An Overview of the Escape of HMS Amethyst July 30, 1949
By Derek Hodgson, RN
June 4, 2009
The attempted cover-up of the part played by HMS Concord has now been well publicised but I must say the extent of the steps taken by certain individuals to hide the truth amazes me. I have searched several web sites and it appears that all of them were under the delusion that HMS Concord did not meet the HMS Amethyst until she reached the mouth of the river Yangtze. One report even stated that it was HMS Consort that met her. Obviously, the sites were maliciously given this information for some ulterior motive but goodness knows what.
May I confirm that we, the ratings of Concord, fully understand that the major events of the 'Yangtze Incident' occurred during the previous April with the tragic deaths and injuries suffered in the four ships, Amethyst, London, Consort and Black Swan and in no way is it our wish to belittle this awful attack on them. However, as in other major incidents, there are always those that suffer far more than most and our heart goes out to them. Threat to life in any circumstance though is always very disturbing.
Being wise after the event is always enjoyed by some and it has to be said that sending the Amethyst up to Nanking when the civil war was at such a dangerous stage was questionable but surely done with the best intentions, Consort had to be relieved! Admiral Brind must have suffered a great deal when hearing of the attack and he then had to face the added insult of one of his ships being held prisoner by the very people that carried out the onslaught. He and the C-in-C afloat Admiral Madden were faced with a serious problem, on the one hand they had a government and foreign office who were desperate not to upset the P.L.A. (People's Liberation Army) who they realised were now in a position to threaten the many interests Great Britain had in China and on the other, the knowledge that a Royal Naval vessel was being held against it's will. The Royal Navy was quite large at that time and with a proud tradition of taking care of its own and they realised that an escape attempt would be the only way out of it, the sooner the better as fuel would soon be a major problem. According to the contents of letter from a Commander Dickens, on the staff of Flag afloat, to his father Admiral Dickens there was some doubt as to whether Lt. Cdr. John Kerans would agree with such an escape, however, when it was suggested to him, he was all for it, it had been on his mind for some time.
So the decision was made, it was agreed that Kerans should choose the timing etc. himself and make all necessary arrangements. It was at this early stage that he requested that HMS Concord, a destroyer he knew to be on patrol in the Yangtze estuary, should arrange to be present at the Woosung fort in order to help protect him from the known heavy gun battery placed there. Both Admirals agreed to this request and notified HMS Concord accordingly. On July 30th the conditions appeared to be right, it would be high water so that grounding would be less of a problem. He then sent the following signal;
FLASH TOP SECRET
C in C FES AFLOAT C in C FES ASHORE
Following repeats AMETHYST 300657 to C in C
CONCORD from KERANS. I am going to try and break out 2200 tonight 30 th July
CONCORD set watch 8290
SECRETEX GR86 t>o>r. Dcripted 20551
This signal surely demonstrates his absolute wish that Concord should meet Amethyst at Woosung, the doubting Thomas's can themselves view all the relevant signals held within the Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge .
There is then an emergency signal to C-in-C Afloat 1 st Sea Lord TOP SECRET
Personal from 1 st Sea Lord Tour 290956. A break out should not repeat not be attempted without further reference to the Admiralty.
2. Are there any new circumstances which have arisen which encourage you to believe that such is likely to succeed now.
T.O.R 1236z O.T.P. Gr. 55 Decrypted 2201
I do not know the time this signal was received but apparently it was too late, Amethyst had sailed. However, what it does show is the uncertainty and apprehension the Admiralty and therefore, the government felt at the time. That the whole operation could receive the go ahead from the two Admirals on the spot without first obtaining Admiralty permission illustrates their power at the time.
In the meantime, HMS Concord entered the river and proceeded to Kuitoan Light Vessel, 20 miles from Woosung and await further orders. Captain D with Flotilla was ordered to close Yangtze. This command is very ominous, it fully explains the seriousness of the occasion, the fact that the two C-in-C's were prepared to use a further three destroyers in a potential gun battle at Woosung is in itself frightening, one can only imagine what would have happened.
There was now a situation where two British ships were in what had become a Communist Chinese occupied river, one running the gauntlet down stream and the other making its way up stream and now anchored at point where the warning from Flag had stated that there could be further batteries placed. There was also a repeated warning of heavy guns at Woosung. Excuse me but we have been told we were not exposed to sufficient Risk and Rigour!! Finally a signal from Kerans asked Concord to come quick and the ship sailed to Woosung. I won't bore you by mentioning other relevant signals except the following two poignant ones from Amethyst;
WOOSUNG IN SIGHT followed a little later by CONCORD IN SIGHT. These signals portray a great relief to John Kerans, they meant that Concord was not only at the specified place but more importantly had not been fired upon. The most critical point in his escape had been reached and so far, no attack! It was, of course, still not absolutely safe but the signs were good and he signaled"Never has a ship been so welcome!" The two ships remained at action stations for a further one hour 20 minutes by which time it was considered safe for both crews to see daylight at last. They had been closed up for many hours, a ship at action stations meant that the majority of men would be below decks, all watertight doors closed, emergency lighting only, very stale air (no air conditioning in those days) and probably the worst part, lack of information. Two of us, locked in a magazine, anxiously waited to feel the ship turning round, at least we would then know that we were facing the right way! The film 'Yangtze Incident' shows the two ships passing each other at Woosung, their upper decks crowded with cheering matelots, not true, few of the crews would be on deck at that time. There no doubt would have been a cheer or so from the gun crews.
I would just like to mention the captain of Concord, Lt. Cdr. Nigel Rodney a man extremely popular with his crew and a very able mariner. He had an outstanding war career, being awarded with several 'Mentioned in Despatches' and was notorious within the 8th Destroyer Flotilla for his expert ship handling and his capability in dealing with any given situation. It so happened that he was also a great friend of the captain of Amethyst Lt. Cdr. B. M. Skinner who was unfortunately killed during the attack on his ship. Mrs. Skinner at the time of that action was staying with Mrs. Anne Rodney in Hong Kong and it was her sad duty to report her husband's death to her. I mention this to bring to light the obvious sadness of Rodney at the time and his undoubted will to help Amethyst to escape. Although his early orders restricted him to certain areas of the river he was subsequently informed to use his own initiative and travel up river as far as he thought necessary. We, who knew him, had the belief that no matter what, he would be successful.
I think it rather sad that the only crew member of HMS Amethyst to report correctly of Concords' involvement should be an Ordinary Seaman by the name of Gordon Wright, who, when giving his story of the incident to author Max Arthur, stated as follows;
'It was still dark, it did not start getting light until around 5.30 in the morning. I then heard Kerans say that if we got to the Woosung fort it would be the most critical point of the break out because they had 9 inch guns which could blow us out of the water if they caught us in their searchlights. We then heard him say '"Woosung in sight", I had my fingers crossed. We got past them, they must have been asleep or something or their communications were bad. Their big guns did not open fire. Kerans said over the intercom "I want every man to give everything for the last leg". While we were passing Woosung HMS Concord was there. I heard later that they had been told that if Woosung ever started firing at us they were to blast at its guns."
It might also be worth repeating our First Lieutenant John Roe's recollection of the event; "As dawn broke, she appeared. From her foremast flew a clean battle ensign and from the main another, literally shot to pieces. Forward at her only serviceable mounting a helmeted guns' crew could just be made out in the half light. We took station on her starboard side intending to engage the shore batteries at Woosung with our 4.5's if they opened up. It seemed incredible that they had not been alerted, but nothing happened."
Why did those guns not open up? After all, everyone expected them to. Could it be, fortunately for all of us, that the Nationalists had spiked them before leaving? I seem to remember that at Dunkirk, the French, when retreating, did not spike their guns and many British and even French soldiers lost their lives as a result of it.
I have in the past hesitated to enter too deeply into the question of the Risk and Rigour specified by the Minister as a requirement for the General Service Medal, I have hesitated because it is difficult to do so without appearing to be over dramatic in describing our own situation. Firstly, I think it important to mention that most of the crew of Concord at that time would have grown up during 6 long years of war, they would have been accustomed to dangers not normally experienced during peacetime. At some time or another even villages would be put in danger from the air. As late as early 1945 there was still the occasional flying bomb or V2 rocket hitting home. There was many a football match halted when a doodlebug rocket suddenly stopped overhead. The relevance of this is to emphasize that very few had not experienced a life threatening situation.
Derek Hodgson, RN
© 2009 Derek Hodgson all rights reserved
Page published June 6, 2009