by Brad St Croix

Chapter 2 — To Be Held as Long as Possible: Defence Planning for Hong Kong 1841-1941

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

Hong Kong’s defensibility in 1941 is one of the most misunderstood elements in the Canadian literature about the battle. Myth makes assumed that because Hong Kong was deemed indefensible before late 1941, “C” Force should never have been sent to that beleaguered colonial outpost. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill assessment, made in January 1941, is often used to make this case: “This is all wrong. 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.”1 Indeed, as journalist Kevin Lui used Churchill’s comments in 2017 to conclude that “over 2,000 people from Allied nations died trying to protect an outpost that, according to Winston Churchill in January that year, had ‘not the slightest chance’ of being retained if war with Japan broke out. Seen in this light, the Canadians, and other defenders, were doomed from the start and Churchill’s motives have been scrutinized ever since.”2 But British perceptions of the defence of Hong Kong were far more fluid than is often presented, with opinions changing until September 1941. One of the more important myth makers, Carl Vincent, falsely claimed that “never mentioned was that at all times the British Chief of Staff had viewed Hong Kong incapable of a prolonged defence or of being relieved.”3 As I aver in this chapter, someone, whether in Hong Kong or in Britain, always wanted to defend the colony no matter the circumstances. The thoughts of those residing in the colony about Hong Kong’s defence is little studied in previous works on the battle. The zombie myth about a lack of fluidity in the thinking of Hong Kong’s defence until the 19 September 1941 request for Canadian troops cannot stand.

Hong Kong Historian Tony Banham has claimed that the Battle of Hong Kong is “a far longer and vastly more complex story than that bracketed by the years 1941–1945.” 4 That insight helps to frame this chapter as two themes emerge when studying the long history of Hong Kong’s defence. The first theme was the failure of policymakers to heed recommendations made by those in the colony. The second theme concerns the need to maintain British imperial prestige by possessing Hong Kong. The fear of lost prestige should Hong Kong fall often seemed stronger than the actual benefits to be derived from defending the colony. As such, many wanted to defend Hong Kong, for a variety of reasons, until the Japanese attack in December 1941. Also in this chapter, I will demonstrate that the connections between members of the British and Canadian armies discussed in Chapter 1 influenced defence planning for Hong Kong.

The Establishment of the British Colony at Hong Kong and Its Early Defence

Britain’s colony at Hong Kong began thanks to the opium poppy. A growing demand for Chinese tea in Britain produced a silver deficit in favour of the Chinese who lacked interest in purchasing British goods. The drug’s negative effects led to it being banned by the Qing government in the early nineteenth century. In 1839, when Chinese officials demanded that British merchants hand over their illegal opium stock, the British initiated the First Opium War which produced a decisive British victory and the Qing ceding control of Hong Kong Island in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the first of the unequal treaties that began China’s “century of humiliation.” 5 Further disputes about opium’s legalization plus a British and French desire to renegotiate the initial treaties incited a second conflict. British forces occupied the Kowloon Peninsula in March 1860 in retaliation for the breakdown of treaty negotiations. After the Second Opium War ended, China transferred Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island to British control in January 1861.6 By the 1870s, two committees were convened to study the colony’s defence. The Milne Committee of 1878 concluded that Britain would lose face in China and India if Hong Kong were lost. A year later, the Carnarvon Committee was commissioned to broadly examine imperial defence. Both the War Office and the Local Defence Committee wanted to install more coastal batteries to protect against naval attack and to build more infantry positions. These coastal guns worked as a deterrence against a major naval attack on the south side of the island until December 1941.7 While Colonel William Crossman’s plan had similar provisions, he wished to protect the communication line between the two batteries on the mainland with artillery pieces. As Hong Kong historians Kwong Chi Man and Tsoi Yiu Lun have observed, this was arguably the first attempt to form a defensive position across Kowloon Peninsula to repel a landward attack. Many of the recommendations from either the Milne or Carnarvon Committees were not enacted given budgetary restrictions and the lack of a serious land threat to Hong Kong.8

The struggle to maintain the colony’s sea and land defences defined the efforts of the 1880s and 1890s. In a 25 November 1889 response to a report by the Local Hong Kong Committee, the Colonial Defence Committee contended that Hong Kong’s strategic importance “arises from the fact that it is the only naval base from which British commerce and interests in the China Seas can be guarded, or from which hostile operations against Russia, France, China, and Japan can be carried on.”9 Concerned by growing French and Russian fleets in the Far East, the Local Committee argued that defeating a naval attack on Hong Kong would be exceedingly difficult. The possibility that a force might land on Hong Kong Island was discounted for the Island was thought to be susceptible to attack only from the southern approach, not from the mainland. 10 Lack of concern about a land attack proved short-lived. On 28 August 1890, the Colonial Defence Committee raised concerns that there was no plan to defend against a land attack and the present garrison was weak.11

Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War in April 1895 forced the Colonial Defence Committee to note that July that “the Japanese Empire will now have to be included in the list of possible hostile Powers affecting the strategical conditions of Hong Kong.” Aware of the limitations of the land force, the Committee recommended that the garrison not oppose a landing on the Island. Instead, most troops should be concentrated on the high ground under the General Officer Commanding (GOC), with the gaps between hills to be protected by machine guns and artillery. Despite the lack of manpower, some officers argued that the colony would be better protected by controlling the land north of the Kowloon Peninsula.12 Britain acquired the New Territories on the Chinese mainland in 1898 to better protect Hong Kong Island and its vital harbour. After France gained concessions in China in 1896 and 1898, the British government ordered Hong Kong officials to acquire Kowloon. As some parts of this territory overlooked the harbour, Britain needed control to secure Hong Kong Island’s defence. In June 1898, the British gained a ninety–nine-year lease over the New Territories, with control formally transferred in April 1899.13 The transfer was met with violence from the inhabitants of the newly-acquired area during the Six-Day War of 14–19 April 1899. As the date of the transfer approached, tensions grew between the British authorities and inhabitants who, fearing that their land rights would be set aside, opposed the handover. As the locals were no match for regular British soldiers, 500 villagers were killed; just two British soldiers were wounded.14 The local population suffered due to imperial defence concerns, and unfortunately, this was not to be the last time.

Hong Kong’s Defence in the Early Twentieth Century

Entering the twentieth century, Hong Kong was one of the most important British naval bases in the Far East. This status, however, did not endure as alliances, wars, and internal political changes rendered Hong Kong to be just another imperial outpost. Britain signed a treaty of alliance with Japan in 1902, allowing the Royal Navy to concentrate on defending the North Sea against a growing German naval threat. With Japan’s May 1905 destruction of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, Russia’s threat to British possessions in the Far East was removed. 15 However, major concerns still revolved around the threat posed by the German and French navies.

A reliance on static, land-based artillery quickly became the main method to protect Hong Kong. The Admiralty and the War Office conducted several exercises to test the colony’s defences. Reporting on the 1906 combined navy and army exercise, while Royal Navy Commodore H.P. Williams characterized the exercise as satisfactory, he also wrote that “the cohesion between the naval and military forces should be much closer, than at present, each department should know what the other is doing.”16 In 1908, Vice Admiral Hedworth Lambton, Commander-in-Chief of the China Station, undertook a “disagreeable duty to prove that these Defences are entirely futile and insufficient, and that their conception shows a complete inappreciation of what modern war will really mean.” Concerned about an attack by modern “big-gun” battleships against his weak cruiser force and 9.2-inch shore-based guns, Lambton wanted to put more guns at each harbour entrance to keep these vessels at bay. As Lambton wrote, “what I have written cannot, I fear, be entirely pleasant to the Authorities responsible for the present defences, but the truth, however unpalatable, should always be welcome,” which was a sentiment that rang true many times afterwards. 17 Lambton’s costly ideas were not adopted.

Hong Kong and the First World War

Hong Kong faced little threat from the Central Powers during the First World War. As Japan was an ally of Britain, there was no major threat to Hong Kong. Yet two events indirectly threatened Hong Kong once Japan sided with the Entente on 23 August 1914. First, Germany’s Tsingtao concession on China’s Shandong Peninsula fell to Japan in November 1914.18 But while the terms of the German concession specified that the land would revert to China if German control was lost, Japan refused to adhere to these conditions. Japanese troops were eventually forced from the former German concession in 1922.19 The second event was the Twenty–One Demands Japan sent to China on 8 January 1915. Historian H.P. Willmott has organized the demands into five main categories:

They [the Japanese] sought a Chinese acceptance of Japan’s conquests of German concessions in China; the granting of further concessions in Manchuria; a Chinese guarantee that no other power would secure any territorial concession in China; the granting to Japan of special rights on certain mining and metallurgical works in the Yangtse valley; and far-reaching concessions in specific railway development programs coupled with Chinese employment of Japanese officials in key financial, military, and police posts.

However, China and Japan agreed upon a toned-down version of the Twenty–One Demands after the Allies applied pressure upon Japan, thus damaging relations between Japan and the Western powers.20

Anglo-Japanese Relations in the 1920s

The breakup of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1921-1922 produced numerous reverberations for British imperial policy, notably the construction of the Singapore base whose existence relegated Hong Kong to secondary importance in the Far East. At the 1921 Imperial Conference, the dominions and Britain decided to end the alliance with Japan to demonstrate goodwill toward the United States. This decision was not unanimously made. New Zealand and Australia wanted to renew the alliance to limit Japanese aggression in the Pacific, while Canada wanted to terminate the pact to better its relationship with United States.21 Ultimately, the attendees chose to seek an agreement with the United States and Japan. If this initiative failed, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance would be renewed.22

The agreements made at the 1921–1922 Washington Conference replaced the AngloJapanese Alliance. Those deals reduced the sizes of the British, American, and Japanese navies, while the British and American navies maintained a forty percent tonnage superiority over the Japanese navy.23 The agreements also limited the building of new naval fortifications at existing facilities. As a result, no new defensive positions could be built at Hong Kong between 1922 and 1936, a restriction that did not apply to the new Singapore base.24

Hong Kong’s position in Britain’s defence strategy had drastically changed thanks to the Washington Conference. Hong Kong was no longer a suitable option for a large naval station in the interwar period, as harbour facilities were not deep enough to handle ships larger than destroyers. Also, there was no room to store the large oil reserves that modern ships needed to operate. As Royal Navy’s capital ships remained its main offensive weapons, a new naval station was needed in the Far East. Singapore was chosen as the site. This change led British military planners to adopt what would become known as “The Singapore Strategy.” This change partly determined Hong Kong’s fate in 1941. However, Hong Kong’s role in Britain’s defence strategy was not completely diminished by the building of the Singapore base. As historian Christopher Bell has written:

The Admiralty intended the naval base being built at Singapore to provide essential docking and repair facilities for a British fleet operating in eastern waters. However, given its distance from Japan, Singapore was considered unsuitable as a base for offensive operations. For this purpose, the Admiralty initially hoped to use Hong Kong, and to seize other bases even closer to Japan.25

The British Cabinet approved the Singapore base in the Far East on 16 June 1921 because Singapore sat astride a vital link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.26 Dominion concerns over “The Singapore Strategy” were placated by wishful thinking and outright lies. Prior to the 1923 Imperial Conference, South Africa’s Prime Minister Jan Smuts worried about how the strategy would be applied if Britain faced a war with Germany and Japan simultaneously. Leo Amery, First Lord of the Admiralty, claimed, rather optimistically, that the Americans would back Britain in that case.27 The volatile nature of British politics in the 1920s also greatly delayed the base’s construction. When the Labour Party defeated the Conservatives in 1924, it scrapped major construction given fears of an arms race but permitted work that had already begun to continue. 28 Construction resumed when the Conservatives returned to power in late 1924 but on a much-scaled-down version, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill wished to save money. As Malcolm H. Murfett et al. have argued, “whatever economies Churchill may have insisted upon for the good of the nation’s finances, one is tempted to say that from this point onward the ‘Singapore Strategy’ became even more impractical and its corollary, the naval base, an unsuspecting hostage to fortune.” The Labour Party, back in power by spring 1929, used “a de-acceleration technique” to slow building activities for Britain had already spent too much money to make the project’s cancellation an economical choice.29 By the time the Japanese attacked Singapore in early 1942, the base was still incomplete.

Hong Kong’s government gave £250,000 to the Singapore project, a source of pride for the colony. In a 1925 report, Vice Admiral Allan Frederic Everett, Commander in Chief of the China Station, criticized this decision. Everett claimed that these funds could have been better spent to prepare Hong Kong for war and reduce its financial burden for Britain. Decrying the actions of Hong Kong’s government, Everett averred “that the Hong Kong Government have apparently no idea whatever as to the possible eventualities here in the next decade or probably sooner.”30

Another naval limitation treaty was reached in 1930 after considerable wrangling between Britain and the United States. Historian B.J.C. McKercher wrote that “the rise of American navalism in the 1920s, and the British response to it, conditioned by domestic political considerations, that produced the fundamental change in British naval policy by the time of the London naval conference in 1930, formal naval parity with another power.”31 In 1927, American President Calvin Coolidge called for a new naval conference to extend the Washington Treaty ratios to submarines, destroyers, cruisers, and auxiliary vessels. But Coolidge’s attempt failed for Britain and America could not agree about cruisers. The British insisted on seventy, the Americans contended that each navy needed just fifty cruisers, and neither side wanted to agree to a number that might advantage the other country.32 By 1929, Anglo-American relations had warmed enough that the idea of another conference on naval limitations was possible, as McKercher has contended, due to political changes in Britain and the United States. The election of Ramsey MacDonald’s Labour Party in 1929 plus Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential win in the United States allowed naval limitation to be revisited.33 The London Treaty restricted the number and types of cruisers, the ratio being 10:10:7 for Britain, the United States, and Japan respectively.34 According to a Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) report, “Hong Kong was perforce included in the naval bases to remain in status quo: but the development of Singapore, which is outside the agreement has been rendered all the more necessary by the position at Hong Kong, as well as by the American attitude.”35 Historian Kent Fedorowich has noted that this “did not mean that Hong Kong’s strategic importance then decreased. However, as late as 1938, the Admiralty recognized that Hong Kong still could perform an important function as a forward base for offensive and defensive operations against possible Japanese naval incursions southward.”36 Singapore’s base had not completely removed Hong Kong’s importance to the Royal Navy and Britain.

Hong Kong’s Defence in the 1930s

Hong Kong’s defence generated much debate in British military circles, especially within the CID, in the 1930s. The CID’s Joint Oversea and Home Defence sub-committee discussed Hong Kong’s coastal and anti-aircraft defences in January 1936. As the Washington Treaty was reaching the end of its term, it was uncertain if the agreement would be renegotiated. Regardless of the outcome, “the scheme now submitted by the War Office has therefore been designed in such a way that no alteration in it will be necessary should the present restrictions at Hong Kong be removed.” 37 The report highlighted that Hong Kong’s small garrison caused problems:

The use of coast artillery for projection against enemy landings is a departure from the general principles of coast defence, since it is normally the duty of the infantry garrison to provide the necessary beach defences. The Committee, however, are satisfied that in this particular case the defences proposed provide an appropriate and economical form of protection in view of the long coast-line and the smallness of the infantry garrison available.38

While the Washington Treaty forbade new additions to the naval defences at Hong Kong, modernization of existing defences was permitted. Given the resulting weakness of Hong Kong’s defence, the CID’s Overseas Committee recommended that the Foreign Office explore the possibility of obtaining Chinese assistance to defend the New Territories against Japanese invasion.<a class="sup1" href="footnotes_chap2.php">39</a>
 The focus on possible amphibious landings precluded discussion of an overland attack against the New Territories.

While the Washington Treaty forbade new additions to the naval defences at Hong Kong, modernization of existing defences was permitted. Given the resulting weakness of Hong Kong’s defence, the CID’s Overseas Committee recommended that the Foreign Office explore the possibility of obtaining Chinese assistance to defend the New Territories against Japanese invasion.39 The focus on possible amphibious landings precluded discussion of an overland attack against the New Territories. Hong Kong’s GOC, Major-General Arthur Bartholomew, and his staff wrote the 1936 Hong Kong Scheme Defence. Focussed on naval defence, three key reasons justified this emphasis. The first was that Hong Kong was still needed as a naval base. Secondly, the colony could support operations into China or against Japan. Finally, Hong Kong was an important commercial port that must remain open. British imperial reputation was a critical factor for “the loss of Hong Kong would be not only a serious blow to our prestige, but to the potential of our Fleet in the China Sea.”40 The defence of the mainland received more attention during this time. If an attack began to overwhelm defenders on the mainland, “it is the Fortress Commander’s intention to delay the enemy’s advance from every direction and finally to fight the issue out to a finish in the ‘Inner Line,’ which is organized in considerable depth for that purpose.”41
 This was a reference to the Gin Drinker’s Line, which will be discussed below. The defence of the beaches was crucial according to the 1936 scheme for “in order to gain a footing in Hong Kong, a landing force would be obliged to seize a number of separate beaches, since there is no single beach which offers adequate forming up and deployment facilities.”42 As Japanese actions in 1941 demonstrated, however, this proved not to be the case. The near obsession with the defence of the beaches handcuffed defensive thinking about the colony once war began. In 1936, the main concern was amphibious landings—whether on the mainland or on the island—while the possibility of an attack originating from land was discounted.43

Officials re-examined the British position in the Far East in 1937. While some suggested a defensive military strategy in conjunction with economic sanctions against Japan, the possibility of evacuating Hong Kong was rejected for Britain feared a loss of prestige on the world stage. 44 Despite coming to this conclusion, no change to troop levels was made. And while the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 encouraged hopes that Britain could cooperate with China, this support was deemed to be dependent upon Britain’s ability to hold Hong Kong. A recommendation of a separate report on Hong Kong was given, resulting in the 1938 “Policy on the Defence of Hong Kong.”45 The Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee offered three options for Hong Kong: demilitarize it in peacetime; evacuate it at war’s outbreak; or defend it. Demilitarizing Hong Kong was rejected as short-sighted for Japan may not always be a potential enemy, while abandoning the colony during peacetime would greatly harm British prestige. If Japan attacked Hong Kong, that assault would draw Japanese troops away from an attack against Singapore or force a naval battle that would permit the Royal Navy to bring superior forces to bear. Abandoning the colony at war’s outbreak was rejected for the same reasons. Defending Hong Kong, no matter the circumstances, was the only option.46

 Three defensive schemes/standards were developed. Standard “A” involved protecting the harbour for use by the main fleet. Standard “B” would maintain the harbour for use by submarines and other small craft. Standard “C” would delay the enemy’s use of the harbour by defending Hong Kong Island. Before making its recommendation, the Sub-Committee examined the numerous factors relating to Hong Kong’s defence. Defending the New Territories was a focus. While the Gin Drinker’s Line constituted the only way to mount a successful defence, it would be extremely expensive. The harbour would still be threatened by artillery fire emanating from beyond the line, therefore limiting its ability to function as a naval base: “It is the absence of any defensive position in the leased territories on which, with any reasonable garrison, the enemy could be held up sufficiently far forward to keep the Kowloon area immune from land bombardment, that is the real difficultly in the defence of Hong Kong against land attack.” Standards “A” and “B” were rejected given their high costs, making Standard “C” the only choice given the limits of men, money, and equipment.47 No matter what course was selected, the Committee ruled that “It will be important that our real intentions in the defence plan for the Colony are kept as secret as possible.”48 Operational security by bluff was relied on to defend the colony. With war’s approach in 1939, the shift from a naval defence approach to a land-based defence at Hong Kong was complete as most RN vessels stationed at Hong Kong were withdrawn.49

The Gin’s Drinker’s Line

The Gin Drinker’s Line, the garrison’s main defensive position sited in the New Territories, occupied a key position in Hong Kong’s defence planning. The various strategies developed in the interwar years often saw the line designated as the central pivot of the colony’s defence. It was designed as a series of concrete bunkers, often disguised as homes and other buildings, loosely connected by reinforced concrete tunnels, trenches, and barbed wire. The line took its name from the bay that anchored its western end. But while the line’s construction began in earnest in the 1930s, it was never completed. The roots of the Gin Drinker’s Line extended back into the nineteenth century when a plan to build redoubt towers was cancelled in 1894 due to technological issues and bad planning. That same year, a new plan proposed blockhouses that would be used as advanced posts in the case of attack and to form a second line as reinforcements were rushed to the area. Thirteen were planned, nine on Hong Kong Island and four on the Kowloon Peninsula, but they were never built. In 1897, the plan was revived for a short time, only to be cancelled in 1901 in favour of mobile artillery and infantry holding the gaps between the hills against overland attacks. By 1911, the plan for the blockhouses had returned, and they were to run along the Kowloon Ridge. The defences were dubbed the “Anderson Line” after Major-General Charles Anderson who had proposed the plan. Only thirty blockhouses were built.50

When Hong Kong Governor Reginald Stubbs suggested in 1925 that the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories be abandoned to an attack, the CID ordered the Joint Planning Committee (JPC) to study the colony’s defence. Submitted in 1927, the report concluded that the Royal Navy would take forty–four days to relieve troops holding a line between Gin Drinker’s Bay on the west coast and Tide Cove on the east, the narrowest point in the New Territories and thus the easiest to defend.51 Nothing came of the 1927 report given indifference and budget constraints, but the groundwork for the Gin Drinker’s Line had been laid. Another JPC report in 1930 used the lessons drawn from the First World War to recommend a manpower saving defence plan for the New Territories. An in-depth three-zone defence system designed to slow down an attack from the north was recommended. This system comprised a thinly held frontline that would draw in the attackers into pre-positioned reinforcements whose counterattack would eliminate any salient driven into the defensive line. Two “delaying lines” would support concrete machine gun emplacements supported by barbed wire in the permanent Gin Drinker’s Line.52 As this latest report was issued at the start of the Great Depression, financial concerns delayed the line’s construction. By 1934, the CID ordered the JPC to submit yet another report.53 Work began on the building of the Gin Drinker’s Line soon after this report was submitted. One of the project’s attractions was that fortifications could replace manpower housed in expensive barracks, thus cutting an Indian Army battalion. 54

As the line was constructed, air support became vital to protecting Hong Kong. The Royal Air Force (RAF) reported in 1935 that it could only send more planes to Hong Kong after 1938. As airfields could only be built north of the Gin Drinker’s Line, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) General Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd asked the Army to employ ten infantry battalions to protect the airfields.55 Much like the other plans, this scheme was never carried out. The version of the Gin Drinker’s Line that was built was not a continuous line but four defended localities. Again, construction and the manning of the line was far from what was envisioned, and the process remained incomplete when war came in 1941. Further, the line’s planned use changed over time. Bartholomew saw the line as the final position of the mainland garrison. Each locality, using in-depth defence, would be manned by a battalion and supported by artillery. In February 1937, the position was officially divided into the “Outer Line” on the Kwong and Tsoi, Eastern Fortress, 92–93. 97 Hong Kong-mainland border and the “Inner Line”, which was the new designation of the Gin Drinker’s Line’s. Bartholomew envisioned that the Kowloon garrison would not be withdrawn to the island. Rather, “all available troops on the Mainland will dispute to the last man and the last round...” 56 Concerned by this plan, the JPC suggested that the line should only be employed in delaying an attack followed by a withdrawal to the island once any part of the line had been breached. But when Bartholomew “was replaced by Major General Arthur Grasett in 1938, he urged the War Office to deploy at least eight battalions in order to allow the garrison to fulfil its mission.”57

Early construction on the Gin Drinker’s Line proceeded slowly; just twenty pillboxes were complete by 1937. While the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War that same year accelerated the pace of building, the project was suspended by April 1938. Thirty–eight pillboxes were done, thirty–three were almost finished, and nineteen were half-finished. Any construction that had been started could be finished. As the original proposal for the line is missing, the total number of proposed pillboxes remains unknown. Construction on the line was suspended due to a rethinking of Hong Kong’s role in British strategy in Asia and the impossibility of sending more troops to Hong Kong given deteriorating circumstances in Europe.58

The Sino-Japanese War’s Influence on Hong Kong’s Defence

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937 brought Japan and China to war. 59 The outbreak of conflict incited many changes in Hong Kong’s defence planning, with Japan’s capture of Canton seen as the greatest challenge to the defence of Hong Kong. On 12 October 1938, Japanese troops landed at Bias Bay, northeast of Hong Kong. The attack was not directed toward Hong Kong as many British planners had feared. Instead, Japanese forces moved along the Pearl River to Canton to cut off one of the remaining sea outlets for China’s Nationalist government. When Canton fell on 22 October 1938, A.P. Blunt, Britain’s Consul-General there wrote:

I do not know the position in other occupied territory but it seems certain that Japanese are now in effective control over Hongkong’s hinterland ‘for duration of the war’. The whole history of the colony shows that Hongkong must be on terms with de facto authorities at Canton, be they Sun Yat-sen, the South-West Political Council, the Chinese Central Government or now the Japanese. With all respect I doubt whether this is yet sufficiently realised in Hongkong but I have no doubt it is nevertheless true.60

Tensions increased as both the Japanese and British initially put troops on the border before pulling back.61 The Canton-Hong Kong Railway ceased operations and British trade into China’s hinterland fell when the Pearl River closed to traffic. But Geoffrey Northcote, Hong Kong’s Governor from 1937 to late 1941, refused to support China in order to maintain relations with Japan and protect Britain’s Far East possessions.62 Writing about the Japanese takeover of Canton, Blunt said:

I replied that having regard to the interruption caused to the Colony’s trade and food-supplies the invasion could not be regarded as otherwise then very inconvenient; its military objectives were, however, understood and it was hoped that everything that would mitigate or remove the consequent inconveniences would be done. I was not in a position to express any view upon the Japanese military operations, as such63

There were discussions in late November 1938 between British and Japanese leaders about reopening the Pearl River to commercial shipping.64 Canton’s fall also influenced British relations with China’s Nationalist government. After Canton’s loss, shipping arms and ammunition through Hong Kong to the Nationalist Chinese was banned for Whitehall wished to avoid Japanese complaints and a blockade of Hong Kong.65 Railway building supplies and other materials were also banned for a short time to coincide with the closing of the Burma Road in July 1940. Once the Burma Road reopened in October 1940, the flow of non-war material from Hong Kong resumed. 66 While Britain hoped to avoid straining relations with Japan, it also did not want to abandon China.

War in China also allowed older and somewhat unconventional ideas about Hong Kong’s security to be re-examined. Making the British hold on the New Territories permanent was one such consideration. Historian Franco David Macri, who focuses on the history of southern China in the Second World War, discussed Britain’s possible purchase of the New Territories. While explaining how the Chinese initiated this notion in 1938, Macri has neglected previous discussions by British colonial leaders. 67 In 1933, Sir Henry Pollock, an unofficial member of the Legislative Council and a long-time Hong Kong resident, sent a memorandum about buying the New Territories to Governor Sir William Peel and Commodore Frank Elliott, the RN’s commander at Hong Kong.68 Elliott expressed interest, but Admiral Frederic Dreyer, Commander-in-Chief of the China Station, was not keen for “from a legal point of view the question of the rendition of the leased territory will not arise for 65 years. Since, however, Hong Kong Island and the small Kowloon Peninsula were ceded by the treaties of Nanking and Peking (1842 and 1860), the Chinese might raise a cry for their return if the agitation over the ‘unequal treaties’ should be revived.”69 No further action was taken toward the purchase of the New Territories at that time.

The idea lay dormant until 1938 when Chinese officials approached Northcote with a proposal to sell the New Territories. 70 Writing to Secretary of State of the Colonies Malcolm MacDonald, Northcote suggested paying £20,000,000 to China to stabilize its currency and support China in its war against Japan. 71 Northcote favoured this course of action as “the retention of most, if not all, of the leased lands is a condition of the survival of Hong Kong as a British Colony into the next century.”72 In early August 1938, Northcote wrote again to MacDonald given the risk of “missing our market” for, no matter who won the Sino-Japanese War, this opportunity would not present itself again. Northcote maid plain that “sooner or later the question of purchase or lease-extension must arise, if British Hong Kong is to survive as a Colony: I hope that my despatch made that clear.”73 Northcote’s recommendation instigated a meeting among all military branches as well as representatives from the Colonial Office, Treasury, and Foreign Office on 26 August 1938. How different British agencies viewed Hong Kong’s defence were demonstrated at this meeting. Once H.R. Cowell of the Colonial Office noted that the New Territories were important defensively and commercially, the conversation focused about using delaying tactics to defend the New Territories.74 While the Sino-Japanese War constituted an opportunity to permanently acquire the New Territories, the conflict’s uncertain outcome and a desire to avoid claims of an illegitimate deal produced apprehension. J.F. Brenan of the Foreign Office, highlighting the fact that China had never broached an extension of the lease, recalled an earlier decision not to extend a loan to China for the same amount.75 As the current lease was long enough for defence requirements, the attendees rejected Northcote’s proposal.76 Although Northcote raised the question of extending the lease in March 1939, the Foreign Office again rejected it.77 This episode was another example of officials in Britain ignoring the advice of officials in Hong Kong. This course of action may have been best for British imperial defence policy, but did not buttress Hong Kong’s defence.

Early Years of the Second World War

The onset of war with Germany in 1939 changed defence planning for Hong Kong. Defence of the British Isles and imperial defence had dominated Britain’s defence planning for the majority of the interwar years. Diplomatic solutions such as treaties had been relied on to keep the peace in Europe in the 1920s, although they began unraveling by the mid-1930s. Brian McKercher has argued that Neville Chamberlain, upon becoming British Prime Minister in May 1937, shifted the strategic focus of British foreign policy. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was influenced by his desire to avoid a European war. While Britain would increase the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to protect the home islands, plans for a field force to go to Europe were scrapped in early 1938. But once appeasement clearly had failed by early 1939, the focus was shifted fully to rearmament. While Britain’s strategic focus shifted to continental Europe, including an increasing need to reposition resources, notably naval vessels, 78 as historian John Ferris has remarked, “Japan shaped British policy in Europe: thus, in 1937–39, the need to buy time for rearmament drove the Admiralty’s support for appeasement.”79 Once war began in September 1939, Britain was forced to take assets from the Far East to support the war in Europe.80 Canadian historian Norman Hillmer has argued that “The attitude of the dominions undoubtedly reinforced an already strong desire on Britain’s part to remain aloof from continental commitments: the concept of ‘limited liability’ was in fact embraced by every leading British minister from the mid-1930s onwards and was not seriously challenged until 1939.”81

While the signing of a German-Soviet non-aggression pact on 23 August 1939 all but guaranteed a war in Europe, it prompted outrage in Japan given its recent unsuccessful battles along the Manchurian border with the Soviet Union.82 As Clark Kerr, the British Ambassador to China, reported from Shanghai on 28 August 1939, “I have been informed by the Japanese Consulate unofficially that in the event of war in Europe Japan will remain strictly neutral. The reason is the Russo-German non-aggression pact which has led to a complete reversal of Japanese foreign policy.”83 France’s unexpected collapse in June 1940 altered British defence planning completely as the Royal Navy was needed to defend both the British Isles and the Mediterranean. The German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in the summer and autumn of 1940 indirectly led to more American support for Britain, notably when the British and American governments negotiated the Destroyers for Bases deal in September 1940, giving the Royal Navy more ships to protect vital Atlantic convoys.84 Growing American support through late 1940 into 1941 allowed the British position to strengthen by year’s end. One of the most important measures enacted by the American government was the Lend-Lease program which carried the British war effort through to the conflict’s end in 1945.85

Developments in Europe left the defence of the Far East in an even more precarious position than envisioned in the interwar period. On 16 April 1941, the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact, reducing the likelihood of war in Manchuria and possibly giving Japan a free hand to move south. But the war’s most significant development was the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The largest land invasion in history not only terminated the ideologically strange German-Soviet alliance, it gave Britain its first non-Commonwealth ally in a year. German attacks initially pushed deep into Soviet territory, leading to Allied concerns that Japan would try to take advantage of the situation and advance into Siberia. By summer’s end, while the Soviet position did not look strong, they continued to resist Germany’s invasion. Although the titanic struggle on the Eastern Front lessened the invasion threat of a German invasion of the British Isles, Japan’s threat to the Far East magnified.

The summer of 1941

The summer of 1941 was a turbulent time for British policy in the Far East as the need to support actions taken by the United States in the Pacific drove decision-making. 86 As Ferris has asserted:

German policy and Russian power, the threats to China and the fall of France, threw Japan at Britain’s throat and the latter into the arms of the United States. Britain had to abandon control over its policy in the Asia-Pacific region to Washington. Again, fratricide drove the Anglo-American relationship. President Roosevelt could not form an open alliance with Britain against Japan, leading each side to manipulate the other. In order to show itself alliance worthy in the Pacific, Britain had to convince Washington that it was stronger there than was true, or it thought.

In response to Japan’s occupation of southern French Indochina in July 1941, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations imposed sanctions on Japan. The use of economic sanctions against Japan resulted from the British desire to deter Japan without using military force. But as Ferris has noted, the sanctions led the “Japanese leaders [to] decide on war, to preempt a threat they had provoked.”88

American fears of Japanese expansion were growing in July 1941. General Douglas MacArthur was recalled to service with the United States Army on the 26th after serving as the commander of the newly-formed Philippine Army for several years. Before MacArthur took command, there had been no real plans to reinforce the islands. Once the new command was established, reinforcements came, growing the Philippine Army to 120,000 troops. In the official history of the United States Army in the Philippines, historian Louis Morton stated that “The reinforcement of the Philippines now enjoyed the highest priority in the War Department.” As an example of this new importance, while new B-17 bombers were moved to the Philippines, “more than half of the total of heavy bombers and one sixth of the fighters were already in the Philippines.”89 Starting in August 1941, British policy moved from non-military deterrence to a heavy increase of military reinforcements to match American actions.

Britain relied on its strongest military asset, the Royal Navy. As Bell has outlined:

On 28 August, Pound informed Churchill of the admiralty’s plans to create a balanced Far Eastern fleet by March 1942. Between mid-September 1941 and early January 1942, four of the unmodernized ‘R’ class battleships would be sent to the Indian Ocean, where they would initially serve as troop convoy escorts; and between November 1941 and mid-January 1942, the battleships Nelson and Rodney and the battle-cruiser Renown would move to either Trincomalee or Singapore. With the addition of an aircraft carrier, cruisers and destroyers, these vessels would ultimately form a balanced fleet which could be stationed at Singapore. In the meantime, Pound hoped that the presence of heavy ships in the Indian Ocean would...deter Japan from sending battleships or large cruisers into the Indian Ocean in the event of war.90

But the reinforcement did not occur thanks to disagreements between Churchill and the leaders of the Royal Navy. However, HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to Singapore as a last-minute deterrent in November 1941 after Churchill pressured the Royal Navy, but Japanese naval air power sank the ships shortly after their arrival at Singapore.91 The pattern of “too little, too late” became prominent in late 1941. More army units had already been sent to Singapore, including elements of the 8th Australian Division in February 1941.92 Bell summarized the deterrent used by Britain:

During the last months of peace in the Pacific, London also strengthened its defences in Malaya, tightened economic sanctions against Japan, and asked the Canadian government to reinforce the hopelessly exposed garrison at Hong Kong. This was all part of the attempt to create an impression of growing British strength and resolve in the Far East. But even this was not expected to deter war. Ultimately, it was the combined strength of Britain and the United States that was counted on to restrain Japan. British efforts to impress Tokyo were therefore also aimed at the United States.93

This was context in which Brigadier Arthur Edward Grasett made his plea for Canadians to reinforce Hong Kong to Canadian General Harry Crerar, when they met in summer 1941.

Brigadier Arthur Edward Grasett and the Defence of Hong Kong 1938–1941

Individual military leaders played a major role in the Canadian reinforcement of Hong Kong. As leaders at the very top level often possess little understanding of the events and developments below their command, subalterns can yield much more authority then their official position would allow. One such individual was Brigadier Grasett as his actions had major implications for the defence of Hong Kong. On 4 November 1938, Grasett became GOC of the British troops in China, a post he held until 19 July 1941.94 The Canadian-born Grasett, after attending the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, entered the British Army as an engineer officer and stayed. After assuming command in Hong Kong, Grasett was given a set of notes to prepare him for his new position. One passage in the notes accurately summarized Hong Kong’s dilemma at the time:

The defence policy for Hong Kong previous to 1921 was based on our friendly relations with Japan, and the armament was never intended to be able to deal with a major attack from that quarter. In spite of this, however, the well-established supremacy of coast defence guns over warships did in effect give the place a reasonable security in the days before air action had to be taken into account.

Similarly, the inherent difficulties in the launching of an effective military attack from Japan against the beaches or land frontier of the Colony gave us a fair prospect of holding out with quite a small infantry garrison for the period of [40 was crossed out] 54 days before the arrival of the British fleet.95

The notes given to Grasett reiterated that Hong Kong was an outpost and therefore not essential to holding Singapore. Thanks to the construction of the Gin Drinker’s Line, little attention was paid to the defences on the actual island itself. Updating island defences thus became Grasett’s priority.96 Grasett’s main concern was the number of troops available to garrison the colony. In a 16 January 1940 letter to Major-General R.H. Dewing, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, Grasett noted that his May 1939 recommendation to expand the garrison remained unanswered.97 Grasett wrote Dewing again on 5 April 1940 to say that another battalion would be needed if the colony were attacked as casualties would be considerable in a prolonged fight.98 To cut potential European casualties, the decision to evacuate civilian white women and children from Hong Kong was made on 25 June 1940.99 The Japanese threat seemed minimal. As Grasett stated on 23 June, just 3,000 Japanese troops were estimated to be based along Hong Kong’s border by 2 July.100 On 5 August 1940, Grasett requested two more battalions for the colony as the existing garrison was the “bare minimum required and two additional battalions would add greatly to strength of Hong Kong.”101 This request, like all others, was denied.

The autumn of 1940 was marked by a growing concern among Hong Kong’s officials about the garrison’s ability to resist an attack. Remarking that Hong Kong’s fall was only a matter of time once war began and civilian casualties climbed, a frustrated Governor Northcote asked, “how long could His Majesty’s Government permit this to continue in order to hold a fortress which without command of the sea has no military value?”102 Pessimistic, too, about the garrison’s condition, Grasett claimed that the new Indian battalions in the colony were less trained given the Indian Army’s rapid expansion, while the European volunteer unit had been weakened by the wider war effort. Still, in October 1940, Grasett asked again for more reinforcements as he felt “compelled to represent for reasons stated that one additional Battn. is now required to provide reasonable security.”103 The Chiefs of Staff denied this request in November.104 Grasett continued to seek reinforcements until relieved of his command in 1941.

Appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham

The appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham as commander of British forces in the Far East brought more attention to Hong Kong’s defence. Before Brooke-Popham had assumed command in late 1940, he reported that while lunching with the Prime Minister, Churchill had remarked “that we should hold Singapore no matter what happened. He said I could rest assured that there would be a continuous and steady flow of men and munitions to the countries in my command and that he was sparing no effort to make Singapore and the other British countries in East Asia strong and well defended as possible.” Churchill claimed he “was devoting every minute he could spare to watching the Far East.”105 Thus, Brooke-Popham believed that he would receive support, a view that was reflected in his actions upon assuming his new position.

Racism and Hong Kong’s Defence

Visiting Hong Kong after assuming command in Singapore, Brooke-Popham’s views on Hong Kong’s defence revealed deeper issues within the colony. In a 6 January 1941 letter to CID Secretary Major-General H.L. Ismay, Brooke-Popham said “I had a good close up, across the barbed wire, of various sub-human specimens dressed in dirty grey uniform, which I was informed were Japanese soldiers. If these represent the average of the Japanese Army, the problems of their food and accommodation would be simple, but I cannot believe they would form an intelligent fighting force.”106 While Brooke-Popham’s assessment of the Japanese Army was quite wrong, his bigoted opinion laid bare the racist assumptions and conclusions that negatively impacted the defence of British colonies in the Far East. Poor opinions of Japanese troops abounded among British commanders. Those with experience in commanding British troops stationed in China believed Japan was weak for it could not beat China, an inferior nation.107 Ferris concluded “that between 1937—41 the old China hands viewed the I.J.A. as a third rate army, whose quality was so low that its operational characteristics were irrelevant— they could never be applied against a western force.”108 Ferris argued that Major-General C.M. Maltby’s use of the Gin Drinker’s Line stemmed from his view that the tactics used against less- organized enemies on India’s North-West Frontier would be successful against the Japanese who were clearly a third-rate enemy.109 Unfortunately, for Hong Kong’s defenders, Maltby was wrong. But when the fighting began, American historian Gerald Horne concluded that the British views of their racial superiority were shattered for “the invasion invoked a massive emotional collapse—a collective nervous breakdown—not least among European men.”110

Racism was not limited to the British views on the Japanese. The Chinese population had increased in Hong Kong as refugees fled the Japanese. Historian Richard Aldrich noted that this transient population caused an internal security problem at Hong Kong.111 The government viewed and treated the local Chinese as a problem and not an asset. While Hong Kong’s growing population provided an opportunity to better defend the colony, racism precluded this path from being taken. Horne has argued that there was a long-standing policy to keep arms out of the hands of Chinese individuals, adding “British racism served to make this surrender virtually inevitable.”112 Certainly, while there was evidence that racist policies influenced defence planning for the colony -- the 1936 Hong Kong Scheme Defence noted that “the local Chinese can be taken as useless” -- there was more nuance then Horne presented.113 Kwong and Tsoi argued that “contrary to the popular belief that the British were reluctant in recruiting the local Chinese for defence, the British began to recruit more Hong Kong Chinese for the defence of Hong Kong on a large scale as early as 1936.” The early recruitment was for non-combat roles.114 The process to recruit local Chinese for an infantry regiment only started in the summer of 1941. On 23 June, the War Office asked Grasett if he was in favour of local Chinese being used for defence.115 His successor, Maltby, approved the force’s creation of the force on 8 August as he concluded that “if successful will contribute towards solution to manpower problem here and provide nucleus for further expansion.”116 On 25 August, the War Office granted permission to raise a local Chinese infantry battalion.117 The first recruits of the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment were enlisted on 3 November. Enough men signed up to form a platoon sized unit that saw combat alongside Canadian troops on the island near Repulse Bay.118

Brooke-Popham Attempts to Reinforce Hong Kong, 1941

Brooke-Popham wished to reinforce Hong Kong with two battalions drawn from Malaya in January 1941, the request that prompted Churchill’s oft-used quote about denying reinforcements for Hong Kong.119 Churchill clearly changed his mind later that year for he did not oppose the 15 September 1941 proposal to buttress Hong Kong.120 However, after Hong Kong’s loss, Churchill attempted to distance himself from that decision to reinforce the colony, claiming “later on it will be seen that I allowed myself to be drawn from this position, and that two Canadian battalions were sent as reinforcements.”121 In his 15 January 1941 letter to Arthur Street, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Air, Brooke-Popham described the air defence situation at Hong Kong. Although he feared that a landing strip could not be built on Hong Kong Island in less than a year, there was a suitable site for a flying boat base south of the island. These bases would be able to support floatplanes which could be used to engage Japanese bombers. But Brooke-Popham’s racist views of the Japanese also affected his position on air defences. As Japanese bombers had never faced fighters before, Brooke-Popham explained that “this indicates the reason why I am so insistent on getting some fighters out here at the earliest possible moment and why I should so like to have something at Hong Kong that could be used as a fighter from the water.”122 On 21 February, Brooke-Popham wrote that Hong Kong needed two battalions, adding that he must send troops from Malaya to reinforce the colony.123 In early March, Brooke-Popham, seeing Hong Kong as a potential base, akin to Malta in the Mediterranean, to safeguard shipping lanes in the South China Sea, wanted six squadrons stationed there. However, he knew the Army would not be keen to hold such airfields against enemy attack, which would require more troops.124 Again, his calls went nowhere.

Brooke-Popham also made suggestions that relied on bluff to confuse the Japanese. While wanting an aerodrome built on the island plus a detachment of fighters. Brooke-Popham hoped that dummy fighters and dummy aircraft crates could be sent to Hong Kong to convince the Japanese that the colony was better defended. He also hoped that a Royal Navy visit would “influence morale of Japanese as well as of Hong Kong garrison and population.”125 Concerned that fifth columnists and infiltrators might be operating in Hong Kong with the help of the Japanese Consulate, Brooke-Popham recommended cutting Japanese consular staffs to reduce sabotage and intelligence-gathering capabilities.126

Brooke-Popham’s plan to reinforce Hong Kong met resistance from the RAF, the Royal Navy, and the Army. As an RAF report outlined on 8 August 1941, “the decision to risk war will be taken on Malaya and not Hong Kong. On strategic grounds, therefore, we should not weaken Malaya to strengthen Hong Kong.”127 While acknowledging that changes had occurred, RAF officers opined:

It is true that the situation in the Far East is less dark than it was 9 months ago, but nothing that has happened at present has really altered the strategical situation of Hong Kong itself. It is not a place that can be used offensively in the present situation and we should be better off out of it. There is no prima facie case therefore for increasing the defences of Hong Kong on strategic grounds.128

The summer of 1941 ended with no reinforcements being sent to Hong Kong.

Still, Brooke-Popham was encouraged to demand more resources from the RAF for the Far East. On 15 September 1941, Air Marshal J.T. Babington of RAF Headquarters Technical Training Command told Brooke-Popham that “coming back to the Far East, and if I may presume to advise you, I believe that in spite of the treatment of your previous efforts at upgrading, another shot at it might now be successful. At any rate, I have done everything I can to clear the ground and prepare the way for a more hospitable reception.”129 On 16 September, Brooke-Popham asked again for four flying boats at Hong Kong to help direct anti-aircraft fire and to maintain communications with China and the Philippines. According to Brooke-Popham, a flight of four fighters would aid in “deception indicating increased confidence by example of reinforcing so vulnerable an outpost.”130 But Brooke-Popham again was rebuffed. Encouraged by the Canadian reinforcement, on 24 November, Brooke-Popham wrote “I leave to you the political aspect of having Dominion troops unsupported from the air.”131 His new tactic of hoping that the Canadian presence would lead to more air reinforcements, like all the others, failed.

Grasett’s Role in Suggesting Canada Reinforce Hong Kong

A direct chain of events in summer 1941 led to Canadian troops being despatched to Hong Kong. That chain began on 19 July when Maltby replaced Grasett as GOC of British troops in Hong Kong. The timing of Grasett’s travels back to Britain are important for determining how Grasett’s meeting with Canadian Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Harry Crerar developed. Maltby stated that he met with Grasett on 20 July to discuss issues affecting Hong Kong.132 Grasett returned to the United Kingdom via Canada in August. While in Canada, he visited with his Royal Military College classmate Crerar and met with Canada’s Minister of National Defence, J.L. Ralston. Details remain elusive as no documentation about the meetings—including their exact dates—are known to exist. The number of meetings is also unknown. During the 1942 Inquiry about “C” Force’s despatch to Hong Kong, Crerar denied that he and Grasett had discussed sending Canadian troops to Hong Kong, asserting only that they had discussed the colony’s reinforcement generally.133 In a 1953 letter to official Army historian

C.P. Stacey, Crerar briefly outlined the conversations:

Grasett, accompanied by me, also described the Hong Kong situation to the Minister, Colonel Ralston, during a fairly lengthy interview on one of the couple of days he was in Ottawa. It is possible that the Minister made some reference to this in any personal diary he might have kept. However, neither to myself alone, nor to the Minister and myself jointly, did Grasett then raise the question of obtaining these two additional battalions from Canada.134

Many have overlooked Ralston’s role in these meetings. Some do not mention him at all, others confirm his presence solely through the letter Crerar sent to Stacey in the 1950s. Vincent failed to cite Ralston at all, while historians Nathan Greenfield and Brereton Greenhous mentioned Ralston without naming him directly or exploring his role.135 Kwong and Tsoi have contended that Grasett shared his idea of reinforcing Hong Kong with Crerar and Ralston.136 As Crerar biographer Paul Dickson claimed that Ralston had a “cautious reaction” to the 19 September British request for troops despite meeting with Grasett, Ralston’s willingness to discuss the use of Canadian troops weeks later was presented as proof that “it would be surprising, then, if the deployment of Canadian units in some theatre of war had not, at least, been mentioned” when Grasett was in Ottawa.137

Crerar’s comment to Stacey about Ralston possibly having a diary was, in fact, correct. Ralston kept a date book for this period, but it has many gaps over the course of the summer of 1941. While a meeting between Grasett, Crerar, and Ralston could not be conducted until after 20 July, Ralston’s diary is missing entries from 28–29 July, a Monday and Tuesday. There are no entries either for 3 and 9 August. But as both days were Sundays, a missing entry is not unusual. The most suspicious date without an entry is Monday, 4 August. As Grasett may have been in Ottawa on that day, a meeting may have taken place. As the other dates in August are recorded, either the meeting took place on the 4th or Ralston did not mention the meeting in the diary.138 Hong Kong’s fall and the poor treatment of the prisoners of war are possible explanations for why Ralston may have not wanted to retain a meeting record. Given the available evidence, it is likely Ralston also participated in these discussions and thus had a part to play in the British request for reinforcements. But Ralston’s true role may never be fully known.

Considering the events that followed these meetings, it is highly unlikely that Grasett, Crerar, and Ralston only discussed reinforcing Hong Kong in a general way. Crerar’s goals as CGS are one reason why this claim is suspect. Paul Dickson has argued that because Crerar wanted to expand the Canadian Army effort upon becoming CGS, his decision to support the despatch of Canadian troops to Hong Kong must be understood in this context. As Canadian ground troops had not yet to fight in the war, “the Canadian government and Crerar were seeking concrete action to help dispel the malaise settling over the Canadian war effort when the question of the position of Hong Kong was first broached.” As Crerar was aware that English Canadians were growing unhappy about Canadian Army inaction, Grasett’s visit gave Crerar an opportunity to get Canadian soldiers to do something other than training in Britain or at home.139

Upon his return to Britain, Grasett met with the Chiefs of Staff (COS) Committee on 3 September 1941. Describing defence preparations at Hong Kong, Grasett warned that the Japanese forces, having set up aerodromes near Hong Kong, could attack the colony “whenever they wished to do so.” Still, volunteers were augmenting the garrison and most of the defences were in a good state. With an eye to international relations, Grasett noted that everything had been done to assure Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek that Hong Kong would be defended “to the last man and the last round.”140 This comment stands in contrast to Grasett’s claim in January 1940 that “most of us are a bit restless here and would like to be a bit nearer the centre of things. I must say I do not find the thought of spending the war in Hong Kong a very happy one!”141 In perhaps the most controversial action of his career, Grasett suggested that a small reinforcement of Hong Kong’s garrison would improve troop morale and show China and Japan that Britain would defend Hong Kong. Further, “in view of their interest of the Pacific, the Canadian Government might be agreeable to send one or two battalions if the point were put to them.”142

The British COS changed their views of the defence of Hong Kong during the early years of the Second World War. Despite Japan’s occupation of Canton and the area surrounding Hong Kong, their view were in a state of flux and their concerns about prestige and the loss of Hong Kong had not disappeared. In October 1940, the COS discussed Hong Kong in detail as “the situation in the Far East has changed to the extent that the Japanese have signed a pact with the Axis powers and have established themselves in part of Indo-China. On the other hand, the likelihood of U.S.A. co-operation in a war with Japan has become greater and hence we have been able to adopt a firmer line in our policy vis-a-vis Japan.” The Chiefs thus believed the decision to demilitarize Hong Kong was “largely a political one.” The potential loss of prestige received much attention in this memorandum as “the possible loss of prestige due to the fall of Hong Kong war even with all its attendant horrors would have less serious results than the loss of prestige from its demilitarisation under present conditions.”143 These statements demonstrate how the defence of Hong Kong was viewed in the early years of the Second World War. It also demonstrates that American actions and thoughts influenced British policy in the Far East and that British policy was never set in stone.

The COS continued to demonstrate the same thinking toward Hong Kong well into 1941. In January, Brooke-Popham requested more troops for Hong Kong. The Chiefs of Staff rejected this proposal, although “should present discussions in Washington or any major change in situation alter our estimate of the position we will reconsider.”144 By September 1941, the COS had completely changed its outlook on Hong Kong. As noted by CIGS John Dill on 8 September “to have reinforced a year ago would have been to throw good money after bad. The situation is now so changed that in 4½months relief might be possible and such a reinforcement might well prolong resistance for a further considerable period.” He reminded the COS that “You will remember this policy was last reviewed in January, 1941 when it was decided not to send any more reinforcements to Hong Kong. Since then, however, the position in the Far East has changed radically and Japan has shown a certain weakness latterly in her attitude towards Great Britain and the United States.”145 Grasett had a direct impact on the COS changing their view about Hong Kong: “The Chiefs of Staff, as a result of a discussion with General Grasett, later General Officer Commanding, Hong Kong, submitted a minute to the Prime Minister. .

.recommending that Canada should be asked to send one or two battalions to Hong Kong.”146 Ultimately, Grasett and Brooke-Popham’s repeated badgering for more reinforcements for Hong Kong finally paid off.


On 9 September 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel Barlow of the Colonial Office wrote:

I fancy this paper may provoke the wrath of the Prime Minister. Quite apart from the old decision that no further reinforcements were to be sent to Hong Kong, the Prime Minister may well ask why it is that Major-General Grasett has not said before that the troops under his command were inadequate for their limited task, which had always been the defence of Hong Kong for a given period of time.147

Of course, Grasett had asked for more reinforcements on multiple occasions, only to be rebuffed each time. He had been supported by Brooke-Popham who had also repeatedly asked for more troops. Barlow’s statement encapsulates the issues surrounding the reinforcement of Hong Kong. The advice offered by political and military leaders in the colony was often ignored by their superiors in London. Barlow was also wrong about Churchill being angered by the request for Canadian reinforcements. The fluid nature of Hong Kong’s defence is best personified by Churchill changing his opinions on the reinforcement of the colony. Barlow’s comment also demonstrates that Churchill was unaware of Grasett’s many requests and the true situation at Hong Kong. This chapter demonstrates that the long-term connections between the British and Canadian armies allowed the much-discussed reinforcement to take place. Such links are not discussed in other works on the Battle of Hong Kong making this a much needed new additional to the battle’s historiography.

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)