HMS Amethyst - the Yangtse Incident 1948
W.R.N. Hughes, RCNC
The Story of the so-called Yangtse Incident and the saga of HMS Amethyst has been told and retold in the Press and over the Radio of the world, but I shall attempt to give a more personal account as it affected my wife and myself; and it affected us very closely, for Bill Skinner, the late Commanding Officer and his wife, Monica, were very dear friends of ours, and of course we knew the other officers.
Bill had come out in November 1948 to take command, and after some effort we finally succeeded in getting a couple of rooms to which his wife and two sons could come. There was great excitement when finally she took passage in the Dunera , especially as Amethyst was due for refit in Hong Kong a few weeks after her arrival. And then he received orders to go to Shanghai, and afterwards to Nanking to relieve Consort , to sail a few hours before Dunera arrived. However, fortunately his sailing was delayed 24 hours and they were able to see each other for a few hours.
Amethyst sailed from Hong Kong on 12th April, and on 19th April left Shanghai to go up the Yangtse to Nanking. She anchored that night and early next morning started up river again. Something before 8 a.m. there was some small-arms fire from the bank which completely missed the ship, and no-one took much notice. Such things were quite common, and in the past had meant no harm. The only action taken was to hoist more ensigns. Shortly after, however, heavy and accurate fire was opened on the ship. The first shell went over the bridge, the second hit the bridge, and at least temporarily knocked out everybody there, and the third hit the wheelhouse, killing the quartermaster and the boy on the telegraphs. The ship turned in direct for Rose Island, but just before the wheelhouse was knocked out, one telegraph was put to full astern; the ERA on watch correctly assumed that both engines should be put astern, the ship grounded quite gently.
Meanwhile, the ship was still under heavy fire and this continued for something well over an hour. With the ship aground, neither A nor B guns could bear on the batteries. X gun, a Bofors and some Oerlikons went into action but before they had fired more than a few rounds, they were all put out of action. By this time, dead and wounded were lying about all over the ship, and it was decided to get the wounded, and as many men as could be spared, ashore on the Nationalist side of the river. The motorboat's engine was started up to ensure a quick getaway and the boat swung out - and then its stern was shot away and that was the end of that. Ferrying ashore then started, using the whaler, rafts and men swimming, but fire was promptly diverted on to them, so that had to be abandoned. Meanwhile the wounded were being collected on the quarter deck ready for getting ashore; the Doctor and the SBA came out of the screen door to attend them, and both were immediately killed, so that left no-one in the ship with expert knowledge of, for instance, the use of morphia and the other measures necessary for the relief and care of the wounded.
It so happened that all telegraphist ratings had been ordered out of the ship in the first batch, but fortunately, when it was obviously necessary to abandon attempts to get people ashore, one of them, French, brought the whaler back and was promptly hurried on board and into the wireless office. The situation now was that a few of the ship's company were ashore, and being well cared for by the Chinese Nationalists, many of the wounded were lying out on the quarter deck and everybody else was under cover inside the ship. Fire from the Communist batteries stopped, but as soon as anybody made the least move, especially to slip out of the after screen door to get in any of the wounded, heavy fire opened again, so there was complete stalemate.
Inside the ship, however, there was plenty of activity. The wounded were being cared for, attempts were being made to block up holes in the ship's side as far as possible, and in particular, the Electrical Officer and the Telegraphist were trying to get a transmitter working, to tell the world what was happening. Finally a low power set was got working, but achieved no result until they found that all their aerials were gone, so they hung a piece of wire out of a scuttle, and at last, were able to send signals.
All this time, Consort had been coming down river from Nanking and somewhere around 2 p.m. appeared in sight of Amethyst , saying she would make an attempt to tow them off.
The Communists opened heavy fire on Consort but to those in the Amethyst , she was a fine and inspiring sight tearing down river at 28 knots with a great bow wave and all her guns blazing and doing great execution amongst the Communist batteries. She went straight on past Amethyst , turned and made another run up river still firing hard, turned and came down again. However, she was herself being hit many times - at one stage those in Amethyst saw her take a sharp sheer in towards the bank, go astern, and then come tearing on again. That was when her wheelhouse was hit, but in less than half a minute they were in secondary steering. Her W/T office and TS had had a direct hit and she had been truly peppered all over, so regretfully she had to carry straight on to Shanghai where temporary patching of the worst of the holes in the outer bottom was done, and she came on to Hong Kong.
Comparative quiet descended on the scene of Amethyst still sitting on Rose Island, and so the long afternoon wore on. Bill Skinner, the Captain, had been badly wounded in the back and side right at the beginning and though he seemed to talk rationally, it appears that he couldn't really know what he was saying or what was going on, and late the next day he died. Most of the other officers were wounded, but Lieut. Weston, the First Lieutenant, took command, propped up against a bulkhead and wouldn't give up until much later in the story when Lieut. Commander Kerens came down from Nanking, took command, and ordered Weston ashore and into hospital.
Immediately darkness fell there was great activity in Amethyst to get off the putty. At first their efforts were complete failures, but later, having jettisoned everything possible from forward, she came off, and they moved up river to a position between and out of range of two batteries they had spotted and there anchored.
Down at the mouth of the Yangste, FO 2i/c, Vice-Admiral Madden with his Flag in London , and with Black Swan in company, was on his way to Shanghai for St. George's Day celebrations, and he decided that on the chance that the action had been an isolated one of trigger-happy Communists, he must make the attempt to reach and relieve Amethyst . During the night Amethyst received a signal ordering her to be in a certain spot more or less where she was anchored, and under way at a certain time next morning, but in fact, the relief force didn't appear, so some time later they anchored again. London and Black Swan had started up river, Black Swan leading, but had soon run into so much trouble that FO 2i/c had to give up the hope of reaching Amethyst , and they turned and went down river again, receiving even more damage in the process. Next a Sunderland was sent to Amethyst with a Naval Doctor and SBA to replace those killed and an RAF Doctor to give what assistance he could.
The Sunderland came down on the river near Amethyst and the Gunner went off to the plane in a sampan. He and the RAF Doctor started transferring medical stores to the sampan, when the Communists began shooting at the plane. The pilot quite rightly pushed off at high speed, as it happened leaving the RAF Doctor in the sampan and Amethyst's Gunner in the plane. The RAF Doctor went over the Amethyst and did grand work for the wounded, in the event, staying with the ship the whole time till she escaped. The next day, the Sunderland made another attempt to come down by the ship, but fire at her before she landed was so heavy that she abandoned the attempt. That night, Lieut. Weston arranged with the Nationalists to get all the wounded ashore in sampans, whence they were taken by lorry to Chinkiang and eventually by the last train to Shanghai. At this was more or less completed, Lieut. Commander Kerens, who had been attached to the Embassy in Nanking, arrived on board, ordered Weston out of the ship to have his wounds attended to, and took command.
A few days later they saw the Communists cross the river and from then on the ship was left as an oasis in the middle of Communist territory.
In Shanghai, local firms were patching the worst of the holes in London , Black Swan and Consort and in due course they arrived in Hong Kong for yet further patching. The wounded from these ships and those who had come from Amethyst were taken by the US Hospital Ship Repose and brought down to Hong Kong. Repose arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday, 1st May and the wounded were taken straight to the RN Hospital. They could not say enough for the kindness and efficiency of the Americans.
It so happened that a prominent journalist was in Hong Kong at the time, and he splashed over the papers of the world, some ill-considered, unkind, and quite unjustified remarks regarding the apathy of the population of Hong Kong who had made no attempt to welcome the wounded. In fact, the arrival of Repose was deliberately not publicised and the public were rightly excluded from the dockyard, so that there should be no interference with the swift and quiet transference of the wounded to the shore hospital. The feeling of the public was shown quite clearly by the flood of books, fruit, flowers, etc. that appeared at the hospital and the competition to entertain the men in private houses when they became convalescent.
Back to Amethyst at anchor in the Yangtse. Batteries had been set up on shore, overlooking her on all sides, with the threat that one move and they would blast her out of the water. Sentries were watching her day and night. Very soon, contact was made with a Colonel Kang who claimed at first that he was military commander of the batteries that had fired on the ship. It later transpired, however, that he was in fact a political commissar and a very important man in the area. There followed, over the months, an endless succession of meetings with Colonel Kang, mostly on shore. At first they consisted of preliminary skirmishing round the point of why did Amethyst 'invade' China without the permission of the 'legal' Chinese Government (the Communists) and who fired first.
Quite early on, Kerens obtained a guarantee that the Communists would take no more offensive action against the ship, provided she did not move without their permission, and then his efforts were concentrated on getting a safe conduct for the ship down river. Kang refused to have any dealings with the Ambassador and his staff in Nanking, and many meetings were spent in deciding with whom he would deal. Finally he demanded that Kerens must be given full authority to act and sign in the name of the C-in-C, Far East Fleet, and this was agreed. Further meetings led to a buildup of his requirements before he would give a safe conduct to the ship which boiled down to Kerens signing for C-in-C a statement to the effect, firstly that Amethyst had violated Chinese territory without having obtained the permission of the legal government, secondly that she had opened fire on the Chinese first, and thirdly that responsibility was accepted and compensation would be paid for the loss of life and damage to Chinese property. Kerens, of course, refused to agree to any of these points, and meeting after meeting went by arguing round and round these three points and getting nowhere.
There was a continual flow of messages between Amethyst and C-in-C - at first all in plain language since all codes and indeed all secret information and apparatus, had been destroyed right at the beginning, lest it fall into Communist hands. Later, however, various codes were devised, but they were not very safe nor of much use for long and complicated the messages, so that the Chinese probably had a pretty good idea of what messages from the C-in-C Kerens was to give them, and how far he could go before each meeting.
Over the months, the feelings both in Amethyst and in Singapore and Hong Kong were continually going up and down - as Kerens said, like a sine curve. For a few days, it would seem that all was going well and that the Communists would be ready to give a safe conduct very soon; then right down to complete stalemate and deep depression.
A major worry over the whole time was the supply of food, some essential spares such as radio valves, and particularly oil fuel. Some food could be bought locally and on a few occasions, after prolonged negotiations and many setbacks, stores did arrive from Shanghai. And once they managed to get some oil-fuel left in Nanking sent down, but usually after days of negotiations with high hopes of speedy agreement the whole thing would become bogged down in frustration.
On one occasion an invitation was received for the Chinese mess boys on board to come ashore to a party. The mess boys were far from keen, but it was felt to be impolite to refuse, so finally four were sent with a statement that the others could not be spared. Shortly before they came back, a Chinese merchant ship going down river was fired on by the battery overlooking Amethyst , the shells passing close over the ship. This infuriated Kerens so much that when a Communist officer brought the mess boys back to the ship, Kerens had him up on deck and harangued him at great length about the breach of faith in firing so close to Amethyst after their promises not to molest the ship any further. As this harangue was drawing to a close one of the mess boys in the back ground, with teeth chattering, could be heard muttering, 'Don't be too hard on him, Sir, don't be too hard on him. Wait till we get back to Hong Kong and then write him a stiff note'.
The ship's company were kept astonishingly well and contented all things considered. There was plenty of work to be done in trying to make the ship seaworthy, and indeed the damage control shoring and patching, all done under the direction of the Electrical Officer, Lieut. Commander (L) Strain, was a model for anyone. They had record programmes over the SRE and periodically the BBC in UK broadcast special request programmes to them. By the beginning of July, however, things were becoming pretty desperate. Oil fuel was getting very low, so low that for days at a time they would shut down, and then swelter in the terrific heat with no fans running. Food reserves were getting small and they were on half rations. The negotiations for a safe conduct were going over and over the same old ground and obviously getting nowhere, so Kerens began to think very seriously of a break-out - an idea, one would have thought, to daunt the bravest.
It being well into the typhoon season, on 7th July Amethyst made to C-in-C. 'Grateful your advice on my action if menaced by a typhoon'. C-in-C thought there must be more in this than met the eye, so in his reply, having made some soothing remarks about good holding ground in case the signal was straight forward, added 'The golden rule of making an offing and taking plenty of searoom applies particularly'.
This was intended to tell Kerens that if he thought he had a chance to break out, he should do so. FO 2i/c also replied to the signal talking about two anchors, extra cable and so on, so that Kerens began to wonder whether he was reading too much into C-in- C's signal. However, in other signals during the month, C-in-C kept adding phrases to the effect that he would support Kerens in any action he considered necessary, so finally Kerens decided that at the first good opportunity, he would make a dash for it, and if he failed, would blow up the ship. The necessary conditions, he decided, were that there should be a typhoon about, preferably just gone past, so that the banks of the Yangtse would be flooded, and all batteries on low lying ground would be removed, and so that the look-outs especially at Woosung forts at the mouth, which he never hoped to pass in the dark, would have their heads well down; also that it should be a dark night with no moon. In mid-July a pretty hefty typhoon started on its wanderings and on 24th July entered the China Coast and in the event came much too close to Amethyst for comfort. She rode it out well enough, though at the cost of a heavy expenditure of precious oil-fuel, but with the winds she could never have turned, so they abandoned thoughts of using that one. New moon was on 25th July, so they had to do it soon or never.
Shortly news came of another typhoon which would miss them by a more comfortable margin, and so on the afternoon of 30th July, with only 55 tons of oil fuel remaining, Kerens decided to break out that night. Just before 4 p.m. he made a signal in one of his codes to C-in-C, repeated Concord who was hanging about at the mouth of the Yangtse, saying that he intended slipping at 10 p.m. This was running it decidedly late for getting right out before dawn, but he dared not start earlier because the moon did not set until 11 p.m.
Immediately it was dark they started altering the silhouette of the ship with canvas screens, etc., to try to confuse any alert sentries into mistaking her for a merchant ship. To enable the cable to be slipped quietly they broke a joining shackle, leaving the outboard part held by only the slip and a 1 inch hemp tail round a bollard and wrapped the cable where it entered the hawse pipe in some hammock bedding well soaked with soft soap. Then at 10 p.m. just as they were going to slip, a fully-lighted merchant ship appeared and went on down the river ahead of them. They let her get well past, and at 10.12 p.m. slipped, turned in the river, and followed in her wake.
Almost immediately, the merchant ship was challenged and made some reply. Then Amethyst was challenged, and no reply being forthcoming, heavy artillery and Oerlikon fore opened up. A Communist gunboat anchored ahead of Amethyst started firing at the shore batteries, the merchant ship got scared and put out all her lights and complete confusion reigned. Amethyst cracked on at full speed and escaped with only one hit forward on the waterline. When they last saw the merchant ship she was well on fire, and shooting was still going on.
As they carried on down river they often came under fire, but their speed and the use of smoke and helm enabled them to get away without further hits. The crucial point of the passage was still ahead, however. Kiangyin, about fifty miles down from their starting point, was heavily defended with well-placed batteries and there was a boom consisting of a line of sunken ships with a gap left near the middle, and of course what form of gate, if any, there was in the gap, they did not know. In the event they got through without damage although they came under very heavy fire.
They were reporting to C-in-C at intervals as they came down, and at about 2.30 a.m. having covered 100 miles, made '100 up'.
Exceeding their hopes, they were passing the forts at Woosung as first light was just breaking and apparently were not seen. Shortly afterwards they could see Concord . One can imagine the emotion they must have felt, and at 5.30 a.m. they made their most famous signal 'Have rejoined Fleet. Am South of Woosung. No damage or casualties. God save the King'.
It was a quite incredible effort, and frankly when I first heard she was out, I didn't believe it. The passage was made in 7¼ hours at an average speed of 22 knots. Most of it was made with revs. for 18 knots, cracking on full speed wherever they were under fire. There was a strong current helping them but the feat of navigation is almost unbelievable. When they reached Concord they had only 9 tons of oil left.
C-in-C was in Belfast in Hong Kong at the time, and on the Saturday evening (30th July) was giving a dinner party on board, but the guests did not get much attention once the signals started coming in. On Sunday afternoon FO 2i/c sailed in Jamaica and joined up with Cossack to go and meet Amethyst . Kerens, however, was on the crest of a wave and would not wait for Jamaica ; having oiled from Concord , he came on to meet them halfway. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3rd August, Jamaica , Cossack and Belfast entered Hong Kong Harbour in that order. Jamaica and Cossack hauled out of line and stopped astern of Belfast , and Amethyst came on past the line being wildly cheered the whole way. It was a very wet and misty day, but the whole of Hong Kong must have gathered on the waterfront, and the noise of cheering, ships' sirens and strings upon strings of Chinese crackers was deafening, as Amethyst went slowly right up harbour, turned and came back alongside the North Arm of the Dockyard where the Governor, C-in-C, GOC, AOC and so on were waiting to go on board. There was immense enthusiasm, and a tremendous fillip for our rather sagging 'face', but I personally found it rather a sad moment seeing the wellremembered pennant numbers FI 16 looming through the mist and knowing that there would be no cheery wave from Bill Skinner. Immediately the formalities were over, the ship's company went on leave and a round of parties. As a Constructor, I became seriously disturbed whether the topweight of all the guests and the free service of all the gin would make the ship unstable. There was a typhoon warning in force at the time, but the Naval authorities decided that it was not sufficiently serious to necessitate moving Amethyst , no doubt being swayed by thoughts of the ship having to cancel her party. However, during the night, it really blew hard, and the ship had to go out to a buoy under rather difficult conditions. In the process the tugs did some damage to the ship, but we got her alongside next morning, made a rush job of patching up the damage, and she sailed on time.
The officers and men of Amethyst have been feted to no mean tune and deservedly so, but I do think that this article would not be complete without mention of one who has been hardly heard of - the Flotilla Electrical Officer, Lt. Commander (L) Strain. Jock Strain belongs properly to Black Swan but was ordered to do a pierhead jump into Amethyst for the trip to Nanking. He was in the ship for the whole of her time on the Yangtse, and after the Engineer Officer was sent ashore right at the beginning, was the only technical officer in the ship. He did a fine job of damage control from the hull point of view, and rigged up a complete system of 24 volt lighting through the ship when the main runs of wiring were obviously beyond his capacity to repair. Whilst the ship was in Hong Kong, he was indefatigable in helping all Departments of the Yard to find defects which must be repaired, and then when she sailed for UK he quite cheerfully returned to the comparative obscurity of Flotilla (L) in Black Swan And so ends a story which began in horror and tremendous loss of 'Face' for Britain throughout the East and up to a point throughout the world, continued in frustration, and ended in one passage so bold in conception, so brilliantly carried out that almost the whole world acclaimed it.
Reprinted from the September 1979 issue of Naval Historical Review
Page published May 5, 2008