By Jesse Robitaille
This is the first story in a two-part series highlighting one veteran’s story through the Battle of Hong Kong, which marks its 78th anniversary this December.
In a 15-year project focusing on family history, Vancouver collector Michael Souza is using currency and stamps to tell the story of his late father, who was a veteran of the Battle of Hong Kong.
Born in Hong Kong on July 12, 1921, Henry Souza joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC) at the age of 18, only a year before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland fanned the flames of war.
“I’ve been able to blend that in with the life of my father, who was one 14,000 in the ‘Defence of Hong Kong,’ so it’s a mixture of family history with a numismatic and philatelic bent to it,” said the younger Souza, who has been a member of the North Shore Numismatic Society since 1988 and currently serves as its president, secretary and treasurer.
Although Souza’s father rarely spoke about his war-time experiences, his legacy has been kept alive through his son’s diligent digging.
In 1841, amid a losing effort in the First Opium War, China’s Qing dynasty agreed to a rough outline of the Treaty of Nanking. Formally signed the following year, the treaty ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Empire “in perpetuity.” The treaty aimed to provide British traders with a port to “careen and refit their ships and keep stores,” and during the British colonial period, Victoria City – a natural harbour formerly known as Queenstown – became Hong Kong’s capital.
Thirteen years later after the treaty was signed, the HKVDC – also known as “The Volunteers” – was formed as a local militia to defend the colony while resident British troops fought in the Crimean War.
In 1860, Britain’s control of Hong Kong expanded to include the Kowloon Peninsula, which was also ceded to the empire. Towards the turn of the century, the empire extended further with a 99-year lease of another one of Hong Kong’s three main regions, the mainland “New Territories.”
Souza’s father was born only two decades into Britain’s lease of Hong Kong, and by 1938, he joined the HKVDC as a member of the 3rd Battery.
“During that time, there were three banks issuing circulation currency in Hong Kong,” said Souza, who added the Government of Hong Kong also issued $1 notes.
Following the 1935 Currency Ordinance, the three local issuers included the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp., the Mercantile Bank of India and the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (the latter of which still exists as Standard Chartered with headquarters in England).
“At that time, there were only three coins in circulation,” Souza added, of the one-, five- and 10-cent pieces issued by Hong Kong in the 1930s.
“But when war began in Europe in 1939, Japan had already been at war with China since 1937. To protest the invasion of China and to curb its military expansion, an oil embargo was imposed against Japan. Hong Kong newspaper accounts from 1939 hinted that war with Japan was inevitable.”
As tensions boiled over towards the end of the decade, Souza’s father was posted to the HKVDC’s “Field Ambulance” section.
Around the same time, Hong Kong began to experience a shortage of one-, five- and 10-cent coins.
“The government claimed these coins were being smuggled to Shanghai and sold to Japanese agents for their metal to assist the Japanese in their war efforts,” said Souza, who added uniface one-, five- and 10-cent paper notes were issued in May and October of that year to remedy the shortage.
WAR BREAKS OUT IN THE PACIFIC
One of the first battles in the war’s Pacific theatre, the Battle of Hong Kong began on Dec. 8, 1941, when 52,000 soldiers of the Japanese 23rd Army swarmed across the border from China.
“To oppose them were 14,000 Allied soldiers consisting of Canadian, British and ‘Volunteer’ units,” said Souza, who was also born in Hong Kong – in 1955 – before immigrating to Canada with his family in January 1968.
“In 40 hours, they overcame the defences held by British forces along the Shing Mun Redoubt and the Gin Drinkers Line.”
Four days later, the city of Kowloon fell to Japanese forces as Hong Kong’s remaining defenders retreated to Hong Kong Island.
With British forces under siege, Hong Kong experienced another currency shortage, this time with $1 banknotes, which was partly caused by Japan’s distribution of leaflets warning all notes exceeding $10 “would be worthless after the Japanese took over the colony,” Souza added.
“To relieve the situation, a stock of the Bank of China’s five-yuan notes were discovered on the premises of the Commercial Press, Ltd., in King Road, North Point.”
These notes were quickly overprinted with “HONGKONG / GOVERNMENT / $1’ and released for circulation on Dec. 13; however, five days later, Japanese forces successfully invaded Hong Kong Island and split the Allied forces.
“It was during one of the battles on Dec. 19 that Sergeant-Major John Osborne, of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross when he threw himself on top of a Japanese grenade to save his men,” said Souza, who added it was the only Victoria Cross awarded during the Battle of Hong Kong.
By Dec. 24, 1941, Japanese forces captured most of Hong Kong Island.
On Christmas Day of that year – only months after issuing six stamps to mark the centennial of the British colonial period – Hong Kong Governor Mark Young surrendered the British colony to Japan.
The order to Allied forces further commanded “all military operations will cease forthwith. You will consider yourselves prisoners of war. Issue orders to all concerned and cease fighting.”
The battle lasted 18 days.
“At that time,” Souza said, “my father was in Fort Stanley, situated in the southern part of the island. My father and the other Allied troops became prisoners of war and were sent to Shamshuipo prisoner-of-war camp on the mainland.”
The final story in this two-part series will explore Henry Souza’s incarceration as a prisoner of war plus his later accomplishments as an award-winning Olympic marksman.