by Brad St Croix


(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

The creation of the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong had been a complicated and combative process. Politicians, authors, historians, journalists, and soldiers have all sought to use the battle to fit their needs. This included wanting to protect reputations, advance a preconceived narrative, or to win political battles. While many have presented the Canadian participation at Hong Kong negatively, that representation is not accurate. Undoubtedly, much about the Battle of Hong Kong is negative, and this study has no desire to hide those elements or to downplay their seriousness. The garrison was defeated by the Japanese, brutal conditions killed many Canadian POWs, and the Canadian government treated the Hong Kong veterans poorly in the postwar years. But some positives aspects exist. The Canadian government did contribute to the attempts to deter the Japanese in late 1941. While that effort failed, the choice to support Britain and the United States was the right decision even as the Canadian government’s handling of the reinforcement itself, notably the absence of proper intelligence analysis, was poorly conducted.

“C” Force veterans remain another positive element often left underrepresented in literature and media. Many authors, historians, and journalists who have written about the battle have hurt those who fought at Hong Kong by continuing to emphasize the most negative elements of “C” Force’s story rather than sensitively exploring actual reality, Instead, claims that Canadians were the best fighters at Hong Kong only created more resentment and confusion when it comes to understanding the battle, a situation that did little to help the veterans. The troops of “C” Force fought better than expected against a well-trained and battle-hardened enemy despite their various deficiencies, and their story deserves a proper telling. Despite lacking skills, the tough stand at the Wong Nei Chung Gap and the attack on Stanley Village revealed their ability to adapt to changing conditions and to push the Japanese back. Despite their best efforts, Canadian troops were defeated by Japanese tenacity and strength of arms. They have nothing to be ashamed of from their service. After defeat, they survived hellish conditions for years. They deserve to be presented in a positive fashion for they were not passive victims at any point in this process. The veterans need to be elevated into discussions on the battle to counter the negative elements that have received so much attention.

The zombie myths that have plagued the Canadian collective understanding of the battle have fed upon the negativity that surrounds “C” Force. These myths do not just influence historiographical discussions between academics, they have real world consequences. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, seeking to limit the battle’s effect on politics, wanted the Inquiry to dismiss all doubts about government negligence and incompetence. But this effort failed, bringing more negative attention to the battle. Accordingly, George Drew attacked the King government for many years, further souring “C” Force in King’s eyes. In the postwar years, little changed as government and military officials still sought to sideline “C” Force’s experiences at Hong Kong and in POW camps. Some positives came out of these political battles, as the Hong Kong veterans were given more pay. However, this period cemented the battle as being a politically sensitive topic that many governments since King have sought to downplay.

Much like the fictional undead, these myths are difficult to destroy and dangerous to our collective historical memory. They leave a haze over our understanding, allowing those who wish to benefit in some way from misrepresentations of the battle to do so. Luckily, these myths are not invincible if properly engaged. The best way to do this, as this dissertation has done, is to examine the events surrounding the battle and analyze them with the best practices of history. Another way to combat these myths is to encourage more discussion about “C” Force’s positive elements. The veterans themselves deserve better recognition for what they did all those years ago. Sadly, while only a handful of veterans are alive to benefit from this change, it must be done all the same; our proper understanding of the battle demands it.

As such myths tend to follow similar patterns, several important themes can be identified. Understanding this situation is helpful in defeating the zombie myths. The attempt to shift blame for all things related to “C” Force has been a constant trend since the fighting stopped. Major- General C.M. Maltby, Brigadier Cedric Wallis, and author Tim Carew blamed Canadians for the defeat. Brereton Greenhous, Carl Vincent, and the McKenna brothers, taking the opposite opinion, have castigated the British. Both sides, by placing blame on other nationalities, created resentment and confusion that further obscured our understanding of the Battle of Hong Kong’s meaning. Remarking upon the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, American President John F. Kennedy said that “victory had a hundred fathers. Defeat is an orphan.”1 Such a phrase perfectly encapsulates the passing of blame about the events at Hong Kong in December 1941.

Perhaps the most pernicious false claim is the assertion that the Battle for Hong Kong remains poorly known because the Canadian government and military covered up “C” Force’s loss. While Hong Kong has not received the same attention as Normandy or Dieppe, it has neither been forgotten nor ignored in Canada. The Battle of Hong Kong has an enduring legacy in Canada, one that has undergone development and change, especially over past decade or two. Regardless of individuals’ intentions, the Battle of Hong Kong has a place in the collective Canadian memory.

When the 19 September 1941 telegram requesting Canadian troops to reinforce Hong Kong was sent to Ottawa, it arrived in a fertile environment for a long-standing and intimate cultural and military connection between Canada and Britain produced Canada’s acceptance of Britain’s request. This study has explored this connection by bringing a new approach into the Battle of Hong Kong’s historiography. Several long-term reasons influenced Canada’s acceptance of the British request for reinforcements, and the long-standing colonial connection between the two countries was one of them. In September 1941, numerous Canadians, many of them were serving in the highest ranks of the Army, believed that the British Empire’s interests were also Canada’s. Even Canadian nationalists such as General Andrew McNaughton still valued the Canadian connection to Britain. General Harry Crerar’s frequently had expressed support for the British Empire over the interwar period, and his pro-imperial feelings had not subsided by 1941. The years of British influence on the Canadian Army and the relationships developed with British Army leaders undoubtedly played a role in Canada’s choice to send troops to garrison Hong Kong.

The constantly-changing nature of Hong Kong’s defence policy was another long-term reason behind the Canadians reinforcement of the colony in late 1941. Proper study of these developments has been neglected area in most Canadian works on the battle, a problem this study has corrected. From the earliest days of British occupation in 1841 until “C” Force’s arrival, Hong Kong’s defence situation was always fluid. Initially, British defence policy for Hong Kong focused on naval defence until the early twentieth century when land-based defences received more attention. While Singapore’s development relegated Hong Kong to the status of a forward base in case of war with Japan, much debate about how to best defend Hong Kong occurred in the interwar period. Some military and political leaders favoured a strong defence; others wished to demilitarize the colony. These ongoing discussions about the defence of the colony produced a de facto compromise that saw insignificant resources devoted to protecting Hong Kong. The Gin Drinker’s Line was a symbol of this policy for it was inadequate to defend the New Territories. Another example of the fluidity of the situation was the discussions about permanently acquiring the New Territories on the Chinese mainland. My dissertation has expanded upon Franco David Macri’s claims that the Sino-Japanese War offered Britain this opportunity by arguing that the prospect of this land acquisition had been discussed well before the outbreak of that conflict. Still, more work remains to be done to fully understand all the complexities during the decades of British control of Hong Kong.

Several individuals played an important role in the defence of Hong Kong during the Second World War, with Air Chief Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham and Brigadier Arthur Edward Grasett being paramount. Grasett was more successful than his superior Brooke-Popham as evidenced by Grasett’s ability to influence the British Chiefs of Staff about Hong Kong in 1941, something that Brooke-Popham failed to do. But other factors affected the colony’s defence during the war, including the little-studied role of racism in defence planning. Racist dismissals of both the Chinese and Japanese negatively affected the defence of the colony, but changes came too late to make a difference, just one more change in a long string of which the Canadian reinforcement was simply another.

Despite the claims of some authors, there were many legitimate reasons why Canada opted to reinforce Hong Kong. My exploration of the role that the United States played in the Canadian decision to accept the Hong Kong request is new. Further, Minister of National Defence J.L. Ralston’s important role in accepting Britain’s request, often overlooked elsewhere, is better explored herein. I have expanded upon Crerar’s role as well. While there was no conspiracy to put Canadian troops in harm’s way at Hong Kong, mistakes were made when Canada accepted the request. Officials in Ottawa, oddly, little discussed Hong Kong’s reinforcement in comparison to other garrison requests, notably Iceland. That miscalculation by the Canadian War Cabinet required additional explanation not seen in other works on the battle. While numerous personal, political, and cultural factors all played a part in the despatch of Canadians to the distant colony, malice and cupidity were not among them.

The process that selected the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers for “C” Force has been much misrepresented by secondary sources about the battle. My correction of these errors is a sorely needed new addition to the battle’s historiography. Other works have claimed that the units were categorized as unfit for combat due to a lack of training. Much like other misunderstandings about “C” Force, this was not the truth. The units were categorized as not fit for overseas duty due to the policy that all units returning from garrison duty must undergo further training upon their return. But while the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers did not receive their required training, they were not untrained. Other additions to the historiography include the demonstration of C.G. Power’s role in selecting the Royal Rifles, a part that many authors have ignored or downplayed. The main controversy surrounding the Grenadiers and Royal Rifles’ selection revolves around the accusation that they were untrained for their task. But, as I have shown, this was not the case for both units had trained while on garrison duty. While such training was far from perfect, to present these units as untrained is to ignore their records prior to going to Hong Kong.

The battle itself is the most difficult aspect to cover given nationalist boasting and blame deflection. Using Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite’s model of measuring both the skill and the will of soldiers to determine their combat effectiveness, I asserts that “C” Force’s adequate performance was no better and no worse than the rest of the garrison. Not all Canadians fought well, and unfortunately there were examples of Canadian drunkenness and poor discipline. But there were times when Canadians demonstrated incredible bravery and combat ability. Company Sergeant Major John Osborn’s winning of the Victoria Cross exemplifies the courage that many Canadians displayed on the battlefield. Some of the Canadians lacked the skills to use all of their weapons well, while many Canadians did not hesitate to act when instructed. The stand by “D” Company of the Grenadiers at the Wong Nei Chong Gap plus the counterattack by “D” Company of the Royal Rifles on Stanley Village demonstrated that the Canadians could ably resist Japanese attacks.

The Hong Kong Inquiry was an important part of legacy formation for it introduced Canadians to many myths about the battle. The first instances of accusations of government incompetence, public knowledge of “C” Force’s supposed poor training, British perfidy, and the media attention of the Battle of Hong Kong emerged during the Inquiry, as did the desire of King’s government to make Hong Kong disappear. Ralston’s inquiry in January 1942, which has not been discussed in-depth elsewhere, was one example of the government’s attempt to pacify political opposition. The forced retirement of both Quartermaster-General Major-General E.J.C. Schmidlin and Lieutenant-Colonel E.H. Spearing, Assistant Quartermaster-General of Movement Control while little else was done gave the impression that Ralston’s investigation was merely a scapegoating exercise and did nothing little to mollify the political opposition.

George Drew and R.B. Hanson, using the battle for their own political goals, seemed to care rather little about truly improving the Canadian war effort. This dissertation provided the first comprehensive account of the Inquiry and its aftermath that did not centre on Lyman Duff’s role. Duff’s findings that the government had done no wrong and the fact that he reached the same conclusion as Ralston lends credence to the charges that the Inquiry was nothing more than a whitewash. The charges against Drew were further evidence that the government wanted to silence discussion of Hong Kong. Indeed, the Canadian media assailed King after the charges were laid against Drew, bringing more attention to the battle. The government wanted to have the Inquiry to settle the Hong Kong issues; instead, it incited more debates about the battle and the government’s missteps related to “C” Force’s despatch.

The fighting at Hong Kong had not even properly ended before individuals tried to shape its legacy. George Drew’s Christmas Day letter was the first attempt to shape “C” Force’s legacy. British and Canadian officers recorded their version of the battle’s events to protect reputations and enhance their own careers. A wartime legacy of the battle included a refusal to send Canadian troops to the Falkland Islands in early 1942 and decisions to limit Canadian military participation in the Pacific. The release of Major-General Maltby’s Despatch in 1948 was a prime example of the attempts to protect reputations and shift blame. The Canadian Army, responding negatively to Maltby’s initial draft, demanded that offending passages purported to be in variance to recorded facts be changed. C.P. Stacey played a vital role in having this document altered. Drew reappeared in the Hong Kong story as he continued to assail the King government after the Maltby Despatch’s release. Britain refused to release documents relating to Hong Kong despite multiple requests by King. Various acts of political theatre did little to appease Drew. Political battles became tied to better treatment for the Hong Kong veterans. One example is how the Pacific Star and the Pacific campaign pay, little examined elsewhere, were given to the veterans only after persistent political pressure was brought to bear. The overall treatment of the Hong Kong veterans by the government was poor. A detailed examination of all the major studies conducted about the veterans’ health, normally ignored by other authors, has demonstrated government neglect. As a result of their poor treatment, the veterans formed the Hong Kong Veterans’ Association (HKVA) to seek better benefits from the government. Some payments were given to the Hong Kong veterans, but many came far too late to do any good. The HKVA has evolved in its mission as it seeks to keep the memory of the Battle of Hong Kong alive in Canada, including spearheading the creation of the Hong Kong Memorial in Ottawa. The newspaper media had a tremendous influence on the spreading of myths and the legacy of the battle, while private groups and the veterans took up the role that the government had neglected. The national memorial in Ottawa was another element where the government avoided taking too much action. Most “C” Force veterans did not live to obtain the proper recognition they were due. This mistake needs to be recognized by the Canadian government.

The Valour and the Horror series remains one of the most controversial influences on the legacy of the battle. The Hong Kong episode is rife with errors that resulted from the McKenna brothers pushing a narrative that was anti-British. The core issue at the controversy surrounding The Valour and the Horror was a dispute about who controls how history is presented. An example of this conflict was the debate over the CBC Ombudsman’s Report, while the Senate investigation also caused much uproar. Many of the series’ critics did not wish to silence the McKennas; they simply criticized them for failing to follow established historical practices. Academic responses focused on the reasons behind the Canadian reinforcement and neglected to discuss the battle itself. My exploration of the errors relating to the battle made in “Savage Christmas” disputed the McKennas’ claims that have gone unchallenged in academic works. An academic revisionist response developed about the reinforcement of Hong Kong as a direct response to The Valour and the Horror. Without these important works, the reasons behind the Canadian reinforcement and the Battle of Hong Kong would not be understood in the proper context as historiography pieces about “C” Force, such as Tony Banham’s, often do not discuss the revisionist response.2 Still, the series produced one benefit by keeping Hong Kong veterans in the minds of Canadians.

One of the more surprising lessons to emerge from this study of the Battle of Hong Kong’s legacy has been the numerous gaps that exist between popular and academic history, both in relation to attitudes and collaboration. This is especially prominent in Canadian military history. The literature on the battle has demonstrated what problems arise when popular history dominates the historical discourse on a topic. Responding to this state of affairs, many academic historians have condemned popular history instead of trying to fix the situation. The differences are not so great that the two approaches cannot be reconciled. Eric Arnesen has argued that “There are enough good trade books in history that do meet the standard to suggest that the demand is not an unreasonable one. Academic and popular historians have much to teach one another. If those in the academy hoping to reach beyond university walls can fruitfully learn about more graceful and literary writing, so too can popular historians better acknowledge the complexities of the past.”3 Both sides have much they could teach the other to the benefit of historical inquiry.

Academic military history is especially well placed to adapt to these suggestions as the discipline can embrace the trends of popular history while still producing sound academic work. Bringing historical practices to the popular history will make both sides better. This change would benefit academic history such as avoiding a future situation like the myths about Hong Kong. A shift in how history is written could prevent poorly crafted works of history from dominating the historiography of a topic. It is not enough for academic historians to simply disparage popular history works. They must interact with them, challenge their conclusions, and make their own work more appealing to the general public.

A new addition recently has been made to the Battle of Hong Kong’s legacy. Some in Canada have evoked “C” Force’s reinforcement of Hong Kong in 1941 to call upon Canada plus other democracies to resist China’s restriction of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. Derek H. Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, used this image to call on the Canadian government to do more: “If nothing else, the memory of the gallant effort by Canadian troops in 1941 should give credibility to a principled stand by Canada in support of the spirit of democracy and freedom being asserted in today’s Hong Kong.”4 China’s restriction of rights has once again brought Hong Kong into the world of Canadian parliamentary politics. Some Canadian Members of Parliament (MP) used the battle to convince the Canadian government to pressure China to better treat the people of Hong Kong. Conservative MP Kenny Chiu has linked Canada and Hong Kong given the many of Hong Kongers who live in Canada and because “Hong Kong is a part of Canadian history, said Chiu, noting Canada made attempts to liberate the city from Japanese invasion in the Second World War.”5 While the historical facts are incorrect, the sentiment exists. Connecting the 1941 battle to Hong Kong’s current struggle has brought a positive element to the battle’s legacy by evoking it as a stand against aggression. As journalist Steven Chase has noted, “the conflict between pro-democracy protesters and government in Hong Kong this past year has illuminated Canada’s ties to the semi-autonomous former British colony, where 300,000 residents hold Canadian citizenship.”6 The various ties between Hong Kong and Canada are growing in the twenty–first century, which bodes well for how the 1941 battle will be remembered in Canada moving into the future. The historiography on the Battle of Hong Kong’s legacy is far from complete.

The Second World War’s legacy in Canada remains understudied. While new studies are always emerging, more must be done so that Canadians can understand what that war means to Canada and Canadians. The Battle of Hong Kong occupies a unique place in this legacy as the first deployment of Canadian troops in the Asia-Pacific region since the despatch of troops to Siberia at end of the First World War. Also, the fighting at Hong Kong was the Canadian Army’s first test of combat in the Second World War, while Canadian POWs taken at Hong Kong spent some of the longest time in enemy captivity during the war. This study has offered new insights about the battle in that it explored how the legacy of the fighting at Hong Kong was formed and the role that myths have played in this development. The battle of Hong Kong shares many similarities with another major Canadian defeat of the war, the Raid on Dieppe. This format applied in this dissertation can be applied to that defeat as well.

The Battle of Hong Kong and the 1942 Dieppe raid constitute Canada’s twin disasters of the Second World War. As long as the Canadian experience of the war is discussed, they will forever be linked. Writing about this connection, Canadian historian Galen Roger Perras has concluded:

Canada’s army suffered two great defeats during the Second World War, at Hong Kong, and at Dieppe in August 1942, where the Second Division took 3400 casualties, including 907 dead…Perhaps Dieppe’s dreadful casualty list has been made more tolerable, as Allied leaders argued lessons learned there paved the way for D-Day in 1944, or perhaps the disparate fate of the two groups of Canadian POWs matters. Seventy–two of the 1946 Canadians taken prisoner at Dieppe died in German camps, a death rate of four percent. However, 281 C Force members died in captivity, a 17 percent fatality rate.7

These two defeats accounted for a large portion of Canadians taken as POWs during the war. Canadian troops from both engagements were poorly treated once they were taken prisoner, creating another connection between these two events. Historian J.L. Granatstein, in his history of the Canadian Army, has noted that the Hong Kong veterans faced continuous, cruel Japanese treatment, while Dieppe POWs had their hands shackled for extended periods of time and endured poor conditions in trains on their journey to POW camps. Yet, as Granatstein has remarked, the Dieppe POWs had a far higher survival rate than those captured at Hong Kong.8 This marked difference has influenced the legacy of each battle by giving more attention to the Hong Kong POWs. Historian Tim Cook, who has written on both defeats, has rightly stated that “the treatment of the Canadians in Japanese hands was far worse than it was for those soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fell into the clutches of the Nazis.”9 Had the Canadian POWs been treated well by the Japanese, would there have been fewer angry responses or attempts to blame someone for “C” Force’s despatch? The answer to this question can never be known. But given that a good part of the negative legacy surrounding Hong Kong stemmed from the treatment of the POWs, one can venture that this scenario is distinctly possible. Moral indignation makes for good copy and hence the attention that is paid to the sufferings of “C” Force.

Aside from the large number of Canadian POWs that fell into enemy hands, many other links exist between these two engagements. Cook has remarked about the “jagged scar of Dieppe that runs through the Canadian psyche to this day.”10 The same can be said about Hong Kong despite the fact that Dieppe has received most of the attention between the two actions. Despite this greater attention paid to Dieppe, a study of that battle using the methodologies of this dissertation would be useful in the Canadian historiography of the war. Dieppe is also subject to many myths and misunderstandings so examining where these originate can help to better understand that battle. The historiography would also benefit from studying the legacies of these two engagements together.

Craig Stockings has called the historical zombie myths “monsters of the mind.”11 These rotting, unthinking myths have caused much damage to Canadians’ understanding of the Second World War. They have infected the Canadian collective memory. It is a possibility that this ailment will become a permanent affliction. With the passing of most Hong Kong veterans, the battle is quickly in danger of no longer being a living memory. As such, it may forever be remembered as a purely negative aspect of Canada’s Second World War. However, given recent developments in Hong Kong plus historical re-examinations of “C” Force’s despatch, perceptions about the battle have begun to change. What “C” Force did in Hong Kong has increasingly been presented in a more positive way. Hopefully, these changes are enough to crush the persistent, destructive zombie myths that surround the battle’s legacy. A focus on commemoration of those who died at Hong Kong and a memory free of politics and opportunism is possible. While this claim may be naïve, one can hope for a better understanding of “C” Force’s experiences. Hong Kong’s legacy continues to change, but the form it will take in the near future remains to be seen.