The Battle of Hong-Kong

In 1902, driven by opposition to Russian expansionism, Japan and Great Britain became allies, promising neutrality if either was attacked or became involved in a war. They promised as well mutual support if the conflict involved more than one power.

The Anglo-Japanese alliance proved to be mutually beneficial during the First World War, when Japan joined in the British struggle against Germany, but after the armistice in 1918, the Alliance became to fade, as Germany and Russia, once rivals and threats, had been neutralized.

Japan now had its own expansionist aspirations in the Pacific and Far East. Besides, the growing warmth between the United Kingdom and the United States, with whom Japan had frequently entered into conflict, placed further strain on the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

In 1921, at the 21st Imperial Conference held in London, Canadian Prime Minister Arthur Meighen spoke in opposition to alliance with Japan, arguing that its renewal would only serve to alienate the US and China. Maighen managed to sway the other attendees, thus all but dead, two years later the treaty reached its official termination.

Tension between the former allies began to escalate after the July 1937 outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. By the time, the British had begun construction of new defences at Hong Kong, all intended to confront an attack from Japan. The centerpiece of the defence was Gin Drinker’s Line, a string of machine gun nests, trenches, artillery batteries and fortified bunkers in the New Territories of the Chinese mainland.

Then in October 1938, British interests were threatened further by the Japanese occupation of Guangzhou. Hong Kong was thus effectively surrounded.

As both the Sino-Japanese War and Second World War progressed, approximately 13,000 troops of the British forces were sent to the colony. At the request of Britain, on 16 November 1941, two Canadian Infantry Battalions arrived from Vancouver to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. One of the units was Manitoba`s Winnipeg Grenadiers and Quebec`s Royal Rifles of Canada. Prior to being sent to Hong Kong, the Quebec Rifles had been posted in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, while the Grenadiers had served in Jamaica. The total number of these men was of 1,975.

Both units were fairly inexperienced forces, composed mainly of those whose military training was limited. These Canadians would become the first ground unit to see action in the Second World War.

The Quebec`s Rifles and the Grenadiers were in Hong Kong just 38 days, when on the morning of 8 December 1941, Japanese bombers began pounding the British plains on the ground at Kai Tak Airport. The appearance of Japanese aircraft had come as no surprise, however, as the entire garrison had already been ordered to war stations and the Canadians had taken up position at Wong Nei Chong Gap in the center of Hong Kong Island.

The bombers were followed by the Japanese ground forces advancing from the Chinese mainland. They easily overcame resistance of the Commonwealth advance units. On the second day of the battle the Japanese captured Shing Mun redoubt, the most important strategic position on the Drinker`s Line left flank.

On 10 December 1941 the Winnipeg Grenadiers` D Company was sent to reinforce the defence of the mainland. On 11 December they became the first Canadian unit to engage in combat in the Second World War., but within hours of the event, the Commonwealth forces had to evacuate to Hong Kong Island.

Once on the island, the troops were divided into East and West brigades. The East Brigade, led by British Brigadier Cedric Wallis, was composed of the Quebec`s Royal Rifles together with soldiers of the British Indian Army. The Winnipeg Grenadiers, British and British Indian Army units formed the West Brigade under Brigadier J.K. Lawson.

The Japanese directed their attention at weakening the island through air raids and artillery bombardment. They twice demanded that Hong Kong were surrendered, but were both times met with rejection from Sir Mark Aitchison Young, governor of Hong Kong.

There was no chance of rescue. On 18 December, the Japanese launched four separate amphibian assaults across a 3-km stretch of the island`s north-east beaches. Once on the beaches, the British Indian Rajput Battalion and the Quebec`s Royal Rifles engaged the enemy, attempting to put them back to the shore. Fierce fighting continued through the night, leading to heavy casualties on both sides, but the Commonwealth forces were overwhelmed by the sheer number of the invading force.

By the next morning, the Japanese had destroyed the headquarters of the West Brigade and had reached Wong Nei Chong and Tai Tam gaps. The Rajput Battalion had been all but exterminated. During the second full day of fighting, the enemy succeeded in dividing the island in two parts.

For five more days the East and West brigades engaged in a hopeless struggle to regain control of the island. With the enemy in control of the reservoirs, water began to run short.

On 24 December 1941, Japanese soldiers had swarmed an improvised hospital, assaulting, raping and murdering nurses; lying in their beds, the wounded Canadian soldiers were bayoneted.

At mid-afternoon of 25 December 1941, known as Black Christmas, the commander in Chief, Major General C.M. Multby ordered the exhausted troops to surrender.

The Commonwealth forces fought for 17 days against the Japanese troops which were considerably more than three times their number. Having little military training and no combat experience, the Canadians had come up against seasoned Japanese soldiers supported by heavy artillery. Canada suffered its first combat casualties of war, as 290 were killed and 493 wounded.

Isogai Rensuke, a general in the Japanese Imperial Army, was installed as the first Japanese governor of Hong Kong.

The Combat survivors were starved and tortured in the camp by their captors. They were forced to work in the mines and on the docks and they subsisted on a daily ration of fewer than 800 calories per day.

Nearly a third of 1,975 who left the port of Vancouver in October 1941 never saw Canada again.

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