Admiral Harcourt arrives in Hong Kong

Shows the light cruiser HMS Swiftsure, flagship of Admiral Cecil Harcourt’s British Pacific Fleet in the harbour with the Japanese War Memorial atop Mt Cameron.

The suddenness of the Japanese capitulation on 14 August brought to the surface with a vengeance the fears and recriminations which had plagued Hong Kong during wartime. Although British plans to attach civil affairs planners to Chinese Nationalist forces were defunct as Operation Carbonado was cancelled, London moved swiftly to reassert its sovereignty over the colony. On 11 August the joint Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff were informed that Britain considered `it of paramount political importance that we should, at the earliest possible moment, send a British Commonwealth force to accept the surrender of the Japanese at Hong Kong’. In response, the American Chiefs of Staff agreed to release the British Pacific Fleet back into British jurisdiction, considering that the future of Hong Kong should be arranged between the Chinese and British. The evidence for America’s real sympathies, however, remained in the small print. The American Chiefs of Staff, attempting to distance themselves from London’s reoccupation of Hong Kong, pointed out that the release of the British Pacific Fleet should `not . . . be construed as assistance to or arrangement for their intended purposes’. The British, however, were not interested in the qualifications of American policy, only in the task at hand. The Colonial Office in collaboration with the Admiralty and War Office readied a task force (codenamed Shield) from the British Pacific Fleet to steam forthwith to Hong Kong. Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt was nominated for this mission, gathering a fleet of some 24 vessels at Subic Bay in the Philippines, including two aircraft carriers, HMS Indomitable and HMS Venerable. Also assigned to the force were 3000 personnel from an RAF construction unit. Preparations, however, took time and it was not until the 27 August that Admiral Harcourt actually set sail for Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Planning Unit was also `militarised’ to command British forces and flown out to India from London and Australia in preparation for entry into the colony. Despite their isolation from diplomatic events, the Colonial Office and Foreign Office did not overlook the importance of British POWs in the colony itself. The Foreign Office told the British Embassy in Chungking that it was `a matter of the greatest importance’ that the interned Franklin Gimson, Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong pre-war, be given a message authorising him to administer the colony until Admiral Harcourt arrived. The sense of urgency within Whitehall was contagious. Trepidation at Chinese designs on Hong Kong would only be exorcised when the Union Jack was firmly planted in the colony once again.

While London and Chungking locked horns over the terms of Hong Kong’s surrender, Admiral Harcourt’s task force had arrived off the colony on 29 August. Harcourt sent a message to the Japanese informing them that a British aircraft would land at Kai Tak at a specific time and fly a Japanese envoy back to HMS Indomitable to arrange for Britain’s entry into the harbour. True to form, however, events did not go smoothly. Once again it was the intervention of Franklin Gimson which came at the crucial moment. Gimson’s colleagues had spotted the British fleet on the horizon and so Gimson asked the Japanese if any messages had been received from the boats. The Japanese replied that they had but they were unable to negotiate since they had no orders to that effect. It was at this point that Gimson insisted that the Japanese should reply affirmatively to the British radio message, allowing the British aircraft to land. The Japanese eventually agreed and a plane was landed and departed back to the fleet with a Japanese envoy and British naval Commander D. H. S. Craven. After having received detailed information from the Japanese envoy as to the location of the (American) magnetic minefields in the harbour, he was flown back to Kai Tak with instructions for the entry of the British fleet the next day. Unfortunately, this scheme also went awry. As the weather closed in, the plane got lost and crashed in the New Territories, being captured by Chinese communist guerrillas who wanted to slit the Japanese officer’s throat. After talking the guerrillas out of this course of action, the British pilot with his Japanese prisoner had to wait until the next day to be rescued.

Unable to delay, Harcourt sent Craven back to Kai Tak the following day with instructions for the Japanese on his entry into Hong Kong later that day. After moving all the Japanese into the dockyard area, the British dispatched naval ratings and Marine landing parties into the centre of the colony around midday. Although the situation remained tense, most of the Japanese remained calm. As Harcourt’s new flagship, Swiftsure, entered the harbour, Gimson

could not suppress fears that some Japanese fanatics might react to the landing of British forces. In fact, amidst the intense explosion of Chinese firecrackers, I thought I detected an ominous crackle which seemed to describe machine gun fire. However, the noise was merely that of precautionary bursts fired into cavities at the naval base which might have harboured Japanese intent on a final display of opposition before acknowledging defeat.

Japanese suicide boats – end of occupation, WW2 – Lamma Island and elsewhere.

The only drama, however, came when Hellcat fighters from Indomitable spotted Japanese suicide speedboats leaving Picnic Bay on Lamma island in the direction of the British fleet. With the bombing of the leading vessels, the remaining hundred-odd boats scattered and were beached or returned to harbour. Once established on the mainland, Harcourt quickly restored order to the war damaged and looted colony although many Chinese civilians took the opportunity to exact revenge on Japanese war criminals. Japanese using public transport were repeatedly attacked, some with hammers, while the Japanese executioner, caught in disguise, `came to an untimely end’. His name was Takiyawa and he was a notorious sadist. His fate was, perhaps, appropriate: `After the Japanese surrender he was seized, half-drowned, then lynched by a Chinese mob before being hanged, still alive, from the Star Ferry terminal and left to rot.’ Harcourt also had the delicate task of managing Gimson’s administration. Although tired and ill, Gimson wanted to continue the administration, subject to reinforcements from the Hong Kong Planning Unit. Perhaps he saw it as his golden opportunity to become governor of the colony. Whatever the truth of the matter, London was insistent that the POWs should be relieved for a well-deserved rest. With the arrival of David MacDougall and his staff on 7 September, a British military administration was set up with the unenviable task of tackling the postwar problems of the colony. There remained one last episode to complete Britain’s return to Hong Kong: the local surrender of the colony.

Securing the surrender of the colony on their terms, the British decided they could act with a degree of magnanimity towards the Chinese over the date for the signing of the surrender document. Sterndale Bennett suggested that `on general grounds and for the particular reasons connected with our commercial interests in China itself’, it was desirable to sign the Japanese surrender of Hong Kong after the surrender in China, which was planned to take place at Nanking. Even so, the Foreign Office remained suspicious in victory of Chinese aims. Sterndale Bennett thought that:

It is possible that Chiang Kai-shek’s attitude over the surrender in Hong Kong is not merely a question of immediate prestige, but is designed to give the Generalissimo a basis for maintaining after the surrender in Hong Kong, that he must continue to direct and supervise the implementation of that surrender.

It is conceivable that the surrender document at Nanking may contain provisions relating to Hong Kong.

On this basis, the British military commander in China, General Hayes, who was attending the Nanking surrender, was warned to check for any surreptitious claim to Hong Kong inserted by the Chinese before he signed! Similar fears also lay behind Britain’s defiant refusal to sign a written agreement with the Chinese for the transhipment of their troops through the colony. While London was happy to help with the transport of Chinese soldiers to northern China to fight the communists, Britain would stipulate the conditions as she saw fit.

Agreeing to delay the Hong Kong surrender until after the Nanking ceremony, however, proved once again a frustrating experience for the British. The Chinese surrender was continually postponed by what Harcourt characterised as `Chinese incompetence’. Fed up with this state of affairs, he pressed London to sign at will but was asked not to sign without approval. After keeping his American and Chinese representatives as guests for a whole week, Admiral Harcourt at long last signed the surrender of Hong Kong on 16 September: `In the evening there was a searchlight and fireworks display by the Fleet which was excellent and greatly delighted the local population.’ Hong Kong was again a British colony.