Michael Dawe: Red Deer soldier survived ghastly Battle of Hong Kong

This Friday at 3 p.m., the Red Deer Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 35, will be celebrating National Peacekeepers Day.

There will also be commemorations of the Battle of Hong Kong, which took place in December 1941. It was one of the most horrific battles in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces.

A Japanese attack on Hong Kong had been expected for some time. The British Imperial government knew the crown colony was likely indefensible against a major invasion. Hence, for a long time, little was invested in the colony’s defences.

However, in the late summer of 1941, British authorities belatedly decided that improved defences might deter an attack. The Canadian government was asked to help with the strategy.

Consequently, in the fall 1941, 1,975 men, mainly from the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, were sent to Hong Kong.

The defences on the hills of the mainland, as well as those along the coast of Hong Kong Island, were bolstered.

Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese army attacked.

The Canadians, British and Allied troops fought heroically.

However, by Dec. 11, it was obvious the mainland territories, including Kowloon, had either been lost or were about to fall.

All forces were then withdrawn to the Island of Hong Kong.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers and Canadian Signalers were assigned to the West Brigade, while the Royal Rifles became part of the East Brigade.

The Japanese launched a heavy artillery bombardment and air force bombing attacks.

Dec. 18, landings on the beaches of the island were successfully made.

The British, Canadian and Allied defenders fought back fiercely.

While they were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Japanese, they also suffered heavy losses. Gradually, the defenders were forced to pull back.

By Dec. 22, many units were starting to run low on ammunition, food and water. All were suffering from exhaustion with the incredibly heavy combat.

Further resistance increasingly appeared to be futile. Massacres of captured and wounded by the Japanese began, including several Canadian wounded who were in a makeshift hospital.

Finally, Christmas Day, and after 17½ days of fighting, the British governor of Hong Kong formally surrendered to the Japanese. Two hundred and ninety Canadians had been killed in action and 493 had been wounded. All of the survivors were taken as prisoners of war.

One of those who had been stationed on Hong Kong Island was Horace “Gerry” Gerrard of Red Deer. He had joined the militia with the 78th Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery at the age of 16 in 1938.

When the war broke out in September 1939, he immediately went to the B.C. coast as a member of the 5 Heavy Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery.

He was then transferred into the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. After brief stints of additional training in Ontario and Nova Scotia, he was included in the Canadian contingent to Hong Kong in October 1941.

Gerrard’s unit was on Hong Kong Island when the Japanese attacked. He was at such places as Wong Nei Chong Gap and Wan Chai during the fighting. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, he was one of the surviving Canadians who finally surrendered.

At first, he was held at the Sham Shui Po barracks. He was later sent to PoW camps in Japan, where he and the other Canadians were worked as slave labour.

At the first camp at Kawasaki, the Japanese commander told the prisoners that they would never see Canada again. Gerrard was determined to prove him wrong.

While they were interned, another 264 Canadians lost their lives from starvation, disease and torture. Despite great suffering and abuse, Gerrard managed to survive. He and the other survivors were finally freed in August 1945.

Gerrard’s mother did not know for nearly a year if her son was alive or dead. His fiancée, Evelyn, also waited for him with hope.

When he finally got back to Canada, Evelyn was waiting for him on the dock where he landed. They got married six weeks later.

Gerrard was a member of the Legion for more than 70 years. He was also very active with the Hong Kong Veterans Association. He laid a wreath at the local cenotaph every Remembrance Day and Christmas Day.

Evelyn died in 2010. Gerrard died May 22, in Victoria, B.C., from cancer.

He and his wife Evelyn were survived by two daughters, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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