The British Empire Library

The Battle For Hong Kong 1941-1945: Hostage To Fortune

by Oliver Lindsay, with the memories of John R Harris

Courtesy of OSPA

Gillian Bickley, PhD (Previously Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University)
The fall of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, one hundred years after the British first set up an administration (originally unofficial) on the island, was a deep humiliation, and the impact on British prestige in the Far East was devastating. The speedy resumption of effective administration after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 was made possible, this book suggests, by the far-sighted work of the Colonial Secretary, F. C. Gimson, who arrived in Hong Kong only the day before the Japanese invasion, and, while interned during the following forty-three months' occupation, put in place a shadow administration.

This book is a valuable addition to the existing discussion of the causes for this inevitable British defeat, as well as to the many narratives of the Battle for Hong Kong, life in the Hong Kong POW and internment camps, and the Japanese treatment in Hong Kong of prisoners and the civilian (mainly Chinese) population. It gives glimpses of what happened to those (including senior civilian and military personnel) who were shipped elsewhere, including an account of the sinking of the Lisbon Maru, with hundreds of deaths. It provides new information about intelligence activities within the camps.

The memories of John R Harris form a substantial part of the text. He, it is stated, is the sole remaining survivor today of a small group of POWs in Hong Kong who, in 1943, smuggled valuable top secret information to the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a British spying organization operating from within China. These activities, when discovered, led to deprivations, torture and executions (many by decapitation) among both service and civilian Hong Kong detainees.

Personal diaries, reported conversations, published articles and archival reports from several other sources provide additional and varied testimony, which is conscientiously questioned and weighed. The book seeks to put the record straight (particularly perhaps as to the effectiveness of the young Canadians who fought in Hong Kong, as well as emphasising the important role China played in the war). It also urges that the Royal Scots should, at this late stage, be awarded the battle honour, "Hong Kong". It comments on differences in the award of pensions to Hong Kong POWs by the Canadian and British Governments.

Oliver Lindsay, a military historian, who served in Hong Kong from 1975 as Second in Command of 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, and subsequently has occasionally run Hong Kong military tours, has given much time and thought to this work, which puts Hong Kong events during the Second World War in the context of other contemporary theatres of war. To establish a point of comparison by which to judge the fall of Hong Kong in 1941, a most interesting question is explored: what plans were in place for the defence of Hong Kong at later crucial points in its history, such as in the 1970s and 1980s, when relations with China were delicate?

The book often takes a comparative approach, referring to subsequent and present-day conflicts such as in Iraq and the Falklands and recent atrocities, such as the destruction of the twin towers in New York. It alleges that water torture (inflicted by the Japanese on Hong Kong prisoners) continues today.

The book is conscientious in attributing quotations and points of view, but the frequent interweaving of testimonies from several sources, and in particular the existence of two major narratives will keep readers on their toes. Nevertheless, this is a readable book, with touches of irony and humour as well as expressions of horror at Japanese atrocities and admiration for heroism, loyalty and endurance. The detailed complexities of events, first, in different stages of the battle for Hong Kong, and, later, in the POW and internment camps, are well handled. There are excellent photographs. The bibliography and index are useful. Not surprisingly perhaps, personal feeling does come through at times. As one example, the references to the chief British Intelligence Officer, Major Charles Boxer, fluent in Japanese, himself a POW, are slightly contradictory in attitude, perhaps reflecting the dual authorship of much of the text.

The book concludes with a tribute to all those who "fought and died in Hong Kong to restore freedom to mankind."

British Empire Book
Oliver Lindsay
Spellmount Ltd
1 86227 315 4


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