even as Nagumo was running wild off Ceylon and Churchill was cabling Roosevelt of his desperate need for some sort of U.S. naval demonstration east of Suez, the Japanese naval staff told its opposites in Berlin that “the Japanese Navy’s main theater [of operations] was still in the Pacific” and its main objective the destruction of the U.S. fleet. Within days Kido Butai had left the Indian Ocean—back to Japan to prepare for Midway, where it met its doom. When Rommel reached the gates of Cairo in May, suddenly inflaming Japanese army interest in invading Ceylon and bringing Britain to its knees, the imperial fleet was nowhere near, and after its crushing defeat in the central Pacific all thoughts of a major Japanese amphibious offensive in the Middle East went glimmering.