Escape from Hong Kong
Admiral Chan Chak Christmas-Day Dash, 1941
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Title Page, Copyright Page
Preface and Acknowledgements
On Christmas afternoon, 1941, as the exhausted defenders of Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese, an unlikely group including China’s top representative in the colony (a diminutive one-legged admiral), his aide-de-camp (a towering international athlete), a senior colonial civil servant and several British staff and intelligence officers made a last-minute dash to Aberdeen harbour....
Note on Chinese Names
Part One: The Invasion
1. Last Ship Out
Lieutenant Alexander Kennedy drove eastwards along the coast of Hong Kong Island till he had left the city behind. Just before the beacon at Lyemun Pass, he parked his car—a sporty little Standard 9 saloon with sliding sunroof—and stood on the headland, gazing down at the entrance to one of the finest harbours in the world. Across the narrow blue strait, 500 yards away, Devil’s Peak reared up from the ...
2. One-Legged Admiral
Hong Kong’s natural shape—almost like that of a theatre, with the harbour as its stage—ensured that almost everyone could catch at least a glimpse of the war’s spectacular opening act. As ever, those in the Mid-Levels and on the Peak had the best seats in the house, gazing over their balcony rails at a sky speckled with swooping warplanes. Many thought it must be a training exercise, till they looked....
3. Men from the Ministry
Now there were no more flights out: the gates had closed. No more boats out either, the boom firmly locked. But the Japanese didn’t need to come in by sea. On land, the lightly equipped soldiers in their rubber- soled, split-toed canvas shoes crossed the New Territories faster than anyone had thought possible. Moving by night on mountain paths, they took the Shingmun Redoubt—the key point in the Gin...
4. Battle Box
Hong Kong’s defenders never really recovered from the shock of losing the mainland so soon. The days that followed were days of reorganization and battening down of hatches; of artillery duels across the water, aerial blitzes to which they had no reply and invitations to surrender indignantly refused. There was a certain stiffening of resolve as they waited for the Japanese to land. But that early feeling of being...
5. Cloak and Dagger Boys
After a week of war, Hong Kong’s once-teeming harbour had a desolate air. Junks and other native craft had been herded off into typhoon shelters; freighters and other ships had been bombed or scuttled, and lay keeled over at grotesque angles. The Royal Navy’s huge old depot ship, HMS...
6. Naval Light Brigade
The Japanese finally made their move on the island on the night of 18 December, crossing the harbour in the same area where the three men from Z Force had blown up the observation ship. There had been several days of increasingly heavy bombardment of the defences around Lyemun and along the island’s adjacent northeast coast. The oil and petrol storage tanks at North Point were set on fire and then...
Part Two: The Escape Plan
7. Exit Strategy
People were sleeping in the Gloucester Hotel a dozen to a room and all along the corridors of the lower floors. The top two storeys, including the eighth-floor restaurant, had been evacuated as the bombing and shelling got worse. The staircases, tea lounge and arcade shops were piled high with sandbags and all the glass was broken. One day, a ten-inch shell crashed through the outer stone wall on the third floor,...
8. Death of a Gunboat
Next morning, a severely wounded Charles Boxer was brought into Queen Mary Hospital. He had found the road east of Aberdeen blocked by abandoned vehicles below Shouson Hill, and had continued on foot. He was crossing some open ground with Lieutenant TJ Price and Sub-Lieutenant JJ Forster of the HKRNVR when they came under fire from a collection of huts. A bullet entered Boxer’s chest....
9. Ducking and Diving
The arrival of Gilbert Thums in the flotilla coincided with that of Kendall, McEwan and Talan—or Mike, Mac and John*—as they soon came to be known. The three SOE men heaved their boxes of Bren guns, grenades, guncotton and various ‘toys’ onto MTB 10, where, as McEwan noted in his diary, they were treated to a lively firsthand ...
As Christmas Day dawned, some noted ominously that it was another Thursday—the third of the eighteen-day battle. The first had seen the retreat from the mainland; the second the invasion of the island; all that was left was capitulation....
11. Waiting for the VIPs
The motor torpedo boats were having their quietest day of the war. Lying in two secluded bays, they were sheltered by hills from both the wind and the enemy’s guns, and as they waited for further orders there was nothing to do but sit tight. Hong Kong’s weather had been at its winter best for much of the past few weeks, but on Christmas...
Part Three: The Breakout
12. Getaway Cars
As General Maltby ordered his men to hand in their weapons, the various members of the escape party were still gathering in the centre of town. Chan Chak had received a call at about three o’clock to inform him that the Governor and the General would go to surrender in person to the Japanese in about an hour’s time. The Admiral and his three colleagues—Henry, SK and Yeung the bodyguard—made their...
13. Cornflower’s Launch
As they scoured the Aberdeen waterfront for their promised boats, the escape party spotted some European seamen working on a small launch tied up to a wooden pier. Ross pulled up and ran down to ask if they had seen any MTBs. There had been at least one there late last night, he was told, but they had all taken off again by the morning....
14. The Island
After throwing himself into the sea amid a hail of bullets, the Admiral paused, holding on with his right hand to the side of the boat and using it as cover from the gunfire. Henry joined him, half in and half out of the water, and asked how he was doing. ‘It’s just a small wound,’ Chan Chak replied, laughing. ‘For me it’s nothing.’ But as blood ‘poured like water’ from his left wrist, he had to admit to himself the grimness of...
15. Finding the Admiral
As MTB 10 turned round after taking 11 halfway to Telegraph Bay and darted back through another barrage of shellfire, Gandy and Kendall were delighted to receive the message that the party they had been waiting for had finally shown up. But when they rejoined 27 at Aplichau and greeted the bedraggled survivors, they were shocked to find that both Admiral Chan Chak and Colonel SK Yee were missing....
16. Night Voyage
‘Proceed and slip.’
At 9.30 p.m. on that clear, moonlit Christmas night, the five remaining boats of the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla were ready to leave. With a heart-stopping roar, the centre of the three Napier-Lion aircraft engines that powered each boat broke into life and settled into a steady drone. The passengers who had swum to the MTBs from...
17. Shore Party
By degrees it darkened, and in the peculiar half-light, it was difficult to discern the boat ahead apart from its phosphorescent light. As the waters got deeper and blacker, the heavy iron chests containing the flotilla’s secret signal books were locked and thrown overboard. The five MTBs passed just to the south of the Potoi island group and continued...
Part Four: The March
For local boats, the trip across to Nanao was the easiest of sailings. It was little more than half a mile away, after all. But the night was black and the bay was shallow and rocky, so the village headman volunteered two of the island’s fishermen as pilots. One of them came on board Gandy’s boat and took up position next to him on the bridge....
19. Ready to March
It was just as well that good cover lay only two or three miles from the beach, for they had all misjudged the amount of gear they could carry. The pace was slow and grinding, as they followed the path in single file around narrow rice terraces and small orchards and began to climb ever more steeply into the hills. It was a fine, fresh morning,...
20. Through Japanese Lines
Reveille was called with a shiny, curved ship’s whistle, or ‘bosun’s pipe’, that Les Barker wore on a lanyard around his neck next to his .455 Webley revolver. Small and slight as he was, the cheery young leading seaman was taking turns with David Legge in carrying their section’s heavy and cumbersome Bren gun, complete with bipod mounting and ammunition. The march facing them today was a challenge...
21. Into Free China
When the signal to move came at dawn, they were only too glad to get going. Kendall led off at a cracking pace, saying they could have breakfast at their first stop in unoccupied China: a village called Xinxu, where the Nationalist Army had a small forward post. But that was still almost ten miles away. By the time the sun came up and the warmth began to seep into their bones, many of them were already...
22. Welcome to Waichow
Their goal today was Waichow, now only 14 miles away. Here they were told they would find a British military representative and an American mission, as well as a medical post, shops and other amenities. On a beautiful, sunny morning they were washed and ready to leave by eight o’clock. About forty ‘bicycle-taxis’ had been sent from Waichow to meet them, in case the older or more footsore members...
23. Photos and Shopping
Orders came to assemble at 8 a.m. for an official photograph, but most made as much as they could of their unaccustomed beds by having as long a lie-in as possible. While the officers were sleeping two to a room, the ratings—or ‘troops’ as they were known—were packed into dormitories, just like in the old days in Hong Kong. From now on, ranks were being re-established in strict Royal Navy tradition....
Part Five: The Way Home
24. River Boats
Next day, the early morning sounds of soldiers’ bugles and peddlers’ street cries were once again interrupted by the thudding gongs of the air raid alarm, as the Japanese bomber returned for another look at the mission. The airbase was so close that there was never time for adequate warning. But if the pilots saw people scattering they were apparently satisfied, and no bombs were dropped. Even so, the...
25. ‘Bow, You Buggers, Bow’
Next morning, the passengers had to make their own way on foot along the riverbank, while their lightened boats were poled and even bodily lifted over the biggest sandbanks yet. By 1 p.m., the men from MTBs 07, 09, 11 and 27 were at least an hour ahead of everyone else, since their boat had found the best route through the shallows. As the leading group walked round the final bend in the river before...
26. Kukong Comforts
The lorries halted near the customs gate on the edge of the city. A large crowd had gathered there and banners prepared by the army’s political department had been hung across the road. ‘Hearty welcome to General Chen Chak and the Hong Kong defenders,’ read one in English. ‘Welcome to heroic, outstanding Chan Chak,’ said another in Chinese....
27. Parting of the Ways
Among the many visitors to the one-legged admiral’s bedside at the mission was the guerrilla leader, Leung Wingyuen, who came to bid an emotional farewell to his former marine commander. As promised, Chan had put in a good word for him with the Chinese Army, recommending him to no less a figure than Yu Hanmou as a ‘bold and patriotic’ fighter. General Yu responded by formally appointing the exbandit...
28. Journey to the West
Two days after the departure of Montague and the rest of the Chungking group, the main naval party under Gandy began their long overland journey from Kukong to Burma. They rose at 3.30 a.m. on Friday 16 January and marched across town to the railway station, where friends from the YMCA and the mission had gathered in the predawn darkness to see them off. As an expression of gratitude for...
29. Burma Shave
Burma was to prove a shock. It was even more poorly prepared to deal with a Japanese attack than Hong Kong had been. Where Hong Kong had at least put up a good fight against the odds, Burma’s defending forces were disorganized and demoralized before the battle had even begun....
30. Glasgow Bound
The column of smoke above Rangoon was still clearly visible 40 miles out at sea. But there was no sign of the expected enemy aircraft: the RAF and the Flying Tigers had taken a heavy toll of the Japanese air squadrons. As the Jessen headed northwest across the Bay of Bengal, tension slowly subsided and thoughts turned increasingly to the possibility that they might now, finally, be on their way home....
Later . . .
RON ASHBY got back to England to find his wife Doreen—believing him dead—had found another man. He remarried in 1946, and he and Eileen celebrated their golden wedding shortly before he died. Ron spent the rest of the war as a flotilla leader, serving finally as Senior Officer, Coastal Forces, in the Arakan campaign to retake Rangoon. This earned him a Mention in Dispatches and a ‘bar’ to ...