World War II

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World War II brought Swire to its knees. By the end of hostilities, the firm’s property throughout China lay looted and in ruins, its London Head Office had been gutted in the blitz, while the Taikoo Dockyard and Taikoo Sugar Refinery had been reduced to rubble by American bombing of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. In the weeks following Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a number of China Navigation vessels were seized by enemy forces, others were scuttled in Hong Kong Harbour and elsewhere to avoid this fate – though most of these were subsequently refloated and used by the Japanese.

Following the fall of Shanghai and Hong Kong, Butterfield & Swire established its wartime operational headquarters in India to manage CNCo’s remaining tonnage – most of which had been requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport. A number of vessels served with the Royal Australian Naval Reserve as Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS); others became communications ships, or fuel transports trading to the Middle East and one became a floating hospital. In all, the China Navigation Company lost over 30 vessels and more than 300 officers and ratings to enemy action.