Blow to veterans as Blair admits hunt for Yangtse graves is over
Story by Stephen Naysmith

October 1, 2000

Tony Blair has confirmed that the remains of 23 Royal Navy personnel killed in China during the notorious Yangtse Incident of 1949 are lost, and says the issue is now closed - dismaying campaigners who have been calling for answers.

Four ships, two of them Clyde-built, were shelled heavily by communist forces during the episode, and 45 Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel were killed. But a graveyard and memorials to 23 of the men erected a few days later at Hung Jao cemetery in Shanghai were bulldozed over and a factory built on the site following the Chinese cultural revolution.

Last month Scot Willie Leitch, 65, of Livingston, who served on HMS Consort, wrote to the prime minister to appeal for help in discovering the whereabouts of the graves of his crewmates and those of men from the other ships, HMS Amethyst, HMS London and HMS Black Swan.

But assurances from 10 Downing Street that the issue would be looked into ended in disappointment this week, when, in a letter signed personally by the Prime Minister, Leitch was told that despite a six-year campaign by veterans of the four ships concerned, the investigation would be taken no further.

In the letter, Blair explains: "In the absence of firm evidence to the contrary, we probably have to assume the worst case, namely that the graves of those killed on 20-21 April 1949 were lost with the destruction of the original cemetery."

Now Leitch is demanding that the British Government make representations to the Chinese authorities to find out the true fate of those graves out of respect for the friends and families of those who died. He is also calling for proper recognition of the role played by the HMS Consort, on which several Scots served, in what has been cast as an epic tale of heroism and British naval resolve.

The story of the Amethyst, which ran aground after coming under hostile fire from gun batteries manned by communist forces on the Yangtse, and her subsequent escape, crippled and battered by shells throughout the 100 mile journey to the mouth of the Yangtse - was turned into a classic 1957 war time movie. But Leitch believes the unsuccessful efforts by the Consort to tow the Amethyst off the riverbank have not been recognised. Likewise, had the Consort's crew not returned fire, destroying communist enemy gun emplacements, the Amethyst might never have made her spectacular escape. Three times, under intense fire, the Consort approached the Amethyst which had run aground on a sandbank.

"The men from HMS Consort have never been credited with the valour, seamanship and courage that was involved in that action," Leitch said. "They cleaned up the bank and silenced the communist guns when the Chinese were tearing Amethyst apart. If it hadn't been for them she would have been nothing but scrap on the Yangtse's bed."

However, Blair's letter makes it clear for the first time that the government intends to take the matter no further. It confirms that the site of the graves is now occupied by a factory built in the late 1960s or early 1970s, adding: "It is known that a great number of cemeteries were obliterated during the Cultural Revolution. Given the circumstances of the time I am afraid that it is unlikely that, even if we had known about the destruction of the cemetery, anything could have been done to prevent it."

At No 10's request, a member of staff from the British Consulate in Shanghai visited the Foreigners' Tomb area of a Shanghai mausoleum, to which some graves from the old cemetery had allegedly been moved, but it was not clear whether they included the Yangtse graves.

"No dates were included and in some cases only initials were recorded," Blair explains.

"The marker stones are arranged in 'blocks' surrounded by hedging, making them difficult to read."

Although it is believed that there are British military personnel buried in this area, "it is extremely difficult to identify how many and who they are and, of course, there is no guarantee that any of them are fatalities from the Yangtse Incident," the letter concludes.

Leitch insists more must be done and hopes answers will be forthcoming in time for a reunion of Consort veterans in April next year in Torquay. "I appreciate the effort Mr Blair has put into this, but I want the truth to come out."

(Used with permission from CNET Networks, Inc., Copyright 2008. All rights reserved)

Page published May 25, 2008