The Battle of Hong Kong 1941

Map of Hong Kong
Map of Hong Kong

 

Hong Kong had been established as a British Crown Colony since 1842 after the First Opium War. It consisted of Kowloon on the mainland and Hong Kong island and was a symbol of British power in the Far East.

Initially, Winston Churchill regarded the territory as an outpost, and would not reinforce it against impending attack and reduce the British garrison there to fight the ongoing war in Europe. From September 1941, he reversed this decision and increased the manpower of the garrison with Commonwealth troops as a military deterrence against the Japanese forces. The 12,000-man garrison consisted of the British Army, and Commonwealth forces in the form of the Canadian and Indian armies, and the Hong Kong Voluntary Defence Corps.

On 8 December 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces launched an invasion of the British colony of Hong Kong. The Japanese forces led by Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai had around 52,000 men of the 38th division of the Japanese 23rd Army at its disposal. Therefore, outnumbering the British Commonwealth forces 4 to 1.

Outnumbered and with their air support destroyed, Commonwealth forces were quickly driven back. By 12th December, 1941, they had been forced to retreat from the mainland to Hong Kong island.

In the morning of the 13th, the Japanese made their first demand for surrender of Hong Kong; it was emphatically rejected. Increasingly exhausted and running low on ammunition and supplies, Commonwealth troops fought on. By the afternoon of 25th December 1941, it was clear that further resistance would be futile and British colonial officials headed by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered in person. This day would become known as "Black Christmas".

Despite surrendering, many of the British, and Commonwealth soldiers, and medical staff were tortured and killed by the Japanese soldiers.

The Japanese had at least 1,895 men killed of an estimated 6,000 casualties. Allied casualties were 1,111 men killed, 1,167 missing and 1,362 wounded. Allied dead, including British, Canadian and Indian soldiers, were eventually interred at Sai Wan Military Cemetery and the Stanley Military Cemetery.

At the end of February 1942, an Official Report of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada stated that the numbers of prisoners of war in Hong Kong were: British 5,072, Canadian 1,689, Indian 3,829, others 357, a total of 10,947.

During World War II, the Japanese Armed Forces captured nearly 140,000 Allied military personnel (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States) in the Southeast Asia and Pacific areas. About 36,000 were transported to the Japanese Mainland to supplement the shortage of the workforce and compelled to work in the coal mines, mines, shipyards, munitions factories, etc. By the time the war was over, a total of more than 30,000 POWs had died from starvation, diseases, and mistreatment both within and outside of the Japanese Mainland.

According to the findings of the Tokyo Tribunal, the death rate of Western prisoners was 27.1%, seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians.

Allied prisoners of war after the liberation of Changi Prison, Singapore 1945
Allied prisoners of war after the liberation of Changi Prison, Singapore 1945

The Empire of Japan, (which had never signed the Second Geneva Convention of 1929, it is, however, important to note that the Japanese Emperor had agreed to its provisions) did not treat prisoners of war in accordance with international agreements, including provisions of the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), either during the second Sino-Japanese War or during the Pacific War.

Moreover, according to a directive ratified on 5 August 1937 by The Japanese emperor Hirohito, the constraints of the Hague Conventions were explicitly removed from prisoners of war from China, the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Philippines held by the Japanese armed forces  and these POWs were subject to murder, beatings, summary punishment, brutal treatment, forced labour, medical experimentation, starvation rations and poor medical treatment. The most notorious use of forced labour was in the construction of the Burma–Thailand 'Death Railway'.

Search the ‘Far East Prisoners of War 1942-46’ collection from Forces War Records today and see who you could to add to your family tree.

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Imperial Prisoners of war held in Japan Tutorial and Guide

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