Colonial British Hong Kong

"Black Christmas" - The Fall of Hong Kong – 1941

© 2012-2014 Bob Hackett, Sander Kingsepp and Anthony Tully
Revision 3

Trade between China and Europe begins with silks, porcelain and tea. Demand for tea becomes so strong, that the British begin to ship opium from their colonies in India to China to offset the financial trade deficits caused by the importation of tea. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) attempts to stop the spread of opium by seizing opium supplies from British traders. This leads to the First Opium War fought between 1839 to 1842 in which Britain prevails. Among other things, the 1842 Treaty of Nanking opens five treaty ports to Britain (Shanghai, Ningpo [Ningbo], Foochow [Fuzhou], Amoy [Xiamen] and Canton [Guangzhou]) and cedes Hong Kong Island. In 1843, by Royal Charter, Britian proclaims Hong Kong a separate colony. In 1858, the Treaty of Tientsin legalizes opium sales in China.

In 1860, the Peking convention is signed which formally ends the Second Opium War. Under its terms, Kowloon and Stonecutters Island are leased to Britain in perpetuity and the opium trade is legalised. Kowloon, on mainland China, provides additional space for building and allows expansion of Hong Kong's port facilities. By 1861, the population is 120,000. In 1898, the British lease the New Territories and 235 islands for 99 years. In the 1930s, after Japan invades China, more displaced persons seek refuge in the British colony. By 1939, Hong Kong's population has swelled to 1.6 million.

27 December 1937:
Chinese ports represent the major source of imports of foreign war supplies. Even Soviet war supplies arrive through Hong Kong by British ships from Odessa on the Black Sea. The Japanese cannot capture the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, through which some 100,000 tons of Chiang's war supplies pass. From Hong Kong they move by rail to Canton then north to Hankow. That same day, the Japanese attempt to close this route by bombing the Hong Kong-Canton Railway.

May 1938:
China's pre-war stocks of war materiel are almost exhausted. China is sustained only by foreign imports, primarily from the Soviet Union. In the first two years of the war, the USSR gives Chiang Kai-Shek about $250 million in aircraft, tanks, trucks, and fuel plus military advisers and pilots. American, France and Britian contribute a similar amount. None of this aid goes to Mao Tse-Tung's (Zedong) communist forces, except for a small amount of military training by the Red Army.

June 1939:
The Japanese conduct an amphibious assault and occupy the port of Swatow (Shantou). Before its capture, Swatow was receiving 30 ships a week loaded with war materiel for China.

16 November 1941:
Two battalions of poorly trained Canadian troops arrive at Hong Kong to reinforce its weak garrison, but British forces in Hong Kong have no modern aircraft nor modern naval vessels, no tanks and few armored vehicles, transports, artillery pieces and AA guns and no radar. The British Empire, drained by military aid to the lost cause that was France, battered by the Luftwaffe's "Blitz" and struggling against Rommel in North Africa, can ill-afford to equip its colonies to withstand the coming Japanese aggression in the Far East.

The Canadian "Royal Rifles of Canada" and the "Winnipeg Grenadiers" join Hong Kong's Mainland Infantry Brigade, 2nd Royal Scots, Indian 5th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 14th Punjab Regiment plus elements of the Royal Navy, Air Force, Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Infantry and Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.

Canadian troops arriving at Hong Kong

6 December 1941:
In the evening, the British receive intelligence reports from the Chinese that three IJA divisions arrived at To Kat, eight miles from China's border with Hong Kong, the previous night.

8 December 1941: Operation "C" - The Invasion of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong:
The Japanese open their offensive on Hong Kong by moving troops across the New Territories frontier. Twelve Tachikawa Ki-36 "Ida" Army bombers of the 45th Sentai based at Canton escorted by nine Ki-27 "Nate" fighters also attack Kai Tak airport on Kowloon. The Idas bomb from low level, while the Nates strafe.

IJA Ki-36 "Ida" and Ki-27 "Nate" fighters by Koike Shigeo

All five of the token RAF aircraft (2 "Walrus" amphibians and 3 Vickers "Vildebeeste" torpedo bombers) and numerous light trainers and civilian cargo planes stationed at Kai Tak are quickly either damaged or destroyed. In the harbor, Pan American Airway’s visiting Sikorsky S-42B flying boat "Hong Kong Clipper" is bombed, set afire and sunk.

Pan Am Sikorsky S-42

Hong Kong under attack 8 Dec 41 by Kimura Hakuzan

At 2100, old destroyers HMS THANET and SCOUT clear Hong Kong and head for Singapore via Manila, Tarakan and Balikpapan, Borneo.

10 December 1941:
The so-called "Gin Drinkers' Line" composed of three battalions of Commonwealth forces are breached at the Shing Mun Redoubt.

11 December 1941:
The evacuation from Kowloon started under aerial bombardment and artillery barrage. As much as possible, military and harbour facilities were demolished before the withdrawal.

13 December 1941:
MajGen Christopher M. Maltby, British Indian Army, General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Forces in China, orders the vacuation of Kowloon Peninsula. At 0400, LtCdr Pears' HMS THRACIAN, now Hong Kong's only destroyer, is ordered around from Aberdeen to assist in ferrying troops across the bay. She arrives at about 0600. Laden with troops, THRACIAN plus several boats of the 2nd MTB Flotilla, assorted launches and Chinese sampans withdraw to Hong Kong Island.

At 0900, a launch flying a white flag departs Kowloon and soon thereafter arrives across the bay at Victoria Pier. An IJA staff officer delivers a letter from LtGen Sakai Takashi, CG, 23rd Army addressed to Hong Kong's Governor, Sir Mark A. Young. Sakai demands that Young surrender the Colony and threatens severe artillery and aerial bombardment if refused. The British summarily reject the ultimatum.

The last Commonwealth troops on the mainland, the British Indian Army Rajputs, retreat to Hong Kong Island and by 0930, all British and Commonwealth troops are evacuated from the Mainland to Hong Kong Island. In the meantime, Royal Engineers destroy anything useful on the north side. THRACIAN and old gunboats HMS ROBIN and HMS CICALA lay off the southern coast of Hong Kong Island and bombard Japanese positions.

15 December 1941:
Hong Kong Island is subjected to heavy air and artillery bombardment. HMS THRACIAN is grounded at high speed off Lamma Island and ruptures her fuel tank, but is refloated.

16 December 1941:
THRACIAN makes her way past Green Island and engages two anchored river steamers that may have been full of Japanese troops. She sinks them both in Kowloon Bay, 1,000 yards E of the electric power station. THRACIAN arrives at Aberdeen where inspection reveals major structural damage. Docking is required, but repair is impossible. HMS THRACIAN is badly damaged by Japanese aircraft. Three men are KIA.

17 December 1941:
THRACIAN departs Aberdeen and is deliberately run aground between Repulse Bay and Deepwater Bay. [1

18 December 1941:
Heavy storms batter Hong Kong. Thick fog and smoke shroud the harbor and the beaches on the north side of Hong Kong Island. LtGen Sakai orders his infantry group commander, MajGen Ito Takeo, CG 38th Division, to prepare his invasion troops at once. By 2200, the first wave of over 3,500 soldiers sets off for Hong Kong Island across the Lye Mun Channel.

The Japanese land on the NE corner of Hong Kong Island and seize Taikoo Dockyard before it can be destroyed. They capture minesweepers HMS TAITAM and WAGLAN under construction in the yard. [2]

19 December 1941:
At midnight, the second wave of 4,000 soldiers begins crossing the channel. Acting Hong Kong Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Lt Donald W. Wagstaff’s 55 foot-class Thornycroft HMS Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) 26 (requisitioned from the Chinese Navy in '38) is sunk by gunfire from the Japanese landing craft. Lt Wagstaff is KIA. By early morning, the Japanese foothold on Hong Kong Island is secure. By evening, IJA troops hold all key points on the island.

Minelayer HMS REDSTART, river gunboat HMS TERN, boom defense vessel HMS BARLIGHT and three other ships are scuttled to avoid capture. A mixed naval force of about 200, including men from HMS THRACIAN, are sent to take over defense of the Little Hong Kong ordnance base area.

HMS THRACIAN and a BARRICADE-class boom defense vessel like HMS BARLIGHT

20 December 1941:
The Japanese advance is finally checked late that the evening,

21 December, 1941:
Hong Kong Island. At dawn, nearly the entire British logistics system has collapsed. Japanese aicraft bomb and sink river gunboat HMS CICALA.

22 December, 1941:
Hong Kong Island. IJA troops appear near Victoria Peak and quickly approach MajGen Maltby's HQ.

24 December 1941:
The Japanese break through to Fort Stanley.

25 December 1941: "Black Christmas" - The Fall of Hong Kong:
In the morning, Japanese soldiers enter the British field hospital at St. Stephen's College, and torture and kill over 60 injured soldiers, along with medical staff. At 1500, MajGen Maltby arrives at Government House and advises Governor Young to surrender the outnumbered garrison because of lack of food and water. Young initially opposes a surrender, but after consultation with two civilian members of his Defence Council and further discussions with his naval and military commanders, the Governor authorizes Maltby to arrange a cease-fire. Duriing the day, gunboat HMS ROBIN is scuttled.

MajGen Maltby surrenders Hong Kong by candlelight after Royal Engineers destroyed power houses

Kowloon. At 1800, the Governor surrenders the Colony to IJA LtGen Sakai in his new headquarters set up on the third floor of the fashionable Peninsula hotel. That night, nearly 6,500 British and Commonwealth troops go into Japanese captivity. This is the first occasion in which a British Crown Colony surrenders to an invading force.

December 1941:
LtGen Sakai and Vice Admiral Niimi Masaichi (36)(former CO of MAYA), CinC, 2nd China Expeditionary Fleet, enter Hong Kong after the British surrender. [3]

LtGen Sakai and Vice Admiral Niimi on Parade in Hong Kong

Imperial Japanese troops kill thousands of British and Commonwealth hospital patients, doctors, nurses, prisoners of war (POWs) and unarmed European and Chinese civilians during their brutal occupation of Hong Kong. Although the British had surrendered to the Japanese, local Chinese resistance groups known as the Gangjiu and Dongjiang forces wage a small guerilla war in New Territories. As a result, some villages are razed as punishment. The guerillas fight until the end of the Japanese occupation.

British sovereignty is restored following the surrender of the Japanese forces on 15 August, six days after the United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon flying the British Union Jack 1969
(Hackett Collection)

1 July 1997: Transfer of Sovereignty:
Hong Kong's Exhibition and Convention Center. At midnight, the United Kingdom, represented by Prince Charles of Britain and the former colonial Governor, Chris Patten, hands Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China (PRC), represented by China's President Jiang Zemin. The brief ceremony ends 156 years of British colonial rule.

PRC troops raise the Red Banner over Hong Kong - 1997

Authors' Notes:
[1] HMS THRACIAN was refloated and repaired by the IJN 2nd Construction unit. On 1 Oct '42 she was registered in the Yokosuka Naval District as Patrol Boat PB-101 and repairs were completed on 25 Nov '42.

[2] HMS TAITAM and WAGLAN are later completed by the Japanese and registered in the IJN as minesweepers W-101 and W-102.

[3] In 1946, LtGen Sakai is tried and executed by firing squad in Nanking for war crimes, but his Navy counterpart, Vice Admiral Niimi, lives to 106!

Thanks go to Australian diver/photojournalist Kevin Denlay for the painting of the Attack on Hong Kong by Kimura Hakuzan and to reader DMan for info on MTB 26.

-Bob Hackett, Sander Kingsepp and Anthony Tully

Back to Rising Storm Page