Even into his 90s George MacDonell, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, with broad shoulders and head up, bore more than a passing resemblance to the army sergeant-major he once was. Neither age, nor his experiences at the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War, nor his ghastly time as a prisoner of war afterward, had bent or bowed him. At least, not much.
Mr. MacDonell, who died in Toronto on April 15 at the age of 100, was one of only two remaining Canadian survivors of the Battle of Hong Kong and the Japanese prisoner of war camps that followed. (Hormidas Fredette, 106, of New Minas, N.B., is now the only remaining Canadian survivor.)
In 1941, a Canadian battle group called C Force was sent to bolster defences at Hong Kong, then a British Crown Colony. The formation totalled 1,975 Canadian soldiers made up of two infantry battalions (the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers), plus a headquarters group, and two Nursing Sisters. At that point Mr. MacDonell was a sergeant in the Royal Rifles.
In addition to the Canadians, the Hong Kong defenders included British and Indian troops, local Auxiliary Defence units and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. A British general was in command. C Force had barely settled in when, on Dec. 8, 1941, 30,000 troops of the Imperial Japanese Army invaded as part of a larger Japanese campaign that included the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.
In three weeks of desperate fighting the outnumbered Hong Kong defenders were repeatedly pushed back. On Christmas Day, 1941 the newly-promoted Company Sergeant-Major MacDonell was ordered to make yet one more attack. In his outstanding memoir, One Soldier’s Story, Mr. MacDonell wrote that he “gave his troops a pep talk and told them ‘at least this was better than waiting … for the inevitable.’” He ordered “fix bayonets” and the Rifles charged, taking their objective, Stanley Village, but with heavy casualties.
The Battle of Hong Kong ended later that day. Mr. MacDonell always maintained that the Canadians never surrendered but rather obeyed the governor’s order to lay down their arms. The end of fighting touched off an orgy of killing, raping, and looting by the Japanese troops. Among those killed at Hong Kong were 293 Canadians including those who died in battle and a number who were murdered after the surrender.
Company Sergeant-Major MacDonell then became one of more than 1,600 Canadian prisoners of war and remained so for more than 3 1/2 years until the war ended. Two hundred and sixty-four of the men perished in that period mainly owing to starvation, sickness and abuse.
Becoming a prisoner of war in far away Hong Kong was an almost unimaginable turn of events for a young Canadian from Edmonton. George Stuart MacDonell was born there on Aug. 5, 1922, a member of a fifth generation of Scottish immigrants. His father, also named George, was an accountant who had been an army officer during the First World War and his mother, Marjorie (née Hay), who had been an army nurse.
His father walked out on the family when young George was 12 and his mother died a year later, after which the boy lived with an uncle and aunt in Listowel, in Southwestern Ontario.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Mr. MacDonell was a 17-year-old student and a member of the army reserve. He could not wait to enlist as a full-time soldier. “Talk about exciting times. No more high school for me – I was employed on more serious business,” Mr. MacDonell wrote in One Soldier’s Story.
He tried to join the regular army but the minimum age was 18 and his uncle reported him as being under age. Shortly afterward Mr. MacDonell ran away from home and was able to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps even though he did not know what the Service Corps did. (It was the army’s transport and supply organization.)
He was both intelligent and enthusiastic and even at a young age was promoted to sergeant. He was then transferred to the Royal Rifles of Canada and in October, 1941, that regiment was chosen as part of C Force.
The whole idea of sending Canadians to Hong Kong has long been contentious. Historian Tim Cook described it as “a decision that has haunted many for 80 years.” It was clear that in the event of an attack Hong Kong could not be resupplied nor could troops be evacuated if required. Mr. MacDonell described Hong Kong as “an isolated, unprepared military death trap.”
Much criticism has been heaped on General Harry Crerar who approved the mission and who selected the two battalions, neither of which was fully trained nor combat ready. The troops arrived in Hong Kong without their vehicles which, thanks to planning errors, never did arrive and neither did ammunition for some of the weapons. But the larger problem was that, in the prewar years, Canada had spent next to nothing on national defence and had not prepared for war.
After the battle ended Company Sergeant-Major MacDonell spent the first 12 months’ imprisonment at a camp in Hong Kong but then he and other Canadians were sent as slave labourers to the giant Nippon Kokan Shipyard in Japan. Conditions were dreadful with prisoners working on a near-starvation diet while medicine and food sent for them from Canada was rarely delivered.
Despite harsh discipline and threats of death for even minor infractions, there were episodes of exceptional bravery. At one point two Canadians managed to set fire to a room full of blueprints, destroying them and bringing ship construction to a halt at least for a time. They were not caught.
The war ended on Aug. 14, 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that point Company Sergeant-Major MacDonell had been sent to work at a mine in northern Japan with his group “in the last stages of starvation.” The dropping of the atomic bombs has been controversial but Mr. MacDonell had no doubts about it saying, “If it hadn’t been for the bombing we would all have been dead.”
The men were subsequently rescued by the U.S. Navy, put aboard an American hospital ship and returned to Canada. Mr. MacDonell arrived in Victoria and began a long period of recovery.
He subsequently left the army but the first year was exceptionally difficult. He was tormented by nightmares while he felt duty bound to make wrenching visits to relatives of soldiers who had died.
Despite that, as part of a veterans program Mr. MacDonell was able to finish high school and then go on to the University of Toronto where he obtained a master of arts degree. He met and married Margaret Telford, a university lecturer, and the couple subsequently had two children.
One of Mr. MacDonell’s university professors sent a paper he had written on labour relations to the president of Canadian General Electric (CGE) and the result was that, in 1950, Mr. MacDonell was hired by the company as a personnel officer.
He remained with CGE for 20 years making a stunning climb to the company’s executive ranks. At one point he was general manager of the household appliances division while later he was a vice-president of the company’s consumer products group.
Subsequently, Mr. MacDonell left CGE to become an executive with other companies including General Steel Wares and Maple Leaf Mills.
Mr. MacDonell’s career then included a period as a senior civil servant with the government of Ontario. In 1984 he was appointed deputy minister of industry, trade and technology and served under premiers Bill Davis, Frank Miller and David Peterson.
Shortly after that Mr. MacDonell retired. His wife, Margaret, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, died in 2013. His daughter, Susan Alice, also predeceased him but he leaves one son, Paul, one grandchild, and Mr. MacDonell’s long-time companion, Sue Beard.
Paul MacDonell said his father did not talk much about the war for many years and that he sometimes found Christmastime – the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Hong Kong – very difficult. The younger Mr. MacDonell said he did not learn many details about his father’s experiences until the publication of One Soldier’s Story.
While the elder Mr. MacDonell had not talked much about his wartime service in early postwar years, later on that changed. After publishing his autobiography he wrote a number of accounts of his experiences and took part in many media interviews. He became a frequent public speaker, giving talks to service clubs, veterans’ organizations and dozens of high school classes. His talks always ended with the same message: “Freedom is not free.”
Mike Babin, president of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, which was formed to honour those who served at Hong Kong, called Mr. MacDonell, “A proud spokesman for his fellow soldiers and their bravery in the battle, their ordeal as prisoners of war, and in their challenges after their return to Canada.” He said Mr. MacDonell was “one of the last of a group of extraordinary Canadians.” Noted historian Jack Granatstein paid tribute to Mr. MacDonell as “a man of exceptional character.”
Of the Battle of Hong Kong, Mr. MacDonell once wrote, “Under impossible circumstances and against desperate odds, with their backs to the sea, [the Canadians] fought to the end without a thought of surrender. Today I still marvel at their valour and am proud to say I was one of them.”