Skip to main content

HMS Concord (Yangtze River Incident)

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am delighted to have secured this debate on what is an important topic to many people, and I hope that during the short time available we can provide some insight into the truth that the past 64 years have failed to reveal.

I would like to take right hon. and hon. Members back in time to 1949, to the Yangtze river of China during the Chinese civil war, and an historic event that has taken on the name “the Yangtze incident.” The event happened at a time when Great Britain was at peace, but it took us to the brink of a third world war. Much has been written about the incident, including a book that was made into a film, with Richard Todd in the starring role. Neither the book nor the film, however, comes anywhere near the truth of the story that is yet to be told.

This is not a story about one ship, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst, and her daring escape after three months’ incarceration by communist forces on the Yangtze river. It is the untold story of HMS Concord, a C-class destroyer that Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station, Admiral Sir E. J. Patrick Brind deployed into China’s Yangtze river as part of his endeavour to bring about the escape of HMS Amethyst.

I will first explain the position with regard to the civil war in China. Government policy at the time was governed by the Moscow declaration of December 1945, in which the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union declared a policy of non-intervention in China’s internal affairs. The known facts are that China was split into two warring parties, the Communist People’s Liberation Army, led by Mao Tse-tung, and the nationalist army, under the Kuomintang. As the Chinese civil war raged on, the communists began to make headway on the shores of the Yangtze river near the city of Nanking, and warned that any foreign ships in the river would be attacked. Right hon. and hon. Members might wonder what the importance of that is, and the answer is simple: it endorses the fact that the Yangtze river was a known war zone.

I said at the outset that I would like to take us back in time. The date was 20 April 1949. A British warship, HMS Concord, was stationed at Nanking, to act as guard ship to the British embassy and to evacuate staff and other British nationals if necessary. She had been there for some time, and her relief was long overdue and her stores depleted. The relief ship was His Majesty’s Australian Ship, Shoalhaven, which was at Shanghai and should have relieved HMS Concord on 16 April. The relief did not take place; the Shoalhaven was stood down.

HMS Amethyst, en route to Nanking up the river Yangtze to relieve the guard ship HMS Concord, came under heavy fire from the north bank. At nearby Rose island she ran aground, was severely damaged and suffered heavy casualties, with more than 50 members of the crew killed, dying or seriously injured. The captain was mortally wounded and the first lieutenant, though wounded, took command. The communists continued to fire at Amethyst and, to save further loss of life, about 60 lightly wounded and uninjured crew members were evacuated ashore, but further evacuation stopped when those in the water came under fire. Those put ashore eventually arrived in Shanghai and were treated in hospital.

At this juncture, it should also be remembered that before all of that two other ships, the frigate HMS Black Swan and the cruiser HMS London, were involved, along with HMS Concord, in an attempt to assist Amethyst’s escape. Due to the narrowness of the Yangtze river, none of the ships was able to manoeuvre and they were, in effect, sitting ducks for the communist field guns. All three ships suffered heavy damage and casualties in the attempts, and it was decided that to proceed further would be disastrous for them and their crews. The order was given to return to Shanghai.

On 21 April, HMS Amethyst was refloated, and on 22 April Lieutenant Commander Kerans arrived on board from Nanking, where he was assistant naval attaché, and took command. Amethyst remained incarcerated for 100 days, and the fact that HMS Concord entered the Yangtze to aid Amethyst in the aftermath of her escape has been denied. The involvement of HMS Concord was hidden or deleted from any public or official record.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. One of my constituents is a veteran sailor from HMS Concord, and his concern has always been that the Ministry of Defence denied that the ship was ever in the Yangtze. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Sir John Holmes’s medal review, which acknowledges that the presence of HMS Concord is now no longer in doubt, goes some way towards proving that my constituent and other such gentlemen have, for many years, been right?

Yes, indeed. I accept that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I know that she has a personal interest in the matter, particularly regarding the award of medals, and I will touch later on the Sir John Holmes review.

Concord’s logbook was removed, and without evidence to the contrary nothing could be proven, until now. Despite efforts to prevent the truth from emerging, personal accounts of HMS Concord’s part in the events, given by my constituent Mr William Leitch of Livingston and members of the HMS Concord Association, provide an overwhelming insight into the risks that Concord was subjected to when ordered into the Yangtze river. Mr Leitch has been in touch with me on the issue over the three years since I was elected to Parliament, and he is delighted that I am able to have this Adjournment debate. He will no doubt be watching live on the internet.

What follows has always been denied by the Government, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty. When it was obvious that negotiations for a safe passage downriver were leading nowhere, Lieutenant Commander Kerans informed Admiral Brind in a coded signal that he planned to break out that evening. Admiral Brind, without reference to the Admiralty or the Foreign Office, signalled to HMS Concord, which was patrolling in the South China sea, to proceed upriver to meet Amethyst and, should the Woosung forts open fire, Concord was to return fire in support of Amethyst. When Amethyst made her escape on the night of 30 July 1949, one other ship, the destroyer HMS Concord, entered the Chinese territorial waters of the Yangtze to escort and cover the ship past the massive guns of the Woosung forts, which were the last obstacle before reaching the open South China sea.

The duty quartermaster was ordered to go around the ship and tell everyone, by word of mouth—not piping it over the tannoy as the sound would carry over the water and could alert the enemy—that the ship would up anchor and proceed upriver. The Concord was challenged by a nationalist gunboat and ordered not to travel any further. Stopping until the nationalist ship had left the vicinity, the Concord then sailed past the heavily armed Woosung forts to meet Amethyst. At the forts, Concord, on sighting Amethyst, sent the signal, “Fancy meeting you here”, to which Amethyst replied,

“Never, repeat never, has a ship been more welcome.”

Lieutenant Commander Kerans then signalled Admiral Brind, with a copy to the Admiralty:

“South of Woosung… Have rejoined the fleet… No damage or casualties… God save the King.”

Having passed the Woosung forts without their opening fire, the Concord, still in the Yangtze river, transferred supplies and 147 tons of fuel to the Amethyst, which had only 7 tons left. Both ships made it into the neutral waters of the South China sea and set course for the British province of Hong Kong.

The Concord was soon met by HMS Cossack, whose captain boarded the ship, removed its log book and took with him any evidence of the Concord’s involvement. The move to expunge any mention of its involvement with Amethyst was in motion. Admiral Brind went public and informed the news media that he had decided to authorise and endeavour, despite the risk, to bring about HMS Amethyst’s escape from China’s Yangtze river.

Hon. Members may wonder why there was so much concern to hide the fact that Concord had dashed up the Yangtze to assist Amethyst. The answer is simple: to prevent an international incident when cold war tensions were high. Had the Communists been aware that Concord had gone to the aid of Amethyst and entered Chinese territorial waters, the political consequences might have been catastrophic. Admiral Brind going public on what amounted to a covert mission that he had authorised would obviously upset the diplomatic apple cart.

After Concord and Amethyst had cleared the Yangtze river into the open sea, Sir Ralph Stevenson, the British ambassador in Nanking, sent a telegram to the Foreign Office, with copies to the commander-in-chief Far East station and the Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Canton embassies. He stated:

“No repeat no publicity should be given to the fact that H. M. Ship Concord entered Chinese territorial waters… It might help to lessen the possible repercussions upon British communities in Communist occupied territory if public statements could stress that the escape of H. M. Ship Amethyst was due to the initiative of the officer in command in accordance with the best traditions of a sailor responsible for the safety of his ship and the welfare of the ship’s company and that his intention to do so was not revealed to any of us out here.”

In other words, “If the balloon goes up and politically everything goes pear-shaped, we blame Lieutenant Commander Kerans and hang him out to dry.”

That telegram removed any official mention of the Concord’s involvement in the Yangtze incident. The move to expunge any mention of Concord’s involvement with Amethyst was going full speed ahead. Although Admiral Brind had ordered Concord to enter the Yangtze and escort Amethyst past the Woosung forts, he had no alternative but to comply with Ambassador Stevenson’s instructions. Consequently, a press release was issued and this report appeared in the Evening News on Saturday 6 August 1949:

“A Navy spokesman stated that the destroyer Concord had been waiting at the mouth of the Yangtze and was prepared to go up river to the aid of the Amethyst if needed”.

It is clear from the evidence that on the date and at the time that Admiral Brind gave the order, he committed HMS Concord and the ship’s company to a situation in which the risk to life and limb exerted by enemy forces was significantly above what UK armed services personnel might routinely be expected to tolerate. In recognition of the action, the officers and ship’s company of HMS Amethyst, together with those who served on three other Royal Navy ships that took part in the early stages of the incident, were awarded the Yangtze 1949 clasp to the Naval General Service Medal 1915.

I am concerned that that aspect of the incident is being sidelined. The committee responsible for compiling the 1949 Yangtze campaign awards scheme—the Sir John Holmes review—was not invited to look into HMS Concord’s role in the incident covering the dates from 28 to 31 July 1949. In other words, officially Concord was not there. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate how frustrating that is. The Minister should understand the strength of feeling behind the Concord veterans’ claim that they should be eligible for the NGSM Yangtze 1949 clasp.

The unrecognised heroes of the Yangtze incident—victims of Government skulduggery—are not claiming heroism or bravery; they simply believe that some official recognition should be instituted. Today, a large question mark hangs over the Yangtze incident. I fear that it appears to have been a cover-up that may be ongoing to this day. Indeed, this debate may already have some people cringing in high office within the Government and the Admiralty.

To sum up, for 64 years the true story of HMS Amethyst’s dramatic escape from China’s Yangtze river has been suppressed. The House may now wish to have a full account of the circumstances in which His Majesty’s ships were fired on in the Yangtze river with grievous casualties and damage. I urge the Government to abandon diplomatic caution and investigate the circumstances in the process of awarding medals to those involved in the Yangtze campaign and, in particular, investigate whether the process was corrupted by the exclusion of relevant and important documents relating to the role of HMS Concord in the Yangtze campaign on 30 and 31 July 1949.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to offer and, perhaps more importantly, to whether he can confirm that the Government will conduct a review with due diligence and propriety. The House deserves to be told the truth and given an accurate account of HMS Concord’s role in the 1949 Yangtze incident.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I thank him for providing me with an opportunity to speak on this matter. I will try to make the Government’s position clear.

I will begin by speaking briefly about the Yangtze incident, drawing on the official accounts from the time. On 20 April 1949, HMS Amethyst was sailing up the river Yangtze to relieve HMS Consort, which was stationed at Nanking as the guard ship for the British embassy during the Chinese civil war. While en route, HMS Amethyst came under fire from a communist gun battery. Amethyst returned fire, but shells hit the wheelhouse and the bridge, killing or injuring everyone except the Yeoman of Signals. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Skinner, was mortally wounded and later died ashore. The damage to the wheelhouse had jammed the steering gear and the ship ran aground. Unfortunately, the doctor and a sick berth attendant were also killed when the quarterdeck was hit. HMS Amethyst continued to return fire with the only one of her three twin-mounted guns that could be brought to bear on the battery.

On receipt of Amethyst’s signal that she was aground and under fire, HMS Consort sailed from Nanking and reached the Amethyst at 1500 hours. Consort also came under fire and sustained casualties. Consort’s captain decided that it would be impossible to take Amethyst in tow, and Consort continued down the Yangtze.

On 21 April, HMS London and HMS Black Swan were ordered up the Yangtze to aid Amethyst. Both ships came under fire at point blank range: London was repeatedly hit and holed in her superstructure and bridge. The Chinese pilot was killed, the navigating officer mortally wounded, bridge communications were cut, five fires were started and numerous casualties were sustained. The ships were ordered back down the river. On her way down, London’s fire on the Communists was effective but she was fired at again and suffered more casualties.

On the evening of 21 April, a Royal Air Force Sunderland flying boat alighted near the Amethyst and succeeded in transferring an RAF medical officer and medical supplies, before being forced by gunfire to take off again. Around the same time, the British naval attaché, Lieutenant Commander Kerans, took command of the Amethyst and started negotiations with the Communist authorities.

During these initial two days, the Royal Navy suffered three officers and 42 ratings killed, and seven officers and 104 ratings wounded. Amethyst remained under the guns of the People’s Liberation Army for 10 weeks, with vital supplies being withheld from the ship.

In late July, Lieutenant Commander Kerans decided to break Amethyst out of the location where she had been since 20 April and to regain the open sea. On the evening of 30/31 July, taking the opportunity of a dark night and a favourable tide, the ship slipped anchor and, following the passenger ship Kiang Ling Liberation, sailed down river. The shore batteries opened fire once again. HMS Concord was ordered up the river to provide assistance and, if necessary, fire support.

Concord’s ship’s log for July 1949, which is available at the National Archives at Kew—I have a copy with me this afternoon—shows that on the evening of 30 July she was at 10 minutes’ notice for steam, later reduced to two hours’ notice. At 0145 hours on the morning of 31 July, she moved to a position ready to proceed up the river and at 0345 hours she weighed anchor and proceeded into the river. After sailing 57 nautical miles, she sighted Amethyst at 0525 hours. Concord turned round and provided escort as the two ships passed down river. This manoeuvre was successful and from the time Concord sighted Amethyst there was no enemy action and both ships returned safely. As her log records show, Concord stood down from action stations at 0715 hours, and at just after midday the main engines were switched off. As the hon. Gentleman rightly reminded us, at the mouth of the river, Lieutenant Commander Kerans sent the following signal from Amethyst:

“Have rejoined the fleet south of Woosung, no damage or casualties. God Save The King.”

A number of veterans of the Yangtze incident have been campaigning for several years for an independent review of the policy and for the award of the Naval General Service Medal with clasp Yangtze 1949 to HMS Concord’s ship’s company. The hon. Gentleman is a strong and vocal supporter of those veterans, as demonstrated by today’s proceedings, and a while ago he wrote to my predecessor about this subject on behalf of one of his constituents.

For many years, the policy of successive Administrations was that no consideration would be given to reviewing the qualifying criteria for existing medals more than five years after the events these awards were instituted to recognise. That general policy remains in place, but given the strong feelings of veterans from a number of campaigns regarding several medallic issues, the Prime Minister asked Sir John Holmes, a retired and respected senior diplomat, to conduct an independent, comprehensive military medals review. He was supported in this by Brigadier Brian Parritt CBE, retired. One element of Sir John’s work was a specific review of the eligibility of HMS Concord’s ship’s company for the Yangtze clasp, and what I say now draws heavily on his conclusions.

It is clear from contemporary documents that the Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp was awarded for

“specified service and the exceptionally trying and dangerous conditions in which their duty was carried out by the Amethyst, Consort, London and Black Swan and those members of the Army and Royal Air Force who were involved in the short period 20 April to 22 April 1949”.

In considering this matter, the Holmes review accepted that HMS Concord did enter the Yangtze on 31 July 1949, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and the hon. Gentleman said. For the avoidance of all doubt, I am happy to place that on the record this afternoon. While there, Concord met HMS Amethyst and escorted her out of the estuary. It is, of course, recognised that there was a degree of risk involved in this, given the shore batteries in particular. However, the ship’s log makes it clear that HMS Concord was not fired upon at any point.

Is it not officially recorded that the river was also mined and therefore that there was substantial risk to all vessels on the river?

I am not denying that there was an element of risk involved in this, but it is nevertheless a matter of record that the other ships involved in the action were fired on by the Chinese shore batteries, and also a matter of record that Concord was not.

The independent Holmes review concluded that those making the decision in 1949 regarding eligibility for the medal would have been aware of Concord’s actions, but did not consider these sufficient in themselves to justify a recommendation of an award of the clasp to the ship’s company. If there was a wish to include Concord in the specified list, there was ample time to do so in August, October and November 1949, when the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals reviewed the qualifying criteria for the medal.

The Holmes review considered the award of the clasp to HMS Concord’s ship’s company thoroughly and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show that the omission of the ship as a qualifying unit for the clasp was wrong or unreasonable, and that there was no new reason to overturn the original decision. Consequently, the review upheld the original position taken at the time. The review also concluded that there was no evidence to support claims that the ship’s company was overlooked deliberately, for diplomatic or political reasons. The findings have since been endorsed by the Honours and Decorations Committee, in late 2012, and Sir John wrote to Mr Peter Lee-Hale, the chairman of the HMS Concord Association, in January this year, setting out the reasons for his conclusions.

I am advised that for many years the men of HMS Concord wanted this position reviewed again by an independent authority—someone independent of the Ministry of Defence. The Holmes review has now taken place. It was an independent review that went back to the original documents at the time. As a result, I am reassured that this matter has now been subject to a comprehensive and thorough review by impartial authorities and, although I recognise the depth of feeling about this matter, well expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and fully acknowledge the efforts of the ship’s company, I can only reiterate that there are no plans, I am afraid, to reconsider the qualifying criteria for this medal.

I entirely accept that the hon. Gentleman is acting in good conscience, as are all those who advocate a change. I therefore recognise that the Government’s position, which I have re-stated today, will no doubt be disappointing for the veterans of HMS Concord and their families. However, the actions of Concord’s crew in 1949 have been brought to the public’s attention through the coverage of their long campaign for additional recognition. This debate will place another entry in the parliamentary record.

In conclusion, I wish to take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to HMS Concord’s contribution to the defence of our nation and to her crew, whose actions were fully in line with the proud traditions of the Royal Navy.