Escape from Hong Kong

A Canadian's revealing account of the heroic last days in Hong Kong and a daring flight to freedom

C. E. ROSS June 15 1942

Escape from Hong Kong

A Canadian's revealing account of the heroic last days in Hong Kong and a daring flight to freedom

C. E. ROSS June 15 1942

Escape from Hong Kong

A Canadian's revealing account of the heroic last days in Hong Kong and a daring flight to freedom


C. E. “Ted” Ross was born in Winnipeg twentynine years ago. He joined the C.P.R. in Vancouver in 1929, was sent to Shanghai in 1936 and transferred to the Hong Kong office four years later. When the Empress liners were removed from the Oriental service due to the war he was granted leave of absence and joined the British Ministry of Information staff. This story of the last tragic but courageous days in Hong Kong from Dec. 8 to the surrender on Christmas Day, and of his thrilling escape with a small party of officials from Hong Kong toChungking, Maclean’s presents just as Ted Ross set it down in a long letter to his mother, written as he waited for a plane that was to carry him from Chungking to Calcutta. In order to publish this gripping tale of war adventure in its entirety, Maclean’s offers it in three parts, of which this is the first.—The Editor.

WELL, HERE I am at last, away up in Chungking, China’s war capital; and believe me, I’ve just been through the greatest adventures of my life—and there’s still more to come. If all goes well I’m off to Calcutta tomorrow night by plane, so must get some part of my story into the mail and on the way to you.

It seems so far back now, back to December 8, the date of the outbreak of war in the Pacific, and so far as I’m directly concerned—Hong Kong. It has probably changed my whole life (and that of many thousands of others, for that matter).

I’ve often wondered if my last letter written about the beginning of December ever reached you. I sent it air mail, and enclosed a little Christmas gift for you both. Do so hope it arrived. Also did you get my two cables? One sent from Hong Kong about the middle of the fight, and the other from Waichow (first point in Free China we reached that had a wireless station). Hope you got them both, especially the last one, as it cost me four hundred dollars.

Mac and I (Davis MacDougall, he was my boss in the Ministry of Information in Hong Kong,) made for the wireless station just as soon as we found out where it was, dashed off a cable each (incidentally Mac’s wife and child are in Vancouver, too-—he

evacuated them to Canada from Hong Kong long before the trouble) and when we got the bills later wc almost collapsed. Of course we had nothing like that amount with us and had to borrow from the Admiral. Anyway we were feeling so good to be alive and free once more, we’d have spent many hundreds more at that time just to let the world know about it.

Well, I’d better start at the beginning. Shortly after five on the morning of the eighth I was awakened by a phone call from the Defense Secretary. He said things looked mighty serious and to get down to the office as quickly as possible. I got in touch with Mac and started into town. It was a beautiful morning, and the drive in from Repulse Bay just like any one of a hundred similar drives I’d made since moving out there, except I was stopped every once in a while by sentries posted along the road.

Nothing happened for a while after we arrived at the office until a force of about thirty Japanese planes appeared over Kai Tak, our one and only airfield, on the Kowloon (mainland) side. They got quite a few of our planes on the ground. Mostly big passenger planes owned by the C.N.A.C. and Eurasia passenger and freight plane services. Also a couple of our military reconnaissance planes—we had only three all told. We had no fighters or bombers. Well, that started it, and from then until our surrender at 3.15 p.m. Christmas Day seems just like a dream now.

There were an estimated million and a half Chinese (civil population) on the Island, in addition to approximately twenty-five thousand Europeans, mostly British. Our job was to keep them informed of the military position. To that end we had to see to it, as far as possible, that all English and Chinese newspapers kept publishing. We made three trips a day up to Battle Headquarters for official communiques. These were passed to the press, in addition to a multitude of notices that were required to be promulgated as necessity arose. These notices covered everything from warnings not to drink water unless it was boiled first, to appeals for warm clothing for Kowloon evacuees; and from instructions covering air raid precautions to appeals to the populace to remain calm and not to listen to rumors and scaremongering.

There was a large and very active fifth column operating. They spotted our gun positions and troop concentrations and flashed information across to the Japs, but worse than that they were active disseminating alarmist propaganda and false rumors. We had to combat them by newspaper, radio talks, leaflets, posters and having our own counter-rumormongers mingling with the crowds in air raid tunnels and shelters. It was a great game, and with the valuable aid of pro-Chungking organizations and volunteer Chinese writers and translators, we definitely won out. Rumor had it that at least three times those on our side discovered the secret meeting places of the fifth columnists at the eleventh hour, and went in with hand grenades and Tommy guns, mowing down as many as four hundred in one raid. However, I can’t commit myself to paper, but will be able to give you real facts someday, when I get back home.

Battle Headquarters was a splendidly built string of military offices about, eighty-five feet underground, having its own power plant, telephone system, etc., so when eventually our'lights went, headquarters carried on unhindered. It felt so safe and secure away down there, but going and coming three times a day was no joke. The naval yard was just below and there were gun batteries above, so there was usually quite a hail of fire to go through.

Communications Cut

THE NEWSPAPERS, both English and Chinese, worked marvellously. When the power went, on December 18, they turned out their editions by hand press, and on one occasion an English newspaper editor ran over to our office when his hand presses were knocked out and got out a last edition on our mimeograph machine. Right up to the last day there were three English newspapers and about five or six Chinese newspapers still publishing.

Mind you, due to severance of all outside communication, and with the power gone so that we couldn’t even get radio news broadcasts, the editions of the last week were simply single sheet affairs carrying local news and special notices.

Keeping the internal situation under control was just about as urgent as the actual fighting. If ever those million civilians became restless and got out of hand the military position would have been hopeless. Fifth columnists were actually sniping with pistols and rifles from the upper stories of downtown buildings, but not to any great extent. It was their job to create as much disturbance as possible, and to aid them the Japs kept flooding the place with antiforeign leaflets from the air. They also set up loudspeakers on the Kowloon shore, and on boats moving up and down the harbor at night, exhorting the Chinese and Indians to turn against the Europeans. Also telling the Canadians to lay down their arms and they would be well treated.

The Japs have a funny mentality. Do you know, for several nights they played gramophone records of all the old tunes (Home Sweet Home, Swanee River, etc.) in an apparent effort to make the troops feel homesick, and perhaps give up the fight. It was, of course, all to no avail. Most of their propaganda was directed to the Indians to “throw off the foreign yoke’’; but, by golly, the Indians fought magnificently, never conceding a single inch. It was an interesting fact that no propaganda was directed against America, or the Americans in the colony. Apparently all their plans had been formulated months ago, and their leaflets, etc., printed ahead of time. Their intention to attack America seems to have been conceived later.

The Japs broke through on the Kowloon side much quicker than had been expected, and we had to withdraw all troops to the Island by the morning of the twelfth. The invaders fought very well indeed and appeared to follow a well-formulated plan. Their numbers were estimated at 45,000 men with a further division in reserve. We numbered less than 12,000, made up of British regiments, Indians, Canadians, local volunteers, and Chinese sappers. Our actual strength was made up of roughly a regiment of Royal Scots, a regiment of the Middlesex, a regiment of Punjabis, a regiment of Rajputanas, two Canadian regiments, and the balance local British, Eurasian and Chinese volunteers.

We were quite well armed, but were not strong enough in field artillery and light mortars. They, on the other hand, appeared to have many more light field pieces, and certainly had far greater numbers of mortars, than would usually be included in the number of infantry divisions they were using. Their heavy armament was strong also, mostly six inch, and some nine point twos. They, of course, had complete control of the air. Our anti-aircraft defense was weak, but we managed to bring down seven of their planes for certain, and a number more probables.

I understand a large order for more anti-aircraft guns for our defense was placed many months ago, especially for quick firing Bofors. They were on the way at the time of the retreat from Greece and were,' immediately diverted for the defense of Crete; and practically everything there was lost. A second order for us was immediately placed, but was sunk on the way out; and a third order never had time to arrive away out here. The same applied to light artillery and mortars.

As I see it, the Japanese had a reasonably simple problem before them. They knew the number and exact positions of all our huge, fixed defense guns. They knew the exact strength of the garrison, position of pillboxes, etc. And they knew the huge problem we had on our hands housing and feeding the large civilian population. It was simply a military problem of how many guns of each calibre to bring up to overcome ours, how much light artillery, mortars, etc., and how many men. Then add twenty-five per cent to take care of any unforeseen emergencies, and it was difficult for them to fail. They had control of the sea, and knew we could get no reinforcements, either of men or material. As fast as we knocked out their gun

positions they replaced them, but as they knocked out ours, we had no replacements.

Finally our remaining forces, depleted by heavy casualties, were almost fighting in their sleep. After seventeen days of continuous conflict, their physical exhaustion was something that could not be overcome without large reserves, of which we had none. The Japs, on the other hand, kept bringing up their fresh reserves. The end was inevitable.

Kowloon Line Breaks

THE FIRST two days passed reasonably quietly.

We made no attempt, according to plan, to hold a line out on the border; but slowly and steadily withdrew to prepared positions in the hills beyond Kowloon. Our company of Chinese sappers did very good work with their demolitions. Roads and the railway line were blown up and blocked, railway tunnels blown in, and all bridges demolished. The Japs were then forced to come over the hills, dragging their equipment with them. There was very little fighting during those two days, beyond skirmishing between their advanced patrols and our rear guard.

It was generally believed we could hold that line behind Kowloon for some weeks; but by a very heavy night attack on the Castlepeak flank, they

turned the line, and began to filter in behind our positions. That made the whole line untenable, and immediate evacuation to the Island was inevitable . . . (Three lines censored.) . . . Their officers were ÍE the thick of it all the time, and suffered very heavy casualties, losing twenty-three out of thirty oücers in one group. The Royal Scots, the Indians, and the Hong Kong Volunteers were fighting on the mainland, keeping the Middlesex and the Canadians on the Island in reserve and to ward off any a:tempted landings. The Volunteers did very well, and suffered practically no casualties in that mainland fighting. The Indians fought magnificently throughout.

All troops were evacuated from the Kowloon side by the morning of the twelfth, except for a small group of Indians holding out at Devil’s Peak. That’s opposite Lymun, the entrance to the harbor. The essential services (medical and nursing staffs, food control staffs, air raid precautions staffs, etc.) uere recalled on the afternoon of the eleventh. A Urge number of the medical and nursing staffs (many of them women, and some with husbands on tie Island) refused to leave, and remained at their posts until the Japs arrived.

This created a particularly good impression among the Chinese, who at first were inclined to be critical about the way in which the evacuation

was carried out. You must understand it would have created an impossible situation had all the thousands upon thousands of Chinese living on the Kowloon side been allowed to cross over to the Island. The housing, feeding, and sanitary problems then would have been beyond control.

That night (Dec. 11-12) was an ugly one for Kowloon dwellers. The fifth column was well organized, and they did all in their power to create disturbances. Automobile barricades were thrown across the streets, and gangs of hoodlums, many of them armed, roamed the streets, looting shops, smashing windows. One chap I met later on the Hong Kong side described his own little getaway. He and his wife jumped in their car in an attempt to get down to the Star Ferry. (The ferries, both passenger and vehicular, were plying back and forth full blast.) They spotted another foreigner walking in that direction and picked him up, and a few minutes later came up against a barricade of cars thrown right across Nathan Road.

Slowing down, they suddenly climbed over the sidewalk and got around the end, but a number of hoodlums sprang onto the running boards. While the man driving was trying to fight them off and keep the car going at the same time, the chap they had picked up produced a pistol and shot four in quick succession, the rest scrambling for safety. It

was a lucky thing for them they had delayed their dash just long enough to pick up that fellow. On the whole, however, the damage was not extensive, and those people smart enough to lock up their doors and stay out of sight were okay. The following morning the Japs took over, and things quietened down.

The last group of Indians fighting the rear guard action through the streets, were stranded on the Star Ferry wharf after the last vessel had left. They calmly set up their machine guns on the wharf, and kept hoodlums and Japs off all the rest of the night. In the early morning light, as soon as it was realized they were cut off, a ferry made a dash over. The Indians scrambled aboard, setting their guns up on the stern, and as the Japs swarmed over the jetty they let them have it point blank with their machine guns. The ferry got back with hardly a casualty aboard. A few more Indians, cut off in the hills and streets, filtered through on their own, and at intervals all during that day they climbed out of the water on the Hong Kong side, having swum right across the harbor.

Another group of Indians were purposely left to hold Devil’s Peak. The Japs were quick to realize they were isolated and organized strong attacks on their position all that day of the twelfth. The

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Indians were well supplied with machine guns, Tommy guns, and ammunition and inflicted very heavy casualties on the Japs. Under cover of darkness the following night, a boat was sent over and the entire Indian garrison was successfully taken off, with the loss of only two men. Instances like these knocked the Jap propaganda directed to the Indians into a cocked hat. The Japs kept on about throwing off the “foreign yoke,” and joining their “co-prosperity sphere,” but the Indians had no time for them at all. In fact, it was evident throughout just how much they despised the Japanese.

In the long run, those left on the Kowloon side were relatively much safer than those on the island. We were subjected to heavy fire of ail kinds, including continuous air bombings, whereas they received very light fire, if any. We were after only the Japanese gun positions, and these were mainly hidden in the bush of the hilis just back of Kowloon. All Kowloon residents were warned again and again over the radio to keep away from Japanese gun positions, and away from the water front as we were forced to fire where necessary. They apparently did, and civilian casualties over there were practically nil.

Unceasing Air Raids

WHEN Kowloon fell so quickly our goose was pretty well cooked. With their planes and fifth columnists spotting our gun positions they began systematically to bomb and shell them out. There were planes overhead every day. Sometimes the raids were for the purpose of dropping propaganda leaflets only. The air raid signals went continuously, and during the last week people took very little notice of them. In fact just about all of the last week the power was off, and the big electric sirens couldn’t be used. One would hear a weak, squeaky siren signal coming from somewhere, but it became impossible to tell whether it was another raid warning or the all clear. The Jap planes were based so near that only a few minutes warning was possible.

The dozens of air raid tunnels burrowed into the hills in and all around the city were crowded with Chinese, but I never did see a foreigner going into one. Practically all the top few floors of the taller buildings were evacuated, and the work was carried on in comparative safety in the lower floors. On the third day we moved from our offices in the Hong Kong Bank building over to our distribution office in the Gloucester Hotel. Our office there was on the third floor, with another five floors overhead, so we were reasonably safe. It was also convenient as it was a converted hotel room with bathroom and bedding. The last two weeks we worked and slept in the office.

In all fairness it must be admitted,

apart from one day, the Japs confined their fire as much as possible to military objectives. In addition to armed positions these included the naval dockyard, all main roads, government house, the police station. The day after the evacuation of Kowloon they sent a peace mission across under the white flag to ask our surrender. They brought two British women with them, and when questioned they stated so far they had been quite well treated and were confined to the Peninsula Hotel.

When their peace offer was rejected they pushed off, and the next day (or the day after that, I forget which) they simply cut loose point-blank with everything they had. This appeared to be the only intentional indiscriminate firing, and was intended to scare us into an early surrender. Shells and bombs fell everywhere. You’ll remember several of the places hit, mum. The Hong Kong Bank received several hits. We had three heavy shells in the Gloucester, one right on our third floor. It was a big baby, looked about nine point two, but fortunately for us it didn’t explode. Just plow-ed through the outer stone wall and penetrated a couple of rooms. The C.P.R. had all the tops smashed off the desks and the windows shattered, but wasn’t too badly damaged. As a matter of fact it was amazing how little real damage was caused. The calibre of the aerial bombs appeared comparatively small — about 250 pounds.

The police station was badly smashed up, and darned if they didn’t move into the ground floor of the Gloucester. I didn’t like the look of that, knowing the Japs were after them; but apart from those three hits, and one incendiary bomb that landed on the roof, the Gloucester wasn’t hit further. Glass and debris littered all the main streets, but none were completely blocked.

At noon a dead calm settled down, and in the afternoon a second peace mission came over. This time the Governor refused to have any dealings with them, and when they returned the siege started in earnest. They systematically pounded away at our gun positions, and their planes dive-bombed the dickens out of them. Our big siege guns were well protected by heavy concrete emplacements and stood a good deal of pounding. For this reason casualties among the gun crews were comparatively light, as their plotting rooms, etc., were quite well protected. However, one by one, our guns were being knocked out.

We, in turn, plastered the devil out of their batteries, silencing as many as seven in a day. Silencing doesn’t necessarily mean directly knocked out. It may be our shells were dropping all around and made it too hot for the Japs to remain in that particular position longer.

The enemy made their first landing on the Island during the night of Dec. 17-18, and when we failed to force them off the following day, it was fairly certain the jig was up. They laid down a heavy barrage all the previous day, and on into the night, knocking out all our pillboxes along the shore in the North Point

area, and blasting our strong points just behind. Then, either by luck or intentionally, some shells set fire to a large oil dump near the water front. The wind was blowing down the harbor, and the dense, billowy, black smoke from the burning oil tanks made a very effective screen. This screen, together with the darkness of the night and their heavy covering fire, enabled them to get a foothold.

How many they got across that night is not known, but there must have been a considerable number. Dozens of small groups of about ten men each quickly filtered through the streets into the hills behind and set up strong machine gun and trench mortar positions. When we counterattacked early the next morning along the sea front to attempt to clear the Jap bridgehead, these hidden positions in the hills above proved very effective, and were, to a large extent, I think, responsible for the failure of our attack. During the following night the Japs simply poured across by the thousand. They must have suffered severely as we had every gun we could fire blasting away at them; but in the dark of night it was difficult to tell just howeffective our fire was.

The power station went out on Dec. 18, and we had to carry on by candle light after that. Then the water mains were smashed, and the large reservoirs captured, and water became very scarce and dangerous to drink. Long unused wells under some of the downtown buildings were brought back into use, but the water was salty and brackish. We worked and slept in the office.

With the Japs advancing into the city from the east, “Ted” Ross and his department chief, Davis MacDougall, raced out of the west end by car and joined other officials and naval volunteers in a “crazy attempt” to leave the island in a slow motor launch by broad daylight, amid a hail of Japanese bullets. The story of their escape will be recounted in the July 1 and July 15 issues of Maclean’s.

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