The Winnipeg Grenadiers, Hong Kong. Dec 6-25 1941
The unit whose actions will be followed and analyzed in this paper is the battalion of the Winnipeg Grenadiers during their two week struggle in the battle for Hong Kong 1941 against elements of the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle only lasted from the 8th of December with the initial Japanese attacks on the mainland forces defending Kowloon to Christmas day when Major General C.M. Maltby surrendered the remaining Commonwealth forces that were still attempting to hold the island. The Canadian battalions, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles, accounted for the bulk of the fighting and of the 1 975 men who embarked for Hong Kong from Vancouver only 1 418 survived the battle and subsequent years as Japanese POWs.
Were these losses then worth the gain? The hard part about this question is trying to come up with any sort of gain at all from the battle. It has been argued that their sacrifice slowed the Japanese invasion of the Pacific islands and that the better part of a division had been put out of action. These claims are, if examined dispassionately, quite ridiculous and seem to be clutching at straws to explain what was in reality a military disaster. What then must be looked at is the performance of individual units within the context of defeat. How well did they fight? Did they indeed inflict reasonable casualties on the enemy? How did their officers and NCOs perform?
Avoiding the political decision-making process that sent the two Canadian battalions to their destruction and focusing just on the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the examination of the unit that was sent begins with them as a garrison unit in Jamaica. The Grenadiers were formed in 1908 as a militia unit and were raised to become the 11th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. When World War Two began in Europe they were one of the first units to be mobilized and by October 1939 they were up to full battalion strength. The officer commanding was Lt. Col J.L.R. Sutcliffe a veteran of the First World War who served in France, Belgium, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Russia and Turkey. The second in command was Major G. Trist, also a veteran. Both officers were viewed as 'useful and competent'. The unit was originally designated a machine gun battalion but in 1940 was converted to a rifle battalion. They were put into garrison duty for sixteen months in Jamaica and during this time they had only two weeks of training at Montpelier Camp and not a single round was fired in training. In October of 1941 they were returned to Canada and warned immediately about over-seas duty
While in Winnipeg the men got to fire off thirty-five rounds each from their rifles for practice. The unit was also under strength for front line duty but they received 436 new men including 63 who did not even have their sixteen weeks basic training yet. There also was no training what-so-ever with any heavy weapons. A standard battalion in 1941 should have included twenty-one Universal Carriers and thirty-seven 1500 lb weight trucks. The unit sent had six carriers and twelve trucks. Of the other approximately eighty vehicles standardly assigned to a battalion there was to be no sign as the battle ended before they could arrive. Of the twenty-two Boys anti-tank rifles they were supposed to have the battalion had one. The Grenadiers actually had their mortars but did not have any ammunition for them at all. Despite these shortcomings the force set sail on October 27th with a total of ( between both battalions ) 1 975 men and arrived in Hong Kong on the 16th of November.
The Commanding Officer in Hong Kong was a British Major General C.M. Maltby. He commanded a force of 5 422 infantry and approximately 6 000 other possible combatants. Most of the Island's defenses were set up to repel an invasion by the sea with large coastal batteries and armor-piercing shells for the guns. Maltby's initial plan was to hold a thin line of defenses known as the Gin Drinkers Line with three battalions who would delay any attack on the Island itself as well as cover the demolition teams that would be sent out to blow up all the usable bridges in the route of advance. The Line was eleven miles long and realistically required around seven battalions to hold it. Back on the Island a second brigade of three battalions was formed under the command of Canadian Brigadier Lawson and this included the Winnipeg Grenadiers. The Gin Drinkers Line was supposed to hold for at least seven days.
The Japanese force facing the Line consisted of the 38th division of the 23rd Army with three regiments of infantry, the 228th, 229th and 230th. Backing this up was the 38th Mountain Artillery regiment, the 38th Engineering regiment and attached were two more Independent Mountain Artillery regiments, two anti-tank gun battalions, a mortar battalion, another engineering regiment, three transport regiments and two river crossing companies. The 23rd Army also made available their Army level artillery of heavy guns, two more Independent Artillery battalions and 40 Kawasaki Ki 32 single-engine bombers.
On December 6th Maltby issued a warning to all units to stand to their war positions. The Grenadiers ferried over to Hong Kong Island from their barracks at Kowloon in the morning of the 7th. Early on the 8th they were informed that they were at war now with Imperial Japan. The Japanese hit the Gin Drinkers Line on the afternoon of the 9th and almost immediately the Line began to fold. The Grenadiers sent company D over from the Island to act as a reserve but were never employed and went back to the Island on the 11th after only experiencing scattered artillery and small arms fire which caused no casualties. By the 13th the mainland had been completely abandoned.
The Island was broken into two commands. The East under Brigadier Wallis consisting of the Royal Rifles and the Rajputs and the West under Lawson with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, Punjabs and the Royal Scots. The Middlesex were scattered about the Island holding all of the static positions on the coast. The Grenadiers were stationed in the south-west and centre of the Island.Between the 14th-17th they experienced very little activity beyond shelling and air strikes. A company was at Little Hong Kong, B company at Pok Fu Lam, C company at Aberdeen, D company at the Wong Nei Chong Gap acting as brigade reserve, and battalion HQ was in the Wan Chai Gap in the centre of the Island.
On the 18th the Japanese assault began on the Island. The initial landing obliterated the Rajputs then hit the Royal Rifles and forced them south. The first action for West brigade came when Lawson sent three platoons ( one from each A, B & C companies - his reserve 'flying column' ) to set up road blocks at strategic points. Lt. Birkett went to Jardine's Lookout where he was killed covering his units withdrawal when they discovered the position already occupied by the quickly moving Japanese. Lt. French went to Mt. Butler to also find the Japanese already there but he counterattacked them, took the hill, could not hold it for long, and was forced to withdraw when he too was killed. The 3rd platoon disappeared after being sent to a road junction to the north-west of the Gap.
Major Gresham was ordered with A company and a platoon of D company to re-take Jardine's Lookout and Mt. Butler. This was done by dawn but a number of heavy Japanese counterattacks forced them off the hill and by mid-afternoon they were surrounded. During their last stand Company Sergeant Major J.R. Osborn deliberately covered a grenade with his body to save his men and was killed. He received the Victoria Cross for his action posthumously. They had run into an entire Japanese battalion. D company #17 and #18 platoons were hit by another Japanese battalion just north of the Gap and were surrounded then overrun with only a few men escaping.
By the morning of the 19th Lawson was facing a situation where A company had just disappeared along with a platoon from D company and two more D company platoons had been wiped out. That left only D company HQ, brigade HQ and the artillery HQ holding the Gap. They were deployed within anti-aircraft shelters with heavy steel doors on both sides of the Gap. One Japanese attack had already been thrown back when Lawson, now surrounded, called for a relief effort to be made. A company of Royal Scots were decimated trying and three Naval platoons met the same fate. A platoon of Grenadiers that had returned after finding out the road junction they were to hold was already occupied also failed to break through. Lawson destroyed all essential records and the telephone switchboard then led the HQ troops out to make a break for it. The HQ was wiped out and Lawson was killed. D company HQ was still fighting though and Captain Bowman led a counterattack which forced the Japanese to withdraw. They stuck back however and Bowman was killed withdrawing back to the shelters.
Maltby at this point ordered a major counterattack by West brigade to halt the Japanese advance, clear the Gap and link up with East brigade. The Punjabs failed to move and the Royal Scots took severe losses. The Grenadier HQ company under Major Hodkinson was told at 2 p.m. to clear the Gap and carry on to Mt.Parker. This despite the fact that Lt. Blackwell had only twenty men left from D company and the flying columns had been wiped out leaving just forty men to attempt the attack. They were joined by a platoon of C company brought up from Aberdeen. Lt. Corrigan and one platoon were to take Mt. Nicholson to cover the flank and they did with only five unwounded men left by the time they took the top of the hill. Despite this they carried on past the hill and fought until midnight when they ran out of ammunition. The rest of Hodkison's force ambushed around 500 Japanese eating! These troops were dispersed and the carried on the advance. They were joined by remnants of A company of the Royal Scots. Hodkinson and four men flanked the Japanese positions at the Gap and attacked with Lt. Campbell coming in from the south-west and west. They broke through to D company HQ which was down to only seven unwounded men. They called back to battalion HQ and Sutcliffe ordered them to press the attack south to a police station on a knoll covering the entrance to the Gap then onward to Mt. Parker! " It is difficult to judge which is most incredible, the order given by a Headquarters that obviously did not have the slightest grip on reality, or the little group of men actually undertaking to carry it out."The station was attacked at 8 p.m. and when they started up the knoll the small force of two officers and twenty-four men met a hail of grenades from the forty or so Japanese defending the position. Hodkinson was killed and most of the force was wiped out. The few survivors under Sergeant Patterson tried to hold off but they were overrun.
A force from East brigade failed to get through the Gap from the south and the Royal Scots were decimated after two attempts. To further deteriorate the situation Col. P. Hennesy, the next succeeding officer in the Canadian ranks was killed by a fluke artillery shell thus leaving the two battalion commanders as the senior surviving Canadian officers.
Morning of the 20th had D co. HQ still holding the Gap, B co. at Pok Fu Lam and C co., less one platoon, at Aberdeen. The other companies had ceased to exist. At noon British Colonel H.B. Rose assumed Lawson's position of brigade commander. Maltby's orders to him were much the same as last day; Royal Scots and Grenadiers to clear the Gap and link up with East brigade. B co. split into two columns to circumnavigate Mt. Nicholson and when they got back together on the other side ran into three Japanese companies who took Mt. Nicholson and drove back B co. with twenty-three casualties. By this time the Japanese had lost around 800 men trying to take the Gap.
The next day B co. counterattacked Mt. Nicholson from three sides but were forced to withdraw as of the 98 men engaged they had lost all officers, seven NCOs and 29 men. The Grenadiers were ordered by Sutcliffe to fall back to Mt. Cameron. They were all together now except for C co. at Aberdeen.
Somehow D co. HQ was still holding on despite being under constant fire. At varying times elements of four separate Japanese battalions were arrayed against them. At 4 p.m. they and the rest of the Island were told of a message from Chaing Kai-Shek saying that twenty bombers were en route to hit Japanese airstrips and his ground offensive would begin in ten days. This of course never came about and was purely for morale purposes.
The 22nd saw the final fall of D co. HQ with only twelve unwounded men left ( who attempted to sneak out and were mostly successful ). At 7 a.m. the ammunition had run out, the doors had been blown in by a Japanese light field gun and their commanding officer had been wounded twice. The remaining thirty-seven wounded men surrendered.
Mt. Cameron became the key position for the brigade but it was hit quickly at 8:30 a.m. and the line was breached forcing the Grenadiers to fall back or become surrounded. They withdrew to Wan Chai Gap under intense pressure. C co. under Major Bailie saw the fighting on Mt Cameron and asked brigade HQ if he could assist but he was refused. He moved out any ways and reached Pok Fu Lam en route to Mt. Gough, the brigade's supposed last stand line. The Japanese brought up two fresh battalions.
On the 23rd the Grenadiers reorganised and moved south to new positions just north of the Aberdeen reservoir and by 3:30 C co. had joined them.
The next day was bright and clear as the Grenadiers began aggressive patrolling to try to fix the Japanese positions. This was required because the Japanese now held all the high ground and this was the only way to figure out where they were now. The Japanese had also brought up the divisional artillery and another fresh battalion.
The Japanese attack at midnight with two companies succeeded in taking Bennett's Hill after being repulsed once by Major Bailie. Nine hours later the Japanese sent two men through the lines demanding surrender. They were refused by Matlby although a three hour truce went into effect. At noon the attack continued and by three the Winnipeg Grenadiers started to crumble under the pressure and there were no reserves left. On top of this most of the Islands water reservoirs were in Japanese hands and there were only six mobile guns left and only 60 rounds left per gun.
It was due to these factors that at 3:15 Maltby came to the conclusion that further fighting was futile and could risk " severe retaliation on the large civilian population and could not effect the final outcome" He therefore informed the Governor that the battle was over and ordered all commanding officers to cease fighting and surrender.The Winnipeg Grenadiers kept sporadic firing up until 5 p.m. then destroyed their remaining ammunition and weapons with grenades and moved to Mt. Austin barracks arriving at 7:30 p.m.
There can be no doubt that considering the lack of training the troops of the Winnipeg Grenadiers performed well above the level expected of them. The only unit which attacked more times then they did were the Royal Rifles. They were virtually the only unit fighting for control over the centre of the Island and twice they fought off Japanese battalions with only companies. The unit as a whole only withdrew or broke off attack after sustaining high casualties. They performed with a total lack of transport for movement or resupply, they had no fighting vehicles at all, weak to non-existent intelligence on enemy movements, they were in unfamiliar terrain and led by an HQ that was not at all clear of the tactical situations let alone the strategic one. In all the defense was futile but courageous. Officer casualties were disproportionately high due to them actually leading the attacks from the front. These men would lead ridiculously small forces to counterattack without any covering fire and no artillery support into positions of unknown enemy strength who held the high ground most of the time. The fact that any of these attacks were even successful for a short amount of time is amazing.
From a strategic point of view of course it was all for nothing. The Japanese took Hong Kong much quicker then they had anticipated and depending on which casualty figures you look at the losses to the Japanese of 2 500 to 2 800 men was not crippling. The allies lost around 3 500 defending the Island although the figure is inflated by the Japanese killing of wounded who could not walk.
The whole 'campaign' only lasted for seventeen and one-half days and the Canadian contingent which bore the brunt of the fighting were left with only 1 418 survivors after the war from the 1 975 who embarked from Vancouver. In no way could these losses be considered worth the minimal to non-existent gains acquired through the battle for Hong Kong Island.
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