by Brad St Croix

Chapter 3 — Demand for Sensational Action: Canada Accepts the Hong Kong Request

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

The most pervasive and emotionally charged myths about the Battle of Hong Kong relate to why Canadian leaders accepted Britain’s 1941 request to reinforce the colony. The various versions of this myth cover the spectrum from the reasonable to the fantastical as accusations of betrayal abound. The personal ambition of Canadian leaders define other versions which are based on pure speculation and conjecture. Carl Vincent’s claim fits this mould, for he has asserted that “while it is remotely conceivable that a Canadian government under the Liberals and led by [Prime Minister William Lyon] Mackenzie King would be willing to cold-bloodedly immolate 2,000 Canadians on the altar of either Imperial solidarity or Far Eastern defence, it does severely strain one’s concept of the possible.”1 Brereton Greenhous, believing that blame must be assigned for the decision to send Canadians to Hong Kong, has placed it solely on General Harry Crerar, “a ruthless and studiously ambitious sycophant.” While Greenhous did not offer a definite reason Crerar’s support for the reinforcement, he has posited that Crerar’s “authoritarian submissive” personality had sought to please his British superiors: “If they wanted Canadians at Hong Kong, that was what he wanted, too.”2 Writing about The Valour and the Horror in 1992, Canadian journalist Tony Atherton claimed that “while Japanese atrocities (and the nation’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge them) are pilloried in the first episode, so is Winston Churchill’s decision to send untrained Canadian soldiers to the colony having already decided it was indefensible.”3 In 2015, Blair Crawford, reporting on writer Terry Meagher’s book Betrayal: Canadian Soldiers in Hong Kong, 1941 in the Ottawa Citizen, wrote that “the book examines how the Canadians were betrayed, first by the British and Canadian governments who sent them to defend an undefendable colony, then again by the British commander who after the war blamed the Canadian troops for the defeat.”4

I argue in this chapter that a number of reasons played a role in Canada’s choice to reinforce Hong Kong. Canadian foreign policy objectives—most notably, the bettering relations with the United States—were a driving factor behind “C” Force’s despatch to Hong Kong. The timing of decisions by other governments attempting to deter Japan also played a part in the decision as Canada desired to be in lock step with Britain and the United States. Individuals’ goals and opinions were also a crucial element. Chief of the General Staff (CGS) General Harry Crerar’s ambitious plans to expand the Canadian Army played a key role in his decision-making, as did his historical understanding of Hong Kong’s defences. Also, I have placed the meeting Crerar and Brigadier Arthur Edward Grasett in a new context, something no other work about Hong Kong had done. Ministers of Defence National J.L. Ralston and C.G. Power played an influential, but often overlooked, role in this process, also is a new addition to the historiography. King’s support for reinforcement came despite concerns that an expanded Canadian military presence might lead to the need for overseas conscription. Surprisingly, military intelligence did not play a vital role in the decision. Thus, historian J.L. Granatstein has argued “Canada needed its own intelligence apparatus, its own ability to determine if troops should be committed to operations. In effect, Canada needed to act like a nation, not a colony”.5 This chapter will demonstrate that Granatstein’s assessment was correct.

How the Request Was Accepted

On 19 September 1941, a Dominion Office telegram asking for Canadian troops to be sent to Hong Kong arrived in Ottawa. The process of reviewing and accepting the request proceeded swiftly. When the Cabinet War Committee (CWC) met to consider the proposal on 23 September, King declined to reach a decision without consulting Ralston who was vacationing in California. A message was quickly despatched, carried in person by Major C.M. Drury, the Canadian Assistant Military Attaché in Washington. Drury informed the Minister that while the CWC was willing to accept the British proposal, Ralston need not rush his decision. But Ralston felt a quick response was required given the telegram’s language, a common behaviour for Ralston.6 Ralston gave his support on 24 September after speaking with Crerar who had recommended that the government accept the request.7 On 27 September, Drury returned to Washington with a verbal confirmation that Ralston approved the request.8 Approving the British request on 1 October, King wrote in his diary that “in agreeing to Canadians going to the Orient, I again stressed the importance of care being taken to see that our agreement in that particular did not later afford an argument for conscription.”9

The Request

As the Dominions Office telegram is crucial to comprehending Canada’s choice, I quote it here in full:

No. 162. Most Secret. In consultation with late General Officer Commanding who has recently arrived in this country, we have been considering the defences of Hong Kong. Approved policy has been that Hong Kong should be regarded as an outpost and held as long as possible in the event of war in the Far East. Existing army garrison consists of four battalions of infantry, and although this force represents bare minimum required for depot assigned to it, we have thought hitherto that it would not ultimately serve any useful purpose to increase the garrison.

Position in the Far East has now, however, changed. Our defences in Malaya have been improved and there have been signs of a certain weakening in Japanese attitude towards us and the United States. In these circumstances it is thought that a small reinforcement of garrison at Hong Kong e.g. by one or more battalions, would be very fully justified. It would increase strength of garrison out of all proportion to actual numbers involved, and it would provide a strong stimulus to garrison and Colony; it would further have a very great moral effect in the whole of the Far East and would reassure Chiang Kai Shek as to the reality of our intention to hold the island.

His Majesty's Government in Canada will be well aware of difficulties we are at present experiencing in providing forces which situation in various parts of the world demands, despite very great assistance which is being furnished by Dominions. We should therefore be most grateful if the Canadian Government would consider whether one or two Canadian battalions could be provided from Canada for this purpose. It is thought that in view of their special position in the north Pacific, Canadian Government would in any case have wish to be informed of need as we see it for reinforcement of Hong Kong and special value of such measure, even though on a very limited scale at the present time. It may also be mentioned that the United States have recently despatched a small reinforcement to the Philippines. It would be of the greatest help if the Canadian Government could co-operate with us in the manner suggested, and we much hope that they will feel able to do so.

If the Canadian Government agree in principle to send one or two battalions, we should propose to communicate with you again as to the best time for their despatch, having regard to the general political situation in the Far East.10

Various considerations, both foreign and domestic, some of which were raised in the telegram led to the Canadian acceptance of the request.

Foreign Policy Factors

Britain’s need for manpower by late 1941 was acute. Canada already had provided much assistance to Britain. This effort included the garrisoning of British colonies such as Newfoundland, Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas, Canadian troops had also garrisoned Iceland which had fallen under Allied occupation in May 1940. Many of these reinforcements were approved with little discussion, although Iceland was the exception. Vincent Massey, Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, reported the British request for a Canadian brigade for occupation duties in Iceland on 19 May 1940.11 When the CWC discussed the request for troops for Iceland on 22 May, it agreed “to provide and maintain an Infantry Brigade for garrison service in Iceland...”12 But the CWC discussed or referenced Iceland in eleven different meetings between 19 May request to 15 July. In contrast, Hong Kong was only discussed three times in the CWC between 19 September and 27 October 1941 when “C” Force left Vancouver. On 14 June 1940, a British request to increase the number of personnel destined for Iceland was approved.13 At the 9 July meeting, concerns arose that “from the point of view of danger, service in Iceland would possibly be more hazardous than service in the United Kingdom.”14 However, Canadian troops in Iceland saw no combat, and most were gone from the island within a few months.15

North Africa also received much attention from the CWC. Though pressured by Ralston, King was hesitant to send Canadians to the desert as the fighting there only served to protect the

British Empire, a factor that would not play well in a more skeptical Québec.16 In November 1940, when Ralston suggested that Canadians could serve in Egypt, the CWC rejected the plan for Canadian policy regarding North Africa remained undecided.17 In January 1941, the idea of Canadians in North Africa was again raised and rejected as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had not thought of using Canadian troops in North Africa.18 In a later meeting with Churchill, King recalled that the British Prime Minister did not want Canadians serving in the Near East or the Middle East, so-called “hot parts.”19 By May 1941, fearing the loss of morale among inactive Canadian soldiers, Ralston wanted to get Canadian troops into action as quickly possible in the Middle East or to participate in raids against France.20 King told Ralston “that I would not countenance anything of the kind; that it might be my Scotch conscience, or it might be common sense, but I do not feel that any government has the right to take the lives of any men for spectacular purposes.”21 Ralston stopped pushing for Canadians to go to North Africa.

Canadian-American relations played a role in the decision to accept the Hong Kong request as the two nations had been moving closer together militarily since the late 1930s. On 19–20 January 1938, there had been talks between Canadian and American officers in Washington. CGS General C.E. Ashton and Chief of the Naval Staff, Percy W. Nelles had met with General Malin Craig, the American Army Chief of Staff, and Admiral W.D. Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations. Craig had offered to extend the American operational zone to cover British Columbia in the event of war. As historian Galen Roger Perras has concluded, “despite Craig’s offer to extend protection to BC, both he and Leahy, no doubt reflecting their nation’s own isolationist bent, pointedly commented that no formal commitments would be agreed to in the discussions, an opinion that Ashton and Nelles did not dispute.”22 Perras has argued that “given [American President Franklin] Roosevelt’s expressed concerns about the province’s inadequate fortifications, the President must have ordered Craig to put forward the deal as it is unimaginable the American general would have done such a thing on his own.” This “offer” was made as the result of an earlier meeting in London on 13 January 1938 between Captain Royal Ingersoll of the United States Navy and Captain T.S.V. Phillips of the Royal Navy. On that day, the two officers had:

signed a “Record of Conversation.” If Britain and America established a distant blockade of Japan, the USN would “also assume the responsibility for the general Naval defence of the West Coast of Canada.” Perhaps in the wake of that agreement, Roosevelt had wished to test Canada’s willingness to accept American strategic direction. British officials in Washington were unsure. [British Ambassador to the United States Ronald] Lindsay thought the Legation talks indicated that the State Department “was making one more step towards cooperation with the British Empire.”23

Canada was not made aware of this agreement. When details of Ingersoll’s mission subsequently leaked to the isolationist Congress, Roosevelt backtracked from Ingersoll’s mission. Thus, Perras has posited that the meeting in Washington constituted an attempt by Roosevelt to convince King to do more for Canada’s Pacific defence.24 With this acceptance of the British request, King showed Roosevelt that Canada would fight against the Japanese in North America.

In August 1938, Roosevelt delivered a speech at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, announcing that “I give to you assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire.”25 In November 1938, newly-appointed CGS Major-General T. V. Anderson visited Washington to meet with General Craig and other senior American officers. Political Scientist James Eayrs has claimed that “the object of the visit was not so much to take the earlier staff discussions any further as to bring the Canadian officer into contact with his United States counterparts.”26 Despite this objective, C.P. Stacey, the Canadian Army’s official historian, has averred that “A useful exchange of views took place, and Anderson was impressed by the cooperative attitude of the War Department.”27 But once Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, communications with the United States on defence issues virtually stopped. But the German invasion of Western Europe in spring 1940 made American officials more receptive to the notion of military talks with Canada. On 17 June 1940, the Canadian military staff in Washington had floated the idea of joint talks on the defence of North America, opening the door to informal, secret meetings which began on 11 July.28 Canadian and American staff officers met in Washington to discuss several topics, including weapons shipments to Canada from American manufacturers and joint defence planning for the Atlantic coast. Little was accomplished in these talks, as the Americans did not want to sign any formal agreements given American isolationism and the fact that Canada was at war while the United States was not. The first binding agreement, however, followed soon afterward.

On 17 August 1940, Roosevelt invited King to a meeting in Ogdensburg, New York. King went without consulting his military or political advisors other than bringing a list of desired military equipment that Ralston had provided. King and Roosevelt discussed the creation of a joint binational civilian and military board that would formulate defence plans for the Northwestern Hemisphere. As a result, the Permanent Joint Board on Defence was created.29 This agreement was reached without British involvement. Certain that King had overstepped his authority, on 22 August 1940, Churchill sent an angry telegram to King about the agreement:

It would be better to do without the destroyers sorely as we need them than to get drawn into a haggling match between the experts as to what we ought to give in return for munitions. Immediately people would say how much are they worth in money and is not advantage being taken of our being hardpressed. Any discussion of this kind would be injurious to the great movement of events. Each should give all he can without any invidious comparison. I am deeply interested in the arrangements you are making for Canada and America’s mutual defence. Here again there may be two opinions on some of the points mentioned. Supposing Mr. Hitler cannot invade us and his Air Force begins to blench under the strain all these transactions will be judged in a mood different to that prevailing while the issue still hangs in the balance.30

Canadian historian Desmond Morton was partially right when he claimed “that Ogdensburg represented Canada’s transfer from one empire to another.”31 Canada and the United States had moved closer together—a relationship that influenced future Canadian decision-making in the Pacific.

Given this alliance context, by the summer of 1941, Canada wished to support American policies in the Pacific. In July, the Department of External Affairs cabled the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs about Japanese designs on French Indochina, stating that the “Canadian government concur in your conclusion that, in present situation, we should co-operate completely with the United States in the policy they appeared to be prepared to adopt in face of Japanese move on Indo-China.”32 Canada was told on multiple occasions that Britain intended to follow America’s lead when it came to Japan. Indeed, while worried that Japan might attack Thailand, the Secretary of State Dominion Affairs would not act without first consulting with Washington.33

Not only was Canada united with Britain in supporting the United States, King also actively worked to bring the United States into the fight against Nazi Germany. Two of King’s speeches in 1941 represented such efforts. The first speech was delivered on 4 September before many dignitaries including Churchill, during King’s visit to London. King spoke about many elements of Canada’s war effort, including the fact that Canadian soldiers had not yet engaged in combat: “You all know how eager our Canadian soldiers are for action against the enemy. I cannot make too clear that the policy of the Canadian government is to have our troops serve in those theatres where viewing the war as a whole, it is believed their services will count most.”34 The majority of the speech, though, discussed bringing the United States into closer defence relations with Britain. King spoke of a “northern bridge,” comprised of Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, and the British Isles, to be jointly defended by Canada and the United States. Also noting that the United States and Canada would defend each other should the need arise, King ended his speech by pleading that “it must now be wholly clear that if the new world order, based upon freedom, is to assume definite shape, this can only be effected through the leadership of the British Commonwealth of Nations and the United States of America working in whole- hearted co-operation toward this great end.”35 In his diary, King detailed that “we had a very exacting time in deciding on the wisest phraseology with respect to the reference to America declaring her intention to prevent Germany’s conquest of Britain. I think perhaps I have gone as far as it is wise for me to go. It is a great responsibility and I only regret that I feel so very tired and worn as not to be able to think clearly or to give to the work the spirit that it merits.”36 On the day of the speech, King wrote “I begin to wonder how it appeal in Britain, the United States and Canada. I am not without belief that there is something of inspiration in it may be of some small help.”37 King believed the speech to be “a real triumph.”38 Recounting his meeting with Churchill after the speech, King said his goal involved “stirring the Americans” to action.39

Upon returning to Canada, King, upon listening to a radio speech by Roosevelt, had reason to believe that his plan was succeeding. As he recorded in his diary, “one feels that the President’s declaration [Roosevelt’s shoot on-sight policy for U-boats] marks a real place of new beginning in the world situation. America has moved up into the front line at least at sea.”40 King had clearly supported the American escalation in the Atlantic. The second speech took place in Ottawa on 17 September, only two days before the arrival of the British request telegram.

Discussing his recent visit to Britain, King said “I had several purposes in view. The first was the fulfillment of a natural desire to visit the United Kingdom at this time of war, and thus to emphasize, in the minds of the people in the Old Land, and before the world, Canada’s position at Britain’s side.” King wanted to show that Canada stood by Britain, and that it would do the same with the United States. King decried any nation that took a neutral stance in the war, a not so thinly veiled criticism of the United States. In a call for unity, King declared “the world’s free forces must act increasingly as one, in every aspect of the common cause, if humanity is to be saved a prolonged and bitter agony. Nothing less than one vast brotherhood of freedom will suffice to-day to preserve the world’s freedom.” Employing American history to speak to Americans, King recalled Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric from the 1850s that the United States could not continue to exist as half-free, half-slave, a clear appeal to the Americans to do more in the fight against Nazi Germany. King concluded that “we in Canada can make no more effective appeal to free men throughout the world than the appeal of our own example, as a people still removed from the heart of the struggle, yet putting forth our utmost effort.”41 King clearly wished to influence the Americans only days before the arrival of the 19 September request for troops.

Following the speech, King recorded in his diary, “I am sure the speech will be greatly appreciated in Britain, and I think it will not be unwelcome certainly for the President and the administration, and to most others in the United States.”42 Whether or not the American leadership was listening to King is beside the point, for King’s messages demonstrated that his actions were designed to influence America and to bring it into the war. The next day King despaired, “I really think the U.S. should come in before it is too late. Otherwise Britain may be crushed. Then there would be no saving of the peoples who are in a position to reconstruct the world. I am glad I have spoken out without fear.”43

King also detailed a conversation he had with American Minister to Canada, Jay Pierrepont Moffat, who was headed to Washington after the speech. King asked Moffat to tell Roosevelt that “Churchill and other Ministers quite convinced that Britain could not win the war unless the U.S. actively intervened.” King also wrote that “Moffat asked me just what I meant by speaking of the U.S. going into the war, whether I meant coming in, in all directions, at once or proceeding as the U.S. was now doing…I said I did not mean actual physical intervention, but rather something in the nature of a declaration on the President’s part, making clear that Germany could not win, and that the U.S. would see that they did not win.”44 Clearly wanting the United States to better help the Allied war effort, King needed to show Roosevelt that the British Empire would support American objectives in the Pacific in order to buttress both British and Canadian interests. All these concerns culminated as both Britain and the United States the increased measures to deter Japan from war in the summer of 1941. As noted in Chapter 2, American fears of Japanese expansion were growing in July 1941. A new policy of deterrence was adopted, the Philippine Army was strengthened, and new B-17 bombers were transferred to the Philippines. Britain matched this policy of military deterrence by strengthening defences in Malaya were strengthened.45 It was in this context that Grasett made his plea for Canadians to reinforce Hong Kong when he met Crerar in August 1941.

Military Intelligence and the Request

Strangely, military intelligence and analysis had almost no role in the Canadian decision- making process about the Hong Kong reinforcement. Nor have many writers provided much attention to the intelligence gap. Despite claims by some historians and writers that Canada did not possess a proper military intelligence apparatus, one did function during the Second World War.46 In addition to this small organization, the Canadian government and military received various forms of intelligence information from Britain. Stacey noted that that communications between Canadian and British military personnel also provided information. The Canadian Chief of the General Staff was responsible for maintaining correspondence with British military attachés as Canada had no attachés of it own. These connections provided the Canadian General Staff with copies of War Office and the Air Ministry reports.47 King, in his dual role as External Affairs Minister, also received regular updates from Dominion Affairs on British policy in the Far East and intelligence gathered about the Japanese.

The Far Eastern Combined Bureau (FECB) supplied information and analysis about Japan’s actions and intentions. As historian John Ferris has observed, Canada had access to most FECB documents, including weekly situation reports, assessments of various developments matters, counterintelligence circulars from the Far East Security Service, plus materials about wireless intelligence.48 The FECB was not the only intelligence source provided by Britain, as official communications were an important source of intelligence for Canada. Stacey noted the importance of this link: “In the nature of things, Canada received far more information than she was able to impart; and if her government was in general well informed about the situation in the world at large, it owed this in great part to its membership in the Commonwealth network.”49

Relatively well informed about conditions in the Pacific in 1941, Canada supported America and Britain when they froze Japanese assets in July, which was a shock for Japan’s Foreign Minister.50 A telegram from 12 September from the office of the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs was typical of the information given to Canada. While Britain believed that Japan was moving away from the Axis, “this does not mean renunciation of Japanese ambitions.” The telegram concluded by saying that “it remains very unlikely that extremist elements could be restrained from exploiting any favourable opportunity for further expansion in the north or south.”51 Canada was given much intelligence by September 1941 but failed to use it properly.

Canada had some intelligence analysis capabilities of its own. Historian Timothy Wilford has argued that the Canadian intelligence gathering apparatus, far more advanced then previously thought, was very much involved in the Allied intelligence community. Still, Wilford has noted that many improvements to intelligence gathering that would have provided better access to Japanese signals came too late.52 Canada also employed a British intelligence officer with Far East experience in its Pacific Command headquarters located in British Columbia. Colonel B.R. Mullaly, Britain’s former military attaché in Tokyo, provided analysis on developments in Japan in September 1941. In his 15 September report, Mullaly remarked that the creation of a new Japanese defence headquarters was “a development of great significance” and an indication that the Emperor was assuming direct control over the Japanese military. As the government-controlled Japanese press was softening toward Americans, this change could be viewed as a “climbing down” from Japan’s more contentious positions. On 27 September, Mullaly averred that as “the present appears to be a period of waiting…the situation is, therefore, one of extreme delicacy for it involves, for Japan, the all-important consideration of ‘face.’”53 Mullaly claimed the intelligence reports indicated that Japan’s “southward advance has, for the time being at any rate, been halted.” And while Japanese troops were moving from central and south China to Manchuria, an attack upon the Soviet Union was unlikely given American and British support for the Soviets.54

Intelligence failures were the hallmark of Allied efforts in late 1941. By mid-November, British leaders, made aware that Japan would attack somewhere, strongly believed that the target was Thailand.55 The office of the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs informed Canada of this development on 30 November as well as the breakdown in the American-Japanese discussions to avoid war, observed that “an aggressive move is expected by Japan within the next few days.”56 As Ferris has highlighted, from 6-8 December, London and “the FECB expected the Japanese fleet in the Gulf of Siam to stop in an Indochinese port, or else to enable an assault on Bangkok, rather than to attack Malaya.” The FECB believed that Japan was preparing for an all- out war in April 1942.57 Limited independent Canadian assessment about events in the Far East negatively affected Canada’s ability to make informed decisions about the use of Canadian troops.

Crerar’s Role in the Acceptance of the Request

Individual preconceptions and experiences heavily influenced the Canadian acceptance of Britain’s reinforcement request. As Granatstein correctly has asserted that “Crerar was unquestionably the most important Canadian soldier of the war,”58 it is vital to comprehend why Crerar acted as he did. Crerar’s connection to the Hong Kong reinforcement certainly contributes to Granatstein’s claim, as Crerar’s biases and experiences affected his support for the reinforcement proposal. Highlighting various military and non-military factors for supporting the reinforcement, Crerar averred in his written testimony to the Hong Kong Inquiry in February 1942 that “the proposed action whatever the Military risks of the enterprise, needed to be examined from the broad view as to its contributory value to the eventual winning of the war. In war, high governmental policy must frequently override local military considerations.” That Crerar was a politically conscious soldier is evident as he added that:

In the case of the despatch of Canadian troops to Hong Kong…political and moral principles were involved, rather than military ones, and on such a basis, the matter required to be considered and decided by the War Committee of the Cabinet. In my opinion, the resulting decision was the proper one in the circumstances, and I so remarked at that time, both to the Minister and Associate Minister of National Defence.59

His study of Hong Kong’s security situation while at the Imperial Defence College (IDC) in 1934 provided Crerar with a better understanding of Hong Kong’s defence problems than any other Canadian soldier. Crerar’s IDC working group had concluded that defending Hong Kong was dependent on the Royal Navy arriving, while acknowledging also that the colony required defence by a land force to maintain British prestige in East Asia.60 Despite what Crerar knew about the issues facing Hong Kong, he still supported the reinforcement for various political and strategic reasons. Paul Dickson, Crerar’s biographer, has argued that Crerar’s support for the Hong Kong reinforcement must be understood in the context of Crerar’s desire to expand the Canadian Army. As “public confidence was important to army expansion for recruiting purposes, morale, and not least, political support,”61 Hong Kong offered Crerar an opportunity to gain more backing from the Canadian people especially as a general malaise was affecting Canada’s war effort.62 As placing Canadian troops in a position to better buttress the Allied war effort would show value and gain Cabinet support for a larger Army, Crerar, very aware of public pressure to get more Canadian troops more involved in the war, took this into account when making his decision.63

Crerar’s correspondence with General Andrew McNaughton in 1940 and 1941 provides valuable insight into Crerar’s motivations. Shortly after taking over as CGS, Crerar told McNaughton in August 1940 that “I found, as I had expected, that the pressure of public opinion ‘to get on with the war’ had developed to such a height that there was a tendency on the part of the Government in general, and this Department in particular, to go in all directions at highest possible speed.” Desiring a more coordinated Canadian war effort, Crerar also wondered “whether the next few months will not find you out of the U.K. and in some other area of operations where the Canadian Corps can better demonstrate its fighting power.”64 In a 19 May 1941 letter to McNaughton, Crerar admitted that “although the public here realize the vitally important role the Canadian Corps is playing in the United Kingdom, there is a not unnatural desire to see the Canadian in the headlines these days by some demonstration of their fighting abilities.”65 By June 1941, Crerar, frustrated by political attacks, decried the “public impatience with the unspectacular, but most necessary, activities” of training. He requested that McNaughton give an “interview” to Canadian reporter Ross Monroe to highlight the important role of individual training to offset some of the concerns of those at home.66 Crerar’s use of quotation marks demonstrated that he wanted McNaughton’s interview to be little more than propaganda piece designed to induce public obtain support for the individual training of soldiers. In summer 1941, Crerar had attempted to influence public opinion through a press campaign by cultivating press contacts to present the positives of the training activities.67 On 11 August 1941, Crerar told McNaughton that he wanted to expand the Army in 1942. Displeased by a series of newspaper articles in The Globe and Mail that assailed the Army’s organization, Crerar believed that George Drew, a fiercely partisan Conservative Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament, was behind the articles. Crerar wrote “the Canadian Army is more vulnerable to political attack than the other two Services for the simple reason that owing to factors which none of us can control the Canadian Corps has been tied down to a passive defensive role in the United Kingdom and has thus been unable to satisfy the public in its demands for sensational action.”68

Ralston’s Role in the Acceptance of the Request

While Ralston’s part in “C” Force’s creation is often neglected in the writing about Hong Kong, a passage from King’s diary from September 1941 provides an excellent insight into the defence minister’s motivations. As King noted, “it seemed to me, however, on his own account that he [Ralston] even more than McNaughton is anxious to get our men into active service beyond the British Isles.”69 Ralston’s desire to involve Canadian troops in combat was quite clear. Although King and the War Committee waited for Ralston’s opinion about Britain’s request, Associate Minister for National Defence for Air Charles Power claimed that Ralston was not solely responsible for making the decision.70 King wanted to delay any decision, perhaps because, as Perras has noted, “King once told a British diplomat ‘that his experience of political life had taught him that any success he attained had been due far more to avoiding action rather than taking action.’”71 King’s deflection did not work given Ralston’s understanding of the war coupled with his character. Historian Daniel Byers has claimed that Ralston had a strong sense of duty, especially to those who served under him in the military and government.72 In a 1945 letter to Crerar, Ralston made his views known: “You’ve had honours, lots of them, but the greatest happiness you will get, if I know anything about you, is the modest satisfaction in your own heart that you have done a good job.”73 Given his sense of duty, Ralston’s support for the reinforcement was hardly surprising.

During the 1942 Hong Kong Inquiry, Ralston testified that his reasons for supporting the reinforcement derived from the original British telegram. For Ralston, the “biggest point to me was that it appeared evident that furnishing of this Force might prove [to be a] useful factor in causing Japan further to weaken her attitude toward U.S. and Britain.”74 As for claims that the reinforcement would improve the morale of Hong Kong’s garrison, it “seemed to me to make, as my colleagues have said, a decision in the affirmative almost inevitable unless there was some overriding factor made that impossible or undesirable.”75 Ralston was not the only Cabinet member to regard acceptance of the request as a near certainty. Power, acting Minister of Defence during Ralston’s absence, believed that acceptance was the only recourse. As a veteran of the First World War, Power admitted that “what did influence me to some extent was: Here were our partners in a great enterprise in the war, saying: ‘If you have any men to spare we would be glad to have them’; and in my opinion we had certain un-allotted battalions in Canada which could be spared, and I did not see any reason why they should not have them.”76 Ralston believed that accepting the request was nearly inevitable, exposing the cultural, political, and strategic thinking that influenced his decision-making. Describing his support for Hong Kong’s reinforcement in a matter of fact way, Ralston stated that “it was not a matter which required, in my view, extensive investigation. The factors were plain. It was a job which Canada ought to take on.”77

King’s Role in the Acceptance of the Request

Once called “the world’s champion fence sitter,”78 William Lyon Mackenzie king was a sensitive but ambitious man who formed few close relationships in his life, King held the office of Prime Minister for more than two decades. The arrival of the Dominions Office’s telegram’s placed King in a difficult position. If he did not support the reinforcement of Hong Kong and such opposition became public, likely more calls for conscription would ensue. Supporting the reinforcement was lower risk for him for a two battalion commitment was hardly a major matter capable of becoming a national issue. To comprehend King’s opinions about reinforcing Hong Kong, one must understand the First World War’s impact upon Canada. As historian Tim Cook has noted, “almost everything that King did as Canada’s war leader was measured against the possible effects of conscription—to prevent another national rupture.”79 Conscription hung over his own head like the sword of Damocles, threatening to fall on him at any moment. King desperately desired to avoid replicating the heavy casualties suffered by the Canadian Corps in the Great War that had led to conscription for overseas service and had split his beloved Liberal Party before the 1917 election. Throughout the conscription crisis, King had remained loyal to the Liberal Party, a stance that cost him his bid to re-enter Parliament. But his loyalty had been rewarded when he became the leader of the Liberal Party in 1919.80

King’s conduct of Canadian foreign relations during the 1920s and 1930s was often seen as anti-imperial. He famously rejected a British call for Canadian military support in 1922 when Turkish forces threatened the British position at Chanak on the Dardanelles. At Imperial Conferences, trying to maintain Canadian independence, he had resisted any language in agreements that might limit Canada’s ability to decide its own course. Aligning Canada more closely to British imperial needs was not King’s objective. In his study on Canadian foreign policy, James Eayrs has discussed King’s apprehension about working with Britain to build up a Canadian air force, with Eayrs concluding “he was not interested in defence but in deflection.”81 But once war came again in 1939, King could no longer simply deflect or avoid issues relating to Canada’s foreign policy and the British Empire.

In the war’s early days, King had not wanted any Canadian troops engaged in ground combat. Guided by the principle of limited liability, King wanted to support the United Kingdom through economic means such as arms and food production.82 He also supported creating a program to train British Commonwealth pilots in Canada, the much lauded British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.83 But King also had to balance support for the British Empire—demanded by large parts of English Canada—with following an independent foreign policy to maintain support in Québec. As Cook has pointedly remarked, “King’s gaze was always directed firmly on domestic issues in Canada, and he continued to know little, and seemingly care less, about what was occurring to the Canadian forces overseas.”84 King feared that specific foreign policy decisions and their outcomes could threaten his position as Prime Minister, a key issue as King was certain he was the only one who could keep Canada united in wartime.85 As King told Vincent Massey, “If I may say it myself, I think few will be found who had as clear a vision of the whole probable trend of events than myself.”86 As overseas conscription was the main risk to his position, King fought to block it at all costs.

But many Canadians, witnessing Canadian military inactivity, desired overseas conscription, a desire that both divided and bedevilled King, Ralston, and Crerar. King was especially motivated by the attacks of the pro-Conservative Party media. A major example of these attacks was a series of articles from Toronto’s The Globe and Mail in the summer of 1941. As historian Patrick Brennan has noted, “by the summer of 1941 the main Conservative newspapers were grumbling about a manpower crisis and the ‘failure’ of voluntary enlistment to raise the ‘necessary’ troops for overseas service.”87 In June 1941, Churchill had asked King to come to Britain for a meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. Reluctant to leave Canada, King told Churchill:

You will, I know agree that the Canadian unity is more essential to Canada’s war effort than all else. Already, my colleagues and I are beginning to be greatly embarrassed by efforts which are being made to undermine confidence in the present Administration and to compel, by organized effort the adoption of policies which it is well known the present Administration cannot and will not support. I cite conscription for overseas service as one example. We have, as you are aware, as respects Canada itself, compulsory military service. We believe we can raise through voluntary enlistment, the men required for overseas service. The conscription issue in 1917 raised heated passions of which the most unhappy memories still survive.88

King despised the Globe and Mail and its owner George McCullagh despite a good start to their relationship. Mark Bourrie, a Canadian journalist and author, has observed that McCullagh and many other journalists believed themselves to be ad hoc advisors to King in the 1920s. But an open break came between McCullagh and King after a strike hit the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ontario, in 1937. McCullagh believed that communists were behind the strike, as unionism, in his mind, was always the work of foreign communist agitators. King refused to crush the strike, thus straining his relationship with McCullagh. According to J.W. Pickersgill, a Department of External Affairs staffer attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, that troubled relationship was utterly ruined thanks to competing radio broadcasts at the war’s start. King chose to make his first broadcast about the war on 25 October 1939 in order to pre-empt a similar broadcast by McCullagh.90 This rivalry escalated as the war continued. In June 1940, King wrote that McCullagh “is part of the froth, if not of the scum of social life based on false standards of wealth”.91 Still, Pickersgill noted the following about King while on a trip to Toronto in October 1941:

[King] called on George McCullagh, the publisher of the Globe and Mail who was in the General Hospital. Although he did not admire McCullagh, Mackenzie King had a certain liking for him. When McCullagh referred to recent criticism of the Government in the Globe and Mail, he “told him I had not come in to discuss the matter at all but wished to see him and express my hope he might get better soon.”92

The release of a series of articles in The Globe and Mail in the summer of 1941 only made their relationship more contentious.

Another figure connected to The Globe and Mail articles of the summer of 1941 was George Drew. King also despised Drew, and his diary is replete with unflattering references to Drew. Drew had long been critical of King. Drew had been a vocal critic of the government during the Bren Gun Inquiry of 1938 that examined possible corruption related to weapons manufacturing contracts.93 But Drew’s ties to Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn, another man whom King despised, did not help. Hepburn and King had a falling out after the 1935 federal election and the animosity continued into the Second World War.94 When Drew was appointed leader of the Ontario Conservative Party, King had hoped Drew could be “perhaps the best man to fight Hepburn and to expose his shortcomings. He is, however, a terrible jingo, very narrow and extreme.”95 Drew was also connected to McCullagh, at least in King’s mind. As King recorded in his diary for January 17 1939:

I outlined to the Cabinet what I believe is the nature of the campaign being framed against us. There is going to be an effort to make up that we are censuring and silencing those who wish to deal with the country’s defence and help in European situation. There will be an effort to stir up anti-Fascist feeling as there was anti-Communist feeling in the Ontario elections. The “Globe” will be the main conspirator. McCullagh doubtless playing in with Drew, Massey and others.96

Nor was King’s focus on these two men a one-time occurrence as King noted in May 1939 “there is some relationship to seek to get Drew into power, on the part of the Globe, I have not the least doubt. Also McCullagh is lending himself to all the Tory blandishments possible.”97 Shortly after the declaration of war against Germany, King met Drew and Hepburn on 3 October 1939. When “Drew spoke particularly of not seeing that we were further ahead than in the previous war,” King “pointed out that in the previous war, everything was focused on expeditionary force. Today we had the naval services and the air services in addition, and the Pacific Coast as well as the Atlantic to consider.”98 Far from finished with his criticism of King, Drew assailed King directly in several letters. King was impacted by such condemnation as he wrote in November 1939 “I had, oddly enough, too been thinking of the last letter from Drew, from Toronto, an insulting note in which he had used the expression—had I been in Canada during the last war—something evidently intended to hurt (but which failed of its mark).”99 Despite King’s claims, clearly, Drew’s comments left their mark on the sensitive King.

Eighteen articles, entitled “War Problems Affecting Canada,” ran from 21 June to 16 August 1941 in The Globe. Although none of the pieces listed an author, the paper asserted that the articles were “prepared with and of consultations with recognized students of military science.”100 While political and military leaders speculated about the pieces, Power claimed that George Drew was the author.101 Crerar agreed, telling Power on 11 August that “The Globe and Mail claim that these articles were not written by Drew. On the other hand, there is ample evidence to indicate that Drew was sitting beside the man who was using the typewriter.”102 In a memorandum sent to Ralston, Crerar asserted that “the pity of it is that for political purposes Drew is attempting to throw grit in the wheels of our military machine. We have quite enough of this grit furnished by enemies of Canada without Canadians themselves adding to the supply.”103 Such claims have credence due to Drew’s military service in the First World War. In a 9 July 1941 letter to R.B. Hanson, leader of the federal Conservative Party, Drew said:

You may have seen the articles which have been appearing regularly in the Globe & Mail under the title: “War Problems Affecting Canada.” If you have read these you will perhaps have noticed that they contain some familiar suggestions. It must be admitted however that it is unbelievably difficult to get the general public to recognize the seriousness of the present situation. Through the many military connections I have had and through the contacts I have been able to keep active I can assure you that it is the consensus of informed opinion that our military situation could hardly be worse. What I mean by that is this. If it were any worse it would be so apparent to even the most uninformed layman, that the training methods are all wrong, that there would be an outburst of indignation, and it is not at all certain however that he have just about reached that point.104

Drew’s mention of “familiar suggestions” likely was a tongue-in-cheek reference that certainly hinted at his involvement. Another clue to Drew’s participation comes in a 11 July 1942 letter that sent to King in the aftermath of the Hong Kong Inquiry. Employing a hockey analogy, Drew said “it would be just as reasonable to suggest that men could be called trained hockey players who had been shown a hockey stick, a puck and goal post and had their use explained to them, as it would be to say that men who had received lectures on weapons had actually been trained to use those weapons.”105 A similarly worded analogy had appeared in The Globe articles. While that does not definitively prove Drew’s authorship, it strongly suggests that Drew helped to craft the articles.

The Globe claimed that its articles were “offered in a constructive spirit as a contribution to the very serious thinking we all must do about the problem of fitting the Canadian war effort into the highly revolutionary pattern of modern warfare.”106 But that claim rings hollow as the articles were designed to assail King and his government for their alleged misdirection of the war. The articles strongly implied that the Canadian Army’s inactivity meant that Britain thought that Canada’s Army was incapable of combat, or that King was avoiding combat, or both. The 26 June article directly blamed King for the use of obsolete training as “the only man who can deal effectively with this situation is the Prime Minister of Canada. His is the primary responsibility, and his also is the ultimate responsibility. There is no other before him requiring such urgent and energetic action.” Further, [t]he cloistered atmosphere of a Government community is not the place to inspire our General Staff with a sense of vigor, of movement and of space.”107

But The Globe articles offered few practical solutions to the problems they had identified. While The Globe claimed that mobile divisions could be used to repel a German attack on Canada, this was a highly unlikely scenario given Germany’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1941. Highlighting such an improbable occurrence was designed to boost public support for The Globe’s calls for more to be done for the war effort. Seeking to make complex issues more understandable, two Globe articles used hockey analogies. The first, possibly written by Drew, explained how highly trained troops will make better use of equipment than amateurs provided with the same material. The second observed that conscripts on home defence duty were not enthusiastic about enlisting in the active service. A lack of inspired leadership explained lack of enlistment for, much like a poorly performing hockey team, a leader/coach has to provide motivation.108 The use of hockey imagery clearly demonstrates that the articles were aimed at accruing popular support for changes in government, and that they were not written to aid Canada’s war effort.

The articles explored various issues. The 2 July article claimed “there should be no controversy over the principle of conscription. Those who are demanding conscription, and the Government which is protesting that there shall be no conscription, are fanning the air. There has been conscription since June, 1940.”109 This was a reference to the National Resource Mobilization Act that emerged after France’s collapse. Then there were enough volunteers for overseas service and no shortages were envisioned for the Canadian Army was not yet fighting.110 The 30 June article demanded the formation of an independent munitions organization to be run an industrialist who “should head an organization completely divorced from the politics and from the red tape of Government procedure.”111 The 16 July article blamed equipment shortages on a “lack of official vision” at National Defence Headquarters by officers stuck in unthinking routines.112 These disjointed articles were clearly designed to agitate King and boost the Conservative Party.

The articles had an impact on King. On 18 August, just before leaving for England, King wrote:

When I spoke with Cora [Lindsey, the wife of one of his cousins], she told me that she thought I was going overseas from what The Globe had in an editorial today, and mentioned that it was ill-natured, as most of The Globe editorials are. It made me, for the moment, sick at heart, in the light of all I have been striving to accomplish. However, The Globe represents the money interests, who wish to control. I will have my reply when war is over and my justification through the minds and hearts of the people, not for today only, but for a long time to come.113

After the British telegram requesting troops for Hong Kong arrived, King made another remark about The Globe and Mail in his diary, noting that the Toronto Star gave his new book, Canada at Britain’s Side, which he had written as a response to press criticism, a good review, in contrast “to the belittling and detracting editorials of the Globe and Mail.”114 The “War Problems Affecting Canada” articles clearly influenced King, and the possibility they were penned by Drew only exacerbated that influence.

Despite his earlier hesitation to visit Britain, King travelled there in August 1941. Stacey has argued that this reversal came because King resented being left out of the Atlantic Charter summit between Churchill and Roosevelt off Newfoundland in early August 1941: “It is evident that the realization that the two great powers were now leaving Canada and himself out of their councils had somewhat changed King’s attitude on Commonwealth questions.”115 King could not be seen doing nothing as the Globe articles had alleged. Instead, he wrote about his desire to visit the United Kingdom to demonstrate Canada’s commitment to Britain.116 But Canadian troops gave King a frosty reception in Britain, booing him as they had were bored and restless thanks to their garrison duties. The incident received attention in Canada. As reported in The Hamilton Spectator, “anxiety for activity on the part of the men was reflected in the enthusiastic reception given the Prime Minister when he shouted into the microphone: ‘I gather from the applause that many of you are impatient and would rather be engaged in more active operations than you are to-day.’” The article also noted that booing “was generally written off to-day as a soldierlike lark.”117 King recorded in his diary that “I feel that, with the Army altogether, I have made a poorer impression than on other sides. First, because of bad weather on different occasions when I have spoken out of doors; and, secondly, the unpreparedness for the different occasions, and of great fatigue from so much physical exertion. However, I think I have shown a friendliness and a readiness to hear what was to be said, which in the long run will do good.”118 The soldiers’ reaction exemplified the desire of Canadians to be fighting against Germany. Discontent at the lack of combat for Canada’s soldiers was not merely a talking point in the nation’s newspapers.

Upon hearing about “C” Force’s arrival in Hong Kong, King noted in his diary that “for Canada to have troops in the Orient, fighting the battle of freedom, marks a new stage in our history.”119 Despite such initial pride, King removed that diary entry, with historian John David Meehan speculating that “perhaps anticipating fallout from the decision, however, he later hid this entry for 15 November in a cupboard in the Laurier House library.”120 King most certainly did not like to face issues directly, a time-honoured strategy that failed him in the case of the Hong Kong decision. In his somewhat unfair biography of King, Stacey has provided an excellent summation of the Prime Minister’s war leadership: “He kept his eyes fixed primarily upon the domestic scene, intent upon maintaining the country’s precarious unity and his own and his party’s power.”121 Using his oft-employed tactic of delay in order to avoid problems, King had waited to consult with Ralston before accepting the Hong Kong request. A line from the poem ‘W.L.M.K.’ by F.R. Scott is a fitting epitaph for King’s propensity to delay and deflect: “Let us raise up a temple / To the cult of mediocrity / Do nothing by halves / Which can be done by quarters.”122


Carl Vincent has claimed that “C” Force’s men were “the only Canadian soldiers and possibly the only Commonwealth soldiers of the Second World War who were deliberately sent into a position where there was absolutely no hope of victory, evacuation, or relief.”123 Despite Vincent’s outlandish claim, there was no malicious intention behind accepting the request.

Mistakes were made, and the final decision was based on poorly defined assumptions, but no conspiracy existed. In this chapter, I have provided analysis on King’s actions to bring the United States into the war and how this mindset influenced his support for the Hong Kong reinforcement. Such a connection has never been made before in any academic work looking at the Canadian reinforcement of Hong Kong. A discussion of the intelligence analysis failures of the Canadian military is also a new addition to the historiography. Individual understandings of the war and Canada’s place within it were the reasons for the Canadian reinforcement of Hong Kong. The conversations between Grasset and Crerar are placed in a new context in this dissertation, as is the examination of the Globe and Mail articles and their influence upon King. Crerar and Ralston supported the request, but King displayed his usual reluctance to reach a decision in a timely manner. Years of experience and knowledge gained through war and politics led these men to reach the same conclusion. And when such concerns were combined with the political and institutional underpinnings of the Canadian war effort, there was no reason not to accept the 19 September request.


(Link to footnotes for this chapter)