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Just after dawn on Christmas Day 1941 wounded Canadian Pvt. Sid Vale lay in his bed in Hong Kong’s St. Stephen’s College, then in use as an Allied military field hospital. Immobilized by his injuries, he could only shudder at the screams of a nurse being raped by Japanese soldiers in the next room. Minutes earlier the invading soldiers had marched off two British medical officers—hospital commander Lt. Col. George Black and adjutant Captain Peter Witney—who had rushed to head off the Japanese beneath a Red Cross flag at the building entrance. The men’s bayoneted, mutilated corpses turned up the next day on the ground floor of the hospital. A third officer, Sgt. William Parkin, was shot as he sought to flee.

Surging into the first-floor ward, the intruders had summarily executed nearly two-dozen patients in their beds before gang raping four Chinese nurses, three of whom they later killed. Japanese soldiers then serially raped the remaining three nurses in another room. By the time the atrocities ended at St. Stephen’s that horrific Christmas morning, upward of 70 patients and staff members had been killed, several tortured beforehand. Many of the victims were Canadians, members of a 1,975-strong force hurriedly dispatched to bolster the Crown colony’s defenses. They had arrived less than a month before war broke out in the Pacific, and those who were not killed in the defense of Hong Kong were condemned to the living hell of Japanese prison camps.

On Sept. 19, 1941, Maj. Gen. Henry Crerar, chief of the General Staff of the Canadian army, received a telegram from the Dominions (Colonial) Office in London. The secret communication suggested a “small reinforcement of garrison at Hong Kong, e.g. by one or two more battalions, would be very fully justified. It would increase strength of garrison out of all proportion to actual numbers involved, and it would provide a strong stimulus to garrison and colony; it would further have a very great moral effect in the whole of the Far East and would reassure [Chinese Nationalist leader] Chiang Kai-shek as to reality of our intention to hold the island.” The telegram concluded with a specific request: “We should therefore be most grateful if the Canadian government would consider whether one or two Canadian battalions could be provided from Canada for this purpose.”

Crerar first assured Canadian Minister of National Defense James Ralston that sending two battalions to Hong Kong would not compromise the nation’s own military preparedness or interfere with the ongoing buildup of Canadian forces in Britain. The Canadian Cabinet War Committee approved the British request on September 23, and the nations confirmed their agreement on October 2.

Rated “not suitable” for deployment before leaving home, elements of C Force underwent additional training after arriving in Hong Kong. (Imperial War Museums)

The battalions tapped for service in Hong Kong were drawn from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, out of Quebec. Placed under the unified command of Brigadier John K. Lawson and collectively known as C Force, the two battalions and a headquarters unit departed Vancouver, B.C., aboard the troopship Awatea on October 27. Escorted across the Pacific by the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert, Awatea landed the Canadians at Kowloon on Sunday, November 16.

Hong Kong—then a British Crown colony—comprises two parts divided by Victoria Harbor. The far larger mainland region extends from Kowloon, on the southern tip of the peninsula, some 22 miles north through the New Territories. Hong Kong Island sits across the harbor south of Kowloon.

The World War II British plan for the colony called for an initial defense centered on the Gin Drinkers Line, a fortified, albeit neglected, series of positions stretching some 11 miles across the Kowloon Peninsula at its narrowest point. Tasked with mounting a delaying action on the line were, from west to east, the British 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots, the Indian 2/14 Battalion of the Punjab Regiment and the Indian 5/7 Battalion of the Rajput Regiment. Maj. Gen. Christopher Maltby, the overall British commander, split the island itself into two defensive sectors along a north-south axis. In the event of a fallback, each sector would be manned by a brigade detailed to guard the seaward southern coast, as it was expected any Japanese invasion would come by sea. The Winnipeg Grenadiers under Lawson anchored West Brigade, while the Royal Rifles, under British Brigadier Cedric Wallis, spearheaded the East Brigade. The Indian battalions would form the rear echelon, while the Royal Scots and 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, would defend the shoreline opposite Kowloon.

The Japanese assault on Hong Kong began on December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) with the bombing of Kai Tak airfield, soon followed by ground attacks by units of the Japanese 23rd Army, which captured the key Shing Mun Redoubt on the evening of December 9. Within 48 hours the Gin Drinkers Line dissolved, and Maltby ordered a precipitous withdrawal to Hong Kong Island. By the morning of the 13th the New Territories and Kowloon were in Japanese hands.

British planners had estimated the island’s defenders could hold out at least four months against an amphibious assault. But when waves of Japanese troops began landing on the landward side of Hong Kong on the evening of December 18, it quickly became obvious the invaders would be impossible to stop. The landing troops sliced through the weaker rear-echelon positions and raced for the high ground at the heart of the island. By December 21 the Japanese had reached Repulse Bay on the south coast, splitting the brigades into separate commands. On Christmas Day, while the nightmarish carnival of mayhem unfolded at St. Stephen’s, colonial Gov. Sir Mark Aitchison Young and Maltby conferred. “Further fighting meant the useless slaughter of the remainder of the garrison, risked severe retaliation on the large civilian population and could not affect the final outcome,” Maltby recalled in his war memoir. Young surrendered Hong Kong in person, and by 5 p.m. most fighting had ceased.

It had taken the Japanese just 17 days to capture Hong Kong, resulting in the death or capture of all of the colony’s defenders—including the Canadian troops rushed in to bolster Hong Kong’s chances of repelling an almost certain Japanese assault. The decimation of C Force led many in Canada—political leaders and citizens alike—to question just what two battalions of Canadian troops were doing in Hong Kong in the first place. While the answer to that question might seem straightforward—the Canadian government had acceded to Britain’s request—the real reasons are deeper and decidedly more complex.

In January 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told top advisers he believed Hong Kong to be indefensible. “If Japan goes to war with us,” he wrote, “there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it.” He even expressed a desire to slash the number of troops dedicated to the colony’s defense. “We must avoid frittering away our resources on untenable positions. Japan will think long before declaring war on the British empire, and whether there are two or six battalions in Hong Kong will make no difference to her choice. I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.”

Over the coming months the British position evolved. Reinforcing Hong Kong with two Canadian battalions was but one element of a multifaceted strengthening of British forces in Asia designed to deter, or at least defer, Japanese aggression. Australian troops moved into Malaya, and the Royal Navy committed the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse to Singapore.

In Canada the army’s willingness to commit troops to the defense of Hong Kong may have grown from the service’s desire to “get into the fight.” By then the Royal Canadian Navy was playing an increasingly important role in the battle against German U-boats and other warships in the North Atlantic, and the Royal Canadian Air Force was involved in Royal Air Force Bomber Command operations over occupied Europe. Though Canadian troops had been assembling in Britain, the army had yet to see action, and its commanders were anxious to change that fact. (Following the Hong Kong debacle, a similar champing at the bit, possibly spurred by that humiliating defeat, prompted Canada’s participation in the ill-fated August 1942 Dieppe Raid.)

It’s also important to recall that 70 years ago Canadians were much more closely tied to the concept of Britain as the “Mother Country.” It had taken a week and a parliamentary debate before Canada followed Britain into World War II in September 1939, though the result was never really in doubt. Canada had neither the intelligence assets nor the diplomatic resources to independently analyze the Japanese threat to Hong Kong or the British request for troops. Simply put, when the request came in September 1941, the default response had been “yes.”

When chosen for duty, both the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles had been rated “not suitable” for deployment. Conspiracy theorists argue this proves senior Canadian officers had anticipated a defeat and were hedging their bets by offering up ill-prepared troops.

Fortunately, there is a sound explanation. Both units had required training in emerging tactics and new equipment and had been on garrison duty—the Grenadiers in Jamaica and Bermuda, the Rifles in Gander, Newfoundland. The Hong Kong assignment would involve further garrison duty, a period during which the battalions could receive additional training to make them combat ready.

The risk was minimal. After all, in the fall of 1941 it was widely assumed Japan wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to rouse the Allies. Only hours before the attack on Hong Kong Maltby reported to London the Japanese were engaged in “defensive preparations around Canton and in the frontier area,” leading him to conclude they “appeared distinctly nervous of being attacked.” The British were hardly the only great power to discount a Japanese first strike. American President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle and those in the upper echelons of the U.S. military similarly dismissed the likelihood of a Japanese attack on the Philippines or Pearl Harbor. Canada, Britain and the United States all failed to realize the imminent threat of war that first week of December 1941.

Japanese troops cheer on capturing a defensive gun emplacement on Hong Kong Island on December 21. (Mondadori Porfolio (Getty Images))

Compounding the Allied failure to realize the Japanese threat in the Pacific was the fact that many senior British military leaders—particularly officers like Maltby raised in the ethos of the Indian army—seemed unable or unwilling to take the Japanese seriously as a fighting force.

Maltby deployed his defenses in the lowlands, foolishly surrendering the high ground, convinced the Japanese could not fight over mountainous terrain. He somehow convinced subordinates the average Japanese soldier suffered from feeble eyesight, making him a poor marksman, thus ruling out night assaults. Writing a post facto war diary while in captivity, Grenadier Major George Trist summarized an address Maltby gave to Canadian officers on arrival: “The Japanese have only about 5,000 troops, with very little artillery…are ill-equipped and not used to night fighting…their pilots very mediocre, unable to do dive bombing owing to poor eyesight.” The argument was often made that if the Japanese could not defeat the motley crew that comprised Chiang-Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, Tokyo’s troops could never stand up to a modern Western army.

Exacerbating matters was a strain of lassitude among Honk Kong’s defenders that seems almost fatalistic—as though on some level all the actors knew the colony was doomed were the Japanese to attack. A report prepared by Maj. William Condon, a U.S. military attaché in Hong Kong at the time of the attack, captures this attitude. “At the time of taking up my duties in Hongkong [sic] about Oct. 1, 1941,” he wrote, “I was amazed at the carefree attitude of the officers of the garrison.” Condon’s conclusion is concise and scathing. “In my opinion, the chief reason for the rapid fall of Hongkong was lack of the aggressive spirit, bred from a knowledge by all ranks that the colony could not be held. From this basic attitude of mind it was an easy step into slipshod training, careless and faulty planning, which in turn led to disaster.”

From a strategic perspective, the loss of the six battalions at Hong Kong was minor compared to the overall cost of the failed deterrent. The Royal Navy lost both Prince of Wales and Repulse when, on Dec. 10, 1941, they became the first capital ships sunk solely by airpower on the open sea. The destruction of the warships and Japan’s capture of 130,000 men from the garrisons of Malaya and Singapore far outweighed the loss of 14,000 troops at Hong Kong.

Ultimately, the greatest tragedy of the Canadian commitment to Hong Kong was the human cost for the survivors of the battle.

The Japanese gathered POWs from the Royal Rifles in the former refugee camp at North Point, which had been heavily damaged during the invasion. “There was no water in the camp,” rifleman Kenneth Cambon recalled, “and the diet [was] poor, about 900 to 1,000 calories a day.” Sanitary conditions were abysmal and led to outbreaks of dysentery. “In the absence of plumbing, we squatted on the seawall, holding onto a wire fence.” The Winnipeg Grenadiers were held at Sham Shui Po barracks in Kowloon until Jan. 23, 1942, when the Japanese concentrated all the Canadians at North Point.

On May 30 Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo issued an order with direct implications for the POWs. “The present situation of affairs,” it read in part, “does not permit anyone to lie idle doing nothing but eating freely. With that in view, in dealing with prisoners of war, too, I hope you will see that they may be usefully employed.” Within a week Canadian work parties were laboring from dawn to dusk leveling ground to lengthen the runways at Kai Tak airfield.

North Point Camp closed in September 1942, the Japanese relocating the Canadians to the mainland at Sham Shui Po. In the fall of 1942 the camp endured a diphtheria epidemic that killed scores­ when the Japanese withheld the needed antitoxin. There were also outbreaks of dysentery, malaria and pellagra, all made worse by a starvation diet that lacked many essentials, particularly B vitamins.

On Jan. 19, 1943, a labor draft of 1,176 POWs, including 664 Canadians, departed Hong Kong for Japan aboard Tatuta Maru, accompanied by a single Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Capt. John Reid. There wasn’t room enough to lie down. The ship arrived at Nagasaki at noon on January 22 but didn’t disembark the men until nightfall. Traveling by train, the POWs were dropped in batches at five camps between the Omine coal works near Nagasaki and the Tsurumi shipyard near Yokohama. That August 15 the Japanese sent 276 Canadians to a new camp at Niigata, which comprised a dockyard, coal yard and foundry. Another 100 went to Oeyama near Kyoto. On December 15 the Japanese sent another 504 POWs, including 98 Canadians, to Japan. A final draft of 220 Hong Kong internees, including 47 Canadians, sailed to Japan on April 29, 1944. Like those before them, the malnourished, chronically ill men served as slave labor, condemned to endless hours in coal mines, on the docks or working like beasts of burden in the heat of foundries.

Despite the deprivation, humiliation and threats, some Canadians fought back. Early in their ordeal four Grenadiers escaped. Recaptured, they were summarily beheaded, putting an end to the hopeless chimera of escape.

Two Canadian POWs did manage to mount one spectacular, fiery sabotage operation in a Japanese shipyard. As U.S. Navy Cmdr. Edward Dockweiler, the acting senior Allied POW officer, later reported: “About 2000 hours, 20 January 1944, a large fire broke out in this yard, completely destroying the steel shed, ship outfitting stores, prisoner of war mess hall, riggers lobby, tool rooms, part of the ship fitters’ shop and mold loft. The area occupied by these buildings was about 800 by 600 feet. I would estimate the damage caused by this fire at about three-quarters to one million dollars.…This fire was started by Staff Sgt. Clark, Canadian Postal Corps, and Pvt. K.S. Cameron, Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps.” The saboteurs had used an incendiary device centered on a candle. Charles Clark and Ken Cameron survived the war and were later awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal, respectively. Had they been caught, they would have been tortured and executed.

At reveille at Sham Shui Po on Aug. 18, 1945, three days after Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast announcing the Japanese surrender, the prisoners hoisted a Union Jack and the Royal Navy ensign, long kept concealed for such an occasion. In shaky voices the men then sang “God Save the King” for the first time in years. Men at other camps awoke in silence to find their guards had simply fled.

On August 31 HMCS Prince Robert—the very ship that had escorted the troopship Awatea on the Canadian deployment to Hong Kong almost four years earlier—docked at Kowloon with relief supplies. Its commander, Capt. Wallace Bouchier Creery, represented Canada at the formal Japanese surrender of the colony on September 16.

Of the nearly 2,000 Canadian troops sent to Hong Kong, some 1,400 survived to return to Canada in the latter half of 1945. Many faced a lifetime battle against nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Others permanently lost their youthful vigor and struggled with chronic physical ailments. None forgot his journey through Dante’s Inferno.

Bob Gordon is a Canada-based historian whose work has been published in that nation, Britain and the United States. For further reading he recommends The Necessary War, by Tim Cook, and Long Night’s Journey Into Day, by Charles G. Roland.