Lyemun Barracks Map

Lyemun Barracks

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In 1936 London had underestimated Japanese interest in Hong Kong with only four regular infantry battalions stationed there. When the danger was later seen, two Canadian battalions were rushed in, two weeks before the Japanese invaded.

Early December 1941 the Japanese attacked the Colony of Hong Kong.  Movernent of forces in and around Hong Kong was fluid. On 13th December all British and Empire troops that could, withdrew under heavy enemy pressure from the mainland to the island. When the Japanese attack on the island came, the order of battle in the Lyemun area was as follows:

  1. One platoon of A Company, Royal Rifles of Canada (RRC), dug in just forward of the Lower Fort.
  2. 4 Battery  Hong  Kong  Volunteers Defence Corps (HKVDC) with 9.22 inch static coastal artillery guns in the area where D Company 2/7 GR now lives, at Pak Sha Wan ('White Cloud Mountain'). Most of the magazine and ammunition hoists, and two armour-plated gun-position OPs are still intact.
  3. One battery of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) manned by Indian troops, supplemented by Chinese, with 6 inch howitzers deployed in the Barracks area.
  4. 5 Anti Aircraft Battery HKVDC with 1917 vintage 3 inch guns in the Top Fort on Sai Wan Hill. Despite the guns antiquity, these gunners had already shot down two Japanese aircraft (they were the first Volunteers in action).
  5. 5/7 Rajputs, responsible for the coastline westwards from Lyemun to North Point
  6. RRC (minus one platoon), responsible for the coastline Southeast from Lyemun to Deepwater Bay.
  7. D Company, 1 Middlesex, south from Lyemun towards Tai Tam.

On 14th December heavy Japanese shelling rendered 4 Battery HKVDC at Pak Sha Wan temporarily hors de combat by knocking out the command post and all communications. The unit was effective again within 24 hours.

At midnight on 15th December small arms fire was heard from Pak Sha Wan. A red flare indicated an attack was taking place and shortly afterwards an OP reported that the position was in enemy hands. Three Volunteer platoons and 2 searchlights were rushed in to reinforce or counterattack, and discovered that the enemy were not ashore at all, but afloat in an armada of junks, sampans, rubber boats and home-made rafts. This fleet was held off by machine-gun and 6 inch howitzer fire. Japanese shellfire from Devil's Peak succeeded in knocking out one of the searchlights. Meanwhile the RRC, still believing in a successful enemy invasion, and reinforced in their belief by meeting survivors fleeing from the Lower Fort having expended all their ammunition, counter attacked and repossessed the (empty) Fort.

At 0245 hours the Japanese tried again, 4 miles west of Lyemun. Searchlights exposed the attack, which was repulsed. Whilst this was going on a Japanese officer (Lt Mirara Okado, an excellent swimmer and exemplary samurai), with four volunteers made an attack on a bothersome Lyemun searchlight  a raid he had suggested himself in order to raise morale'. The five, wearing only undergarments and carrying grenades, wire cutters and dry clothes in parcels strapped to their backs, successfully  swam  the half mile to the Lyemun headland. Here they landed, two hundred yards to the left of a pillbox, and cut their way through the barbed wire. By this time, however, the attack further up the coast having tailed, the Lyemun searchlight had been switched off, and it took them until 0400 hours to locate it. Having done so, they threw their grenades and  ran off.  The grenades missed the searchlight but hit some explosives which blew up and destroyed it. One raider was killed.

At dawn HMS Tracian arrived to investigate and found two junks, full of Japanese, which were sunk.

In both attempted landings the Japanese had used some 300 carefully selected, low-quality, expendable troops to establish their bridgehead. Loss of life by gunfire or drowning was high.

Throughout 16th and 17th December there was a heavy bombardment, particularly when Japanese OPs on Devil's Peak observed attempts to remove shells from the Lyemun magazines. Eighteen bombers of the Japanese 5th Air Division succeeded in destroying fifty percent of the pillboxes between Lyemun and Bowrington. All day a shuttle of sampans moved between Devil's Peak and Shau Kei Wan, carrying, it was believed, fifth-columnists and Japanese disguised as fishermen.

Shelling continued on 18th December, resulting in the blocking of the road to Lyemun from Central with tram wires and other debris. This hampered the movements of reinforcements to areas likely to come under attack. Burning oil tanks at North Point produced a thick black smoke that obscured the defenders' vision. Despite a burning rubber-processing factory in Shau Kei Wan, the smoke there was not as thick as elsewhere, prompting the Japanese to use smoke flares as a prelude to their big attack.

Under cover of dusk, Japanese pearl fishers were sent out to dive and cut anti-invasion nets and remove mines. The attack then began.

It came in two phases, the first being a fleet of collapsible rubber rafts at 2030 hours and then a wave of powered landing craft and towed collapsible assault boats at 2230 hours.

The crossing of the harbour was tricky for numerous reasons, the flares of the burning oil at North Point reflected off the water and illuminated their progress, the many boats sunk in the harbour made taking a direct course impossible, resulting in a slowing-down and mixing up of the various units, oars were soon smashed on the underwater obstacles, forcing the Japanese soldiers to use entrenching tools as paddles. The whole performance was carried out under the fire of the shore defenders and harassment by British torpedo boats.

There were three prongs to the attack: Two battalions each stormed ashore at North Point, Quarry Bay and Lyemun

  1. The Lyemun units were from the 229th Regiment under Colonel Tanaka  and took the left or East Flank, from the mainland. The 3rd Battalion taking Aldrich Bay and the 2nd Battalion landing at Lyemun and pushing towards Shau Kei Wan.
  2. Colonel Doi´s 228th Regiment took the centre. Landing at Braemar Point
  3. Colonel Shoji´s 230th Regiment took the right or West Flank. Landing near North Point.

The whole strength of this attack was seven battalions, which was more then 7,500 men. They were all tough and seasoned fighters, being blooded in China.

The night was wet, misty and very dark, black smoke covered the shore line. The attacking Shau Kel Wan battalion met and split the Rajputs line, eventually going firm by first light the following morning on Mount Parker. The Rajputs suffered very heavy casualties in the action, including most of their British and Indian officers, and 65 percent of the rank and file.

The 3rd Battalion having landed in the area of the jetty, was damagingly exposed by a Lyemun searchlight. The task of taking out the light was allotted to the Kishi Engineering Company. There are two credible accounts of what happened next. The first has it that the crew of the searchlight, one officer and five other ranks of the Royal Engineers, armed with one revolver, an LMG and three rifles, realised that a Japanese landing was taking place and began to lock the light up. As they were doing so, a group of twenty to thirty Japanese appeared and attacked the Engineers, who fought them off. Eventually the enemy came to within twenty yards of their position and a grenade killed the LMG gunner and another sapper, and wrecked the LMG. This prompted the remaining Engineers to withdraw especially now that the Japanese had brought a field gun to bear on the light. As they were leaving, the sapper corporal was shot in the back of the head, yet managed to jump off the cliff into the sea, where he remained for three hours because of the presence of enemy patrols. Having eventually regained dry land and climbed up the cliff, he met up with two drunken  Canadians  of  the  Winnipeg Grenadiers, who gave him a drink and directed him to a friendly force position. There he learned that the remaining two Engineers of his party were safe.

The other version of this incident has it that the Engineers switched the searchlight on, locked it up and abandoned the position two hours before the Japanese even landed. Nevertheless, it took the Japanese a considerable time to locate the light and mount an attack upon it. In the face of heavy fire from the searchlight, fire which apparently killed the company commander and second-in command the position was finally taken by a corporal. For this action he was awarded a medal for bravery, and the citation reads:

“After much fighting for two hours they managed to break into the door, and finding electric wires, without the least hesitation they destroyed them with explosives and extinguished the light and thus aided in the success of the landings."

Following this initial delay, the Japanese continued to  push forward through the Lyemun defences They quickly overwhelmed the RRC platoon and the HKSRA 6 inch howitzer battery which failed to fire off a single round, then attacked 4 Battery HKVDC, overrunning the No 1 gun and bypassing the rest as they raced up the hill towards the Sai Wan Fort, which was their first objective. The remaining gun crews of 4 Battery, amazingly were still at this stage unsure that a landing had taken place at all.

However a young officer assumed that one probably had and ordered fire to be opened by guesswork through the smoke in the direction of Shau Kel Wan. He kept this up for three days, the unit being strengthened on 20th December by some survivors of A Company 517 Rajputs, but was forced to surrender the following day.

The enemy pressed on towards the Sai Wan Fort They were opposed all the way by Canadians of C and D Companies RRC, who, outnumbered and outflanked on the left where the Rajputs' line had collapsed, were forced to fall back. A Major Bishop won the DSO for his part in the action, which included killing 7 Japanese with a tommy gun.

There are several theories about the fall of the Sai Wan Fort, some documented, others narrated by recent visitors to Lyemun who were "there" at the time. One seemingly credible report has it that a British sentry at the junction of the Lyemun and Island roads saw a large number of 'Chinese' in lorries heading for the fort at 19.45 hours. Between then and 22.00 hours, these fifth- columnists drove up to the Fort, ostensibly to deliver ammunition, gained admittance, then once inside drew knives and cut down the Volunteer defenders, some thirty of whom managed to escape. Self-defence was virtually impossible as the only small arms held were Lewis guns on mounts with restricted fields of fire.

It is more likely however that the Fort fell to regular Japanese troops pushing up from the Barracks. By now it was 22.30 hours, two hours after the initial landings had taken place. Yet one account has it that the Fort´s defenders were still unaware that anything was amiss. As a result, the Japanese made a quick entry and immediately bayoneted six officers. Twenty prisoners were taken and bayoneted six hours later. Two Chinese privates from Hong Kong Defence Corps were bayoneted and thrown into a trench with the rest. Chan Yam-kong and Bomardier Martin Tso Hin-chi were both civilian clerks in one of the business houses. Chan Yam-kwong had been bayoneted across his abdomen and Martin Tso Hin-chi in the thigh, they feigned death and had to listen to the moans of the dying men for three days and nights before they escaped.

The indefatigable Major Bishop soon realised that the Fort had fallen and at 22.35 hours, organised a counterattack by two platoons of A Company RRC. These cleared the hillside of enemy and reached the Fort´s walls, but were unable to scale them. Most of the attackers died and their remains, together with those of the murdered HKVDC prisoners, were found eight years later in a trench at the top of the hill.

Major Bishop, seeing the way things were going, called for 6 inch howitzer fire to support, which Brigade refused to authorise as the staff thought there were still Canadians in the Fort, although major Bishop insisted there were not.

The whole of Lyemun now being in enemy hands, a general withdrawal to the next defensive line took place. The Canadians withdrew still in contact. They had suffered very high casualties. C Company for instance being reduced from 5 officers and 172 other ranks was now 4 and 64.

Two unrelated incidents worth recalling occurred on the night of 18th/19th December, the night of the Japanese landings. The first concerns the Salesian Mission in Shau Kei Wan, which had been turned into an Advanced Dressing Station, staffed by volunteers, members of the St John´s Ambulance Brigade, RAMC, European nurses and medical orderlies of the RRC. All were under the command of Major Barfill, RAMC. The Mission was very isolated but although shelling on the night had increased, Major Barfill refused to evacuate it. No news of any landings had been received and some wounded Rajputs had just been sent off to Tai Tam by ambulance when at 06.00 hours a sentry reported that the Mission was surrounded by Japanese. Outnumbered by 20 to 1, the staff were ordered not to resist.

The Japanese slaughtered two Rajput officers awaiting evacuation in an ambulance and then ordered everyone outside. The men were all stripped, searched then led away and warned that Colonel Tanaka had ordered all prisoners to be killed. Major Barfill only was led to one side while five doctors were made to kneel and then shot in the head, followed by eight Canadians, ten RAMC and three St John´s men, who were all either bayoneted or decapitated. The Japanese then started butchering some of the wounded patients, forcing Major Barfill to watch.

Four men survived the massacre, Major Barfill himself and three others, Captain Osler Thomas, medical officer to the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps who had been shot in the back, Corporal Norman Leath of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who was sem-decapitated by an officers sword. Both were left for dead, lay where they were for several hours, then escaped to the hills where they lived off the land, separately, for more than a week before being found and interned.

The women were also forced to watch the killings. Then, surprisingly they were released unharmed and told to go home.

The other incidents on the night were less grim. Lyemun´s magazines held ammunition for many other Island-based units. In view of the increased rate of Japanese bombing and shelling, it was decided to move the ammunition to a safer place. Two officers arrived in a private car to supervise this operation. They were warned that a Japanese landing was imminent and were therefore not surprised when the barrage reached such a rate - one round every four seconds - that they had to cease transferring ammunition and take shelter in a disused magazine. Then at 21.30 hours the barrage stopped and work was resumed. Shortly afterwards a red flare went up from a pillbox near the jetty. Machine guns opened up and Japanese soldiers could be seen running towards them. The working party retired discreetly to its shelter. The Japanese made a half-hearted attack on the magazine and then by-passed it. This convinced the senior officer that it was only a minor invasion, a belief reinforced by the fact that, when they emerged in the morning, there were no Japanese soldiers to be seen. The two officers climbed into their car which was standing undamaged outside the magazine despite the shelling and drove unchallenged out of the camp, which was by now firmly in enemy hands. Despite a crash at the main road junction, and having to straighten out the car wing, and several road blocks on the Tai Tam road, they eventually reached temporary safety at Stanley.

Stanley was under continuous air attack and artillery bombardment, but this was the last stronghold to defend.


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