- Periodical, Yangtze and Sikiang Patroller
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1984 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The following article is taken from the June and March issues of Yangtze and Sikiang Patroller, journal of the United States Yangtze River Patrol Association. A number of RAN officers served in the boats between 1920 and 1941.
AT ONE TIME or another, nine nations have had gun-boats on the Yangtze: the USA (since 1857), Britain (always the most – for exactly 100 years), France, Austria- Hungary, Germany, Russia, Japan, Portugal – and of course, China, where as we used to say, they maintained themselves by taking in each other’s laundry.
HMS Cricket was one of 12 sisters built in 1915-16 for the fantastic original purpose of being sent to the Med, where they would be taken apart, shipped overland to the Danube, to be used against the Austro-Hungarian river flotilla. What they actually did was take part in many an engagement against coastal targets in WWI in the North Sea, then six were sent to North Russia in 1918 to take part in the Allied Intervention. Four more were in the Persian Gulf and Tigris River operating against the Turks. Shortly after the end of WWI, the remaining 11 (Glowworm was scrapped because of WWI battle damage) went to China, Cicada, Moth, and Tarantula to South China, and Aphis, Cricket, Bee, Cockchafer, Ladybird, Mantis, and Scarab to the Yangtze. Then there were the newer boats:- Gannet, Petrel, Falcon, Sand-Piper, Scorpion, Dragonfly, and Grasshopper on the Yangtze, with Seamew and Tern in South China. Based at Hong Kong, they policed the West River and canals.
Typically, these gunboats other than flagship Scorpion, which had replaced Bee, carried two officers and sometimes a doctor; six or seven petty officers and leading seamen, plus 17 able seamen. The remainder of the 50-odd souls aboard were Chinese servants, cooks, seamen, and black gang. Obviously, British ability to mount a landing force fell well below the capabilities of the ‘new six’ US gunboats, with their 4 line officers, doctor, and about 50 US enlisted. However, the British POs enjoyed more responsibility and authority than the American, as all RN officers could be off the ship at the same time.
British naval parsimony extended beyond just manning; the color of the money in their pay envelopes was at the root of many a bar room rumble with their better paid American competition for feminine favours.
At 625 tons, the ‘Insects’ were heavier than Luzon‘s 560 tons, and 26 feet longer. They carried two real widow-makers: 6-inch (except only one in flagship Bee) plus two 12- pounders and six Lewis machine guns in pairs. By Pearl Harbor, Bee and Mantis had already been scrapped. Certainly the most remarkable saga in the life of these Cicada class gunboats was their noble performance in WWII. From March to November, 1940, Cricket, Gannet, Aphis, Ladybird, Cockchafer, and Scarab worked their painful way a third of the distance around the earth, coast- hugging, port-hopping, sometimes towed, to the Middle East, where all took part in numerous bombardments and fought off air attacks from Iraq to North Africa to Italy providing remarkable fire power for such apparent insignificance. Aphis and Scarab came under American command and were engaged in hot action during the invasion of southern France.
As a tailpiece, let us say that the British gunboaters rarely lost their aplomb and never their sense of humor. In one case, such a gunboat was steaming off the coast of Liberia, staying well inshore to keep in smoother water. Soon, in a cloud of smoke, out steams a Liberian gunboat, an international signal streaming from her halyards: ‘Stop, you are in Territorial Waters.’ No reply from British, who placidly proceed ahead. Second signal: ‘Stop At Once or I Shall Open Fire.’ British pay no attention. Third signal: ‘Please Stop and Render Assistance. We are out of coal.’
Of those remaining in China, Petrel was sunk by Japanese gunfire on 3 December, ’41; Gannet and Falcon at Chungking, and Sandpiper, at Changsha were turned over to the Chinese.
The full story of the British Yangtze gunboats is exceedingly well told in Gregory Haines’s ‘Gunboats on the Great River’, Macdonald and Jane’s, London, 1976, which is the source of much of the above material.