- 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)
Shortly news came of another typhoon which would miss them by a more comfortable margin, and so on the afternoon of 30th July, with only 55 tons of oil fuel remaining, Kerens decided to break out that night. Just before 4 p.m. he made a signal in one of his codes to C-in-C, repeated Concord who was hanging about at the mouth of the Yangtse, saying that he intended slipping at 10 p.m. This was running it decidedly late for getting right out before dawn, but he dared not start earlier because the moon did not set until 11 p.m.
Immediately it was dark they started altering the silhouette of the ship with canvas screens, etc., to try to confuse any alert sentries into mistaking her for a merchant ship. To enable the cable to be slipped quietly they broke a joining shackle, leaving the outboard part held by only the slip and a 1 inch hemp tail round a bollard and wrapped the cable where it entered the hawse pipe in some hammock bedding well soaked with soft soap. Then at 10 p.m. just as they were going to slip, a fully-lighted merchant ship appeared and went on down the river ahead of them. They let her get well past, and at 10.12 p.m. slipped, turned in the river, and followed in her wake.
Almost immediately, the merchant ship was challenged and made some reply. Then Amethyst was challenged, and no reply being forthcoming, heavy artillery and Oerlikon fore opened up. A Communist gunboat anchored ahead of Amethyst started firing at the shore batteries, the merchant ship got scared and put out all her lights and complete confusion reigned. Amethyst cracked on at full speed and escaped with only one hit forward on the waterline. When they last saw the merchant ship she was well on fire, and shooting was still going on.
As they carried on down river they often came under fire, but their speed and the use of smoke and helm enabled them to get away without further hits. The crucial point of the passage was still ahead, however. Kiangyin, about fifty miles down from their starting point, was heavily defended with well-placed batteries and there was a boom consisting of a line of sunken ships with a gap left near the middle, and of course what form of gate, if any, there was in the gap, they did not know. In the event they got through without damage although they came under very heavy fire.
They were reporting to C-in-C at intervals as they came down, and at about 2.30 a.m. having covered 100 miles, made ‘100 up’.
Exceeding their hopes, they were passing the forts at Woosung as first light was just breaking and apparently were not seen. Shortly afterwards they could see Concord. One can imagine the emotion they must have felt, and at 5.30 a.m. they made their most famous signal ‘Have rejoined Fleet. Am South of Woosung. No damage or casualties. God save the King’.
It was a quite incredible effort, and frankly when I first heard she was out, I didn’t believe it. The passage was made in 7¼ hours at an average speed of 22 knots. Most of it was made with revs. for 18 knots, cracking on full speed wherever they were under fire. There was a strong current helping them but the feat of navigation is almost unbelievable. When they reached Concord they had only 9 tons of oil left.
C-in-C was in Belfast in Hong Kong at the time, and on the Saturday evening (30th July) was giving a dinner party on board, but the guests did not get much attention once the signals started coming in. On Sunday afternoon FO 2i/c sailed in Jamaica and joined up with Cossack to go and meet Amethyst. Kerens, however, was on the crest of a wave and would not wait for Jamaica; having oiled from Concord, he came on to meet them halfway. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3rd August, Jamaica, Cossack and Belfast entered Hong Kong Harbour in that order. Jamaica and Cossack hauled out of line and stopped astern of Belfast, and Amethyst came on past the line being wildly cheered the whole way. It was a very wet and misty day, but the whole of Hong Kong must have gathered on the waterfront, and the noise of cheering, ships’ sirens and strings upon strings of Chinese crackers was deafening, as Amethyst went slowly right up harbour, turned and came back alongside the North Arm of the Dockyard where the Governor, C-in-C, GOC, AOC and so on were waiting to go on board. There was immense enthusiasm, and a tremendous fillip for our rather sagging ‘face’, but I personally found it rather a sad moment seeing the wellremembered pennant numbers FI 16 looming through the mist and knowing that there would be no cheery wave from Bill Skinner. Immediately the formalities were over, the ship’s company went on leave and a round of parties. As a Constructor, I became seriously disturbed whether the topweight of all the guests and the free service of all the gin would make the ship unstable. There was a typhoon warning in force at the time, but the Naval authorities decided that it was not sufficiently serious to necessitate moving Amethyst, no doubt being swayed by thoughts of the ship having to cancel her party. However, during the night, it really blew hard, and the ship had to go out to a buoy under rather difficult conditions. In the process the tugs did some damage to the ship, but we got her alongside next morning, made a rush job of patching up the damage, and she sailed on time.
The officers and men of Amethyst have been feted to no mean tune and deservedly so, but I do think that this article would not be complete without mention of one who has been hardly heard of – the Flotilla Electrical Officer, Lt. Commander (L) Strain. Jock Strain belongs properly to Black Swan but was ordered to do a pierhead jump into Amethyst for the trip to Nanking. He was in the ship for the whole of her time on the Yangtse, and after the Engineer Officer was sent ashore right at the beginning, was the only technical officer in the ship. He did a fine job of damage control from the hull point of view, and rigged up a complete system of 24 volt lighting through the ship when the main runs of wiring were obviously beyond his capacity to repair. Whilst the ship was in Hong Kong, he was indefatigable in helping all Departments of the Yard to find defects which must be repaired, and then when she sailed for UK he quite cheerfully returned to the comparative obscurity of Flotilla (L) in Black Swan And so ends a story which began in horror and tremendous loss of ‘Face’ for Britain throughout the East and up to a point throughout the world, continued in frustration, and ended in one passage so bold in conception, so brilliantly carried out that almost the whole world acclaimed it.