Member Peter Murdoch was an ordinary seaman when he found himself caught up in the famous ‘Amethyst Incident’. Chris Gilson learns more.
“I’m a very fortunate person, you know,” says Peter Murdoch, sitting in his Newport living room. “I’ve always had a charmed life, it showed how lucky I was not to have been killed or injured.”
It’s hard to disagree with Peter’s words. As a young man, he was embroiled in the famous Yangtze River incident in 1949, which resulted in both the loss of British lives and damage to its proud ships. Very few emerged from the skirmish without injury, but Peter was one of the lucky ones, despite serving on HMS Consort, which was firmly in the thick of the action.
Peter starts from the beginning.
“For me it began in January 1946, when I joined [the shore-based training establishment] HMS Ganges at Shotley as a boy seaman. The war had just ended and I was working in an aircraft factory – Cunliffe-Owen – which was based at Eastleigh, Southampton. When they closed down [in 1947] I didn’t know what to do, so I joined the Navy on my sixteenth birthday.
“I did my year’s basic training there, and when we finished, there was a group of 15 of us who were selected to go on [the training destroyer] HMS Wrangler at Rosyth, Scotland. We went up to the North Cape looking for mines. This was all part of my training and I was there for about three months.”
But a drastic change of scenery was on the horizon for Peter, with a new posting about to take him away from the cold north.
“Then we were transferred to Hong Kong, and we went by the [former German liner] Empire Trooper, but we had to get off at Singapore because of our ship HMS Concord. It was a welded ship, and when it came back from Australia to pick us up, they had to send it back to England as it was all leaky because of its construction. So, they found us another destroyer from the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla called HMS Consort and we all transferred.”
Life in the Far East
Despite what was to come, Gilbert’s memories of his time in the Far East remain positive.
“I loved Hong Kong and the Far East. The discipline was bloody awful, but it was good fun. At that time we were showing the flag. We had six destroyers and a couple of cruisers and we were going round all the British possessions in the south Pacific.”
But it was on the way back from a trip to Kure in Japan that Peter heard that all was not well.
“We heard that there was fighting on the banks of the Yangtze, which is almost a thousand miles long, as you know. And Nangking was about 500 miles up, and [the Black Swan class sloop] HMS Amethyst was there to pick up all the staff from the British and American embassies and bring them back to Shanghai. Her done duty was over, and we had to relieve them. So we went into Nangking so that Amethyst could come back. On the way down the river she was ambushed by Chinese [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers on the north bank who fired their guns at her, and the result was she went aground on a sandbank and a lot of her crew - including the captain - was killed.
“When we heard we had to come and rescue her [on 20 April], we rushed down the river to a place where there were small inlets. We got there and immediately we got there the Chinese started shooting at us. Fortunately for us, their guns were anti-tank guns meaning the shells were semi armour piercing, meaning they’d hit the ship and go through the bulkheads – they were designed for the thicker armour of tanks and not warships. In the meantime, because there were so many batteries of guns firing at us we stopped next to the Amethyst and tried putting a tow on her so we could pull her off.”
Things got bad to worse for the two ships though as the Chinese continued a heavy fire, and soon both ships were in difficulties.
“The shellfire got so bad that a lot of our crew got killed and wounded, and we had to steam away from the Amethyst to come back later. Three times we tried to rescue her, but it got so bad that we didn’t have any guns left to fire with – we had three big ‘4.7s’, and the action went on so long that we fired all of our ammunition and I remember we ended up using the starshells and the sand (practice) shells.
“I was on ‘X’ gun and then our gun was hit, and we didn’t have any more guns to fire with. Amethyst didn’t have enough crew left to help. In the end the captain decided that because the ship was like a pepperpot with holes, and nothing to fire back with, we would go on to Shanghai.”
In total, Consort received 56 hits, and sustained 23 wounded and 10 dead and was withdrawn from the area to refit in Hong Kong.
Rubber and junks
“We went to Shanghai for a couple of days, and then we went to Hong Kong. Some of the Amethyst dead were transferred to our ship, and we buried them at sea.
When we got to Hong Kong, our ship was patched up and then we fought the communist ‘Tigers’ [insurgents] in Singapore. We spent three months going up and down the Malacca Straits looking for Chinese junks which were carrying ammunition from Sumatra into Malaya. It all happened at night, so when we saw them on our radar we’d intercept them and I’d get a bit of a bonus.
At night time we had to go up the rivers of Malaya, and then visit these rubber plantations to stop the Chinese from sabotaging the rubber trees. We wore white uniforms, white shorts, white hats and carried a STEN gun on our back and you walked through the jungle at night like this. Sometimes the ship had to go up the rivers to where the communists were gathering, and then we had to shell them.”
But, for Peter the recent memories of what was becoming known as the ‘Amethyst Incident’ remained fresh.
“To me it was great fun because during the day time the ship would pull up in one of these lovely beaches and we’d go ashore and have a swim, or go fishing for our supper. But the Yangtze was very serious. I even bandaged the captain up. He had shrapnel wounds. Many of them were good friends of mine, and I remember we buried them at sea.
“When we went back to Shanghai, I remember HMS London – a cruiser – and HMS Black Swan came up the river to take over what we couldn’t do. But they were so battered by the gunners they also had to withdraw and go back to Shanghai. I’m always proud to say I was there.”