From the late 1920's a civil war broke out in China between Nationalists and Communists. It rolled on for decades, even the Japanese invasion and Second World War only slowed its fighting. After the Japanese forces in China had been defeated the civil war erupted back into full swing.

Before the Second World War most international governments maintained large contingents of diplomats and merchants in China. After the Boxer Rebellions these needed protection and so sizeable forces were stationed there. When the Japanese forces were defeated the international community again deployed its diplomats, but in much smaller numbers. In 1949 as the war became more frantic the British began to make preparations to evacuate. At Nanking a British frigate called HMS Consort was stationed as guardship.
HMS Consort
As HMS Consort began to run low on fuel, HMS Amethyst was ordered to replace her. She left Hong Kong on April the 12th 1949, and presumably arrived at Shanghai on the 18th. She departed from there on the 19th. Arriving towards dusk at Jiangyin, she was approached by a Nationalist gun boat and ordered to drop anchor.
HMS Amethyst
To keep the nationalists happy, who had forbidden anyone from navigating the river at night, and to avoid the hazards in the river HMS Amethyst heaved to and spent the night off the city. Further up river the communists held the north bank, and the nationalists the south.

HMS Amethyst got under way again early the next morning. About 0800, as the ship passed Low Island, a salvo of fire landed near the south bank. It was assumed to have been directed at nationalist positions, the captain of the Amethyst, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner ordered large Union Jacks to be unfurled over the side of the ship, and the speed increased.
Lieutenant Commander Skinner
At about 0920 as HMS Amethyst steamed past Xou An Reach a second and then a third communist battery opened fire. The first shell was long, the second smashed into the wheelhouse, killing or injuring everyone apart from a single person. Leading Seaman Leslie Frank wrestled with the heavy wheel trying to keep the ship on course. Seaman Frank had no idea what had happened as both his gyrocompass was destroyed, and all communication had been severed with the bridge and for all he knew the ship was sinking. But with carnage and smoke all about him he stayed at his position. However with no way to tell what his course was the ship began to veer, until it was steaming at full speed for Rose Island.
Picture by Dennis Andrews
Having the communication system working wouldn't have made a spot of difference. Another one of the shells had hit the bridge, again causing devastation and massive casualties. Another pair of shells hit the ship shortly afterwards. At some point in the confusion someone threw the engine room telegraph in to full astern. The roaring engines slowed the ship, so that when at 0935 she hit a sand bank off Rose Island she did so at a low speed.

Lt Cdr Skinner, despite being almost unconscious and bleeding heavily from multiple fatal hits ordered the ship to return fire. Heavily wounded himself with a chest wound First-Lieutenant Geoffrey Weston passed on the order. The gunnery directors laid their guns and fired. However nothing happened, the firing circuits had been hit.

1st Lt Weston managed to get a frantic call for help over the radio before it too was destroyed. It simply read:
"Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10' North 119.50' East. Large number of casualties"

With director control off line the guns were ordered into independent action. However only the X turret at the rear of the ship could be brought to bear, after a few rounds it was knocked out.

For the next hour the Chinese pounded at the ship with 122mm howitzers, from what was practically point blank range. After the sick bay was hit the ship’s surgeon operated on the deck of the ship. Then a shell killed both men. The scuppers ran red with blood.

1st Lt Weston had by now assumed command, realising the gravity of the situation he ordered the ship evacuated. Those that could swim were ordered to do so while the ships boats evacuated the rest. When about 60 men had made it ashore the Chinese started shelling their position on the south bank. Meanwhile machine guns began to rake the decks of the ship and had killed several of the swimmers.
Of the 60 that made it ashore all reached safety at a local nationalist hospital and eventually Shanghai.
After an hour the Chinese batteries stopped firing. Unable to move on deck without drawing small arms fire, the crew worked inside. Scurrying around the ship the remaining sailors attempted what damage control they could. Stuffing the many shell holes below the waterline with hammocks, they did what they could to attempt to refloat the ship.

Then between 1400 to 1430 HMS Consort steamed into view. A huge bow wave foamed at her front, for she was steaming at an unbelievable 29 knots down a river, her guns were laid to port, and from every masthead fluttered a White Ensign or a Union Jack. It is said that HMS Consort has the record for the fastest speed ever recorded on the Yangtze.

As HMS Consort came into view the Chinese opened fire on her. Immediately she responded. Under director control and against non-moving targets she began to smash the artillery batteries that opened fire on her. She signalled 1st Lt Weston that she wanted to take HMS Amethyst under tow. 1st Lt Weston knew that would mean HMS Consort would need to come to a dead stop under the Chinese guns, and likely suffer the same fate as HMS Amethyst and thus he refused.

HMS Consort passed on by, slowed and turned around a mile down stream. As she steamed past again she came under fire from anti-tank guns. Unable to silence the pesky dispersed weapons, and with mounting casualties HMS Consort was forced to withdraw. Leaving the smouldering, bloody remains of HMS Amethyst aground and at the mercy of the Chinese guns.

Part two will be next week.