H.M.S. Concord The Risks
Amended version 22 nd October 2010
By Derek Hodgson, R.N.
It is stated within a review of the part played by H.M.S. Concord in assisting the escape of H.M.S. Amethyst from incarceration by the Chinese communists during the morning of the 31 July 1949 by the Naval Secretary S.O. 1 that insufficient risk was incurred to warrant any medal recognition. The review was presented to the Scottish Parliament in answer to a Petition presented by William Leitch.
We, the remaining ratings from the ships company of Concord during that period here present their own true account of their involvement and consequent disappointment with the way that it has been recorded by those in authority now and at the time.
The problem with the review submitted by the Naval Secretary, SO 1 is that he speaks with the benefit of hindsight whereas we, the ships company of Concord had, at the time, no idea of what really lay ahead. To understand fully just how much risk the ship was being subjected to, I believe it is necessary for the readers to know and appreciate what type of ship a destroyer, during that period, was and the reasons for its functional design. The ship was light in its construction to enable it to be very fast and manoeuvrable so that it could dash into an area, fire its torpedoes, fire its guns and retire as quickly as possible. As its wartime record demonstrates it was also very vulnerable. 142 ships were sunk with the loss of over 11,000 men.
Whilst it was and always has been admired by the average seaman and never short of applicants to serve in them, it has to be stressed that conditions on board were, on today's standards, primitive. The few bunks were for officers only, hammocks were used by all the others, comfortable at sea but a nuisance to lash up and stow. Food had to be prepared by each mess and was mostly tinned or dehydrated. No medical officer, just, in our case, a Leading Sick Berth Attendant who, in action would be assisted by ratings with some first aid trading. A sick bay with just two cots, in action beds would be made on tables and officer's bunks would have also been utilised. There was no through access below decks between the forward and after parts of the ship so that in heavy weather a rating would have to use a cat walk above decks which would often be awash. In a typhoon or heavy storm the two sections could be marooned from each other.
When facing danger the ships would be converted into a series of watertight compartments, every door, hatch porthole scuttle would be tightly clamped creating a gloomy almost airless steel box. Without any form of air conditioning what air there was, was piped through ducting which had an interior full of dust and muck drawn in from outside. Men would, in action, be confined to these areas for many hours, as in our case. A colleague and myself had the misfortune to be allocated the after magazine as our station and action station meaning that the only company to be had were high explosives and the knowledge that if the ship was hit by a shell, it would be unlikely that we could be let out. I do not want to appear over dramatic but I do feel that, to form a proper conclusion as to risk, it is necessary to be fully aware of reality.
When the Concord sailed into the entrance of the river on the 28 th July we were only too aware of the circumstances prevailing. We of course, knew what had happened to the four ships back in April, we were very conscious of the Amethyst still being held captive, we had been present at Woosung when Shanghai fell to the communists so we knew that the land we could now see on our port side was now completely in communist hands. To add to the drama we had, during this period, often been ‘buzzed by nationalist aircraft and their ships made themselves known to us. Presumably it was to remind us that they had a blockade of the river in progress.
We were very aware that during the previous month a British merchant ship “ Anchises ' had been bombed by them and almost sunk. When this ship, towed by the tug ‘Caroline Muller', passed us on her way out of the river during the evening of the 30th, the severe damage was all too obvious. Lt. Commander Nigel Rodney had been earlier signalled to watch out for this ship and when seen order her to clear the river as quickly as possible. It was not a very welcome sight on the eve of our forthcoming journey It surely can be appreciated that we had every reason to be full of tension and apprehension well before our travels up river on the 31st.
The Foreign Office mentions within its files that the Chinese Communist government had instructed that all its rivers should be mined at their mouth, this pronouncement led to Concord, when entering the river mouth once again, would become occupied in using its asdics to sweep for mines, hours going back and forth accompanied by the constant ping of the echo device. No mines were found but it certainly added to the drama of the occasion. Our gun crews had been regularly drilling, cordite cartridges and shells were brought up from below and stowed ready for use. Damage control, medical and first aid parties were again briefed and stations allocated, the Ensign and Union Flag staffs were taken down and battle Ensigns were raised at the port and starboard yardarms. This all added up to the main event, the rescue of Amethyst.
The day finally came when during the evening of the 30th July, elaborate towing gear was assembled on the quarterdeck, no hammocks were slung, we could not have slept anyway and the moment arrived when the ratings were sent to their various stations, in my case the after magazine. At 01:45 the ship got underway and commenced its journey up river. Just how can the author of the Review, the Naval Secretary (I presume S. J. Spear) have any idea of the fear, the stomach churning, the severe apprehension for what we really thought was going to happen, indeed at any moment, the ship was now well and truly in communist held territory. Can there be any greater risk, bearing in mind recent experiences, than this. Our unfortunate ship mates who suffered so badly back in April were not at risk, IT WAS ACTUALLY HAPPENING!!
Within the Review prepared by the Naval Secretary and subsequently forwarded to the Scottish Parliament are the following declarations ‘Having passed Woosung to all intents and purposes Amethyst had successfully made her escape and that there was little the Communist Chinese could have done to impede her passage to the open sea'. How can this man, a civil servant, feel he is qualified to make such a statement. Firstly, the two ships would have remained in range for some time after passing the fort and Admiral Brind had already signalled to both ships that there used to be further batteries extending from Woosung to Kiutoan beacon but that no intelligence was available. A distance of over 20 miles. The area had only recently been conquered so it can be assumed that armaments would have been available, contrary to the statement by the Naval Secretary, there would have been a great deal of field gunnery available so soon after the conquest of the area.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the escape was when the two ships met at Woosung, Rodney signalled from Concord ‘Fancy meeting you again”. Light hearted, humorous, very different to the reply from Kerans in Amethyst who signalled ‘Never has a ship been so welcome!', a message from the heart. After weeks of loneliness, depression and extreme worry he met a colleague, a colleague with whom he could now share the responsibility and who could give invaluable support with its complete armament of 4.5" guns. From now on, for the next two hours at least, he would have the unusual benefit of additional help in his run to the freedom of the open sea, still some two hours away. His signal ‘Have rejoined fleet south of Woosung ' has been taken to mean that he had reached the open sea. Not so, the term fleet was Concord and it would be two more hours before being stood down from action stations.
It is our earnest wish that the historical reports of the occasion be altered so that any future reviewer of the events will be aware of the true story. Otherwise permanent reference should be made to the material held in the Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, anywhere but Kew. Concord 's Log should be transferred.
As a reminder, Admiral Brind's controversial statement to the local press on the 7th August was as follows;
‘The Navy was ready to fight for Amethyst, Concord had trained its big guns on the Woosung forts guarding the Yangtze and a whole flotilla of destroyers was closing in to join her and if necessary go up river between the sand banks and blast a passage for the sloop which had been bottled up for a 101 days'
It should be noted that the above statement was as printed in the book ‘Hostage of the Yangtze'. It was allegedly taken from the Sunday Pictorial. The original version given to the press in Singapore and subsequently printed in the Sunday Tribune, a Singapore paper read as follows;
‘If the Amethyst had met any serious trouble on her dramatic dash down the Yangtze, three destroyers of the 8th Flotilla, Cossack, Constance and Comus , would have blasted their way up river to help her. A fourth destroyer, Concord, would have been detailed to silence the shore guns at Woosung '. This press statement differed in so far as it states ‘would have'. The Naval Secretary now points to the Sunday Pictorial as being the source of this statement, yet again this is not true, Admiral Brinds' statement was made to the press in Singapore. He later tried to cover it by asserting that the assembled journalists had not kept this information off the record as they should have done. He need not have worried as it was never repeated elsewhere.
The recent review by the Naval Secretary should be treated as just a one sided report of events, a report full of discrepancies and designed to support the exceptional failings of the Government and Admiralty of the day. A now admitted cover up of what was a brave and heroic occasion in Royal Naval history.
On behalf of the Veterans of HMS Concord,
Page published Oct. 31, 2010