Wednesday 18 February 2015

A walk along the border - Hong Kong

On Saturday 31st Jan. 2015 I joined members of the  Orders Medals & Research Society (OMRS) for a  walk along the border with Hong Kong and the rest of China. This area was until recently part of a restricted zone and not possible to get access. This was once known as the  "bamboo curtain" a sensitive border in colonial times and one that was patrolled by both the British Army and the Royal Hong Kong Police.

In the 1960s through to the 1980s - the British Garrison was quite small and I suppose it's fair to say that had the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) decided to do so they could have crossed the border at any time perhaps with impunity. However after the joint declaration in 1984 it was only a matter of time before sovereignty would return to China in an orderly and agreed fashion. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus was more about preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border rather than the PLA.

There was no need for the PLA to retake Hong Kong as Hong Kong was very useful to China as a link to the west and a gateway, albeit something of an anachronism that dated back to First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking signed in 1842. Only once had the border been crossed by an invading army and that was early in the morning of 8th December 1941 (HK time) when the 38th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army  crossed the border into Hong Kong and Japan simultaneously attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Philippines and the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour.

I took the MTR and East Rail out from Central to Fanling and from there by green New Territories taxi to Lok Ma Chau Police Station. We were fortunate to have in this group a number of retired expatriate policemen who had during the course of their careers served out on the border and were able to recount their interesting experiences of policing in colonial Hong Kong and then later serving in the Hong Kong Police post handover.

The police station stands on a hill crest approached by a steep drive. When I first came to Hong Kong in 1985 people would come out to Lok Ma Chau to stand on this hill and look across into China. It was a photo stop where you get your picture of China. In those days when you looked across the Sham Chun River there was just ponds and paddy fields but nonetheless it was a tourist attraction and there were the inevitable stalls offering cheap souvenirs.

Today nobody really comes to take pictures of China because the border has become much more porous with people coming in both directions either on business or for tourism.  It's still a border and you need a visa to go across to shop in Shenzhen. What has really changed is the view. Instead of paddy fields its a modern metropolis that looks like Hong Kong's Central district. With high rise buildings stretching from west to east on the other side of the Sham Chun River also known as the Shenzhen River which marks the border.

China in that short space of time has opened up and become the world's second largest economy and Hong Kong now a part of China with a PLA military garrison occupying the premises once used by the British forces in colonial times.

Lok Ma Chau Police Station on a hill top looking over the frontier

A steep drive leads up to the Police Station

It was one of those grey days where you can't be sure whether the haze is mist or pollution but in reality it's probably a bit of both and more of the latter. The picture below shows the modern skyline of Shenzhen somewhat obscured by the haze. In the immediate foreground are the ponds and wetlands that typify the delta area of the Sham Chun River and include the Maipo wetlands now famous for the variety of birds that can be seen there.  The Sham Chun River flows to the west into Deep Bay or Hau Hoi Wan.

The new skyline across the wetlands on the other side of the border

Lok Ma Chau Police Station is still in use as a police station. The building was first built in 1915 originally with two stories,  the upper observation deck having been added later.

Still in use as a Police Station the building dates back to 1915

A murder occurred here in July 1930 when the Station Sgt.'s twenty five year old wife Dora Madgwick was killed by an Indian Constable in her living accommodation on the 2nd Floor. The Constable who had run amok,  later shot himself.  Sgt. Cornelius Madgwick later re-married to Marjorie Knight and he and his wife were here when war started in December 1941. They were both incarcerated in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp where they were billeted in Bungalow 'A' now the heritage museum within the grounds of St Stephens College.

The area of wetlands to the front and surrounding fields have little changed over the generations.

Fields below Lok Ma Chau Police Station  - a scene that has changed little over the years 

We then walked along the road which was once restricted to police and military vehicles from Lok Ma Chau to Lo Wo. On the way we passed one of the so-called MacIntosh Forts at Ma Tso Lung. These were named after Duncan MacIntosh,  Commissioner of Police after the war who arranged for the construction of  several of these hill top forts built along the border.

One of the "MacIntosh Forts" at Ma Tso Lung 

Parts of the border are still restricted (Shenzhen in the background)

Looking across to Shenzhen with New Territories cattle unconcerned  beside the river

The 1994 map extract below shows this stretch of the border. Notice the train and road crossing at Lok Ma Chau which was opened in 2003 and now a major crossing point into China. Lo Wu was always the main crossing point in earlier years and still continues to be the principal crossing point into China.

1994 map of this stretch of the border

The map extract below is from a January 1946 map. One immediately notices the the hills were given English names of hills back in Britain like the North Downs, the South Downs, the Cheviot Hills and the Mendips. You can see a track leading out the wetlands and the Police Station standing above the village (not shown) of Lok Ma Chau. There is no bridge. The main crossing point back then was at Lo Wu where  the road and railway crossed the border. The railway being part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway  then running from Canton to the Star Ferry Terminal in Kowloon. It was here the bulk of the Japanese Army crossed into Hong Kong and followed the road and railway south to Fanling.

1946 Map of the same stretch of the border from Lok Ma Chau to Lo Wu

From Lo Wu we walked along the side of the Indus River now called Ng Tung River leading to Sheung Shui and Fanling after an interesting walk along the old "bamboo curtain" and reflecting on times gone by.


Saturday 7 February 2015

Stanley Internment Camp

On 21st January 1942 the bulk of enemy civilians - those of British, American and Dutch nationality, mostly European but including a number of Chinese and Eurasian wives of British nationals were herded into the grounds and buildings formerly occupied by St Stephens College and HM Prison Stanley.  St Stephens College was at that time a private school and known as the Eton of the East. 

The internees were crowded into rooms often with complete strangers and regardless of sex.  All the school buildings were used to house internees - the main school, the classroom block , the Science Laboratory, and the masters bungalows as well as the adjacent Prep School down near St Stephens Beach. In the Stanley Prison area the European married officers quarters and the Indian warders quarters were also used to accommodate internees. Here they languished for three and half years in over crowded conditions with inadequate food and nutrition and very limited medicine. Many never left and their graves remain in Stanley Military Cemetery with the original rough hewn granite tombstones. Many of the pre-war buildings still remain. This is a collection of photos that show scenes from the area today and a few oldies dating back to 1945. 

Maryknoll Monastery 

Maryknoll monastery existed pre-war, the fathers were ill treated by their Japanese captors.  British troops defending the hill top were by-passed and as they tried to extricate back to British lines many were killed or captured and then put to death. Some were bayoneted alongside the nearby red brick Carmelite monastery which still stands today. In the photograph in the distance you can see the playing fields of St Stephen's College  and the road rising up to Stanley Fort.

Stanley Peninsular Today
If you look closely you can see in lower right quadrant the green roof of the Maryknoll Monastery and in centre right the playing fields of St Stephens College. This view is from Stanley Mound taken from a much higher position than the post war shot.

Tweed Bay Beach
Internees were allowed to swim in the summer months at nearby Tweed Bay Beach. A sentry was always posted.
The prison walls behind the beach
It was here that three year old Brian Gill tragically drowned in May 1944 while playing in a fresh water pool just above the beach.  It was here just after liberation while many internees still remained in camp pending repatriation that Sgt H. W. Jackson of the Hong Kong Police was dragged ashore and died in September 1945 after having been attacked by a shark while swimming.

The rough hewn granite tombstones of internees who died in Camp
In this picture we can see the white walls of the Prison itself to the right of the open area.  The white buildings in the centre overlooking the Prison are the European Prison Wardens Quarters (known as the Married Quarters). The hill in the distance is Cape D'Aguilar. 

Same scene today

Married Quarters
Roosevelt Avenue (American Quarters on the left and garages on the right)

American Quarters

The Mosque 
The mosque was briefly used to accommodate internees after Bungalow F was closed.

The Indian Quarters

Prison Officers Club  (still showing battle scars)
Staff Bungalow
St Stephens College Main Building

Another view of Prison Officers Club (Dutch Quarters to the left) 
Prison Officers Club and American Quarters in background
Hoisting the flag on liberation


Friday 6 February 2015

Japanese Artillery Shells found in the hills of Hong Kong

My friend Stuart Woods and I were recently out metal detecting in the area of Violet Hill in the centre of Hong Kong Island looking for war relics left over from the brief period of fighting on the Island during WW2.  We came across the site of a Japanese Mountain Gun Battery and discovered three live Japanese shells.

The Japanese Army invaded Hong Kong on Monday 8th December 1941 and at approximately the same time their forces simultaneously attacked Malaya, Philippines and the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour. Ten days later after a heavy bombardment their forces crossed the harbor and landed on the North Shore of the Island between North Point and Shau Kei Wan.

This area of the North Shore was defended by one Indian infantry battalion the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment and by one company of the Canadian Army, 'C' Company of the Royal Rifles of Canada. All told this was less than 1,000 defenders who were facing six battalions from three Japanese infantry regiments a total of over 6,000 men with supporting artillery, who got ashore and established a bridgehead.

The defenders were soon overwhelmed and by the early hours the invader had captured Mt Parker, Quarry Gap and Mt Butler. The following morning they captured Jardines Lookout and Wong Nei Chung Gap. In fact by this time the battle was all but over. Yes counter attacks were made and fighting continued until Christmas Day but it was by then a case of fighting a losing battle. Churchill who realized before the war that there "was not the slightest chance of defending Hong Kong" exhorted the Governor Sir Mark Young and the General Officer in Command, General Maltby to fight on, not to surrender and to "resist to the end". This  I think it's fair to say they did.

By the 19th and 20th December Japanese forces controlled Violet Hill and it was probably around this time that they established the mountain gun battery on Violet Hill that we stumbled across in January 2015.

A pre-war map shoeing Violet Hill (bottom centre) and Repulse Bay Road  (left)

What we found hidden in the trees on the reverse side of a hill top was a series of dug outs and trenches providing the battery personnel with some protection from British Artillery and or British naval gun fire. It was here the we found the three shells.  The shells were missing from their nose cone the Type 88 impact fuse which would be fitted before firing. Although they were not found in an orderly row, they had probably been laid out  ready for firing. The next step would have been to have screwed in the fuse to an aperture in the nose cone. The type of fuse would detonate on impact.
75mm Japanese shell
Three  live Japanese WW2 Mountain Gun shells
Although missing the fuses these were live ordnance and potentially dangerous and accordingly we reported the finding to Hong Kong Police. A police van arrived quickly with flashing lights and sirens to the trail head on Tai Tam Reservoir Road and we led then up the steep path to the top of Mount Violet (also called Violet Hill) and showed them the position of the three artillery shells. The police cordoned off the area and Fire Services and the Explosives Ordnance Disposal Unit (EOD) were called   out to make these shells safe through a controlled explosion.

Police and EOD arrive
Fire Trucks in the road

Firemen arrive labouring up the hill with their equipment and wearing their heavy uniform
The police and emergency services were very quick to arrive and very professional.  They safely detonated the three Japanese Artillery Shells . For them this is not an uncommon occurrence. The hills where the fighting occurred still contain bullets, grenades, shells and other remnants of a war fought nearly 74 years ago. A stark reminder of those very different times in Hong Kong and elsewhere which may seem a long time ago now but are are in fact still within living memory.

The mountain guns would have been situated close to where we found the shells. Looking at Japanese Battle Maps it looks like they would have been positioned to fire towards British troops at Aberdeen, Bennett Hill (behind Aberdeen) and on British positions on Shouson Hill.

The guns were either Type 41 or Type 94 Mountain Guns which were used as infantry support artillery. These were mobile artillery that could be stripped down and transported by mule. They could be positioned on uneven ground in hill country and the 75mm shell could fire high explosive or armor piercing shells. They would certainly take the edge off anybody's weekend who was on the receiving end. The Japanese deployed these weapons very effectively. The photo below which Tony Banham informs me was taken somewhere in China (although often labeled as having been taken in Hong Kong) shows how these guns could be used on uneven ground and in mountainous country

Japanese 75mm Mountain Guns in action in China
These three shells which as of today no longer exist would have been used by a mountain battery very much like the one depicted above and most likely sometime between 20-25th December 1941 in the closing stages in the battle for Hong Kong.

As a kind of postscript here are some pictures from Apple Daily of the final result of the detonation.

After the controlled explosion - EOD personnel laying out the remains for the press (Apple Daily)

All thats left of the Artillery Shells (Apple Daily)