- Taylor, R.A. CPO, RN
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1984 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A transcript of an address presented to The Naval Historical Society of Australia
by CPO R.A. Taylor, RN.
TO DESCRIBE CHINA in any form of speech, with all its complexities such as two wars with Great Britain, two with Russia and three with Japan, would be impossible. However the theme of my speech tonight is the necessity and involvement of the Royal Navy on the Yangtse River between 1920 and 1937 with my personal involvement on HMS Bee, the flagship of the gunboat flotilla from 1934-37 and 1948-50. The Yangtse River, the longest in China, has a drainage area of nearly one million square miles and is about 2,000 miles long, and can be navigated by steamer for 1,400 miles depending on river level.
The Yangtse flotilla consisted of the Insect Class of gunboats, 10 in number, commanded by a Rear Admiral. The majority of these boats were of 600 tons, engined by reciprocating machinery and carried two 6” guns fore and aft. The propellers were in tunnels to prevent damage when going over sandbanks. They were designed in the First World War for operations on the Danube. Although not used there, they were employed patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean as required. About 1920 they were refitted and sailed to Hong Kong and allocated their stations. Three on the Canton River and the remainder, the Yangtse, due to the preponderance of British trade in this area and of course much improved ships to replace the old coal burners. Also on the Yangtse were gunboats from USA, Japan and Italy. The necessity of these military machines was to protect the trade shipping from piracy, so prevalent where each province had its own warlord and armies formulating their own laws and demands.
It could be said that from 1920 onwards great strides were made in the field of trade. It was found by soundings that 10,000 ton ships could navigate as far as Hankow and 3,000 ton steamers as far as Shasi and Ichang, 1,400 miles. The river steamers were owned and operated by Jardine Matheson, and apart from carrying cargo, a huge upper deck crowd of passengers. On each of these steamers the bridges were protected, and 6 to 8 armed British soldiers were onboard for protection; with of course a gunboat in the vicinity for assistance if required.
Due to changing river conditions no buoys or navigation lights were positioned. One sailed at dawn and anchored at dusk. The essence of safe navigation was steam on the high bank in deep water.
With 400 to 500 sailors scattered in all these river ports and due to conditions, half crews were exchanged every 18 months or less. To do this a C or D class cruiser was taken from the reserve fleet in England, manned by the releasing crew and sailed to China, calling at various river ports exchanging ratings. From an economy point of view this was good planning, also having an additional cruiser in operation for 3 or 4 months, passing through the various commands such as the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean fleets. This necessitated much work to bring this ship up to scratch by fleet standards, which proved no joy ride. I can still vividly remember steaming through the Red Sea in the Engine Room where the temperature reached 154°F. Every breath seemed to burn one’s lungs, and to cap it all on being relieved after 4 hours we had to run around the deck for physical exercise. How mutiny was avoided I do not know. How delightful it was to leave this hell ship.
However the many complaints which were lodged made it a little better for those returning.
On joining HMS Bee, the flagship under a Rear Admiral, I speedily settled down. After 3 years in South American foreign service it was to my liking, and I volunteered for this assignment. After all the half crews were exchanged the Admiral sailed to all the various ports, finally stopping at Shanghai for a 3-week refit, and while in dock we lived ashore in the Union Jack Club. This was fantastic. Facing the Club was a beautiful racecourse, right in the centre of the International Settlement, where we could play football and jog. Despite the magnificence of this settlement little of it was sewered. All night soil was collected and transported through the streets in hand carts, and as we went to work we met a profusion of these carts dripping all over the road. The stench was indescribable and often we were violently sick, however the night life of the French and our concession made up for our discomfort. Huge modern cinemas and cabarets were of very high standards, and it was amazing to see so many refugees from Russia running these businesses.