Tiger of Malaya:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
of Malaya, the Japanese
player is outnumbered by the
defenders, but two of his divisions are much
more capable than any Allied
formation with the exception of the Australian
7th Division — which might
not even enter play if the Japanese move
quickly enough. And then there's
the third Japanese division, the Imperial
Japanese Imperial Guardsmen advance
through Kuala Lumpur, January 1942
The Imperial Guard Division, or Konoe Shidan in Japanese,
was one of the Imperial Army’s original formations.
Activated in 1867 from palace guard units, it saw action in
the Satsuma Rebellion but stayed home during the Sino-Japanese
and Russo-Japanese wars. In 1895 the 1st Brigade participated
in the occupation of Formosa, but otherwise the Guard did
not leave Japan until 1939. A “square” division
like the other early Japanese units, it had two infantry brigades
each of two regiments. During the First World War it gained
cavalry and artillery regiments and an engineer battalion
(later expanded to a “regiment”).
In September 1939, the division split. The 1st Guards Brigade
transferred to South China and became known as the Guards
Mixed Brigade. It took with it the 1st and 2nd Guards Infantry
Regiments, the cavalry regiment, and about half of the support
units. In October 1940, it joined other Japanese units occupying
French Indo-China. In April 1941 it returned to Tokyo, but
did not re-join the division.
The remainder of the division, meanwhile, became known as
2nd Guards Brigade. In 1940 it went to China as well, stopping
in Shanghai before receiving a posting to Hainan Island. In
June 1941, the 5th Guards Infantry Regiment joined it there
and the brigade became the Imperial Guard Division again.
The Guards Mixed Brigade remained in Tokyo, becoming 1st Guards
Division in June 1943 while the Imperial Guard Division became
2nd Guards Division.
After re-forming on Hainan, the Imperial Guard Division moved
to Indo-China in July 1941 and participated in the semi-peaceful
invasion of Thailand in December. From there it went south
through Thailand and became part of the follow-up wave of
25th Army’s invasion of Malaya. It first saw heavy action
at Ipoh in late December against British troops, suffering
heavy casualties. Transferred to the drive down the peninsula’s
west coast, it again suffered badly at British hands. But
meanwhile the regular army divisions were driving the Allied
The Imperial Guard participated in the landings on Singapore
Island in February 1942, but once again 25th Army’s
two regular divisions (5th and 18th) took the brunt of the
fighting. Once the island had been secured the division transferred
across the Malacca Strait to southern Sumatra island, where
it remained for the rest of the war.
Though it’s sometimes portrayed in wargames as an elite
force worthy of special color schemes, high combat factors
and special powers, the Imperial Guard was simply not very
good. In part the Guard suffers in comparison to the two regular
divisions, 5th and 18th, which received intense physical and
military training before the campaign that brought them to
peak effectiveness. The Guard did not go through the same
tough school. Recruiting policies also made it a weaker force:
The Guard selected its rank and file based on their height,
not experience or ability. This made a Guard unit much taller
than the average Japanese battalion, but height is not an
indicator of physical strength or fitness — and in the
nutritional background of the 1930s, possibly even indicates
less stamina than a man of average stature.
Guards units in other armies (the Red Army of Workers and
Peasants’ many Guards units; the Romanian Royal Guard;
the Italian Granatieri di Sardegna) did get first pick of
the recruiting pool and often better equipment. This was not
true in Japan, and the Guard was no better off than line units
in terms of its gear.
Officers also seem to have been decidedly second-rate. The
deployments to China seem to have come as something of a surprise,
brought about by Guard officers’ desire for combat experience.
Japanese military culture of the 1930s emphasized combat duty,
to the point that some Japanese officers of the “Imperial
Way” faction actually demanded the prospect of death
in battle as a basic right.
The Guard selected its officers from families close to the
Emperor by birth or social standing. Those wishing to “meet
at Yasukuni” (the popular phrase for dying nobly in
battle, from the shrine where dead heroes are worshipped)
sought posts in the regular divisions more likely to see combat.
Not that Guards officers could not be fanatics; in 1945, some
of them would try to destroy Emperor Hirohito’s taped
surrender message before it could be broadcast.
The Guard lacked the favoritism of European Guards units
or the Nazi equivalent; instead, it was built for its ceremonial
functions. In Tiger
of Malaya it’s definitely the weakest of the
three Japanese divisions. The infantry are not as good as
those of the 5th or 18th, its artillery is weaker than the
5th (one of the few Japanese divisions with a full allotment
of modern 105 mm howitzers), and it’s also a little
slower (not having the benefit of intense march training).
This piece originally appeared in March 2005.
the Imperial Guard — order Tiger
of Malaya now!