HMS AMETHYST starts her breakout from the Yangtse River, July 1949
Montague Dawson (1895-1973). Oil on canvas, signed.
Image size: 20 x 30 ins (51 x 76 cms). Framed size: 28 x 38 ins (71 x 96.5 cms)
On application to Richard Joslin Fine Art (richardjoslin.com)
The night of 30/31st July 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the culmination of the incident on China’s River Yangtse that thrust HMS AMETHYST and other ships of the British Far East Fleet, most notably HMS LONDON, HMS CONSORT, HMS BLACK SWAN and HMS CONCORD, into the world’s headlines.
HMS AMETHYST (Lieutenant Commander B M Skinner RN) a modern frigate of the Later Black Swan Class of some 1800 tons, launched in 1943, was a junior unit of the 3rd Frigate Flotilla of the Far East Fleet: by early March 1949 she was due a short refit in Hong Kong Dockyard after a period of anti-bandit patrols off the Malayan coast. Once alongside in Hong Kong, however, her programme was changed and she was substituted for HMAS SHOALHAVEN to act as guardship at Nanking, the seat of the Chinese Government some 200 miles up the Yangtse River from Shanghai. China was at war, and with the Communist forces to the north of the great river poised to cross and clash with the weary Nationalist government forces who held the south bank, the timing of the guardships’ changeover was critical and must be completed before the expected Communist crossing. The Commander-in-Chief Far East Station, Admiral Sir Patrick Brind KCB CBE, was away on duty in UK; in his absence the Sation was commanded by his Second-in-Command, Vice Admiral A C G Madden CB CBE.
The current British guardship, the destroyer HMS CONSORT (Commander I G Robertson DSO DSC RN) of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla would sail from Nanking down river on 19th April, the same day that AMETHYST would slip from Shanghai and move up river for Nanking: the former would be south east and clear of the trouble area by the time the Communists were expected to resume hostilities; and AMETHYST would be safely in Nanking. Whilst this war was none of Great Britain’s business and strict neutrality had long been declared and understood - with the Communists appearing fully to respect the status of foreign neutral powers - AMETHYST and CONSORT were to take the usual precautions: ships’ companies were to be at a high state of readiness, ammunition was to be provided to main armament and large Union flags were to be ready to be displayed over the side at the first sign of any trouble, though none was expected.
The frigate singled up then slipped from Holt's Wharf on Shanghai's waterfront at 0800 on 19th April for the passage up to Nanking. After first stopping to disembark her British pilots off the Woo Sung Forts and embark two Chinese river pilots AMETHYST had an uneventful day steaming up the wide, featureless estuary. Navigation on the Yangtse by night was a hazardous business with its unlit junks and lethal sandbanks and shoals and the captain was given permision by the local river authorities to anchor at 1700 that evening at Kiang Yin where the wide estuary narrows to mark the start of the river proper. Her ship's company settled down to a quiet evening - letter writing home perhaps, a stroll round the upper deck with a mug of tea as the sun set, a spot of fishing from the quarterdeck; and in the wardroom they enjoyed a round or two of bridge.
What subsequently happened as AMETHYST moved up river the next morning is well known. A reddish dawn started to break over the flat landscape at around 0500 on 20th April as the frigate weighed and cautiously felt her way through lingering overnight fog and mist patches and by 0800 visibility was such that she was able to increase to around 16 knots. Her quarterdeck awning was spread and although their electrical firing circuits had been tested earlier that morning, her main armament of six x 4 inch guns remained trained peacefully fore and aft. A large white ensign flew tautly over the stern in the breeze created by the ships forward movement and hands moved around the upper deck carrying out routine daily tasks: equipment maintenance, polishing brightwork, splicing cordage, greasing bottle screws and pins, jossing about runs ashore in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The ship's cat, Simon, we are told, enjoyed a spot of sunbathing on the upper deck outside the galley and her dog, too, was on the hunt actually inside the galley: this was clearly a warship on her lawful and peaceful occasion though alert, too, to possible danger. At around 0815 small arms fire ashore was followed by a larger shell which fell close to the frigate. The captain immediately ordered the ship to action stations, the Union flags to be unufurled over the sides and battle ensigns to be broken out at masthead and yardarms. Although the main gun director was ordered to search for the location of the firing, AMETHYST's main armamant remained trained peacefully fore and aft. The captain's steward, But Sai-tin, was observed climbing the ladder to the bridge with a cup of tea: it had been a tense moment but AMETHYST had committed no hostile act although the ship now doubly alert, remained closed up at action stations and the ensign staff was struck, the better to enable X mounting to come into action if necessary.
Some 40 minutes later, however, when abreast Rose Island, 4 shells hit the ship in very quick succession causing critical damage and killing and seriously wounding some 37 of the ship's company of around 170. With the captain and others on the bridge mortally wounded and the bridge half wrecked, control of the ship failed and she ran aground at some 15 knots on Rose Island, a sitting target now only some 200 yards from the Communist shore batteries which continued to target the frigate. Somehow she managed to get off a signal (with the rare precedence of Flash which gave it handling priority over all other signal traffic in the air) which CONSORT in Nanking intercepted: she was at once ordered by Admiral Madden to go to AMETHYST’s assistance with all despatch. Flying seven white ensigns, with Union flags unfurled over the sides and main armament stood to, the destroyer raced down river to the frigate's aid, at times doing 29 knots, a speed never before or since seen on the Yangtse and which made navigation and steering very hazardous indeed in the shoal waters of the river. As she neared AMETHYST she too came under heavy accurate shore fire to which she replied with rapid 4.5 inch salvoes. Whilst she prepared to pass a tow to the frigate she was then hit several times herself, her bridge and wheelhouse being badly damaged and her captain wounded and coxswain killed. Both for'rard 4.5 inch mountings were put out of action and with her primary steering also damaged she was forced to steer from aft, from the tiller flat, a small cramped compartment immediately above the rudder head itself, no mean feat for a ship manoeuvring at high speed in very restricted water and under fire. But given her damage and the very limited water available in which to manoeuvre to close AMETHYST and dodge incoming shellfire, further attempts by CONSORT to get close enough to AMETHYST to pass a tow were out of the question and eventually she was forced to clear the area and pass down river. The destroyer had taken 56 direct hits and suffered 9 killed and 30 men wounded.
Meanwhile under cover of darkness the wounded AMETHYST, now under command of the First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Geoffrey Weston, who although wounded himself had managed to refloat the ship, came to anchor about 12 miles upriver from Rose Island, a marginally less exposed spot than where she had earlier grounded. Admiral Madden now determined to go to the frigate’s help himself and with HMS BLACK SWAN (Captain A D H Jay DSO DSC RN, Captain (F3)), in company, he took his flagship, the 8 inch heavy cruiser HMS LONDON (Captain P G L Cazalet DSO DSC RN) from Shanghai up river to break AMETHYST out. He had also asked the Royal Air Force to try and get medical help to the frigate and a Sunderland flying boat piloted by Flt Lt K H F Letford DSO DFC RAF had departed from RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong for the 800 mile flight to the frigate
But now it was LONDON’s turn to run into trouble for the big cruiser made a huge target which even the most incompetent shore gunner could not miss. Despite steering at high speed in the confined waters she and BLACK SWAN also came under heavy fire and although spirited use was made of the ships’ 8 inch and 4 inch guns LONDON, too, was hit several times and briefly grounded: finally they too had to retire, the cruiser having suffered substantial damage and 15 men killed and 20 wounded. Later on its second attempt the Sunderland managed to alight close enough to AMETHYST to disembark one RAF doctor before it too had to depart in a hurry, Communist gunfire having started ranging on it.
With AMETHYST's captain having now died of wounds and her First Lieutenant wounded and needing hospital attention urgently, the frigate was without a captain: the Assistant Naval Attaché, Nanking, Lieutenant Commander J S Kerans, was invited to locate the frigate and try and get onboard. This he managed to do and he assumed command as she lay at anchor in the river nursing her wounds and trying to clear up and make good the devastating damage she had received. For the moment, at least, all further rescue attempts were off.
All during the long, humid months of May, June and July diplomatic attempts at the highest level continued to try and obtain AMETHYST’s release, but to no avail. The Communists were determined to wring a confession out of the British that AMETHYST had provoked the attack made on her on the 20th April and until this was admitted she would, they maintained, remain their prisoner on the Yangtze. Now back on Station, Admiral Brind (who had the rare distinction of enjoying two nicknames in the Navy, "Lofty" on account of his considerable height and commanding presence,"Daddy" because he was regarded by the lower deck as a senior officer who cared deeply for his sailors) did all he could from afar to support the small ship and her junior captain, to keep up her morale and to prepare her as best he could in the absence of secure communications, for a breakout should diplomacy fail. The latter, we know, was not however, what the Foreign Office in London had in mind: they did not want the frigate to break out under any circumstances and if necessary she was to be sacrificed in the name of diplomacy and scuttled where she lay at anchor: most certainly not what the admiral had in mind for one of his ships. Conditions onboard in the stifling humid heat grew steadily worse as summer wore on, fuel supplies dwindled and food and stores were progressively more tightly rationed. If she didn’t get away one way or another by late July she would probably not be able to do so under her own power: fuel would have run out and the material condition of the ship would simply have deteriorated too far. Boilers, generators, electrical equipment - all were starting to play up, not to mention the physical condition of the ship’s company which was not improving in the overheated airless conditions onboard the cramped frigate. Her gyro compass, so important for navigation on this shoal ridden river, had remained out of service since the action of 20th April: spare parts could not be got to the frigate.
With covert and steady and subtle hinting from the C-in-C that he would support any moves Kerans made to break out should the opportunity present itself, Kerans decided on the afternoon of 30th July to make a run for it that night, the 101st day of her captivity. It was now or never as fuel was at a critical level, the night was as moonless as it was going to be for a while and the river was high which would help make up for the lack of charts onboard, the original ones having been destroyed in April’s action. Using a homemade cipher previously put together by Brind’s staff and Kerans and based on the names of some of the next of kin of her ship's company held by her drafting depot in Devonport, the latter alerted his C-in-C to his plan and asked for covering support from the Fleet. The destroyer HMS CONCORD (Cdr N R H Rodney RN) of the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, was ordered to move up from the Saddle Islands to be off the Woosung Forts by dawn on 31st July and to give covering fire to AMETHYST if necessary; and under a suitable cover story for it's hosts, other ships of the 8th DF (HM Ships COSSACK, COMUS and CONSTANCE) were sailed with speed from Sasebo, Japan and directed to join CONCORD to give additional fire support if required. The RAF was asked to position flying boats to try and take off her ship’s company if damageshe received during her breakout attempt prevented her from completing her 104 mile dash to the open sea and she had to be scuttled.
Montague Dawson here shows AMETHYST in the early stages of her breakout on 30th July: she has a canvas screen rigged along the focsle to try and alter her silhouette and with her ship's company (now reduced to less than half after the action off Rose Island in April) closed up at action stations she is as ready as she can be for the fight of her life. Her boilers with their failing brickwork, her boiler water and burnable fuel down to critical levels and with several large holes on or just above the waterline and only a third of her main armament able to be manned, she was not in a good state: but it was now or never! Her port anchor and its cable slipped and left on the bottom of the river (weighing it would have taken too long and generated much noise and rust clouds) and having turned on the spot on main engines to face downstream, her identity has been rumbled and she is seen here being illuminated and engaged by shore batteries as she starts her race down river to the open sea.
Aboard his flagship, the light cruiser HMS BELFAST (Captain E K Le Mesurier CBE RN) far away in Hong Kong, Sir Patrick was giving a long arranged dinner party in his quarters back aft in the cruiser. Cancelling it had been an option but the admiral was determined that there should be not the slightest hint to his guests that "things of great moment were afoot" and so the dinner party went ahead. But as soon as the last guest had gone ashore his staff rapidly re-arranged the dining room table and under the direction of the Staff Operations Officer (Lieutenant Commander Peter Dickens) and the Flag Lieutenant, (Lieutenant Commander David Scott), charts were spread and the admiral's dining room turned into a mini operations room to enable all to follow AMETHYST's progress and to plot the postions and courses of supporting warships who were closing the mouth of the Yangtze. All waited with heavy heart as Kerans reported that he had been hit but signals from the C-in-C at this stage were not necessary as CONCORD, fully alert, darkened and at action stations herself was also reading AMETHYST's signals: she quietly inched further up river and into Chinese territorial waters. Fortunately the hit turned out not to be serious (hull plates in the naval store compartment were opened but prompt plugging with hammocks and matresses contained the flood which was then pumped out) and several hours later AMETHYST, steaming as never before in her life and navigating with skill in these shoal-ridden pilotage waters with barely a useable chart, was able to report at 0245 on 31 July she was half way (AMETHYST to C-in-C: "Hundred up" to which the C-in-C replied "A magnificent century"). But then at 0350 and tiring under the strain with his confidence perhaps faltering as he approached another danger point, the 6 inch guns of the forts at Woo Sung, Kerans sent a Flash signal in plain language to his old chum Rodney of CONCORD “Come quick”. He needn’t have bothered for CONCORD, fully tuned to the heightened danger the frigate was facing, was already moving up swiftly to support him.
But her luck was in and AMETHYST, now making heavy smoke and knocking up some 22 knots over the ground, passed through the forts unchallenged and there, illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun, was the unmistakable sight of the destroyer standing by to give gunfire support and to welcome the gallant frigate back into the Fleet. “Fancy meeting you again” signalled Rodney by light; to which Kerans replied “Never, never has a ship been more welcome”. Then it was time for AMETHYST to signal his Commander-in Chief: “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God save the King”. Back in London and being kept updated on the situation, HM The King was quick to have a signal made to the C-in-C: “Please convey to the commanding officer and ship’s company of HMS AMETHYST my hearty congratulations on their daring exploit to rejoin the Fleet. The courage, skill and determination shown by all on board have my highest commendation. Splice the mainbrace. George R”. The tots, however, had to come from CONCORD when she and AMETHYST rafted up together soon afterwards for the frigate to be given some fuel - all rum supplies in the frigate had long been exhausted!
This magnificent oil painting by Montague Dawson is offered for sale by Richard Joslin Fine Art who may be contacted at www.richardjoslin.com