December 1941: Hong Kong’s Christmas Tragedy

Hong Kong was a lost cause – but the soldiers fought anyway. When Japanese forces launched a surprise invasion of the territory on December 8, 1941, just six hours after they bombed Pearl Harbor, British leaders already knew Hong Kong was indefensible. And yet 14,564 troops spent the next two weeks trying to hold back twice as many Japanese soldiers, first at the Gin Drinkers’ Line, then at Devil’s Peak, then at Quarry Bay, and then finally at Stanley.

“Nothing we did could have saved Hong Kong,” wrote a nurse after she was imprisoned in a Stanley concentration camp. “It was all wasted.”

There aren’t many reminders of this battle in everyday Hong Kong life. And yet the history is there, just beneath the surface. Every so often, construction crews unearth an unexploded bomb. People walking through a country park find old shell casings. Last year, a man was scouring the hills near Stanley with a metal detector when he found the wristwatch of 21-year-old Ray Jackson, a Canadian private who died in the battle.

Every December, the mournful wail of bagpipes echoes down the slopes of Chai Wan as people gather at the Sai Wan War Cemetery, the pristine resting place for 2,072 soldiers who died in the defence of Hong Kong. Their names are inscribed on their tombstones, along with the emblem of their regiment:

Juma Khan
14th Punjab Regiment
Age 27

L.A. Cormier
The Royal Rifles of Canada
Age 29

L.G. Shellam
11th Sikh Regiment
Age 32

Many of the tombstones read simply, “Known Unto God,” a final acknowledgement of those whose bodies were never identified.

The soldiers came from diverse places. Less than half were British; most of the rest were from India, Canada and Hong Kong. The Sino-Japanese war was raging in China, and Japan had invaded Vietnam in 1940, but imperial hubris downplayed the threat to Britain’s Asian colonies.

“If there was little sense of urgency in Hong Kong there was even less in London where [Winston] Churchill and the War Office insisted that war with Japan was unlikely,” notes Canadian military historian Terry Copp. Churchill’s insistence was disingenuous: he knew full well that Japan could invade Hong Kong, and if it did, the colony’s mountainous terrain and 733 kilometres of coastline made it virtually impossible to defend.

“Early in 1941, Winston Churchill claimed there was ‘not the slightest chance’ of successfully defending Hong Kong against the Japanese,” writes Canadian historian Patrick Donovan, who points out that Churchill had explicitly dismissed the suggestion of boosting Hong Kong’s military resources. “We must avoid frittering away our troops on untenable positions,” he said.

To be fair, Churchill had other priorities. The war in Europe had begun in 1939 and Nazi German bombs were raining down on Britain in 1940. From London’s perspective, a potential war in the Pacific must have seemed impossibly distant. Still, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities quietly prepared for invasion even as Britain publicly downplayed the danger. In July 1940, 3,000 British women and children were evacuated from Hong Kong to Australia. “Many Chinese objected that their taxes were being used to evacuate a privileged minority, but their pleas fell on deaf ears,” writes Donovan, who curated a 2016 exhibition on the Battle of Hong Kong at Quebec City’s Morrin Centre.

With Britain unwilling to send more troops to Hong Kong, Canada volunteered two of its regiments: the Grenadiers from Winnipeg and the Royal Rifles from Quebec City. They arrived, untrained and unprepared, just six weeks before the battle. Donovan notes that the Royal Rifles were classified as “unfit for combat” by the Canadian government, but nobody seemed particularly concerned. As they sailed from Vancouver to Hong Kong, the troops were reassured by lectures that described the Japanese “as short people with buck teeth who could not see at night because of the shape of their eyes.”

With little sense of urgency, the Canadian soldiers treated their three weeks of training like a holiday. “Their military salaries provided them with luxuries undreamed of in Canada during that time,” writes Donovan. They hired servants to shine their shoes. They slept with prostitutes. One soldier described “three glorious weeks of wild luxury, shopping, dining, drinking, spending, buying embroidered kimonos, carved tusks, silk pyjamas.” Another wrote about an encounter with a prostitute whose “caresses would damn St. Peter himself.”

The Japanese invasion was swift and efficient. Around eight o’clock in the morning, soldiers heard a squadron of aircraft approaching Hong Kong. At first, they thought the planes were long-awaited British reinforcements. “When the attack first happened, I saw a plane overhead and at first thought he was dropping leaflets, but quickly realized they were bombs,” recalls Canadian veteran Gerry Gerrard. “The planes overhead was the biggest threat to us. Wherever you went on the island they were always watching you.”

The bombs destroyed Kai Tak Airport and nearly all of Hong Kong’s meagre air force. After the attack, the Royal Navy ordered two of its three destroyers to sail to Singapore, leaving just one ship to defend Hong Kong. The Japanese bombing set the stage for a land invasion by 29,700 troops. Four hours after the bombings, around noon, Japanese troops crossed the Sham Chun River into Hong Kong. By dusk, they had already taken Tai Po.


Many of the tombstones read simply, “Known Unto God,” – Sai Wan War Cemetery  in Chai Wan

Three years earlier, Britain had built a series of fortifications across the Kowloon Hills called the Gin Drinkers Line, which was based on the post World War I-era Maginot Line in France. But it was incomplete and woefully undermanned. British commanders hoped to hold the line for at least three weeks, while their Japanese counterparts expected to lay siege to it for a month. Instead, the line was broken within two days, and Japanese troops advanced, taking over the Shing Mun Reservoir – a vital source of fresh water. Just 48 hours after the invasion began, Allied troops abandoned Kowloon and retreated to Hong Kong Island.

The next two weeks were gruesome. Around 7,000 civilians were killed, along with 2,100 Allied troops and 675 Japanese. By Christmas Day, Japanese forces had reached St. Stephen’s College in Stanley, which was being used as a makeshift hospital. Soldiers entered the hospital and took away two doctors to be tortured and killed. Canadian, Indian and British soldiers were bayoneted as they lay helpless on their beds. The soldiers then rounded up the nurses, raped them, murdered them and mutilated their bodies. There were many greater horrors that happened during World War II, but even Hong Kong — a relatively minor front of the war — was not spared of its brutal excesses.

Britain surrendered soon afterwards the massacre. One Quebec City soldier recalls feeling relief: “Now I would at least be able to have a good night’s sleep,” he wrote. But life under occupation was just as brutal as the battle. “When people say it’s amazing I survived the battle, I normally tell them no, what’s amazing is that I survived my internment,” says Gerry Gerrard. Japan had never signed the Geneva Convention and it treated its prisoners of war with particular cruelty. Many were shipped to Japan to work as slaves. They were fed so little, many died of starvation.

Local Chinese fighters managed to escape the camps. “When the British surrendered, we were instructed to take off our uniforms and go to the Dairy Farm in Pok Fu Lam to catch a truck back home to become civilians,” recalls Peter Choi, who served as an anti-aircraft gunner at Waterfall Bay. “By the afternoon, the Japanese had arrived in Western District, where they set up a sentry post in Kennedy Town. Whenever we passed that post, we had to bow.”

If you look closely enough, Hong Kong still bears the physical scars of the battle to save it – there are bullet holes in Tsim Sha Tsui’s historic clock tower. But the mental scars are at once deeper and less evident. Hong Kong-based American director Craig McCourry is working on Christmas at the Royal Hotel, a feature film about the Battle of Hong Kong that will be released next year. “Even when I talked to my actors, people who had grown up here, their knowledge of the war was not very clear cut,” he says. “They had learned very little from their parents or grandparents. This is true for a lot of the World War II generation – they don’t want to talk about the past.”

“The story of the battle of Hong Kong was the story that could never really be written,” writes historian Tony Banham, the founder of the Hong Kong War Diary project, which collects documentation related to the battle and occupation. One in ten soldiers died during the battle; another 20 percent died in captivity. “Anything written down during the fighting was burnt during the painful years of occupation, and the little primary material that we have was written in-camp from memory, or years after the event. No wonder these records are contradictory, fragmented, and confused.”

Canada has taken special interest in the battle given the scale of its impact on Canadian troops: about 30 percent of the Winnipeg and Quebec City soldiers who sailed for Hong Kong never returned home. During World War II, the tragic outcome of the battle was used as a rallying cry. “Remember Hong Kong!” exclaimed a military recruitment poster. 

Today, there is probably more awareness of the battle in Canada than in Hong Kong. The local Canadian consulate is responsible for organising the annual gathering at the Sai Wan War Cemetery. And while researchers have unearthed Canadian and British accounts of the battle, the experience of Indian and Chinese soldiers remains relatively unexplored. There is no public holiday to commemorate the battle or the occupation; until recently, few schools even taught their students about it. But the graves of Sai Wan are still there: silent reminders of a Hong Kong tragedy.

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