Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak’s Christmas Day Dash 1941,
Tim Luard, Hong Kong University Press, 320pp, £29.95 (hardback)
Until General Slim’s triumphant campaign in Burma at the beginning of 1945 the record of British resistance to Japanese attacks on their possessions in Asia had been dismal indeed. It was not just that the prize battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, had been sunk by Japanese air attacks. There seemed to be something fundamentally wrong with the fighting quality of British troops. Malaya and Burma had been abandoned almost without a serious battle. At this rate the Japanese would soon be at the gates of India and the loyalty of Indian regiments defending the Empire in India could not be taken for granted. These disasters had a serious effect on Churchill’s morale. They coincided with the high water mark of Rommel’s offensive in the western desert which brought Axis troops dangerously close to Cairo. True, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had brought the United States into the war, which had been one of the chief objectives of Churchill’s premiership so far. True, Hitler had made the catastrophic mistake of declaring war against the United States at a time when he needed to concentrate his full war effort in support of the German attack on the Soviet Union, the success of which hung in the balance as the world prepared to celebrate Christmas 1941.
These broad strategic considerations could hardly have been in the mind of Sir Mark Young, Governor of Hong Kong, as he sat playing Chopin on his piano in Government House. His own problems were difficult enough. On the one hand he was being urged by Churchill to hold out and defend Hong Kong to the last man. Perhaps as he read these instructions he thought of the old Chinese saying, ‘the hills are high and the Emperor far away’. The gap between the emperor in Downing Street and the situation in HongKong seemed wide indeed. It was already clear that the British had grossly underestimated their Japanese opponents. The Clubs and Service Messes of Hong Kong had been comforting themselves with absurd stories: the Japanese could not fight at night, and their chronic short sightedness would always be a crippling handicap. Above all, they were little men, almost dwarves, and no match for a stalwart Englishman or indeed for the sturdy Indian troops who shared the task of defending Hong Kong.
All this was clearly rubbish. The Japanese had swarmed across the frontier and occupied the New Territories north of Hong Kong Island without any real difficulty. Within hours they would no doubt cross the harbour and invade Hong Kong Island itself. There was no prospect of effective defence. Sir Mark knew that his military colleague, General Maltby, shared this assessment. The best hope was for an orderly surrender. Sir Mark discounted the reports that a large Chinese army was poised to march to the rescue of the British colony. The Japanese had command of the air, having destroyed in the early hours of the war a handful of ancient aircraft on which the colony depended for its defence. The Governor knew that there were a number of individuals in Hong Kong who were planning to escape and make their way to ‘free China’, Chiang Kai-Shek’s wartime capital in Chongqing.
Tim Luard has pieced together skilfully the main elements of what followed. The broad facts are generally known but this is the first attempt at a comprehensive story. It is plainly told in the style of John Buchan and would make an excellent film. The casting might cause some problems, in particular because the man who emerged as the leader and hero of the expedition was a Chinese Admiral, Chan Chak, who had lost a leg in an earlier encounter with the Japanese invaders. Chan was Chiang Kai-Shek’s representative in Hong Kong and accustomed to working with the British.
He found himself at the head of a motley collection of Britons, including several staff and intelligence officers and also fifty British sailors who were all that remained of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong. As the main garrison of the colony displayed the white flags of surrender this curious but gallant group made their escape under Japanese fire. At dawn on Boxing Day they landed at Namao in Mirs Bay. Guided by Chinese guerrillas they made their way through the Japanese lines and walked for four days and nights across rough country to receive a warm welcome in Wai Chow which was held by Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops. The Admiral, who had been shot in the hand making his escape, was welcomed in the different villages through which they passed. Once assembled in ‘free China’ the escape team dissolved into its component parts. The main naval contingent made its way along the Burma Road and found itself in Burma just as that colony collapsed under Japanese attack.
Mr. Luard has taken the trouble to research the post-war fortunes and misfortunes of those who escaped from Hong Kong that Christmas Day. The Admiral was awarded a Knighthood by the King and was briefly Mayor of Canton before the Communist takeover in 1949. Mr. Luard passes no judgements but throughout treats the escaping party as heroes engaged in a gallant dash for freedom. By contrast he clearly believes that the garrison in Hong Kong surrendered too soon. (Within a couple of months the much larger garrison in Singapore followed the same example.) The route which the escape party discovered on their journey from Hong Kong was used later by other Britons escaping the colony. Mr. Luard describes the escape as a rare example of British and Chinese working together, as it happens under Chinese command. His story is well told, and well worth telling.