Tuesday 27 August 2013

Sub-Lt. William B Haslett, HKRNVR - the naval officer that disobeyed orders

William Benjamin Haslett was born 11 February 1894. He was a Marine Engineer from Belfast. He had been based in Hong Kong for several years and had joined the HKRNVRon the outbreak of war in 1939. at the age of forty-five. He was appointed to the Mine Watching Branch.  He was initially based at the Mine Control Station Lamma (MCSL) located at Chung Am Kok.  The HKRNVR were responsible for the minefields which consisted of traditional contact mines with spiked detonators and electronic mines that could be detonated by remote control from two shore stations.  Haslett describes the MCSL as being on a hill top with a flight of 130 steps up from the road. There was another station based at Shek-o Beach known as Mine Control Station Tathong (MCST). 

Haslett was transferred to Tai Tam Indicator Loop Station (ILS). This was situated at Tai Tam Tuk below the dam. The indicator loops were laid on the sea-bed and could identify the movement of a passing submarine or surface ship. Whilst stationed at Tai Tam ILS he had a heart attack. He was taken to HMS Tamar sickbay where he recalls waiting in great pain to see a doctor. The doctor immediately arranged for him to be transferred to Kowloon Hospital where he was seen by Dr Uttley. He was transferred to Queen Mary Hospital where Dr Wilkinson determined he had suffered a Coronary Thrombosis and would need to be hospitalised for two or three months.  

On discharge he reported back to Lt-Cdr Swetland, Mine Warfare Officer at HKRNVR headquarters on  HMS Cornflower and after a period of leave was assigned to Mine Control Station Tathong (MCST) based at Shek-o as a Sub-Lt and Maintenance Engineer. He moved his personal effects from his flat in Prince Edward Road, Kowloon to a Chinese village house on the beach at Shek-o. It must have seemed idyllic at times with the war in Europe far away - but the war clouds in Asia were gathering. Only a few months later, on 8 December 1941 the Japanese Imperial Army crossed the border into Hong Kong.

On 18 December the Japanese effected a landing on the North Shore of Hong Kong Island. An order came to detonate the remote-controlled minefield, to destroy the station and report to the senior naval officer at Stanley Fort.

Now some confusion arises as to the facts. His commanding officer (although same rank) Sub Lt Nissim recalls ordering all officers and men at the Mine Control Station Tathong (Shek-o beach) to proceed forthwith to Stanley Fort. There were five private cars available with preference given to those who were elderly or not very fit which would have included Haslett since he was recovering  from a heart condition.

Sub-Lt Nissim and Sub-Lts Fogwill and Landbert and WO Robertson claimed that Haslett insisted on going home to his house in the village where he had a valuable stamp collection and other personal effects and that he stated that he had no intention of leaving the village. In their opinion he was deserting his duties by not following instructions to leave with the rest of the detachment. Haslett recalls going back to pack some of his valuable belongings and returning to the station  to find it deserted and that Chinese villagers were already looting the premises of emergency rations and other items.

Haslett went up to Shek-o Club which was an exclusive and expensive golf and recreation club surrounded by the commodious bungalows of the wealthy Europeans who lived there. Club membership came with villa ownership. Haslett recalls how the No 1 Steward  informed him that he was the only European left in Shek-o although this proved incorrect as a Mr & Mrs Dawson-Grove were still in residence at their villa  No. 13 Shek-o.  They had not been informed of the evacuation. They were a retired couple of mature years. Herman Dawson-Grove being sixty-four and his wife Ethel being fifty-five. They had a son of seventeen who was a student at HKU.  He was manning a First Aid Post at or near the university. Another son Anthony (Tony) Dawson-Grove was a doctor and serving a Surgeon-Lt in the HKRNVR. He was a well known physician before the war. He was interned in the military camps. After the war he became a partner in Dr Anderson & Partners.

Haslett stayed with the Dawson-Groves sharing what limited tinned food they had available. He slept in their youngest son's room. On Saturday 20th December in the late afternoon a group of Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets led by an officer with a drawn sword and a revolver came quickly up the drive to the property. They were let in. Then after helping themselves themselves to what food was available they commandeered the family's two cars. The soldiers clambering in and Herman Dawson-Grove was ordered to drive one  and his wife Ethel the other, with Haslett hanging on whilst standing on the running board.

They were ordered to drive not towards Shek-o Village as they had expected but in the other direction  towards Big Wave Bay. A short distance down the road they joined up with a company of Japanese soldiers who were resting there. Some officers were studying maps and with them was a group of Chinese informers or guides, whether volunteers (fifth columnists) or coerced  one can only surmise. 

At this point Ethel Dawson-Grove was ordered to return home. Haslett describes how they then went over the hillside, which would have been quite a steep climb, toward Fort Collinson. The fort  equipped with 6-inch coastal defence guns had been evacuated and the guns disabled on 19 December and the battery personnel withdrawn to Stanley Fort.

They then proceeded along Cape Collinson Road - then down into a valley and up the steep hillside to the road linking Shau Kai Wan with Tai Tam Gap. This four or five  mile march had been quite a strain on both men. Herman being elderly and asthmatic and Haslett still recovering from his heart attack. They were made to carry equipment and when they flagged they were kicked and prodded to keep going. Herman was faring less well because of his asthma and was eventually dragged along by the Chinese guides - one of whom was trying to remove his gold cuff links. At this point of pain and exhaustion he pleaded with the Japanese just to shoot him.

They spent the night of the 21 December lying in the open without water. The japanese placed them at their front  in an exposed position near where their sentries were posted. As dawn came up on 22 December they watched a mass of Japanese infantry which Haslett estimated to be of about 1,500 to 2,000 men pass through Tai Tam Gap and then turn right in the direction of Tai Tam and Stanley. They were followed by Japanese soldiers with mules carrying light guns and other equipment.

After this they were left alone and allowed to return to No 13 Shek-o where they were reunited with Ethel Dawson-Grove. For the next few days there was little sign of the Japanese until after the surrender. However looting continued with Chinese gangsters from nearby Shaukeiwan going to Shek-o to plunder the empty properties. Ethel Dawson-Grove drove one of the cars to Shek-o Club and obtained a rifle and ammunition which helped fend off looters.

On 26 December the day after the surrender of Hong Kong the first lorry load of Japanese soldiers arrived in Shek-o. They were allowed to remain at No 13 until  31st December when they were driven off to HK and subsequent internment. I believe they were initially interned at HKU where they were reunited with their youngest son Glascott Eyre Dawson-Grove. 

The Dawson-Groves survived the three years and eight months of internment.  At Stanley they were billeted in the Indian Quarters. Sub-Lt Haslett, wearing civilian clothes, was also interned at Stanley Camp.  

Did Sub-Lt Haslett desert his post. I think the answer is yes.  Did he disobey an order - the answer again  has to be yes. He claimed he went back home to pick up his valuables and by the time he returned the station had been evacuated. His colleagues believed he deserted. It has to be said he was not sufficiently fit to have been on active service. He lost all his possessions. He returned to UK on the Empress of Australia as a sick man and he died not long after the war, in January 1947, aged only fifty-two - just  another of the tragedies of war. 


Unpublished letters/reports held at HK GRO

Additional Information
He was not married. He died in Belfast. His possessions such as he had  went to his younger brother Albert Haslett. 


  1. Dear Philip: I think there is a typo there, shouldn't it be 19 December instead ?
    "The fort equipped with 6-inch coastal defence guns had been evacuated and the guns disabled on <<19 January>> and the battery personnel withdrawn to Stanley Fort."

    1. Thanks Alex - so easy to miss typos! Just corrected it. Thanks for your keen eye. Philip

  2. Good article. I agree he deserted but so easy for him to report requesting sick leave or light duties. No need to go AWOL.

  3. Thanks for your post - I agree with your assessment. Philip

  4. Hi Philip,
    Do you know when the Japanese arrived at Shek O/ Big Wave Bay area? Another question is that a soldier named P. Wilson dissapeared in the area during the 19th December retreat. Are there any ideas on what happened to him. I'm just saying this because the 19th seems too early for the Japanese to arrive at Shek O.

    1. Hi: Haslett's papers indicated that Japanese troops arrived 20th Dec in the Big Wave Bay and Shek-O area. They landed on night of 18/19 so 20th sounds logical for first incursion into Big Wave Bay area securing their flanks. Which unit was P. Wilson in ? There was a Peter Bruce Wilson who is reported MIA on 19 Dec but I think he was No 1 Battery HKVDC and therefore should not have been in Shek-O area - as they were at Cape D'Aguilar. No 2 Coy HKVDC were in the area of Big Wave Bay.