Most Canadians are aware of our country’s involvement in World War II and are familiar with names such as Dieppe, Normandy and Juno Beach. But, sadly, fewer realize that Canadians played a key role in the war on the Pacific front against the Japanese by helping defend Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony and when Japanese aggression became a possibility, a decision was made in 1941, to bolster up its defences, even though few believed it was in danger or that it could be successfully defended against an attack. In fact, prior to 1941, no reinforcements had been dispatched to this outpost, but thinking changed when some felt that a show of defence in Hong Kong would act as a deterrent against possible hostile actions by Japan.
For this purpose, Canada was asked to provide one or two battalions, so the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were told to prepare for service. Because it was believed they would be performing only garrison duty, they did not receive any front-line training. Ironically, they would become the first Canadian units to fight in the Second World War.
On Oct.27, 1941, they set sail from Vancouver and arrived on November 16. In total there were 1,975 soldiers,2 medical officers, 2 nursing Sisters, 2 officers of the Canadian Dental Corps, 3 chaplains, 2 auxiliary service officers, a detachment of the Canadian Postal Corps and 1 military stowaway who was promptly sent back.
It soon became apparent that the Japanese were about to wage war on the West and that Hong Kong was in jeopardy. From the beginning the Allied forces were at a great disadvantage with no air or naval defences to speak of. The Canadian units were assigned the task of defending the beaches and they prepared by familiarizing themselves with the landscape. In late November and early December, all was deceptively calm and many thought that reports of a possible attack by Japan were greatly exaggerated.
Then on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and there could no longer be any doubts about their intentions. For the next 18 days, Canadian troops would engage in nasty, hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. The Canadian battalions fought valiantly, and often without any rest sent to bolster up weak spots. Finally, on Christmas Day in 1941, they could no longer hold off the Japanese and had to surrender.
Those who survived the battles now became POWs who would face 31/2 years of living hell as they were forced to work long days in the mines or on the docks with little or no food, terrible living conditions, and harsh, brutal treatment by their captors.
In the end, the human cost was staggering! 290 men were killed in battle, 264 died in the prison camps, and 500 were wounded. That made a casualty rate greater than 50% – the highest of any action in the war.
Today there is a memorial at Sai Wan Bay War cemetery commemorating the actions of those brave individuals. But, we, as Canadians, need to become aware that our country paid a dear price fighting for freedom not only in Europe but also in Asia. Let us remember all those who sacrificed so much for democracy and freedom.