My War Years. 1941-1945. | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

My War Years. 1941-1945.

Book type: 
Dates of events covered by this document: 
Mon, 1941-12-08 to Wed, 1945-10-31

Thanks to Michael Parker for sending a copy of these memoirs, discovered while "rummaging through some old Cathay Lodge files at Zetland Hall" .

My war years. 1941 – 1945.
These memoirs were written in the year 1984.

In December 1938 I arrived in Hong Kong to join the floating staff of the China Navigation Co as Second Engineer Officer and was employed on the general China Coast trade going to Tientsin in the North and as far as Bangkok in the South. On the Northern runs we were frequently harassed by the Japanese Army and Navy for it must be remembered that there was a state of war between China and Japan since 1937. Due to this there was a shortage of rice in Shanghai and elsewhere so our ship the S S "Soochow" of 2,000 tons burden was engaged on a run to Rangoon for full cargoes of rice for the people of North China calling in at Singapore and Hong Kong for bunkers, water and general supplies.

So it was that we sailed into Hong Kong harbour at 6 AM on the morning of December 8, 1941 having obviously sailed through the Japanese fleet the previous evening without detection only to be told that England was at war with Japan and therefore we had to proceed to Holt's Wharf and unload our cargo. We had brought up from Singapore a new Colonial Secretary for Hong Kong whose name was Gimson and who had repeatedly told us that there would be no war in the Far East. The bombing of Kai Tak airport and other parts of Hong Kong at 7 AM that morning proved how wrong he was.

By December 12, there appeared to be a lot of confusion in Kowloon and many people were making their way to Hong Kong Island by various means. Shells from some Japanese field guns were coming uncomfortably close to our ship. Indeed, we witnessed the sinking of the Missions to Seamen's launch the "Dayspring" by one such shell just off the bows of our ship.

Orders came through for us to take our ship across the harbour to Taikoo Dockyard which we did with alacrity and I had to act as Chief Engineer is our regular Chief had gone to Kowloon Hospital to see his wife who was a volunteer nurse there. I did not see him again until after the war when I found that he had been interned in Stanley Camp. We gave a lift to a platoon of Hong Kong Volunteers who had been ordered to Hong Kong Island but had no means of transport. The following day we were ordered by the Marine Department to scuttle our vessel alongside the dockyard wall, a task I had to do and which broke my heart to see such a fine vessel which had been home to me for 6 months lost in this ignominious way.

We were offered accommodation in the European Staff Quarters of the Dockyard Company on Stanley Terrace. The next day the Chief Officer of the ship Mr Richard Firkins and I, having decided that it was useless hanging around the deserted Dockyard, set off and walked to the Naval Dockyard H.M.S "Tamar" and volunteered our services. We were thanked most heartily and told to report the next morning. As it was about 4 miles to the Naval Dockyard and as transport on Hong Kong Island was really chaotic, we managed to get 2 rickshaws and eventually arrived at the Naval Yard to be told that, as the Chinese crews of some small vessels in Aberdeen Dockyard had cleared out we had to go and help man the small vessels. Transport on a large truck was provided, and sitting on top of the load we enjoyed the trip only to find on our arrival in Aberdeen that we had been sitting on a load of explosives.

On reporting to an Engineer Captain who, I, think was called Minhinnick, we were directed to a tug-cum-water boat which was being manned by civilian volunteers from the Dockyard in Hong Kong. Dick Firkins was allotted deck duties and I was sent to help the Chief Engineer keep up the head of steam and handle the main engine when necessary. The "Wave" did some towing around the Aberdeen area and after dark supplied water to the 2 river Gunboats and to a small destroyer called H.M.S."Thracian" which was laying further out in Aberdeen anchorage. At one time we had to assist in getting the dead and wounded off an M.T.B.which had been badly shot up whilst on patrol in Hong Kong harbour. By this time, neither Dick Firkins or I had any idea what day of the month it was and am thinking back I would say that it was on the morning of December 17 that the "Wave" was subject to a high-level bombing attack which fortunately did not hurt anyone but did considerable damage to the vessel.

Finding that the "Wave" was not to be used for a while, we looked around for some other means of transport to enable us to carry on the war with the Japanese and it was here that I met another 2nd Engineer Officer from China Navigation, by the name of George Loder, a New Zealander who afterwards became my very good friend in Shamshuipo Camp. In all, there were 4 ships of our Company sunk in Hong Kong harbour, most of the Officers being interned in Stanley Camp.

It was here that George and I were sent along to the Hong Kong and Yaumati Ferry pier in Aberdeen alongside of which was a deserted ferry. We were given the job of getting the engine started so that the ferry could be used to transport some British soldiers to a place in the New Territories where they would land and attack the enemy from the rear. After many unsuccessful attempts to start the engines the ferry came under attack by mortar shells so we cleared off and returned to report same when we were informed that the idea of transporting the troops had been cancelled.

In the meantime Dick Firkins had wandered through Aberdeen and had managed to get hold of a 3 ton truck in very good condition and so we loaded our belongings onto it together with some rifles, revolvers, ammunition, some tinned food and a dozen bottles of whiskey to keep out the cold. One or 2 of the volunteers from the Dockyard who had been with us on the "Wave" and having in their possession a Lewis gun on a stand which could be used against aircraft, so, forming ourselves into a volunteer commando type unit we set off along the road which led to Shouson Hill. We parked along this road and set up the Lewis gun in anticipation of the regular visit of a very small, seaplane which used to fly over the area on small bombing missions. Sure enough the plane came over as expected and received a very warm reception from us and we were highly delighted to find out that he did not appear again.

One day an Army Major accompanied by several soldiers and a portly Chief P.O.from the Navy and said that he was going to fight the enemy and ordered us to go with him. A little further along the road on the opposite side was a single story stone house erected by the Government and had an earthen banking around 3 sides with a narrow passage around the building between it and the embankment. Here we were ordered to line up and fire at some trees and wood huts about 50 yards away. After a long pause 2 grenades were thrown at us. We all dropped down and I was fortunate enough to be under the large P.O.when the grenades exploded badly wounding the Major and several others. We rushed them to a temporary hospital which had been set up in the Aberdeen Industrial School Building which incidentally appeared to be the H.Q. of everything in that area.

Here we received orders to return to the Dockyard and repair the carriage and slipway so that damaged M.T.Bs could be repaired. We moved all our belongings from the truck to a large well filled storeroom and settled in and then had a look at the damaged slipway. There did not appear to be much we could do with what little equipment was left undamaged, however we did find some oxyacetylene equipment but not enough to do the job.

What we did find in the store were enough ingredients to make a mince pie and as someone pointed out that it was Christmas Eve we should have a go at making a pie. The pie was duly made by yours truly and the stove was made out of a kerosene tin and a large blow lamp. The pie was cooked on Christmas day and enjoyed by all. Later that afternoon and army officer walked in and told us to surrender our weapons as Hong Kong had fallen and for us the war was over. Even at this time I did not for one moment consider what was going to happen to me, being a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese did not enter into my mind at all and it was not until we had actually arrived in Shamshuipo Camp and had been addressed by a Japanese Officer that it dawned on me that it was going to be a long time before I saw my parents, or even my Hong Kong friends again.

We spent that night at the Aberdeen Industrial School, sleeping on the floor and being fed on stew and biscuits cooked by the Officers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tanker "Ebenol". These 4 European Officers met up with us in Camp and were in our unit. Unfortunately the Chief Engineer died not long after our internment started.

Later that evening a Naval Officer who knew George Loder came over to us and asked us if we would like to go away from Hong Kong on one of the remaining M.T.Bs to Mirs Bay and so escape into China and onto Chungking eventually. After talking this over we declined the offer thinking that the trip would be a disaster. How wrong we were, as we learned much later that they all got clear.

The next day we were bundled into trucks and taken to the Naval Dockyard in Hong Kong. Here we spent one night and as some kind person had opened up the stores we took as many cigarettes as we could possibly carry. Other things too. We walked to the Star Ferry the next day pausing in Statue Square for a rest. Here we were serenaded by a large Japanese military band who are highly delighted when we loudly applauded them.

The walk to Shamshuipo Camp was a long and tiring one and many of us were really exhausted. After quarters had been allocated to us we found that there were other Merchant Navy Officers in the camp, some older ones having been brought in from the Soldiers' and Sailors' home in Wanchai. There was the entire crew of an American ship which had been undergoing repairs in Cosmopolitan Dockyard in Kowloon not far from the camp.

Some little while later being more or less disowned by the Navy, we had to form our own unit which was duly done, Dick Firkins being elected Unit Commander of 45 Merchant seamen of whom 9 died in the camp. Later on, together with the Civilians and Police from the Royal Naval Dockyard we were classed as non-combatants, and the several Officers amongst us recognised as such and permitted to wear uniforms or some such distinguishing marks, but as there was no equivalent rank in the Japanese Army to Merchant Navy Officer we were denied Officer's pay.

Maybe later on I will try to recall what happened to us in the Camp during the 3 years and 8 months duration and set it down as much as can be remembered.

After the arrival of the relief forces and proper food was being once more consumed transport was laid on for those who wish to make a special trip to Stanley Camp to see if their friends and or relatives were alive. George Loder and I made one trip and found several of our Company's Officers alive and well including the Captain and Chief Engineer of our ship.

Very soon after our visit to Stanley we were sent for and told that Butterfield and Swire Taipan, Mr C.C.Roberts had been released from Stanley Camp, (and who must have had a great deal of influence with the relieving forces) having heard of us, had us released before anyone else and taken to the Company's Head Office on Hong Kong Island. We received some very welcome cash and special meal tickets enabling us to have 3 good meals a day in the Hong Kong hotel along with the others trying to get Hong Kong back on its feet again.

We slept on camp beds in the office until we were sent to find the S.S."Fathan" a large river steamer reported to be alongside a wharf in Western District, and there she was and in very good condition indeed, considering that the ship had been laid up for so long. The Indian Watchman was very happy to see us and hurried away to return shortly with some of the Chinese crew members and in no time at all we were settled in and being looked after in the manner we had been used to.

Mrs Nelly Elson, the Company's ship stores supplier and who had also been interned in Stanley searched around and found some bedding, crockery and cutlery belonging to the Company which was sent to us together with Chinese Chief Steward so we were back in business again. With the help of the Navy and a little pressure here and there we managed to get a good supply of coal, oil and ships stores. The ship was taken out to anchorage later on and we rode out the effects of a typhoon which fortunately was not a bad one.

The ship was ordered to Macau to bring back as much rice as we could carry as there was a great shortage in Hong Kong. Being the first British ship into Macau for nearly 4 years we received a very warm welcome indeed and many people were very anxious to learn of their friends and relatives who had been in the Camp with us. I eventually left Hong Kong on October for repatriation leave and to see my parents and friends whom I had not seen for 7 years.

Guy Walker.


Thanks for this very interesting account, which I've just found.

The new Colonial Secretary was Franklin Gimson and most sources say he arrived on December 7, one day before the attack. Tim Luard's book 'Escape from Hong Kong' says that, as the former Colonial Secretary N. L. Smith was preparing to leave at about 8.30 a.m. on the seventh, a 'coaster had just arrived, carrying among its few passengers the Colonial Secretary's succesor, F. C. Gimson'. Since reading Guy Walker's account I've checked this and all the other references I have to Gimson arriving the day before the attack and found none of them give a precise source for this claim, so who knows - perhaps the CS's arrival was even worse-timed and more dramatic than people had realised!

Mr. Walker's account clears up a mystery as well as creating one: Admiral Harcourt's diary of the re-occupation of Hong Kong mentions that one of his fleet, the Plym, escorted a ship to Macao to get the first cargo of rice for the starving Colony. We now know the ship was the SS Fathan.

The account probably has a typo, and the ship was the SS Fatshan: 

1950s Macau Ferry Fat Shan
1950s Macau Ferry Fat Shan, by Lost-Albion

Regards, David

Guy Walker's account suggests Monday  8 December,  and other accounts suggest Sunday 7 December 1941 as the day Gimson arrived in HK on the Soochow.  In Franklin Gimson's own diary (held at Rhodes House) - he gives the date as  6 December and then goes on to describe it as the day before the Japanse war started. He may be muddling up the Hawaii time start (7 Dec).........but if he believed he arrived the day before war started then that would suggest 7 December 1941.  Philip

Philip: this could hardly be more confusing.

On January 13th 1942 the Daily Mail (a local paper not the national one) published a long article based on family sources headlined 'He Stepped Into A War' which claims he arrived 'The day the Japanese began the attack'.  It goes on to quote a cable to his brother Frederick: 'Arrived safely. Spent most of the day in dug-out with the Governor'. A difefrent local newspaper, published in summer 1943, gives the day of the attack for his arrival.

But the Colin Gimson Papers at the U of HK, contain two documents in which Gimson says 1. he arrived on December 6 -  the day before the attack, and 2. he arrived on  December 8th - the day before the attack! And, as you say, that's the version in his diary, although the early part is reconstructed not contemporary. Further I've come across a fictional but fact-based source which has the Soochow arriving in Hong Kong the day BEFORE the attack.

If I had to choose, I'd go for the day before, December 7tth, with, as you suggest, some confusion due to the date line difference.

Some references from the Singapore Press on Gimson's arrival in Hong Kong.

a) Straits Times 1 December 1941

Mr H. (sic) Gimson, new Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, passed through Singapore last week on his way to take up his new appointment. He stayed at Government House. He was formerly in the Ceylon Civil Service. 

b) Sunday Tribune (Singapore) 7 April 1946

Mr F. C. Gimson arrived in Hong Kong to take up his appointment of Colonial Secretary before the cowardly attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. At 8 a.m. the next day, the Japanese attacked the Colony ......( full article , however actual date not given )

Thanks, Moddsey, very intersting and strengthens the case for Gimson's arrival on December 7th.
I suspect that somone in his family misunderstood a perhaps unclear statement and assumed he'd arrived on the very day of the attack.

According to the ships log for the steamer Soochow she departed Singapore on 30 November 1941 and was in port at Hong Kong on 7 December 1941. The log does not actually confirm that she arrived at Hong Kong on 7 December 1941 but other evidence suggests that she did

A pity there is no confirmed arrival date from the logs.

Without enroute stops, It would appear with a speed of 10-12 knots a vessel could make the journey from Singapore to Hong Kong in about six days. With course deviations, at most seven days. Seems to tally with the suggested dates of arrival mentioned above.

Thanks, Whitto and Moddsey, that settles the matter in my mind.

Gimson arrived on December 7th and  later got conufused by the change of dates when remembering it was one day before the hostilities. He telegraphed his family on, say, December 9th and his phrasing led them to believe he arrived on the day of the attack itself. 

Accoridng to BAAG 1945-08 & 09 Telegrams of the Macao Team under Yun-cheong Liang deposited at the HK Public Record Office by Paul Tsui (Ref HKM30):

Aug 29, BAAG Agent PL (Y.C. Liang) visited HK again with BAAG Agent PX (Dr. Gosano) and Head of Macao Red Cross (Lobo?) after F.Gimson requested medical & food aid from Macao Governor.

Sept 2, Liang returned by HMS Plym to report to Macao Governor regarding needed aid.

Sept 8th, Liang escorted first consignment of food & aids from Macao charged to the HK Government, shipped by the 'Fatshan'.

Sept 15, 2nd consignment of aids shipped from Macao to HK onboard the 'Fatshan' by Y.C.Liang.

Other telegrams also showed how Liang went from Macao to visit Gimson at Stanley, delivering the Secy of State telgram instructing Gimson to establish Provisional British Government and appointing him Officer Administrating the Government.  Liang, out of his own iinitiative, gave Gimson 4 gold sovereigns to start up his administration, to which Gimson acknowledged. There was also a relatively longer telegram of Gimson reporting to the Secy of State on 27th Aug 1945 regarding the dire conditions in HK.