Friday 5 December 2014

Parker 6-inch Howitzer Battery

As I write this article I reflect on the fact that tomorrow is Sunday 7 December 2014 and that the days and dates this year are aligned. On Sunday 7 December 1941, a state of emergency had been declared  and troops had deployed to their battle positions. The two 6-inch howitzer sections positioned on the Tai Tam Road south of the military installations at Tai Tam  Gap and known as Parker Battery and Sai Wan Battery were ready for action with 200 rounds per gun at the ready. Each section had two of these large 6-inch howitzers. The batteries were manned by officers and men of the 3rd Medium Battery of the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery.

These guns were part of the mobile artillery but the 6-inch howitzer is a heavy gun and needed an 8-ton Scammell lorry to tow it in and out of position.  The two sections (Parker and Sai Wan) were in action until the 19th of December when orders were given to disable the guns and withdraw to Stanley following the Japanese landings. There was insufficient transport to tow the guns and although rendered unserviceable, they were lost to the enemy.

On the night of 18/19 December the Japanese landed on a broad front stretching from North Point to Shau Kei Wan. They established a bridgehead and moved quickly inland and uphill to seize the high ground. They captured Mount Parker, Mount Butler and Sanatorium Gap during the night. This opened the way for them to head south to Guage Basin and the adjacent Tai Tam  reservoirs. During the following morning Japanese forces captured Jardine's Lookout and were fighting to take control of Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap. 

The Japanese Imperial Army army having achieved these objectives within 12 hours of landing and with a constant flow of men and materiel crossing the harbour unabated, had effectively already won the battle for Hong Kong. For the British it was just a matter of time and honour - a losing battle had to be fought until ammunition and supplies ran out, to delay the enemy as much as possible and to maximize his expenditure in terms of men and equipment. It must have become increasingly evident even to the most optimistic that it was just a matter of time.

The coastal defence batteries at Bokhara, D'Aguilar and Cape Collinson and the East Infantry Brigade headquartered at Tai Tam Gap were in danger of being cut off.  The Japanese battalions which landed at Shau Kei Wan were already very close to the Parker and Saiwan Batteries and as a result it became necessary for the  East Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Wallis to withdraw towards  Stanley.

The 6-inch howitzers positioned  at Parker and Sai Wan Batteries had a crew of ten men for each gun. They were relatively large guns - the barrel was nearly 7 feet long. The whole gun including its carriage was 21 foot long and each gun weighed over 8,000 pounds. It fired an 86 pound High Explosive (HE) shell with a diameter of 6 inches packed with explosive fire-power. These guns were used very effectively from their Island positions on Tai Tam Road on Japanese troops and guns on the Mainland.

6-inch howitzer (Source: Royal Artillery Museum)
Scammell Truck towing a 6-inch howitzer (Source: Wikipedia)
Rob Weir who has undertaken considerable study of  Hong Hong's  fixed defences  told me that Parker Battery was positioned on Tai Tam Road. Until then I had assumed it was somewhere on Mt Parker but I had no idea where. It's not visible from the road but its literally just beside the road. Rob provided me with a sketch map of the Battery position (below) and armed with the sketch map I set out to explore the position and look for evidence of military buildings, gun pits and ammunition storage facilities.

Rough Sketch Map of Parker Battery (Courtesy Rob Weir)

At the ramp leading off from Tai Tam Road (Position A) on the sketch map there is a military splinter proof shelter just visible from the road.

Military shelter at the junction of the Ramp and Taitam Road (Position A)  - (Source: Writers Collection)
The ramp looked like a military road but it had in fact been constructed post war to give access for construction of three nearby electricity pylons.  The area is now very overgrown with a lot of industrial and other refuse dumped around the site. There are signs of demolished squatters huts in the area and some of the military buildings looked like they had been occupied at one time by squatters.

I saw no sign of the shelters at Position B probably obscured by the undergrowth. Then moving more or less parallel to the road I came across several of the low ammunition lockers at Position C and a concrete base shown in Rob's sketch. I would assume the guns were positioned here close to the ammunition lockers.

Several of these ammunition lockers were evident at Position C  -  Parker Bty. (Source: Writers Collection)
Closer to the road  I found the shelters which I assume would be the battery accommodation and offices for the battery personnel which I would assume to be around 40 persons including the two gun crews. In the photograph  (below) they look like they still have traces of war time disruptive camouflage paint.

Battery buildings at Position D - Parker Battery  (Source:  Writers Collection)

Battery accommodation at Position D - Parker Battery (Writers Collection)

On the 19th December at approximately 1000 hours orders were given for the evacuation of the howitzer batteries at Parker (2 x 6") Guage Basin (2 x 3.7"), Taitam Fork (1 x 3.7") and Red Hill (2 x 4.5").  The guns at Saiwan Battery being almost on the front line had already been disabled in the early hours by the removal of dial sights and percussion locks. At Parker Battery both sets of guns were disabled by the removal of breech blocks. The battery  personnel were then withdrawn to Stanley where they were ordered to fight as infantry.

The 6-inch howitzers of the 3rd Medium Battery positioned at Parker and Sai Wan Batteries had fired with good effect on Japanese troops on the Mainland. They had also been used for counter battery bombardment and to cover the withdrawal of troops from Devils Peak. Both Brigadier Wallis and Lt Col Cadogan-Rawlinson commanding 5th/7th Rajput Regiment had said how accurate and effective the fire had been from these two medium batteries at Parker and Sai Wan.

The two 6-inch howitzer batteries had been ranged on by Japanese artillery but no shell landed nearer than 100 metres from the positions which had been carefully sited at pre-prepared localities with protection provided by the terrain. The Sai Wan Battery did have some near misses from aerial bombing the nearest being 20 metres from one of the gun pits. Alternative positions for the guns had been prepared but were not utilized.

The Japanese troop landings at Sau Kei Wan were very close to the Sai Wan Battery and the battery personnel prepared to defend themselves with small arms under 2/Lt Kenneth Allanson who had been transferred from 8th Coast Battery to take charge of the Sai Wan Battery. Later that night at around 2100 hours Captain Lucien Feilden arrived with reinforcements from Parker Battery but later they were forced to withdraw back to Parker Battery. The next day Capt Feilden was killed in action when with other members of the HKSRA he was fighting in an infantry role at Wong Nei Chung Gap.

It must have been heartbreaking for the gunners to disable their guns and leave them as trophies for the advancing Japanese but these two batteries found themselves almost in the front line and there was no option.  

As I leave the Parker howitzer battery position in the fading light of a December afternoon I reflect on these events. These overgrown and sometimes inaccessible remnants of war are a stark reminder of the terror, the destruction and the loss of life that war visited on Hong Kong. I reflect on those who fought and died here in Hong Kong and give a silent salute.  


Thursday 4 December 2014

Exploring a Japanese War-time Tunnel in Hong Kong

There are a large number of war-time tunnels left in Hong Kong. Some of these are Air Raid Precautions (ARP) tunnels built before the war as part of the civil defence preparations. They remain today but the entrance portals are bricked up.

There are three portals for instance at the end of Old Queens Road as shown below. I wonder how many people realize as they walk nonchalantly by, that these were war-time air raid tunnels where hundreds of civilians took refuge from the constant bombing and shelling that occurred during the three weeks of hostilities between 8th of December when the Japanese Imperial Army crossed the border into Hong Kong and 25th December 1941 when the British Crown Colony capitulated after a short but brutal period of fighting.

People walking past air raid tunnel portals on Old Queens Road (Source: Wikipedia)
Here's another photograph showing an air raid tunnel on Queens Road Central immediately opposite HSBC's Head Office Building. The photograph was taken in 1941 only months before war erupted. The air  raid tunnel is still under construction. The stone ramparts and the steps up to Battery Path are unchanged today. Battery Path then as now leads up from Queens Road to the former French Mission building built by the Mission D' Etrangeres de Paris in 1917 and further up, the path leads to St John's Cathedral built in 1848 only six years after the First Opium War.

1941 Photo of air raid tunnel under construction (Source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

But there are other tunnels in Hong Kong often hidden in the country side. I stumbled across this one on  Monday this week. The photograph below shows the entrance.

Japanese tunnel entrance on a hillside at Smugglers Ridge (Writers Collection)
These tunnels are found all over Hong Kong and they were built by the Japanese in the closing stages of the war in anticipation of an allied invasion of Japanese occupied Hong Kong. A machine gun could be placed at the tunnel entrance, the portal would have been camouflaged with netting, sticks and leaves and would have been difficult to see until you were shot at.

This one is on a hill side at the eastern end of Smugglers Ridge near the defensive line known as the Gin Drinkers Line (GDL) named after Gin Drinkers Bay at the western end. The GDL was a line of pill boxes, barbed wire entanglements, trenches, weapons pits and minefields running east-west across the Kowloon Peninsula. The Japanese penetrated the line when they seized the Shing Mun Redoubt on the night of 9th/10th December 1941. It was the loss of the Shing Mun Redoubt and the weakness of the left flank of the GDL that necessitated the earlier than anticipated evacuation of the Mainland. Thereafter the Island of Hong Kong was besieged. Japanese troops landed on the night of 18th/19th December and moved quickly inland. Without an air force, outnumbered and outfought, the British forces surrendered  on Christmas Day after a gallant and bloody fight.

Smugglers Ridge is a narrow ridge with a path running along the top that links up Golden Hill Road with the Shing Mun Redoubt and below it  the dam and the Jubilee Reservoir. On one side of the dam is the reservoir and on the other the Shing Mun River valley. The Shing Mun River today and back in in 1941 had been reduced to a trickle after the construction of the dam around1935.

Sgt. Robert Robb and some 12 survivors of No 8 platoon that were guarding the Shing Mun Redoubt extricated along the ridge path once they realized that they were surrounded, outnumbered and that the  Redoubt had been lost. Their Company Commander Captain Cyril ("Potato") Jones and their Platoon Commander Lt Jack Thomson were caught in the Artillery Observation Post above the Redoubt and were later blown out with explosives and grenades. They survived and were amongst the first prisoners of war taken by the Japanese. Lt Thomson being blinded in one eye from shrapnel.

Shrapnel damage to the Artillery Observation Post (AOP)  at the Shing Mun Redoubt (Writers Collection)
Captain Jones bottom left, Lt Thomson with eye patch and other defenders of the Shing Mun Redoubt taken prisoner on 10th December 1941 (Source: Stills from Japanese film clip)
Anyway back to the Japanese tunnel. We would never have found this tunnel had we not gone off the path and down the steep hill side towards the Shing Mun River Valley. This is the typical way in which these tunnels are discovered - you literally stumble across them.

Stuart in the tunnel (Writers Collection)
Having found the tunnel - it needed to be explored - not something I am ever keen on because of the risk of cave-ins, the fact that they often contain bats, and I have felt their fury bodies brush my face before in other such tunnels - and I am not that keen on bats !  Another time, although I was not there, my friends were exploring a tunnel like this, when something came bounding along the tunnel. It scared the living daylights out of them and turned out to be a rather large porcupine.

So in we went - and I made sure my friend Stuart was in front. The cave turned out to be a network of interconnecting tunnels.

Bats hanging about and other creepie crawlies (Writers Collection)
It turned out there were three portals (A, C and D below) on the same side of the hill as we had entered. Two were open and one had caved-in at the entrance. Another tunnel (shown in above photograph) had a strong breeze blowing through it, the reason being we discovered was that it ran right through the ridge, under Smugglers Ridge Path and came out on the other side of Smugglers Ridge facing Golden Hill (at portal marked B in the schematic below).
With the schematic diagram below imagine folding the paper in the middle so that the upper and lower halves of the sheet of paper slope down like a tent  - this is what the terrain looks like - the fold in the middle being the Ridge Path.

Schematic of tunnels and portals  (Writers Collection)
The tunnels were fairly narrow. Every now and then a kind of alcove or shelf had been hewed out off  the wall which may have been used as a shelf for an oil lamp. We found the denigrated remains of one such lamp.

Some of these tunnels have different levels i.e. you may go up a level and reappear at a portal higher up the hillside. Many have a brick or stone parapet at the entrance behind which a machine gun could have been positioned. Some of the Japanese tunnels are quite large and include room like structures which could have served as accommodation for a number of men or storage rooms for ammunition and suppplies. In some cases the portals are large enough to hide a light tank or a field gun but most are like this one, narrow with multiple portals usually on hillsides.

Happily no porcupine came charging out - and the bats were docile just hanging around (literally) rather than flying around. The metal detector showed nothing other than the remains of the lamp. I suppose ammunition, water and rations could have been stored in these caves. If the Allies had landed and these tunnels had been used, the enemy could literally have gone to ground. The tunnels are quite long and turn corners, so a grenade thrown in may not be sufficient.  The Japanese were determined to fight a guerrilla war if the Allies landed, and as in the Pacific Islands, they were prepared to fight to the end.

Lawrence Collyer was a civilian internee at Stanley Internment Camp - in his diary he reports on the sound of blasting as the Japanese hurriedly started to construct these tunnels in the hillsides all round the Island, working day and night. These entries are from his diary (HK University Special Collections) for March 1945:

1st  March 1945 

Blasting carries on night and day.

4th March 1945

Blasting is still going on all round us, night and day continuously, they must be building a great deal of fortifications, most of which appear to be in the direction of the dams and reservoirs.

Most of the tunnels are built into rock and I think they are pretty safe but cave-ins do occur. …….so I would not recommend anybody going into these tunnels. I know I am not leading by example here, and this (below) is me coming out of the tunnel - but I was sure glad to be out ! 

Coming out of the tunnel   (Writers Collection)