Hong Kong in World War Two was a British colony. With the invasion of Malaya and Thailand on December 8th 1941, the capture of Hong Kong was an obvious extension of the war that had been fought between China and Japan since 1937.
In 1940 the Chiefs-of-Staff in London had described Honk Kong as “an undesirable military commitment”. However, Britain could not withdraw from it simply because this would undermine her prestige in the region.
Defending Hong Kong presented the garrison commander, Major-General C M Maltby, with considerable problems. He had to have a covering force on the mainland – Hong Kong stretched 22 miles north to the Chinese border – but the heart of the colony beat in Victoria, on the north shore of Hong Kong, and Kowloon, on the southern tip of the mainland.
Maltby created the ‘Gindrinkers Line’, which stretched some ten miles across the southern part of the mainland. However, it had a maximum depth of one mile between land and the sea. Maltby believed that the ‘Gindrinkers Line’ would only hold out for seven days. When it was obvious that the line would falter, Maltby planned to pull everyone back to Hong Kong Island.
The Japanese assigned 20,000 men to the attack on the colony, twice as many as Maltby had at his disposal. Six fighter/bomber squadrons were also assigned to the attack to support ground troops.
The attack started at 07.30 on December 8th 1941. The Japanese air force destroyed what aircraft the British had at Kai Tak airport and engineering units quickly repaired destroyed bridges.
By December 10th, the Japanese had advanced fifteen miles into Hong Kong. The strongest part of ‘Gindrinkers Line’ was captured – Shing Mun Redoubt – and this gave the Japanese an elevated view over the eastern part of the line. No counter-attack was carried out to recapture Shing Mun Redoubt as the men who had pulled out of it were suffering badly from malaria. However, it was reported back to Maltby that no counter-attack was carried out because the battalion commander of the Royal Scots who had been ordered to attempt it, had no confidence that the attack would succeed and “it seemed useless to force a battalion commander to execute a plan in which he had no confidence.” (Brigadier Wallis to General Maltby)
With the loss of Shing Mun, Maltby had to put into action his plan to withdraw all forces from the mainland onto Hong Kong Island.
The Royal Scots were withdrawn to Kowloon to give cover while stores and equipment were moved to the island. They withstood a heavy Japanese attack but held their line.
On December 12th, oil tanks and the dockyards of Kowloon were destroyed. All merchant ships were scuttled. The withdrawal was a success in a tactical sense. But one mistake was made – a large number of junks and sampams had not been destroyed on the mainland and the Japanese were to use these to cross to Hong Kong.
With the island surrounded – a small Japanese naval force had been established to the south of Hong Kong – the Japanese commander, Lieutenant-General Taikaishi Sakai, called for the island to surrender or it would be systematically destroyed by artillery and aerial bombardments. The island’s governor, Sir Mark Young, refused to surrender and a bombardment commenced.
Maltby had a few days to prepare his defences. He had 26 coastal guns and 56 machine guns at his disposal. He did not rule out an attack on the south coast via the sea but the most obvious crossing was via the Lei U Mun Strait that separated Hong Kong from Devil’s Peak on the mainland and from Kowloon Harbour to the island. While Maltby prepared his defences they were under constant artillery bombardment. Defensive positions were destroyed along with all the searchlights on the northern shore – the positions of which were frequently given away by saboteurs working for the Japanese.
The attack started on the night of December 18th. The Japanese crossed the Lei U Mun Strait using the sampans and junks that had not been destroyed on the mainland. By next day the Japanese had captured three miles of shoreline and the fort at Sai Wan. On December 19th, Maltby launched a counter-attack against known Japanese positions but little was gained. If the intent was to push the Japanese off Hong Kong, then the attacks failed. What they did achieve was stopping the Japanese advancing any further west. However, the Japanese did push south towards Stanley Peninsula and threatened to cut Maltby’s force in two.
The island’s defenders fought doggedly but the Japanese were a force they could not resist. Maltby’s men ran short of ammunition and fresh water.
On Christmas Day at 09.00 Maltby tried to persuade the Governor and the Defence Council of the island that further resistance would lead to many unnecessary deaths. The Defence Council refused any talk of surrender. By mid-afternoon the Japanese had made major inroads into the positions held by Maltby’s men and he finally persuaded the Governor to surrender the island. Maltby’s main concern was what would happen to the island’s civilian population if the military kept on fighting for a lost cause but causing Japan more casualties.
The invasion of Hong Kong lasted for 18 days. About 4,500 British and Commonwealth troops were killed and 6,500 taken prisoners-of-war. The Japanese lost 2,750 men in the brief but brutal campaign.