by Brad St Croix

Chapter 8 — The Struggle for History: The Battle of Hong Kong and The Valour and the Horror

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

The legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong was scarred in the early 1990s by one of the most controversial historical works about the Canadian experience in the Second World War. The Valour and the Horror television documentary series placed the Hong Kong story in the public square in a dramatic way. Brian and Terence McKenna, the creators of the series, employed a usable past to fit their preconceived ideas about Canada’s war, leading to a plethora of historic errors and incorrect assumptions. Through the Hong Kong episode, entitled “Savage Christmas,” the McKennas spread the negative legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong to its largest audience in decades. As this episode was the first exposure to the battle for many Canadians, it left a lasting impression. The McKennas simply recycled old arguments made by Ontario politician George Drew in 1942 and presented them to the largest audience since the newspaper press coverage in the 1940s. As historian John Ferris has argued:

The claims of “Savage Christmas” about why 2000 Canadians were sent to Hong Kong are false. They are a Canadian version of the conspiracy theories that have surrounded American (and, to a lesser degree, British) decisions ever since 7 December 1941 – that [American President Franklin] Roosevelt or [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor and let it happen for their own fell purposes. The McKennas’ view does not even have the charm of novelty. The Canadian politician George Drew formulated and publicized virtually identical views in the 1940s, views that received wide currency in the press.1

An immediate wave of protest followed the release of the series, notably from veterans who were “furious over the seemingly distorted portrayal of their actions during the war, which in many cases were questioned against the moral relativism of the early 1990s.”2 Though the McKennas had defenders, they faced criticism from journalists, academics, and the Canadian public alike. But as the series’ other two episodes incited much more criticism, many assumed the McKennas were right about Hong Kong. In this chapter I argue that “Savage Christmas” was just as error prone as the other more controversial episodes in the series. This issue, plus Brian McKenna’s strident reactions to criticism, requires a full examination of the episode. Some good did emerge from the storm of controversy created by The Valour and the Horror, notably a scholarly revisionist response that focused on the reasons for the “C” Force’s despatch. But few tried to correct the errors made in the episode about the battle itself, a task that will be performed in this chapter. More positively, The Valour and the Horror kept the Hong Kong veterans in the collective memory of Canadians.

Academic Historians’ Criticism of Historical Documentaries

Academic historians often have criticized historical documentaries. As Canadian historian Robert Vogel has argued, “the question of evidence is really not important, films and television do not have to provide footnotes, indeed under no circumstances must the evidence, if indeed it is looked for at all, be allowed to sway the opinions and prejudices of the script writers.”3 Historian J.L. Granatstein has contended that “most of the media use history only to search for villainy, if they use it at all, or else they mangle it beyond recognition to prove a contemporary argument.”4 Canadian historian Tim Cook too has critiqued the creators of The Valour and the Horror, stating that “documentarians are not required to present all sides equally in a film, but it is poor history to pretend to do so. Historians must not try to hold the past accountable to the present: it must be understood in its own contextual system of values and historical events.”5 Such critiques all apply to The Valour and the Horror for its producers seemed intent on manipulating established historical practices to create their series. Vogel also touched upon the moral indignation of the McKennas:

The outrageous nature of this series, in my opinion, did not lie in the interpretation of events offered by the script writers, although it was difficult at times to know how these interpretations were reached. What emerged was that the writers believed themselves to be the first people on earth to have observed that war killed people and was therefore a ‘bad’ thing.6

While Vogel was surprised that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) would allow such a poorly researched program to appear on the network, his criticism was not directed at the network. Instead, it was “...levelled at the comparatively limited place that military history still has in our curricula and that as such each generation of graduates leaves our universities woefully ignorant of an important aspect of the past even when the individual student’s specialty in university was History.”7 Granatstein also critiqued the lack of history education, declaring that “a CBC series such as The Valour and the Horror, which pretended to be a dramatized documentary about Canadian participation in the Second World War, created a furor, largely because it had no context. Only federal agencies fundamentally unaware of history could have funded such programming.”8 While such criticisms are valid, they speak to a deeper issue for academic military historians: academics wield rather little influence on how Canadians view their history. More must be done to engage with the public to prevent further myth-making works like The Valour and the Horror from dominating how Canadians’ understand their history.

The Valour and the Horror

Australian historian Craig Wilcox has offered two insights about the Australian relationship with Britain in the post-colonial world that also apply to Canada. As Wilcox has claimed, “Australians were inclined to imagine themselves as having been victims of the Empire rather than privileged provincial members of it. A belated war of independence from Britain began, fought on the cultural front and against an unresisting, indeed moribund enemy. One of the war’s key campaigns was a struggle for the collective memory of wars fought in khaki. It ended in resounding victory. Defeats such as Gallipoli and Singapore came to be interpreted in magazines, novels and films as the consequence of British bungling, British bastardry, even British betrayal.”9 A better description of The Valour and the Horror cannot be written.

The Valour and the Horror, the most controversial documentary series in Canadian military history, filmed three episodes about the Battle of Hong Kong, the Normandy campaign, and Bomber Command’s aerial offensive against Germany. The series, co-produced by Galafilm and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), received substantial funding from numerous sources. The CBC invested $960,000, Radio Canada $200,000, NFB $400,000, Telefilm Canada $900,000, the distributor Alliance International put in $200,000, while Galafilm added $180,000.10 Both of the McKenna brothers had extensive journalistic experience. Brian McKenna was a founding producer of CBC’s current affairs program, The Fifth Estate, Terence was a correspondent on The Journal.11 But such experience did little to buttress the validity of the series.

“Savage Christmas”

When the Senate of Canada’s hearings over The Valour and the Horror paused for the summer of 1992, Brian McKenna called “the hearings blasphemy and said he’s been through ‘an ordeal by fire.’ Because people can’t find errors in his films, he said, they want to smear him, the independent producers, Galafilm of Montreal and the CBC.”12 Brian McKenna left no room for debate about the series’ interpretations of historical events, nor did he display an openness to engage in the normal back and forth debate that often accompanies the release of historical works. Despite McKenna’s ridiculous claim that the hearings amounted to blasphemy, a critique of the Hong Kong episode is not only accepted but needed.

“Savage Christmas” aired on 12 January 1992. It blended footage of two Hong Kong veterans visiting Japan and Hong Kong with both archival film and footage of actors reading statements supposedly said by participants and witnesses to the battle in December 1941. The episode presented the Hong Kong reinforcement as a conspiracy between the British and Canadian governments to send Canadian troops into harm’s way. Noting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s January 1941 rejection of a call to reinforce Hong Kong and then his later shift to support reinforcement, the filmmakers claimed that Churchill, unwilling to risk British lives, tricked Canada into providing troops. The filmmakers also claimed that “the details of what happened to these soldiers were, for a long time, suppressed by the Canadian government” and “the terrible story is known to very few Canadians”13 While the latter claim may be true, the claim of suppression is patently false as made evident by the Inquiry in 1942, the publication of the official summary in 1948, and the release of the official history on the battle in 1955, just ten years after the war’s end. This was hardly suppression. While the federal government oft tried to downplay the events surrounding the battle, its failures to do so ach time it failed brought more attention to the story of Hong Kong. Nor were veterans prevented from telling their stories. By claiming that few Canadians knew about the Battle of Hong Kong, the McKennas endeavoured to establish themselves as the only legitimate authority about this sad chapter of Canadian history.

This episode was the least controversial of the series for the McKennas did not criticize “C” Force’s role in the fighting, and they presented the suffering endured by the troops in Japanese captivity sympathetically. Also, because the Hong Kong veterans were far less numerous than their Bomber Command and Normandy compatriots, they had less of a voice in the broader debate about the Second World War. According to a Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association teaching plan, “Savage Christmas” was “by comparison, largely ignored. The lack of response seemed to mirror the Canadian attitude to the entire Pacific situation.”14 But this did not mean the episode lacked major faults. The claims made in the episode about “C” Force’s despatch have been debunked by many academics, efforts that will receive attention below. However, such literature often did not discuss the actual Battle for Hong Kong.

The coverage of the fighting in “Savage Christmas” included numerous historical errors and took creative liberties by using actor portrayals. The filmmakers claimed that the Royal Rifles were defending the beaches when the Japanese landed on Hong Kong Island on 18 December. This assertion was incorrect for the 5/7 Rajputs, a British Indian Army unit, engaged the Japanese landing while the Royal Rifles sat in a reserve position. Only one platoon of the Royal Rifles was sent forward to the coastline, something the filmmakers would have known if they had read official historian C.P. Stacey’s account of the battle.15 The episode’s narrator claimed that Sergeant John Payne had telephoned headquarters to report the Japanese landings, only to be denied artillery support by an arrogant British officer who said the Japanese could not possibly be on the island. As the actor who portrayed Payne stated, “we’re commanded by these British imperial types. Some of them just don’t trust us colonials. He actually told me that I must be dreaming.”16 While a version of these events did occur, Payne was nowhere near the initial Japanese landing. With this scene, the filmmakers demonstrated their anti-British views plus their willingness to manipulate historical events to fit their agenda.

The McKennas also present the Canadians as fighting in isolation for they rarely mention the British, Indian, or local troops battling in the colony. The filmmakers were not alone in this predilection for, as Tony Banham, a Hong Kong-based historian, has noted, this omission was a common occurrence in the Canadian literature on the battle.17 The use of actor portrayals in the episode was also troubling and misleading. Payne, for example, having been executed after a failed escape attempt from a POW camp, could not have relayed the words used in the episode. The portrayal of Nursing Sister Kay Christie is another example of how events were created for television drama. Shown with tears welling in her eyes while stating that lectures given on route to Hong Kong instructed the men how to load a rifle, Christie reputedly stated “honestly, it’s just appalling.” as she looked away from the camera in disgust.18 But the filmmakers failed to mention that Christie had told her interviewers that the troops were only going for garrison duty. This segment clearly was filmed to evoke audience emotions.

The Hong Kong episode is rife with simple errors that could have been avoided with proper research. A tracking shot of the hills north of Kowloon included a voiceover narration that wrongly explained that the Gin Drinker’s Line was a white ribbon of concrete. But the shot actually featured the MacLehose Walking Trail, not the Gin Drinker’s Line, which was covered in white dust and ran a similar course to the defensive line.19 As previously mentioned, this defensive line was a loosely connected system of concrete machine gun bunkers, trenches, and other strong points. As Banham noted, the filmmakers did not even bother to visit Hong Kong in order to study the colony’s complex topography.20 The narrator described the Gin Drinker’s Line as the British Army preparing for a First World War-style battle. But the Gin Drinker’s Line had never been intended to be a permanent and impregnable defensive line. Instead, its purpose was to slow any Japanese attack upon Hong Kong. As Canadian historian David Bercuson has argued, the fortifications in the New Territories did not mean the British commanders thought they were refighting the Great War. Fortifications simply were prepared positions to help resist an attack.21

The episode’s depiction of the fighting was where most of the misinterpretations and errors were made. The mainland’s evacuation was wrongly presented in the episode as a hurried, unordered process.22 Several errors were made in relation to Company Sergeant Major John Osborn’s actions that earned him a Victoria Cross. The filmmakers claimed that he was defending the Wong Nei Chong Gap when Osborn, in fact, was on Mount Butler. They also claimed that Osborn died two days before Christmas when he was killed on the 19th, very odd mistakes considering the citation for Osborn’s Victoria Cross contains the correct data.

Furthermore, given the McKennas’ focus on the bravery of individual Canadian soldiers during the battle, one would think such details would have been important to their research team.

Finally, the narrator claimed that on Christmas Day, the Royal Rifles were “ordered by the British to make a suicide charge to retake the high ground around St. Stephen’s. They were annihilated.” While that attack did occur, the statement’s tone and sentiment are misleading. Brigadier Cedric Wallis was British, and the filmmakers’ statement provided no context about the attack, thus making it appear as if Canadians were purposefully sent to their deaths by callous imperial masters. The attack was not designed to be a suicide charge. Furthermore, Sergeant George MacDonell recounted that his unit initially pushed the Japanese back, only to be overwhelmed subsequently by superior Japanese numbers and firepower. Calling attention to these errors is not merely academic nit picking of popular history. While varied interpretations are inevitable in any historical debate, getting key details wrong—such as the position of an infantry battalion—demonstrates the lack of basic research that went into the episode and allows one to question the historical validity of the documentary series.

The McKennas’ Motivations for Making The Valour and the Horror

A family connection to the First World War inspired the McKennas to create The Valour and the Horror. When Brian McKenna and his daughter attended the 1987 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Westmount Cenotaph in Montréal, his daughter noticed the name of Adrian Harold McKenna, a soldier killed in Belgium in 1916. Adrian McKenna was Brian’s paternal great uncle. His interest piqued, “McKenna went to Westmount Library, where he asked for a record of those named on the memorial. There was none. The research librarian suggested City Hall, but no records were found there either. ‘They didn’t know who the men were. Their stories were lost.’” The authors of the companion book, of the same name, to the series wrote “this was the voice from the past that made Brian McKenna determined to learn all he could about the Canadian experience of war.”23 He felt compelled to seek out stories about the common soldier.

But the inspiration behind Brian McKenna’s choice of subject matter began well before his discovery of his family connection to the Great War. In a podcast around the 2016 release of Newfoundland at Armageddon, about the Newfoundland Regiment’s attack at Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the Somme Offensive, McKenna told the interviewer that he was bullied as a child. McKenna tell the interviewer “because I was pushed, I push back” The interviewer responded with “so we can blame the bullies, is that what you’re saying” McKenna responded “yeah.” It was not just his childhood that inspired his filmmaking. As a newspaper editor at Loyola College in the 1960s, McKenna, who protested the Vietnam War on the university campus, claimed the College tried to shut him down.24 McKenna’s experiences with the anti-war movement of the 1960s clearly influenced his journalism. After college, he was assigned to cover the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Normandy in 1969. In 1992, journalist Ted Shaw wrote that on this trip McKenna “frowned on the reminiscences of former generals and old war correspondents. The story he filed suggested it was better to forget about old wars.” But criticized for such claims and having a change of heart about how war should be discussed, McKenna returned to Normandy five years later to “make amends” for his previous remarks about the Second World War. This time, he told the stories of the enlisted men and women, not the generals and lawmakers, “the real story of war — an ugly, inglorious story.”25 McKenna shifted for a general anti-war viewpoint to a focus on the common soldier. What continued was his anti-leadership viewpoint.

Brian’s first documentary about Canadian military history was released in the late 1980s. He convinced his brother Terence to jointly write The Killing Ground, a documentary about the First World War, which aired on the CBC in November 1988.26 Displaying many of the same tropes, themes, and production elements found in The Valour and the Horror, the program employed actors in costume to read supposed historical accounts of veterans. The documentary had a clear anti-war, anti-leadership, and anti-British message.27 In a 1992 article for Maclean’s, Brian McKenna explained that:

To bring the story to a new generation, we proposed to the CBC a production that came to be known as The Killing Ground, a two-hour film documenting the First World War. Despite its often controversial nature, it was acclaimed by veterans, critics and the military as a fair and moving assessment. After its broadcast near Remembrance Day, 1988, we investigated the possibility of doing similar films on the next war. We made a deliberate decision to base the films on the accounts, not of generals or historians, but on the stories told by ordinary Canadian men and women who saw combat, and to cover the story as if it were happening now.28

In their response to the CBC Ombudsman Report on The Valour and the Horror, the McKennas explicitly linked the two series, asserting that “The Killing Ground employed exactly the same techniques of documentary and drama as The Valour and the Horror. This film on the First World War was the template for the three films on the Second World War.”29

Brian McKenna made numerous dubious claims when explaining the inspiration behind The Valour and the Horror. Some of his comments, bordering on paranoia, implied there was a conspiracy by historians and others to keep the war’s true nature hidden. In a January 1992 article published just before the release of The Valour and the Horror, Brian asserted that “historians don’t understand what we journalists understand fundamentally, that if you ask the toughest questions, everyone will be served and there will be liberation.” Further, “historians screwed up in telling us about the war. If you fail to tell the whole story, then you’re lying.”30 In 1994, discussing the telling of stories about the war, McKenna alleged, “‘If we don’t do it, who else will?’” He claimed “the field will be left to the propagandists. The stories of our war are too important to be left just to the military historians and the Legion.”31 Brian “wanted to strip away the glory...and discover what really happened to the people who were there.”32 McKenna postulated that some sort of conspiracy of silence existed around the war, a claim so outlandish that it must have been made to garner attention for the series.

Many academic historians have offered their opinions on the McKennas’ motivations to create the series. According to Jonathan F. Vance, the McKennas had not done anything especially novel:

When the McKenna brothers produced their now notorious documentary on Canada’s war effort, they chose to focus on the disastrous defence of Hong Kong, the disastrous raid on Nuremberg, and the disastrous battles for Verrières Ridge. They were strongly criticized for their choices, but the McKennas were simply articulating Canada’s social memory of the war, a memory characterized by a marked reluctance to celebrate success. Many Canadians know of the failed raid on Dieppe. How many know of the success of Canadian soldiers at Ortona or in Operation Wellhit?33

Having declined to help research the series, Canadian military historian Terry Copp declared that “it was clear from our previous conversations that he [Brian McKenna] had already decided what he wanted to say and the job of researcher was to provide material that could be used in developing his personal interpretation of the war.”34 Historians S.F. Wise and David J. Bercuson concluded that the series intended “to tell the true story of Canadian participation in the war for the first time, a story of idealistic young men betrayed by their commanders. The McKennas seemed to be trying to condemn the war, and to praise those who were not professional soldiers but had volunteered to fight out of the purest motives.”35 The McKennas were clearly influenced by author Carl Vincent’s 1981 book as they thank Vincent in the credits for contributing to the episode.36 As noted previously, Vincent’s poorly researched and overly nationalistic book blamed numerous government and military officials for sending Canadian troops to Hong Kong. In their response to the Ombudsman Report, the McKennas called Vincent the leading scholar on Hong Kong.37 But Vincent’s very thin bibliography only listed thirteen primary documents taken from British records, and Vincent did not accurately portray the strategic context surrounding “C” Force despatch to Hong Kong. Relying more on emotion than actual historical research, Vincent’s book was firmly entrenched in the “poor bloody infantry” narrative. Vincent represented “C” Force’s as a poorly led, untrained rabble, a theme that the McKennas emulated in their documentary. Not only did the filmmakers ignore much evidence, the source they relied on was poorly constructed.

CBC Investigation into the Series

The controversy over The Valour and the Horror incited several investigations into the series. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, receiving complaints about the series, launched an investigation that “concluded that the programs met fully the ‘balance’ and fairness provisions of federal broadcast regulations...”38 The CBC conducted its own inquiry into The Valour and the Horror, appointing William Morgan, a long- time CBC producer, as ombudsman. Morgan, using commentaries from historians David Bercuson, Sydney Wise, and Denis Richards, also consulted two other figures suggested by the McKennas: Stephen Harris, a historian at the Department of National Defence, and Vincent. Making an important distinction, Morgan reiterated that Vincent was an archivist and an author, not a historian.39 Morgan also claimed that while Vincent found the overall program to be accurate in theme and content, Vincent objected to the “knowingly” descriptor used for the government’s actions of putting Canadians in harm’s way.40

Detailing several CBC policies and standards that applied to the series, Morgan noted that anyone working on a program for the CBC must abide by its journalist policies—notably, notions of accuracy, integrity, and fairness. While accuracy was defined as information that “conforms with reality” and is not misleading or false, Morgan added that “accuracy, however, is such a requirement, and not always an easy one to fulfil. Accuracy is not achieved simply making sure that the facts chosen for presentation are right. To be accurate mean ensuring that all of the relevant facts are present.” Morgan, in other words, had highlighted the need to provide historical context. Integrity meant that information was truthful and not altered to justify a conclusion. Fairness was also defined as “the information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view…”41 Explaining the proper use of dramatized segments and actors, Morgan opined that “journalistic programs must not as a general principle mix actuality (visual and audio of actual events and of real people) with a dramatized portrayal of people or events.”42

For Morgan, “freedom of expression [was not] an issue in this review. The key creative people involved in the series are familiar with CBC journalism policies and aware that anyone producing a program for the Corporation, whether independently or as a member of staff, accepts the constraint of abiding by those policies.”43 But while Morgan found “serious fault with the programs, I want to stress, as I tried to do earlier, that programming which raises legitimate questions about our an important part of CBC’s mandate to inform.” Morgan also believed that the McKennas had not deliberately tried to distort facts or to mislead the audience.44 Still, Morgan took issue with several aspects of the series, including the employment of actors in “Savage Christmas.” When they invoked Roger Cyr’s ‘lambs to the slaughter’ assertion, the producers left out Cyr’s comment, made in a non-broadcasted interview, that the government despatched “C” Force based on the information of the day. The depiction of Kay Christie also omitted important context. Morgan observed that while Christie told the McKennas that she recalled hearing rifle instruction on route to Hong Kong, she also that the troops were sent to Hong Kong for garrison duty, not to fight.45 Responding to the McKennas’ rebuttal about the Ombudsman Report, Morgan noted that the phrase “where to put the bullet in” was not found in the interview transcript.46 As for the producers’ claim that Christie had ironically commented upon poor British and Canadian government planning, Morgan commented “there is no sense of irony in the printed transcript of the interview with Ms. Christie and the transcript indicates that, after rumours onboard ship from Vancouver, it was confirmed to Ms. Christie and others officially, while still docked in Honolulu, that their destination was the garrison in Hong Kong.”47 As the CBC policy was to discourage the use of dramatic elements in journalistic programming, Morgan concluded:

Even if one takes the position that, because of a number of the people the producers considered it necessary for the audience to hear from are dead, the use of drama segments to present their words may be justified, one cannot avoid the fact that the use of drama in these programs had the effect of helping to create other serious problems and distortions…I believe it is clear why I find that the series as it stands is flawed and fails to measure up to CBC’s demanding policies and standards.48

The McKennas responded to the CBC Ombudsman Report, one of their numerous attempts to defend their work. Labelling Morgan’s process “a miscarriage of justice,” they claimed that the historians selected by the ombudsman was “inappropriate and prejudicial towards the filmmakers” while none of the historians backing them—Brian Villa, Michael Bliss, or Graeme Decarie—were consulted by Morgan. They also claimed that Morgan declined to consult prominent American historian Carlo D’Este for the Normandy episode, or noted British writer Max Hastings about Bomber Command, or world-renowned British historian John Keegan. They also castigated David Bercuson as “a labour historian who has never written a book about the Second World War.”49 In an editorial published several days after the initial response to Morgan, while Brian McKenna assailed the legitimacy of the reports presented to Morgan, “however, our principal difficulty with Mr. Wise, as the only Canadian military historian consulted by the ombudsman, still stands.”50 Wanting the series to be judged by a panel of senior journalists, the McKennas were “confident that when fair minded observers review the Ombudsman’s report and our response, our programs will be vindicated.” The McKennas rejected Morgan’s Report, stating that “Mr. Morgan has been unable to find a single serious error in the entire six hours of television, and is bending over backwards to try and portray these minor nitpicking details as being of much greater significance than any reasonable observer would attach to them.”51 More outlandish claims came later as Brian McKenna reportedly told a Senate hearing that “complaints about his television series The Valour and the Horror constituted ‘blasphemy.’”52

Shortly after Morgan’s findings were released, several newspaper articles featured Brian McKennas’ objections to the CBC investigation. William Walker quoted McKenna as saying that “it would have taken the courage of the early morning for the CBC to stand up for this series on the eve of Remembrance Day. That courage was not there...What does this tell investigative reporters to do in the future? They would have to be suicidal to look at the Second World War...”53 John Ward of The Vancouver Sun quoted Brian McKenna as stating that “this film, despite the attempts to smear it today, remains as bullet-proof as it was the first day it was shown.”54 Whether McKenna’s claims originated from delusional insights or outright hubris is difficult to determine, but even years later, Brian McKenna believed “the original series was journalistically unimpeachable.”55 In 2008, McKenna continued to defend The Valour and the Horror as being sound history: “I think those films stand up exceedingly well. It was a ferocious battle for history. One of the things we were accused of at the time The Valour was the crime of presentism: that we were judging the events of the 1940s by the standards of the 1980s. I think we rebutted that...”56

The McKennas Have Defenders

The McKennas claimed that “for every historian attacking The Valour and the Horror, there is a serious historian supporting the series.”57 While this statement was simply untrue, the McKennas had defenders, including popular historian Pierre Berton who stated “they won’t be able to repeat this program, as they should, or show it in schools, as it should be.”58 Canadian novelist Timothy Findley also averred that “if it were not controversial, it would be worthless; it would be mere propaganda. Propaganda, however, is what its opponents would have it be. Not to put too fine a point on it, they would prefer that it had lied. They object to its truths.”59 The McKennas also had some support within academia. In their 2012 work, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift claimed that “what was revealing about the storm in Canada was the extent to which militarism had ruled out of question any critical evaluation of Canadian war-making.”60 As will be explored below, the critiques of the series were not about the McKennas’ right to speak on such topics. Rather, the issue was their failure to present good history using proper methods. Despite the support, Brian McKenna did himself no favours. As archivist Ernest Dick noted, “unfortunately this tendency of Brian McKenna’s to jump to contentious conclusions, rather than weighing all the evidence, fuelled many of the protests against ‘The Valour and the Horror.’”61

Initial Academic Responses to The Valour and the Horror

Bercuson and Wise edited a book, The Valour and the Horror: Revisited, which included their reports and responses from other historians. Without hyperbole, Bercuson and Wise declared that “the public debate over The Valour and the Horror was without precedent, since the quarrel appeared [to] be over the interpretation of an aspect of Canada’s immediate past.” They also noted that while historians disputed the facts put forward by the series, no one was arguing that the McKennas’ lacked the right to say them. Bercuson and Wise focused on the supposed conspiracy that covered up the truth about the war, an occurrence that the McKennas claimed to have discovered first.62 Discussing “Savage Christmas’s” claims of a conspiracy, Wise “was left with the impression, however, that the writers intended to plant the idea that there had been a conspiracy of silence about Hong Kong.”63 Also rejecting any notion of a conspiracy, Bercuson concluded that “Japan’s astute planners took advantage of the element of surprise to hit their enemy where he did not expect to be hit. That is war. It is not necessarily malfeasance and was certainly not in this case.”64 While William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government tried to downplay Hong Kong’s catastrophe, there was never an official conspiracy to cover up the events. Moreover, as the 1942 Inquiry made very clear, attempts to sideline Hong Kong only brought more attention to the battle.

As Wise and Bercuson offered, “we have found it more than ironic, however, that in claiming to demythologize the history of Canada’s role in the Second World War, the McKennas came up with no better answer than to replace the myths they alleged to have existed by a new myth of their own—the myth of betrayal by commanders who were either incompetent or downright evil.”65 Both historians, in their separate reports to the CBC ombudsman, labelled the series as poor history. As Wise concluded, “my comments in this report should make it clear that I do not regard this series as history, in any commonly accepted sense.” He allowed that the series might be a form of journalism and could be seen as a set of journalistic editorials if there had been any mention of this intention.66 Doubting that the producers had used any part of the “mountain of evidence” that ran counter to their argument, Bercuson declared that “Savage Christmas” cannot be judged to be either ‘fair’ or ‘objective’ or a responsible piece of history even as a historical film documentary.”67

In his response to “Savage Christmas,” historian John Ferris contended that as the British believed that war with Japan was not imminent, the intent had been simply to supplement Hong Kong’s garrison. As the arguments dominating the Hong Kong episode “stem entirely from Carl Vincent’s book, No Reason Why,” and asserting that “the McKennas use Vincent as an authority where he is not,” Ferris stated that Vincent—hardly an expert on British-Japanese relations—had not consulted enough archival documents and the extensive secondary literature about British and American policy toward Japan. Ferris noted that even the Japanese did not know they would go to war until after Canadians had left for Hong Kong.68 Laying out a well-reasoned argument about the deficiencies in the arguments presented by the McKennas, Ferris concluded:

If one must find villains behind the Hong Kong debacle, one need merely look in the mirror. The guilty men were a Canadian society and government that starved its military forces for years on end and then one day sent them off against well- equipped enemies, in pursuit not of national interests defined by external authorities. Hong Kong was not the first example of this phenomenon or the last. It happened in the First and Second World Wars, in the Korean War, and in the Gulf conflict. The risk was taken in NATO and everywhere Canadians have served as UN peacekeepers. It is the Canadian way of war.69

While the academic responses to The Valour and the Horror focused on righting the wrongs presented in the series, there was no attempt by historians to silence the McKennas. The same cannot be said for other responses to the series.

The Canadian Senate Investigation

The Veterans Affairs Sub-Committee of the Canadian Senate, motivated by the public outcry against the series, launched an investigation into The Valour and the Horror. The sub- committee received hundreds of documents submitted by veterans, veterans’ organizations, historians, journalists, documentary producers, and citizens. Over eighty percent of the correspondence was critical of the series.70 But the Senators well knew “the announcement in the Senate that the Sub-Committee intended to study and report on The Valour and the Horror at once became almost as controversial as the film series itself.”71 In her dissertation, historian Mallory Schwartz noted that the McKennas believed “the series would not receive a fair hearing because the subcommittee’s chair, Senator Jack Marshall, a veteran of the battle for Normandy, was ‘on the record both in the Senate and in a letter to us as expressing extreme antipathy toward these programs. He’s made up his mind.’ [CBC President Gérard] Veilleux also complained that supporters of the series were not allowed to testify.”72

The objectives of the investigation were:

to give veterans and veterans’ organizations a public forum in which to respond to what they consider to have been a public, unfair and malicious slander of their conduct, and the conduct of their leadership in the Second World War; to hear from a number of specialists in the history of Canadian participation in the Second World War and to learn their opinions about the historical methodology and merit of The Valour and the Horrorseries; to inquire into the roles played by two public bodies, the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in the conception, production, financing and decision to air as a documentary, a highly interpretive film series on a historical subject; and to give the producers of the films the opportunity to respond to attacks on their work and to introduce to the Sub-Committee any qualified historians who assisted them in making the final ‘cut’ of the series or who were prepared to support its historical methodology and merit.73

The sub-committee recognized it had the power only to recommend and could not force either the CBC or NFB’s hand. The Senate Investigation was met with much protest. Many who protested the television series did not support the Senate’s actions. Professor of Communications David Taras noted that “perhaps the most obvious point is that none of the hundreds of films which showed the Allied war effort in a positive light had ever been the subject of an inquiry by the Canadian Senate.”74 The sub-committee’s Liberal Senators refused to participate as they did not consider broadcast regulation to fall within the sub-committee’s purview.75 Moreover, the series, well received by entertainment reporters and newspaper columnists, won three Gemini awards, including best documentary series.76 Additionally, some Hong Kong veterans liked “Savage Christmas.”77

While the Senate report did not include a section on “Savage Christmas,” a mistake that further damaged the battle’s legacy by leaving the episodes’ claims unchallenged in the public sphere, many sub-committee’s recommendations and conclusions dealt with the episode’s various problems. The Senators took issue with the use of actors for “dramatic sequences, even when accurately documented, are still open to considerable misinterpretation and bias through voice and demeanour. Sensationalism often prevails...When it is clear that the actors are not always uttering exact quotations extracted from the historical record, the dangers become even more pronounced.”78 The producers also:

omit and distort any evidence which might contradict their thesis that the Canadian army was poorly trained, poorly led and capable of war atrocities no different from those committed by the enemy. Through the use of hindsight, they pass judgement with the greatest of ease. They seek out villains … In the filmmakers’ haste to condemn war, they fail to understand its complexities. The result is production that aimed more to shock than to inform.

Thus, the sub-committee concluded that The Valour and the Horror could not justifiably be called a documentary.79 If the CBC and the Senate investigations castigated the McKennas for not following journalistic principles, the academic community’s responses to the series were of a much different character.

Providing a brief to the Senate, Professor Terry Copp insisted that while the series had been a key opportunity to create a informative piece of public history, instead, “Canadians were offered a sophomoric set of isn’t war horrible platitudes, mixed with anti-military, anti-British and anti-Canadian leanings. History, in ‘The Valour and the Horror,’ is a grim joke in which a member of the 60s generation imposes his own ‘feelings’ on the past.” While context is a crucial element in the making of sound history, the McKennas either distressingly had ignored context or did not comprehend its import. For Copp, “after having entirely ignored the context of the decision to reinforce Hong Kong, the script insists that ‘Canada answered England’s call accepting the mother country’s assurance that they would not be in harm’s way.’ This is simply and plainly untrue.”80 The filmmakers claimed that Churchill, unwilling to risk British lives, had asked Canada provide the troops.81 The McKennas also had ignored the complicated process involved in “C” Force’s despatch by failing even to mention Brigadier Arthur Edward’s Grasett’s meeting with General Harry Crerar. The documentary failed to discuss the numerous reasonable reasons for reinforcing Hong Kong, while also ignoring the geopolitical context of late 1941 and Canada’s place within it. As Copp concluded, while “some people may not like the fact that we were once a colony and then a Dominion, but a program about history ought to make viewers aware that Canada was a different country in 1941 than it is today.”82 The decision to send Canadians to Hong Kong was neither immoral nor a dishonourable act. Instead, “the reinforcement of Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines by Canada, Britain and the United States was an attempt to deter the Japanese from attacking British or American territory. The attempt failed but the motives of the men who made the decision were not dishonorable.”83 Copp’s stance on the series was clear:

I have no wish to censor the McKennas. Their biases and prejudices are their own problems. What I don’t understand is why the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is willing to indulge the McKennas and their producers. Why does the C.B.C. and the Department of National Defence provide enormous sums of taxpayer’s money to an organization that doesn’t bother to check elementary factual information?

Why did the C.B.C. decide to televise this mishmash? Does the C.B.C. attempt to assess the research in films it presents as documentaries?84

Historians had made an important critique regarding the series’ lack of context. The McKennas’ right to make history was not disputed: historians simply wanted proper historical research and principles.

The lack of proper historical research on the Battle of Hong Kong at the time of the series’ release was one reason for the lack of attention paid to the battle after the airing of the series. As Copp stated, “the Bomber Command segment of ‘The Valour and the Horror’ is such bad history that it makes the Hong Kong episode, despite its flaws, seem quite reasonable,” an argument that John Ferris also made.85 Such assertions were made at a time when the level of research about the Battle of Hong Kong in the early 1990s had lagged badly behind that for Bomber Command and Normandy. Wise noted, “Nor have I seen it as part of my responsibility to check for accuracy every statement or presentation of an event occurring in the series.”86 He was right to say so. In addition, Ferris provided an excellent background to the Hong Kong decision in The Valour and the Horror Revisited given his expertise in British intelligence and strategy. Ferris’ piece was not designed to primarily critique the whole of the episode but the sections dealing with sending Canadians to Hong Kong. But the paucity of research on the Battle of Hong Kong is no longer the case, in part due to the outcry against the series, a development that receives proper attention below.

Brian McKenna’s Continued Creation of Military History Documentaries

The Killing Ground and The Valour and the Horror set the pattern that Brian McKenna followed as he made more Canadian military history documentaries. His hallmarks, notably providing little context, leaving no room for debate, plus poor research, continued even as Brian McKenna was presented with the Pierre Berton Award, for his contributions to Canadian history in popular media, in 2007. Certain criteria must be met to receive this award: “Eligible nominees are individuals or organizations that have helped popularize Canadian history with the written word through such means as publications, film, radio, television, theatre, voluntarism or the web.” One particular criterion is should be noted: “Nominees are considered on the basis of the quality of their research and their writing, and the overall contribution and impact of their work to fostering a better understanding of our past.”87 Brian McKenna’s work, unfortunately, does not fit the criteria for the award.

McKenna’s documentary work after The Valour and the Horror has received little attention from scholars. Despite the strong criticism directed toward the series, Brian McKenna continued to create other documentaries about Canada’s involvement in the world wars, often with government funding and support. He directed and wrote one episode of the 1995 two- episode documentary series War at Sea. In 1995, the McKennas wrote and Brian directed Glory: War at Sea and Glory: A Web of War.88 In 2007, Brian McKenna wrote and directed another First World War documentary, The Great War, “a four-hour epic, using drama and re-enactments combined with documentary and living history”89 Brian McKenna also co-wrote and directed the aforementioned Newfoundland at Armageddon, premiered on the CBC on the battle’s 100th anniversary, a program produced by Galafilm and supported by the Canadian government.90 Brian McKenna has also worked on historical documentaries about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Korean War, the War of 1812, the Irish famine, the life of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and leaders of various First Nations.91 Despite the criticism directed at the McKennas for creating historically inaccurate programs, the CBC continued to provide a platform for them. This fact speaks to a much deeper issue regarding how Canadians consume historical content. Documentary popular history continues to spread myths and misinformation. Canadians want to learn about their history and seek out content about it. Unfortunately, Canadian academic military historians are largely left out of the conversation. To combat this problem, changes need to occur among academic historians’ mindsets so that their work and views reach more people.

Media Reaction to The Valour and the Horror

The media’s reaction to The Valour and the Horror offered important insights into how Canadians received the series. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor provide a window into individuals’ reactions to a historical product, a rare opportunity in the pre- internet era. Examining the media’s output is important for it disseminated many of the themes of The Valour and the Horror.

The media’s reaction to the series was decidedly mixed. While Victor Dwyer generally praised the series, he also said:

one major weakness lies in the mostly stilted performances of several young actors describing the horrors of war in lengthy soliloquies. Brian McKenna said that he included those dramatizations to emphasize to younger viewers that it was people still in their youth who went through the ordeal. But beside the quietly compelling reminiscences of actual survivors, those segments appear overwrought. Indeed, the real strength of The Valour and the Horrorlies in the voices of an often-forgotten generation of Canadians who learned firsthand that war can be hell.92

Journalist Marcel Adam, seeing the Senate Investigation as a matter of freedom of expression, averred “je crois qu’il aurait dû refuser de répondre à l’invitation et laisser au Sénat l’odieux de le forcer de comparaître devant lui pour justifier l’exercice de son droit d’opinion et d’expression dans un pays démocratique. Dans une démocratie il est déshonorant pour un Parlement d’attenter de la sorte à la liberté d’expression.”93 Remembrance Day in 1992 reignited debate about the series. An editorial in the 12 November edition of The Globe and Mail dramatically voiced their displeasure with the CBC and the ombudsman:

The CBC’s journalistic reputation lies in pieces today, slit wide and deboned like a fresh-caught trout. It has been left in this condition not by the many criticisms, lately including those of the CBC’s ombudsman, levelled at the controversial three-part documentary The Valour and the Horror, but by the craven efforts of the corporation’s senior executives to appease the program’s enemies in Parliament. This is the stuff of resignations.94

Accusing the Senate of using “the machinery of state against a free press, and its sole design is intimidation,” the editorial, calling Morgan’s investigation a “kangaroo court,” claimed “the ombudsman report itself is hardly revelatory, and no more the last word on the subject for the title its author wears.”95 Not all of the media supported the McKennas. John Thompson of The Globe and Mail, decrying The Valour and the Horror as “cheap ‘pop’ journalism,” opposed using “it as a rallying point over freedom of speech and independent filmmaking is to cheapen those causes too.”96

The media outcry against the Senate and the CBC was criticized as well. According to Bercuson and Wise, “the media outcry shifted ground from the central questions of just how accurate the McKenna thesis really was to the murkier ground of whether veterans’ groups, the Senate, and others who became involved had any right to question how appropriate it had been for the CBC, a publicly funded network, to air the programs.” Indeed, according to Bercuson and Wise, “so thoroughly were the avenues of expression choked with the outpourings of journalistic indignation that contrary views were submerged.”97 Accusations of suppression abounded in the debates over The Valour and the Horror, accusations that influenced the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong by removing the discussion from questions of a historical nature and focusing on elements like freedom of expression.

Public Reaction to The Valour and the Horror

Canadians voiced their strong opinions about the series by writing letters to the editors of major Canadian newspapers. As Schwartz noted:

Significantly CBC Research also found that viewers passively accepted the conclusions of the film. For instance, 84 percent of those polled concluded that “the Canadian government was largely to blame for the massacre because it sent ill-equipped soldiers on a hopeless mission.” Not all viewers enjoyed the film, however. The CBC heard from several who objected to the use of offensive language, found factual errors, or thought there was too much “Brit-bashing.”98

A section of letters to the editor in the 25 November 1992 edition of The Globe and Mail displayed passionately public opinions. Supporters of the McKennas included Dan MacDonald. Identifying himself as President of the ACTRA Performers’ Guild, MacDonald wrote that “it is ironic that those very freedoms for which Canadian fought and sacrificed in—and continue to do in the struggle for peace—should be abandoned by an organization we have cherished as a bastion of free speech and protector of artistic freedom.”99 Hans Modllch of Toronto noted:

The Wimpy way in which the CBC generals have pulled the rug from out under their troops in the trenches is despicable. More so, it is painfully typical! Does it not speak volumes on just how servile a top bureaucrat tends to become when facing his maker? Does it matter much, whether it is a government appointed CBC mandarin or top-echelon military man?100

Dan Riley of Brandon, Manitoba, however, could not be sure “what is more pathetic: CBC ‘journalists’ with biases even more remarkable than their egos, proposing to rewrite history according to their personal delusions or the doomsday hand wringing spewing forth out of all media land in response to the anemic knuckle-rapping of CBC ombudsman William Morgan? ‘Three cheers accountability—as long as it doesn’t rattle our ivory tower.’”101 J.W. Strath of Nepean, Ontario, claiming to have fought in Bomber Command during the war, stated “your thesis that CBC producers, like Globe and Mail editors, must not be called to account before government tribunals is wrong. The implication is that CBC producers should be as free from political review as are editors of commercial publications.”102 A.P. Thornton of Toronto compared the McKennas’ objectives to veteran viewpoints:

So let them stop claiming absence of malice, identity their fictions, and concede that in the real world from docudrama-land (good guys lit from above, bad guys from below), companies of brave men have been known to have true ends in view: in this case, the destruction of a tyranny. This costs a lot—whereas the only price paid the McKennas and the CBC has been some small discomfort. But they’ll get over it on time for their next frank and fearless exposé.103

The series clearly had struck a chord with Canadians.

Release of the Unedited Maltby Despatch 1993

The media coverage of The Valour and the Horror had a very curious outcome in late January 1993. As historian Galen Roger Perras has explained, “Britain’s Cabinet, irked by Canadian accusations of British perfidiousness, and Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s public denunciation in 1992 of Britain’s failure to hold Singapore in 1942, a catastrophe that had enveloped 20,000 Australians, acted. It unlocked [C.M. Major-General] Maltby’s unedited Despatch...”104 John Crossland’s 31 January 1993 article in The Sunday Times of London, detailing the contents of Maltby’s Despatch, repeated stories of Canadian drunkenness and insubordination. No Canadian historians were quoted in the article. Indeed, the only cited academic was Peter Elphick, “a historian who has studied British policy in the Far East and criticized the Australian troops in Singapore,” who argued that “in all wars, particularly when an army is retreating, there will be some troops who desert or get drunk.”105 He was correct, but in the context of reporting on the Maltby Despatch, Elpnick enhanced negative views of the Canadians and gave legitimacy to Maltby’s claims.

The Canadian press reacted strongly to the release of the unedited Despatch. A Calgary Herald editorial slammed Maltby, stating that “As a B movie, suitable for late-night television, British Maj.-Gen. Christopher Maltby’s accusations of cowardice against Canadian troops under his command when the Japanese overran Hong Kong 52 years ago rates less than one star. It plays even worse in real life.” The Herald, claiming that Maltby tried to deflect responsibility for the fall of Hong Kong, charged that Maltby “allowed Canadian troops to be sent to their doom in Hong Kong.” Connecting the Canadian experience at Hong Kong to General Archibald Wavell’s critique of Australian forces at Singapore, the Herald asserted that “[Canadians and Australians] also are familiar with the workings of colonialism and will accordingly discount the biased and false reports of Maltby and Wavell.” The British press was accused of making “inaccurate accusations in a manner which lends them some credibility and thereby maligns the brave service of men who suffered untold hardship and death in defence of Britain’s Empire.”106

Michael Valpy, writing in The Globe and Mail, repeated many of the accusations presented in The Valour and the Horror, especially attacks upon Maltby and the British command. “It happened 52 years ago. But, by God, no British general is going to blacken the reputations of Canadian soldiers who were ordered in the name of stupidity, incompetence and vainglorious ox-headedness to do an impossible job for which they paid either with their lives or with years in bestial Japanese prison camps.” Repeating the “poor bloody infantry” trope, Valpy stated that “Canadian veterans of Hong Kong are outraged. So they should be. It is a toss-up who posed the greater hazard to them—the British and Canadian generals and politicians who sent them there, or the Japanese.” Valpy argued that “the Maltby report should not be taken seriously.”107 While Valpy’s opinion of the Despatch was correct, he simply repeated tropes found in The Valour and the Horror, further damaging the battle’s legacy.

For Denny Boyd of The Vancouver Sun, “the ghost of Maj.-Gen. Christopher Maltby disinters the 50-year old siege of Hong Kong, he debases the memories of the young Canadians whose lives and health were mercilessly and vainly wasted in a battle that could not be won. . .” Boyd called the defence of Hong Kong:

a military blunder, a suicide mission involving two battalions of untrained Canadian troops, including cooks and shoemakers, shipped there only 22 days before the onslaught. Yet in Maltby’s report on the action, written while he was in a Japanese prison camp and opened last week after being sealed since 1942, Maltby seems to blame the loss, not on his command, but on the cowardice and drunkenness of the Canadian soldiers and their officers. The implication seems to be that the outcome might have been different, had the Canadians met his standards.108

Media responses to the unedited Maltby Despatch rightly highlighted issues surrounding Hong Kong but did so with the kind of viewpoints espoused in “Savage Christmas.” The influence of The Valour and the Horror about our understanding of the Battle of Hong Kong is undeniable.

Canadian Hong Kong Revisionists

The controversy surrounding The Valour and the Horror led to a revisionist examination of the Canadian participation in the Battle of Hong Kong. Perras offered one of the earliest revisionist arguments about the context of Hong Kong’s reinforcement in 1995, asserting that his essay was a direct response to The Valour and the Horror.109 Christopher Bell also called “Savage Christmas” an example of the conspiracy theories that surround the policy change of not reinforcing Hong Kong between 1938 and 1941.110 This initial work was followed by more criticism of the series. In his 2003 article, historian Kent Fedorowich, labelling The Valour and the Horror a favourite of conspiracy theorists, contended that “although the least contentious of the three, it antagonized both historians and veterans who were disgusted by the overarching theme in all three episodes that Canadian forces ‘were unwitting, guileless dupes’ ruthlessly manipulated by their political and military masters in unnecessary and ‘fruitless’ operations. In other words, their sacrifices had counted for nothing.”111 The work of revisionists demonstrate that the Battle of Hong Kong needed a reassessment but also that a defeat can be examined without writing that manifests into overly nationalistic polemics. The revisionist literature does not celebrate the loss at Hong Kong but instead puts the battle in its proper context. By doing so, these historians contributed positively to the legacy of the battle as proper understanding of historical events is an end in and of itself. Works of this type about Hong Kong are all too rare.


The Valour and the Horror has had an unmistakeably malign influence on the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong. This chapter makes several important additions to the historiography on The Valour and the Horror and the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong by examining, for the first time, the various the problems and misinterpretations surrounding “Savage Christmas.” The examination of the revisionist literature that responded to the series is also an important addition to the historiography. These sections are important to understand to the battle’s legacy today. The controversy that the series generated incited several investigations that were just as controversial as the series itself. For all his faults, Brian McKenna’s actions did much to keep the Battle of Hong Kong present in the public consciousness. While “Savage Christmas” had as many historical errors and flawed conclusions as the other two episodes in the series, it received far less attention. Alongside the overall negative legacy of the battle, the general disinterest in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War among Canadians explains why this lack of attention occurred. Furthermore, media attention spread many of the misconceptions presented in the series, an issue that plagues the battle’s legacy today. Some positives did come from its airing, the British government’s release of the unedited Maltby Despatch, the attention that the series brought to the Hong Kong veterans, and the subsequent academic revisionism on the context of the despatch of “C” Force. One of the most important takeaways from The Valour and the Horror saga was to expose the lack of influence that academic military historians have in how Canadians view their military past. While this situation has changed little since the release of the series, hope remains. Technology’s advancement since the 1990s has allowed more historians to disseminate their work to an ever-growing audience. If one lesson can be learned from the problems and controversy of The Valour and the Horror, it is that academic historians are needed in the public history sphere—a challenge that more of them should opt to take on.