Tag Archives: WWII

Canadians and the Battle for Hong Kong

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army - Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army – Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 11, 2016

On this day 75 years ago, 1,975 men, and two female nurses, of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were steaming across the East China Sea in the New Zealand liner-turned-troop ship, SS Awatea.

This small rough-hewn and makeshift expeditionary force was bound for the British colony of Hong Kong and the Awatea was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert, a hastily converted merchant ship mounted with guns left over from the First World War. Somewhere, chugging along behind after leaving Vancouver a few days after the main force’s departure on October 27, was the freighter SS Don Jose, carrying the regiments’ 212 vehicles.

With war with Japan looming, the first instinct of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had been to leave Hong Kong to its fate. But he changed his mind, and made the belated decision to reinforce the colony’s defences. He believed this would deter the Japanese armies lurking just over the colony’s northern border with China’s Guangdong province.


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Canada agreed to rustle up troops to bolster the Hong Kong garrison, then comprising about 12,000 men from a mishmash of units. Among them were only three top rank infantry units: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots, the British Army’s most senior infantry regiment, and two highly regarded Indian regiments, the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment.

The only warplanes at Kai Tak Airport were some ageing torpedo bombers, and the Royal Navy’s once indomitable China Squadron was reduced to a destroyer, a few gun-boats, a flotilla of torpedo boats and two minesweepers.

Much has been written in the years since 1941 about the lack of preparedness and training of the men of the two Canadian regiments. While it is true they had no combat experience, unlike the battle-hardened Japanese they were about to meet, they were far from being raw recruits. They were put under the command of the highly experienced professional officer, Brigadier John Lawson, whose last position before the deployment had been the army’s Director of Military Training. Moreover, many of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers were veterans of the First World War.

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

In the weeks that followed the Canadians’ arrival in Hong Kong on November 16 they proved yet again that this country produces unrivalled infantry soldiers. And they made the defence of Hong Kong not only one of this country’s premier battle honours, they forged an indelible bond between Canada and Hong Kong.

Over 550 of the Canadians died in the battle for Hong Kong and in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps afterwards. An equal number were wounded. Of those killed, 283 are buried in the lovely and haunting Sai Wan Bay Cemetery in eastern Hong Kong Island, just below the jungle-covered hills they defended longer than anyone thought possible. Since then, of course, other bonds have formed between Canada and Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have become Canadians in response to Britain handing back the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians spend at least part of their lives living and working in Hong Kong.

The arrival of the Canadians on November 16, 1941, prompted the British commander, Gen. Christopher Maltby, to change his plans for the defence of the colony. He had proposed to leave only a token force on the mainland peninsular of Kowloon and the New Territories, and to concentrate the defenders on Hong Kong Island. Maltby now decided to deploy three battalions to defend the mainland territory along the famous “Gin Drinkers’ Line,” an 18 kilometre stretch of trenches, bunkers and machinegun emplacements.

A Canadian signals unit was assigned to this brigade, but Brig. Lawson’s two Canadian battalions and the British machinegun battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, became the core of the Island Brigade on Hong Kong Island. Brig. Lawson’s headquarters was set up roughly in the middle of the island on Wong Nai Chong Gap Road.

The next three weeks were the lull before the storm. There remained some hope, though not much, that the reinforced garrison would deter the Japanese. And there was among senior officers and colonial officials a dangerous underestimation of the audacity and fighting ability of the Japanese military.

That insouciance collapsed on December 7 when the Japanese attacked the United States fleet in Pearl Harbour. So the Hong Kong defenders were alert and ready the next day, December 8, when the Japanese came pouring across the border from China.

Gen. Maltby hoped to be able to hold the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line for a week or more. At this point there was still some expectation of relief forces being hurried from other British Asian outposts, but that hope died when two ships heading from Malaya were sunk. And the hopes of holding the line across the New Territories vanished equally quickly.
Japanese fighter aircraft quickly established air superiority by destroying the few Royal Air Force planes and seriously damaged Kai Tak Airport along with them. This, as much as any of the actions in the battle, made the outcome inevitable.

On December 9 the Japanese showed just how serious was Maltby’s underestimation of their tactical fighting abilities. They launched a night-time attack on the Shing Mun Redoubt, the strategic hub of the Gin Drinkers’ Line, and captured it after heavy fighting.

The next day, “D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent from Hong Kong Island to bolster the defences, but on December 11 Gen. Maltby decided the Gin Drinkers’ Line could no longer be held. He ordered the withdrawal of the Royal Scots, the Rajuputs and the Punjabs down the Kowloon Peninsula and over to the island. This was covered by the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the troops along with most of their heavy equipment were successfully evacuated to Hong Kong proper.

The defences of Hong Kong Island were immediately reorganised. Canadian Brig. Lawson was put in command of the West Brigade, made up of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Royal Scots, the Punjabs and the Canadian signallers. The East Brigade was commanded by British Brigadier Cedric Wallis and comprised the Royal Rifles of Canada, and the Rajput Regiment. The Middlesex Regiment was under the command of Gen. Maltby at Fortress Headquarters.

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

The Japanese demanded the surrender of the defenders, and when this was rejected they began an artillery bombardment of the north shore – the Victoria Harbour side – of Hong Kong Island on December 15. After another rejected surrender, the Japanese troops began crossing the harbour on the evening of December 18, and after another successful night-time action were firmly entrenched on the island the following morning.

The Japanese troops then began committing the atrocities for which they became notorious throughout the Pacific War. About 20 gunners from the artillery Sai Wan battery, who had surrendered, were executed. The Japanese went on that night to kill the medical staff and wounded soldiers at the Salesian Mission hospital on Chai Wan Road. Among those killed were a Canadian doctor and two wounded men of the Royal Rifles.

Over the next days of the battle the Japanese continued to kill medical staff, wounded soldiers and prisoners as they were captured. Well over a hundred civilians and prisoners are believed to have been killed by the Japanese during the battle, and many more were killed deliberately or through murderous ill treatment while in captivity during the rest of the war.

On Hong Kong Island, the Japanese troops quickly took control of high ground from Jardine’s Lookout, above Causeway Bay and on the road to Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road, to Mount Parker in the east, on the approaches to Tai Tam Reservoir.

Brig Wallis then ordered the East Brigade to withdraw towards the Stanley Peninsula, which extends from the south-centre of the island, and from where he hoped to launch a counterattack. Unfortunately, crucial arms and equipment were lost during the withdrawal, and communications between the two Brigades were cut as the Japanese pushed through to reach the island’s south coast at Repulse Bay on December 19.

East Brigade had been seriously mauled and depleted in the course of the fighting. The Rajputs were virtually wiped out defending the island’s northern beaches against the Japanese invasion on December 18. There were some surviving units of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and some machinegun units from the Middlesex Regiment. The men of the Royal Rifles of Canada were exhausted, had had little sleep and had existed on field rations for several days.

Even so, over the following few days East Brigade led by the Canadians, attempted to drive the Japanese off the high ground and to re-establish contact with West Brigade. They first pushed along the shore from the peninsula to Repulse Bay, and managed to drive the Japanese from the famous Repulse Bay Hotel.

But the Royal Rifles were unable to drive the Japanese from their dominant positions in the hills, and had to withdraw to the Stanley Peninsula. Another attempt was made on December 21 to link up with West Brigade with a more easterly push towards Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. In heavy fighting the Royal Rifles managed to dislodge the Japanese from several of the jungle-clad hill tops. But the Canadians could not hold the positions, especially after they ran out of mortar ammunition.

On December 22 volunteers from the Royal Rifles made a night-time attack and captured Sugar Loaf Hill on the approaches to Stanley Peninsula. The Canadian troops were exhausted, while the Japanese had been reinforced and received supplies of arms and ammunition.

Brig. Wallis ordered the remnants of his command to withdraw to Stanley Peninsula, which the Brigade defended until the end, including a fierce action with many losses on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile the West Brigade was also heavily mauled after the Japanese successful amphibious attack across the harbour on December 18. On December 19, “A” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was ordered to clear the Japanese from their dominant position on Jardine’s Lookout and to then move on to retake Mount Butler en route to Tai Tam Reservoir, with the intention of reconnecting with East Brigade.

The initial attack was successful. Thirty troops led by 42-year-old Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn, an Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1920 after serving in the Royal Navy in the First World War, seized Mount Butler. But the group was quickly surrounded by Japanese troops, who lobbed grenades into the Canadian position. Osborn caught several of the bombs and threw them back. But then one landed just out of his reach. He shouted a warning and threw himself on top of the grenade, which exploded and killed him. After the war Osborn was awarded the Victoria Cross and there is a monument to him in Victoria Park, just above Hong Kong’s Central business district.

On the same day, December 19, a large detachment of Japanese troops surrounded Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. A company of Royal Scots attempted to break the encirclement, but were unable to do so. Late in the morning, with the Japanese firing into the command post from almost point-blank range, Brig. Lawson sent a message to Gen. Maltby that he was “going outside to fight it out with the Japs.”

Lawson, armed with two revolvers and with two of his officers, including his deputy Col. Patrick Hennessy, at his shoulders, rushed outside. All three were killed instantly.

A British colonel from the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps was appointed to command West Brigade.

“D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers held out around the Wong Nai Chung Gap Road position for three days and only surrendered after they had run out of ammunition, food and water. The Japanese found only 37 wounded Grenadiers in the captured emplacements.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Grenadiers, together with the Royal Scots, elements of the Middlesex Regiment and what was left of the Indian battalions formed a defensive line centred on Mount Cameron and running from Victoria Harbour at Wan Chai to the south coast near Aberdeen Harbour. The defenders were under constant attack from dive bomber aircraft and mortars for three days, before the left sector above Wan Chai was breached by the Japanese.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers held their position on Bennet’s Hill near Aberdeen until mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, when Gen. Maltby decided further resistance was futile and ordered the surrender.

For the captured Canadians, the horrors did not end there. Their treatment in prisoner camps in Hong Kong and Japan was atrocious. Almost as many Canadians died in the prison camps over the next four years as died in the battle for Hong Kong.

There is, however, a poignant postscript to this story.

On August 30, 1945, British Admiral Cecil Harcourt arrived in Hong Kong on his flagship, aircraft carrier HMS Colossus, to take the surrender of the Japanese and set up an interim military command. On Harcourt’s immediate staff was a Canadian of Chinese heritage from Victoria, Commander William Law.

Twenty years ago I spent two days with Law in Hong Kong, where he had set up as a lawyer after the war, married a local woman and raised his family. As Law recalled it, Harcourt, very much aware of the role of the Canadians in the defence of Hong Kong in 1941, delegated Law to be one of the first ashore.

The day after their arrival, Harcourt delegated Law to find the prisoners of war, who were being held in terrible conditions in former British barracks at Sham Shui Po on the Kowloon side. Law told me he took two Petty Officers, went over to Kowloon on the Star Ferry and marched up to the Peninsula Hotel, where they confronted the Japanese Chief of Police. He was persuaded to give Law and his men a car and a driver who knew the way to the camp.

When they arrived at the gates of the camp the Japanese guards levelled their rifles at the car. Law ordered the Petty Officers to aim their pistols out of the car windows and the driver to burst through the gates.

They did, and once inside Law went to the first barracks building on his left. He went into the darkened room and several of the prisoners from the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers looked up at him, but didn’t react.

“I guess they saw an Asian-looking guy in a uniform and thought I was just another Japanese officer,” Law told me.

“So I said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you know a Canadian when you see one?’”


Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com



Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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Namibia’s Nazis — This Week’s Other Birthday

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 23, 2016

Until quite recently, while Queen Elizabeth and her family were celebrating her birthday every April 21, a group of elderly men in south-west Africa were nursing the effects of the birthday toasts they had drunk the night before.

The birthday these ageing men were celebrating was that of Adolf Hitler, who was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria. The men had been senior officials in Hitler’s Nazi party and its military wing, the Waffen-SS, and had managed to escape capture by the Allies at the end of the Second World War.

It is well known that about 9,000 former Nazis wanted for war crimes escaped capture using the Odessa network, usually with the complicity of sympathetic Catholic priests, and made their way to various South American countries. Less well documented is the story of the several hundred former Nazis who managed to make their way to the far more inviting sanctuary of the former German colony of Southwest Africa, now called Namibia.

By Brian McMorrow - http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/45156182, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=833719

Swakopmund, in what is now Namibia, was an inviting sanctuary for former Nazis wanted for war crimes. Photo by Brian McMorrow via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

And once there, most of them gravitated to the town of Swakopmund, 280 kilometres across the Namib Desert west of the capital Windhoek, at the heart of the fabled Skeleton Coast.

Exactly how many former Nazis made it to Namibia and how has never been conclusively established. In then 1970s a young German ethnologist, Karl Budack, moved to Namibia with the intention of exploring the Nazi refugee story. He managed to get a few interviews, but not many and when the German magazine Der Spiegel tried to follow up the story, also in the 1970s, the entire German-Namibian community closed ranks.

I got much the same treatment when I first went to Swakopumnd in the late 1980s after hearing rumours of the Nazi exiles. I was then the Southam News Africa Correspondent and one of the first major stories on my plate were the negotiations for Namibia’s independence from South Africa, which had occupied and ruled the country since 1915. In all my visits to Swakopmund I never did find ex-Nazis who were willing to talk. But after a few visits some townspeople opened up enough to tell me about the long tables set up in private dining rooms in some of Swakopmund’s hotels where, on the evening of each April 20, the increasingly elderly comrades would eat together and share silent toasts.

There was other evidence of their presence. Swakopmund’s antique shops had on display for sale significant amounts of Nazi memorabilia. There were well-thumbed copies of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, lots of swastika flags of various kinds, and now and then Waffen-SS daggers, which are much prized by collectors of this sort of dross of history.

The book store run by Peter Haller and his son Ludwig was one of the main outlets for this sort of stuff. But not any more. When German tourists starting coming in significant numbers after Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990, many of them were not pleased to see on display these affronts to their country’s determined efforts to expunge the Nazi past. After many angry confrontations with customers, the Haller’s culled their stock and focussed more on offering arts and crafts produced by Namibia’s many African ethnic groups.

There are other ambiguities in Swakopmund. The war memorial, for example, is a large stone cross surrounded by a low fence. The writing on the cross simply gives the dates “1914-1918,” and “1939-1945.” The only clue to whom is being remembered are the imperial German crosses built into the gates of the small enclosure.

For the Nazis who did make it to Swakopmund it was a sensible choice, and a much more attractive and safe refuge than hellish bolt-holes like Paraguay.

Before my first visit I had been warned it is a bizarre place, and it lived up to its billing. It is Bavaria in the desert. The architecture is from the German colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The faux medieval half-timbered houses, ornate Lutheran churches and imposingly Germanic public buildings would fit neatly into some small Black Forest, Alpine town. But, surrounded by the Namib Desert on one side and the crashing South Atlantic Ocean on the other, Swakopmund looks like some particularly demented Disneyland.

Yet the architecture undoubtedly offered the comfort of the familiar to Hitler’s refugees.
And it was not just the buildings.

Germany held its Southwest Africa colony for only 31 years from its founding in 1884 until it was captured by the British moving up from neighbouring South Africa in 1915 during the First World War. But for some reason, Germany has left a far greater mark on even modern Namibia than it left in its other African colonies: what are now Tanzania, Togo and Cameroon.

German remains one of Namibia’s 13 official languages and is still widely used. It was even more prevalent when the Nazi exiles slipped into the country after 1945. There are now about 40,000 German-speakers out of a population of just over two million.

Namibia offered many other comforts not available in Paraguay.

Namibia still brews beer by the same rules established in Bavaria in 1516. These specified that pure beer must only contain water, malted barley and hops. Namibian breweries import barley and hops from Germany to make their beer.

Then, just down the road, are South Africa’s Cape Province vineyards. They offer fine accompaniments to the produce of land and sea from around Swakopmund. Just south of the town is the old British outpost of Walvis Bay, which produces some of the best oysters to be found anywhere. The West Coast rock lobster, or crayfish, halved and grilled with garlic butter, is one of life’s delights.

Namibia used to boast massive fish stocking in its territorial waters off the Skeleton Coast. But in the late 1960s, the United Nations withdrew the mandate given South Africa after the First World War to manage the old German colony. Once South Africa’s occupation was declared illegal, pirate fishing fleets from the Soviet Bloc and other countries such as Portugal and Spain, took advantage of this legal immunity, swooped in on Namibia’s fishing grounds and vacuumed them clean.

The fisheries have recovered dramatically since Namibian independence in1990, when the new country gained the legal clout to manage its resource. These are again some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But it’s a bit late for Swakopmund’s Nazi exiles, most, if not all, have now crossed to Valhalla.

Old-style German cooking remains a staple in Namibia. It is an arid country that allows agriculture only grudgingly. Rainfall around Swakopmund is only about 20 mm a year. Many plants and animals rely on moisture from the abundant sea mists created by the collision of the cold Benguela sea current and the warm air.

Most of Namibia’s food production remains the domain of farmers of German heritage, who with a lot of patience, courage, and large reservoirs of minimally-paid black Namibian labourers, have forged a productive pastoral industry. The quality of the cattle, pigs and sheep are first rate, and are one of the country’s major exports.

Another major attraction for the Nazis was the legal vacuum when South African occupation was declared illegal by the UN. It made formal extradition impossible for any people wanted for war crimes, and, anyway, the apartheid regime in South Africa included people with more than a passing support for Nazi doctrines.

Such legal niceties never stopped Israeli secret services from hunting down Nazi war criminals in other parts of the world. However, there are no indications Mosad or other Israeli agencies operated against the Namibia Nazi exiles. Even the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which has played such a large part in tracking down Nazi war criminals in the last 70 years, has no records of the Swakopmund Boys in its public archives.

One of the reasons for Israel’s detachment from the Namibia connection may be the highly ambiguous relationship successive Tel Aviv governments maintained with South Africa’s apartheid regime. The international sanctions imposed on apartheid South Africa created a market, and Israeli companies and institutions took advantage of that opportunity.

One relationship does not appear to have been so ambiguous. On September 22, 1979, a massive double flash characteristic of a nuclear explosion was detected in the South Atlantic by a United States satellite. It is widely believed this was a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test, though there has never been public confirmation of that by Washington or anyone else.

There is significant contention that the Nazi links to Namibia and German Southwest Africa before are far more deep and old than the story of the old comrades in Swakopmund.

Germany grabbed what became known as German South-West Africa in 1884 during the “scramble for Africa” by European colonial powers. The British had already taken control of the only useful deep-water port on the coast, Walvis Bay, so in 1892 the Germans started constructing a harbour at Swakopmund, and linked it by railway to the capital, Windhoek.

The first Germans to arrive were Schutztruppe colonial forces and farmers. All were male, and their marriages to local women led to the creation of one of modern Namibia’s distinct ethnic groups, the Basters.

Back in Berlin, the administration of Otto von Bismark was not happy about what their colonials were up to with the local women. Much like the filles du roi who were shipped out to Quebec from France in the mid-1600s, Berlin arranged passage of cohorts of German women to stock its south-west African colony.

Not all Namibia’s local people welcomed the Germans with open arms.

In 1904 the Herero and the Namaqua took up arms against the Germans. The three-year war was brutal and on the German side, entirely merciless. In what is sometimes called “the first genocide of the Twentieth Century,” the Germans used machineguns and other industrialized weaponry. It is generally reckoned that about 10,000 Namaqua, half the population, were killed and about 65,000 Hereros, about 80 percent of their number.

The German government formally apologized for the war against the herero and the Namaqua in August, 2004.

Insurgents who were not killed, and their women and children, were kept in concentration camps, a strategy employed a few years before by the British against the Afrikaners in the Second Boer War in South Africa.

Some visitors to Namibia read more into the country’s place and street names than is there. Göringstrasse in Windhoek is often said to have been named for Herman Göring, Hitler’s close confident and head of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In fact, it was named for Heinrich Ernst Göring, the father of Herman Göring, and one of German South-West Africa’s first governors. Since 1990, the street has been renamed for Danial Munamava, the founding president of the South-West Africa People’s Organization, which fought against South Africa for the independence of Namibia.

Other old Nazi links are more certain. In 1908, soon after the wars against the Herero and the Namaqua, a German professor of anthropology and eugenics, Eugen Fischer, spent a couple of years studying the Basters. His report railed against mixed marriages and in 1912 interracial marriages were prohibited in all German colonies.

Fischer’s work had a strong influence on Hitler and the Nazis. He went on to experiment on Jews in Germany and to provide the pseudo-scientific justifications for the Nazis’ racial laws.

Skulls of Basters and other Namibians collected by Fischer were returned to Namibia in March 2014.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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WILFRED BURCHETT: A journalist’s “warning to the world”

By Tom Heenan, Monash University 
September, 2015

Wilfred Burchett. Photo courtesy of George Burchett

Wilfred Burchett. Photo courtesy of George Burchett

Seventy years ago, on September 5, 1945, Wilfred Burchett’s report on the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing was published in London’s Daily Express. Burchett was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the bombing and was shocked by the devastation.

Under the banner “I write this as a warning to the world”, Burchett described a city reduced to “reddish rubble” and people dying from an unknown “atomic plague”.

Burchett’s report has been dubbed the “scoop of the century”. At the time it was ignored by most Western newspapers and dismissed as pro-Japanese propaganda. The story is now considered his finest. In October 2014, it earned him a place in the Victorian Media Hall of Fame, but the decision was not universally applauded.

Though Burchett cut his journalistic teeth with the Express, he built his reputation covering the Korean and Vietnam wars from behind the communist lines. For this, Burchett was dismissed as a communist propagandist and traitor, though few know the real story.

In Korea, Burchett accused the American-led United Nations’ forces of prison camp atrocities and waging bacteriological warfare. The latter was Burchett’s most controversial story and has since been supported by a 2010 al-Jazeera report. But it sullied Burchett’s reputation in the West and angered the US military establishment.

Burchett had seen remnants of germ warfare attacks. He had interviewed captured American fliers who had confessed to Chinese interrogators to conducting germ warfare raids. He had also assisted the World Peace Council’s International Scientific Commission’s investigation, which backed the North Korean and Chinese allegations.

Wilfred Burchett’s report on Hiroshima. Honest History

Wilfred Burchett’s report on Hiroshima. Honest History

Attempting to “kill” the story, the US military’s Far Eastern Command (FEC) asked the Menzies government in Australia for permission to “exfiltrate” Burchett from North Korea in September 1953. The government refused, fearing an electoral backlash if Burchett suddenly appeared on Australia’s doorstep. FEC persisted with a US$100,000 enticement, but Burchett was not for sale.

Meanwhile, the Australian government investigated the possibility of charging Burchett with treason. ASIO agents were despatched to Japan and Korea to collect evidence, but their investigations uncovered little. In early 1954, the government conceded there was no hope of prosecuting Burchett.

To deter him from returning to Australia, the government publicly kept open the prospect of prosecution while privately acknowledging it had little chance of success. It found a willing ally in FEC. Concerned about Burchett’s reports from Indochina, FEC asked the Menzies government for permission to discredit the journalist.

Consequently, Burchett was subjected to government-backed smear campaigns and barred from Australia. Repeated requests for the restoration of his Australian passport were refused. According to the then-immigration minister, Harold Holt, Burchett had “severed all connection with Australia” because of his “activities” abroad.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

The Vietnam War altered Western views of Burchett.

Burchett had access to the North Vietnamese leadership and the South’s National Liberation Front. On requests from the British and US, he attempted to persuade Hanoi to release captured American airmen. His 1967 interview with the North Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, was considered one of the “scoops” of the war. It was the first inkling that Hanoi was willing to entertain peace talks.

When talks commenced in Paris in mid-1968, Burchett was courted by the US delegation’s chief negotiator, Averell Harriman. For his assistance, he was granted entry to Britain and the US. He even breakfasted with the US national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, at the White House.

But Burchett was still unwelcome in Australia. Fearing he might return, the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, warned ministers against criticising the journalist outside the parliament. Recognising the flimsy nature of the case against Burchett, the government wanted to avoid being sued for defamation.

Burchett finally returned in early 1970 on a privately chartered light plane. The Gorton government had threatened airlines with steep penalties for flying Burchett into the country.

Wilfred Burchett with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Burchett Archive/State Library of Victoria

Wilfred Burchett with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Burchett Archive/State Library of Victoria

With the Whitlam Labor government’s election in December 1972, Burchett’s passport was restored. As Whitlam explained, there was no evidence to justify its continued denial.

Rumours persisted that Burchett was on numerous communist governments’ payrolls. The most damaging came from the Soviet defector, Yuri Krotkov. He and Burchett had met in Berlin after the war. They renewed acquaintances when Burchett moved to Moscow in 1957.

Krotkov defected to Britain in the early 1960s claiming to be a KGB agent. In reality, he was a minnow attached to a KGB prostitution ring, specialising in diplomatic honey-traps. MI5 dismissively off-loaded him to the Americans, and in 1967 he appeared before the McCarthy-ridden US Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security where he alleged Burchett was a KGB agent and on China’s payroll during the Korean War.

An account of Krotkov’s testimony was published in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) pamphlet, Focus, in November 1971 and tabled in the Australian Senate. In February 1973 Burchett issued a writ for defamation against Focus’ publisher, DLP senator Jack Kane.

The case was heard in the NSW Supreme Court in October 1974. Though strapped for funds, Kane’s case was well supported. The chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times, Sir Philip Jones, lent his backing, as did Menzies. ASIO assisted with the names of Australian POWs whom Burchett had met in Korea, while Australia’s military chiefs-of-staff took the stand on Kane’s behalf.

Even Kissinger kept an eye on the case. He and the American ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green, feared the trial could re-ignite allegations that the US had deployed germ warfare in Korea.

For two weeks Burchett’s reputation was butchered in the box and mainstream press. Despite this, the court found he had been defamed. As the article had been tabled in the Senate, it was protected by parliamentary privilege. Burchett won the case but costs were awarded against him, forcing him into financial exile.

Though he died in 1983, Burchett remains a controversial figure. Rumours persist of Burchett’s alleged KGB recruitment. In 2013, academic Robert Manne claimed to have proof of Burchett’s KGB links. Drawing on a document uncovered by Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Manne asserted that Burchett was put on the KGB payroll in July 1957.

No evidence was produced to show Burchett pocketed KGB money. If he did, the KGB got short-changed. By the early 1960s Burchett had wearied of Soviet communism and sided with the Chinese during Sino-Soviet split. He even worried that Soviet authorities were tampering with his Moscow mail.

Rumours of Burchett’s alleged treacheries still persist. They are part of Australian Cold War folklore and seem to have influenced the Hall of Fame’s decision to support Burchett’s inclusion principally on his Hiroshima story.

Burchett wrote stories that the Australian and US governments preferred not to be told and paid the price. He covered wars in which Australians fought on the other side. He was not “a my country right or wrong” barracker, but reported the facts as he saw them, and for the most part got them right. His career should be judged on all his achievements and not reduced to a solitary story.

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Related information:

F&O’s Focus on the Pacific War:

Watch: John Pilger – The Outsiders – Wilfred Burchett [1983]:


Tom Heenan

Tom Heenan

 Tom Heenan is Lecturer, National Centre for Australian Studies, Faculty of Arts at Monash University.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.








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