Honours urged for heroes of Yangtse Incident
By Mark Smith
March 7, 2010
THEY are the forgotten men from one of the most daring operations in British naval history.
But new evidence unearthed by a Scottish veteran could lead to belated recognition of the heroic role played by the crew of HMS Concord in the famous Yangtse Incident during the Chinese Civil War.
The incident made headlines across the world when in 1949the frigate HMS Amethyst came under fire en route up the river to relieve the guardship protecting the British Embassy in Nanjing.
Severely damaged and with many of its crew members killed, it was initially grounded within range of Chinese guns and its plight became the subject of an acclaimed 1957 film - The Yangtse Incident - which became a box-office success.
But the vital part played in the rescue mission by the Concord ten weeks later was played down, veterans claim, and the crew missed out on specially minted medals handed out to those who took part in the engagement.
Three other smaller navy warships also tried to rescue the Amethyst, soon after it was grounded, but were beaten back by shore-based Chinese artillery batteries. But, according to the film and most histories of the conflict, it was only at the mouth of the Yangtse, many weeks later, that the Concord made contact with the stricken ship after a night-time escape.
In fact, as the MoD admitted many years later, the Concord did sail up the Yangtse to help the Amethyst escape. Campaigners claim the Concord's real role was covered up at the time because a heavily armed destroyer's presence on the Yangtse would have been a major breach of Britain's undertaking not to intervene in the conflict.
William Leitch, a crew member on one of the ships that failed to rescue the Amethyst, has now uncovered new evidence that the Concord went deep into Communist-held territory.
Leitch said he uncovered the evidence among pictures and letters in the recently released archive of Rear Admiral Sir David Scott, which reveal how the crew of the Concord bravely defied Chinese forces to sail up the Yangtse and help the refloated Amethyst.
He said: "These papers were made available for the first time recently after they were donated to the Churchill College in Cambridge.
"They contain photographs which clearly show the Concord escorting the Amethyst along the Yangtse river. Official records say the Concord only met the Amethyst at the mouth of the Yangtse."
He has also uncovered a letter from Sir David to his father, telling the full story of the Concord's daring mission. The letter also tell how the destroyer's crew sailed up river to rescue the Amethyst, with its heavy artillery making sure the Chinese forces were kept at bay.
On reaching sight of the Amethyst, Concord crewmen signalled the message: "Fancy Meeting You Again". Amethyst crewmen signalled back: "Never Repeat Never Has A Ship Been More Welcome."
Leitch, who served on board the HMS Consort, the ship that Concord was on its way to replace, has now submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking MSPs to support the campaign for belated medals for the Concord crew, which had a large Scots contingent. "This is a famous incident in British naval history, but the real heroes have never had so much as a mention.
"Medals have been given out to most of those who were involved, but the crew of the HMS Concord have never been given anything. It is time that was put right."
The MoD has denied claims of a cover-up, but failed to explain why the veterans had not received a medal.
A spokesman said: "In November, 1949, the institution of the Yangtze 1949 clasp (to the Naval General Service Medal, 1915] was announced, to recognise the actions of sailors serving on HMS Consort, London and Black Swan who sailed to the aid of the frigate HMS Amethyst.
"During the daring but unsuccessful rescue mission all four ships came under heavy attack and enemy fire, and sadly some 45 Naval personnel were and 111 seriously wounded.
"At the end of July 1949, the destroyer HMS Concord sailed up the Yangtse to support Amethyst's escape down the river. Thankfully the enemy were not aware of the escape, and neither ship was forced to go into action."
Reprinted with the permission of Mark Scott
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Page published Mar. 10, 2010