Thursday 15 February 2024

Major Arthur Dewar, RASC

Arthur John Dewar was born 3 August 1907 to Robert and Lily Dewar in Belgaum, India. He was an Australian who served in the British Army as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). He fought galllantly in the Battle for Hong Kong and in 1946 this was recognised by the award of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for gallantry in combat. He was one of six recipients of the DSO awarded during the Battle for Hong Kong.  The others five awards were granted to the following senior officers. 

Major Bishop, Royal Rifles of Canada

Major Hodkinson, Winnipeg Grenadiers

Lt Colonel Stewart, Middlesex Regiment

Major Stewart, HKVDC

Major Templer, Royal Artillery

The DSO ranks below the Victoria Cross and above the Military Cross. It is generally only awarded to senior officers in the rank of Major or above and only for gallantry in action.  Dewar was a Temporary Major during the battle albeit his substantive rank was Captain. The citation for his award mentions conspicuous and consistent gallantry.

Arthur Dewar, apparently known as "Dumpy Dewar" according to Captain Wiseman, RASC, was a career officer who served in the Regular Army before and after the war. He was first commissioned into the Australian Army Service Corps and later transferred to the RASC.  A shipping manifest dated March 1932 records his arrival in London on the SS Narkunda, aged 24 to take up his role with the RASC. He was travelling from Fremantle, Western Australia and bound for the RASC Depot in the Army garrison town of  Aldershot. He was later  seconded to the Sudan Defence Force. He served much of his time in Equatoria, South Sudan. After a period serving in UK he was transferred to Hong Kong in 1940. Captain Wiseman recalled that he lived in the Hongkong Club and was reputed to play bridge every night and supplement his Army salary with his winnings. 

A passenger record dated August 1955 records him returning to Australia from the UK. Possibly following retirement from the Army. By this tine he was a Lieutenant Colonel with a distinguished war record. He was travelling with his wife Lois Alice on the SS Himalaya. He gives his permanent intended place of residence as Australia and his last place of residence as England. He retired to Swambourne a seaside suburb of Perth, Western Australia.  He passed away at the early age of 59 in January 1967. 

He is particulary well known for holding out at the Little Hong Kong ordnance magazines at Shouson Hill and in so doing became the last organized unit to accede to the surrender of British and Allied forces in Hong Kong. 

 Captain (Temporary Major) Arthur Dewar (Source: n/k)

On Monday 8 December 1941 at 0800 hours while crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island he witnessed the first air raid on Kai Tak and Sham Shui Po barracks which for many people in Hong Kong was the first indication that war had begun, although a state of emergency had been declared the previous day. Major Dewar was on his way to the RASC boats camber adjacent to the RN Dockyard. He was the officer in charge of the flotilla of War Department Vessels consisting of lighters and launches. These vessels included WDV French, shown in the drawing below, and WDV Oudenarde and WDV Victoria. They flew the Blue Ensign with a crossed swords emblem.  They were the Army's maritime transport and entirely separate from the Royal Navy.

WDV French  (Source: Recollections of a British Prisoner of War by Bill Wiseman) 

Captain Bill Wiseman, RASC, described the role of the Army's Water Transport as follows:

1. A cross harbour ferry service  between SSP Barracks, Stonecutters Island and Tsim Tsa Shui and the RASC Camber.

2. An embarkation and disembarkation facility for service personnel.

3. A lighter service for loading and unloading service stores and ammunition.

4. Fast-going sea launches for towing targets for the 9.2-inch and 6-inch coastal defence batteries

5. For the movement of guns and mules as required. 

Captain Wiseman describes the vessels as falling into three categories:

Harbour launches:  Victoria, Malplaquet, Oudenarde.

Fast Motor Launches: French, Widgeon.

Lighters: Various, with some having ramps down to their holds for transporting mules. The crews were made up of mainly Chinese personnel. 

Dewar describes how two of the RASC lighters were converted to mule lighters presumably by the addition of ramps. This being in anticipation that the mules would at some point need to be brought over from the Mainland to Hong Kong Island.

On Monday 8 December and Tuesday 9 December Ordnance and NAAFI stores were moved to new and less exposed locations on the southside of the Island. 

On Thursday 11 December Dewar was advised that Withdrawal from the Mainland (WM Plan) was being put into operation. The WM Plan entailed the withdrawal of all troops and equipment from the Mainland to Hong Kong Island. The two mule lighters were towed initially to Holt's Wharf. One was later dispatched to the RN Camber in Kowloon and towed by WDV Oudenarde. The lighter returned to Hong Kong Island under Japanese shellfire with some 50 mules collected from Whitfield Barracks. Dewar describesd how the RN Dockyard, the RASC Camber amd the Ordnance Depot on the north shore of the Island were under increasing bombardment. Nevertheless the mules were disembarked without loss. One RASC officer, 2/Lt Keller, RIASC, was slightly wounded in both legs when the Motor Transport (MT) stores building was hit by artillery fire as he was passing. He was sent to the Military Hospital on Bowen Road. 

The RASC Camber was evacuated with the personnel sent to the RASC depot at the golf course at Deepwater Bay. Dewar proceeded to Lye Mun continuing to take charge of the Army Water Transport vessels. The 2nd Battalion Royal Scots were brought over to the Island that evening (Thursday 11 December) and likewise the howitzers, Bren Gun carriers and artillery. The two Indian Army battalions commenced their withdrawal towards Devil's Peak. WDV French was sent to pick up soldiers from the  Royal Artillery Observation Posts near Clearwater Bay.  Dewar spent the night 11 of December at Lye Mun. On Friday 12 December he was advised that the Punjab Battalion occupying the centre of the Gin Drinkers Line (GDL) were to be evacuated that night together with mules from the pier at Devil's Peak Peninsula. A decision was taken later that all troops including the Rajput Battalion and their supporting artillery would be evacuated during the night of 12 December. WDV Victoria was brought over to Lye Mun from Taikoo Docls by Dewar with the assistance of personnel seconded by the Navy to act as  coxswains, engine room artificers and deckhands, many of the Chinese crews having deserted. An American civilian, Doctor Frank Molthen, the owner of a private motor boat volunteered to assist in the evacuation of troops and equipment. The evacuation of the three inantry battalions with their supporting artillery, armoured cars and bren gun carriers was completed in a mini-Dunkirk style opperation. The task was initially carried out by the War Department vesssels, but they were later joined by the Royal Navy using the sole remaining destroyer, HMS Thracian, and four of their eight motor torpedoe boats. The MTBs were used to ferry troops from the pier to the destroyer. The final crossings were made on Saturday morning, 13 December, in broad daylight. They were vulnerable to air attack but fortunately Japanese aircraft did not appear that morning. Much of the evacuation was carried out at night without lights. The evacuation was a remarkable success due to good planning, good command and control and to some extent good fortune.  Nearly all the military personnel were successfully evacuated and the only failure was the inability to bring the mules across because of damage to the mule-lighter.

After the evaciation, Dewar was posted to Shouson Hill in command of 12 Coy RASC. On 19 December, following the Japanese landings on the Island and their capture of Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap, orders were given for the RASC to evacuate the work shops at Shouson Hill and the depots at Brick Hill and Deep Water Bay. The RASC personnel were ordered to relocate to Dairy Farm on Victoria Road and await orders. They were then instructed to form a composite company under the command of Lt-Col Frederick, RASC. The composite company consisted of RASC, RAOC, Royal Engineers, Royal Navy, Hong Kong Police and RAF. Dewar was part of this composite company of miscellaneous military personnel who were ordered to form a defensive line along a catch-water near Bennett's Hill. In the evening at about 1800 hours they received orders to abandon the line at Bennett's Hill and to capture Wong Nai Chung (WNC) Gap which had been largely captured by the Japanese earlier that morning on 19 December.  Transport was arranged to take the composite company as far up Repulse Bay Road as possible. Movement began at 20000 hours. They could not get to WNC Gap which was covered by Japanese machine guns so they stopped at the Ridge slightly lower down Repulse Bay Road. The plan was for an attack on WNC Gap to commence at dawn on 20 December. However, at 2300 hours plans changed again and Fredericks was ordered to leave the Ridge and to reoccupy Shouson Hill the following morning. However that morning, 20 December, the Japanese had proceeded down Middle Spur and seized the critical road junction at Repulse Bay Road/Island Road. Lt-Col Frederick's party consisting of a walking group and a motor transport group moved straight into a Japanese ambush at the road junction. Casualties were incurred and the rest of the column withdrew back to the Ridge. 

Major Dewar saw the lorries and marching group returning up Repulse Bay Road. He was briefed about the ambush by Major Flippance, RASC. Dewar asked Flippance to report the situation to Lt-Col Frederick at the Ridge. Meanwhile Dewar decided to continue down Repulse Bay Road to collect and assist any stragglers. He met Sgt Shiel, RASC, and ascertained from him that few if any were left behind.  While they were talking at the roadside they spotted a Japanese patrol working their way up the road towards them. They took cover and allowed the Japanese to come closer before opening fire at a range of 80 to 100 yards. Dewar described in his war diary how four were definitely killed and another four to eight were either killed our wounded. The Japanese then started to reinforce their forward troops on the road and at the same time tried to outflank Dewar and Shiel by working their way up the hillside above the road. It was time to withdraw and avoid entrapment. Rather than proceedinng up the road and back to the Ridge they went down the steep hillside below the road. They reached the golf course at Deep Water Bay and made their way along the perimeter towards Shouson Hill. They noticed the Japanese flag flying from the old AA fort and made their way to the Food Store on Island Road.

At the Food Store they came across a naval party of some twenty men made up from HMS Tern's ship's company and under the command of Lt Gerald Horey, RNVR. Dewar and Shiel joined up with this group and Dewar as the senior officer assumed command. Dewar and Horey reported to Major Marsh, 1/Mx, at his Coy HQ at Shouson Hill. Marsh asked them to garrison House No. 23 in order to protect his exposed flank and to prevent snipers getting into the nearby houses that overlooked Marsh's HQ. They were also ordered to help keep the road clear leading from Aberdeen to Little Hong Kong magazines. Dewar notified Lt-Col Andrews-Levinge, his commanding officer, of their situation. House No. 23 where Dewar established his HQ was in fact Andrews-Levinge's pre-war home.  His wife, Ida, was one of the European nurses working at St Stephen's College Temporary Hospital at Stanley. She was fortunate to have survived the masacre of wounded patients, orderlies and medical personnel. The house provided line of sight on the old AA fort which had been occupied by Japanese troops. Sniper fire was periodically exchanged. Major Marsh issued the RN party with army uniforms to replace their more conspicuous blue naval uniforms. Marsh also provided the naval party under Dewar with LMGs and a Vickers gun and sent two 1/Mx machine gunners to bolster their group.

On Sunday 21 December, an attack was carried out by a combined naval and army party on the AA Fort. The attack was led by Lt-Col Kidd, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment. The attack was unsuccessful and a number of casualties were incurred including Lt-Col Kidd was killedduring the attack. Dewar saw the assualt party passing No. 23. He described how the attack disintegrated after Lt-Col Kidd was killed. He obtained a further four RN ratings from the attacking party after it had broken up. The old AA fort was shelled by howitzers but the Japanese still had control of this prominent hill feature which commanded Island Road, the route to Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay. The Japanese continued to snipe at Dewar's party in No. 23. Dewar noticed Japanese troops on the southern slopes of Mt Nicholson and Mt Cameron moving from east to west.  He directed fire using rifles and Bren Guns. The Vickers Gun supplied by Major Marsh was not functioning due to a missing lock. Early the next morning, Monday 22 December, they were subjected to sniper fire from the disused AA fort. Fire was laid down on Japanese positions on Mt Cameron and Mt Nicholson using the Bren Guns and the Vickers Gun (a new lock having been found). They were joined by Lt-Cdr Binney, another straggler from Kidd's asault party.

On Tuesday 23 December, Dewar's party continued to be sniped at from the AA fort.  Howitzer fire was again directed at the Japanese positions at the AA fort. On this day, they were joined by two more naval personnel, Lt Mitchell and Sub-Lt Rose, also stragglers from Lt-Col Kidd's group. They had become separated from the main party and had spent two days evading Japanese patrols. Major Dewar was praised for observing and directing artillery fire from the 9.2-inch guns at Stanley at Japanese positions on Cameron and Nicholson. They estimated the Japanese in this area of Cameron and Nicholson numbered one thousand - equivalent to a full Japanese infantry battalion. During the day the Japanese were closing in on House No 23 and Major Marsh's HQ. 

On 24 March the defenders at Shouson Hill were subjected to heavy mortar fire. This continued from 0900 to 1030 hours when the firing moved to Bennett's Hill and Aberdeen. Two mortar shells hit House No 23 causing two casualties who were evacuated by car to the hospital at the Aberdeen naval base. Marsh ordered Lt Hanlon, RAOC, and his Ordnance group to evacuate the magazines at Little Hong Kong. However on reporting this to China Command they were told that a further convoy was scheduled to pick up ammunition from the magazines that evening. Marsh ordered Hanlon to re-open the magaznes and Dewar's group were ordered to reinforce the ordnance group at the magazines and provide local defence. The ammunition convoy arrived at 2200 hours. The next day, Christmas Day, Hong Kong surrendered. 

Lt Lewis Bush, HKRNVR, a Japanese speaking British naval officer was asked to go to Government House with Lt Suzuki to facilitate an interview between Major-General Maltby, the Army commander, and a Japanese Colonel. Maltby asked about the mixed army and naval group manning the magazines at Little Hong Kong as there had been no word as to their fate. According to Lt Bush, Suzuki knew about them and replied that they were still holding out and had fired at Japanese troops whenever they approached and that they had rigged the magazines with explosives. Bush went to the magazines with Suzuki and informed them that Major-General Maltby had ordered a cease-fire and assured the defenders that they would be given safe conduct by the Japanese. Bush writing in The Road to Inamura (1972) writes that he was warned that he may have difficulty because the officer in charge was a particularly stubborn Australian who might choose to blow up the thousads of tons of ammunition rather than surrender. After Bush's intervention the men came out and surrendered the magazines. The Japanse were relieved. The prisoners were taken to Aberdeen and given a slap-up meal and provided with whisky and beer. Their Japanese captors were impressed that they were willing to blow themselves up with the ammunition rather than surrender. This group commanded by Major Dewar were the last organised group to surrender in the Battle for Hong Kong.

Little Hong Kong Magazines circa 1941

 One of the surviving magazines at Little Hong Kong (January 2024)

Information board at Little Hong Kong 


War Diary of Major A J Dewar (Appendix 'D' of RASC War Diarry) held at UKNA WO 172/1694A

Recollections of a British Prisoner of War (2001)  Captain E. P. (Bill) Wiseman.

Battle for Hong Kong (2019) Philip Cracknell

The Road to Inamura (1972) Lewis Bush