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Unsung Heroes

(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Sun, Sunday, March 23, 1997)







PHOTO: Statue honours John Osborn VC of the winnipeg Grenadiers. (Matthew Fisher, Toronto SUN)


This mountain top offers one of the most dramatic views in the world. To the north, girdling Victoria Harbor is the greatest concentration of skyscrapers, in the Orient. To the south, nestled beyond a few more skyscrapers and several hills, is Repulse Bay. It was 55 years ago near this remote peak that Sgt.-Maj. John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers threw himself on top of a Japanese hand-grenade in a futile attempt to save the lives of wounded comrades. More than 500 other Canadian soldiers died in Hong Kong. Some were killed on neighboring Mount Butler. Many lost their lives in ferocious, hand-to-hand combat just below Jardine's Lookout at Wong Nei Chong Gap. About 20 soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada were summarily executed by firing squad and bayonet on a cliff at Repulse Bay. Several hundred other Canadians perished later, having endured the living hell of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

Though few of the Chinese honeymooners and western tourists who come to have their photographs taken near the waterfront at Hong Kong Park seem to know, much less care, there is a statue there honoring John Osborn, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism.


As in Singapore, which was then part of British Malaya, the Japanese didn't attack Hong Kong by sea. Riding and carrying bicycles, they launched a three-pronged attack through the back door, in this case, China, at 0800 hours on Dec. 8, 1941, while Japanese bombers went after fixed military targets in Kowloon and Hong Kong, including a barracks the Canadians had moved out of only hours before. Easily overcoming 600 allied soldiers stretched out for 17 km along Gin Drinker's Line in the hills bordering China, the Japanese 38th Division, which had been camped 30 km away for several months, swarmed down into Kowloon and crossed Victoria Harbor by sampan to Hong Kong Island to take on the bulk of the colony's 10,000 defenders. I got the history by joining one of the last British military parties to visit the colony's battlefields before the handover to China on July 1. When that happens the People's Liberation Army will take over and presumably rename the British army's Osborn Barracks, which celebrates Canada's only VC winner from the war in the Pacific. No one knows if the Chinese will allow similar battlefield tours to take place in the future. Most of the day-long tour involved climbing steep hills covered in thick, semi-tropical vegetation. It was not hard to see how both sides repeatedly got lost in the wretched, malaria-ridden highlands where most of the battle for Hong Kong took place. It must have been an awful place to fight. The touring party may have been British, but much of the conversation was about the bravery of the Canadians who killed more than 800 Japanese in one of the battles. Osborn's Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Quebec-based Royal Rifles of Canada were the first Canadian units to see action in World War II. Though badly outmanned and outgunned, they and their British and Indian allies fought gallantly for 17 days and 12 hours before surrendering on Christmas Day. That 1,975 Canadian soldiers from Manitoba, northern Ontario and Quebec ended up 15,000 km away fighting for the British Empire alongside the Middlesex Regiment, the Royal Scots, the Rajputs and the Punjabis is one of the saddest stories of the war. The Royal Air Force had five ancient aircraft - none of which could fly more than 160 km/h or at night. The Royal Navy fleet in the South China Sea consisted of one destroyer, four patrol boats and eight torpedo boats. There were also two British and two Indian regiments on the ground. So it was obvious that if Japan declared war it could easily seize Hong Kong, whose defences had been run down because troops, fighting ships and warplanes were so badly needed in Europe. But Winston Churchill asked Canada to send two battalions to Hong Kong, anyway, to underline British support for Chiang Kai-Shek's forces. Keen to finally get Canadian troops on the front lines, Mackenzie King agreed. With Canada's top fighting units already in Britain or committed to the war in Europe, the Grenadiers and Rifles were ordered to Hong Kong. The fiasco began even before they boarded troop trains to cross the prairies and the Rockies in the fall of 1941.


Because regiments had been holding units, more than anything else, and were well under fighting strength, several hundred soldiers had to be rounded up at training bases in Canada and attached to them. That many of the Canadians had not even finished their basic training was deemed to be unimportant. The idea was that they would have time to get up to muster in Hong Kong. As it turned out, the Canadians arrived at Hong Kong only three weeks before the battle-hardened Japanese veterans of China and Manchuria did. The newcomers had received only 20 or their 212 vehicles from Vancouver by the time the enemy attacked. Their uniforms were of World War I vintage. So were their guns. In these circumstances, the Canadians who fought for King and Empire at Jardine's Lookout and elsewhere in Hong Kong didn't stand a chance. The British tour of the battlefields ended at a graveyard not far from where the Canadians fought and died. Twenty of the headstones at Stanley Military Cemetery are adorned with maple leafs. They commemorate Canadians whose young lives ended abruptly on Christmas Day, 1941. Like Commonwealth military cemeteries I have visited in Europe and Asia, the Stanley graveyard is beautiful and immaculately maintained. But for all that, it is an eerie, profoundly disquieting place. Birds sing, old warriors pay their respects and the rest of the world races by outside the gates.