Arriving in the foothills, the Battalion was distributed by companies around the Peak. Brigade Headquarters was set up at Wong Nei Chong near the main highway under Brigadier J. K. Lawson. I was Senior NCO under Lieut. Birkett, in charge of a platoon of thirty men. We were supposed to be a mobile force with carriers and machine guns available to re-enforce any point under close attack. Our platoon set up machine gun posts and roadblocks around Battalion Headquarters almost at the summit of the Peak. Guards were posted that night and we were all excited. War seemed certain. We got very little sleep.
Early the next morning we heard the sound of gunfire on the Mainland and the explosion of bombs on our old camp at Sham Shui Po and the flying field of the Island. Then a Jap reconnaissance plane, clearly marked with red ball, passed directly over our heads. It had come. This was war. We of the Grenadiers hoped to be in the thick of it. We did not think highly of the Jap. We had confidence in ourselves and in our Officers. Let them come. One more glorious episode of Empire was to be written with the help of Canada. Strange how many enemy planes kept coming over. Where were our planes? Although we did not know it then, well-aimed bombs had already destroyed them before they were able to leave the ground. The Japs first objective had been the airport and the destruction of the half dozen obsolete biplanes that stood there. Even had they left the ground they would have been duck soup for the Zero Pilots. Their crews latter fought valiantly with the ground troops.
As the day wore on the Japs dropped bombs on the crowded dock areas and other chosen spots both on the mainland and the Island. We could see several big fires. Now it was our turn. A Jap Zero marked with the blood red orange of Nippon dived at our roadblock. We also dived, for the ditch. The Japs machine guns rattled and the dirt flew. There were some Indian troops in a truck nearby at the time and they also jumped for the ditch. One threw himself on top of me. When the plane had passed and the commotion subsided somewhat we found that we had no casualties. I collected myself and asked the Indian soldier, who spoke fair English, “Why did you jump on me?”
He replied, “Sergeant Sahib. You white man, valuable to King Emperor. One Indian soldier no great matter if killed.”
I could not quite figure this out. Was he really concerned with the survival of one white man of such exalted rank as a Sergeant or was he making sure that my dive for the ditch would receive notice thereby excusing himself and his companions for doing likewise. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thanked him. I had the suspicion that white officers in Indian Regiments are expected to stand up and be shot in order to maintain the white mans prestige under such circumstances. Not for me. A dead Officer is no example, or at best a poor one.
Now panic was spreading from the mainland to the civilian population of the Island. All manner of people started to rush from place to place lugging the bundles containing their few possessions. Some were seeking friends and relatives in preparation for further flight. Others were seeking refuge after their flight from the mainland. Orders were given to halt this exodus at the roadblocks and along our barbed wire. This we did. Looking out over the harbor we could see that great mass of Junks, Sampans and Houseboats slowly moving out to sea. The great majority anchored around a small rock island fort a mile or so beyond the main Island of Hong Kong. They were awaiting the outcome of the battle so that when it was over, whichever side won, they could move back to their old berths along the waterfront. Most seagoing ships had left the harbor. Those, which could not get away, were already being scuttled and the straits were dotted with wrecks. Our Naval force had consisted of two destroyers and some small gunboats. One of these destroyers ran aground. The other, I believe loaded with women and children, was the last ship to leave. The docks and wharfs were aflame and their installations were being destroyed by naval ratings. The ferries, under heavy bombing and gunfire, were salvaging what stores and supplies they could from the mainland.
Originally it had been the intention of the Garrison Commander to make a final stand on the mainland and stores had been put there for this purpose. However the Japs by their swift, sudden and ferocious attack had forced back the defenders of Kowloon and the survivors were being withdrawn to the Island. That day D Company of the Grenadiers had gone over to the mainland in support of the Royal Scots and was pulled back helter-skelter that same night. Riding in trucks they dashed through the deserted streets, over roadblocks and other obstacles, shot at by Jap snipers from the darkened houses. They reached the ferry and were carried back to the Island where they took up position at Wong Nei Chong Gap. They held this position with such tenacity and skill that the Japanese Commander was astounded and would not believe that so few had held up so many for so long. He slapped the face of an Officer of D Company, thus forcibly intimating that he did not believe him and that he was hiding the true numbers of defenders.
Our own situation was maddening by the thousands of Chinese crowed in and around the battle zone. They and their properties were everywhere impeding military observation and maneuver. The Japs were delighted to fire upon this helpless mass, destroy their homes, and do all they could to panic them. Adding to the confusion they cleverly planted spies, agents, and saboteurs everywhere. Our boys couldn’t tell a Jap from a Chinaman and, dressed as Chinese civilians, many Japanese soldiers penetrated our lines. It was a poor setup. Possibly if the Garrison had been composed of thoroughly seasoned troops, under a ruthless and brilliant commander, the story might have been different. Most of our boys who met the Jap are of the opinion that the average British or American soldier is worth a half dozen of them. At Hong Kong they were adept at treachery and surprise and had the superiority in numbers.
There were many local Chinese and East Indians and Companies of these were formed and attached to the Hong Kong Volunteers. Those of us who saw the Volunteers in action, or heard accounts of their gallant stand, will always give credit to these civilians who fought alongside the regular soldiers to the last. Many preferred death to surrender and refused to lay down their arms. Perhaps their refusal to surrender was based on their knowledge of the East and of the Jap himself. They knew what to expect. Most of these Volunteers were clerks, merchants, Government officials, etc. Given arms, ammunition, parts of a uniform and little or no training, they were posted as guards in the different warehouses and buildings. Looting by the hungry populace was a constant occurrence. When the Japs swept through the business section of Hong Kong many of these guards were isolated at their posts. Most fought valiantly to the end. Those that fell into the hands of the enemy before the official surrender were murdered.
To return to my own platoon, at the roadblocks, halfway up the Peak, we had orders to prevent anyone entering the area we were patrolling, and if they refused to stop or tried to sneak through, to shot them. Many tried to pass and were turned back. A few, refusing to take our denial as final, by subterfuge and stealth, tried to penetrate our lines. They were shot. I remember seeing the body of one old Chinaman our boys had killed, my first introduction to the red fruit of war … dead men and women.
“Poor devil!” I thought, “and what has he to do with all this?”
Yet again he might have been a very cunning spy, out to get information for the enemy. We let him and others lie where they had fallen, as we had no time for burial. I asked the Chinese interpreter attached to our Headquarters, as he stood by me viewing the body, “How can we tell a Chinaman from a Jap?”
His face inscrutable he replied, “Japanese little man. Always bowing. No good.”
This did not help us very much as I was sure that no Jap would bow when getting over our wire.
In the morning we were relived by a special detail of Battalion Headquarters men consisting of cooks, clerks and bandsmen. They had been rounded up to relieve our platoon, which was a highly trained machine gun and carrier unit, for more active combat duty. Our little party, under Lieut. Birkett, marched up to the Peak and near the summit we were housed in an imposing bungalow type residence. This was a distinct improvement over the tents we had occupied down the road. The house was comfortably furnished and occupied by the owner. There were also some women staying there, among them a very pretty and charming American girl. I remember how the boys joked with her and how we talked of the nearness of Christmas. We even arranged to have a Christmas feast, each to bring what he could lay his hands on. Already I had a tin of Christmas pudding earmarked for the happy occasion and she had a bottle of wine. I wonder now, as I wondered when I saw the dead and mutilated female corpses along a seven mile road, what ever happened to her? If she reads these lines I shall be glad to know. If she cannot, God rest her soul.
We stayed in this place about a week until the 18th of December. Meanwhile the Japs had occupied Kowloon and were preparing to assault the Island. During this time we maintained guards and roadblocks. One evening our patrol met a party of the Royal Scots, dirty, dishevelled, wild-eyed and exhausted. They had just returned from the mainland where they had been heavily engaged with the enemy. They had seen horrors that they would not easily forget. With some bitterness they looked at our spic and span patrol and answered their own question, “ Where are the Canadians?”
They heard our boys in the bungalow singing, “ Home on the range” and other songs. Then they looked back at Kowloon and saw the sky red with the flames of bloody war. A Corporal with about three days growth of beard pointed at the bungalow, “ Hear ye that. Them puir daftees. They think ‘tis Christmas. Gawd help us.”
I assured him that it was not as bad as he thought and that we were well aware there was a war going on. One of the party, an Englishman I believe, sidled up to me and said, “Sergeant, if you Canadians get us out of this ere mess I’ll never say another word against a Colonial as long as I live. God ‘elp me.”
From this speech I gathered that he and his pals had said plenty in the past and in a way I did not blame him. Many of our boys were of the opinion that all available combat troops should have been on the mainland and met the first onrush of the Jap. I assured the Englishman that we would set things right and surprisingly we both believed it.
There was one thing I noticed. The appearance and attitude of our men under alarm or threatened attack seemed to inspire confidence. There is something about the Westerner that make him appear nonchalant and confident when he may be using his wits very actively to get out of a particular mess he is in.
One night there was a terrific explosion and the whole Island shook. A barge, loaded to the gunwales with ammunition, had blown up in the harbour. This is what I was told happened. The Garrison had established a powder magazine and ammunition dump on a rock island between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It had been decided, as the enemy closely threatened this place, to remove the ammunition. That night the British Navy obtained volunteers from the Hong Kong Volunteers to go out in a barge, load up all the munitions they could carry, and return to the Island before morning. All went well until the barge, heavily loaded, began its return to the Island. Without lights it was mistaken by guards on the shore as an enemy vessel and fired upon. It exploded, killing many gallant members of the British Navy and volunteers.
On the 18th of December, Lieut. Birkett assembled us all in the large drawing room. We slept on the floor of this room. Standing before an open fireplace he briefed us as to our mission that night. We were going to be used as assault troops to try to recover a radio station on another of the small rock islands that dotted the channel. This station was believed captured by the enemy, as no messages had been received that morning. Lieut. Birkett seemed nervous and high strung. He told us that the element of surprise was essential and that we would use boats. He was annoyed at the inattention of some of the men. It was evident that they did not realize the seriousness of the mission. The Officers had better information about the progress of the fighting to date then did the men and it was not encouraging to them. Lieut. Birkett finally left the room, his face white with controlled annoyance. One of the boys remarked, “What’s the matter with him?” Another replied, “He’s yellow, that’s what’s the matter.”
How little then did they know their Commander. Lieut. Birkett was far from yellow. This he proved gallantly the next day when he led these men against the Jap, and died, personally manning the last machine gun. No, he was not afraid of the enemy, he was afraid of the inexperience of his men on such a dangerous mission. A stumble, a curse, a shot, and we would be betrayed. He well knew we were not commandos and had not had that specialized training.