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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Captive Christmas

Christmas Day 1941 is not one that Hong Kong people want to remember. It was the day that the British surrendered to the Japanese.


2014 is a year when we particularly remember the two World Wars. It is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and next year it will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War. Although the 1914-18 war had little effect on Hong Kong it was to suffer greatly in 1941. That was the year when Japan began its part in the global conflict. Japanese bombers hit Pearl Harbour in early December and moved against the Allied colonies in the Far East. Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient, was one of them.

Hong Kong was not well prepared for the attack. The garrison was quite small as the battle against the Germans was the main priority for the British forces. Also it had been thought that if attacked the main thrust would come from the sea and a chain of coastal defence batteries was built to guard against that. The remains of these can still be seen around Hong Kong, the best preserved example has been turned into the Coastal Defence Museum. It is well worth a visit for those with the slightest interest in military matters.

The attack came on 8th December, the same day as Pearl Harbour, but in came across the land border with China; not from the sea. They also attacked from the air with the first air raid starting at about 8.00 am. Tony Banham titled his excellent book on the Defence of Hong Kong Not the Slightest Chance. Even if the British had had more troops and a better plan of defence it would only have delayed the inevitable defeat. The Japanese had total control of the skies and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, which were the first capital ships to be sunk solely by air power on the open sea (albeit by land-based rather than carrier-based aircraft), meant that there could be no help from the Royal Navy.

When Christmas Day arrived the Governor sent out the following message:


In pride and admiration I send my greetings this Christmas day to all who are still fighting and all who are working so nobly and so well to sustain Hong Kong against the assault of the enemy. Fight on. Hold fast for King and Empire. God bless you all in this your finest hour…


Of course we all know that the end was near and at 3.30 pm the British surrendered. Some fighting went on late into the evening but it was all over.

One of the last areas to be occupied was the Peak. The last service at the Peak Church was held on Christmas Day 1941 just as the Japanese occupation was about to start. Later that day the Church was reduced to ruins by a Japanese shell. The cross from the altar was rescued and a later inscription on the back notes that it was “recovered from the ruins of the old Peak Church in 1941 and sent in to Stanley Internment Camp where it was used in the United Services of Worship in the College Hall and afterwards in the Cathedral upon the liberation of the Colony. Presented to St. Stephen’s College, Stanley Michaelmas Day in the year of our Lord 1958.” The cross remains there today in the Chapel and is a reminder of those who suffered in Stanley during the War.

The expatriate community only had years of internment in Stanley to look forward to. The city was bomb damaged and the homes of the European community were left empty and soon looted, by the Chinese, of anything of possible value including timber, pipes and wiring. Their proud owners were not to know of this until they were released at the end of the war. Stanley was itself an ordeal and some died there. Their bodies were buried in Stanley with fairly crude granite headstones. Later part of the cemetery was set aside for war graves. It is a peaceful oasis although visiting it one cannot help but feel a sense of sadness at the slaughter of so many.

During the short battle about 1,560 military personnel had been killed. The remainder were marched off to a prison camp at Sham Shui Po. At first security was not too tight and some managed to escape. However for the remainder it was a terrible existence. Some were being shipped to Japan when the ship carrying then, the Lisbon Maru, was sunk by Allied aircraft. The Japanese tried to prevent those on board from surviving but against the odds some did. Towards the end of the war it was known to a few that, in the event of the Japanese losing the war, the remainder would be slaughtered. The sudden surrender after the atomic bombing of Japan saved their lives. A few still survive to this day. It is fitting that as we approach Christmas we should remember their sacrifice for our freedom.


Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com


A gun position at the Museum of Coastal Defence looking towards Kowloon. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.


HMS Repulse.


Japanese troops invading Hong Kong.


Japanese victory parade on Queen’s Road.


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