Battle stations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


Seventy years ago tonight, Japanese forces landed on Hong Kong Island, after five days of intensive bombardment following the Allied withdrawal from Kowloon. Two unsuccessful attempts, under truce flags, had been made to negotiate a ceasefire and British surrender.

Initial landings took place at a number of locations eastwards from North Point to Shau Kei Wan. The principal objective was to bisect the island and - following the capture of the reservoirs in the Kowloon hills - to capture the only other significant supplies of water, at Tai Tam.

Very heavy fighting took place along the coast at a series of fortifications around Lyemun Barracks. One of the most fought-over locations was the Pak Sha Wan gun battery (now located within the grounds of the Museum of Coastal Defence in Shau Kei Wan).

Officers at China Command headquarters (located in a bunker system cut into the hillside beneath what is now Pacific Place in Admiralty) were initially reluctant to believe that a successful invasion of the island was taking place. One of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps officers at Pak Sha Wan, named K.M.A. Barnett (who was a Hong Kong government administrator), was flatly told by telephone - in the midst of intensive bombardment - that he clearly must be mistaken. Barnett's terse response was to dangle the receiver outside for a short while, reel it back in and then ask the astonished per- son at the other end: 'Now do you believe me?'

Just up from Pak Sha Wan, a gun battery at Sai Wan hill was overrun shortly afterwards and a number of men stationed there were killed. The Sai Wan hill battery was modified in the 1950s, to house anti-aircraft defences for Kai Tak airport. Metal mountings for these later weapons can still be seen along the ground.

Easily visited today, Sai Wan is on a popular early-morning exercise route for residents from nearby public estates. In the usual Hong Kong way, rumours of wartime-related hauntings around here have evolved down the years; and these supernatural concerns have led some regular visitors to install small shrines and symbolic objects intended to 'bik che', or dispel evil influences.

The Lyemun Barracks complex is a superb example of British garrison layout and architecture in a Hong Kong context, and contains a range of well-preserved buildings dating from the 1880s to the 1960s. Most of the area fought over in 1941 remained on the local military estate until 1987, when ownership was transferred to the government. One happy consequence of decades languishing on the army's books meant that interference with wartime relics was minimal, shell and shrapnel damage sustained by the Pak Sha Wan battery and nearby areas was still plainly apparent and only natural decay and benign neglect further marked the passage of the years.

When the Museum of Coastal Defence was constructed on Lyemun Redoubt and its environs in the late-90s, access to numerous wartime ruins had to be made safe for visitors. In the process, unfortunately, the stark visual impact of long-ago warfare, along with the structural integrity of some structures, was significantly compromised. High wire-mesh fences and comprehensive, multilingual signage instructing visitors in unambiguous language to 'Keep Off' would, without question, have lessened significant interference with this historic site's overall integrity.

With the exception of those that make up the Museum of Coastal Defence, sections of the old Lyemun Barracks now form the government-run Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village. Popular with school and community groups, an excellent riding school stocked with former racehorses is also located here.

Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village last attracted widespread public attention in 2003, when the complex was used during the Sars outbreak to intern residents from infected East Kowloon estates