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December 1941: British officer's diary describes final days of Battle of Hong Kong

My father joined the British army as a Gentleman Cadet in 1932, at the age of 18. I suspect he may have been drawn to the prospect of an active life of adventure, preferring that to years of studying for an office-based career. He was commissioned as an officer in 1934 and sent to Hong Kong in 1937.

Dad joined 8th Heavy Brigade, Royal Artillery, and assumed command of a Chinese troop on its formation in 1938.

In 1940, Dad was appointed to the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA), but by the time of the Battle of Hong Kong, in December 1941, he was based at HQ China Command, Hong Kong. In late November 1941 my father had been promoted to Brigade 19 Major.

Major John Monro. Picture: courtesy of Mary Monro

I am indeed convinced that it was this wretched word "prestige" which over-ruled all other argu­ments. Useless for me to point out that if war came, we should lose far more prestige by a short and unsuc­cess­ful siege, than by voluntar­ily deciding not to try the impossible. And, as I also pointed out, after the war Hong Kong would belong to who­ever won the war.

I had much reason to remember my arguments when I arrived at Chungking 14 days after Hong Kong fell; the majority of Chinese were not prepared to let me forget how much prestige the loss of Hong Kong had cost us.

British prime minister Winston Churchill evidently felt that it would be better for Hong Kong to fall into Japanese hands - to be recovered later - than to fall into Chinese hands, from which it might never be reclaimed. He certainly never expected that Hong Kong could be held and refused to "waste" extra resources on its defence.

Japanese troops enter Hong Kong via the Shenzhen River, in December 1941. Picture: Alamy

On November 26, 1941, the American Secretary of State [Cordell Hull] had handed to the Japanese ambassador [Kichisaburo Nomura] a demand for them to leave China. This was the final trigger for the Japanese to prepare for war with the Western powers. The battle of Hong Kong began on December 8, 1941, a few hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the other side of the Pacific, and at the same time as attacks on Singapore and the Philippines, and the invasion of Malaya (the peninsula, with Singapore at its tip, that was a British protectorate at this time) and Thailand.

Author Mary Monro

All the same to be quite sure I rang up my office to find out whether I was wanted. George Cross, who was on duty at the time, seemed quite offended and assured me that all was quiet, and that he could deal with any situation which might arise.

About this time the two Douglasses which had left earlier in the evening returned to the aerodrome long before they were expected. For some reason they had turned back. One landed in such a hurry that it broke its undercarriage. There was an air of expectancy and excitement in the mess where I stayed to dinner as Baugh was now confined to barracks.

As I went home after dinner everything seemed quiet and normal. There were the usual Saturday night crowds in the main streets and on the ferries. Hong Kong was illuminated as usual. This morning when I went to the office, I found that the situation had worsened.

I don't really believe that anyone thinks it will come to anything. We have had so many flaps and lived in a state of tension for so long that we have become blase. We live only for the day when the rather annoying precautions that interfere with our private amusements are once more considered unnecessary. This is more serious than most. The Hong Kong Regiment have been ordered to get their ammunition onto their mainland positions.

Certainly the troops he brought against us were magnificently fit and hardy. Both their fieldcraft and night fighting were first class. His cooperation between the arms was excellent. His infantry never seemed to be without adequate close support. We hated his heavy mortar and, though I believe it has been more bark than bite, it did the trick against us even if it might be ineffective when used against more seasoned troops.

Whatever his troops may carry on the march his assault troops in battle only carried very light equipment. They were dressed in KD [khaki drill] usually with netting sewn over the upper portions, I suppose for holding garnishment; a steel helmet also covered with a net, rifle, ammunition, bayonet, some hand grenades and an iron ration. He seldom seemed to wear leather boots, usually rubber soled hockey boots with a separate big toe. Officers usually carried glasses and a large leather map case. To our amusement they invariably wear swords. Their morale was magnificent.

A British anti-aircraft gun in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty

The Japs made rapid progress down the Taipo Road, and by the evening we were back in Shatin. HQ were gravely disappoint­ed with the Stanley guns [on Hong Kong Island]. They have shot too big a line, boasted that they could get almost to Taipo [a village 15 miles/24km to the north, in the New Territories], in actual fact, they can only reach about 1500 yards beyond Shatin Station.

We must have very badly weakened the Japs yesterday because the final boatloads of men only got away shortly after dawn this morning. I believe Thracian (our only destroyer) and the MTBs [motor torpedo boats] only left the Lyemun Pass [a channel separa­ting Kowloon and Hong Kong Island] at 7am.

A Japanese sentry in Hong Kong during the occupation. Picture: Alamy

A shell (nine-inch) came in through the old canteen along the passage into the plotting room and came to rest under the command exchange. The lights and the ventilating plant have been put out of action. We are only through to them by one line which goes through their Regimental HQ at Felix Villas, which they have had to move twice.

Courtlands [a hotel where Dad was staying] has been lucky so far. It is very close to the Peak Tramway, which the enemy base succeeded in putting out of action. The houses all round have been totally knocked about. At breakfast this morning the base of a 150 millimetre shell came in through the window and landed under the table. Buzz [Dad's dog] is standing up better than I expected. He is puzzled, rather startled but so far not really frightened.

On my way back to HQ I nearly fell into a bomb crater. There was the usual blackout. I stopped the car when the road surface didn't seem quite right, got out to look and found the front wheels on the very edge of a hole about 20 feet across and 10 feet deep. It was a small car and fortunately I was able to squeeze by on the right hand side.

Japanese General Takashi Sakai (right) rides into Hong Kong on December 28, 1941. Picture: Getty

They took Sai Wan Redoubt [a defensive fortification just up the hill from Lyemun Fort, where the Japanese landed] during the night. [Lieutenant E. A.] Bompas made a counter attack and retook it but most of his troops melted away and he was pushed off again. By daybreak we had to evacuate Sai Wan six-inch Howitzer position. The Japs were up on the top of Mt. Parker and beginning to trickle down into the Ty Tam Valley.

Then we had to evacuate Parker How position; after that came news that they had captured most of the guns in the Ty Tam Valley and were attacking Wong Nai Chung. It looked as if Ty Tam Gap would go at any minute, so the CRA [Commander Royal Artillery] ordered the destruction of the guns at Collinson, D'Aguilar, Bokhara and Chung Am Kok. The men had to go to Stanley for use as infantry. The controlled mine fields in the Tathong and East Lamma Channels were blown up.

Jack Fox, Tim Temple and all of the infantrymen were killed at Wong Nai Chung. With hindsight, this would have been the time to surrender to avoid further loss of life, but the Allies were determined to continue. On the same day he writes:

Ted Hunt came in this evening. He had led a counter attack against Wong Nai Chung and had recaptured it almost single-handed. As he got near the enemy his battery just melted away. Though the [Indian] gunners are steady under shellfire, they will not face the enemy at hand to hand fighting. I don't really blame them. They have had very little training in the use of infantry weapons and so few of our young officers can make them­selves really understood in their language. Jack Fielden was killed in this attack and Colonel Yale badly wounded.

Ted could tell us nothing of Tim Temple, Geoffrey Proes or Jack Fox. Ted is looking very wild and woolly. He is wearing an extraordinary assortment of uniform, he has three- or four-day growth of beard and is carrying a Tommy gun, which he swears is the finest weapon ever invented. He has had no sleep for the past two days. The CRA had ordered him to go back to Stanley and rest.

About this time news came through that the Japs had reoccupied Wong Nai Chung. Just as Ted was leaving I warned him of this and told him to go round by Pok Fu Lam but he replied, "Bugger the Nip, I am going back that way anyhow." And with that he dashed up the stairs out of the Battle Box.

Japanese guns at Jardine's Lookout on December 24, 1941, the day before the British surrender. Picture: courtesy of Life Under Japanese Occupation, 1941-45 exhibition

It is typical of Dad to comment so matter-of-factly about these nerve-shredding events. He never mentions fear or anxiety and seems to have quickly adapted to battle conditions with a rather Chinese fatalistic approach. Confucius recognised that not all outcomes are controllable by oneself in particular or mankind in general. Rather fate, or Heaven's Command, is ultimately in control.

The British surrender to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. Picture: Alamy

The governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, surrender­ed the colony to the Japanese on Christmas afternoon, 1941, at the Japanese headquarters in the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon. Dad later had dinner with the Japanese Commander, General Kitajima, during his stay in the prisoner-of-war camp at Sham Shui Po. He and his boss, the Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier [Torquil] MacLeod, were taken to the Japanese Commander's house on the evening of January 7, 1942. Dad's fluency in French proved useful as the conversation was conducted in French through the Japanese Camp Commandant, Major Nakazawa.

This edited excerpt of Stranger in my Heart (Unbound, 2018) by Mary Monro appears courtesy of the author and the publisher.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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