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1941: Japanese attack Canadian troops in Hong Kong

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December, 1941: The first Canadian infantry battle of the Second World War is an unmitigated disaster. As the world reels from the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces also invade Hong Kong, a front considered expendable at the time and largely forgotten ever since. But as veterans of the Winnipeg Grenadiers recall in this clip, for the nearly 2,000 Canadian soldiers posted to the colony, the 18-day Battle of Hong Kong was a desperate and hopeless struggle that ended in capture and defeat.
• Canada entered the Second World War on Sept. 10, 1939 with a declaration of war on Germany. By December, Canadian troops were on their way to Britain for training and defence against an invasion which never came. With the exception of a few small expeditions and raids, most Canadian soldiers waited in Britain until the disastrous Aug. 19, 1942 attack on Dieppe.

• The Battle of Hong Kong began on Dec. 8, 1941, almost simultaneous with the Japanese declaration of war against the United States and the British Empire. Japanese forces had launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii about eight hours earlier.

• The Hong Kong fighting lasted 18 days. It ended on Christmas Day, 1941 when colonial governor Mark Aitchison Young surrendered at the Japanese headquarters. The surviving Canadian, British and Indian soldiers became prisoners of war.

• There were 1,975 Canadian soldiers from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Quebec City-based Royal Rifles of Canada sent to Hong Kong just three weeks before the attack. They were supposed to reinforce the British troops already there, and hold the island for 90 days.

• The Canadians were all volunteers. Most were aged 17 to 25 and were far from battle-ready: many had enlisted a few weeks earlier.

• The Canadians had just been issued new machine guns, and were shown how to use them on the ship over to Hong Kong. Their vehicles never arrived, having been diverted to Manila.

• When war broke out, it was soon clear that the 15,000 Allies didn't stand much of a chance against some 50,000 Japanese troops, who also had almost complete air and artillery superiority.

• When the Japanese attacked from the mainland, the Allies retreated to the Gin Drinker's Line (a British defence line named for nearby Gin Drinker's Bay) and to Kowloon, and from there to Hong Kong Island. On Dec. 18, the Japanese landed on the island.

• Fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong Island until the surrender of the colony on Dec. 25 -- locally called "Black Christmas."

• Although 290 Canadians were killed fighting for Hong Kong island, things got even worse after the surrender. According to Philip Snow's The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China and the Japanese Occupation, Japanese troops tortured and killed 60 prisoners and medical staff at a British field hospital, and terrorized and raped thousands of local women. The Allied prisoners, including 1,685 Canadians, were sent to four prisoner of war camps (one in Hong Kong, the rest in Japan.)

• The conditions in these camps were horrendous, with prisoners forced to do long hours of labour and being fed starvation rations. More Winnipeg Grenadiers died in the camps than in the fighting itself.

• By the time Hong Kong was liberated in 1945 and the prisoners in Japan were released at war's end, more than 550 Canadians had died. Total Allied casualties are estimated at 4,500 killed and 8,500 taken prisoner.

• The 44 months spent in Japanese prisoner of war camps were devastating for the Canadians captured in Hong Kong. When they returned to Canada, many suffered from nightmares, ulcers and nervous disorders. They were frequently misdiagnosed by doctors, and accused of "malingering". It was not until 1998 that the Canadian government compensated the Hong Kong veterans for their suffering.

• In 1972, the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature recorded lengthy interviews with over 150 Winnipeg Grenadiers who survived Hong Kong. Their voices, heard in this clip, were edited together to create a show called "Hong Kong Diary" for the CBC Radio program Between Ourselves.
Medium: Radio
Program: Between Ourselves
Broadcast Date: Dec. 4, 1972
Duration: 9:53
Photo: Japanese Official copyright

Last updated: October 22, 2014

Page consulted on December 18, 2014

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