The Defence of Hong Kong

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The Defence of Hong Kong 

Shing Mun Redoubt and the Gin Drinker's Line


by John Cartwright




On December 7th 1941 the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbour , which resulted in the United States of America declaring war on the Japanese.  The following day Japanese aircraft attacked the Royal Air Force contingent based at Kai Tak airfield, situated on the mainland of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which destroyed all of the dated aircraft available.  This air attack was a prelude to a land invasion of Hong Kong , from the Chinese mainland, that resulted in the capture of the Colony and the entire garrison within eighteen days.  This article is concerned primarily with the British attempts to defend the mainland from the Japanese attack.  British resistance was based on a defence line knows as the Gin Drinkerís Line because itsí western flank rested on Gin Drinkerís Bay.  The plan was that this line was to hold for three weeks during which the defences of Hong Kong Island could be completed and the invading forces subjected to delay and attrition.


This article is broken down into five sections:



        War Plans

        Shing Mun Redoubt and its capture

        Retreat to Hong Kong Island and final surrender

        The battlefield(s) today


Despite itsí small geographic size Hong Kong has a considerable number of military structures standing from both the Victorian era, Second World War and Korean War.




The map below gives a general view of Hong Kong , showing the position of Mainland China to the North.  The land boundary between Hong Kong and China is roughly 35 Kilometres long, with most of the borderline being delineated by the course of the Shum Chun River that flows from East to West.  In the area East of Sheung Shui the river is very narrow and can be crossed on foot without any difficulty.  The New Territories of Hong Kong is the area north of Tsuen Wan and this was largely agricultural land with small villages.  The area around Kowloon was largely residential and industrial, while Hong Kong Island itself was the most developed both in terms of residential homes, business and industrial complexes.



Map 1: General View of Hong Kong [1]


The British had no intention of holding any attacker along the Sino-Hong Kong border itself, with the main defence line being on the range of hills that separate Kowloon from the rural New Territories .  Map 2 below shows the New Territories , Kowloon peninsula and most of Hong Kong Island .  This map would appear to be a Japanese intelligence map because it has Japanese notations on all the military defence positions.  The Gin Drinkerís Line was a string of defence points, primarily pillboxes and trenches surrounded by wire and situated on various hills separating Kowloon from the New Territories.  The key defensive position on this 18 kilometre line was the Shing Mun Redoubt, located on a spur overlooking Shing Mun Reservoir.




Map 2: The above map is an Ordinance Survey Map with annotations in Japanese.  The map shows many, but not all of the British defence positions.  The three large blocks of Japanese characters on the top left of the map all relate to Shing Mun, Tai Mo Shan and the locality of the main Japanese attack on the mainland.


The terrain along the Gin Drinkerís line is rugged with some steep volcanic hills and dense jungle undergrowth.  A network of paths, some along water catchments, linked the various locations and there were some reasonable narrow metalled roads built to access reservoirs and positions on the hilltops.  The picture on the left is of one of the marker stones that are still distributed along parts of the Gin Drinkerís Line.  It is thought that these stones were to aid navigation and assist in directing artillery fire.


The Japanese had excellent intelligence sources and are believed to have built a mock up of the Shing Mun Redoubt to practice their assault tactics.


War Plans


The Japanese had been fighting in Mainland China since 1937 and had been moving close to the Hong Kong border in the run-up to their attack.  The British tended to be rather dismissive of the fighting abilities of the Japanese soldiers and were confident that the Colony could hold out if attacked, provided some assistance was sent.  The outbreak of war in Europe resulted in many of the better troops being sent to Europe, with less capable personnel being left in Hong Kong.  In November 1941 the garrison was only thought to be sufficient to hold Hong Kong Island itself, but two Canadian Battalions arrived in Hong Kong one month before hostilities commenced and this led to old plans being re-introduced to hold the Gin Drinkerís Line which was expected to hold for at least three weeks.  The Garrison of Hong Kong included the units shown on the following page.  The naval forces did not play a significant part in the battle and have been excluded from this table. 



On paper the Hong Kong Garrison looked reasonably strong with more than six line battalions, and a considerable number of artillery guns.  However, these numbers are deceptive because of numerous problems which included:


        The two Canadian Battalions had only been in Hong Kong for one month and were not familiar with the terrain or other units.  Both units were also inexperienced and did not have all their heavy equipment, especially transport.  The Canadians have claimed that they were sent to Hong Kong not expecting to be involved in any fighting with some of their personnel officially classified as Ďunfit for combatí.

        The two British Battalions had lost many of their most capable officers and men to redeployments in Europe . 

        The RAF and Royal Navy had been stripped of their primary assets for the War in Europe and the Japanese obtained total air superiority after destroying the obsolete RAF aircraft at Kai Tak.

        The majority of the defences had been designed to withstand a naval attack, and most of the fixed artillery was positioned to engage ships at sea.  There was also a lack of High Explosive (HE) shells because armour piercing shells were required to engage warships

        There was a general contempt for the fighting ability of the Japanese and inadequate preparations were taken to defend Hong Kong from a determined and capable attacker. 

        The attempt to defend the Gin Drinkerís Line on the Mainland spread the British Forces too thinly.  With only three Battalions to defend 18 Kilometres, originally designed to be held by six Battalions, dispersed the units allowing for a spectacular early defeat from which they never had chance to recover.


In comparison the Japanese forces were based around the 38th Infantry Division under General Sano.  This Division had three infantry Regiments, the 228th, 229th and 230th.  Each of the Regiments had about 3,000 fighting troops with their own company of 75mm guns and light mortars.  The Division also had some thirty-six 75mm Field Guns to provide artillery support.  These troops were battle hardened having fought the Chinese for nearly five years.  It was to be the 228th Regiment under Colonel Doi Teishichi who would attack and capture Shing Mun Redoubt and the surrounding area.  We do not know if he had his full complement of troops, but he certainly did not have any of his wheeled artillery to support the attack.  The total Japanese Forces, including the air force and navy, used in the invasion of Hong Kong was approximately 40,000 men.


Shing Mun Redoubt


Map 3 below has been highlighted to show the position of the Shing Mun Redoubt, marked in light green, and the relative position of the Gin Drinkerís Line which is in red.  The blue area is Shing Mun Reservoir itself.  It should be noted that the Gin Drinkerí Line was not a solid defence line, but a series of defence position linked by paths.  Tai Mo Shan, marked just to the north west of Shing Mun is the highest point on the Hong Kong mainland, and was captured by the Japanese without any fighting.  





Map 3: Map showing the position of Shing Mun Redoubt and its position in relation to other key features.  The capture of the Redoubt would open up the whole of the left flank of the defence line.


The defence of the Gin Drinkerís Line was given to three of the available Battalions.  The Royal Scots were to cover the left side; the Punjabis covered the centre and the Rajputs the right flank.  This deployment had little prospect of holding the Japanese indefinitely, but it was hoped that the line would hold for about three weeks and allow considerable casualties to be inflicted on the Japanese.


The Gin Drinkerís Line also lacked adequate artillery support.  Some of the costal batteries could provide covering fire, but the lack of H.E. shells resulted in them firing armour piercing rounds which tended to inflict more damage on the concrete redoubt than on any attackers.


The Redoubt itself is a unique military structure sited on the forward slope of Smugglers Ridge Hill.  On a clear day someone on this ridge has a good view of the two main roads leading to the Kowloon Peninsula from the New Territories and the Chinese Border.  The Redoubt also straddles one of the main Ďancient pathwaysí used by villages in the New Territories to travel to Kowloon. [2] 


Shing Mun Redoubt was positioned above the Reservoir with five machine gun pillboxes, a command post, artillery observation post and five open firing positions, complete with fire step.  The plan below is believed to have been prepared by a Mike Nolan, possibly of the British Garrison in Hong Kong in the 1970s or 1980s.  The map was supplied by David Russell, a Superintendent in the Royal Hong Kong Police, who lectured the military and others on the invasion of Hong Kong .  



The citadel had been prepared in the 1930s and had never been completed because it had been realised that at least six Battalions would be needed to defend the Gin Drinkerís Line and this was never likely to be available.  In 1941 the British attempted to hold this line with only three Battalions with predictable results.  The Redoubt is spread over various levels and it was not possible for the various positions to provide supporting fire to each other, and in many cases they are not within sight of each other.  There are numerous areas of dead ground allowing attackers to infiltrate the position without being observed.  There are also numerous entrances into the complex, none of which were secure.  Attackers could enter the concrete tunnels through the various fighting positions or by the main entrances.  The concrete tunnels also had ventilation holes through which any attacker could throw grenades with ease while remaining out of sight.  There can be little doubt that Japanese intelligence had already identified these deficiencies, and hence their willingness to tackle the complex head on.


The Redoubt was designed to have a full company of infantry to hold it but on the 9th December 1941 there were only fifty men of the Royal Scots in the position, and a reasonable proportion of these were artillery observers and command elements. [3] 


The Japanese 228th Regiment had crossed the Sino Hong Kong Border on 8th December 1941 , and reached Shing Mun by the evening of following day.  The British had blown all the road brides but the Japanese advanced on foot using traditional village paths.  The British command had expected it to take days for the Japanese to reach the Gin Drinkerís line, and this rapid advance caused further dislocation of the British defence efforts.


The Japanese 228th Regiment reach Needle Hill, which lies directly opposite and above Shing Mun Redoubt, on the afternoon of the 9th December 1941 .  From this location they conducted detailed surveillance on the citadel.  Although not ordered to attack the position, Colonel Doi Teishichi decided that it was undermanned and vulnerable to an attack launched from Smugglers Ridge Hill.  When darkness fell 150 Japanese crossed the Shing Mun River, below the main dam and climbed to the top of the 337-meter high Smugglers Ridge Hill.  They then launched a determined assault on the citadel from the east and south, supported by the main Japanese assault across the main dam itself.  The assault came as a complete surprise to the defenders, partially because they had failed to deploy any foot patrols outside the redoubt itself.


It would appear that the 43 defenders were completely overwhelmed, and despite reports to the contrary do not appear to have put up much of a fight.  None of the defenders were killed during the attack, although one subsequently died from his wounds and two men from a Mountain Battery died in the Observation Post.  Despite this pill box 401B held out for some hours, but it was totally isolated when the remainder of the citadel garrison withdrew back to Golden Hill. [4]


The Royal Scots supported by elements of the 7th Rajputs, were ordered to mount a counterattack on the morning of the 10th January to recapture the Redoubt.  This attack never materialised because the British were not able to mobilise sufficient resources to make the assault viable.  On the 10th the Japanese consolidated and then launched a series of further attacks on the following day.  This led to a complete disintegration in the defence line and orders were given to withdraw all units to Hong Kong Island .


Retreat to Hong Kong Island and Surrender


The British withdrawal from the mainland was commenced at midday on the 11th January with the 7th Rajputs being the last to leave during the early morning of the 13th January.  This evacuation was achieved with minimal losses thanks mainly to the inactivity of the Japanese forces.  The Winnipeg Grenadiers helped cover this retreat, and a young Canadian, John Grey was captured when he became separated.  He was subsequently executed by the Japanese and became the first Canadian soldier to die in combat during the war.


With the British forces now confined to the Island of Hong Kong , the Japanese prepared for an amphibious assault.  On the evening of 18th December 1941 they launched an attack with three Regiments in area around North Point and Lee Yu Mun Barracks.   Map 2 above shows this area, with notations showing the range of the various guns mounted in the area of the Barracks.  Despite some severe fighting the Japanese succeeded in reaching the centre of the Island in twelve hours.  The most severe fighting took place around Wong Nai Chong Gap Police Station, and it was only on the 23rd that the Canadian Grenadiers were finally forced to surrender.  This allowed the Japanese to split the defending British forces into two pockets, and their eventual demise was only a matter of time.  On the 24th December the Governor finally surrendered to the Japanese although some units continued to fight until 0230 hours on Christmas Day.


The British lost at least 1,500 troops during the fighting for Hong Kong , although some estimates give 2,400 fatalities.  The survivors were to loose another 25% during some brutal years of captivity.  The execution of prisoners and wounded by the Japanese is well document and some of those concerned were subsequently convicted of war crimes.  One Victoria Cross was awarded to J.R. Osborn of the Canadian Grenadiers for his part in the fighting around Mount Butler in the centre of the Island. [5]


Of the 40,000 or so men of the Imperial Japanese Forces earmarked for this invasion, less than 700 were killed, and 1,500 wounded.  A large memorial was constructed during the occupation to celebrate this Japanese victory, but the local Chinese destroyed this in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered.  Throughout the war there was an active resistance, particularly in the New Territories, and the Japanese raised whole villages.  Traces of some of these villages can still be seen today, such as Cheung Sheung Village in Sai Kun Peninsula .


The Battlefield Today


Shing Mun Redoubt is still virtually intact, although some of the tunnels are now flooded and silted.  It is possible to walk round the whole complex, and walk through parts of the tunnels.  The Command Post, partially destroyed by Japanese sappers, is clearly visible just by the MacLehose Trail.  Some of the other positions are harder to locate because of the undergrowth.  The plan below will assist anyone exploring the area.  The large electric pylon by PB 402 is a good reference point to work from.  This plan is also believed to have been prepared by Mark Nolan, see reference above.



Many other parts of the Gin Drinkerís Line are still visible and fairly intact.  Lei Yu Mun Barracks has now been converted to the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, and this is a good starting point for anyone interested in this subject. [6]  In the New Territories there are also some interesting fortification built during the course of the War in Korea.  Not a great deal has been written about the Japanese capture of Hong Kong but I would strongly recommend the following publications which I have used in preparing this article:


     Battlefields Review, Issue 16 published by Wharncliffe Publishing Ltd. in November 2001.

    Ruins of War by KO Tim-Keung and Jason Wordie.  Joint Publishing (HK) Co. Ltd. 1996.

     Not the Slightest Chance, The Defence of Hong Kong 1941, Tony Banham.  Published 5/1/03 .  Although I have not seen this book I have corresponded with the author and he would appear to know his subject.



[1] Extracted from Hong Kong Government Web Site Ė Tourist Board map.

[2] This pathway is now part of the 100 Kilometre MacLehose Trail.

[3] Within Hong Kong , particularly by members of the Hong Kong Regiment (formerly HKVDF) the Royal Scots (First of Foot) were affectionately known as the ĎFleet of Footí because of poor showing during the Battle for Gin Drinkerís Line.

[4] Surviving members of the Royal Scots have proved reluctant to talk about the events of this night, and in particular their subsequent retreat from Golden Hill on 11th December 1941 This article was written in 1985.  We have recently (2018) received correspondence from Mr. Allan Thomson, who is the grandson of a soldier of D Coy 2nd Bn Royal Scots who provides the following information about the battle:

"The Shing Mun Redoubt was being held by men from A Coy.  D Coy Royal Scots  counterattacked driving the Japanese off the hill by the bayonet, Cpt Pinkerton received the MC for his counter attack. They held up there for the best part of the day according to my Grandfather and took heavy losses under heavy mortar and shell fire as the Japanese wouldn't come back to retake it with the bayonet, instead preferring to shell them to bits, there may also have been friendly fire from British Batteries upon their position. There was no cover except a few shell scrapes.  My Grandfather held the position after D Coy was told to pull back as part of  a section with Lt Jimmy Ford and 7 men stayed to cover the retreat, but most men were killed, my Grandfather was knocked out left for dead, but was later able to get himself down after coming round and got back to the Island independently with some stragglers on a sampan when the rest of the Battalion was pulled back. Lt Jimmy Ford said he got off there with one other survivor when told to pull back (not my Grandfather who was left for dead).  They buried the baseplates off their mortars on the hill and recovered the tubes to use when they needed to pull back, so the site of DCoy's stand will be marked by this evidence if they're ever found.  My Grandfather and the rest of the Battalion put up fierce fights around Mt Cameron, Nicholson, and near the Peak, and were preparing to fight to the end on Christmas day until ordered to surrender for the good of the population.  Most accounts don't recognise the hard fighting the RS put in on the Island and D Coy's actions on Golden Hill.  I think the fact the battalion was scapegoated and slandered by Maltby at points adds to this, and the fact they didn't get the Battle Honours.  Funnily enough it was men of the Royal Scots who went forwards with no weapons to kill sentries left to stop men getting out of the holds on the Lisbon Maru so there are other defenders of Hong Kong who probably owe their lives to them in the aftermath.  Further to add to the complications facing the RS their ammunition convoy on the Mainland was set fire to probably by Chinese 5th Columnists working for the Japanese.  My Grandfather also made mention of some fighting around Needle hill which would be in advance of their positions, so it is also possible some preliminary skirmishes may possibly have happened there, although official histories don't record this and my Grandfather is no longer around to ask about it.  Also I know my Grandfather made mention of some Rajputs falling back through their positions and he saved one's life (who had been severly wounded), whose gratitude was later demonstrated in the camps."

[5] One of the larger barracks on Kowloon Peninsula was called Osborne Barracks as a memorial to this VC recipient and there is a statue of him in Hong Kong Park , close to the Central area of Hong Kong Island .