- Francis, Richard
- Biographies and personal histories, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cerberus (Shore Establishment)
- March 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Fortunately, the gunboats’ well-exercised radio net began to organise support for the stand-off at Wanhsien. The Yangtse River Senior Officer, Cmdr Berryman in HMS Widgeon, and his superiors in Chunking, the Commander-in-Chief in Hong Kong, the Admiralty, and the Foreign Office, British Minister in Peking, all were made aware of the situation. Some Chinese members of Cockchafer’s crew were detained ashore in Wanhsien, and the ship’s sampan coolie murdered. The British Consul from Chunking arrived by launch on 1 September, conferred with Lt Cdr Acheson, then visited General Yang Sen, who alleged that two sampans had been sunk by SS Wanlui with the loss of 56 Chinese soldiers, in addition to $85,000 cash (in levied taxes), which had been intended to have been placed on board for safe transit. In a furious interview, General Yang demanded reparations or else the river would be closed to British shipping. In response, the British Consul, Mr Eastes, advised Yang that if any British ships were fired upon, HMS Cockchafer would reply with her 6″ main armament.
The next day Cockchafer received a radio message from Marshal Wu ordering his erratic subordinate to release the British steamers. Mr Eastes handed this to Yang, who tore it up in a rage, shouting that he was already in personal contact with the Marshal. HMS Widgeon (Cmdr Berryman RN) arrived on the evening of 3 September to support the Cockchafer.
The Failure of the British Plan
Meanwhile, it had been agreed (in view of Yang’s attitude) that plans be put in train to free the British merchantmen by means of a cutting out expedition. In command was the Executive Officer of the cruiser HMS Despatch, Commander Frederick Darley, RN, in a chartered Jardine Mathesen steamer SS Kiawo, which had been prepared for the task by the installation of extra steel plate and sandbag protection, and armed with a 2 pdr pom pom and machine guns. The boarding party comprised men from the cruiser, HMS Despatch at Hankow, and from the gunboats HM Ships Mantis and Scarab. SS Kiawo steamed up river under the Red Ensign and arrived on the evening of Sunday 5 September at Wanhsien. In spite of the disguise as a merchantman, her arrival appeared to have been expected and she was greeted with rifle fire as she rounded the final bend of the river.
In typical Hornblower fashion, she hoisted the White Ensign and laid herself alongside SS Wanhsien. As she grappled the hostage ship, the “Charge” was sounded and the boarding party stormed across, armed with rifles and truncheons. However, they were heavily outnumbered and the Chinese troops fought back from pre-positioned nests of machine guns behind sandbags and a steady rifle fire emanated from all deck openings. During heavy fighting the boarding party rescued the British officers and 5 members of the crew, but Cdr Darley was shot dead on deck. His second-in-command, Lt Fogg-Elliott, prudently decided that the vessel could not be recaptured, and retired, with the intention of rescuing the officers of SS Wantung.
Amidst all this action and confusion, the battle became general, with heavy fire being directed at the British ships from the shore. Cockchafer already had the Chinese headquarters in her sights and quickly reduced it to rubble with well-aimed salvoes of 6″ shells, although Yang himself was absent. Other targets on the waterfront were then shelled and fires broke out all over the city. The smaller guns targeted the Chinese artillery and a right battle royal ensued. Lt Cdr Acheson was wounded by sniper fire, but continued to direct the bombardment. Onboard SS Wantung the Master, Captain Bates, his Chief Officer and Chief Engineer managed to escape from the saloon over the stern bulwark, to crouch on the rubbing strake below the rail.
Casting off from the Wanhsien, Lt Fogg-Elliott managed to close the stern of the Wantung to rescue Captain Bates, but his companions had earlier attempted to swim across to a small French gunboat, Doudart de Lagree, anchored across the river, passively observing the fierce action taking place. Only one man made it to safety and rescue by the French. As he passed Widgeon, Lt Fogg-Elliott shouted that he had assumed command (but could not be heard in the melee) and set off down river, realising that little more could be achieved in the ever-darkening twilight. Evidently in agreement, Cmdr Berryman ordered Widgeon and Cockchafer to follow, anchoring 5 miles downstream from the burning city. Despite rescuing most of the British crews, the expedition had not been an unqualified success as neither ship had been recaptured, at the cost of 3 officers and 4 ratings killed, and 2 officers and 13 ratings wounded.
As the reverberations of the incident rumbled on the international scene, China lodged a formal complaint with the League of Nations and there was a period of anti-foreign agitation and riots across China, accompanied by looting of European businesses and attacks on individuals. Thus became known the Wanhsien Incident. In the aftermath of this tension the Royal Navy reinforced the China Fleet with an additional cruiser squadron from the Mediterranean, accompanied later by the gunboats HM Ships Aphis and Ladybird from Malta. A year later further additions to the river gunboat patrol arrived in the form of the modern Bird Class gunboats, HM Ships Gannet, Peterel, Seamew and Tern, (and even later by the Falcon, Robin and Sandpiper) who were to remain until the outbreak of WW2.