"Naval History" The Peacekeepers: The Royal Navy


The Yangste Incident: April 20, 1949.

The Peacekeepers: The Royal Navy,
International Representatives of Goodwill.

Wherever the White Ensign flies in these days of non-war, those who see it know instinctively that the ship that flies it does so in the name of peace. H.M.S. Belfast was upholding this tradition as soon as she left the United Kingdom: on passage through the Mediterranean a seaman from the American steamship Eastport, of the East ship Steam Corporation, was suffering from acute abdominal pains. He was transferred at sea to the Belfast where Surgeon-Commander Hamilton removed his appendix in the ships operating theatre: the man recovered, made excellent progress and the Steamship Company expressed its gratitude.

The Far East: Spring 1949

H.M.S. Belfast arrived at Hong Kong during the last days of December to relieve H.M.S. Sussex who, as flagship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron, was flying the flag of Vice-Admiral A.C.C. Madden, C.B., C.B.E. Second-in Command of the Far East Station (FES), the Commander-in-Chief being Admiral Sir Patrick Brind, K.C.B., C.B.E.,

Tension in the Far East was by then electric. The Communists under Mao-tse-tung were in the throes of hurling out the forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. The task of the 5th Cruiser Squadron was to provide the force-in being in the area of the Yangste, to restrain the Chinese and to protect our nationals. International incidents in the New Year of 1949 were therefore highly to be deprecated. Politicians and apathetic democracies will never learn until it is too late, that a strong navy in peace -time is an essential in-vestment and, however expensive, the most economical means whereby to ensure peace.

On January 12th 1949, on Chinese territory, a secret aircraft a R.A.F. Vampire, had to force-land on the west shore of Bias Bay on Tai Pang Wan beach.

H.M.S. Belfast steamed into the Bay and, under the protection of her guns, sent a party inshore to salvage the R.A.F. Vampire. Her seaman hauled the aircraft on to a pontoon, which was towed out by the ships boats to the cruiser lying stopped in the bay. H.M.S. Belfasts crane whisked the aircraft on board and the ship returned to Hong Kong: competent seamanship, considering that the ships company were barely shaken down and still under training.

St. George’s Day, April 23, 1949: Belfast had by now relived H.M.S. Sussex in the Nanking / Shanghai area which was still a powder -barrel with the fuse burning. For, on St. George’s Day, April 23, which was being honoured by H.M.S. Belfast, an international incident occurred which, through a stirring deed in the best tradition of the Royal Navy, was an indication of things to come.

The story of this little sloop, H.M.S. Amethyst, and of Lieutenant-Commander Kerans and his men, is of such gallantry in the face of adversity that the saga should be repeated briefly because H.M.S. Belfast was involved, albeit inactively, as flagship of the Station.

The H.M.S. Amethyst Incident: April 20, 1949

Against a background of the Chinese civil war, when Mao’s Communists hurled Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists out of the country, the Royal Navy was endeavouring to protect our own people and trading interests up the Yangste as far as Nanking. The Chinese Communists were on the left bank of the three mile wide river below Nanking, the Nationalists being encamped on the opposite side.

On April 20, 1949, three days before St. George’s Day, H.M.S, Amethyst a (Black Swan sloop) with White Ensign flying, was steaming slowly up the Yangtse to Nanking to relieve the the guardship, H.M. S. Consort. On reaching a position off Kiang Yin Island, she was suddenly attacked by the guns of a Communist battery from the north bank. The ship stopped, then again proceeded slowly up the river. At 0930 hrs, she was again viciously attacked from shore batteries on the Communist bank.

Her Captain, Lieutenant-Commander B. M. Skinner, was killed outright; her First Lieutenant, G.L. Weston D.S.C., was gravely wounded, and was losing consciousness intermittently, but he still took command and during the next twenty-four hours refused to leave the ship.

Amethyst stopped, out of control with her steering destroyed. She immediately went aground on the western shore of Rose Island where, with only “X†gun firing (her two for’d 4in. mountings “A†and “B†had been knocked out) she remained a sitting target for the concentrated Communist gunners, A signal by W/T was transmitted to our Consul in Nanking that Amethyst had suffered twenty-two dead and thirty wounded.

At 1145 hrs, H.M.S. Consort, a modern Fleet destroyer armed with four 4. 5in. guns cleared Nanking at 15 knots, with Severn White Ensigns and three Union Flags flying, two being draped over the ships side. She was soon fired on but her 4. 5s demolished the opposition as she increased speed to 27 knots. She sighted Amethyst at 1345 hrs when she swept round Rose Island, and engaged the batteries that had now opened fire on her, her speed took her two miles south of the Island. And as she turned, she slowly retraced her track towards the stricken sloop to silence four more batteries that were firing at her.

At 1400 hrs the destroyer had reached a position within one-and-a-half miles of Amethyst, when H.M.S. Consort was herself hit on the forward and bridge. The Coxswain was killed in the wheelhouse; The forwardâ€A†and “B†guns were knocked out. And with the gyro, W/T office and the TS destroyed, and having to use emergency steering from the tiller flat, there was little more that Consort could do: after having fired 240 rounds of 4. 5in. ammunition, she turned and steamed downstream to reach the mouth of the estuary at Woosung. There she transferred her wounded to the Cruiser H.M.S. London who was waiting in support with H.M.S. Black Swan.

During the darkness that night, Amethyst, at 0100 hrs on April 21, evacuated her wounded by Carley floats. Those who were fit swam for it, the survivors being helped ashore by the Nationalists. The ship then steamed slowly three miles up river, to anchor at a point equal-distant between two Communist gun batteries.

At first light, an R.A.F. Sunderland, handled with considerable coolness and skill, landed close to Amethyst. And a R.A.F. doctor with vital supplies were transferred to the ship, and the sloop’s Gunnery officer was taken off to liase with the rescue force.

Unable to return to the Sunderland, which was now under heavy fire, the doctor remained in Amethyst to care for the casualties until the incident was over. The Sunderland took off under a hail of fire.

As daylight broke on the morning of April 21st, the massive silhouette of the cruiser H.M.S. London (Captain P.G.L. Cazalet, D.S.O., D.S.C.), flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Madden, with the sloop Black Swan following astern, they moved silently up-river from Woosung, with White Ensigns prominently displayed. When the rescuing force had reached a position nine miles below Amethyst, intense fire from the heavy Communist batteries struck the 8 in. gunned cruiser, and even though “A†and “B†turrets were not penetrated, 23 shells from the Communist batteries and (one in “B†shell handing room) exploded inboard. The 4 in. Director was knocked out and also 50% of the HA armament. As men fell at their action Close Range stations, others, entirely untrained in the drill, leaped forward to take the places of their dying messmates.

The shellfire from the Communist guns, ripped through the 4 in. gun shields on the cruiser, and terrible casualties were suffered-70 men were killed in all, with 35 others seriously wounded. The total casualties between both ships (London and Black Swan) were nearly one hundred, and after H.M.S. London silenced the batteries with her 8 in. guns in local control (155 rounds of 8 in. were fired in addition to the 4 in., with shell VT fused) She swung round and, with Black Swan, returned to anchor in Woo sung.
There was no more that the relieving force could do.

The Break Out.

Among the three Staff at Nanking was Lieutenant Commander J.S. Kerans R.N. and he was sent down to take command of H.M.S. Amethyst. She was now anchored in a creek where her damage had been patched up below the waterline with concrete.

The incident had now developed into a world crisis: Because a ship of the Royal Navy was trapped up the Yangtse, unable to move without the sanction of the local Communist Commander, Colonel Kang. As the days of waiting grew into weeks, considerable pressure was brought to bear on Kerans by Kang who was endeavouring to extract from him a signed statement to the effect that Amethyst had provoked the Communist Chinese troops.

Admiral Sir Patrick Brind was in H.M.S. Belfast, at a buoy in Hong Kong, and he was continually in touch by W/T with H.M.S. Amethyst who by now was using an elementary one-time code devised from a simple manual common to both the flagship and the sloop. While time passed, Amethyst’s stocks of oil fuel rapidly dwindled and as the typhoon season was approaching. The Commander-in-Chief was convinced that the opportune moment had arrived for a breakout but with the up most secrecy being vital to the operation; As no means of ordering Amethyst to proceed could be devised, and with a typhoon being imminent, Kerans signalled to his Admiral:

“Request advice on my action if menaced by a typhoon.â€
Admiral Brind replied:

The golden rule is to make an offing and to take plenty of sea room.â€

Unfortunately, Kerans, exhausted by the non-stop work of preparing his ship for her dash down-river, failed to interpret his Admiral’s signal, so it was to be a day or two longer before he was finally ready to break out.

Amethyst now had insufficient fuel by which to escape, and in spite of repeated demands on Kang by Kerans who asked that 50-gallon drums of oil fuel, which were stacked on the bund in Nanking, be delivered on board by a junk. Colonel Kang continued to play cat-and-mouse with the ship by prevaricating with the delivery of the fuel.

During the early part of the night of July 30, the 50-gallon drums of oil fuel suddenly arrived alongside H.M.S. Amethyst, carried in a junk: Colonel Kang’s administrative machine had slipped up as the official cancellation had not reached the supplier in time.

So, during the darkness of the night, six weeks after the orignal outrage, Lieutenant-Commander J.S. Kerans slipped anchor and silently turned the darkened Amethyst across the strong current. While she swung round, a brightly illuminated Chinese steamer thrashed up river between the erupting Communist gun batteries and the escaping sloop. By this miracle of good fortune, the gunners on the banks were temporarily blinded and Amethyst was away, slipping swiftly down stream as she worked up speed to 23 knots. During the break-out she had been hit by only one shell which had caused little damage.

The river at this time of year was in full spate, the water level being high up the banks and thereby concealing the normal navigational hazards.
L.T Commander Kerans steered his little sloop through the middle of the lit channel (buoyed by the British), his destination Woosung.

On board H.M.S. Belfast, Admiral Brind and his Staff were spending an anxious night. To allay any suspicions of a breakout that evening, the Admiral had deliberately laid on a formal dinner party for the local society in his quarters in Belfast. In full mess dress, the dinner had proceeded traditionally but at 2230 hrs precisely the guests had been tactfully ushered ashore.

As the last visitor left, the table was swept of its glass and silver; signal pads and maps were hurriedly spread on the polished table in preparation for the night’s work which had already begun some 600 miles away up a dark and hostile waterway. For the rest of that night, the Admiral and his Staff, still in tropical mess dress, sweated it out in the Admiral’s cabin.

H.M.S. Amethyst was reporting her position by W/T every fifteen minutes. At one tense period there had been no communication for a 45-minute interval. Even Admiral Brind was betraying anxiety, when suddenly up came another transmission from Kerans. (It appeared that the two telegraphists were, in fact, in touch with each other, but Belfasts’s operator had not reported the fact to the Staff!)

Amethyst swept downstream all that night, carving her way through a junk in the process, until finally at first light she glimpsed before her the darkened silhouette of H.M.S. Concord, the duty ship of the Yangtse Patrol, who had come up-river to meet her. The rendezvous took place at dawn (0600 hrs) on July 31st1949, 160 miles from Nanking.

Five- hundred miles away on board H.M.S. Belfast in Hong Kong, the Admiral and his Staff breathed again: the Amethyst incident was now closed.

Belfast remained in the area of the Yangtse for several weeks while waiting for events to calm down. The Communists were still about to cross the river from the north bank of the Yangtse and the ship stood by to evacuate civilians but, in the event, few came out.

She had once again become Flagship of FO2 and the Second Cruiser Squadron. There was still much to do in preserving peace as Malaya was still in the throes of its Emergency.

On May 12, 1950, the Far East Fleet began its summer cruise during a period of intense international tension. The cruise was to last barely six weeks before an event was to occur which was to affect the history of mankind.

On June 25, 1950, when H.M.S. Belfast was visiting Hakodate, Japan, the North Koreans, aided and abetted by the Russians and the Communist Chinese. Crossed the 38th Parallel and marched into South Korea. Which was a barefaced and unprovoked act of aggression.

Researched from: H.M.S. Belfast 1939-1971 by John Wingate, D.S.C.

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