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Fedorowich, K.

(2003) Cocked hats and swords and small, little gar-

risons: Britain, Canada and the fall of Hong Kong, 1941. Modern
Asian Studies, 37 . pp. 111-157. ISSN 0026-749X

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Modern Asian Studies 37, 1 (2003), pp. 111157. 2003 Cambridge University Press
DOI:10.1017/S0026749X03001045 Printed in the United Kingdom

Cocked Hats and Swords and Small, Little

Garrisons: Britain, Canada and the Fall of
Hong Kong, 1941

University of the West of England, Bristol

Just days before the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939,

the Foreign Ofce in London received a letter from Ian Morrison,
late Honorary Attache to the British embassy in Tokyo, who was
returning to the United Kingdom via south China. For the past
month, Morrison had been enjoying the allure of Hong Kong.
Astounded by the bustle and ever-fresh beauty of this prosperous
corner of empire, one of the rst impressions upon his arrival in the
colony was its remarkable isolation.
Geographically it is part of China, commercially it is dependent . . . on
Canton and on the trafc up and down the China coast. Spiritually you feel
that it is as isolated as Tristan Da Cunha. The British here take extraordin-
arily little interest in what goes on elsewhere in the Far East. Impregnable,
till now, in the security and prosperity of the colony, they do not realise
their dependence on the mainland of China. The whole time one is meeting
people who have lived their lives here without ever visiting Japan or other
parts of China. And indeed I think that one could go to dinner parties for
weeks without ever hearing any serious political subject discussed. Some
lotus blooms beneath the barren peak and the English have supped full of

I should like to thank the trustees of the Scouloudi Foundation in association

with the Institute of Historical Research, and the Faculty of Humanities Research
Committee at the University of the West of England, Bristol, for grants in aid of
research. Versions of this essay were presented at the British Association of Canad-
ian Studies, Exeter, 1996; the Military History seminar at the IHR, 2000; a com-
bined meeting of the Canadian Studies/Decolonization seminar at the Institute of
Commonwealth Studies, London, 2000; and a history seminar at the University of
Auckland, 2001. The author would like to thank the participants in all of the above
seminars for their helpful comments, especially Mike Dockrill, Andrew Lambert,
Antony Best, Carl Bridge, Rob Holland, Stephen Ashton, Phil Buckner, Glenn Cald-
erwood, Christian Leitz and Nicholas Tarling. Thanks also to Martin Thomas for
his keen editorial eye.
Public Record Ofce, London (PRO), Foreign Ofce Papers (FO), FO 371/
23459/F 9233, Morrisons A Letter from Hong Kong, Aug. 1939.
111 Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


The impending conict in Europe, seemingly so far removed from

the relaxed everyday life experienced by most of Hong Kongs Euro-
peans, nevertheless forced an increasing number to take notice of
the diplomatic events which now threatened to shatter their carefree
colonial lifestyle. Morrison reported that there was much speculation
regarding the colonys defence, especially within military circles.
Nobody pretends that the position of the Colony is strong, he added,
despite the stout words of the Canadian-born General-Ofcer-
Commanding (GOC) Hong Kong, Major-General A. E. Grasett, that
the colony would be defended to the last man and the last round.
This shook me, admitted Morrison for he had never thought of
this pleasant picturesque place as being a fortress.2 Even more
surprising was that many of the Europeans who lived in Hong Kong
rmly believed that the Japanese had neither the audacity nor the
capacity to attack the colony. War in Europe did not mean war with
Japan in the Far East, argued many of Hong Kongs colonial elite.
And if Japan was foolhardy enough to strike, the European commun-
ity could rest assured that powerful British reinforcements in Singa-
pore were at hand to assist the 7,000-strong garrison. Even those
closest to the colonial government, such as the chief manager of
the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Sir Vandeleur
Grayburn, were convinced that the deepening crisis in the Far East
and there had been so many of them in the 1930swould blow
Imagine the disbelief amongst many British civilians in Hong
Kong when the Pacic War was unleashed on 8 December 1941.
This shock was compounded, when, on Christmas Day 1941, the
recently reinforced but inadequately equipped and ill-prepared gar-
rison surrendered. British power and prestige, especially in China,
had received a hammer blow. The knockout punch was delivered
shortly afterwards when Singaporethe key to British Far Eastern
strategy and imperial security throughout the region during the
inter-war periodwas captured by numerically inferior Japanese
Ibid. Sir John Brenan, former Consul-General in Shanghai and FO counsellor,
minuted on 29 Aug. 1939 that Morrisons letter was very interesting and readable
. . . and the writer sizes up Hong Kong to an inch. As Norman Miners points out,
Hong Kong was one of the ten pre-eminent colonies in the British empire, the
governor receiving almost as much in salary as the Secretary of State for the Colon-
ies. Hong Kong under Imperial Rule, 19121941 (Oxford, 1987), p. 43.
Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation,
vol. 3 The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned 19191945
(Cambridge, 1988), p. 569. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

forces in mid-February 1942. By May of that year all of the old colo-
nial powers, including the United States, had been swept from the
Far East.
Much has been written about the failure of the Singapore strategy,
the collapse of British power and inuence in the Far East in the
1930s and the origins of the Pacic War.4 Indeed, these issues con-
tinue to generate scholarly investigation from a younger generation
of academics, who, spurred on by the release of new archival mat-
erial, have begun to provide a wider and more sophisticated analysis
of the economic, diplomatic, military and intelligence issues involved.
Similarly, the controversy over the defence of Hong Kong has not
abated in particular regarding the last minute decision to reinforce
the colony with Canadian troops. Since the 1960s a variety of work
ranging from the sensational to the scholarly has been written on
the fall of Hong Kong.5 Over the past few years, the release of new

Antony Best, Britain, Japan and Pearl Harbour: Avoiding war in East Asia, 193641
(London, 1995); B. A. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, 19371939: A Study in
the Dilemmas of British Decline (Stanford, 1973); P. Lowe, Great Britain and the Origins
of the Pacic War: A Study of British Policy in East Asia, 19371941 (Oxford, 1977);
Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind. The United States, Britain and the War against
Japan (London, 1978); Jonathan Marshall, To Have and Have Not. Southeast Asian Raw
Materials and the Origins of the Pacic War (London, 1995); Jonathan G. Utley, Going
to War with Japan (Knoxville TN, 1985); Nicholas Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and
the Onset of the Pacic War (Cambridge, 1996); Ong Chit Chung, Operation Matador.
Britains War Plans against the Japanese 19181941 (Singapore, 1998); Malcolm H.
Murfett, John N. Miksic, Brian P. Farrell and Chiang Ming Shun, Between Two
Oceans. A Military History of Singapore From First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal
(Oxford, 1999), pp. 145247; Sumio Hatano and Sadao Asada, The Japanese
Decision to Move South, in Robert Boyce and Esmonde M. Robertson (eds), Paths
to War: New Essays on the Origins of the Second World War (London, 1989), pp. 383
See Tim Carew, The Fall of Hong Kong (London, 1960) for an example of pulp
journalism. Oliver Lindsays The Lasting Honour. The Fall of Hong Kong (London,
1978), and At the Going Down of the Sun: Hong Kong and South East Asia 19411945
(London, 1981) are better but still cater to the popular market. British ofcial
histories include F. S. V. Donnison, British Military Administration in the Far East
(London, 1956) and S. Woodburn Kirby, The War Against Japan, vol. 1 The Loss of
Singapore (London, 1957), 10751. Hong Kong appeared in Canadas ofcial histor-
ies both written by C. P. Stacey, The Canadian Army 19391945 (Ottawa, 1948),
27389 and Ofcial History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, vol. 1 Six
Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacic (Ottawa, 1955), pp. 43791.
Two early Canadian studies are Ted Ferguson, Desperate Siege: The Battle of Hong Kong
(Toronto, 1980) and Carl Vincent, No Reason Why: The Canadian Hong Kong Tragedy
An Examination (Stittsville ON, 1981). A recent edition is Brereton Greenhous, C
Force to Hong Kong: A Canadian Catastrophe 19411945 (Toronto, 1997). Aspects of
the Hong Kong debacle appear in Grant S. Garneau, The Royal Ries of Canada in
Hong Kong (Sherbrooke, 1980); Patricia Roy, J. L. Granatstein, Masako Iino and Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


material at the Public Record Ofce in London, combined with the

ftieth anniversaries of the battle of Hong Kong and the ending of
the Pacic War, have rekindled the debate. This is especially true
amongst Canadian academics who eagerly challenged the allegations
sparked by a three-part television series produced by the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation in January 1992. Entitled The Valour and
the Horror, the rst episode of the series featured the Canadian parti-
cipation in the defence of Hong Kong and the subsequent incarcera-
tion of the survivors by the Japanese. 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 Canad-
ian forces were unwitting, guileless dupes ruthlessly manipulated
by their political and military masters in unnecessary and fruitless
operations. In other words, their sacrices had counted for nothing.6
No single event in the senior dominions wartime historyperhaps
with the exception of the Dieppe raid of August 19427has elicited
such emotion and controversy within Canada itself. Nor has any war-
time event engendered such acrimony between the once former
allies; in particular amongst some of the surviving British and Can-
adian ofcers involved in the colonys defence. Shortly after the ill-
fated expedition, Canadas Liberal prime minister, William Lyon
Mackenzie Kingthe worlds champion fence sitter8estab-
lished a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of one of the

Hiroko Takamura, Mutual Hostages: Canadians and Japanese during the Second World War
(Toronto, 1990), 5774; Kenneth Taylor, The challenge of the eighties: World War
II from a new perspectivethe Hong Kong case, in Timothy Travers and Christon
Archer (eds), Men at War: Politics, Technology and Innovation in the Twentieth Century
(Chicago, 1982), 197212; David J. Bercuson, Maple Leaf Against the Axis. Canadas
Second World War (Toronto, 1995), 4957; Charles G. Roland, Long Nights Journey
into Day. Prisoners of War in Hong Kong and Japan, 19411945 (Waterloo ON, 2001).
For a disappointing Japanese contribution see Hisashi Takahashi, The Canadian
Expeditionary Force and the Fall of Hong Kong, in John Schultz and Kimitada
Miwa (eds), Canada and Japan in the Twentieth Century (Toronto, 1991), pp. 10210.
The authors-producers of the docudrama, Brian and Terence McKenna, were
immediately challenged by professional historians who charged them with distortion
of historical facts and presenting a biased account. S. F. Wise, The Valour and the
Horror: A Report for the CBC Ombudsman, in David J. Bercuson and S. F. Wise
(eds), The Valour and the Horror Revisited (London, 1994), p. 30; and John Ferris,
Savage Christmas: The Canadians at Hong Kong, in Bercuson and Wise (eds), pp.
10927. The series was aired in the United Kingdom in August 1994.
Brian Loring Villa, Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid (Oxford,
PRO, Dominions Ofce Papers (hereafter DO), DO 35/586/4, G 88/83, Sir
F. L. C. Floud, British High Commissioner, Ottawa, to Lord Stanley, Secretary of
State for Dominions Affairs, 24 May 1938. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

countrys leading jurists, Chief Justice Sir Lyman Duff, to investigate
the entire matter. The hearings were held in camera, and when his
ndings were tabled in June 1942 exonerating the Liberal govern-
ment, they did little to satisfy the ofcial opposition or an anxious
Canadian public.9 The Conservative Party led by Kings long-time
political rival, the ageing former prime minister Senator Arthur
Meighen, were baying for political blood. The ill preparedness of the
Hong Kong expedition was charged Meighen, symptomatic of the
lack of direction in Canadas war effort. Total war demanded total
commitment, including conscription. The Hong Kong debacle
became a convenient stick which both federal and provincial Tories,
especially Ontarios Conservative leader Lieutenant-Colonel George
A. Drew, used to beat the Liberals with throughout the war.10
More documentation, however, has come to light, which clearly
demonstrates that the Hong Kong controversy is far from settled.
There are those who argue that the reinforcement of Hong Kong
was consistent with the overall perceptions and assessments of Brit-
ish Far Eastern defence policy during the inter-war period. They
argue that Hong Kong, at least until 1938, was an integral part of
the Singapore strategy not only as a forward base of operations from
which the British could monitor Japanese movements in south
China, but also as a defence against Japanese incursions southward
against Malaya, French Indo-China and the Netherlands East Indies.
Indeed, important insights into the debate have been provided by
this latest scholarship.11
There remain, however, several limitations to the existing debate.
A key question is that the controversy surrounding the defence and
reinforcement of Hong Kong has been neatly and conveniently com-
partmentalized. Historians have either examined Hong Kong from
the military and strategic viewpoint, especially as an adjunct of the
Report on the Canadian Expeditionary Force to the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, by the
Right Honourable Sir Lyman P. Duff (Ottawa, 1942). For an Australian assessment
of the political fallout see Australian Archives, Canberra (hereafter AA), CRS
A5954, item 527/14, T. W. Glasgow, Australian High Commissioner to Canada, to
Dr H. V. Evatt, Australian Minister of External Affairs, 15 July 1942.
Nottingham Evening News, 22 Jan. 1942; Toronto Globe and Mail, 28 Oct. 1942;
Montreal Gazette, 28 Oct. 1942. J. L. Granatstein, The Politics of Survival. The Conservat-
ive Party of Canada, 19391945 (Toronto, 1967), chaps 45.
Galen Roger Perras, Our position in the Far East would be stronger without
this unsatisfactory commitment: Britain and the Reinforcement of Hong Kong,
1941, Canadian Journal of History, 30, 2 (1995), 23259; Christopher M. Bell, Our
most exposed outpost: Hong Kong and British Far Eastern Strategy, 19211941,
Journal of Military History, 60, 1 (1996), 6188. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Singapore strategy, relying on War Ofce and Admiralty records to

explain the shortcomings of that policy. Others have examined the
issue purely on a political and imperial level, and hence have relied
on documents contained in the Cabinet and Prime Ministers Ofces.
What have not received close scrutiny are the scattered but rich
Colonial, Dominions and Foreign Ofce records. If one is to clearly
understand the complexity and interplay of military, political and
imperial factors involved in the fateful decision to reinforce Hong
Kong, it is important to paint the diplomatic canvas with a much
broader brush, sketching in Hong Kongs importance in Sino-British
The second and more alarming problem is that some historians
have continued to peddle the inaccurate but highly charged story
that British interests rode roughshod over those of its senior domin-
ion. To them, Hong Kong is a typical example of how national inter-
ests were subordinated to the wider imperial whole. For conspiracy
theorists or those who subscribe to these views, such as the authors-
producers of The Valour and the Horror, Brian and Terence McKenna,
Hong Kong provides fertile ground with which to rehash the tired
allegory that the evil British withheld vital information about
Japanese intentions from their unsuspecting Canadian allies. To say
that Canadian politicians and military leaders were duped or misled
by Whitehall is utter nonsense. Mistakes were made on both sides of
the Atlantic, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that
London hoodwinked Ottawa into reinforcing Hong Kong. Nor is
there any truth in the contention that Canadian wartime leaders
knowingly sent their troops to certain death or imprisonment in the
Far East. Hindsight, emotion and journalese have skewed the facts.
In order to strip away some of the popular misconceptions, it is
rst essential to give a brief overview of Britains Far Eastern posi-
tion between 1919 and 1941, demonstrating how Hong Kong tted
into the overall picture. Secondly, using new material it is important
to analyse in greater detail the motives behind the decision to send
Canadian reinforcements to Hong Kong and the political and diplo-
matic fallout which resulted. Of crucial importance is the examina-
tion of British policy in China and Londons efforts to nd a rap-
prochement with Japan. British endeavours to co-ordinate their
policy with the French as tensions in the Far East intensied are a
necessary supplement. Finally, the impact of the Hong Kong debacle
on Anglo-Canadian wartime relations needs further assessment. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Hong Kong was Britains major base for naval operations in the
South China Seas between 1842, when the island colony was ceded
to Britain as part of the Treaty of Nanking, and 1921, when the
Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated. This did not mean that Hong
Kongs strategic importance then decreased. The Washington Naval
agreements of 1922 and the development of the Singapore strategy
redirected Britains strategic focus to Malaya and the new base at
Singapore. However, as late as 1938, the Admiralty recognized that
Hong Kong still performed an important function as a forward base
for offensive and defensive operations against possible Japanese
naval incursions southward.12 Space does not allow an in-depth ana-
lysis of the strategic illusion behind the Singapore strategy.13 What
must be emphasized, however, is that British Far Eastern strategic
and naval defence planning was not only based on an over-estimation
of British defence capabilities, it also suffered from a gross under-
estimation of the military sophistication of their Japanese foe.14
This does not mean that Britain was blind to some of its strategic
or military inadequacies in the region. Nicholas Tarling has recently
argued that the British were indeed cognisant of their weakness,
although [they were] cautious about displaying it. As a result,
London was prepared to reach some accommodation with Japan.
This did not necessarily mean appeasement. It may be that we shall
have to endure some encroachment by the Japanese upon our privil-
eges and prestige in China, wrote Sir Alexander Cadogan, Deputy
Bell, Our Most Exposed Outpost , 6971.
There is an enormous literature on this subject which space does not permit
to cite. For the best synopsis of the Singapore strategy, complete with a detailed
survey of the literature, see Malcolm H. Murfett, Living in the Past: a Critical
Re-examination of the Singapore Naval Strategy, 19181941, War and Society, 11,
1 (1993), 73103.
Wesley K. Wark, In Search of a Suitable Japan: British Naval Intelligence in
the Pacic before the Second World War, Intelligence and National Security, 1, 2
(1986), 189211; John Ferris, Worthy of Some Better Enemy? The British Estim-
ate of the Imperial Japanese Army 191941, and the Fall of Singapore, Canadian
Journal of History, 28, 2 (1993), 22456; Antony Best, Constructing an Image: Brit-
ish Intelligence and Whitehalls Perception of Japan, 19311939, Intelligence and
National Security, 11, 3 (1996), 40323; idem, This Probably Over-Valued Military
Power: British Intelligence and Whitehalls Perception of Japan, 193941, Intelli-
gence and National Security, 12, 3 (1997), 6794. A must for British intelligence weak-
nesses in the Far East is Richard J. Aldrich, Intelligence and the War Against Japan.
Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 1967. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Ofce, in November 1937,

though we may be able to retard such encroachment by diplomatic
means. If we can avert any intolerable encroachment for the next
two or three years, it may be that, with our increased naval strength
at the end of that time, (and if the European situation has eased),
we might be able, if faced with the necessity for it, to take action to
restore the situation.15 Nevertheless, according to Major-General Sir
Hastings Ismay, in a lecture given to the Imperial Staff College in
1935, the colony remained a vital imperial nodal point in Asia. Hong
Kong is important in peace as the focal point of British trade with
the Far East, he told his audience. It is important in war as an
outpost to Singapore. Steps are being taken [which] are designed to
ensure Hong Kong shall not, like Shanghai and Tientsin, be a liabil-
ity rather than an asset.16
Ismay was correct to write off the isolated garrisons of Teintsin
and Shanghai, which he called a dead loss if war broke out with
Japan.17 Why then was Hong Kong not put in a similar category?
What could the British do to ensure that Hong Kong withstood a
sudden Japanese assault? More importantly, why bother? The simple
answer was prestige. As one Canadian historian, J. L. Granatstein,
has observed, Hong Kong had long been seen [by the British] as
impossible to defend adequately and impossible to abandon politic-
ally, and the pre-war British Chiefs of Staff (COS) had agreed to a
low standard of defence for reasons of prestige rather than strat-
egy.18 To explain Britains refusal to either abandon or demilitarize
Hong Kong and instead stick it out, one must rst consider the
broader international context and their implications for the British
decision to reinforce the colony in the autumn of 1941.
The outbreak of war between China and Japan in July 1937
increased the likelihood of a Japanese attack on Hong Kong. Britain
remained neutral during this conict, although it did allow muni-
tions and gasoline destined for Chinese Nationalists to ow through

Tarling, Onset of the Pacic War, pp. 3 and 13; Aron Shai, Was there a Far
Eastern Munich?, Journal of Contemporary History, 9, 3 (1974), 16170; PRO, FO
371/20960/F 10284, minute by Cadogan, 29 Nov. 1937.
PRO, Cabinet Ofce Papers (hereafter CAB), CAB 127/7, Major-General Sir
Hastings Ismay Papers, lecture to Imperial Staff College, China and the Far East
J. L. Granatstein, The Generals. The Canadian Armys Senior Commanders in the
Second World War (Toronto, 1993), p. 98. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

the colonyto the increasing annoyance of Tokyo. British ofcials,
with a watchful eye on Germany and Italy, pursued a policy which
allowed Japan to make some limited economic and strategic gains in
China. Their idea was that Japan would exhaust herself militarily
while trying to absorb her vast neighbour. As long as the ow of war
material to China remained uninterrupted, Whitehall rmly
believed that Japanese ambitions would remain in check. This, in
turn, it was argued, would eventually bring Japan to the negotiating
table. Nevertheless, most Whitehall ofcials believed that in the
short to medium term, it was in the British empires best interests
that the undeclared war between China and Japan continue
unabated. [British] sea power and Chinese manpower, according
to a personal friend of Lord Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, would
[eventually] ensure peaceful stability in East Asia20; a misconception
shared by many ofcials in Whitehall. In other words, according to
Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador to China (1938
42), many qualied observers had wrongfully assumed that the
Japanese had bitten off more than they could have chewed, despite
the fact that Japan so far had been victorious throughout the
In the meantime, Britain would have to endure petty humiliation
by Japanese diplomats, soldiers and merchants as they exploited Bri-
tains preoccupation with Europe to drive Britain out of the China
trade. The reference here was to the increasing number of incidents
on the Yangtze River where Japanese ofcials unilaterally imposed
navigation restrictions on foreign shipping in an attempt not only to
stop the ow of war material reaching the Nationalists, but also to
monopolize the lucrative river trafc itself. In 1938, the Admiralty
admitted that, however insulting these Japanese pin pricks were, it
was bad strategy to augment the China squadron, short of sending
the main British eet to the Far East.22 Such demands were beyond
the scope of current British naval policy. Captain H. V. Dankwerts,

Hata Ikuhiko, The Armys Move into Northern Indochina, in J. W. Morley
(ed.), The Fateful Choice: Japans Advance into Southeast Asia 19391941 (New York,
1980), p. 157.
Churchill College Archive Centre, Cambridge (hereafter CCC), Lord Lloyd
Papers, GLLD 21/5, Digby E. Cook to Lloyd, 5 Aug. 1940.
Bodleian Library, Oxford, Lord Inverchapel Papers (Clark Kerr), Some Notes
on the Present Hostilities in the Far East, 18 May 1939. Also see Youli Sun,
China and the Origins of the Pacic War, 19311941 (New York, 1993).
PRO, Admiralty Papers (ADM), ADM 116/4087, M04304/38, minute by C. G.
Jarrett, Principal Secretary, 19 July 1938. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


the newly appointed Director of Plans, did not recommend economic

reprisals either. To commence a forward policy in the Far East
designed to call the Japanese bluff was inopportune as naval re-
armament was only just beginning and British capital ship strength
was at its lowest ebb. Furthermore, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)
was fully modernized; the Royal Navy was not. Besides, the political
situation in Europe demanded that Britain retain its forces in Euro-
pean waters at the expense of any eet to be sent to the Far East, a
factor of which the Japanese were fully aware. Even more alarming
was that the Singapore dockyard was not yet functional. Instead, in
July 1938 a series of precautionary dispositions of the China eet,
including measures which would safeguard Hong Kong from a sur-
prise attack, were recommended. With a suspicious and jumpy
people like the Japanese a forward policy could easily lead to a mis-
understanding, argued the Admiralty, which would give rise to a dan-
gerous situation in the Far East which the Royal Navy was unpre-
pared for.23
Between 1937 and 1940 the Japanese consolidated their strategic
position in Southeast Asia and southern China, one of the chief
motives of which was to isolate Hong Kong. In late 1937, the
Japanese laid claim to a number of uninhabited, seemingly innocuous
and commercially insignicant islands in the South China Seas. The
Spratley Islands were a sprawling group of low lying coral reefs and
atolls, located roughly equidistant between French Cochin China and
British North Borneo. They were also a short hop away from the
US-controlled Philippines and astride the all-important sea route
between Singapore and Hong Kong. The French asserted formal con-
trol in 1933, but to the chagrin of the Foreign Ofce, had exercised
only a loose supervision over them since then. The Japanese, whose
nationals had been exploiting the islands reefs since 1917, refused
to recognize French sovereignty, when in late 1937 they landed a
small party of shermen, complete with a wireless transmitter, on
Itu Aba, one of the larger islands in the centre of the group. This is
bad, minuted J. Thyne Henderson of the Far Eastern Department,
for it allowed the Japanese a strategic foothold too near Singapore.
To defend its own strategic interests in the region, Britain supported
the French diplomatic challenge against Japanese claims by persuad-
ing the Quai dOrsay that French prestige was at stake. Whether

Ibid., minutes by Dankwerts, Jarrett, and Admiral Sir Ernle Chateld, First
Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, 8, 19 and 20 July 1938 respectively. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

the Japanese recognized the French claim to the Spratleys was
immaterial, argued the Foreign Ofce, who were wary that the
French were also afraid of offending the Japanese or getting embro-
iled with them. Swift and concerted action, however, was the only
way forward if the Japanese claim of sovereignty was to be thwarted;
even if that meant Britain leasing the islands from the French in an
effort to forestall the Japanese.24
The British rightly feared that these islands and the treacherous
waters surrounding them were an ideal base from which the
Japanese could monitor and possibly harass British merchant and
naval shipping. Although most of the islands were submerged during
the monsoon season, a resourceful enemy could use the smaller coral
islets as temporary hiding places and refuelling centres for sea-
planes, motor-torpedo boats or submarines. Originally, what worried
the British most was Itu Aba, which was not prone to ooding during
the monsoon. A permanent aerodrome or seaplane base constructed
there would directly threaten imperial communications between Sin-
gapore and Hong Kong. Further investigations by the survey ship
HMS Herald in April 1938 revealed that the permanent construction
of a shore-based air station would be problematic. Once cleared of
vegetation and levelled the loose ne sand and broken coral was
deemed incapable of bearing the weight required to provide a per-
manent airstrip. Without substantial investment in imported labour
and aggregate, the porous nature of the islands existing conglomer-
ate would, because of seepage, encourage subsidence.25
Heartened by the Heralds ndings, over the summer of 1938 the
COS and the Foreign Ofce down-graded the military and political
menace of Japanese activities on the Spratleys. Nevertheless, a
threat still existed. For instance, if Japan was permitted to annex
the islands it was conceivable that it might develop secret but limited
land-based aircraft and seaplane tendering facilities. Admittedly, in
the event of war in the Far East, the Japanese would have the initial
advantage due to their naval superiority. The COS agreed unanim-
ously, however, that once the main British eet arrived in the region

PRO, FO 371/22175/F 4823, Cadogan to Sir Maurice Hankey, chairman of
the Committee of Imperial Defence, 27 Apr. 1938; FO 371/22174/F 956, minute
by Thyne Henderson, First Secretary, 25 Jan. 1938; ibid., F 1966 and F 2296, FO
to Sir Eric Phipps, British ambassador in Paris, 19 Feb. 1938, and Phippss reply,
28 Feb. 1938.
PRO, FO 371/22175/F 7231, COS 741, CID Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee,
5 July 1938. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


control of the islands would be vigorously contested. Condent that

British seapower would quickly overwhelm the Japanese, the COS
recommended that Britain no longer push France to oppose the
Japanese occupation of Itu Aba for fear of provoking unwanted
reprisals or an escalation of diplomatic tensions. Doubting that the
French had the will or wherewithal to evict the Japanese, the Foreign
Ofce, supported by the Admiralty, recommended that Britain main-
tain its strong moral support for French claims of ownership. For
the moment, the Japanese occupation of some of the islands was
undesirable but not important.26
British attentions were dramatically focused on the Pearl River
basin in southern China, when, in October 1938, the Japanese 21st
Army Group seized Canton sixty miles up river from Hong Kong.
This assault had been part of a larger strategy initiated earlier that
year, when Japanese forces had successfully launched a number of
amphibious assaults against Chinese garrisons in the smaller treaty
ports of Amoy, Foochow and Swatow. In part designed to cut Chiang
Kai-sheks access to foreign aid, the Foreign Ofce commented that
a period of active [Japanese] aggression had set in.27 Operations in
Canton were followed shortly after in February 1939 by the occupa-
tion of Hainan Island, 300 hundred nautical miles southwest of Hong
Kong. This effectively isolated the British colony by giving the IJN
control of the Gulf of Tonkin. Sir Robert Craigie, Britains ambas-
sador to Japan, thought the invasion of Hainan was more political
than military in nature. From a military viewpoint, another source
of supplies to the Nationalists had been severed. Moreover, the island
could be used to bomb southwest China and the supply lines from
Burma and French Indo-China. The political implications, according
to Craigie however, had been uppermost in the minds of the
Japanese and their Axis partners as the occupation represented a
denite strategic threat to Indo-China, Hong Kong and the Philip-
pines. Chiang Kai-shek concurred. To him, Hainan was a thermo-
meter by which Japanese intentions and sincerity regarding their

Ibid.; F 9147, Captain (later Admiral) Sir Tom Phillips, Director of Plans Divi-
sion, to R. A. Butler, Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Ofce, 22 Aug. 1938; F
7321, minute by R. G. Howe, 14 July 1938; National Archives of New Zealand,
Wellington, AIR 120/21B, Far East Combined Bureau, intelligence summary on
Spratley Islands, 14 Apr. 1940.
PRO, FO 371/23458/F 1801, minute by Esler Dening, Foreign Ofce Consul,
25 Feb. 1939. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

overall aims in the Far East could be measured. The Japanese, des-
pite their hollow assurances that the occupation was temporary,
would not leave Hainan unless forced to do so by the British and
French. Japanese newspapers were equally forthright in their ana-
lysis of Hainans capture. Although Japan had no quarrel to pick with
Great Britain, the occupation signied a turning point in Anglo-
Japanese relations in the region. The Kokumin even went as far as to
declare that the military importance of Hong Kong had been lost
with Japans seizure of Hainan.28
Wary that the Japanese might dig themselves in on the island by
building fortications, airelds and naval installations, there was the
cold, sobering thought that there was absolutely nothing the British
could do to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing Hainan. Its occu-
pation was indeed fraught with all sorts of menacing possibilities,
commented one Foreign Ofce ofcial. [B]ut there is so little that
we can do in present circumstances that I doubt whether it is even
worth while asking the service depts [sic] to consider the matter.
Doubting that the COS could propose any effective remedy, and
knowing that there was nothing Britain could do about the Japanese
seizure of Hainan, the Foreign Ofce could only monitor events on
the island as they unfolded.29 Public reaction in Hong Kong was
equally subdued. The US Consul General in Hong Kong, Addison E.
Southard, reported to Washington that there had been only the
smallest of murmuring concerning Hainans occupation.30
Meanwhile, the Japanese continued to consolidate their strategic
position. In February 1939 the Paracel Islands, located several hun-
dred miles north of the Spratleys were incorporated into the
Japanese empire. In March the Spratley archipelago was similarly

PRO, FO 371/23476/F 1392, Craigie to FO, 12 Feb. 1939 which includes
newspaper summaries; Bodleian Library, dep Inverchapel, conversations between
Chiang Kai-shek and Ambassador Clark Kerr, 14 May 1939; FO 371/23476/F
1376, minute by M. J. R. Talbot, Third Secretary, 14 Feb. 1939.
PRO, FO 371/23476/F 1431, minutes by Talbot, Ronald and Howe, 14 and
16 Feb. 1939. Also see R. T. Phillips, The Japanese Occupation of Hainan, Modern
Asian Studies, 14, 1 (1980), 93109; Kyozo Sato, Japans Position before the Out-
break of the European War in September 1939, ibid., 12943.
National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC (hereafter
NARA), State Department Records, RG 59, Decimal les, 193039, 848G.00/40,
Southard to State Department, 1 March 1939. For the Canadian response see Gre-
gory A. Johnson, Canada and the Far East in 1939, in Norman Hillmer, Robert
Bothwell, Roger Sarty and Claude Beauregard (eds), A Country of Limitations: Canada
and the World in 1939 (Ottawa, 1996), pp. 27087. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

annexed. The British could only watch and offer moral support to
the French. The realization that Britain and France were helpless to
prevent this strategic nibbling was expounded by N. B. Ronald,
Acting Counsellor in the Far Eastern Department, in a lengthy and
revealing minute of 28 February 1939.
In matters of real importance the Japanese are rarely in a hurry and gener-
ally act on the principle of taking what they can to-day in the certainty that
to-morrow they will get a little nearer the ultimate goal. It rather looks as
though they had made up their minds that what can be taken at little risk
to-day are various advanced posts on the way to the long-term objective.32
Although it had been French power and prestige which had been
undermined by the loss of the Spratleys and Paracels, it was obvious
to British observers that Japan would goad the French and British
into a vain attempt to protect the tattered remnants of their pres-
tige in the Far East.33 What the British were witnessing, argued
R. G. Howe, head of the Far Eastern Department, was an extension
to the Far East of the Axis policy of calculated blackmail. For nearly
two years we have seen the stranglehold tighten on British interests
in China with no effective retaliation and it is logical and inevitable
that Japan should now turn the process into those other
directions. . . . Japan knows that we are not able to defend our posi-
tion in China militarily and she is convinced that we are not willing
to use our economic weapons.34
To illustrate British sensitivity over their increasing loss of pres-
tige in the Far East (and their growing realization that they could
do very little to counter it), let us examine the discussions in Febru-
ary 1939 over the proposed withdrawal from the China station of
the World War One vintage city-class cruiser, HMS Cardiff. Built in
1917, this vessel was being recalled to home waters so that some of
the ships engine room personnel could assist with shortfalls in Fleet
Air Arm maintenance. This was untimely news, complained the For-
eign Ofce. Any reduction in British naval strength in Chinese
waters would create the most unfavourable psychological impression;
PRO, FO 371/23543/F 3229, minute by Henry Ashley Clarke, First Secretary,
3 Apr. 1939; PRO, War Ofce Papers (hereafter WO), WO 208/1219A, memo.
on Spratleys by Jarrett, 1 Aug. 1939. The Dominions were kept abreast of these
developments in the South China Seas. See PRO, DO 35/549/5, F 10/55, circular
B, no. 91, 20 Sept. 1937 and DO 35/550/7, F 15/97, circular B, no. 131, 3 Apr.
PRO, FO 371/23560/F 3478, minute by Ronald, 28 Feb. 1939.
Ibid., minute by Howe, 2 March 1939. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

not just on the Japanesewho were not intimidated in the least by
the ve British cruisers stationed in the Far Eastbut more import-
antly, on the Chinese and British communities in the region.
Acknowledging that the Admiralty knew best and had legitimate
reasons for wanting to return the vessel to European waters, however
slow and under-gunned the old cruiser was, to withdraw HMS Cardiff
without replacing it would send the wrong message to an increasingly
beleaguered British community in China. In other words, the polit-
ical and psychological damage its withdrawal would cause far out-
weighed its obviously limited military usefulness.35
As war in Europe loomed, a series of Anglo-French staff talks were
undertaken in April and June 1939. During the discussions in
London that Aprilwhich were conducted in a spirit of utmost
frankness36the subject of Japanese intervention was raised as part
of the larger Anglo-French strategic overview. Undoubtedly, the key
to Britains position in the Far East was Singapore, the integrity of
which was crucial for the prosecution of allied defence policy. Hong
Kong, on the other hand, was certain to be attacked and therefore
had to hold out as long as possible. All was not lost however. Both
allies were convinced that the initiative in the Canton region could
be swung in their favour by co-ordinating with their Chinese ally
joint operations to evict the Japanese from the area. It was suggested
that plans be prepared for French forces in northern Indo-China to
operate with local Chinese forces against the Japanese in south
China with a view to freeing the CantonHong KongKowloon area.
The key provision to this stratagem however was the maintenance
of allied sea communications in the South China Seas. In addition,
great stock was put into the potential power [for Chinese] guerrilla
warfare which would keep the Japanese off-balance and prevent
them from augmenting their forces in south China during an allied
The fundamental problem remained the degree of naval reinforce-
ment of Britains Far Eastern empire. There were so many variable
factors, which could not be fully assessed, wrote L. C. Hollis, secret-

PRO, FO 371/23502/F 1698, minutes by A. L. Scott, Foreign Ofce clerk,
Ashley Clarke and Brenan, 23 and 24 Feb. 1939.
PRO, Air Ministry Papers (AIR), AIR 2/4128, Air Ministry to Air Vice Marshal
J. T. Babington, Air-Ofcer-Commanding, Far East, 17 May 1939.
PRO, AIR 9/112, AFC(J)53, Anglo-French Staff Conversations, 1939, 4 May
1939; AFC(J)17, 20 Apr. 1939; AIR 2/4128, WO to Army HQs in India, Burma
and Hong Kong, 19 May 1939. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


ary of the United Kingdom delegation, that it is not possible to state

denitely how soon after Japan entered the war a Fleet could, or
should, be despatched to the Far East. Nor was it possible to enu-
merate precisely the size of the eet that Britain could send, keeping
in mind the naval priorities which existed for both countries in the
Mediterranean.38 Clark Kerr also warned about relying too much on
Chinese guerrillas for assistance. Despite the wishful thinking of
some observers, reports that had recently crossed his desk noted that
guerrilla activity was ineffective and over-valued because of poor
training and leadership. The distinction between the old-time bandit
and the patriotic guerrilla is often a ne one, warned the ambas-
sador.39 This pessimism was conrmed by the Assistant Military
Attache at the British embassy in Tokyo, Major G. T. Wards, prior
to the outbreak of war in Europe. In conversations he had had with
Chiang Kai-sheks German advisor, Captain Walther Stennes, too
much had been made about Chinas ability to undertake an effective
insurgency campaign against the Japanese. Guerrilla warfare was
nothing more than a nuisance to them that would not affect in the
least Japans long-term control of the occupied areas.40
Further joint staff talks between the British and French regional
commanders in Singapore in late June 1939 revealed just how vul-
nerable the two European nations were in their Far Eastern domains.
As John E. Driefort notes, the discussions revealed a number of stun-
ning contradictions. The British naturally tended to emphasize the
role of naval defense in stopping Japan, but Admiral Sir Percy Noble
[Commander-in-Chief, Far East] had no eet. The French stressed
military operations to check Japan, but they had no army.41 To fur-
ther illustrate this point, the GOC-in-C, China, asked the Air Ofcer
Commanding, Far East, if there was any hope of providing additional
aircraft for Hong Kong, whose present strength stood at two! Prom-
ises were made but the twenty-one amphibious aircraft earmarked
for reinforcement would not be despatched until early 1940. Even
more worrying was the woeful lack of naval units available to Vice-
Admiral Noble. He pointed out that naval priorities in the Indian

PRO, AIR 9/112, AFC(J)17, 20 Apr. 1939; AFC(J)45, 25 Apr. 1939.
Bodleian Library, dep. Inverchapel, Notes, 18 May 1939.
Imperial War Museum (IWM), Colonel G. T. Wards Papers, IWM 92/24/1,
notes on a tour of Manila, Hong Kong, Canton, Macao and Shanghai, 22 Jan.27
Feb. 1939, 11 March 1939.
John E. Driefort, Myopic Grandeur. The Ambivalence of French Foreign Policy toward
the Far East, 19191945 (London, 1991), p. 164. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Ocean, Singapore, the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea would
dictate a substantial reduction of surface units available to him on
the China Station; leaving him one cruiser, ve destroyers, a few
escort vessels and a handful of submarines. Despite the perceived
vulnerability of Japanese sea communications, and Nobles commit-
ment to base half his submarines at Hong Kong to counter Japanese
incursions southward, he had to admit, that besides the submarines,
there was very little with which to threaten the Japanese in the South
China Seas.42
Combined Franco-British-Chinese action in south China to relieve
pressure on Fortress Hong Kong was problematic as well. The
French base at Langson was 250 kilometres from Nanning, the
northern terminus of the supply line from Indo-China. Although this
link was well served by a good road network, the problem for any
relief expedition was the 700 kilometres through Sikiang between
Nanning and Canton. The transportation problem alone, although
not insoluble, was an indication of the logistical burdens a relief force
would have to solve well before it left Langson. The time needed to
move the men and supplies, combined with distance, would put even
more pressure on the garrison to hold out if attacked. Assuming
that the Japanese had not invaded Indo-China itself, the prospects
of relieving Hong Kong looked remote.43 Similarly, Admiral Sir
F. C. Dreyer, a former C-in-C, China station (193336) warned his
colleagues not to be complacent about these little men of stony cour-
age and iron determination. Their merchant eet, he warned, was
modern and fast which made them illusive targets for submarines.
He also reminded his former colleagues in London that the Japanese
were trained and equipped for lightening amphibious strikes. It was
well to remember the surprise they sprang on everyone in Shanghai
in 1937 when several specially tted merchantmen suddenly
appeared and launched a number of motor-landing craft.44

PRO, AIR 2/4128, minutes of rst general meeting, Singapore Conference,
items 12 and 16, pp. 14 and 1719. Before the outbreak of war in Europe, the
number and type of vessels in the China Station consisted of one cruiser squadron,
on aircraft carrier, and a otilla and a half of destroyers, a submarine otilla, a
MTB otilla, ve escort vessels and eighteen river gunboats. PRO, ADM 1/17252,
post-war memo. by Jarrett, now head of Military Branch II, on pre-war naval estab-
lishment, 5 Sept. 1945.
PRO, AIR 2/4218, minutes of third general meeting, remarks on item 22 by
General Maurice Martin, French army commander in Indo-China.
CCC, Dreyer Papers, DRYR 9/2, Some Strategical NotesWestern Pacic,
10 Feb. 1939. Edward L. Dreyer, China at War, 19011949 (London, 1995), pp. 218 Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:



When the European war began in September 1939, British planners

were forced to concentrate resources against Hitler. Their fears of a
Japanese invasion of Hong Kong were tempered, however, by the
knowledge that Japanese foreign policy had received a setback.
Russia was Japans biggest rival in China and the one European
nation she believed threatened her continental interests in East Asia
the most. The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact in mid-
August 1939, coupled by the stinging defeat of Japanese forces earl-
ier that summer at Nomonhan by the Soviets, gave the British some
relief. The atmosphere at Hong Kong has improved, wrote the For-
eign Ofce. The impending reversal of Japanese foreign policy as a
result of the Russo-German agreement will probably render less
likely any Japanese attack on Hong Kong for the present.45 British
condence received another welcome boost when General Grasett
reported that the defences on Hong Kong island were in his opinion
a denite deterrent to Japanese attack. But he overstepped the
mark when he suggested that in light of the diplomatic setback Japan
had experienced over the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, London
might take advantage and seek assurances from Tokyo that for an
agreed number of years it would not attack Hong Kong. In addition,
if all the remaining British garrisons were withdrawn from mainland
China an opportunity to remove embarrassing commitments of
defending Hong Kong in strength would be removed. With the tem-
porary demilitarization of the colony, the existing Hong Kong gar-
rison could be replaced with less well-trained troops whose sole func-
tion was to maintain internal security and guard the frontiers against
incursions from Chinese irregulars. The War Ofce then had scope
to release the regular troops for service elsewhere. This prompted a
stern rebuke from the Foreign Ofce.
It would be better if [the] GOC Hong Kong did not meddle with high
politics. The suggestion that we should obtain a guarantee from the
Japanese not to attack Hong Kong for a number of years is fantastic. Merely
to propose such a thing would not only put ideas in their head, but would
give them a means of pressure upon us which would ll them with delight.
Have we not had enough unfortunate experiences over trying to extract
undertakings of goodwill from those who wish us ill?

and 235 gives useful insights into the successes of Japanese combined operations in
PRO, FO 371/23518/F 9434, minute by Talbot, 28 Aug. 1939. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

I hope that no further encouragement will be given to the GOC to
evolve plans of this sort, recorded the disgruntled Sir Esler Dening,
consul in the Far Eastern Department.46 Only time would tell.
Preoccupied with European events, a temporary lull ensued in the
Far East. It did not last long. With the fall of France in June 1940,
Japan not only pressurized the new Vichy government into ceding
to her large portions of North Vietnam; she also forced the British
in mid-July to halt for three months the ow of arms and munitions
along the all-important lifeline into China known as the Burma
Road.47 What of Hong Kong, which was now completely encircled?
In June 1940, the British Military Attache in Tokyo warned London
that the temper of the Japanese army was highly dangerous. His
sources revealed that it was growing impatient over the lack of pro-
gress being made over Tokyos demands for closing the Burma and
Hong Kong frontiers. Non or partial compliance with these demands
might force the Imperial Japanese Army to adopt its usual policy of
provoking incidents and presenting the Japanese government with
a fait accompli. Although he did not think that an attack on Hong
Kong was imminent, the danger of incidents leading to a serious
clash was ever present.48
The Burma Road crisis revealed an interesting dilemma for the
British over Hong Kong. Foreign Ofce ofcials were adamant that
the complete submission to Japanese demands, which also included
the withdrawal of the British garrison from Shanghai, would invite
further aggression. According to Dening, the French had always
shown a disposition to give way to the Japanese on any pretext and
that had done them no good at all. Taking their cue from the Ger-
mans, the Japanese extremists were determined to chivvy Britain out
of China, which meant a possible attack on Hong Kong. None the
less, a vigorous defence of Hong Kong, even if unsuccessful,
remarked Brenan, will help persuade the Japanese extremists to
conne their immediate ambitions to the China seas.49 Local Hong
Kong intelligence assessments concurred with those of the Foreign
Ofce. In a remarkably deant tone the report stated that:
Ibid., F 10262, Grasett to WO, 14 Sept. 1939; minute by Dening, 19 Sept.
Peter Lowe, Great Britain and the Coming of the Pacic War, 19391941,
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, fth series, 24 (1974), 4362.
PRO, WO 208/1219A, British Military Attache, Tokyo, to WO, 25 June 1940.
PRO, FO 371/24666/F 3479, minutes by Dening and Brenan, 26 June and 3
July 1940. Dening was wrong. See Martin Thomas, The French empire at war 1940
45 (Manchester, 1998), pp. 191221. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


. . . it is idle to pretend that with the collapse of France and a full-dress

German-Italian war on our hands, there is any reasonable prospect of a
relief of the fortress. But on the other hand, it is a cardinal error to suppose
that its defence would be a meaningless gesture, involving only useless
bloodshed. This is far from being the case. Japans economic plight is
already precarious and her present commitments in China enormous. A
stubborn and hard-fought defence of Hong Kong might well be the last
straw on the camels back; and if the eventual Japanese victory can only be
rendered a Pyrrhic one, then the defenders of Hong Kong may well go down
to history with those of CALAIS. We cannot ask for a better fate or example
than theirs, nor need we fall short of their standard. Conversely, a brief or
half-hearted defence would serve as an immense stimulus to the Japanese,
and facilitate their efforts in more vital places elsewhere.50
There were others, such as the Director of Military Intelligence,
Major-General F. H. N. Davidson that it was a matter of giving
ground gracefully. For instance, to withdraw the Shanghai garrison,
which was comprised of just one battalion, made sound military
sense, as its position was untenable. The key, however, was to use
their withdrawal as a bargaining chip in a wider diplomatic solution,
to ensure that they be withdrawn at a moment of Britains choosing.
The arch-imperialist and Secretary of State for India and Burma,
L. S. Amery, was even more outspoken. Britains position in the Far
East was so weak that our only chance is to be bold. Instead of
giving in to Japanese demands, Britain should take immediate meas-
ures to improve the road and nd the money necessary to push on
with a rail link across the frontier. If the Japanese decided to go to
war with Britain over this issue, Hong Kong had to hold out as long
as it could so that the United States could come to Britains aid
before Singapore was taken and all our ships in the Far East sunk.51
Undoubtedly, these ravings were ignored. Nevertheless the Japanese,
according to Dening, were easily impressed by realities. Measures to
evacuate Hong Kong of its European civilian population and British
resolve to defend both Hong Kong and Singapore were realities. As
the invasion of Britain loomed, [a] German failure to swamp Great
Britain would be the most impressive reality of all.52 The common
sense of Sir Alexander Cadogan, now Permanent Under-Secretary of
State at the Foreign Ofce, soon prevailed. We lived on bluff [in the
PRO, WO 208/722, HKIR(M) 7/40, 6 June 1940.
PRO, WO 208/1219A, minute by Davidson, 25 June 1940; FO 371/24666/F
3479, minute by Dening, 26 June 1940; F 3542, minutes by Dening and Ashley
Clarke, 3 and 5 July 1940; F 3544, Amery to Lord Halifax, Secretary of State for
Foreign Affairs, 28 June 1940.
PRO, FO 371/24666/F 3479, minute by Dening, 2 July 1940. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Far East] from 19201939, but it was eventually called. Until we
have made ourselves strong enough to maintain the position that we
then aspired to hold, we shall have to play for time, which is neither
dignied nor comfortable.53
Now that Japanese forces were established along the Hong Kong
frontier the fate of the colony seemed sealed. In August 1940 a new
Far Eastern Appreciation exclaimed that:
Hong Kong is not a vital interest and the garrison could not long withstand
Japanese attack. Even if we had a strong eet in the Far East, it is doubtful
whether Hong Kong could be held now that the Japanese are rmly estab-
lished on the mainland of China; and it could not be used as an advanced
naval base. . . . In the event of war, Hong Kong must be regarded as an
outpost and held as long as possible. We should resist the inevitably strong
pressure to reinforce Hong Kong and we should certainly be unable to
relieve it. Militarily our position in the Far East would be stronger without
this unsatisfactory commitment.54
This was not an opinion shared by either the new Commander-in-
Chief Far East, Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, or Grasett
(whom Brooke-Popham called one of my children when he was
Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Camberley).55
Grasett, who had been GOC Hong Kong since November 1938,
rst broached its reinforcement in October 1940. His low opinion of
Japanese military capabilities and overblown condence in the gar-
risons abilities to hold the colony, led him to recommend that the
garrison be increased from four to ve battalions. The COS rejected
the suggestion arguing that men could not be spared. With the
arrival of Brooke-Popham in Singapore in November 1940, Grasett
had an old ally to push his demand for reinforcements. In January
1941 Brooke-Popham raised the issue again. Shortly after his arrival
in the Far East, the new C-in-C visited his former pupil for a week
over the New Year period. Accompanied by Major-General Sir R. H.
Dewing (former Director of Military Operations and Plans), both
men were impressed by Grasett and his plans for the defence of the

Quotation cited in Tarling, Onset of the Pacic War, p. 133.
Quotation cited in Perras, Britain and the Reinforcement of Hong Kong, 245
and Bell, Our Most Exposed Outpost , 75. Extract from COS(40)592 (Revise),
15 Aug. 1940.
Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Kings College London (hereafter
LHCMA), Sir Robert Brooke-Popham Papers, 6/3/3, Brooke-Popham to Sir Arthur
Street, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Air, 15 Jan. 1941. The author would
like to acknowledge the Trustees of the LHCMA for permission to quote from these
and other papers consulted from its holdings listed below. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


colony. Brooke-Popham proposed that London increase the garrison

from four to six battalions. London was not interested. Dewing
recorded in his diary that the COS had turned down the recom-
mendations atly.56 Troops would be better employed in an active
theatre of operations or in the defence of Malaya. Ismay, who sym-
pathized with Brooke-Pophams predicament over the chronic short-
age of both men and material, apologized for being unable to do
anything: But it is the old story of a little butter and a vast expanse
of bread.57 Prime Minister Winston Churchills response to Brooke-
Pophams paper on the need to reinforce Hong Kong was given short
This is all wrong. If Japan goes to war with us, there is not the slightest
chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase
the loss we shall suffer there. Instead of increasing the garrison it ought to
be reduced to a symbolical scale. Any trouble arising there must be dealt
with at the Peace Conference after the war. We must avoid frittering away
our resources on untenable positions. Japan will think long before declaring
war on the British Empire, and whether there are two or six battalions at
Hong Kong will make no difference to her choice. I wish we had fewer
troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.58
Churchills forceful views seemed to end any further discussion on
the matter. But events were to unfold over the summer of 1941
which put the defence of Hong Kong once again to the forefront of
British strategic planning.


In July 1941 Grasett relinquished his command of Hong Kong. He

returned to London via Ottawa where he conducted several inter-
views with his long-time friend and Royal Military College chum,
General H. D. G. Harry Crerar, the Canadian Chief of the General
Staff (CGS). There is no question that Grasett was the prime mover
in the entire matter, a view shared by Dominions Ofce ofcials at

LHCMA, Dewing diary, entries for periods 26 Dec. 1940 to 2 Jan. 1941 and
518 Jan. 1941; PRO, Prime Ministers Ofce Papers (hereafter PREM), PREM 3/
157/1, Brooke-Popham to Air Ministry, 6 Jan. 1941.
LHCMA, Brooke-Popham Papers, 6/2/6, Ismay to Brooke-Popham, 9 Feb.
PRO, CAB 120/570, secret cipher, Brooke-Popham to Air Ministry, copy of
letter from Churchill to Ismay, deputy secretary (military) of the War Cabinet, 7
Jan. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

the time. When he met Crerar in August, he reiterated his view
that Hong Kong should be reinforced immediately. Crerar, a product
of the British Staff College at Camberley (192224) and the Imper-
ial Staff College (1934)and undoubtedly imbued with a wide-
ranging comprehension of Britains political and imperial state of
affairsmust have expressed an interest in providing Canadian
troops for this task, although he later denied this.60 Grasett con-
tinued on to London where on 3 September 1941 he presented the
same case to the COS. Almost identical to Brooke-Pophams argu-
ments the previous January, the new twist was that Canada might
be willing to supply the reinforcements. Instead of rejecting the pro-
posal, the COS recommended to Churchill that the Canadian gov-
ernment be approached. Why the sudden change of heart?
Part of the answer lies in the improving diplomatic situation in
the Far East. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, wrote
Churchill that the combined pressure being exerted on the Japanese
by the British, Dutch and Americans was having a salutary effect on
Japanese ambitions. It was clear, remarked Eden, that the Japanese
were now hesitant. The improved conditions, however, had only been
brought about by the contemplation of the forces that may possibly
confront them. Russia, the United States, China and the British
Empire, to say nothing of the Dutch, is more than this probably
over-valued military power is prepared to challenge. Our right policy
is, therefore, clearly to keep up the pressure both economic and
military.61 Hence the decision to reinforce the garrison at Hong
Kong. For not only would it send a strong message to the Japanese
that Britain was prepared to defend her Far Eastern interests, it
complemented a renewed American interest in the region.
The United States is fundamental in understanding the British
decision to overturn its earlier recommendation not to reinforce a

PRO, DO 35/1009/5, WG 442/16, minute by S. L. Holmes, Assistant Secret-
ary, 30 June 1942. Upon returning to England in 1941, Grasett was given the
command of a Home division, then became a Corps commander (19413), was later
seconded to the War Ofce in 1944 and to Supreme Headquarters Allied European
Forces (19445). He nished his career as Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-
in-Chief Jersey (194553).
Paul Dickson, Crerar and the Decision to Garrison Hong Kong, Canadian Mil-
itary History, 3, 1 (1994), 97110. Crerar nished the Great War as a divisional
artillery ofcer with the 5th Canadian division. After completing the course at Cam-
berley, Crerar remained in Britain where he worked in the War Ofce until 1927
the rst Canadian ofcer since the Armistice to do so. These were indeed formative
years that shaped his imperial worldview. Granatstein, The Generals, pp. 8690.
University of Birmingham Library, Avon Papers, AP 20/8/547, Eden to Chur-
chill, 12 Sept. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


colony it had long regarded as a strategic liability. In May 1941,

unlike their British counterparts, the US Chiefs of Staff believed
that Hong Kong could prove useful in containing or delaying
Japanese forces that might otherwise be employed in a more decisive
theatre. In a draft agreement written after the AmericanDutch
British staff conference held in Singapore in late-April 1941, it was
noted that if a land invasion of Malaya was undertaken by the
Japanese before the reduction of Hong Kong and the Philippines it
would expose them to a long and precarious line of communica-
tions. Although Hong Kong was unlikely to be used as a naval base,
its retention in Allied hands could prove valuable in containing
Japanese blockade forces.62 Of the utmost importance, however, was
the recognition that Japan would only be deterred by Allied unity,
strength and co-operation. The despatch of US reinforcements to the
Philippines in August 1941 followed soon after by the Australian
agreement to help defend Malaya were part of this new resolution.
Even the Dutch, who had so far remained ostrich-like with regards
to Far Eastern strategic co-ordination, had nally pulled their heads
out of the sand and were at long last showing some resolve in the
defence of the Netherlands East Indies. Furthermore, the reinforce-
ment of Hong Kong will show China that in spite of other commit-
ments we intend to ght it out at Hong Kong and it will also have
[a] salutary effect on [the] Japanese. The psychological stimulus to
the existing garrison and the colony itself was vitally important as
well. Finally, Canada, by providing two battalions was demonstrating
her acceptance of a wider commitment in imperial defence similar
to that assumed by Australia in Malaya. Despite the apparent optim-
ism, the COS was adamant that their policy towards Hong Kong
remained unaltered: it was still an outpost that had to hold out as
long as possible.63 Nevertheless, the Allies had acted in determined
fashion, were keeping the pressure on through economic sanctions,
and were condent that their united front would forestall Tokyo.
The reinforcement of Hong Kong was welcome news to Brooke-
Popham then in Australia. He informed the Australian Advisory War

PRO, FO 371/27622/F 10344/G, minute by J. C. Sterndale Bennett, head of
FO Far Eastern Department, 6 Oct. 1941.
Tarling, Onset of the Pacic War, pp. 229, 30215; Herman Theodore Busse-
maker, Paradise in Peril: The Netherlands, Great Britain and the Defence of the
Netherlands East Indies, 194041, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 31, 1 (2000),
11536; PRO, FO 371/27622/F 11943/G, WO to Brooke-Popham, 6 Nov. 1941;
COS(41)377, 5 Nov. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Council that Hong Kong and the Philippines form[ed] a pincers
which could be brought into operations if Japan [came] south.64 The
C-in-C Far East also stated that the defence of Hong Kong had
greatly improved as a result of the decision to provide two Canadian
battalions. To Ismay he wrote: It was grand news about the Canad-
ian troops and I wonder how far it was Grasetts eloquence that
carried the day.65 Even more encouraging for Brooke-Popham was
the Australian suggestion made by Percy Spender, a member of the
Advisory War Council, that Canada might be invited to send a bri-
gade to Hong Kong and one to Malaya. Indeed, the Australians
seemed heartened by the initial Canadian commitment to Far East-
ern defence. Their prime minister, John Curtin, commented that the
Canadian governments interest in Hong Kong and the American
decision to reinforce and defend the Philippines were important fac-
tors which would help to counter-balance deciencies in equipment.66
For the newly arrived governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, the
Canadian reinforcements were greatly appreciated: I am satised
that really rst class work has been done on the defences; the new
General is nearly as new as I aminspires the utmost condence
and the latest news, still very secret, about reinforcements has made
an immense difference to the prospect which as you know has not
up to now been very comfortable or conducive to the maintenance of
The request for reinforcements was transmitted to Canada on 19
September 1941 and was approved by the Canadian War Committee
(CWC) on 2 October. The decision seemed straightforward but was
much more complex than it at rst appears. The Canadian decision
to participate stemmed from several factors: Canadian military inac-
tivity combined with increased domestic criticism. This can best be
illustrated by the changing mood of Canadian troops who had been
sent to Britain in 1939. In December 1939 two battalions of the
Seaforth Highlanders of Canada docked at Glasgow. Eden agreed to

AA, CRS A2682, vol. 3, minutes of Advisory War Council, minute no. 553, 16
Oct. 1941.
LHCMA, Brooke-Popham Papers, 6/2/19, Brooke-Popham to Ismay, 29 Oct.
Ronald G. Haycock, The myth of imperial defence: AustralianCanadian
bilateral military cooperation, 1942, War and Society, 2, 1 (1984), 6584; and J. F.
Hilliker, Distant Ally: Canadian Relations with Australia during the Second World
War, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 13, 1 (1984), 4667.
PRO, Colonial Ofce Papers (hereafter CO), CO 967/69, Young to Sir A. C. C.
Parkinson, Acting Permanent Secretary of State for the Colonies, 14 Oct. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


meet them accompanied by Vincent Massey, Canadas High Com-

missioner to London, General A.G. L. McNaughton, GOC-in-C First
Canadian Army, and Brigadier Ken Stuart, Commandant of RMC,
Kingston (and later appointed CGS in November 1941). Once on
board the transport Eden was met by a [b]oistuoursly enthusiastic
reception. These Canadians can certainly make a noise when they
feel like it. . . . [They] are a magnicent looking lot of men and it is
very stimulating to see them68 By August 1941 that initial enthusi-
asm had turned to impatience and despair, tinged with boredom.
When Mackenzie King inspected Canadian contingents that summer
his reception was far from warm. At Aldershot, the Canadian prime
minister and his entourage drove to a sports eld to meet the troops
and watch the various games, which were under way. From one part
of the grandstand to the right, recorded King:
there was considerable booing as I was leaving the stand to go across to
inspect the Guard [of Honour]. It was not in any way general, in fact from
the left hand side of the stand there was none of it that I noticed. It came
from one part on the right hand side mixed with applause. Quite clearly it
had been organised, but I think what occasioned it most was that the teams
were in competition and there was both applause and booing with respect
to the different events. It was a little disconcerting and in my heart I knew
it unfair and Tory tactics, but I ignored it altogether.69
The last remark is somewhat disingenuous. For a man as sensitive
as King it was highly unlikely that he could ignore such barracking,
which allegedly came largely from the 48th Highlanders of Toronto.
Even Churchill thought the entire incident discreditable, but he did
empathize with the Canadian troops who were all fed up having
seen no action and having nothing to do but drill and discipline
Avon Papers, AP 20/1/19, diary, 30 Dec. 1939.
NAC, MG 26, J13 series, T-164, W. L. Mackenzie King diary, 23 Aug. 1941,
p. 749.
Frederick W. Gibson and Barbara Robertson (eds), Ottawa at War. The Grant
Dexter Memoranda, 19391945 (Winnipeg, 1994), p. 193; PRO, PREM 4/44/10,
Athlone to Churchill, 23 Aug. 1941, and Churchills reply, 12 Sept. 1941. Senior
commanders noted that morale in some Canadian units was not good despite con-
certed efforts to occupy the men in educational and leisurely pursuits. In part, sag-
ging morale was reected by the increase in the number of military and civil
offences committed by Canadian soldiers, which peaked during the winter of 1941
2. Stacey, Six Years of War, pp. 41927; C. P. Stacey and Barbara M. Wilson, The
Half-Million. The Canadians in Britain, 19391946 (Toronto, 1987), chaps 2, 4 and
6. One of Crerars rst tasks when he arrived in England was to improve his soldiers
morale and tighten up discipline. NAC, MG 26 N1, Lester B. Pearson Papers, vol.
3, Crerar to Pearson, 25 Apr. 1942. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Military inactivity was a key concern of Canadas senior com-
mandersmany of whom were Great War veterans and men who
were undoubtedly eager to see Canadian forces repeat the successes
acquired in battle during that conict. In October 1941, at a confer-
ence held at the Canadian Military HQ in England, which involved
Colonel J. L. Ralston, Canadas Minister of Defence, McNaughton,
Crerar, Lieutenant-General P. J. Montague, Chief of Staff Canadian
Military HQ, and Captain David Margesson, British Secretary of
State for War, Ralston pressed his British counterpart on the need
for Canadians to see action. I referred to [the] employment of Cana-
dians and said I wanted to repeat what had been said over and over
again, namely, that Canadians were for service wherever and when-
ever they could best be used. However, in the same breath, he imme-
diately followed up his point that he had no thought of suggesting
activity involving mens lives simply to quiet public opinion.71 This
was reiterated by Prime Minister King himself who recorded in his
diary that Ralston was more anxious than McNaughton to get our
men into active service beyond the British Isles. However, in May
1941, King had sent a similar signal to London concerning the
deployment of Canadian troops. According to Malcolm MacDonald,
Britains High Commissioner to Canada, the Canadian prime minis-
ter was equally anxious that the movement of Canadian troops to
other theatres should not be restricted if they proved useful to the
British High Command. As long as Canada was consulted as to their
best use in light of the current war situation, he and his cabinet
colleagues desired that Canadian troops should be used wherever it
is most desirable from the military and strategic point of view.72
Unquestionably, the Canadian Armys inactivity and the dearth of
battle honours preyed on dominion public opinion; large sections of
which were proud of the invaluable contributions made by Canadian
forces at 2nd Ypres in 1915, at Courcelette on the Somme in 1916,
and at Vimy Ridge in 1917which symbolized the dening moment
of Canadas military prowess and emerging nationhood. Writing
from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canadas governor-general, the
Earl of Athlone, informed Churchill that emotions in the country,
already running high because of the conscription issue, had been
inamed further by widespread complaints about Kings wartime

NAC, J. L. Ralston Papers, MG 27 III B11, vol. 64, diary entry, 15 Oct. 1941.
NAC, T-165, King diary, 10 Sept. 1941, p. 842; PRO, PREM 4/44/10, Mac-
Donald to DO, 24 May 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


leadership. It was King who had prevented Canada from taking an

active part in the ghting and that Canada is the only Dominion, in
consequence of his action, which has not yet seen active service in
this war. Nothing will convince the people that this is not actually
the case.73 Privately, many English-speaking politicians and senior
army ofcers were growing tired of the military laurels being
acquired by their Commonwealth cousins, particularly in the North
African campaigns.
For instance, two months before Kings visit to England, the pug-
nacious Canadian and member of the British War Cabinet, Lord
Beaverbrook, received a letter from the disgruntled Conservative MP
and former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Dr Herbert Bruce. He
was vitriolic about Mackenzie Kings lacklustre leadership. Pressure,
both public and private, had been growing during the spring of 1941
urging King to go to England and confer with Churchill and his
cabinet to see if the senior dominion could do more for the war
effort. According to Bruce, the prime minister declared that there
was no need to go, that the telephone was a useful instrument with
which to keep abreast of developments in London, and that he was
of more use in Canada. Besides, he had not received an invitation
from the British government to attend a war conference! Branding
King a coward, a man who was afraid of the political hazard
involved in increasing Canadas wartime participation, Bruce put the
blame for inactivity squarely on the isolationist and anti-British
French Canadian members of the Canadian cabinet; especially
Kings valued political lieutenant from Quebec, Ernest Lapointe.
Kings blandness stood in stark contrast to Robert Menzies, Aus-
tralias prime minister who had recently passed through Ottawa, and
who had made a deep impression on Bruce when he gave a rousing
speech to the Canadian Parliament on 7 May 1941. In comparison
to Menzies, King was a drab, astute, little politician who [created]
no enthusiasm, and whom at least half our population distrust and
detest, and who is giving absolutely no leadership.74
PRO, PREM 4/44/10, Athlone to Churchill, 23 Aug. 1941; MacDonald to DO,
24 May 1941.
House of Lords Record Ofce, Lord Beaverbrook Papers, BBK, A/279, Bruce
to Beaverbrook, 25 June 1941. Privately, Menzies came to the same conclusions
about King. In his diary he wrote that King is not a war leader, possesses no burning
zeal for the cause, and is a politician who possibly prefers to lead from behind.
Menzies also recorded that King had not wanted him to come to Canada. A. W.
Martin and Patsy Hardy (eds), Dark and Hurrying Days: Menzies 1941 Diary
(Canberra, 1993), pp. 1245. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Malcolm MacDonald was inclined to agree with the assessments
of Bruce and Menzies. King was not endowed with the qualities of
a war leader; there [was] in him no great dynamic energy, no genius
for military affairs or statecraft of the highest order, no gift of stir-
ring oratory. He is somewhat paedestrian. Nevertheless, he knew
full well the intense domestic pressures that the country was experi-
encing. The maintenance of national unity was paramount in
Canada. This was fundamental in understanding the mechanics of
the Canadian political scene. In this Herculean task, MacDonald
argued that the lacklustre but supremely skilful King was the only
party leader of any calibre who possessed the requisite abilities to
keep the senior dominion from falling apart.75 Kings shrewdness was
never to be underestimated. Sir F. L. C. Floud, one of MacDonalds
predecessors as High Commissioner (193538), had long ago told
London: King is rather a slippery devil and a very incompetent
administrator but a very astute political tactician.76 Love him or
loath him, Kings political genius was tested to the limit, especially
over conscription and Canadas worsening manpower crisis.77
Kings initial reluctance to go to London was based on a number
of factors. Always wary of imperial centralization and the subordina-
tion of dominion interests to those of the metropole, there had been
calls for an Imperial War Conference in 1941. This idea was being
pushed hard by the Australians and New Zealanders, who, after suf-
fering heavy losses during the failed Greek campaign of AprilMay
1941, were growing increasingly critical of Britains strategic direc-
tion of the war. In fact, there was a great deal of intrigue, self-
seeking and incompetence within the British War Cabinet itself,
fumed Sir James Grigg, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for
War; to the extent that some British ministers were looking to
depose Churchill and replace him with Menzies.78 King, for his part,
argued that such a conference was unnecessary. Throughout May
June 1941, the Canadian prime minister, who was also Secretary of

PRO, PREM 4/44/10, MacDonald to Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State
for Dominions Affairs, 30 Apr. 1941, a copy of which was sent to Churchill.
PRO, PREM 4/44/7, MacDonald to Cranborne, 20 Aug. 1941; CCC, Sir James
Grigg Papers, PJGG 2/7/4, Floud to Grigg, 22 Apr. 1936.
J. L. Granatstein, Conscription in the Second World War 19391945. A Study in
Political Management (Toronto, 1969); and idem, The Politics of the Mackenzie King Gov-
ernment, 19391945, 2nd edn (Toronto, 1990).
CCC, Grigg Papers, PJGG 9/6/15, Grigg to father, 14 July 1941; David Day,
Menzies and Churchill at War (London, 1986); Sheila Lawlor, Churchill and the Politics
of War, 194041 (Cambridge, 1994). Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


State for External Affairs, argued that the unimpaired maintenance

of national unity was more essential to Canadas war effort than
anything else. Remember, it was conscription that had destroyed the
Liberal Party and split the country down racial lines in 1917. The
thought of this occurring again horried King and was the primary
motive for his isolationist stance during the 1930s. Therefore, argu-
ing that a number of crucial issues within the domestic political
arena needed his undivided attention, he refused to see the need for
a formal conference.79 Malcolm MacDonald and some of his col-
leagues at the Dominions Ofce thought King was making too much
of a play over his needs to remain in Canada. Nevertheless, in a
personal telegram to King from Churchill, sent in late July 1941,
the British prime minister (prompted by MacDonald) extended an
invitation for King to pay a short informal visit to Great Britain in
the near future.80
Why then did King change his mind about going to England? Once
again, the American factor must be taken into account. King prided
himself on being the great linch-pin between the two larger English-
speaking giants of Great Britain and the United States. For King,
Canadas role as the conduit between these two great powers
enhanced the dominions (and his) prestige. The Ogdensburg Agree-
ment of August 1940 in which the Americans agreed to safeguard
Canadian sovereignty in case of invasion, (and which established a
Permanent Joint Board on Defence to co-ordinate hemi-spheric
security); and the Hyde Park Declaration of April 1941 which saved
Canada from nancial ruin by allowing her to participate in Lend-
Lease, were proof in Kings mind of Canadas importance in harmon-
izing relations within the western alliance.81 Stern critics in Ottawa
and American policy makers in particular may not have attached
much importance to Kings self-proclaimed role as intercessor. It
was, however, an important ingredient in Canadas domestic political
Nevertheless, there was a problem. According to MacDonald, now
that American efforts as the arsenal of democracy were receiving
immense publicity and seemed to be completely eclipsing the valu-
able efforts of Canada in the sight of the overseas public, this trend
PRO, DO 35/999/3, WC 8/3, King to Cranborne, 20 May 1941; WC 8/2, King
to Churchill, 16 June 1941.
Ibid., WC 8/4a, Churchill to King, personal telegram, T 442, 25 July 1941.
See Galen Roger Perras, Franklin Roosevelt and the Origins of the CanadianAmer-
ican Security Alliance, 19331945 (Westport CT, 1998). Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

deeply worried the Canadian prime minister. More alarmingly, this
tendency to downplay Canadas contribution so far, was, reported the
High Commissioner, being encouraged in Washington itself. When
Canadas war effort was discussed it was spoken of in very sarcastic
terms. This sneering is very unjust, opined MacDonald, but it was
not helped by Kings incessant frowning on anything to do with pro-
paganda. In his view, the blame for the worlds imperfect knowledge
of Canadas war effort lay primarily with King himself.82 This, com-
bined with the complaint that exclusive control of the direction of
the war by Great Britain and the United States, despite the import-
ant contributions made by the smaller participants like Canada,
became an increasingly contentious theme with Ottawa as the war
progressed.83 These factors no doubt contributed to the growing frus-
tration felt by many English-speaking ministers and their electorate
that Canada was not doing enough.
The real crunch came in August 1941 when Churchill met the US
president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, to
draft the Atlantic Charter and discuss global strategy. King, who in
July had decided to make a brief trip to Britain that August, had not
been invited let alone informed of this secret meeting which was
held on his own doorstep. According to Grant Dexter of the inuen-
tial Liberal newspaper the Winnipeg Free Press, Kings rage was
unbounded. Not only had he been cold-shouldered, he did not know
of the conference until it was in full swing. His position as an alliance
linch-pin had not only been compromised, but it also looked as if it
had been made redundant. In order to salvage his position and repu-
tation he needed with all speed to travel to Britain.84 The UK High
Commissioner was not as convinced about the depth of Kings per-
sonal disappointment over not being invited to the conference, but
he reminded London how hurtful to the susceptibilities of the Can-

PRO, PREM 4/44/10, MacDonald to DO, 24 May 1941. For an analysis of
MacDonalds crucial role as UK High Commissioner see, Clyde Sanger, Malcolm
MacDonald. Bringing an End to Empire (London, 1995), pp. 20941. In January 1942,
Vincent Massey bitterly complained of Canadas lack of a vigorous public relations
campaign in projecting Canadas war effort in the UK. NAC, MG 26 N1, Pearson
Papers, vol. 10, Massey to Pearson, 8 Jan. 1942.
PRO, PREM 4/44/10, note for Churchill by Sir Desmond Morton, his personal
assistant, 17 June 1942; DO 35/1691, WG 683/1/6, Clement Attlee, Secretary of
State for the Dominions, to Churchill, 8 Feb. 1943; University of Toronto Archives,
Vincent Massey Papers, Box 311, war diary, 9 July 1943.
PRO, DO 35/999/3, WC 8/4a, MacDonald to DO, 27 July 1941; King to DO,
31 July 1941; Gibson and Robertson (eds), Ottawa at War, p. 193. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


adian political public which Kings omission might engender; a

public who have been taught to take pride in the fact that Canada
is a valuable as well as a vitally concerned third party in the alliance.
MacDonald warned his superiors in Whitehall that as long as they
did not offend one of Kings many sensitivities he could not only be
one of Britains best, but also one of its most reliable and helpful
friends.85 To reinforce his point, he reminded London that King had
been very rm with the Japanese minister in Ottawa the previous
month. Any indication that he may ever have had to waver in the
policy of resistance to Japan has certainly disappeared, recorded
The Colonial Ofce watched these developments with great inter-
est. When the idea was rst broached in September 1941 that Can-
adian troops should reinforce Hong Kong, J. A. Calder, Assistant
Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, mindful of stinging
dominion criticisms during the Great War, recorded that he was not
very happy about stationing Dominion forces [there] since they
would (or might) be a forlorn hope (in the proper sense of the
word) and this w[oul]d probably lead to criticism that G[rea]t Bri-
tain [would] leave all the hard ghting to the Dominions.87 Another
junior Colonial Ofce ofcial thought that the COSs support of Gra-
setts request would provoke the wrath of Churchill. Quite apart
from the old decision that no further reinforcements were to be sent
to Hong Kong, the Prime Minister may well ask why it is that Major-
General Grasett has not said before that the troops under his com-
mand were inadequate for their limited task, which has always been
the defence of Hong Kong for a given period of time.88 Calder was
even more critical:
I have read the paper with interest. It will be the Govts funeral, if the
PM makes the point which Col. Barlow anticipates. I am glad to see this
proposal backed by COS . . . . I should have thought there were political
implications in putting DO troops into HK (eg DO troops in Crete).

PRO, DO 35/999/3, WC 8/4a, MacDonald to DO, 13 Aug. 1941; PREM 4/44/
7, MacDonald to Cranborne, 20 Aug. 1941.
PRO, DO 35/999/3, WC 8/4a, MacDonald to DO, 27 July 1941.
PRO, CO 968/13/2, minute by A. H. Poynton, Principal Secretary, 26 Sept.
Ibid., minute by a Lieutenant-Colonel J. P. Barlow, Assistant Principal, on
COS(41)559, 8 Sept. 1941, dated 9 Sept. 1941. Churchill was remarkably silent
noting at the bottom of Holliss letter informing him of the COS decision to
approach Canada for reinforcements: It is a question of timing. PRO, PREM 3/
157/1, minute by Churchill, 15 Sept. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Granted that the HK garrison should be reinforced by 2 Battalions, the
question whether they should be British, Indian, Australian or Canadian
deserved [further consideration].89
Growing increasingly worried, in late November Calder warned his
colleagues that the Colonial Ofce should distance itself from the
COS decision to reinforce Hong Kong with additional men and
equipment. If we take a hand in the pressure, we share responsibil-
ity. In the worst hypothesis the result may be to increase the equip-
ment . . . lost in an unsuccessful defence of H[ong] K[ong]. In the
whole I advise against any intervention on our part. We have not the
least idea what place would go short if more equipment were sent to
Hong Kong. In other words, the decision had to be settled on purely
military grounds.90
The British did not have long to wait for Canadas reply to their
request of 19 September. On 24 September the Dominions Ofce
was informed that Canada agreed in principle to send two battalions
to Hong Kong, a decision later validated despite Kings reservations
by the CWC on 2 October. As Paul Dickson has so ably demon-
strated, a refusal to dispatch Canadian reinforcements to assist the
British would have had seismic domestic political ramications. Ral-
ston was in the United States, so it fell to his irascible Associate
Minister of National Defence and one of the Liberal partys chief
political power brokers from Quebec City, C. G. Chubby Power, to
rst consult Crerar and then submit the request to the CWC on
Ralstons behalf.91 Reminding Power of the improving Far Eastern
situation, Crerar emphasized Canadas moral responsibility to Bri-
tain and the need to bolster imperial co-operation. The Irish-
Catholic minister, whose son was serving in the Royal Ries of
Canada, one of the two battalions designated for the task force, fully
agreed with the CGSs assessment, which was based on intelligence
supplied by the British. Not wanting to question the British militarys
assessment of the Far Eastern situation, and unable to verify these
sources because of an almost non-existent intelligence organization
PRO, CO 968/13/2, minute by Calder, 11 Sept. 1941.
Ibid., 29 Nov. 1941.
Dickson, Crerar, 1045; Norman Ward (ed.), A Party Politician. The Memoirs of
Chubby Power (Toronto, 1966), p. 189. Power admitted that his military career was
unspectacular. He rst served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps as an orderly
and then was downgraded to kitchen helper. Commissioned in 1915, he was sent to
the front-line to serve with the 3rd Battalion (Queens Own) from Toronto, a
staunchly Orange and Tory unit. Wounded on the Somme in September 1916, he
convalesced in Wales for a year before returning to Canada in the autumn of 1917. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


of its own, cabinet approval was sanctioned.92 Upon hearing of

Ottawas endorsement, Churchill gave his nal approval unless the
Foreign Secretary demurs. Eden did not. Indeed, he warmly wel-
comed the despatch of the Canadians, although his ofcials thought
it wise to avoid too much bally-hoo about the despatch of the rein-
forcements. Excessive publicity would draw undue attention to the
mission, which would suggest weakness instead of strength. Only
upon arrival would a brief statement be made.93 On 27 October the
task force sailed from Vancouver and arrived in Hong Kong, without
its transport, on 16 November 1941.
Designated C Force and commanded by a veteran of the Great
War, Brigadier J. K. Lawson, the Canadian contingent consisting of
1,975 service personnel, was composed of the Royal Ries of Canada
and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Additional support was provided by a
brigade headquarters, a detachment of signallers and two nursing
sisters, Kathleen G. Christie and Anna May Waters.94 Eagerly
awaiting the advent of this force was Grasetts successor as GOC

Canadas military intelligence machinery was practically non-existent prior to
1939, hence its dependence on British sources. It was not until late 1941 that
appropriate resources and key personnel were marshalled for what became a vital
arm in the defeat of the Axis. The key point to remember is that in the early part
of the war Canada gathered raw intelligence but did not synthesize it; a role for
Canada which some British service agencies attempted unsuccessfully to maintain.
For Canadas role in the intelligence war see Wesley K. Wark, The Evolution of
Military Intelligence in Canada, Armed Forces and Society, 16, 1 (1989), 7798; John
Bryden, Best Kept Secret. Canadian Secret Intelligence in the Second World War (Toronto,
1993); John Hilliker, Canadas Department of External Affairs, vol. 1 The Early Years,
19091946 (London, 1990), pp. 26870; Catherine E. Allen, A Minute Bletchley
Park: Building a Canadian Naval Operational Intelligence Centre, 19391943, in
Michael L. Hadley, Rob Huebert and Fred W. Crickard (eds), A Nations Navy. In
Quest of Canadian Naval Identity (London, 1996), pp. 15772.
J. W. Pickersgill, The Mackenzie King Record, vol. 1, 19391944 (Toronto, 1960),
pp. 31516; PRO, FO 371/27622/F 10344/G, Hollis to Sterndale Bennett, for-
warding Churchills minute of 3 Oct. 1941, and Sterndale Bennetts reply, 7 Oct.
1941; ibid., F 11189/G, minutes by Brenan and Sterndale Bennett, 28 and 29 Oct.
1941; Canadian Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Herit-
age (hereafter DHH), DHH, le 593.013 (D5), Hong Kong extracts from MO10,
containing Secretary of State for the Colonies to Governor Young, 7 Nov. 1941 and
DO to Department of External Affairs, 7 Nov. 1941, in Action Cover no. 13, 3
March 1951; NAC, Department of External Affairs, RG 25, vol. 2115, AR 414/5/
3, Cranborne to Massey, 10 Nov. 1941.
Before embarking, Lawson was provided with the latest British intelligence
reports from the Shanghai and Hong Kong commands, together with other available
intelligence material on the Japanese Army. DHH, le 593.009 (D5), CGS le
(Hong Kong), memo. by Brigadier R. B. Gibson, Canadian Director of Military
Operations and Intelligence, 23 Feb. 1942. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Hong Kong, Major-General C. M. Maltby. The two Canadian battal-
ions, placed under his overall command, would bolster the four
under-strength British and Indian battalions, and the 2,000-strong
militia, known locally as the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.95
The Canadians arrived on a Sunday morning. Captain F. H.
Deloughery, the Roman Catholic chaplain assigned to C Force,
recalled that a few planes of ancient vintage met us as we entered
the harbour and escorted us to our berth at Holts Wharf, Kowloon.96
Before disembarkation, an ofcial welcoming party comprised of
Governor Young and the colonys senior military ofcers bade the
Canadians welcome. As these t [but] overcondent men marched
to their quarters at Shamshuipo barracks, a British ofcer allegedly
overheard one Canadian infantryman say, When do we get to grips
with the Goddamned little yellow bastards.97 They did not have to
wait long.
It was while the Canadians were in transit that the Japanese made
their fateful decision to attack the Allies in the Far East. Ironically,
it was while C Force was being assembled that the moderate gov-
ernment of Prime Minister Konoe resigned. Its failure to secure a
summit with the Americans to discuss lifting the biting economic
sanctions, which had been imposed by Washington in July after Japan
had occupied southern Vietnam, had led to its downfall. The new
Japanese government fell under the control of the military hard-
liners led by the Army Minister, General Tojo Hideki. Nevertheless,
the consensus of opinion in British diplomatic circles at the end of
October indicated (incorrectly) that war with Japan was unlikely at
present; and that the initial movements would be made northwards

Arriving in August 1937, the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment was a machine
gun unit. It was perhaps the best trained, equipped and ofcered of all the British
forces in Hong Kong. In support, was the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots who had landed
in January 1938. The 5th/7th Rajputana Ries had been stationed in the colony
longest (June 1937), while the 2nd/14th Punjab Regiment had only been in the
colony since November 1940. For unit strengths and the complete order of battle
see PRO, CO 537/1251, report by Sir R. Brooke-Popham on his Command in
Malaya, Hist.(DD)1, 25 June 1942, p. 69. Campaign histories for these British and
Indian units can be found in A. Muir, The First of Foot: The History of the Royal Scots
(Edinburgh, 1961); P. K. Kemp, The History of the Middlesex Regiment 19191952
(Aldershot, 1956); B. Prasad, Ofcial History of the Indian Armed Forces in Second World
War 19391945. Campaigns in South-East Asia: Hong Kong, Malaya and Sarawak and
Borneo 194142 (Agra, 1960), pp. 172.
DHH, le 593 (D9), Chaplains reports Force C, Delougherys report of
events, 23 Oct. 194124 Oct. 1945, n.d.
Lindsay, Lasting Honour, p. 13. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


against Russia, not southward against the western allies. Unfortu-

nately for the British this crucial misjudgement of Japanese attitudes
and intentions had tragic and far-reaching ramications for Hong
I suppose if war breaks out with Japan, commented the Acting
Permanent Secretary of State for the Colonies, A. C. C. Parkinson,
to Governor Young, it will begin on a Sunday, or perhaps Christmas
Day will be [a] nice inconvenient time for it to happen.99 On Sunday,
7 December (8 December local time), superior and battle-hardened
Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Six days later, the mainland
territories were abandoned and British forces were evacuated to
Hong Kong island. Maltby cabled the War Ofce and the GOC
Malaya warning them that military operations so far had shown that
the Japanese were better trained in night ghting and inltration
than had been previously thought. Moreover, in an attempt to con-
ceal his own inadequacies, he claimed that Japanese forces had been
guided by Chinese traitors familiar with [the] terrain.100 In fact,
Maltby had made a terrible tactical blunder that the Japanese had
eagerly exploited. Just before the Canadians arrived, he immediately
changed his defensive arrangements. In 1937, it had been decided
that the mainland would be abandoned if the colony were attacked.
Forces would be evacuated to the island where they would hold out
until relieved by naval reinforcements. Provided that the island gar-
rison could hold out for the designated 130 days, its main task was
to concentrate on denying the Japanese the use of the harbour.101
Maltby now decided, against all previous colonial defence direct-
ives, to defend the ten-and-one-half miles of crudely and partially

Hatano and Asada, Move South; Utley, Going to War, pp. 15775; Richard J.
Grace, Whitehall and the Ghost of Appeasement: November 1941, Diplomatic His-
tory, 3, 2 (1979), 17391; John Sharkey, Economic Diplomacy in Anglo-Japanese
Relations, 193141, in Ian Nish and Yoichi Kibata (eds), The History of Anglo-
Japanese Relations, 16002000, vol. 2 The Political-Diplomatic Dimension, 19312000
(London, 2000), pp. 78111; DHH, le 593.009 (D5), CGS le (Hong Kong),
extract from Canmilitary GS 2332, 26 Oct. 1941; PRO, CAB 21/2686, Sir Edward
Bridges, Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Ofce and Secretary to the War Cab-
inet, to Sir J. E. Stephenson, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Dominions
Affairs, 24 Feb. 1942.
PRO, CO 967/69, Parkinson to Young, 2 Dec. 1941.
PRO, FO 371/27752/F 13708, Maltby to WO and GOC Malaya, 15 Dec.
PRO, WO 106/2366, Notes for Brigadier Grasett, July 1938; CO 967/70,
Sir Geoffrey Northcote, Governor of Hong Kong, to Lord Moyne, Secretary of State
for Colonies, 6 June 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

built fortications on the mainland, known locally as the Gin
Drinkers Line. Units from the island garrison, which had no prior
knowledge of the mainland terrain, were ordered to defend these
new and unfamiliar defences. Furthermore, with over a ten-mile
frontage to defend, Maltby had now overstretched his forces and
left them without a proper reserve. In addition, his own forces were
under-manned. The 2nd Battalion Royal Scots was understrength
because 110 men had contracted malaria; while the 5/7th Rajputs
had been weakened by repeated milking for new units elsewhere.
Although between 150 and 180 replacements had just arrived from
India, the recruits were only partially trained.102 Added to this, was
the fact that the Canadians were not acclimatised to the hot and
humid conditions of Hong Kong.
What worried senior Canadian ofcers the most, however, was the
pervasive complacency within the colony. During one sight-seeing
tour of the island, the British staff ofcer conducting the tour took
great pride in pointing out the innumerable pill boxes which he
condently predicted would thwart a Japanese seaborne landing.
This was conrmed by a Canadian military nurse who recorded that
everyone she encountered told her how strongly fortied the colony
was: in fact it was impregnable. One Canadian ofcer challenged
this premise during a defence brieng a week after the arrival of C
Force: everything outlined in the colonys defence plan hinged on the
Japanese entering the colony by one specic route. What if they used
a different route and, for example, attacked the island across the
narrowest point on the harbour side of the island at North Point
where defences were lightly manned and poorly concentrated? The
question was dismissed.103
On the evening of 18 December, Japanese forces made three sim-
ultaneous landings on Hong Kong proper, all on the harbour-side
not the seaward side. Resistance was erce but short-lived. On
Christmas Day 1941 the inadequately equipped and ill-prepared gar-
rison surrendered. Lieutenant-Colonel C. O. Shackleton, Ofcer-

PRO, WO 172/1685, war diary, Hong Kong Mainland Brigade, 1941. The
original was either destroyed or lost during the ghting on the island, but was
rewritten by Brigadier C. Wallis while incarcerated in Shamshuipo and Argyle
Street POW camps, Apr.May 1942. DHH, le 593 (D26), notes of interviews
between Major G. W. L. Nicholson, Historical Section, Canadian Department of
National Defence, Maltby and Wallis conducted in London, June 1946.
DHH, le 593 (D13), Canadians at Hong Kong. Supplementary Information
from Various Unofcial Sources, compiled by Major R. J. C. Hamilton. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Commanding the Bowen Road Military Hospital recorded in his

diary on 20 December that the BBC news resigns us to our fate
a most depressing prospectas all ranks had hoped against hope
that we would be given some measure of air and naval assistance. It
would [also] appear there is little truth in the reports of the advan-
cing Chinese force.104 Clearly, the European community in the
colony had put great faith, albeit misplaced, on a Chinese relief
expedition. Whitehall, however, had never suffered from such delu-
sions and had continually declined Chiang Kai-sheks offers of assist-
ance since 1939.105 Nevertheless, Chinese forces endeavoured to
assist their British allies, although effective intervention was imposs-
ible before January. Moreover, intelligence obtained from Canton
prior to the attack on Hong Kong indicated that the Japanese were
alive to the possibility of such an offensive in their rear and had
made the necessary preparations to meet it. In the end it was too
little too late; Chinese forces were not strong enough to worry the
Japanese seriously.106
The surrender of the garrison on Christmas Day came as a shock.
It was expected to hold out much longer. In fact, on 21 December,
Governor Young had cabled the Colonial Ofce requesting that he
be given discretionary powers to surrender. The Director of Military
Operations and Plans, Major-General Sir John Kennedy, admitted
that continued resistance was likely to be trivial. He nevertheless
informed the Lord Privy Seal, Clement Attlee, that the psychological
factor in dealing with an Oriental enemy was so great that the War
Ofce view was to advise Young to hold out to the bitter end. Duff
Cooper, who was in Singapore as the prime ministers special envoy
trying to sort out the mess between the civilian and military authorit-
ies in Malaya, recorded how Young was instead told to ght it out.
In typical Churchillian bravura, the colonial government was told
The enemy should be compelled to expend the utmost life and equipment.
There must be vigorous ghting in the inner defences and if the need be
from house to house. Every day that you are able to maintain your resist-

PRO, WO 222/20A, Shackleton diary, 20 Dec. 1941. The diaries were recon-
structed from memory while Shackleton was a POW.
Kent Fedorowich, Decolonisation Deferred?: Britain and the Re-
establishment of Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 194245, Journal of Imperial and Com-
monwealth History, 28, 3 (2000), 2550.
PRO, FO 371/27752/F 13765, Maltby to WO, 14 Dec. 1941; F 13708, Maltby
to WO, 10 Dec. 1941; CO 537/1251, report by Brooke-Popham, 25 June 1942. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

ance you help the allied cause all over the world, and by a prolonged resist-
ance you and your men can win the lasting honour which we are sure will
be your due. The eyes of the world are upon you. We expect you to resist
to the end. The honour of the Empire is in your hands.107
Prestige had reared its ugly head once more. Despite the fact that
there was no strategic value in a further few hours resistance,
Maltby soldiered on until his remaining defences on the island were
nally breached.108


Despite the tragic circumstances, Prime Minister Churchill was

grateful that there had been no whimper from Canada after the
colonys surrender: none of the bitter and harmful criticism which
had come from Australia throughout 1941.109 Almost a month after
the fall of Hong Kong, Prime Minister King reected in his diary:
It is a cruel business that this thing should have come to [Ralstons] door-
step, and that it should have been presented to the public at the very
threshold of the re-assembling of Parliament. It all indicates the mistake it
is to try to rush things unduly, also where in the Defence Departments have
taken on more than they had any right to assume. They will not recognise
that Canada is doing other things in the war as well as simply sending
troops overseas. . . . It all proves the need of great caution as well as fore-
sight in war instead of the slapdash vandalism method of proceeding in any
way and anyhow so long as some showing is made.110
King was quick to blame Canadas military leadership for the asco
of Hong Kong. When the Conservative Opposition demanded a par-
liamentary inquiry into the Hong Kong expedition, King welcomed

PRO, CO 968/9/3, unauthored notes, 21 Dec. 1941; CCC, 1st Viscount Nor-
wich Papers (Duff Cooper), DUFC 3/7, diary entry, 22 Dec. 1941; CO 968/9/3, CO
to Young, 22 Dec. 1941.
PRO, CO 968/9/3, minute by G. E. J. Gent, Assistant Under-Secretary of
State, 21 Dec. 1941.
NAC, Cabinet War Committee Minutes, RG 2 7c, vol. 5, reel C-4654, CWC
(132), 29 Dec. 1941. Tucked away in the Evatt papers is an intriguing document
from Churchill. In an attempt to reassure his troublesome Australian ally, Churchill
writes soon after the fall of Hong Kong: I have great condence that your troops
will acquit themselves in the highest fashion in the impending battles. So far the
Japanese have only had two white battalions and a few gunners against them, the
rest being Indian soldiers. Flinders University Library, Adelaide, Dr H. V. Evatt
Papers, secret session notes, folder B, Churchill to Evatt, 14 Jan. 1942.
NAC, J13 series, T-170, King diary, 21 Jan. 1942, fol. 65. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


the opportunity, as did some of his cabinet colleagues. It really is a

help to us as it will show where the onus really lies, how ready we
were to meet a British request, and [it] will put the blame where it
ought to be on those responsible for taking some men overseas who
should not have gone. Instead of helping the Tories in their deter-
mination to have conscription at all costs, it is going to react against
them. The public will see that our whole war effort being what it is,
that [a] mistake is being made in pressing matters so far. I hope the
Defence Department will see the same. They have themselves to
blame for getting this off right at the start.111
Evidently, Ralston had become obsessed with the Hong Kong
affair, but as Minister for Defence his anxieties were understand-
able. Moreover, according to King, Ralston was afraid that Crerar
may seek to slip out from under his responsibility by seeking to have
it appear that the matter was one of political decision, though the
records were clear that it was referred to the [British] Chiefs of Staff
for their approval before any action was taken.112 Once again, one
must take Kings opinions with a large dose of salt. He was clearly
trying to shift the blame for the disaster squarely onto the shoulders
of his senior generals, especially Crerar. The British assessment of
the Duff report when it was tabled in June 1942 is more intriguing.
As far as the Colonial and Dominions Ofces were concerned the
Canadian decision to send troops to Hong Kong was mainly polit-
ical. Furthermore, it was noted that there had been a determined
attempt to throw the blame for the expeditions shortcomings onto

Ibid., 22 Jan. 1942, fol. 70. Grant Dexter was equally vitriolic in his criticism
of the army who he thought was in the hands of a little junta [of] permanent
force incompetents. Gibson and Robertson (eds), Ottawa at War, pp. 3079.
NAC, J13 series, T-170, King diary, 12 and 9 Feb. 1942, fols 1523 and fol.
135. According to King, in a telephone conversation Ralston had had with Crerar,
the general had made it quite clear as to approval of the project from the military
point of view. Apparently the Department did not feel it necessary to go into the
question of conditions at Hong Kong, but accepted the British request as covering
that aspect, which involves complications with the CommandMcNaughton being
here at the present time. The last sentence referred to the intense personal rivalry
and bitter feuding between Crerar and McNaughton. See Paul D. Dickson, The
Politics of Army Expansion: General H. D. G. Crerar and the Creation of First
Canadian Army, 194041, Journal of Military History, 60, 2 (1996), 27198; Roger
Sarty, Mr. King and the Armed Forces, in Hillmer et al., Country of Limitations, pp.
PRO, DO 35/1009/5, WG 442/16, minute by G. E. B. Shannon, Principal
Secretary, 22 June 1942. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

The debate simmered on after the war not only in the realm of
Canadian domestic politics, but also between British and Canadian
participants. In 1948 the London Gazette published General Maltbys
version of events. Canadas two battalions were heavily censured and
once again their lack of training and sub-standard quality was par-
aded in newsprint. This angered Canadas Hong Kong veterans who
rmly believed that they were being made the scapegoat for British
military incompetence and poor generalship. In turn, the Maltby cor-
respondence allowed Drew another opportunity to rake up the past
and embarrass the Liberals. However, the Canadian government had
already been consulted concerning the publication of the Maltby cor-
respondence, had seen the text and had suggested small but import-
ant changes which lessened some of the impact of Maltbys initial
The Charge dAffaires in the US embassy in London, Everett F.
Drumright, even commented on Maltbys controversial despatch. It
was an account of a hopeless struggle against overwhelming odds.
But despite its inglorious ending, General Maltby considers that it
was a worthwhile strategic gamble, that the defense of Hong Kong
deected a substantial Japanese force for a crucial period from more
important objectives such as the Philippines, Malaya, or even Aus-
tralia.115 The hapless Brooke-Popham agreed. In a seventy-eight
page secret post-mortem, presented to the COS and circulated to
the War Cabinet in July 1942, he was equally unrepentant about the
decision to defend Hong Kong. In his opinion, the colony had played
an important part in stiffening Chinese resolve to carry on the war.
Moreover, if the colony had been demilitarized, as was suggested, it
might have convinced the US to do the same in the Philippines. For
these two reasons, the loss of six battalions had been fully justied.116

PRO, CAB 106/84, Maltbys despatch entitled Operations in Hong Kong
from 825 December, 1941, published in the Supplement to The London Gazette, 27
Jan. 1948. For documents which outline one Canadian response at the time of pub-
lication see The Controversy over Maltbys Hong Kong Dispatch, Canadian Military
History, 2, 2 (1993), 11116. For the Drew correspondence see PRO, DO 114/114,
pp. 667 and 746. Also see NAC, RG 25, vol. 2115, f. AR 414/5/3, consultation
over Maltbys supplement in London Gazette and in DO 35/1768 and CAB 21/2686
which were released in the mid-1990s.
NARA, RG 59, Decimal les, 194549, 846G.00/2948, Drumright to Secret-
ary of State, 9 Feb. 1948.
PRO, CO 537/1251, report submitted to the War Cabinet as COS(42)336 by
Hollis, 8 July 1942. Brooke-Popham sent a draft copy to Grasett who thought it a
very good and accurate picture of the defence problem of Hong Kong. LHCMA,
Brooke-Popham Papers, 6/5/70, Grasett to Brooke-Popham, 9 May 1942. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


The ofcial war historians from both countries also encountered

grave problems when compiling their respective accounts on the
defence of Hong Kong. Augustus Muir, the ofcial historian of the
Royal Scots, wrote to Major-General S. W. Kirby who was in charge
of writing volume one of the British ofcial history entitled The War
against Japan, that I feel sure there can have been no other campaign
in the war more difcult to write about because of the extremely
confused nature of the ghting and the absence of full records.117
Colonel Charles P. Stacey, Director of the Canadian Historical Sec-
tion (and later one of Canadas foremost historians) was equally
aware of the passions which the controversy over Hong Kong still
aroused. Hong Kong has been a very difcult episode for me to deal
with, he conded to Professor J. R. M. Butler, Britains ofcial war
historian. In some respects it is our most controversial operation,
and we have had to handle it with great care. The challenge, admit-
ted Stacey, was to steer a middle course, writing an account which
we hope will be accepted as an honest attempt to establish the truth,
but one which will do good rather than harm.118
The controversy over the despatch of Canadian troops to Hong
Kong impacted directly on Anglo-Canadian wartime relations. In
early 1942 Ottawa rejected a British request for Canadian troops to
garrison the wind-swept Falkland Islands. As Galen Perras has so
poignantly argued, the debacle of Hong Kong and its subsequent
impact on domestic politics during the height of the rst conscription
crisis was the key to Canadas refusal to send troops to the South
Atlantic. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the ghost
of the Hong Kong asco continued to haunt Canadian military plan-
ners who insisted, despite intense but unsuccessful British and Amer-

PRO, CAB 101/153, Muir to Kirby, 6 Sept. 1955. One of the most con-
demning criticisms made by several senior British ofcers, including Commodore
A. C. Collinson RN, Chief of Hong Kong Naval Forces, was that the Canadians
would not ght. According to one Canadian-born escapee, Sub-Lieutenant B. A.
Proulx, Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteers, the Commodores staff thought this
nonsense. It was the Royal Scots and Rajputs who had broke and ed from the
frontline in Kowloon; a claim substantiated by another escapee, the Australian-born
Lieutenant-Colonel L. T. Ride, who later headed a POW escape organization in
South China and provided the only effective British intelligence network in the
region. DHH, le 593 (D37), interview with Proulx, Department of National
Defence, Ottawa, 17 July 1942; Aldrich, Intelligence, pp. 268 and 35863. It was the
rst time that the Royal ScotsThe First of Foothad broken ranks and run away
in battle. Ever since then they have suffered the opprobrium of The Fleet of Foot.
My thanks to Sybilla Jane Flower for this information.
PRO, CAB 101/153, Stacey to Butler, 13 March 1953. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

ican pressure, that Canadian troops would only be sent into the line
once their training had been completed.119 In 1993, the controversy
rumbled on with the release of new material at the PRO in London.
The performance of Canadian troops in the colony, or lack of it, was
once again castigated by ofcial British reports. It was alleged by one
British artillery ofcer that a company of Winnipeg Grenadiers
which was sent to defend a position near the Repulse Bay Hotel,
upon his arrival at the scene, were all over the place drinking, under little
control and that no further military action was taking place or, apparently,
even contemplated.120 Canadian veterans mounted a swift counterat-
tack vigorously denying these allegations.121 However, this was only
part of the story. The above extract was taken from an abridged
version of the war diaries, which were released several years later.
In the original version there are more damaging claims made by
British ofcers against the Canadians. Apart from several other cases
of alleged drunkenness (this time of a Major Young, who was in
command of A Company, Royal Ries of Canada on 20 December
1941, and who was relieved of his command by Major C. R. Templer,
Royal Artillery),122 the most damning indictment was reserved for
the commanding ofcer of the Royal Ries of Canada, Lieutenant-
Colonel W. J. Home. In a hand-written note inserted in the war
diary, the unidentied author (could it be Maltby?) recalls, that Bri-
gadier C. Wallis, commander of the East Brigade, had considered
arresting or shooting Home and placing Major [J. H.] Price [the
units next senior ofcer] in command. He had however refrained
from doing so as he had come to the conclusion many ofcers would
have required shootingthat it was in fact almost a bloodless

Galen Roger Perras, Anglo-Canadian Imperial Relations: The Case of the
Garrisoning of the Falkland Islands in 1942, War and Society, 14, 1 (1996), 7397;
Jeffery Grey, The Commonwealth armies and the Korean War (Manchester, 1988), 77;
David Bercuson, Blood on the Hills. The Canadian Army in the Korean War (Toronto,
1999), 29, 52 and 689.
PRO, WO 106/2401B, paragraph 83.
Sunday Times, 31 Jan. 1993; The Independent, 11 and 26 Jan. 1993.
PRO, WO 172/1686, p. 61.
Ibid., war diary of East Infantry Brigade, Hong Kong Island, Dec. 1941. There
is an abridged and less hostile version of events in WO 106/2401B, but the passage
cited was not included. In 1948 Nicholson was told by Price that in his opinion
Walliss report could not be relied upon. Wallis had been in a state of great nervous
excitement . . . his mental state was such that he was incapable of collected judge-
ment or of efcient leadership. DHH, le 352.019 (D1), Brigadier Price to Nichol-
son, 27 Jan. 1948. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Remarks like thesewhich were thoroughly investigated by Can-

adian ofcial historians in 1948124will undoubtedly continue to
anger those surviving Canadian veterans many of whom possess vivid
and unpleasant memories of the battle and their subsequent incar-
ceration. The question remains: who, if anyone, is to blame for this
tragic event? Certainly, Prime Minister King deserves severe criti-
cism. To say, as he does in his diaries, that the decision to send
reinforcements to Hong Kong was undertaken solely by the Canad-
ian military upon advice from the British COS is nothing more than
a smokescreen designed to protect King from hostile comment. Ulti-
mately, the despatch of Canadian troops to the Far East was as much
a political decision as it was a military one. As we have seen, through-
out 1941 public opinion in English Canada was becoming increas-
ingly critical and dissatised with the inactivity of the Canadian
army. Ministers such as Ralston and Power, who wanted to see
Canada take a more active role in the war, keenly felt this pressure.
Their determination, combined with the poor reception King
received from Canadian troops at Aldershot in August 1941, eventu-
ally wore down Kings resistance to the idea. Albeit against his better
judgement, he bowed to the pressure. Therefore to castigate the
Department of Defence for not probing the British about the true
nature of the conditions at Hong Kong is yet another example of
Kings devious retrospection.
The claim that the British deliberately misled the Canadian gov-
ernment by not revealing the full picture in Hong Kong is simply
fraudulent. The COS was under no illusion, unlike their assessment
of Singapore, that Hong Kong was impregnable. Three days after
Grasetts meeting with the COS, General Kennedy remarked in a
note to Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial Gen-
eral Staff, that although encouraged by a recent speech made by
Prime Minister King indicating a desire for Canadian troops to see
frontline service, Ottawas new-found interest in Pacic issues
should not be allowed to induce you to reverse your present policy
of sending no reinforcements to Hong Kong. The Canadians might
never be involved in a front line battle, and, if they are, it will merely
mean more forces being locked up in a fortress which at the moment
has very little chance of being relieved.125

See DHH, le 593 (D26), notes of interviews between Nicholson, Maltby and
Wallis, June 1946.
PRO, WO 106/2412, Kennedy to Dill, 6 Sept. 1941. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Why then did the COS reverse their decision not to reinforce the
colony and sanction a request for Canadian assistance? There were
two reasons. First and foremost was Grasetts eloquence in persuad-
ing the COS that the Canadians might provide troops if approached
in the right manner. Secondly, the diplomatic situation in the Far
East had apparently eased somewhat for the British during the
autumn of 1941. Although this proved to be a false dawn, the crucial
decision to reinforce Hong Kong was taken at this time. Hence
Anthony Edens eagerness to approach Ottawa for assistance. More-
over, it was simply not Hong Kong that was being reinforced. The
Americans were at long last showing some intestinal fortitude when
they agreed to bolster their garrison, complete with a squadron of
new B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, in the Philippines. The Australian
decision to send forces to Malaya was also undertaken at this time.
This show of resolve by the Allies, it was hoped, would deter Japanese
territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia and the Pacic. Canadian par-
ticipation in promoting Far Eastern security helped strengthen the
signal being sent by London to Tokyo and Washington that the Brit-
ish empire was both united and determined to defend its regional
interests there. The fateful decision to reinforce Hong Kong was as
much psychological as it was political or military. And the message
was not just for Japanese consumption. It was vitally important for
the British to reassure Chiang Kai-shek that they were sincere in
helping the Nationalist Chinese in their titanic struggle against the
Japanese. Chinese resistance, however jellysh-like and amorphous,
had to be stiffened.126 Hong Kongs reinforcement symbolized Bri-
tains commitment to China.
The collapse of Britains Far Eastern empire was a tremendous
blow to its prestige. The speed with which it fell added to the shock
of Japans well-planned and comprehensive defeat of the Western
imperial powers throughout the region. Complacency, poor political
leadership and inept generalship within the colonial establishments,
in part, explain the sudden destruction of British authority in the
Far East. The Governor of Ceylon, A. Caldecott, a former governor
of Hong Kong (193537), commented in 1943 that you could not
have military efciency without good generalship. In his opinion,
General Maltby had been a dud as GOC Hong Kong.127 Similarly,

PRO, WO 208/722, Combined Situation Report, HKIR 4/41, 1 May 1941.
PRO, CO 967/80, Caldecott to Sir George Gater, Permanent Under-Secretary
of State for the Colonies, 15 March 1943. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:


Lady Brooke-Popham was correct when she told Mackenzie King that
Britains colonial elites in Asia, with their dancing, playing bridge,
dinners, and the like [had] absolutely deaden[ed] the[ir] senses to
any realization of the [political] reality of the situation there. Polit-
ical naivety, combined with their myopic worldview and pampered
lifestyle had led many of these gin sodden gentlemen to grossly
underestimate their Asian foe.128
Nevertheless, it was the racial stereotyping of the Japanese by the
Western allies which undeniably more than any other factor explains
Britains failure to defend its Asian interests. A few lone voices in
the wilderness tried to forewarn that the Japanese were indeed more
than capable of launching simultaneously lightening amphibious
strikes at a number of far-ranging targets. These assessments were
unfortunately either dismissed or ignored by their superiors because
of prejudice and cultural arrogance. The utter failure of British Far
Eastern intelligence combined with the extraordinarily good
Japanese intelligence services in the lead up to the Pacic War also
help explain the Allied collapse in the Far East.129
What of prestige? David MacDougall, who had served in the Hong
Kong cadetand headed the team which re-established British rule
in the colony in August 1945reected, that well before the
Japanese occupation of Britains Asian empire the foundations upon
which British power had been built had all but been eroded. Hong
Kong had become a tarnished symbol of British prestige in China.
All of the imperial tradition was cocooned in ceremonial, based on
the fact that you were invincible; you had cocked hats and swords
and small, little garrisons.130 Ironically, this admission had been dis-
cussed at cabinet level in July 1940: It should not be forgotten that
our position in the Far East has been defended in recent years by
prestige rather than military force, and we should not lightly allow
it to be further diminished.131 But prestige alone was not a very solid
foundation upon which to build and maintain an imperial edice.

NAC, King diaries, T-171, fol. 186, 27 Feb. 1942; CCC, DUFC 4/1, Victor
Rothschild, noted scientist and MI5 contact, to Duff Cooper, 1 March 1943.
AA (Melbourne), MP 729/6, item 50/401/273, Notes on Japanese Methods
used on their Invasion of Hongkong by Major A. Goring, Indian Army, n.d.; PRO,
CO 537/1648, occupation reports (19456) by Lieutenant-Commander J. Jolly,
Harbour Master and Director of Air Services, Hong Kong.
Rhodes House Library, Oxford (hereafter RHL), MSS Ind Ocn s. 344, tran-
script of an interview conducted by Dr Steve Tsang with Brigadier David Mercer
MacDougall, p. 68.
Quotation cited in Tarling, Onset of the Pacic War, p. 115. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address:

Despite the fact the British were sitting on borrowed territory,
the psychological need to defend the colony became that much more
important.132 However militarily indefensible, the political conun-
drum was that to withdraw from Hong Kong without a ght would
have dashed Chinese condence and given Chiang Kai-shek the
opportunity to negotiate a separate peace with Japan. Herein lies
the real tragedy. The defence of Hong Kong with its long awaited
but belated reinforcement by Canada was politically motivated as
much, if not more, by Ottawa as by London. London desperately
needed to bolster its sagging prestige in southern China; Ottawa
badly wanted to demonstrate to the Canadian public, its Common-
wealth partners and especially its southern neighbour that its war
effort consisted of more than just wheat, warships and xed-winged
aircraft. Hence the eagerness with which Ottawa took up the British
request for assistance. The British truly believed that they were
doing the right thing. The Canadians had no reason to doubt this
assessment, dependent as they were on British intelligence and dip-
lomatic circles. Indeed, the one important lesson learnt from Hong
Kong was that Canada had to take responsibility and develop inde-
pendent sources of political and military intelligence. Nevertheless,
to say that Canada was led down the garden path against her will by
having to rely on British assessments is supercial and inaccurate.
Ottawa had travelled well down that path already.133 The despatch
of the two Canadian battalions to Hong Kong (just like the symbolic
despatch of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to Singapore) was
part of a larger strategy designed as much to reinforce the moral
will of the western allies, and sections of the Canadian electorate, as
it was to forestall the Japanese militarily. Its retention was essential
in upholding Britains prestige, despite its strategic vulnerability.
Unfortunately for the British and her imperial partner the bluff was
RHL, MSS Ind Ocn s. 344, MacDougall transcript, p. 68.
Granatstein, Conscription, p. 22 makes the garden path analogy. Downloaded: 21 Oct 2010 IP address: