On Sunday 14 December 1941, Hilda wrote from Australia – 18 months since the evacuation crisis had seen the 3,500 British women and children evacuated from Hong Kong, and 18 months since she’d last seen her husband George – “Weeks and weeks of waiting and hoping – and then on Monday morning last my landlady knocked on my door and told me the dreaded thing had happened.”
The evacuation crisis had been triggered back in June 1940 by the Japanese threatening an invasion of the British colony. Few in Hong Kong believed the evacuation to be necessary – all that it would be short-lived. But the following 18 months had seen a see-saw of tension in the Far East – and with it the rise and fall of hopes for the return of the evacuees.
On Tuesday 2 December 1941, George wrote to Hilda, “Certainly things look a bit black at the moment and precautions are being taken here that have never been done before.” But in the next sentence he says, “Still, once more, I expect that by the time you read this, another crisis will be a thing of the past, and we shall be grumbling for your return again,” and reporting on Friday 5 December that an evacuee ship had been cancelled through lack of takers.
But on Monday 8 December 1941, the Japanese attack – the dreaded thing – began early morning, Japan having also launched attacks on the Americans at Pearl Harbor, against the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.
In Hong Kong, the Japanese had crossed the border from China and marched into the New Territories.
Hilda continues her letter – “Oh!! what a week! The watching of the clock for news time, the nerve-racking blather that they put in to fill up time and then just the barest mention of Hong Kong. The chief reaction of all of us was anger – and still is – that with all these months and months of waiting the Japs could have caught us napping so… and Churchill and Roosevelt make speeches that make me want to hurl something at the wireless.”
The overall military strategy for Hong Kong was that a long-term defence of the mainland wasn’t practical as once inside the New Territories Japan would soon have the densely-populated Kowloon within shelling range. Nevertheless, British forces were told to defend the colony for as long as possible, but for at least six months, in particular to gain time for other British held territories in the Far East to organise and strengthen defences.
Hilda finishes her letter of 14 December, “Oh, God, send these anxious days don’t last long. We can only hope and pray.”
The colony had also been told to hold the first line of defence, the Gin Drinkers’ Line – a network of paths and trenches linking a series of bunkers, machine gun posts and artillery batteries stretching across mainland Hong Kong from Tide Cove to Gin Drinkers’ Bay (famous for its parties, and hence its name) – for at least three weeks.
But by the Tuesday, 9 December, the Japanese would reach – and by the 10th breach – the Gin Drinkers’ Line.