WWII - Last Mail out of Hong Kong to Australia
By John Tang
The "Registered" letter was written by a Staff-Sergeant F.W. Lithbridge to his wife in Manly, Sydney. S.Sgt was either a patient in the Military Hospital or a staff working there. The letter was postmarked 4 December 1941 and bears a HKSC type 8 triangular censor mark (recorded by Chris Norton in HKSC J. 275) and this being one day later than the recorded date '3 December 1941'. The registered envelope paid the surface rate (since Sept. 1939) for a letter under 2 oz. to Australia 30¢ (20¢ for the 1st oz. and 10¢ for additional oz.) plus the 25¢ registration fee. The reverse bears G.P.O. Australia, NSW s/r arrival datestamp (date not readable) and a Manly arrival chop dated 28 December 1941. Curiously, no "Registered" datestamp was struck by the Australian post office. The letter must have caught the last boat out of Hong Kong to Australia on the 5 December. However, according to our member Sam Chiu's article in HKPS Journal 4 in which he suggested that some letters might be sent by those ships diverted to the Philippines by the British just before Japanese attack on 8 December. However, extractions from the book titled "The War Against Japan" by Major-General S. Woodburn Kirby states differently:
"There were indications towards the end of November of an early Japanese offensive, and certain precautionary measures were put into effect. The harbour was closed at night; British and Allied ocean-going steamers were diverted to Singapore;..." page 117. "In accordance with naval orders, twenty-six merchant ships in Hong Kong harbour cleared for Singapore by noon on the 7th, and eight more left within the next twelve hours." page 118
The naval forces comprised the local defense vessels under the command of Commodore A. C. Collinson, R.N. - the destroyer Thracian, the 2nd Motor Torpedo-boat Flotilla (eight boats), four gunboats and some armed patrol vessels. Two destroyers, Thanet and Scout, were at Hong Kong when war broke out. These however were ordered to Singapore and sailed at 7.30 p.m. on 8th December. A boom defended Lei U Mun and mine-fields covered the outer approaches of the harbour." page 109. I think most ships were diverted to Singapore rather than to the Philippines which is reasonable because Singapore was a British possession while Philippines was under U.S. rule. After clearing all major vessels to Singapore on 8 December, the harbour was defended with minefields so that no more large ships could come in and out.
It is also interesting that the registration label that should be present is missing from the obverse and instead, there is a blue crayon cross and a m/s signature. Thus, it appears that the label did not fall off inadvertently and perhaps because of the imminent Japanese invasion, the post office had stopped registering letters. In HKPS Journal 4, Sam Chiu in his article "Detained in Hong Kong and the ones that got away" mentioned that "….I have been looking for 20 years now for these (registered letters and parcels) and I have yet to find one." He went on and speculated that "…all the registered letters and parcels were looted by the Japanese. These were opened for it's material content and the covers were destroyed/discarded to remove the evidence." Perhaps the reason why he and other members could not find any is that the Post Office suddenly stopped registering letters because of the situation in early December. Any comments to the Society's GPO Box446, Hong Kong c/o the editor or by e-mail.