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Center of Military History
Guerrillas are irregular military forces that operate in enemy
territory through stealth and surprise.
They typically live off the
land and are often indigenous
to the area in which they operate.
They are distinct from paratroops,
which are regular forces that operate as elite light infantry once landed; from Commando
and Marine Raider
units, which were regular forces that engaged in deep raids but were
based in friendly territory between operations; and from the Chindits, which were regular
the operated much like guerrillas but were not indigenous and were
regularly resupplied (and
evacuated their wounded and sick) via the air.
The Second World War was almost entirely a conventional
high-intensity conflict, with guerrilla insurgencies playing only
secondary role. However, guerrillas in Europe and the Pacific
occasionally made a significant contribution to the outcome of
conventional battles and campaigns. Guerrilla movements played a
significant role in the postwar world, particularly in southeast
where the surrender of the
Japanese left a power vacuum
that was successfully exploited by nationalist guerrilla
Guerrilla warfare closely resembles the internecine tribal warfare of the earliest human cultures, making it arguably the oldest form of warfare. There is anthropological evidence that early tribal warfare took the form of surprise raids on enemy villages in which quarter was neither asked nor given, and that the average tribal society lost as much as 0.5% of its population in combat every year. The earliest states (such as Akkad in the 24th century B.C.E.) found themselves waging counterinsurgency warfare against the surrounding tribal cultures. Guerrillas continue to be closely associated with insurgencies in the 21st century.
Most guerrilla campaigns fail. Those guerrilla insurgencies that
have been most successful have usually received outside
did most of the guerrillas that fought against the Axis
during the Second World War. The combination of a guerrilla
with a conventional military campaign is sometimes called "hybrid
warfare", though this label was invented long after the time frame
the Pacific War.
Because guerrillas were irregular forces, they generally could not claim lawful combatant status and had no protection under the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Lawful combatants were required to be under the command of a legitimate sovereign government, to fight in accordance with the laws and customs of war, and to wear distinctive insignia, visible from a distance, when engaged in combat operations. Guerrillas generally did not wear such insignia and did not have a regular chain of command. However, this distinction could become blurred, as when Filipino guerrillas improvised American insignia and established contact with MacArthur's headquarters in Australia. Such guerrillas arguably became lawful combatants (and could be classified as militia.) However, the distinction was largely moot: The Japanese treated all prisoners of war brutally, and they usually executed Allied personnel caught behind Japanese lines, whether or not they were in uniform.
In some cases, the treatment of guerrillas as bandits was not
unjust. Under wartime conditions, irregular forces sometimes felt
compelled to take what supplies they could from the local
population whether the local population were willing or not, and
it was inevitable that some genuine bandits would seek
justification as "freedom fighters." This was a particular problem
in rural areas of occupied China,
where kidnapping for ransom became distressingly common.
Guerrillas often had close ties to underground movements. The distinction is that guerrillas carried arms openly while underground movements operated clandestinely in the midst of the enemy. Most underground movements focused on espionage and distribution of propaganda, but sometimes engaged in sabotage as well.
Because guerrillas are generally poorly trained, poorly armed, and inadequately supplied, they cannot hope for success by using ordinary military tactics. Instead, guerrillas engage in hit and run raids designed to force the enemy to commit large bodies of troops to garrison duty and the protection of lines of communication. From a military standpoint, guerrillas are most effective when they have some contact with regular forces fighting the same enemy, for whom they can provide valuable intelligence and from whom they can be resupplied. Guerrilla forces that attempt to engage in positional warfare usually suffer heavily, as the Chinese Communists did as a result of the Hundred Regiments Offensive. Once the Japanese recovered from their initial surprise, they inflicted very heavy casualties on the Communist guerrillas.
Guerrillas are not without their strengths. Because they usually are able to live off the land, they do not have lines of communications to protect. They are usually more familiar with the local terrain than their enemies, and, if they can count on the support of the local population, they usually have a decided intelligence advantage. They are also more mobile than more heavily equipped regular troops. All these factors work in favor of a strategy of hit and run raids on enemy weak points.
There is always a large political
element to effective guerrilla operations, which seek to win the
and minds of the local population, on whom they depend for most of
provisions and from whom they
seek to recruit.
The contrasting efforts by the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang to use guerrilla
tactics in north China illustrate how guerrillas should, and
should not, operate. Notwithstanding costly setbacks like
the Hundred Regiments Offensive, the Communists were reasonably
successful as guerrilla forces, largely because they well grounded
in the peasant population. This provided a huge pool of new
recruits. The Kuomintang, by contrast, were led by Army officers
who lacked rapport with the peasants and were thus unable to
replace their losses. The Kuomintang guerrillas also were slow to
abandon positional warfare and large-scale assaults.
Conventional military forces that attempt to come to grips with
guerrillas using conventional military tactics usually find
punching into empty air. It is nearly impossible for a
force to compel a guerrilla force to give battle. "Search and
tactics rarely destroy many guerrillas, but can alienate large
of civilians through their
collateral damage. A better approach is "secure and hold" tactics
that put the
conventional force in the role of protecting the local population.
sufficiently ruthless and determined conventional force can
guerrilla base areas, eliminating their ability to live off the
and enhancing the contrast with the relative safety of the secured
A successful counterinsurgency also requires that the
be able to cut off the guerrillas from outside support. The
never fully accomplished this in any of the areas they occupied
The Japanese countered the Chinese guerrillas with the Three Alls:
"Kill all, burn all,
loot all." At least 30 antiguerrilla campaigns on a
multidivisional scale were carried out in north China between 1941
and 1945. Operating areas were devastated to leave the guerrillas
shelter or means of sustenance. The Japanese adopted a "point and
deployment in which they garrisoned the major cities and the lines of
communication between them but left the countryside unoccupied
for periodic sweeps. "Point and line" was a form of "secure and
but the sweeps were a fruitless form of "search and destroy" that,
together with the Three Alls, alienated the Chinese civilian
population. Chinese puppet troops were used in areas well behind
the front lines to man checkpoints every li (0.3 mile or
0.5 km) on major roads and watch towers every mile. The roads were
lined with bamboo barricades, and puppet troops conducted dawn
sweeps through fields using dogs.
The Japanese made use of radio direction finders, in the
and elsewhere, to pinpoint guerrilla radio transmitters. The
would then sweep the area, sometimes with air and naval support.
Japanese antiguerrilla activities in the Philippines ramped up
significantly after June 1943, including a sweep of Mindanao for guerrilla forces
that alienated the population of the island.
Conventional armies must allocate sufficient troops to police their rear areas. Where guerrillas are not yet active and the local population not particularly hostile, it is estimated that one soldier per 356 civilians is adequate. Where guerrillas are active, the ratio may need to be as high as one soldier per 40 civilians. Thus, under the most optimistic of assumptions, the number of troops required for security duty in wartime India would have been about 840,000 men, which goes a long way towards explaining why the Indian Army was never able to provide the number of divisions Churchill thought it ought to have been able to provide. In the case of China, with a very hostile population and active Communist and Kuomintang guerrilla movements, some 10 million troops would have been required to guarantee pacification of the countryside. Even with large numbers of puppet troops, this was completely beyond the capacity of the Japanese Army, which goes a long way towards explaining the Chinese quagmire.
A successful counterinsurgency also requires highly disciplined troops who will not respond to guerrilla attacks by destroying everything within sight. Conscripted troops are particularly unsuitable for waging a counterinsurgency, which suggests that the mass armies that fought for the major powers in the Second World War were particularly ill-suited for dealing with the numerous guerrilla movements that sprang up during the war. From this narrow perspective, it was the good fortune of the Allies that, for the most part, it was the Axis doing the occupying of hostile territoryearly in the war.
Successful counterinsurgency also requires mastery of psychological warfare.
Templer, who would wage a model counterinsurgency in Malaya in the
1950s, declared that "The shooting side of the business is only
the trouble, and the other 75% lies in getting the people of this
country behind us" (quoted in Boot 2013). He also said that "The
lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts
minds of the people" (ibid.) This lesson was never learned
by the Axis, and it was forgotten by the French and the Americans in
Philippines. Probably the most active and effective
guerrilla movement of the
Pacific War was the Filipino guerrilla insurgency. Many of these
guerrillas were former regular Philippine Army troops who had
the Japanese dragnet by blending in with civilians. Some were
by American officers who had likewise escaped, and many eventually
contact with MacArthur's headquarters. For example, on 3 January
Captain Ralph B. Praeger, who had escaped from Bataan into central Luzon, made radio contact with
MacArthur, reported that he had organized a force of 5000
and asked for an arms drop with which to begin a sabotage
MacArthur instructed him to restrict has activities to
gathering to avoid Japanese reprisals against civilians. However,
Praeger's men could not be persuaded to refrain from ambushing
soldiers when the opportunity presented itself.
guerrilla leader in the Philippines was Wendell Fertig, a mining
engineer who held a reserve commission and was called to the
before war broke out. He had escaped from Corregidor to Mindanao by aircraft to
organize engineering activities under Sharp, then escaped again
following Sharp's surrender. Fertig organized a force of several
guerrillas on Mindanao, mostly from former Filipino Army recruits
who had slipped away to their homes at the time of Sharp's
surrender. These men had hidden their arms, but recovered them to
off bandits emboldened by the collapse of the Philippine
Now rearmed and organized into vigilante groups, they were obvious
targets for recruitment as guerrillas.
Filipino guerrillas received instructions and supplies (dropped by air or delivered by submarine) and, in return, sent back a considerable volume of sometimes very valuable intelligence. Much of the direction of the Filipino guerrillas was carried out through "Chick" Parsons, a Navy reserve lieutenant commander who had spent most of his adult life in the Philippines. Parsons was fluent in Spanish and could communicate in two native dialects, was unusually well acquainted with the southern islands, and was sufficiently short and dark to blend in with the native Filipinos. After war broke out, he was registered as the Panamanian consul as a legal fiction to facilitate the reflagging of Danish freighters, and he continued to pass himself off as a Panamanian diplomat after the Japanese occupation. He and his family were repatriated in October 1942 in exchange for Japanese civilians in Latin America, during which he smuggled out extensive intelligence on the Japanese occupation at great personal risk. MacArthur requested his services, and Parsons became head of "Spyron" (Spy Squadron, a word play on Naval jargon for type squadrons), making repeated trips to the Philippines by submarine or (late in the war) Catalina to coordinate guerrilla activities.
There was also an active underground movement in the Philippines which maintained close ties to the guerrillas. Several of the leaders were Americans who had found ways to establish false identities for themselves as citizens of Axis or neutral countries. For example, Claire Fuentes, an American citizen who had worked as an entertainer in Manila, managed to obtain false papers from the Italian consulate identifying her as a Philippine citizen of Italian birth. Fuentes established Club Tsubaki, an upscale resort for Japanese officers, from which she worked for the underground as "High Pockets". In May 1945 the Kempeitai intercepted one of her couriers, a Russian expatriate, carrying incriminating letters. Fuentes was imprisoned and tortured but refused to confess to any activites the Japanese did not obviously already know about, and she somehow survived to be liberated in 1945. Another of Fuentes' couriers was Father Buttenbruck, a German Catholic priest sympathetic with the Allied cause, who was eventually executed by the Japanese.
One of the more prominent members of the underground was José Ozámiz y Fortich, a member of the Philippine Senate who joined the collaborationist government but maintained contact with the guerrillas. After meeting with Fertig and Parsons in May 1943, his activities increased, but he was betrayed by members of the makapili and beheaded in February 1944.
The Japanese countered the underground with a network of agents
under the Kempeitai. Graduates of Nakano School operated
under civilian cover, including the "Institute of Natural
Science", a false front for the main Nakano headquarters in
Manila. Another source of intelligence was "Rita", a German agent
of French descent who was fluent in Tagalog and several other
languages and became known as the "Mata Hari of the Orient." Rita
participated in brutal interrogations in Manila during the Allied
battle for the city, escaped to northern Luzon, but died under
mysterious circumstances before she could return to Japan.
The Japanese initially made little effort to round up American
civilians in the back country of the Philippines. However, in
1944,the Japanese published an edict that any American who did not
turn himself in by 25 January would be summarily executed.
Thirteen civilians on Panay were executed even before the
Parsons began a sizable effort to evacuate the remaining American
civilians by submarine. Some 450 civilians were successfully
out. They did not include Parson's mother-in-law, who was beheaded
the Japanese on charges of guerrilla activities in August 1944.
The Filipino guerrillas established covert contact with Allied prisoners of war at Cabanatuan,
and were able to smuggle vitally needed food
supplies into the camp
that doubtless saved many prisoners from starvation. During the
American reconquest of the Philippines, Parsons was able to warn
Filipino civilians to evacuate from areas schedule for prelanding
bombardment. Parsons also got word back to MacArthur that a large
Filipino civilian population was being held in Tacloban by a small Japanese
garrison, and the prelanding bombardment was modified to spare the
city. Filipino guerrillas
carried out reconnaissance
activities ahead of the advancing regular
Not all Filipino guerrillas were pro-American. Some were Communist insurgents who were almost as hostile to the Americans as to the Japanese, and who continued their insurgency after the Japanese surrender.
Burma. Another successful guerrilla movement was
organized by the British and the American OSS Detachment 101 among the
Kachin tribesmen of northern Burma.
The Kachin were hostile to the Burmese and
Thai ethnic groups aligned
Japan and had suffered a number of atrocities at the hands of
Japanese. They were organized into the Northern Kachin Levies at Fort Hertz and became very
at harassing isolated Japanese outposts, at gathering
in serving as guides to regular Allied forces.
Detachment 101 also organized guerrilla movements among the
Karen, an ethnic minority in southern Burma that suffered from
mistreatment by Burmese Nationalists. Karen guerrillas harrassed
the Japanese forces in the Shan States of eastern Burma to prevent
from interfering with Slim's
drive to Rangoon in 1944. However, the Japanese
responded with vicious reprisals. One group of two hundred Karen
guerrillas was led by Hugh Seagrim, a British officer, who
to give himself up in order to spare the Karen tribes further
reprisals. He was executed, but the reprisals continued.
Malaya. Ethnic Chinese were active in organizing
operations against the Japanese in some parts of southeast Asia.
For example, Lim Bo Seng was an ethnic Chinese from Singapore who
helped organize a guerrilla force in Malaya.
Prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, he had helped
anti-Japanese boycotts and raise money for
the Kuomintang from the
Chinese community. The Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, a
Communist force with connections to the Chinese Communists,
was also active in Mayala. Postwar the MPAA would become the
Races Liberation Army and turn on the British, who crushed the
using a counterinsurgency strategy that is still studied as a
the 21st century.
However, the counterinsurgency succeeded only because the British
promised self-government to Malaya once the "Malayan Emergency"
over, a promise that was kept in 1957. Ironically, one of the most
effective leaders on the military side of the counterinsurgency
"Mad Mike" Calvert, who had led a column of the Chindits in
Burma.Calvert carried out long range penetration missions in
assisted by Dyak headhunters from Borneo,
who had carried out guerrilla operations against both sides at
different times during the Pacific War.
China. In one of the oddest divisions of responsibility
of the Pacific War,
the U.S. Navy ran a significant guerrilla operation, the U.S.
Group China. The "Rice Paddy Navy" was nominally responsible for weather observations in
occupied territory (much of the weather of the western Pacific is
shaped over China) and also for coast watching
operations. U.S. Naval Group China ran a weather station in inner
Mongolia that ws protected by
a force of 200 guerrillas, who clashed with a Japanese armored column on 15 May 1945.
Another section of U.S. Naval Group China trained guerrillas
operating against communications in the Yangtze river valley.
The head of the U.S. Naval Group China, Commander Milton E. Miles,
worked closely with Tai Li, chief of the Chinese Bureau of
Investigation and Statistics, who has been variously described as
Chinese Himmler or the Chinese J. Edgar Hoover.
In what would eventually become a painful irony, the Communist
underground in French
Indochina under Ho Chi Minh received encouragement and
the OSS for their guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.
Postwar these same guerrillas would drive out the French and later the Americans.
Much was claimed for the guerrilla activities of the Chinese Communists in northern China, but the weight of evidence is that the Communists engaged in very little direct action against the Japanese during the Pacific War. Instead, the Communists build up their strength in rural areas behind Japanese lines and prepared for the civil war that would inevitably follow the defeat of Japan.
Netherlands East Indies. The Dutch made several
attempts to insert agents into the Netherlands East
but all were captured and executed almost as soon as they landed.
native Indonesians were inclined to side with the Japanese,
though as the war progressed, they were increasingly disenchanted
active native guerrilla movement took hold. As with the Communist
guerrillas in the Philippines, these were almost as hostile to the
Dutch as to the Japanese. There was also guerrilla activity in Borneo among tribesmen alienated
Japanese brutality, such as the Dyak, who helped hunt down
escaped to the interior following the Australian landings at Brunei.
Manchuria. The Russians ran an extensive guerrilla operation from camps across the border from Manchuria. Several thousand Chinese Communists were trained by the Soviet Far East Intelligence Group, and along with harrassing Japanese forces, these guerrillas provided the Russians considerable intelligence on Japanese dispositions. This doubtless contributed to the decision to risk pulling troops west to fight the Germans in late 1941, as well as guiding preparations for the Manchuria offensive of August 1945. To preserve Russian neutrality, the guerrillas trained in great secrecy, isolated from any Russians other than their instructors, but were otherwise treated as well as the Russians could manage.
These Soviet-sponsored guerrillas were eventually organized into
88 Independent Brigade, with
four Chinese and one Korean battalion. The Korean
was commanded by Kim Il Sung, future dictator of North Korea.
troops were used primarily for security duties once Russia
in the war.
Japanese guerrilla activities were limited to "fifth column"
operations in southeast Asia during the Centrifugal Offensive.
Their extent and impact was greatly exaggerated by the Allies at
time, perhaps to excuse Japanese military success; but there is
doubt that fifth columnists existed and sometimes had a
effect on operations. Pro-Japanese guerrillas appear to have been
active at Hong Kong and in
Burma. British officers in
Malaya reported that Japanese troops infiltrated their lines
disguised as civilians and set off firecrackers behind the lines
to panic inexperienced troops.
Later in the war, when the Allies began driving the Japanese back, it was not uncommon for Japanese soldiers to hold out in wilderness areas behind Allied lines. However, these were regular troops in uniform who were still technically under the authority of the Emperor, so they did not qualify as guerrillas, and those who eventually gave up were treated as prisoners of war. However, a few of these soldiers remained at large after the general surrender. Some either did not know or refused to believe that Japan had surrendered, and were generally repatriated without fuss when they did finally turn themselves in, sometimes decades after the surrender. A few larger bodies of troops had to be coaxed into surrendering by representatives of the Emperor sent out under Allied direction to see that the surrender terms were effectuated.
The Japanese raised 5 Guerrilla Unit, also known as Mori Special Force, in Burma to raid the Allied fuel pipeline being laid along the Ledo Road. It is not clear whether this would best be described as a guerrilla unit or as a special force, but before it could complete its training, it was committed to raiding the airfields around Meiktila during the seige of March 1945 and largely destroyed.
As it became increasingly clear that the home island were no longer safe from invasion, Nakano School began preparing for guerrilla warfare. Some Nakano men were assigned to the Ryukyu Islands, but immediately stood out among the indigenous people as Yamatojin, Japanese from the home islands. Nakano men also lead small units in northern Okinawa to harass the Marine advance. Meanwhile, Nakano School graduates who had specialized in strategic intelligence were redeployed to Kyushu to help meet the expected Allied invasion, since strategic intelligence seemed increasingly irrelevant. These were organized into Kirishima Unit, and their commander, Captain Kishimoto Iwao, issued "A Reference for Guerrilla Warfare in Japan" based on Chinese and Soviet Communist documents on guerrilla warfare. Some 5000 guerrillas were trained on Kyushu. Meanwhile Yashima Unit was organized to play a similar role in the Tokyo area. Izumi Unit was organized in great secrecy to be a guerrilla unit to contest the Allied occupation of Japan. The men of the unit slipped quietly back into civilian roles in their home towns with orders to carry out a terror campaign against the occupying forces and Japanese collaborators.
Chang and Holliday (2005)
Peattie et al. (2011)
Ramsey and Rivele (1990)
Tamayama and Nunneley (2000)
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