Battle for Hong Kong

To accompany the article about my Dad, Sgt Albert Ient, & his capture in Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 I have produced the following short summary of the events leading up to his capture.

Contents:

Background
Japanese Empire Expands
The British View of the Japanese
Keep the British Flag Flying
Further Research about the Battle for Hong Kong
The Phases of the Battle for Hong Kong
The Garrison at Fortress Hong Kong
New Canadian Battalions Arrive
Six Phases of the Battle
The Loss of the Mainland
The Siege of the Island
The Invasion of the Island
The Forcing of Wong Nai Chung Gap
Pushing the Line West
Encircling Stanley

Background

Hong Kong was a British Colony since the middle of the 19th century until it was handed back to China on 1 July 1997. Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1841 in a settlement following the First Opium War. Eventually in 1898, a 99 year lease granted for their New Territories which added to the colony:

Hong Kong

This is the location of Hong Kong in the Far East:

Hong Kong

Japanese Empire Expands

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. That same day, 6 hours later, at 08:00 hrs, they attacked the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The world took little notice of that "incident". For those of us who had a family member in Hong Kong, like my mother (evacuated to Australia from Hong Kong in 1940) and family members in England, it was a different matter. It was a day and month never to be forgotten.

The defenders of Hong Kong fought a valiant fight. However, it was a hopeless effort from the beginning but they fought on anyway. After 18 long cruel days of non-stop struggle they were finally captured on Christmas Day, 1941. Those who survived began a stint in as Prisoners of War over 3 ½ years.

The Japanese first took mainland Hong Kong (The New Territories) from their positions they had already taken in mainland China:


In the foreground is Happy Valley Racetrack

In the foreground is Happy Valley Racetrack
In the background is Kowloon Harbour.

This was the extent of the Japanese Empire by the end of 1942:

Japanese Empire by the end of 1942

The British View of the Japanese

At this stage of the war Japan had not attacked Singapore – the other major centre of the British Empire in the Far East. There was a threat from Japan that it would attach British colonies. The military & government in England were focused on the war with Hitler in Europe. I suspect their intelligence was sketchy to say the least when it came to the Japanese. One account reportedly given to the newly arrived Canadian troops, in 1941, was: Even if the Japanese did attack, British Intelligence had information that there were only 5,000 poorly-trained, poorly-equipped troops, who could not fight at night because of the shape of their eyes, and besides they were prone to sea sickness'. British Intelligence's assessment was that the Japanese were not much to contend with.

Keep the British Flag Flying

At the height of the Battle for Hong Kong on December 21st Churchill sent this message to the troops in Hong Kong:

"There must be no thought of surrender. Every part of the Island must be fought for and the enemy resisted with the greatest stubbornness. The enemy should be compelled to expend the utmost life and equipment. There must be vigorous fighting in the inner defences and, if need be, from house to house. Every day you maintain your resistance you help the Allied cause all over the world, and by prolonged resistance, you and your men can win the lasting honour which we are sure will be your due."

My Dad referred to this message in my conversations with him. I can't remember his exact words but it was something like this – 'we were there to keep the flag flying for as long as possible – that's what Mr Churchill wanted us to do. We knew we were likely to be captured or die in battle'.

Further Research about the Battle for Hong Kong

In my researches about my father I have come across others who are researching their father's war time experiences. In this respect I would like to refer you, the reader, to the web site dedicated to the Commanding Officer "D" Company, of the Royal Rifles of Canada, Major Maurice A. Parker. You will find details of the heroic battle they fought and other information. Click here for the index

For a general overview of the battle see Wikipedia

The Phases of the Battle for Hong Kong

For this account I have decided to base this report on Tony Banham's web site records and the following are extracts from his web site - Battle of Hong Kong Background and Hong Kong War Diary

They context for us how Hong Kong was viewed by the British Army in 1941 and give details of the events as they unfolded during the 18 days from the Japanese invasion to the capitulation of Hong Kong by the British Forces. This map show the situation:

This map show the situation

Above – the map shows the deployment of the opposing armies

The Garrison at Fortress Hong Kong

In the first half of 1941, Hong Kong's garrison was commanded by General Grasset. It consisted of three infantry battalions, the 2nd Battalion the Royal Scots, the 5/7th Rajputs and the 2/14th Punjabis, plus one machine gun battalion, the 1st Battalion the Middlesex Regiment. These were supported by a large number of Royal Artillery Batteries, the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), and all the supporting units that an isolated garrison needed. Also, of course, the Royal Navy was there in some force. Altogether, the garrison consisted of some 10,000 men at this time.

New Canadian Battalions Arrive

In mid-July, Grasset was replaced by General Christopher Maltby. When Grasset left the Colony, he – himself a Canadian – suggested that the Colony be reinforced by two Canadian Battalions. Somehow he persuaded Churchill's advisors to ask for these battalions, and he had also made his case to the Canadian Government. C Force finally arrived in Hong Kong just three weeks before the Japanese attacked. This brought the number of defenders to 12,000 (which, when police – who had been sworn in as militia – and front-line nurses are included, increased to a peak of around 14,000). This was, of course, too small a number to have a hope of stopping the Japanese. However, the war against Japan was primarily a war of attrition, and every soldier and piece of equipment lost by Japan in attacking Hong Kong was a step towards victory.

Six Phases of the Battle

The eighteen days of fighting can neatly be summarised as six phases:

The Loss of the Mainland
The Siege of the Island
The Invasion of the Island
The Forcing of Wong Nai Chung Gap
Pushing the Line West
Encircling Stanley

The Loss of the Mainland 8 - 13 December

Beginning in the early hours of December 8th, the Japanese slowly but irresistibly moved south towards Kowloon. A small force of 2/14th Punjabis and Field Engineers, supported by infantry of the HKVDC, delayed their progress by sabotage until the Gin Drinker's Line was reached.

Here, at the Shing Mun Redoubt, was the first skirmish in which the 2nd Battalion the Royal Scots were pushed out of their position and fell back to Golden Hill. Golden Hill was very exposed, and in a far bigger battle the next day, it was given up. From then until the evacuation of the mainland there was only one other significant engagement, at the Ma Lau Tong line, as the Indian rearguard defended their retreat.

The Siege of the Island 13 to 18 December

With all defending forces now tied up on the Island, the Japanese started a concerted effort to bomb and shell all militarily significant areas. The Peak and the fixed defences (naval installations, gun batteries and pillboxes) were the major targets, though civilian areas in Central, Mid-levels, Causeway Bay, and Wan Chai were also hit with many casualties.[1]

The Invasion of the Island 18 December

On the evening of December 18th, the invasion began. Japanese landings commenced between North Point and Shau Ki Wan, in conditions made all the more confusing for the defenders by poor weather and thick smoke from bombed industrial sites. The Rajputs, with elements of the Middlesex, HKVDC, Royal Artillery and Royal Rifles (in particular, C Company) becoming involved as the beachhead moved inland, put up the initial resistance. By midnight, almost the whole north-eastern corner of Hong Kong was in Japanese hands, with the line as far south as the northern most point of Jardine's Lookout, and as far west as the North Point power station.

The Forcing of Wong Nai Chung Gap 19 December

The Japanese strategy was simple: take Wong Nai Chung Gap and continue south along Repulse Bay Road to split the island in two. This necessitated keeping East Brigade busy so they could not organise any useful counter-attack, while other Japanese forces concentrated on knocking out defences on Jardine's Lookout and Mount Nicholson (overlooking the Gap from the east and west respectively), and in the bottom of the Gap itself. Once this was done, and the strategically important Police Station at the south of the Gap was captured, the fighting moved south along Repulse Bay Road. In 1941 it was relatively sparsely populated, thus the skirmishes on this and later days were generally named after the isolated houses at or around which they occurred; from north to south: Postbridge, Altamira & The Ridge, Twin Brooks, Overbays, Repulse Bay Hotel, Eucliffe.

This was by far the hardest day's fighting, with the defenders losing in twenty-four hours approximately one third of the total fatalities incurred in the whole 18 day battle. Losses to the attackers were probably in a similar ratio.

By midnight, although there were still pockets of resistance, the Gap and the majority of the road were, in all practical terms, in Japanese hands.

How far south Japanese forward patrols advanced along the road that day is uncertain, but there is a distinct possibility that a few small groups or individuals reached the south coast itself.

Pushing the Line West 19 to 25 December

As early as the night of the 18th, the defenders had the genesis of a line running south from the Power Station through the developed north coast to the hills, preventing the Japanese from advancing to Central. Over the next few days, this 'northern sector' was pushed steadily west with the northern-most anchor moving from Caroline Hill quickly back to Leighton Hill (which was defended energetically by the Middlesex) and finally Morrison Hill and Mount Parrish, while street fighting was rife in Wan Chai. The southern anchor moved from Wong Nai Chung Gap to Mount Nicholson, then Mount Cameron, and finally Wan Chai Gap and a little west.

Further south was the 'central sector'. Here Mount Nicholson was taken with ease, but Mount Cameron was a hard struggle, with Wan Chai Gap being held almost to the end. Finally, the 'southern sector' which fell back in stages from Shouson Hill, to Brick Hill, to the stoutly-defended Bennet's Hill.

It was this relentless western progress that prompted the surrender on the 25th, by which time it was felt that Wan Chai could not be held any longer. Central was already within the range of small arms fire from the central sector.

Encircling Stanley 19 to 26 December

When East Brigade HQ at Tai Tam withdrew towards Stanley on the 19th, fighting on two fronts became impossible to avoid. Delaying actions at Red Hill and Bridge Hill could not prevent the Japanese advance from the northeast, and the Repulse Bay Hotel area could not be held against their advance from the northwest. The circle tightened around Stanley Mound and Stone Hill, where Canadians and Volunteers fought it out with the invaders in particularly tough country, and finally squeezed them into the Stanley peninsular itself. By the time of the official surrender on Christmas Day, the first two of three defensive lines had fallen. However, the defence of the final line was maintained until the early hours of December 26th, when written orders to surrender were finally delivered to Brigadier Wallis.



[1] Albert Ient captured at Mount Austen in the area call "The Peak".