The Battle of Hong Kong (8–25 December 1941) was one of the first battles of the Pacific campaign of World War II. On the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor, forces of the Empire of Japan invaded British Hong Kong and met the stiff resistance of its garrison, composed of local troops as well as British, Canadian and Indian units. In less than a week the defenders abandoned the mainland, and less than two weeks later, with their position on the island untenable, the colony surrendered.
Britain first thought of Japan as a threat with the ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in the early 1920s, a threat that increased with the escalation of the Second Sino-Japanese War. On 21 October 1938 the Japanese occupied Canton (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong was effectively surrounded. Various British defence studies concluded that Hong Kong would be extremely hard to defend in the event of a Japanese attack, but, in the mid-1930s, work began on new defence facilities, including the Gin Drinkers' Line. Key sites of the defence of Hong Kong included:
By 1940, the British determined to reduce the Hong Kong Garrison to only a symbolic size. Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command argued that limited reinforcements could allow the garrison to delay a Japanese attack, gaining time elsewhere.
Winston Churchill and his army chiefs designated Hong Kong as an outpost, and initially decided against sending more troops to the colony. In September 1941 they reversed their decision and argued that additional reinforcements would provide a military deterrent against the Japanese, and reassure Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek that Britain was genuinely interested in defending the colony.
In Autumn 1941, the British government accepted an offer by the Canadian Government to send two infantry battalions and a brigade headquarters (1,975 personnel) to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. "C Force", as it was known, arrived on 16 November on board the troopship Awatea and the armed merchant cruiser Prince Robert. It did not have all of its equipment as a ship carrying its vehicles was diverted to Manila at the outbreak of war. The Canadian battalions were the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec and Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba. The Royal Rifles had served only in Newfoundland and Saint John, New Brunswick, prior to their duty in Hong Kong, and the Winnipeg Grenadiers had been posted to Jamaica. As a result, many of the Canadian soldiers did not have much field experience before arriving in Hong Kong.
Order of battleEdit
Empire of JapanEdit
The Japanese attack began shortly after 08:00am on 8 December 1941 (Hong Kong local time), less than eight hours after the Attack on Pearl Harbor (because of the day shift that occurs on the international date line between Hawaii and Asia, the Pearl Harbor event is recorded to have occurred on 7 December). British, Canadian and Indian forces, commanded by Major-General Christopher Maltby supported by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps resisted the Japanese invasion by the Japanese 21st, 23rd and the 38th Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai, but were outnumbered nearly four to one (Japanese, 52,000; Allied, 14,000) and lacked their opponents' recent combat experience.
The colony had no significant air defence. The RAF station at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport (RAF Kai Tak) had only five aeroplanes: two Supermarine Walrus amphibians and three Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-reconnaissance bombers, flown and serviced by seven officers and 108 airmen. An earlier request for a fighter squadron had been rejected, and the nearest fully operational RAF base was in Kota Bharu, Malaya, nearly 2,250 kilometres away.
The Japanese bombed Kai Tak Airport on 8 December. Two of the three Vildebeest and the two Walrus were destroyed by 12 Japanese bombers. The attack also destroyed several civil aircraft including all but two of the aircraft used by the Air Unit of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp. The RAF and Air Unit personnel from then on fought as ground troops. Two of the Royal Navy's three remaining destroyers were ordered to leave Hong Kong for Singapore. Only one destroyer, HMS Thracian, several gunboats and a flotilla of motor torpedo boats remained.
On 8, 9 and 10 December, eight American pilots of the China National Aviation Corporation CNAC and their crews made a total of 16 trips between Kai Tak Airport and airports in Namyung and Chongqing (Chungking) in China, the war time capital of the Republic of China. According to articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Daily of 15 December 1941, the pilots' names were Charles L. Sharp, Hugh L. Woods, Harold A. Sweet, William McDonald, Frank L. Higgs, Robert S. Angle, P.W. Kessler and S.E. Scott. Together they made 16 sorties and evacuated 275 persons including Mme Sun Yat-Sen, the widow of the "Father of the Nation" and the Chinese Finance Minister Kung Hsiang-hsi.
The Commonwealth forces decided against holding the Sham Chun River and instead established three battalions in the Gin Drinkers' Line across the hills. The Japanese 38th Infantry under the command of Major General Takaishi Sakai quickly forded the Sham Chun River by using temporary bridges. Early on 10 December 1941 the 228th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Teihichi, of the 38th Division attacked the Commonwealth defences at the Shing Mun Redoubt defended by 2nd Battalion Royal Scots, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel S. White. The line was breached in five hours and later that day the Royal Scots also withdrew from Golden Hill. D company of the Royal Scots counter-attacked and captured Golden Hill. By 10:00am the hill was again taken by the Japanese. This made the situation on the New Territories and Kowloon untenable and the evacuation from started on 11 December 1941 under aerial bombardment and artillery barrage. As much as possible, military and harbour facilities were demolished before the withdrawal. By 13 December, the 5/7 Rajputs of the British Indian Army commanded by Lieutenant Colonel R. Cadogan-Rawlinson, the last Commonwealth troops on the mainland, had retreated to Hong Kong Island.
Maltby organised the defence of the island, splitting it between an East Brigade and a West Brigade. On 15 December, the Japanese began systematic bombardment of the island's North Shore. Two demands for surrender were made on 13 December and 17 December. When these were rejected, Japanese forces crossed the harbour on the evening of 18 December and landed on the island's North-East. They suffered only light casualties, although no effective command could be maintained until the dawn came.That night, approximately 20 gunners were executed at the Sai Wan Battery despite having surrendered. There was a further massacre of prisoners, this time of medical staff, in the Salesian Mission on Chai Wan Road. In both cases, a few men survived to tell the story.
On the morning of 19 December fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong Island but the Japanese annihilated the headquarters of West Brigade, causing the death of Brigadier John K. Lawson, the commander of the West Brigade . A British counter-attack could not force them from the Wong Nai Chung Gap that secured the passage between the north coast at Causeway Bay and the secluded southern parts of the island. From 20 December, the island became split in two with the British Commonwealth forces still holding out around the Stanley peninsula and in the West of the island. At the same time, water supplies started to run short as the Japanese captured the island's reservoirs.
On the morning of 25 December, Japanese soldiers entered the British field hospital at St. Stephen's College, and tortured and killed a large number of injured soldiers, along with the medical staff.
By the afternoon of 25 December 1941, it was clear that further resistance would be futile and British colonial officials headed by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters on the third floor of the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. This was the first occasion on which a British Crown Colony had surrendered to an invading force. (British Somaliland which fell to the Italians in August 1940 was a protectorate.) The garrison had held out for 17 days. This day is known in Hong Kong as "Black Christmas".
Sai Wan HillEdit
At Shau Kei Wan there was a Salesian mission being used as an Advanced Dressing Station. On the night of the 18 December it was surrounded by troops of the 229th Infantry Regiment. At 0700 on the 19th, Captain Martin Banfill of the Canadian Medical Corps surrendered the station. Two injured officers of the 7th Rajput Regiment were murdered upon arrival in an ambulance. The Japanese separated the male medical staff from the female (two nurses, whose lives were spared). All but three of the men were killed, most of the victims were of the Royal Army Medical Corps, but also at least two men of the Royal Rifles of Canada and two civilians.
Wong Nai Chung GapEdit
Four men each of the 3rd Company HKVDC and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were massacred after battle at Jardine's Lookout. One Grenadier, a Private Kilfoyle, was killed on the forced march to North Point, according to witnesses.
Black Hole of Hong KongEdit
Four men were killed in the so-called "Black Hole of Hong Kong", including two Canadian officers.
Blue Pool RoadEdit
Around thirty civilians of different ethnicities were massacred at Blue Pool Road.
The Ridge, Overbays and EucliffeEdit
In the worst massacre of POWs of the battle, the Japanese killed at least 47 after taking The Ridge. Among the dead was Major Charles Sydney Clarke of China Command HQ, two men of the 12th and 20th Coastal Regiments of the Royal Artillery (RA), six men of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and two of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RCASC), nineteen men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) and three of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps (RCOC), and fourteen men of the RASC Company of the HKVDC.
The Japanese also executed at least fourteen captives at Overbays, men of the same units as at The Ridge, but also including three Royal Rifles of Canada and an officer of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. A further seven were killed at Eucliffe, and another 36 known victims cannot be placed precisely at one of the three locations (Ridge, Overbays, Eucliffe). Ride, who was present at the surrender, stated later that he saw fifty bodies lying by the road, including six Middlesex men among them. These men may have been some of those attached to the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission report also states that five men of the Royal Air Force went missing near The Ridge on 20 December, perhaps captured and killed.
Deepwater Bay RideEdit
St Stephen's CollegeEdit
The massacre perpetrated at St Stephen's College is the least well-known. Only thirteen victims can be confirmed at the location, but reports and estimates put the real number as high as 99. The names of all the reported victims may never be known. Between 75 and 150 bodies were cremated by the victors in the aftermath of the battle, but this total includes the victims of the fighting around Stanley Fort, such as the men of 965 Defence Battery. Although it is the "most infamous massacre", it "has been the hardest to match with records."
Three British and four Chinese nurses were said to have been raped and murdered, and one Canadian, Captain Overton Stark Hickey of the RCASC, murdered trying to stop the rapes. Besides the raped nurses, the medical staff suffered two deaths, a doctor shot in the head whilst attempting escape, and 25 orderlies of the Indian Hospital Corps (IHC) and St John's Ambluance personnel. The 55 St John's victims of the battle of Hong Kong are memorialised at the present headquarters in Hong Kong, but since no dates are given on the memorial it is impossible to identify those killed at St Stephen's. Four Chinese servants and one civilian, Tam Cheung Huen, were killed. Tam is the only Chinese victim of this massacre known by name. Among the soldiers receiving treatment at the college, two riflemen were mutilated and murdered and a further 56 men were reportedly bayoneted in their beds. Some of these men may have been Royal Rifles whose deaths are incorrectly reported as occurring elsewhere on 26 December.
At least eight men—six of the Middlesex and two Royal Engineers—were killed after capture at Maryknoll Mission. Four members of the 8th Coastal Regiment RA may have been killed here as well, and the estimate of the murdered goes as high as eleven and sixteen in other estimates.
Twenty-six prisoners are believed to have been killed after the fighting for Brick Hill, but some of these may have died in the fight, including some of the seventeen men of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA), Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) known to have died there. Most of the soldiers here murdered were Muslims, including one religious teacher.
Isogai Rensuke became the first Japanese governor of Hong Kong. This ushered in the three years and eight months of Imperial Japanese administration. Japanese soldiers also terrorised the local population by murdering many, raping an estimated 10,000 women, and looting. General Takashi Sakai, who led the invasion of Hong Kong and subsequently served as governor for some time, was tried as a war criminal and executed by a firing squad in 1946.
Although Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese, the local Chinese waged a small guerilla war in New Territories. As a result of the resistance, some villages were razed as a punishment. The guerillas fought until the end of the Japanese occupation. The resistance groups were known as the Gangjiu and Dongjiang forces.
The Allied dead from the campaign, including British, Canadian and Indian soldiers, were eventually interred at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. A total of 1,528 soldiers, mainly Commonwealth, are buried there. There are also graves of other Allied combatants who died in the region during the war, including some Dutch sailors, who were re-interred in Hong Kong post war.
The nearby Sai Wan Battery, with buildings constructed as far back as 1890, housed the Depot and Record Office of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps for nearly four decades after the War. The barracks were handed over to the government in 1985 and were subsequently converted into Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village.
At the end of February 1942, The Japanese government stated that numbers of prisoners of war in Hong Kong were: British 5,072, Canadian 1,689, Indian 3,829, others 357, a total of 10,947. They were sent to:
Of the Canadians captured during the battle, 267 subsequently perished in Japanese prisoner of war camps, mainly due to mistreatment and abuse. In December 2011, Toshiyuki Kato, Japan's parliamentary vice minister for foreign affairs, apologized for the mistreatment to a group of Canadian veterans of the battle in Hong Kong.
Enemy civilians (meaning Allied nationals) were interned at the Stanley Internment Camp. Initially, there were 2400 internees although this number was reduced following some repatriations during the war. Internees who died, together with prisoners executed by the Japanese, are buried in Stanley Cemetery.
John Robert Osborn (2 January 1899 – 19 December 1941) was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, conferred upon a Canadian for actions during World War II. After seeing a Japanese grenade roll in through the doorway of the building Osborn and his fellow Canadian Winnipeg Grenadiers had been garrisoning, he took off his helmet and threw himself on the grenade, saving the lives of over 10 other Canadian soldiers. He was born in Norfolk, England.
Gander was a Newfoundland dog posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the "animals' Victoria Cross", in 2000 for his deeds in World War II, the first such award in over 50 years. He picked up a thrown Japanese hand grenade and rushed with it toward the enemy, dying in the ensuing explosion, but saving the lives of several wounded Canadian soldiers.
The shield in the colonial coat of arms of Hong Kong (granted in 1959) featured the battlement design to commemorate the defence of Hong Kong during World War II. The arms was in use until 1997 when it was replaced by the current regional emblem.
Lei Yue Mun Fort has lost its defence significance in the post-war period. After the war, it became a training ground for the British Forces until 1987 when it was finally vacated. In view of its historical significance and unique architectural features, the former Urban Council decided in 1993 to conserve and develop Lei Yue Mun Fort into the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.