This was the Japanese seizure of the British colony of Hong Kong (8/25 December 1941).
Hong Kong was the centre British power in China. Victoria Island had been ceded by the Chinese in 1842, after the 1st Opium War, and the New Territories on the mainland were administered by the British under a lease extending until 1997. The city of Victoria was established on the north-west coast of Victoria island while Kowloon was built up across from Victoria on the mainland. However, by 1941, the position of the colony was exposed and vulnerable. Located on a particularly rugged section of coast, only 13% of the land was arable, and food constituted a quarter of all imports. Water was supplied to the population of Victoria island, already considerable swollen by refugees from China, via an elaborate system of catchment basins and reservoirs. In June 1940 the colonial government had ordered all European women and children evacuated. However, a considerable number of women enrolled as nurses, air raid wardens, and clerks to avoid evacuation.
Hong Kong was a haven for Kuomintang smugglers, who mingled with the large fishing fleet and transported an estimated 6,000 tons of munitions per month to the Chinese interior.
The region has a pronounced monsoon climate, with the rainy season peaking in August.
Hong Kong’s defences included coastal artillery batteries at Stone Cutters Island, Mount Davis, Jubilee, Devil’s Peak and Pakshawan with all-around traverse. The naval base was at Aberdeen on the south coast, where it was protected from the mainland by the mountains of Victoria island and sheltered from the sea by Aberdeen island. However, the RAF was compelled to share facilities with the civilian airfield at Kai Tak.
The key to the land defence was the Gin Drinkers Line, named for its left anchor on Gin Drinkers Bay. This was a line of pillboxes and connecting tunnels along the ridges north of Kowloon. Construction of the line had begun in 1937, following the Shanghai Incident, and continued for two years. The key to the Gin Drinkers Line was, in turn, the Shing Mun Redoubt, which covered a gap in the hills through which any attacker would try to descend on Kowloon.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was inclined to write Hong Kong off as the threat of war with Japan increased in the early 1940s, but for prestige reasons the British ultimately decided to defend the colony. Two battalions each of British, Indian and Canadian regular troops were sent to join to the garrison, which originally comprised one militia brigade. The Indian battalions were well-trained, but they and the two British battalions had been 'milked' of many of their best men as cadres for new units. The Canadian battalions had previously been used to guard prisoner-of-war camps and to serve in other garrison duties, and were neither well-trained nor well-equipped. It did not help that the Canadian battalions were fleshed out with recruits just before they departed to Hong Kong. The garrison included 58 pieces of artillery organised into five batteries, but the air strength comprised only three obsolete Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers and two equally obsolete Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance flying boats, and there were also 13 civilian airliners at Kai Tak airport. The British naval strength was centred on the destroyers Thanet, Scout and Stronghold, all obsolete 'Sabre' class vessels.
The battle of Hong Kong was one of the first battles of the Pacific campaign of World War II. On the same morning as the ‘Ai’ attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group, on the other side of the international date line and therefore undertaken a notional day earlier, Japanese forces invaded the small British crown colony of Hong Kong. The Japanese aggression was met with stiff resistance from Hong Kong’s limited garrison forces, comprising local as well as British, Canadian and Indian units. Within a week the defenders had been compelled to abandon their mainland territories, and less than two weeks later, with their position on the island of Hong Kong no longer untenable, the British surrendered.
The UK had first thought of Japan as an emerging threat to its Pacific and South-East Asian possessions with the official ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 in 1923. This theoretical threat became to become more real with the Japanese escalation of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937/45), and approached something of a reality to Hong Kong on 21 October 1938 as the Japanese occupied Canton and Hong Kong was effectively surrounded by the Japanese.
A number of British defence studies concluded that Hong Kong would be extremely hard to defend in the event of a Japanese attack, but in the mid-1930s work began on new defence facilities, including the Gin Drinkers’ Line, and other key sites in the planned defence of Hong Kong included the Wong Nai Chung Gap, Lye Moon Passage, Shing Mun Redoubt, Devil’s Peak and Stanley Fort.
Even so, by 1940 the British had decided to reduce the garrison of Hong Kong to little more than symbolic size. However, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commander-in-chief of the British Far East Command, argued that limited reinforcements could allow the garrison to delay a Japanese attack, gaining the British time for the improvement of their defences elsewhere in the Far East. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the senior command of the British army designated Hong Kong as an outpost, and initially decided against the despatch of more troops to the colony, but in September 1941 reversed their decision and argued that reinforcement would both serve as a military deterrent to the Japanese and reassure the Chinese nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek that the UK was genuinely interested in holding the colony.
In the autumn of 1941 the British government accepted a Canadian offer for the despatch of two infantry battalions and a brigade headquarters (1,975 men) to reinforce the garrison of Hong Kong garrison. This ‘C’ Force arrived on 16 November on board the troopship Awatea and the armed merchant cruiser Prince Robert. This Canadian reinforcement lacked some of its equipment as the ship carrying its vehicles was diverted to Manila, in the Philippine islands group, at the outbreak of war. The Canadian battalions were the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec and 1/Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba: the former had served only in Newfoundland and Saint John, New Brunswick, before their transfer to Hong Kong, and the latter had been posted to Jamaica. As a result, most of the Canadians did not have much field experience before arriving in Hong Kong, and with their lack of vehicles and other equipment could be deployed only in the static defence role.
The 'C' (ii) attack by Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s combat-experienced 38th Division (228th Regiment, 229th Regiment and 230th Regiment, the 10th Independent Mountain Artillery Regiment as well as a mass of supporting units all with a higher-than-typical complement of motor vehicles) of Lieutenant General Tadashi Sakai’s 23rd Army, supported by almost 100 aircraft of the army’s 45th Air Regiment based at Tien Flo air base outside Canton, began shortly after 08.00 on 8 December, less than eight hours after ‘Ai’. The flotilla-strength Hong Kong Attack Force (the destroyers Ikazuch and Inazuma and the torpedo boats Hiyodori, Kari, Kasasagi and Kiji) of Vice Admiral Masaichi Niimi’s Canton-based 2nd China Fleet of Vice Admiral Mineichi Koga’s Shanghai-based China Area Fleet enforced a sea blockade. The Japanese commanders had accurate intelligence on the latest British dispositions from Japanese agents operating across the border and from paid Triad agents in Kowloon and Victoria.
The British, Canadian and Indian forces, supported by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and commanded by Major General C. M. Maltby, resisted the attack but were outnumbered by nearly 4/1 as the Japanese had deployed some 52,000 men to the British-led defence’s 14,000 men, who also lacked their opponents’ recent combat experience. The defence was centred on three British battalions (Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment, 2/Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment) and 1/Middlesex Regiment, a machine gun battalion occupying the many defensive pillboxes round the territory), two Indian battalions (5/7th Rajput Regiment and 2/14th Punjab Regiment), the two Canadian battalions, the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment (one infantry battalion) and various infantry companies of Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. The coast-defence artillery was manned by the 8th and 12th Coast Regiments of the Royal Artillery, and other artillery assets were the 5th Anti-Air Regiment of the Royal Artillery, the 956th Defence Battery of the Royal Artillery, the 1st Hong Kong Regiment of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery, and various artillery batteries of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.
The colony had no significant air defences. The RAF station at Tai Tak Airport had only five aeroplanes (two Supermarine Walrus amphibian flying boats and three Vickers Wildebeest torpedo-reconnaissance bombers) flown and serviced by seven officers and 108 airmen. An earlier request for a fighter squadron had been rejected, and the nearest fully operational RAF base was at Kota Bharu in Malaya, almost 1,400 miles (2250 km) distant.
Hong Kong also lacked adequate naval defence, for there were only three destroyers under the command of Commodore A. C. Collinson and the eight boats of the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla with which to tackle any offensive action which might be delivered by the warplanes of Vice Admiral Masaichi Niimi’s altogether more powerful 2nd China Expeditionary Fleet.
The Japanese bombed Kai Tak on 8 December, their 12 bombers destroying two of the three Wildebeest and the two Walrus machines. The attack also destroyed several civil aircraft including all but two of the aircraft used by the Air Unit of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp. The RAF and Air Unit personnel from then on fought as ground troops. Two of the three remaining destroyers were ordered to leave Hong Kong for Singapore, leaving the island colony with only one destroyer, the elderly Thracian, four gunboats, eight motor torpedo boats and a few armed patrol craft.
On 8, 9 and 10 December, eight American pilots of the China National Aviation Corporation flew 16 trips between Kai Tak and airports in Namyung and Chungking in China, the wartime capital of the Republic of China, in the process evacuating 275 persons including Madame Sun Yat-Sen, the widow of the ‘Father of the Nation’ and Kung Hsiang-hsi, the Chinese Nationalist finance minister.
The British had decided against any attempt to hold the line of the Sham Chun river on the border between Hong Kong and China, and had instead established three battalions of Brigadier C. Wallis’s Mainland Brigade in the Gindrinkers’ Line across the hills between Gindrinkers Bay in the west and the neck of the High Junk peninsula in the east via Golden Hill and Smugglers Ridge (2/Royal Scots), the southern bank of the Shing Mung river emerging from the Jubilee Reservoir (one company of the 5/7th Rajput), the eastern end of the Shing Mun river to Sha Tin on Tide Cover (2/14th Punjab) and past the south-western side of Buffalo Hill to the shore of Port Shelter (rest of the 5/7th Rajput).
With Colonel Toshishige Shoji’s 230th Regiment on its right, Colonel Teihichi Doi’s 228th Regiment in its centre and Colonel Tanaka Ryusoburo’s 229th Regiment on its left, the 38th Division crossed the Sham Chun river by means of temporary bridges. Early on 10 December 1941, the 228th Regiment attacked the defences at the Shing Mun Redoubt defended by Lieutenant Colonel S. White’s 2/Royal Scots. The Japanese breached the line within five hours, and later in the same day the 2/Royal Scots also withdrew from Golden Hill, though the battalion’s D Company counterattacked and captured Golden Hill, which the Japanese had taken once again by 10.00. This made untenable the continued British retention of the New Territories and Kowloon, and the evacuation to the island of Hong Kong Island began on 11 December under Japanese air and artillery bombardment. As much as possible of the military and harbour facilities were demolished before the withdrawal. By 13 December, Lieutenant Colonel R. Cadogan-Rawlinson’s 5/7th Rajput, the last British troops on the mainland, had pulled back to the island of Hong Kong.
Maltby organised the defence of the island into two halves held by Wallis’s East Brigade and Brigadier J. K. Lawson’s West Brigade. The East Brigade was disposed with the 5/7th Rajput on the north shore waterfront from Pak Sha Wan to Causeway Bay, two companies of 1/Middlesex occupying the pillboxes from Sai Wan Bay to West Bay, and the Royal Rifles of Canada holding the southern seaward defences from the D’Aguilar Peak area, northward through Obelisk Hill and thence southward to Stone Hill and Stanley Village, with a reserve company farther to the north covering the Lye Mun Gap; two companies of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps were in reserve. The mobile artillery, comprising four 6-in (152-mm), four 4.5-in (114-mm) and three 3.7-in (94-mm) howitzers, was deployed in support of the north-east sector, where a Japanese landing was thought to be most likely. The beach defences, on either side of the isthmus at Stanley and Tai Tarn Bay, were each strengthened by two 18-pdr guns, and there were also five anti-aircraft guns in the area.
The West Brigade was disposed with 2/14th Punjab on the north shore waterfront from Causeway Bay to Belcher Point, the Winnipeg Grenadiers manned the seaward defences of the south-west coast with three companies with its fourth company providing the brigade reserve at Wong Nei Chong Gap, and the 1/Middlesex (less two companies) occupied the pillbox defences in the West Brigade area and a defended locality on Leighton Hill. The fortress reserve consisted of the 2/Royal Scots near Wanchai Gap, and four companies of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps near The Peak. Anti-aircraft guns were located at Wong Nei Chong Gap, Wanchai Gap and in the Aberdeen area.
There were also a number of coast-defence guns sited when the British believed that any assault on Hong Kong would probably be delivered from the sea. These 29 weapon were eight 9.2-in (234-in), 15 6-in (152-mm), two 4.7-in (119-mm) and four 4-in (102-mm) weapons. Some of these could be trained to fire inland, but in common with the garrison’s artillery and mortars was short of ammunition.
On 15 December, the Japanese began systematic bombardment of the island’s northern shore. Demands for surrender were made and refused on 13 and 17 December, and after the latter Japanese forces crossed the harbour during the evening of 18 December and landed on the island’s north-eastern coast with the 230th Regiment coming ashore round North Point, Doi’s 228th Regiment near Braemar Point and the 229th Regiment in Aldrich Bay, the last after the short crossing across the Leu U Mun strait from the Devils Peak peninsula. The Japanese suffered only small losses, although no effective command could be maintained until the advent of light on 19 December.
During the morning there was fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong island, but the Japanese annihilated the headquarters of the West Brigade, causing the death of Lawson. A British counterattack could not force the Japanese from the Wong Nai Chung Gap which secured the passage between the north coast at Causeway Bay and the secluded southern parts of the island. From 20 December, the island’s defence was therefore divided into two with the British forces still holding out around the Stanley peninsula and in the west of the island. At much the same time, water supplies started to run short as the Japanese captured the island’s reservoirs.
By the afternoon of 25 December it had become evident that further resistance would be futile, and British officials, headed by the governor, Sir Mark Young, surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters in the Peninsula Hong Kong Hotel. The garrison had held out for 17 days, and suffered 2,113 men killed and 2,300 wounded; the civilian casualties had been in the order of 4,000 persons killed and 3,000 severely wounded. Almost 11,000 men of the military passed into captivity. The Japanese losses are estimated variously, but were probably in the order of 2,000 men killed and 6,000 wounded.
Recalled from retirement, Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke became the first Japanese governor of Hong Kong. This began three years and eight months of Japanese administration in which the population of Hong Kong steadily declined, there was considerable pillaging and mistreatment of civilians and prisoners alike, and the local Chinese waged a small guerrilla war in the New Territories. As a result of the resistance, some villages were razed as a punishment, but the guerrillas continued to fight until the end of the Japanese occupation with the surrender of Ja[pan in August 1945.