|Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"|
|GUEST OF HIROHITO|
- Before the Battle
|You are young my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting yourself up as a judge of the highest opinion.|
Beside me in the 747, she in the window seat,
is a Japanese lady with finely manicured and highly polished nails. She has
been five years in Boston and proudly gives me her card—Miss Tanaka,
Cosmetician, Specialist in Facial Massage and Finger Pressure. She is
returning to Tokyo to see her father who is in a coma from a recent stroke,
and her mother who, only a few days after her husband’s stroke, fell and
broke her hip. Both parents are in the same hospital.
I say I am sorry, “Domo suimasen deshita”, and she is surprised to hear me reply in Japanese, but does not ask me where I had learned it.
I find her difficult to understand, partly because of her accent, probably more so because the constant background whine of the jet engines compounds my own high tone hearing loss. She chatters on, surprisingly unreserved for the daughter of an old Samurai family as she claims to be.
My eyes admire her delicately sculptured face and neck, smooth pale skin, and deeply contrasting black hair, but my mind wanders back over forty years to another transPacific trip.
It was November, 1941 and almost two thousand
Canadian soldiers were on their way to Hong Kong. Canada had already been at
war with Germany for two disastrous years. Now Japan was threatening to
invade the South East Asian Colonies of America, Britain and Holland. We
were a token force, sent over in the hope of giving Japan second thoughts, a
bluff that did not work.
I was the youngest rifleman (private soldier) in The Royal Rifles of Canada, 1st Battalion from Quebec City, who along with The Winnipeg Grenadiers and some brigade staff, were destined to be the first Canadian soldiers to see action in World War II. We were crammed below decks in the “M. V. Awatea”, owned by The Canadian-Australasian Shipping Co., that in happier days had been an inter-city ferry in Australasia as well as in the trans-Pacific trade. It had only recently been converted into a troopship.
Other ranks were slung in hammocks over the mess tables deep in the bowels of the ship. They bitched about the monotonous diet of mutton and griped about the luxurious quarters of the officers in privileged possession of the exclusive and finely appointed saloons. There had been a near riot the night before we sailed over the appalling difference in accommodation. Only the genuine desire of most of us to go overseas and into action prevented more serious outbreaks. This seems hard to believe now, but that was the way it was. We wanted to go to war.
One company of the Royal Rifles was on the escort vessel the H.M.C.S. Prince Robert. They had much better food, but because of the ship’s smaller size and constant roll, most were too seasick to enjoy it.
To escape the stale air and dull chatter at night I used to steal up on deck, to lie wrapped in a blanket under the tropical skies. Daybreak brought flying fish, dolphins, the clean swish of the bow cutting through the sea. I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.
Rumours abounded. Some said we might have to fight our way off the ship. I wondered cynically how this might be done because all our equipment was following us on a slower freighter, while the cavernous holds of the “Awatea” lay empty. The equipment had been wrongly routed by Movement Control. The incredible bungling in the Quartermaster General’s Department was loudly and nervously deprecated by those who knew our perils.
Such inadequacies and mismanagement by the Canadian Army Headquarters came as no surprise. Experience with that department led us to expect the worst. In the winter of 1940-41 the Royal Rifles had been stationed in Newfoundland. The Quartermaster General in Ottawa neglected to send badly needed uniforms and other supplies. Many in the battalion wore threadbare and patched battledress and at times rations and other necessities were in short supply. I now wonder how the military managed to dredge up some of the duffers who botched everything early in the war.
Lectures on board the ship assured us in all seriousness that Hong Kong was the Gibraltar of the Pacific. The Japanese were all myopic dwarfs who wore thick-rimmed glasses and shrank from close combat. They were notoriously poor at night fighting and would not be able to stand up to the bigger white soldiers who had better weapons. Their pilots were sloppy and cowardly. Their obsolete planes, made of wood, would be easy targets. (Their Zero fighters were indeed made of wood, but turned out to be better planes than the Americans produced until much later in the war.)
The following is an account of a briefing by a staff officer given to Canadians after their arrival in Hong Kong late in November, 1941.
He told them of the Japanese successes in China. These, said the lecturer, could not be taken seriously into account because of the poor quality of the Chinese resistance. Their bombing was poor and the airforce had little practice in night flying. Across the frontier in China were 5000 poorly equipped Japanese troops whose fighting abilities were very much in doubt.
He continued to stress their inexperience in night operations; how their artillery was both in short supply and out of date. Not only were their aircraft obsolete but their pilots were all short-sighted, and this meant that dive bombing was not possible.
So much for British Intelligence. Our indoctrination was as comforting as it was misleading. Up to that time our own military might had hardly distinguished itself. Indeed, our only “victories” had been evacuations.
Early in my military career I had voiced an opinion that the defeat in Crete was a disgrace, and that allied leadership could use a little intellect, imagination and courage. In fact, I said I would have fired the lot. Such an announcement from a seventeen year old rifleman was not too well accepted, even by my friends, let alone my superiors. I learned to keep such thoughts to myself... or almost. Reservations were hard to suppress when training and weapons dated back to World War I, and attitudes sometimes to the Boer War.
Another hot rumour was that a German raider was active in our area. This did make the lifeboat drills more interesting or, at least more apparently purposeful.
Every day on deck we enthusiastically went through periods of physical training, small arms drill, Bren gun practice as well as some practical platoon tutorials. Morale was high, despite the grumbling.
The beer was good. I had not tasted Australian beer before, and did not again until it was popularized in Canada by Crocodile Dundee. I remembered it as having a vinous flavour, while the brew sold now tastes no different than our own. Another casualty of the years.... or perhaps because of my aging taste buds.
Gambling was prohibited and of course flourished. Crown and Anchor was the favourite in those days, but I stuck with blackjack. Joe Delaney, a buddy in my platoon from the Magdalen Islands, was a great card player and had tutored me well in the game. At the end of the voyage I was ahead fifty dollars. This was probably the high point of my military career, perhaps the crowning accomplishment of six years in the army. After that it was to be all downhill, except for some uphill disasters on the hills of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong gave us a great welcome. We sailed through the narrow entrance into the magnificent harbour crowded by colourful junks and sampans that bounced in the wake of the “Awatea”. Motor torpedo boats came out to meet us, zig-zagging in front of us like dolphins. Several ancient amphibian aircraft buzzed the ship. No doubt the Spitfires and Hurricanes were being held in reserve.
The sad truth was that the air force consisted of these five antiquated machines, two Walrus amphibians and three Wildebeest Torpedo bombers.
It was a grand day. The sun shone but not oppressively, in a cloudless sky. The magnificent peak and surrounding hills confirmed that it must be the impregnable fortress as we had been told.... a solid citadel indeed.
Our two battalions marched down Nathan road steel helmeted and obviously invincible. The main street of Kowloon was lined by cheering crowds waving small Union Jacks. My platoon was halfway between the two bands, which were unsynchronized to the same beat. The two-mile march to Shamshuipo Military Barracks was a continuous ballet of changing step.
We were astounded by the luxury of the camp after eighteen months of Canadian Army life. Even the lowly rifleman had a single bed with sheets and a mosquito net. East Indian orderlies came in each morning with a cup of tea and an offer to shave you in bed and shine your shoes. ... all for a pittance. It was a shock to be addressed as Sahib, sir. Others were ready to press your uniform and even make the bed.
All of this may help explain the dismal performance of the British Army early in the war in the Far East. The Japanese certainly had no such pampering. Their training stressed self-sufficiency and the ability to live off the land.
Some rather quaint rules of the British Army surprised me. It was a serious offence not to wear a pith helmet until sundown or to wear shorts after sunset. Tailor-made dress uniforms were mandatory, but there was no practical battle dress for the terrain. As a result we first went into action wearing our well washed and bleached fatigue uniforms, which stood out in the hills like Christmas tree lights... made to order targets.
Unfortunately, we had little time to vegetate in lotus land. Within a week we were moved to “stand-to” positions on the Island. There we were to get to know the hills much better than the local inhabitants, who seldom left the gaudy glitter of the city. And sadly, I suspect better than most of the British garrison.
But we did have a brief taste of the attractions of Wanchai, later better known as the home of Suzy Wong. The mercury vapour lights enhanced the creamy complexions of the local girls, so stunning in their long dresses slit up to the thigh and so gracefully erotic with their wooden sandalled gait. Although lectures on the ship had stressed that they were all carriers of every conceivable venereal disease and virulent oriental germ, such dangers did not seem to deter intimate bonding of Chinese-Canadian relationships.
Some of the British troops were understandably jealous of the relative affluence of our pay scales and its effect on the “short-time” gals. The consequent antagonisms resulted in the up to now unreported First Battle of Hong Kong, fought in the Sun-Sun Cafe, one of Wanchai’s less illustrious emporiums.
The story of this battle, like the one with the Japanese later, grew in intensity and scope with each telling in the months and years that lay ahead in prison camp, so that eventually it appeared to involve the whole garrison.
The truth alone is impressive enough. It all started over a bint, as the Brits used to call the attending ladies of easy virtue. What started as an argument at one table soon spread to involve the entire establishment. There must have been a hundred in the fray; a hundred and one if I count myself, which is hardly fair as I was trying desperately to get out of the action.
Bottles flew in all directions, web belts with their heavy brass buckles whipped through the air. Chairs, tables and mirrors crashed down on those who failed to get out of the way. The shouts and screams were deafening and the intense activity in the already smoke filled room made breathing difficult. To compound matters, the owner, hoping to salvage something of his establishment turned all the lights out. The climax came with the arrival of the military police. The combatants joined forces in an unexpected alliance and threw them out.
I still nurse a scar in the scalp, sutured in the early morning by an unsympathetic medic, who was heedless of my protestations of innocence, and so did not consider a local anaesthetic was indicated. In the present American Army, judging from the number of medals dished out in the somewhat less than epic invasion of Grenada, I might have been decorated with a Purple Heart.
I had always thought of Hong Kong as an island off the coast of South China. To my surprise the island proper constituted only a small fraction of the total area of the colony. The bulk of the population lived on the island in the city of Victoria and a small strip of the mainland across the water. The remainder of the mainland to the Chinese border was known as the New Territories. It had a few isolated villages but was largely uninhabited, rough terrain. There was a road on each side of the area that led to the Chinese border. The Hong Kong of today is an entirely different world, the island a cluster of sky-scrapers and the New Territories a hive of activities.
It was the considered opinion of the British General Staff that Hong Kong could not be defended against any Japanese attack. This became even more evident after the Japanese captured Canton in 1938 and stationed troops on the border of The New Territories. However just about this time Major General A.E. Grasset was appointed General Officer Commanding of Hong Kong. He was more optimistic that the colony could be held for a limited time, enough for relief to arrive. He planned to defend the lower part of the New Territories and was counting on support from Chiang Kai Shek’s Army. Since Chiang had successfully avoided fighting the Japanese on every occasion, this was rather a forlorn hope. Nevertheless, when Grasset was relieved of command in 1940 he persuaded the authorities in London that two battalions should be sent to reinforce the colony. Perhaps since he was Canadian born, he recommended that two Canadian battalions be used.
There has not been a great deal written on the Battle of Hong Kong by a Canadian participant. From what I have read, one is left with the impression that the troops had no training, practically no weapons and were blown away by the Japanese.
On the contrary, most of our battalion had been in the army for over a year. Admittedly the training up to that time was unimaginative and left much to be desired, being based mostly on First World War experience. Nevertheless, we were not all raw recruits.
From my understanding of the report of the Duff Commission investigating the Hong Kong experience, I am disappointed at the lack of candour of the military. I doubt that any units in Canada up to that time had received the type of training that was introduced later in the war. The same was probably true even in the United Kingdom.
There must have been very few Canadians then who had any battle training using live ammunition, grenades and automatic weapons. There was little real mortar training as there were hardly any three inch mortars in the country.
There is no doubt that the Japanese were better soldiers than we were for the first few days, but we learned fast under constant exposure to their tactics. Late as it was, this had to be the ultimate in training.
What we did not have was leadership at the staff level and we ended up doing almost all our fighting in platoons that were rarely integrated into a company and never into a full battalion. The result was that no coordinated counterattack was ever launched against the initial landings.
|The Crown Colony of Hong Kong|
|Original disposition of forces, December 8, 1941|
Our little war began shortly
after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. About fifty planes struck vital
targets and took everyone by surprise, destroying the four or five old
aircraft at Kai Tek Airport as well. Not that they would have been much use.
Our barracks at Shamshuipo were bombed but most of the battalion were
already in training positions on the hills of the Island and there were only
one or two casualties. From then on we were constantly bombarded, at first
from the air and later by mortar and heavy artillery as well.
|Full Text of GUEST OF HIROHITO||Please Click Below for:|
|CHAPTER ONE - Before the Battle||Page 1|
|CHAPTER TWO - My War||Page 18|
|CHAPTER THREE - Prisoner in Hong Kong||Page 32|
|CHAPTER FOUR - No Geishas or Cherry Blossoms||Page 54|
|CHAPTER FIVE - Fears, Hopes and Freedom||Page 73|
|CHAPTER SIX - Another World||Page 101|
|CHAPTER SEVEN - Epilogue||Page 118|
|Appendices: Excerpts from War-Crime Trials||Page 136|
|Return to GUEST OF HIROHITO Introduction Page|
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