The defence of Hong Kong: the 75th anniversary

“If Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong …” So said Winston Churchill nearly a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, nine months later 2,000 Canadian troops arrived at Hong Kong to stiffen the defences.

Tom Dercola remembers.
Tom Dercola remembers.

On Dec. 7, the armed forces of the empire of Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. The next day, Japanese Imperial forces launched attacks throughout East Asia including the British colony of Hong Kong on the east coast of China.

The Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, ill-equipped and ill-trained for the task, would have to defend Hong Kong against numerically superior Japanese forces. The cause was considered hopeless from the start, but the Canadians fought, and died bravely. Two hundred and ninety Canadian soldiers fell in the defence of Hong Kong, One such death was John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

The night before John Osborn shipped out of Winnipeg with his company of Grenadiers, his five-year-old daughter had been badly burned. She was rushed to hospital, but he had a train to catch and left without knowing whether she survived.

As things turned out, Sergeant Major Osborn never did learn that his youngster was all right. In the early hours of Dec. 19, he was leading a group of Grenadiers up a ravine when an enemy soldier lobbed a grenade into their midst. Yelling at his men to clear out, Osborn threw himself on the grenade to muffle the explosion. He died instantly. Posthumously, Osborn became the first Canadian in the Second World War to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for bravery in the British Commonwealth.

On Christmas Day, their position critical, the Winnipeg Grenadiers were given the order to surrender. But the agony of the Canadian defenders was not over. The 1,500 survivors would suffer through 3½ years of brutal imprisonment. During that brutal captivity, another 267 would die.

The survivors were crowded into primitive prisoner of war camps where they sat out the rest of the war, often in appalling conditions. Prisoners wasted away from malnutrition and disease. Daily rations amounted to a handful of rice and a cup of water. Toilets were often simply buckets. Diseases like diphtheria, dysentery and malaria swept the camps. Fifty men denied proper medical treatment died in a diphtheria epidemic. The Japanese were stern jailers and the slightest infraction of camp rules brought beatings, solitary confinement, starvation and other tortures. Four Winnipeg Grenadiers were captured trying to escape and executed.

There was no contact with home or family during their long arduous imprisonment. One Hong Kong Prisoner of War wrote:

And the only parcel I ever got, the only letter I ever got, I got two weeks after I arrived home. The Japanese didn’t allow parcels or mail. It had been sent to Tokyo, brought back to Canada, and delivered to me at my parents’ home.

My health was not too good, although I had spent a month in an American naval hospital in Guam… When Japan surrendered I was (only) 89 pounds.

Still another wrote:

Think of it, not everybody had spent one-sixth of their life in a Japanese prison camp. I was 20 when Hong Kong was captured and I was 24 when we got home….Everything was a blur…

I was nervous and I would cry sometimes over little things and I didn’t know what was happening.

When the surviving 1,418 members of the force returned to Canada, many permanently affected physically and mentally, they were met with the indifference of their government and the criticism of their allies.

The Canadians who fought at Hong Kong are now almost forgotten. Fighting as strangers in a strange land, split up and thrown into attack after attack across appallingly rough terrain against overwhelming odds, they never broke, they inflicted savage losses on the enemy and they carried the bulk of the defence on exhausted shoulders. They deserved better than they received in return.

Tom Dercola taught Canadian history for more than 30 years.

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