Thomas’s Work (2): The Fighting

Note: this account of the activity of Staff-Sergeant Sheridan during the hostilities and before his escape is now known to be inaccurate. Most of the story, as told by Sheridan himself is now on Gwulo, e.g. at http://gwulo.com/node/13844

It seems that Thomas was in the Stubbs Rd. Bakery on Sunday, December 7, the day before the Japanese attack: Dr. Geoffrey Herklots records that on that day he succeeded in producing an improved version of his nutrition-packed ‘siege biscuit’,[1] and this almost certainly meant the involvement of Thomas and his bakery. And he was probably back at the Bakery the next morning before 8 a.m. when the air raid on Kai Tak airport announced to most Hong Kong residents the start of hostilities. Before the end of the day he’d been appointed Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries, putting all the civilian bakeries of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon under his control.[2]

Thomas had been making war plans since November 1938.[3] His first big decision was to use the Stubbs Rd. Bakery to produce all the bread required – between 16,000 and 22,000 pounds. This worked well at first:

The various groups – Hospitals, A. R. P., Police etc. called at the bakery for their rations, while the store in town sold to the individual, and we ourselves made delivery to the various units unable to collect.

The ‘store’ was Lane, Crawford’s Des Voeux Rd. premises.

Kowloon fell in an unexpectedly short time – evacuation was completed early on December 13[4] – and the Japanese brought up guns to shell positions on the Island, while the defenders replied in kind, sending shells whizzing over the bakery on their way to the new enemy forward positions. Either from this point or from the start of the war the 70 Chinese staff and five Europeans never left the bakery: for the first week of the war, Thomas slept in his office chair and the others on bits of sacking – thereafter some at least had camp beds.[5] If it was for the whole period of the fighting that Thomas never left the bakery, then Evelina must have been taken there for the meeting that was to determine her fate for the rest of the war and beyond.[6]

On December 15 the bakery discontinued production of the ‘siege’ biscuits,[7] presumably because staff and machinery were needed for the more immediate task of producing the day’s bread. On December 19 the army bakery at Deep Water Bay was captured and Thomas was ordered to increase production by 4000 pounds. The repatriated American Charles Winter wrote to Thomas’s parents, he was ‘baking for practically the whole population of Hong Kong and also the army’[8] – this was true of the last 6 days of the war, at least for that part of the population not in Japanese hands.

Unfortunately the bread didn’t always get to the people. According to one French observer, Food Control was one of the three emergency services that were ‘inefficient beyond description’ (the other two were the Air Raid Precautions and the Police).[9] This seems a harsh judgement: major problems for food distribution were created by the desertion of many Chinese drivers – some out of a perfectly understandable fear and reluctance to risk their lives for a racist and discriminatory regime, others because they were fifth columnists, in some cases infiltrated into Hong Kong from southern China amongst the refuges who flooded into the Colony in the years before the attack. Partly as a result of this, the system began to break down even during the first four or five days of the war (before the evacuation of Kowloon on December 11-13) when Thomas thought all was working smoothly. Government worker Phyllis Harrop wrote on December 10:

Something has gone radically wrong with the organization. Reports are coming in that men have had no food for forty-eight hours. Office staffs have walked out due to lack of supplies and messengers are threatening to follow them. The food is there but transport seems to be the difficulty.[10]

When Thomas was told to bake for the Army, two Royal Army Service Corps bakers were sent to assist him: one, Sergeant Hammond, stayed with him throughout the war, baking alongside Thomas from the FrenchHospitaland in Stanley.[11] Which raises the question: why was a soldier interned in a civilian camp? My guess is that, with Thomas’s active or passive co-operation,Hammond claimed to be a civilian baker. The story of the other army baker suggests that they weren’t baking in uniform:

When the Japs had captured HK, Corporal [Paddy Sheridan] was working in the bakery (he was a baker). He was asked to produce his ID and an escort was sent with him to collect it. Paddy concealed his Army ID and instead produced an Irish passport that was in Gaelic. The Jap officer could not understand it and took it away for examination. Some days later a very polite and humble Jap asked to speak to him and told him that as Ireland was neutral, he was free to leave the colony. Paddy sold all the food in the bakery and with the help of Jesuit priests got a ticket to [Macau] after several days in hiding an agent took him to the border with China.[12]

Hammond probably persuaded the Japanese he was a civilian, and Tony Banham has confirmed from British Army Aid Group documents that he was living at the French Hospital later in 1942 alongside Thomas and another baker called ‘Peacock’ about whom I know nothing. Perhaps he was one of the five ‘European’ staff who worked at Stubbs Road.[13]

In any case, it’s good to know that the food left in the bakery at the surrender was put to good use! On November 10, 1942, Staff Sergeant Sheridan was awarded a Military Medal for his courageous actions.[14]

On December 21 the bakery was abandoned.

The Japanese having landed on the Island of Hong Kong on the night if 18th December by the 21st December had made our bakery untenable. They had also taken the Power Station, thereby cutting off all electricity and water.[15]

Perhaps it wasn’t just the collapse in the water and power supplies that led to the decision: early in the afternoon of the twenty-first the Japanese won the battle for Mount Nicholson in Happy Valley, and this meant that a Japanese assault along Stubbs Rd. was imminent (they were in possession of it by December 24[16]).  Thomas describes what happened next:

I then decided to open five smaller bakeries and decentralize. I had already stocked various bakeries with wood, flour and hops (Yeast would not keep out of a refrigerator in such a hot climate). The Fire Brigade delivered water to the bakeries twice a day in a fire float.[17]

One of these bakeries was almost certainly the Qing Loong (Green Dragon) Bakery at 93 Queen’s Road East: Thomas considered this the best of the Chinese-owned bakeries and it was the one he used to bake for the hospitals between February 1942 and May 1943 (forthcoming post). And it was to the west of thee Stubbs Road bakery, further away from the Japanese who were advancing onVictoria from the east. But conditions were not ideal in any of the five smaller bakeries:

(Lane, Crawford’s had four oil and four gas ovens) (w)hereas in the various Chinese-owned bakeries that we opened there were only wood-fired side-flue ovens, and space was so limited that we had to chop the wood outside the front of the shop.[18]

This photo from Thomas’s archive probably illustrates conditions in a pre-war Chinese bakery, although not necessarily one of those he opened on December 21:

These must have been exciting but frightening times. Thomas was moving from bakery to bakery, probably in the western parts of Wanchai, at constant risk of shelling or aerial bombardment. But it seems that production was maintained until the surrender.

The Japanese strategy was based on cutting the Island in two by taking the Wong Nai Chung Gap, conquering the British heartland, Victoria, in the north, while also attacking the south of the island so as to engage the forces based at Stanley Fort and eventually capture this stronghol.

On Christmas Eve Hong Kong was in flames, the streets were stinking (without water the sewage system had broken down) and it was obvious that the battle was lost. Late in the afternoon, the Middlesex Regiment, attacked from three sides and outnumbered ten to one, abandoned its stubborn defence of Leighton Hill, one of the few remaining positions keeping them from Victoria. The survivors joined with men of the Rajputs and formed a new defensive line. At about the same time, members of the Hong Kong Volunteers, some of whom would undoubtedly have been known to Thomas, perhaps even his friends, were sent to the Stanleya rea as reinforcements. That night, and into the next day they battled alongside young Canadian soldiers in a heroic final resistance;[19] some of this fighting took place in what was to become Stanley Internment Camp, and the first internees found plenty of evidence of the carnagee.

At 1 p.m. on Christmas Day the men of the Middlesex and Rajput regiments were still holding on to Wanchai Market, about half a kilometre from the Green Dragon Bakery. By 3.15 the fighting in Wanchai was officially described as ‘confused’: [20] the courageous defence of the routes into Victoria was crumbling, and, wherever Thomas was, the fighting was getting near. Thomas says that Hong Kong surrendered at 5 p.m., which suggests he heard the news soon after that time – the official surrender was 3.30[21]. He and the rest of the Lane, Crawford staff walked through streets filled with looters to the company Head Quarters Exchange House (14 Des Voeux Road) to face a new kind of terror. Now they could only wait helplessly to find out what would become of them.


[4] Tony Banham, Not the Slightest Chance, 2003, 69.

[5] British Baker.

[10] Hong Kong Incident, 1943, 70.

[11] French Hospital: information from BAAG records kindly supplied by Tony Banham. Stanley: British Baker.

[12]Information kindly provided by Mr. Govier, RASC and passed on by Tony Banham: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/1194

[13] British Baker.

[15] Unpublished manuscript of British Baker article: transcription at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/

[16] Banham, 237.

[17] Unpublished manuscript of British Baker article.

[18] British Baker.

[19] Banham, 241-242, 259.

[20] Banham, 262.

[21] Banham, 262.

4 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11

4 responses to “Thomas’s Work (2): The Fighting

  1. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (3): Outside Stanley | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Sheridan’s Escape: His own Account | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  3. Pingback: Some notes on the BAAG ‘Uninterned Lists’ (1) | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  4. Pingback: Early Days in the French Hospital: The Evidence of Staff-Sergeant Patrick Sheridan | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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