Last year Canadian veterans who fought in the defence of Hong Kong were awarded a bar to be worn on the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. This recognition reminded us of the debt we owe to the men and women who endured so much pain on our behalf. Unfortunately media coverage of the events provided little beyond the most superficial references to it being a “sacrifice” and “a hopeless cause.”To understand the decision to reinforce the colony we must try to place ourselves within the swirling events of 1941 and remember that none of the decision makers, including the Japanese, knew that war in the Pacific would begin before the year was out. The United States took the lead in shaping policy in the Pacific. Throughout 1941 American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to find the right mixture of policies that would limit Japanese expansion.

He first committed money and resources to strengthening Chiang Kai-shek, hoping the Chinese nationalist army would play a major role in restraining Japan. When the Japanese seized southern Indo China in July 1941, Roosevelt responded with an embargo and began to plan for war. The Americans reversed their long-standing policy against further military commitments in the western Pacific and General Douglas MacArthur was brought back into the American army. The defence of the Philippines was given a new priority and thousands of U.S. soldiers joined MacArthur’s forces. In addition, a force of B-17 bombers was sent to the islands as a high profile deterrent to Japanese aggression. More troops and additional B-17s were on their way when war began.

These decisions were made without consulting the British government, but in August 1941 Roosevelt and Churchill met at Placentia Bay, Nfld. Here, at the conference that produced the Atlantic Charter, the main topic of discussion was Japan. Churchill sought an American commitment to go to war if British or Dutch territory was attacked and suggested that the American Pacific fleet move its base to Singapore. Roosevelt would not accept either proposal but the two men did agree on a co-ordinated effort to deter Japan. Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to find the resources to send a fleet to Singapore and he stepped up the reinforcement of Malaya. The British chiefs of staff added Hong Kong to the list when it was suggested Canada might provide reinforcements for the colony.

On Sept. 15, 1941, Churchill approved a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King requesting “one or two Canadian battalions for Hong Kong.” The message noted: “The situation in the Orient has now altered. There have been signs of a certain weakening in attitude of Japan towards the United States and ourselves.” Even a small reinforcement “would reassure Chiang Kai-shek…and have a great moral affect throughout the Far East.” Canada was being asked to participate, as an allied nation, in a high-stakes gamble to prevent war in the Pacific.

King had deeply resented his exclusion from the Newfoundland meeting and had invited himself to England where he learned of the changes in Anglo-American strategy. His diary indicates he believed war with Japan was inevitable and he expected it would begin by December. Yet when the request for Canadian troops for Hong Kong arrived, King and his colleagues offered no objections. As the minister of defence, J.L. Ralston, put it: “Anything which would either defer or deter Japan from coming in would be highly desirable from our point of view.”

The cabinet sought the advice of the army before giving final approval and Major-General Harry Crerar–the chief of the general staff–did not hesitate. Dr. Paul Dickson, who is writing a biography on Canada’s senior army commander, discovered Crerar had carefully studied the problems of defending Hong Kong as a student at the British Staff College and the Imperial Defence College. But Dickson concludes Crerar saw the issue in political and strategic terms. “Whatever the military risks,” Crerar wrote, “the enterprise needed to be examined from the broad view…” Crerar recommended Canada send a force of two battalions, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

The Royal Rifles of Canada was one of the oldest regiments in the Canadian reserves, then known as the Non-Permanent Active Militia. Based in Quebec City, it was organized as an English-speaking unit, although its ranks eventually contained a significant number of French-speaking Canadians fluent in English. The regiment was ordered to mobilize an active service force as the 1st Battalion of the Royal Rifles of Canada in July 1940. It was quickly brought up to strength, recruiting men from eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick. After basic training in New Brunswick the battalion was sent to garrison Newfoundland where some further training was carried out. In October 1941 it moved to Valcartier, Que., to prepare for service in a tropical region. Few guessed their destination was Hong Kong.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers was one of the first battalions mobilized at the outbreak of the war. Organized initially as a machine-gun battalion, it was converted to a regular rifle battalion while located in the West Indies in 1940. Garrison duty in Jamaica provided some opportunity for individual and company training but the Grenadiers had no experience with infantry support weapons such as mortars or artillery. The Grenadiers were also understrength and had to absorb a large number of men and 15 new officers in the two weeks before sailing from Vancouver. There has been much controversy over the selection of these units, but in 1941 none of the other battalions still in Canada was much better prepared for combat. Brigadier J.K. Lawson, who commanded C Force, was impressed by what he saw. He reported: “Both units contain excellent material and a number of good instructors.”

The battalions were well equipped with the weapons available in 1941. The men were equipped with rifles, Bren guns and two- and three-inch mortars. C Force was supposed to have 212 vehicles, including motorcycles, trucks and universal carriers, but these never reached the colony. This failure increased the burden borne by the troops in combat but was not as serious as the shortage of mortar ammunition the British had promised but failed to supply.

The Canadians who arrived at Hong Kong on Nov. 16, 1941, can best be compared to a peacekeeping force deployed into an especially dangerous situation. The British garrison commander, Major-General C.M. Maltby, assigned them to the defence of Hong Kong Island against amphibious attack. He stationed three of his four British and Indian battalions on the mainland with the task of defending a hastily constructed position known as the Gin Drinker’s Line.

These professional soldiers had been fully trained to prewar standards and knew the territory they were to defend. Unfortunately the British War Office failed to provide ammunition for the basic infantry support weapon, the three-inch mortar, until the eve of the battle and then each battalion received just 70 rounds.

The Japanese deployed a reinforced division against this thin red line and had little difficulty in achieving a breakthrough that forced a hasty retreat to Hong Kong Island. A company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers assisted the British withdrawal.

Maltby reorganized the garrison, removing the Royal Rifles from Lawson’s control and placing them under Brigadier C. Wallis, an Indian army officer. On Dec. 18, after a week of shelling and bombing, the Japanese landed on the island overwhelming the Rajput battalion and seizing the high ground. C Company of the Royal Rifles was called on to counter-attack and it inflicted heavy losses on the enemy before withdrawing to avoid encirclement.

Urged on by promises of relief from a Chinese nationalist force and by a message from Churchill that insisted “there must be no thought of surrender,” Maltby ordered repeated counter-attacks that, given the odds, were doomed to costly failure. Lawson was killed on Dec. 19 after his headquarters was surrounded. His last message reported that he was going outside “to fight it out.”

Lieutenant-Colonel W.J. Home, the commanding officer of the Royal Rifles, became the senior Canadian officer. His men, who had been fighting continuously, were exhausted and demoralized. As his second-in-command, Major John Price, noted: “It required no great military genius to predict the outcome of the battle once the Japanese had landed on the island…” Home, who had lost all confidence in British direction of the battle, believed further resistance was pointless and would simply waste lives. When his request to end hostilities was rejected he insisted on a period of rest for his regiment. Price recalled these events in 1948: “The enemy controlled the sea and the air. Three-inch mortar ammunition had run out. Only one battery of 18-pounder guns was available for artillery support. Only light machine-guns and rifles left to fight with. The men had been fighting without much food and practically no sleep and were dead tired. They were obviously in no condition to put up a spirited defence without some rest. A request that they be given 24 hours rest was a reasonable one particularly as it was judged there were ample troops available who had participated up to date only to a comparatively small degree in the battle and also as the plan then was to contract the front held by a retirement to the Stanley Peninsula itself.”

The Royal Rifles was allowed to withdraw from contact but Maltby still refused to face reality and the battalion returned to action for two more gruelling days. Maltby finally agreed to surrender on Dec. 25.

The fighting cost the Canadians 290 men killed with almost 500 wounded. During the long years of forced labor in prisoner of war camps another 264 died, including four men executed for trying to escape. After the war the 1,418 veterans who returned waged a second struggle for pension rights, compensation and public recognition.

The Canadian government had sent these young men into harm’s way for the best of reasons: The attempt to “defer or deter war.” Later generations, with little understanding of the circumstances of 1941, were quick to condemn this decision. It is now time to move beyond the obvious judgment that sending any reinforcements to the Pacific was a mistake and recognize the purpose as well as the sacrifice involved in the defence of Hong Kong.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on March 1st 1996