On the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor fell victim to a surprise Japanese attack. The assault would go down in history as one of the worst foreign attacks ever launched against the United States. Though this attack stunned an unprepared United States, it wasn’t Japan’s only target that December morning. In fact, the imperialist aggressors unleashed several striking forces, each with its own mission. While the United States was reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had already set in motion other attacks much closer to home, including the Battle of Hong Kong.
On December 8 (December 7 in the US), Japan launched an assault on Hong Kong, then a British Crown Colony. The act was among the first battles of the War in the Pacific and one of the first signs of just how strong Japan had become. With a force of just under 30,000 troops, Japan crushed the Allied garrisons, which consisted primarily of forces from the United Kingdom, India, and Canada.
The battle resulted was a devastating loss that handed Hong Kong over to the Japanese and served as an immediate strike against Allied morale in the Pacific.
Before the Fall
The British had long known that Japan was a threat. Dating back to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in the early 1920s and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the United Kingdom was not blind to Japan’s potential for power. They found themselves in a precarious position when Japan occupied Canton in 1938, leaving Hong Kong surrounded and virtually impossible to hold in the event of an attack. The Japanese already held Hainan Island, French Indo-China, and Formosa, which left the British with no relief should Japan decide to attack. Though the enemy was right at its doorstep, the British and their allies continued to hold Hong Kong, knowing the potential for defeat should Japan decide to attack was high.
Though Hong Kong was initially viewed as an outpost, leading Winston Churchill to decide against sending more troops to reinforce it, in September of 1941, that decision was reversed. By the morning of December 8, the British, Indian, Canadian, and other auxiliary units garrisoned in Hong Kong numbered almost 15,000. The request for a fighter squadron had been rejected, and that decision was never reversed.
Launching the Battle of Hong Kong
Word about the attack on Pearl Harbor was just trickling in when Japan made its move against Hong Kong. Major-General Christopher Maltby commanded the bulk of the troops in the resistance against the onslaught. The defense was a strong one, but Japan’s forces outnumbered the Allies two to one. There was also a distinct difference in combat experience, as Japan’s forces had already spent several years engaging the Chinese.
Most of the Allied fighting took place on the ground. Hong Kong lacked suitable aerial defenses as the Kai Tak Airport housed only five planes: three Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-reconnaissance bombers and two Supermarine Walrus amphibious aircraft. Its naval defense was even less effective, and Japan was able to approach Hong Kong with no serious opposition.
The first strike came on the morning of December 8 when 12 Japanese bombers dropped their payload on Kai Tak airport, destroying all but one of the Vildebeest. Any troops trained for aerial combat, including the Royal Air Force, were therefore forced to fight from the ground. As the attack continued, the Royal Navy ordered three of its destroyers to abandon Hong Kong and sail for Singapore, but only one was able to maneuver through the battle and make it to its destination, accompanied by several gunboats and motor torpedo boats.
Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Hong Kong was not a two-hour ordeal. The Allied defenders held on until Christmas Day. In the days immediately following the bombing of Kai Tak airport, American pilots serving in the China National Aviation Corporation landed at the ruined airport to evacuate as many people as possible. Two-hundred and seventy-five were rescued from Hong Kong and the Japanese assault.
Retreating to the Island
The Allied forces in Hong Kong were forced to remain on the defensive and set up battalions along the so-called Gin Drinkers’ Line. The defenses wouldn’t hold, however, as Major General Takaishi Sakai moved his troops up Sham Chun River and breached the line within hours. Golden Hill became a point of back-and-forth as, shortly after Japan took it from the Royal Scots, forcing them to withdraw, another company moved in to reclaim the territory. It was a short-lived victory as Japan was able to push D company back.
Japan’s capture of Golden Hill forced the evacuation from the New Territories and Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on December 11, 1941. Despite persistent Japanese bombing and artillery strikes, all remaining troops of the 5/7 Rajputs of the Indian Army and the Commonwealth troops had made it to Hong Kong by December 13.
Continuing their relentless bombardments of the island, the Japanese demanded surrender on the 13th, and again on the 17th of December. The Allied forces refused and continued to hold their ground, pushing Japan to send troops across the harbor for landings on the north-east end of Hong Kong. Once on the island, Japan pushed until the West Brigade defense fell on December 19. By the 20th, the island was divided by Japanese and British troops, but Japan took a tactical advantage when it cut off water supplies. After Japanese troops sacked St. Stephen’s College, which was used as an Allied field hospital, and tortured wounded soldiers and medical staff, the British knew the island was lost.
The British Surrender
In the afternoon of what would become known as “Black Christmas,” British officials and Hong Kong’s governor, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered at the Japanese headquarters in the Peninsula Hong Kong Hotel.