The Battle of Hong Kong - World War II

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Lt. Gen. Sakai formally enters Hong Kong, 1941. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Hong Kong was fought December 8 to 25, 1941, during World War II (1939-1945). As the Second Sino-Japanese War raged between China and Japan during the late 1930s, Great Britain was forced to examine its plans for the defense of Hong Kong. In studying the situation, it was quickly found that the colony would be difficult to hold in the face of a determined Japanese attack.

Despite this conclusion, work continued on a new defensive line extending from Gin Drinkers Bay to Port Shelter.

Begun in 1936, this set of fortifications was modeled on the French Maginot Line and took two years to complete. Centered on the Shin Mun Redoubt, the line was a system of strong points connected by paths.

In 1940, with World War II consuming Europe, the government in London began reducing the size of the Hong Kong garrison to free troops for use elsewhere. Following his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham requested reinforcements for Hong Kong as he believed even a marginal increase in the garrison could significantly slow down the Japanese in the case of war. Though not believing that the colony could be held indefinitely, a protracted defense would buy time for the British elsewhere in the Pacific.

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young
  • Major General Christopher Maltby
  • 14,000 men

Japanese

  • Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai
  • 52,000 men

Final Preparations

In 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to dispatch reinforcements to the Far East. In doing so, he accepted an offer from Canada to send two battalions and a brigade headquarters to Hong Kong. Dubbed "C-Force," the Canadians arrived in September 1941, though they lacked some of their heavy equipment.

Joining Major General Christopher Maltby's garrison, the Canadians prepared for battle as relations with Japan began to falter. Having taken the area around Canton in 1938, Japanese forces were well positioned for an invasion. Preparations for the attack began that fall with troops moving into position.

The Battle of Hong Kong Begins

Around 8:00 AM on December 8, Japanese forces under Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai began their attack on Hong Kong. Commencing less than eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese quickly gained air superiority over Hong Kong when they destroyed the garrison's few aircraft. Badly outnumbered, Maltby elected not to defend the Sham Chun River line at the colony's border and instead deployed three battalions to the Gin Drinkers Line. Lacking sufficient men to fully man the line's defenses, the defenders were driven back on December 10 when the Japanese overran the Shing Mun Redoubt.

Retreat to Defeat

The rapid breakthrough surprised Sakai as his planners anticipating needing a month to penetrate the British defenses. Falling back, Maltby began evacuating his troops from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on December 11. Destroying harbor and military facilities as they departed, the final Commonwealth troops left the mainland on December 13.

For the defense of Hong Kong Island, Maltby re-organized his men into Eastern and Western Brigades. On December 13, Sakai demanded that the British surrender. This was promptly refused and two days later the Japanese began shelling the island's northern shore.

Another surrender demand was rejected on December 17. The next day, Sakai began landing troops on the island's northeastern coast near Tai Koo. Pushing back the defenders, they were later guilty of killing prisoners of war Sai Wan Battery and Salesian Mission. Driving west and south, the Japanese met heavy resistance over the next two days. On December 20 they succeeded in reaching the south coast of the island effectively splitting the defenders in two. While part of Maltby's command continued the fight on the western part of the island, the remainder was hemmed in on the Stanley Peninsula.

On Christmas morning, Japanese forces captured the British field hospital at St. Stephen's College where they tortured and killed several prisoners. Later that day with his lines collapsing and lacking critical resources, Maltby advised Governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young that the colony should be surrendered. Having held out for seventeen days, Aitchison approached the Japanese and formally surrendered at the Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong.

Aftermath of the Battle

Subsequently known as "Black Christmas," the surrender of Hong Kong cost the British around 9,500 captured as well as 2,113 killed/missing and 2,300 wounded during the battle. Japanese casualties in the fighting numbered 1,996 killed and around 6,000 wounded. Taking possession of the colony, the Japanese would occupy Hong Kong for the remainder of the war. During this time, the Japanese occupiers terrorized the local population. In the wake of the victory at Hong Kong, Japanese forces embarked on a string of victories in Southeast Asia which culminated with the capture of Singapore on February 15, 1942.​

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Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Hong Kong - World War II." ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-hong-kong-2361469. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, July 6). The Battle of Hong Kong - World War II. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-hong-kong-2361469 Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Hong Kong - World War II." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-hong-kong-2361469 (accessed November 21, 2017).