It was just before eight o’clock on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when Japanese warplanes struck Pearl Harbour. A “day of infamy” well remembered every year since.
Not so well remembered is the fact that as Japanese bombers launched their attack on Hawaii, other squadrons sporting the “Rising Sun” emblem were thundering over Hong Kong to launch a campaign that would lead to the death or capture of 1,975 young Canadians. They were the men and the women, mostly nurses, of ‘C’ Force” destined to die, be wounded or taken prisoner and brutally treated in the brief battle for Hong Kong.
‘C’-Force – outnumbered, out-gunned, out-supplied, out-maneuvered, defending a position Winston Churchill had said could never be adequately defended – surrendered to the full might of the Japanese army 18-days later, on Christmas Day.
On November 27, the 1,975-strong ‘C’ Force had marched proudly through the streets of Vancouver from their train to the docks to board two transports for an unknown destination. Their ships – the HMT Awatea, a converted passenger liner, and HMCS Prince Robert – sailed at 9:30 p.m., but not happily.
Official logs record a mini-rebellion onboard Awatea. HMCS Prince Robert, officially the armed escort for the transpacific trip, took her station without comment and the Awatea disturbance was played down as the unhappiness of 30 or 40 new recruits from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles who “didn’t understand conditions would improve.”
Years later rank and file soldiers recalled unpleasant below-deck accommodations with the first dinner served on board described as an appalling version of tripe and onions. In protest, a group of soldiers had tried to disembark. It took removal of the gangplank to stop them – and “restraint by force” of the unhappy diners.
The Winnipeg Grenadiers, forming the bulk of ‘C’ Force, had just ended 16-months of prized, laid-back garrison duty in Jamaica when, with the contingent from the Royal Rifles, they were arbitrarily ordered to their mystery destination.
After a brief stop at Pearl Harbour, in still neutral Honolulu, the men were told their destination was Hong Kong, where they would boost British forces already at war with Japan. ‘C’ Force reached Hong Kong on November 16. Enroute there had been lectures on what to expect when Japan attacked the Colony. They ranged from the possibility of “another Dunkirk” to morale-boosting stories that all Japanese soldiers were “myopic dwarves who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and shrank from close combat … that their pilots were sloppy, flew wooden aircraft and would be easy targets.”
When they disembarked, 17-year-old Ken Cambon of the Royal Rifles recalled: “The sun shone, but not oppressively, in a cloudless sky. Our battalion marched down Nathan Road, steel helmeted and obviously invincible … The streets were lined with cheering crowds waving small union jacks.” Winston Churchill had said Hong Kong was not defendable, but the crowds that day chose to believe other military leaders who had insisted the Canadian and other troops already there could withstand any attack.
And, for a few weeks, the illusion seemed the reality. Then came the Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong December 7 and 8 air attacks and the land assault on Hong Kong. The attacking force of 50,000 battle-hardened Japanese soldiers outnumbered the defenders 50 to one and out-gunned them in every phase of warfare.
On December 13, Private John Gray, 21, from Manitoba, became the first Canadian soldier to die in combat in WW2 when he was captured and executed.
It was during the battle for Hong Kong that 42-year-old Grenadier Sgt. Major John Robert Osborn threw himself on a live grenade to protect his men. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.
On Christmas Day, it was over; the Colony surrendered. There were 290 Canadians dead, many of them executed after capture. On Christmas Day morning 60 wounded men and their nurses were bayoneted or shot at the St Stephen’s College field hospital.
Years later, inquiries into those halcyon pre-Hong Kong battle days acknowledged the troops shipping out of Vancouver to defend Hong Kong in 1941 were poorly trained, ill-equipped and officially termed “unfit for combat.” A more honest army confession would have been “untrained for combat.”
So unprepared were they that, when the ships sailed, a great deal of equipment was left on the dock in Vancouver. Astonishingly, decades later, it was revealed that 212 vehicles were required to service ‘C’ Force, but there was room on board for only 20.
Post-war inquiries revealed that, while drills were conducted at sea, “regular weapons were in limited supply.” Post-war, it was noted that few had ever fired a gun with intent to kill, and most had never fired a gun at all.
Of the Grenadiers and Rifles taken prisoner, 264 died in POW camps; only 1,421 eventually came home emaciated, sick and with memories of horrors beyond understanding.
While we “remember Pearl Harbour,” we should never forget Hong Kong and the time we so carelessly sent so many of our young people into harm’s way.
(Recommended reading: ‘C’ Force to Hong Kong – a Canadian catastrophe by Brereton Greenhaus; VC citation for Sgt. Major Osborne)