British in Hong Kong WWII

August-September 1945 – Emaciated internee, Miss Wendy Rossini, at Stanley Civil Internment Camp in Hong Kong, photographed after liberation in 1945 and showing the small quantity of rice and stew which served as rations for five people.

The fall and winter of 1941 was a critical period of the war marked by a series of devastating Allied defeats in the Far East, but the exception occurred in China. Despite the strongest Japanese efforts, the Chinese army did not break, and indirect support for the Soviet Far East was maintained when the Allied situation was most dire. The attack on Hong Kong and the third battle of Changsha were elements of the same Japanese operational plan, and partly because of their victory in Hunan, the Chinese were able to continue the war at a time when their morale was greatly undermined. In attacking Changsha, Japanese commanders wanted to demonstrate China’s worthlessness as an ally, but the opposite effect was produced. The Japanese lacked sufficient troops to achieve a military victory, and once the Pacific war began, this problem did not improve. Although the Chinese had many difficulties to contend with, the army was sufficiently strong to maintain a defense of the country. What they still required, however, was artillery. The third battle of Changsha demonstrated that even with limited firepower, the Chinese army was capable of defending some strategically important regions of the country virtually unaided. The victory at Changsha boosted Chinese morale, and even after the fall of Burma, they still expected that material shortages could be made up when America entered the war. Chinese faith rested on President Franklin Roosevelt’s assurance of continued American aid. During the battles for Changsha, the Chinese evinced an ability to defend themselves, and Chiang’s strategy of trading space for time appeared to be validated.

For the Japanese, Hong Kong was a hollow victory spawned by a disastrously ineffective grand strategy. Success in Burma and Hong Kong made the Japanese army appear invincible for a time, but events in southern China ultimately made the Japanese situation worse. By attacking Hawaii as well as Hong Kong and Malaya, the Japanese started a suicidal war against the United States and Great Britain. The offensive into the southwest Pacific during December 1941 was one of the greatest strategic mistakes made by the Axis during the entire conflict, and according to Evan Mawdsley, Hitler later greatly regretted his encouragement of this Japanese action. Instead of striking south, the Japanese would have been better off either coming to terms with Chiang or attacking the Soviet Union. Many factors combined to bring about their fateful decision, and of these, the escalation of violence and Allied intervention in the Pearl River Delta was an important one that indicated time was running short. The addition of Canadian troops in November contributed to this problem. Hong Kong was a growing impediment to Japanese plans, and because of this, the colony became one of the first points of attack at the start of the Pacific war. After the battle of Midway in June 1942, the Empire of Japan would be destroyed, largely by U.S. forces, in a little over three years’ time, but China served as the noose.

Defeats in Hong Kong, Burma, and Malaya were also disastrous to the British. The loss of prestige associated with these campaigns brought Britain’s military role in China to an end. Sino-British military cooperation in the form of Detachment 204 and the China Commando Group did not survive the death of Major General Dennys. The general was appointed GOC China after the battle of Hong Kong, but he was killed in a CNAC plane crash after leaving Kunming on 14 February 1942. Having had a positive working relationship with Chiang, Dennys might have been able to maintain better Sino-British relations and keep Detachment 204 operational, but this remains speculative.

British Far Eastern strategy would have been more effective if they had cooperated closely with the Chinese army or recruited large numbers of colonial Chinese soldiers to bolster the defense of Hong Kong. A prolonged battle of attrition in the Pearl River Delta would have tied up Japanese units and replacements that were badly needed farther south. However, given enough time and persistence, and even if the Hong Kong garrison had been relieved, Japanese naval and airpower advantages eventually would have reduced the defenders sufficiently to bring about the fall of the colony. In any case, in the absence of greater cooperation with China, Hong Kong should have been demilitarized at an earlier date. If the New Territories were not worth buying in 1938–1939, Hong Kong was not worth defending in 1941.

The expansion of the war made the reduction of British global power a certainty. American entry into the conflict virtually ensured an Allied victory, but this came at British expense, both financially and imperially. During the postwar period, the British Empire would greatly diminish as one colony after another secured its independence. Decolonization would have been likely in any event, but an irony of the battle of Hong Kong was the return of the colony to British control in 1945. British credibility had been badly damaged in 1941–1942, but if Hong Kong had not been defended, it is doubtful that the Union Jack would have been hoisted there again. Ultimately, burgeoning Cold War realities emerged to encourage such an event to transpire.

Also contributing to this outcome were the activities of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), the only British military unit permitted to operate in China throughout the rest of the war. The BAAG, under the command of Colonel Lindsay Ride, was headquartered in Kweilin but had a base at Waichow. The colonel was a medical professor at the University of Hong Kong, and he was one of the first prisoners of war to escape Japanese captivity. The BAAG was originally established to assist other escaping prisoners, and throughout the war it maintained positive relations with the people of Kwangtung. Because of the need to cooperate with the communist East River Brigade (ERB), friction with the Chinese army was common, but the BAAG soon evolved into an intelligence unit assisting General Chennault’s 14th Air Force based in Kunming, and it was allowed to continue its work.

A major beneficiary of the battle of Hong Kong and the war in China in general was the Chinese Communist Party. Following the battle and the subsequent withdrawal of the 38th Division, few Japanese troops remained in Hong Kong. The Chinese army maintained the 187th Division at its base in Waichow under the command of General Chan Kee, but Tamshui marked the farthest extent of central governmental authority south toward Hong Kong. The resulting power vacuum in the New Territories was filled by the ERB, which moved in from its base farther to the northeast. Some British and American military intelligence officers working in southern China believed that this expansion had been planned prior to the start of the battle. Most of the ERB’s weapons were of British origin, and Major Kendall was the officer in contact with the ERB commander Tsang Shang. The ERB enjoyed considerable popular support in the New Territories, as many in the region sought to join in order to defend their families and homes during the rest of the war.

The third battle for Changsha also effectively ended Soviet military aid to the Chinese central government, but Soviet Far Eastern security was maintained for the duration of the war, even as China became an American sphere of interest. Hard-pressed against the Germans, the Soviets could not spare resources for the Far East. Only a year after being sent to Chungking, General Vasilii Chuikov’s mission to China was terminated, and he was ordered to return home in February 1942. Over the following winter, Chuikov became famous for his role in the defense of Stalingrad. In his memoirs he explained the primary rationale for the withdrawal of Soviet support: quite simply, he had completed his mission. The Soviet Far East was secure.

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