Hero of Pearl River Incident steered Royal Navy crew to safety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

Gordon Cleaver was a 20-year-old leading seaman in the Royal Navy when he joined 10 others aboard Her Majesty's Motor Launch 1323 on a routine patrol of Hong Kong waters.

It was a time of tense relations between China and Hong Kong and in the previous month Chinese gunships had fired on British vessels four times.

On September 9, 1953, Mr Cleaver would become the hero of the hour after Chinese guns crippled his craft and killed seven of the 11 men aboard. But Mr Cleaver managed to bring the boat back to Tai O and was later awarded a medal for his bravery in the Pearl River Incident.

Mr Cleaver died on October 28 at the age of 75 in Britain.

The vessel was equipped with a six-pound gun and a subsequent British inquiry found it had been in international waters. But launch captain lieutenant G. Merriman, a South African, had a reputation for goading the Chinese.

The craft headed out past Green Island and west of Lantau into the mouth of the Pearl River. Mr Cleaver recalled at a 50th anniversary and reunion of navy personnel in 2003 in Hong Kong that those aboard had been detailed to take photographs of ships traversing the river, possibly for naval intelligence.

Suddenly the ship came under fire from a Chinese vessel. Merriman disregarded a signal from the ship to stop. The Chinese ship recommenced artillery and machine gun fire. British crewmembers fled to the wheelhouse for protection but Merriman remained on the bridge and signalled that he intended to engage the other vessel. A shell smashed into the bridge, severing Merriman's legs above the knees, smashing his right arm and blowing off his right hand, according to John Fleming, a friend of Mr Cleaver's and a Royal Navy seaman in Hong Kong. Fleming subsequently wrote a book about the tragedy: Hong Kong: The Pearl River Incident, The Untold Story of HMML 1323.

Within minutes six people were dead, including an accountant who was a member of the Royal Hong Kong Defence Force volunteers and a guest aboard. Merriman would die before the craft limped back into Tai O. Five crewmen were injured and a fire was raging in the machine room.

Mr Cleaver took control of the launch. He recalled in 2003 how, coincidentally, two British aircraft were flying overhead and forced the Chinese ship to withdraw. He steered the crippled vessel back to Tai O and was later awarded the British Empire Medal (military division).

The captain of the Chinese ship was court-martialled. China let it be known unofficially that he was executed. Mr Cleaver is survived by his wife, Jean. They had no children.