Escape from Hong Kong

The island fortress falls and sixteen men make a desperate break for freedom under a hail of Jap fire

C. E. ROSS July 1 1942

Escape from Hong Kong

The island fortress falls and sixteen men make a desperate break for freedom under a hail of Jap fire

C. E. ROSS July 1 1942

Escape from Hong Kong

The island fortress falls and sixteen men make a desperate break for freedom under a hail of Jap fire


The first nine days of the heroic fight to try and save Hong Kong were described by C. E. Ross in the last issue of Maclean’s. The story of Hong Kong’s surrender and a “crazy attempt” to escape from the Island is here related just as Ted. Ross set it down in a letter written from Chungking to his mother, Mrs. C. W. Ross, of Vancouver The twenty-nine-year-old Canadian author, born in Winnipeg, was sent to Shanghai by the C.P.R. six years ago and later joined the British Ministry of Information in Hong Kong. —The Editor.

UP TO THE night of December seventeen I had been getting out to Repulse Bay each evening for a good night’s sleep, as it was very quiet there and comparatively free from bombing. That night, however, the Japs captured Wongneicheong Gap, the gap through which the Repulse Bay Road runs, and when I tried to get through next morning I ran into a hail of machine gun and mortar fire, and was forced back. Got to the office by going right around the south side of the Island, which was still in our hands.

All motor cars were commandeered by the Government for use by essential service workers

only. Gangs were sent around the streets to pick up all cars and drive them to car dumps, the main reason being to clear the streets for essential traffic, and secondly so that those authorized to drive could go to the dump and pick up a car. In effect, as cars were damaged by shell fire or collision, got flat tires or run-down batteries, they were simply left for wrecking crews to pick up, and the drivers went to the dump for another one.

I went down and picked myself a peach of a big new Buick Special. Boy, it was a honey. I drove it right through the siege, through streets littered with debris, broken glass and hanging trolley wires, and never even got a puncture. We used it in our final escape, and left it standing beside the wharf

intact and full of gas. Gosh, it broke my heart to leave it! We used it for everything; dashing up to headquarters three times a day for communiques, distributing leaflets and pamphlets, picking up gasoline, oil, and food supplies.

It’s funny being in a big city under siege. The large majority of people react very little. People I thought wouldn’t be worth a darn were dashing around, doing their essential work apparently with no thought of personal danger, while a few, a very few, just seemed to sit around in a trance, doing nothing. There were some who did nothing all day but sit around a table drinking and gossiping, saying how they would run the defense, but not doing a tap to help. Ninety-five per cent, though, were marvellous, and pitched in with everything they had. The calm of the civilian population (ninety-nine per cent Chinese) was remarkable.

The majority of the Chinese stuck to their A.R.P. posts, food control and other duties very well indeed, although considerable trouble was had with the Chinese truck and lorry drivers. They simply stopped their cars and beat it when the shelling was heavy, usually taking the keys with them, and the majority of them didn’t return. We

were urgently appealing for foreign truck drivers, men and women, all the time. There was so much trucking to be done, mostly military, but a great deal in handling food for feeding kitchens and distribution centres. Large food and rice stocks had to be snatched from burning warehouses and salvaged for use.

On the whole the food situation was well under control at all times. Free meals were served to an average of 100,000 Chinese a day, while those who had money could buy food in any quantity. Even after the surrender there were food stocks left for many months’ supply. Certain restaurants were kept open by the authorities where all essential workers could get a meal merely by showing a card and signing a chit. Big stores, pharmacies, etc., were ordered to remain open during certain hours so that we never had any kind of shortage. After the first few days, Chinese stalls began to appear all along the main street (on the side sheltered from shelling), and you could buy all kinds of foodstuffs there at slightly increased prices.

The Japs continued to pour men and materials across, and before long had control of the eastern half of the Island, excluding Stanley. The fighting was continuous and casualties on both sides severe. We damaged all our big guns on that part of the Island before being driven out, so that the Japs could make no use of them. ..

(Four lines censored.)

Brigadier Lawson, Commander of the Canadian contingent, was cut off with some of his staff officers in an advanced operations post, and after holding out for a couple of days they decided relief could not possibly get through, so tried to make a dash for it. Only two got through, and they were wounded. It is believed the Brigadier was killed.

Repulse Bay Hotel had quite an exciting time. The Japs finally surrounded it, and we had a motley gang of volunteers, Canadians, Indians and I don’t know who else trying to hold it. As our men were cut off up in the hills a good many of them filtered down to the hotel and finally formed quite a garrison. Unfortunately a large number of women and children had taken refuge there, so it was impossible to make a last ditch stand. The women and kids were put down in a shelter under the hotel, however, and the troops hung on as long as they could.

The Japs scrambled down the hillsides, and climbed through the windows. Our fellows cleaned them up with hand grenades and Tommy guns. During one of the first dark nights, when they realized the Japs were trying to get down the hillside, they fired flaming arrows into the bush and started fires so they could see the Japs coming. My room was on the ground floor right up against the hillside, so I’m afraid there was nothing left of all my stuff. The Japs slunk down to the windows and heaved hand grenades in, blasting

down the doors, so my poor old radio, typewriter, clothes and everything must have been blown to bits. I had given them up for lost long before anyway.

Five to One

BY THE twenty-fourth things looked pretty well hopeless. The Japs had landed an estimated twenty-five thousand troops on the Island, and our defenders, pitifully reduced by casualties, were nearly dead on their feet. It’simpossibleto tell, butwe probably had about five thousand men left to meet the twenty-five thousand fresh Japanese. Surrender seemed inevitable. Mac (Davis MacDougall, my boss in the Ministry of Information) and I talked it over and decided to prepare for a break if an opportunity presented itself after the surrender was final.

We carried on the work right up to the last minute and in the meantime prepared a couple of well-stocked packs. I was driving from headquarters one afternoon and noticed that one of the army stores had been hit and evacuated so stopped a moment, dashed in and picked out two brandnew army knapsacks. We filled these with a change of underwear, socks, razor, toothbrush, and as much concentrated vitamin food and chocolate as we could cram in—enough to keep us going a couple of weeks once we got into the country and could get a little rice.

The big problem was how to get off the Island, and where to land if we did manage to get off. The Japs had complete control of the water, as our poor little navy had been shattered. They also had a few troops placed on near-by islands, and held the mainland for a depth of about thirty miles. Beyond that were pro-Japanese puppet troops, and scattered here and there were bands of proChungking guerillas—the latter on our side if we could find and convince them we were friends of Free China. We at first decided to risk a journey at night in my canvas canoe to any place off the Island of Hong Kong where we could hole up for a day or so, and have a look around. But the Japs captured Repulse Bay and we couldn’t get the canoe.

Then we contacted some daring Chinese junkmen and made tentative plans to have them smuggle us out at a thousand dollars a head. This plan failed because we couldn’t leave until after the surrender (above all, we couldn’t leave our work so long as the fight was still on). The junks couldn’t hang around waiting indefinitely as the Japs were capturing one place after another along the coast line, and we could give them no indication when or where we’d be when the white flag went up.

Finally we decided to hide in the hills of the Island until dark, then sneak down to Deepwater Bay, find a sampan, or as a last resort swim out to the Yacht Club, grab a club rowing boat (if there were any still intact) and row out to any

island as far away as we could paddle. It should be mentioned here that the Jap Navy apparently had every respect for our big guns, as only on one occasion did one of their ships get within range, a light cruiser. We hit it with the first salvo, and she steamed away with dense smoke pouring from her. We were, therefore, never subjected to any naval bombardment. Our danger in trying to get away by canoe or small boat would be from fire from the shore, or from Jap armed launches.

Our problem of how to make a getaway was finally solved (so we thought) when we learned that one of our few remaining motor torpedo boats had orders to stand by just before the surrender and take off some high Chinese officials in an attempt to dash to the safety of the China coast to the north. The order to leave had to be given before the surrender, as, apparently, according to military procedure, once the surrender order was given, if it were an unconditional surrender such as ours, all property immediately became that of the victor.

How, then, were we going to contact the boat when we could only leave the centre of the city some time after the surrender? Well, we decided to take the chance that the boat would still wait a while. In other words, the order from headquarters to go would be given, but the commander of the launch could use his own discretion after that.

At 3.15 p.m. Christmas Day the cease-fire order was given. That had been a terrible day for the last remnants of defenders. The Middlesex had been ordered to hold the streets leading into the centre of the city from the racecourse. The street fighting was intense, and the Jap casualties heavy. By sheer weight of numbers they finally overran our troops, and I’m afraid our casualties during those last few hours must have been very heavy.

To those essential workers and civilians carrying on in town, it must have seemed just like any of the preceding days. I believe very few realized the end had come. Of course Mac and I, being in constant touch with headquarters, knew it was coming fast. We got in touch with the Colonial Secretary and asked to be released from duty after the surrender was final. (We didn’t want to make our break, and be called deserters at some later date.) He gave his sanction and wished us the best of luck. We were then in the clear, and on our own. We stayed around the office cleaning up the last few things, telling the Chinese staff to clear off home and stay indoors for the next day or two until the situation stabilized a little.

My thoughts strayed back to the night before— Christmas Eve. We had had dinner with some of our Chinese friends, those we had been working very closely with throughout the siege. It was a queer little celebration by candlelight in the hallway of the fourth floor of the Gloucester. I had managed to buy a small tinned Christmas pudding, someone else had brought some Christmas sweets, and we

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could still buy drinks from the hotel.

J ust as we were about to sit down one of the chaps produced a paper parcel —a small roast chicken he had brought along as a surprise. Well, we had a great old dinner and enjoyed it all immensely, even though the atmosphere was strained.

You see, after dark it was almost impossible to move about on the streets. There was not a single light showing anywhere, and you were challenged every few yards. Those last two or three nights it was more than risky as the poor fellows on patrol were dead tired and were usually a little too quick on the trigger.

We had a watch kept on our telephone, and slipped upstairs for the dinner. Mac and I knew things were coming to a head fast, and without spoiling the party by blurting out bad news, we managed to convey to our Chinese friends, especially those who had worked most openly against the Japanese and would stand little chance once the Japs got their hands on them, that it would be very advisable to obtain old dirty coolie clothes next morning, and keep them handy to slip into quickly if and when the Japs should break through. I’m glad to say they nearly all heeded the advice, and Christmas Day about noon we were able to give them the tip to slip quickly into their coolie outfits and mingle with the crowds in the densely populated areas of West Point. We all went to sleep about 8.30, most of them sleeping on the floor in our office.

Flight From the City

AT A QUARTER to four we could • delay no longer. The Japs were advancing right into the centre of the city. We dashed out onto Queens’ Road, where the trusty old Buick was parked just in front of the King’s theatre. There we were joined by the party of four official Chinese (they liad not contacted the torpedo boat before the surrender, and our hopes rose that perhaps the boat would still be waiting) and five British officers who realized the jig was up and were anxious to attempt the escape with us. There was an R.A.F. Squadron Leader, an Army Major, two Captains and a Captain of Police from

India who had been caught in Hong Kong when the trouble started.

I drove the Buick with half the party and the rest followed in another car. We sped through the street out the west end of the city as the Japs poured in from the east. Tore past the Queen Mary Hospital onto the south side of the Island, and into Aberdeen. That name might gladden your heart, mum, but actually it’s a dirty little fishing village.

We couldn’t see any sign of the boat and our hearts sank. Although the white flag had been hoisted nearly an hour before, there was still heavy rifle and machine gun fire to be heard all around, and an occasional burst of artillery. Jap planes overhead were still dropping bombs. Every once in a while heavy explosions shook the island, as our troops apparently blew up ammunition and oil dumps. The fighting continued, I’m afraid, until dark, and our casualties during those last few hours must have been terrible. You see, communications had broken down badly toward the end, with so many pockets of our men being cut off and isolated, and there was no means of getting word to them that the surrender was on. In any event, the Japs, after fighting and losing heavily all day, were in no mood to stop at the sudden appearance of a white flag.

We scouted around and finally located the naval officer in charge of the harbor out there. He was surprised to see us, and said the boat had been ordered to leave more than an hour before. We hadn’t a moment to lose.

At any moment the Japs might appear along the road and cut us off. We dashed out onto a little pier and found a few naval volunteers trying to start a small launch. It had no battery or gasoline. Another chap ; and I jumped back into the Buick and j tore down to the naval store just j along the road a bit and managed to dig up a battery and sixteen gallons of gas. By the time we got back the other chaps had located a food dump and had filled the boat with water, canned food of all kinds, rifles, pistols and ammunition. We finally j got the battery and gasoline in and pushed off at a quarter to five.

It was certainly a crazy attempt.

It was a bright sunny afternoon and the ocean was as calm as a millpond; visibility was perfect and the Japs could spot us miles away. The boat was a flimsy wooden affair, with a speed of about seven miles an hour. Our party had now grown to sixteen, the extra five being naval volunteers who had been working on the boat and others who had just happened to wander along and decided to make the dash with us.

Well, we hadn’t gone much more than five or six hundred yards when we were spotted from the shore, and the Japs let fly at us with everything they had—rifles, machine guns and small shells. The bullets simply whizzed through the side of the boat as if there had been no side there at all. Several of our chaps were hit, and soon a shot put the engine out of commission. That capped it. There we were, just sitting like ducks on a pond. The machine gun bullets kept tearing in. Mac got one right through his tin hat, another cut through the sole of his shoe, and just as he was saying how close they were coming he got one right in the back.

Swim For Your Life

SOMEONE shouted,“Jump over!” and everyone started plunging into the water and swimming toward a small island about four hundred yards away. Two or three men were lying about on the bottom of the boat, and I didn’t know whether they were dead or wounded. For a moment the fire into the boat lessened somewhat as the Japs turned all their guns on the men swimming. I took a quick look over to see how far away the island was and the water was ! simply a maze of splashes where the i bullets were pouring all around the I swimmers. One man was either ! wounded or he couldn’t swim and was drowning noisily. I kept saying to myself, “Now don’t get too excited, there must be some way out of this,” and decided it was far better to pause a moment and get all my clothes off so as to swim faster.

By the intensity of the fire on the water I figured only about three or four would get through. I can remember so clearly throwing my clothes on a seat out of the oil and water in the bottom. The bullets were once again tearing through the boat and believe me, I stripped in nothing flat. The pockets of my jacket were bulging with last minute things I had tried to save, including two thousand Hong Kong dollars : I was carrying to see us through if we ever made the guerilla country.

¡ Threw my pistol off—a dandy little I 32 Colt automatic given to me by the j Assistant Police Chief just at the start of the war. Gosh, it was hard : to lose absolutely everything. As I i hit the water I can remember feeling my wrist watch, and thinking,

I “That’s the last thing I possess, now it’s ruined.”

By golly, taking my clothes off made a whale of a difference! I was one of the last off the boat, but the first to reach the island. I had such a funny outlook during all that time. Right from the moment the first bullet crashed into the boat until I was trying to get a handhold on the rocks of the island it never seemed

important to me that I might be hit. I kept thinking, gosh, these poor fellows all getting wounded in the boat, and those poor fellows swimming out there, they’ll probably drown. Only when I was about twenty odd yards from the shore did it suddenly strike me. Then something inside kept shouting, “You’ve missed everything in the boat and in the water, now wouldn’t it be awful to be hit within just a minute or two of safety.” I dived and swam as far as I could under water, and finally got to the partial shelter of a rock on the shore.

The Japs sprayed the rocks with machine gun fire as the survivors arrived and began to climb up. I was hit a couple of times with fragments of stone. The walls of rock were quite steep and I decided to cling on until it became dark in about another hour, and then climb over to the other side of the hill. Other fellows swam in to where I was, and after a long time Mac came floating in on his back. Can you beat it—he’s not a strong swimmer at any time, and here, fully clothed and with a pistol strapped around his waist and a bullet in his back he had successfully made the shore after half an hour in the water. He was completely exhausted and it was all I could do to help him up onto a small rocky ledge. He had tried to get his clothes off as he had almost drowned several times, but couldn’t manage in the water.

What a Christmas Day! For the first time I noticed how cold I was, and my fingers became numb and wouldn’t grip the rock I thought about you all and wondered if you were just sitting down to Christmas dinner. So many thoughts passed through my mind, but they were mostly thoughts of anger at the stupidity and futility of our suicidal attempt at escape. I cursed the luck that had joined us to this party, when Mac and I alone could have hidden in the hills until dark and had a much better chance of a successful escape.

The bullets continued to crash all

around and Mac was still partly ! exposed. The back of his coat was j covered in blood and he was cold ! and exhausted, and it was apparent he had reached the stage where he j just didn’t give a damn any longer.

I tried to pull him up a bit but there j was practically no room. Two or three times I made a half-hearted attempt to start climbing up to the top, but was so cold and miserable ! I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was worse to climb and probably get shot, or continue to shiver on the wet rocks.

Just about this time we heard a chug-chug, and peeping over I could see the dull grey lines of a motor launch. Gosh, if our hearts could fall any lower they certainly fell j then, as we thought it was a Jap j launch sent out to finish us off. We ¡ waited and waited, and I looked out j again and again and the launch seemed to be moving very slowly. Finally it turned out to be a derelict drifting in with the tide and the chug-chugging apparently came from some boat on the other side of the island.

That was enough for me. The I Jap firing had eased up a lot, and I set off up the hill, telling Mac to hang on somehow until I got back. I had nothing on but my underwear, ! and it was covered with oil from the water. A lot of boats had been sunk I or damaged around there, and there 1 was a film of oil on the surface. My feet soon became cut and bruised ¡ climbing through the rocks and undergrowth, but it wasn’t very far : to the top, and once over the crest I ran into several others of our group who had swum to another more sheltered cove. Suddenly we spotted what looked like three launches tied up in a little cove on the sheltered side of the island and, as we watched, two of them pushed off and out to sea. There was a good chance they were British, as we knew four or five of our torpedo boats had still not been sunk by the Japs. However, there was more than an even chance they were Japanese. The rest of the fellows started making their way down to investigate, and I ! dashed back to help Mac along.

It proved to be longer and slower | than I had imagined, and by the time we got back up to the top the other fellows had disappeared. Just then a Jap sniper concealed somewhere on our small island began popping away at us. We jumped from rock to rock and tried to take cover as best we could, while those darned bullets kept kicking dirt up all around us. My feet were very bruised and sore by now. However, we kept making our way down toward the boat, when suddenly it let blaze with its machine guns in the direction of the chaps who had gone ahead.

That was just about the last straw. Mac and I crouched down behind a rock freezing with the cold, feet all cut up, a sniper behind and apparently a Jap boat just below.

How the author’s partij escaped to the 'mainland and joined a band of \ Chinese guerilla fighters, who con\ ducted them through the Japanese limes, will be described by Ted Ross j in a third and final article in Maclean’s for July 15.