The decision was made well before the war’s outbreak. In case of Japanese invasion, Great Britain did not expect to be able to prevent the conquest of its prized Chinese Crown colony—Hong Kong. Instead, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ordered Major General Christopher Maltby to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, fighting a protracted battle from the mainland onto Hong Kong Island before surrendering. British resistance in indefensible Hong Kong would hopefully buy more time for the troops defending Malaya and Singapore, which was Churchill’s main strategic focus.
In accordance with that plan, since the outbreak of war in Europe the Royal Navy had been evacuating all blue-water warships from Hong Kong to the naval base at Singapore to prevent their capture by the Japanese. The 12 vessels of the 5th Cruiser Squadron had all departed by the end of 1940, followed by the nine boats of the 4th Submarine Flotilla.
When the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong began on 8 December 1941, two of the three destroyers then in harbor also steamed away. Left behind, HMS Thracian was then the Royal Navy’s largest vessel in China. Other naval units in Hong Kong Harbor consisted of the headquarters vessel HMS Tamar, six gunboats of assorted classes and sizes, eight vessels of the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla, nine auxiliary minesweepers, nine local-defense craft, several auxiliary vessels and harbor craft, an accommodation ship, and a boom defense tender.
The only other Royal Navy ships in China were the gunboat HMS Peterel and a 93-ton tug, HMS Ah Ming, both based on the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and three other gunboats. The trio had steamed deep inland away from Japanese activity and would in due course be turned over to the Chinese Nationalist Navy.
As the Peterel was being attacked and sunk in Shanghai Harbor on 8 December, Japanese troops of the 38th Division began crossing the Sham Chun River, the border between mainland China and Hong Kong. The invaders heavily outnumbered General Maltby’s 10,000 Commonwealth and Empire troops, many of whom had only recently arrived in the colony and lacked combat experience. The Royal Air Force had practically ceased to exist as a presence in China, having only three aging Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-bombers and a pair of Supermarine Walrus maritime patrol aircraft stationed at RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong. The Japanese destroyed both seaplanes and two of the torpedo-bombers on the first day of the battle.
Central to the British plan to delay the Japanese advance toward Hong Kong Island was Gin Drinker’s Line, a series of redoubts and fortified positions held by three understrength infantry battalions, the main strongpoint being the Shing Mun Redoubt. Maltby hoped to hold back the Japanese for at least two weeks, but he was unable to deploy sufficient men to realistically do so. The Japanese captured the Shing Mun Redoubt on 10 December, forcing the British to abandon the entire length of Gin Drinker’s Line.
The following day the Japanese began advancing into Kowloon, with the British Mainland Brigade retreating through the town under artillery and aerial attack. Although the 7th Rajput Regiment bravely formed a rear guard that enabled most of the British and Indian troops to cross over to Hong Kong Island, the Japanese rapidly captured Kowloon and the Royal Navy base there. One of the final British actions before the Japanese overran the base was the scuttling of the 3,650-ton Tamar on 12 December. The oldest naval ship in Hong Kong, the Tamar was built in 1863 as a troop carrier and subsequently hulked. She had served as China Station Headquarters at Kowloon since 1897.
Also on the 12th, HMS Moth, an Insect-class gunboat, was lost when the dry dock she was in was deliberately flooded. The 12 vessels of the Insect class had been constructed during World War I for service against the Austro-Hungarian Danube Flotilla. Ironically, the class was ordered as “China gunboats” to conceal their true destination, but 11 of them did eventually end up patrolling Chinese rivers. Before being sunk in Hong Kong, the Moth had patrolled the Yangtze River for many years. A powerful presence, the 645-ton, well-armed vessel was twice the size of the other classes of British gunboats.
The other Insect-class gunboat present in Hong Kong during the battle, the Cicala, was in the thick of the action from the outset and under repeated dive-bomber attack. The vessel’s two 6-inch and two 12-pounder guns were backed up by a 3-inch antiaircraft gun and six Lewis machine guns. By maneuvering violently and throwing up a near-constant flak barrage, the gunboat avoided serious damage until near the end of the battle.
On 13 December one of the gunboats managed to score a victory for the British defenders. HMS Tern, a 262-ton vessel built in England in 1927, downed a Japanese aircraft with her two 3-inch guns, one of the few successes recorded by the Royal Navy during the battle. The Japanese then settled into preparing for an amphibious assault across Victoria Harbor that included extensively shelling and bombing the island’s north shore to soften up its defenses.
The Thracian, meanwhile, was damaged by grounding on Lamma Island on 15 December as she avoided repeated Japanese aerial attacks. The destroyer’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander A. L. Pears, decided on a drastic course of action. On the following night he had the badly damaged destroyer deliberately run aground on Round Island in Repulse Bay in an effort to scuttle her. The attempt failed, however, and she was later captured by the Japanese. Turned over to the Imperial Japanese Navy in November 1942 after extensive repairs, the Thracian was commissioned as Patrol Vessel 101 and in 1944 converted into a training ship. She ended the war in Yokosuka, Japan, attached to the torpedo school.
The final battle for Hong Kong commenced on the night of 18 December when three Japanese regiments landed on the island and Maltby threw his remaining two infantry brigades against the invaders. On 19 December, amid fierce fighting across the island, the Japanese cut the British defenses into two. Although British forces bravely attempted to re-establish a defensive line, the Japanese were too numerous and strong. The Tern was scuttled in Deep Water Bay, possibly as the result of a mistaken signal. On 21 December the gunboat Cicala, amazingly having stood off 60 Japanese dive-bomber attacks during the course of the battle, finally succumbed to the inevitable and sank. Struck by three bombs in the West Lamma Channel, she also probably was scuttled.
The British lost control of the vital water reservoirs as the fighting progressed across the island, and after 18 days of fighting over the length of the colony, the British surrendered their remaining forces on Christmas Day 1941 in a ceremony at the Peninsula Hotel. The last of the gunboats was scuttled that day. Built in 1934 and one of the final gunboats dispatched to Chinese waters, HMS Robin disappeared beneath the waves to prevent her capture by the victorious Japanese.
As the Robin’s career came to an end, a desperate escape attempt was underway using the remaining vessels of the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla from Aberdeen Harbor. Five vessels remained seaworthy, the other three having been destroyed during the battle. Now that Hong Kong’s governor, Mark Young, had surrendered the colony, it was imperative that certain key military, intelligence, and government officials not fall into the hands of the Japanese. Fifteen British officers plus 35 enlisted men assembled at the torpedo boats. Also taken aboard for the journey to freedom were a few prominent civilians, three Special Operations Executive agents, and a Chinese naval-liaison party numbering four officers, headed by the one-legged Admiral Chan Chak. Before the torpedo boats were able to get clear of Hong Kong, the Japanese attacked, killing three and capturing one of the would-be escapees.
At the same time, a resourceful naval officer, Commander Hugh Montague, along with two other officers and four men, managed to get their hands on a tug and headed out after the torpedo boats. All the vessels eventually made it safely to the coast of Guangdong Province, south of Hong Kong, where the torpedo boats were scuttled. Through the help of Admiral Chan, the British escapees made a perilous overland journey to British lines in Burma and repatriation to England. Their comrades captured in Hong Kong were beginning years of brutal imprisonment by the Japanese that many would not survive.
The Royal Navy triumphantly returned to Hong Kong in 1945, and a new naval base was constructed. As Britain slowly relinquished her empire and her global military capabilities shrank, the navy’s presence in the Far East became more and more focused on Hong Kong, until the last British warship steamed out of the harbor in 1997 and the colony was handed back to China. The former home of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong now serves as the main barracks for the People’s Liberation Army garrisoning the new Special Administrative Region of China.