Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

CHAPTER ONE - 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.
The distressing news was that the Japanese had advanced quickly through the New Territories at night and had broken through the area held by The Royal Scots. By avoiding the roads and skillfully traversing the rough countryside at night, the enemy threw the planned defense of the mainland into confusion. Within two days it became obvious that there would be no defense of that area.
British and Indian troops were ferried across to the Island. Seeing these haggard, tired comrades passing through our lines was not exactly encouraging, but surprisingly, morale remained high.
It was evident that the key to any defense of Hong Kong had to be the prevention of any permanent beachhead on the island. Once any landing was secured the Japanese could draw on literally unlimited reserves of men, artillery and other heavy equipment.
It was also obvious that the logical place for them to cross from the mainland was the Northeast tip of the Island, Lye Mun Gap, where the passage was only about 500 metres wide and the terrain was ideal. Yet apparently to the bitter end General Maltby, the Military Commander, expected an assault from the sea. Consequently, the part of the island least exposed to the mainland was the most heavily fortified and mined.
Mount Parker, which had a commanding view of the entire potential landing area, was initially sparsely manned, not even having an adequate observation post. It would have been an ideal place for prepared positions that could easily have controlled the area. Instead the ill-constructed pillboxes on the waterfront were the first line of defense. Such incompetent planning by the High Command is impossible to understand. By occupying the heights, the potential landing areas could have been cleared with heavy machine gun and light artillery fire. Then a mobile force kept in reserve could have easily cleared out any remaining invaders.
The Royal Rifles and the British Middlesex Battalion with some Rajput Indian troops and some Hong Kong Volunteer Corps were charged with the defense of the eastern part of the island. Many of the Middlesex were back in Stanley, so were not involved in the initial assault at Lye Mun. My comments on the battle will be limited to the eastern sector and are based only on personal participation. There is so much confusion in battle that any second hand descriptions are at best open to question.
It was a tragedy that the Canadian Brigadier and most of his staff were killed so early in the battle, and unfortunate that the two Canadian battalions were separated under different commands. The British Brigadier under whom the Royal Rifles were placed had some uncomplimentary remarks about the Canadians. Our opinion of him is perhaps best left unmentioned. Unfortunately much of the published material on this sector has been based on a diary he kept in the following years in captivity and could understandably be considered self-serving.
Once the mainland had been completely evacuated, the artillery bombardment intensified, as did the bombing and strafing from the air. It was later revealed that the enemy was able to place the heavy artillery in position so quickly, because before the war, Japanese business men had prepared concrete placements in their warehouses in Kowloon.
The pillboxes along the shore crumbled quickly under the heavy fire. Their poor construction was evident as the gaping holes showed little or no reinforcing iron. Graft and greed seldom save lives in such situations. Nor did their uselessly exposed positions or inept attempts at camouflage help.
There were repeated “stand-tos” and these with the ever increasing bombardments made sleeping and even eating difficult. The confusion was compounded by the many Chinese refugees milling about the area. Some of these were fifth-columnists according to later reports, although I had no personal experience with this.
On December 15th an initial foray was made by the Japanese across Lye Mun Passage, but this was repulsed with little difficulty. Following this the aerial and artillery bombardment was further intensified so that any movement in the Lye Mun area was very difficult. The sky was black with the smoke from burning oil tanks and a paint factory near the shore. On the 18th the Japanese successfully landed eight battalions under these ideal conditions.
The Indian battalion manning the shore defenses put up a gallant resistance but were no match for the numbers and incredible organization of the Japanese, who immediately headed for the hills.
Our first direct contact with the enemy was when they scrambled up the hill at Lye Mun and occupied the barracks. The British troops who had been defending the fort had been surprised and had left without being able to offer any resistance. A platoon of “C” Company launched an attack and met heavy firepower from automatic weapons.
As the day progressed, many Indian troops came running through the lines having been overwhelmed by the Japanese. They were quite demoralized and understandably only concerned with getting as far away as possible from the action.
Major Bishop, in command of “C” company, was a decorated veteran of the First World War. He was a cool cat as we would say nowadays, not easily ruffled and never showing any fear. He phoned the Brigadier, who was safely ensconced in Stanley Fort, requesting some artillery support and some back up for a counter-attack. The Brigadier admonished him for being hysterical and sent an aide around to see if the Japanese were really there. Alas it was not only too true but too late, as the Japanese were now on a well established beachhead.
At this time I was back at Tai Tam Gap, perhaps a mile or so down the road, so I was not present with “C” Company when they held up the advancing Japanese battalion, inflicting severe casualties. They managed to make an orderly withdrawal under orders from the Brigadier, bringing their wounded with them to Tai Tam Gap.
Too late, the Brigadier now ordered two platoons to the summit of Mount Parker. The Japanese had already complete control of this area and even had some light artillery on the summit itself. As I remember, we seemed to spend the day climbing hills, not knowing where we were, receiving conflicting orders and always being shot at by someone, sometimes by automatic weapons, more commonly by the odd sniper fire and occasionally light mortars.
Finally our company was ordered back to Palm Villa, a beautiful house about half way from Tai Tam to Stanley. Our platoon commander, J.E.D. Smith, somehow or other managed to scrounge an abandoned car and about a dozen of us hung on, two on the hood and one on the roof, the rest inside and on the running boards.... so we arrived in style to the envious looks of the weary chaps who had struggled all the way by foot.
While two Japanese regiments had been pushing us back, two others had made rapid advances against West Brigade. The Canadian Brigadier, Lawson, and his staff had been killed trying to fight their way out of the Brigade Headquarters. Our British Brigadier had made a fatal error in not ordering an immediate counter-attack.
We were now separated from West Brigade and had fallen back to the hills, precisely the type of terrain where the Japanese had the most expertise and the better weapons. To compound problems the Royal Artillery had lost all but three of their field pieces, not to enemy action but through mismanagement and poor communication with Brigade Head Quarters. The rest were lost when the British officer in charge of the unit was killed. The Indian officer who took over, misinterpreted the orders to fall back and left the howitzers after spiking them. Thus we were left with no artillery support for the rest of the battle.
We were to spend the days fighting our way up hills to dislodge the enemy, and then grope our way down in the darkness because they had circled around us. The support organization was poor to non-existent. No hot meals reached most of us doing the fighting, although there was every facility back in Stanley Fort where the Brigade Staff was. We heard that British troops back there were playing soccer, but perhaps that was just a malicious rumour.
When I read some of our generals’ military memoirs, I marvel at how smoothly everything went, each documenting for posterity his own faultless management and military wisdom. Was it really that way? Our brief experience was a chorus of confusion, contradictory orders and chaotic lack of organization. I have a gut feeling we were not unique.
Such dilatory attitudes were repeated ad infinitum to the disgust of us all. I never once saw any staff officer where the action was. Help was always too little and too late. Counter-attacks or retreats were ordered without any real knowledge of the terrain, the location and the strength of the enemy, or even the availability and the condition of our own troops.
I wonder if the British High Command ever left their deep underground shelter as they did not appear to know what was really going on. To the very end they had no idea of how many Japanese had landed.
Arguably, it was a lost cause from the beginning, but fewer lives would have been lost at greater cost and time to the invader had there been even mediocre leadership and organization. The initial landings would certainly have been repulsed by a battalion strength counter-attack on the beach head.
Once this had been done, the Japanese who had made it into the hills could have been dealt with. Instead, in the crucial initial hours, Major Bishop was refused reinforcements and artillery support by superiors who assumed he was overstating the situation.
The Japanese later admitted that they lost 65% of their men in this exercise against “C” Company. So the assumption that the outcome could have been far different with more support available is not unreasonable.
This is where our transport, especially Bren Gun carriers, which never got there because of bureaucratic bungling, could have played a key role.
Our Commander-in-Chief was convinced that the main attack would come from the sea, so the bulk of other troops stayed back in the south end of the island throughout most of the battle. We had no Alexander in command.
The story in Malaya and Singapore is an even worse litany of similar disasters and that of the Americans in the Philippines scarcely any better.

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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