Seventy years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, Imperial Japan began its war against the West, attacking Pearl Harbor, Malaya and moving against Hong Kong. In the Crown Colony’s garrison were almost 2,000 Canadian soldiers, only recently arrived and scarcely acclimatized. For the next 18 days, they would fight for their lives against well-trained, well-equipped Japanese troops. For almost four years after the capitulation, the survivors would struggle to survive in brutal conditions as prisoners of war.
Where did it begin? The Chief of the General Staff’s office in Ottawa was not especially lavish in August 1941, but Major-General Harry Crerar offered a warm welcome to his Upper Canada College and Royal Military College contemporary. Maj.-Gen. Arthur Grasett had held command in Hong Kong since 1938, but now he was on his way back to Britain where he had served in the Royal Engineers since 1909. The two old friends reminisced and chatted, and Grasett spoke of Hong Kong’s defences and how they could be bolstered and the Crown colony’s morale boosted by the addition of a few battalions. Everyone knew, Grasett said, that the Japanese, ravaging China, could simply not stand up to white troops. “They fought well against third-rate Chinese,” he said, “but they had yet to meet first-class troops such as his battalions, which would give them a bloody nose.”
Crerar would ever after deny that any suggestion was made by Grasett for Canadian troops, but there is no doubt he came to believe that the addition of a few thousand troops could make Hong Kong’s garrison strong enough to beat back any attack.
The old-boy network notwithstanding, Crerar ought to have understood the impossibility of defending Hong Kong. When he was a student at the Imperial Defence College in 1934-35 his course had studied the colony’s problematic military situation, but when a request for troops arrived from London on Sept. 19, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), softened up by Grasett’s visit, decided that he favoured the deployment. So too, with the CGS’s persuasion, did the government. First, there seemed to be some possibility that Japan was not yet committed to war. A reinforcement of Hong Kong, along with simultaneous bolstering of garrisons in Malaya, could indicate to Tokyo that Britain was serious about defending its Far Eastern possessions. This psychological rationale was important. So too, were domestic political reasons. With Canadian troops not yet in action overseas, with the Conservative opposition on the verge of calling for conscription and implicitly accusing the Mackenzie King government of being unwilling to fight, to turn down a direct request for men was politically all but impossible. In the circumstances, and with no significant opposition being expressed from any quarter, the War Cabinet approved the deployment and told Crerar to find two battalions of infantry for Hong Kong. The decision to dispatch troops thus had both military and political origins.
Tellingly, however, the Canadian Army in 1941 had no independent intelligence on Japanese intentions or strength in the Far East. Relying on what had been heard from Britain that there seemed to be no immediate prospect of war, Crerar chose two battalions from a list of units that were deemed unready for action. His choice fell on the Royal Rifles of Canada, a Quebec City battalion with a substantial number of francophones in its ranks, and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Both units had served on garrison duty, one in Newfoundland and one in Jamaica, and Army Headquarters anticipated that their duty in Hong Kong would not be dissimilar. Neither regiment was completely trained by 1941 standards or at full strength, but the deficiencies could be remedied, the ranks filled by drafts of men in Canada, and the training completed on ship or on the ground in Hong Kong, or so Crerar and his staff believed. The War Office soon asked Ottawa to provide a brigade headquarters and to proceed with maximum haste, and Ottawa readily complied, giving Brigadier J.K. Lawson, an able Permanent Force officer, the task. “C” Force, as it was dubbed, was set to go.
Now errors quickly began to compound. The drafts of reinforcements sent to the regiments included, as Major Kenneth Baird of the Grenadiers bitterly wrote in a diary he hid as a PoW, “some of the yellowest scum that any unit could be cursed with.” The training centres “sent us their sweepings…not worth the powder to blow them to hell.”
Many of the 436 soldiers the Grenadiers absorbed had very little training on small arms or tactics, and neither regiment had participated in battalion-scale exercises, their previous garrison duties requiring little more than mounting guards; certainly the two units had never had the opportunity to work together on exercise. At the same time, the 15 junior officers posted with the Winnipeg Grenadiers received a chilly welcome from the old hands, many with Great War experience and long service together in the peacetime militia, or so wrote Lieutenant Leonard Corrigan. This was not promising. Most seriously of all, an inefficient Army Headquarters failed to get “C” Force’s vehicles to the Pacific coast in time for as many of them as possible to be loaded on board the Awatea, the transport ship carrying the troops. The vehicles duly followed a week later aboard the Don Jose, an American ship that arrived in Manila after the Pacific war had begun. U.S. forces, naturally enough, took the trucks for their own use, and the Canadian battalions received none. That would matter.
The Canadian force of 96 officers, including two nursing sisters, and 1,877 men disembarked at Hong Kong on Nov. 16 where they formed part of a garrison of some 14,000 British and Indian troops and Hong Kong volunteers. They settled in and visited the fleshpots. As one Winnipeg Grenadier, Private Don MacPherson, wrote later, he and his mates visited a bowling alley where “there would be at least a dozen beautiful Chinese prostitutes outside.” They would come up to the soldiers and say “Good time one dollar?” MacPherson added somewhat wistfully, “And to think we still went bowling!”
On duty, the Canadian troops scouted the terrain and listened to briefings. There were only 5,000 Japanese nearby, ill-equipped, short of artillery, unused to night fighting, and their few supporting obsolete aircraft were flown by myopic pilots, or so Hong Kong’s commander, Maj.-Gen. C.M. Maltby, told the officers. Such militarily ethnocentric, not to say racist, views were common in Western military circles; most observers unimpressed by the fighting skills demonstrated by Japanese troops against Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists and even less impressed by the way Soviet troops in 1938 and 1939 had easily manhandled Japanese troops in major border “skirmishes.” This attitude reached most of the newly arrived Canadians. “I realized that if the Japanese attacked they’d wipe us out,” one recalled. “We’ve got no air force. No navy, no place to go,” he said. “We won’t have to worry, Wilf,” came the response from his mates. “It’s them that will be running away.”
Now heavily populated (seven million) and a manufacturing hub, Hong Kong in 1941 was still largely undeveloped, its population just above 1.5 million. The people of the New Territories on the mainland clustered around Kowloon, while the defences of the Gin Drinkers’ Line on the hills to the north were unfinished and only lightly manned, a foolhardy situation with the colony’s water reservoirs all on the mainland. Lightly settled in relative terms, Hong Kong Island itself had most of its population at Victoria on the north coast opposite Kowloon.
The British defence plan, formulated by Maltby, Grasett’s successor, called for the Gin Drinkers’ Line to be manned by three battalions and held for at least a week. On Hong Kong Island, the remainder of his troops, a British machine-gun battalion working from pillboxes and the two Canadian battalions, would defend the coasts, guarding against an attack from the sea. Maltby’s force thus was spread out thinly and weak everywhere. When the well-trained and well-led Japanese 38th Division attacked on Dec. 8, and when it rapidly overcame the defences on the mainland, the surviving defenders began to evacuate their positions on the night of Dec. 10; the last had gone by the 13th. The debacle on the mainland shattered the morale of the British staff as the Japanese outfought the defenders at every turn, but Maltby nonetheless rebuffed Japanese demands for the surrender of the colony. Now the Canadians and their British and Indian comrades were in for it.
Maltby’s newly improvised defence plan divided the island and put one Canadian battalion in each of his two brigades. The Royal Rifles found themselves in the East Brigade under Brig. C. Wallis, an Indian Army lieutenant-colonel with the local rank of brigadier; the Winnipeg Grenadiers served under Lawson in the West Bde. Even before the Japanese launched their assault across the harbour on Dec. 18, the War Diary of the Rifles noted on Dec. 11 that Wallis’ new brigade staff “were in a highly nervous state and apparently very tired,” likely a euphemistic way of saying that the officers were drunk. Baird’s diary later said much the same: “the Powers that Be…. what a flop they were. It really was pitiful, the chaos that filled them all at Battle Headquarters….”
The next week was bloody. After their amphibious landing, Japanese infantry quickly split the island’s defences in two, while their artillery pounded the defenders and aircraft flew freely overhead. Fifth columnists sabotaged whatever they could. Water was in short supply. “The whole thing was disorganized confusion,” one Winnipeg Grenadier recalled. “Nobody was prepared for it. There was no communication. We didn’t have transportation. You carried everything on your back.” The vehicles left behind in Canada were greatly missed though, as the enemy had air superiority, how long they could have lasted was uncertain.
The two Canadian battalions faced heavy odds. Lawson’s men tried to hold the critical Wong Nei Chong gap in the centre of the island, and his brigade headquarters became cut off on Dec. 19. In his last radio message to Maltby, Lawson said he was “going outside to fight it out” with a pistol in each hand. He fell soon after, and Lawson’s courage drew recognition from the Japanese, who buried him with some ceremony, as a Japanese colonel noted, “on the battleground on which he had died so heroically.”
The Grenadiers then fought on for three days in the Wong Nei Chong gap area that left some 800 Japanese dead and wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel J.L.R. Sutcliffe, commanding officer of the battalion, had organized his headquarters company into three “flying columns” and these sub-units tried to relieve men under siege on high ground called Jardine’s Lookout. These attempts failed, and A Company of the Grenadiers, brought north to reinforce this thrust and to seize nearby Mount Butler, was destroyed by a Japanese battalion. “All officers, NCOs and men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner,” but in attempting to move the few survivors back to Wong Nei Chong gap, Company Sgt.-Maj. J. R. Osborn repeatedly tossed back enemy grenades and then fell on one to save at least six or seven men. Those who lived were soon taken captive, and Osborn was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross after Japan’s defeat.
More desperate battles followed in the centre of the island. On Dec. 20, the Grenadiers’ B Company launched yet another counterattack toward Wong Nei Chong, but ran into a Japanese battalion at Mount Nicholson. After losing two officers and 20 men, the company withdrew, only to advance once more at first light on the 21st. Again it was savaged by the Japanese, all its officers, its sergeant major, six non-commissioned officers and 29 men of the 98 who had gone into the attack being killed, wounded or captured. The Grenadiers now concentrated their remaining and dwindling resources on nearby Mount Cameron and held the position under fierce artillery fire for more than a day, only to be driven off by a Japanese battalion. By Dec. 23, while heavy fighting continued in the Grenadiers’ area, a message to Ottawa and London made clear that no organized defence remained, “Further fighting will be uncontrolled and confined to centres of resistance…. No water in hand and all men physically exhausted after days of continuous fighting. Very heavy mortaring and dive bombing….” Sutcliffe had radioed Ottawa on the 22nd that Lawson and Colonel Pat Hennessy, his second in command, had been killed. “Situation critical. Canadian troops part prisoner residue engaged casualties heavy….Troops have done magnificent work spirit excellent.”
While the Winnipeg Grenadiers fought for their lives, the Royal Rifles on the eastern half of the island also faced fierce attacks. Discovering that fifth columnists (or Japanese troops dressed as Chinese “coolies”) had seized Sai Wan Fort, an old redoubt, the regiment’s C Company, commanded by Major W.A. Bishop, organized a counterattack with two platoons that failed despite extraordinary efforts to retake the position. By mid-morning on Dec. 19, Wallis had ordered a retreat southwards and the Royal Rifles took up new positions before being launched into futile counterattacks against the advancing enemy. There were local successes, marked by extraordinary courage. But the Canadians and men of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps were running low on ammunition, especially mortar bombs, the British artillery had been all but eliminated, and Japanese numbers eventually prevailed everywhere.
By Dec. 24, it was certainly clear—as it had been for at least three days—that surrender was inevitable. With his men in bad shape, Lt.-Col. W.J. Home, the CO of the Royal Rifles “insisted that the Battalion should be relieved, otherwise he would not be responsible for what would happen.” Most of the Rifles then pulled back to Stanley Fort, but on Christmas Day, D Company was ordered by Wallis’ headquarters to launch a useless, suicidal attack on Japanese positions in Stanley Village. The orders for this “last glorious charge” were received by the soldiers in silence. “Not one of them could believe such a preposterous order,” Sgt. George MacDonnell wrote long after, but he told his troops that “at least this is better than waiting for the inevitable.” Their bayonet attack amazingly took the position, but D Company lost 26 killed and 75 wounded. Shortly thereafter, word reached Wallis and the Royal Rifles that Maltby had surrendered.
For troops with spotty training, inadequate weapons, no transport and little time to become acclimatized to Hong Kong, the Canadians had fought very well, something recognized in enemy accounts. They inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, most especially at Wong Nei Chong gap, and their wild counterattacks imposed delay on the enemy. The Japanese killed 293 men of the brigade headquarters, the Grenadiers, and the Royal Rifles in the fighting and its aftermath, and wounded 493. This amounted to a 40 per cent casualty rate, an extraordinarily high ratio in a week of fierce fighting.
The Japanese Army, which suffered by its own account 2,096 men killed and wounded, had fought with great courage and skill, but after the surrender its discipline broke down completely and the soldiers engaged in an orgy of rape and murder. At one improvised hospital at St. Stephen’s College, soldiers bayoneted patients in their beds, raped nurses and volunteer aides and killed some of them. Captured soldiers were murdered or mutilated, their tongues cut off. “They took us,” one Canadian private later wrote, “ripped off our insignia, took our shoes, belts, pictures and wristwatches….They took out DesLaurier and two or three others and used them for bayonet practice all night long. We could hear them.” But at another hospital, one report noted, “the kindest and most considerate treatment was accorded by the Japanese commander who did everything in his power to be friendly and courteous.” Everything, it seemed, depended on the character of the officer in command.
The Hong Kong PoWs would now discover that everything indeed depended on the Japanese. The Japanese had never ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners and thought soldiers who surrendered to be cowards. A “PoW is not a guest,” one Japanese academic wrote in 1942, and certainly the Canadians confined at North Point Camp and Shamshuipo in Hong Kong were never treated as such. Rations were invariably scanty and the secret diary kept by Baird of the Grenadiers told a tale of slow starvation—indeed, they are a record of meals eaten or dreamt. “We all seem to think, dream and speak of food,” he wrote 20 days after his capture, with three-and-a-half years more to go. Rifleman D.L. Welsh of the Royal Rifles also kept a diary and recorded his daily rations: “May 1, 1942: Breakfast—Had rice, brown sugar, one bun and black tea. Dinner—had two buns and black tea. Supper—Had rice, one eggplant and cold water.” For men being forced to do hard labour, initially in extending the runways at Hong Kong’s airfield and hauling gravel in baskets, this was completely insufficient both in caloric content and in vitamins. Welsh died on Oct. 5, 1942. His surviving comrades were all in poor health, with almost no medicines to treat their illnesses; many died of diphtheria.
Adding to the Canadians’ miseries was Kanao Inouye, an “honorary corporal” and translator for the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police who prowled through the PoW camp. Born in Kamloops, B.C., and known as the Kamloops Kid, Inouye made up for the discrimination he had suffered as a youth by abusing PoWs. Three died as a result of his special attention, others suffered fierce beatings, and one soldier recollected that “He was a sadist, no question about it.” There was retribution after Japan’s defeat when Inouye was tried, convicted and hanged. Also punished after the war were the officers responsible for the torture and execution of four Winnipeg Grenadiers who tried to escape in August 1942.
In 1943, 1,184 Canadian PoWs were moved by ship to Japan and forced to work in foul conditions in mines and shipyards. Food, ordinarily about 800 calories a day, and medicines were scarce, and 136 of the men died in the camps. But the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and freed the PoWs after almost four years imprisonment in August 1945. The Grenadiers’ MacPherson recalled that at Oeyama the camp commandant told the PoWs “that the war was over and now we were all friends again. He then had a large pig delivered to the gate and let it go into the compound. I don’t think it had time to squeal before it was in the pot.” A few days later USAAF B17s dropped one hundred oil drums of food to the starving prisoners. “I ate 32 of those large Hershey bars,” MacPherson remembered, “and 11 large cans of peaches in two days! I just ate and threw up and ate and threw up.” Like many of the PoWs who suffered from beriberi, pellagra, “electric feet” and other diseases caused by vitamin deficiency, MacPherson had already begun to lose his eyesight.
A few of the captured Canadians forgave the Japanese for their ill-treatment and for the deaths of 264 of their comrades in the PoW cages in Hong Kong and Japan. Most of the 1,418 Canadians who survived the war and returned home could never do so, and Japan’s complete failure to offer restitution or genuine apologies did nothing to ease the long-lived bitterness.
In 1998, I became the Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum. Then in its wholly inadequate quarters on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, the museum had a small exhibit on the December 1941 battle of Hong Kong, one that suggested the British Crown colony and its defenders, including almost 2,000 Canadians, had succumbed easily to better trained Japanese troops. The exhibit used much of its space to denounce Japan’s treatment of its PoWs, a display offensive enough to the Japanese Embassy that the museum was half-offered donations from Japanese companies if the exhibit was toned down. I left the exhibit unaltered.
One day in the middle of my two-year term I received a visit from David Golden, a retired and distinguished public servant who had been the Deputy Minister of Defence Production and then of Industry and also the head of Telesat Canada. In 1941, Golden had been a 21-year-old officer in the Winnipeg Grenadiers he told me, and he had survived the battle and four years as a prisoner of war. Expressing the views of his comrades, Golden asked if the museum could present the battle more accurately. There had been heavy Canadian and Japanese casualties in the fighting, something that made clear the fact that the defenders of Hong Kong had resisted strenuously. It was a defeat, yes, but the Canadians had fought well against the odds in a struggle that deserved more recognition. Very simply, Golden was right, unlike the embassy official. The new Canadian War Museum now presents “C” Force’s battle in a much fairer way. So too, I hope, does this account.
Email the writer at: [email protected]
Email a letter to the editor at: [email protected]