Britain’s Pearl Harbor

The United States wasn't the only nation to come under Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. As Evan Mawdsley reveals, that day also saw the Imperial Army launch an assault on the British colony of Malaya – with devastating results for Britain's presence in south-east Asia...

A Japanese photograph shows Mitsubishi dive bombers warming up on the deck of a carrier in the Pacific before their attack on Pearl Harbor in the early hours of 7 December 1941. (Photo by Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

The outbreak of the war in the Pacific on 7 December 1941 (8 December, west of the International Date Line) is often depicted as a stunning surprise. This was not the case, at least at the highest levels of government. By the evening of 4 December Lord Halifax, the ambassador to the US and a man uniquely in touch with intelligence and decision-making in both Washington and London, had concluded that conflict – at least between Britain and Japan, and probably also involving the US – was imminent. “Everything looks exactly like the Japanese balloon going up in the course of a day or two,” he recorded in his diary, “cyphers being burnt, secret messages in that sense, etc.”

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now