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 stamps and currency 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.
That year also saw the establishment of the Hong Kong Post Office; however, its first stamps wouldn’t be issued for more than two decades.
In 1854, 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.
Hong Kong’s first stamps – a set of six printed on unwatermarked paper by Britain’s De La Rue – were issued on Dec. 8, 1862. They feature a portrait of Queen Victoria, honouring the monarchy’s control of Hong Kong.
A second three-stamp issue was also released the following year.
By 1877, Hong Kong joined the Universal Postal Union; it was a year before Canada’s entry into the global postal pact.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary as a British colony in 1891, Hong Kong overprinted its 1862 two-cent stamp with “1841 Hong Kong Jubilee 1891.”
A LEASE, THEN WAR
Towards the turn of the century, the British Empire extended further with a 99-year lease of another one of Hong Kong’s three main regions, the mainland “New Territories.”
Born two decades into Britain’s lease of Hong Kong, Souza’s father joined the HKVDC as a member of the 3rd Battery in 1938, a year after the Second Sino-Japanese War pitted Japan against China.
“To protest the invasion of China and to curb its military expansion, an oil embargo was imposed against Japan,” said the younger Souza, who added contemporary Hong Kong newspaper accounts “hinted that war with Japan was inevitable.”
As tensions boiled over, Souza’s father was posted to the HKVDC’s “Field Ambulance” section.
With the Second World War underway, one of the first battles in the Pacific theatre was the Battle of Hong Kong, which 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.
On Dec. 18, 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.
PLANNED ISSUE POSTPONED
Earlier in 1941, Hong Kong ordered six stamps to be printed by Bradbury Wilkinson to mark the centennial of the British colonial period; however, because of the war, the stamps remained undelivered to Hong Kong until after the war.
By Dec. 24, 1941, Japanese forces captured most of Hong Kong Island, and on Christmas Day – only months after the aforementioned stamps were printed – 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.