How British helped one-legged Chinese admiral make great escape from Second World War Hong Kong
It was one of the greatest escapes of the Second World War, by more than 60 British servicemen and a one-legged Chinese admiral who slipped out of Hong Kong and broke through Japanese lines to freedom.
It involved a desperate swim under heavy fire across a Hong Kong harbour, a night-time dash for the Chinese mainland aboard five motor torpedo boats, and a gruelling four-day march through Japanese-held territory, where capture would have meant almost certain death.
"There were many remarkable adventures during the war but few can rival the escape from Hong Kong to mainland China of 68 men under the noses of the invading Japanese army," is how the Duke of Edinburgh described it to descendants of the servicemen in 2009.
Yet only now has the full story of their extraordinary feat been told in a newly-published account, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the escape on Christmas Day, 1941 - the day that Britain surrendered its Hong Kong colony to Japan.
For decades it has been largely forgotten in the West, and hushed up in China, whose Communist rulers were not eager to celebrate a joint mission between Chinese and British forces or the role of Chan Chak, the Chinese admiral who was a member of the former Nationalist government.
But descendants of the sailors, special operations agents and intelligence officers involved in the escape have meticulously pieced together their fathers' diaries and letters to create a compelling account of what happened.
"My father never really talked about it," said Sheena Recaldin, the daughter of David MacDougall, one of the escapees who later went on to be Hong Kong's first post-war acting governor.
"The story only came out when we saw the scars on his back when we went swimming, but it was my mother who told us. It is only in the last 10 years or so that I have begun to understand what happened. At the time, they all thought they were going to die."
The story of the escape has been stitched together in a new book, Escape from Hong Kong, by Tim Luard, a former BBC correspondent whose father-in-law was a special operations agent and a part of the escape team.
The plan to flee Hong Kong was hatched in the run-up to Christmas 1941, as tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers overwhelmed the colony's meagre defences and were poised to take the island.
As the enemy approached, the British government realised the importance of getting Chan Chak, a redoubtable, if diminutive, wooden-legged Chinese admiral to safety. Admiral Chan was the most senior Chinese official on the island, and a key member of the Chinese government.
His loss to the Japanese, who had already conquered much of coastal China, would be a huge blow and might have resulted in a collapse of relations between Britain and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. "The decision to prepare some means of escape for the Admiral was taken 'at the highest level'," notes Mr Luard, in his book.
"I did not see my father much at that time because he was fighting against the fifth column, the people on the island who were working for the Japanese," remembered Donald Chan, the son of the admiral.
"I was seven, and we would move location every couple of days to avoid danger. But at night we would all have dinner together. I remember when my father would come, he always had his pistol tucked into his belt and he brought us wonderful food, which you could only get at that time if you had a special connection on the island."
The plan, then, was to organise a flotilla of high-speed motor torpedo boats, the remnants of the British navy on the island, to spirit Admiral Chan and his aides, to the mainland, where the party would rendez-vous with Chinese guerrillas and dash towards unoccupied China.
In the confusion of Hong Kong's fall, however, one group of escapees, including the admiral, had to abandon a launch and swim across Aberdeen harbour under fire to a nearby island where the boats were moored.
"It seemed every rifle and machine gun in the Japanese army had opened fire on us," wrote Mr MacDougall in his diary. "The bullets came through the flimsy wooden hull as if it were paper. We were crouching in the bottom of the boat holding onto our tin hats."
He was shot in the shoulder. "Another bullet went clean through my steel hat and a third clipped the sole of my shoe," he remembered.
"I don't know why I was not hit again. I had no serious hope of gaining the island. A little way behind me a man drowned noisily. He took a long time to go down and I could do nothing about it. I had lost some blood and was hard put to it to keep afloat."
Admiral Chan, meanwhile, abandoned his wooden leg, which was stuffed full of money to pay off the guerrillas, and dived into the water. He made it across the water despite being shot in the wrist.
After boarding the boats, the party slipped across the straits at night and eventually landed at Nanao, where they scuppered the craft and began a march across the Chinese countryside with the admiral put in command. It was the first time that a Chinese officer had taken command of a British force.
After four days and nights, they arrived in Waichow, held by the Chinese army, to a hero's welcome. Their escape route subsequently became an underground railroad for escapees from Japanese prison camps in Hong Kong.
"The escape was so dangerous they thought they would not survive," said Mr Chan. "I remember when we made it to the mainland ourselves and met up with him how exciting it was. My father was a really tough guy."
Around 70 descendants of the escapees reenacted the march in 2009, after Mr Luard and his wife researched the route. "I came to this because of my wife's father Colin, who was a wonderful chap and who I got to know well. But he never talked about his role in the war. It was only after he passed away, in 1985, that I found his diaries."
For many of the escapees, the experience was traumatic, Mr Luard said.
"Some of them were traumatised by the 18-day battle, and the humiliation of the rapid retreat. And some of them felt shame at leaving others behind in Hong Kong," he explained. "But there were a few who remembered it as the adventure of their lives."
Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldne ... -Kong.html (The Telegraph, 19th December 2011).