6 November 2015

Remembrance continued: Courage to the end.

Courage takes many forms in war. There is the courage of defense, the courage of attack, the kind of courage that saves situations and wins battles. There is the courage in risking one's life to save one's fellows. Unfortunately, there is also a kind of courage which may be called an existential courage, that of a man put into an impossible situation by indifferent or incompetent commanders, trying to meet his unjust doom with what dignity his grace affords him. Sadly, this kind of courage was and demanded all too often of our soldiers. In late 1941, this was the courage demanded of two battalions of Canadians sent to Hong Kong.

Originally, the planners and tacticians of war believed Hong Kong to be indefensible. If war with Japan commenced, they would maintain it as an outpost for as long as possible, but no plans were made for its defense. That policy was maintained until late 1941, when it was thought a small defense force would deter the Japanese from invading. Accordingly, Canada was asked to provide a battalion or two for the defense of the colony. The Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent to Hong Kong on October 27. Neither had received front line training. As both were being sent for garrison duty, it was felt it wasn't important to train them for actual combat. The full depth of the error was realized just weeks later, when the Japanese launched near simultaneous attacks across the Pacific.

Despite the optimism, the defenders of Hong Kong, who numbered about 14,000 including the Canadians, had prepared several defensive lines for the coming attack. They unfortunately had almost no naval support and only five airplanes. The defenses were considered to be adequate unless the Japanese mounted a major attack.

On December 7, the post was put on high alert. That day,  the first Japanese air attack reached the island, attacking the airport and destroying all five aircraft. On the 9th Japanese ground forces began attacking the Hong Kong mainland positions. The defensive lines began to fall, and the over the next few days the defenders began a withdrawal to the island. On December 17th the Japanese demanded the outpost surrender. It was rejected. The Japanese began to soften up the island through artillery bombardment and air raids. The demand for surrender was repeated. Again it was rejected, but defeat was only a matter of time. The US fleet lay in ruins in Pearl Harbour. British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk off Malaya. The island was surrounded. There would be no supplies, no reinforcements, no relief. Outnumbered, out gunned, out prepared, the men prepared to go down fighting.

The invasion of the island began on the night of the 18th. experienced Japanese troops made progress up the island, the defenders holding on to every inch as best they could. Much of what was done over the next week was lost. Whole companies defending key points, or sent out to re-take critical objectives simply vanished from the earth, their deeds never known. Slowly and inexorably, the Japanese were taking over.

In the midst of all this, the actions of one man stand out, simply because his actions are remembered, and give us some small insight into the fighting at Hong King. Sgt John Robert Osborn and his company had been sent out on the morning of 19th December, 1941 to capture Mount Butler. At point of bayonet, his company succeeded in driving off the superior Japanese forces. They held the mount under heavy gunfire for the next three hours. The position became untenable, and the company began a withdrawal. Osborn and a small group covered the withdrawal. When it came to their turn to withdraw, Osborn singlehandedly engaged the enemy while his group pull back and rejoined the company. Finally he withdrew under heavy fire, gathered what stragglers he could, and rejoined the company position. He encouraged the man, and kept them fighting.

By afternoon the company was cut off from the battalion and completely surrounded. The men sought the protection of a slight depression in the ground. The Japanese came close enough to start lobbing grenades at the Canadians. Osborn started catching them and throwing them back. The company officer believed the position was impossible, and decided to surrender. He stepped forward from the depression, holding his white handkerchief aloft, and holding his pistol butt outward as a sign of surrender. The Japanese shot him dead. They threw more grenades. Osborn caught and threw more back, until he missed one. Shouting a warning to the men, Osborne threw himself on the grenade.

Minutes after Osborn's death the Japanese overran the company's position, and took the men prisoner. The defence of the island continued for another week. At 3:15, Christmas Day, the defenders surrendered, and the battle of Hong Kong was over. Before the survivors lay four hard, nightmarish years in Japanese Prison camps. Many of them would not survive.

After the war, when the POW's were released, the men of Hong Kong could finally tell their stories. People began to hear the story of John Robert Osborn. Reports were written, recommendations were made, and Osborn was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the 19th December, 1941. It was the only VC awarded for the battle of Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong Park a bronze statue of a Canadian soldier stands as a memorial to the Battle of Hong Kong. He fiercely holds his rifle with bayonet affixed as he stands forever ready, forever defiant. It is John Osborn, the hero of Hong Kong, a land upon which he should never have been ordered to set foot.


Anonymous said...

Did you leave out "never" in the last sentence?

Bear said...

Yes. Fixed it.