10 Facts About the Battle for Hong Kong

Philip Cracknell

6 mins

26 Jun 2019

In December 1941, the Japanese Army crossed the border into Hong Kong. The ensuing battle lasted eighteen days. The garrison fought gallantly against the odds, but on Christmas Day they were forced to surrender.

It had been a losing battle. Winston Churchill knew that Hong Kong, if attacked by the Japanese, could not be defended or relieved. Hong Kong would have to be sacrificed. Churchill’s order to Sir Mark Young, the Governor, was that the garrison must resist to the end, and this they did.

Here are ten facts about the battle.

1. Hong Kong was an international city and a major financial centre

In 1941, Hong Kong was a major financial and business centre with a substantial civilian expatriate community. There were large Portuguese and Russian communities, but the Chinese made up the bulk of the population.

Many thousands of Chinese refugees had crossed the border to escape the war in China. The Japanese Army had invaded Manchuria in 1931, and then the rest of China in 1937. Hong Kong had faced the threat of a Japanese invasion since Japanese troops first appeared at the border in 1938.

Not unlike today, Hong Kong was a city of high rise buildings and beautiful villas set against the greenery of the mountains and the panorama of harbour and sea. Hong Kong was described as the pearl of the orient.

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2. Militarily Hong Kong had become a strategic liability

Winston Churchill said in April 1941 that there was not the slightest chance of being able to defend Hong Kong should it be attacked by Japan. He would rather have taken troops out than add more troops, but this would have given the wrong geopolitical signal.

Hong Kong was within range of Japanese aircraft based in Formosa (present day Taiwan) and Southern China. The Japanese had several army divisions deployed in South China within easy reach of Hong Kong. British troops, aircraft and warships were concentrated in Malaya and Singapore.

Hong Kong had become an isolated outpost and a strategic liability. If it came to war, Hong Kong would have to be sacrificed, but not without a fight.

Indian gunners manning a 9.2 inch naval artillery gun at Mount Davis Battery on Hong Kong Island.

3. The war started on Monday 8 December 1941

The war started with the attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour at around 0800 hours on Sunday 7 December. A few hours later, the Japanese commenced attacks on Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the airfield was attacked at 0800 hours on Monday 8 December. All but one of the five obsolete RAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground together with a number of civil aircraft including the Pan Am Clipper. For most of the civilian community, this was the first indication that war had begun.

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4. The Mainland was lost within a week, and British troops withdrew to Hong Kong Island

The British commenced a series of demolitions to slow down the Japanese advance from the border. British troops stood-to in the defensive line known as the Gin Drinkers Line. This was a ten-mile line running east to west across the Kowloon Peninsula. It consisted of pillboxes, minefields and barbed wire entanglements. It was manned by three infantry battalions.

After the line was pushed back on the left flank, a decision was made to evacuate all troops and guns to Hong Kong Island (the Island). The evacuation was accomplished in a Dunkirk style operation involving a destroyer, the MTBs, launches, lighters and at least one civilian manned pleasure boat. After the evacuation, British troops prepared to defend the island fortress.

A surviving part of the Gin Drinkers Line today, the “Oriental Maginot Line”. Image Credit: Thomas.Lu / Commons.

5. The defending troops included British, Canadian, Chinese and Indian units as well as the local Volunteers

There were two British infantry battalions, two Canadian battalions and two Indian battalions. Hong Kong Chinese served in both the Regular Army and in the Volunteers. The Volunteers included British, Chinese, Portuguese and many other nationals who had made Hong Kong their home.

There was compulsory service for British nationals, living in Hong Kong, who were between the ages of 18 and 55 except for those in essential services. There was one unit of the Volunteers, a special guard, that recruited men over the combatant age of 55. The oldest of these to be killed in action was seventy-seven-year-old Private Sir Edward Des Voeux.

Canadian soldiers man a Bren gun during the Battle of Hong Kong.

6. The Japanese had superiority in the skies and in numbers of troops

The Japanese had complete air superiority. Their aircraft were able to strafe, bomb and observe with impunity.

The Japanese 23rd Army based in Canton used the 38th Infantry Division to spearhead the attack on Hong Kong. The division numbered approximately 13,000 men. The Japanese 1st Artillery Group consisted of 6,000 men. Total Japanese forces deployed, including naval and air force personnel, exceeded 30,000 men, whereas total British forces amounted to approximately 12,500 including Navy, Air Force, Marines and support units.

A Japanese air raid on Hong Kong.

7. During the night of 18 December, the Japanese landed on Hong Kong Island

The Japanese landed two battalions from each of the three infantry regiments on the north shore of the Island. They were augmented by artillery units and other support troops. By midnight the Japanese had landed some 8,000 men out-numbering the British defenders on that stretch of the shore by ten to one. The Japanese established a beachhead and moved quickly inland to seize the high ground.

Colour map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, 18-25 December 1941.

8. Hospital patients were bayoneted in their beds, and British nurses were raped

There were many atrocities carried out by Japanese troops against surrendered soldiers and civilians. One of these occurred when Japanese troops broke into the military hospital at St Stephen’s College, Stanley. The college had been known as the Eton of the East. The Japanese bayoneted or shot patients in their beds. They raped European and Chinese nurses, three of whom were mutilated and killed.

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 9. The British surrendered Hong Kong on Christmas Day

By the afternoon of 25 December, the Japanese were pushing the British back on all three fronts. The north shore, the south side and the line of hills in the centre of Hong Kong Island. When Major-General Maltby, the military commander, asked the senior officer on the north shore how long he could hold the front line, he was told a maximum of one hour.

The troops were already preparing a support line, and if that were broken, the Japanese troops would be in the centre of town. Maltby advised the Governor, Sir Mark Young, that nothing more could be achieved militarily – it was time to surrender.

Major General Maltby discussing the arrangement of surrender with Japanese at Peninsula Hotel on Christmas Day 1941.

10.The Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) escape

After dark, the five remaining MTBs escaped from Hong Kong. In addition to the boat crews, they carried Chan Chak, a one-legged Chinese Admiral, who was the senior representative in Hong Kong of the Chinese Government.

They raced through the night, avoiding Japanese warships, and scuttled their boats on the China Coast. Then with the help of Chinese guerrillas, they made their way through Japanese lines to safety in Free China.

A group photo of the escapees in Waichow, 1941. Chan Chak is visible in the centre of the front row, with his left arm bandaged after he was wounded during the escape.

Philip Cracknell is a former banker who was posted to Hong Kong in 1985. After retiring he followed his interest in the battle for Hong Kong and is the author of a popular blog: http://www.battleforHongKong.blogspot.hk. and he is the author of a new book published by Amberley Publishers titled Battle for Hong Kong December 1941.