Britain’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Photo: AP
Leslie Fong
Leslie Fong

As Britain’s warship transits South China Sea, memories of 1949 Yangtze naval clash resurface

  • London has insisted the presence of a carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth in the contested waterway is not aimed at confronting China
  • But the mission has drawn a parallel to an incident when Chinese forces fired at British vessels after they ignored a warning to leave the Yangtze River
If the British aircraft carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth – which conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea earlier this week – were to be fired upon by Chinese forces for intruding into what China claims as its territorial waters, it would be the second time in less than 100 years.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did just that to four British warships in April 1949 to drive them away from a stretch of water in the Yangtze River. This episode went down in naval warfare history as the Amethyst Incident.

It is anybody’s guess whether current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson knew about it, or cared, when he authorised the strike group to sail halfway around the world to “fly the flag for Global Britain”.

Though his government insists that this is not courting confrontation with China in the disputed waterway, The Observer newspaper nonetheless said in an August 1 editorial that it was parading gunboats right “under Beijing’s nose”.

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Those who track China’s media, mainstream as well as social, know the Chinese have certainly not forgotten the Amethyst Incident. They have long hailed it as the turning point marking the end of Britain’s use of “gunboat diplomacy” to extract concession after humiliating concession from a weak China. And some commentators are talking about it again, drawing parallels from the skirmishes then to prepare for what may happen now.

The Amethyst Incident occurred in the closing stages of the civil war between Chinese Communist Party forces and those of the Nationalist regime led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, with its seat of government in Nanjing.

By early April 1949, the PLA had amassed 1.2 million troops under its Second and Third Field Armies on the north bank of the Yangtze River, ready to cross in an all-out attack against the Nationalist forces.

It duly declared the Yangtze a war zone and issued a warning to all foreign ships to vacate the area before April 20, when the assault against the Nationalist forces would begin in earnest following an anticipated breakdown in peace talks between the two sides.

The British ignored the warning. On April 20, HMS Amethyst – a frigate in the Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet – sailed up the Yangtze to relieve HMS Consort, a destroyer anchored off Nanjing to minister to the needs of the British mission there.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

Why the British chose to do so remains a bone of contention to this day. According to the British Hansard – the official records for parliamentary proceedings – Viscount Hall, First Lord of the Admiralty, acknowledged when speaking at the House of Lords on April 26 that year that a warning had indeed been received. But he said there was no “properly constituted authority” to whom the British government “was under an obligation to notify movements”.

At the House of Commons, then prime minister Clement Attlee said British warships were legally entitled to operate in the Yangtze and had the approval of the Nationalist government in Nanjing to do so. His predecessor Winston Churchill, whom he had ousted, urged him to send an aircraft carrier on a punitive expedition to China.

To that, a Labour backbencher was later reported to have drily remarked that if a pro-Nazi warship were to traverse the English Channel at the time of the Normandy landing on D-Day, it would have been smashed to pieces.

The Chinese side was downright blunt about why the British ignored the warning: they had long enjoyed extraterritorial rights in China, which the latter conceded after losing the first opium war in 1842, and were so used to having their way that they did not think the PLA would dare fire at them.

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At 9.30am on April 20, the PLA did. The Amethyst returned fire. Half an hour later, the frigate suffered extensive damage, and it grounded on Leigong Dao (which the British call Rose Island) during a hasty retreat. According to the CCP accounts but never reported by Lord Hall, the warship flew the white flag.

At 1.30pm, HMS Consort and two other British warships – HMS London, a cruiser, and HMS Black Swan, a frigate – sped to Leigong Dao to try to rescue the Amethyst but were beaten back. At the end of the fight, the PLA suffered 252 deaths and casualties while Britain’s was 139, including Amethyst’s captain Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner, who died from serious injuries. The Chinese forces crossed the Yangtze the next day.

What followed were months of protracted negotiations between the PLA and the Far East Fleet Command to free the Amethyst. According to Chinese accounts, on July 31, using a Chinese passenger ferry as a shield from shore batteries, the frigate took advantage of the high tide and got out of the Yangtze.

Daring escape? Perhaps, but there is an interesting twist. PLA Commissar Kang Maozhao, its chief negotiator with the British, said years later in his memoirs that towards the end, the army saw no point in letting the negotiations drag on. If the Amethyst stole off under cover of darkness, “we would pretend not to see”, he said. British naval records just said it escaped.

Fast forward to today, one wonders whether echoes of the past are being heard in London and Beijing.

British destroyer HMS Defender in Georgia. File photo: AP

For the latest expedition, Britain’s position is that it has the legal right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing supported freedom of navigation by all in international waters but warned against any intrusion into Chinese territory. Zhao’s counterpart in the Defence Ministry, Wu Qian, said essentially the same, adding that the PLA Navy would take all necessary actions to counter any provocation. So there, now, as in 1949, a clear warning.

Should the world hold its breath to see whether there will be a repeat of April 1949 – or even June 23 this year, when Russia fired warning shots at the British destroyer HMS Defender after it entered what Moscow said were its territorial waters off Crimea?

Probably not. Thus far the strike group has steered clear of trouble. But for how long, and will it just sail away and proclaim “mission accomplished”, knowing the British public must then question what all that posturing was for?

What seems settled, though, is that the United States does not think the strike group’s appearance in the South China Sea is a good idea.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Singapore last week that Britain could perhaps “be more helpful in other parts of the world”.