Does anyone do derring-do anymore? Here’s the real thing. On Christmas Day 1941, despite Churchill’s call to fight to the last man, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, the first British possession to surrender since the American War of Independence. Within a few hours, Chiang Kai-shek’s main official in the colony, the one-legged Admiral Chan Chak, together with three of his staff, several senior British officials and a few others, fled the colony under heavy
Japanese fire and managed to reach a little flotilla of motor torpedo boats manned by 50 British sailors. Thus began a journey by boat, foot, truck and train across China, with most of the party reaching Burma — also about to fall — then India; and, after five months in all, some of them arrived home in Britain.
The book contains many photographs — and a good thing, too, for credibility. A suspicious reader might groan that too many people are swimming under fire, being shot and wounded while speeding along in torpedo boats, bombed by Japanese planes and hiding while Japanese cavalry ride past. One of the escapers recalled that both sides of a river down which they were fleeing ‘were occupied by Japanese soldiers in great numbers, making it a thoroughly nerve-racking five-day journey.’ He summarised it like this: ‘To think that 50-60 British Naval officers and men and our own party of three army officers, together with our beloved admiral and his escort of armed guerrillas, were, for the most part of a week right in their [the Japanese] midst without their knowing it was almost unbelievable’.
The dangers were unpredictable. A Danish merchant service cadet rushing to alert the sailors on the motorboats that the main party is right behind him, shouts, ‘There’s a lot of chaps behind me coming this minute.’ This came across to the British as ‘There’s lots of Japs behind me.’ One of the boat’s crew opens up with his Lewis gun and nearly mows down most of the escape party.
I think the book’s subtitle is a mistake.
Colourful though it is, Tim Luard’s story is far broader and deeper than the flight of Chan Chak. It is true that from the standpoint of the Hong Kong high command the purpose of the escape was to keep Admiral Chan, a very senior Chinese official, from falling into Japanese hands. It is equally true that the admiral was a cheery, brave man who never flaunted his rank.
Without his false leg, stuffed with over US$40,000 worth of Hong Kong cash, he swam away from Japanese gunfire that put a bullet into his wrist. Popular with the escape party, throughout the immense journey Chan was hailed by villagers and guerrillas as a great man. Eventually he reached Chongqing, Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital, and when the war ended became mayor of Canton. He died in 1949, perhaps of poison.
Nor was Chan Chak too good to be true. According to Luard he was almost certainly a member of the Triads, Hong Kong’s mafia, and a giver and taker of bribes. He was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire, so long after the events, according to a British official who wanted Chan Chak to received a KCB, that the honour lost ‘much of its value in Chinese eyes from the point of view of British prestige’.
Luard had a personal reason for telling this story. His father-in-law, Colin McEwan, a daring intelligence officer, was one of the organisers of the escape and spent most of the war engaged with Chinese guerrillas behind Japanese lines, ‘becoming a key source of military intelligence for the allies’. But the story is really about the whole group. Luard brings the escapers alive by providing details of their characters and habits and recounting what happened to them right to the end.
It is striking how well the escape party got on with each other, despite the class divisions that sometimes allowed their officers, even in uncomfortable conditions, to allot themselves better quarters. There is an almost stereotypically tight-lipped British aspect of this story that made Luard’s task of hunting down sources especially daunting. (One thinks of those who worked at Bletchley unscrambling the Enigma code and for years afterwards revealing nothing.) He observes that ‘the British servicemen had been warned not to reveal details of the escape and the exact route was kept secret for many years’. Furthermore, ‘While all those who took part would remember their adventure vividly for the rest of their lives, many preferred not to speak about it, even to their families.’
Chief Petty Officer Gilbert Thums, overweight and known affectionately as ‘Tom’ Thums, is perhaps the most poignant example of silence. Returning to Plymouth in 1942, he discovered his wife living with a French sailor. After naval service to the end of the war, he settled in Nottingham; estranged from his children, he ‘died in 1962, with his son living only a short distance away, unknown to either of them’.
This was by no means the only escape from Hong Kong after it fell, but it was the first significant one. Thereafter, thousands of others fled from the colony. Chinese communist guerrillas played a central role in these escapes, although I find Luard’s telling of that aspect of his story unclear. Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, according to one escapee, ‘considered the Reds to be public enemy number one; the Japanese came a poor second.’ Uneasy about links with Chinese forces, the British feared there might be an overwhelming Chinese claim to Hong Kong after the Japanese were defeated.
Wisely, Luard doesn’t supply a ringing conclusion. The story is stirring enough. Instead we have a pianissimo finale. One of the escape party worried for months about the safety of his fiancée, the daughter of Hong Kong’s colonial secretary, who had left Hong Kong on one of the last ships before the surrender. Transferred from ship to ship, she survived Japanese dive-bombers and a German torpedoing, to be rescued from the sea by a US destroyer. Astoundingly — even in this thriller-diller of a book — after their ordeals in different parts of the world the lovers arrived back in Glasgow on the same day and married a few weeks later. The wedding hymn was ‘O Perfect Love’. A perfect end to a ripping tale.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 14, 2012Tags: Burma, China, Churchill, Japan, World War 2