Pacific War 6 – Battle of Hong Kong

Pacific War 6 – Battle of Hong Kong

Preparations for the attack on Hong Kong started on Saturday 6th December 1941., when a large number of Japanese civilians left the colony following instructions from Tokyo. Japanese were already on the move against the Pearl Harbor and the Philippines – latter of which they regarded as a “pistol aimed at Japan’s heart”. On 27th November the US Navy Department sent out a despatch, stating that “This despatch is to be considered a war warning … an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days … the number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of naval task forces indicates an amphibious expedi#tion against either the Philippines, Thai or Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo.”.

US Ambassador in Tokyo, J C Grew, believed that the Japanese negotiations with the Americans in Washington were intended to conceal war preparations, and that the attack might come suddenly. His warning was confirmed by intercepted secret messages from Tokyo to Washington; they stressed the urgency of bringing the negotiations to a favourable conclusion by 29th November since “after that [date] things are automatically going to happen”. Roosevelt concluded that America was likely to be attacked within a week.

On 29th November, British, American and Dutch air reconnaissance was instituted over the China Sea and Malayan defences were brought up to a higher state of readiness; at the same time, the Japanese received intelligence of the arrival of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in the Far East. On 1st December, Japanese commanders had been notified that the decision had been made to declare war on the United States, the British Empire and the Netherlands. Four days later, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, the Commander in Chief of the British Eastern Fleet, flew back to Singapore from Manilla after conferring with General MacArthur and Admiral Tom Hart, CinC of the US Asiatic Fleet. Americans could spare neither men nor weapons.

On 6th December, a Japanese convoy had been sighted approaching Malaya. While it was not enough for a declaration of war, at 7:20 PM Singapore sent a signal to Royal Air Force in Hong Kong, ordering them to adopt “No.1 degree of readiness”. All five RAF aircraft present remained at Kai Tak airport due to nonexistence of dispersal bays.

That evening, Major G E Grey of 2/14 Punjabis had received a message stating that three Japanese divisions, totalling 38 000 men, had arrived at To Kat, eight miles from the frontier on the previus evening. Major General C M Maltby estimated that the Royal Scots, Punjabis, Rajputs and Volunteers could hold their positions on the frontier and the Gin Drinkers line for seven days. In the Hong Kong itself were two Canadian battalions and the machinegun battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

By the early morning of 7th of December, Japanese army was thirty miles north of Hong Kong. At the same time, Japanese fighters took off to attack Kai Tak air port and the Shamshuipo Barracks.

British planning

Hong Kong itself was a valuable prize. Harbor could provide anchorage and shelter for Japanese shipping, and taking it would cut off supplies to Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government. Junks were smuggling 6 000 tons of munition to interior each month. If Hong Kong could be captured, the Japanese believed China could despair of getting help and come to terms. Yet Japanese spies in Hong Kong were supremely unsuccessful, and intelligence was basically nonexistent.

On British side, the Chiefs of Staffs in London had long recognized that Hong Kong could not be held without considerable reinforcements. They considered evacuating or reducing the garrison, but in the end ordered the city to simply be held as long as possible. In 1938., Major General A W Bartholomew, commanding officer of Hong Kong, recommended allowing the enemy to simply enter the city, as possibility of effective resistance was slight. By 1940., it was suggested to reduce the garrison so as to minimize the losses, and an “open city” scenario was also considered. In mid-August 1940, two infantry battalions were withdrawn from the city. Reinforcing the city was recognized as ultimately futile, as relief would not be possible. On 15th August Chiefs of Staffs of London recommended that, as Hong Kong could not be defended due to Japanese occupation of mainland China, it was to be considered an outpost and held as long as possible. This dispatch was however captured by the Germans, and handed over to Japanese, who were thus aware of the British inability to defend the colony.

Major General Arthur Wollaston Bartholomew

Yet the colony had to be defended. Strategically, Hong Kong did not have much value. But surrendering the city without a fight will have been a major blow to British prestige, and also to morale. Had Britain lacked the will to resist and defend the colony, Chinese determination to continue their struggle against Japan will have been shaken, and America’s will to help will also have been reduced. Also important was incorrect assessment of capabilities of the Japanese Army, which had been considered as a second-rate force as a result of its defeats against Soviets as well as inability to defeat Chang Kai shek’s Nationalists.

As a result, Major General A E Graset, Bartholomew’s successor, became convinced that Hong Kong was defensible. When he was posted back to Britain in August 1941., he argued that addition of two or more battalions would allow the garrison to withstand a prolonged period of siege by the Japanese. Addition of two battalions would allow for two full brigades, with one defending against overland attack and another against seaborne invasion. These arguments convinced even Winston Churchill. Where he had, five months earlier, argued that Hong Kong garrison should be reduced to a symbolic scale so as to avoid wasting resources on untenable position, now he was seriously considering sending reinforcements. On 19th September, decision was made to reinforce the colony.

General Henri Giraud, joint President (with De Gaulle) of the Committee of National Liberation in 1943, with Lieutenant General A E Grossett arriving in England.

Major issue was underwhelming intelligence gathering by the British. Major General C G Maltby, reassured by reports of the inferior quality and material of the Japanese, decided to deploy half his force forward on the mainland. His aim was to hold the Gin Drinkers’ Line permanently in order to protect the Kai Tak airfield and enable future offensive operations. This in turn would allow the Hong Kong to be used as a springboard for Britain, Canada and her allies to liberate South China from the Japanese. This was in large part because of Maltby’s superior officer, Major Charles R Boxer, misread the intelligence. In 1930s he had served as a Military Language Officer where he formed lasting friendships with Japanese officers and scholars. In mid 1933 he returned to his regiment in Yorkshire before a posting to the Intelligence division of the War Office in London. He also travelled extensively in China and became highly thought of.

Major General Christopher Michael Maltby

Other important Intelligence Officer in Hong Kong was Flight Lieutenant H T “Alf” Bennett, also a Japanese linguist. In 1990., he testified that the British Ambassador’s staff in Tokyo had been there too long and became complacent. Some had even married Japanese, and, confined to the restricted areas of Japan, were fed false intelligence by Japanese agents. Still, Japanese expansionism had been obvious, and both British and Japanese ambassadors in Tokyo were giving London and Washington grim warnings of impending operations. Colonel G T Wards, British Military Attache in Tokyo from 1938., had been attached to a Japanese regiment. Lecturing to officers in Singapore in April 1941., he emphasized the excellent morale and training of the Japanese, condemning the common belief that they would be no match for British soldiers. The senior officer present vehemontly disagreed however, and his analysis was not given proper attention.


In 1941., the Crown Colony of Hong Kong had a population of 1,7 million, half of whom were refugees of a recent war in China. The population of European descent did not exceed 25 000, including the military garrison. The Japanese had conquered the adjacent area of mainland China in October 1938., and by December 1941. the Japanese 23rd Army in South China deployed four divisions with artillery, as well as air and naval units.

The British government did not believe Hong Kong could repel a Japanese attack, and began evacuating European women and children in 1940. This, and other problems of administering a colony filled with refugees, led to charges of favoritism and corruption as well as deep divisions in the community. Even then however, British administration was still seen by Chinese population as preferable to the Japanese.

Compulsory military service was introduced for male British subjects, while those of Portuguese descent were allowed to volunteer. By 1941 the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps had seven infantry companies, five artillery batteries, five machine gun companies and an armored car platoon. These volunteers supplemented regular garrison which consisted of four infantry battalions: the 2nd Royal Scots, the 1st Middlesex, and two Indian Army units (2/14 Punjabs and 5/7 Rajputs). Coastal Regiments of the Royal Artillery manned 29 guns, mostly 6-inch howitzers. Aircraft present were three Vildebeeste Torpedo Bombers and two Walrus amphibians, which might as well not have existed. Also present were destroyer HMS Thracian, four gunboats and eight motor torpedo boats, with other three destroyers having been ordered to sea before 7th December.

Original plan had called for defense of the Gin Drinkers line protecting the Kowloon Peninsula, but this was abandoned after the Japanese occupation of Canton. Yet this made little sense. Less than a kilometre separated Kowloon from Victoria, and the main water reservoirs were in the New Territories. This meant serious water shortages in any protracted siege. Because of this, Major General Edward Grasset requested additional troops from Canada. As soon as the new commander, Major-General C.M. Maltby, was informed that the “C” Force would be sent to the Hong Kong, he resurrected the 1938 plan and began to restore the Gin Drinkers line.

Gin Drinkers Line

Yet Maltby himself had a lot to answer for. Despite arriving at Hong Kong in July 1941. during the middle of a Japan-provoked crisis, both he and the colony’s governor Sir Mark Young were apparently convinced that war with Japan was unlikely and that the Japanese troops were poorly trained and poorly equipped. Civilian administration also refused to release civilian property for the building of machinegun emplacements, and the contemporary intelligence reports reveal there was little thought given to potential Japanese actions against the colony.

These assumptions, while ultimately wrong, were not – as was often suggested – baseless, or based on racist stereotypes. The Japanese Army had been mired in an unwinnable war against China – a third-rate power at the time – since 1938., and making little progress. By 1941., Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist army was intact and growing in power, despite being forced to fight against the Chinese Communists and the Japanese Army at the same time. Fact that the Japanese had failed to crush him despite deploying 1,5 million troops did not suggest great military prowess. More importantly, the Soviet Red Army had soundly crushed Japanese advances in 1938. and again in 1939. In the latter case, Soviet forces commanded by General Georgi Zhukov had inflicted 11 000 casualties on a force of 15 000. While these defeats had led to some reorganization of the Japanese army, especially development of armored units, little had been accomplished by the fall of 1941. Japanese air arm was also believed to be poorly trained and equipped with obsolete aircraft. This too was correct on paper, because Japanese air forces deployed in China completely fit this description. What was not realized that these had been second-rate units, used in China as a way of training. Much was also made of presence of three Chinese armies to the west of Canton. Both the War Office and General Maltby believed that these forces would attack the Japanese and come to relief of Hong Kong.

By the end of November 1941., the international press was freely speculating about an imminent Japanese offensive in South East Asia. While Maltby ordered some precautions to be taken, as late as 7th December he was reassuring London that reports of Japanese strength in the Canton area were “deliberately fostered by the Japanese who, to judge from the defensive preparations around Canton and in the frontier area appeared distinctly nervous of being attacked.”. These misjudgments directly led to lack of urgency in the final preparations for defense of Hong Kong. When Maltby reactivated the 1938 defense plan the Gin Drinkers line had fallen into disrepair and “much work was needed to make the line fully operational”. The Shing Mun Redoubt, a 12-acre network of pillboxes, concrete fire trenches, underground shelters and an artillery observation post, which overlooked both roads to Kowloon, was restored to use but the troops who would occupy it were held in training camps until mid-November pending the arrival of the Canadians.

Shing Mun Redoubt

There was even less sense of urgency in London. Both Churchill and the War Office insisted that the war with Japan was unlikely. As late as 16th November the British War Cabinet held that “in the absence of extreme danger in the Far East”, priority should be given to supporting General Auchinleck’s offensive in the Middle East. Therefore Churchill opposed sending any reinforcements to the Far East. While War Office did debate the reinforcement of Malaya and Singapore, Hong Kong was not mentioned at all. Recruitment of Chinese volunteers in Hong Kong was authorized only in October 1941., and was only granted in November. Recruits were required to be 5’7” tall, which eliminated most of the volunteers from consideration. Shortage of ammunition for 2” and 3” mortars meant that neither practice nor registration of targets could be carried out.

The arrival of the Canadians allowed Maltby to begin implementing his defense plans. The three battalions of the “Mainland Brigade” under Brigadier C. Wallis moved in to the Gin Drinkers Line to begin digging in and wiring the positions. The Canadians were to serve together on Hong Kong Island under their own commander, Brig. John Lawson, who was also nominally in command of the 1st Middlesex Regiment, a machine gun battalion which was committed to manning 72 concrete pillboxes ringing the island. But this plan meant that forces were spread thinkly along the perimeter, with absolutely no reserve beyond a single company.

The Battle

In Hong Kong, the war began on 08:00 AM on 8th December, several hours later than Pearl Harbor and the Japanese landings in Malaya. The first air attack destroyed the five RAF aircraft that had been ordered not to take off unless an opportunity to attack a capital ship or a cruiser developed. The Japanese ground attack also got underway quickly, with three infantry regiments – nine battalions – supported by three mountain artillery battalions advancing on a broad front. Not slowed by the rear guard actions and demolitions, they were within sight of main British defences by 9th December. Brigadier Wallis decided to commit his reserve to plug a gap in the line, and so all that stood in the way of the Japanese was a thinly held perimeter.

The British mission in Chungking also reported that Chinese nationalist operations to relieve Hong Kong will begin at 1st January, though a postponement to 10th January may be necessary. In any case, they would come too late to save the colony. Everything depended on holding the Gin Line, but the key position, the Shing Mun Redoubt, fell to an improvised night attack by a Japanese infantry battalion. While Japanese records mention stubborn resistance, the position – held by a single platoon where company had been considered necessary – was quickly overcome.

Wallis urged the commanding officer of Royal Scots to counterattack at first light, but a half-strength company was clearly inadequate to the task and the CO refused the request. Maltby then ordered a company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers to the mainland to serve as a brigade reserve. He also ordered preparation of evacuation of the mainland at 10:00 on 10th December. The largely intact defences were abandoned and forces evacuated that night.

The plan still included holding the Devil’s Peak, which was entrusted to two Rajput companies. The Royal Scots, with the Winnipeg company, the Punjab battalion and the balance of the Rajputs withdrew together with the field artillery and armoured cars. During retreat, Japanese Army’s 229th Regiment moved forward, making contact with Rajputs at 13:00 on 12th December. The Japanese, encouraged by the successes so far, attacked the Rajputs without prearranged artillery support and were beaten back with heavy casualties.

Fortress on the Devil’s Peak

Maltby however decided first to withdraw the Rajputs to the Hai Wan position. This shortened the defensive line, but then he decided to evacuate the Rajputs dug in at the Devil’s Peak despite Brigadier Wallis’ protests. This clearly premature move gave up a strong defensive position without much fight, with intent of concentrating forces for defense of the island. Yet it was likely a move influenced by events in the wider world: with destruction of the US battleline at Pearl Harbor and the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya, any hope of assistance to Hong Kong had disappeared. The Japanese commander, Lieutenant-General Takashi Saki heard the same news and, given the haste of the British retreat to the island, assumed that the enemy might now capitulate. Thus, he issued the ultimatum requesting surrender of Hong Kong.

As this was a political question, Sir Mark Young, the Governor of the Colony replied “acknowledging the spirit in which this communication is made but he is unable to in any circumstances to hold any meeting or parley on the subject of the surrender of Hong Kong.”. This made invasion of the island inevitable. Maltby decided to carry out perimeter defense, with majority of his forces concentrated along the shores. Only fortress reserve were the Royal Scots, who had lost a quarter of their rifle strength and much of their confidence. Island was divided into two sectors, which necessitated breaking up the “C” force, with Royal Rifles being assigned to Brig. Wallis’ East Brigade and Winnipeg Grenadiers to Lawson’s West Brigade. All units were assigned positions by Fortress Headquarters, effectively taking control of units away from brigadiers. No wireless communication was available, meaning that command and control would depend on buried lines and hand-carried messages.

Japanese preparations for invading the island were thorough. Artillery and air bombardment were directed at vital points. More than half of the pill boxes on the northern shore were knocked out, and after three days the Japanese again sent a surrender demand under a flag of truce. Maltby informed the War Office that the Japanese envoys were “apparently surprised and disconcerted when proposal was summarily rejected.”. The next evening, after a further intensification of air and artillery strikes on the north coast, Japanese troops began crossing the narrow waters.

Maltby himself felt the need to fortify against every imaginable contingency, so two Canadian battalions were widely dispersed along the southern side of the island. This left two Indian battalions and the HKVDC to cover an eight mile stretch of coast – which included the Victoria City, the docks and other built-up areas.

The Japanese concentrated their assault on a 4 000 yard front between North Point and Aldrich Bay, sector which was defended by the 5/7 Rajput battalion. While the enemy took losses in the crossing, British defences were quickly overran with Rajputs taking most of the losses. Wallis had created a 200-man strong East Brigade reserve by reinforcing “C” Company of the Royal Rifles with a platoon from each of the other rifle companies, and placed it under command of Major Wells Bishop.

Japanese landings on Hong Kong

During the night of 18/19 December, C Company attempted to regain the fort on Sai Wan Hill using two six-inch howitzers and several platoons. They failed to capture the port, and retreat of the elements of the Rajput battalion was completely disordered. C Company’s counterattacks were also disorganized. By dawn of 19 December, the Japanese had occupied Mount Parker, Mount Butler and Jardine’s Lookout, giving them control over high ground in the northeast corner of the island.

Fortress Headquarters displayed their complete disconnect from reality by ordering a general counterattack at daybreak on 19 December. But most of the Royal Rifle and Winnipeg Grenadier companies were still in the coastal positions, so orders were nearly impossible to carry out. Brigadier Lawson had located his headquarters, and that of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, at Wong Nei Chong Gap which dominated the main cross island road. From there he could control both the south facing companies on the coast as well as the Punjabs and Royal Scots to the north. When ‘D’ Company of the Grenadiers returned from the mainland he positioned it to protect the gap facing north. Unfortunately, the high ground to the east was in Walks’ sector and there was no tie-in with the pill boxes on Jardines Lookout manned by the HKVDC and Middlesex Regiment.

Lieutenant-Colonel J.L.R. Sutcliffe, CO of the Grenadiers, had organized his headquarters company into three “flying columns”, and ordered these platoon-sized units to relieve Jardine Lookout, but this failed. “A” Company of Grenadiers which had been brought north to reinforce this effort was systematically destroyed. With the first light, Japanese started breaking into the gap from several directions, and attempts to send reinforcements were met with disaster. Lawson’s headquarters were overrun. Two platoons of Grenadiers that were dug in along the road inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, delaying the advance of 230th Regiment, but 229th managed to reach Deep Water Bay and split the island early on 20 December.

The Japanese advance was equally successful in the East Brigade sector. By dawn of 19 December the Rajput battalion no longer existed as an organized formation, and Wallis decided to withdraw his remaining forces to a secure base in the hope of being able to organize an attack the next day. The Japanese pressed forward seizing Violet Hill and the Hotel at Repulse Bay. Wallis ordered the Royal Rifles to recapture the hill and clear the coast road on the morning of 20 December, but this was impossible for infantry that had neither armor nor artillery support. While they managed to ambush a Japanese pack train, they came under fire from the top of Violet Hill and were forced to withdraw.

By the next day, the Royals were in desperate circumstances. “A” Company was holding ground at Repulse Bay, “C” Company, reduced from a strength of 177 to 68, was at Stanley Mound and the remaining companies were under orders to prepare a new attack towards the Wong Nei Chong Gap. The advance ended abruptly when Japanese troops brought the leading troops under fire. Still, several costly actions that day managed to stabilize the front.

The situation in the western sector had also kept deteriorating, and the decimated Grenadiers were holding the crest of Mount Cameron. Lieutenant-Colonel W.J. Home, now senior surviving Canadian officer, asked to see the Governor. But Wallis came to believe that Home was threatening a separate Canadian surrender, while the Canadian officers had long lost any confidence in Wallis, Maltby and staff officers who were willing to waste men’s lives in order to ensure that the honor of the garrison and its commanders was maintained. When Wallis insisted on a daylight attack, “D” Company attacked without promised artillery support, losing 26 men killed and 75 wounded. During this time Maltby and the Governor suddenly agreed to capitulate. This was apparently a result of developments in the western sector. On 21 December, Maltby’s communique to the War Office indicated that resistance was nearly at the end.

Churchill responded in his typical manner, ordering that “there must be no thought of surrender…the enemy must 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 that you are able to maintain your resistance will help the Allied cause…”. The Governor and his military commander had little choice but to agree. Even in the morning of 25 December the official line still urged resistance; yet by the afternoon, it was clear the Japanese would soon be in the Victoria city. Thus, at 15:00 hours, the order to cease fire was issued. Almost 2,000 men had been killed or died of wounds including 300 Canadians. The rest would spend the balance of the war in prison camps.

2 thoughts on “Pacific War 6 – Battle of Hong Kong

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s