The Beginning

As Japan's army raged through China slaughtering thousands of men, women and children, leaving a path of horrific devastation in its wake, tensions in the West grew about the security of British possessions in Asia. The Japanese capture of the British Pratley Islands and Hainan in 1939 left the Colony of Hong Kong isolated and vulnerable. The Japanese presence in China cast a growing shadow over the British Colony. England wanted to maintain control of this valuable world class trading center, but the British Government was realistic. It knew there was a chance that Japan would attack the Colony and take it.

It was decided, initially, that if attacked Hong Kong and all those there would be on their own. It was clear to the English that in the event of war with Japan, Hong Kong could neither be successfully defended, nor could any troops there be relieved or rescued. With that thought in mind, England had reduced its presence in Hong Kong to a shadow of its former power by moving most of its defensive weaponry to strengthen Singapore.

Having weakened "Fortress Hong Kong" the British began to have second thoughts. It was decided to hold Hong Kong, and reinforce it modestly, even as the threat of war grew ever closer. Japan was thought to be somewhat ambivalent in its feelings towards the West in late 1941. The thinking was ... if Hong Kong were to be reinforced, even slightly, it could well dissuade the Japanese from taking hostile action against the Colony. It might also boost the morale of the Chinese soldiers fighting under Chinese General Chiang Kai Shek who had been fighting the Japanese since 1938. If the English just left the gates open for Japan to take Hong Kong it would leave the Chinese without allies in the area. It might also cause the British to "lose face". The maintenance of dignity in the face of adversity is a facet of what is called "saving face" in Asia, and is very important. For the British to "lose face" could well make a critical situation in the Far East worse, perhaps even make war more likely.

It was also believed that, in the event of war, defending Hong Kong, for any length of time would tie up thousands of Japanese troops and prevent their participation in other theatres of war. Hong Kong was a mighty fortress. The Japanese could be tied up for a long time trying to take it. If Hong Kong were to be overrun the Japanese would pay a heavy price in wounded and dead. Troops would be required to occupy and control the Colony. More troops would be required to guard any captured prisoners. It seemed to make sense that if Japan thought Hong Kong worth taking it must be worth keeping.

What was not known for certain, but certainly suspected by Allied Intelligence was that Japan had been planning war with the West for years. Their war plan called for the capture and destruction of all western possessions, then from a position of power, Japan would negotiate a peace accord to its benefit. The Japanese had made plans as far back as 1939, or earlier, to invade Hong Kong, Kowloon, Singapore and Macau.

The decision not to reinforce Hong Kong was reversed. Troops would required to do the job, but Britain could not commit anymore of her own. She had troubles enough in Europe. General A.E. Grasset, the General Officer Commanding British Troops in China, returned to England and made a powerful appeal to Winston Churchill's military advisors to ask for Canadian troops to reinforce Hong Kong. Churchill wrote later: " ... there was not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong, or relieving it if the Japanese were to attack." In spite of his misgivings he asked his government to act on Grasset's request and made an appeal to Canada, by telegram, to send the required troops. The Government of Canada was asked to provide whatever units were available.

The British telegram said, in essence, that the situation in the Far East had changed significantly and that a small reinforcement of the garrison of Hong Kong was justifiable. The telegram also implied that any troops posted there would be in no immediate danger. But, the British High Command secretly suspected that war with Japan was going to take place sooner or later, likely sooner.

The Canadian War Committee, and the Liberal Government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, quickly made the decision to send the requested troops. They made the decision based on the telegram's "assurances", and the Chief of the Canadian General Staff, Major General H.D.C. Crerar's statement that, in his opinion, .... he "saw no military risks in dispatching Canadian Battalions" to Hong Kong. He, "definitely recommended that the Canadian Army should take this on." The Minister of Defense, J.E. Ralston wasn't convinced that Crerar was right, but with some misgivings in his mind, went along with the plan anyway.

The Minister of Defense later explained his thinking. "It seemed to me that we had an opportunity to make a contribution, perhaps not large in numbers, but certainly effective in results, which should not be disregarded".

Meanwhile, the Canadian Military Establishment had been chaffing at the bit because no Canadian troops had yet seen action in Europe. Of course neither had any other troops at that time, except at Dunkirk. At any rate the "Establishment" were anxious for Canada to get in on the action.

In May of 1940, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a militia unit, were called to active duty. In late June of 1940, so were the Royal Rifles of Canada. The Grenadiers were given the task of guarding "Internment Camps", in Bermuda and Jamaica. They became prison guards. Their duties left little time for the Grenadiers to further their training. The Royal Rifles were to guard the shores of Newfoundland as part of what was called "The Internal Security Formations". The nature of their duties allowed the Royal Rifles to train for two and a half months in Sussex, New Brunswick before being sent to Newfoundland where they continued to train on a daily basis for nine and a half more months.

Given the location of their postings the Canadian Government did not expect either unit to see any action. German U Boats roamed the North Atlantic sinking thousands of tons of ships and their priceless cargo's, but there were no surface ships off either shore. While an assault on either location was possible it was highly unlikely.



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Books on the Battle of Hong Kong