Escape from Hong Kong -Admiral Chan Chak's Final Hours - The Definitive Account
The 2nd MTB Flotilla evaded capture, and escaped from Hong Kong, scuttling their boats deep behind enemy lines. They held secret negotiations with Chinese guerilla’s. Aided by various British Special Forces they crossed China. Compromised by the British press they were targeted all the way by the Japanese. Finally fighting their way out of Rangoon alongside the elite SBS in a desperate attempt to break out to freedom in order to serve their country and fight another day.
Sworn to secrecy most took their secrets to the grave, leaving riddles in their diaries and accounts.
It is an epic tale of East meets West with consequences that reverberate around the world and across time.
This is their story, it is an epic tale told by those who escaped, there is no fiction, no supposition.
Hong Kong could not be held but had to be defended: A Tribute to the people who defended Hong Kong
Research compiled by Buddy Hide Jnr ©
Following his visit to England in 1933 Admiral Chan Chak the former C-in-C of the Cantonese navy had grown envious of Britain's navy, the largest and most powerful maritime force the world had known. Having seen it at first hand in Portsmouth along with a tour of his hero Lord Nelson's flag ship HMS Victory he made it his business to be close to the British in Hong Kong.
With the Japanese occupation of Manturia in 1937, followed by the southern coastal regions, including Canton, Chan based himself in Hong Kong working with British intelligence running a network of spy's and informers using his cover as a stock broker with a firm by the name of Wah Kee & Co [China & Company] since 1938.
In the early hours of the 8th of December 1941 he was informed of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, followed two hours later with the attack on Pearl Harbour. He was onboard the Star ferry crossing over to the Island city of Victoria from Kowloon when the Imperial Japanese Air force (IJA) attacked Kai Tak airport a few hours later at 08.00 hours destroying what little air cover Hong Kong possessed. The Japanese simultaneously invaded the New Territories with an overwhelming ground force outnumbering the allied troops 4-1.
Seventeen days of close combat face to face fighting followed, and when Christmas Day dawned none had any idea of the events that lay ahead.
These events would be etched in their minds for the rest of their natural lives. With all Royal Navy ships except the 2nd MTB Flotilla and its support vessels scuttled the Royal Navy was now fighting alongside the army as infantrymen in the trenches on the front line.
On the orders of C-in-C Sir Marc Young the 2nd MTB flotilla was to be put at the disposal of a Chinese Admiral. This was an unprecedented act within the Royal Navy and raised more than a few eyebrows.
Certain Sino-British high ranking officials had to be got out from Hong Kong with the secrets they held at all costs. A Royal Navy Commander risked Court Martial by disobeying orders to move his flotilla immediately. They survived murderous machine gun fire in broad daylight tearing their flimsy craft apart, followed by non-stop bursts as they swam for their lives towards the nearest island.
Those that survived thought they were safe once they fetched up on the rocky shore of Aberdeen Island, only to be targeted again with more machine gun fire and incendiary mortar shells. Under cover of darkness they located the motor torpedo boats hiding on the south side of the island in a bay and made an audacious high speed escape being targeted by a Japanese cruiser. Landing deep behind enemy lines in China they had no choice but to scuttle the flotilla. The risk of being overpowered and captured by ruthless bandits and brigands eager to earn a reward by turning escapees over to the occupying Japanese forces was very real as recorded by later escapees. Those captured suffered public execution by beheading.
After secret negotiation with Chinese guerillas, who it later transpired, turned out to be notorious smugglers of both people and contraband, worked for none other than the one legged Chinese Admiral Chan Chak.
They endured a forced march carrying fifty pound packs over mountainous terrain, fording rivers and passing through the Japanese lines, all the time being guided by the Chinese guerillas. They finally reached the relative safety of the bombed out city of Waichow now Huizhou in Free China, being subjected to yet another air raid. Some had bullet wounds, others injuries picked up during the march, with more suffering severe illness. Some had footwear that fitted, some not, some had no socks.
What lay ahead was a nineteen thousand seven hundred mile, four month odyssey beginning with 3000 miles of hostile mountainous terrain across southern China and Burma by foot, river, truck, and train, all the time being targeted by Japanese bombers. They encountered the harsh Chinese winter, sometimes sleeping rough out in the open, in cleared out floating brothels, and places with bubonic plague. Finally they reached their goal, Rangoon in Burma. They had triumphed over adversity only to be confronted with the Japanese invading forces in that place and were forced to escape all over again, sailing out straight through the middle of the Japanese armada.
Of the sixty eight men who landed at NanAo deep behind enemy lines on the Dapeng Peninsula in Mirs Bay, sixty four survived the war to witness peace again, some were back to witness the Japanese surrender in Hong Kong in 1945. Others went on to hold high office as Law makers, Governors, Mayors, and an Olympic Committee Member. One went on to be hailed as arguably the most famous Coastal Forces Commanding Officer of WW II. This truly was “A Great Escape”
The 2nd MTB Flotilla
Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB's) were designed to be fast with a low profile for stealth, in order to surprise enemy craft or shore establishments under cover of darkness, discharge their weapons, then crash-start their powerful engines to get away.
The 2nd MTB Flotilla was formed in 1938 under the command of Lt-Cmdr D G (Knobby) Clark RN then in November 1940 Lt-Cmdr Boldero RN (Rtrd) took over until he lost an arm in an accident in May 1941. Lt-Com Gerard Gandy RN (Rtrd) who was the former Naval Provost Marshall Hong Kong then took over as Flotilla C. O. Most of the RN officers were replaced with RNVR officers. On the outbreak of war with Japan in Hong Kong the Flotilla was the only effective naval presence. On 13th December MTB's 07 & 09 were detailed to evacuate 260 men of the Indian 5th Battalion 7th Rajput Regiment from North Lyemun to HMS Thracian. &  They had been fighting a non-stop rearguard action while the main bulk of troops evacuated the mainland, and earned the highest respect from the Flotilla. Later they took the full force of the enemy assault on the Island losing 100% of their British Officers & most of their Indian Senior Officers before finally being overun.52
MTB 08 was lost on the slip at Aberdeen on the 16th December when hit by a bomb splinter and blew up. MTB's 12 & 26 were lost in a daring daylight attack on Japanese landing craft on the 19th December.
Unprecedented in the annuls of Royal Navy history, the entire company of the remaining 2nd MTB Flotilla evaded capture to escape from Hong Kong, crossing an entire continent overland to freedom and serve their country and fight another day.
The Japanese army invaded Hong Kong Island from Kowloon on the night of 18/19th. The following morning the flotilla was ordered to attack the Japanese landing craft. Lt Ron Ashby the commanding officer of 07 whose family motto was 'Be just and fear naught' led the attack. Their orders were to "To find & shoot up everything in sight until nothing remained or ammo ran out." With Chief Engineer SPO Buddy Hide and PO Coxswain Jix Prest at the controls in the wheel-house they took 07 up to full speed approaching North Point, attacking and sinking the landing craft. "His M.T.B. cut completely through one of the native craft. He saw the bottoms of the sam-pans filled with Jap's, lying shoulder to shoulder, and sent into each boat a fusillade of Lewis gun bullets. The fire was not returned." The Japanese responded with every available weapon at their disposal, artillery, planes, and machine-guns from both shores and occupied wrecks in the harbour. As an IJA fighter raked the stern of 07 knocking out the starboard engine and fatally wounding the Leading Stoker who was lying across the silent engine. Buddy Hide left the wheel-house to investigate. Buddy immediately called up for medical assistance. The Telegraphist was sent below to administer first aid. A 2nd burst of cannon again raked the stern killing the Telegraphist and knocked out the port engine. Buddy tried franticly to get the engines started without success. Finally as 07 retreated zigzagging under reduced power, the damaged center engine gave out and stopped. Kennedy on 09 soon came to the rescue, taking Ashby's boat in tow under fire out of the harbour. The second wave, MTB's 11 and 12 tore in but did not find anymore landing craft. MTB 12 took a direct hit and blew up, only two crew were known to have survived. MTB 11 retreated under heavy fire while being dive-bombed. The flotilla was stood down, but for reasons unknown MTB 26 carried on and was last seen lying motionless in Kowloon harbour with a lone Lewis-gun firing away. During the ensuing action the flotilla had paid a high price with two of 07's crew killed and two MTB's lost.
The remainder of the flotilla spent the next six days being targeted with artillery and IJA bombers by day, and hiding by night.
When it was realised that Hong Kong would have to surrender after seventeen days of nonstop face to face fighting against an overwhelming force of 4-1 it was the Senior Service that was called upon to get the Chinese Military Mission led by Admiral Chan Chak, and certain senior British military officers out of Hong Kong. This the 2nd MTB Flotilla accomplished in the most dramatic circumstances on Christmas Day 1941 ending with the flotilla being scuttled deep behind enemy lines at Nanao on the Dapeng Peninsula in Mirs Bay, China in the early hours of 26th December 1941.
Also fifty four year old Cmdr Hugh Montague R. N. (Rtrd) escaped with a crew of two officers and four other ranks after salvaging the Dockyard diesel launch C.410 and joined up with the MTB's in Mirs Bay the following day.
The flotilla & escape party were honored with twenty one awards for their exploits in Hong Kong and subsequent escape:
1 K.B.E. 1 C.B.E. 1 M.B.E. 2 O.B.E.s 2 D.S.C.s 14 M.i.Ds. 1 KGC.
Research and web publication by Buddy Hide Jnr ©
The contents of this web site led to a considerable number of escapee families contacting me and now each other, and remains the principle source of contact and private information for the spin off projects that have followed. The personal accounts enabled me to record the complete and true account of this remarkable episode of Sino-British war time co-operation. The information compiled here has directly resulted in a museum exhibition in Hong Kong, a re-enactment of the escape in Hong Kong and China, a book published, with a movie drama and a documentary in the making.
Thank you all for your contributions, may our forefathers be remembered.
© Hong Kong Escape.org 1997