Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sub Lt. William B Haslett, HKRNVR - his war

William Benjamin Haslett was born at the end of the Victorian century on 11th February 1894. He was a Marine Engineer from Belfast and that's all I know of him until he joined the Hong Kong Royal Naval Reserve on the outbreak of war in 1939 aged 45.

He was appointed to the Minewatching Branch as a Warrant officer,  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 from two shore based 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). This is now a popular swimming beach. There was another station which monitored the indicator loops known as Tai Tam Indicator Loop Station (ILS).

Haslett was transferred to Taitam Indicator Loop Station.  Whilst stationed here 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 (later interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp). Realizing how seriously ill he was he was transferred him yet again to Queen Mary Hospital where Dr Wilkinson determined he had suffered a Coronary Thrombosis and would need to be hospitalized for 2 or 3 months.

On discharge he reported back to Lt Cdr Swetland, Mine Warfare Officer at HKRNVR headquarters in the converted sloop 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  8th December 1941 the Japanese Imperial Army crossed the border and its air force bombed Hong Kong with impunity.

On the 18th December the Japanese effected a landing on the North Shore of Hong Kong Island . An order came to detonate the minefield, to destroy the station and report to Stanley Fort where Naval personnel would have to fight as infantry.

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. He recalls there being five 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

Whereas,  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 or emergency rations and other items.

He went up to Shek-o Club which was an exclusive and expensive golf and recreation club surrounded by the villas of the wealthy and very much the same today. Haslett recalls how the No 1 Boy informed him that he was the only European left in Shek-o although this proved incorrect as a Mr & Mrs Dawson-Grove (later to be interned at Stanley Camp) 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 64 and his wife Ethel being 55. They had a son of 17 who was with them during their incarceration in Stanley Internment Camp but not it seems at their villa at Shek-o at that time instead he was at HK University. Another son Anthony (Tony) Dawson-Goves was a fellow officer of Haslett as a Surgeon Lt. in HKRNVR. He was a well known physician before the war. He was interned in military POW Camps and later transferred to Japan. After the war he became a partner in Dr Anderson & Parners.

Haslett stayed with the Dawson-Groves sharing what limited tinned food they had available. He slept in their son's room who was away at University.

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 and menacingly down 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 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 which I assume to mean 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 paps and with them   was a group of Chinese informers or guides, whether volunteers or coerced  one can only surmise but certainly there were a lot of 5th columnists amongst the civilian population who supported the Japanese and were glad to see the defeat of the British and no doubt were attracted by the Japanese promise of liberating Asia for the Asiatics.

At this point Ethel Dawson-Grove was ordered harshly to return home. Haslett describes how they then went over the hillside, which would have been quite a steep climb, to Fort Collinson. The fort manned by 36th Coast Battery, 8th Coast Regiment Royal Artillery was equipped with 6 inch guns. The fort had been evacuated and the guns disabled on the 19th 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 4 or 5 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 fell they were kicked on the ground 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 21st 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 22nd of December they watched a mass of Japanese infantry which Haslett estimated to be of about 1,500 to 2,000 men pass through the Gap and then turn right in the direction of Tai Tam and Stanley. There then followed Japanese soldiers with mules carrying light guns and other equipment.

After this they were left alone and took their time returning back to No 13 Shek-o where they were reunited with Ethel who had spent a sleepless night alone in the house. 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. Ethel Dawson-Grove drove one of the cars to Shek-o Club and obtained a rifle and ammunition which helped fend off potential looters.

On 26th 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.  As Ethel was packing tinned food on their removal from Shek-o - a Japanese soldier took a tin of sardines and placed it in his pocket. During the lorry ride to town she was able to surreptitiously remove it from his pocket ad slip it down the front of her dress. Never one to be outdone!

The Dawson-Groves survived the three and half years of internment despite the starvation rations, the resultant weakness and malnutrition and the lack of medicine when sickness arose. They and their son Glascott Eyre were lucky enough to share one small Indian Guardroom all to themselves. Sub Lt Haslett also went into the civilian internment camp where conditions were hard but not as hard as the military POW Camps where he would have been interned had he stayed with the Navy.

Did Sub Lt. Haslett desert his post - questionable. Did he disobey an order - probable. At the end of the day he was probably not sufficiently fit to have been on active service with the Navy but I guess in a time of war all hands were needed. He lost all his possessions.  He returned to UK on the troopship Empress of Australia as a sick man and he died not long after the war, in January 1947 at the early age of 53.

This was his war.


Unpublished letters/reports

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