A Former Ranger Officer Visits Hong Kong

During a short business visit to Hong Kong last week, former OC D, Major Liam Morrissey (ret’d) had a chance to pay his respects to the Canadian war dead at Sai Wan Cemetery and to take in a little more knowledge about our alliance to The Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers).

War Cemetery

Sai Wan War Cemetery is administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from Maidenhead, UK.  Sai Wan is one of two WW II main cemeteries on Hong Kong Island and has the largest concentration of allied war dead comprising British, Canadian, Indian and some Dutch troops.  The other smaller site is Stanley on the southern peninsula.  Canadians killed in action during the Battle of Hong Kong were reinterred at Sai Wan after the war ended in 1945.  The Japanese had previously dumped the Canadians into mass graves in 1942.  On being reinterred a few years later and after the victory, a large number were unidentifiable other than by uniform fragments and so many of the graves today are nameless.   Several hundred Canadians are clustered together in two groups next to one another, those named and those unidentified.  The named are in alphabetical order and include the commander of “C Force”, Brigadier-General Lawson who was killed when his command post was overrun on 19 December 1941.  His last communication was that he was leaving his CP to fight the enemy and his body was later found with two pistols and surrounded by a number of dead Japanese soldiers.  In a rare display the Japanese commander provided funeral honours for this brave Canadian general.  He was the highest ranking allied officer killed in the battle.  Sadly, survivors of the battle endured four years of abuse and neglect in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions, with many more succumbing through the years to the outrageous mistreatment of their captors.  The people of Hong Kong, as with all the other occupied areas of Asia, suffered even worse than allied prisoners.  A large memorial wall is located at the entrance to the cemetery and all MIA personnel from the allied forces are listed there by contingent and unit.  Many of the Canadian dead share surnames, showing how so many brothers and cousins had joined together, trained together, fought together and died together.  It is sobering to see it close up.    

There are two interesting Royal Canadian Armoured Corps links to this, what was an infantry action.  The first is that a Canadian black hat major was in Hong Kong and was killed in the battle.  He was posted as a Brigade Major and he was killed in the tough fighting that occurred and is remembered on the Memorial Wall.  The second RCAC link is with one of the infantry units: The Royal Rifles of Canada.  This unit fought to the bitter end and was largely wiped out in the process. A company sergeant major, WO Osborne, won a posthumous VC in one of the hand to hand actions.  When this regiment was originally tasked for overseas operations it was severely understrength and so in July 1940, the 7th/11th Hussars (what we now know as the Sherbrooke Hussars) contributed about half its officers and men to The Royal Rifles of Canada.  From the elements not sent overseas, an armoured squadron was mobilized as the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade Headquarters Squadron (7th/11th Hussars) CASF on 27 February 1941. This was the genesis of the regiment that fought in large numbers in Europe.  The oldtimers amongst the Rangers will remember Major-General Radley-Walters and the legacy he and his peers helped create for the Armoured Corps in 1944 from D-Day onwards.  Many of us probably don’t appreciate the contribution of other former Corps brethren fighting as re-badged infanteers in Hong Kong two years earlier.  It is often lost that the Canadians fighting in Hong Kong were the first Canadian ground troops to fight in WW II.  Dieppe and other actions didn’t take place for another six months.                     

The Royal Hong Kong Regiment

Down the north coast from Sai Wan to the west is the Museum of Coastal Defence which explains the military history of Hong Kong in good detail. It provides an insight into another Queen’s York Rangers link, that of our friends of The Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers). This unit was raised in 1854 to provide forces for the Crimean War and initially consisted of British expatriates in Hong Kong serving in militia roles.  However the Regiment went on to have a proud history of service to the Colony.  Over 2,200 members of the unit fought in the defence of Hong Kong in December 1941 and many were killed or captured.  A few evaded and fought on as guerrillas during the almost four years of enemy occupation and some even escaped to the mainland and became Chindits under MGen Orde Wingate.  At the end of the war the unit was awarded a battle honour “ Hong Kong” and was soon re-roled as a reconnaissance regiment.  It was under the command of the Governor of Hong Kong (not the UK army) and formed part of 38 Ghurkha Infantry Brigade for administration.  In previous years some members of the Rangers were also earlier members of the RHKR and this formed the basis for a relationship to emerge between both Regiments into the 1990s.  Sadly, this proud unit was disbanded in 1995 in advance of the handover of Hong Kong back to China, as part of the British obligation under the original 1842 Treaty of Nanking.                            

The people of Hong Kong have not forgotten the contribution of the Canadian fighting spirit and the lives of our countrymen that were given for them in their defence 75 years ago.  We should not overlook the same contributions our nation made then or at other times in our history.  It is fitting that as we make preparations to commemorate our role in Vimy in an earlier world conflict, we not lose sight of the total contribution Canada has made to global security.  In the 21st century we must continue to stand ready for future challenges to protect our society and that of our allies.        

Major LG Morrissey, CD (Ret’d)
London, UK
6th April 2017