- Captain Peter Hore, RN
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
VICE-ADMIRAL SIR PETER BERGER, who has died aged 78, was awarded a DSC after the Yangtze incident. On April 20 1949, as the civil war between Chinese Communists and Nationalists entered its final stages, Berger navigated the frigate HMS Amethyst up the Yangtze River to protect British interests at Nanking. Off Rose Island, some 60 miles short of her destination, Amethyst was shelled and heavily machine-gunned from both banks by Communist forces. Two shells hit the bridge. The captain and the Chinese pilot were mortally wounded, and Berger, badly wounded in the arm, leg and chest, was knocked out cold.
The explosion jammed the steering and Amethyst ran aground. Some of the ship’s company were ordered to swim ashore, leaving on board about 40 fit men, 12 wounded, and 15 dead. No one could move on the upper deck without drawing the attention of snipers, but Berger, still dazed and despite loss of blood, organised sailors with small arms to defend the ship against boarding and gathered up the dead and wounded. He then supervised the destruction of secret equipment including the Typex cipher machines, which he broke with a mallet and threw into the swirling river, and burned the code books in the galley stove. The ship’s doctor had been killed while tending the wounded and for six days Berger and the First Lieutenant, who had assumed command, dosed themselves on morphine and Benzedrine.
They got Amethyst off the sandbank, and moved her to a slightly safer berth; but Berger collapsed and was landed on the Nationalist-held shore. Chinese peasants bore him away on what seemed like an endless journey, but all they would tell him was ‘another five minutes’.
Berger reached Chinkiang and travelled by train to Shanghai, then on to a hospital ship where he recovered quickly enough to resume his duties, under Lt-Cdr John Kerans. Many months later, a gaunt Berger was on the bridge when Amethyst made a triumphal return to Devonport. In the film of the story, Yangtze Incident (1957), Richard Todd played Kerans and Michael Brill played Berger. The ship’s cat also enjoyed a walk- on part, though Berger confessed that he had ‘hated the bloody thing’.
Peter Egerton Capel Berger was bom on February 11 1925 and went to Harrow before entering the Royal Navy as a Cadet in 1943. He saw action at the landings in Normandy and on the south coast of France while serving in the cruiser HMS Ajax. Having specialised in navigation, he was Fleet Navigating Officer, Home Fleet, from 1956 to 1958, and navigator of the Royal Yacht Britannia from 1958 to 1960. While salvaging the High Commissioner’s yacht where it had gone aground on the reefs of the Solomon Islands, he was told of the birth of his first daughter. He navigated Britannia through both the Panama Canal and the Welland Canal in Canada and had the Queen, President Eisenhower and the Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on board for the historic opening of the St Lawrence Seaway.
At Thunder Bay, Ontario, Berger claimed two records for a ship flying the White Ensign: a height record of 600 ft above sea level, and the furthest from the sea, 2,800 miles. Returning from the Great Lakes, the Royal Yacht lost her anchor at midnight off Montreal. It was Berger’s responsibility as the navigator to ensure that the inboard end of the cable was secured, but he was exonerated after it was discovered that the chain had broken mid- length rather than run out from its locker.
From 1962 to 1964 Berger commanded the frigate HMS Torquay in the Dartmouth Training Squadron, where a twitch of his famously bushy eyebrows was sufficient to admonish any wayward cadet. In the rank of Captain, he was then sent to The Hague, as Defence, Naval and Military Attaché, from 1964 to 1966, returning to command the frigate HMS Phoebe (better known to the public as ‘HMS Hero’, from the television series of that name).
From 1971 to 1973, Berger was the first non- submariner to command the nuclear submarine base at Clyde, where he also developed a passion for fishing. From 1973 to 1975, he was Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Policy) when, although the fleet withdrew from East of Suez and ran down its base in Singapore, he helped to ensure that there was a considerable investment in new ships, like the Invincible class carriers and Type 22 frigates. The Navy’s ‘Cod War’ with Iceland over fishing limits led to Berger’s study of the ‘offshore tapestry’, the complex weave of British resources and risks, which included the protection of oil platforms in the North Sea from terrorist threats, as a result of which the Island class offshore patrol vessels were ordered.