About a week into the battle, the Hong Kong defenders composed of the Canadians, local troops, British and Indian units, received a message from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
“Do everything you can to buy time, but never surrender. Do not give up the island. Fight with the Chinese as long as you can, and harm the Japanese army as much as you can.”
But the Japanese military force was too great. On Christmas Day after 17 days of fighting, the Canadians were defeated, and the British governor of Hong Kong ordered them to surrender.
“We never put our hands in the air to the Japanese, and never laid down arms until ordered to do so,” said MacDonell. “The Royal Rifles never quit during the battle in Hong Kong or in those ghastly prison camps in the following years.”
The fighting in Hong Kong ended with immense Canadian casualties: 290 killed and 493 wounded.
McDonell and his Canadian comrades would spend almost four years in Japanese prison camps in Hong Kong and Japan.
The POWs were sent to a camp called Sham Shui Po on the island. The worse the prison conditions got, the more determined the men of the Royal Rifles became to not crack, said MacDonnell.
During their time at that camp, members of a Chinese anti-Japanese guerrilla force planned to attack the Japanese and rescue all the prisoners and take them into China.
“But disaster struck. The Japanese discovered the plot and these young officers were tortured and executed,” MacDonell said.
After a year or so of captivity in Hong Kong, the Canadian prisoners were sent to a camp at Kawasaki, a suburb of Yokohama, Japan. They worked as slave labor in Japan’s largest shipyard, which built freighters and naval vessels.
Despite having to endure terrible conditions, the prisoners found ways to sabotage the Japanese shipbuilding effort.
Two of them were young Canadians from Toronto, Staff Sergeant Charlie Clark and Private Stanley Cameron, who worked at a Nippon Kokan shipyard, Japan’s largest shipyard.
They started a fire under the yard’s blueprint factory where wooden forms were patterned. It was timed to occur at night when the prisoners were back at their camp, about two miles away.
“Burning the blueprints and patterns that came from them meant there was no way you could build a ship or do anything in that shipyard,’’ MacDonell said.
“They did it in utter secrecy; they told no one. But they pulled it off and even saved their own lives by doing so undetected. This tells the spirit of the Canadians who even after they were after prisoners, decided to never give up, never accept the Japanese and to keep fighting.”
Long after, when MacDonell met Clark and congratulated him for his actions, he said Clark smiled and said, “It went rather well, didn’t it?”
The Canadian POWS were moved to a camp in northern Japan until freed in 1945 when Japan surrendered. But before being freed, the prisoners feared they would be killed by their captives.
One Japanese order said, “Do not allow the escape of a single one — annihilate them all and have no trace.”
On September 15, 1945, American forces picked up the Canadians at a nearby port.
Looking back at the Battle of Hong Kong, MacDonell said: “Too little has been said about the Chinese volunteers who fought with us. And who went to prison camps with us. They were extremely brave, and we were very proud that we were associated with them. And they suffered very heavy casualties too.”
He said the Battle of Hong Kong “is not about how the Canadians were defeated. It’s about how they fought and how they behaved against impossible odds. And it’s about the mettle they showed when it was apparent that there was no hope and there was no possibility of a successful outcome. They never surrendered and they fought like tigers.”