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This issue's blast from the past first appeared in issue 45 of Despatches, way back in 1984. I make no excuse for choosing one of my own earlier literary efforts, after all that's surely an Editor's prerogative, the subject does however appear apposite as this Christmas marks the 55th anniversary of:

The Fall of Hong Kong

Christmas 1941

by Andrzej Cierpicki

“This is all wrong”, minuted Churchill on 7th January, 1941, after reading telegrams from the Commander -in-Chief, Far East, urging the reinforcement of Hong Kong.  “If Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it.  It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there.  Instead of increasing the garrison it ought to be reduced.  Japan will think twice before declaring war on the British Empire, and whether there are two or six battalions at Hong Kong will make no difference.  I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.”

How then did Churchill allow himself to be persuaded against his better judgement?  The reasons are somewhat complex and due to political pressures, as much as anything else.  It is easy to be critical in hindsight but then, as now, not many people were concerned about the adequacy of the defence of Hong Kong, after all Japan had been an ally during WWI and had only recently been recognised as a potential foe.  The Admiralty wished at least to deny its facilities to the enemy and the chiefs of staff recommended that since Hong Kong could neither be relieved nor withstand a long siege it should be considered as an outpost, to be held as long as possible.  So Churchill was forced to bow to political pressure and to the urgings of his advisors, the garrison would be increased.  At the time of writing his minute there were actually four battalions stationed in Hong Kong, with the arrival of the Canadians, in November, this number was increased to six.  These reinforcements were effectively good money thrown after bad, the outcome was never in doubt.  

The commander of the 10,000 - strong garrison was Major-General Christopher M Maltby, a thoroughly 50 year old Indian Army Officer who was under no false illusions as to either the magnitude of his task, or the inadequacy of his resources.  In the three months of his tenure he set about revitalising the colony’s preparedness as best he could, it was a question of too little, too late.

Maltby’s task was to hold Hong Kong for as long as possible so as to deny the harbour to the Japanese.  To do this he formed a 2,000 - strong Mainland Brigade of three battalions; the 2nd Royal Scots, 2/14th Punjabis and the 5/7th Rajputs, supported by two batteries of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery and an Indian Army regiment containing a number of locally enlisted Chinese.  As the Sham Chun River line was considered too long to be adequately defended by such a small force and could easily be outflanked by landings from the sea, a shorter one across the neck of Kowloon was adopted.  This was known as the Gindrinkers’ Line after the bay on which its left flank rested, and was about eleven miles long (refer to map on following page).  The defence of the island was given to what was known as the Island Brigade which consisted of the two Canadian battalions, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles, together the 1st Middlesex regiment supported by an MG battalion whose primary task was to hold the pillboxes on the islands perimeter, and finally, by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force consisting of some 2,000 Europeans and Eurasians of greatly varying 

The fact that war had begun was made patently clear at 0800 on December the 8th, when 36 Japanese fighters swooped out of a clear blue sky and struck Kai Tak airfield and seaplane moorings; all five outdated RAF (three Vickers Wildebeeste torpedo-bombers and two Supermarine Walrus flying-boats) and a number of civilian aircraft were left burning and the airfield as badly damaged.  At the same time, 12 more aircraft bombed Island Brigade HQ and strafed troops on the mainland but with little effect.  Meanwhile, Major General Takeo Ito, commander of the Japanese 38th Division, was watching his troops; the 228th, 229th and 230th regiments supported by three battalions of mountain artillery, pour across the Sham Chun River on a wide front.  The British sappers were prepared however, within thirty minutes all road and rail bridges across the frontier were down.  The engineers began pulling back under covering fire from ‘C’ company of the 2/14 Punjabis who didn’t take too kindly to wet-nursing sappers and withdrawing (retreating as far as they were concerned).  They soon had an opportunity to salvage some of their pride.  Concealing themselves on the outskirts of Tai Po the Punjabis awaited the arrival of the Japanese along the route just taken by themselves.  They did not have long to wait before a column of infantry and a mule battery of artillery came into view.  The Japanese paid a terrible price for their overconfidence when caught in the murderous fire that followed.  This and similar incidents acted as a tonic to the defenders, but did little to check the advancing enemy, who, by sunset on the 9th of December, had penetrated 10-12 miles into the colony and had closed with the main British positions.  


Major-General Maltby (left) GOC HK talking to Brigadier Lawson CO of the Canadian Forces

Though his troops were extended, Brigadier Wallis, commander of the Mainland Brigade hoped to hold Gindrinker’s Line for at least a week.  In the event, it held out for one night.  Shortly before midnight Colonel Doi’s 228th regiment attacked the key to the western sector, the Shing Mun Redoubt.  The platoon of Royal Scots holding it were completely overrun and at dawn, a counter-attack was considered impracticable and the remaining two forward companies were forced to fall back on Golden Hill about 2,000 yards to the rear.  In the early hours of the 11th the Japanese again attacked and by 0700 Golden Hill was in their hands, not for long however, as a determined counter attack by ‘D’ company regained possession of the disputed hill.  But in the end, the Royal Scots were driven back by repeated Japanese counter-attacks until Golden Hill was seized again, and with it Gindrinker’s Line was finally and fatally breached.  Kowloon was forced to be abandoned, oil supplies were destroyed, the dockyard demolished, and merchant vessels scuttled before the rearguard fought their way through advanced Japanese patrols, looters and fifth columnists to board the last ferry.

The last to leave the Kowloon peninsula were the Rajputs who, before they were evacuated on the 13th of December, repulsed a determined Japanese attack on Devil’s Peak.  The remainder of the covering force was successfully evacuated in broad daylight by the ancient 905-ton destroyer Thracian and almost the entire battalion was reassembled by noon.  The final act was about to begin.  

After several days of artillery and air bombardment which played havoc with the road system, interfered with telephone communications and knocked out half the pillboxes on the northern shore, six battalions of the Japanese 38th Division began their landings from North Point to Aldrich Bay under the cover of darkness on the night of the 18th of December.  By dawn they were in possession of the three peaks of Mt. Parker, Mt. Butler and Jardine’s Lookout and moving on to Wong Nei Chong Gap.  Worried at the danger of the island’s defences being cut in two, Maltby tried to stabilise the position by vigorously countering the Japanese thrust towards Repulse Bay.  With dwindling resources this simply was not possible and Maltby reluctantly agreed to the advice of his subordinates and withdrew his forces on the East of the island towards the Stanley peninsula from which it was hoped a counter-attack could be mounted once the remaining forces had time to reorganise.

Meanwhile, in the west of the island a small Canadian force was organised consisting of three platoons of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, whose task was to secure the important Wong Nei Chong Gap.  They were too late, the 228th Regiment was already on the ground and in greater strength and the Canadians only succeeded in securing and then holding Mt. Butler for a few hours.  In the final endeavour to secure the Wong Nei Chong Gap reserves were scraped-up from every quarter and at least seven different units were involved.  What occurred in the many fragmented and piecemeal encounters that flared-up and died around the contested gap will never be fully recorded.  In the end however, the Japanese maintained control.  For six days more, fierce and continuous fighting of a similar nature was pursued throughout the centre and eastern part of the island.  The end came almost suddenly late on Christmas Day.  Having rejected yet another surrender ultimatum in the morning, the situation deteriorated rapidly when the fighting was renewed.  General Maltby decided that further resistance would entail the useless slaughter of his remaining troops without affecting the inevitable outcome.

The victory march through Hong Kong

Following Maltby’s decision the formal surrender took place at 1800 and the 6500 survivors were lead off into captivity, during which thousands were to die.  Their resistance had not been entirely in vain, for seventeen days they had deflected the Japanese troops, aircraft and shipping from more important objectives.  Winston Churchill’s message on 21st December ended: “Everyday that you are able to maintain your resistance, you help the Allied cause all over the world”.



Group portrait of some of the victors taken at Whampoa dockyard in 1942


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