Saturday 5 August 2017

A reflection on Japanese and German War Crimes (Monthly Blog - Aug 2017)

I had just made a presentation to a class of 12-year olds at an international school in Hong Kong on the subject of the Battle for Hong Kong. I had talked briefly, without going into too much detail, about some of the war atrocities committed in Hong Kong for example the Christmas Day massacre at St Stephen's College Hospital in Stanley in December 1941, when Japanese troops bayoneted patients in their beds, raped European and Chinese nurses, and raped, mutilated and killed three of the European nurses. At the end of the presentation, one of the pupils put her hand up and asked: "Why did the Japanese do such things?" Not surprisingly she found it difficult to reconcile such cruelty with what she knew of Japan and Japanese people today, who are polite and charming, and very different from their forbears who served in the Imperial Japanese Army in the period 1931 to 1945.

I struggled to answer the question because there is no quick or easy answer. I may have mumbled something about us all having the capacity for good and evil within us, and that war crimes were not the preserve of any one country, any one side, or any one people. The Japanese soldier in WW2 was generally brave, a trait we admire, but at the same time shockingly brutal and inhumane. Brigadier John Masters who fought against the Japanese in Burma had this to say of their bravery and brutality.
"They are the bravest people I have ever met. In any armies, any one of them, nearly every Japanese would have had a Congressional Medal or a Victoria Cross. It is the fashion to dismiss their courage as fanaticism, but that only begs the question. They believed in something and they were willing to die for it.  What else is bravery?

They pressed home the attack when no other troops in the world have done so, when all hope of success was gone. ... The Japanese simply came on, using all their skill and rage, until they were stopped by death. In defence,  they held their ground with furious tenacity that never faltered. They had to be killed, company by company, squad by squad, man by man, to the last.
  ... they wrote beautiful little poems in their diaries and practiced bayonet work on their prisoners. Frugal, bestial, barbarous and brave, artistic and brutal."
Japanese troops from 228th Regiment cross the border into Hong Kong
When I first started researching the Battle of Hong Kong I was appalled to read of the horrific war crimes committed by Japanese troops against surrendered soldiers and civilians in locations around Hong Kong which I was so familiar with,  including Stanley, Wong Nai Chung Gap, Blue Pool Road and Repulse Bay. I read the details in the depositions and evidence provided by survivors of these atrocities. Somehow one or two survived some of these atrocities, often despite terrible injuries, and lived  to tell the tale. Two soldiers survived the bayonetting of surrendered soldiers at the Sai Wan AA fort and two soldiers  and one civilian survived the killing of medical orderlies and civilian staff at the Salesian Mission building at Shau Kei Wan. This killing was witnessed by a large number of Japanese troops who were reportedly laughing and enjoying the spectacle of the killing. In the case of the slaughtering of St John Ambulance Brigade civilian orderlies at the Advanced Dressing Station at Wong Nai Chung Gap, none survived, but it was witnessed by others, who were later captured, and some of whom managed to escape.

An Australian POW about to be executed with crowd in the background
Japanese bayoneting Chinese prisoners with crowd in the background

Chinese prisoner used for bayonet practice
When the Pacific War started in December 1941, Japan had already been at war in China for ten years since they  seized Manchuria in 1931. They invaded the rest of China in 1937. The most notorious atrocity occurred in December 1937 when the Japanese Army captured Nanking, the former capital, and killed over 200,000 civilians, including women, children and surrendered soldiers. Some Japanese rightists and revisionist historians have claimed the Rape of Nanking never happened, or that only soldiers were executed, or that the numbers quoted were exaggerated. They claim the women forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels, known by the euphemism of "comfort women," were willing volunteers. Naturally this causes outrage in many Asian countries.

One former Japanese soldier, Shiro Azuma, who committed war crimes in Nanking, wrote a  book in 1987 entitled "My Nanking Platoon" in which he told of the atrocities he had witnessed, and had participated in, during the war in China. He was one of the few former Japanese soldiers to admit their participation in such killings. His full diary was published in Japan in 2001 and an English version was published in 2006. He made several trips to China to apologise and to atone in some way. He described how Japanese soldiery looked down on the Chinese as being inferior, and in the same way they felt contempt for European Prisoners of War for having surrendered. This contempt made it easier for them to be inhumane.
"We were taught that we were a superior race since we lived only for the sake of a human god  - our Emperor." (Shiro Azuma)
Occasionally they saw something to admire in their enemy. In Hong Kong when the Japanese found the body of Brigadier Lawson outside his bunker, they gave him a proper and decent burial. The idea of such a senior officer being killed in action appealed to them. When the Japanese captured the AA Battery at Stanley Gap, Colonel Doi described how two British soldiers held out, by locking themselves into an ammunition locker.
"Despite all our efforts to persuade them to surrender they refused, so we left them there overnight. The next morning, getting no response to our repeated call, we broke down the door and found that the two had killed themselves with their pistols. We buried these brave men with utmost care in hearty tribute to their souls." (Ex-Col. Doi 228th Infantry Regiment)
This act would have appealed to the Japanese psyche, it would have been seen as death before dishonour, and killing yourself rather than surrendering was the way of the warrior.

Although war crimes trials were held after the war and many were found guilty of war crimes and   subsequently imprisoned or executed; the crimes were too rampant, too commonplace and too deeply ingrained in the culture of the Japanese Army. As a result most perpetrators were never brought to justice. The country as a whole, unlike Germany, never fully atoned, people today are uncomfortable to talk about it, it is considered impolite to raise the subject. The attack on Pearl Harbour and the simultaneous attack on Hong Kong, Philippines and Malaya is still seen by some Japanese as having been a matter of survival. The narrative goes that they were being contained by the western powers, who were applying embargoes on trade and particularly on Japan's oil imports, and insisting they withdraw from Indo-China and from China. Some Japanese attempted to justify the war by saying that their actions helped liberate Asia from European colonialism.  They wanted to replace European colonialism with the Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Asia for the Asiatics, but under Japanese leadership and control.

It's all a long time ago now, and as they say the past is a foreign country, but the failure to atone, to admit their actions, and to genuinely apologise, is still a major issue and a sensitive subject for many Asian countries today. When I look at the photographs on the internet, like the ones posted above, and reflect on the widespread atrocities inflicted by the Japanese military, at a time that is still within living memory,  I think of that question that I struggled to answer - why did the Japanese behave this way !

German war crimes

The German Army in WW2, especially the Waffen-SS, also committed a large number of atrocities against surrendered soldiers and civilians. The mass genocide of Jewish civilians by Nazi Germany was a depravity unmatched. Nazi Germany was an authoritarian state, which like Japan, believed in racial superiority, and wanted to create a new order in Europe, in the same way that Japan wanted to create a new order in Asia.

With the new Dunkirk film showing in cinemas, I am going to highlight two massacres of surrendered British soldiers which took place in May 1940, during the fighting retreat to Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). 
2nd Bn Coldstream Guards - 1st Guards Brigade arriving in Cherbourg in September 1939
The BEF arrived in France in 1939 and by May 1940 had been built up to 10 Divisions, in three Corps numbering 400,000 men. They were deployed to the Franco-Belgian border. If Germany invaded Belgium and Holland to open the way to Northern France, then British and French troops would move into Belgium to form a line that stretched from the Channel coast to the Maginot Line. On 10th May, German troops invaded the Low Countries and the BEF moved up to their deployment position on the River Dial. The BEF fought very gallantly but against overwhelming odds and were pushed back to the Channel ports. The rescue of the BEF from Dunkirk was an amazing  story. It was described as a miracle of deliverance.

The massacre of surrendered British troops at Le Paradis 27th May 1940 

During the retreat to Dunkirk some ninety-nine men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment, having been cut off from their Battalion and Brigade, and running low on ammunition surrendered to a Waffen-SS Regiment at the village of Le Paradis. The men were searched and disarmed, then led into a field and executed by machine gun fire. Two men survived Private Albert Pooley and Private William O'Callaghan. At first their tale was not believed.

When they were first captured, and whilst Pooley was being searched, and having items stolen from him, A German soldier took offence to his expression and clubbed him in the face with a rifle butt knocking out four of his teeth. The Germans had mounted two heavy machine guns in the field. When all the men were in the field an order was given to fire. O'Callaghan was shot in the arm. Pooley was shot four times with two bullet wounds in one of his legs. The firing stopped, and there was the sound of moaning from wounded and dying men. Pooley heard the sound of bayonets being fixed and then German soldiers went amongst the wounded men administering the coup de grace with bayonets and rifle fire. O' Callaghan feigned death and was passed by. Pooley lay still but a wounded soldier near him moved and shots were fired. Two of the shots hit Pooley in his already wounded leg. After nightfall, O'Callaghan dragged Pooley away from the field. The following day German soldiers forced French villagers to bury the dead. Pooley and O'Callaghan found shelter amongst some war damaged farm buildings. They survived by eating raw potatoes and drinking water from puddles. They were discovered by a French woman, Madame Duquenne-Creton who owned the ruined farm. She cleaned and bandaged their wounds and fed them.  In fear of reprisals, the head of the French village informed the Germans of the presence of the two wounded British soldiers. They were well treated by their German captors, from the regular German Army, who took them to a military hospital.

William O'Callaghan was sent to a POW camp in Poland. Albert Pooley remained in hospital in Germany until 1943 at which time he was repatriated to England. On return he told military officials about the massacre at Le Paradis but nobody believed him. They could not accept that the German Army would behave in such a manner. It was not until after the war, when O'Callaghan was repatriated, and confirmed the story given by Pooley that an official investigation began. The Commander of the unit was Lt-Col Fritz Knoechlein. 

Lt-Col Fritz KnoechleinAdd caption
Knoechlein survived the war and was traced in Germany, arrested and brought to trial in October 1948. He pleaded not-guilty on the grounds that he was not present at the execution although he did not deny the execution took place. His defence also claimed the execution was justified because the British were using dum-dum bullets and had misused a flag of truce. O'Callaghan and Pooley both gave evidence at the British Military Court in Hamburg, as did Madame Duquenne-Creton and another villager from Le Paradis.
O'Callaghan and Pooley at War Crimes Trials in Hamburg
Knoechlein was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed on 29th January 1949. A book entitled "The Vengeance of Private Pooley" written by Cyril Jolly was published in 1956 which describes the fighting around Le Paradis, the killing, and finally the long awaited vengeance. However, no other German soldier, not the machine gunners, nor the soldiers administering the coup de grace, nor the officers or senior NCOs that were present, were brought to trial. Some of them got away with murder.

The massacre of surrendered British troops at Wormhaudt 28th May 1940

Despite its Germanic name, Wormhoudt is a small town situated in Northern France about 12 miles southeast of Dunkirk and six miles west of the Belgian border.  In May 1941 it was on the route taken by the BEF as they fought a fighting retreat back to the Channel ports to try and avoid being cut off. The British troops consisted of members of 2nd Bn Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 4th Bn Cheshire Regiment and Worcestershire Yeomanry. They formed part of the 48th Division. Facing superior numbers, and having depleted their ammunition, a group of about one hundred surrendered  to an SS unit - the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. This SS unit formed part of the lead troops of the 20th Motorised Division supported by 10th Panzer Division. The surrendered soldiers were taken to a nearby barn. The SS guards acted brutally, killing wounded stragglers on the way to the barn, and beating soldiers with rifle butts. Once the prisoners were in the barn, the SS troops threw grenades into the building. In an act of self sacrifice two British NCO's Sgt Stanley Moore and CSM Augustus Jennings threw themselves on grenades to protect their men from the fragmentation blast. The guards then ordered the British to come out in groups of five, and these were then shot. A few survived including Gunner Brian Fahey who was in one of the groups of five called outside. He was shot in the back, but survived, and later managed to crawl back into the barn where there were still a number of wounded men who had survived the carnage. The senior British officer Captain Lynn-Allen died whilst trying to escape. During the massacre 80 men were killed and 15 were wounded of the wounded only six survived. Later the group of wounded men in the barn, including Gunner Fahey, were found by regular  German soldiers and given treatment for their wounds.

Wilhelme Mohnke
The officer commanding the SS unit which carried out this massacre was Wilhelm Mohnke. He never faced trial and denied that he gave orders to execute prisoners of war. The matter was referred to the War Crimes Unit, but it was a found there were insufficient grounds on which to conduct a trial against Mohnke. A number of SS witnesses had died on the Eastern Front and others refused to talk or testify - invoking the SS oath.  In 1988 Jeff Rooker, a Member of Parliament started a campaign to have the case re-opened, but this was unsuccessful on grounds of insufficient evidence. Mohnke lived out his life in Germany and died aged ninety in August 2001. Some would say he got away with murder. 


  1. Interesting as usual Peter. Why war crimes like the ones you describe are difficult to explain. Moral compass is lost at times when power is used without accountability or fear of accountability.

  2. Good examples of ugly WWII truths. Now we eat Sushi and buy Mercedes Benzs.
    Time might well be the healer but we should never forget those poor brutalized souls...

  3. Interesting piece, Philip. The Japanese concept of bushido is relevant in this context, as is the brutal treatment of soldiers by their superiors in the Japanese army. As for the Stanley horror, I remember reading somewhere (can't recall where) that there were specific reasons why the Japanese were particularly enraged during this battle. Ian Gill

    1. Ian: The temporary hospital was in the wrong place as British and Canadian troops were pushed back from the Village - the fighting raged across the peninsula from west to east and right through the college grounds.British MG positions were all round the hospital (main school building) and the nearby bungalows. Bungalow A (Dr Pope's House) was Canadian BN HQ on 23rd/24th Dec. The Japanese thought the school was a defensive position ....and I think it helped account for the coming in hard but not for bayoneting patients in their beds, raping and killing nurses and then pulling out prisoners individually and mutilating them, torturing them before putting them to death. It was a depravity.

  4. I don't think anyone does know, or indeed will ever know, the reason for the massacre on Christmas Day 1941 in St. Stephen's College, Stanley. Various theories have been expounded, including the ever-popular one that the Japanese soldiers involved were drunk.

    I and other "students" of the Hong Kong battle discount this one, however. It is not easy to say where Japanese soldiers could have got their hands on any grog before entering the hospital. The Repulse Bay Hotel springs to mind, but we have documented evidence that large quantities of alcohol kept in the hotel were destroyed by the occupants before the Japanese soldiers entered the premises.

    One theory which I personally go for is that a Japanese junior officer who was popular with his troops had been killed, possibly in the fighting described above by Philip by Canadians, and the subsequent massacre was the Japanese way of exacting revenge for the loss of their officer.

    I totally concur with Philip that this was a depravity.
    At the end of the day, nothing can justify such barbaric behaviour.

    1. Thanks Ann for your insights. I agree with you its difficult to fathom. I think it's clear they thought the hospital was being used in the defence and certainly there was fighting all around the hospital/college, but I think it was mostly about rage, fury, and retaliation and their culture at that time of brutality and inhumanity to those they held in contempt. Inflicting horror, pain and death - gave them a sort of power and superiority over their victims. I agree with you there are no excuses for such depravities.

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  6. Once again Philip, your writing brings emotion of the individual to the fore; it is one thing to write about history, it is another to take the reader to that moment in time. War is indeed atrocious and humanity loses its way for a time, yet humanity always returns and the value of life with it. Mark