Invasion of the New Territories and Kowloon: December 8-12, 1941

Before dawn on Monday, December 8, 75 years ago, Imperial Japanese troops in Guangdong stole over the border into Hong Kong. That same morning, the Japanese launched attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, British Malaya and Thailand.

Barbara Anslow (née Redwood), then a young stenographer for Hong Kong’s colonial government, interviewed in November 2016 – “It was 6:30 in the morning. I was in bed when there came a ring at my doorbell. A Chinese messenger brought a note from my boss at ARP HQ [Air Raid Precautions Head­quarters], where I’d worked for two years, saying, ‘Get to work by 7:00.’ He didn’t say why. I had some breakfast and rushed over. The deputy director of ARP, Mr [Michael Lee] Bevan, said that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour. Well, we didn’t know where Pearl Harbour was. All I could think of was the Pearl River [...] But as the morning wore on we discovered that the Japanese had attacked the Americans and war was expected to come to us. Just after 8 o’clock, air-raid sirens sounded.”

Following a five-minute raid shortly after 8am, Britain’s token air force – which consisted of five biplanes – lay destroyed on the ground at Kai Tak airfield.

Largely inexperienced in combat, numbering 11,000 men, the defenders were also outgunned by the 38,400 land troops Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai would deploy in the attack on Hong Kong. Furthermore, Japanese naval and air forces dwarfed those the British commanded.

Kwong Chi-man, assistant professor of history at Baptist University, interviewed in November 2016 – “Fighting Chinese guerillas in Guangdong had forged Japan’s 38th Division and 1st Heavy Artillery Brigade into experienced units, with specific training in attacking pillboxes and defensive positions. In addition, the Japanese had a significant advantage in firepower. The Japanese infantry could expect support from grenade launchers, mortars and artillery pieces of all sizes from infantry guns to heavy siege guns.”

Hours before the Kai Tak raid, Hong Kong’s commanding officer, Major General Christopher Maltby, aware of Japanese movements at the border with China, had ordered the commencement of sabotage operations to delay the enemy’s advance. Trained in “ungentlemanly warfare”, a small and secretive group called Z Force was positioned on and, at times, ahead of the front line. Z Force worked with British and Indian forces, and members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (hereafter, the volunteers), to sabotage roads and bridges leading to Kowloon.

During the second day of the battle, British forces retreated from the northern New Territories back to the Gin Drinkers Line. Guarding Kowloon, 3,000 men of the Royal Scots, Punjabi and Rajput regiments manned the Gin Drinkers fortifications, strung along the hills from Gin Drinkers Bay (now Kwai Chung), through the fishing village of Sha Tin, across to Sai Kung.

Extract from Z Force operative Colin McEwan’s diary for December 9-10, 1941, when he was attached to the Royal Scots, provided by McEwan’s son-in-law, historian Tim Luard – “It was dark and windy and as the battle continued with almost continuous M. G. [machine-gun] fire and explosions of grenades, shouts of men and sharp orders came across. Although only gunfire and torches could be seen, one could easily envisage the actual scene. Visible too were the Japanese officers, leading up among the barbed wire entangle­ments (by the platoon on our right), using torches and waving swords in feudal manner. Shortly after this, orders came to withdraw.

“It was miserably cold. Tea had not been served out although it was available and for the first time among the troops I noticed decided ‘lack of morale’.”

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The malaria-ravaged Royal Scots engaged in the battle’s first major fighting, which occurred at the focal point of the Gin Drinkers Line and the gateway to Kowloon: Shing Mun Redoubt. Leading the first Japanese unit on the scene was Colonel Teihichi Doi.

Colonel Doi’s diary: Imperial War Museum, London – “The enemy was still inactive perhaps because of their estimate that it would take at least several more days for the Japanese troops to approach their position. Heavy fog suddenly reduced the visibility to about twenty metres.”

Doi decided to take advantage of the weather: his unit would assault the undermanned redoubt that night. By the next morning, December 10, the key to Kowloon was in Japanese hands.

In the following days, as the fighting entered urban areas, civilian casualties began to mount. Looting and violence erupted in Kowloon as the British retreated down Nathan Road.

Extract from Thomas F. Ryan’s book Jesuits Under Fire in the Siege of Hong Kong (1944), published by Burns, Oates & Washbourne – “All through the night the din and pillage continued [...] Gangs ‘worked’ certain streets or districts. They went to shop after shop and house after house, breaking down the doors if they were not open, and going through every floor and every room swiftly and violently. The slightest resistance brought savage attacks that were often fatal. Earrings were torn away brutally; fingers were chopped off when rings did not slip off easily; and a blow with an iron bar was the most common reply to any attempt to bar an entrance. Shots were frequent during the night [...] None will ever know how many people died during that terrible period.”

The Punjabi regiment, which covered the British retreat, took the last Star Ferry across the harbour late on December 12, under Japanese gunfire. Japanese troops then ransacked Kowloon. The number of rapes and murders of civilians remains unknown.

Island under siege: December 12-17

The December 12 entry from Anslow’s diary – “We have apparently abandoned Kowloon, and unless a miracle happens, are going to be shelled to bits. There is talk that Chinese guerillas are coming up behind the Japs and are now at Taipo, but I’m afraid to believe anything so heartening. I can see absolutely no escape, but we didn’t have to stay in Hong Kong, and at least this IS something and we are in the war with the folks at home [in Britain].”

The colonial government’s communiqué confirming the withdrawal to Hong Kong Island made no reference to Chinese forces, which were indeed fighting their way south (although they were far from Tai Po): “We have retired within our fortress, and from the shelter of our main defences we will hold off the enemy until the strategical situation permits relief.”

The December 12 diary entry by South China Morning Post editor Harry Ching, who was based at the SCMP building, on Wyndham Street – “We are now besieged in our fortress – but we do not feel very impregnable. The Kowloon hills have become mysterious and menacing. Normally the friendly horizon, they are now the hostile limit of our mental vision. The gates of hope have closed ...”

The promise of British relief forces sailing up from Singapore dissolved as news of the Japanese sinking of the warships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, off the Malayan peninsula, spread. But nothing would sway British prime minister Winston Churchill from his “never surrender” line.

A December 12 telegram from Churchill to Hong Kong governor Mark Young – “We are all watching day by day and hour by hour your stubborn defence of the port and fortress of Hong Kong. You guard a link long famous between the Far East and Europe [...] Every day of your resistance brings nearer our certain victory.”

What the Japanese were doing in Hong Kong before second world war invasion

The British rejected Japanese surrender demands on December 13 and again on December 17, despite their desperate plight. The Royal Navy’s presence in Hong Kong was soon reduced to half a dozen motor torpedo boats, based in Aberdeen, heightening the vulnerability of the island.

Fifth columnists used flashlights to signal from hillsides on Hong Kong Island to the Japanese in Kowloon to show them where British gun emplacements were located. The Japanese directed their artillery accordingly. Looting and sabotage of British equipment spiralled.

Amid the ongoing bombing and shelling of civili­ans, triad gangs sought to bring the battle to an early end, ostensibly to save the Chinese population from further casualties. They planned to massacre all Caucasians on Hong Kong Island at 3am on December 13. Japanese documents show that triad elements had been bought off by Japanese Army intelligence. The plan may also have been a ruse by the triads to solicit the considerable payment they were eventually given by the British in order to call off the massacre. Instru­mental in brokering that deal was Admiral Chan Chak. The one-legged admiral was the Kuomintang’s main man in Hong Kong, and the British authorities belatedly but increasingly turned to him for aid.

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To help restore order from the chaos fifth-columnist elements had fomented behind the front line, the admiral recruited more than 15,000 vigilantes from the ranks of triad groups with KMT sympathies.

Chan was in contact with KMT General Yu Hanmou, who apparently telegraphed an update on the progress of his army in Guangdong.

A December 17 entry from Chan’s diary – “We know [KMT] troops [...] are pushing towards the outskirts of Shenzhen and are heading towards the enemy troops who are currently invading Hong Kong. I feel both happy and comforted.”

However, five days later, the admiral wrote in his diary that he had exaggerated the hope of Chinese reinforcements in order to encourage the British to hold their nerve.

Kwong Chi-man – “The Chinese army could never break through the Japanese blockade of Hong Kong as the Japanese army deployed a reinforced brigade there. The Chinese lacked the artillery to launch a proper attack that could actually relieve the siege. The Japanese were fully aware of the Chinese ‘reinforce­ment’ and were prepared for it.”

Invasion of Hong Kong Island: December 18-25

From the unpublished memoirs of Auxiliary Fire Service officer Paul Tsui Ka-cheung [written down in 1989]. Tsui was stationed on Caine Road – “The bombardment went on ceaselessly, day and night, day after day, solidly for well over a week, and right up to Christmas Eve [...] The noises of the bombardment, a loud explosion following a long drawn wheezing sound caused by travelling at high speed of the shells, were deafening.”

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Once the Japanese had taken Kowloon, Maltby looked at Tsim Sha Tsui to the northwest of the island, close to Central, as likely crossing points. However, on the night of December 17, it is believed that the Japanese sent across a small team of swimmers – including an Olympic medallist – to reconnoitre the northeast of the island. They disabled British searchlights and mines around the prospective landing areas.

Twenty-four hours later, 7,500 Japanese troops landed around North Point and Shau Kei Wan.

From a letter by Navy volunteer Eric Cox-Walker to Therese Dulley, written on December 14, 1944, cited in her son Hugh Dulley’s A Voyage to War (2016), published by Unicorn Publishing Group. Cox-Walker served under Therese’s husband, Peter Dulley, during the Battle of Hong Kong – “The Japs managed to make a landing [...] under cover of a pall of smoke caused by the Petrol Installation at North Point being hot and going up in smoke.”

The Rajput regiment would bear the brunt of the onslaught, as 13,000 fresh Japanese troops joined the initial 7,500 in the following days.

The Japanese had expected the British to surrender once the attackers had secured a foothold on Hong Kong Island. Sakai’s superiors had ordered him to force a surrender within 10 days of the commencement of hostilities: this was day 11.

In the absence of a surrender, the Japanese faced unexpected resistance, particularly from a volunteer band of Great War veterans, all over 55 years old, who held the North Point power station and obstructed the route into the city. The main Japanese force then veered down the centre of the island, over the high ground.

On December 19, the day of heaviest fighting and highest losses (451 on the British side), the battle centred on Wong Nai Chung Gap, where the Japanese, they would later admit, suffered 800 casualties.

Captain Howard Bush, Winnipeg Grenadiers, quoted in Brereton Greenhous’ “C” Force to Hong Kong: A Canadian Catastrophe (1997), published by Dundurn Press – “The position was being fired upon from all sides. It might be compared with the lower part of a bowl, the enemy looking down and occupying the rim. The main road running through the position was cluttered for hundreds of feet each way with abandoned trucks and cars. The Japanese were using mortars and hand grenades quite heavily.”

Peter Choi, 93, on wartime spying, raising seven kids alone, and Typhoon Wendy

No more than 45 personnel from D Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers would hold on to the besieged Wong Nai Chung Gap until Christmas Day.

The Japanese strategy was to divide the enemy, and the British played ball, opting to split their forces in two – an East Brigade and a West Brigade. Brigadier Cedric Wallis gained permission from Maltby to regroup the island’s East Brigade around Stanley Peninsula and by December 21 an unbridgeable chasm had opened up between the defenders’ two forces.

That day, Young telegraphed Churchill, asking for the freedom to negotiate surrender terms before Hong Kong was completely overrun. Churchill replied, “There must be no thought of surrender.”

With the island all but fallen, Wallis was poised for a last stand on Stanley Peninsula.

From the memoirs of Tsui. Soon after the battle finished, Tsui would join the British Army Aid Group, smuggling supplies, information and personnel between occupied Hong Kong and Free China – “On Christmas Eve, I went to the Cathedral for midnight Mass. It was well attended. After Mass, I returned to my sister’s house at Mosque Street. Soon thereafter, rumours came our way through the bamboo wireless to the effect that the then Governor, Sir Mark Young, was about to broadcast a Surrender. I did not believe it at first, and I was not sure whether it was true or false. We noticed that the artillery bombardment seemed to have thinned down if not actually stopped. We went to bed quite peacefully that night. When we woke up early next morning, we heard a lot of noise. It was the noise of people. Yes hundreds of people [...] looted the houses of the rich and the famous up at the Peak area or in the Upper Levels of May Road, or Conduit Road and above.”

Later on Christmas Day, the governor’s orders to surrender were passed on by officers to Wallis, in Stanley. The brigadier disregarded those orders. Fighting continued on the penin­sula into December 26, despite the official surrender at 3.25pm the previous day, which would come to be known as Black Christmas.

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Nevertheless, a certain Chinese admiral was not prepared to be taken alive.

Tim Luard, author of Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak’s Christmas Day Dash, 1941 (2012) – “Perhaps the most positive – even the most important – single achievement of the brave but doomed defence of Hong Kong, and in total contrast to it in tone, was the dramatic and suc­cess­ful escape, which began just an hour after the surrender, of a large group of British officers and men [including Cox-Walker] led, in unprecedented fashion, by a Chinese – the Republic of China’s top representative in the colony. This surely deserves celebration, and greater recognition than it’s so far been given.”

Three Z Force men, including McEwan, aided the escape of Chan Chak. The admiral was shot off a rickety launch as it sailed through the Aberdeen-Ap Lei Chau channel and came under fire. Missing a leg and having been hit in the wrist, he demanded he be left to look after himself in the water.

Somehow he made it to join 70 other members of the military aboard the five remaining Royal Navy torpedo boats, off the far side of Ap Lei Chau. They sped around Stanley Peninsula and northwards, beyond Sai Kung. The boats were scuttled and, in what Luard describes as “an historic example of Anglo-Chinese friendship and co-operation”, local gueril­las guided the escape group through occupied territory.

Days later, British sailors carried the wounded admiral in a bamboo sedan chair triumphantly through the city gates of Huizhou, in Free China.

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Kwong points out that several hundred of the 1,100 Chinese who had served as regular troops in the Hong Kong garrison would escape to Free China and rejoin British forces. Many would serve in the covert British Army Aid Group, and about 120 were later organised into the Hong Kong Volunteer Company, which joined the Chindits, a special-forces unit that operated in Burma.

The Christmas Day massacre at St Stephen’s College, Stanley, during which nurses were raped and killed and injured soldiers were bayoneted in their hospital beds, is only the most infamous of a number of instances in which injured combatants, newly taken prisoners of war and groups of Chinese civilians were murdered during the Battle of Hong Kong. On Blue Pool Road – running from Happy Valley to Wong Nai Chung Gap – 30 Chinese civilians were found bayoneted in and around their homes on December 23, for example. One bugbear of historian Tony Banham “is how little the civilian experience has been studied. A conservative estimate of the number who had perished by the end of the war is probably 250,000, but that’s merely an approximation”.

It has been estimated that 10,000 women were raped and 4,000 civilians were killed during the battle itself, but we will never know the true figures. On the military side, about 1,550 of Hong Kong’s defenders were killed, as were a similar (but unconfirmed) number of Japanese.

Some months before the Battle of Hong Kong, Churchill had privately written that, if attacked, there was, “not the slightest chance” of holding Hong Kong.

He was right.