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The Christmas Day Dash – Q&A with Tim Luard

Tim Luard’s new book, Escape from Hong Kong tells the little known story of the daring Christmas Day escape made by 60 Chinese, British and Danish intelligence and military personnel on the eve of the Japanese invasion. Led by the one-legged Chinese Admiral Chan Chak, the men fled to safety on the mainland, traveling on five small motor torpedo boats, walking for four days through enemy lines before making it to safety in Chongqing and Burma.

Luard, the BBC World Service’s former man in Beijing, will be speaking about his book on June 13 at 7:30 pm.

Mengfei Chen: Set the scene a little. What was 1940s Hong Kong like? How did things change after the Japanese invasion, if at all?

Tim Luard: Compared with Shanghai, say, Hong Kong society in 1940 was rather Victorian and straitlaced, at least on the surface. There was little or no racial mingling – British civil servants risked losing their jobs if they married a non-European and Chinese were legally barred from living on the Peak.

Britain’s war with Germany and China’s ongoing invasion by Japan both seemed far away. But with a Japanese army now hovering on the border, the normally quiet colony was soon awash in a fin-de-siecle atmosphere of gossip, intrigue and excess: it became flooded with Chinese refugees and triads, foreign adventurers such as ‘Two-Gun Cohen’ and ‘One-Arm Sutton’ and Japanese spies and fifth-columnists. At the last minute, two battalions of semi-trained Canadians were brought in to reinforce the small garrison of unmotivated, malaria-ridden British and near-mutinous  Indian troops.

When the Japanese finally invaded, within hours of Pearl Harbour, their battle-hardened forces proved vastly superior.  Their planes had a free run of the skies and their lightly equipped men swept through the New Territories and Kowloon in a matter of days. Hong Kong Island valiantly withstood a week-long siege, but the end was only a matter of time.

On Christmas Day 1941 – with all water, power and communications cut off and enemy troops all over the island – the Governor had little choice but to surrender.  All non-Chinese were rounded up into camps, and after several days of looting and rape Hong Kong spent the rest of the war as a brutally run Japanese colony.

 MC: The Christmas Day Dash is such a great story. It’s even got a one legged admiral. Why is it so obscure?

TL: Chan Chak, who’d lost a leg during the defense of Canton, was Nationalist China’s top man in Hong Kong.  He proved such a staunch ally during the invasion that the British determined to help him get away afterwards.  So, within hours of the surrender, after swimming under fire to an island and  hiding in a cave, the Chinese admiral and a mixed group of senior British personnel (who would likewise have faced a particularly nasty time in Japanese hands) were whisked off to the mainland in all that remained of the Royal Navy – five old torpedo boats, crewed by some fifty sailors.  The entire party, including a dog named Bruce, then walked for four days through Japanese-occupied China – guided by guerrillas, who carried the Admiral in a sedan chair – arriving to an ecstatic welcome at the nearest Nationalist Army outpost at Waichow (Huizhou).

After many more adventures as they crossed China and Burma, the main naval party reached Britain five months later, their families having long given them up for dead.  They were told not to talk about their experience, since their route had to be kept secret for use by others escaping from the camps in Hong Kong over the next four years. It’s really only now, with the release of official documents and the finding of long-forgotten diaries and letters, that the full story has come out.  My wife and I got together with other escapers’ descendants – her father was part of the group – to form the Hong Kong Escape Re-enactment Organisation (HERO) and managed to retrace the original journey to Waichow.

MC: Did you have a favorite character?

TL: The escape group was made up of a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, from the redoubtable, beady-eyed little admiral to a huge, hard-drinking chief petty officer from Plymouth whose jokes kept everyone entertained along the way. But I think my favourite is a crusty World War One veteran called Horace Gandy, who had been brought out of retirement to command Hong Kong’s small torpedo boat flotilla. He was a stickler for discipline and Royal Navy tradition, but always quick to side with his own men against others in the party from rival outfits such as the army. He kept a detailed diary in which he complains that the escape plan is as “clear as mud” to him and berates those who take the wrong route as “BFs” (Bloody Fools). But he soon warms to the Chinese admiral, lending him his elegant naval cap and jacket after he emerges from the water in his underwear, even though this means he himself has to wear an uncomfortable “battle bowler,” or steel helmet, for the rest of the 80-mile march.

MC: You talk a little about the complicated and sometimes uncomfortable way the Christmas Day Dash fits into the current Chinese government’s historical narrative. Why do you think it is so cumbersome and how have they tried to deal with the episode?

TL: Little has been published in the People’s Republic about the escape, presumably because Admiral Chan was a close associate of President Chiang Kai-shek. When we applied to visit China for our re-enactment, there was a long pause before the Foreign Ministry finally issued something called Directive 143, declaring that the escape was “an extraordinary episode of Sino-British joint action” and that our group, HERO, was  “A Good Thing”.  Four 15-member committees were appointed to prepare for our visit, and one of them duly produced China’s own history of the escape. This played down the Nationalist admiral and instead gave the credit to the fledgling communist movement of the time. It said the escape had been personally ordered by Mao’s right-hand man, Zhou Enlai. The communists are not mentioned at all in most of the accounts from the time.

MC: What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you came across during your research?

TL: The single most surprising aspect of the escape to me was the way the Chinese and British worked so closely together, having kept themselves so rigidly apart in the past. This was the first if not only time in history that British servicemen accepted the leadership of a Chinese officer. And then there was the attitude of the ordinary Chinese villagers, deep in Japanese-occupied territory. Despite the huge rewards on offer, not a single Chinese villager gave the mainly British escape group away. These were possibly the first foreigners to be seen in these parts of China since the ravages of the Opium War, 100 years before. But this rumbustious group of heavily bearded British mariners were welcomed wherever they went with pots of green tea and buckets of hot rice and vegetables – and the local temple floor to sleep on. Commander Gandy wasn’t the only one who found both food and accommodation took some getting used to. But basically they were all just happy to be free – and having the adventure of their lives.

Tim Luard will be speaking at The Bookworm Beijing on  Wednesday, June 13 at 7:30pm. Tickets available at The Bookworm. This event is brought to you by RAS Shanghai.

The Bookworm Download Map

Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road,

Chaoyang District, Beijing

100027, P.R China

Tel: (010) 6586 9507

Email: [email protected]