Sunday 8 September 2013

Professor Gordon King Escapes from Japanese Occupied Hong Kong

Gordon King was born in London on 7th July 1900 - the son of a Baptist Minister.  After qualifying as a Doctor and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1926, he joined the Baptist Missionary Society to become a medical missionary in China where he practiced medicine until 1936.

He left China for Hong Kong in 1936 when he was appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Hong Kong University,  a role he occupied until 1956 albeit interrupted by the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941. He escaped from Japanese occupied Hong Kong and made his way overland to Free China in February 1942,  returning to Hong Kong after it was liberated by British forces in 1945.

He married Dr Mary Ellison also a Baptist Missionary in 1927 and their marriage produced three daughters Alison, Margaret and Ellen.

Let's go back in time to December 1941. In a letter to his wife Mary written after his escape to Free China he recalls taking a friend who was visiting Hong Kong for a drive in the New Territories. It was Saturday afternoon 6th October and "it was a beautiful afternoon and I have never seen the scenery look more peaceful. We did not see a single soldier or sign of military activity".  (1)

That very night Gwen Priestwood was enjoying an evening at the Peninsula Hotel Ball Room attending a fund raising function to support the Allied war effort when the music suddenly stopped.

"T.B. Wilson , of the American President Lines, appeared on a balcony above the dance floor, waving a megaphone for silence.
'Any men connected with any ships in the harbor  -  report aboard for duty', he said , adding meaningfully,  'at once'.
There was a dead silence  for a moment; then the crowd stirred. Men hurriedly said good-by to their companions, got their hats and coats, and left". (2)

Gordon King woke up the next morning on Sunday "to find all the vessels in the harbor steaming at full speed, by about 9 a.m.  there did not seem to be a single vessel left. There was obviously something serious in the wind though we had had this sort of thing happen before". (1) 

One of the ships sailing out that Sunday was the SS Ulysses (see separate posting on this site) which had barely completed repairs and was bombed and strafed the next day by Japanese aircraft as it made it's long way home,  only to be sunk by a U-Boat in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Carolinas.

On Monday 8th December Gordon King was awakened by the telephone ringing at 6:30 in the morning. It was Dr Selwyn Clarke the Director of Medical Services  calling to say that the war had begun and Dr King was to open up the the University Relief Hospital. Two hours later Japanese planes were bombing Kai Tak and Sham Shui Po.

"By noon we had the first wards for 100 patients ready for occupation. My staff was Professor Faid as First Superintendent , Jean Gittins as Lady Supt. and about 60 Sisters and Nurses, 5 Pharmacists, 50  student dressers and about 100 coolies. Faid was an excellent colleague all through and so was Miss Gordon. The students were most helpful and handled everything, up to 750 patients although we actually only treated 393 patients during the war with 22 deaths". (1)

Bill Faid, Professor of Physics at HK University died in 1944 in Stanley Internment Camp, after slipping off a roof at the Indian Quarters whilst trying to repair a leaking roof. Jean Gittins was one of the daughters of Sir Robert Ho-Tung and she was later interned at Stanley. One of those students helping with First Aid dressings and stretcher bearing was seventeen year old Glascott Eyre Dawson-Grove (see the post on this site about Sub Lt. William B Haslett) whose parents living at Shek-o had a harrowing time when captured by the Japanese on 20th December 1941. They and their son Glascott were later interned at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.

After the war ended with the British capitulation on 25th December 1941 - Professor King made up his mind to escape. The university staff, students and various European refugees like Mr & Mrs Dawson Grove were able to remain at the university until 31st January 1942 (some going several days earlier) when they were sent off to be interned at Stanley Camp, where most would languish for three and a half years suffering the privations of over-crowding, malnutrition and lack of medicines.

Professor King writes that "two or three British women needed operations urgently and I got permission of the Japanese Director of Medical Services, to operate  on them at Tsan Yuk Hospital which involved remaining out of internment  a little while longer. Of the people in the (University) compound the only ones, except the Chinese , who stayed out were Bentley (Pharmacist), R.C. Robertson , who stayed out to help the Japanese in the Bacteriological Institute, Jean Gittins and myself with my patients at the Tsan Yuk Hospital". (1) 

Tsan Yuk Maternity Hospital
 The hospital  was opened in 1922 and the building that it occupied and shown above,  still stands. One of Professor King's patients was Kathleen Dallas Hume whose husband Leo ("Tiny") Hume was in Shamshuipo POW Camp he was a Company Sgt. Major in the Field Ambulance Unit of HKVDC. She was heavily pregnant and had to have a C-Section.  Her daughter Barbara Anne in a radio interview described how her mother was taken out of camp and gave birth to her on 6th February 1942 only days before Gordon King escaped. The story goes that she was released under an escort of nine guards and taken to the Tsan Yuk Hospital shown above.  Professor King whispered to her that when she got back to Stanley Camp she would not see him again.

Elsewhere in Hong Kong Jan Marsman was about to make his escape. He had avoided Internment Camp on the strength of a claim of Philippine citizenship . This was being reviewed and he expected to lose his freedom soon. He made his escape on 10th February.

It seems that both Marsman and Professor King made their way through Sai Kung with the aid of Chinese Guerrillas and their own Chinese helpers. Marsman describes getting to an abandoned schoolhouse most likely in the Sai Kung area where he came across Professor Gordon King.  Gordon King in his letter to his wife says little about his actual escape other than "I fell in with two Americans, Marsman and Lavrovm who escaped from Kowloon an hour after I did". (1)

Marsman writes, "our escape party numbered six" (3)  - Dr King and a Chinese bodyguard, two Chinese, one of whom was aiding Marsman,  the other Marsman described as a distinguished looking Chinese, a Russian (Lavrovm) and Jan Marsman himself. They laid up in a sampan for a few days and then dodging Japanese patrols and bandits made their way to Free China.

Eventually Dr. King reached the war time capital of Chongqing where with the support of the British Authorities and Chinese Government he set up Medical Facilities that would allow medical students who escaped from Hong Kong to continue their studies and qualify as Doctors. He was given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corp. After the Japanese capitulation he returned to Hong Kong and helped re-establish medical services in the war torn colony.

Jean Gittins was a colleague of Gordon King. Her children were staying with Mrs Gordon King and her three daughters in Australia. Gordon King had revealed his plans to Jean Gittins and asked for a 48 hour head-start before his departure was reported. She actually waited for three days before reporting his escape to Dr Selwyn Clarke. She writes "I knew that Selwyn would regard his escape as breaking parole. Selwyn thumped his desk and asked me why I had not reported it immediately". (2)

Not long after this Arthur Bentley, the Head Pharmacist also managed to escape to Free China and Jean Gittins was interned in Stanley Camp.  Professor Robertson took his own life by jumping to his death from a veranda at the Bacteriological Institute in August 1942. He had been depressed by his forced collaboration wit the Japanese.

After the war Professor King remained in Hong Kong until 1956 when he moved to Australia. He was awarded the OBE in 1954. He passed away in October 1991 in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr King in later life

He had the pluck to escape and the luck to succeed in getting away.


(1)   Copy of letter from Dr King to his wife Mary
(2)   "Through Japanese barbed wire" - Gwen Priestwood (1943)   
(3)   "I escaped from Hong Kong" - Jan Marsman (1942) 

Copy of letter from Dr King to his wife Mary
"Through Japanese barbed wire" - Gwen Priestwood (1943)  
"I escaped from Hong Kong" -  Jan Marsman  (1942)
"Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire" - Jean Gittins  (1982)
"Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography" - May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn (2012)
Radio Interview with Barbara Laidlaw (nee Hume)


  1. Very interesting post.
    I don't have a copy to check, but my memory is that a later escape party met King when he was working in Free China - Anthony Hewitt, Bridge With Three Men.

  2. Hi Philip, this is a fascinating account. Do you have more information on the Chinese guerrillas who aided in the escape?

    1. Thanks for your message. I have not done very much research on the Chinese resistance but they certainly played a cricial role in many of the escapes. There is a book called East River Column published by Royal Asiatic Society (2009) by Chan Sui-jeung which covers the subject.

    2. Thank you very much- I will look at that.