In 1935, Major General Sir John Dill, director of military operations, ranked Hong Kong's strategic significance far below that of Singapore, Britain's other naval base. A 1939 strategic review also assigned Britain's interests in Europe much greater importance than those of Hong Kong. British leaders nonetheless feared that a failure to defend Hong Kong or even the evacuation of civilians would signal their country's intention of abandoning its Asian position and damage the morale of the embattled Chinese Guomindang (GMD [Kuomintang, KMT], Nationalist) government in its struggle to resist Japanese invasion.
By June 1940, sizable Japanese forces blocked Hong Kong's access to the Chinese mainland. That August, Dill—now chief of the Imperial General Staff—recommended the withdrawal of the British garrison. Although Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill accepted this recommendation, it was not implemented. Some women and children were evacuated to Manila in the Philippines, and in October 1941, Britain accepted the Canadian government's ill-considered offer to send 2 Canadian battalions to reinforce the 2 Scottish and 2 Indian battalions already manning Hong Kong's defenses.
Even with this assistance, Hong Kong's defenses remained decidedly inadequate: 12,000 troops, augmented by the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery and the civilian Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Force, were too few to man the colony's main lengthy defense line (Gindrinker's Line), which ran 3 miles north of Kowloon in the New Territories. Air and naval forces comprised a pitiable 7 airplanes, 8 motor torpedo boats, and 4 small gunboats. It was generally known that many Japanese civilians in the colony were fifth columnists, agents only awaiting the opportunity to facilitate a Japanese assault. The British government had no intention of sending any further assistance but merely expected its defenders to stave off inevitable defeat as long as possible.
On 8 December 1941, as Japanese forces simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbor, a surprise raid on Kai Tak airfield by Taiwan-based Japanese bombers destroyed all 7 British airplanes. Twelve battalions of the 38th Division of the Japanese Twenty-Third Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Sano Tadayoshi, crossed the Shenzhen River separating the New Territories and mainland China. Churchill urged Hong Kong's defenders to resist to the end, but within 24 hours Japanese forces had breached Gindrinker's Line. British commander Major General Christopher M. Maltby ordered a retreat to Hong Kong island, and by 12 December, Japanese troops held Kowloon.
Sano's artillery began heavy bombardments of British positions on Victoria, the central district, but Maltby refused a 14 December ultimatum to surrender and the following day repulsed a Japanese attempt to land troops on the island. A second attempt three nights later succeeded, and Japanese forces swiftly advanced across the island to its southern coast, splitting British forces. Despite heavy losses, British troops fought fiercely, on 20 December compelling Sano to halt temporarily to regroup his forces. The advance soon resumed, however, and by 24 December Japanese units had destroyed the water mains, leaving their opponents as short of water as they were of ammunition. On 25 December 1941, the British governor negotiated an unconditional surrender.
Immediately afterward, the Japanese victors treated their defeated foes with great brutality, massacring many of the defending forces, Chinese and western, including hospitalized wounded men. They raped and sometimes killed hospital nurses and other captured women. Surviving prisoners of war and Allied civilians were interned for the duration of the war, often in severe conditions, while the supposedly liberated Chinese population likewise experienced harsh and arbitrary rule and numerous atrocities.
Hong Kong remained under Japanese occupation until August 1945 when, despite the hopes of Chinese Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) that it would revert to China, British forces reestablished control. Hong Kong subsequently remained a British colony until its 1997 reversion to China.
Barham, Tony. Not the Slightest Chance: The Defence of Hong Kong, 1941. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2003.; Birch, Alan, and Martin Cole. Captive Christmas: The Battle of Hong Kong, December 1941. Hong Kong: Heinemann Asia, 1979.; Carew, Tim. Fall of Hong Kong. London: Anthony Blond, 1960.; Ferguson, Ted. Desperate Siege: The Battle of Hong Kong. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1980.; Gandt, Robert. Season of Storms: The Siege of Hong Kong, 1941. Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982.; Lindsay, Oliver. The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong, 1941. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978; 2d ed. London: Collins, 1997.