Following the recent 50th Anniversary of the single most serious incident of the whole of the 1967/68 Hong Kong “Disturbances” – “The Sha Tau Kok Incident” – this article seeks to remember the sacrifice of the five Hong Kong Police officers killed, and the eleven others wounded, at the Sha Tau Kok Sino–Hong Kong border village on 8 July 1967.
Although I had joined the Hong Kong Police as a nineteen year old after voluntary service in Sarawak on 6 January 1967, I was still under training as a Probationary Inspector when this incident occurred and only heard it live on the force internal security VHF radio net and took no part in the action myself. Hearing the frantic calls for assistance with the sound of machine-gun fire in the background was scary enough. The whole Colony feared that invasion from the North was imminent.
This article is the result of personal research encouraged by the post-1997 Hong Kong Police’s 2015 revision of 1967/68 history on their website, removing all reference to communists and militia, and initially substituting the words “unknown gunmen.” Only after a widespread Hong Kong public furore did they later revise it to:
“In the most serious single incident of that year of violence, gunmen opened fire from the Chinese side of the border in Sha Tau Kok (STK). Five policemen were shot dead in a hail of bullets with eleven others injured. The true identity of the gunmen could not be established and there were different versions of them ranging from:
(1) ‘communist militia’;
(2) ‘Chinese militia’;
(3) ‘villagers in the border area’;
(4) ‘villagers in the immediate vicinity’; to
(5) ‘unknown gun-men in the Mainland’.”
(HKP January 2016)
The surviving officers who provided me with written submissions, from the Emergency Unit New Territories (EUNT) inside the police post just 100 m or so from the open border on Chung Ying Street (now demolished), the Police Training Contingent (PTC) D Company who were deployed at the Rural Committee building some 400 m back up Sha Tau Kok Road and Frontier Division had varying opinions as to who was responsible for the deaths and injuries.
I have also had valuable input from the British Army – the Gurkha Rifles and the Intelligence Corps – and, of course, the Internet.
There is also the HKP ballistics report which is indisputable as to the weaponry used to kill and injure the police that day. This is the report dated 11 July 1967 from Norman Hill, Police Ballistics Officer:
“The STK police post bore evidence of having been attacked with stones, bottles, explosives and automatic weapon fire. The items recovered there were: a gelignite anti-personnel bomb, five bullets, five bullet jackets, one piece of lead. The explosive was ‘Sakura’ Gelignite mixed with nails. The rifle bullets were 7.62 mm weighing 122 grains. One of the bullets could be matched to the weapon from which it was fired. The cupro-nickel jackets were of the same caliber. These bullets could have been fired from any of the following weapons or copies thereof: Soviet AK Assault rifle, Soviet SKS carbine or a Soviet RPD LMG. The lump of lead recovered from the wall of the observation tower weighed 71.4 grains and it was assumed had been fired from a shot gun. The holes in the observation tower on the outer and inner walls were all consistent with 7.62 rifle bullets. A line of sight measurement showed that the weapon was fired from the Chinese side of Chung Ying Street, probably from an upper floor or roof of the building. There was a bullet strike on the bottom of the No 3 Weapon Port and blood splashes on the wall and ceiling. There were numerous bullet holes in the outside wall of the STK Clinic facing the police post. Again, they are consistent with 7.62 mm rounds.
There were also numerous holes in the STK Rural Committee Building also consistent with 7.62 mm rounds. The angle of fire in this case was more difficult to assess but could have been from the end of STK Road or from the area of Kong Ha Village. Additionally 10 bullet jackets and 3 bullet cores were recovered from this site. Again, they were the same type as those already mentioned, namely 7.62 mm rifle rounds. At Fanling HQ two Land Rovers were found to have bullet holes in them and a mild steel core from a 7.62 mm rifle round was found. Completely identifiable bullet particles were recovered all having been fired from similar weapons. The conclusion is that at least three different automatic weapons were used as well as the weapon which fired the lead shot.”
The EUNT, PTC and Frontier Division officers who were there have a varied opinion as to who was responsible, most feeling that it was the work of the Man Bing or Militia, only one feeling that it was the work of the PLA. The official version of events, both by the British and Chinese governments at the time, was that it was hot-headed Militia who were responsible. It was in neither side’s interests to suggest otherwise at the time. One PTC officer, present on the next day, saw a PLA soldier, being relieved by a Militia and hand over his weapon, the implication being that the Militia was in fact himself PLA. Senior PLA officers were observed by the Intelligence Corps prior to the incident studying the area closely and 500 plus PLA were observed moving into the area during the incident.
The general officer commanding 42 Army Group of the PLA in Kwangtung, Huang Yong-sheng, was known to favour the invasion of Hong Kong and belong to the extreme radical Lin Biao faction opposed to the milder Premier Chou En-lai. He commanded all 15,000 PLA and Militia in the HK Border area. Nothing could happen in the area without PLA approval. He was later relieved of his post but later in the decade became Mao’s PLA Chief of Staff in Zhongnanhai. (see The Private Life of Chairman Mao).
My personal conclusions as to what happened that day are as follows:
The PLA and Militia decided to ambush the HKP in Sha Tau Kok in revenge for previous incidents in the village when the police suppressed invading mobs with tear gas and baton rounds. These incidents took place on 10th and 24th June and the 6th and 7th of July.
The PLA under General Huang decided to goad the police, and later the Gurkhas, into returning small-arms fire to give them the excuse to invade Hong Kong.
PLA, probably disguised as Militia, crossed the border and set up a light machinegun on Lone Tree Hill above Kong Ha Village to the north and sent other soldiers forward of the village towards the Rural Committee building and at least one sniper to the rear/south east of the police post and fire station. In addition, they set up a machine gun post on their own side of Chung Ying Street with a line of fire onto the Police Post and down the Sha Tau Kok Road.
A large mob of “villagers”, most certainly mostly Militia, at least one armed with a shotgun and others with gelignite fish bombs and an explosive satchel charge, crossed the border and besieged the police post.
PTC then deployed its three platoons outside the Rural Committee building on the Sha Tau Kok Road in order from the front: 10, 12, 11. 10 Platoon then advanced towards the fire station in order to engage the mob.
Firecrackers were then heard, most probably a signal to open fire, and then 11 and 12 Plns were hit by machinegun fire, probably from Lone Tree Hill. Corporal Fung and PC Kong of 12 Platoon were killed and up to eleven other officers injured.
10 Platoon took cover at the fire station but could not gain entry. PC Wong was then killed by the sniper, probably firing from the toilet block to the rear/south east.
One of two attackers attempting to blow a hole in the perimeter fence of the police post was shot dead with an M1 Carbine through a gun port by the senior officer present.
EUNT in the Police Post then came under sustained and accurate machinegun fire from the PLA post on the other side of Chung Ying Street and PCs Malek and Ahmed were killed.
Two police armoured personnel carriers (APCs) manned by off-duty inspectorate and EUNT Pakistanis came under machinegun fire as they rescued most of the injured from PTC 11 & 12 Plns.
The relieving Gurkhas also came under machinegun fire as they advanced down Sha Tau Kok Road behind the APCs of the Life Guards several hours later, having finally got permission from London to “clear British Territory of armed infiltrators”. One Rifleman received a minor bullet wound but the Gurkhas did not return fire.
The PLA machine-gunned the Gurkhas several times after they had relieved the police along the whole border; at Lo Wu and Man Kam To on 24 August and at Lo Wu on 25 August. Despite being attacked in both locations by invading mobs armed with everything except firearms, including at least 10 Molotov cocktails and 6 fragmentation grenades on 25 August, the Gurkhas never opened fire but relied on white phosphorous and tear gas grenades to defend themselves. A total of 67 WP and 294 TG grenades were used over the two days.
It is to the Gurkhas great credit that they were never tempted to return fire, especially into Chinese Territory. If they had, the PLA would have had all the excuses they needed to cross the border and the history of HK would have changed completely.
This personal conclusion has only recently been supported by a Militia involved that day and a highly disguised member of the New China News Agency (NCNA), the de facto Chinese Consulate in HK, who were interviewed for a May 2017 iCable News TV documentary on 1967, the latter revealing that “a PLA Platoon Commander” gave orders for the attack.
However, it remains possible that the PLA only opened fire on the police post and the Gurkhas late in the day to allow the Militia to withdraw, which fits with the NCNA revelation above. This is also the view of a senior Frontier Division officer who had access to the investigation files the following year. He remains adamant that the Militia were far more independent and better trained and armed than the Intelligence Corps believed and were responsible for the deaths and injuries that day.
Postscript 1 – 7 July 2017:
“The shooting was done by the regular PLA army, not Militia, already both sides wanted to downplay it as an insignificant border incident. For the last 50 years, all had been saying that it was the fanatic Militia that caused the incident. The PLA responsible for the shooting was 7085 Regiment of the Guangdong Military Region (note the difference between Guangdong military region, which comes under the command of Guangzhou Greater Military Region) responsible for border patrol. The commander was called Li Jingge (团长李经阁) while the war staff was called Ye Tengfang (叶腾芳). Several years ago Ye published a memoir detailing the conflict and revealed that the entire operation was done under Beijing’s instruction. The article was first carried in a Shenzhen journal on history of the city, 【原载深圳政协网-深圳文史第五辑。原标题：20世纪60年代发生在沙头角镇的中英磨擦】
It was later widely quoted on the military website: http://military.china.com/history4/62/20170316/30332953_all.html#page_2" I think by far this article is the most detailed summary of what happened, but it got the British casualties glaringly wrong. It said that 42 Brits were killed; in fact it was only 5.”
Postscript 2 – 7 July 2017:
“There is also a 2nd STK museum which has a private floor devoted to the Militia action on the day. It also claims 42 British deaths and displays the details of 19 Militia who received Merits for their actions, (1 posthumous 1st Class, 5 2nd Class and 12 3rd Class) and the Militia company commander receiving his 1st Class Merit from Mao in Beijing.”
So, I conclude that this was indeed a PLA lead operation but that there was almost certainly major Militia involvement, probably concentrated in the mob attacking the police post.
Certainly, the mobster shot dead (posthumous 1st Class Merit) with the parcel charge was recorded as being Militia: Zhang Tiansheng (張天生) 41yrs 1967-07-08. A militiaman from Mainland China, shot to death by Hong Kong Police at Sha Tau Kok border.
Postscript 3 – 17 May 2018:
Finally, I was advised to re-read Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday which states in Chapter 53 Page 591 that: “Mao’s real line was the one he imparted to Chou En-lai, in secret: “Hong Kong remains the same”. i.e. it stays under British rule. Chou’s assignment was “to stir up enough trouble to provoke reprisals, and then a kowtow, from the British, but not so much violence that it might lead to us having to take back Hong Kong ahead of time” which Chou privately made clear would be disastrous.
In the riots that ensued, Hong Kong police killed some demonstrators; but the number of deaths fell short of a massacre and the colonial authorities refused to apologise.
Peking then incited Hong Kong radicals to kill policemen: “Do to them [the police] as they have done to us,” urged the People’s Daily. “Those who kill must pay with their lives.” As the Hong Kong rioters were unable to kill policemen, Chou had to infiltrate soldiers into the Colony. These men slipped across the border on 8 July, dressed in mufti, and shot dead five police. Chou expressed his satisfaction with the results, but vetoed any more such operations in case the situation evolved to a point where Peking’s bluff might be called. (My Italics).
More will no doubt be revealed over time…