Escape from Hong Kong - The Final Hours


Major Colin Mitchell McEwan MBE, ED, MA, RHKDF Force 136 the Far East branch of the Special Operations Executive S.O.E.

1916-1984

As civilians in Hong Kong before the war  – Colin a PT instructor, and Monia Talan working in the travel business both became members of the Hong Kong Volunteers and were picked by SOE for special  duties led by Mike Kendall, a Canadian mining engineer. The group’s role was to carry out intelligence work and sabotage behind enemy lines. But in the event the Japanese advance was so swift that, while the rest of the group were out near the border blowing up trucks etc, these three ended up helping with the last-ditch defence of HK Island.   They were closely involved in rounding up spies and fifth columnists in coordination with Admiral Chan Chak, Colonel Yee and the other Chinese KMT people in HK.  On the 19th Dec,   Monia and Colin took a small boat out into the harbour and Colin blew up a Japanese ship by swimming underneath it and attaching limpet mines. They both moved with Kendall onto the MTB's at Aberdeen a few days before the Surrender. Colin recorded "I was with Mike on the Island with Monia Talan who was Mike's undercover man in Hong Kong. That is how I was on board the naval escape party."[11]

.At first the plan was to try and make contact with the Chinese forces supposedly on their way to relieve the siege, but when it became clear it was all over they were put in charge of ensuring Chan Chak and his colleagues got out.  McEwan and Talan returned south to Nanao collect the Lewis guns and stores after seeing the escape party to Waichow and observed a Japanese spotter plane flying over the half sunken MTB's followed by a warship heading for Nanao in early January 1942.
He later joined the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) which was conceived at the mission where the Chan Chak escape group stayed in Kukong "After the arrival of the sixty-five men, the next group of escapees from Hong Kong was headed by Colonel Lindsay Ride, Professor of Physiology at Hong Kong University, with two other university lecturers and Francis Lee, one of his Chinese students. Colonel Ride joined Harry Owen Hughes in the spare bedroom and it was there that the British Army Aid Group was born, a type of Ml6 organisation whose first objective was to organise en masse escapes from the prison camps in Hong Kong". General Yu Han Mou the C-in-C of the VIIth war zone approved the name "British Army Aid Group”, BAAG ('Ying Kwan Fuk Mo T'uen') on the 28th May. The Advanced Headquarters British Army Aid Group in Waichow was officially established on 23rd July 1942. After spending several months on a Kukong houseboat with Mike Kendall when the SOE self disbanded Colin was recruited with the rank of temporary Captain as a station officer for the group in Guangdong Province, relaying intelligence to and from POW camps in Hong Kong and helping to organise more escapes.44

"Doc Ride was not the only British "military presence" in Kukong at the time. Up north, a mile away near Ng Li Ting, ( ), tied by the East Bank of the Western River, was a pair of house-boats. Here over half a dozen of British service personnel’s were "camping". They had earlier on escaped from Hong Kong. They were headed by Mike Kendall, a Canadian, who was the commanding officer of a unit known as S.O.E. apparently, the unit was a Special Duty Unit of the Hong Kong Defence Force. One of its tasks was to harass the enemy from behind the lines by a system, of sabotage, espionage and intelligence; they were to blow up bridges or other forms of communications behind the enemy line, when Hong Kong was attacked. In the group were some outstanding young individuals; including (a) R.G.K. (Bobby) Thompson, (later Sir Robert) who eventually became a World Authority on Communist and Communist Tactics, (b) Colin McEwan, to whom I was introduced by Hector MacKenzie, at the University of Hong Kong, Maxwell Holroyd, formerly of the Chinese Maritime Customs and a few others. Their aims were similar to those of Doc Ride, but their methods were apparently different. The S.O.E.'s method was apparently that of the commando, by blowing up any obstacles with light machine guns or explosives as may be necessary, to achieve an objective. The method itself is dependent upon the availability of the necessary logistics. The political climate at the time, for the intended areas of operation, simply made the S.O.E. method a non starter. Amongst others who were also members of the S.O.E., was one Mr. E.B.Teedale, of the Colonial Administrative Service, who eventually rose to become the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong". 35
"Colin was noted for his handling of the Thompson Sub-machine gun; " Colin who was a School Inspector for Physical Education, had an apparently robust "figure". He could easily beat two of his equals in a game of wrestling, 3 ordinary Chinese men would certainly be no match for him. He handled a Thompson sub-machine gun as if it were his toy; and he was chosen to be one of the "bodyguards", when Admiral Chan Chak‚ with David MacDougall and party, made good their escapes on a High speed torpedo boat on Boxing Day,1941 after Hong Kong capitulated. Yet he loved poetry, and wrote poems to amuse us when we felt bored in Waichow. Colin, however had his Achilles heel, he was helpless when attacked by "mosquitoes". He kept on getting malaria."35
"That evening, Colin McEwan, was assigned the task to personally take the bags full of "documents" to Kweilin, he was given two of my runners to assist him on the way. In a personal reminiscence of Colin McEwan, which he dictated to a dicta-phone for Elizabeth Ride (daughter of Sir Lindsay Ride),amongst other things Colin said:- " By the winter of 1942 we had settled into a well organized unit and from our beginnings as an Escape and Evasion outfit, had developed into a fairly fully fledged intelligence unit....... "A Japanese H.Q. plane crashed in our area and, among the various papers salvaged from the wreck was a set of all the Japanese proposed secret airfields in China, even including Tibet. This obviously had to go to our H.Q. in Kweilin by safe hand, and since I had been having odd recurrent bouts of malaria although mild at that, Duggie decided it would be my job to take them up to Kweilin. Once in Kweilin, Force 136 claimed me and I found myself in India."35
Colin and Monia were reunited in India when they took part in another SOE daring underwater explosives operation in Goa -- this became the subject of a film, The Sea Wolves, starring David Niven.
The BAAG went on to secure the escape of some 139 POW's, 33 US Airmen, 314 British & Chinese armed service personnel, & 1400 civilians from Hong Kong.53

Lieutenant Commander Gandy R. N. (Rtrd) had prevailed against all the odds, and triumphed over adversity to deliver his people back to the UK without loss of life or serious injury after evading capture and escaping from Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941.

PO Prest: "We travelled by cycles, lorries, junks, and donkeys, but mostly we walked. It was a case of march or die"

Buddy Hide: "On the whole, the moral, spirits, and courage of the party was magnificent. I think it was the shear thoughts of beating the Jap's, and the prospects of getting home after three years, some of us four years from home, that made us carry on."

"Z Force" was a band of local volunteers which had been trained beforehand for work behind the Japanese lines and was led by Mr Kendall. Dumps of arms, supplies, medical stores, etc had been made beforehand at three points in the New Territories.52

The (Military) MBE was awarded to Major Colin Mitchell McEwan (238278). 15th Nov 1945   “In recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the field”. He later became Head of Physical Education in Hong Kong, before retiring to Scotland. Colin McEwan's war diary was published in 2008 (by the Royal Asiatic Society, HK Branch – a copy is in the Imperial War Museum). 
Major Colin Mitchell McEwan, MBE, ED, MA, was born in 1916, the son of a village school headmaster at Maybole, Scotland.  He had a Presbyterian upbringing and read Classics at Edinburgh University where he was also Rugby blue. He went on to gain a BA at the Scottish School of Physical Education.  He joined the Colonial Service and arrived in Hong Kong in April 1939.  He joined the Physical Education Department the same year.  As the invasion loomed, he began training with the Volunteers, becoming a major of the Royal Hong Kong Defence Force [RHKDF].

Members of the Christmas Day escape who returned to help rebuild the post war Colonony of Hong Kong after its return to British control included:

London Gazette entries:

(1) 15th November 1945

(2) 12th March 1946

The S.O.E. escape team

Mike Kendall

Colin McEwan

[John] Monia Talan

Photo from Colin McEwan's collection ©

Colin kept a diary of the events in Hong Kong.

Colin McEwan chatting to HRH Prince Philip in Hong Kong 1959

Escape from Hong Kong

by Tim Luard.

Click here to return to the Waichow Photo

Research and web publication by Buddy Hide Jnr ©

The contents of this web site led to a considerable number of escapee families contacting me and now each other, and remains the principle source of contact and private information for the spin off projects that have followed. The personal accounts enabled me to record the complete and true account of this remarkable episode of Sino-British war time co-operation. The information compiled here has directly resulted in a museum exhibition in Hong Kong, a re-enactment of the escape in Hong Kong and China, a book published, with a movie drama and a documentary in the making.

© Hong Kong Escape.org Web Master 1997 

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