Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Steel Helmet Rebellion – A Little-known Episode in Hong Kong’s Pre-war History

In late 1940 Hong Kong was the scene of widespread mutiny amongst Sikh soldiers, and related discontent amongst Sikh police officers and ‘civilians’. This ‘Steel Helmet Mutiny’ was an incident of some importance in the history of pre-war Hong Kong, but as far as I can establish, it was kept out of the contemporary press, and all academic discussions of it draw mainly on one article – as do I! (1)

The British had turned to the Sikhs and the other so-called ‘martial races’ of India after the Uprising/Mutiny of 1857 (also sparked off by religious issues) made them distrust Hindu and Moslem sepoys. But in the early twentieth century the new spirit of Indian nationalism began to inspire some Sikhs, and the community produced a number of anti-British activists.

In 1919 events at Amritsar – site of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh religious centre – boosted such oppositional feelings. On April 13 Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to shoot for ten minutes into an unarmed crowd of protestors (and religious pilgrims); estimates of the dead start at 329 (the official body count) and rise to over a thousand. To make matters worse, Dyer was regarded as a hero by some, and suffered no worse fate than loss of his commission – and even this required the intervention of the House of Commons. Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling was involved in a fund that presented Dyer  with a sum worth about £1,000,000 in today’s terms on his return to England. (2) Although Dyer did succeed in building some bridges, his actions cost the British support all over India and in the Sikh areas in particular.

But all this was happening a long way from Hong Kong, which had been recruiting Indian nationals, including Sikhs, into the police since 1861- it was thought that they would be more likely to take forceful action against, for example, Chinese rioters than police officers drawn from their own community. In accordance with their religious beliefs, they were allowed to wear turbans instead of caps. (3) In fact, this was probably seen by their superiors as an advantage, as they gave them an even greater height advantage over most Chinese! By 1940 about one third of the force were Indian, the majority of these being Sikh. (4)

Sikh soldiers had come to Hong Kong with the British army from almost the start of its imperial history and the crisis began not in the police force but in Sikh army units. In September 1939 the Mark 1 steel helmet was made standard equipment for the British Indian army. The British had made a point of enlisting only those Sikhs who, in orthodox fashion, vowed to keep their heads unshorn, so disquiet grew amongst the soldiers of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery as to the implications of the new helmet, wearing which would have meant cutting their hair.

I should interject at this point that there’s something I don’t fully understand: the story as Sundaram tells it, centres on a refusal to cut hair, not to discard the turban in favour of the safer helmet while on duty or under fire. Loyalty to the injunction to wear the turban led Sikh soldiers into conflicts with their British officers in both world wars (5). I presume that in the Hong Kong case the revolt broke out at a preliminary stage so direct orders to take off the turbans and put on the helmets were not involved.

About a year after the introduction of the new helmet matters began to come to a head. In October 1940 HKSRA men jeered the Sikh company of the 2/14 Punjab Regiment as they disembarked carrying steel helmets. At about the same time they started to show reluctance to move crates of army stores in case they contained the helmets. The General Officer Commanding, Arthur Edward Grasset, had headed Indian intelligence (6) so should have known better than to force the matter. Oblivious to the fact that the turban issue had already caused serious trouble in Egypt, he issued an order commanding that all ranks to whom steel helmets were given, ‘whether British, Indian or Chinese’ must carry them. In the usual fashion, the general order was read to the assembled ranks who were then required to sign a register to signify that they had been present and heard the reading. This was done on December 19, but a Sikh havildar-major (roughly equivalent to company sergeant-major) of the HKRSA’s 12th Heavy Regiment refused to sign.(7) The unit’s commanding officer insisted to his Indian subordinates that signing the register meant being aware of the order not agreeing with it, and when the Sikh jawans (all ranks below commissioned officers) were asked to sign on the 20th, the original refusnik complied, but this time the unit’s senior havildar (sergeant) refused. He was arrested and detained under heavy guard in the guardroom. (8)

At the request of an HKRSA officer, the commanding officer of the 2/14th Punjabs addressed the recalcitrant Sikhs on the morning of December 22. He appealed to their martial pride and sense of reputation, but to no avail – only 2 of his 85 listeners came forward to sign. The other 83 followed the havildar to the guardroom, where they promptly went on hunger strike. Any hopes of a quick resolution to the crisis were dashed before the day was out. In fact, the unrest spread. Sikh jawans of the Hong Kong Rifles refused to handle crates containing steel helmets and the Sikhs of  two more batteries of the HKSRA refused food. On December 24 acts of insubordination were rife in all HKRSA units in Hong Kong. Everything so far had been peaceful – very much in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy – but on December 28 Grasset expressed fears that the 800 Sikhs under his command might stage a violent mutiny. (9)

At some point the unrest spread to the large Sikh contingent in the police force. (10) Sikh ‘civilians’ also sympathised with their co-religionists’ grievances. The police took the matter very seriously and three officers were sent from the Indian Intelligence Bureau in Delhi: Major Goring, Superintendent Bill Robinson and a Sikh superintendent. They instigated a covert enquiry, and obviously acted swiftly on what they found. Sundaram isn’t sure how the crisis was brought to an end and wonders if a compromise was reached between the authorities and the discontented soldiers and policemen – this had brought similar conflicts to an end in WW1. Unfortunately that was not the case. One night all the potential mutineers in the army and their likely sympathisers in the police disappeared.(11) They’d been sent back to India with their families where, as George Wright-Nooth, who was a police officer at the time, ominously puts it, ‘the sheep were sorted from the goats’ . (12) According to another source, some of the rebels were sentenced to seven years penal servitude by a 1941 court martial. (13)

Wright-Nooth clearly has little sympathy for the Sikhs and says they were ‘encouraged’ in their mutinous spirit by ‘Japanese propaganda’. That was very likely the case; the Japanese were making a largely  hypocritical attempt to harness anti-British nationalisms to their own imperialist cause and in 1940/1941 had agents all over Asia attempting to exploit grievances real and imaginary. But that hardly seems like the essence of the matter.

According to Sundaram, it had been long standing British policy to restrict army recruitment to ‘keshdari’ (unshorn) Sikh men who had been initiated into the Khelsa (the ‘collective body’ of Sikhs). (14)  He even cites one British military official who boasted that it was the army that was keeping up the traditional standards of Sikhism! And, with regard to the police, Wright-Nooth describes a case in which, when still a greenhorn, he was confronted with the problem of dealing with a Sikh constable who’d asked a Moslem comrade to shave his beard; he was at a loss, as this wasn’t a police offence, until somebody suggested that as it was a religious one – they sent the offender to the Sikh temple, where he received a hefty fine. (15) This anecdote shows that the police too expected their Sikh recruits to obey religious injunctions over and above those of the service.

It seems that the British authorities insisted on the highest standards of Sikh religious observance until the moment they gave the order to flout them. An army report of 1941 seems to have sided with the Sikhs, if only on the grounds that forcing them to carry helmets provided an obvious grievance for Japanese agitators to exploit. (16)

I think it highly likely that the decision of the authorities to send potentially rebellious soldiers and policemen back to India with their families and to punish them there caused huge discontent amongst all groups of Sikhs in Hong Kong and provided fertile ground for Japanese subversion during the occupation. At the start of the battle – just under a year after the events I’ve been describing – the Sikh police were said by their officers to be ‘sullen and uncooperative’, (16) and the chief of police told diplomat Sir Arthur Blackburn they were almost in a state of mutiny by the end. (17) However, as far as I know there was no overt mutiny amongst the soldiers, so the tough line worked to at least that extent.

But things amongst the police could have been still worse. Superintendent Robinson was well aware that the brutal killings at Amritsar had stirred up hatred for the British- he’d been posted there ten years after the massacre and found that feelings were still strong. When, about 6 days into the hostilities, Indian and Chinese families found it hard to get food from the Police Food Control, Robinson took over the supervision of the feeding of Indians and a crisis was averted. (17)

During the occupation, much of the Japanese political effort was directed towards winning the support of the various Indian communities. Their appeal to Indian nationalism was weakened by the obvious brutality of their rule, but, understandably, some Sikhs felt this less keenly when they remembered the ten minutes of gun fire at Amritsar – and the further humiliations and brutalities that followed. However, in Hong Kong the Japanese failed to get anything like the support from either Indian POWs or civilians that they did in Malaya and Singapore. There is strong evidence that the majority of Hong Kong Indians resisted their blandishments outright, or just went along to the extent necessary to avoid persecution and to keep themselves and their families fed. Indians of all communities, including the Sikhs, took risks to alleviate British suffering out of compassion, (20) and some Sikhs even worked for the resistance.(21) The balance of sympathy could have been much more favourable to the British if the Steel Helmet rebellion had been ended by compromise not coercion.

(1)  “Seditious Letters and Steel Helmets: Disaffection among Indian Troops in Hong Kong and Singapore 1940-1, and the Formation of the Indian National Army”, in Kaushik Roy, ed., War and Society in Colonial India, 1807-1945, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2006.

(2) John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, Kindle Edition Location 2061 ff.; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre

(3) Lawrence K. K. Ho, Policing Hong Kong 1842-1969, Kindle Edition, Location 452.

(4) Tim Luard, Escape from Hong Kong, 2012, 30.

(5) http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20100801/spectrum/main3.htm

(6) Franco David Macri, Clash of Empires in South China, 2012, 56.

(7) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 142.

(8) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 143.

(9) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 143.

(10) George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 37.

(11) Luard, 2012, 30; Wright-Nooth, 37.

(12) Wright-Nooth, 1994, 37.

(13) http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20100801/spectrum/main3.htm

(14) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 141.

(15) Wright-Nooth, 1994, 37.

(16) http://theinclusive.org/%E2%80%9Ca-measure-of-courage%E2%80%9D-towards-a-dispassionate-balanced-and-critical-appraisal-of-the-indian-national-army%E2%80%99s-military-history1

(17) Sir Arthur Blackburn: ‘Hong Kong, December 1941-July 1942’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989, page 86.

(18) Luard, 2012, 31.

(19) Luard, 2012, 30-31.

(20) Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 156-157.

(21) Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 320.

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