As Remembrance Day approaches, a tale of valour and sacrifice is emerging from the fog of military history, thanks to a new book that finally gives a group of Canadian soldiers their due, nearly 70 years after the Battle for Hong Kong. About 2,000 troops from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Quebec-based Royal Rifles of Canada were among the forces defending Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked in 1941. They were pitted against a better-trained foe, and held up longer than anyone thought they could. In the end, 100 per cent of the force was dead, wounded, missing in action or taken prisoner. The worst indignity was yet to come: The commander of the brigade to which the Rifles belonged wrote a report that put a blot on the regiment's reputation. In a bid to set the record straight, Ottawa author Nathan Greenfield is also calling on the British Parliament to repudiate that report. Here is a passage from his account:
The battle begins
On Dec. 8, 1941, at 7 a.m., Hong Kong's Kai Tak aerodrome received a warning of an impending air raid. Almost an hour later, as Honorary Captain Francis Deloughery celebrated mass on the parade ground for Catholics who had not yet deployed to their war stations on the island, a Japanese infantryman, Masakazu Nakamori, looked up from where he was lying in wait for the attack to begin. Later he recalled the “beautiful sight” of a dozen Ki-36 bombers, each carrying a 500-pound bomb, escorted by nine fighters flying in formation low over Hong Kong.
Only hours earlier in Hawaii, an American radar operator had mistaken some unexpected blips on his radar screen for planes due in from San Francisco. In fact, those blips were Japanese planes bound for Pearl Harbour.
When planes neared Hong Kong's Shamshuipo neighbourhood, Rifleman Bill MacWhirter, a sturdy 17-year-old from Quebec's Gaspé region, heard his friend call out, “Look! Our planes from Singapore.”
By the time MacWhirter reached the door of the building he was in so he could see the planes, the formation had broken up as planes peeled off to head for their targets. Each incoming pilot, with his target clearly in front of him, put his plane into a power dive. The bombers released their payloads a few seconds before they roared over their targets at less than 500 feet; inertia carried the bombs the rest of the way. The fighters flew even lower, strafing the ground.
“The explosions were terrible. But even worse was the plane that seemed to follow a Chinese man who was running for a fence about 150 yards to my right. He probably thought the trees would hide him,” MacWhirter recalls. “To get there, he had to scramble under the fence. There was a little hole, so he had a chance to get under it. The bullets caught up to him when he was halfway through the hole and cut him almost clean in two. That was the first man I ever saw killed.”
Moments after the Chinese man died, MacWhirter's sergeant ordered him and other soldiers close by into a nearby barracks and under the iron beds. A few minutes later, the raid was over, and MacWhirter and Rifleman Jackie Coull ventured outside. “We could see the smoking holes where the bombs had fallen and damage done to the Jubilee Building, where the officers would have been if they had not been sent to the island. The bombing was timed for the morning parades, so if the boys had been there we would have been blown apart,” MacWhirter recalls. (Most of the troops had been deployed to war stations in response to news of Japanese troop movements.)
The attack destroyed or badly damaged all but one of the Royal Air Force's few planes, and destroyed all but one civilian plane. The bombs wounded two Canadian signallers who had been loading radio sets into a station wagon. Chinese merchants in a nearby market were less fortunate. They and their shoppers were covered in blood and bits of bone and flesh.
The battle for Hong Kong that began that day continued until the surrender on Dec. 26, 1941. Of the 1,974 Canadian troops who were there, 290 were killed – many bayoneted after they had surrendered. The rest became prisoners of war in camps where they would be beaten, starved and turned into slave labourers; 250 died in these camps.