The Yangtse Incident
By Roderick Saul
This article was originally published in the April 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Whenever I come across a War Memorial, I look to see if the surname Saul appears on it. Why do I have this curiosity?
In the month of July 1946, I joined the Royal Navy. After completing basic training in drill and seamanship, I was sent to the R.N. Hospital, Gillingham, Kent where I completed a course to be a Sick Berth Attendant (part of the Medical Branch). A year later I was drafted onto H.M.S. London, a heavy cruiser, in Chatham Dockyard.
A couple of months later we set sail for the Far East where the ship was to carry the flag of the fleet. The main base was Hong Kong and from there we travelled to many places, including Singapore, Borneo, Malaya and Japan. In the sick bay, apart from caring for the sick and injured we rehearsed dealing with all types of casualties in all quarters of the ship. The ship's company practised for various eventualities such as attacking an enemy, being attacked, landings ashore, rescue operation and so on.
Towards the end of April 1949, H.M.S. Consort, a destroyer, was at the Chinese city of Nanking acting as guard ship, i.e. looking after the interests of the local British population and if necessary, to provide protection for them. At this time, China was in the middle of a civil war and Communist forces were advancing on a broad front towards the Yangtze River. Before they were to make the crossing, the frigate H.M.S. Amethyst was due to replace the Consort. Amethyst was proceeding up river when Communist gun batteries suddenly fired on her. Severe damage was sustained, making it necessary to come to anchor in the river. Gunfire then stopped. In an attempt to perform a rescue, Consort left Nanking and steamed towards Amethyst, but she also came under attack and, being damaged, had to pass the Amethyst.
Meanwhile, H.M.S. London was visiting the port of Shanghai when a signal was received reporting the above. The ship immediately set sail in company with a frigate, H.M.S. Black Swan into the Yangtze with a view to providing assistance to the Amethyst. Large Union Flags were displayed around the upper deck, but despite our peaceful intentions, we were aware of what had already happened and the ship was prepared for action. The Sick Bay was made ready to receive battle casualties. That evening, a meeting with Consort took place in the river. Her casualties were transported to the London’s sick bay, their injuries treated, then all but one were returned to their ship, which continued down river. This meeting gave us some idea of what was to come.
The next morning passage was continued. My “Action Station” was the upper deck, where I was to perform first aid. This was a very exposed location, apart from the 8” gun turrets, the remaining guns had very little protective armour. Before long the ships became the target of shore based guns of various types. After passing one battery, another would be waiting round the bend in the river. The firing was intense. Our guns returned fire, but our 8” main armament was not designed for such short range combat, and there was little room for the ship to manoeuvre. Heavy damage was sustained and I soon became very busy. Shells were exploding around and behind the gunners and others employed on the upper deck – a thought crossed my mind that shells do not recognise a red cross!
Before Amethyst could be reached, the Captain decided that to proceed further would be suicidal and the order was given to return down stream. Again the gauntlet of shore batteries had to be passed and many gallant deeds were performed. Each man relied upon his shipmates to do his duty efficiently. Many were wounded and for at least the next three days the Sick Berth Staff were kept fully occupied attending to them and there was little sleep.
Fifteen of my shipmates were killed in this action, men who we had been with in the close confines of a ship, for the past 18 months – there was a common bond that increased during the time of danger. At our annual reunion church service, we remember these men.
It is for this reason that I read war memorials, to see if anyone named Saul has been killed in similar actions.
As a footnote, aboard the H.M.S. Amethyst, both the ship's doctor and the sick berth attendant were killed. The ship made a daring escape under cover of darkness, some 100 days later.
Roderick Saul is the Father of our member Christine Muschamp.
This photograph is the property of Derek Overton. There is an excellent web site dedicated to HMS London Association 1947-49 at: http://freespace.virgin.net/michael.overton1/hms.htm
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