812 Squadron in Hong Kong (5th September - 28th December 1945) by John Dickson, Pilot 812 Sqdn. HMS. Vengeance.
Although we didn't fly for nearly 5 weeks after arriving in the Colony, I have been asked to remember something of our life there at an interesting time in its history:-
The Commander of the 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron (ACS) was Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt who flew his flag in our sister ship HMS. Venerable. The other carriers in the group were 'Colossus' and 'Glory'. After leaving Sydney on V.J. Day, 'Venerable' pressed ahead and arrived in Hong Kong just before the end of August whereupon the Admiral transferred his flag ashore and took up duty as the first Governor of the Colony following the Japanese surrender. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser arrived in the battleship 'Duke of York' on the 14th September and the official surrender ceremony took place 2 days later.
The day after we anchored in the harbour on the 5th September, I went ashore with a couple of others. I remember we were smartly turned out in our short white uniforms armed with .38 Smith & Wesson revolvers each with 6 rounds. Although the War had been over for 3 weeks no one knew for sure that all the Japs knew about it. Many were fairly isolated in the hills behind Victoria City and scattered around the New Territories. Sure enough we had just about got to the Main Square when a whole company of some 60 - 80 Japs came marching down the road. They were fully armed with rifles at the slope and the three of us felt that we would sooner be elsewhere. Anyway, we stood our ground, the Japanese officer called his troops to a halt and then proceeded to offer his sword as a token of surrender. I don't think he was frightened of our 3 revolvers which wouldn't have made much of a dent in his troops particularly as we were shaking so much.
Anyway without understanding one another we persuaded him to make his soldiers lay down their guns in the street and then to move his men back where they sat down. We had some sort of H.Q. set up in the dockyard so we got a message back for them to send some Marines who would know better what to do with our capture.
Hong Kong had been pretty well bombed by the Americans and the whole place was a smelly, dirty shambles with lots of rubble strewn all round. It soon became clear that we were to be here for some while and as there would be no flying jobs were found for us ashore. The restitution of law and order was the main priority and our sailors were soon to be armed and made up into patrols to clean up the streets. There had been massive looting and I remember going into a luxurious mansion well up on the Peak and finding little standing apart from the walls and roof. All the woodwork including floors and doors had been stripped. I also looked at a small factory where all the machinery was a tangled mess and all the plumbing and electric wiring was gone.
The Japanese prisoners were still a problem even after they had been rounded up. A few still felt disgrace and humiliation at being captured and preferred to commit hari-kari. Our troops were forced to make comprehensive searches of their kit to ensure that no lethal weapons were concealed. No matter how we tried a few still found ingenious ways of ending their lives.
The Chinese had suffered badly at the hands of the Japs and during the last weeks of the occupation there was no food, little water and no medicine. The natives were physically violent when the captive Japanese were being marched through the streets and although we managed considerable restraint we couldn't protect them all. Remembering the treatment of our prisoners at the hands of the Japanese we had no compunction in lining them up and making them bow to the Union Jack when the flag was run up. Within a few days strict orders came down that all Japanese prisoners were to be treated with civility and in accordance with the Geneva convention. On reflection this was a wise move although not popular at the time.
The main public buildings, banks etc., had wide window sills and I wondered why so many Chinese chose to climb up on to them to sleep. It soon dawned on me that these poor folk were not sleeping - they had crawled up there to die. Many, many more just collapsed and died on the pavements. Once some motor transport arrived patrols toured the streets at night removing all the corpses.
For the first 9 days of our stay there was no currency! I remember visiting the barber in his luxurious saloon in the basement of the famous Peninsula Hotel. He was happy to cut my hair provided I signed a chit! I don't suppose the chit was ever honoured but like so many this chap wanted to re-establish his territority and to make sure of the job that was his prior to the occupation. Similarly I remember signing a chit for a meagre lunch (doubtless the best they could provide) in the magnificent dining room of the hotel which enjoyed spectacular views over the harbour. Some of the Chinese had 'liberated' loads of expanding watch bracelets from a depot and as these were desireable objects they sufficed as substitute currency. The Hong Kong dollar was re-instated as legal tender on the 14th September and countless biscuit tins were unearthed in celebration. Their contents, the pre-war notes, had survived 4 years of interment remarkably well.
The ship's pilot (i.e. her navigating officer) was a very large black bearded Lieutenant Commander R.N. - whose name was Wyatt, he had been stationed in the Colony at the time of the Japanese invasion but was evacuated in time. Sadly his wife had to remain behind and was interned with all the female British population out at Stanley Camp on the western end of the Island. We had a family friend out there and I knew she had twin daughters, June and Maureen who I thought might appreciate some company, so two days after we arrived 'the Pilot', Pete Stansfeld and I were hot foot out to Stanley. The ladies had all survived their ordeal and had established a sensible routine including a school, church and other social activities. Their diet had been meagre but they had faired far better than the male internees who had been kept in a seperate camp. Although the girls were friendly and we enjoyed some swimming in the Bay, it became pretty obvious that the old Colonial social strata would not have allowed the young ladies to become too involved with young sub. lieutenants whatever our background!. Anyway we soon discovered that the girls had civilian fiances interned in Japan! They had heard that their chaps had survived and they were soon to be re-united. I had a couple more trips out to Stanley and on the 23rd September went there by bus with Bill Williams. We enjoyed swimming with the girls but were horrified to learn that one of the male ex-internees who had been on the beach at about the same time, was attacked and killed by a shark soon after we left. A tragic end after 4 years in captivity. Needless to say we didn't go swimming for the rest of our stay. The twins and their mother sailed home on the "Highland Monarch" a couple of weeks later.
It may interest some, but we understood that the Japanese had consistently denied that Red Cross parcels sent to the inmates of the camp ever arrived. The ladies knew better because the Japanese soldiery doing manual work on the hot and dusty roads were often seen wearing feminine sanitary items as face masks with the loops over their ears!.
On the 10th September Bill Williams and I were given proper jobs. On the Kowloon side was a Royal Navy warehouse, or 'go-down', in local parlance. Bill and I were put in charge until a certain Captain Tilley R.N.V.R. - a supply officer - could resume his pre-war duties. Our brief was to clear the warehouse ready for it to be restocked with Naval supplies. The problem was how to do it?. Imagine our delight when an ancient looking coolie presented himself complete with pre-war dockyard pass and photograph. He had just walked back from Canton where he'd taken himself and family when the Japs had arrived in December 1941. Although he looked old he probably wasn't more than 50. Anyway he convinced us that he was the storekeeper in this warehouse and wanted his job back. Bill and I were delighted to make him NUMBER ONE BOY as he spoke good English. He quickly recruited the staff we needed. Very soon we had 41 coolies working for us - probably all his nephews and cousins! Armlets were quickly fashioned so that we could recognise our staff and pay them at the end of each day. The warehouse contained some rice left by the Japs so each worker received one "cattie" (about 3 cupfuls) for a day's work. With the advent of currency we were authorised to pay one dollar a day i.e. 1/3d or less than 7p in today's money.
Any Japanese war material was to go to the Chinese Nationalists - all we needed was a proper receipt and signature. Where all that ended up we needn't ask! Any Civilian equipment was to be disposed of as we saw fit and there was a large quantity of blue denim which was the coolies normal dress. "Number One Boy" knew a gentleman called Chan Tuck (probably his brother-in-law) a tailor on Hong kong Island who would know what to do with it. The next morning a fleet of 10 or 12 Sampans arrived in the little dock outside the warehouse and within minutes the blue denim was cleared! Bill and I made sure we had a proper receipt which we filed until the regular staff took over! A couple of weeks later Bill and I were smartly kitted out in grey flannels and navy blue blazers courtesy of Chan Tuck & Co., tailors to the establishment!.
We hadn't been ashore more than a couple of days when we found a Japanese army motorbike and sidecar - a huge contraption likened, by those who knew about these things, to a Harley Davidson. Heeding the instructions about Japanese war material and the Chinese Nationalists we quickly painted the machine in battleship grey and proudly painted '812 Squadron' on the number plate. The problem was no-one knew how to drive it because there was a hand operated gear lever (just like a car's) and no obvious clutch. We set it up on the dockside outside the warehouse and poured in some petrol - it might have been 100 octane even! 'Lofty' Rouse and Tony Rickell - two of 1850 Sqdn's. pilots - swore they knew all the mechanics of this monster and they persuaded us to let them have first go! With one in the driving seat and the other on the pillion they fired up and engaged gear. No one had worked out that this machine had a reverse gear and two very frightened gentlemen nearly disappeared off the jetty.
The motorbike can be seen in various Squadron photographs and we kept it until we got back to Ceylon 8 or 9 months later. It was possible to get 7 people on board although the one in front of the driver tended to spoil his view! I seem to remember that this monster ended it's days in a paddy field near Katukurunda - it caught fire on it's lunch time run from the airfield to the wardroom and had to be ditched in a hurry. Apart from a few singed hairs on the legs there were no casualties.
The warehouse was gradually cleared and tidied. In one corner we found a supply of Royal Navy clothing dating back to the 1930's. There were even sailors' white duck uniforms and cap ribbons of ships that had spent happy peacetime days on the China Station. In particular I remember 'HMS. Eagle' a carrier commissioned in 1924 and sunk by a U-boat in the Mediterranean in August 1942.
At first Bill and I lived on board leaving the ship early each day after a good breakfast, taking with us a few corned beef sandwiches from the wardroom pantry for lunch. A ship's boat picked us up in the evening in time for a shower and change of uniform and a quick drink before dinner. One evening there was no boat to collect us and in fact, there was no ship either! There had been a typhoon warning and all the big ships had quickly picked up their hooks and made out to sea to ride out any bad weather. As we pondered where we might doss down for the night we were fortuitously befriended by Lieutenant Don Cawley, a paratroop officer just in from Burma, who, sensing our predicament, offered a bed in his mess and even the use of his razor the next morning! We became such good friends and as he was such a wonderful host that we arranged to move in with him permanently bringing our kit, including best white uniforms, ashore.
All this while our aircraft were kept safely aboard and on enquiring about our ground crew it transpired that they too were spending their days ashore working on the utilities and infrastructure wherever their particular skills could be best used. I was later told that they were having the times of their lives!
I guess it wasn't true but it seemed that the priorities were to get the brewery, the distillery, the dairy farm and the Yacht Club back into business! It would be some time before hops arrived so there was no local beer. The Japs had been distilling a sort of brandy called 'Green Tiger' or something like that. Our medics reckoned it was made with neat alcohol and warned everyone off it otherwise we could go blind! There was no sign of any cows in the Colony so I suppose the Dairy Farm was a dead loss until a fresh herd could be imported. Our 'ship's pilot' (Wyatt) had been a staunch member of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club so the spare manpower was soon busily employed in restoring this key part of the Colony's social life to it's pre-war glory. As mentioned elsewhere the ship's crest and a plaque are displayed there recording our efforts.
Towering over the harbour at the top of 'The Peak' was a large concrete structure - the Japanese Victory Memorial. Despite our offers to bomb it it was not considered safe to blow it up until engineer's had made a proper survey a year or two later.
Our friend Don Cawley must have had a responsible job because it wasn't long before he was allocated his own car and there weren't too many of those to be seen! Bill and I enjoyed some interesting trips with him as he toured his various outposts. Riding through the New Territories I marvelled at the magnificent scenery and the patience of the Chinese tending their crops - mainly rice in small paddy fields. I wondered if these industrious folk cared who ruled the Colony and would it have made much difference to their simple lives anyway?. Out at Sha Tin was the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club although the course was derelict and quite unplayable a few Chinese boys were around - probably caddies waiting for their first customers. A large area of reasonably flat countryside was the site of the Polo Club and a point-to-point race track. Within 50 years it would become one of the top racecourses in the world, regularly catering for 60 - 80,000 customers at their weekly meetings and attracting top quality racehorses from around the world to compete for their major prizes.
Don Cawley had found himself a most attractive lady friend who many months later became Mrs. Cawley. Olga was a tall and handsome lady, the daughter of a well-to-do white Russian family who, like many others, had made their way to Hong Kong after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Incidentally Communist Russia who fought as our allies in WWII did not declare war on the Japanese until just before V.J. Day. Probably 25 years ahead Don and Olga became the parents-in-law of the Wimbledon Ladies Tennis Champion, Yvonne Goolagong who married their son Roger(?) hence Yvonne Cawley. All this is leading to Bill and I meeting two sisters, friends of Olga and the daughters of a Portuguese widow living not far from the Peninsula Hotel. Portugal had remained neutral during the war so their lives had been reasonably undisturbed although the severe shortages meant that existence was hardly luxurious.