The second world war, which some predicted might continue for another two years in Asia, came to an abrupt halt on August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito solemnly announced the unconditional surrender of Japan, six days after the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.

It was a profound moment, but a conflict of such magnitude could not be neatly wrapped up overnight. In many remote parts of Asia, the surrender, formally signed on USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, Japan, on September 2, took months to fully implement. In Hong Kong and mainland China, the reality was more complicated than just flag-waving crowds greeting liberating troops.

There was a curious, though relatively orderly, hiatus of more than two weeks in Hong Kong between the emperor's announcement and the day Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt's British naval force steamed into Victoria Harbour, 70 years ago today. During that period, civilians, ex-prisoners of war (PoW) and defeated Japanese military personnel could do little but sit and wait to find out what the future held.

Diaries and memoirs of individuals from that uncertain dawn of peace reveal personal and private dimensions to the cessation of hostilities. After the initial joy, many accounts are tinged with confusion, anxiety and heartbreak.

NAVAL ARCHITECT WILLIAM "Bill" Sprague has been a PoW in Sham Shui Po camp since December 1941 and his diary (like others published online in recent weeks) gives a fascinating insight into his thoughts as he awaits the return of British forces. His entries invariably open with a brief summary of what he's eaten, because food (or the lack of it) is an obsession for everyone.

After weeks of speculation fuelled by snippets of news, his August 15 entry indicates the first realistic prospect of peace.

"One story was that ceasefire occurred at 2pm today. It does look like the end," he writes.

The Australian-Chinese editor of the South China Morning Post, Harry Ching, who is not interned while these rumours are circulating, warns his children to stay at home "lest crazy ones show excess of behaviour", and heads to town in search of confirmation.

"Gloucester corner, big crowd, mostly Japs looking grim. Seem to know what's coming. Tokyo relay, much static. Emperor's voice [on the radio] deeper boom than expected. Long spiel. Japs look sad, but no outburst. Women near tears," he writes, in his diary.

Local entrepreneur and kung-fu fighter Peter Hui Tak-kwong, whose colourful exploits will be documented in the 2007 book King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong, by author Jonathan Chamberlain, notices the same mood.

"All the soldiers in the street just broke down and cried. Many Chinese took the opportunity to throw stones at them. The Japanese didn't retaliate," Hui will later tell Chamberlain. .

"It is evident that the Japanese are making no bones about the surrender in this part of the world," writes Sprague, with some relief. By August 16, the prisoners have peace confirmed. "So that is that, at long last," he writes.

Former PoWs and civilian internees at camps across Hong Kong begin to relax and enjoy the news.

"It would be impossible to record all the casual and cheery conversations of the day. Just marvellous it has been … Then there was a great 'sing' in the main road ending with God Save the King at about 10pm," writes Sprague, on August 16.

Accounts from allied forces on the mainland are a little more restrained. Near Kunming, in Yunnan province, Lieutenant Colonel Karl D MacMillan, MD, is trying to find a suitable site for the 96th United States Army Field Hospital. His task is to combat the virulent tropical diseases and insanitary conditions that have been posing almost as much of a deadly threat to US and Chinese ground forces as the Imperial Japanese army. He records in his diary (which has been published in the book The Field Hospital That Never Was, edited by Ruth Clifford Engs) the first news of peace, which he receives one day ahead of civilians on the US military radio, on August 14, three days after his 41st birthday.

"At last THE NEWS at 3pm, we heard the war was actually over. Everyone felt good but there is no excitement. Guess the news is pretty much of an anti-climax. We have orders today to go about armed [when leaving the compound] and to go in pairs. Fear of different Chinese factions fighting over our equipment."

MacMillan alludes to the widely held fear that, following the Japanese surrender, Communist Party soldiers, under Mao Zedong, and the Kuomintang (KMT) government forces, under Chiang Kai-shek, will resume hostilities as rival factions in a bitter civil war.

Celebrations by civilians in areas where the Japanese occupation has been endured since 1937 or 38 are uncontrollable.

"Qingdao went mad. Church and temple bells rang joyously," Michael David Kwan, then an 11-year-old member of an affluent family living in the treaty port, will later recall in his 2000 memoir, Things That Must Not Be Forgotten: A Childhood in Wartime China. "The municipal government's call for calm fell on deaf ears. People ran about shouting and whistling and cheering. Japanese homes and shops were smashed and looted."

Also in Shandong province is the Japanese-operated Weihsien Internment Camp (in the present-day city of Weifang). It houses about 1,800 allied civilians; mostly merchants, teachers, customs officials, shop keepers and even a jazz band from the nearby European settlements. Its most famous inmate, missionary Eric Liddell (the hero of the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire), hasn't lived to see August 15, when news of peace arrives, creating a tangible change in atmosphere.

"The whole camp looked, felt and even smelled different," Langdon Brown Gilkey, an American teacher and internee, will write in his memoirs. "Then, on Friday morning [August 17], they came." Curiously, the American paratroopers who liberate camp then put the Japanese guards in charge, under US command. This is necessary to protect the inmates from the deteriorating situation in the countryside, as Communist Party and KMT forces race each other to recapture towns and cities.

In Yanan, in northern Shaanxi province, Russian correspondent Peter Vladimirov is acting as political adviser to Mao's leadership, during an awkward period of peace: Soviet forces are swarming into Manchuria to capture territory from the retreating Japanese. Although it will later be criticised as politically biased, his journal (published by his son in 1973 as The Vladimirov Diaries) gives a taste of the relationship that exists between the victorious Chinese forces.

"Tension grows between the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and Kuomintang because of military friction in the areas being liberated. The CCP leadership has been staggered by Japan's surrender," he writes, on August 15.

Back in Hong Kong, following a period of muted celebrations, liberated PoWs such as Sprague focus on locating friends who have been in other camps, eating and trying to get letters home. Sprague's wife and daughter are in England, and he has not seen them since November 1939. It is also the first opportunity for many to contemplate the human toll of war outside the camps. An estimated 80 per cent of the civilian population is suffering from malnutrition and, during the occupation, summary executions and torture were commonplace.

"The town is quite desolate it seems, and there are very few habitable houses, certainly for Europeans … & there is no doubt they have all been through a long & horrible experience. Town & Stanley stories leave no doubt that the most cruel & horrible atrocities have been committed by the Japanese on all & sundry," writes Sprague, on August 18.

"The Japanese were signing over ownership of property to anyone who wanted them before the British or Americans turned up," Hui will recall. Many are taking advantage of the economic melee and Hui attempts to negotiate the ownership of the remaining opium stocks in government go-downs from the Japanese. (Many of Hui's anecdotes need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but some of his less fanciful recollections give a sharp insight into this period and tally with more historically reliable sources.)

"For about 10 days after the emperor announced the end of the war there was a state of vacuum. The British and Americans hadn't yet arrived. Chiang Kai-shek's army was just across the border and everyone expected them to take over and liberate Hong Kong."

Out in the countryside, Japanese troops remain in control and are still killing. Although the city does not descend into rioting or bitter recriminations, joy quickly regresses into uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong.

"To town every day now. Everything haywire. Rumour Chinese troops in Kowloon. For some days Chinese flags furtively shown. To-day rash of them and cracker firing," writes Ching, on August 18.

Hui will support this observation: "There were rumours that [Chiang] would seize Hong Kong and take it back for China. There was a lot of excitement and also some fear. There was not much food left."

Hui will also note that the triumphant return of the British is not universally desired among the local population.

On August 19, Ching notes that the, "Gendarmes [the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, who were still keeping the peace] order Chinese flags to be removed."

In Kunming, a vacuum filled by rumour seems to characterise MacMillan's diaries, too, as does a realisation of the huge human cost of war and the brutalisation of the Chinese population. (It is still unclear how many Chinese people died between 1937 and August 15, 1945, but estimates vary from 14 million to 30 million. The Chinese government has estimated that 42 million Chinese were displaced by war, and, after the devastation, many simply had nowhere to go back to.)

"We took a walk through town and saw a Chinese laying on our pillbox right at the busiest intersection. He was thin and covered with flies. We thought he was dead but he moved occasionally. He probably will be dead by morning. None of the Chinese paid a lot of attention to him at all," writes MacMillan.

For the elated allied civilians in the Weihsien Internment Camp, reality begins to bite. Their hated captors are still on site, there is no packing of bags and no return train journeys because, apart from anything else, Communist guerrillas have destroyed the rail track. Camp internees used to meagre war rations are vomiting after every meal and are brought up to date on more than three years of news and change.

The hardest lesson of all, though, is given by a British colonel in late August. He breaks the news that no one is going home because there are no more treaty ports - the Chinese have occupied their former homes and the British will not be reclaiming them or compensating erstwhile owners for the businesses they have spent decades building. Many who were born in China and have never been to Europe, except on leave, weep at the news, "…others merely clung together mute - emptied of life", according to Gilkey.

Near young Kwan's home in Qingdao, the celebrations also turn sour.

"The euphoria in Qingdao was short lived, replaced by sullen wariness that day the rag-tag collection of filthy, half-starved men straggled into town," Kwan will write. His father, a high-ranking official, is suspected of being a collaborator. In Qingdao, bitter competition for the spoils of war has begun, even before the peace deal has been signed.

"The national [KMT] army descended on the town like locusts, grabbing anything including homes and businesses that caught their fancy on the flimsiest excuse," Kwan will recall and, according to Vladimirov, writing on August 19, the Communist Party leadership in Yanan is determined to limit the gains made by these troops.

"The only aim is to outpace the Kuomintang and capture new areas and Japanese weapons depots, as well as to bar the way to the central government's troops at any price."

By the third week of August, despite Sprague reporting that "many are getting quite impatient", the morale of the former PoWs and internees in Hong Kong improves with the news that British forces under Harcourt will, at last, arrive on August 30.

The Japanese have been running an English-language newspaper, Hong Kong News, from the SCMP offices on Wyndham Street. Ching and his colleagues ignore their objections as they put together and publish a news sheet.

"News suddenly received that the British fleet is, at long last, about to enter the Harbour. Ignored Japanese still occupying office, Morning Post staff present produced leaflet in a limited edition which was distributed in streets free of charge," writes Ching, on August 30.

"We live in a whirl of excitement. News by wireless, up-to-date magazines from the Fleet & newspapers are in. WE are in control again," writes Sprague, with some relief, on August 31.

The same day Sprague commits to his diary, "Wrote an air mail letter to Carrie today - isn't it good to think it may be home in a week. One is too excited to write a coherent letter though."

In Qingdao, Michael Kwan has more pressing concerns, as his father fears for his safety when KMT soldiers ransack the family home.

"Electric lights, the telephone, and especially the toilet intrigued the dozen men who occupied our house," Kwan will recall. "They emptied half their day's ration into the toilet [to wash it] and pressed the lever. Before their amazed eyes, the rice disappeared."

CHING WENT BACK to work in early September, publishing a leader he had been composing in his head for months. "The gaping ruins, the walking skeletons, the accumulation of filth, the degradation on all sides - these are the superficies of a devastation of pride," he thundered.

Despite bemoaning the return of the British, chancer Hui survived to share his anecdotes with anyone who would listen on Cheung Chau, where he lived.

Sprague was eventually reunited with his family in England and was able to celebrate the eighth birthday of his daughter, Jenifer, in November. Two years later, he fully recovered from jaundice, attributed to camp life.

MacMillan was posted to Shanghai in September and eventually returned to his family in the US the following year.

Western former residents of the treaty ports, such as Gilkey, were released from Weihsien camp but most had no home to go to and all their possessions had been looted. Most returned to their "home" countries.

Thousands of young soldiers in the Chinese military forces hardly had time to draw breath before embarking on a competitive grab of territory, arms and supplies; anything that might prove decisive in the future bloody civil conflict between the communists and the nationalists.

There is likely to be a great deal of hyperbole and patriotic fervour over the coming days and weeks, as the 70th anniversary of the victory is celebrated. Hopefully, though, there will also be room for sombre reflection, because for many who survived Japan's aggression in Asia, the euphoria of victory failed to last even until September 2, 1945, the day that triumph was made official.

The diaries of William Sprague can be read in full at wspraguediary.blogspot.com published by his daughter, Jenifer Burton, and her husband, Philip. That of editor Harry Ching and other war diaries from Hong Kong can be enjoyed at www.gwulo.com and others at hongkongwardiary.com.

From Hong Kong to the Philippines: a timeline of Japan's surrender in the Pacific war

When the surrender of Japan was announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15, there was a period of uncertainty across the Asia-Pacific theatre of war; no one was sure how Japanese forces would respond.

Though fighting continued between Soviet and Japanese troops in Manchuria, and there were cases of small units and individuals holding out - Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda refused to lay down his arms and leave the jungles of the Philippines until 1974 - most Japanese forces complied with their emperor.

There were still points of conflict and isolated atrocities. In the New Territories, Japanese troops remained in control. Villagers on Lantau had a particularly hard time of it, at the hands of Lieutenant Kishi Yasuo and Sergeant Uchida Hiroshi - 300 villagers in and around Mui Wo were rounded up and several killed in reprisals for a guerilla attack on August 19.

On August 18, Japanese pilots attacked two US Air Force B-32 Dominators engaged in a photo-reconnaissance mission over Japan but, by August 28, the US occupation of Japan had begun.

After the Instrument of Peace was signed on USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, formal implementation went on for many months, as isolated forces and garrisons were contacted.

The British did not return to Singapore until September 5.

In China, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender only to Kuomintang forces and not to the Communist Party; the formal surrender took place in Nanking at 9am on September 9 (9-9-9).

The surrender in Dutch Timor of Colonel Kaida Tatsuichi and his garrison was not undertaken until September 11. The formal surrender of Japanese forces in Burma was on September 13 but in Taiwan, which had been a Japanese territory for 50 years, it did not come until October 25.

The commanding officer of Japanese forces at the battle of Hong Kong, Lieutenant-General Takashi Sakai, who served as governor of the city until February 1942, was accused of war crimes, found guilty and executed by firing squad on September 30, 1946. Kishi and Uchida were also convicted of war crimes.

By the same author: SMS Emden: Hong Kong's favourite foe