Defence of the Island

On the island the defending forces were reorganized into a West Brigade, commanded by Brigadier J.K. Lawson, and including The Winnipeg Grenadiers; and an East Brigade, under Brigadier C. Wallis, including The Royal Rifles of Canada. The Canadian battalions were thus separated and one was removed from Lawson's command. Both Canadian units were deployed to defend the southern beaches where General Maltby feared a seaborne attack.

To reduce the defenders' resistance, the enemy directed heavy artillery fire at the island, mounted destructive air raids, and systematically shelled the pillboxes along the north shore. Then, on December 17, the Japanese repeated their demand for surrender. Once again it was summarily refused, but the fall of the Colony was now only a matter of time. With the sinking of two British capital ships off Malaya, and the crippling of the United States' fleet at Pearl Harbor, there was no hope of relief. The defenders awaited the assault in complete isolation.

The invasion of the island came with the darkness on December 18. The enemy began crossing the strait at its narrowest part, Lye Mun Passage, in assault boats, landing craft and small boats towed by ferry steamers. They came ashore in large numbers on a front of about two miles in the face of machine-gun fire from the defenders who manned the pillboxes. From the shore the Japanese forces fanned out to the east and west and advanced up the valleys leading to high ground. Here, the Royal Rifles came into action against the invasion force. The strength of that force was overwhelming, and by morning of the 19th the Japanese had reached as far as the Wong Nei Chong and Tai Tam Gaps.

The battle-toughened Japanese were backed by a heavy arsenal of artillery, total control of the air, and the assurance of knowing that reinforcements were readily available. In contrast, the defending Allies, with only non-combatant garrison experience, were exhausted from the continual bombardment, many days of continuous action and were without hope of relief. That it took the Japanese until Christmas Day to force surrender is a testimony to brave resistance.

With the enemy well established on the high ground, the East Brigade was ordered to withdraw southward toward Stanley Peninsula where, it was hoped, a concentrated defence could be made. By nightfall on the 19th, a new line was established, but unfortunately, some of the critically needed pieces of mobile artillery were destroyed during the withdrawal. Still worse, the East and West Brigades were separated when the Japanese penetrated the defence and reached the sea at Repulse bay.

The East Brigade was now seriously reduced in numbers for the Indian Rajput Battalion had been decimated in their courageous defence against the landing invasion. The Royal Rifles were in exhausted condition. Yet, during the next three days, these men valiantly strove to drive northward over rugged, mountainous terrain to link up with the West Brigade, and to clear the Japanese from the high peaks.

The attempts to drive northward had to be abandoned, and on December 23 the depleted and battle-weary troops were ordered to withdraw to Stanley Peninsula. Here, as the Japanese mounted increasing pressure, the Royal Rifles, on Christmas Day, delivered a final counter-attack. The attack broke down with heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, The Winnipeg Grenadiers had also been thrust swiftly into action with the West Brigade. As the enemy landed on the evening of December 18, two platoons of the battalion were deployed to seize the hills known as Jardine's Lookout and Mount Butler where they engaged in intense fighting. Heavily outnumbered, they were cut to pieces and both platoon commanders were killed. Further attempts to clear the hill positions also failed. On December 19 Brigadier Lawson lost his life as he wasvaliantly determined to fight it out when the enemy surrounded his West Brigade head quarters.

One company of the Grenadiers, meanwhile, held on firmly to its position near Wong Nei Chong Gap, and thus denied the Japanese the use of the one main north-south road across the island. The Grenadiers inflicted severe casualties on the enemy and delayed the Japanese advance for three days. The Canadians held out until the morning of December 22 when ammunition, food and water were exhausted and the Japanese had blown in the steel shutters of the company shelters. Only then did they surrender.

The final phase of the fighting on the western part of the island consisted of a valiant attempt to maintain a continuous line from Victoria Harbour to the south shore. It was to no avail. The Allied positions were overrun and the defenders were forced to surrender.

At 3:15 p.m. Christmas Day, General Maltby advised the Governor that further resistance was futile. After seventeen and a half days of fighting the defence of Hong Kong was over.

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