Short stories about WW2 in Hong Kong and general military history. Please click "Follow" button on blog to receive regular updates or if you would like to be added to address list for email notification please contact the author at Philip.G.Cracknell@gmail.com
Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Private Sir Edward Des Voeux
On this day, 19 December, seventy-eight years ago in 1941, Private Sir Edward Des Voeux was killed in action aged seventy-seven. Two things immediately come to mind. Firstly there is the juxtaposition of high title and low rank. He was a baronet, but he was serving with the militia as an ordinary soldier. Secondly, one is surprised that at the age of seventy-seven, he was fighting in battle. He must have been the oldest combatant to die in the Battle of Hong Kong. To me, both these things are remarkable and worthy of our respect and admiration. Anybody who lives, or has lived in Hong Kong, will also be drawn to his name as they will be familiar with Des Voeux Road which was named after Sir George William Des Voeux, a former Governor of Hong Kong from 1887 to 1891. Sir Edward was his nephew.
Edward Des Voeux was the 8th Baronet of Indiaville, an Irish Baronetcy that had been created in 1787. The 1st Baronet, Sir Charles Des Voeux, had made his fortune in India. I assume that Indiaville was his country estate in Ireland. One can almost picture a rambling country house furnished with memorabilia from distant India. After Sir Edward was killed so gallantly during the Battle for Hong Kong the baronetcy passed to Major William Richard Des Voeux who served with the Grenadier Guards. He was killed in action at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and left no progeny, and as a result, the baronetcy became extinct.
Sir Edward, an exchange broker, succeeded to the baronetcy in 1937. His uncle, shown below, Sir G. W. Des Voeux, the former Governor of Hong Kong, was the grandson of the 1st Baronet.
Sir George William Des Voeux, Governor of Hong Kong (1887-1891)
Sir Edward was born in India in 1864. It appears he never married. I have been unable to trace any photographs of him, and I know little of his life. On guided battlefield tours that I conduct, I always mention his name and his death in battle when talking about the Hughes Group in action at the power station. It seems we know more about his death than his life. He first appears on Jurors Lists in 1915 at the age of 51 at which time he was Secretary of the Hong Kong Club. He continues to give his occupation as Secretary of the club until 1921. From 1922 until 1925 he gave his occupation as an Exchange Broker. According to Alec Hutton-Pott's diary, he lived at Fan Ling, which was a popular location for European retirees with its large villas replete with gardens and close to the golf links. I assume that he lived in Hong Kong since 1915 when he first appeared on the list of jurors. I have no idea where he was before that, perhaps in India where the family first made their fortune, or perhaps in London. A search of old Hong Kong newspapers only comes up with references to the former Governor (the 10th Governor of Hong Kong) and the road that bears his name.
Sir Edward joined a unit known as the Hughes Group, which was part of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC). Compulsory service had been introduced in 1939, under the terms of the ordinance British men between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five were required to enrol in the HKVDC or its naval counterpart (the HKRNVR) although some were categorised as being in Essential Services and were expected to remain in their civilian employment for the continued efficient functioning of the colony.
The men serving with the Hughes Group had previous military experience, some having served in the First World War, some having served in the Boer War, but they were over the maximum combatant age limit of fifty-five. The Hughes Group was established to cater to these older soldiers who still had something to offer if only blood and courage. The unit was set up as a special guard to defend against sabotage by fifth columnists. On 18 December 1941, the Hughes Group were deployed to guard the Hong Kong Electric Company (HEC) power station at North Point.
The Japanese chose that night to effect a landing on Hong Kong Island. Three infantry regiments, each utilising two of their three battalions, landed on the northeast shore of the island. Two battalions of the 230th Infantry Regiment landed at and around North Point and the power station. The unit ended up unexpectedly in the front line of a fierce battle. The Hughes Group were named after their founder Arthur William Hughes of the Union Insurance Company of Canton. After A. W. Hughes was transferred to Australia, Major J. J. Paterson, the Taipan of Jardine Matheson, took command of the unit. The Second-in-Command was Captain R. T. Burch. The Hughes Group were known as the Hughesliers, and sometimes, less charitably, as the Methusaliers. They received training from NCO's drawn from the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots. In December 1941, the Hughes Group numbered 70 men, including four officers. These were comprised as follows:
Hughes Group 2 14
HKE Staff 22
China Light & Poer Staff 17
TaiKoo Engineering Staff 7
Free French contingent 2 6
Major Paterson recalled that after the Japanese occupied Kowloon, North Point came under heavy artillery fire. The pillbox (PB) in front of the power station in an area called McKay's Wharf had been knocked out by accurate shelling. The Rajput crew occupied nearby alternative positions. The PBs that had not already been put out of action became less effective once the Japanese had got ashore, and once they were able to get behind the PBs because their machinegun loopholes faced seaward. The intense artillery fire before the landings had cut telephone lines and the power station was out of communication with both battalion and brigade HQ. The military commander, Major-General Maltby, had no clear information about what was happening on the north shore. They underestimated the numbers of Japanese that had got ashore. During the night of 18/19 December, at least 8,000 Japanese troops including 6,000 infantry, had landed and moved inland and uphill to secure the high ground. The defenders on the north shore included three rifle companies from the 7th Rajput Regiment, one Canadian infantry company, the Hughes Group and Royal Artillery personnel. They amounted to at most 800 men. They were outnumbered by the invading Japanese by more than ten to one.
The British commanders sent a mobile platoon from the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment's HQ located in the Causeway Bay/Happy Valley area to patrol along King's Road and establish the whereabouts of the Japanese. The mobile platoon in three trucks proceeded past the blazing Asiatic Petroleum Company storage tanks, and as they entered the road cutting by the power station, their trucks were hit by a Japanese anti-tank gun established on King's Road. The survivors, some of whom were wounded, joined the Hughes Group and the remnants of 'D' Coy Rajput Regiment at the North Point power station. Next, an armoured car was sent to patrol down King's Road and report on enemy positions and numbers. The vehicle was put out of action by the same anti-tank gun. The vehicle was disabled, and the driver was killed. The Armoured Car Platoon commander, Lt Mike Carruthers, who had joined the recce patrol made it back to British lines as did three other members of the crew including the vehicle commander, L/Cpl Harry Long, who was seriously injured.
During Thursday night and Friday morning, the defenders at the power station held off repeated Japanese attacks. They faced point-blank artillery fire from the high ground to the south of King's Road. The bulk of the Japanese force had already moved uphill and followed a path known as Sir Cecil's Ride which led directly to Wong Nai Chung Gap. At around 1000 hours on Friday morning, a number of the Hughes Group together with a small group of civilians tried to extricate westwards from the power station towards Causeway Bay. However, the Japanese had picketed and surrounded the power station. The escape party came under fire and faced bayonet charges. A number were killed, and others took shelter in nearby tenement blocks. Sir Edward was reportedly in the government stores area to the west of the power station. Sir Edward decided that rather than dashing out he would stay where he was and fight it out from there. He was reportedly killed by shrapnel from Japanese mortar fire. He died in action, in uniform, facing the enemy. He has no known grave. There was no next-of-kin to grieve for him. He is, however, one of the best-remembered not just because of his gallant action in battle, but because of his willingness to fight to the death notwithstanding age and frailty.