Followers of the Royal Navy and its time in Hong Kong – probably a fast dying breed – will have noted a most interesting bit of news in December. It’s another HMS Tamar story, only this time not about wrecks and myopic Hong Kong government political correctness. It’s about the name living on.
Yes, HMS Tamar is to sail again. Well, an HMS Tamar. A new one. The seventh or eighth, depending on who is doing the counting, in a line that stretches back 2½ centuries, to the laying down of a 16-gun, Favourite class sloop of war on March 15, 1757.
The new inheritor of the name is one of two ships that, it has been announced, will join the British Royal Navy’s River class of offshore patrol vessels, along with the Tyne, Severn, Mersey and Clyde, and the on-order Forth, Medway, Trent and Spey.
All of which opens up a wonderful navy buff’s set of “six degrees of separation” stories involving ships named Tamar, after a relatively obscure river in Britain’s West Country, and various moments in Hong Kong history.
LET’S START WITH THE FOURTH HMS Tamar, the 28-gun Conway-class frigate launched on the River Medway, in Kent, on March 23, 1814. She never came to Hong Kong but there is nonetheless a link.
On September 18, 1823, the Tamar got a new skipper, James John Gordon Bremer (1786-1850), who the following year was put in charge of an attempt to establish a British colony in northern Australia. After failing to get things going at a spot called Port Essington, Bremer shifted to somewhere possibly even less salubrious he called Fort Dundas. The attempt lasted only four years but before the would-be colony’s fate was sealed, Bremer was reposted and HMS Tamar was condemned.
Bremer, however, got another chance to get things going in Australia, in 1838, with his new ship, HMS Alligator. Called Port Victoria, Bremer’s second go proved no more successful, finally folding in 1849.
Before his second effort at colony founding foundered, however, Bremer was elsewhere. In June 1839, he was sent with the Alligator to China, where he and his ship fought in the first opium war.
The first brief, if indirect, link from a Tamar via Bremer to the Alligator to our Hong Kong story is that latter ship. After her service in the first opium war, she spent from 1846 to 1865 moored off Wan Chai as the Hong Kong Seamen’s Hospital. On October 30, 1865 she was sold out of service and probably broken up.
It also follows that Commodore Bremer, as he would become, was the chap responsible for the British annexation of Hong Kong, reporting to London that in January 1841 he “proceeded to Hong Kong, and took formal possession of the island in Her Majesty’s name, and hoisted the colours on it, with the usual salutes and ceremonies”. That solid link is recalled only obscurely today, in the hapless misspelling of the geographical features once named after him – Br(a)emer Point and Br(a)emer Hill. Tamar leads to Bremer leads to the very establishment of modern Hong Kong.
The second and third connections between Hong Kong and the name HMS Tamar are via Royal Navy River class vessels – but not the series to which the new vessel is to belong. This earlier River class – initially corvettes but soon called frigates – was a key development in the long story of designing effective convoy escorts in the second world war. One-hundred-and-fifty-one were built between 1941 and 1944, and one of those, launched on April 22, 1943, was named HMS Aire and is our next link.
But before we rush into that, there’s a short and well-hidden side creek to explore.
To meet the urgent need for escorts, in 1943 the British River class design was used by the United States Navy to produce its own version. These were the Tacoma class gunboats. Twenty-one of the 96 Tacoma ships built were loaned to the Royal Navy to become the Colony class. One of them, laid down in 1943 as the PG 189, then PF 81, then USS Holmes and delivered to the British in August 1944, was initially renamed HMS Hong Kong. I’m not sure why – perhaps because Hong Kong was still captured territory – but that name was dropped before the ship was commissioned and she ended up as HMS Tobago.
It is possible, however, that somewhere in the British Admiralty’s dusty files there is proof that the fifth HMS Tamar (the one whose remains were discovered off Wan Chai in late 2014, about which the Hong Kong government is in huffy denial) was never decommissioned, only scuttled during the second world war, with her status living on virtually, briefly to be reincarnated by the Aire as Tamar-the-fifth-and-a-bit.
On that argument, the sixth Tamar was finally made concrete, as it were. Whatever her ordinal status, the Aire-as-Tamar served as Hong Kong’s nominal base depot ship until the commissioning of Wellington Barracks, on November 20, 1946. Now known as HMS Tamar, the stone frigate’s new nominal floating vessel was Medium Speed Picket Boat No 44315.
That brings us to the last connection.
Renamed HMS Aire, the frigate had reached the end of her working life, pretty much the fate of most of her sisters. So on relinquishing her guise as the Tamar, on December 19, 1946, with a skeleton “steaming crew”, she set out for Singapore, paying off and disposal. Not long out of Hong Kong she was caught up in a typhoon and was driven off course in conditions that prevented locating her. That was revealed at about 5.30 on the morning of December 20, when there was a loud crashing noise. The Aire had run aground on Bombay Reef, on the southern side of the Paracels (Xisha Islands) ... and in short order had an engine-room fire.
It took two days to put out the fire. In the meantime it had been discovered that the ship’s radio equipment was out of action, so the crew couldn’t call for help. It was also clear that the ship was holed in multiple places and beyond salvage. Perhaps the worst news was that all the life belts had perished and were useless. With no power for cooking, only rations enough to get to Singapore and not much hope of rescue because no one knew what had happened to them, life onboard looked grim.
Happily, the spirit of Christmas must have been around because on December 23, HMS Bonaventure, a heavy transport ship that had also been blown off course by the typhoon, happened by close enough to spot the wreck and then approach it when no one answered radio and light signals (that vital bit of the Aire’s kit was also not working).
The appearance of the Bonaventure leads us off into another Hong Kong-related naval side creek, and one of the little-sung stories of second-world-war cloak-and-dagger naval operations. For the Bonaventure had been the mother ship, based in Labuan, for the adventurous, midget submarine operations Struggle, Sabre and Foil in 1945. The first was to sink Japanese cruisers in Singapore. The other two were to cut the submarine telegraph cable linking Singapore, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hong Kong, key links in Japanese command and control.
For Operation Foil, the midget submarine XE-5 was towed by HMS Selene towards Hong Kong, the tow failing before the planned drop. XE-5 made her target under her own power and over three days successfully cut the cable off Lamma Island before returning to sea to rendezvous with the Selene.
Back on Bombay Reef, a short, gripping story began to unfold. Weather and sea conditions initially made any rescue look iffy, with big seas crashing onto the reef, rolling the Aire about like a stranded tin can. Then on Christmas Eve, the Bonaventure’s heavy cutter – a chunky ship’s boat – found a way into the sheltered waters of the lagoon within the reef. In a bedraggled file, the Aire’s crew (89 persons and one dog) waded across to the cutter, to be taken out to the Bonaventure in two loads via the tricky passage through the reef. By the morning of Christmas Day, everyone had been rescued and the Bonaventure was on course again for Singapore.