HMS AMETHYST BREAKS OUT OF THE YANGTZE RIVER (MP168)
Commander Eric Tufnell RN (1888-1979). Watercolour signed and annotated “HMS AMETHYST 30th July 1949”.
2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the epic of the incident on China’s River Yangtze that thrust HMS AMETHYST and other ships of the Far East Fleet, most notably HMS LONDON, HMS CONSORT, HMS BLACK SWAN and HMS CONCORD, into the world’s headlines.
HMS AMETHYST (Lt Cdr B M Skinner) a modern frigate of the Later Black Swan Class 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 current British guardship, the destroyer HMS CONSORT (Cdr I G Robertson DSO DSC) would sail from Nanking downriver 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 Jacks were to be ready to be displayed over the side at the first sign of any trouble, though.none was expected
What subsequently happened as AMETHYST moved upriver is well known. Around 0815 on 19th April whilst the ship was steaming at 16 knots and with her quarterdeck awning spread and main armament of six x 4 inch guns trained peacefully fore and aft, small arms fire ashore was followed by a larger shell which fell close to the frigate. The captain immediately ordered the Union Jacks to be unfurled over the side, battle ensigns were broken out at the foremast and the frigate attempted to locate the offending guns on shore but with no success. For about 15 minutes the shells continued to land around the ship but none hit. AMETHYST had not returned fire.
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 ships company of around 170. With the captain mortally wounded and the bridge wrecked, the command and control of the ship failed and she ran aground at speed on Rose Island, a sitting target now only some 200 yards from the Communist shore batteries which continued to pound the frigate. Somehow she managed to get off a signal (with the rare precedence of Flash) which CONSORT in Nanking intercepted: she was at once ordered to go to AMETHYST’s assistance. Flying 7 White Ensigns, with Union Jacks unfurled over the side and main armament stood to, the destroyer dashed down river, at times doing 29 knots, a speed never before or since seen on the Yangtze. 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 forrard 4.5 inch mountings were put out of action and with her primary steering also damaged she was forced to steer from aft, no mean feat for a ship manoeuvring at high speed in restricted water and under fire. But given her damage, further attempts to close AMETHYST 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.
The Commander-in-Chief Far East Station, Admiral Sir Patrick Brind KCB CBE, was absent on duty in UK and so it fell to his Second-in-Command, Vice Admiral A C G Madden CB CBE, to handle this situation which had turned so very sour so very quickly. Meanwhile under cover of darkness the wounded AMETHYST had managed to refloat herself and 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 (Capt (F)3, Captain A D H Jay DSO DSC), in company he took his flagship, the heavy cruiser HMS LONDON (Captain P G L Cazalet DSO DSC) from Shanghai up river to escort 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 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 Lt Cdr Skinner having died of wounds and her First Lieutenant wounded and needing hospital attention urgently, AMETHYST was without a captain: the assistant naval attaché, Nanking, Lt Cdr J S Kerans, finally managed to get onboard the battered frigate to assume 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 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 on her of 19th April and until this was admitted she would, they maintained, remain their prisoner on the Yangtze. Admiral Brind 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. 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 19th April: spare parts could not be got to the frigate.
With constant 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, the latter alerted his C-in-C to his plan and asked for all possible support. The destroyer HMS CONCORD (Cdr N R H Rodney RN) 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 in extremis; and the 8th destroyer flotilla (HM Ships COSSACK, COMUS and CONSTANCE ) was sailed in secrecy and with despatch from Sasebo, Japan and directed to join CONCORD to give additional support if required. The RAF were alerted to position flying boats to try and take off her ship’s company if damaged she received during her breakout attempt prevented her from completing her 104 mile dash to the open sea and she had to be scuttled. Tufnell 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, hands are at action stations for the 7 hour dash and B gun mounting is manned with ammunition provided (there were simply too few hands left onboard to man the other main armament). Her identity rumbled, she is seen here being illuminated by shore batteries shortly before she came under fire and was hit as she raced down river. Aboard his flagship HMS BELFAST (Captain E K Le Mesurier CBE RN) in Hong Kong, Sir Patrick and his staff watched and waited with heavy heart as AMETHYST reported she had been hit. CONCORD, taking in this signal too, inched further up river and into Chinese territorial waters. But the hit was not serious and several hours later AMETHYST, steaming as never before in her life, was able to report she was half way. 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 Woosung, Kerans sent a Flash signal in plain language to his old chum Rodney “Come quick”: he needn’t have bothered for CONCORD was already closing 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 CONCORD waiting to welcome the gallant frigate back into the fleet. “Fancy meeting you again” signalled Rodney; to which Kerans made by light “Never, never has a ship been more welcome”. Then it was time for AMETHYST to signal Admiral Sir Patrick: “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God save the King”. Back in London Buckingham Palace was quick to signal 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”
Limited Edition: 99 copies worldwide
Standard size: 12 x 9.1 ins (30.5 x 23.1 cms) approx. Price band: £85-£100
Prices exclude VAT (where applicable) at the current rate
ALL IMAGES ARE IN COPYRIGHT. Every image on this website is protected by either Artist's Copyright or Maritime Prints' Publication Right. Whilst no image may therefore be reproduced without authorisation from Maritime Prints (who in turn will often have to apply for that permission from the artist or artist's estate) every effort will be made to accommodate requests if they are for other websites wishing to promote these images.