A Testament to Courage

If indeed the men of the Royal Rifles were so poorly trained as some have said, it is a testament to their courage that they fought so long, so hard, and inflicted such devastating damage on the battle-hardened Japanese Troops. For eighteen long days, they fought some of the fiercest battles in WWII.

From Newfoundland the Royal Rifles were sent to St. John, New Brunswick for three weeks. From there they returned to Quebec City for 48 hours' leave.

Outward Bound

In October of 1941, the Royal Rifles of Canada said their good-byes to loved ones and friends on the platform of the Gare du Palais, the railroad station in Quebec City, and boarded a train for the long journey West to Vancouver. There they joined up with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, many of whom were suffering the effects of dengue fever and malaria picked up while in the tropics. On October 27, they boarded the Awatea, a converted cruise ship, and accompanied by the H.M.C.S. Prince Robert set sail for destinations unknown.

The Awatea carried 90 officers, a Headquarters staff and 2 nursing sisters and 1,877 other ranks. The ship was so overcrowded that 49 Grenadiers and 1 Rifleman jumped ship in protest the night before she sailed and had to be
"persuaded" to re-board and make the ill-fated journey. "C" Company of the Royal Rifles made the trip aboard the Prince Robert under the command of Major W.A. Bishop.

Rifleman Sydney Skelton was a short, slim 19 year-old man, married for 10 months, with a baby on the way. He had volunteered for service in Europe and had served a year in the army when he found himself on the way to Asia with "D" Company of the Royal Rifles of Canada. He remembered the first night aboard the Awatea, "Things began to look pretty bad (the first night). Supper time came and the lads waited hours for it and it turned out to be tripe and onions." Even Brigadier W.J. Home commented about things on board that night, "..things were in a hopeless muddle.", he said.

Both ships sailed under sealed orders for security reasons. Their final destination was unknown, even to the ship's captain. Some of the men put two and two together and guessed that their destination was somewhere tropical. They had been issued tropical uniforms, were sailing from Vancouver...they were going someplace warm. They did not know, or even guess, that it was to get deadly hot.

The Canadian Troops Arrive

On November 16th., 1941 the Canadian troops reached Hong Kong and paraded smartly through the streets, were greeted by Hong Kong Governor, Sir Mark Young and the new GOC of British forces in China, Major-General Christopher M. Maltby. The Canadians arrival brought the total number of troops available to protect the colony to 15,000.

The Defending Forces

The men of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers had no idea they were shortly to endure the most incredible hardships and dangers of their lives. They were about to write a chapter in Canadian Military history that gives truth to the motto of the Royal Rifles, "Volens et Valens", "Able and Willing".

The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and The New Territories consisted of 1060 square kilometers of rugged terrain. The Island of Hong Kong was jagged. The hills were steep, with deep canyons, narrow ravines and miles of concrete water catchments which crisscrossed the island.

Before the Canadians' arrival, the British had 12,000 troops to defend the entire area and they were truly a mixed assortment. There were at least 16 units from every branch of the military. Of those about 10,000 were professional soldiers. The rest were recently activated militia units such as the Royal Rifles, The Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Force. The famous 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots, Britain's Senior Regiment of the Line, and the highly regarded 5/7 Punjabis and the 2/14 Rajputs, had a long and proud history of service, but even they had lost top officers and NCO's who had been sent back to England as instructors. They, along with the 1st. Battalion of the Middlesex (Machine Gun) Regiment, were meant to be the backbone of the defense.

The Royal Navy was represented by the destroyer Thracian, several gunboats, a flotilla of motor torpedo boats, and two minesweepers. These vessels were all that was left in Hong Kong of the mighty China Squadron. The Royal Air Force contingent had at its disposal three ancient Wildebeest torpedo bombers, and two Walrus amphibians with which to defend the entire airspace. The aircraft were flown by 7 officers and serviced by 108 airmen. Keeping the planes in the air was difficult as the nearest RAF base was 2200 kilometers away in Malaya, a long way to go for spare parts.

The Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Force under the command of Colonel Henry Rose was, according to some, "an old boys club, better suited to playing bridge or cricket than to fighting a war". They were, for the most part, machine gun companies, anti-aircraft, and coastal defense artillery batteries. They aged from 19 to 60 years When the time came for these "bridge and cricket players" to show their stuff their courage and determination was remarkable. The defenders were, according to Carl Vincent in his book, No Reason Why, " .... hardly a combination likely to make an efficient fighting force".




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Books on the Battle of Hong Kong