This Week in History


Canada and the Battle of Hong Kong

This story was initially published in 2008

On November 16, 1941, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers arrived in Hong Kong to reinforce the two British and two Indian infantry battalions of the Hong Kong garrison during the Second World War. Both battalions had minimal training and it was expected that they would see only garrison (non-combat) duty. However, on December 8, the Japanese attacked.

Personnel of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Corps boarding the train to leave Canada and sail for Hong Kong
© LAC / PA-161202

Three battalions were assigned to the defence of the mainland while three remained to defend the island of Hong Kong. The mainland defences were to protect such areas as Kowloon, Victoria Harbour, Lye Mun Passage and the northern areas of Hong Kong Island from artillery assaults from the mainland. The forces on the island itself were to defend against attacks from the sea. Three days after the attack, the troops on the mainland were forced to withdraw to the island. The Japanese assault on the island began December 18, and after eight days of fierce fighting the defenders, outnumbered, exhausted and with no relief in sight, surrendered.

The Battle of Hong Kong is the only battle in Canadian history where a force of this size suffered a 100 percent casualty rate, as every soldier was either captured or killed. The fighting ended with almost 300 Canadian soldiers dead, nearly 500 wounded, and all survivors taken to prisoner of war (POW) camps. Many were later transferred to labour camps to work in iron and coal mines. There the POWs faced deplorable conditions where they were subject to cruel treatment and near-starvation until the end of the war. The number of Canadians who perished in the camps is nearly equal to the number of Canadians who were killed in battle. Of the almost 2000 Canadian soldiers who sailed for Hong Kong, more than 550 never returned.

Royal Rifles of Canada with Gander
© Canada. Dept. of National Defense / Library and Archives Canada / PA-116791

Many Canadians were honoured for their bravery in the Battle of Hong Kong. Among the many medals awarded was the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the Second World War, given posthumously to Company Sergeant Major John Robert Osborne. Also recognized was Gander, the canine mascot of the Royal Rifles, who became the first and only Canadian animal to ever receive the Dicken Medal, which is often called the Victoria Cross for animals.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong. The Canadian Role in the Defence of Hong Kong is a designated national historic event. To learn more about Gander see Sergeant Gander reporting for duty! in the This Week in History archives.

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