The Battle of Hong Kong (8–25 December 1941), also known as the Defence of Hong Kong and the Fall of Hong Kong, was one of the first battles of the Pacific War in World War II. On the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor, forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the British Crown colony of Hong Kong. The attack was in violation of international law as Japan had not declared war against the British Empire. The Hong Kong garrison consisted of British, Indian and Canadian units besides Chinese soldiers and conscripts from both within and outside Hong Kong.
Locations which played an important role in setting the pace of military operations during December 1941 include Tai Po Road, the Shing Mun Redoubt trench and tunnel complex in the Gin Drinkers' Line, Devil's Peak, Ma Lau Tong, Lyemun (also spelt as Lye Moon or Lei Yue Mun), North Point, Aldrich Bay (Quarry Bay), Shaukiwan, Saiwan Hill, Wong Nei Chong Gap (Wong Nai Chung Gap), Tytam (Tai Tam Gap & Reservoirs), Shouson Hill and Stanley Fort. Coastal defence batteries including those at Stonecutters Island, Pak Sha Wan, Lyemun fort, Saiwan, Mount Collinson, Mount Parker, Belchers, Mount Davis, Jubilee Hill, Bokara, and Stanley provided artillery support for ground operations until they were put out of action or surrendered.
Within a week the defenders abandoned the mainland and less than two weeks later, with their position on the island untenable, the colony surrendered.
Britain first thought of Japan as a threat with the ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1921, a threat that increased throughout the 1930s with the escalation of the Second Sino-Japanese War. On 21 October 1938 the Japanese occupied Canton (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong was surrounded. British defence studies concluded that Hong Kong would be extremely hard to defend in the event of a Japanese attack, but in the mid-1930s work began on improvements to defences including along the Gin Drinkers' Line. By 1940, the British determined to reduce the Hong Kong Garrison to only a symbolic size. Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command argued that limited reinforcements could allow the garrison to delay a Japanese attack, gaining time elsewhere. Winston Churchill and the general staff named Hong Kong as an outpost and decided against sending more troops. In September 1941, they reversed their decision and argued that additional reinforcements would provide a military deterrent against the Japanese and reassure Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek that Britain was serious about defending the colony.
|Strengths of all personnel mobilised at Hong Kong Garrison on 8 December 1941||14564|
|Auxiliary Defence Units||2112|
|Hong Kong Voluntary Defence Corps||2000|
According to the history manual of the United States Military Academy: "Japanese control of Canton, Hainan Island, French Indo-China, and Formosa virtually sealed the fate of Hong Kong well before the firing of the first shot". The British military in Hong Kong grossly underestimated the capabilities of the Japanese forces and downplayed assessments that the Japanese posed a serious threat as 'unpatriotic' and 'insubordinate'. US Consul Robert Ward, the highest ranking US official posted to Hong Kong in the period preceding the outbreak of hostilities, offered a first-hand explanation for the rapid collapse of defences in Hong Kong by saying that the local British community had insufficiently prepared itself or the Chinese populace for war besides highlighting the prejudiced attitudes held by those governing the Crown Colony of Hong Kong: "several of them (the British rulers) said frankly that they would rather turn the island over to the Japanese rather than to turn it over to the Chinese, by which they meant rather than employ Chinese to defend the colony they would surrender it to the Japanese". According to US Consul Robert Ward, "when the real fighting came it was the British soldiery that broke and ran. The Eurasians fought well and so did the Indians but the Kowloon line broke when the Royal Scots gave way. The same thing happened on the mainland." Colonel Reynolds Condon, a US Army assistant military attaché who witnessed the battle and was taken prisoner by the Japanese wrote up his observations on military preparedness before the commencement of hostilities and also the execution of operations thereafter.
During World War II, soldiers of the Indian Army were involved in the Battle of Hong Kong. The 5/7 Rajput Regiment took up garrison at Hong Kong in June 1937 followed by the 2/14 Punjab in November 1940. Indian troops were also incorporated within several overseas regiments as for example the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery Regiment which had Indian (Sikh) gunners. The Hong Kong Mule Corps was staffed almost entirely by Dogras and Punjabi Muslims. Medical personnel from the Indian Medical Service tended to those injured in combat. Ex-servicemen from India serving as security guards in Hong Kong also suffered "appallingly huge" casualties.
Two of the three battalions stationed at the Gin Drinkers Line were from the Indian Army: the 2/14th Battalion, Punjab Regiment in the centre section and the 5/7th Battalion, Rajput Regiment in the eastern sector. The 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots were assigned to the western sector. When Mainland Infantry Brigade was ordered to retreat to Hong Kong Island, the Rajputs were tasked with defending the North East sector and Punjab to the North West sector including Victoria City (Hong Kong city). Royal Scots were reassigned to the Wanchai Filter Beds.
Details regarding the involvement of military personnel from the Indian subcontinent in the Battle of Hong Kong has been published in "Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War, 1939–45. Campaigns in South-East Asia, 1941–42. Hong Kong, Malaya and Sarawak & Borneo." which draws significantly from the UK War Office reports which appeared in London Gazette No.38183 "Operations in the Far East, from 17th October 1940 to 27th December 1941" (Despatch by Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief, Far East) and London Gazette No.38190 "Operations in Hong Kong from 8th to 25th December 1941" (Despatch by Major-General C. M. Maltby, General Officer Commanding British Troops in China).
Battalions from both Indian Army regiments from the British Raj earned Battle Honours for the defence of Hong Kong: 5th Battalion of 7th Rajput Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of 14th Punjab Regiment saw combat during the Japanese assault on Kowloon peninsula (TaiPo Road, Shing Mun Redoubt, Ma Lau Tong and Devil's Peak) and Hong Kong Island (Lyemun, North Point, Quarry Bay, Sai Wan, Leighton Hill, Shouson Hill, Brick Hill, Wan Chai, Happy Valley, Wong Nei Chong Gap, Mount Parish).
First significant exchanges of fire with troops of the Imperial Japanese Army was through 2/14 Punjab at 1500 hours after the invaders had crossed into Laffan's Plain. On 8 December 1941, Forward Troops of 2/14 Punjab drew first blood by eliminating a detachment at 1830 hours and virtually wiped out a Japanese platoon on Taipo Road at 1930 hours.
During the Battle of Hong Kong, the 5/7 Rajputs faced the onslaught of Imperial Japanese Army troops very early-on and were the last soldiers to depart from the mainland when Kowloon was evacuated on 13 December 1941.[self-published source?] At the beginning of the Pacific War, 5/7 Rajput was tasked with front-line defence of the Eastern section of the Gin Drinkers Line on mainland Kowloon Peninsula. Despite being subjected to dive bombing and heavy mortar fire, the Rajputs succeeded in holding Devil's Peak on the mainland until ordered to retreat across Lyemun Strait to Hong Kong island. On Hong Kong Island they were assigned to defences located all along the North Shoreline. On 18 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army launched the invasion of Hong Kong Island by landing first at North Point. The first troops to engage them were the Rajputs who continued to offer resistance until the regiment virtually ceased to exist. In his despatch, Major-General C. M. Maltby, wrote about the conduct of troops under his command in Hong Kong and mentions the 5/7 Rajput Regiment: "This battalion fought well on the mainland and their repulse of the enemy attack on Devil's Peak was entirely successful. The full force of the enemy's initial attack on the island fell on this battalion and they fought gallantly until they had suffered heavy casualties (100% of British Officers and most senior Indian Officers being lost) and were run over".
The numerical composition and outcome of the two Indian Army regiments (5/7 Rajput & 2/14 Punjab) involved in the defence of Hong Kong are published in Major-General Maltby's war despatch (London Gazette No.38190) which also notes that "many of the wounded of 5/7 Rajput Regt. fell into Japanese hands and have not been recorded". Total battle casualties of "Indian Other Ranks" is given to be 1164 out of a total of 3893 military personnel from India who were garrisoned in Hong Kong.
|Unit or Formation||Total Strength||Killed or Died of Wounds||Missing||Wounded|
|5/7 Rajput Regt. (Officers)||17||6||4||7|
|5/7 Rajput Regt. (Indian Other Ranks)||875||150||109||186|
|2/14 Punjab Regt. (Officers)||15||NA||3||5|
|2/14 Punjab Regt. (Indian Other Ranks)||932||52||69||156|
The 5/7 Rajput bore the heaviest casualty losses recorded amongst the 6 combat regiments during the battle of Hong Kong: 156 killed in action or died from wounds, 113 missing, and 193 wounded. The 2/14 Punjab of the Indian Army also bore heavy losses: 55 killed in action or died from wounds, 69 missing, and 161 wounded.
Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery, which was raised with troops recruited from Undivided India, also suffered heavy casualties during the Battle of Hong Kong and are commemorated with names inscribed on panels at the entrance to Sai Wan War Cemetery: 144 killed, 45 missing and 103 wounded.
In late 1941, the British government accepted an offer by the Canadian Government to send a battalion of the Royal Rifles of Canada (from Quebec) and one of the Winnipeg Grenadiers (from Manitoba) and a brigade headquarters (1,975 personnel) to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. "C Force", as it was known, arrived on 16 November on board the troopship Awatea and the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince David. A total of 96 officers, two Auxiliary Services supervisors and 1,877 other ranks disembarked. Included were two medical officers and two nurses (supernumerary to the regimental medical officers), two Canadian Dental Corps officers with assistants, three chaplains and a detachment of the Canadian Postal Corps. A soldier of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC), had stowed away and was sent back to Canada.
C Force never received its vehicles as the US merchant ship San Jose carrying them was, at the outbreak of the Pacific War, diverted to Manila, in the Philippine Islands, at the request of the US Government. The Royal Rifles had served only in the Dominion of Newfoundland and Saint John, New Brunswick, prior to posting to Hong Kong and the Winnipeg Grenadiers had been deployed to Jamaica. Few Canadian soldiers had field experience, but were near fully equipped, except for having only two anti-tank rifles and no ammunition for 2-inch and 3-inch mortars or for signal pistols, deficiencies which the British undertook to remedy in Hong Kong, although not at once.
The Royal Navy presence at Hong Kong was little more than a token display of defence, with three World War 1 vintage destroyers (two of which withdrew at the battle's beginning), four slow river gunboats, a new but almost unarmed minelayer and the 2nd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. In the face of the overwhelming Japanese air and naval superiority there was little that could be done; HMS Thracian, HMS Cicala and the MTBs all made attacks and between them managed to sink several small Japanese manned craft and break up some road convoys but met with mixed fortunes: Thracian running aground to be captured and Cicala eventually succumbing to air attack on the 21st. The remaining assorted ships were scuttled in harbour except five of the MTBs which managed to escape.
During the battle of Hong Kong, there were 40 Royal Marines attached to HMS Tamar (a shore station). When the battle began, the Royal Marines fought against Japanese force in Magazine Gap, alongside HKVDC and Royal Engineers. Commanding officer, Major Giles RM instructed his men to defend the island "to the last man and last round".
The RAF station at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport (RAF Kai Tak) had only five aeroplanes: two Supermarine Walrus amphibious aircraft and three out-dated Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-reconnaissance bombers, flown and serviced by seven officers and 108 airmen. An earlier request for a fighter squadron had been rejected and the nearest fully operational RAF base was in Kota Bharu, Malaya, nearly 2,250 km (1,400 mi) away.
The Chinese Military Mission to Hong Kong, initiated in 1938, was headed by Rear Admiral Chan Chak and his aide Lieutenant Commander Henry Hsu; it had the objective of coordinating Chinese war aims with the British in Hong Kong. Working with the British police, Chak organized pro-British agents among the population and rooted out triad factions sympathetic to the Japanese. On Christmas morning, Young informed Chak of his intent to surrender. Chak intended to break out and was given command of the five remaining Motor Torpedo Boats; 68 men, including Chak, Hsu, and David Mercer MacDougall were successfully evacuated to Mirs Bay where they contacted Nationalist guerrillas and were escorted to Huizhou. For this feat Chak was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
A squad of Free French under Captain Jacques Egal happened to be in Hong Kong when the battle broke out and fought alongside the HKVDC at the North Point power station; they were all World War I veterans (as were the local HKVDC) and acquitted themselves well.
The Japanese attack began shortly after 08:00 on 8 December 1941 (Hong Kong Time), four hours after the Attack on Pearl Harbor (difference in time and date is due to the day shift that occurs because of the International date line). Commanded by Major-General Christopher Maltby, British, Canadian, Indian, as well as the local Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, resisted the Japanese attack by the Japanese 21st, 23rd and the 38th Regiments (Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai) but were outnumbered nearly four to one (Japanese, 50,000; Allied, 14,000) and lacked their opponents' recent combat experience. The colony had no significant air defence. Hong Kong also lacked adequate naval defences; the destroyers were to withdraw to Singapore Naval Base.
The Japanese bombed Kai Tak Airport on 8 December. Two of the three Vildebeest and the two Walruses were destroyed by 12 Japanese bombers. The attack also destroyed several civil aircraft including all but two of the aircraft used by the air unit of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp. The RAF and air unit personnel from then fought on as ground troops. Two of the Royal Navy's three remaining destroyers were ordered to leave Hong Kong for Singapore. Only one destroyer, HMS Thracian, several gunboats and a flotilla of motor torpedo boats remained. On 8, 9, and 10 December, eight American pilots of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and their crews flew 16 sorties between Kai Tak Airport and landing fields in Namyung and Chongqing (Chungking), the wartime capital of the Republic of China.[c] The crews evacuated 275 persons including Mme Sun Yat-Sen, the widow of Sun Yat-sen and the Chinese Finance Minister Kung Hsiang-hsi.
The Commonwealth forces decided against holding the Sham Chun River and instead established three battalions on the Gin Drinkers' Line across the hills. The Japanese 38th Infantry Division under the command of Major General Takaishi Sakai quickly forded the Sham Chun River over temporary bridges. Early on 10 December, the 228th Infantry Regiment (Colonel Teihichi) of the 38th Division attacked the Commonwealth defences at the Shing Mun Redoubt defended by the A Company of 2nd Battalion Royal Scots (Lieutenant Colonel S. White). The line was breached in five hours and later that day the Royal Scots also withdrew from Golden Hill until D company of the Royal Scots counter-attacked and re-captured the hill. By 10:00 the hill was again taken by the Japanese. This made the situation on the New Territories and Kowloon untenable and the evacuation to Hong Kong Island started on 11 December, under aerial bombardment and artillery fire. As much as possible, military and harbour facilities were demolished before the withdrawal. By 13 December, the 5/7 Rajputs of the Indian Army (Lieutenant Colonel R. Cadogan-Rawlinson), the last Commonwealth troops on the mainland, had retreated to Hong Kong Island.
Maltby organised the defence of the island, splitting it between an East Brigade and a West Brigade. On 15 December, the Japanese began systematic bombardment of the island's North Shore. Two demands for surrender were made on 13 and 17 December. When these were rejected, Japanese forces crossed the harbour on the evening of 18 December and landed on the island's north-east. They suffered only light casualties, although no effective command could be maintained until the dawn came. That night, approximately 20 Commonwealth gunners were executed at the Sai Wan Battery despite having surrendered. There was a further massacre of prisoners, this time of medical staff, in the Salesian Mission on Chai Wan Road. In both cases, a few men survived.
On the morning of 19 December fierce fighting continued on Hong Kong Island but the Japanese annihilated the headquarters of West Brigade, causing the death of Brigadier John Lawson, the commander of the West Brigade. A British counter-attack could not force them from the Wong Nai Chung Gap that secured the passage between the north coast at Causeway Bay and the secluded southern parts of the island. From 20 December, the island became split in two with the British Commonwealth forces still holding out around the Stanley peninsula and in the west of the island. At the same time, water supplies started to run short as the Japanese captured the island's reservoirs. On the morning of 25 December, Japanese soldiers entered the British field hospital at St. Stephen's College and in the St. Stephen's College massacre tortured and killed a large number of injured soldiers, along with the medical staff.
By the afternoon of 25 December 1941, it was clear that further resistance would be futile and British colonial officials headed by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters on the third floor of the Peninsula Hong Kong Hotel. This was the first occasion on which a British Crown Colony had surrendered to an invading force. (British Somaliland fell to the Italians in August 1940 but this was a protectorate.) The garrison had held out for 17 days. This day is known in Hong Kong as "Black Christmas".
Perhaps as many as 28 people were massacred after the fight for Sai Wan Hill. These men were members of the 5th Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC).
At Shau Kei Wan there was a Salesian mission being used as an Advanced Dressing Station. On the night of 18 December it was surrounded by troops of the 229th Infantry Regiment. At 07:00 on 19 December, Captain Martin Banfill of the Canadian Medical Corps surrendered the station. Two injured officers of the 7th Rajput Regiment were murdered upon arrival in an ambulance. The Japanese separated the male medical staff from the female (two nurses, whose lives were spared). All but three of the men were killed, most of the victims were of the Royal Army Medical Corps but also at least two men of the Royal Rifles of Canada and two civilians.
Four men each of the 3rd Company HKVDC and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were massacred after battle at Jardine's Lookout. One grenadier, a Private Kilfoyle, was killed on the forced march to North Point, according to witnesses.
Four men were killed in the so-called "Black Hole of Hong Kong" (a house on Blue Pool Road), including two Canadian officers.
In the worst massacre of POWs of the battle, the Japanese killed at least 47 after taking The Ridge. Among the dead was Major Charles Sydney Clarke of China Command HQ, two men of the 12th and 20th Coastal Regiments of the Royal Artillery (RA), six men of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and two of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RCASC), nineteen men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) and three of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps (RCOC) and fourteen men of the RASC Company of the HKVDC.
The Japanese also executed at least fourteen captives at Overbays, men of the same units as at The Ridge but also including three Royal Rifles of Canada and an officer of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. A further seven were killed at Eucliffe and another 36 known victims cannot be placed precisely at one of the three locations (Ridge, Overbays, Eucliffe). Ride, who was present at the surrender, stated later that he saw fifty bodies lying by the road, including six Middlesex men among them. These men may have been some of those attached to the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission report also states that five men of the Royal Air Force went missing near The Ridge on 20 December, perhaps captured and killed.
Six men of the Middlesex were killed defending PB 14 at Deepwater Bay Ride (Lyon Light). It is uncertain whether they were killed in action, or murdered after capture.
The massacre perpetrated at St Stephen's College is the least well known. Only thirteen victims can be confirmed at the location but reports and estimates put the real number as high as 99. The names of all the reported victims may never be known. Between 75 and 150 bodies were cremated by the victors in the aftermath of the battle but this total includes the victims of the fighting around Stanley Fort, such as the men of 965 Defence Battery. Although it is the "most infamous massacre", it "has been the hardest to match with records". Three British and four Chinese nurses were said to have been raped and murdered and one Canadian, Captain Overton Stark Hickey of the RCASC, murdered trying to stop the rapes. Besides the raped nurses, the medical staff suffered two deaths, a doctor shot in the head whilst attempting escape and 25 orderlies of the Indian Hospital Corps (IHC) and St John Ambulance personnel. The 55 St John victims of the battle of Hong Kong are memorialised at the present headquarters in Hong Kong but since no dates are given on the memorial it is impossible to identify those killed at St Stephen's. Four Chinese servants and one civilian, Tam Cheung Huen, were killed. Tam is the only Chinese victim of this massacre known by name. Among the soldiers receiving treatment at the college, two riflemen were mutilated and murdered and a further 56 men were reportedly bayoneted in their beds. Some of these men may have been Royal Rifles whose deaths are incorrectly reported as occurring elsewhere on 26 December.
At least eight men—six of the Middlesex and two Royal Engineers—were killed after capture at Maryknoll Mission. Four members of the 8th Coastal Regiment RA may have been killed here as well; estimates of the number of men murdered vary from 11 to 16.
Twenty-six prisoners are believed to have been killed after the fighting for Brick Hill but some of these may have died in the fight, including some of the seventeen men of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft, Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery (HKSRA) known to have died there. Most of the soldiers here murdered were Muslims, including one religious teacher.
The Japanese officially reported 675 men killed and 2,079 wounded; western estimates go as high as 1,895 dead and 6,000 casualties overall. Allied casualties were 1,111 men killed, 1,167 missing and 1,362 wounded (sources vary, 1,045 killed, 1,068 missing and 2,300 wounded has also been given). Allied dead, including British, Canadian and Indian soldiers, were eventually interred at Sai Wan Military Cemetery and the Stanley Military Cemetery. C Force casualties in the battle were 23 officers and 267 other ranks killed or died of wounds, including five officers and 16 other ranks of the brigade headquarters, seven officers and 123 men of the Royal Rifles and 11 officers and 128 men of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. C Force also had 28 officers and 465 men wounded. Some of the dead were murdered by Japanese soldiers during or after surrender. Japanese soldiers committed a number of atrocities on 19 December, when the aid post at the Salesian Mission near Sau Ki Wan was overrun. A total of 1,528 soldiers, mainly Commonwealth (predominantly Indians and Canadians), are either buried or commemorated there. There are also graves of other Allied combatants who died in the region during the war, including some Dutch sailors who were re-interred in Hong Kong after the war.
The nearby Sai Wan Battery, with buildings constructed as far back as 1890, housed the Depot and Record Office of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps for nearly four decades after the war. The barracks were handed over to the government in 1985 and were subsequently converted into Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village.
At the end of February 1942, The Japanese government stated that numbers of prisoners of war in Hong Kong were: British 5,072, Canadian 1,689, Indian 3,829, others 357, a total of 10,947. They were sent to:
Of the Canadians captured during the battle, 267 subsequently perished in Japanese prisoner of war camps, mainly due to neglect and abuse. In December 2011, Toshiyuki Kato, Japan's parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, apologised for the mistreatment to a group of Canadian veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong.
Civilians were interned at the Stanley Internment Camp. Initially, there were 2,400 internees although this number was reduced, by repatriations during the war. Interned persons who died and prisoners executed by the Japanese are buried in Stanley Military Cemetery.
The 38th Infantry Division departed Hong Kong in January 1942. The Hong Kong Defence Force was established during the same month, and was the main Japanese military unit in Hong Kong throughout the occupation.
During the over three and a half years of occupation by the Japanese, an estimated 10,000 Hong Kong civilians were executed, while many others were tortured, raped, or mutilated. The local population in the rural New Territories, a mix of Hakka, Cantonese and other Han Chinese groups, waged a guerrilla war with limited success. The resistance groups were known as the Gangjiu and Dongjiang forces. The Japanese razed several villages in reprisal; the guerillas fought until the end of the Japanese occupation. General Takashi Sakai, who led the invasion of Hong Kong and served as governor for some time, was tried as a war criminal and executed by a firing squad in 1946.
The Cenotaph in Central commemorates the defence as well as war-dead from the First World War. The shield in the colonial Emblem of Hong Kong granted in 1959, featured the battlement design to commemorate the defence of Hong Kong during the Second World War. This Coat of Arms was in place until 1997, when it was replaced by the regional emblem. After the war, Lei Yue Mun Fort became a training ground for the British Forces until 1987, when it was vacated. In view of its historical significance and unique architectural features, the former Urban Council decided in 1993 to conserve and develop the fort into the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.
The memorial garden at Hong Kong City Hall commemorates those who died in Hong Kong during World War II.
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