Far too few are aware of the participation of Canadian soldiers in the hopeless defence of Hong Kong and their crude, incarceration as Prisoner's of War of the Japanese in the excruciating years to follow their surrender.


Canadian’s in Hong Kong

A Final Paper

Submitted to: Ms.Smith

Submitted by: Terri-Anne

Submitted on: May 13, 2002


More than one million Canadian soldiers who served in the horrifying six years of World War II. Legends of Canadians are known throughout the world for their participation at the Raid of Dieppe, the landing at Juno Beach and the Battle of Ortano in Italy. Canadians are remembered for the liberation of Holland and their great convoys in the Atlantic on their way to Britain. Yet, far too few are aware of the participation of Canadian soldiers in the hopeless defence of Hong Kong and their crude incarceration as prisoner's of war in the excruciating years that followed their surrender. The intriguing willpower and courage that brought so many of them through the deplorable conditions of vermin, filth, malnutrition, slave labour, betrayal and fatality in the hope of seeing home again, only to nearly forgotten, must also be remembered.

Young men from two battalions of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers set sail from Vancouver in late October, 1941 for Hong Kong where they were to join 12,000 other Allied soldiers on what they expected would be a simple assignment of garrison duty.  Under pressure from the Russians who were trying vigourously to defend the Allies in the Pacific and the nation of China that was falling rapidly to the Japanese, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King mistakenly sent nearly 2000 young Canadian soldiers to join other regiments in the defence of Britain’s far eastern colony.

Despite the advice of Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, King was confident that the misinformed, under-equipped Japanese army that could not see well at night would never attack the almighty powerful nation of Britain. Upon their arrival, Governor Sir Geoffrey Northcotte of Hong Kong requested they leave immediately for the colony could not be defended if ever attacked. Yet, they stayed.

Not a month after they docked in Hong Kong, on December 8, 1941 the Japanese made their very much-unexpected attack. The untrained, surprised allied soldiers battled for a long and hard seventeen and a half days. Their defeat was rapid and depressing. If it had not of been for heroes such as Major J.R. Osborn who was killed when a grenade exploded, none of them would have lived. He saved several lives when he tossed Japanese grenades from within their reach. During the battle, 290 Canadians were killed and another 493 wounded. There was no hope for victory. At 3:15pm on December 25, 1941 Major-General C.M. Maltby ordered a surrender. While those at home were celebrating Christmas with their families. Their fellow Canadians across the Pacific were not having such a happy holiday.

After a tiring, tedious fight the survivors were now prisoners of the Japanese, what would happen to them next was in the hands of God. The white flag was raised and the remaining of the 14,000 allied soldiers were herded behind trucks mounted with machine guns and marched through the streets in which they were spat on and then hoarded into tiny confinements such as tennis courts. Here they sat in spaces just big enough to fit, dropping with fatigue. They were parched with thirst with nothing to eat or drink besides the little bit of rain that remained in the puddle beside them. In the days to come they would be inhumanly interrogated and beaten before they were taken away.

By the beginning of the New Year the prisoners had been dispersed in some 300 camps throughout the colony. The conditions they faced there were absolutely startling. The earth and harbours were littered with dead and decaying human and animal remains. The air was polluted by an appalling stench and was thick with disease ridden flies.

Shrapnel was littered throughout the campgrounds; there was no running water, very few latrines and little food for the prisoners. The Japanese Bushido to which the Prisoners where subjected did not provide many luxuries.

The regulations of the treatment of Prisoners of War were outlined in the Geneva Convention of 1929. It distinctly stated that all prisoners:

  • Were to be supplied with adequate shelter
  • Clothing and food.
  • All needs of those held captive must be met.
  • Prisoners were also to be given rights to their own belongings
  • Permitted to practice their own religion and beliefs
  • Receive gifts and letters from those at home.
  • Induced Labour and violence were strictly prohibited.

The Japanese obviously decided not to agree and abide these laws. The allied soldiers were forced as slaves to help build railways and roads. They participated in the construction of the Kai Yak Airport and worked in mines. The Prisoners did anything the Japanese wanted them to do.

This Labour consisted of some heavy tasks. They worked dawn to dusk breaking and carrying stone from one place to another. Then at night they returned to their calamitous huts.

It is very difficult to comprehend how some of the prisoners survived these concentration camps when the mere task of going to the bathroom was a nightmare. Basic necessities such as a toothbrush or bar of soap were beyond their access.  They were immersed in lice and bedbugs. The squalor was just about unbearable and hygiene just did not exist. They bathed only when the guards allowed them to swim. Their sores became infected and infested with maggots and pus; there was no paper to wipe the waste from their bodies so they had to resort to the use of their hands. Rags took place of clothing and the scorching summer temperatures and frigid winters were increasing the extremity while decreasing the resistance to stay alive.

As things went on they got worse. The work got harder as the food got less.  The health and strength of the men who weighed 200 pounds when they left home withered away along with half of their weight. It was virtually impossible to function normally on an inapt diet of rice riddled with fattened maggots, rat faeces and worms. The only nutrition they ever received was pertained within the rare broth from stewed carrot tops and vegetable peels.

The lack of nourishment, sanitation and basic human comity provided the perfect pot for the brewing of maladies and ailments. 

Throughout all camps disease such as beriberi, tuberculosis, dysentery and palogen flourished. The men began to have difficulty seeing and frost bite became a problem in the winter. In 1942 a diphtheria epidemic claimed the lives of fifty soldiers. Autaminosis or Aelectric feet was also very common. This was a condition known to cause electric shocks in the legs and feet. Disease was the primary killer of those interned in the camps. There were no doctors or medical treatments besides those who were prisoners themselves and no way to avoid sickness. The overall treatment of Prisoners in Hong Kong was merely grievous. Yet, as many would learn things would get worse

In January of 1943 when the Prisoners had completed much of the desired work in Hong Kong, 1184 of the allied men were taken across the sea to Japan. The trip was not particularly enjoyable. The presumed, lucky by those who stayed, were stuffed like cargo in the bottom of ships. There was no light, water, food, or ventilation for weeks. Bathroom facilities were not available and the hold sometimes leaked so they were wet and forced to bail the water out.

The odour was once again a problem as an astounded reek arouse from the vomit and human excretions. It was A Hell on Earth.

When they arrived in Japan, they were dispersed by means of train throughout the country. Some found the conditions at the camp an improvement from the place they had came, but the Labour was certainly not.  Some worked long hard days in shipyards. Others found themselves up to their necks in flaming sulphur water of 95 degrees in the coal and sulphur mines miles beneath the Pacific Ocean. 136 Prisoners of War died of illness brought on from these conditions and injuries caused from falling debris from the ceilings of the mines.

The Japanese military were not kind or decent people in the eyes of their prisoners. They were inhuman.  They were savages. Under the control of Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, the Japanese treated their prisoners in total disgust as if they were caged animals. Not only did they deprive them of bare necessities such as food and water and steel the supplies sent from the Red Cross. The Prisoners were fervently beaten and tortured. The Prisoners were expected to abide in the Japanese way of life. They spoke their language and followed in their religious beliefs.  Rules were stern and ridiculous. One was not to run when they should have walked or have any contact with those outside the electric fence. If the allies disobeyed the rules they were punished, sometimes punishment came when they never did anything wrong at all. The minimum chastisement was a violent beating. Some were hung from their feet, stabbed, raped and shot. Others were burned alive, decapitated and used as target practice.  The Japanese were understood to have hated the war as much as anyone else. Yet, there was one particular Japanese militant that took amusing pride and advantage of the war.

Inouye Kanoa was a Japanese soldier who was born and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia, from which he derived the nickname  A Kamloops Kid. He perceived the internment of the Canadians as Prisoners of War of the Japanese as an opportunity of vengeance against his home country in return for the racism he suffered in Canada as a child. He took pleasure to see the Canadians suffer and picked on them extensively ensuring that their stay would not be an enjoyable one. The Prisoners were not shown any human dignity or benevolence during their four years in the Pacific. People like Kanoa made them unsure if they would ever see it again. The misfortunate who had been taken captive in 1941 had been held up in these hell holes for nearly four years when it came finally to be 1945.  The amazing individuals who had survived the massive task they faced for the last forty-four months were becoming tired and losing hope. They had heard or felt no concern from those at home and besides the occasional letter from mum or dad they felt as if they had been forgotten about. The Japanese told them that they were lucky to be alive and that they should have been dead. Japanese were winning the war and soon they would invade Canada. They told them that they had absolutely no hope of being released and the next time they saw their homes would be in twenty years.

This news brought the Prisoners to a new low. Some tried to escape and steel food and medicine but were caught and murdered. Others resorted to religion or went mad. Things were not looking good.

Every little thing made their faith shrink a little smaller and many wondered when it would be their corpse laying on the ground they would be picked up by his comrades, tossed in a pile and burned. The only optimism they had was each other.


We had no future and lived our lives minute by minute. Despite the torture, suffering, starvation, complete lack of and medical treatment, degradation, there was yet the constant care and concern we had for one another. . . . We would all make it or none of us would.   

Len Birchall (Hong Kong Veteran)


They resorted to many ways to stay focused and maintain their sanity. When hungry they would talk about the mouth-watering pies their mom used to make. When they were strong enough they played softball. They argued, laughed and sang in an attempt to forget all their troubles.


One feature of POW life was the singing. . . .  the worse things got the more we sang. . . . a form of defiance but it also kept up our morale.

Len Birchall (Hong Kong Veteran)


The Prisoners knew that if the war had lasted another three or four months than they would not have made it. Almost all of them were ready to give up. There was no sign or impression that relief would ever come. There were very few who really knew what was going on.

Three men were able to successfully hide a radio in the mattress of their bed. From the BBC news they were able to conclude that the Nazis were losing the war and the Russians were closing in on Japan from the west. For the others the longed assuage came with the American bombings in October of 1944.  Their confidence grew as the bombing continued. However, one concern was the belief that the Japanese would kill them before they were rescued.  Final and absolute assurance of their freedom came in August of 1945. The Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the sixth and ninth and on the eleventh threatened the Japanese to surrender or lose the stasis of their empire. On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered to the allies and the war was over.

They were free at last. The Japanese fled the camps and the allied soldiers days as prisoners came to an end. They raided the camp searching for food and objects to trade with the citizens. Then they painted POW on the roof of the barracks and waited to be found.

Some were discovered by American search planes and the camp was literally showered daily with tons of supplies of all kinds. It was on September 15 when the ships arrived and finally took them away to Tokyo. The Harbour was swamped with hundreds of ships of all kinds.

The soldiers who had been held captive for so long were so happy to be back in the civilisation of the freedom-loving world. A month later in late October after some rehabilitation in the Pacific the surviving Canadian soldiers were back on Canadian soil again. However, 555 would never return.

The surviving soldiers did not feel particularly special when they returned home. They had spent the whole war locked up within the lamentable conditions of a Japanese Concentration Camp as a result of their effort in the defence of Hong Kong and life in freedom. Yet, upon their arrival home they were treated like losers. The veterans were shocked and led to think that they had did something wrong. Why were their sacrifice and experiences not honoured as the soldiers who fought at D-day and during the Blitz in Britain? The survivors grew older but were never shown the slightest thanks or appreciation for what they did for their country. The scars they had and nightmares reminded them every day of the times when they were Prisoners of War. Some could never have children, others could no longer see.

Despite the effects they felt it seemed that no one else felt the pain they were feeling.   

The Japanese has never issued any kind of an apology to the Prisoners, nor were they mentioned at the Geneva Convention in 1952. The government of Canada was also no help as in 1990 they insisted the Japanese pay nothing in return for their unethical acts in the Second World War. It was not until August of 2000 with the help of the War Amps and the Hong Kong Veterans Association that the living veterans and the families of those who have passed away were finally shown the gratitude they deserved. The Canadian Government issued them with 100% pensions and established a monument in Hong Kong in memory of those who served there. Winston Churchill said that every hour spent at battle against the defeated Japanese enemy went to help to an allied victory. Many veterans find this hard to believe.

World War II is considered to have been the catalyst in the respect of human rights. The bestial and sadistic treatment of mankind and the gross violation of humanity was seen at its optimum throughout these malignant six years. The slaughter of Canadians at Ortano and Dieppe are a common general piece of knowledge to most everyone these days. Yet, although the men that served in the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers during the Second World War were the first soldiers to be at battle of the one million Canadians to serve, they were somehow forgotten. They may have been shaded by the attack on Pearl Harbour in December of 1941 or outcast by the British.

Nevertheless, they were said to have been the worst treated of all Canadian Prisoners of War in history. Veterans who speak of their experience today state that it was an encounter that can be compared with nothing else they had ever witnessed throughout their lives.

Whether or not it was the mere rude ignorance of the political personalities and leading figures of Canada of the time that positioned them in such a perplexing situation, they say they would do it again.

The boys felt as if they were at their last hour when they watched the Union Jack come down and the Rising Sun climb up into the sky on the afternoon of December 25, 1941. What was going to happen to them next was in the hands of God. 555 of the 1975 Canadian infantry soldiers who set sail for Hong Kong in 1941 had fallen through his fingers to their death. Yet he did not save the others to be forgotten.

The cataclysmic detention and exploitation that were subjected to the unfortunate Canadian Prisoner’s of War of Japan in Hong Kong and the stamina that brought many of them to the end must be notorious.



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