The 8th December 2021 is the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Hong Kong. On this day thousands of Japanese soldiers crossed the border and laid siege to the territory. I am reissuing this post in remembrance of that day, and as a tribute to the thousands of brave British, Indian and Canadian soldiers who lost their lives.
Events leading up to the invasion
The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong started on the 8th December 1941 and lasted for 17 bloody days until the British forces surrendered on the 25th, in the person of His Excellency the Governor Sir Mark Aitchinson Young.
My Dad, Charles (Chucky) McConnell Sloan, joined the Hong Kong regiment, as did all men over the age of 18 in the colony, and had to report to the barracks once a month, and once a year for a two-week camp. These camps were not particularly onerous. The volunteers were piled into a truck and driven out to a location in the New Territories where a contingent of coolies would carry their kit bags up to the campsite. Their equipment also consisted of a wind-up gramophone and a box of 78s, several crates of beer and the other necessities of life.
They would set up their billets and report for machine-gun practice with the water-cooled Vickers machine-gun, about which, more later. Practice consisted of spotting the enemy, which was usually a collection of bone pots and blasting them to pieces. Eventually, the indigenous villages complained to the government and they had to find other ‘enemies’ to practice on.
The weapon had a reputation for great solidity and reliability… “It was this absolute foolproof reliability which endeared the Vickers to every British soldier who ever fired one.” From Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vickers_machine_gun
As the war came closer the volunteers were given training in anti-aircraft guns, and, as it was believed that the attack, when it came, would come at nighttime, they were called out at all hours of the day and night to man the guns. As a child, growing up in Hong Kong, I remember hearing the air raid sirens, which were still in place as late as the early 60s. The government continue to test them on a regular basis, and I still remember the feeling of unease whenever I heard one go off.
The Invasion and its Aftermath
Finally, it was December 1941, and despite the impending war, it was still the Christmas season. On the evening of the 8th, Dad was attending a black-tie function, complete with a dinner jacket and cummerbund. It was on that evening that the sirens started wailing. Several inebriated gentlemen shrugged off the alarm as yet another drill, and it was not until the bombs actually started falling that my father and his team manned their anti-aircraft gun, still wearing their dinner jackets.
There are numerous websites dedicated to the fight for Hong Kong so I will not go into that here. Dad was trained as a signalman and as the defending forces fell back, he eventually found himself in Stanley along with the remains of the British forces. On one occasion he was ordered to deliver a message on his motorcycle. He set off, delivered the dispatch, and was returning when a Japanese mortar shell knocked him off his bike. Stunned and grazed, but relatively unhurt, he returned to the lines where, due to water rationing, his wounds were disinfected with cherry brandy. He told me later he would much rather have drunk it.
The fighting was fierce and the invading Japanese soldiers hurled themselves at the defenses. Thousands of them were killed and Dad told me that in one location, their bodies lay three deep outside the perimeter wire. The Vickers machine guns that they had trained within the hills of the New Territories were nurtured carefully by the volunteers. The belt ammunition was sent up promptly, and the cooling cylinders refilled routinely, as the water boiled away. Eventually, the fighting was so fierce that there was no time to refill the cylinders and the volunteers fired on, expecting the barrels to melt or the mechanism to jam. However, the weapon never let them down.
Hong Kong surrendered to the invading forces on Christmas Day, the 25th December 1941, but not before, on the same day, Japanese soldiers forced their way into the British Field Hospital at Saint Stevens College where they tortured and killed over 60 injured soldiers and raped the nurses.
After the surrender, the volunteers were imprisoned in various locations. Dad was sent to the Sham Shui Po POW camp.
In August 1969 when I started my apprenticeship at China Light and Power (now renamed as CLP Power) I was sent to the training school which, at that time was in the Sham Shui Po depot. Every morning I had to walk past the British Forces REME camp. It was the same location where the POW camp had been situated.
During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army used it as a POW camp for British, Indian and Canadian soldiers. This was the main POW Camp in Hong Kong, operating from before the British surrendered the Colony, to the Japanese surrender. By the latter date, it was the only POW facility operating in Hong Kong, bar the hospital at the Central British School (now King George V School). Many POWs died here, especially in the diphtheria epidemic of 1942, and all shipments of POWs to Japan left from Sham Shui Po’s Bamboo Pier. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sham_Shui_Po_Barracks
Dad and his companions settled down to life in prison camp having no idea how long they would be there. People reacted differently to their incarceration and many years later Dad told me that there were many who just laid down and died. Others, like Dad, made the best of a bad deal and he soon had a little business going, darning socks with knitting needles that he had made from barbwire.
It was not long before the prisoners started resembling the living skeletons so vividly depicted in photographs taken by the relieving forces, and their daily diet was supplemented by grasshoppers, which they collected out of the surrounding bushes. They were boiled and added to the meager portion of rice that they survived on.
The cruelty of the Japanese guards has also been well documented and I do not intend to dwell on it here. When the prisoners assembled every morning they were forced to kowtow three times to the Emperor. On one occasion Dad refused and was beaten about the back and shoulders with the flat of a samurai sword.
And then, on one occasion, when he was scrounging for grasshoppers near the fence he was approached by a Japanese officer. Dad bowed deferentially and backed away, but the officer beckoned him closer. Dad of course obeyed.
“What do you want? Is there something you need?” Asked the officer. Fearing a trap Dad stood there, unable to speak.
“Quickly,” urged the officer.
“Bread,” said Dad. Not really knowing what else to say.
The officer moved away and Dad shuffled back to the barracks, the grasshoppers were forgotten.
It was three days later that Dad was out foraging again. He was unaware of how long the officer had been standing there, watching him, but he heard a gentle cough. There was the officer on the outside of the fence. It was winter and the officer was wearing a long coat. He looked about to make sure that no one was watching, and then tossed three small loaves of bread over the fence before quickly moving away.
Dad never saw him again.
I hope you found this post interesting. As the title suggests, it was a dark and terrible period in Hong Kong’s history but I believe that it is important to remember these events, if only to ensure that they never happen again. Please leave any comments you may wish to make. If you are interested in learning more about the war in Hong Kong you can visit the Museum of Coastal Defense. At the time of writing it is closed for renovation of exhibits so check with their website before visiting. See more here: https://hk.coastaldefence.museum/