Operation Armour

'Armour' was the British reoccupation of Hong Kong after the surrender of Japan (27 August/16 September 1945).

As the war with Japan drew toward its end, plans were made for units of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet to move to Hong Kong and establish a military administration pending the restoration of civil government. This reflected the feeling of the British government that the Japanese garrison should surrender to the British rather than to Chinese or US forces from the mainland of China.

On 14 August the British ambassador in Chungking was asked to inform the Chinese of these arrangements to reoccupy Hong Kong and restore its British administration, and after considerable protest Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek agreed on 27 August that Rear Admiral C. H. J. Harcourt, commanding the British Pacific Fleet’s 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, would accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Hong Kong on behalf of both the British government and himself as Supreme Commander, China Theatre.

On 27 August Harcourt’s Task Group 111.2 departed Subic Bay for the reoccupation of Hong Kong with the fleet carriers Indomitable and Venerable, light cruiser Swiftsure, anti-aircraft cruisers Black Prince and Euryalus, destroyers Kempenfelt, Quadrant, Ursa and Whirlwind, Canadian auxiliary anti-aircraft vessel Prince Robert, the 8th Submarine Flotilla with the depot ship Maidstone and eight submarines, and Australian minesweepers Mildura, Castlemaine, Bathurst, Broome, Fremantle, Strahan and Wagga.

Harcourt also had available a 3,000-man RAF construction unit which, as the war ended, had been en route across the Pacific to Okinawa to construct airfields for the British long-range bombers of the 'Tiger' Force and had reached Manus island in the Admiralty islands. On 30 August Harcourt received his directive as both the commander-in-chief, Hong Kong, and head of the military administration which he was to set up pending the arrival from the UK of the Chief Civil Affairs Officer, Brigadier D. M. MacDougall, and a civil affairs staff. For operational purposes Harcourt was to come under the direct control of the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, and for military administration of the colony under the War Office. The maintenance of the naval task force was to be the responsibility of the British Pacific Fleet, and that of army and RAF units of Lieutenant General Sir Montagu Stopford’s South-East Asia Command.

Instructions had meanwhile been sent from London on 11 August to the British ambassador in Chungking asking him, if it were possible, to tell F. C. Gimson, the colonial secretary in the pre-war Hong Kong government that, if he was released from internment on the Japanese surrender and had the opportunity, he should assume the administration of the government of Hong Kong until the arrival of Harcourt. Gimson, who had always foreseen that he might have to take charge of Hong Kong when the Japanese surrendered, had written a report on conditions in Hong Kong after its surrender which he had managed to get delivered to London by the hand of the former Canadian government trade commissioner, who was included in the diplomatic party which was exchanged for Japanese diplomats at Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa in 1942.

During his internment Gimson had formed a team of internees who had served in the colony to act as a nucleus of a civil administration. On 16 August Gimson was told by the Japanese that, in order to avoid continued loss of life, the Emperor Hirohito had been graciously pleased to accept the terms of surrender offered by the Allies. Brushing aside protests by Japanese officers, Gimson and the internees he had recruited left Stanley Camp on 19 August and set up a provisional government on the island (but not in the Leased Territories outside Kowloon) as nearly as possible on the lines of the pre-war civil administration, ordering the Japanese to obey any instructions and regulations it proclaimed.

The message from the British ambassador at Chungking giving his administration official authority reached him on 23 August through clandestine channels. Gimson found that although property had been looted and public services had been badly neglected, the damage from bombing had been slight, that the railway to Canton could be operated although there was a shortage of rolling stock and locomotives, and that the port was workable although it had suffered from neglect and deterioration.

Weak though they were from prolonged malnutrition, the personnel of Gimson’s team, assisted by some 250 members of the former police force and by doctors, nurses and technicians from among the prisoners-of-war and internees, began their task of maintaining law and order and of rehabilitating, despite lack of materials, the neglected public services. There is no doubt that this quick assumption of authority prevented large-scale looting such as occurred in Singapore between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of British forces, and speeded the island’s return to orderly government.

By 28 August communications had been sufficiently restored to make it possible for Gimson to broadcast to the world that British administration had been re-established in the colony. During the following day Harcourt’s task force arrived off Hong Kong, where it was joined by another task force consisting of the battleship Anson and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral C. S. Daniel. Harcourt then radioed a message to the Japanese commander in Hong Kong informing him that a British aeroplane would land at Kai Tak airfield at a specified time, and that a Japanese officer should be ready on the airfield to be flown back to the Indomitable to receive instructions about the entry of the British task force into the harbour.

When Gimson, whose staff had seen the arrival of the task force off Hong Kong, asked his Japanese liaison officer if any message had been received from the British ships, he learnt that the Japanese, on the grounds that they had no authority to negotiate, proposed to reply that the despatch of an aeroplane would serve no purpose. Gimson insisted that their reply should state that the aeroplane would be met and would return to the carrier with Gimson’s personal representative and a Japanese officer. After some hesitation the Japanese sent the messages as directed.

Gimson asked Commander D. H. S. Craven, the pre-war Naval Staff Officer, Operations, at Hong Kong, to fly to the carrier and inform Harcourt about conditions in Hong Kong, especially the severe shortage of rice and fuel, and warn him of the possible danger from Japanese suicide craft located at Lamma island.

A Grumman Avenger single-engined carrierborne bomber, escorted by Grumman Hellcat single-engined fighters, flew from Indomitable to Kai Tak airfield on 29 August, but on landing burst a tyre. Another Avenger was sent with a spare wheel, and that afternoon Craven and a Japanese representative of the Foreign Relations Department arrived on the carrier. When he had given information on the location of the minefields and received detailed instructions on what was required of the Japanese commander in Hong Kong, the Japanese representative left to return to the colony, but by this time the weather had closed in and the aeroplane, unable to find Kai Tak or Indomitable, had to make a forced landing in Chinese territory, fortunately with little damage. The Chinese who arrived to investigate wanted to kill the Japanese official, but the crew insisted he was their prisoner and managed to save his life.

On the morning of 30 August Craven was flown back to Kai Tak with instructions from Harcourt on what he required of the Japanese in preparation for his arrival in the harbour that day, and another aeroplane was sent to rescue the Japanese envoy and return him to the colony. After reporting to Gimson, Craven told the senior Japanese naval officer in Hong Kong that he was to move all Japanese naval officers and enlisted personnel from the dockyard area within four hours, an order which the Japanese accepted with bad grace.

Preceded by minesweepers and the destroyer Kempenfelt, and accompanied by the light cruiser Euryalus, anti-aircraft ship Prince Robert, destroyer Tuscan and two submarines, Harcourt, who had shifted his flag to the light cruiser Swiftsure in order to minimise the risk from mines, entered the harbour at about 12.00 on 30 August. Landing parties of naval ratings and Royal Marines then occupied the dockyard and removed from it all the remaining Japanese personnel. While the fleet was entering the harbour three of the large number of Japanese suicide craft anchored off Lamma island left their moorings, but they were immediately attacked and sunk or dispersed by aircraft. The rest of the craft were then bombed and those not sunk beached themselves.

The remainder of the British fleet entered the harbour before dark. With the exception of some sniping in Victoria, the Japanese offered no resistance and the occupation of the island was completed on 1 September, all Japanese troops and naval ratings having been moved to the mainland. Captain J. A. S. Eccles of Indomitable, an interpreter in Japanese, began the task of establishing the military administration to replace the nucleus civil administration, but on 1 September Gimson proposed that his administration should continue to function and be reinforced by civil affairs officers sent from the UK. Gimson’s proposal was referred to London, but the War Office insisted that the military administration was to be set up as planned, and the Colonial Office that Gimson and all members of his administration should be relieved as soon as possible and returned to the UK on leave, a sensible move since, having done an excellent job, they were in no physical condition to carry on much longer.

On 31 August Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade departed Trincomalee in Ceylon for Hong Kong in the large infantry landing ship Glengyle and the Indian Llanstephan Castle escorted by the light cruiser Ontario. Ahead of them were two tank landing ships and one stores ship, and departing later was the escort carrier Smiter, with the Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters of the RAF’s No.1412 Squadron embarked, following later to overtake. The force was to rendezvous in Singapore Strait on 6 September and steam to Hong Kong in convoy.

On 7 September MacDougall reached Hong Kong with some of his staff, relieved Eccles and continued the task of setting up the military administration and taking over from Gimson’s staff so that they could be repatriated.

As in the case of Singapore, the main problem faced in Hong Kong by the military administration was the provision of fuel and food. Supplies were taken over from the Japanese, purchased from China and supplemented by the cargoes of the few ships that could be spared for the carriage of supplies to Hong Kong. Nevertheless, although food and fuel were short for a considerable period, there was no acute distress.

The 3,000 RAF technicians arrived from Manus on 4 September and set to work to help restore the public services throughout the island. On 11 September the convoy carrying Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade, No. 4 Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees control staff, and No. 132 Squadron of the RAF (aboard the escort carrier Smiter together with its Spitfire fighters) reached the island, and on the next day Major General F. W. Festing, who had accompanied the commando brigade, assumed responsibility for both the military administration and the maintenance of law and order.

For some time, however, naval shore parties and Royal Marines co-operated with the commandos. The official surrender of the Japanese forces in the colony took place at Government House on 16 September when Major General Umekichi Okada and Vice Admiral Ruitaro Fujita signed for the Japanese and then surrendered their swords to Harcourt. Fraser, who had arrived in Duke of York on 14 September, witnessed the ceremony, as did officers representing Canada, the USA and China.

Repatriation of the 2,770 Allied prisoners of war and internees found in the colony began on 6 September when the first ship left for Manila, and by 4 October all but 673, who elected to stay on or were repatriated later, had left, the sick travelling on board the hospital ship Oxfordshire. Some 700 British, Dutch and Indian prisoners found on Hainan island were evacuated to Hong Kong.

The Japanese garrison of Hong Kong appears to have been an independent mixed brigade some 7,000 strong. The total number of Japanese who surrendered in the colony was 21,065, comprising 6,589 army and 4,574 naval personnel fit for duty, 5,966 civilians, 3,826 hospital patients of all categories and no suspected war criminals. Their repatriation began on 19 December when 1,070 servicemen, 230 sick and 500 civilians sailed for Japan. To reinforce the 3rd Commando Brigade, which lacked the manpower strength to occupy both the island and the Leased Territories, and to deal with the evacuation of the often troublesome Chinese forces as well as the large number of Japanese, advanced parties of Brigadier P. L. Lindsay’s Indian 150th Brigade began to arrive in Hong Kong during the middle of December 1945, and the whole brigade was concentrated there by the end of January 1946.

As a first step toward returning the colony to civil government the directive given to Harcourt on 30 August authorising him to set up the military administration was amended on 17 October so that the Chief Civil Affairs Officer became responsible to the Colonial Office for general rehabilitation over and above that required by the military authorities, while remaining responsible to Festing for local administration and law and order.

The final handover to civil government was delayed by the need to move Chinese troops through Kowloon to ports in northern China, and to allow Sir Mark Young, who had been governor of the colony when it surrendered in 1941, a prolonged period of rest and recuperation after his years of internment. On 1 May 1946 he was proclaimed governor of Hong Kong and the military administration ended.