Recalling the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers in war
John Lawson has only a few tokens to remember his father by: military medals, a couple of dog tags and a silver ID bracelet that encircled his father’s wrist as bullets did their work in Hong Kong one terrible winter day 75 years ago this week.
There was a little pocket diary once, too, but that was lost in a fire. Mr. Lawson remembers two of the last words that his father wrote, summing up the situation before the ordeal that led to his death: “Quite impossible.”
Remembrances of war are worth noting not just for the lives lost, but for the bad decisions that led inexorably to the waste of those lives. Mr. Lawson need not have grown up without a father, but misinformation, poor planning and simple incompetence left him with little more than a pocketful of ornaments instead of a man.
Brig. John K. Lawson, Mr. Lawson’s father, was the highest-ranking Canadian soldier killed in action during World War II. He was cut down by machine-gun fire in the doomed defense of Hong Kong, a largely forgotten battle that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 soldiers, 290 of them Canadian.
The debate over what went wrong raged in the aftermath of the war but has long since grown cold. These days, the sacrifice and courage of those who died are remembered more than the senselessness of their deaths. But historians have long acknowledged that it was a mistake to send untested Canadian boys to defend an indefensible island.
“This was the Canadian army’s first engagement of the second war, and it was a disaster,” Tony Banham, a historian who has written extensively about the battle, said in an email exchange.
In the spring of 1941, John K. Lawson was 54. He had survived the Great War and had fought the petty political battles of the military to reach the rank of colonel — not a crowning achievement, but a comfortable one. He had a wife, two sons, a home.
The European war was looming, and Lawson had been put in charge of training young soldiers. Then came a request from Hong Kong for a battalion, maybe two, to reinforce the British colony’s small garrison there.
Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, was against it. “This is all wrong,” he wrote in January 1941. “If Japan goes to war with us, there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there.”
But the move, proponents argued, would boost morale in the colony and send a warning signal to Japan. Churchill conceded.
No one really expected the Japanese to attack a British possession. The Pacific conflict at that point was a war among Asians — a sideshow in the West where all eyes were focused on Germany.
Lawson was asked to prepare a report on the readiness of Canadian battalions available for the task: His staff members classified 10 as excellent, seven as in need of more training and nine as “not recommended for operational employment at present.”
There seemed no point in sending battle-ready troops far from the real war in Europe. To reinforce Hong Kong, then, Canada’s chief of the general staff picked two battalions from the bottom of the list — the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles — and put Lawson in charge.
Was there trepidation? His son guesses not. For his father, it was a late-career promotion to brigadier and a command. Perhaps he saw Hong Kong as one last adventure before settling into a desk job.
“Any soldier likes the exhilaration and excitement of a new posting,” said Lawson, who followed his father into the military and joined the same regiment, the Royal Canadian.
Lawson shipped out with about 2,000 troops that October.
Though the two imperial armies now faced each other uneasily at a railroad crossing between China and Hong Kong, confrontation seemed remote.
On the island, the defense plan spread troops thinly around the coast, ignoring the high ground. When he saw the strategy, Lawson was immediately alarmed and sent a request to London for an additional battalion. The request was ignored.
“He recognized the impossibility of the situation,” said George S. MacDonell, who served in the Royal Rifles during the battle. “It was a death sentence.”
On the morning of Dec. 7, the Hong Kong garrison was ordered to battle stations in response to reports of Japanese movements on the border. Even then, there was not much concern. Maj. Gen. Christopher Maltby, the British commander in Hong Kong, told London that the reports were “certainly exaggerated” and the movements most likely a ruse by the Japanese “to cover up their numerical weakness in South China.”
He believed that the Japanese across the border numbered in the thousands. In fact, there were more than 50,000 Japanese soldiers moving toward Hong Kong, outnumbering the colonial garrison by nearly 10 to 1.
On Dec. 8, or Dec. 7 on the U.S. side of the international date line, the Japanese surprised the world with near-simultaneous attacks on Hawaii, Singapore, northern Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and Hong Kong.
On the evening of Dec. 18, the Japanese forces crossed the narrow channel between the mainland and the island and quickly penetrated the coastal perimeter. Within hours, they were charging across the hills overlooking Lawson’s position on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road.
Lawson planned to move his headquarters back the next morning, but by 7 a.m. he was surrounded. At about 10 a.m., according to an account Maltby wrote after the war, Lawson reported that the Japanese were firing into his bunker “at point-blank range and that he was going outside to fight it out.”
Sgt. Bob Manchester of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was in a ditch opposite and saw Lawson and three of his men hit by machine-gun fire as they scrambled up the hillside behind the bunker.
Fighting around the headquarters continued until Dec. 22, when the remaining soldiers in the area were captured. Capt. Uriah Laite, a chaplain, was taken to the bunkers by the Japanese to call for any men still alive to come out.
“During the rounds,” he wrote in his diary, “I found the body of our Brigadier Lawson and was given permission to take his identification disc off his wrist.”
The Japanese commander buried Lawson the next day and erected a white marker on the grave with the brigadier’s name and rank written on it in Japanese, a rare honor. In 1946, Canadian authorities reburied his remains in Sai Wan War Cemetery on Hong Kong Island, where they are today.
With Lawson’s death, the defense of the western half of the island devolved into chaotic, uncoordinated counterattacks and retreats. The British finally surrendered on Christmas Day.
Laite spent four years as a prisoner of war and gave Lawson’s bracelet to the family when he returned to Canada. His son John Lawson keeps it framed with his father’s medals today.