- Hughes, W.R.N., RCNC
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A few days later they saw the Communists cross the river and from then on the ship was left as an oasis in the middle of Communist territory.
In Shanghai, local firms were patching the worst of the holes in London, Black Swan and Consort and in due course they arrived in Hong Kong for yet further patching. The wounded from these ships and those who had come from Amethyst were taken by the US Hospital Ship Repose and brought down to Hong Kong. Repose arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday, 1st May and the wounded were taken straight to the RN Hospital. They could not say enough for the kindness and efficiency of the Americans.
It so happened that a prominent journalist was in Hong Kong at the time, and he splashed over the papers of the world, some ill-considered, unkind, and quite unjustified remarks regarding the apathy of the population of Hong Kong who had made no attempt to welcome the wounded. In fact, the arrival of Repose was deliberately not publicised and the public were rightly excluded from the dockyard, so that there should be no interference with the swift and quiet transference of the wounded to the shore hospital. The feeling of the public was shown quite clearly by the flood of books, fruit, flowers, etc. that appeared at the hospital and the competition to entertain the men in private houses when they became convalescent.
Back to Amethyst at anchor in the Yangtse. Batteries had been set up on shore, overlooking her on all sides, with the threat that one move and they would blast her out of the water. Sentries were watching her day and night. Very soon, contact was made with a Colonel Kang who claimed at first that he was military commander of the batteries that had fired on the ship. It later transpired, however, that he was in fact a political commissar and a very important man in the area. There followed, over the months, an endless succession of meetings with Colonel Kang, mostly on shore. At first they consisted of preliminary skirmishing round the point of why did Amethyst ‘invade’ China without the permission of the ‘legal’ Chinese Government (the Communists) and who fired first.
Quite early on, Kerens obtained a guarantee that the Communists would take no more offensive action against the ship, provided she did not move without their permission, and then his efforts were concentrated on getting a safe conduct for the ship down river. Kang refused to have any dealings with the Ambassador and his staff in Nanking, and many meetings were spent in deciding with whom he would deal. Finally he demanded that Kerens must be given full authority to act and sign in the name of the C-in-C, Far East Fleet, and this was agreed. Further meetings led to a buildup of his requirements before he would give a safe conduct to the ship which boiled down to Kerens signing for C-in-C a statement to the effect, firstly that Amethyst had violated Chinese territory without having obtained the permission of the legal government, secondly that she had opened fire on the Chinese first, and thirdly that responsibility was accepted and compensation would be paid for the loss of life and damage to Chinese property. Kerens, of course, refused to agree to any of these points, and meeting after meeting went by arguing round and round these three points and getting nowhere.
There was a continual flow of messages between Amethyst and C-in-C – at first all in plain language since all codes and indeed all secret information and apparatus, had been destroyed right at the beginning, lest it fall into Communist hands. Later, however, various codes were devised, but they were not very safe nor of much use for long and complicated the messages, so that the Chinese probably had a pretty good idea of what messages from the C-in-C Kerens was to give them, and how far he could go before each meeting.
Over the months, the feelings both in Amethyst and in Singapore and Hong Kong were continually going up and down – as Kerens said, like a sine curve. For a few days, it would seem that all was going well and that the Communists would be ready to give a safe conduct very soon; then right down to complete stalemate and deep depression.
A major worry over the whole time was the supply of food, some essential spares such as radio valves, and particularly oil fuel. Some food could be bought locally and on a few occasions, after prolonged negotiations and many setbacks, stores did arrive from Shanghai. And once they managed to get some oil-fuel left in Nanking sent down, but usually after days of negotiations with high hopes of speedy agreement the whole thing would become bogged down in frustration.
On one occasion an invitation was received for the Chinese mess boys on board to come ashore to a party. The mess boys were far from keen, but it was felt to be impolite to refuse, so finally four were sent with a statement that the others could not be spared. Shortly before they came back, a Chinese merchant ship going down river was fired on by the battery overlooking Amethyst, the shells passing close over the ship. This infuriated Kerens so much that when a Communist officer brought the mess boys back to the ship, Kerens had him up on deck and harangued him at great length about the breach of faith in firing so close to Amethyst after their promises not to molest the ship any further. As this harangue was drawing to a close one of the mess boys in the back ground, with teeth chattering, could be heard muttering, ‘Don’t be too hard on him, Sir, don’t be too hard on him. Wait till we get back to Hong Kong and then write him a stiff note’.
The ship’s company were kept astonishingly well and contented all things considered. There was plenty of work to be done in trying to make the ship seaworthy, and indeed the damage control shoring and patching, all done under the direction of the Electrical Officer, Lieut. Commander (L) Strain, was a model for anyone. They had record programmes over the SRE and periodically the BBC in UK broadcast special request programmes to them. By the beginning of July, however, things were becoming pretty desperate. Oil fuel was getting very low, so low that for days at a time they would shut down, and then swelter in the terrific heat with no fans running. Food reserves were getting small and they were on half rations. The negotiations for a safe conduct were going over and over the same old ground and obviously getting nowhere, so Kerens began to think very seriously of a break-out – an idea, one would have thought, to daunt the bravest.
It being well into the typhoon season, on 7th July Amethyst made to C-in-C. ‘Grateful your advice on my action if menaced by a typhoon’. C-in-C thought there must be more in this than met the eye, so in his reply, having made some soothing remarks about good holding ground in case the signal was straight forward, added ‘The golden rule of making an offing and taking plenty of searoom applies particularly’.
This was intended to tell Kerens that if he thought he had a chance to break out, he should do so. FO 2i/c also replied to the signal talking about two anchors, extra cable and so on, so that Kerens began to wonder whether he was reading too much into C-in- C’s signal. However, in other signals during the month, C-in-C kept adding phrases to the effect that he would support Kerens in any action he considered necessary, so finally Kerens decided that at the first good opportunity, he would make a dash for it, and if he failed, would blow up the ship. The necessary conditions, he decided, were that there should be a typhoon about, preferably just gone past, so that the banks of the Yangtse would be flooded, and all batteries on low lying ground would be removed, and so that the look-outs especially at Woosung forts at the mouth, which he never hoped to pass in the dark, would have their heads well down; also that it should be a dark night with no moon. In mid-July a pretty hefty typhoon started on its wanderings and on 24th July entered the China Coast and in the event came much too close to Amethyst for comfort. She rode it out well enough, though at the cost of a heavy expenditure of precious oil-fuel, but with the winds she could never have turned, so they abandoned thoughts of using that one. New moon was on 25th July, so they had to do it soon or never.