1 July 2022 – 25 years since the return of Hong Kong to China, 82 years since the first evacuation ship sailed in 1940

Today, 1 July 2022, marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China after 156 years as a British colony.

The handover ceremony – attended by Prince Charles, the UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin – began on 30 June 1997. At midnight Chris Patten as the 28th and last Governor of Hong Kong sent the telegram confirming, “I have relinquished the administration of this government.” He then joined Prince Charles on HMY Britannia to slip away out of Victoria Harbour and away from Hong Kong.

For many, 1 July is another anniversary, marking the day on which another ship sailed from Victoria Harbour, and away from Hong Kong.

Because, 57 years before that handover date in 1997 – 82 years ago today – on 1 July 1940 the Empress of Japan sailed with 1,500 British women and children on board, evacuated from the colony following threats of attack from Japan. That week beginning 1 July 1940 would see almost 3,500 women and children become evacuees.

Few in the colony believed the evacuation to be necessary, most that it would be short-lived. But after an initial stay in the Philippines, the evacuees were on their way again, bound for Australia, and the weeks of separation were about to stretch into months and years.

Among those on that first ship to leave Hong Kong on 1 July 1940 were Hilda, David (11) and Edward (9) – the wife and sons of naval dockyard electrical engineer, George Bearman.

In the months and years to follow, George’s letters capture what life was like for the husbands and fathers left in Hong Kong: abruptly returned to ‘bachelorhood’ and uniquely ‘keeping the home fires burning’; trying to keep up morale, while coping with the loneliness of separation and against the backdrop of the home country at war, and slide to war in the Far East; through the long dark years following the Japanese invasion, December 1941.  

For many of the evacuees, 1 July 1940 came to be not only the day on which they boarded ship and sailed away from Hong Kong, but the last day on which they saw their husband and father.  

“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself”

On 19 April 1941, George begins his letter to Hilda: 

“It’s 6 o’clock Saturday evening, and I’m writing in the office while waiting for my lads to come back – yes, I’ve been working this afternoon and now it’s nearly time to pack up.

“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself – I pictured my going home presently, spotting you as the ferry neared the pier and then the walk home together, some supper and then off to the pictures somewhere – well, I probably will do those things except the seeing and meeting you.”

In 1941, letters were the only source of communication between the men in Hong Kong and their families evacuated to Australia.

The separation caused by the July 1940 ‘evacuation crisis’ following the threat of invasion from Japan had not turned out to be ‘short-lived’ as most in the colony had envisaged. By April 1941, the evacuees had been away for nine months.  

There was no texting, or instant messaging back then – not even phone calls possible across the distance in 1941. Pen and paper were the only option.

And for the men left behind in Hong Kong, separation was growing ever more poignant, surrounded as they were with the constant reminder of places and the memories of when shared with wives and children.

There was a fine balance to achieve in letters. There was the need to support wives thousands of miles from home, suddenly thrown into having to bring up children on their own, and against a backdrop of the home country at war and tension in the Far East rising. But there was also the need to give vent to their own feelings at times – albeit, aware of the constant presence of the censor looking over their shoulder.

And once written, sealed in the envelope, stamped, and posted – that was it. There was no going back on or changing what was written. And it could take weeks for letters to reach Australia, weeks for a reply to come back. Weeks and weeks in which to worry whether the right tone had been achieved, the right words said.

George’s letters are an extraordinary eyewitness account of an extraordinary period, describing Hong Kong in the 1940s and its mixture of cultures, and the 18 months as the colony was sliding towards war. But they were also the lifeline between him and Hilda, and his children. They capture his thoughts, his fears, his hopes – his dreams.

In his letter of 19 April, George follows up his opening of imagining Hilda waiting at the ferry terminal for his return from work, and the evening at the cinema:

“Yes, I know that’s a most unprofitable game, but we must indulge in dreams sometimes, even if the coming to earth is hard afterwards and, Oh! my dear, how I want it to be true.”

“How I value those things now, just our usual Saturday night trips, and the Lord knows they were sober enough as a rule, and yet looking back they were lovely evenings – did we know then?

“Yes, I think we did, on most occasions at any rate and I know we will on all those evenings in the future that await us round that corner.”

Signing copies of ‘A Weekend to Pack’ at the Imperial War Museum

It was really exciting to have been asked to sign copies of A Weekend to Pack in the shop at the Imperial War Museum in London.

It was inspiring, too, to see the other books on the shelves and all the amazing titles. 

I also took the opportunity to visit the museum’s newly opened Second World War Galleries.

What an experience.

They are superbly done. There is just the right balance between explaining the wider historical context and describing the stories of individual people and families to really bring home the reality of events and the truly global reach of the war.

Included among the more than 1,500 exhibits are all sorts of items – from uniforms, to weapons, letters, photos, toys, – personal items displayed in amongst historical artefacts, such as the pen used to sign France’s surrender in June 1940, and a piece of the wreckage of the USS Arizona, sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The gallery also hosts plenty of interactive experiences, and the recreation of a bombed 1940s house with its Anderson shelter is particularly evocative of the experiences of civilians.

If you’re going, allow plenty of time for your visit. We took over three hours to go round, and could have spent even longer in each of the galleries.

80 years ago today, the Japanese launched their attack on Hong Kong

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.

FEPOW75 Southampton Commemoration 18 November 2021

In 2020, Roger Townsend set up the FEPOW75 website to mark the 75th anniversary of the repatriation through Southampton of prisoners of war from the Far East following the end of the Second World War (1939-1945).

The Commemoration event Roger Townsend had planned for 2020 was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic and restrictions, but is taking place this year on Thursday 18 November at 11am in Southampton’s Town Quay Park, French Street.

Town Quay Park  is home to a memorial plaque which “commemorates the repatriation of men, women, and children who survived Far East captivity,” and were brought back to the UK on ships arriving in Southampton between October and December 1945.

In the Far East, the Japanese took prisoner almost 140,000 Allied servicemen, including 50,000 British and of whom 12,500 died in captivity. Of the 40,000 prisoners of war and civilians repatriated following the end of the war, almost 22,000 came through Southampton.

And the FEPOW75 website was set up to “pay tribute to the courage and fortitude of those survivors and to honour the memory of all those who never returned home and still remain somewhere in South East Asia.”

Rev. Pauline Simpson, National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association (NFFWRA) Chaplain and daughter of a Far East prisoner of war, will officiate at the Commemoration on 18 November, and which will be attended by the Mayor of Southampton, Councillor Alex Houghton. Bert Warne, a Far East prisoner of war and now 102, will read the FEPOW prayer.

At the end of the formal Commemoration service, a cherry tree donated by NFFWRA will be planted in memory of their former President, Bob Hucklesby, who died in February 2021. Bob Hucklesby served in the Royal Engineers, was taken prisoner in Singapore, and arrived back in the UK at Southampton on 18 November 1945 on board the Italian hospital ship, Principessa Giovanna – and was responsible for the erection of the repatriation memorial in Town Quay Park in 2013.

Anyone attending the ceremony on 18 November will also have the opportunity to lay a wreath or plant a wooden cross close to the memorial, in memory of a FEPOW relative or friend.

95th anniversary – George and Hilda’s wedding, July 24th 1926

Earlier this month I posted a blog marking the 81st anniversary of the first ship to leave Hong Kong during the evacuation crisis of July 1940.

Today is another anniversary to mark – but this time remembering a happier original event than the departure of the Empress of Japan from Hong Kong in 1940.

Back then, on July 1st 1940, the wife and two sons of George Bearman were among 1,500 women and children to board the Empress of Japan, headed for the Philippines. George and fellow husbands and fathers remained in Hong Kong, with neither they nor the evacuees aware that their separation would be for far longer than anyone imagined.

A Weekend to Pack tells the Bearmans’ story and those of family, friends and colleagues, along with that of the wider community in Hong Kong following the July 1940 evacuation, ordered by the British government due to threats of invasion from the Japanese. While most in the colony believed the evacuation unnecessary and virtually all that it would be short-lived, the evacuees were soon sailing again. They were bound not for return to Hong Kong, however, but journeying on to Australia. The days of separation stretched into months as the tension in the Far East rose.

So, this blog – remembering back to July 24th 1926 – tells a ‘what happened before’ story.

Because on Saturday July 24th 1926, the wedding took place at Jesus Chapel, St Mary Extra – Peartree Church – in Southampton between George Henry Bearman (bachelor, electrical engineer, and resident of Portsmouth) – and writer of the letters that tell the story in A Weekend to Pack – and Hilda Grace Payne (spinster, music teacher, and Southampton, Itchen, her home).

George and Hilda’s wedding, Jesus Chapel, St Mary Extra – Peartree Church – Southampton, July 24th 1926

Both George and Hilda were 25, and went on to buy a home at 37 Randolph Road, in Portsmouth, and have two sons, David and Edward. In the autumn of 1938, George sailed for Hong Kong to begin a three-year posting at the naval dockyard (on secondment from the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth), with Hilda and the boys joining him six months later.

On July 3rd 1941, a year on from the 1940 evacuation, George writes to Hilda,“Well dear, if this letter isn’t too long on the way, it ought to arrive in time for me to wish you Many Happy Returns of your Wedding Day. Fifteen years, dear, or should I only say fourteen because I don’t think we should really count this last one – still we’ll make up for that, with the only trouble being when are we going to start? Anyway Hilda, I am glad of that day, fifteen years ago, and thank you for it, and for all it brought to us.”

Six months later the Japanese invaded, with Hong Kong surrendering on Christmas Day 1941. The years of separation continued, George with so many of his colleagues and friends, a prisoner of war.

Reverend Miles Newton, Priest-in-charge at Peartree Church – and the world’s oldest Anglican church, with the first church building dating from 1618 – says, “I am delighted that Peartree Church was the place where this devoted couple’s marriage took place.

“It seems it was also the place that George looked back to at a poignant moment when he and Hilda were separated.

“It is a pleasure and privilege to have become aware of their moving and emotional story.”

81 years since the first evacuation ship left Hong Kong

Eighty-one years ago today – on July 1st 1940 – 1,500 British women and children were boarding the Empress of Japan, the first of the evacuation ships to leave Hong Kong following threats of attack from Japan.



Image: The Empress of Japan – The late Allan Green collection

The word ‘evacuee’ usually evokes pictures of young children trailing in crocodile from inner-city school yards – names printed on luggage tags, pinned to coats – and tear-stained faces peering from train windows trying for a last glance at the faces of equally tear-stained mothers, left on the platform.

Pictures of the evacuees leaving Hong Kong – and of the husbands and fathers left on the dockside – are different, but no less poignant, as captured by the newsreel from British Pathé news Hong Kong and the Burma Road.

George Bearman’s wife, Hilda, and two sons – David and Edward – were among the passengers aboard the Empress of Japan that Monday morning.

The order for evacuation had been given three days before, on Friday June 28th, and left those leaving that Monday morning only the weekend to pack.

George writes in his first letter to Hilda, dated July 3rd 1940, “Oh, my dear, what a Monday that was. In fact what a weekend! But perhaps the rush was all for the best as it didn’t leave us a lot of time to think of ourselves.”

As the British Pathé newsreel said, “There are families being torn asunder – and who knows when they will meet again.”

Or where.

A Weekend to Pack is out on 28 April 2021!

I’m excited to announce that A Weekend to Pack, while having been available to pre-order for a while, is out on 28 April 2021!

You can order through Sabrestorm Publishing or any of the usual book outlets. And I’d love it if you could join me for my talk, organised by Sabrestorm on Friday 7 May 2021, 7-8pm. You can order tickets (priced £3.00) through Eventbrite.

Everybody safe so far, and No. “37” still going strong – George, January 1941

In 1939, prior to sailing with the boys to join George in Hong Kong, and who had begun his posting to the colony six months earlier, Hilda put their furniture into storage and arranged for their home – 37, Randolph Road, Portsmouth – to be rented.

The family also left behind in Portsmouth friends, relatives, and colleagues to face the bombs that would rain down on the city during the Blitz, heavily targeted as a navy port.

And contributing to the anxiety, worry, and concern for those back home, was the delay in receiving personal news.

The city’s first air raid took place on 11 July 1940, and in all Portsmouth would suffer 67 attacks between 1940 and 1944.

George’s words, “Everybody is safe so far,” and, that No. 37 was “still going strong,” were written in a letter to Hilda in January 1941, but commenting on news received in a letter from home dated 11 November 1940. In his letter to Hilda, George also refers to Portsmouth having “just had another bad raid,” and that was the raid of 10-11 January 1941.

Portsmouth’s most devastating air raid, Portsmouth City Council has recently marked the 80th anniversary of the night of 10-11 January 1941. The raid killed 172 people, and hundreds were injured. Damage to buildings across the city was extensive, and hundreds of citizens also found themselves homeless.    

In a later letter to Hilda, George writes on seeing pictures of Portsmouth following the raid. “It’s terrible – I can’t say just how it makes you feel to see pictures of places you know so well treated like this, but I tell you some of the fellows were coming in to see the pictures and then walking out without speaking.

“One picture shows the Guildhall with the tower afire – there are only four walls left now, and I believe that applies to all the buildings of any size in Commercial Road.

“There were pictures also of the mass burial.”

Due to Covid restrictions, Portsmouth City Council’s activities commemorating the raid were virtual, and included postings on social media of details taken from the Air Raid Controller’s log book, made at the same time as they were entered on the night of 10-11 January in 1941. The Council also released a video of The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Rob Wood, reciting the message delivered shortly after the raid in 1941 by the then mayor, Sir Denis Daley. 

Also published, is an interactive map showing the extent of the bombing of the city 1940-1944, based on a map created by Air Raid Precautions staff towards the end of the war, and marking the site of where each individual bomb fell.  

The death toll in Portsmouth from air raids between 1940 and 1944 was 930. A further 2,837 people were injured, and more than 6,000 properties destroyed.

In January 1941, when George writes to Hilda about the air raid of 10-11 January, he is commenting on general news. He has no idea whether letters arriving in the weeks to come will have anything more personal to report, or what the months ahead may bring.  

Worries for home as Britain suffers during the Blitz

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, life in Hong Kong remained little altered. Six thousand miles from Britain – and two years before war would come to the Far East – day-to-day living continued very much the same.

But, whereas work, sport and socialising carried on pretty much as usual, thoughts were very much with those more directly affected by events in Europe.

For the naval dockyard and community, the news of the loss of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed in Scapa Flow on 14 October 1939, had hit particularly hard. The ship having only recently left port in Hong Kong, many of the more than 1,200 on board were known personally to those in the colony, and 835 lost their lives.

There were the events in France leading up to and the eventual evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and allied troops from the beaches at Dunkirk 27 May-4 June 1940, while the Battle of Britain took place in the skies July to October 1940.

And the Blitz in Britain began in September 1940, with German bombing raids targeting London at first, before moving on to drop their bombs on other cities across Britain. The naval community in Hong Kong was drawn from dockyards across the home country, and in cities, such as Portsmouth and Plymouth, that would subsequently suffer heavily during the Blitz.

Their Portsmouth home rented out for the duration of George’s three-year posting to Hong Kong, George and Hilda also had friends and family living in the city, while Hilda’s parents were in Southampton.

As with Portsmouth, Southampton was also targeted heavily by the Luftwaffe. A port city as well, and on the south coast and therefore easy to reach from the German airfields based in France as was Portsmouth, Southampton was in addition home to the Supermarine factory, building Spitfires.

Southampton had already suffered a number of raids, the first on 19 June 1940. But 80 years ago today, on 30 November 1940, the city suffered one of the heaviest, with 120 German planes dropping 800 bombs, and killing 137 Southampton citizens. The raid that Saturday, along with the raid that had taken place the previous Saturday, 23 November, and the one that would rain down bombs the following night, Sunday 1 December 1940, became known as ‘The Southampton Blitz’.

The Southern Daily Echo has just produced an 80th anniversary publication, The Blitz of Southampton Remembered (£2.95). A testament to the resilience and resolution of the people of wartime Southampton the book gives individual accounts from those living through Southampton’s ‘darkest hours’ and the November and December 1940 raids.  

Back in 1940, while newsreel details and media pictures of raids reached Hong Kong reasonably quickly, there was often an agonising wait for the individual, personal messages to arrive by letter, and reports of the safety – or otherwise – of homes, family and friends. And the wait could feel even more tortuous for those separated by the evacuation, and the 4,500 miles between Hong Kong and Australia.