By "Pacific" war, I am specifically excluding the use of tanks by the Russians (or Japanese) in Manchuria, in 1945, or earlier "border clashes" along the Mongolian border in the late 1930s.

My understanding is that on most Pacific islands, tanks were useful for overcoming strongpoints, demolishing bunkers, etc. but not for the breakthrough and encirclement movements that characterized the European "blitzkrieg." Therefore, tanks tended to be deployed in multiples of ten at a time, not hundreds at a time. Put another way, tanks were used in "French" style, that is on a small scale for infantry support, rather than in "German" style for large scale encirclement movements.

I didn't see evidence of large scale tank deployments by the Allies even in relatively large areas, such as the Philippines or Burma (Myanmar), probably because of the weather, rough terrain and generally bad topography.

So was the above, in fact, generally true in the "south Pacific?

And was the (occasional) Japanese use of tanks also limited to infantry support (outside of China, Manchuria, Mongolia) or were there instances of Japanese large scale encirclement movements in the tropical regions?

  • So was the above, in fact, generally true in the "south Pacific? Yes. – RonJohn Sep 25 '17 at 4:10

It's important to consider that the Japanese like pretty much everyone else apart from a few German generals and Fuller considered the tank to be an infantry support weapon.

Tanks weren't really deployed en masse primarily due to the difficulties of terrain. The tropical rainforests didn't really lend itself to large scale wars of movement.

However that's not to say that the Pacific theatre was entirely absent of large scale tank deployments and a war of movement. For example in the Malayan campaign, the Japanese deployed around 200 tanks against the Allies. This campaign displayed a lot of operational emphasis on speed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayan_Campaign

What's also interesting to note is that the Japanese were able to conduct encircling movements not by land but by sea. In the initial invasion the Japanese did focus on small scale envelopments and combined arms tactics:

The Japanese were initially resisted by III Corps of the Indian Army and several British Army battalions. The Japanese quickly isolated individual Indian units defending the coastline, before concentrating their forces to surround the defenders and force their surrender.[15] The Japanese forces held a slight advantage in numbers on the ground in northern Malaya, and were significantly superior in close air support, armour, co-ordination, tactics and experience, with the Japanese units having fought in China. The Allies had no tanks, which had put them at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese also used bicycle infantry and light tanks, which allowed swift movement of their forces overland through terrain covered with thick tropical rainforest, albeit criss-crossed by native paths. Although the Japanese had not brought bicycles with them (in order to speed the disembarkation process), they knew from their intelligence that suitable machines were plentiful in Malaya and quickly confiscated what they needed from civilians and retailers.[15]

So whilst there may not have been large scale tank battles, there was a lot about the conduct of the campaign that was "blitzkrieg with Pacific characteristics". Certainly there was use of armour facilitated envelopments during the campaign.

However, the terrain simply did not suit the use of massed armour for large scale operational or strategic envelopments of France 1940, or Western Russia in 1941. Those battlefields were comparatively wide open compared to the terrain of Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, the Solomon Islands or New Guinea, which was densely forested and often mountainous.

Indeed if you read Panzer Operations: The Eastern Front Memoir of General Raus, 1941-1945 you'll the Germans ran into problems in this kind of terrain during their drive to Leningrad in 1941. Likewise, the Italian campaign demonstrates the difficulties inherent in large scale armoured movement in mountainous country flanked by sea.

The other thing previously mentioned is that in the Malayan campaign for example the Japanese were able to facilitate strategic surprise/operational encirclement by landing from the sea. We see this similarly in the Philippines campaign. It was easier for the Japanese to open new fronts by conducting amphibious landings on a different part of the island or archipelago.

There are also logistical and economic factors to consider. By 1942 Japane had prioritised producing naval and aircraft assets. The effects of the oil embargo would have likely constrained protracted large scale armour campaigns. It's also pertinent to note that moving large numbers of tanks across an ocean requires enormous amounts of shipping.

It's important to remember that 1940/1941 campaigns of maneuver were devised as expedients to strategic problems faced by the German Army: achieving a fast victory over the French, after they were cornered by the British-French declaration of War in '39 that would've ultimately resulted in German economic defeat (much like in World War 1) unless the French were defeated in a decisive contest.

The Japanese didn't face the same strategic or tactical challenges. The conflict was ultimately decided by air and naval power on the battlefield, and by the economic weight of the United States.

So on the face of it I would say

  • Yes there were operational maneuver campaigns in the Pacific ("blitzkrieg"), for example in Malaysia
  • However, the terrain severely limited the efficacy of armour
  • Control of the seas and air permitted strategic and operational mobility.

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