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.