On 8 December 1941, a day after its Air Force had devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Empire launched an attack on the Britsh Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
In the ensuing battle, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers – the first Canadian ground units to see action in the Second World War—fought valiantly to defend the colony. Initially, the Grenadiers were dispatched to the Gin Drinkers’ Line, a chain of defences in the New Territories on the Chinese Mainland, to hold back the onslaught. But heavy air raids and artillery attacks forced the Commonwealth troops to withdraw from the New Territories to their garrison on the island of Hong Kong. After several days of heavy bombardment, the Japanese stormed the island’s northern beaches on the night of 18 December.
The Japanese, well-supported from the air and reinforced from the Mainland, quickly separated the British East and West brigades, thus severing the Canadian contingent into two. With both brigades isolated, it was only a matter of time before the Island would fall. Still, the Canadian defenders fought on in the face of the relentless Japanese assault and suffered heavy casualties. On Christmas Day, the Canadians were forced to surrender; those who survived would have to endure three and a half years of hardships as prisoners of war.
In October 1941, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were ordered to prepare for service in the Pacific. From a national perspective, the choice of battalions was ideal. The Royal Rifles were a bilingual unit from the Quebec City area and, together with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, both battalions represented eastern and western regions of Canada. Command of the Canadian force was assigned to Brigadier J.K. Lawson. This was also a good choice because of Lawson’s training and experience; he was a “Permanent Force” officer and had been serving as Director of Military Training in Ottawa. The Canadian contingent was comprised of 1,975 soldiers, which also included two medical officers, two Nursing Sisters, two officers of the Canadian Dental Corps with their assistants, three chaplains, two Auxiliary Service Officers, and a detachment of the Canadian Postal Corps. There was also one military stowaway who was sent back to Canada.
Prior to duty in Hong Kong, the Royal Rifles had served in Newfoundland and Saint John, New Brunswick while the Winnipeg Grenadiers had been posted to Jamaica. In these locations, both battalions had received only minimal training. In late 1941, war with Japan was not considered imminent and it was expected that the Canadians would see only garrison (non-combat) duty. Instead, in December, the Japanese military launched a series of attacks on Pearl Harbor, Northern Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and Hong Kong. The Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers would find themselves engulfed in hand-to-hand combat against the Japanese 38th Division.
That same morning, the Japanese ground forces moved across the frontier of the New Territories and met resistance from the forward forces of the Mainland brigade. In the face of strong enemy pressure these advance units fell back to the “Gin Drinkers’ Line”. The defenders hoped to defend the line for a week or more but, on December 9, the Japanese captured Shing Mun Redoubt, an area of high ground and the most important strategic position on the left flank of the Gin Drinker’s Line. The Japanese had launched their attack under cover of darkness and there was fierce fighting, but in the end the Japanese were victorious. Their victory at night revealed how General Maltby had completely underestimated his enemy. In a dispatch he had noted that “Japanese night work was poor.” But within hours of their first attack, Shing Mun Redoubt was in enemy hands.
On December 10, “D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was dispatched to strengthen the remaining defenders on the mainland. On December 11, this company exchanged gunfire with the enemy and became the first Canadian Army unit to engage in combat in the Second World War.
Further Japanese attacks followed and the “Gin Drinkers’ Line” could no longer be held. Midday on December 11, General Maltby ordered the mainland troops to withdraw from the mainland. The Winnipeg Grenadiers covered the Royal Scots’ withdrawal down the Kowloon Peninsula. The Punjabs moved at night and the Rajputs, who had been left to guard Devil’s Peak, followed. The evacuation was successful and most of the Brigade’s heavy equipment was saved.
On December 13, a Japanese demand for the surrender of Hong Kong was categorically rejected.
The Defence of the Island
On the island, the defending forces were reorganized into an East and West Brigade. The West Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Lawson, consisted of the Royal Scots, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Punjab unit and the Canadian signallers. The East Brigade, under Brigadier Wallis, comprised the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Rajput unit. The Middlesex Regiment was directly under General Maltby’s command at Fortress Headquarters.
The Canadian battalions were divided and the Royal Rifles were no longer under Brigadier Lawson’s command. But ironically, both Canadian units were still charged with defending the southern beaches, where General Maltby mistakenly feared a seaborne attack.
The boundary between the brigades ran just east of the central north-south road across the island. Brigadier Lawson maintained his headquarters at Wong Nei Chong on this key road cutting through the island. Brigadier Wallis established his headquarters at Tai Tam Gap, a central position in the eastern sector.
To soften the island’s defences, the Japanese directed heavy artillery bombardment at the island, mounted destructive air raids, and systematically shelled the pillboxes along the north shore.
On December 17, the Japanese repeated their demand for surrender. Once again it was summarily refused, but the situation was very grim. With the sinking of two British relief ships off Malaya and the crippling of the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, there was no hope of relief, and the Chinese armies were in no position to give immediate aid. The defenders awaited assault in complete isolation. Brigadier Wallis visited the Rajput Regiment’s headquarters on December 18, and wrongly assured the Indian military personnel that the Japanese would not attack. Like General Maltby, he grossly underestimated the fighting ability of the Japanese.
The Attack on the Island
The invasion came with nightfall on December 18. The enemy launched four separate amphibious assaults across a three-kilometre front on the northern beaches of Hong Kong Island. They came ashore in the face of machine-gun fire from soldiers of the Rajput unit who were manning the pillboxes.
From the shore, the Japanese forces fanned out to the east and west and advanced up the valleys leading to high ground. The Royal Rifles engaged the invading Japanese and tried to push them back. “C” Company of the Royal Rifles, in reserve in an area adjacent to the landing, counter-attacked throughout the night, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. Other platoons of the Royal Rifles went into action on the west side of Mount Parker and suffered many casualties from the already-entrenched enemy.
The strength of the invasion force was overwhelming, and by early December 19, the Japanese had reached as far as the Wong Nei Chong and Tai Tam Gaps, again proving their effectiveness at night fighting.
The East Brigade
With the enemy well established on the high hills from Mount Parker to Jardine’s Lookout, General Maltby ordered the East Brigade to withdraw southwards towards Stanley Peninsula where, it was hoped, a counter-attack could be made.
By nightfall, on December 19, a new defensive line was established from Palm Villa to Stanley Mound, and a brigade headquarters was set up at Stone Hill. Unfortunately, some valuable mobile artillery was destroyed during the withdrawal. Even worse, vital communications were severed between the East and West Brigades when the advancing Japanese reached the sea at Repulse Bay.
The Brigade was now seriously reduced in numbers, with the Rajput Battalion being virtually wiped out defending the northern beaches. The East Brigade consisted of the Royal Rifles, some companies of the Volunteer Defence Corps and some Middlesex machine-gunners. The Royal Rifles were exhausted. Deprived of hot meals for several days, they had to catch whatever sleep they could in the weapon pits which they were continually manning. Yet, during the next three days, these men valiantly drove northward over rugged, mountainous terrain to join with the West Brigade, or to clear the Japanese from the high peaks.
First, they attempted a thrust along the shore of Repulse Bay in the hope of reaching Wong Nei Chong Gap – and the West Brigade. They managed to drive the enemy out of an area around the Repulse Bay Hotel. However, they were unable to dislodge the Japanese from the surrounding hill positions and were forced to withdraw. One company of the Royal Rifles was left to hold this area and a renewed effort to break through was made on December 21. Next came an attempt to reach Won Nei Chong by a more easterly route. Despite heavy enemy opposition south of Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir, the Royal Rifles succeeded in driving the Japanese out of a number of hill positions and in destroying a group holding the crossroads south of the reservoir.
Again the attack could not be maintained. The companies had become separated and they were out of mortar ammunition. The enemy was still pushing and Brigadier Wallis decided to withdraw his men to their former positions.
Fighting at Repulse Bay continued, but despite a valiant effort, the defenders had to be withdrawn.
After December 21, no further attempts were made to drive northward, for the troops were depleted and exhausted and the Japanese, who had been reinforced, mounted constant attacks.
At noon on December 22, the Japanese took Sugar Loaf Hill, but volunteers from the Royal Rifles’ “C” Company went forward and by nightfall they had recaptured the hill. Another company, however, was driven from Stanley Mound.
On the evening of December 23, orders were given for a general withdrawal to Stanley Peninsula. The exhausted Royal Rifles were taken out to Stanley Fort, well down the peninsula, for a rest. However, they were soon recalled for action as the Japanese were making advances which the Volunteer Defence Corps and other available troops could not contain.
The Royal Rifles celebrated Christmas Day, 1941, by returning to battle. Brigadier Wallis ordered a counter-attack to regain ground lost the night before. “D” Company was successful in this mission but suffered heavy casualties.
The West Brigade
The Winnipeg Grenadiers had also been thrust swiftly into action with the West Brigade.
On December 18, the Brigade consisted of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Royal Scots in reserve in the Wan Chai Gap-Mount Parish area, the Punjab Battalion in Victoria City, and a company of the Middlesex around Leighton Hill.
Charged with covering the southwest and west coasts of the island, the Grenadiers established their headquarters at Wan Chai Gap. Their “D” Company was back in Brigade Reserve at Wong Nei Chong. To be ready for action at a moment’s notice, “flying columns” were organized from the Headquarters Company and were billeted just south of Wan Chai Gap.
When the enemy landed on the evening of December 18, the flying columns were ordered forward. Two platoons were directed at Jardine’s Lookout and Mount Butler, where they engaged the Japanese in intense fighting. Heavily outnumbered, they were cut to pieces and both platoon commanders were killed.
Early in the morning of the 19th, “A” Company of the Grenadiers was ordered to clear Jardine’s Lookout and to push on to Mount Butler. Reports of its action are confused – so many officers and men became casualties – but it apparently became divided and part of the company, led by Company Sergeant-Major (CSM) J.R. Osborn, drove through to Mount Butler and captured the top of the hill. A few hours later, a heavy counter-attack forced this party back where it rejoined the rest of the company. Then, while attempting to withdraw, the whole force was surrounded.
The Japanese began to throw grenades into the defensive positions occupied by “A” Company of the Grenadiers, and CSM Osborn caught several and threw them back. Finally one fell where he could not retrieve it in time. Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself upon the grenade as it exploded, giving his life for his comrades. Shortly afterwards, the Japanese rushed the position and “A” Company’s survivors became prisoners. At the end of the War, CSM J.R. Osborn was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
As the Japanese approached the West Brigade Headquarters, Brigadier Lawson decided to withdraw to a new location. However, before the action was completed the headquarters was surrounded. A company of Royal Scots attempted to provide assistance, but less than a dozen were able to get through. About 10 a.m. on December 19, Brigadier Lawson reported to Fortress Headquarters that he was going outside to “fight it out” with the enemy who were firing into the shelter at point-blank range. He left the bunker with a pistol in each hand to take on the massed enemy, losing his life in the effort.
After Brigadier Lawson’s death, and that of Colonel Hennessy, who was next in command, West Brigade was without a commander until Colonel H.B. Rose of the Hong Kong Defence Corps was appointed on December 20.
Meanwhile, “D” Company of the Grenadiers held on firmly to its position near Wong Nei Chong Gap, denying the Japanese use of the one main north-south road across the island. The Grenadiers inflicted severe casualties on the enemy and delayed Japanese advances for three days. They held out until the morning of December 22, when ammunition, food and water were exhausted and the Japanese had blown in the steel shutters of the company shelters. Only then did they surrender. Inside were 37 wounded Grenadiers.
The final phase of the fighting on the western part of the island consisted of a brave attempt to maintain a continuous line from Victoria Harbour to the south shore. The Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent to hold Mount Cameron, an important height in the line, and they did so despite intense dive-bombing and mortar attacks. On the night of December 22, they were forced to retreat as the Japanese once again struck in the darkness.
Now the line consisted of the Middlesex Regiment and the Indian battalions on the left, the Royal Scots on the western slopes of Mount Cameron, and the Grenadiers in the right sector to Bennet’s Hill. On the afternoon of December 24, the left sector fell and the enemy made further gains on Mount Cameron. The Grenadiers held their positions against heavy attacks and on Christmas morning regained some ground lost at Bennet’s Hill.
However, after a three-hour truce the Japanese again attacked. The Allied positions were overrun and the defenders were forced to surrender.
At 3:15 p.m. Christmas Day, General Maltby advised the Governor that further resistance was futile. The white flag was hoisted. On the east side of the island, a company was just moving forward for an attack when word of the surrender arrived.
After seventeen and a half days of fighting, the defence of Hong Kong was over. The battle-toughened Japanese were backed by a heavy arsenal of artillery, total air domination, and the comfort of knowing that reinforcements were available. In contrast, the defending Allies, with only non-combative garrison experience, were exhausted from continual bombardment and had fought without relief or reinforcement.
The fact that it took the Japanese until Christmas Day to force surrender is a testimony to the brave resistance of the Canadian and other defending troops.
The fighting in Hong Kong ended with immense Canadian casualties: 290 killed and 493 wounded. The death toll and hardship did not end with surrender.
Even before the battle had officially ended, Canadians would endure great hardships at the hands of their Japanese captors. On December 24, the Japanese overran a makeshift hospital in Hong Kong, assaulting and murdering nurses and bayoneting wounded Canadian soldiers in their beds. After the colony surrendered, the cruelty would continue. For more than three and a half years, the Canadian POWs were imprisoned in Hong Kong and Japan in the foulest of conditions and had to endure brutal treatment and near-starvation. In the filthy, primitive POW quarters in Northern Japan, they would often work 12 hours a day in mines or on the docks in the cold, subsisting on rations of 800 calories a day. Many did not survive. In all, more than 550 of the 1,975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver in October 1941 never returned.