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Canada in The Defence of

                Hong Kong 

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During the initial years of the Second World War, the majority of Canada’s military war effort was placed in the United Kingdom and in transporting convoys via the Atlantic Ocean. However, although many are not aware, Canadians fought valiantly and made significant contributions elsewhere in the world. In Asia, the Japanese were fighting in China with increasing vigour and a demand for resources such as oil, rubber, and precious metals. There was an urgent need for a defence military force to deter or delay Japan from attacking and to reinforce the British colony, Hong Kong with fresh troops and supplies. In 1941, Canada was yet to have a landing force engaged in battle because Prime Minister William MacKenzie King was cautious about sending forces overseas. He did not wish to enforce conscription on Canadians because he feared it would reignite the past conflicts between Canadian anglophones and francophones in uncertain and demanding times. 

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(Prime Minister William MacKenzie King)

The Mackenzie government agreed to the request that Canada reinforce the remaining allied units already stationed in Hong Kong. The Winnipeg Grenadiers and The Royal Rifles of Canada were selected to represent Canada in the defence. Both battalions gained experience during their garrison duty prior to deployment; however, still lacked the necessary skills for engaging in intense combat. They were not trained in modern warfare and had never participated in battalion-level exercises. In October 1941, the Canadians were transported from Vancouver to Hong Kong with brief supply stops to the Philippines. On board the Awatea and arriving in Hong Kong on November 16, 1941, the Canadians joined the 14 000 strong defence made up of soldiers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Great Britain, and India.  

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(Winnipeg Grenadiers Garrison Duty 1941)

The Battle

The morning after the infamous Pearl Harbour attack, the Japanese army, which was made up of experienced, well trained soldiers attacked Hong Kong unexpectedly in large numbers. The Pacific war was now a reality, and the Canadians were fighting at the front of it. Japanese warplanes heavily bombed the airport and military installations to stop the circulation of supplies and hope of an air defence. On December 11, 1941, the Japanese ground force demonstrated an unexpected skill at night fighting and overran the mainland portion of Hong Kong. The defenders overrun were a group of Winnipeg Grenadiers who became the first Canadian Army unit to engage in combat during the Second World War. The remaining allied soldiers were forced to retreat to Hong Kong Island because the Japanese force was overwhelming, and they were severely outnumbered in men, water, and supplies. 

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(Map of Battle of Hong Kong 1941)

After five days of engaged combat, Kowloon and the mainland portion of the colony fell to the Japanese. The allied defending forces rejected Japanese demands for surrender and hoped that their remaining, inexperienced soldiers could survive the impending Japanese attacks on the island. For the following two weeks, without hope for receiving additional allied aid from outside of the island, each remaining troop fought to defend the civilian population. Suffering a shortage of water, lack of ammunition, heavy Japanese bombing, inadequate transportation, and exhaustion, on Christmas day, the allied forces surrendered. The Battle of Hong Kong was lost. Of the 1,975 Canadians sent to defend Hong Kong, 493 were wounded during the battle or following their surrender and 290 were killed.  

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(Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper December 1941)

Prisoners of War

Following the surrender of Hong Kong, although some Japanese units refrained from comitting violent acts towards Chinese civilians and allied POW, many units bayoneted wounded soldiers, severely wounded prisoners, and raped and killed nurses. Although the Battle of Hong Kong was lost, for the surviving defenders, the fight was far from over. After their surrender, surviving Canadian soldiers were either taken a prisoner of war or killed outright. Many were killed when they surrendered because the Japanese believed that to sacrifice one’s life for the emperor (country) was the ultimate honour and duty of a soldier. If Japanese soldiers surrendered or abandoned their post to avoid death, they were considered cowardly and would be punished severely.  

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(Yokohama War Cemetery)

Due to their surrender, the Canadians were considered weak, cowardly, dishonourable, and not deserving of respect. In result of this, in the Japanese POW camps, Canadian prisoners lived in unsafe conditions with inadequate food and medical treatments. They were often beaten, starved, and forced to undertake hard slave labour in shipyards, mines, and factories. Hundreds of Canadian POW died of illnesses related to vitamin deficiency diseases and starvation during their internment.  

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(Liberated Canadian POW 1945)

Repatriation

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In 1945, after four years of being held prisoners of war and living in extremely poor conditions, the atomic bombings forced Japan to surrender and the war in the Pacific to end. Soon after, the American Military liberated each POW camp and provided medical aid and food to the surviving prisoners. Of the 1,682 Canadians taken prisoner of war, 264 died due to the extremely poor conditions of the camps. In 1945, 1,418 survivors returned to Canada with a bitter feeling of anger towards their Japanese captors and the Canadian government who sent them blindly to Hong Kong .  

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('C' Force Veterans)

It was believed that Canada’s government should have trained and properly equipped the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles before sending them to defend Hong Kong. In addition, many believe that the Canadian government should have foreseen the events that occurred because Hong Kong was clearly undersupplied and lacked proper equipment to protect the Canadians against the highly experienced and battle-hardened Japanese soldiers. 

Reflection

It is important Canadians are educated about the Defence of Hong Kong and the brave, young Canadian men who made many sacrifices in order for us to live as we do today. Reading this story, Canadians should feel a sense of pride for their Second World War Veterans and continue to treat their memories with respect and utmost gratitude. 

 

It is important to keep educating the young generations of Canadians about these significant moments in Canadian History so that the large sacrifices Canadian World War II Veterans made continue to be recognized. For my project I did not only want to create a map, but show the significance behind the battle and why we as Canadians should feel a sense of pride for these brave men who suffered greatly. 

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