National Archives of Canada (PA-155525, photo by Jack Hawes).

Prisoners of War at Sham Shui Po Camp, Hong Kong, September 1945.

Prisoners of war are sometimes the forgotten heroes of the war. Although freed from the battlefield, POWs still had to overcome the tremendous hardships of imprisonment. During the Second World War, many Canadian POWs perished during this struggle; others survived, but were profoundly and negatively affected by the experience. Some prisoners never fully recovered from the trauma.

Canada's soldiers would see their first major combat experience in the Second World War not against Hitler's armies in Europe but against the expansionist Japanese in the Pacific. In late 1941, the Canadian government honoured a British request to send two battalions of infantry and a brigade headquarters to bolster the defences of Hong Kong by dispatching the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. The battle for Hong Kong, a British Crown Colony, would turn out to be a debacle.

Strategically and tactically, Hong Kong was a difficult territory to defend. Moreover, the Canadians were still waiting for vehicles and other supplies before the battle began. The Japanese attackers overwhelmed the defenders. Although the 1,975 Canadian troops fought bravely, by Christmas Day 1941, they and the 12,000 valiant British and Indian troops had lost the battle. The entire Canadian force had been killed, wounded, or captured. The Canadian prisoners had to endure the appalling treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers. A substantial portion of the Canadian contingent perished in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. At war's end, only 1,428 POWs from the battle returned to Canada.

DocumentDocument
Ken Cambon, Guest of Hirohito (Vancouver: PW Press, 1990), pp. 34-35.

Ken Cambon Recalls His First Month (December-January, 1941-1942) As a Prisoner of War at North Point Camp, Hong Kong.

 

Although Canadians suffered a terrible defeat at Hong Kong, there were several instances of selfless heroism during the battle. Perhaps most notable is the story of Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Osborn led a company that re-captured Mount Butler from the Japanese. After three hours, the company knew that its position was hopeless. Single handedly, Osborn fought the enemy while the rest of the company withdrew. He then escaped under heavy fire. After saving several stragglers, again at great risk to his own life, Osborn reorganized his company, only to be surrounded by the Japanese who began hurling hand grenades at the Canadians. Once again acting without regard for his safety, Osborn picked up the live grenades and lobbed them back at the Japanese. Inevitably a grenade landed where he could not reach it in time to throw it back. Osborn threw himself on the grenade, giving his life for his men. For his actions, Company Sergeant-Major Osborn posthumously received the Victoria Cross, Canada's highest military decoration for bravery.

 

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