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A Picture From History: Battle for Hong Kong

We take a look at the impressive might and will of young, undertrained Canadian troops who bravely fought the Japanese Imperial army in Dec. 1941.
Canadian troops, Hong Kong
Canadian troops in a defensive position, Battle for Hong Kong 1941

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a turning point in American history and has been immortalized by legendary films like Tora! Tora! Tora!

…Or bastardized by movies with weird love triangles that somewhere in the middle Michael Bay remembers there was something about a battle. 

Commonly forgotten, though…the Japanese attack on other nations that day.

Japanese map
Translation of captions: “This chart shows points attacked by our Navy Eagles, 8–10 December. Left to right: Hong Kong, Kota Bharu, Singapore, Manila, Davao, Guam, Wake, Hawaii.”

That same day or within a few days following December 7/8, the Japanese attacked not just Hawaii, but also Singapore, northern Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Hong Kong.

For an age pre-satellites and with spotty long-range communication, this is fundamentally an impressive military feat.

We’ll probably cover most of the places the Japanese attacked eventually, but for now, let’s look at the Battle For Hong Kong.

At that time in 1941, Hong Kong stood as a colony of the British Empire. In January of that year, the commander of British forces in Hong Kong requested reinforcements to protect the island from possible Japanese attack. 

Back in England, Churchill believed the request to be folly and madness. It was widely known that Hong Kong, if attacked, could never be held. 

Churchill with a Thompson

Defenses were poorly planned and badly maintained. The British simply didn’t care enough to send the troops and resources needed to change that.

Germany served as the immediate threat. The war in Asia was seen as an Asian war and not the concern of the West. At least, not until the war in Europe was won.

Racist British “military intelligence” reports claiming the Japanese weren’t a threat “because they were small, nearsighted and unable to fight at night,” further fueled the blasé attitude.

However, folding to political pressure, Churchill ordered reinforcements to head to Hong Kong. Not British troops, though, not for a colony. 

Canada, a protectorate of Britain at the time, recently made a report as to the readiness of their infantry battalions.

Canadian Flag 1921–1957
Canadian Flag 1921–1957

Ten were classified as “excellent,” seven needed more training, and nine “not recommended for operational employment at present.”

In other words, those nine battalions were unfit for combat. They consisted of young, barely trained lads in need of more experienced officers and NCOs. In short, they should have remained home for more preparation.

Instead, two of those unprepared battalions shipped to Hong Kong.

Canadian troops for inspection, Hong Kong
Canadian troops for inspection, Hong Kong

A few men short of 2,000 Canadians reinforced the island and prepared for invasion. They joined some 14,000 Hong Kong defenders.

The hope? That merely sending allied troops of any kind would discourage the Japanese from attacking.

Instead, on December 8th, 1941, 50,000 Japanese troops attacked Hong Kong.

Japanese soldiers, Battle for Hong Kong
Japanese soldiers, Battle for Hong Kong

In theory, the British hoped the garrison force could hold the island for months at best and weeks at worst.

However, December 18 saw the island breached and allied command overrun.

Allied troops would keep fighting until December 24, when the last units fell — killed or captured.

Canadian troops, Battle for Hong Kong
Canadian troops, Battle for Hong Kong

Besides the reckless disregard the British showed for Canadian troops, what stands out from this battle the courage and bravery of this little band of Canucks.

2,000 ill-equipped, questionably lead, and woefully undertrained Canadians helped hold off the Japanese Imperial Army…50,000 battle-hardened Japanese soldiers.

In those two weeks of fighting the Canadians suffered 293 KIA and 493 wounded — a staggering 40% casualty rate. They also managed to kill or wound 2,096 Japanese.

An incredibly rare thing to see, Japanese commanders of the time reported back about the Canadian’s bravery during the battle. 

They even went so far as to formally bury the Canadian commander Brigadier General Lawson, marking the grave with a white marker…his name and rank written in Japanese.

Brigadier John K. Lawson (right) with General Christopher Maltby

After the battle, eyewitness accounts and historians reported that the Japanese army embarked on rape and murder. Not even the sick, wounded, or innocent were spared.

Wounded soldiers lying in beds at St. Stephen’s College were bayoneted. The nurses raped and volunteer aids killed. 

One Candian Private later wrote that four men of his unit were used as bayonet practice throughout the night. 

The Canadians that survived would spend 3.5 years as POWs — starved, tortured, beaten, and murdered. Forced to work as slave labor on heavy construction projects, they ate a meager 800 calories per day.

Canadian POWs gathering for a smoke, 1945, Hong Kong
Canadian POWs gathering for a smoke after being liberated, 1945, Hong Kong

1,975 Canadians of the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers left Vancouver for deployment in Hong Kong.

293 died in the defense of the island and 264 died or were murdered as POWs.

Only 1,418 would survive to return to their home and native land.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures From History, click on over to our History Category.

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16 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar

    Awesome stuff! I had no idea about the heroic actions of these Canadian soldiers. Love the history—keep it coming!

    June 27, 2021 9:32 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Danny So

    Great Article. I am from Hong Kong, moved to Canada after 1997, from the middle of my heart, I wanted to thank those brave Canadian soldiers selflessly fought in the British Colony, especially those heroes who lost their life in this battle.

    June 7, 2021 11:25 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Kevin Sweeney

    Didn't know this at all. Thanks!

    June 7, 2021 10:23 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Mike Russell

    Great article, keep doing these.

    June 6, 2021 9:48 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Don Russell

    Great Article ! I was unaware of the Canadians being in Hong Kong ! I knew about the British Soldiers & Sailors, I drank with the British Soldiers in Hong Kong in 1969 while on R & R from Vietnam. I got my 1st Tattoo at "PINKY's Tattoo Parlor also in Hong Kong. The Canadians are a Strong Force as well ! Once again... I learned something from this Great Article !

    June 6, 2021 9:15 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Dennis Filbin

    Great Article. I had the chance to Visit Stanley in China along the Hong Kong Harbor. I learned of the battle and all the sacrifices by both military and civilian population. The battle was finished when Stanley was taken.
    British leaders already knew Hong Kong was indefensible. And yet 14,564 troops spent the next two weeks trying to hold back twice as many Japanese soldiers, first at the Gin Drinkers’ Line, then at Devil’s Peak, then at Quarry Bay, and then finally at Stanley.

    June 6, 2021 8:00 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Good, brief and to the point

    June 6, 2021 7:04 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    David Mouser

    Keep these kind of articles coming!
    I kearney alot.

    June 6, 2021 7:01 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    dennis Hawxhurst

    well done guys. brief and to the point; yet included interesting tidbits. looking forward to the next one.

    June 6, 2021 6:44 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Chris Hansen

    Well done. Easy read and nice to cite references in the future, to read more. Thanks.

    June 6, 2021 5:45 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Fascinating article. A well written story of a near forgotten chapter of history.

    June 6, 2021 5:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Thanks for sharing. As an American living in Canada it was interesting history.

    June 5, 2021 3:53 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Thanks for sharing! I would love to read more articles like this.

    June 5, 2021 8:11 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Most of my “shooting buddies” are history buffs as well. I think there is a lot of overlap within the two subjects. I for one would read more like this.

    June 4, 2021 7:06 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Rob Kelly

    Moving forgotten events and acts of bravery into the light. Well done.

    June 4, 2021 11:30 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Fascinating article! Learned something new today. Thanks!

    June 4, 2021 10:15 am
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