Monday 10 August 2020

ZBW Radio broadcasting under fire - December 1941

ZBW Radio broadcasting under fire in the Battle for Hong Kong

In 1941, the radio set, or wireless,  occupied a central position in every home. It was still a  relatively new phenomenon. Radio broadcasting in Hong Kong started in 1928. The local radio station was known as ZBW. The name changed to Radio Hong Kong in 1948. ZBW would re-broadcast programmes from the BBC Empire Service. The BBC news would start with the announcement 'Daventry Calling'. The transmitters were located on Borough Hill near the Northamptonshire village of Daventry. The radio made Daventry famous. The radio programme was published in the daily newspapers. The ZBW service started broadcasting at 12:15 p.m. with a 'short service of intercession' which infers some sort of morning prayers. The programme would include sessions for Chinese, Portuguese and Indians. Dance music was always popular and of course the news bulletins. There would be a break in the afternoon, and when programming closed in the evening the national anthem would be played. 

Source:  © Eric Shackle Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

My thanks to Eric Shackle and Radio Heritage Foundation for allowing me to use the above ZBW photographs which date back to 1934. The first photograph going from left to right shows the grand piano in the ZBW Broadcasting Studio in the Gloucester Hotel Building.  The centre photograph shows one of the transmitter stations and tower which I think must be at Cape D'Aguilar.  The third photograph, on the right, shows the Marconi transmitter equipment used by ZBW.

In 1941, civilian wireless services were the responsibility of the Post Office Engineering Branch which was under the supervision of Richard Morris, a Canadian national. He was interned at Stanley Camp and repatriated with other Canadian internees in September 1943. On reaching Ottawa, he submitted a report on the wireless services in Hong Kong during the period of hostilities from 8 to 25 December. Wireless services were provided for:

Broadcasting (ZBW Radio)

Aeronautical  (Kai Tal Airport)


Meteorological (Observatory)

Water Police (Police launches)


Hospitals (X-Rays and radiotherapy)

Commercial usage (Cable & Wireless) 

Remote-controlled radio transmitters were located at Cape D'Aguilar on HK Island  (7 transmitters), and at Hung Hom in Kowloon (13 transmitters). At Hung Hom three of the transmitters were used for radio broadcasting. The broadcasting transmitters could be controlled from the ZBW broadcasting studio in the Gloucester Building. All transmitters could be controlled if necessary from the GPO Building in the central district. One of the broadcasting transmitters at Hung Hom was taken across by lighter and installed at Causeway Bay just before the evacuation of Kowloon. The Hung Hom Station was then evacuated on Friday 12 December 1941 on the orders of the Postmaster-General, Edward Wynne-Jones. The main receiving station was at the Peak. Received programmes, like the news from London or dance music, which were to be re-broadcast on ZBW were relayed to the Gloucester Building studios. 

The newly installed transmitter at Causeway Bay (from Hung Hom) started transmitting programmes for ZBW on December 15 1941. However, this immediately attracted Japanese artillery fire who had access to radio direction finding equipment. Chinese programmes were being transmitted from the Kennedy Road station and European programmes from the Causeway Bay station.

John Stericker, an employee of British American Tobacco had been a part-time announcer/presenter for ZBW before the war began. During the battle, he focused on his broadcasting role as this was considered important for the morale of the besieged colony. He was based at the ZBW studio on the 7th floor of the Gloucester Building which also housed the Gloucester Hotel. The iconic Hong Kong Hotel, known as the Grips, was linked to the Gloucester Hotel by way of a covered shopping arcade.

The Gloucester Hotel Building

Following the evacuation of the mainland which was completed on Saturday 13 December 1941, John Stericker introduced Sir Mark Young, the Governor, to the ZBW microphone. He made a brief radio address confirming that the mainland had been evacuated and that British forces had retired to the island fortress. The Island then came under a massive bombardment from Japanese artillery and aerial bombing. 

On 16 December, shelling around the Causeway Bay transmitting station severed the control lines from the studio and programmes could not be broadcast that evening. The Public Works Department (PWD) was inundated and were not able to restore the control lines. On 17 December, with the lines still down, John Stericker and some technical staff moved to the Causeway Bay transmitting station - an area that was under heavy fire. 

A technician and myself were sent out in a highly conspicuous  post office van, painted bright red, during a lull in the bombardment. ... The streets were a mass of shell holes while overhead, the smoke pall from burning petrol tanks hung over the town. ... When we arrived at our objective, we found a small concrete building in one half of which was a generator and in the other a microphone and control board. We managed to start up the generator and get trhe transmitter going. ... Somebody had forgotten to provide black-out curtains. Fortunately we had dimmed electric torches and struggled along with these, playing a portable gramaphone into the speech-microphone.(1)

As dusk descended Japanese shelling commenced around the station. This is how Morris described it.

PWD unable to promise the early restoration of damaged cables. Steps, therefore, were taken to establish local control at the station itself. A dance-band microphone and amplifier were requisitioned from a cafe and installed together with a gramophone turntable ... An announcer [John Stericker] was brought by car with a supply of records, and the programme was radiated on time. As I was anxious not to miss the usual broadcast of Daventry news, which was considered very desirable for local morale, I installed a short-wave receiver taken from my own residence.(2)

Stericker remembers Morris turning up with the domestic radio receiver set which he placed near the microphone. As the time for the news from Daventry approached, Stericker announced that ZBW was now taking its listeners over to London for the news.

'Over to London' consisted of seizing the radio set and pushing it in front of the microphone. ... It was with some relief that we heard the BBC announcer come to the end of what seemed the longest news bulletin in history. ... I mention this small incident because it was an actual broadcast under fire, with audible shell-bursts.(1) 

The next day the Japanese landed on Hong Kong Island and the Causeway Bay station had to be abandoned. After this, the only remaining transmitter was the station in Kennedy Road. This station also came under shell fire and received several direct hits but apart from the aerial being shot away the transmitting equipment was undamaged. Every time the transmitter was switched on, it attracted Japanese fire. 

When the shelling was particularly severe, a technician would start up the apparatus and depart quickly, returning to shut it down at the end of the programme.(2)

The Kennedy Road station had no generator and when the electricity supply ceased so did transmissions from that station. However, up until the capitulation ZBK continued to broadcast, as described below by Richard Morris.

From the cessation of broadcasting, at Kennedy Road to the day of occupation, a programme of music and the Daventry news programmes were transmitted by local power from the studios to Government house by line. Mr Arthur Lay played the piano for some of these final transmissions.(2)  

Daventry calling - Daventry calling. This is the news.


The mystery surrounding Frank Kekewick Garton 

Cape D'Aguilar is a remote place situated at the south-eastern extremity of Hong Kong Island. The Post Office Engineering Branch looked after the seven transmitters at the D'Aguilar Radio Transmitting Station. Near them were two coastal defence batteries, Fort Bokhara with two 9.2-inch guns, and Fort D'Aguilar with two 4-inch guns. There were some beach defence pillboxes nearby, and a Canadian infantry company was based at Windy Gap. On December 13 the Royal Navy took over three of the seven transmitters at D'Aguilar after their own Transmitting and Receiving Station on Stonecutters Island was destroyed by enemy action. 

RN Radio Station on Stonecutters (Source UKNA Files)  

On 19 December, GPO Engineer, Frank Garton, advised Richard Morris that the military were evacuating the Cape D'Aguilar coastal defence batteries. All military forces in the eastern sector of the Island had been ordered to withdraw to Stanley, but the civilians at the radio transmitting station had been forgotten about. According to the report by  Morris, Head of GPO Engineering Branch, Garton was in charge of the radio transmitting station at D'Aguilar. However, he is also listed as a Seaman Gunner in the HKRNVR and he was incarcerated in SSP Camp and later shipped to Japan on the ill-fated Lisbon Maru. He survived the sinking of the Lisbon Maru and the subsequent incarceration in Japan. What is unclear is why he was not incarcerated at Stanley Civilian Internment Camp with the rest of the GPO engineers given he was not in uniform and given he was working in a civilian capacity. 

He was instructed to evacuate the station, destroy the equipment and make his way to town. He was able to get hold of a car and he left the station with his European assistant Allan Harbottle who was later interned at Stanley Camp. Garton was accompanied by his wife and a Chinese amah. The Chinese staff at the station were told to disperse. The Japanese had landed on the island the previous night and troops in the eastern sector were in danger of being cut off. Garton was not told which areas were in Japanese control. He must have driven through Repulse Bay and then up Repulse Bay Road (the quickest way to town). However, by this stage, the Japanse had seized Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap. As Garton approached the gap they were ambushed by Japanese entrenched on the hillside around the police station on a knoll at the centre of the gap. Their car was machine-gunned and  Garton's wife was killed and the Chinese amah seriously wounded.  Morris' report says nothing more about it other than she was killed. The big question for readers: is what happened to Garton and Harbottle. Why did Harbottle end up in Stanley and Garton in SSP Camp? 

Commonwealth War Graves Commission data gives an incorrect date of death (28/12). We know she died on 19/12. The governor reported the death in a telegram to London dated 23/12.

When I first read S/Sgt Patrick Sheridan's diary for 19 December; I wondered who was the dead European women that he came across together with a badly injured Chinese lady in what he called the white house. The white house was, in fact, a villa called Holmesdale now simply known as No. 4 Repulse Bay Road.  The house still exists today. It is the white house shown in the photograph below Postbridge, the higher of the two houses. The backdrop is WNC Gap.

Sheridan went into the villa and found some fifteen wounded, mostly naval personnel, who had been ambushed as their trucks drove up the road earlier that morning. The same fate must have visited the Gartons.  Suddenly it clicked. The ladies described by Sheridan in the white house at WNC Gap were Mrs Garton and the Chinese amah. The Chinese amah had been shot through the chest. She either died of her wounds or was killed when the Japanese broke in and bayoneted all the wounded.  But what of Garton and Harbottle. Perhaps they were wounded and were evacuated by naval ambulance to Aberdeen and why is it that one was put in a military POW camp and the other in Stanley Civilian Camp and what actually happened to them after the ambush? 



Following the publication of this post, I received an email from Richard Phillips who knew Allan Harbottle. It turned out they were neighbours in Cardiff and good family friends. This was in the 1960s. After the war ended he returned to the UK on recuperation leave. He arrived on the Empress of Australia which docked at Liverpool on 27 October 1945.  He married Gladys Mabel Trott, his childhood sweetheart, in December 1945. Gladys passed away in 196o at the age of 56. Richard kindly included the photograph below which shows him and his staff at the radio station.  We are not sure of the date - and whether it is a pre-war or post-war shot. He returned to his wireless duties in Hong Kong after the war and brought Gladys with him. In retirement in the 1960s/1970s, he was a ham radio enthusiast. Allan passed away in 1976.



1. A tear for the dragon (1958) John Stericker (p.128)

2. Report on activities of Post Office: Engineering Branch during the Battle of Hong Kong. UKNA  (CO 129/59


Richard Phillips