Walter Naef and the Chances of History

Note: The references are in an incomplete form to prevent plagiarism. I would be happy to provide a properly referenced copy of this article to anyone who wishes to contact me using the address at the foot of this page:

SAM_4058 Lake Geneva, Montreux

I’ve just returned from a trip to Switzerland, researching in the Swiss Federal Archive (SFA) in Bern and the International Committee of the Red Cross archive in Geneva.

Bern view Bern

One of the figures I followed through the Bern documentation was the Swiss businessman Walter Naef. Naef came to south China in 1922, moved to Shanghai in 1935 when his company CIBA[1] opened an office there,[2] and at some point – probably about 1939 – moved to Hong Kong. As he had married Victoria Manning in the cathedral in 1929, this might have meant a return not a first sojourn.[3]

The story that emerged from the SFA was one that will carry no surprises for the student of the occupation. Naef was a neutral, and a man of some wealth, so he was cushioned from the worst sufferings. Otherwise his experiences seem rather typical.

On December 10 Naef fled Kowloon with his wife and their six-year-old child in the face of the advancing Japanese army and the Chinese looters. The next day he was forced to evacuate his office on the island as it was requisitioned by the British.[4] At some point Naef and his family took shelter with a number of other Swiss in 2, May Road.[5] A friend helped him set up a temporary office in St. George’s Building, but transport difficulties and the constant shelling made it impossible to get down from the Peak to work or protect it. He eventually recovered his office papers but the equipment was looted, and someone had managed to force open the safe and steal the cash and the staff jewellery.[6] In the early days of the occupation both he and his wife lost their cars to the Japanese.[7]

In January 1942 the Japanese asked for neutrals to make a declaration of the property they’d lost during the fighting – I don’t know if they ever intended to offer compensation, but nothing came of it if they did. In imitation of the Germans, they’d abolished the consular system throughout the territories they’d conquered, but they did allow someone – usually the former Consul – to act as a community representative. So the former Consul, Harry Keller, stayed at his post throughout the occupation, but with the title ‘Representative of the Swiss’ and less than full diplomatic protection. Keller used a blackboard in the former Consulate to pass on the Japanese request, and on January 19 Naef responded with an itemization of his losses during the hostilities. He rated his personal and business assets as worth over 1 million Swiss Francs; [8] along with Emil Ott[9] – whose company owned, amongst other things, the two branches of the Department Store Habade –  he was probably the wealthiest of the Swiss businessmen who would have to live through the occupation.

Naef Letter

He was soon trying to get his business started again. On February 2 Naef wote to Keller asking for his help in releasing funds from the HSBC; he needed to pay the utilities bills for the re-occupation of his office and his staff  salaries for January and February.[10]

In March 1942 he got permission to return to his home – Walvik Cottage in Kowloon, a property he owned outright and whose value after a 1940 remake he put at SF60,000.[11] He found it completely looted and occupied by Japanese soldiers. The garage was a munitions depot and the water system dismantled.[12] This confirmed that the family had lost almost everything they’d owned personally, but it seems that he was able to get his business functioning to an extent at least. David Tett’s ‘postal history’ of the Pacific war contains a card Naef wrote in 1944 to a friend in Stanley from the French Bank Building – as the first floor is stipulated this was probably CIBA’s office address,[13] but it’s possible the family also lived in the building which had residential accommodation in the upper stories.

As well as his wife, Naef had a child (aged 6 in 1942) with him during the occupation. But he also had children elsewhere to worry about. On April 22 he wrote to August Hoffmeister, the Swiss Consul in Canton, informing him that he had received his first letter from his son  John and had learnt from it that his children were well at Chefoo School (in modern Yantai). At this stage the British teachers and pupils at this missionary establishment were not interned – they were later to be sent to Weifang Camp, where Olympic champion Eric Liddell was also to be held. On August 20, 1942 Naef sent  a telegram to wish his son John a happy birthday.[14] The attendance of his children at Chefoo suggests that Naef was a Christian and Protestant.

A number of the Swiss had lost their jobs as a result of the Japanese take-over, and some needed help to avoid starvation. Naef never had to draw on the Swiss Relief Fund himself, but because of CIBA’s interests in Shanghai, it was suggested he provide the ‘route’ for a donation to this fund from the Helevetia, a charitable institution in that city.[15] It seems that in the end another Swiss firm acted as the conduit for the money,[16] but, as we shall see, this apparently trivial episode was possibly the germ of something more significant.

Although there was at least one Axis sympathiser amongst the Swiss, it’s highly likely that the vast majority welcomed back the British in August 1945. By that time only those who had thrown in their lost irreversibly with the Japanese still supported them. I’ve not been able to find any details of Naef’s activity during the period of re-occupation, but his son John Peter, then 15, left Hong Kong on October 15, 1945, boarding the Highland Monarch to sail to life at a boarding school in Worthing (England). This means he either joined his parents from Chefoo at some point in the war or came down to Hong Kong soon after the peace was announced.[17] Neither Walter nor Victoria is listed on the manifest, but other adult Swiss are, so perhaps he was in their care.

The Swiss authorities seem to have made intermittent efforts throughout the second half of the 1940s and the first of the 1950s to get compensation from the Japanese. In 1952 Naef put in a claim that attracted cynical comment from the adjudicators  who believed the value he had indicated for his losses seemed very exaggerated. They felt that Naef had put down the replacement value not the cost of purchase and had included damages caused later in the war by Allied air attack not the Japanese – they wanted to reduce his estimates by at least half’[18] In  early 1955 a Swiss-Japanese agreement on wartime damages finally led to compensation for losses in Hong Kong.  On July 12, 1956  Naef was awarded  SF35, 825. 80.[19]

In other words, a not unusual story of loss, anxiety and survival in the Hong Kong war. Not as grim as most, certainly, but containing anxiety, distress and pain of loss in much greater measure than is usual in peacetime conditions.

And as far as my picture of Walter Naef goes, that would be it if the French head of the Chinese Postal Service  hadn’t escaped from Hong Kong in February 1944. Gaston Marie Raoul de Sercey was the younger brother of a count – although some of those who came across him during the occupation seem to have thought he was the Count himself, a misconception he would have been foolish to battle against. De Sercey played a sterling role in relief work during the occupation, particularly with regard to Jardine Mattheson employees – he was a friend of the company taipan, J. J. Paterson. On arrival in Free China, suffering from nervous exhaustion after the ordeal of two years under the Japanese, he gave  a detailed account of conditions in occupied Hong Kong to the British Army Aid Group, a resistance organisation led by former University of Hong Kong Professor Lindsay Ride.

Mr. de Sercey’s account included a description of the methods used to raise money for relief of Jardine’s staff and they reveal the key role played by none other than Walter Naef.[20] Clearly his work was ongoing , as the Frenchman says that he’d ‘provided approximately M.Y. 10,000 by the time of my departure’. It seems that even before de Sercey had ‘guaranteed out’ Jardine’s employee Dorothy Cuthbertson so that she could engage in relief activities, Naef had been getting money into Stanley for this purpose. He continued this work so as to provide the funds for Cuthbertson. He was almost certainly using the Shanghai branch of his company CIBA to do so – it now turns out that the 1942 idea of Naef’s involvement in an open  transfer of the Helvetia donation, although it came to nothing at the time, was to flower later in this undoubtedly secret operation. Raoul de Sercey is in no doubt as to the perils involved:

(I)t must be mentioned here that, though the supply of  funds by Mr. W. NAEF has been most welcome, the arrangement is undoubtedly extremely dangerous for all the parties concerned. It represents a definite evasion of the Japanese exchange regulations, and if found out, it is bound to create serious if not fatal trouble.

No-one had an easy time in occupied Hong Kong, but Walter Naef  could, if he had chosen, have had it easier than most. He was the citizen of a country whose neutrality had deep roots in history and was written into international law. Although he’d lost much of what he owned during the hostilities and the Japanese plundering of early 1942, he still had access to personal and company sources of finance that would have kept him from the worst consequences of the economic travails of wartime Hong Kong. With a wife and young child to care for, the temptation to keep a low profile and look after his own must have been huge.

Nevertheless, he decided to risk being thrown into an over-crowded and foul-smelling jail cell, to face interrogation to the accompaniment of beating – and probably much worse – to be followed by a mock trial and a sentence to a relatively quick death by beheading or a relatively slow one by gradual starvation in Stanley Prison.

Like so many of those who played a heroic role during the occupation, Naef seems to have made no attempt to get his contribution acknowledged after the war. He went back to business, he helped found the Swiss Association of Hong Kong (a body partly inspired by the experiences of  1941-1945),[21] and my guess is he was the force behind CIBA’s post-war re-establishment in the Colony.[22] But I’ve never seen a reference to him in any book or article about the occupation – which is hardly surprising, given the state of the evidence I’ve outlined.

Sometimes just one document can make everything look different. But when the activity in question involved illegal operations in conditions of huge peril, that document is sometimes never produced.  Luckily in this case it was, thanks to the untiring efforts of the BAAG to understand conditions in occupied Hong Kong. Belated justice can be done to Walter Naef, in part at least – who knows what else he did that has not yet come to light and perhaps never will?

In 1958 his unexpected death in Bern made it back to the Hong Kong press.[23]

[1] A Swiss chemicals and textile business.



[4] Naef, ‘Statement of Properties & Assets’ 19 January 1942,  E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[5] List of Swiss Citizens Residing in Hong Kong in E2200.10-01# (SFA).

[6] Walter Naef, ‘Statement of Properties and Assets’ 19, January, 1942 , pp. 1-2  E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[6] E. Ott ‘Assets in Hongkong’ in  E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[7] Letter of Naef to the Eidgenossisches Politisches Department, 28, May 1952, p. 5 in E2001D/A#1000/1553# (SFA).

[8] Letter from Naef to Keller, 19 January 1942, in E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[9] E. Ott ‘Assets in Hongkong’ in E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[10] E2200.10-01#1000/135#7* (SFA).

[11] Naef, ‘Statement of Properties & Assets.’ 19 January 1942, in E2200.10-01 (SFA).

[12] Wakter Naef, Faits dommageables’ in Anerkennung von in Hongkong durch japanische Gerichte ausgesprochenenen Schneidungsurtelien:  E2001D/A#1000/1553#596 (SFA).

[13] David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, p. 133.

[14] Letter from Naef to August (Hoffmeister), 22 April 1942 and Telegram Naef to Swiss Consulate Canton, August 20, 1942 in E2200.122/1000/156 (SFA).

[15] Letter from Secretary to Keller, May 2, 1942 in ‘Keller & Co. Ltd.’, E2200. 122#1000/156#48 (SFA).

[16] Letter from Keller to the Swiss Consul-General, Shanghai, 3 July 1942, ibid.

[17] UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2008.

[18] Letter from The Swiss Consulate Hong Kong to the Minister (Division of Political Affairs of the Federal Political Deoartment), 19 August 1952 in Anerkennung von in Hongkong durch japanische Gerichte ausgesprochenenen Schneidungsurtelien:  E2001D/A#1000/1553#596 (SFA)

[19] ‘Verteilungsplan’ in Anerkennung von in Hongkong durch japanische Gerichte ausgesprochenenen Schneidungsurtelien:  E2001D/A#1000/1553#596 (SFA).

[20] Letter from de Sercey to Keswick c./o. L. T. Ride, 2 June 1944, Ride Papers.



[23] South China Morning Post, October 23, 1958, p. 8.







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2 responses to “Walter Naef and the Chances of History

  1. Les Bowie

    Excellent post for, through this account of Walter Neaf’s story in occupied Hong Kong, it illustrates effectively the risks and sacrifices of the many unsung victims and protagonists in the world’s long history of lawless invasions, conquests, occupations, and incarcerations.

    Les Bowie


  2. Pingback: Into Stanley, May 7, 1943: Lessons in Mis-Reading | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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