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The Battle of Hong Kong does not sit easily into the campaign narratives around which Hirohito’s War has been structured. Although the battle started on the same day as Pearl Harbor and the invasions of Malaya and the Philippines, it was an outlying battle on the Chinese mainland whose eastern and southern coasts had already been largely subsumed by Japanese forces in the first four years of the Second Sino-Japanese War. To a large extent therefore, with regards to the ongoing war in China, Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong was a tying up of loose ends – a minor military exercise. For the British too, Hong Kong, had already been given up as of negligible strategic value – it must have come as a surprise to both sides therefore that Hong Kong was yielded at much greater cost than Singapore, around which British defense of its empire in the Far East had been based.

There was no realistic prospect of Hong Kong surviving an attack by the Japanese Army. As Japan became increasingly engaged in fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Armies after the Marco Polo bridge incident in July 1937, which signaled the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the government in London was awakened to the threats in Asia. In a review of the international situation in 1937 the British Chiefs of Staff had concluded that after Germany, Britain’s most likely enemy was Japan. As for Hong Kong, the British Chiefs of Staff decided that Hong Kong should be regarded as an important though not vital outpost to be defended for as long as possible.

The issue of Hong Kong’s defense gathered more urgency after 21 October 1938 when the Japanese occupied the province of Canton (Guangzhou) that surrounds Hong Kong. It was decided that Singapore and Malaya could be defended but studies showed that Hong Kong was indefensible to a Japanese attack. Not only was the Japanese Army fully embedded in Eastern China but Hong Kong was vulnerable to a Japanese fleet that controlled the South China Sea. The British Fleet in Singapore was both too weak and, at 1,600 miles, was too far distant to be able to render assistance. Moreover Japan’s colony of Formosa, with its numerous Japanese airfields, was just 400 miles across the water. Combined with the absence of a sufficient American naval presence in the Philippines, it meant that Hong Kong was pincered between Japan’s armies and its control of the seas between Vietnam and Formosa.

In reviewing their Asian assets therefore, Hong Kong’s ability to sustain a meaningful or protracted defense was largely discounted. In April 1938 Hong Kong’s General Commanding Officer (GOC) wrote to the war office to to warn that “In the event of a wanton attack on Hong Kong, the garrison would have no option but to fight”; but he concluded gloomily, “ The chances of effecting prolonged resistance even in the best circumstances seem slight.”1 Britain even considered making Hong Kong an open city as they later did with the concessions at Tianjin (Tientsin) when Japanese troops were allowed uncontested entrance. By August 1940 little had changed and, determined not to waste resources on indefensible assets in China, the British Joint Chiefs of Staff withdrew two battalions from the Shanghai International Settlement; about Hong Kong they concluded, “We should resist the strong pressure to reinforce Hong Kong and we should certainly be unable to relieve it.”2 Their conclusions were in part based on the recommendations of Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-chief of the British Far East Command. The logic of not committing to the defense of Hong Kong must have been obvious to any observer.

A dispatch sent to Hong Kong on 15 August for the eyes of the GOC made it clear that “Hong Kong is not a vital interest and the garrison could not withstand a Japanese attack.”3 Sent on the cargo liner SS Automedon, on 11 November the message was intercepted en route from Liverpool to Hong Kong by a German attack cargo ship, Atlantis; eventually the stash of secret documents found on board Automedon ended up in the hands of the German Ambassador in Tokyo, who passed it on to the Japanese government.

Churchill too was realistic about the defense of Hong Kong. “We must avoid frittering away our resources on untenable positions”4 he declared. In January 1941, he opined that Hong Kong garrison should be “reduced to a symbolic scale”.5 However, if the British and American governments were counting on China to resist a Japanese advance in Asia, how could they encourage Chiang Kai-shek if they simply abandoned Hong Kong to its fate. In 1941 therefore there was a change of heart in London. Hong Kong would be reinforced by Canadian troops. It was a politically driven compromise. Churchill reversed the decision not to reinforce Hong Kong in September 1941 as a sop to appease Chiang Kai-shek, whose armies were holding down 1.5m Japanese troops in China. On 19 September the Dominion Office cabled Ottawa stating, “a small reinforcement of the garrison of Hong Kong… would be very fully justified…. have a very great moral effect in the whole of the Far East and would reassure Chiang Kai-shek as to the reality of our intent to hold the island.”6 The hopeless military situation of Hong Kong had not changed. It was a decision that would generate considerable heat in post-war debate.

As a result of the Chief of Staffs’ reappraisement, the defense of Hong Kong was upgraded. This included not only Hong Kong Island, which was transferred to Britain on a perpetual rent free lease in the Convention of Peking [1860] after the Second Opium War, but also the New Territories, comprising some 200 islands and the mainland up to the Sham Chun River, which was transferred to Britain on a 99-year lease by the Second Convention of Peking [1898]. A defensive line was constructed to protect the New Territories from attack; it was a series of bunkers, machine gun posts, entrenchments and artillery positions that stretched for 18 miles across the New Territories from Shenzen Bay to the Starling Inlet. The New Territories defensive barrier, sometimes referred to as the Maginot Line of the East, became better known as the Gin Drinker’s Line. On Hong Kong as well as New Kowloon, defenses were beefed up at the Wong Nai Chung Gap, Lye Moon Passage, Shing Mun Redoubt, Devil’s Peak and Stanley Fort. However the efforts made to beef up Hong Kong’s defenses were patchy at best. Moreover there were simply not enough troops to fully man the Gin Drinkers Line.

Furthermore Wing Commander H.G. Sullivan arrived at Kai Tak Airfield to find three Vildebeeste torpedo bombers and two Walrus amphibians – all over ten years old. He reported, “It had been suggested that dispersal bays be carved out of the hills, but like everything else in Hong Kong these did not materialize.”7 The Royal Air Force based at Kai Tak Airfield was embarrassing token. A request for a fighter squadron had been rejected. The nearest RAF station was at Koto Bharu some 1,400 miles away. Naval resources were even more derisory. Just a single destroyer HMS Thracian remained in Hong Kong with several gunboats and a number of torpedo boats.

An offer by the Canadian government to send two infantry battalions to Hong Kong comprising 1,975 troops was accepted. It seems unlikely that they were aware of the pessimistic military assessment. Thus the Royal Rifles from Quebec and the Winnipeg grenadiers, minus a considerable portion of their motorized equipment arrived on 16 November aboard the troop ship Awatea and the merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert. This merchant vessel had been dragooned into service for the Canadian Navy, which boasted just six modern destroyers. Bizarrely the colonial authorities refused to organize a mass armament of the native Hong Kong Chinese – a cause of not a little resentment toward the British. As Hong Kong’s Chief Information Officer admitted, “there cannot have been less than 75,000 Chinese who would willingly have borne arms and fought.”8 Although it was still a token defense, it nevertheless doomed thousands more soldiers to either death or the hardships of imprisonment. As the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart concluded, “Even the Japanese never committed such folly for face, as did the British in this case.”9

Canada’s Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, Mackenzie King, had brought a motion to the House of Commons on 10 September 1939 to declare war on Germany. This had been done a week after George VI’s declaration of war so as to make clear that it was Canada’s independent decision. Clearly Mackenzie King had overcome his previous conviction, developed on a tour to Europe in 1937 that “the world will yet come to see a very great man-mystic in Hitler.”10 The motion was supported by the opposition Conservative Party led by Robert Manion.

Canada’s reinforcements had brought the Allied troops up to 12,500. After their arrival in Hong Kong, Jan Henrik Marsman, a construction engineer wrote, “After the arrival of a few thousand Canadians, everybody felt that the Crown Colony could and would be defended successfully. It was a psychological miracle.”11 Other infantry forces included the Royal Scots Regiment, the Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment, 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 5th Battalion 7th Rajput Regiment, and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Infantry contingents had also been provided by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps; in fact Indian and Chinese troops comprised 35 percent of the Allied force.

British forces in Hong Kong were not in prime condition. Brigadier Cedric Watts noted, “with many young and inexperienced officers and newly arrived recruits in Indian units, all units were badly in need of training.”12 This apart, his Indian units had been ‘milked’ of its best soldiers to seed newly raised battalions.

In spite of this assessment, Britain’s Commander-in-Chief in the Far East, Air Vice Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was adamant that his Hong Kong’s troops were far superior to the Japanese. Addressing officers at the main theatre in the disreputable Wanchai district of Hong Kong, Brooke-Popham told them that the Japanese had “dirty uniforms” and were a “sub-human species” and he could not “believe that they would form an intelligent fighting force.”13 Not everybody present agreed. Brigadier Cedric Wallis said about Brooke-Popham, “the Air Marshal must be very badly informed and making a great mistake in belittling the Japs.”14 Throughout Asia British officers with knowledge of the Japanese Army were ignored. When Colonel GT Ward, a military attaché in Tokyo, lectured a group of officers in Tokyo on the excellent morale and superb training of Japanese troops, the senior British officer present became distinctly agitated and gave his opinion that Ward’s views were “far from the truth.”15 Another staff officer in Hong Kong, when asked whether Hong Kong could be overrun, pompously dismissed the possibility: “Preposterous notion old boy. The Japs haven’t the manpower or the skill. Why, one of our soldiers is worth three of theirs.”16

The British General Officer in Command [GOC] was Major-General Maltby, a slim fair-haired fifty-year old 30-year veteran of the Indian Army. His battle experience was against rebellious Pathans on the Northwest Frontier. He had a reputation for coolness won, which was won in the Persian Gulf in World War I. He was not surprised when his forces were attacked at 8.00 am on 8 December 1941. Set against them were 52,000 Japanese troops of the 38th Division commanded by Lieutenant-General Takashi Sakai. As an opener, Kai Tak Airfield was bombarded by Japan’s 45th Air Regiment and Hong Kong’s aircraft destroyed. Imperial GHQ gave Sakai ten days to capture Hong Kong. In London, Douglas Amaron optimistically reported that Hong Kong “may develop into a Tobruk of the Pacific.”17

Many Hong Kong residents must have wondered why the Japanese Army would bother with a Hong Kong that represented no military threat to its interests in China. As with other Imperial acquisitions Japan leaders believed that they could use this famously rich financial center and entrepôt to its economic advantage. Hong Kong also had an important naval base with concomitant docking and repair facilities. In the event, as in the rest of the Empire, Japan was able to destroy but not rebuild. Hong Kong became an Imperial burden while the naval facilities did not prove to be usefully located.

At the beginning of December reports that Japanese troops were massing on the border began to filter through to Hong Kong. The threats were ignored by a complacent Hong Kong social elite. With war fast approaching the British expatriates in Hong Kong sustained the niceties of colonial life to the last. Beach parties and picnics, bridge afternoons, regattas at the Yacht Club, cocktails at the Jockey Club and sundowners at the Repulse Bay Hotel were the fabric of colonial life in Hong Kong. Dances at the Peak Club or dinners at the Peninsula Hotel were much more important than worrying about the Japanese, who were not considered militarily capable in the face of western trained forces. As one British officer noted about the colonial laziness and complacency for which Singapore has become more famous, there was “a determined unwillingness to have the pleasant routine of their lives disturbed by those ‘short-arsed yellow bastards’ who were overrunning China.”18 Indeed in 1934 a Colonial Office bureaucrat in London reported that Hong Kong was “the most self-satisfied of all the colonies except Malaya.”19

Up until the last minute many Englishmen believed that Japan would never have the nerve to attack the British Empire. When reports arrived from the Punjabi units on the mainland front that a force of 38,000 Japanese was maneuvering for an attack, many were incredulous. When Captain Iain McGregor, Maltby’s ADC, met with the Chairman of Hong Kong Shanghai Bank to propose a mobilization of the Hong Kong Volunteers – a move that would seriously inconvenience operations at the bank, he received a less than friendly welcome: “Good God, Iain. You know how these army fellows flap. You know our intelligence is far betters than theirs [Army Intelligence].”20 The Chairman had been told that one their managers in Manchuria had dined with the Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Kwantung Army the night before and had been assured that Japan would never attack its old ally, Great Britain. Another banker was reported as scoffing at the suggestion of an attack: “There is no war, sir, and there never will be. The Japanese have more sense than to attack a British colony.”21

Although the senior intelligence officer in Hong Kong, Major Charles Boxer had long warned of the Japanese threat, it seems that he misread the imminence of their attack. Boxer, a graduate of Sandhurst in 1923, had learnt Dutch and Portugese before going to the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS] to learn Japanese. After the war he would become the professor of Portugese at King’s College, London. In 1931 he served with the 38th Nara Infantry in Kyoto and lived in their barracks, though they did not neglect to provide him with a cook-concubine to make his life somewhat easier. Clearly a ladies-man, when his wife was sent back to Australia for her safety, Boxer took up with Emily Hahn, a former opium junky; she had come to Hong Kong to write a book about the famous Soong sisters (Meiling was married to Chiang Kai-shek) but she tarried to live quite openly with Boxer and even bore him an illegitimate child – though eventually after the vicissitudes of war and imprisonment they did eventually marry.

On the morning of 7 December a Punjabi patrol spotted the movement of Japanese forces and the information was speedily relayed to Maltby, who was attending Anglican Sunday morning service. “The Punjabis say there are at least 20,000 soldiers in the area, perhaps even more,” he was told; “they must be exaggerating, “ he replied, “Our intelligence people are certain there are only 5,000 at most.”22    

The same evening Boxer went to the frontier and could see no evidence of Japanese movement. Rumors of troop movements were thought to have been spread by the Japanese themselves. That night an intelligence missive to the War Office in London, which was either written or approved by Boxer, suggested “the reports (of Japanese movements) are certainly exaggerated.”23 Two days earlier Boxer had dined with a senior Japanese officer across the border. Japanese intentions had been well camouflaged.

Even on the day of the Japanese attack, the famous Palace Floating Restaurant was full; the South China Morning Post reported the next day that life went on “as if we were taking part in yet another exercise.”24 John Harris of the Royal Engineers recalled, “The city carried on as usual. The shops and offices were all open… the story still prevailed that the Japanese could neither move nor see at night!”25 British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Holmes complained, “We seem to be on some peacetime festival rather than on the brink of war.”26

Maltby had already decided to make no attempt to hold the Japanese at the Sham Chung River, but deployed three battalions along the Gin Drinker’s Line. Having crossed the river, on 8 December, General Sakai’s launched attacks at the Shing Mun Redoubt and Golden Hill, which after being retaken by the Royal Scots, had to be evacuated later in the day. The end of the Royal Scots resistance seemingly came when ‘friendly fire’ scored a direct hit on a concrete pillbox on the Shing Mun Redoubt. The position was rapidly yielded. Three infantrymen were later dug out alive from the collapsed pillbox by Japanese troops. With battle-lines set Maltby had given his order of the day with a rousing Nelsonesque flourish: “I expect each and every man of my force to stick it out unflinchingly, and that my force will become a great example of high-hearted courage to all the rest of the Empire who are fighting to preserve the truth, justice and liberty for the world.”27

On Hong Kong’s peaks the start of the war was plainly visible. Seeing black smoke billowing from Kai Tax Airfield, Emily Hahn, from the comfort of her terrace, assumed that the RAF’s pathetic force had been destroyed. Others were more sanguine. From the terrace of an adjoining property she heard a pipe-smoking Englishmen complain, “That’s it. The Japanese have committed suicide.”28

Having been forced to give up the relatively short 18-mile defences of the Gin Drinker’s Line, which meant that the New Territories and Kowloon were now considered indefensible, Maltby began the withdrawal of his troops to Hong Kong Island on 11 December. The Rajput battalions were the last to be withdrawn in a fighting retreat two days later. Lieutenant-General Takashi Sakai demanded a surrender, which was refused. Almost all heavy equipment was successfully withdrawn.

In Hong Kong mixed messages were coming back from the mainland front. James Bertram at the Ministry of Information was writing a press release saying the Japanese were being wiped out in the New Territories when Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, on her way to the Red Cross office next door told him: “Better scrap that one. Rumor has it Gin Drinkers is in trouble and the Japanese will soon be entering Kowloon.”29

Sakai had expected that Britain’s main effort to defend the city would be on the mainland. Colonel Doi explained their surprisingly “inactive” defense as a result of “their estimate that it would take at least several days for the Japanese troops to approach their position.”30 Similarly a surprised Colonel Tosaka recalled, “In actuality the British Army did not show great resistance on the expected Gin Drinkers Line.”31 The result was that “little thought had been given to an attack on Hong Kong Island.”32 The decision to fight on Hong Kong Island and Sakai’s frustration at the delay to the ’10-day’ operational deadline given by his commanders at Imperial General Headquarters may partially explain the later brutality of the Japanese Army.

Now in a panic, Major Boxer contacted Colonel ‘Fatty’ Liao, an officer of Chiang Kai-shek’s 8th Route Army, to see if he could conduct guerilla action but it soon became clear that the Chinese were short of arms and that the British forces had none to spare. A senior British officer told Boxer, “I am sorry, old fellow, but we simply don’t have the guns to spare. Like everything else, the guerilla plan has been left too late.”33

The retreat from the mainland was swiftly followed by a demand by General Sakai for the colony to surrender. Governor Sir Mark Young, a diplomat who had formerly worked in Ceylon, the Carribean and the Middle-East, declined the invitation. When Boxer gave the reply, the Japanese interpreter remarked, “It will be a pity if we have to level this beautiful city.”34

In the lull that followed the retreat from the mainland, the Governor remained upbeat; “There is every reason for confidence,” he declaimed in the South China Morning Post, “Reserves of food, guns and ammunition are ample for a protracted defense on a siege scale. The garrison is in good spirits and the staunchness of the civilian population is marked.”35 Rumors that Chang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Armies were preparing to attack Japanese forces from the rear gave some grounds for optimism. But in reality Kuomintang efforts were limited to a few desultory acts of sabotage on the Canton-Kowloon railway. In London, Winston Churchill also attempted to keep up spirits in his inimical way,

We are all watching day by day and hour by hour your stubborn defense of the port of Hong Kong. You guard a link between the Far East and Europe long famous in world civilization. We are sure that the defense of Hong Kong against barbarous and unprovoked attack will add a glorious page to the British annals. All our hearts are with you and your ordeal. Every day of your existence brings nearer our certain final victory.”36

A heavy bombardment of Hong Kong began on 15 December and two days later a further demand for the British to surrender was made. Somewhat bizarrely in view of the Japanese Army’s stance on fighting to the last man and treating surrender as the worst form of personal dishonor, Sakai was flabbergasted by the second British refusal to surrender. Maltby wrote on 1 January 1942,

The (Japanese) envoys seemed genuinely surprised and disconcerted when the proposals were summarily rejected. The second delegation coming within four days of the first suggested that either a) they disliked the prospect of attacking across the water, b) that the Chinese threat in their rear was taking effect, or c) that it was an attempt to undermine our morale by fostering thoughts of peace and quiet.37

In contrast to the upbeat public pronouncements, Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of Staff of the British Army in London, noted in his diary on that day, “I doubt whether Hong Kong will hold out for a fortnight.”38 British newspapers were equally gloomy. A Daily Express editorial concluded, Hong Kong “has neither the strategic value nor the fighting chance of Tobruk. We must be prepared for its fall.”39 The Daily Mirror meanwhile summed up Governor Young’s reply in a suitably feisty headline: “GO TO HELL”40

Japanese landings began on the north side of the island on the evening of 18 December at North Point and Braemar Point. Specially trained swimmers cleared mines guarding the approaches to the shore to enable light landing skiffs to bring across troops. When they arrived, soldier entered Chinese homes and confiscated clothing, particularly male apparel; this they used “to infiltrate unobserved through the streets.”41

A parallel landing was made at Aldrich Bay to the northeast. Expertise at night fighting helped the Japanese to sweep inland with little resistance, in spite of the much-hyped reports of an island bristling with defenses including a honeycomb of shelters and tunnels and a ‘gun encrusted backbone’. Twenty gunners who surrendered were executed; when they bayonetted the “unsuspecting men from the rear amidst cheers from enemy (Japanese) onlookers… All the while, the Japanese were talking and laughing.”42 Meanwhile at the Silesian mission at Shau Kei Wan, medics were surrounded. Two wounded Indian soldiers who arrived in a Red Cross ambulance were summarily killed. Male staff were rounded up and murdered. When a Canadian doctor protested, “We are medical personnel. Noncombattants” the reply was “I’m sorry. We have instructions from our commander-in-chief. You must all die.”43 Dr. Martin Banfill, a witness to the slaughter, survived when an officer ordered that he be taken off for questioning before being killed. He survived to be put into a POW camp. Just as there were random victims of Japanese sadism and brutality so there were random survivors.

The defenders would be disappointed by false reports that Chang Kai-shek’s armies under General Tsai Tingkai were attacking just twenty-eight miles north of the New Territories. Meanwhile on the 18 December, Churchill relayed a message to Hong Kong: “We expect you to resist to the end. The honor of the Empire is in your hands.”44

Only ten hours after landing, Japanese troops were so close to West Brigade headquarters at Wong Nei Chong Gap that Canadian Brigadier John Lawson was forced to destroy his cyphers. Lawson sent a message: “SITUATION GRAVE. DEEP PENETRATION MADE BY ENEMY”.45 Fighting continued on 19 December with the headquarters of West Brigade (comprising the Royal Scots, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Punjab unit and the Canadian signalers) being overrun. Their commanders, Canadians Brigadier John Lawson and his Chief-of-Staff, Colonel Patrick Hennessy, were killed. Lawson, with his bunker under attack, had decided to go out to fight and did so with a pistol in either hand.

The rapid acquisition of strategic points by advanced Japanese troops was a tactic originally developed by a French officer, Captain Lafarge, during World War I. The tactic, later adopted in the German Army training manual, was to use crack troops to launch rapid and aggressive attacks on key points. As each key target was taken, standard troops occupied their positions. The fast paced infiltration was enabled by fifth columnists, who supplied maps and information.

At the Repulse Bay Hotel guests were dining on the terrace when Japanese snipers opened fire. A seventy-two-hour battle followed. Filled with Swiss, French, German and Russian patrons, the them-and-us nature of the colony continued, gunfire notwithstanding. When a grey-haired matron complained at the hotel reception that a group of Indians were lurking in her corridor, she protested to the manager, Marjorie Matheson, “What is the matter with you. Can’t you keep those creatures in the basement.”46 After three days of fighting, British troops fell back to Port Stanley. Miraculously the non-combatant guests at the hotel were left unharmed. When Japanese troops approached the forty or so wounded officers housed in the bar, the elderly nurse Elizabeth Mosey intervened: “You will have to kill me before you kill them.” These are sick men. If you want to kill them, you’ll have to kill me first.”47

An Allied counterattack failed to dislodge the Japanese from the Wong Nai Chung Gap that passaged from the north to south across the mountainous island. Over the next two days Sakai focused on seizing the central reservoirs, which fed the island. On Mount Butler a defensive action by the Winnipeg Grenadiers ended with the award of the only Victoria Cross in the Battle for Hong Kong when Company Sergeant Major John Osborn, who had retrieved and thrown back numbers of Japanese grenades, threw himself on top of another, an action that killed him but saved up to ten others. Sugar Loaf Hill was taken by the Japanese at noon on 22 December and later that day the Royal Scots were driven off Stanley Mound. That night Maltby ordered a retreat to Stanley Fort. With the defenders split into two fighting continued around strongholds in the west and around Stanley Fort to the southeast.

On 25 December, Sakai’s forces seized St. Stephen’s College, which was being used as a makeshift hospital. Dr. George Black had seen no point in evacuating the ninety-five British and Canadian wounded. Where was there to go? “Frankly I’d rather be here than with the soldiers at Fort Stanley.”48 It turned out to be a poor bet. In spite of putting a Red Cross flag on the roof, when the elderly doctor, Captain Whitney opened the door to the Japanese troops, telling them “this is a hospital. You musn’t come in. Leave us in peace,”49 he was shot at point blank range. Fifty-six wounded soldiers lying in the hallway were bayonetted.

Forty male prisoners were locked into an upstairs storeroom, 10 feet by 20 feet. From here they were taken from the storeroom two or three at a time every twenty or thirty minutes and were mutilated and then killed. Those waiting must have heard the piercing screams of their colleagues. Three young British and two young Chinese nurses were later dragged off screaming and writhing from their room, thrown on to a pile of bodies, gang raped and then murdered. Canadian officer, Captain Overton Hickey was murdered when he tried to stop the Japanese troops from raping nurses. Just two older nurses were spared. Injured soldiers and medics were tortured and killed. One surviving doctor asked to see his wife, a nurse, and was shown her butchered corpse. He lost his mind. Four other men were spared and released but not before two of them had their ears and tongues cut off. They were told: “Go to Fort Stanley and tell your officers what you have seen.”50 As many as 150 people may have been massacred here, including British, Indian, Canadian and Chinese.

Other murders and massacres were recorded at Jardine’s Lookout, Causeway Bay, Deepwater Bay, Maryknoll Mission, Brick Hill and Blue Pool Road. Thirty civilians of mixed nationality were murdered in this last event but the worst massacre of prisoners took place after the Battle of The Ridge; in aggregate about 100 soldiers were massacred in a number of locations, including British and Canadians. In the west the large actions centered on a defensive line around Victoria Harbor with the Royal Scots dug into the slopes of Mount Cameron and the Grenadiers covering Bennet’s Hill. In spite of fierce fighting on Christmas Eve, their positions were eventually overrun and the defenders were forced to surrender.

With water running short, at 3.15pm on Christmas Day, Maltby advised the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, that further resistance was pointless. When Young appeared in person in front of Lieutenant-Colonel Tokuchi Tada at the Peninsula Hotel, Japan’s Headquarters, Hong Kong became the first British Crown Colony to surrender to an invasion.

In aggregate 1,528 defenders were killed. The remaining 11,000 soldiers were sent to prison camps. How many survived the war is unknown but of the 1,689 captured Canadian 267 died in captivity (17.5 percent); a further 600 Canadian troops were wounded. Hong Kong itself was looted. In January 1942 a semblance of order was restored with the setting up of a Hong Kong police force manned with Indian and Chinese recruits but commanded by Japanese officers. Similar forces were organized for the New Territories. Europeans were paraded through the streets to humiliate them in from the Chinese populace. Years of forced labor, brutality and malnutrition would follow. But the civilian prisoners kept in Stanley Internment Camp were the lucky ones. On 1 October the Lisbon Maru, on its way to Japan with 1,834 POWs, was torpedoed by USS Grouper, a Gato Class submarine, which cost the lives of 824 men, either drowned or shot and bayonetted as they tried to escape the sinking ship. A further 200 died in Japan’s bitter winter of 1942-1943. As the US reporter George Baxter concluded that ‘it was plain that humiliation was part of the Jap scheme to convince the natives that the white man had been conquered.”51

During the Japanese occupation a reign of terror continued with the local Chinese population brutalized, and with frequent summary executions. These were carried out by the new police force at King’s Park in Kowloon, either by beheading, shooting or during the course of bayonet practice. Furthermore, in spite of the establishment of a police force, it was estimated that over 10,000 Hong Kong Chinese women were raped during the Japanese years. The Hong Kong dollar was outlawed and citizens were forced to exchange their currency form Japanese military yen. The functions of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank were sequestered and transferred to the Yokohama Specie Bank. As the Japanese economy disintegrated toward the end of the war with inflation rampant, the new yen scrip became worthless and effectively wiped out the wealth of Hong Kong’s inhabitants.

The speaking of English was banned and the education system was Japanized. Street names and places were given Japanese names; Queen’s Road Central became the Meiji Dori and the Peninsula Hotel became the Matsumoto. Radio and press were censored and only Japanese movies were allowed; these included The Battle of Hong Kong [1942], which was made on location in Hong Kong by the Dai Nippon Film Company and was shown on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s capture. Food had to be rationed and civilian allocations were not enough to keep many people from dying of starvation. The result of death and deportations to the mainland meant that the population of the city fell from 1.6m to just 600,000 by the end of the war. The surrender came just in time; by August 1945 there were just 4,000 tons of rice left in the city, just enough to keep the population alive for a month.

In London the fall of Hong Kong was mentioned in a brief sentence in Alanbrooke’s diary entrance on 25 December 1941; he was far more concerned with plans for deployment in Africa and the Middle East. Britain’s interest in Hong Kong thereafter remained mute, at least until after the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. An immediate end to the war loomed large. Although the British Foreign Office had earlier warned, “we have lost a dreadful amount of face and prestige over the fall of Hong Kong and we shall never regain what was lost,”52 Britain immediately set about recovery of its former colonial asset.

Hong Kong, neglected for so long before and during the war, now became the febrile center of attention in London. Alanbrooke noted in his diary on 21 August, “Hong Kong and its relief by British forces before the arrival of either Chinese or American forces filled most of our COS [Chief of Staff Committee) discussion and plans.”53 Further COS discussions centered around Hong Kong on 24 and 27 August, with much disagreement as to whether Lord Louis Mountbatten, nominally the head of Allied Forces in the Far East, should be in charge. A British task force had been quickly formed in Ceylon and sailed for Hong Kong. Rear-Admiral Cecil Harcourt duly arrived and set up a military administration with himself at its head. Japan’s surrender was formally accepted on 16 September 1945.

Harcourt realized that Hong Kong could not go back to the 1941 status quo; Hong Kong Chinese were given positions of authority and allowed to live on the peak. Alexander Graham, returning as Governor in 1947, remarked on a “decline in social snobbishness… I observed, too, a greater mixing of the races.”54 For a while, the Hong Kong Cricket Club remained stubbornly resistant to Chinese membership, though that too eventually changed. That the resident Hong Kong Chinese accepted the return of Great Britain was not surprising. No matter how racist and patronizing the pre-war British colonists, no better advertisement for the British Empire could have been given than the brutal depravities of Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere; both British and Chinese learnt something from this mutually ghastly experience, which helped them to rub along with surprising ease in the post-war period. However the granting of any political power to the Chinese in Hong Kong had to wait until just before the hand back of the city to China in 1997.

After the battle, Lieutenant-General Sakai became the governor of Hong Kong before being replaced in February 1942. He retired from active service in 1943. This did not save him after the war. Arrested and brought before the war crimes tribunal in Nanking, Sakai was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in September 1946. Perhaps surprisingly in Hong Kong “the number of killings and trials with executions and jail terms was stunningly small”55 though the East River Column, a group of about 6,000 guerilla fighters did expend most of their energy on killing collaborators as the war drew to an end. If nothing else the Battle of Hong Kong showed that the murder of civilians and the mass rape of women in Nanking in 1937 was not an isolated aberration.

The story of Hong Kong’s heroic defense may have been irrelevant to the strategic determination of the war but it was meaningful to the thousands of soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in a battle whose only justification was the preservation of British face vis-à-vis Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.

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