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The WWII Story Canadians Don't Know


Army.ca Legend
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On Remembrance Day Canadians will honour those who fought for our freedom in the great wars, and pay tribute to their bravery and courage. This year, Nathan M. Greenfield is fighting to recognize one group of soldiers whose courageous efforts in World War II have been largely unknown to Canadians. In The Damned Greenfield tells the story of Canada's first land battle in the Second World War, the Battle of Hong Kong, and how the Canadians captured in battle survived over three years in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.

The Canadians at the Battle for Hong Kong and the POW Experience, 1941–45

            On 8 December 1941, planes bombed and strafed Hong Kong, and almost two thousand Canadian soldiers who had been sent to bolster the 13,000-man British garrison only a few weeks earlier found themselves at war with the Empire of Japan.  As bombs exploded around him, seventeen-year-old Rifleman Bill MacWhirter watched in horror as bullets cut a Chinese man in two.  British generals believed they'd be able to hold the Japanese on the mainland of the colony for at least a week; they held them  just over a day. Over the next week, shelling and bombings killed hundreds of the more than 1.5 million Chinese on Hong Kong Island.  The family of Adrienne Poy, who grew up to become Adrienne Clarkson, our 26th Governor General, and that of Vivienne Poy (née Lee), who grew up to become a Toronto senator and Clarkson's sister-in-law, survived.

The Battle for Hong Kong Island

            To the surprise of the British generals, the Japanese crossed the mile-wide bay near midnight on 18 December, and after cutting through a line of pillboxes, ran straight into elements of the Quebec-based Royal Rifles of Canada, manning positions on the northwest quadrant of the island.  Days of desperate fighting - bayonet charges and attacks on barren hills undertaken without promised artillery support - could barely slow the relentless advance down the east side of the island.  Rifleman Jean-Paul Dallain spent the afternoon of 22 December hugging the ground on Stanley Mound. He knew that any explosion he could hear would not turn him into "pink mist," as had happened to Rifleman Little Jo Fitzpatrick a day earlier.

              Toward dusk, "Smitty" Smith told Dallain that he was going to get the cigarettes he had left in his kit a short distance away. "Smitty got up on his haunches to have a better look ahead. A second later he fell just dead as they come," recalls Dallain, who, along with his comrades, was forced to withdraw south toward Stanley not long after.

            It never occurred to Dallain or any other rifleman that their brigadier, Cedric Wallis, a career British officer, would accuse them in his war diary of what amounted to dereliction of duty and  cowardice in the face of the enemy, or that he would decide against having their Canadian commander, Lieutenant-Colonel William Home, shot for staging "a bloodless mutiny" because doing so would require the shooting of other Canadian officers, all because Home had implored Wallis to pull the badly depleted and exhausted Rifles back to defensive positions.  Veterans like Dallain and Sergeant Major George MacDonell, who led a successful attack on a Japanese gun emplacement on 20 December, bristle at Wallis's accusation that in the middle of the battle, "The men would wander off and pick up anything they fancied. Far too many slunk off to the rear . . . and were out of battle positions for long times."  MacDonell, who, on Wallis's orders, led the doomed Christmas Day attack north of Stanley, rejects Wallis's criticism that the Canadians erred by attacking over open ground; there was no other way to reach their objective - aptly, a cemetery. Of the 120 men who attacked, only 19 remained who were neither killed, wounded or missing.

            While Colonel Tanaka's men pushed south, colonels Shoji and Doi's men pushed west.  Within hours of landing, they'd taken Jardine's Lookout, Mounts Butler and Nicholson (high points the British generals had neglected to garrison), and the Wong Nei Chong Gap, effectively cutting the island in two. Winnipeg Grenadiers died in all these places; Brigadier General Lawson perished in the gap.  On the Lookout, Grenadier Tom Marsh miraculously survived the explosion that killed Lieutenant George Birkett and other men he'd gathered around a pillbox.  Sergeant-Major John Osborn earned Canada's first Victoria Cross of the Second World War when he threw himself on a grenade as his platoon ran for their lives from a vastly superior force on Mount Butler.


            By the time the garrison surrendered on Christmas Day, the Japanese had already committed numerous war crimes - raping and killing British and Chinese nurses, bayoneting wounded soldiers on their hospital cots, killing others whose hands were raised in surrender, and burning people to death  in houses after they  had surrendered. While the Japanese did not torture or kill any Canadians immediately after the surrender, war crimes began as soon as the Canadians began falling ill from dysentery caused by the unhygienic conditions in the camps to which they were taken, camps that lacked latrines and seethed with flies that feasted on the dead bodies of animals and men.

            Men require at least 2,500 calories a day. Most days the Canadian soldiers were given fewer than 1,000; by the end of January most had lost 20 lbs.  For a few days in June 1942, the Japanese exchanged extra food for hard labour. After than the food vanished but the labour remained, accompanied by beatings. The Canadians who were later drafted to Japan as slave labourers - in shipyards, coal mines and factories (where some worked next to white-hot kilns without any protection) were also beaten.  In a POW camp in Japan, a sadistic guard forced Signalman George "Black" Verreault to do push-ups over a shovel of burning coals.

            But the most hated guard was Kanao Inouye, nicknamed the "Kamloops Kid" for the town where he'd been born.  A Japanese citizen by virtue of his father, Inouye was drafted into the Japanese Army in 1942 while studying in Japan.  He was sent to Hong Kong to be an interpreter because of his perfect English. There, he beat many soldiers.  He tied Grenadier Jim Murray to a pole, taped his mouth shut and shoved burning cigarettes up his nose. He told the Canadian soldiers, "All Canadians will be slaves as you are now! Your mothers will be killed. Your wives will be raped by our soldiers."  Inouye was executed for treason in 1947.

            One thousand nine hundred and ninety-six names are carved into the Hong Kong Memorial Wall in Ottawa.  More than 500 of these are names of men who died in battle or in the POW camps; almost 100 died from diphtheria while the Japanese refused to provide the life-saving serum looted from  captured Allied supplies. The 1976th name belongs to "Sergeant" Gander, a dog who gave his life to save a group of riflemen by picking up a Japanese grenade in his mouth and running until it exploded.

This and other links here.
Thanks for the links, and increasing awareness about this little known event. When I first moved to Asia, some 13 years ago, in Hong Kong there was little apart from the graveyards. In 2006, the Hong Kong authorities set about creating a walkabout memorial  at Wong Nai Chung Gap. It's  a most impressive spectacle, and well worth the visit.