HONG KONG’S DEFENSES NEAR COLLAPSE

British Crown Colony of Hong Kong December 22, 1941

The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong consisted of Hong Kong Island (since 1842) and the Kow­loon penin­sula (since 1860) oppo­site the island. The New Terri­tories across Kow­loon Bay on the South China main­land was leased for 99 years. (See map below.) Together with several hun­dred other islands, the British pos­ses­sion was tiny, at 425 sq. miles. A year after the out­break of war between Japan and the Chi­nese Nation­alist govern­ment of Gener­a­lis­simo Chiang Kai-shek in 1937 (Second Sino-Japa­nese War), the Empire of Japan made its first subtle move against the neighboring British pos­ses­sions. On Octo­ber 21, 1938, the Japa­nese Army seized Canton (Guang­zhou), a major Chinese port and trans­por­ta­tion hub, as well as one of the country’s three largest cities. (The other two cities were Shang­hai and Beijing, both occupied by the Japa­nese Army.) Canton’s occu­pa­tion 80 miles north of Hong Kong effec­tively isolated the British enclave, while years of fighting in China had swelled the colony’s population by over a quarter of a million desperate refugees.

When the Japanese did invade Hong Kong from Canton pro­vince on Decem­ber 8, 1941, all the ingre­di­ents of an epic tragedy were in place. Like the Japa­nese attack on U.S. naval and air facil­i­ties at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the same day (Japa­nese time), the attack on the British colony was in vio­la­tion of inter­national law: Japan had not declared war against either the British Empire or the United States, but both attacks simul­ta­neously touched off the Asia-Pacific War in World War II. The world held its breath as the first size­able clash between Japanese and European ground forces got underway.

It quickly turned into a rout. Hong Kong was defended by a mot­ley gar­ri­son of regu­lar British sol­diers (the largest con­tin­gent), a local colo­nial regi­ment, two recently arrived Cana­dian bat­talions from the West Indies and New­found­land, two terri­torial units from India, and the Hong Kong Volun­teer Defense Corps. The garri­son counted a little over 14,500 men under arms with no air cover to speak of, just a few naval craft, and 60 artil­lery pieces, half of which were fixed in place. Arrayed against the defenders were nearly 30,000 combat-hardened Japa­nese sol­diers and four dozen air­craft. Not two weeks before the Japa­nese inva­sion local British intel­li­gence deni­grated Japan’s ability to mount a suc­cess­ful attack on the colony owing to “ill-equipped troops,” “little artil­lery,” and “myopic pilots.” British hubris goes a long way in explaining why, on this date, Decem­ber 22, 1941, most of Hong Kong’s defenders found them­selves out of action, corralled by a tenacious enemy who marshaled superior manpower and firepower.

The British withdrawal from the mainland’s New Terr­itories started on Decem­ber 11. The Japa­nese made two demands for surren­der, on the 13th and 17th; both were rebuffed by the Gover­nor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young. In between, on Decem­ber 15, artil­lery shells began falling on the island. As Japa­nese sol­diers started taking prisoners beginning Decem­ber 18 after entering the city, they also began execu­ting them. On Christmas Day, Decem­ber 25, two waves of Japa­nese sol­diers entered the British field hos­pital at St. Stephen’s College and, in what became known as the St. Stephen’s College mas­sa­cre, tor­tured and killed a large num­ber of injured sol­diers, along with the medi­cal staff, perhaps 99 peo­ple in all. By the after­noon it was clear that further resis­tance was futile, so British colo­nial offi­cials headed by Hong Kong’s gover­nor surren­dered in person at Japa­nese Army head­quarters. The day is remembered locally as “Black Christmas.”



Triumph of the Rising Sun: Fall of Hong Kong, December 1941

Fall of Hong Kong: Map of British Hong Kong

Above: The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (yellow portion of map) began on Decem­ber 25, 1941, after two-and-one-half weeks of fierce fighting against superior Japa­nese forces that had invaded the British imperial colony from the Chinese main­land. The British garri­son lost 4,440 killed, wounded, and missing to the Japa­nese 3,000 to 6,000. Civilian casual­ties were 4,000 killed and 3,000 severely wounded. Hong Kong’s capit­u­la­tion initi­ated an orgy of killing and rape and almost four years of brutal Japa­nese admin­is­tra­tion. Between 7,000 and nearly 11,000 British, Cana­dian, Indian, and other sol­diers and 2,800 civilian, mainly Western, resi­dents—men, women, and children—were kept in pri­soner-of-war or intern­ment camps, some in Japan itself, where neglect, abuse, famine, malnourishment, and sickness were pervasive. Many, perhaps most, internees did not survive the war.

Fall of Hong Kong: Japanese troops march into the New Territories, December 1941 Fall of Hong Kong: Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station

Left: A column of Japanese troops, some of the 30,000 men who assaulted Hong Kong in December 1941, march over a narrow bridge from Canton (Guangzhou) province on the Chinese mainland into the New Territories, whence they pressed steadily south.

Right: Japanese infantry advance into Kowloon, one of the colony’s most densely populated districts, within sight of Hong Kong Island and mount an assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station, December 1941.

Fall of Hong Kong: Japanese victory parade shortly after the formal British capitulation was signed on December 26, 1941 Fall of Hong Kong: Western bankers escorted to Hong Kong detention center, December 1941

Left: Lt. Gen. Tadayoshi Sano (saluting, center) leads the Japanese victory parade on horseback shortly after the formal British capit­u­la­tion was signed on Decem­ber 26, 1941.

Right: Japanese soldiers escort British, American, and Dutch bankers to deten­tion in a small Chi­nese hotel; some bankers were exe­cuted as ene­mies of Japan. The Japa­nese govern­ment sold the Hong Kong dollar to help finance its wartime economy.

Disaster in Hong Kong, December 1941: A Canadian Perspective