Lost on the Yangtze

Lost on the Yangtze

Lost on the Yangtze
The HMS Amethyst Incident of April 20th, 1949

By Editorial Team (British Chinese Heritage Centre)


Towards the end of the Chinese Civil War between the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) under the Kuomintang government (KMT) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the Communist government, the PLA had gained control of Northern and Central China. By March 1949, there were no KMT forces left North of the Yangtze River.
By April, the Yangtze River formed a natural boundary and front line between the Nationalist KMT and the Communist PLA. The official capital of China had been Nanjing, which was still under the control of the KMT at the time.


Dusk on the Yangtze River

Photo source: Wikipedia 


To this day, there is still some dispute about the rights and wrongs of what happened next. And ambiguity over the exact purpose of the British corvette HMS Amethyst's mission remains. It has been said that 'officially' the HMS Amethyst had travelled up the river to Nanjing, in order to protect the British embassy and foreign legations to the KMT government based there. Also, the British government had sold several warships to the KMT in the previous years, including for example, as late as May 1948, the British had sold HMS Aurora, which was renamed Chung-King, to the Chinese Nationalist Navy. Therefore many questions must have arisen amongst the PLA when they spotted the HMS Amethyst; such as: Would the ship include any more active help to the waning KMT? Was the ship going to be sold too? Was it there to deter the PLA from crossing the river?

Mr Clement Attlee, who was Britain's Prime Minister at the time, stated that “the movement of our warships in the Yangtze has taken place with the full knowledge and consent of the National Government of China.” This implies that the KMT government had fully consented to the presence of the HMS Amethyst. However, Britain seemed to have failed to receive or even to seek permission to enter the Yangtze from the PLA. Especially, since from 9th of April the North bank of the river was under the new regime of the Communist PLA, who had stated earlier that they would prohibit the river to all shipping. Additionally, they had also given the dates of their intended crossing of the Yangtze River in the ensuing Civil War against the Nationalists.
Therefore, when the HMS Amethyst was spotted on 20th April 1949 by the PLA, they hence interpreted the ship's presence as an act of invasion, breach of neutrality and unlawful interference in Chinese affairs.


HMS Amethyst WWII IWM A 30156

Photo Source: Wikipedia 

Amid all this legal uncertainty, there is the tactical and practical uncertainty over the ship’s intentions, and whether the appearance of the HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River coincided intentionally with the PLA's plan to cross the river or not. The significance is that the Yangtze River is a wide and formidable natural obstacle for any army. The presence of a warship with sufficient firepower to wipe out 1000s of soldiers while they are attempting to cross the river posed a severe threat to this undertaking. Especially since the warship was not there with permission from the PLA.
Therefore, warning shots were fired by the PLA. However, it seems that the HMS Amethyst ignored these warning shots and continued up-river, the shelling then began, and a gun battle between the ship and the PLA ensued.
There were dozens of British casualties on board the ship and even more among the PLA soldiers. The HMS Amethyst's captain was killed, and the first-lieutenant and helmsman were wounded early on. The ship ran aground on Rose Island and was trapped for three months while vital and desperately needed medical supplies were withheld from the ship.
There were failed rescue attempts made by three other British warships (the destroyer HMS Consort from Nanjing, the frigate HMS Black Swan and the cruiser HMS London from Shanghai). All rescue attempts failed as they received too much damage from the gunfire of the PLA batteries along the North shore. Eventually, the HMS Amethyst made its successful retreat to the open sea, while using the civilian ship Kiang Ling Liberation as a human-shield which, unfortunately, did get shot down by the PLA in attempts to shoot at the HMS Amethyst.
In the meantime, from 21st April on, the PLA crossed the Yangtze and defeated the KMT forces on the Chinese mainland within a few months.


Yangtze Incident Memorial National Memorial Arboretum

Photo Source: Wikipedia


One might want to look at the HMS Amethyst incident and its casualties, like at the NATO-bombardment of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and as tragic collateral damage of war, or as a series of bad communications and ill-advised decisions in the middle of a violent conflict. In the end, time will tell how history will view the incident.