It was in the defense of Hong Kong in 1941 that Canadian soldiers first committed to battle during the Second World War. To help defend the British crown colony, Canada sent a force of 1,975, consisting of two battalions – the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada – a brigade headquarters group and various specialists to join forces with other troops from the Allied Forces in Hong Kong and the rest of the Asian theater.

What ensued was 18 days of tenacious fighting known as the Battle of Hong Kong, which ended after the fall of the city to the Japanese aggressors with severe Canadian casualties: 290 killed and 493 wounded.

Throughout the three and a half years of the Japanese occupation, Canadian prisoners of war were held in Hong Kong and some of them were even sent to Japan.

In all, more than 550 of the 1,975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver in October 1941 never returned.

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Canadian flags are seen at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong. Photo: Canadian Consulate General
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Poppies are placed next to the names of Canadian soldiers inscribed on a memorial wall at the Sai Wan War Cemetery. Photo: Canadian Consulate General

The Sai Wan War Cemetery was built in 1946 to honor those who died in World War II, mostly soldiers from the Commonwealth and other Allied Forces who fell during the Battle of Hong Kong.

The cemetery, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is perched on a slope at the northeastern corner of Hong Kong Island, overlooking the Victoria Harbor estuary.

There, 282 soldiers of the Canadian Army are buried, including 107 who are unidentified. A memorial wall has also been erected to honor those who died in defense of Hong Kong, in battle or imprisonment.

Another 20 Canadians were buried at the Stanley Military Cemetery on Hong Kong Island’s southeastern shore.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) walks with British historian Tony Banham through the Sai Wan War Cemetery during Trudeau’s visit to Hong Kong in September 2016. Photo: Handout

We will never forget

Held annually at the Sai Wan War Cemetery since 1947 by the Canadian Trade Commission and the Canadian Consulate General, the Canadian Commemorative Ceremony honors soldiers and remembers the more than 550 fallen heroes.

This important event traditionally takes place on the first Sunday of December to commemorate the start of hostilities in Hong Kong on December 8, 1941.

This year’s event, which was held on Sunday, December 2, was the 71st annual act of remembrance.

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Photos: Canadian Consulate General

“In December 1941, young men from around the world stood here, in these hills, to fight a great battle in a war that would test humanity like no other,” Canadian Consul Jeff Nankivell said.

“Many of these young men knew little of Hong Kong before arriving here; for others, Hong Kong was home, and each carried hope for a future of peace and freedom,” he said.

“We can never know how much we have lost with their untimely passing. Look around you: For every stone in this place, there is the future teacher who never taught, the future builder who never built, the future father or mother whose own children and grandchildren will remain forever unborn….

“We are gathered here in their final resting place, in reverence and humility, to honor the memory of these dead and reflect upon what we the living owe them.”

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Canadian Consul General in Hong Kong Jeff Nankivell speaks during this year’s commemoration ceremony. Photo: Canadian Consulate General

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Students from the Canadian International School and other groups pay their respects to the dead. Photos: Canadian Consulate General
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Wreaths laid on behalf of the US Consulate General, the Indian Consulate General and the Government of British Columbia. Photo: Canadian Consulate General
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A student chorus performs during the commemoration. Photo: Canadian Consulate General

Veterans of World War II joined the consul to pay tribute and lay wreaths.

Student involvement through the participation of the 1st Hong Kong Canadian Scout Group and student representatives from schools in Hong Kong following the Canadian curriculum is a highlight of the program.

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Robert ‘Flash’ Clayton, Hong Kong veteran of the Royal Rifles of Canada. Photo: Canadian Consulate General
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War veterans and their families in front of a memorial wall. Photo: Canadian Consulate General

In addition, the Hong Kong Police Band provided a bugler, the Hong Kong Pipe Band provided a piper, and the Hong Kong Adventure Corps provided four sentries for the ceremony.

The government of Canada installed four permanent plaques in Hong Kong between 2005 and 2009, at former strategic sites of action – Lawson Bunker, Jardine’s Lookout, the Museum of Coastal Defense and St Stephen’s College – during the Battle of Hong Kong.

Read more: Visiting Canadian frigate steers clear of freedom-of-navigation