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This essay will aim to examine the catastrophe that unfolded at the battle of Hong Kong with respect to the involvement of the Canadian reinforcements. Two Canadian battalions, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, were selected in October 1941 as Canada’s contribution to the defences of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and arrived at their destination in mid-November. The British jurisdiction included Hong Kong Island and the neighbouring mainland areas known as Kowloon and the New Territories.
The Japanese attacked the colony on December 8, and the Canadian battalions fought alongside British, Indian and Chinese troops for seventeen days until the British surrendered on Christmas Day. By the end of the battle, the Canadian battalions had suffered a casualty rate of over 50%, one of the highest for Canadians in World War II.
This paper’s thesis will argue that the catastrophic outcome of the battle can be attributed to a poorly executed colonial defence strategy in Hong Kong, the misjudgement of the Far East situation by Canadian officials and the Canadian reinforcements’ lack of preparation for a combat role.
Prior to the British request for Canadian troops, there had been discussions surrounding the practicality of sending more troops to Hong Kong and the prevailing opinion was against it. The information that influenced this opinion was also available to Canadian officials, which raises the question as to why Canada approved the request despite the high risks involved. Moreover, the choice of battalions to send was questionable due to the state of their training and ineffectiveness as a serious fighting force.
The first area of consideration for this paper will outline the British military strategy in the Far East and its consequences on the defences of Hong Kong. Since Hong Kong had been a British colony since the mid-1800s, many military case studies had been conducted with the conclusion that the colony was undefendable in the event of a war with Japan. Reports prior to World War II tensions had already indicated that the soldiers stationed at the colony would be sacrificed, and with insignificant development of the colony’s defence infrastructure prior to the Battle of Hong Kong, this view had not changed when Britain asked Canada for troops. Furthermore, military officials had noted in a cost-benefit analysis that reinforcements would not substantially improve the outcome of a battle, but would aggravate the losses suffered. Churchill mentioned that British troops would be unable to relieve the colony if it came under attack and believed that Hong Kong was a hindrance to Britain’s overall Far East situation. He only changed his stance on sending reinforcements when it was suggested that Canadian troops could be used instead.
Even after the reinforcements were acquired, Britain continued to view Hong Kong as merely an outpost to divert Japanese troops away from other targets. Consequently, it is argued that since Britain was preoccupied with fighting in other areas of the world, it should not have tried to hold onto a strategically insignificant colony while opposing sound military advice. The lack of preparation from Canada’s battalions chosen for deployment will constitute the second argument in the essay. Both the Royal Rifles of Canada and Winnipeg Grenadiers were categorized as Class C units, meaning that they were not recommended by the Directorate of Military Training for operational service. The selection of these battalions was not solely based on operational suitability, but also on the effects on troop morale, personal bias of the Associate Minister of National Defence, and regional representation.
Additionally, the battalions had limited training with firearms, and had received no field training that would be appropriate for their deployment. They also had little experience using support weapons like mortars which would have been useful for the battle. Ironically, the Winnipeg Grenadiers had been labelled a machine gun battalion and trained as such, but were rebranded as a rifle battalion prior to deployment and not given machine guns in Hong Kong. The battalions did receive some training after being selected, but it did not prove to be effective. They did not receive ammunition for some parts of their training, and a practice air attack would have ended poorly for the troops due to tactical errors on their part. This low standard of training was also seen in the senior positions as well, as the senior NCOs lacked an understanding of the battle tactics relevant to Hong Kong and infiltration manoeuvres. The final argument of this essay will revolve around the poor judgement of the Far East situation by Canadian officials.
Despite the Prime Minister’s view that Canada should be forming its own opinion on the use of its troops, Canada did not develop its own intelligence source in the Far East and relied on the British to provide information instead. This meant that although the top Canadian officials had access to virtually all the intelligence British officials possessed, most members of government had to rely on press reports for news on Japan. When asked for a military assessment of garrison defence in Hong Kong, General Crerar stated that there was “no military risk” involved, which is blatantly false when the British reports are considered. Moreover, the Associate Minister of National Defence did not request such an assessment from the British who would have been the best source of this information. This lack of intelligence coupled with a general desire to help the British led to Canada’s unquestioning response to their request for Canadian reinforcements in Hong Kong. Thus, the low quality and quantity of political discourse surrounding the matter led to an uninformed decision that unnecessarily sent Canadian troops to a lost battle.
This government publication provides a short but factual description of the events surrounding the battle of Hong Kong. This source will be useful in establishing the historical context for the essay, but will have limited use in supporting the essay’s arguments. Additionally, it will provide a breakdown of how the battle progressed through textual and pictorial descriptions.
This book contains the detailed activity of a number of people involved in Hong Kong, both before and during the battle. It will be most useful, however, in determining the situation prior to the hostilities as it is the only source that specializes in this area. This information will support the argument that the odds were against the defenders of Hong Kong, which contributed to the battle’s tragic outcome.
This journal article discusses the debate surrounding the decision to send Canadian reinforcements to bolster Hong Kong’s defence. It derives most of its research from Foreign Office records, a source that is overlooked by most historians in this topic according to the article’s author. This will contribute an alternative perspective to the essay. Specifically, it blames the British for the failures in the Far East, which is in-line with the argument that the British strategy was flawed.
This book is a summary of the battle of Hong Kong which is written mostly from the perspective of the soldiers. This gives ample information regarding the regular soldier’s experiences without excluding the officers that also shaped the battle. There is some commentary about the decisions taken by the British and Canadians that will be used for two of the arguments about the British strategy and Canada’s state of unpreparedness.
This book provides a comprehensive overview of the Canadian reinforcements sent to Hong Kong from the initial British decisions to the imprisonment of Canadian soldiers in POW camps. Since its main focus is on the Canadian experience in the battle, it will be valuable for the argument that the Canadian troops across all ranks were unprepared. The first chapter will provide some support for the argument that the British strategy is also to blame for the outcome.
This journal article focuses on the historical context that surrounded the decision to send Canadian reinforcements to Hong Kong. The author explains the evolving situation, starting with a defence review in 1911 of the colony. British military strategy is discussed and used to explain the decisions surrounding the reinforcements, or lack thereof prior to Canada’s commitment. This source will be useful mainly for the argument that the strategy employed by the British was flawed, but will also be used to support the fact that the Canadians were facing unfavourable circumstances.
This book contains a detailed account of Canada’s involvement in Hong Kong’s defence. It contains information regarding the two battalions that were chosen to be sent to Hong Kong. This includes the selection process, the state of training and equipment woes which will be paramount to the argument that Canada was not prepared to fulfill the role of garrison defence. Furthermore, this source will be used to examine the military flaws during the battle which led to it becoming such a failure.
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