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Tiger of Malaya:
Japan’s Imperial Guard
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2010

In Tiger 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 Guard.


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 troops back.

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.

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