My father joined the British army as a Gentleman Cadet in 1932, at the age of 18. I suspect he may have been drawn to the prospect of an active life of adventure, preferring that to years of studying for an office-based career. He was commissioned as an officer in 1934 and sent to Hong Kong in 1937.
Dad joined 8th Heavy Brigade, Royal Artillery, and assumed command of a Chinese troop on its formation in 1938.
In 1940, Dad was appointed to the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA), but by the time of the Battle of Hong Kong, in December 1941, he was based at HQ China Command, Hong Kong. In late November 1941 my father had been promoted to Brigade 19 Major.
At this time there were rumours and false alarms about the imminence of war with Japan, but it never seemed to come to anything. Dad comments, in diaries written at the time, on the last-minute change of plan for the defence of Hong Kong following the arrival of two Canadian battalions in November 1941:
For the past two years the intention had been merely to deny the use of the harbour to the enemy and to hold the island at all costs. It was realised that it was impossible to hold the colony in sufficient strength to enable it to be used as a naval base. No attempt was to be made to hold the mainland or Kowloon. The arrival of the Canadians entailed great changes in this plan. In addition to the island, Devil’s Peak Peninsula was now to be held at all costs. The “inner line”, a great belt of pill boxes and wire, constructed in the time of General [Arthur] Bartholomew [Commander 1935–38], on the northern slopes of the ring of hills encircling Kowloon, was to be held in force by three battalions for about six weeks, while the island would be held against any attack from the sea by the coast defences.
General Gordon Grimsdale, British Military Attaché in Chongqing (then Chungking), who would later be Dad’s boss, held strong views [expressed in his private papers] about the wisdom of protecting the colony:
As long ago as 1934 I started a campaign to persuade people that Hong Kong was not worth defending. The development of air forces had already shown that, as a naval base, Hong Kong was quite useless. It would never be possible, in the small space available, to construct sufficient aerodromes, for use by an air force large enough to take on the potentially strong hostile air forces, based on many aerodromes in nearby China. At the best, Hong Kong could only be used as a temporary naval anchorage … “But” said my opponent, “think of the prestige we shall lose.”
I am indeed convinced that it was this wretched word “prestige” which over-ruled all other arguments. Useless for me to point out that if war came, we should lose far more prestige by a short and unsuccessful siege, than by voluntarily deciding not to try the impossible. And, as I also pointed out, after the war Hong Kong would belong to whoever won the war.
I had much reason to remember my arguments when I arrived at Chungking 14 days after Hong Kong fell; the majority of Chinese were not prepared to let me forget how much prestige the loss of Hong Kong had cost us.
British prime minister Winston Churchill evidently felt that it would be better for Hong Kong to fall into Japanese hands – to be recovered later – than to fall into Chinese hands, from which it might never be reclaimed. He certainly never expected that Hong Kong could be held and refused to “waste” extra resources on its defence.
After receiving a request in January 1941 to strengthen the garrison, [according to UK Parliamentary papers] Churchill noted:
If Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there. Instead of increasing the garrison it ought to be reduced. Japan will think twice before declaring war on the British Empire, and whether there are two or six battalions at Hong Kong will make no difference. I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.
The implied disregard for human life in this strategic thinking seems shocking now, but with a war being conducted on many fronts around the world against a variety of enemies, I suppose brutal decisions had to be made. In The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong 1941, military historian Oliver Lindsay comments:
For political and moral reasons Hong Kong had to be defended. Many Chinese would have been seriously discouraged from continuing their weary and interminable struggle against Japan if Britain had lacked the courage and determination to resist and had abandoned the colony to the mercy of the Japanese before they had even declared war. Such a sordid act of appeasement would also have shaken the neutral Americans, who were then strengthening their forces in the Pacific while critically assessing Britain’s determination to fight on.
On November 26, 1941, the American Secretary of State [Cordell Hull] had handed to the Japanese ambassador [Kichisaburo Nomura] a demand for them to leave China. This was the final trigger for the Japanese to prepare for war with the Western powers. The battle of Hong Kong began on December 8, 1941, a few hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the other side of the Pacific, and at the same time as attacks on Singapore and the Philippines, and the invasion of Malaya (the peninsula, with Singapore at its tip, that was a British protectorate at this time) and Thailand.
The Japanese objectives seem to have been to neutralise American military striking power in the Pacific and to ensure continuity of supply – in private correspondence Lindsay told my father many years later:
After moving into French Vichy Indo-China the US, UK, Dutch etc. put trade barriers and embargoes against the Japs which prevented them getting oil, tin, rubber, etc. Their imports of oil were cut from 80 million barrels in 1940 to eight million in 1941. They had the choice of losing face by withdrawing from Indo-China and South China, or securing these prizes by war!
My father kept a diary during this period. He was always a good trencherman and his diary is liberally peppered with details of his meals, but he also writes about the events of the day. This is fascinating to me, as he rarely spoke of his inner world or even of his outer world. He writes well and entertainingly and it is a pity that he never wrote a book himself. His diaries were gold mines for me, along with his letters home to his parents and closest friends.
Reading his diary for the last weeks before the outbreak of war, there is a constant undertow of threat beneath the day-to-day mundanities, but it is a distant and abstract threat. Remember that his diaries and letters were written in war, when any document could be considered a security risk and so much had to be written in code or left unsaid. Even on the eve of battle, Dad’s diary indicates that there was still no sense of its imminence:
Sunday, December 7, 1941: Yesterday afternoon I went down to the airport for a flying lesson. I thought it went rather well and was very disappointed with Baugh [Flying Officer Norman Baugh] for not letting me go solo. After it got dark we went into the bar and met some of the CNAC [China National Aviation Corporation] pilots. They had about a dozen planes leaving for Nam Yeung that night. The first two Douglasses went off at about 7.15 and were expected back shortly after nine.
Baugh and I had intended going out together to dine. First of all we went up to his mess for a wash. When we got there we found there was a flap in progress. A message had just been received from the RAF Singapore putting them on No.1 state of readiness. “Horrid” Horry rang up [Colonel Lance] Newnham to find out if he had had any further news, but was told that headquarters far from having had any fresh cause of alarm, were thinking of relaxing their precautions.
All the same to be quite sure I rang up my office to find out whether I was wanted. George Cross, who was on duty at the time, seemed quite offended and assured me that all was quiet, and that he could deal with any situation which might arise.
About this time the two Douglasses which had left earlier in the evening returned to the aerodrome long before they were expected. For some reason they had turned back. One landed in such a hurry that it broke its undercarriage. There was an air of expectancy and excitement in the mess where I stayed to dinner as Baugh was now confined to barracks.
As I went home after dinner everything seemed quiet and normal. There were the usual Saturday night crowds in the main streets and on the ferries. Hong Kong was illuminated as usual. This morning when I went to the office, I found that the situation had worsened.
I don’t really believe that anyone thinks it will come to anything. We have had so many flaps and lived in a state of tension for so long that we have become blasé. We live only for the day when the rather annoying precautions that interfere with our private amusements are once more considered unnecessary. This is more serious than most. The Hong Kong Regiment have been ordered to get their ammunition onto their mainland positions.
The Allies were woefully unprepared for a land-based attack and were extremely poorly supported at every level. They were 15,000 men (including the two battalions of Canadians who had been sent as reinforcements at the last minute) against more than 50,000 Japanese. [Monro wrote during his later incarceration in a prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong in January 1942]:
The Japs pulled a gigantic surprise on us. We had no idea that he was as good as we found him to be. Before the war we looked down upon him, considering ourselves more than his match both in physique, training and equipment. To our consternation we found him better than ourselves in all respects.
Certainly the troops he brought against us were magnificently fit and hardy. Both their fieldcraft and night fighting were first class. His cooperation between the arms was excellent. His infantry never seemed to be without adequate close support. We hated his heavy mortar and, though I believe it has been more bark than bite, it did the trick against us even if it might be ineffective when used against more seasoned troops.
Whatever his troops may carry on the march his assault troops in battle only carried very light equipment. They were dressed in KD [khaki drill] usually with netting sewn over the upper portions, I suppose for holding garnishment; a steel helmet also covered with a net, rifle, ammunition, bayonet, some hand grenades and an iron ration. He seldom seemed to wear leather boots, usually rubber soled hockey boots with a separate big toe. Officers usually carried glasses and a large leather map case. To our amusement they invariably wear swords. Their morale was magnificent.
However, the British might have been better prepared for a land attack, as Dad observed:
Saturday, January 24, 1942: Shortly before the war started I read in the Manual of Coast Defence that history has shown that land frontier has been the weakness of every besieged fortress. Hong Kong has reiterated this saying. Our seaward defences were immensely strong. The enemy made no attempt to attack us from that side, but our defence against a land attack was quite inadequate. Three battalions had to hold a front of 11 miles [18km], spread out on such a front there could be no reserves and no real defence in depth.
The Japanese air force knocked out the Allies’ capability for air defence and reconnaissance, before ground troops began to push south from the Chinese border. Dad’s account of the battle was hair-raising and poignant. I had to keep reminding myself that he was only 27 at the time:
Wednesday, December 10, 1941: About 8am [on Monday, December 8] the first Japanese bombers came over. They did a lot of damage at the Aerodrome, destroying seven CNAC planes, The Clipper, most of the RAF planes and the two Walruses. They were unopposed. The volunteer AA [anti-aircraft] platoon had drawn no ammunition, I suppose because the day before was a Sunday. The gunboat supposed to be in the seaplane anchorage was being used for something else.
The Japs made rapid progress down the Taipo Road, and by the evening we were back in Shatin. HQ were gravely disappointed with the Stanley guns [on Hong Kong Island]. They have shot too big a line, boasted that they could get almost to Taipo [a village 15 miles/24km to the north, in the New Territories], in actual fact, they can only reach about 1500 yards beyond Shatin Station.
The lack of air cover combined with too few troops defending the mainland meant that the Japanese made rapid progress through the New Territories:
Thursday, December 11, 1941: I tried hard to sleep but it is an unpleasant feeling to lie still while periodically in the distance you hear the first whisper of a coming shell, rising in a crescendo to shriek and ending in a tremendous crash. There is the feeling that this one may be going to get you. However, after a few have exploded harmlessly, so far as you are concerned, you become quite fatalistic.
The mainland was lost by December 13, when the Allies were forced to evacuate their last stand, the Devil’s Peak Peninsula, to the east of the Kowloon Peninsula:
Yesterday there was a tremendous battle on the Devil’s Peak Peninsula. Twice in the afternoon we were asked to put down big concentrations of six-inch and 9.2-inch Howitzer guns on enemy advancing to the attack. We beat them off and by evening were still holding our original line, but General [Christopher Maltby] decided that the peninsula must be evacuated. We got the guns across safely, but the lighters to take the mules were sunk and the entire lot, about 100, were lost.
We must have very badly weakened the Japs yesterday because the final boatloads of men only got away shortly after dawn this morning. I believe Thracian (our only destroyer) and the MTBs [motor torpedo boats] only left the Lyemun Pass [a channel separating Kowloon and Hong Kong Island] at 7am.
The Japanese General [Takashi] Sakai asked for surrender on December 13. He was refused. Dad describes the demand document:
About 9am the Japs sent across a boat with a white flag demanding our surrender. I saw the demand itself shortly afterwards in the intelligence office where the interpreters were busy translating it. It was a scroll, unfolded, right to left about a foot wide and 10 feet long. There were three of them working on it, it was spread out between them. There was plenty of room for each to work on his own portion.
Bombardment of the Allied positions on Hong Kong Island followed:
Tuesday, December 16, 1941: For the past three days the Japs have been shelling us very heavily indeed. Mt. Davis have had the worst of it. One of the AA [anti-aircraft] guns has been knocked out. About 11 men were killed when the enemy scored a direct hit on one of the shelters. A dud shell hit the muzzle of the upper 9.2-inch gun and it appears to be slightly bent. The plug gauge bore will no longer pass through it.
A shell (nine-inch) came in through the old canteen along the passage into the plotting room and came to rest under the command exchange. The lights and the ventilating plant have been put out of action. We are only through to them by one line which goes through their Regimental HQ at Felix Villas, which they have had to move twice.
Courtlands [a hotel where Dad was staying] has been lucky so far. It is very close to the Peak Tramway, which the enemy base succeeded in putting out of action. The houses all round have been totally knocked about. At breakfast this morning the base of a 150 millimetre shell came in through the window and landed under the table. Buzz [Dad’s dog] is standing up better than I expected. He is puzzled, rather startled but so far not really frightened.
On my way back to HQ I nearly fell into a bomb crater. There was the usual blackout. I stopped the car when the road surface didn’t seem quite right, got out to look and found the front wheels on the very edge of a hole about 20 feet across and 10 feet deep. It was a small car and fortunately I was able to squeeze by on the right hand side.
General Sakai demanded surrender again on December 17 after this punishing shelling of Hong Kong Island but, again, the British refused:
Today the Japs sent over another demand for surrender. They claimed to have destroyed by bombing or shellfire every military objective in the colony. If we still refused to surrender they threatened to bring down the place about our ears. The demand was summarily rejected.
From December 18 a fierce battle raged for control of the island:
Friday, December 19, 1941: The Japs landed last night, at Sai Wan, Lyemun Magazines and North Point. I suppose it was obvious they would land there from the amount of artillery preparation they have carried out in these areas. For a long time we refused to believe it in the Battle Box [the underground command centre]. There have been so many false alarms from this area that the attitude was rather “Those bloody windy buggers! At it again.”
They took Sai Wan Redoubt [a defensive fortification just up the hill from Lyemun Fort, where the Japanese landed] during the night. [Lieutenant E. A.] Bompas made a counter attack and retook it but most of his troops melted away and he was pushed off again. By daybreak we had to evacuate Sai Wan six-inch Howitzer position. The Japs were up on the top of Mt. Parker and beginning to trickle down into the Ty Tam Valley.
Then we had to evacuate Parker How position; after that came news that they had captured most of the guns in the Ty Tam Valley and were attacking Wong Nai Chung. It looked as if Ty Tam Gap would go at any minute, so the CRA [Commander Royal Artillery] ordered the destruction of the guns at Collinson, D’Aguilar, Bokhara and Chung Am Kok. The men had to go to Stanley for use as infantry. The controlled mine fields in the Tathong and East Lamma Channels were blown up.
The Island bisects neatly into a western half and an eastern half. The road that runs from north to south down the middle goes over a pass between the hills called Wong Nai Chung Gap. The Allies had to hold the gap to have any hope of retaining control of the island.
Friday, December 19, 1941: I rang up to ask Jack Fox what the position was at Wong Nai Chung. I could hear the machine gun fire down the phone. He had been manning one himself. “Tell Pat” he asked me. Quarter of an hour later I rang up again, this time I got Tim [Temple]. He said they were surrounded and fighting a tremendous battle with small arms: “What else is there to do,” he said in a rather humorous, resigned tone of voice. That was the last we heard of them. Wong Nai Chung was taken. It was the key point of the island.
Jack Fox, Tim Temple and all of the infantrymen were killed at Wong Nai Chung. With hindsight, this would have been the time to surrender to avoid further loss of life, but the Allies were determined to continue. On the same day he writes:
Ted Hunt came in this evening. He had led a counter attack against Wong Nai Chung and had recaptured it almost single-handed. As he got near the enemy his battery just melted away. Though the [Indian] gunners are steady under shellfire, they will not face the enemy at hand to hand fighting. I don’t really blame them. They have had very little training in the use of infantry weapons and so few of our young officers can make themselves really understood in their language. Jack Fielden was killed in this attack and Colonel Yale badly wounded.
Ted could tell us nothing of Tim Temple, Geoffrey Proes or Jack Fox. Ted is looking very wild and woolly. He is wearing an extraordinary assortment of uniform, he has three- or four-day growth of beard and is carrying a Tommy gun, which he swears is the finest weapon ever invented. He has had no sleep for the past two days. The CRA had ordered him to go back to Stanley and rest.
About this time news came through that the Japs had reoccupied Wong Nai Chung. Just as Ted was leaving I warned him of this and told him to go round by Pok Fu Lam but he replied, “Bugger the Nip, I am going back that way anyhow.” And with that he dashed up the stairs out of the Battle Box.
Hunt was killed that night. Fierce fighting raged for the next few days as the Allies refused to admit defeat.
Wednesday, December 24, 1941: I have shot Buzz. Up to now the bombardment has only puzzled and startled him; it has never really frightened him, but yesterday and today he has been terrified by every exploding bomb or shell. It is obvious that very soon we shall all be dead or will surrender. He is better off out of the way though I don’t suppose I shall have another dog his equal.
It is typical of Dad to comment so matter-of-factly about these nerve-shredding events. He never mentions fear or anxiety and seems to have quickly adapted to battle conditions with a rather Chinese fatalistic approach. Confucius recognised that not all outcomes are controllable by oneself in particular or mankind in general. Rather fate, or Heaven’s Command, is ultimately in control.
Dad was never sentimental about animals even when he had a close bond with them. Horses and dogs revered him as their master and seemed to respond well to his authoritarian style. He obviously had a special bond with Buzz, his “once in a lifetime” dog, perhaps. How hard it must have been and yet merciful to end his suffering – Dad would have regarded it as his duty, I’m sure. He clearly felt that his own death was imminent, in the fighting or at the hands of the victors after surrender. In that circumstance, shooting his dog was the only way he could be certain of Buzz’s welfare. Had victory for the Allies been in prospect he might have tried to calm the dog, in the hope that the prolonged fireworks display would soon be coming to an end. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t express sadness about his dog when so many colleagues and friends had also lost their lives in the battle. In the same extract he went on to comment, admiring a kindred spirit perhaps:
After lunch I had my hair cut. I was greatly impressed by the barber, a Chinese. Shortly after he had started there was an air raid. A bomb landed nearby which put out the electric lights. He sent for a coolie to hold a candle and carried on, quite unperturbed.
The governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, surrendered the colony to the Japanese on Christmas afternoon, 1941, at the Japanese headquarters in the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon. Dad later had dinner with the Japanese Commander, General Kitajima, during his stay in the prisoner-of-war camp at Sham Shui Po. He and his boss, the Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier [Torquil] MacLeod, were taken to the Japanese Commander’s house on the evening of January 7, 1942. Dad’s fluency in French proved useful as the conversation was conducted in French through the Japanese Camp Commandant, Major Nakazawa.
They seem to have discussed the battle, as if it were a game of cricket that victor and vanquished were amiably reviewing, over a good meal and a glass of whisky. Dad’s enthusiasm for food was no doubt heightened by the lack of food in the POW camp. He wrote that this was the only square meal he had during his incarceration [he would soon escape across the border into China]. Most of his fellow POWs suffered starvation rations for the next several years. In a report written in February 1942 he describes the meal with the Japanese general in detail:
He gave us a good meal, a pretty fair attempt at a European dinner. We had tomato soup, rissoles of bully and crab, followed by fried meat loaf, cold ham with asparagus and mayonnaise sauce. I astonished everyone by eating almost an entire loaf of bread. The General drank white port, his staff tawny port, the CRA and myself had neat Johnnie Walker.
In another report he wrote about the meeting around the same time it is clear the Japanese were surprised by the British lack of defences:
At a later date Major J.P. Crowe, RA, the senior surviving officer of the Mainland artillery, was taken round the Mainland positions by General Kitajima. The General again expressed surprise that we had so few guns upon the mainland. At Shing Mun he told Major Crowe that he was amazed that so few troops were allotted to the defence of the redoubt, which he considered to be the key to our position. He had made preparations for a whole battalion supported by his entire artillery to attack the redoubt. The advanced company reported to him that it was very thinly held and had begged him to allow them to make a surprise attack, which he had rather unwillingly permitted but with, for him, most happy results.
This edited excerpt of Stranger in my Heart (Unbound, 2018) by Mary Monro appears courtesy of the author and the publisher.