Most Canadians probably know of the Dieppe raid, the disastrous August, 1942, attack on the German-held French port that led to the killing or capture of almost 3,000 soldiers. Few, however, have heard of the Canadian role at Hong Kong in December, 1941, an almost equally calamitous struggle that saw Imperial Japanese troops kill or capture every one of the 2,000 Canadians who had arrived there only three weeks before the war in the Pacific began.
The Damned, Ottawa writer Nathan Greenfield's newest military history, is a well-researched popular account of the battle for Hong Kong and its aftermath, which saw the Canadian survivors spend almost four years as prisoners of the Japanese. Both parts of the book are stories of unutterable horror.
Greenfield has made use of Japanese accounts of the attack, and he tries to put his readers into the minds of men on both sides of the action. The battle itself was short and sharp. The Japanese attack began almost immediately after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it took very little time for the poorly led British and Indian defenders of the Crown Colony to be forced off the mainland and onto Hong Kong island.
The Royal Rifles of Canada, a Quebec regiment, and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were not well-trained troops, units that had been dispatched to the Far East in the expectation that their role would be that of garrison troops. Divided rather than being concentrated under their Canadian commander, Brigadier J.K. Lawson, the battalions nonetheless fought well and suffered heavy casualties - 290 killed in action and 483 wounded, or almost 40 per cent of their strength - but their efforts quickly and inevitably degenerated into isolated and fruitless counterattacks against the better-led and better-equipped Japanese.
For their part, the Japanese marked the Colony's surrender on Christmas Day, 1941, by killing many of those they had captured, including the bayoneting of wounded men in their hospital beds, and by gang-raping nurses. Their officers stood by, watching approvingly as their soldiers celebrated in the style the Imperial armies had honed to perfection in their long war in China.
The Canadian efforts in the futile defence had not been helped by their British superiors, who had failed to plan effectively - or to take and hold the high ground - against an Asian enemy to which they believed themselves racially superior. In the PoW cages, the surviving British senior officers prepared their alibis - and blamed the Canadians, who, they wrote in reports published after the war, were ill led and would not fight. Greenfield confronts these accusations point by point and does an effective job in refuting them.
In a sense, however, the battle of reputations is one only for the history books. Far more gripping is the account of life and death in the hellholes that were the PoW cages. The Allied prisoners, viewed by the Japanese as cowards for having surrendered rather than fighting to the death, were starved, beaten and worked to death as labourers in Hong Kong or the mines of Japan.
The Canadians were the special target of Kanao Inouye, the British Columbia-born "Kamloops Kid" who served as an interpreter for the Kempeitai, the army's feared secret police. "Slap Happy," as he was also known for his eagerness to pummel the PoWs, repeatedly took revenge for the discrimination he had suffered as a boy by brutalizing PoWs, at every opportunity, killing several. After the war, he was executed for his crimes.
Of the 2,000 Canadians who had sailed for Hong Kong, 1,418 returned to Canada after Japan's surrender. Almost half of the survivors suffered, most for the rest of their lives, from diseases caused by vitamin deprivation and starvation; half of the repatriated soldiers had psychiatric conditions, likely the result of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder; and most died younger than the norm.
Greenfield's book is well done. Regrettably, he has not been well served by his editor. There are far too many errors in military nomenclature, ranks and proper names, but the dramatic nature of the author's story overcomes these mistakes.
J.L. Granatstein is co-author (with Dean Oliver) of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History.