On September 9, an 85-year-old former British Royal Navy seaman will visit the colonial cemetery in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, as he does every year, to commemorate former ship­mates killed in a bloody naval action off the coast of the then colony exactly 65 years ago.

The dramatic story of the attack on Her Majesty’s Motor Launch (HMML) 1323, of the Hong Kong Flotilla, by a Chinese communist gunboat on the Pearl River, which claimed the lives of seven of the 12 on board, made front-page headlines, provoked panic in diplomatic circles and led to an official Naval Board of Inquiry.

Hero of Pearl River Incident steered Royal Navy crew to safety

The 23-year-old commanding officer, Lieutenant Geoffrey Clement Xavier Merriman, who was from South Africa, had both legs severed above the knee and one hand smashed to tiny fragments by shell blasts. He bled to death in agony on the bridge. The surviving five crew members, led by leading seaman Gordon Cleaver, aged 20, and stoker mechanic Eric Milner, 22, extinguished fires, fitted emergency steering gear and navigated the severely damaged vessel back to the safety of Hong Kong, about 15 nautical miles away.

“Every year, I go to the graves in Happy Valley to pay my respects,” says John Fleming, who was serving in the Hong Kong Flotilla at the time. Were it not for a strange quirk of fate, he could have been among those killed. Fleming had served on HMML 1323 until he was transferred to another launch by his commanding officer, after a minor disciplinary incident, a few months before the fatal attack.

“That captain saved my life,” says Fleming, who knew all the victims personally and has written a book, Hong Kong: The Pearl River Incident, The Untold Story of HMML 1323 (2002), based on accounts of his former colleagues, his own observations of the mangled vessel and the findings of the subsequent inquiry.

Cleaver was awarded the British Empire Medal for his “outstanding coolness and courage”, and Milner and one other sailor, able seaman Ralph Shearman (posthumously), received official commendations for bravery, but their commanding officer was roundly condemned by the inquiry.

Merriman was vilified as an overzealous leader “who did not adequately comply with instructions” and who had “a reputa­tion in the flotilla for looking for trouble while on patrol”.

“We all knew at [HMS] Tamar [the Royal Navy’s base in Hong Kong] that Merriman deliberately baited commie gunboats,” says Fleming, who claims that the young officer was known as “VC” Merriman because of his rapacious appetite for danger (the Victoria Cross being the medal awarded to British servicemen who display gallantry in the face of the enemy).

In his book, Fleming alleges that, shortly before that fateful patrol, his roommate, Reginald Morris, who lost his life that day, had confided to him that he feared, “I won’t be coming back”.

Some 9,500km away in a cramped flat in the suburbs of Nottingham, England, the last living survivor of the Pearl River Incident rejects any negative portrayal of Merriman. Milner, now 84, maintains the official inquiry was a cover-up and that his commanding officer was made a scapegoat.

“The skipper was a gentleman and they had to make out he was a baddy. I will never believe that until the day I am six feet under,” says Milner, perched on the side of his bed. Though frail and dressed only in a white vest and crumpled pyjama bottoms, the old sailor is lucid when it comes to describing the events of September 9, 1953.

Milner first knew of the attack when he peered through the small porthole in the side of the engine room compart­ment of HMML 1323 and saw plumes of water rising close to the launch.

The vessel was one of a fleet of 10 wooden-built, shallow-draught, 75-foot (23-metre) patrol boats that made up the core of the Hong Kong Flotilla. The 11-man crew had departed HMS Tamar at 9.45am on an overcast, humid morning to undertake a standard three-day patrol on the western side of the Pearl River Delta.

 Armed with a hydraulically operated six-pounder (57mm) gun, one 20mm Oerlikon deck-mounted machine gun and two-small calibre Bren machine guns, the little boat could pack a punch. Though not especially fast (capable of 12 knots), the patrol boats were considered adequate for inshore patrols, reconnaissance and illegal immigrant duties.

For this patrol, the crew had a guest. Merriman had invited along Captain Erasmus Francis Gower of the Royal Hong Kong Defence Force (RHKDF) as a so-called military observer. This was often a euphemism for a friend invited on board for a “jolly”, but Gower genuinely was liaison officer for the RHKDF and so had a valid reason to gain a better understanding of local naval forces.

 Gower, 39, worked as an account­ant in Hong Kong when he was not being a part-time soldier. The invitation to do some fact-finding would lead to his death.

 The crew’s duties on this patrol included the taking of pictures of Chinese vessels operating in international waters. They had been provided with a Royal Air Force-issue, long-range F24 aerial-reconnaissance camera and a Leica observation camera for the purpose.

By mid-afternoon, Merriman had navigated his vessel over to the west of the delta and was photographing a gunboat of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) proceeding south from the direction of Guangzhou. Fleming says those on board told him after the incident that Merriman closed in on the vessel to take the photographs, but the official account states that by 2.55pm, it was the Chinese boat that was closing in on HMML 1323, from astern.

Both vessels sailed in a southerly direction, close to the three-nautical-mile limit of Chinese territorial waters. Merriman identified the Chinese vessel as an armed landing craft requisitioned from United States forces after they had left China in 1949.

At about 3pm, with the PLA vessel just 600 metres away, Merriman ordered all hands on deck and for hydraulic power to be switched on to the six-pounder gun. Petty officer Raymond Keyte took over at the wheel and Shearman, Morris and another able seaman, Albert “Bogey” Knight, proceeded to the bridge, ready to man the Bren guns. Cleaver and able seaman Arthur Daniel O’Keefe stood by the six-pounder gun, waiting for the action-stations order.

The PLA vessel hoisted the distinctive blue and yellow flag K, recognised at the time as the international signal for “stop your vessel instantly”. Merriman did not comply, instead ordering “full ahead both engines” and turning away from the PLA ship and back towards the safety of Hong Kong waters.

Even the more seasoned sailors were shocked when the PLA vessel started strafing the grey water ahead of HMML 1323 with small-arms fire. Merriman pressed on and ordered the crew to the wheelhouse, to take cover in the only part of the launch protected by armoured steel bulkheads. Keyte, on the helm, recognising that the situation was deteriorating fast, ordered telegraphist Frank Flowers to the radio cabin, to be ready to send a signal.

Without further warning, the PLA vessel opened fire with its large-calibre 75mm gun. A few shells splashed ahead of HMML 1323 and were seen by Milner from the engine room. “We just saw a big splash and thought, what the hell is going on,” he recalls. “And then a huge crash.”

That was a 75mm shell smashing into the port side of the engine room. Realising that the PLA was prepared to sink his boat if necessary, Merriman ordered Cleaver to the engine room to investigate and Flowers to send an emergency signal. He also ordered “action stations”.

 Just as he did so, another deafening crash rocked the vessel as a large-calibre shell smashed into the bridge and exploded next to Merriman, cutting him to pieces. Flowers sent out only part of the ordered signal before the radio transmitter failed.

 “One shell, I remember, hit the six-pounder magazine and it imploded into the wheelhouse,” says Milner, describing the blast that instantaneously killed four of the five men who had been sheltering there, including Gower. “The blast knocked out my 210-volt generator and my port engine – it all went to pot,” says Milner, who neglects to mention the shrapnel that became embedded in his back.

The blast in the wheelhouse had not killed Shearman, who – with his fiery red hair and beard, and penchant for non-military-regulation headgear – was known to his shipmates as “Pirate”. Shearman popped his head through the wheel­house hatch and asked Cleaver for a course to steer.

 Shell-shocked, injured and splattered with the blood of his dead shipmates, Shearman somehow found the presence of mind to take over the wheel from Keyte. Within a minute or two he too was dead, as another 75mm shell smashed into the wheelhouse.

The precise order of events remains in doubt but at some point, amid the noise, smoke and confusion, Cleaver leaned through the shell hole in the port side of the engine room and told Milner that O’Keefe was injured on the upper deck. With the death of the coxswain, Keyte, in the wheelhouse and Merriman dying in agony on the bridge, the 20-year-old Cleaver was now in command by default.

“I went to the upper deck to see O’Keefe and I wrapped my little sweat towel around his chin, where it was just hanging down, and he had shrapnel in his thumb – it looked bloody awful,” Milner says. He also remembers the contorted body of his commanding officer on the deck of the mangled bridge. “I saw Merriman in a terrible state.” He pauses and looks down at his bedroom floor.

“Too bad to try and remember.”

Milner returned to the engine room and, with his assistant, stoker mechanic Ken “Clarky” Clarke, extinguished the fires and coaxed the port engine into life. “There was blood and guts coming through the deck above onto the starboard condenser,” he says, explaining that the wheelhouse – containing five smashed corpses – was directly above the engine room.

Merriman was yelling for morphine to be brought from the captain’s safe, but in the smoke and confusion, no one could locate it. What’s more, the first aid kit had been blown to pieces along with everything, and everyone, else in the wheelhouse.

Further devastation was only prevented by the response of two RAF Hornet fighter aircraft on a routine radio-calibration exercise over the Pearl River. They dived at the PLA vessel, even though neither aircraft had been supplied with ammu­nition. The commander of the gunboat, probably fearing an air attack, altered course for the safety of Lin Tin (Ling Ding) Island.

“The Chinese only stopped firing when the aircraft dived on them,” says Milner.

He and Cleaver rigged an emergency tiller at the stern of the vessel, and thanks to the nurturing of the port engine (“I used to talk to those engines,” says Milner), HMML 1323 was able to limp back to Tai O with assistance from another HMML. The destroyer HMS Concord later arrived off Tai O, and took the casualties and dead back to HMS Tamar that evening.

Merriman never taunted the Chinese or did anything madcap. I will swear it on the Holy Bible
Eric Milner, survivor

The incident caused shock in Hong Kong and much of the focus at the inquiry centred on whether Merriman, at the time of the attack, had navigated his vessel inside the three-mile territorial limit of Chinese waters.

Both of the RAF Hornet pilots testified that HMML 1323 was well within international waters. Almost incredibly, the radar station at Tai O, which would have had definitive informa­tion regarding the vessel’s position, had been switched off.

Merriman’s position fixes in his navigation notebook were found to be inconclusive, but indicated he was about 3.7 nautical miles from the Chinese coast. There was no reliable information to suggest that Merriman had ever guided his vessel inside the limit. The inquiry concluded, however, that HMML 1323 was “operating very close to Chinese territorial waters” and “there is no doubt Lieutenant Merriman was responsible for this”.

Much was made of the fact that on August 14, 1953, just three weeks before the attack, a special signal from the commodore in charge of Hong Kong had ordered all ships based at HMS Tamar “to be careful not to provoke incidents” and to “keep well clear of Chinese territorial waters”.

This was central to the criticism of Merriman, yet the inquiry also found him at fault for not ordering action stations quickly enough. HMML 1323 did not open fire on the PLA vessel at any stage, according to all accounts, but turned away from its adversary and Chinese territory when challenged.

“Merriman never taunted the Chinese or did anything madcap,” says Milner. “I will swear it on the Holy Bible.”

 One witness statement in the inquiry report, from a Lieutenant Soames, makes uncomfortable reading 65 years later. Soames had no hesitation in condemning his fellow officer for talk of “commie baiting” in the mess.

“I cannot understand the tittle tattle and, in modern parlance, ‘grassing up’ that some captains engaged in,” says Peter Yeates, treasurer of the Hong Kong Flotilla Association and an amateur historian who served in the colony in the mid-1950s.

For his part, Milner claims he and his colleague were visited by an officer before the inquiry began and told to say the bare minimum required of them.

Sixty-five years after the maritime clash, Merriman remains something of a mystery. While some have described the South African as negative and pugnacious , the inquiry described him as being “of a retiring nature and somewhat shy”.

Milner recalls a night patrol with Merriman, a few weeks before the Pearl River Incident, when HMML 1323 came across an old Chinese man in a small sampan loaded to the gunnels with possibly stolen copper plate. Rather than risk sinking the boat with his own vessel’s wake, Merriman allowed the man to go on his way.

 A recently declassified US Department of State intelligence report dated January 8, 1968, reveals that unprovoked aggression by the PLA in the Pearl River Delta was not unusual in the ’50s. There were 18 reported incidents in 1950 and eight in 1951. In October 1952, a Hong Kong to Macau ferry was fired on by “Chicom” gunboats in the Lantau Channel.

Another previously unseen document, obtained in 2015 by retired Royal Malaysian Naval Commander Tony Wong, gives an account of the Pearl River Incident as provided by Commander Zhang Yu, who was on board the PLA vessel. It reveals that the Chinese crew had only recently completed basic training in the Soviet Union.

Laying the blame with Merriman, however, may have been an expedient outcome for British authorities. An armistice, signed on July 23, 1953, had brought an end to fighting in the bitter, three-year Korean war. Avoiding further military conflict in the region, especially with China, and particularly with Hong Kong being in such a vulnerable position, would have been a priority.

British protests were lodged and compensation sought from China, but the incident was quickly brushed under the carpet. Merriman may have been the perfect scapegoat: dead, with something of a gung-ho reputation and not even British.

Back in his bedroom in Nottingham, Milner insists that his former skipper was “stitched up”.

“They tried to take him to the cleaners when he had been blown to bits on the bridge, and that’s not right.”