Len Corrigan's Story

CHAPTER FOUR - Why Were Canadians Sent to Hong Kong?

The words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, directing the British war effort in 1941, have been quoted in many accounts attempting to explain the Canadian presence in Hong Kong. In “The Alberta Report, 1987”, providing background to its story on events in Hong Kong, quotes Churchill as saying, “If Japan goes to war with us, there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there. Instead of increasing the garrison, it ought to be reduced to a symbolic scale.” Continuing on, the same article suggests that Canadian-born General A.E. Grasset who commanded the Hong Kong garrison from 1938 to 1941, was able to convince the British High Command in London that with the addition of only two more battalions, Hong Kong could be defended for up to 4 ½ months, “long enough for relief to be sent”. He had suggested that Canada had two battalions to spare. In September, 1941, the British sent a request to Ottawa suggesting that “the troops would serve only a diplomatic function and would never see combat”. The Alberta Report goes on to say that, “Their presence, the British argued, would deter Japan from going to war by showing Britain’s readiness to defend its empire.”

The Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, anxious that the story of veterans be better known, commissioned Nick Brune, a noted author and historian, to prepare “Ten Selected Lesson Plans” to be offered to high school history teachers so their students could learn the details of the Battle of Hong Kong. In the fifth lesson, entitled “The Fateful Canadian Decision” he describes the reaction to the British request.

“Canadian authorities naively accepted this reversal of British policy in good faith. Nothing in the way of independent investigation was done. No one questioned or challenged the new orthodoxy. Canada simply went along with the British request. To make a bad situation worse, Canada implemented the decision with far too much haste and too little thought. The troops chosen were ill-prepared and minimally trained. Some did not know even how to fire a gun. Their transport and other essential equipment, through bureaucratic incompetence, never arrived”.

Historians and military analysts have argued back and forth on decisions made in the heat of wartime and the political pressures brought to bear. Regardless of the opinions of academics and politicians – and regardless of the Royal Commission investigating the collapse of Hong Kong, in which no one apparently was to blame – volunteer soldiers and their families could hardly be blamed for thinking their government had abandoned them, not only after the defeat of Hong Kong but on their return to Canada. Hong Kong veterans had to fight every inch of the way for medical assistance, benefits and proper pensions. As if four years of internment was not enough!

Newspaper headlines in Canada brought the shocking news to Canada. The Regina “Leader-Post” led off with a heavy black topline – “HONG KONG OVERCOME – GLORIOUS CANADIAN CHAPTER”.“The defence of Hong Kong has broken under relentless assault by land, sea and air and the crown colony which for a century has been a British bastion off the southeast coast of China has fallen to the Japanese”.

Regina Leader Post Article and Leonard in Hong Kong. Click for larger view.

“So ends a great fight against overwhelming odds,” the colonial officer declared Thursday night, announcing the surrender. No further resistance was possible. Without estimating the figures, the foreign office said “military and civilian casualties were heavy…”

The announcement said lack of water was one of the great handicaps of the British Tommies, the Canadians and the Indians, Sikhs who fought step by step across the mainland section of the colony and then held out desperately and with little hope in the fortified mountain fastnesses of the island.

“A somber but glorious page in the record of the Canadian Army,” was the description of the defence offered by Defence Minister Ralston in Ottawa.” The date December 26, 1941.

The list of men from Saskatchewan in Hong Kong included Lieutenant Alexander Black, Lieutenant Thomas Blackwood, Lieutenant Leonard Corrigan, Lieutenant Blake Harper and Lieutenant Richard Maze.

The next newspaper clipping, dated May 13, 1942, gives a list of Canadians “unofficially reported prisoners of war” by the national defence department. Leonard Corrigan’s name appears, along with Black, Blackwood, Harper and Maze.

An article printed in “TIME” magazine, July 1964, calls the war in Hong Kong “The sorriest episode for Canada in World War Two” “Of the 1,975 Canadians, 290 were dead.” Taken prisoner, another 267 died of malnutrition and diphtheria over the 44 months they were captive,” the article continues, “and most of the 1,400 who returned were sick.”

The period from December 26, 1941 until the unconfirmed report in May, 1942, left the families in Canada with no information on the prisoners of war – or the state of their health. The last word from Leonard to Gladys was a cable, dated November 23, 1941, to say, “All well and safe all my love my thoughts are with you”. From then on, no letters from Leonard are received and all her letters to him have been returned. It is the start of long and anxious days for the next nearly four years.

Six Of Gladys' letters - all returned. Click for larger view.

Returning to the words of Leonard Corrigan in his diary……

Christmas Day 1941, was to be, for us, the beginning of a new mode of living. After being quartered, successively, in McAustin Barracks, university buildings, and Victoria Barracks, we were finally shuttled over to our former quarters at Sham Shui Po. What a change awaited us there after absence of a month. Chinese looters had systematically stripped the camp of every possible article that might prove of use or value, even to sills and frames of windows. On arriving there, we were again surprised at the numbers of prisoners the camp contained. Middlesex, Royal Scots, Navy, Air Force, Punjabs, Rajputs and ourselves represented a total of over five thousand, more troops than we had known were in the colony, to say nothing of the “Rifles” at North Point and all the personnel in hospitals.

Our first problem in the new home was that of feeding a crowd of that size. The stripping of the camp meant that we found ourselves with no utensils, stoves, fuel, beds, or even coverings for the doors and windows of the huts. The question of stoves and cooking utensils however, was our first consideration. The old saying about “necessity” and “invention” certainly held good here and it was amazing the way things were improvised in the next few days. Stoves were improvised from holes in the ground and cookers made from empty gas drums – no mean task as there wasn’t as much as a hammer in camp. Personal eating kits ran from ordinary tin cans to light reflectors. Everyone in camp at once became a scrounger and in a short time we were actually fairly comfortable.

One big difficulty with which we were faced was the abrupt change in diet occasioned by the new circumstances. For one used to European fare to quite suddenly switch to a diet of plain rice is simply “moider”. Due to the shortage of fuel, which allowed for only two meals a day, plus the fact that plain rice can be terribly unpalatable, we found ourselves forever feeling the pangs of hunger. Some of the officers were fortunate enough to have been able to retain some money, so a mess was formed and a pool made of all funds, to enable us to buy from natives “over the fence”, at most exorbitant prices, some of the supplies of tinned goods, sugar and so on, they had stolen from our stores during the war. With these additional luxuries we were able to add a little taste to the rice and managed fairly well, although no one got too fat.

While on the subject of the camp, I’d like to digress a bit and put in a few words about morale, etc. in order that a few of the difficulties to be surmounted in a case of this kind may be appreciated. To begin with, I’ve already dealt elsewhere with the morale of the men at time of surrender. Unfortunately, a large number of our men were never quite able to lift themselves from the levels to which they had descended. The surrender left us with a gang of looting, thieving animals, slaves to their own desires, and to whom nothing was sacred. Houses and buildings in which we had been quartered by the Japs were looted of food, liquor and fags and every conceivable article of value. Tinned goods and fags, which at that time had been in abundance, were absolutely wasted. The whole thing was utterly disgusting! With this in mind, one can appreciate how much of a problem disciplining would be in a camp lacking any comforts and being as short on rations and fags as we were.

Fortunately, in most cases, the men settled down considerably, but, in the matter of food, the general behaviour was still that of animals. Let one man receive one spoonful more rice than the next and we had a near riot on our hands. Men fought (yes, fought) to clean up the large drums used for rice, after the contents had been distributed, Unfortunately, this condition of affairs was not confined wholly to the men for we found it, in a little more polished form, amongst the officers as well. I could enumerate a number of “incidents” witnessed by Maze, Harper, McCarthy and myself (we were “newcomers” so we formed our own little clique) which set us wondering what cruel prank of fate had made us choose this regiment to transfer to. Just to mention one incident is enough to give an idea of the character of our seniors in general. I mention only one minor, there were numerous major instances which prudence prevents putting to paper. As previously mentioned, a mess was formed and a proper meeting duly held, presided over by the Colonel and it was suggested by that worthy that – inasmuch as we were all in the same boat (etc. etc.) things should be pooled so that all could share equally. This, everyone agreed, was an admirable idea and those of us that had money (by co-incidence Juniors possessed a vast majority of the funds) – immediately turned it into the general fund. Since our stay might prove a lengthy one, our buying, collectively done, would tend to stretch farther than individually, therefore a buying committee was formed and our co-operative began to function. Imagine our anger then and disgust to find, next morning, that the senior officers who shared a room, had purchased a bottle of Scotch and partaken of a lunch the night previous. The question was brought up at a meeting later in the day and due apologies made, but unfortunately, as we were to learn later, that type of thing was typical of the men chosen to lead and be an example to us. Small wonder the men had expressed themselves, on the boat, as having no faith in “Constituted authority” in their regiment.

Well – having relieved myself of that bit of unpleasantness, I’ll coast along. Life at Sham Shui Po settled down to something of a routine, although the curtailed diet limited parades to two very short ones. Our captors had, from the start, treated us with remarkable good humor and courtesy. Since most of them were small men, the disparity of size with most of us was a constant source of amusement. Two or three of the guards proved particularly friendly and a couple to who I demonstrated the mysteries of driving a car, repaid me a thousandfold in fags, chocolate and the purchasing of supplies for our syndicate. For the first week or so – although it was supposedly prohibited – supplies flooded across the fence quite freely, but toward the end of our stay, these were quite suddenly discouraged by the shooting and torturing of quite a number of the would-be “merchants”.

The first portion of our internment was, in several respects most unique from the point of view of our being prisoners and several rather amusing (to us) circumstances arose. In the first place, there existed in the surrounding fences large gaps, from ten to fifteen feet wide, to which our guards paid scant attention. In the dealings through the fence, naturally, there existed on both sides, a certain amount of roguery that included substitution of sand for other goods, grabbing at money or parcels and running and other little tricks of the trade. An amusing sight, not at all unusual, was that of seeing “hawkers” being pursued, via the gaps in the fence, two or three hundred yards outside of the camp area, across a field used as a garden, by the irate prisoner who had been victimized. Another obstacle in bargaining was the difficulty presented in the language. As an aid in overcoming this shortcoming, the Jap sentries occasionally lent their limited vocabularies to our task and it was not unusual to see a sentry give his rifle to a prisoner, so that he might better talk with the aid of his hands. On numerous occasions when our lads considered themselves over-charged and appealed to the sentries, things were righted in short order. In fact, occasionally hawkers that sought to take advantage, had their wares taken, in exchange for a cuff or a kick, and same were distributed to the boys, gratis. Unfortunately, successive changes of guards found this spirit diminishing and things becoming gradually harder until, at the time of our leaving Sham Shui Po, things had settled down pretty well as they should in a prison camp.

Being a prisoner, in itself, presents a problem which, at best, is not at all easy for the individual to reconcile himself to. In our case we had additional worry in food and smokes. Our only release from the depression accompanying our plight was the eternal hope that something was, even now, happening which would affect our early release. As a result of this, rumours and so-called “authentic news” always found a sympathetic ear and some of the gems concocted were colossal. For example, I quote one “series of events, straight BBC News, as reported to us”. “Libyan campaign had folded with Rommell’s surrender; Italy Quits Axis, Sues For Peace; Turkey Enters War, Re-Occupies Greece; French Fleet Turned Over to Britain; Russia Reports Tremendous Advantages, Fighting on Polish Soil; German Army In South Europe Lays Down Arms; Russians Fighting In Danzig; British Land Expeditionary Forces In Norway, France and Denmark; Germany Seeks Peace But Stalin Says ‘No’!; Russians 120 Miles from Berlin.” In the East we have, quote “Yanks Bomb Tokyo from Vladivostock for Nine Hours; Premier Tojo Commits Hari Kari, Japs Sue for Separate Peace with U.S.; Hong Kong Blockaded by U.S. Subs (A Fleet of Some 20 Freighters Lay in Harbour For a Week to Form a Convoy); Two Parties of Marines, One Yank, One British, Make Landings in Japan; Jap Fleet Bottled by British, U.S. and Dutch Fleets Around Japan; Yanks Land Troops in Formosa; Chinese Army Advancing on Hong Kong.” These reports came in as BBC News (from a radio alleged to be in camp) and were apparently verified by contacts over the fence. The pattern and continuity seemed so logical that, though admittedly it was too good to be true, a lot was taken as authentic, even to the extent of the General allotting regiments to different areas for police duty when things did break. It was something of a shock then to have a doctor visit us from a hospital that possessed a radio, and inform us our news was absolutely false – it was fun though.

Another gesture, while I think of it, on the part of our captors, was to put on a concert by their Imperial Army Band. We had heard, from a distance, their band work during their “Victory March” and were not at the time particularly impressed with their musical ability. The concert we heard, however, dispelled any doubts as to their ability and was very well received. The band numbered some twenty-five and several of their players were quite outstanding, and since we were familiar with most of the selections, we thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. They, having heard some of our chaps had salvaged instruments and formed a band, requested them to play – so we were favoured with a double concert. The hand the band was given on leaving was quite spontaneous and generous, and they seemed to enjoy it immensely.

 On the evening of January 23rd, we received orders to be ready to leave the following morning for North Point, on the island. This piece of news we received with some joy as we heard all Canucks were to be together in one camp, which meant also that we’d be parting with the Limeys with whom we just didn’t get along. We also hope for an improvement from a health standpoint. The barracks at Sham Shui Po are situated on a low lying piece of filled-in land and we were very worried about the Cholera prospect in the expected warm weather. Low tide exposed two or three bodies that lay in the mud a few feet from the enclosure and, since they were there the whole of our stay, it looked as though decomposition would be the only removal agent.

We formed up, on the morning of the 24th, everyone burdened with their worldly possessions, for the march to the ferry. While on the subject of possession, I may say that, in the matter of kit, I fared very well, thanks to the generosity of some of our men. The surrender found me in active position with no chance to replenish kit, so I had only those clothes in which I stood. My wardrobe now, thanks to charity, consists of the battle dress I was wearing, a couple of shirts, pair of shorts, socks, boots and even two blankets. The march to the ferry was made without benefit of rest, so that, by the time we reached there, we were quite glad of the rest provided by the ferry ride. North Point, being situated on the harbour and three miles from the centre of town, provided that our ride was a lengthy one and we had ample time to see the war damage in the harbour and on the water front. Aside from damage to storage tanks, docks, etc., there were approximately thirty freighters of various sizes, sunk in all parts of the harbour area.

We landed at a point approximately a mile from camp and again took up our burdens and marched. First sight of camp filled us with a certain amount of foreboding, since the buildings were of wood and the camp itself not very large. Prior to Britain’s entry into the war, the camp had been used to intern Chinese soldiers who had fled the Japs and the wooden huts immediately brought the insect problem to our minds. Groups of the Royal Rifles thronged the wire, and when finally inside, considerable time was spent renewing acquaintances. We were given supper by the Rifles and it was a revelation. We actually received biscuits, butter and bully with the rice and at once began to think exceedingly well of our new home.

Conditions, particularly in relation to food, were much improved over Sham Shui Po. Rations consisted of such European necessities as flour, the occasional lot of bully, and some syrup. Luxuries such as this were a god-send and immediately everyone’s spirits took a definite up-swing. We were still faced with the fag situation and, though we were given one issue of nine per man, things became so acute that cigarettes became a medium of exchange. Clothes, bedding, shoes, in fact anything of value could be had for so many cigarettes. The cigarette shortage brought an additional problem in connection with our health, as butts were being picked up all over the grounds and our dysentery rate began to climb rapidly.

Mention should be made, I think, of the flour and bread problem. Flour had been coming in at rather irregular intervals but now they decided to cut our rice issue by half and increase that of flour. In order to make out the meal, bread had to be cooked, so ovens – after the old Quebec oven style – were constructed. This enabled us to enjoy two meals with rice and a noon meal of two slices of bread with tea, with a further slice of bread for the evening meal. When one considers that tools and equipment were lacking and that yeast had to be made, it seems almost miraculous that we should feast on such luxury as bread. It seems a pity that, if and when we do obtain our freedom, we will, in all probability, lose our evaluation of the simple necessities which we have discovered in our present circumstances, and exchange it for the false evaluation we put on some of our luxuries. It’s rather difficult for one not in our position to understand our viewpoints in the matter of food – or for that matter – of smokes. In our present predicament we find ourselves forever craving something either to eat or to smoke, neither of which we are able to satisfy. Unfortunately, the result of these cravings, coupled with the amount of time we have on our hands, is that food becomes the main topic of conversation – the amount of appreciation we’ll have for it and the quantities – when we arrive home. I imagine that long before we do reach home, we will have forgotten the lessons we’re now learning the hard way.

Paddy, who was seven when Leonard joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers and left Canada for Hong Kong, was settling in at her new school, St. Mary’s Academy. She remembers being astounded at the size of the Music area of the school. There were huge wide wooden folding doors that opened on a large room with hardwood floors. There was a wall on the left with floor to ceiling cupboards with slots where every student’s music was kept for her to pick up as she came in. Straight ahead was a huge grand piano in front of a picture window. To the right was a long, wide hallway with at least 12 semi-soundproofed practice studios on each side, where students would work and teachers would give lessons. At the end of the hall was another grand piano. The nuns were very strict. “I can recall being rapped on the knuckles with a stick about the size and shape of a knitting needle without the knob on the end of it, when my hands weren’t correctly on the keys,” Paddy said. “I have the recollection of coming back after my first stint at the school to find that my spot for keeping my music still had my name on it – even though I hadn’t been there for some time. In later visits there are two moments that stand out,” she continued. “The piano students had to perform for parents and friends in a large concert hall in the building – St. Mary’s Academy was huge. Mine wasn’t an overly fantastic performance.

Another time in regular studies, I had to recite a speech written by Leonard Brockington – as if I were the man himself. Each member of the class had to choose a politician to read and the speech had to be memorized. This speech was performed in our classroom as I recall. It must have been much later, I was probably in Grade Seven by then.

I don’t recall there being much discussion of the war at home. I’m sure Mom made a point of trying to protect us from the truth of the matter for as long as she could. I think I can recall everyone’s relief at learning, about a year or so after Hong Kong fell, that Dad was known to be alive. When I was in Winnipeg more was said because Grandma and her friends were always knitting socks and working at the Red Cross, where they packed boxes to be sent overseas. I spent some time packing boxes when I was 9 or 10 years old.”