Hong Kong

Aerial photograph of Hong Kong

U.S. Army

Hong Kong (114.186E 22.279N) was the seat of British imperial power in China. Victoria Island had been ceded by the Chinese in 1842, after the First 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 northwest coast of Victoria Island while Kowloon was built up across from Victoria on the mainland. However, by 1941, the position of the colony could only be described as 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 Victoria Island via an elaborate system of catchment basins and reservoirs. The population was swelled by refugees. 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 became a haven for Kuomintang smugglers, who mingled with the large fishing fleet and transported an estimated 6000 tons of munitions per month to the Chinese interior.

The region has a pronounced monsoon climate, with the rainy season peaking in August. Surprisingly, the temperature has been known to drop nearly to freezing in particularly cold winters.

The defenses of  Hong Kong 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 defense 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 British took their inspiration from France's Maginot Line and even referred to the Gin Drinkers Line as the "Maginot Line of the Far East." The key to the Gin Drinkers Line, in turn, was the Shing Mun Redoubt, which covered a gap in the hills through which any attacker would try to descend on Kowloon.

Shortly before war broke out, the shipping in the harbor was ordered to scatter. Merchant ships present likely included passengers ships Yu Sang (3200 G.R.T., 13 knots), tanker Ebonol (1942 G.R.T.), and probably frieighter Hareldawins (1523 G.R.T.) as well as some 31 other ships. Seven of these, including Ebonol, had not yet departed when word of Pearl Harbor reached Hong Kong.

Battle of Hong Kong

Churchill was inclined to write Hong Kong off as war loomed in the Pacific, but for reasons of prestige the British ultimately decided to defend the colony. Two battalions each of regular British, Indian, and Canadian troops were sent to join to the garrison (which originally consisted of a brigade of militia). The Indian battalions were well-trained, but they and the two British battalions had been "milked" of many of their best men for new formations. The Canadian battalions had previously been assigned as guards at prisoner-of-war camps and to other garrison duty and were neither well-trained nor well-equipped. It did not help that the Canadian battalions were fleshed out with raw recruits just before embarking for Hong Kong. The troops had 58 guns organized into five batteries in support, but there were only three obsolete Vildebeestes, two equally obsolete Walruses, and thirteen civilian airliners at Kai Tak airport, and local naval forces were built around Thanet, Scout, and Stronghold, all obsolete Saber-class destroyers.

The Japanese detailed 38 Division from 23 Army to the reduction of Hong Kong. This veteran division, 20,000 strong and supplied generously (by Japanese standards) with motor transport, could call for support from nearly 100 aircraft based at Tien Flo airbase outside Canton. A flotilla from China Area Fleet was assigned to enforce 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 (Chinese Mafia) agents in Kowloon and Victoria.

The British commander, Christopher Maltby, was badly misled by his intelligence staff as to Japanese intentions and capabilities. His intelligence chief, Charles Boxer,  was highly experienced, having become fluent in Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese, and having been a guest of 38 Regiment in 1931-1933. However, Boxer periodically visited Japanese officers across the border, and they appear to have supplied him with disinformation that the Japanese had no intention of attacking the British. Reports that up to three divisions of Japanese troops were massing across the border were discounted. However, this intelligence lapse was of no great consequence, since sightings of a Japanese convoy off Saigon prompted Maltby to alert his forces the day before war broke out.

Japanese troops crossed the border at 0600 on 8 December 1941, four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They advanced four miles before meeting elements of a covering force of engineers and infantry whose orders were to demolish bridges and otherwise delay the Japanese as long as possible. Maltby knew the frontier was indefensible with just three battalions, and planned to make the Gin Drinkers Line his main line of resistance on the mainland. Even this shorter line was badly undermanned. A staff study in 1937 estimated that two divisions (18 battalions with a full complement of supporting arms) would be required to hold the Gin Drinkers Line, but Maltby could put only three battalions on the line. The Shing Mun Redoubt was manned by just 42 troops. The two Canadian battalions were deployed on Victoria Island against a landing on the south coast, while 1 Middlesex Battalion manned the island's pillboxes. There was no reserve to counterattack any penetration of the Gin Drinkers Line.

Japanese aircraft attacked Kai Tak airport at 0800, destroying four of the five RAF aircraft on the ground. Eight civilian aircraft were also destroyed. Maltby was left with no means of air reconnaissance.

Map of Hong Kong showing Gindrinker's Line

Collapse of the Gin Drinkers Line and Loss of Kowloon. 38 Division was well-equipped with bridging equipment, and it took the Japanese infantry just two days to reach the Gin Drinkers Line in spite of the demolitions. However, the demolitions succeeded in delaying the artillery, which would unavailable to support the initial attacks on the Shing Mun Redoubt. Here the British hoped to hold for some time, but the 3 Battalion, 228 Regiment drove the Royal Scots out of the Redoubt in an unauthorized night attack.

There were a number of reasons for the rapid penetration of the Redoubt. One was the inadequate garrison, which was a consequence of the overall lack of manpower. Another is unaggressive patrolling. One patrol reported no enemy nearby in spite of the fact that it should have run directly into the Japanese advance. As a result, the British lost the opportunity to call artillery fire down on the Japanese assembly points. Then a company runner inadvertently locked the commander of the Shing Mun Redoubt into an observation post, disrupting the command structure. Finally, eighteen of the Royal Scots retreated without orders a mile southeast to join the Rajput battalion. The Redoubt, which was expected to hold for seven days, fell in a little over twelve hours.

In an illustration of Japanese tactical inflexibility of the kind that would prove fatal later in the war, Sakai chastised the commander of 3 Battalion for attacking out of his designated sector, and ordered the 3 Battalion to retreat from Shing Mun! The order was disobeyed, and Sakai reluctantly accepted the fait accompli. However, Sakai's order did prevent Third Battalion from immediately exploiting its success. With the aid of gunfire from PG Cicala and a counterattack by the Rajputs, the Royal Scots were able to reform their line along Golden Hill. However, the climb up the hill was exhausting, and the position here was weak, with only a few shallow weapons pits, no mines, and the barbed wire barriers rusted away.

Rumors spread among the Indian troops, who themselves fought very well throughout the battle, that the Scots had broken and fled in panic from the Shing Mung redoubt. This so stung the Scots that they fought ferociously when the Japanese tried to force Golden Hill, and they counterattacked against seemingly impossible odds after being forced to retreat from the position. The counterattack was momentarily successful, but fresh Japanese troops soon took the position from the exhausted Scots for good.

The loss of Golden Hill cut the supply route for the Punjabis and Rajputs and unhinged the Gin Drinkers Line, and on the night of 12/13 December the British were forced to evacuate their remaining forces to Victoria Island. Maltby initially ordered the Rajputs to hold Devil's Peak, but this plan had to be abandoned. The evacuation was carried out in good order with assistance from Royal Navy destroyers, and demolition of facilities in Kowloon was systematic and thorough.

Assault on Victoria Island. Later on 13 December, the Japanese made their first surrender demand, which was rejected. The Japanese would have to storm the island. They began bringing up heavy artillery, and Hong Kong was soon under heavy bombardment by artillery and aircraft. Meanwhile Maltby reorganized his force into two brigades, the West and East Brigades,  with responsibility for the corresponding halves of Victoria Island. West Brigade was assigned the Royal Scots, Punjabs, and Winnipeg Grenadiers. East Brigade consisted of the Rajputs and the Royal Rifles.

As the battle took place, the Kuomintang attempted to distract the Japanese with increased guerrilla activities and by moving a division and a half towards Canton. Sakai responded by deploying a regimental group 40 miles northeast of Hong Kong, and the Chinese diversion accomplished little. However, the Kuomintang representatives in Victoria proved very helpful at keeping order among the Chinese civilian population.

An initial Japanese landing attempt on 15 December was beaten off. However, this attempt was little more than a reconnaissance-in-force conducted by second-rate troops. It was followed by a second surrender demand on the 17th, which was again rejected. That night a small Japanese patrol crossed the harbor and reconnoitered the Tai Koo Docks on the northeast coast of the island, across from Devil's Peak and just west of Lei Mun Passage. The patrol reported the positions of pillboxes and obstacles and noted that many of the pillboxes were unmanned. Sakai chose this area as the invasion point.

The Japanese made their main landings on the night of 18 December. The landing force came in two waves, each consisting of one battalion from each of the three regiments in 38 Division, with the third battalion of each regiment held in reserve. The Japanese rapidly secured a beachhead in the face of heavy machine gun fire and local counterattacks by Bren carriers, and began moving on their initial objective, the Wong Nei Chong Gap. Its capture would cut the defending garrison in half.

The commander of West Brigade, Brigadier J.K. Lawson, had established his headquarters close to the Gap, and the area was already under heavy machine gun and mortar fire by 0630 on 19 December. Lawson was later criticized for leading from so far forward, but his reasons for doing so will never be fully known, as he was killed that day while attempting to pull his headquarters back. A company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers courageously held out at the Gap until 23 December, when their ammunition finally ran out and the company was surrendered by its chaplain, the only remaining unwounded officer.

With the Wong Nei Chong Gap in Japanese hands, the Japanese were able to cut through the center of the island, bottling up the remaining British troops in the west and south ends of the island. The Japanese now began advancing along the north coast towards the city of Victoria. With the water supply cut, and fearing massive civilian casualties, Maltby surrendered on 25 December 1941 against the advice of his senior officers and the colony's governor, Mark Young. Brigadier Wallis, commanding the remnants of East Brigade at Stanley Fort, refused to obey the order until it was brought to him in writing in the early hours of 26 December.

Aftermath. Maltby estimated his battle casualties as 2113 killed and missing and 1332 wounded. Many of the survivors were killed in the subsequent atrocities, and the remainder endured years of dreadful treatment as prisoners of war. The Japanese suffered at least 2,654 casualties. The battle was the first of the Second World War to involve large numbers of Canadian troops, giving it a significance to the Canadian people that has endured into the 21st century. Many of the best accounts of the battle have been written by Canadian authors.

The battle was notable for a high level of fifth column activities and for the atrocities that took place during and after the battle. There was heavy sniper activity on Hong Kong Island almost from the moment war broke out, and at least one Japanese officer was recognized by British prisoners of war as a barber who had worked in the British barracks. Fifth columnists overran an important position on the Hong Kong shore of Lie Mun on the night of the main landings and helped guide the assault troops across the passage; some of these were captured with their signaling lamps and were summarily executed. A 9" (230mm) artillery piece was smuggled into Kowloon before war broke out, and surreptitiously assembled in a tin shed near the Kowloon golf course, where it had a clear field of fire.

Atrocities committed by Japanese troops included the bayoneting of wounded men in captured British hospitals and the murder of many of their doctors and nurses. Prisoners were treated poorly, often being killed out of hand. One such massacre took place at a cliff on the north shore of Repulse Bay, where 54 prisoners were shot, bayoneted, or beheaded. Nurses and other women were raped and murdered. Japanese commanders encouraged their troops to regard all local women as prostitutes and treat them accordingly. The rampage continued for two weeks after the capitulation, at which point discipline was suddenly and swiftly restored. This suggests that the two weeks of terror was a deliberate policy meant to humiliate Westerners in the eyes of subject Asians, though, as in the Philippines, Japanese behavior varied greatly from unit to unit, and some prisoners and interned civilians were treated fairly well. As punishment for these crimes, Sakai was eventually shot by the Chinese, while the governor during the occupation, Isogai Rensuke, served five years of a life sentence.

Hong Kong remained under Japanese control throughout the remainder of the war. Conditions were dismal enough during the occupation that over a million Chinese fled the city, leaving just 650,000 remaining in 1945. The Japanese attempted to reduce the crime rate by holding mass executions even of petty criminals, who were first forced to dig their own graves.

Later raids. American carriers raided Hong Kong on 16 and 17 January 1945, suffering heavy casualties from what the aviators described as "intense to incredible" flak (Tillman 2012).

Japanese order of battle:

23 Army (Sakai; at Canton)

38 Division (Sano; at frontier) 20,000 men with motorized transport. Although 38 Division was nominally assigned to Southern Expeditionary Army for the Hong Kong attack, Sakai seems to have personally supervised the Hong Kong operation. The division was subsequently assigned to 16 Army for the assault on Java.

228 Regiment

229 Regiment

230 Regiment

44 Air Regiment (at at Tien Flo)      

24 Ki-51 Sonia

45 Air Regiment (at Tien Flo)

34 Ki-32 Mary

82 Light Squadron (at Tien Flo)

12 Ki-48 Lily

47 Squadron (at Tien Flo) Experimental squadron

9 Ki-44 Tojo

Hong Kong Attack Force (Niimi Masaichi; off Hong Kong)      

PT Hiyodori

Elements, 2 China Fleet

Torpedo Boat Division 11
      PT Kiji

PT Kari

PT Kasasagi On loan from 15 Mixed Squadron

Elements, Destroyer Division 6 On loan from DesRon1, 1 Fleet

DD Ikazuchi

DD Inazuma

British of battle:

Hong Kong Command (Christopher M. Maltby)

Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps Militia

Kowloon Brigade (Cedric Wallis; at Kowloon)

2 Royal Scots Battalion Diverted to Hong Kong while on its way home from seven years in India, and described by Corrigan (2010) as "in a state of near mutiny"

5/7 Rajput Battalion

2/14 Punjab Battalion

Hong Kong Brigade (Lawson; at Hong Kong)      

1 Middlesex Battalion A machine gun battalion

Winnipeg Grenadiers Had spent over a year guarding prisoners of war in Jamaica and was very poorly trained and led.

Royal Rifles of Canada Had spent the previous ten months guarding a railway and airfield in Newfoundland and was very poorly trained and led.

Hong Kong Station (at Kai Tak Field)

  3 Vildebeeste
2 Walrus
13 DC-2 civilian airliners

Destroyer Division China Station
  DD Thanet

DD Scout

DD Stronghold

PG Cicala

PG Moth

PG Robin

PG Tern

Climate Information:

Elevation 109'

Temperatures: Jan 64/56, Apr 75/67, Jul 87/78, Oct 81/73, record 97/32

Rainfall: Jan 4/1.3, Apr 8/5.4, Jul 17/15.0, Oct 6/4.5 == 85.1" per annum

Photo Gallery

Kowloon docks

U.S. Army

Hong Kong Harbor in 1936

U.S. Navy

Hong Kong Harbor in 1936

U.S. Navy

Hong Kong Harbor in 1931

U.S. Navy

Hong Kong Harbor in 1931


Wong Nei Chong Gap



Corrigan (2010)

Ferguson (1980)

Kehn (2008)

Lindsay (2005)

Maltby (1948-1-29; accessed 2012-2-19)

Pearce and Smith (1990)

Tillman (2012)

Willmott (1982)

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