The defence of Hong Kong
The Second World War was the grimmest episode in the history of Hong Kong.
That an attack from Japan was expected is something I can confirm because I have two good friends, both a decade older than me, one English and one Chinese, who were both born in Australia. They were the sons of, respectively, the Taipan and the Compradore of the Great and Ancient Hong, and their mothers, both pregnant, had been evacuated to Australia in the summer of 1941.
Gin Drinkers' Line was never really finished, and it certainly never was manned in the way that it had been designed for. Although compared to the Maginot Line, it was a much lighter construction, but even so when the Japanese attack came Gin Drinkers Line was manned by about one quarter of the men it was designed for.
Hong Kong was equipped with:
- Three Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers
- Two Supermarine Walrus amphibians
These lasted the first morning:
- One destroyer
- Two minesweepers
- Some MTBs (three of which were ordered to escape carrying SOE personnel on the day of the surrender)
- a couple of old gunboats
- 10,000 men plus 6,000 Volunteers.
The senior officers and NCOs of the Regular Army and Indian Army units had mostly been sent back to Britain as instructors.
The British government had embarked on another dither; it was assumed that war with Japan was very likely, and for a long time the plan was not to try to hold Hong Kong, which was not really defensible with the forces available (to put it mildly...)
On the other hand, it was argued that a defence of Hong Kong might slow the Japanese down a bit and give other places (Malaya) more time.
In the upshot, in September 1941 the Canadian Government offered to send two infantry battallions to Hong Kong; this was done but the Canadian units (the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers - 1,750 men) arrived two weeks before Pearl Harbor and without their heavy equipment and some of their officers, who were on a ship that was diverted to Manila on the news of Pearl Harbor.
The attack began at 08.00 local time on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
British intelligence was frankly dreadful; they thought that there were no more than 5,000 Japanese troops in the area across the border and the plans for the defence of Hong Kong were based on the assumption that the Japanese would attack by sea.
In fact, between 50,000 and 60,000 Japanese troops advanced across the border.
I have sometimes wondered if the British did have a good Chinese spy and if this were a case of the well known problem of mis-placing the decimal point when moving from Chinese (which counts in hundreds - 00,00,00) to English, which counts in thousands - 000,000,000)
The Japanese, on the other hand, had an excellent spy. The best barber's shop in Hong Kong was the one in the Peninsula Hotel; most senior officials and military officers got their hair cut there, and after all one tends to chat in the barber's shop. One of the barbers spoke unusually fluent English.
After the fall of Hong Kong quite a few men were startled to see their "barber" in the uniform of a Lieutenant-Commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Gin Drinkers Line was taken within two days - the Japanese had expected to be held up for longer, but Hong Kong Island fought on for much longer.
Amazingly, Hong Kong held out until Christmas Day, 1941. This seriously annoyed the Japanese commander, General Sakai, who received repeated messages telling him to "get on with it" - that, and the casualties sustained by the Japanese, may have triggered the atrocities that the Japanese carried out, during and after the battle.
This map from Wikipedia shows the attack on Hong Kong, the red dotted line is Gin Drinkers' Line:
There are 1,528 graves and memorials here at Sai Wan Military Cemetery; these are the graves of some of those who were killed during the Battle of Hong Kong.
There were repeated massacres of prisoners, including injured men in field hospitals.
Civilians and others who died or were executed during the Japanese occupation - mainly at Stanley prison camp - are buried separately at Stanley.
It is worth recording that General Sakai was tried and executed for war crimes, of which he was undoubtedly guilty, including shooting prisoners and giving his troops permission to rape any women they found - he issued an order defining all Chinese women as "prostitutes".
We can observe that little or no attempt was made by the British to encourage the majority of the Chinese residents of Hong Kong to enlist, although there were Eurasian units of the Volunteers, which included some Chinese British citizens. British citizenship amongst Hong Kong residents was uncommon at this time. The young Chinese men who served in the Volunteers (and often in the BAAG afterwards) were generally from well off backgrounds, highly educated and accustomed to mixing with the British both socially and professionally. From the point of view of the majority of Chinese residents, who did not hold British citizenship and who considered themselves "Chinese", a war between two occuping colonial powers may have had little to recommend it.
The defenders were gradually forced back across the island, over a period of a fortnight, until their positions were utterly hopeless.
On Christmas Day 1941 the Governor, Sir Mark Young, walked into the Peninsula Hotel, then the headquarters of General Sakai, and surrendered. Before entering the building he had paused and thrown up, which perhaps indicates his feelings. He was treated particularly badly by the Japanese:
Freddie Clemo, who had been born in Hong Kong (his father was Managing Director of China Light and Power) and had who just returned there from public school in England, had joined the Volunteers and "with amazing speed" had been promoted to Captain in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, who were short of officers.
His unit found themselves on the south side of the island and took part in the defence of the Repulse Bay Hotel, whose guests did not include Ernest Hemingway or Noel Coward at this particular point ...
- as Freddie put it "with the Japanese on the ground floor and the second floor, it was time to get out of the first floor, so we got down the storm drain".
They got out of Repulse Bay and into Stanley and took part in the final fighting on Stanley Peninsula on the 26th. They were unaware that Hong Kong had surrendered the day before, as communications had broken down. As Freddie said "This did not amuse the Japanese very much".
He recalled that as they were marched as prisoners through the streets of Hong Kong, people in apartments overlooking the street emptied chamber pots over them, which gives some clue about the attitude of the Chinese population at that time. They were taken to Japan, as forced labour in the shipyards.
Given suitable forces, especially enough fighter aircraft to gain air superiority, as opposed to none, Hong Kong probably could have been defended for some time longer, but it was never going to be possible to re-supply it through the South China Sea, which had become a Japanese lake.
The feeling at the time seems to have been that the defenders of Hong Kong, outnumbered three or four to one, with no air cover and no possibility of reinforcement or resupply, did much better than the defenders of Singapore, who outnumbered their attackers by two to one, and had fighter aircraft. Unlike Singapore, where around 30,000 of the 40,000 Indian troops captured enlisted with the Japanese, there is no evidence that any of the Indian troops captured in Hong Kong did this, although both Indian and Chinese policemen were recruited into the Kempeitai.
There seems no reason to think that the defence of Hong Kong held up the Japanese advances in the Philippines and Malaya.