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This is a tale that a soldier told me many years ago when I was a younger man.
I did not think him to be a hero when he divulged an account of the battle he had fought. Neither did I consider him as special in any way. He was a chap who was always there for his family no matter what happened. As an individual, he went out to work to bring money home so that his kin might eat, drink, and enjoy the wonderful life he made for them. He was just an ordinary man really.
But as he grew older and finally declined from the evils of the war he had fought, we spoke much of the conflict before he died in peace and ascended to a Holy parade ground far above. He described a Christmas long ago and asked me to pass on the legend to my children so that they might pass it on to their family and know of his story.
The soldier described how he took command of his unit when the officer in charge committed suicide in the face of the enemy. Against overwhelming odds, the soldier fought side by side with warriors from Britain, India, Canada and China. He fought next to the Middlesex Regiment, but on the devastated blood-soaked streets, he was close to the Royal Scots, the Rajput Regiment, the Punjab Regiment, various Canadian Regiments, the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. In addition, the Royal Artillery were there and a whole host of supporting units from the British army.
They were all there to defend the people of Hong Kong.
Such soldiers of whatever creed, colour or religion fight for the rights of others at home and abroad. They fight in defence of the weak and in the interests of their nation. They engage in conflicts against terrorists, unwanted dictators, despots, and enemy forces. They fight for freedom wherever their calling takes them.
They bequeath me the writer and you the reader, the right, the privilege, and the freedom to be part of this article - for if we do not have freedom..... We have nothing....
Such great nations are born of men like this...
This is the tale of Herbert James Scougal, Company Sergeant Major, Royal Army Service Corps, 12 Hong Kong Company, China, (1941 - 1945). His army pals in that company consisted of 14 officers and 183 men. They nicknamed him ‘Darkie’, ‘Danny’ or ‘Bert’.
I called him ‘Dad’.
This is his story...
The ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in the early 1920’s coincided with the Union of Ireland Act in Great Britain and the evolvement of a home-grown terrorist group known as the Irish Republican Army. Britain’s domestic and foreign policies were further exasperated in the mid-thirties when Hitler’s dominance of German and European politics grew to an unprecedented level. Indeed, the Japanese took advantage and subsequently occupied Canton in order to effectively surround the British colony of Hong Kong. The British Government decided Hong Kong was too problematical to defend and resolved to reduce its garrison to a symbolic size. They argued that measured reinforcements might allow the garrison to delay a Japanese attack. In October, 1941, by arrangement, a Canadian contingent arrived to bolster the British force. The Canadian battalions consisted of 1,975 personnel from the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba. The Royal Rifles had only served in Newfoundland and New Brunswick prior to their duty in Hong Kong, whilst the Winnipeg Grenadiers had served in Jamaica. None of the Canadian soldiers had much combat experience. Nevertheless, the extra reinforcements signified a deterrent against the Japanese and reassured the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, that Britain was genuinely interested in defending the colony.
The British defence forces were led by Christopher Maltby, Commander of the British Troops in China. He established a 10-mile line of defence known as the Gin Drinkers Line across the Southern part of the mainland. However, on the 8th December, 1941, Japanese troops led by Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai mounted an attack on Hong Kong. The attack occurred only a few hours after the infamous assault against American interests at Pearl Harbour. General Takashi Sakai began a bombardment of the Island.
The Japanese bombed Kai Tak Airport on 8 December. Four of the five allied aircrafts were destroyed by 12 Japanese bombers. The attack also destroyed several civil aircraft including aircraft used by the Air Unit of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp. The RAF and Air Unit personnel from then on fought as ground troops. Two of the Royal Navy's three remaining destroyers were ordered to leave Hong Kong for Singapore. Only one destroyer, HMS Thracian, and a handful of gunboats, remained.
Maltby was forced to swiftly withdraw his troops back to Hong Kong Island.
On 8, 9 and 10 December, eight American pilots of the China National Aviation Corporation and their crews made a total of 16 trips between Kai Tak Airport and airports in Namyung and Chungking in China. They made 16 sorties and evacuated 275 persons
On 10 December 1941 a Japanese Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Teihichi, attacked the Commonwealth defences at the Shing Mun Redoubt which was defended by 2nd Battalion Royal Scots, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel S. White. The line was breached in five hours. The Commonwealth forces decided against holding the Sham Chun River and instead established three battalions in the Gin Drinkers' Line across the hills. The Japanese 38th Infantry under the command of Major General Takaishi Sakai quickly forded the Sham Chun River by using temporary bridges. The Royal Scots withdrew from Golden Hill but then their D company counter-attacked and recaptured the Hill. By 10am the hill was again taken by the Japanese. This terrible warfare made for a dangerous situation and the evacuation, under aerial bombardment and artillery barrage, started on 11 December. Military and harbour facilities were demolished before the withdrawal. By 13 December, the Rajputs of the British Indian Army commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Cadosan-Rowlinson, the last Commonwealth troops on the mainland, had retreated to Hong Kong Island.
Maltby organised the defence of the island, splitting it between an East Brigade and a West Brigade. On 15 December, the Japanese began systematic bombardment of the island's North Shore. Two demands for surrender were made on 13 December and 17 December. When these were rejected, Japanese forces crossed the harbour on the evening of 18 December and landed on the island's North-East. They suffered only light casualties, although no effective command could be maintained until the dawn came. That night, approximately 20 gunners were massacred at the Sai Wan Battery after they had surrendered. There was a further massacre of prisoners, this time of medical staff, in the Salesian Mission on Chai Wan Road. In both cases, a few men survived to tell the story.
On the morning of 19 December, a Canadian Company Sergeant Major, John Robert Osborn, aged 42, born in Norfolk, England, carried out an action for which he was awarded the first Canadian Victoria Cross in World War II. It is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. After seeing a Japanese grenade roll in through the doorway of the building Osborn, of the Canadian Winnipeg Grenadiers, took off his helmet and threw himself on the grenade, saving the lives of over 10 other Canadian Soldiers. Fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong Island but the Japanese annihilated the headquarters of West Brigade, causing the death of their commander Brigadier John Lawson.
A British counter-attack could not force them from the Wong Nai Chung Gap that secured the passage between downtown and the secluded southern parts of the island. From 20 December, the island became split in two with the British Commonwealth forces still holding out around the Stanley peninsula and in the West of the island. At the same time, water supplies started to run short as the Japanese captured the island's reservoirs.
On the morning of 25 December, Japanese soldiers entered the British field hospital at St. Stephen's College, and tortured and killed a large number of injured soldiers, along with the medical staff. There were further reports of women being raped and carnage on the streets. By the afternoon of 25 December 1941, it was clear that further resistance would be futile and British colonial officials surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters on the third floor of the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. This was the first occasion on which a British Crown Colony has surrendered to an invading force. The garrison had held out for 17 days.
This day is known in Hong Kong as Black Christmas.
It is the day my father was taken prisoner when British forces surrendered.
He gave me so many great and memorable Christmas’s yet always looked forward more to the New Year. It was many years before I learnt why. Maltby surrendered to the Japanese at Queen's Pier on 25 December, 1941, and became a Prisoner of War for the duration.The battle for Hong Kong was an uneven battle as is often the case in war. Maltby’s 14,000 troops faced 52,000 invading Japanese troops. 2,113 British troops were killed or declared missing in action and 2,300 wounded during the 17 day conflict. The Japanese suffered 1,994 losses and 6,000 wounded. During this time there were 4,000 deaths and 6,000 severely wounded amongst the civilian population.
Factors contributing to the loss of the colony included no significant air defence and inadequate naval defences. British sovereignty was restored in 1945 following the surrender of the Japanese forces on 15 August, six days after the United States of America dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. General Takashi Sakai, who led the invasion of Hong Kong was tried as a war criminal and executed by a firing squad in 1946.
The Allied dead from the campaign, including British, Canadian and Indian soldiers, were eventually interred at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. A total of 1,528 soldiers, mainly Commonwealth, are buried there. There are also graves of other Allied combatants who died in the region during the war, including some Dutch sailors, who were re-interred in Hong Kong post war.
Prisoners of war were sent to:
Arglye Street for officers
North Point Camp primarily for Canadians and Royal Navy
Ma Tau Chung Camp for Indian soldiers
Yokohama Camp in Japan
Fukuoka Camp in Japan
Osaka Camp in Japan
My father was imprisoned in Sham Shui Po, a former British army camp.
Dad said, ‘Freedom was something we lost and never recovered in Shamshuipo. Every day we went on some form of working party. I worked the mines mostly. We paraded at 5 o'clock in the morning every morning - summer and winter. The bugle called, those who had survived the night attended parade. Every morning there was another one who hadn’t made it. Thousands died in those camps. We were always hungry and in the three years and eight months we were in Sham Shui Po Camp, there was only one issue of a toothbrush and tooth powder. We had nothing to cook but rice but occasionally received an issue of corned beef, vegetable boiled in water, and a bit of oil with a serving of hot tea. I lived on snakes and cats that were electrocuted on the fence surrounding the camp. I ate them raw most of the time but sometimes managed to cook them. I was 12 and half stone when I went into the camp and six stone when I was liberated by the Canadians. When the Canadians overran the camp, the guards escaped and hid in the mines where we had worked during our captivity. An explosion occurred trapping and killing many of the guards inside the mines. No-one wins a war. When they took us home, they took us to a place called Hiroshima in Japan. The Yanks had dropped an atomic bomb there and I think people wanted us to know that the war really was over. I remember Hiroshima. There were no bodies to see. No, not at all. I remember looking at buildings that weren’t there. It was as if their shadow was still there, as if the very fabric of the building was there. When you stretched out your hand to touch what you thought was there.... your hand merely brushed thin air. It was weird, bizarre, so very strange that you could see what was not there to see... None of us present could explain the phenomenon and no-one has ever adequately explained it to me since.’
Dad came home via Australia and Canada where they fed him and tended him before repatriation to the British people some months later when he was fit enough. His army medical record lists a catalogue of dysentry, tropical fever, yellow fever, beri beri, malaria and other diseases.
He earned his freedom and would tell you freedom has to be earned.
Actually, I made a mistake. My father was special. He was special to me, to us, to our family. And he was a hero, our hero.
Someone reading this somewhere will not be lucky enough to have their father with them this Christmas. He may be fighting for the freedom of others in a far off place or he might be on a parade ground somewhere.
Wherever your father is... This is for you....
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If only I could share a word,
To say how it all turned out.
If only he were with me,
We’d talk. I have no doubt.
Yet I only have the memory,
Of the man who walks with God.
Yet I feel his strength, his fire, his will.
I can even see him nod.
If only I could share a word,
With that man from a special breed.
If only he knew my story,
Lord, let these words, him read.
Yet I hold the crumbled photograph,
Of the man in khaki gear.
And I know somehow he’s with me.
Yes, beside me. Right here.
Poem extracted from my poetry collection entitled