HL Deb 26 April 1949 vol 162 cc23-35

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, I ask leave of your Lordships to intervene to make a statement on the circumstances in which His Majesty's ships were fired upon in the Yangtse River. The statement is similar to one now being made by the Prime Minister in another place.

The House will wish to have a full account of the circumstances in which His Majesty's ships were fired upon in the Yangtse River, with grievous casualties and damage. I will first explain what our position is with regard to the civil war in China. It has been repeatedly stated in this House that our policy has been 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. In view of the considerable British interests in China and of the presence of large British communities, His Majesty's Government decided some months ago that His Majesty's Ambassador and His Majesty's consular officers in China should remain at their posts, and this was announced to the House by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on December 9. We were not alone in the decision to remain at Nanking. Other Powers represented there, with the exception of the Soviet Union, reached the same decision, and there has since been full consultation between the members of the Diplomatic Corps at Nanking.

In the disturbed conditions which have prevailed in recent months, warships of various Powers have been at Shanghai and Nanking so that in the event of a breakdown of law and order as the result of hostilities they would be able to assist in the evacuation of their nationals. When the Chinese Government decided to move to Canton, it is true that a warning was issued about warships in the Yangtse. Nevertheless it is a fact that since that time the movements of our warships in the Yangtse have taken place with the full knowledge and consent of the National Government of China. I want to make the point, therefore, that, when the incident took place to which I am about to refer, H.M.S. "Amethyst" was proceeding on her lawful occasions, and that there was no other properly constituted authority to whom His Majesty's Government were under an obligation to notify her movements even had they been in a position to do so.

The House will wish to know whether any steps were taken by our authorities in China to make contact with the Communist authorities. Some time has lapsed since Communist forces overran Mukden, Peking and Tientsin where we have consular posts. His Majesty's consular officers at these posts have been endeavouring for some time past to reach day-to-day working arrangements with the local authorities. Their approaches have, however, been rejected on every occasion, without any reason being given for such a rejection. The same policy was followed in rejecting a letter from His Majesty's Consul in Peking about the "Amethyst" when the incident had occurred.

In conformity with the decision to remain at Nanking, His Majesty's ships had been relieving one another at that port at regular intervals for some months past. On this occasion the object of the passage of H.M.S. "Amethyst" was to relieve H.M.S. "Consort" at Nanking. Opposing Chinese forces had been massed along the banks of the Yangtse for a considerable time and there were repeated rumours for some weeks that the Communists were about to cross the river. H.M.S. "Consort" was already overdue for relief, but this relief was postponed in view of a Communist ultimatum which was due to expire on April 12 and which might have been followed by the crossing of the Yangtse. On April 12 His Majesty's Ambassador learned that the ultimatum had been extended to April 15. The relief had therefore still to be postponed. Only on April 18 was it learned that the final expiry of the ultimatum might lead to the crossing of the Yangtse by the Communist forces on April 21. The necessity for relieving H.M.S. "Consort" as early as possible remained. She was running short of supplies after a long stay at Nanking and in any case a frigate was considered more suitable than a destroyer to be stationed at that port. The Flag Officer therefore decided, with the agreement of His Majesty's Ambassador, that the passage should be timed to allow "Amethyst" to reach Nanking a clear twenty-four hours before the expiry of the latest Communist ultimatum. Had there been no incident, "Amethyst" would have reached Nanking on April 20. It was in the light of these known facts that the decision was made for "Amethyst" to sail, and this decision was in my opinion correct.

Thus early on Tuesday, April 19, the frigate H.M.S. "Amethyst" (Lieutenant-Commander Skinner) sailed f r o m Shanghai for Nanking, wearing the White Ensign and the Union Jack and with the Union Jack painted on her hull. When "Amethyst" reached a point on the Yangtse River some sixty miles from Nanking, at about nine o'clock, Chinese time, in the morning of the 20th, she came under heavy fire from batteries on the north bank, suffered considerable damage and casualties and eventually grounded on Rose Island. After this, the captain decided to land about sixty of her crew, including her wounded, who got ashore by swimming or in sampans, being shelled and machine-gunned as they did so. We know that a large proportion have, with Chinese help, arrived at Shanghai.

Vice - Admiral Madden, the Flag Officer Second in Command Far Eastern Station, ordered the destroyer H.M.S. "Consort" (Commander Robertson) from Nanking to go to "Amethyst's" assistance, and the frigate H.M.S. "Black Swan" (Captain Jay) from Shanghai to Kiang Yin, forty miles down river from the "Amethyst." "Consort" reached "Amethyst" at about three in the afternoon and was immediately heavily engaged. She found the fire too heavy to approach "Amethyst" and therefore passed her at speed down river. She turned two miles below and again closed "Amethyst" to take her in tow. But she again came under such heavy fire that she was obliged to abandon the attempt, although she answered the shore batteries with her full armament and signalled that she had silenced most of the opposition. Half an hour later her signals ceased, though in fact she was making a second attempt to take "Amethyst" in tow, having turned downstream again. This attempt also failed and she sustained further damage and casualties during which her steering was affected. She therefore had to continue downstream out of the firing area.

Meanwhile, the cruiser H.M.S. "London" (Captain Cazalet), wearing the flag of Flag Officer Second in Command, was also proceeding up the Yangtse at best speed. The three ships "London," "Black Swan," and "Consort" met at Kiang Yin at about eight that evening. It was found that "Consort" was extensively damaged; she was ordered to proceed to Shanghai to land her dead and wounded and effect repairs. At about two o'clock in the morning of the 21st, the "Amethyst" succeeded in refloating herself by her own efforts and anchored two miles above Rose Island. She could go no further, as her chart was destroyed. Her hull was holed in several places, her captain severely wounded, her first lieutenant wounded, and her doctor killed. There were only four unwounded officers left, and one telegraphist to carry out all wireless communications.

Later the same morning the "London" and the "Black Swan" endeavoured to close the "Amethyst," but met with heavy fire causing some casualties. The fire was, of course, returned, but the Flag Officer then decided that it would not be possible to bring the damaged "Amethyst" down river without further serious loss of life in all ships; he therefore ordered the "London" and "Black Swan" to return to Kiang Yin. At Kiang Yin they were fired upon by batteries, and suffered considerable casualties and damage. Both ships afterwards proceeded to Shanghai to land their dead and wounded and to effect repairs. That afternoon a naval and a Royal Air Force doctor, with medical supplies and charts, were flown by a Sunderland aircraft of the Royal Air Force to the "Amethyst." Both the aircraft and the "Amethyst" were fired upon. The ship was hit, but the Sunderland managed to transfer the R.A.F. doctor and some medical supplies before being forced to take off. The "Amethyst" then took shelter in a creek.

During the night of the 21st-22nd, "Amethyst" succeeded in evacuating a further batch of her wounded to a nearby town. After doing so, she moved ten miles up river under cover of darkness, though under rifle fire from the banks, and again anchored; she then completed the landing of all her more seriously wounded, including her captain. I regret to say that this very gallant officer, who had insisted on remaining with his ship up to this time, died of his wounds soon after. There remained on board three Royal Navy officers, one Royal Air Force doctor, fifty-two ratings and eight Chinese. At about this time Lieutenant-Commander Kerans, the Assistant Naval Attaché at Nanking, reached the ship and assumed command.

Another courageous effort to reach "Amethyst" was made by the R.A.F. in a Sunderland on the afternoon of the 22, but the aircraft was driven off by artillery fire without succeeding in making contact. The "Amethyst" then moved a further four miles up river. She was in close touch with the Flag Officer, and after a number of courses had been considered, it was decided that she should remain where she was. Perhaps I may at this point anticipate two questions which may possibly be asked: first, how was it that His Majesty's ships suffered such extensive damage and casualties; and second, why they were not able to silence the opposing batteries and fight their way through. In answer to the first, I would only say that warships are not designed to operate in rivers against massed artillery and infantry sheltered by reeds and mudbanks. The Communist forces appear to have been concentrated in considerable strength and are reported as being lavishly equipped with howitzers, medium artillery and field guns. The above facts also provide much of the answer to the second question, only I would add this. The Flag Officer's policy throughout was designed only to rescue H.M.S. "Amethyst" and to avoid unnecessary casualties. There was no question of a punitive expedition and His Majesty's ships fired only to silence the forces firing against them.

I will at this point briefly summarise the losses and damage which resulted. The casualties were: H.M.S. "London," 13 killed, 15 wounded; H.M.S. "Consort," 10 killed, 4 seriously wounded H.M.S. "Amethyst," 19 killed, 27 wounded; H.M.S. "Black Swan," 7 wounded. In addition, 12 ratings are still missing. Of the damage to the ships, the "London" suffered the most severely, having been holed repeatedly in her hull and upper works. The damage to the "Consort" and the "Black Swan" was less serious. "London" and the "Black Swan" have already completed their emergency repairs. The "Amethyst" suffered severe damage but was repaired by the efforts of her own crew to be capable of a speed of seventeen knots.

When H.M.S. "Amethyst" was fired upon by Communist forces, His Majesty's Ambassador instructed His Majesty's Consular Officer in charge at Peking to communicate to the highest competent Chinese Communist authority, by whatever means possible, a message informing them of this and seeking the issue of immediate instructions by them to their military commanders along the Yangtse to desist from such firing. A subsequent message emphasised the urgent need of medical attention of the casualties and reiterated the request for instructions to prevent further firing upon these ships of the Royal Navy engaged in peaceful and humanitarian tasks. The local Communist authorities, however, refused to accept the Consul's letters.

At this time Mr. Edward Youde, a Third Secretary in His Majesty's Foreign Service who has a good knowledge of Chinese, volunteered to try and contact the Communist forces north of Pukou in the hope of reaching some commanding officer with sufficient authority to stop the firing. His Majesty's Ambassador agreed to this attempt, and Mr. Youde passed through the Nationalist lines on the night of April 21. Thanks to his courage and determination, Mr. Youde succeeded in reaching the forward headquarters of the People's Liberation Army in the Pukou area on April 23. He described the situation as he knew it when he left Nanking on April 21, and pointed out to them the peaceful and humanitarian nature of the mission of H.M.S. "Amethyst," and requested that she be allowed to proceed to Nanking or Shanghai without further molestation. Their headquarters took the line that clearance had not been obtained from the People's Liberation Army, and that she had entered the war area. They also complained of heavy casualties incurred by their troops as a result of fire from His Majesty's ships. They refused to admit justification of self-defence. After consulting higher authority, the headquarters stated that in the circumstances they would be prepared to allow the ship to proceed to Nanking, but only on condition that she should assist the People's Liberation Army to cross the Yangtse. Such a condition was obviously unacceptable.

My attention has been drawn to a communiqué broadcast by the Communists which said that on the date in question warships on the Yangtse opened fire to prevent its crossing by Communist forces. It further stated that it was not until the following day that they learned that these ships were not all Chinese but that four British ships were among them. The Communists state that their forces suffered 252 casualties as a result of this firing, and claim that His Majesty's Government have directly participated in the Chinese civil war by firing on Communist positions. These claims are, of course, so far as they relate to His Majesty's Government or the Royal Navy, as fantastic as they are unfounded.

If there was any initial misunderstanding as to the nationality of H.M.S. "Amethyst." this would have been speedily resolved had the authorities in Peking acted on His Majesty's Ambassador's message. Moreover, had the Communist authorities objected in the past to the movement of British ships on the Yangtse, it was always open to them to raise these through our consular authorities in North China. It is the fact that for reasons best known to themselves the Communists have failed to notify any foreign authority present in areas which they have occupied of the channels through which contact can be maintained, and that they have rejected all communications made to them. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government can only reserve their position.

The House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy with the relatives of all those who have been killed or wounded in this action, and in expressing admiration of the courage of all those who took part in it. Five names deserve special tribute. Lieutenant-Commander Skinner, R.N., the captain of the "Amethyst," behaved with the utmost gallantry till he succumbed to his wounds. The first lieutenant, Lieutenant J. C. Weston, refused to leave the "Amethyst," although dangerously wounded, until relieved in command by Lieutenant-Commander Kerans fifty-six hours later. Telegraphist J. L. French showed superlative devotion to duty. He was the only telegraphist left in the "Amethyst" after the early hours of April 21; and from then onwards his efforts kept the ship in almost continuous communication with Shanghai. The name should also be mentioned of Flight-Lieutenant K. H. Letford, D.S.O., D.F.C., who landed a Sunderland aircraft under fire to convey the naval and R.A.F. doctors to "Amethyst." The fifth name is that of Mr. Youde, whose one-man mission through the Communist armies I have already mentioned.

Without a doubt many other cases of bravery and devotion will be revealed when all the facts are known. But we already have ample evidence that the conduct of the whole ship's company of H.M.S. "Amethyst" was beyond all praise, though a considerable proportion were young sailors under fire for the first time. We have had reports of seamen and marines remaining at their task for up to twenty-four hours, though badly wounded, and of men declining to have their wounds treated until cases they considered more urgent had been dealt with. I have heard too that in H.M.S. "London" and "Black Swan," when there was a possibility of volunteers being flown to "Amethyst," there was almost acrimonious rivalry for selection to take on this heroic task.

I should mention that the United States naval authorities at Shanghai placed their resources unstintingly at our disposal, and the kindness and help of the British communities at Shanghai have been beyond all praise. Finally, the Chinese Nationalist forces in the Chinkiang area were most helpful in providing medical aid and stores which they could ill afford. The House will join with me in expressing our gratitude to all of these. I should like, in concluding this statement, to pay a tribute to the British communities in China, who have shown such steadfast behaviour in the difficult conditions in which they find themselves, and whose decision to remain in China in spite of the uncertainties created by the civil war is in accordance with the best British tradition.

The House is now in full possession of the facts known to His Majesty's Government, and we shall, of course, continue to keep the House informed of developments as they occur. It will be realised that the situation is at present very fluid, but if, at a later stage, there is a general desire for a debate on this matter, I am sure that this can be considered through the usual channels.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will have awaited with keen anxiety the statement which has just been made by the First Lord. On one thing we can all be agreed—namely, our deep sympathy with the relatives of more than forty officers and men who have lost their lives, and in our admiration and appreciation of every officer and man concerned, either in the ships of His Majesty's Navy or in the aircraft of the Royal Air Force, who have made such gallant endeavours to go to the rescue of the stricken ship. There we can all be at one. We shall certainly have to debate the First Lord's statement at a later stage, in the light of further study and possibly of fuller knowledge, but I am bound at this moment to make some comments and to put some questions to the First Lord—


On a point of order, I think we ought to be quite clear as to our procedure on this Government statement which I understand is open to questions. I did not understand that it is open to a debate. I do not in any way want to stop the noble Viscount putting his remarks, but I think it should also be possible to reply to them.


Certainly. My object in making the observations was to elicit a reply. I understand that it has been the traditional procedure in this House, as in another place, that when a statement of cardinal importance is made by His Majesty's Government the Leaders of Parties, and indeed other members of the House should make such observations as they think right and proper. If it were necessary to put myself in order, the matter would be very simple—I could move the adjournment of the debate, and then withdraw the Motion. But perhaps I may now proceed, I think strictly in accordance with precedent, and I am sure with the wishes of all my noble friends, to make one or two comments and to put my questions to the First Lord.

In a long, but not too long, statement (because we all wanted the facts). we have heard from the First Lord a factual account of what happened on the Yangtse River and in Nanking. We have heard about the policy of the Flag Officer on the spot, and the policy of action of His Majesty's Ambassador in Nanking. I waited to hear, but did not hear, what had been the policy of His Majesty's Government, of the Minister of Defence and, indeed, of the First Lord himself in this matter. Here is a situation in which we are not, or should not be, concerned only or mainly with the action of the men on the spot—I speak in the presence of many who like myself have been Service Ministers or Chiefs of Staff. Here was a situation where essentially Ministers and the Government were concerned to give their advice and direction to the men on the spot. It is with the action, or inaction, of His Majesty's Ministers that we are concerned. It must have been plain from the moment that it was known, that great Communist forces, armed with weapons which had been supplied to the Nationalists through years of war, and which had been taken from them, ably led and heavily armed, were advancing upon the whole line of the Yangtse. Quite obviously the attack was going to be on Nanking, to cross the Yangtse and cut off Shanghai.

My Lords, my first question is: At what moment did His Majesty's Ministers know, or should they have known, that this advance on the Yangtse was going to take place? It was not a surprise move; it was not a question of a sudden ambush. The whole great advance was moving across, first to occupy the bank and so to command the river, which is the greatest waterway of China. When did they first know? In the light of that I ask: What appraisal did His Majesty's Government make of that situation and what instructions as a result of their appreciation did they give? Not only were they the responsible people to give instructions but they were in much the best position to give them. What appraisal did they give to their officers on the spot, either ambassadorial or naval? It was said that there was an armistice or truce. It does not seem to me that that was any concern of His Majesty's Ministers. This was an armistice between the two warring factions in China, upon which, surely, it was extraordinarily unwise of His Majesty's Government to place any reliance. The truce might be ended at any moment, and the fighting might break out again.

Then I ask this. It was known that the Communist armies were advancing upon, and would soon occupy, the whole length of the Yangtse River, and would thus become the responsible people. I am not concerned with the technicalities of what was the recognised Government; here we are dealing with terrible facts of war and fighting, and I believe that we should have been concerned with the question of whether they were people who were likely to put us in peril. If a ship was to be sent up or down the Yangtse, what attempt was made (this is not clear from the statement which the First Lord has made, and of which he was good enough to give me a copy) to approach the Communist leaders and to obtain their assent, or at any rate an undertaking that ships would not be molested if they were sent along the Yangtse?

Having just heard the statement for the first time, I must apologise for not putting my questions in perfect sequence, but I think they are very relevant questions. I would preface my next question by speaking of the "Amethyst" going up the river. As I understand it, a ship had been kept at Nanking—it was, I believe, a destroyer, the "Consort"—on the chance that it might have to be used to evacuate the seventy British people in that city. That, I think, is right. May I ask why that ship was kept there? Surely, if it was the intention of His Majesty's Government, maybe in agreement with the United States and other Governments, to keep their Ambassador and their staff in Nanking until the Communists were at the gates, and even possibly after the Communists had entered, what was the sense of keeping the "Consort" there? That seems to me a very important question. Surely, it was not the natural or the obvious way to evacuate people from Nanking.

I am told that aeroplanes have been regularly flying into Nanking. If you wish to evacuate people rapidly, as has been clone in the case of a number of other places, the practical and quick way to get them out is to put them in aeroplanes, not to put them on a destroyer to sail down the Yangtse River with 500,000 Communists entrenched with their bat- teries along the banks of that river. I ask why, when the authorities knew of this danger, and knew what was taking place, the "Consort" was kept there. Why was she not sent down the river to Shanghai? If communication had to be maintained, as it had, and if the possibility had to be envisaged of flying out the very limited number of people in Nanking, why was that not left to be carried out by aircraft? That should have been done earlier, I suggest.

Then I would ask the noble Viscount the First Lord to answer this question specifically. He told us, I think, that at an earlier stage we, the United States and the French, each had a ship at Nanking. But, apparently, we alone retained our ship there.


I shall be very glad if the noble Viscount can get this clear. It is not at all clear to me at present what was the situation when the "Amethyst" was sent up the river. The "Consort" was, at that time, as I understand it, at Nanking and had been there for some time. The "Amethyst" was sent up to relieve the "Consort." I understood from what my noble friend said just now that the "Consort" was kept there after consultation with the French and the United States authorities, in order to deal with any situation that might arise.


That is exactly what I am trying to bring out. It is difficult to follow, but what I understand happened is this. Originally, there were the "Consort," a United States ship of some size and a French ship in Nanking. That is what I understood. But in the critical period the only Allied ship which remained at Nanking was the "Consort"—I am not sure if I am right about that, but that is what I understand. If that is so, it makes it all the more extraordinary that the "Consort" should have been kept there. Then there was apparently a time when the Chinese Government decided to move to Canton—I am not sure what the date was. It is true that a warning was issued about warships in the Yangtse. At what date was that warning given, by whom was it given, and what effect did it have? Presumably it was communicated immediately to His Majesty's Government. What action did they take upon it?

Then I would ask this. Why was the "Amethyst" sent up? I know that the "Consort" was overdue for relief. As I have said, by all the canons of prudence and common sense the wise thing to do when this danger threatened, it seems to me, would have been not to relieve her by another ship sent up to run the gauntlet of these batteries but to send her down from a place where she could be no possible use, and to rely on aeroplanes. Why was the Amethyst "sent up? And why, if in the face of all these dangers the "Amethyst" and other ships were sent were they sent up without air cover? I think this is a point of vital importance. It is elementary to-day that if ships are sent into a risky position like this, air cover should be provided for them.

The noble Viscount the First Lord has stated that these ships were not suitable for engaging in hostilities in a river. Everyone knows that you cannot deflect the guns of a cruiser to fire on batteries hidden in the reeds beside a river. That is elementary. But if you are unwise enough to send ships they can be given a good deal of protection by means of aircraft. Why were aircraft not sent for protection purposes in this case? If it be said that there were no aircraft on the spot, then I am bound to say that that cannot be a responsibility of the men on the spot. That is the responsibility of His Majesty's Government.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Viscount, but the Royal Commission is now due and the Commons are waiting.


I will finish what I have to say in a few moments. I was asking why were not aircraft available for that purpose. Finally, I would say this. These are questions which I am sure the First Lord will answer now, but I would ask him again, as I did at the beginning, when did His Majesty's Government, in the Ministry of Defence, in the Admiralty, in the Cabinet, consider this matter? What action did they take? What instructions did they give to the men on the spot in what was essentially the responsibility of His Majesty's Ministers?