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November 11, 2011
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Today is Remembrance Day, the day we commemorate all those affected by Canada's military engagements from the First World War onward. It's been 93 years since that conflict came to an end with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, but this year also marks the 70th anniversary of one of Canada's most significant moments from the Second World War: The Battle of Hong Kong. 

The doomed defence of Britain's colony in the South China Sea marked the first engagement of Canadian ground troops in the Second World War, and produced the war's first Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for military bravery in the Commonwealth.

It was also a devastating loss for the defenders, and for the Canadians specifically, 554 of whom were killed in the period both before and after the British surrendered the island to the Japanese invaders. The picture above, from 2009, shows veterans honouring the Canadian soldiers who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong.

In honour of Remembrance Day, we present a basic primer on Canada's first major land action in the Second World War:

The Background
While Great Britain had contemplated the possibility of a Japanese attack on its colony in Hong Kong since at least the early 1930s, during the beginning stages of its war against Germany, Britain reduced the garrison it kept in the territory. That changed in late 1941, when the Japanese threat was reassessed, and it was decided to bolster the colony's defences. The Canadian government offered British commanders two units for the enterprise, an action that would mark Canada's first ground action in the Second World War.

The Deployment
1,975 Canadians set sail to Hong Kong from Vancouver on October 27, 1941. They were mostly members of The Royal Rifles of Canada, a unit made up mainly of soldiers from Quebec and New Brunswick, and Western Canada's Winnipeg Grenadiers. Together, both units could boast only limited training and hardly any battle experience. At the time, Japan had not declared war on the Allied powers, and the Commonwealth military presence in Hong Kong was seen mostly as a deterrent.

The Invasion
At 8 a.m. on December 8, 1941 - immediately following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor (pictured above) in Hawaii and its declaration of war on Britain and the U.S. - Japanese planes attacked the Hong Kong airport, while ground forces crossed into British-held territory. Within hours they had made significant advances, and the Battle of Hong Kong was on.

The Defence
On December 10, a company of Winnipeg Grenadiers was sent from Hong Kong Island to the territory's mainland, and soon exchanged gunfire with Japanese troops, becoming "the first Canadian Army unit to engage in combat in the Second World War". By December 13, Commonwealth troops were pulled from the mainland, and left to defend Hong Kong Island. Over the next week, with no reinforcements from outside Hong Kong available, the Canadians and their Commonwealth allies put up a valiant fight against an overwhelming and well-resourced Japanese force. Despite their best efforts, the ground they held kept shrinking, and they suffered a growing number of casualties.

The Surrender
At 3:15 pm on Christmas Day, 1941, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, Britain's Governor of Hong Kong, surrendered to the Japanese invading forces. The defeat marked the end of the Canadian Army's first combat action in the Second World War, but not before the country encountered significant losses, with 290 dead and 493 wounded from the Canadian contingent alone.

The Aftermath
The Japanese held Hong Kong until August 15, 1945, after the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki. In the almost four years between the end of Canada's first battle and the end of World War II, most Canadian survivors were held in prisoner of war camps either in Hong Kong or in Japan. Some 264 of them died, bringing Canada's total human military losses in Hong Kong during the war to 554.

The Hero
On Dec. 19, 1941, Company Sergeant Major John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was part of a company that took and defended a part of Hong Kong known as Mount Butler. Under relentless attack from enemy forces, the position had to be surrendered, and the hill's defenders attempted to rejoin their battalion. At one point, Osborn single-handedly engaged the Japanese attackers to enable his fellow fighters to fall back. Eventually, he and his company were completely cut off and surrounded by hostile forces, and found themselves under a grenade bombardment. At one point, seeing a grenade land that could not be picked up and returned, Osborn threw himself atop the device, sacrificing his life to save those of his comrades. For his bravery, Osborn was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, making him the first Canadian to be so recognized in the Second World War.


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