"The Empire Strikes Back"

Submitted by Andrew Craig-Bennett on Thu, 06/24/2010 - 21:58
Facilis descensus Averno;
Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
Hos opus, hic labor est.

It is easy to descend into Hell;
Day and night, the gates of Dis stand open;
But to climb out, and to regain the heavens,
That's work, that's a real struggle.

(Virgil, Aeneid, my translation)

At the end of the war there was a scramble by the British to get Hong Kong back before Harry Truman could give it to Chiang KaiShek, in accordance with the promise made by FDR.

Japan surrendered on the 15th of August 1945; there were no Allied naval forces near Hong Kong but a Royal Navy squadron was despatched to Hong Kong post haste. It arrived on the 30th - 19 ships, seven of which were Australian, complete with Admiral Harcourt, the battleship Anson and the aircraft carrier Inflexible.

For the previous fortnight the situation had been a bit uncertain - the Governor, Sir Mark Young, had been interned by the Japanese in Manchuria and the Colonial Secretary, Sir Franklin Gimson, (who had had the misfortune to arrive in Hong Kong to take up his post one week before the Japanese invasion!) proclaimed himself Acting Governor whilst still in Stanley internment camp, on instructions from the British Ambassador in Chungking, who knew that the Nationalist Government were expecting that the place was about to be given to them by the Americans.

The Taipan of the Great and Ancient Hong walked out of the gates of Stanley camp and found that his company's business empire was intact; the Compradore, who as a Chinese citizen had not been interned, had paid salaries out of his own pocket, ruining himself in the process, to keep things going, as well as bribing the camp guards to get food parcels in to his colleagues.

"The Empire Strikes Back" - the cruiser HMS Swiftsure enters a bomb damaged Hong Kong, 30th August 1945 with Admiral Harcourt aboard - she is off North Point so she has has just passed taikoo Docks, the location of the previous photograph...

And here's an odd one...a photo that puzzled me a good deal when I first saw it. I think I now understand what we are seeing here. 

We are looking at the Cenotaph, in 1945. I have, after a bit of homework, put a date to this picture. It's the 9th October 1945, and we are seeing a combined celebration of Victory and Chinese National Day. New carving on the Cenotaph, adding the words "1939-45" to the original insceription, which simply read "The Glorious Dead", is about to be unveiled.

(The Chinese text on the Cenotaph reads "May their martyred souls be immortal, and their noble spirits endure" and it was added in the Sixties. The Cenotaph itself is identical to the one in London, which I think makes it unique. It is now (2009) a scheduled ancient monument, but ceremonies are no longer held there.)

This picture was probably taken from the balcony of the old Hong Kong Club. Rea-Admiral Harcourt is taking the salute.

Note the two flagstaffs, both temporary, and erected for the event. We see the Chinese Nationalist flag, flying alongside the Union Flag. Such a sight would be unthinkable at any time after 1949, but in 1945 Britain was seriously considering handing Hong Kong back to China and talks about this were starting between the British and the Chinese Governments.

The Band of the Royal Marines have just played both National Anthems and the modern battleship HMS Anson is about to fire a seventeen gun salute. also present are Major-General Pan of the KMT, Admiral Buckmaster of the USN and Lady Mountbatten.

The structure in the middle distance is the old Queen's Pier; the harbour is a good deal further away, now.

There were rather a large number of War Crimes Hearings, most of which concerned crimes against the civilian population. General Sakai was executed on the 30th September and 19 others were also hanged, many more were given prison sentences, including the Japanese Governor, General Rensuke Isogai, who got life, but who was allowed out some years later. A particularly sensational trial concerned the Master of a Japanese ship, the "Lisbon Maru" which had been transporting 1,816 POWs, mainly Canadians, to Japan for slave labour when she was hit by a torpedo from an American submarine. She was not carrying markings to show that she was carrying POWs and appeared to be a troop ship. The Captain ordered the hatches to be battened down on the prisoners in the holds as the ship sank and the Japanese crew and guards took to the boats - 845 died, either in the ship or machine gunned in the water. His defence was that he was ordered to do it by a Lieutenant in the Kempeitai - he was convicted, on the evidence of his own second mate, and got seven years.

The provisional administration of Hong Kong was carried out by the miltary with assistance from officers of the BAAG, who were in an unusually good position to know what was wanted.

Hong Kong bounced back from wartime conditions with lightning speed - rationing was ended in November 1945, six years ahead of Britain. People deported to China moved back and by February 1946 the population was over a million once more.

Something must have happened to Mark Young (who was reinstated as Governor) and to Franklin Gimson, during their time in captivity, because they both, independently, recommended a democratic franchise for the Legislative Council - Sir Mark went so far as to specify that a majority vote in Legco could not be overturned by the Governor's veto.


The fleet that enterred Hong Kong harbour was led by Admiral Bruce Fraser on HMS Duke of York,on his way to Tokyo to participate in Japan's official surrender to General MacAuther. Harcourt remained behind with HMS Anson to assist with the take-over. There were numerous aircraft carriers - Indomidable, Vengeance, Ocean, Venerable, Indefatigable (I think). Sistership to HMS Swiftsure was the Canadian cruiser the Ontario. Of course, preceding this armada were the minesweepers. There were about 4 to 6 submarines tied alongside at Tamar, with the submarine tender, also alongside, HMS Maidstone. Those were heady days.

Thanks Bob, yesterday I was reading Barbara Anslow's notes from the time between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of the British fleet. She wrote:

We look out to sea and cry "Come on Nimitz, or Fraser - we've been waiting for you for years - now you can come, what's all the delay?"

I wondered who Fraser was, and now I know!

Regards, David

Bob is right in principle but a bit awry on the detail. In fact Anson was the first battleship to arrive. She had been tasked to go to Singapore with the Vengeance, but there were problems so both ships were redirected to HK and got here a few days after the first units arrived of the Lemas on 29 August. The first ships entered HK the next day.

There's a well known photo of Anson anchored in Kowloon Bay. The Duke of York arrived c.15.9.1945 in time for Admiral Fraser to attend the Japanese surrender in Government House (he did not preside over it, that was Admiral Harcourt who'd by this time become C-in-C HK).

There is an almost ship-by-ship account from the reproduced war diary of Bruice Fraser's command at the utterly wonderful http://www.naval-history.net/xDKWD-BPF4512OccupationofChinaCoast1945.htm (cannot recommend the site too strongly for WW2 naval war buffs). 

The ships that entered on 30.8 were HMS SWIFTSURE (cruiser - flying flag of Rear Admiral Harcourt, who'd transferred it from Indomitable on 29.8), HMS EURYALUS (light cruiser), HMCS PRINCE ROBERT (armoured cruiser), HM Ships KEMPENFELT, URSA, WHIRLWIND, QUADRANT (destroyers). These were swiftly followed by the hospital ship OXFORDSHIRE.

ANSON (battleship), VENGEANCE, INDOMITABLE, VENERABLE (carriers) stayed outside until the Royal Australian Navy Minesweeping Squadron (HMAShips Bathurst, Wagga, Fremantle, Mildura, Geraldton, Castlemaine, Strahan and Broome) had cleared safe passage.

Interestingly the first ship into HK was therefore not a British ship but HMAS Mildura, which was first through Lei Yue Mun but then had to pull over to let first Kempenfelt and then the Admiral in Swiftsure past. Swiftsure was preceded in by Kempenfelt because less expensive if someone had missed a mine.

The sweepers also provided the first ship to go to Stanley to help the internees and the first ship to go to Macao.

By sometime around mid-September there were over 40 naval ships in the harbour including the accommodation ship HMS Aorangi (a famous pre- and post-war liner of the NZ Union Steamship Co.), which I think can be seen over the top of the Cenotaph in Andrew's photo.

Stephen D